Category: African-American Cinema

Sidney Poitier: A Raisin in the Sun (US 1961)

Ruth (Ruby Dee) and Walter Lee Younger (Sidney Poitier)

I’d known about this film for a long time, but never attempted to see it. I assumed it was a ‘worthy’ filmed play. But when I began to watch as many Sidney Poitier films as possible, I decided to rent the Criterion Blu-ray available on Cinema Paradiso. My assumptions proved misguided at best. I was totally gripped by the film, staying up until 2 am to watch it through. I knew it was of some cultural importance but I didn’t actually know the half of it.

Lorraine Hansberry (from pbs.org)

The original play was written by Lorraine Hansberry and when the production reached Broadway in 1959, she became the youngest, the first African American and only the fifth woman to write a Broadway play. Hansberry died tragically young at the age of only 34 from cancer in 1965. She also provided the inspiration for the Nina Simone song, ‘Young, Gifted and Black’.  What a woman! Her parents were middle-class and it was their experience in moving into a previously all white neighbourhood of Chicago which provided the central idea for the play. The Criterion Blu-ray includes a host of extras, including background on Ms Hansberry.

Lena (Claudia McNeil) wants to grow flowers in her own garden . . .

The production took some time to reach Broadway via openings outside New York and it was a struggle to put on the show – but eventually it found its audience and especially Black theatregoers (though not without dissenting voices). Its success meant that a Hollywood adaptation was inevitable and the rights were acquired by Columbia. The studio were prepared to allow Lorraine Hansberry to adapt her own play, but they weren’t prepared to hire the play’s original African American director Lloyd Richards (who was actually born in Canada as the son of a Jamaican migrant father), claiming he had limited experience of either film or television. At that point he had appeared as an actor on television and as himself in two TV series about the theatre. Instead, Columbia hired the Canadian director Daniel Petrie who had ten years of experience directing dramas, including live plays on US TV, but only one feature film for the cinema (The Bramble Bush in 1960 with Richard Burton and Barbara Rush). Columbia also kept a tight reign on Hansberry. Supposedly worried that the film might be off-putting for white audiences, they barred the use of African American speech patterns and several subjects that Hansberry wanted to broach. Fortunately they didn’t veto the original cast so all the principal players appeared in the film.

. . . no longer only house plants? This MCU shot signifies the power of a cinematoc melodrama

Plot outline

The play features an African American family on Chicago’s South Side. It appears to be a family located on the boundary of working-class/lower middle-class. They live in a rented two bedroom apartment. Father has died and it is his life insurance money that drives the narrative. Mother (Lena) is about to cease full-time work as a domestic servant. Her eldest son is Walter Lee, a chauffeur and her daughter Beneatha is a student hoping to enter medical school. Walter Lee is married to Ruth and they have a son Travis. Walter Lee wants to use at least part of the money to open a bar with two friends. Some of the money should be used to pay Beneatha’s school fees. As the plot develops, it becomes clear that Lena has plans to use the money to put a deposit on a house in a white suburb – the only decent house she can find at the right price. If she goes through with her plan there will be consequences, possibly for Walter Lee and Beneatha. There is also the possibility of a reaction from white residents.

Beneatha (Diana Sands) with her Nigerian boyfriend Joseph Asagai (Ivan Dixon)

The film’s title is taken from the 1951 poem ‘Harlem’ by Langston Hughes:

What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore—
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over—
like a syrupy sweet?

Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.

Or does it explode?

The concept of ‘deferred gratification’ is often quoted as marking the difference between working-class and middle-class approaches to life in capitalist societies. In this play, Walter Lee’s aspiration, after working as a chauffeur for many years, is a business venture whereas Beneatha is prepared to give up several years of earnings in the hope of earning a higher salary in future. For Walter Lee, earning money, ‘making money’, is what defines him as a man. For Beneatha it is acquiring learning and culture that will define her. But for Lena it is family that is most important and that means a home in which the family can thrive. These are universal issues but Hansberry’s play also presents the specific context of African American life and weaves the specificities of certain issues into the narrative. The play’s origination in housing issues and specifically the racial segregation experienced, even in the North before the ‘Fair Housing Act’ as part of the 1968 Civil Rights legislation, is one aspect of this. Beneatha has two suitors in the play. George Murchison is a successful business man and an ‘assimilated’ African American. But Beneatha spends more time with Joseph Asagai, a Yoruba student from Nigeria who tries to educate her about Africa (many (most?) African Americans of this era knew little about Africa). Hughes’ poem about a ‘dream deferred’ points to all the problems associated with African American life in the 1950s.

