The Case for Global Film

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Archive for the ‘African-American Cinema’ Category

12 Years a Slave (US/UK 2013)

Posted by Roy Stafford on 24 January 2014

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.

Posted in African-American Cinema, British Cinema | Tagged: , , , | 2 Comments »

Crowd-sourcing a film to shoot in Africa

Posted by Roy Stafford on 12 September 2012

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!”

 

Posted in African Cinema, African-American Cinema | Tagged: , , | 6 Comments »

Buck and the Preacher (US 1972)

Posted by Roy Stafford on 15 July 2012

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

Posted in African-American Cinema, the Western | Tagged: , | Leave a Comment »

Sing Your Song (US 2011)

Posted by Roy Stafford on 4 July 2012

Harry Belafonte and the Belafonte Folk Singers perform ‘Coconut Woman’ on Bell Telephone Hour, NBC TV 1964 (the show appeared 1959-68)

Sing Your Song is a ‘bio-doc’ celebrating the extraordinary life of Harry Belafonte, the legendary African-Caribbean-American singer, actor-producer and political and social activist. The title comes from advice given to Belafonte as a young performer by the equally legendary Paul Robeson:

“Get them to sing your song and they will want to know who you are.”

I enjoyed the documentary very much, particularly because it wasn’t until the 1980s that I began to understand the importance of Belafonte as a political activist – and then it was in relation to the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa and also Belafonte’s role as a producer in independent American cinema. In the 1950s I was aware of Belafonte as a singer, but for a child in the UK the politics of race in American society were not very visible. The documentary spends most of its time focusing on Belafonte’s TV career and his leading role in assembling support from other entertainers for the Civil Rights struggle of the 1960s. With his high profile in American music and television he had clout and he was prepared to put his career on the line to fight for equality. I’d not seen most of the TV and news footage presented here before so this was very exciting.

However, there are two problems with the film that I did find frustrating. The first was purely technical. Having discovered so much incredible archive footage, it was a real shame that the filmmakers seemingly made no attempt to process the footage in the correct aspect ratios. The result is that the TV footage from the 1950s and 1960s is stretched from the 4:3 standard and made to fill a 16:9 image (I’m assuming that the film was made for TV screening as the home for many US documentaries – HBO is listed as one of the distributors of the film. (I converted the TV image above as the Press photos also include some stretched images.) Since the whole point about Belafonte’s appearance in the 1950s was that, as well as being very handsome, he was tall and slim, it’s very disappointing that you don’t get that from the footage. This is surprising in that the documentary is made by Belafonte’s own production company. But this in itself constitutes the second problem. Although the film’s director is Susanne Rostock, a distinguished documentary-maker, Belafonte narrates the film himself and his daughter Gina is a producer. My impression is that this is Harry Belafonte’s preferred view of his own story. Which is fine, but since he deals with a wide range of political issues it would be interesting to get a wider perspective on his achievements. I admit that one of the aspects of his career that I would have liked to learn more about was his experience in Hollywood. He clearly feels that his political activities have been more important than his disaffection with the film industry. When I did some work on Belafonte’s film career, I found it very interesting and a few more posts might well follow this one dealing with specific films. In organising an event associated with a screening of Sing Your Song, I produced some notes on his film career which are downloadable: BelafonteNotes

Harry Belafonte with JFK in a campaign film which used to urge African-Americans to vote for Kennedy in the 1960 presidential campaign. (The ad can be viewed on YouTube.)

My slight reservations about Sing Your Song aren’t intended to put anyone else off watching the film, which I hope will show on UK TV after its cinema run and DVD release. There is also a book, My Song and the official website for the film provides a wealth of resources. Harry Belafonte has been working in the American entertainment industry for more than sixty years and he is still active, using his resources and his celebrity status to develop political campaigns aiming to promote social, economic and political equality, both in the US and in the international arena. As many reviewers have said, he is an inspirational figure and I’m glad an accessible document like Sing Your Song exists. As well as learning about his current political work, I also learned a lot from the archive material. I hadn’t really appreciated just how big a musical and TV star Belafonte was in the 1950s/60s – and therefore the weight that his endorsement of causes carried. His ‘development’ of Caribbean folk tunes in an American context, though in one sense appearing ‘inauthentic’, in another sees him as opening up American popular music to new influences. But it is his strong character that enabled him to challenge the race divide in American broadcasting. I knew about the controversy surrounding his appearance on Pet Clark’s TV Show in 1968 (when the sponsor’s representative objected to the physical contact between the two singers) but not about Belafonte’s own TV show, which was not renewed because the sponsor felt uncomfortable with its social concerns and its ‘blackness’. This morning, the Guardian‘s third editorial, often used as an ‘in praise of . . .’ piece, singles out Harry Belafonte’s book and reiterates his importance as a celebrity figure who commits completely to his political work.

