Category: African-American Cinema

Finding Fela (US 2014)

Fela Kuti

Fela Kuti

My initial response to this film was to query why I had forgotten so much of what happened in the 1970s and 1980s – and then wonder whether I had ever known about it in the first place. The latter seems unlikely since Fela Kuti, the subject of this documentary, was a prominent figure in both music and political struggle in Nigeria during the 1970s and 1980s. When I got home I discovered some of his music in my collection. I think perhaps I was more interested in Francophone African music or South African jazz at the time – in which case this film was instructive but also left me wanting more.

Fela Kunti was born into a middle class Yoruba family in 1938. His mother was a significant figure in the Nigerian struggle against British colonialism and his father became a prominent educationalist. His elder brothers trained as doctors but Fela turned to music, abandoning Trinity College in London and discovering jazz. He arrived back in now independent Nigeria in the early 1960s after developing his skills in high-life music in Ghana. From then on he developed his own style later dubbed ‘Afrobeat’ and his Afrika Shrine club in Lagos became a focal point for music fans and also for dissent in the face of oppression by the succession of military leaders in Nigeria – some of whom were well-known to Fela and his family.

Finding Fela is a documentary by the suspiciously prolific Alex Gibney who appears to produce two or three high profile documentary films each year. This one runs to 120 mins – which is both a tad long for my taste but also not long enough to explore all the potential stories crammed into Fela’s relatively short life (he died in 1997). (By African standards it was, of course, a relatively long life and the fact that he died of AIDS seems symbolic in some way.)

Gibney’s approach is to hang his story on the preparations for and extracts from the Broadway musical Fela! first seen ‘Off Broadway’ in 2008 as written by Bill T. Jones and  Jim Lewis. We are taken by Jones through the difficult decisions about how to stage the show and how to deal with Fela’s music and his lyrics – which basically recount his activities and what he made of their impact. Intercut with this is a chronology represented via archive footage and interviews with those closest to Fela, including his children, manager, band colleagues and prominent fans. There are also several interviews with Fela Kuti himself so he is able to speak to us directly.

The more I reflect on the experience of watching the film, the more frustrated I feel. The film is well made and its narrative flows easily so that I was never bored – but none of the stories were developed as much as I wanted. More on high-life and how it became Afrobeat would have been good. More background on the family and the politics of Nigeria in the 1960s and 1970s would also have been good – but couldn’t have been achieved in a single feature. Gibney’s use of the Broadway musical and Fela’s American contacts gives the whole film an American or perhaps African-American feel. This is interesting, especially given the recent developments in links between Nigerian filmmakers and the diaspora audiences in the US. However, the film’s commentary offers the audience two assertions/observations that are more intriguing. One raises the comparison with Bob Marley – is Fela Kuti a similar figure as a ‘Third World Superstar’? Why is he more difficult for an American audience to understand? The second assertion is that Fela Kuti is second only to Nelson Mandela as an icon of popular resistance in Africa during the 1980s. I’m not sure about either of these observations but I am intrigued that my memory is that music from Francophone West Africa and from South Africa/Zimbabwe made more impact with me than the Nigerian/Ghanaian variety. Why? Fela Kuti sang in English for much of the time. Was he more likely to look towards the US? The documentary quotes his reactions to the racism he experienced in London in the late 1950s and how later he ‘re-learned’ African history after reading Malcolm X and Marcus Garvey, writings introduced to him by American contacts. Again, I would have liked more on this.

Gibney has made his name with documentaries that focus on ‘fallen’ men (most recently Lance Armstrong) and Fela Kuti’s later career saw him increasingly interested in forms of African culture that eventually found him involved with a Ghanaian magician of doubtful repute. He was also criticised because of his approach to his marriage and his sexual adventures. This is covered in the latter stages of the film but I’m not sure about the way in which the transition from ‘heroic’ to ‘lost’ is handled in the film. There were a couple of clips from Channel 4 in the UK (Black on Black and a Muriel Grey interview) that weren’t properly captioned and that makes me think that this documentary was rushed. Overall, the view of Fela Kuti presented seems superficial, somehow less than the sum of the different parts of the film. I wonder what a filmmaker with more understanding of West African culture might have produced with the same access to the archives and personnel presented here. I suspect that they might not have used quite so much footage of the Broadway show and might have dug a bit deeper into the Nigerian experience.