The filmed play

Stage adaptations have long had a bad rap among film critics and scholars and I confess to having avoided them whenever possible. However, in this case I think the adaptation works. The first major issue is whether to ‘open out’ the play in order to make it more ‘cinematic’. This can produce a very artificial sense of shooting an outdoor scene just for the sake of it. Petrie uses three main scenes outside the apartment – Walter Lee seen as a chauffeur at work and again in his local bar meeting his friends and the whole family visiting the house in the suburbs. The first of these is not strictly necessary but the other two add something significant. But the vast majority of the long running time (128 minutes) remains in the apartment. The studio set was designed and lit to enable particular framings and shot compositions. The most notable feature of the camerawork is the use of deep focus. This means that on occasions shots can be organised so that the whole depth of the apartment could be utilised with characters in the foreground, middle ground and background. There is also a number of high angle and low angle shots inside the rooms. The overall effect is not an expressionist style in which the the mise en scène plays an exaggerated role, but a form of realism in which the emotional playing of the actors can be highlighted. Charles Lawton Jr. was an interesting choice as cinematographer. He was a veteran, often associated with Westerns. Two of the directors he worked with were John Ford and Orson Welles, both known for deep focus staging. He had also worked on live TV plays.

Walter Lee responds to African drumming when Beneatha wears an African print

Since the cast were very familiar with the script they were able to approach their roles with confidence and move freely through the set. As well as Sidney Poitier playing Walter Lee and Ruby Dee again playing the Poitier character’s wife on screen, the other two main players were Claudia McNeil as Lena and Diana Sands as Beneatha. I’m not sure if stage productions are less age-specific in casting, but Claudia McNeil was playing much older than her real age – she was only twelve years older than Poitier. All the central performances are excellent. Most reviews of the play and the film acknowledge the standout performance as Poitier’s and argue that it is a play focused primarily on Walter Lee. I didn’t feel this so strongly. I wouldn’t want to put one performance ahead of the others, but as a narrative I thought this was Lena’s story. Perhaps it is because I see it as a family melodrama which in film and television is usually focused on the women.

This composition of Lena and her daughter in deep focus and with Ruth, the daughter-in-law in the background and two mirror images is a familiar family melodrama image

Commentary

This does appear to be a play which is both specific to the African American experience in the 1950s and early 1960s but is also relatable for universal audiences. As I watched it I did think of the so-called ‘kitchen sink’ dramas of the British New Wave including the stage play Look Back in Anger (1959) and the literary adaptation A Kind of Loving (1962). I was also reminded of a Spanish film, Luis García Berlanga’s The Executioner (1963). These may all sound unlikely comparisons but they each explore working-class ‘aspirations’ around more or less the same period. They also each use a similar form of what is now known in Europe as social realism. To be more specific, The Executioner uses a neo-realist idea in that a young man accepts the job of executioner for the Spanish state because it confers access to public housing (he has no desire to execute people but he needs a house for his wife and child and father-in-law). A Raisin in the Sun follows the same neo-realist idea – introduce a simple change to the lives of an ‘ordinary family’ and explore what happens. In this case $10,000 dollars of insurance money, rather than ‘solving’ the family’s problems exposes some of the tensions which lie below the surface of family life in South Chicago.

A ‘Big Close-up’ of Poitier as Walter Lee

Walter Lee with his ‘business partners’ in the bar

I feel that director Petrie, cinematographer Lawton and the whole creative team were able to showcase the emotional performances of the principal players. The images presented in this post (including a selection of screengrabs from dvdbeaver.com) show how a stage play can be adapted effectively for the big screen. Poitier is well served by Petrie. His very physical performance is enhanced by the camerawork and compositions. When I consider how Poitier is presented in this film, I see a distinct change from the 1950s roles in films like No Way Out (1950) and Edge of the City (1957). In those films he still feels trapped within the concept of the ‘good Negro’ but Walter Lee is allowed to be human, to ‘fail’, to be cruel and insensitive and to be shamed by his mother. It is the strength of the characterisation of the three women in his life that makes this possible.