Posted in African-American Cinema, American Independents, Documentary, People, Stars | Tagged: | 1 Comment »

New Spike Lee DVD

Posted by Roy Stafford on 18 June 2011

Spike Lee’s last feature film, Miracle at St Anna has finally got a DVD release in the UK. Revolver are releasing the DVD/Blu-ray of the film on June 27. We featured a review of the American Region 1 disc here. The film is an adaptation of a novel by James McBride about a small group of ‘Buffalo Soldiers’ – African-American soldiers in Italy in 1944. As in many recent war films, the central story is ‘book-ended’ by events in contemporary New York. The film is long (150 mins plus) but always packed with incident. It’s a Spike Lee film so it is controversial and some people don’t like it for various reasons. But this is an important story about the Second World War and particularly about the segregated American armed forces. The film deserves to be seen.

The UK official website is here.

One of the interesting aspects of this release is the simultaneous launch of the film on DVD/Blu-ray, online via LOVEFiLM, iTunes, Playstation, BlinkBox, FilmFlex, BT Vision and on TV via Sky Box Office.

The film has never had a UK release (unprecedented for a Spike Lee fiction feature, I think) so Revolver should be rewarded with some interest.

The release prompts us to ask what Spike is up to at the moment. As far as we can see he has been working primarily for television documentary (plus one stageplay recording). Nothing new is available in the UK but a Region 1 DVD was released in April of his follow-up to the epic When the Levees Broke (2006). This is the documentary If God is Willing and Da Creek Don’t Rise (2010). To keep up-to-date with Spike Lee’s output, the best source is the 40 Acres and a Mule website.

Posted in African-American Cinema, Directors | Tagged: , | Leave a Comment »

Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire (US, 2009)

Posted by nicklacey on 26 February 2010

Issues of race, body size and social class

I think this is a difficult film to deal with as racists will find their prejudices (African-American depravity) confirmed but the story of American underclass – of whatever race – is certainly worth telling. In a sense race is less important than class, though Precious’ mother (pictured right above) does have a ‘racial’ chip on her shoulder, as it is a story of a person who is probably at the bottom of the heap in the western world. And as a melodrama we shouldn’t expect the film to offer much social context (though I wish it would).

The film’s mostly shot in a realist style, with effective fantasy sequences as Precious attempts to escape abuse. I was discomforted by some of the audience laughter during these sequences where Precious imagines herself as the object of male desire; it was, I felt, laughing at the very idea that a fat woman could be desirable. I don’t think the film is inviting this reaction.

The redemption storyline relies upon an inspirational teacher who, whilst ‘black’, is relatively light skinned – see below. How necessary was this casting? If the teacher had been white then we would have been in very dodgy territory but Paula Patton’s  appearance – including her beauty – struck me as working against the grain of the film.

Shades of black

I don’t wish to overly critical of the film, which is worth seeing, and recognise the ‘burden of representation’ that falls upon movies that deal with groups who are virtually invisible in the media. In a sense, the problem is with the media industries’ ignore-ance of such groups so that when they do appear, they take on an enormous significance.

The film was a major success in American and it would be fascinating to know audience’s responses: middle class voyeurism to enjoyment of seeing unseen groups on screen?

Mariah Carey, virtually unrecognisably normal looking without the glamour normally associated with her, is excellent as the social worker and I found the film’s most convincing scene was when Precious’ mother ineffectually explains her treatment of her daughter to Carey’s character; Mo’Nique is terrific in the part.

Posted in African-American Cinema, American Independents | Tagged: | 1 Comment »

Soul Food (US 1997)

Posted by Roy Stafford on 14 October 2009

Mama Jo and her three daughters in the kitchen

Mama Jo and her three daughters in the kitchen

I really enjoyed this film. A touch too schmaltzy perhaps but I’m prepared to forgive writer-director George Tillman Jr when the characters are as well drawn as these and the ensemble playing is so good. This is a genuine family melodrama which would not have shamed Hollywood in its classical melodrama period.