The official US trailer:

12 Years a Slave (US/UK 2013)

Michael Fassbender as 'Master Epps', Lupita Nyong'o as Patsey and Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon

Michael Fassbender as ‘Master Epps’, Lupita Nyong’o as Patsey and Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon

Here is a film that will take two or three viewings to properly place so I’ll just make some tentative comments here. I went into the screening with the knowledge that some reviewers had said that it was a surprisingly ‘conventional’ film to have come from the Turner prize-winning artist Steve McQueen. I’m not sure that McQueen’s previous two films were that ‘unconventional’ as specialised films and I found 12 Years a Slave to be similar. I think now that some of the critical reviews have taken the narrative to be poorly constructed as a drama – partly because we are told in the opening credits what happened to Solomon. If this was a reference to a ‘conventional’ film narrative that would make sense, but this isn’t a conventional narrative, instead it is an exploration of what slavery means presented in the guise of a biopic/personal journey.

The most recognisable element of McQueen’s style is his patience in allowing scenes to extend with static or slow-moving pans/tracks (one of the reasons I need to see the film again is to focus on the camerawork). The new element here (in what is a longer film than the previous two) is the insertion of several images of landscape and skies. These are generally ‘beautiful’, representative of iconic images of the swamps, forests, fields and rivers of Louisiana. I’m not sure how they work in terms of the narrative but I kept thinking about the famous ‘pillow shots’ of Ozu (here’s one interpretation of what might be meant by a ‘pillow shot’). Apart from these landscape images, Sean Bobbit’s camera captures other compositions that in Barthesian terms are ‘symbolic’ – a musical instrument being smashed or a view across Washington with the Capitol being built as seen from a slaver’s ‘holding pen’. McQueen also represents the journey south from Washington simply by showing the water churned up by the paddles of a steamer – effective as a representation of the captured slave’s restricted view and also perhaps the emotional turbulence of capture.

These individual images are memorable partly because the pacing of the narrative and the time spent over scenes allows the whole film to breathe. My viewing companion suggested that the long running time had just flown by. I wouldn’t say that because I was conscious of the time, I did reflect on the slow pace as the scenes unfurled and I realised how effective McQueen’s film was in getting me to understand what slavery actually meant in terms of the psychological as well as physical terror that it created. I was never bored, always engaged. I felt that ‘moment’ of understanding and by the end of the narrative the tears were flowing freely. I should also say that I had to shut my eyes for some of the scenes of flogging, disturbed by the violence, the tearing of flesh and by the mixture of guilt, terror, love and eroticism in the climactic flogging.

The key to the ‘conventionality’ of the film is perhaps the fact that this is a film based on a true story as told to a journalist by the central character Solomon Northup played so well by Chiwetel Ejiofor. I’ve read several interesting pieces on the film including those by Jonathan Romney in Sight and Sound and Thomas Doherty in Cineaste alongside interviews with Steve McQueen and the film’s historical adviser Henry Louis Gates. I gather from these sources that Northup’s account is very accurate and supported by the historical records even if the voice in the original published story belongs to a journalist. I mention this because the story is a different narrative to those that were popular in the North in the years before the Civil War. Most such stories were about slaves who escaped and made the journey northwards. Northup instead was kidnapped and taken to the South. He experienced slavery as someone who had been free all his life until that point. We should as audiences today be able to identify with Northup at the point of his capture. It’s then McQueen’s task to use what happens to Northup to tell us as much as he can about what slavery meant and how it destroyed the humanity of all those involved.

Perhaps because of the unusual narrative, McQueen ‘makes strange’ the early scenes in which the narrative switches backwards and forwards in time, seemingly arbitrarily. The film opens with Northup as one of a group of slaves being instructed on how to cut cane for what turns out to be the fourth ‘owner’ he is assigned to. My confusion in these early scenes means that I can’t easily remember the transition between flashforwards and flashbacks. There are probably different ways to read this series of time-jumps. Possibly what is being represented is Northup’s memories of how he got into this situation. What the disjointed narrative suggests is that slaves were not people as such but commodities moved between owners like livestock. These time jumps are mostly early in the film before the narrative settles into the longer stretches of routine and they must make the film more difficult for audiences used to more direct Hollywood openings. The ending of the film is much more conventional – but it is a true story and Northup was ‘rescued’ and did return home. However, there are titles at the end which say a little more about what happened in the years that followed his return – don’t miss these!