The Criterion website is an excellent resource and carries two useful essays on the film as well as details of the Blu-ray and DVD. If you are going to watch this film, I urge you to consider watching the Criterion disc.

John Ford #8: Sergeant Rutledge (US 1960)

The ‘noble’ Sergeant Rutledge, seen from a low angle (Screengrab from dvd.beaver.com)

(This post was first published in 2017 before I began a long project aimed at re-assessing the output of John Ford by re-watching and writing about as many of Ford’s films as I could find, numbering the posts as I go.)

Given that John Ford was the most lauded director of the studio era with four Academy Awards and one of the most critically appraised filmmakers during the development of contemporary film studies in the 1960s and 1970s, it’s perhaps surprising that some of his films have not been given more attention. Ford was prolific and ‘independent’. There are a lot of films to choose from, so perhaps that’s the reason, but the more I think about it – and the more I enjoy watching Ford’s films on TV – the more I wonder about how his films have been studied. Sergeant Rutledge certainly deserves more attention.

This 1960 release is unusual in several ways but primarily because it places Woody Strode as the Cavalry Sergeant of the title at the centre of the narrative. As one blogger has pointed out, it gives us an African American character in a courtroom drama accused of the rape and murder of a young white woman a couple of years before the more celebrated To Kill a Mockingbird. For John Ford it marks something of a change in his representation of both African American and Native American characters (though he seemed to slip back again in later films). The Apache in the film generally appear to be ‘authentic’, though the narrative does not give them speaking roles. But at least we are spared the conventional speeches in English. Overall, I don’t think Sergeant Rutledge is ‘coherent’ as it mixes genres and Fordian elements such as casting and acting styles in unusual ways, but this is possibly a good thing. It’s certainly worth investigating.

The film begins with the arrival of Lt. Cantrell (Jeffrey Hunter, one of the leading actors in Ford’s 1956 film The Searchers) and  the opening of a military trial in the 1880s when Arizona was still a ‘territory’. As the first witness Mary Beecher (Constance Towers) begins her testimony, we flash back to her return from the East after many years away. She is heading for her father’s remote ranch and on the train she meets Lt. Cantrell who reluctantly drops her off at a lonely railway halt. A band of Apache warriors have broken out of their ‘reservation’ and Mary is rescued from danger by Woody Strode’s Sergeant Rutledge, who appears from the darkness, wounded but still able to attack the two warriors who approach her. We realise that Rutledge was escaping a crime scene and now he has been brought back to the fort where Cantrell is representing him. The rest of the film narrative unfolds through flashbacks as each of the witnesses give statements. At first, we don’t know what Rutledge is supposed to have done and Ford uses the courtroom drama mixed with the suspense story. Gradually the story unfolds and we see that Rutledge is taken into custody but then, along with Mary Beecher, is taken on Cantrell’s mission to return the Apache to their reservation. This then introduces the third genre repertoire of the action stories of the ‘Indian Wars’.

Lt. Cantrell (Jeffrey Hunter) with Cpl Krump (Rafer Johnson?) (uncredited)

Woody Strode (1914-94) was a football player and imposing athlete (6’4″) who began to get bit parts in films and then later TV from the early 1940s onwards. By the 1950s he had regular screen work, but mainly in action adventure films, several set in Africa. In 1956 he played the King of Ethiopia in The Ten Commandments. Sergeant Rutledge was his first film for John Ford and one of his first leading roles. He would go on to appear in three more of Ford’s late films followed by other major Westerns (famously in the opening sequence of Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West (1968)). It is significant that Ford had not used Strode before, especially as Strode had Native American as well as African American ancestry. Because of his imposing physique, Woody Strode would struggle to escape the confines of stereotypical roles. He was both ‘imposing’ and also ‘noble’. It’s worth noting that the other significant Black role in the film, Sgt. Skidmore, is played by Juano Hernandez (1901-70) an actor from a Puerto Rican background who doesn’t have the same physical presence as Woody Strode, but whose credits suggest a more varied range of roles. His first role was in an Oscar Micheaux ‘race’ film (i.e. an all Black cast and intended for a Black audience) in 1932.