The narrative is female centred with the soul food of the title comprising the key focus for all the extended family’s concerns. In the original family home in Chicago, Mama Jo still presides over her grand Sunday feast. Upstairs her brother never ventures out of his room and his meals are taken up on a tray and left outside his door. The three grown-up daughters all have partners and in one case, children who come over on Sunday, along with the local Minister and, at holiday times, other assorted guests.

The narrative conflict arises from the different attitudes of the daughters. Teri (Vanessa Williams) is the careerist lawyer who has chosen work over family. She doesn’t have children and is in danger of losing her partner, another lawyer who would rather be a musician – but she earns the money that her sisters need to borrow. Maxine (Vivica A. Fox) is the happily married mother of two. Her son, Ahmad, is in the narrator of the story. The third daughter is Bird (Nia Long) and it is she who brings in to the family the potential narrative disruption when she marries Lem (Mekhi Phifer). Lem comes to the family with a criminal record behind him and although he has  turned a new leaf, the past catches up with him. When trouble starts, the different reactions of the family members help to make matters worse. Added to this is a further irritant – the arrival of Cousin Faith, a viper in the bosom as far as the sisters are concerned.

In parallel with this disruption, Mama Jo becomes seriously ill – her diabetes not halted by herbal medicine and, dare we suggest, not helped by her generous portions – and is unable to perform her usual healing effect on family squabbles. As Mama slips away, it is clear that the men cause the problems, but the squabbling sisters make them more difficult to resolve.

The focus on eating together in a family setting is of supreme importance and that’s why it provides the title of the film. We know full well that whatever happens, the family (presumably a metaphor for community) will all still have a chance to solve their problems if they can get back to the table and share some traditional dishes. Ham hocks, pigs feet, chitterlings, biscuits, fried chicken, greens, fishcakes, string beans, salads, black-eye peas and pasta are clearly on the menu. As Mama Jo says, “soul food cooking is cooking from the heart”.

There are many references through food and eating to other African-American movies, not least Daughters of the Dust and To Sleep With Anger. The film was successful and later became a successful TV series running for four seasons, but not coming to the UK as far as I know.

There is a perceptive review of the film here and also an interesting lesbian perspective on the TV Series which revels in the drama between three sisters.

Posted in African-American Cinema, Melodrama | Leave a Comment »

Eve’s Bayou (US 1997)

Posted by Rona on 11 October 2009

Southern (and Sirkian?) Melodrama

Southern (and Sirkian?) Melodrama

Watching Eve’s Bayou is to experience something that is strangely familiar whilst it is set in such an exotic landscape. A tale set in the bayou country of Louisiana, it is soaked in the idea of history and memory. The setting for Lemmons film evokes an emotional response in us – a place we feel we know even if we have not visited it. And as, for example, the mountains and coastline for Ireland carries with it universal stories and a particular connection with myths and legends that constantly interject into the present, so this landscape, as it is so unchanging, carries its past into its present. What Kasi Lemmons has achieved is to evoke the mythological and the ethereal so vividly within the setting of the film, but used it as a context for a family melodrama that is both modern and ancient because it is a story that can and is told time and again. And, therefore, we respond to the characters and are engaged in their story from a very human point of view. In addition, whilst we might not share that exact-same history of those characters, we can empathise with that feeling of being part of a family and a place and a set of cultural superstitions that form our home.