12 Years a Slave offers something akin to ‘event cinema’ in the sense that it is almost as interesting and important to reflect on what audiences are saying about the film as it is to analyse the film itself. This can only increase with the focus on Awards ceremonies over the next few weeks – whether the film/filmmakers win or not. Much of the discourse focuses on the fact that McQueen is British and so are many of the leading players – Ejiofor, Fassbender, Cumberbatch. American opinion on this is divided as to whether it is a useful or presumptuous intervention. I think this tends to overshadow the excellent work by (African-American writer) John Ridley who adapted the original book. In the UK the film has prompted calls to have more cultural output covering the British responsibility for the triangular trade that depended on slavery. I’d support those calls, but also point out that there have been some films that deal with the British colonial experience of slavery. Someone might think about releasing a restored version of Pontecorvo’s Queimada (Italy 1969) in the UK – not a film about slavery itself, but a useful discourse about the political and economic importance of slavery in the Caribbean. One of McQueen’s achievements in 12 Years a Slave is to show the routines of the slave plantation and to emphasise its importance in agriculture and the Southern economy in which slaves are commodities, treated like livestock, but also as part of the social hierarchy of the South – something emphasised by the focus on the cruelty of Master Epps’ white wife who abuses Patsey, but whose own status is below that of the men. Much discussion has also focused on the arrogance of the slave-owners and their complete lack of guilt or unease about what they are doing to slaves. Some commentators have suggested that for contemporary audiences this is more shocking than the actual brutality meted out to the slaves. This needs to be explored further. I’m shocked that audiences wouldn’t already know about this lack of guilt. Watching the film, I thought about the ‘banality of evil’ explored in Hannah Arendt. After the screening I discussed with my colleague why there weren’t more slave revolts in the South. In fact there were many small revolts and three major uprisings, but nothing sustained along the lines of the Haitian and Jamaican rebellions. I think that is down to the stronger institutional roots of slavery in North America where the slaveowners identified themselves as ‘Americans’ rather than settlers or colonists with a different relationship to their ownership of land.

There are several scenes in the latter half of 12 Years a Slave which very effectively bring home the process through which Solomon has to go in order to gain some control over his own situation – involving his sense of guilt, frustration, anger, need to survive – and crucially to understand the collective strengths and weaknesses of the slaves in a household. The matching scenes of hangings and floggings in front of the other slaves are the most obvious visual representations but the scene in which Solomon eventually begins to sing with the other slaves is very moving. Hans Zimmer’s score for the film is impressive. I also thought that Alfre Woodard’s role as the freed black woman who has married a slaveowner was important in detailing the complexity of the plantation communities. I can’t complete these notes without mentioning the stunning performance by Lupita Nyong’o as Patsey. We are going to hear a lot more from this young woman and I’ve added a link to a long interview with her on YouTube (on the same page there are interviews with other cast and crew from the film). I’m definitely going to watch the film again in the future. I hope it becomes a film that stays in the memory.

Crowd-sourcing a film to shoot in Africa

A still from the proposal for ‘Yefon’

We received this message from Martin Stein about a new African film to be developed via Kickstarter.com

I’ve read the message and checked out the website for the film proposal. It’s very interesting to see what ‘crowd-sourcing’ a film looks like in practice and the subject for the film is one that everyone ought to support – women’s education in West Africa. I’m still not quite clear exactly what kind of film is being proposed. From the very glossy proposal it looks like a film produced from the US about a social issue in Cameroon.

A little context is useful here. There is a growing trend for film projects to be developed by West African filmmakers with US partners. This is part of a coming together of Nollywood and African-American filmmakers to create films for both Nigerian and diaspora markets. The movements in the opposite direction have up to now been mostly concerned with US directors and actors working in South Africa, but also other parts of Africa – and Hotel Rwanda is one film mentioned in the message below. This proposal appears to include a range of creative talent drawn from the US, Nigeria and South Africa.

The driving force behind the proposal is Sahndra Fon Dufe, who is the writer and who plays the central character. She comes from Cameroon and has presumably trained in the US where she currently works. I can’t fault the proposal in any way and she fronts it persuasively. There is part of me that is excited by the prospect of a global project to “put Cameroon and its stories on the map”. But there is also another part of me slightly concerned by a US-led project to make, as the proposal puts it, “the first major production in Cameroon” which is a “virgin country for film”. I wish I knew more about film in Cameroon, but I think that there have been many locally-made films before – perhaps not in the region where the story is set? I suspect that the most activity has been in Francophone Cameroon but I would be surprised if there was no interest in the Anglophone part.