The release of Sergeant Rutledge came at a crucial time for the progress of the Civil Rights movement in the US and the possibilities for African American actors. Major stars such as Sidney Poitier and Harry Belafonte were still mainly involved in social or crime dramas/melodramas/musicals at this point. It was still unusual to find African American actors in Westerns. In one sense, Sergeant Rutledge was undoubtedly progressive in featuring a ‘Negro troop’ in the 9th Cavalry based on the historical records of two such cavalry regiments (and four, later two, regiments of infantry) in the US Army after 1865. The troop presented a variety of ‘types’ and provided small roles for several uncredited Black actors. This didn’t go far enough for cultural activists but it was a start. Tag Gallagher in John Ford: The Man and His Films (1986) is one of several scholars who repeat the words of Woody Strode quoted in Joseph McBride and Michael Wilmington’s John Ford (1975) in which the actor says he will never forget Sergeant Rutledge and how Ford “put classic words in my mouth . . . You never seen a Negro come off a mountain like John Wayne before . . . I carried the whole black race across the river”. Strode is referring to the long sequence in which the Sergeant first escapes and then returns to help the troop under attack.

Sergeant Rutledge was not a commercial success in North America. I’m not sure how the film played in Europe but as with The Searchers, the European film posters shown below are interesting. The French title of The Searchers translated as ‘Prisoner of the Desert’ which always struck me as more acute than the US version. Sergeant Rutledge appeared in two guises, both of which highlighted the Black soldier. One uses the title Le Sergent noir and the other Capitaine Buffalo (this is the Belgian poster with the Flemish title listed as well).

The French poster

The Belgian poster

Captain Buffalo was in fact the working title of the film in Hollywood and the film opens with the Captain Buffalo song. The reference here is to ‘Negro soldiers’ who were known as ‘Buffalo soldiers’. The name is said to have come from the Native Americans who fought Black soldiers in the Indian Wars after 1866. Although the name was commonly used in the US Army, it didn’t circulate quite so widely in the mythology of the Hollywood Western. Although I have been reading and watching Westerns on TV and at the cinema since the 1950s, I don’t think I heard the term until the 1970s and it was really Bob Marley’s song, released in 1983, which popularised the history outside the US. ‘Captain Buffalo’ is an ironic title, referring to Rutledge’s leadership qualities in a troop which was ‘all Negro’ but with a white officer. The French poster is more explicit in its reference to the ‘Black Sergeant’ and both posters announce the controversial elements for a film from 1960 – the Black fist in handcuffs and the frightened white woman seemingly running from the sergeant – depicted in ‘noirish’ lighting. Compare this explicit representation with the UK ‘quad’ poster, which I believe was based on the US poster (UK posters have generally been ‘landscape’ rather than ‘portrait’ shaped).

UK poster

This poster tells us nothing about the story as such. Rutledge is simply ‘a MAN’ and Woody Strode is listed as a secondary star to Billie Burke (who has a minor role as the judge’s wife). The sergeant in the poster has a skin tone very similar to Hunter’s Lt. Cantrell – you have to look closely for signs of ‘blackness’. Why is he shown with unfastened handcuffs? The contrast to the French poster is remarkable. Sergeant Rutledge was a commercial flop despite its similarity to The Searchers in terms of setting. It was based on a novel by James Warner Bellah whose short stories had formed the basis for Ford’s earlier ‘Cavalry trilogy’ of the late 1940s – She Wore A Yellow Ribbon, Fort Apache and Rio Grande. He would also write the screenplay for The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), the best reviewed of Ford’s later works. Why did Sergeant Rutledge flop? I can’t help feeling that besides the lack of confidence shown by Warner Bros. in their promotional material, the film’s uneasy mixture of drama, suspense and comedy might have created poor ‘word of mouth’. Comedy is nearly always present in Ford’s films but it is usually better integrated in relation to the drama. I wonder too if the film suffers from the lack of a strong central performance from John Wayne or one of Ford’s other familiar leading men. Willis Bouchey as the Colonel and courtroom judge is a good character actor, but doesn’t dominate the group of officers who run the trial. It’s no surprise that the action sequences with Jeffery Hunter and Woody Strode holding the action together work more successfully. It wasn’t until after the screening that I realised that Constance Towers had been in Ford’s previous film The Horse Soldiers, the 1959 cavalry picture set during the Civil War and not written by Bellah. In Sergeant Rutledge she seems to be older (or perhaps more mature) than the young women linked to the young officers in the earlier cavalry films, but on reflection she seems well cast. Later she would appear as the lead in two strong Sam Fuller films, Shock Corridor (1963) and The Naked Kiss (1964).