The film is narrated by the older Eve as she looks back at a particular devastating event in her childhood. Eve is a classic character – a young girl aged 10 – sitting on threshold between childhood and adulthood. As such, she instinctively responds to and takes part in those traditions of her world whilst being on the cusp of moving against them. She is her Aunt Mozelle’s tender and faithful acolyte as she receives suffering people to give them the gift of seeing where their loved ones have got to. No-one in the story doubts Mozelle’s second sight and vision, but the children rebel against their beleaguered mother’s reaction to these warnings. What performs so dramatically in this film is the juxtaposition of the ancient culture and (relatively) modern family existing there – with the incendiary tensions of an unhappy marriage and teenage children who are beginning to see what is really happening. The events of the film are pure melodrama in both senses – the extremes of violent action and the claustrophobic (and so easily dysfunctional) life of the family. We could equate it (narratively) to some of Douglas Sirk’s dramas of the 1950s, with the internal struggles of the family and the absolutely, immovably central figure of the woman within that family. Lynn Whitfield’s matriarch (Roz) is a Sirkian concoction of breathtaking beauty, rustling silk (the credits note that her costumes were ‘built’ by Patty Spinale) and sculptured eyebrows. Samuel L. Jackson perfectly encapsulates the persuasive charm of the patriarch, Louis, who is, ultimately, more callow and confused than impressive. Unlike Sirk, it is not Roz’s story throughout the film and it is only by the end that we truly appreciate her strength and her power. When Roz (mother) embraces her youngest (male) child, Poe, so intensely at the beginning of the film, she seems a little mean to her second daughter, Eve. The moment is quickly passed into a light-hearted chase – but later we can reflect that that embrace was for the only child that was hers entirely – Louis has stolen the two elder daughters entirely for himself. By the end, she has become a powerful centre who has truly learned how to ‘look to her children’ as Diahann Carroll’s soothsayer has warned her to do.

The frustrations of the marriage are the central focus of this film, with a representation of an African-American family who are affluent and well-regarded in their community – occupying the space that is generally reserved for WASPish families in American cinema. The ‘issue’ for these characters is (unusually) not race and its struggles – but their internal desires. Just as in Todd Haynes’s Far from Heaven (the Sirkian-influenced exploration of repression in marriage) we are focussed on the women’s response. In Eve’s Bayou, however, it’s not the mother but the child who is our centre of consciousness as we watch. Eve also actively drives the narrative. Eve hates with the passion of a ten-year-old towards someone who has harmed the person she most loves and believes in and, as a result, she is the instigator of particular events in the action. The story constantly juxtaposes the feeling of events that are fated (Mozelle’s foreseeing of a child’s accident) and events that are effected by the deliberate (if unknowing) action of people. Eve is responsible for these events if not to blame for them – and the narrative manages to walk this incredibly tight balance without losing sympathy or empathy for any of the characters involved.

It’s interesting that Louis is the doctor – when the film is dense with references to others forms of superstitious healing. These are so often related to the female rather than the male sensibility – the man being related to science (knowing). The film clearly sides with the power of superstition and female ‘knowing’ – the person that can look into your eyes or hold your hands – and just know what you are thinking, is the powerful force within this film.

Which brings me back to Mozelle. Whilst Roz is the desperate housewife, Mozelle is the repository of power in the family. Her voodoo heals where Louis’ medicine is ineffective. Lemmons has written some tour-de-force female protagonists and has decided to shoot them in the style of a costume drama to ensure that, visually on screen, they have maximum impact. Their vibrant costumes are not modern but belong to a different world which enhances our impression that this film is from a different place. Both women are completely desirable and like ‘candy’ on the screen – vivid, strong and ultra-feminine. However, this is not a costume drama staged rigidly in one era of American life – the 50s or 60s, that we can recognise and immediately to give us a context for behaviour and morals. Instead, Lemmons appears to be seeking after a much more ambiguous feeling – a time outside of any era and linking to the ancient landscape it sits in. It has been termed Southern Gothic and to draw on a comment for a very different film (Sling Blade): “As in most Southern gothic fiction, the past weights heavily on the present and it gives Sling Blade an ominous feel.” (Greg Meritt: Celluloid Mavericks). The same is true of Eve’s Bayou which is steeped in a feeling of a world living in both past and present, and evoking the mythical resonance of something like Toni Morrison’s Beloved. Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust (a graduate of the same film school as Charles Burnett) is resonant here – about the families of the Gullah community – reiterating ancient customs through their poetic language. In Daughters they are reiterating them just at the point they know they are about to lose them – as the community moves from the islands onto the mainstream. In Eve’s Bayou there is no sense of a threat of change impinging on the lives of those – the final shot shows the sisters watching a sunset with every possibility of life remaining the same, the ebb of loss and tragedy an accepted part of that experience.

Winning an Independent Spirit Award for this film in 1998, Kasi Lemmons has continued to act and direct. She is currently in pre-production with a gospel musical version of the nativity story (co-written) called Black Nativity. Roy tells me the (very good) print of Eve’s Bayou arrived recently at Bradford covered in dust – what a shame it’s seemingly become a hidden visual and thematic jewel.

Posted in African-American Cinema, Films by women, Womens Film | 1 Comment »

 
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