I confess that I’m sceptical about most of those films made by Hollywood in South Africa – will this be a better bet? Is it good to have a bigger budget because there are known stars attached? Are there any local Cameroonian actors and crew who will take part in the production and what are the plans to show the film in Cameroon? It would be good to see these questions addressed in the proposal. Anyway, have a look at the proposal, and especially the video presentation (via the link below), and make up your own mind.

———————————————————————————————————

“A young African woman with dreams of becoming a teacher takes reading and writing lessons from a visiting American. But, when the male village elders find out, she is sentenced to death for breaking from tradition.

Yefon is a film that continues in the proud tradition of socially conscious, Africa-based cinema like Hotel Rwanda, Beat the Drum  and Sarafina — but unlike those movies, its producers will come from the ranks of generous Kickstarter supporters: http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/405663859/yefon-the-movie

It has already attracted the attention of Hollywood stars like Jimmy Jean-Louise (“Tears of the Sun” “Heroes”), Adriana Barraza (Best Supporting Actress Oscar nominee, “Babel”) and Hakeem Kae-Kazim (“Hotel Rwanda”). The film is being co-produced by Justin Massion, the director of the Kickstarter campaign for “Space Command,” which brought in $75,000 in just three days, and ended with over $200,000—making it one of the crowd-funding platform’s top 10 projects.

“Yefon” is the brainchild of 22-year-old actress and filmmaker Sahndra Fon Dufe, who got her inspiration from too many similar, true stories from Africa. Broken-hearted by this sad reality, she and the production team have pledged to use a portion of the proceeds from the sale of the film, a companion documentary, books and related merchandise to build an all-girls school in Nso, the Cameroon village where “Yefon” is set.

As well as playing a role in helping to correct this grievous wrong and set free generations of women, Kickstarter contributors receive amazing gifts, including African couture, masks, jewelry and art; tickets to red carpet premieres; opportunities to meet the cast and crew; and more.

With only 9 days left to reach the goal of $50,000, we can offer more information, artwork and even interviews with Fon Dufe and others so you can help spread the word about this important project.

Thanks!”

 

Buck and the Preacher (US 1972)

Sidney Poitier as a Western hero

Following the release of the Harry Belafonte ‘bio-documentary’ Sing Your Song in UK cinemas, I decided to look at some of the Belafonte movies available on DVD. In all the coverage of the new documentary relatively little has been said about Belafonte’s film work – which though not extensive was important in the development of African-American cinema, not least because the actor-singer produced his own films at a time when few African-Americans had any direct power in the industry. Belafonte’s second independent production company, Belafonte Enterprises, made the film in conjunction with Columbia. Belafonte took the second lead, but the star and director of the film was Sidney Poitier (who took over from the first director, Joseph Sargent). Ruby Dee, often paired with Poitier as an actor and with Belafonte as an activist, was billed third. The script was by the distinguished TV writer Ernest Kinoy who had written another Sidney Poitier script, Brother John, a year earlier and who would go on to contribute scripts to the TV serial Roots (1977) and its sequel in 1979. The music for the film was composed by Benny Carter, the great jazz band leader, and includes contributions from Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee.

Buck and the Preacher belongs to the cycle of ‘revisionist Westerns’ in the early 1970s when the counter culture and the anti-war movement in the US managed to find an outlet in the New Hollywood. This was the period of Soldier Blue (1970) and Ulzana’s Raid (1972), but the most popular Western of the 1970s was Mel Brooks’ comedy Blazing Saddles (1974). What links these three very different films is a debunking of the mythology of the West and a reappraisal of the representation of characters who would later be known as ‘African-Americans’ and ‘Native Americans’. This same period also saw the commercial success of a range of ‘Blaxploitation’ films, led by urban crime thrillers like Shaft (1971) and this development also included Blaxploitation Westerns, especially the cycle of films starring Fred Williamson – The Legend of Nigger Charley (1972), its sequel The Soul of Nigger Charley (1973) and Boss Nigger (Black Bounty Hunter, 1974). The creation of Black ‘super-heroes’ in different settings attracted audiences (partly because of the provocative titles which created controversy) but didn’t really engage with the Western myths or the conventions of the genre as such. In his magisterial BFI Companion to the Western (1971), editor Ed Buscombe argues that Buck and the Preacher did precisely that – and that makes it an important film both for African-American cinema and the Western.