As well as a film of its time, indeed of its ‘moment’, Sergeant Rutledge has to be read as a film in the final third of John Ford’s long career. One aspect of this is its role in confirming Ford’s long attachment to the ideals of the American military. It is important that the Rutledge character is finally exonerated by the Army and through the Army’s procedures. It may be the last such film in Ford’s list. The last few films seem to offer evidence of a director being deliberately playful with some of those traditions among groups of men. The second aspect of Sergeant Rutledge is more problematic in representing Ford’s ideas about race and identity. I think the film stands up alongside The Searchers as an attempt to question the attitudes in most Westerns of the 1950s, but I don’t think it’s possible to make any judgements without referring back to Ford’s earlier films about Judge Priest, and especially The Sun Shines Bright (1953) which needs to be a future task. It also requires a return to Two Rode Together (1961) and Cheyenne Autumn (1964), two films which revert to the practice of casting Europeans as Native Americans, while still questioning representations.

Sidney Poitier: No Way Out (US 1950)

Sidney Poitier and Richard Widmark as doctor and patient

Sidney Poitier died aged 94 on January 6th and I’d like to acknowledge his considerable contribution to cinema over a career lasting 50 years. I think, as a young filmgoer in the 1950s and 1960s especially, I didn’t really appreciate his work and I’ve been interested to read some of the obituaries and accounts of his career. There are only two posts on Poitier on this blog at the moment, even though I saw several more of his films many years ago. The reason for my under-appreciation of his work is probably focused on the 1960s in particular and the way in which his screen persona was understood by a significant part of the audience, i.e. that he seemed to be cast as a particular African American ‘type’ in the Hollywood cinema of the 1950s and 1960s, the ‘good Negro’ (as the language had it then) or the ‘magic Negro’ and, most damning by some of his detractors, a ‘Tom’ figure. His contemporary Harry Belafonte was cast as a different type and one that was perhaps more palatable for the audiences I identified with. I thought I’d test out some ideas about Poitier’s career by focusing first on his début featured role in the 1950 film No Way Out.

No Way Out is what I think of as a social problem picture. These were produced in the late 1940s and early 1950s by several studios and the American films tended to be ‘harder’ than their equivalents in the UK. I note that American writers tend to refer to films like No Way Out as films noirs but I think of them more like crime melodramas. Race was one of the issues that formed the focus for some of the Hollywood films and in this film Poitier plays a newly-qualified doctor whose first job in the hospital where he finished his training finds him on the ‘prison ward’ and required to attend to two men who have been shot in the legs by police officers during an attempted robbery at a petrol station. Poitier (as Dr. Brooks) discovers that they are two brothers. One is a loudmouth racist who has to be restrained. He is  lively and angry but his brother is clearly very ill. It looks as if the shooting has exacerbated an underlying condition and Brooks attempts an unusual but appropriate procedure to alleviate the condition. He is unsuccessful and the man dies. The brother who is watching screams “Murderer!”. The hospital management decides to do nothing, satisfied that Brooks had followed an appropriate form of treatment, but Brooks himself wants an autopsy to show that he was justified (even though it might show his diagnosis was wrong). To do that he needs the permission of the next of kin. The racist brother is unlikely to comply. But there are other close relatives . . .

Poitier as the young Dr. Brooks with his boss, Dr. Wharton (Stephen McNally)

Poitier was only 22 when he made this, his first credited feature film. He was only fourth-billed but he is in many ways the central character. Top billing went to Richard Widmark who took the role of the racist brother reluctantly. Widmark himself was a late entrant to Hollywood features after an early and successful stage career. In his first role for 20th Century Fox as the psychopathic Tommy Udo in Kiss of Death (1947) he had received a nomination for an Academy Award as ‘Best Supporting Actor’ (and won a Golden Globe). But he was becoming wary of other similar roles and the story goes that during the shoot of No Way Out he frequently apologised to Poitier for his terrifying performance as the racist thug, Ray Biddle. “It’s the role, it isn’t me!” he told Poitier. But Widmark would have realised that this would be a superior film, written (with Lesser Samuels) and directed by Joe Mankiewicz in the same year as All About Eve. The other two leading players are Stephen McNally and Linda Darnell. McNally plays Poitier’s boss Dr. Wharton and Darnell is the dead man’s ex-wife. This was an ‘A’ production for Fox, produced by Darryl F. Zanuck with Milton Krasner as cinematographer and Alfred Newman in charge of music. What is significant about the film is that Poitier is provided with a proper family background with Ruby Dee as his sister Connie and Ossie Davis as his brother Jack. Both these actors would go on to be major African American actors with long careers. Poitier’s wife is played by Mildred Joanne Smith who had a serious accident a couple of years later which hampered her career prospects. She was billed alongside Poitier whereas Dee and Davis were uncredited. The family provides an element of melodrama, emphasising the relatively poor background from which Dr. Brooks has worked hard to qualify as a doctor. It also provides a ‘way in’ to the central dramatic incident of the film, a major clash between the denizens of ‘Beaver Canal’, the run-down home district of the Biddle brothers, and the black youth of the city as we follow Jack in setting up an ambush.

Dr. Wharton’s home where he receives Linda Darnell (Edie, the wife of the dead man). Dr. Wharton’s housekeeper Gladys (Amanda Randolph) will look after Edie.

I think this is a very interesting film and I enjoyed it very much. I don’t want to spoil your narrative pleasure if you are able to find it on streamers so I’m not going to outline the plot in detail. All I’ll say is that it is unusual to have an organised black ‘resistance’ in a mainstream Hollywood film, but the fight between the two groups is not the climax of the action. That will involve the four central characters. Dr. Brooks is the target for Ray Biddle, working with his older brother George (Harry Bellaver) who is (again in the language of the period) ‘deaf and dumb’. In what may be a subtle commentary on the treatment of people with ‘disabilities’, the script suggests that the police and hospital assume that George does not understand everything that happens. But he lipreads very well and is very capable of helping Ray escape from custody and track down Brooks. Meanwhile Edie, the ex-wife, is used by Ray to help locate Brooks. In terms of the racism discourse, the key character in the narrative is Dr. Wharton.

Dr. Brooks with his wife Cora (Mildred Joan Smith)

Wharton represents another ‘type’ – the white liberal who believes that he has found the rational position inside a racist society. He attempts to deal with the situation that Dr. Brooks finds himself in by asserting that he supports Brooks as a ‘good doctor’, not because he is a ‘Negro doctor’ in a difficult position. He thus finds himself between Brooks, who understands his own position quite clearly, and the head of the hospital who is worried by the newspaper report of the incident. In order to better understand the arguments about Poitier’s acting persona I acquired a copy of The Poitier Effect: Racial Melodrama and Fantasies of Reconciliation by Sharon Willis (University of Minnesota Press 2015). Unfortunately Ms Willis does not, as far as I can see at the moment, discuss No Way Out. Instead she focuses on what she sees as Poitier the ‘teacher’ whether in teacher roles such as To Sir With Love (US-UK 1967), as a student in The Blackboard Jungle (1955) or an escaped convicted man in The Defiant Ones (US 1958). In the first of these Poitier as a Caribbean migrant teaches white London kids. In the second he challenges Glenn Ford as his white teacher and in the third he tries to show Tony Curtis how to survive on the run. Different roles but in each he teaches a white character and by extension a white audience. The outcome of this is not, however, to instigate an exchange of ideas and understanding but more to show that a black man can be useful/helpful etc. – and therefore not threatening. Willis extends this analysis to include Poitier’s role in In the Heat of the Night (1967). I’ve just watched that so some analysis will follow.

I was really impressed with this film, especially the way that Joe Mankiewicz included so many other black characters alongside Poitier. He isn’t a lone figure and the other black characters don’t necessarily agree with him. It’s interesting, however, that when actors like Amanda Randolph appear in stills from the film, they are still not credited. Watch this trailer on YouTube and you should find your way to a decent copy of the film. I’m sure you will be as impressed as I was.