Outline

The narrative focuses on an aspect of American history largely neglected by Hollywood – the attempt by freed slaves from the South, after the Civil War ended, to head West on wagon trains, seeking new lands. Poitier plays ‘Buck’, an ex Union Cavalry sergeant, who sets himself up as a wagonmaster who will pilot wagon trains through hostile territory. He makes a deal with the local Native American chief to allow the wagon trains an unhindered passage, but he also has to battle a band of ex-Confederate soldiers. These men have been hired by plantation-owners in the South to drive the freed slaves back into low-paid employment in the cottonfields and their tactics are vicious and uncompromising. Ruby Dee plays Buck’s wife and Belafonte plays a con-man preacher who clashes with Buck but eventually forms an uneasy alliance with him to fight the ex-Confederates.

Analysis

The history of African-American cinema is usually presented via three distinct phases in Hollywood and then a question mark about what is happening today. In the first phase early American cinema and Hollywood in the silent era drew upon a range of Black stereotypes that had been developed in the nineteenth century. Donald Bogle’s ‘Interpretive History of Blacks in American Films’ revised in 1992 has the main title of Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies and Bucks. These five types defined the roles offered to Black actors in mainstream Hollywood (although initially, following the practices of minstrelsy, white actors ‘blacked up’ for some roles). In the 1930s Black entrepreneurs struggled to offer an alternative to this Hollywood condescension but they did manage to produce low-budget independent Black films exploring popular genres – including Black Westerns such as the ‘Western Musical’ Harlem on the Prairie (1937) and the much earlier The Bull-Dogger (1922).

Hollywood eventually reacted to the potential of the Black popular audience with the gradual development of mainstream films with Black themes – and predominantly Black casting – by the late 1940s and early 1950s when Poitier and Belafonte were young actors seeking work. This was the second phase of African-American cinema with films that were presented as ‘liberal’ dramas attempting to deal with some elements of social realism. However, the old stereotypes remained in place. Sidney Poitier was the 1950s ‘good Negro’, essentially a ‘Tom’ derived from the character in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Ruby Dee was the ‘good Negro wife’ and Harry Belafonte was seen as the ‘beautiful, sexy young man’ – the ‘Buck’ (which he resisted strongly and which no doubt was one of the reasons why he focused more on his musical career). The third phase was associated with the Blaxploitation cycle which critiqued the old stereotypes and the most immediate signal of change was evident in the casting of Poitier, quite literally, as ‘Buck’ with Ruby Dee still his wife, but now supporting him in actions which under the conventions of the Western represent resistance to the dominant ideology. Meanwhile, Belafonte is cast as the ‘Preacher’, a con-man role which featured in several of the earlier Black Westerns of the 1930s/40s.

Harry Belafonte as the long-haired ‘Preacher’

Buck and the Preacher is partly a comedy and that may be both why the film was a relative commercial success, but also why it hasn’t perhaps been given the status it deserves. As Ed Buscombe points out, the script is intelligent and knowing in its play with the conventions and the performances are very enjoyable. Poitier doesn’t just play the ‘Buck’, he overplays the role, sporting two mini-howitzers rather than conventional six-guns. There is an exhilaration in the way in which all three leads become ‘Western heroes’ and Bogle tells us that Black audiences cheered at the sight of the three heroes racing their horses across the screen pursued by a sheriff’s posse – I won’t spoil the narrative by revealing why they are on the run. The smiles are more wry in the key scene when Buck negotiates with the Native American chief who responds to the argument that Black and Red men have both suffered at the hands of the Whites by pointing out that Buck had served in the Union Army. This again feels like a commentary on Poitier’s previous roles in Hollywood – as well as, perhaps, a comment on the way in which Black soldiers had become a crucial element in the US Army in Vietnam.

I highly recommend the film as an enjoyable Western and a film that at least lifts a corner of the carpet under which the African-American experience of the ‘Old West’ has been carefully swept by Hollywood. You can download my notes on Harry Belafonte and Hollywood here: BelafonteNotes