LFF 2021 #2: Queen of Glory (US 2021)

Sarah Obeng (Nana Mensah) is back in the Bronx

This shortish first feature (78 mins) is fronted by an outstanding performance by its writer-director-star Nana Mensah. An experienced actor with credits on several TV series and some Independent Cinema titles, Mensah had not intended to direct or to star in the film she was writing. But circumstances eventually pushed her into the other roles and as she said in the included online Q&A, it was good that she wrote the script first not thinking she would play the central character. That way she didn’t cut herself any slack or attempt to avoid certain potential scenarios. The outline narrative of the film is relatively simple and, at least on a structural level, familiar as a universal experience. But because of its specific cultural focus it is also distinctive in its narrative events and settings.

After a credit sequence featuring a montage of Ghanaian textile designs, drumming and dancing, we first meet Sarah in her office at Columbia University. She’s a science grad research student with some supervision duties. She’s hoping her boyfriend, who has been appointed to a more senior post in Ohio, will leave his wife and she can share a house with him. She seems sure this will happen. The ‘inciting incident’ when it arrives almost overwhelms Sarah. Her mother dies suddenly and Sarah is faced with a series of responsibilities, the weight of which severely throws her off-balance. First she learns that she has inherited her mother’s house and her Christian bookshop in the Bronx. Second she must organise not one but two large-scale celebrations, one a ‘white person-style funeral’, but the other a traditional Ghanaian funeral with expectations of attendance by many in the ‘Little Ghana’ community in the Bronx. Third, her estranged father arrives from Accra with expectations of a family reunion. No wonder she has little time to check in with the boyfriend, who I think is probably already mistrusted by many in the audience – he can’t even pronounce ‘Accra’ correctly.

One question for me was trying to work out what kind of a film this was. It has been widely promoted as a comedy and I was relieved that the BFI host of the introduction and Q&A, Grace Barber-Plentie, asked Nana Mensah directly about finding the right tone. Mensah was willing to describe her film as a comedy and said that the mixing of grief and comedy was something that did happen in her culture. It strikes me that the same is true in most cultures. It is often said that weddings and funerals have much the same capacity for comedy and drama in my Northern English culture and I suspect it is the same in most others.

A rather dazed Sarah is measured for a new dress for the Ghanaian funeral gathering . . .

From my perspective the narrative suggests a form of realist family melodrama with comic elements. The real story is about Sarah’s struggle to understand what she might be losing if she sells the house and the bookshop and follows her boyfriend to Ohio. This includes questions about the value she places on family ties and friendships within her community. It’s also a question about what a ‘hyphenate’ identity means in the US today. In other words, it’s a diaspora narrative. As I watched the film I realised that I probably know more about Francophone West African cultures both in Africa and in France than the Anglophone West African cultures in the UK and US. This is because of the way film and TV have developed in West Africa in the post-colonial period. I’m aware of a triangular relationship between Nigeria and Ghana with the UK and US, but I don’t have much access to the films and TV produced even though Nollywood and Ghallywood are prolific producers. The films are hard to see in the UK outside specific cities with a Nigerian or Ghanaian community. Nana Mensah’s film feels more like an American Independent film, but there are elements of Ghanaian Cinema as well, I think. She uses archive footage at various points to offer a sense of traditional ceremonies and life on the streets of Accra. One of the key cultural ‘threads’ in the narrative focuses on food. Early in the film Sarah eats pizza and snacks. For the funeral parties she makes, or buys in, Ghanaian food. The prospect of going to the meat market in the Bronx is also intercut with footage of street abattoirs in Ghana, and buying meat (i.e. ‘real meat’) is something she can barely stomach. By the end of the film, however, she is making rice and meat stew for her father.

. . . emerging transformed in this stunning outfit

I enjoyed the film but I agree with at least one other reviewer who recognises that it is almost as if the production ran out of money (and time) since some narrative threads are left in the air and others are quickly resolved. Nana Mensah discussed her positive experience with Kickstarter in the Q&A, but also stressed the work needed to deal with the funding. I don’t know if the production was affected by COVID. This is still an impressive début picture. I enjoyed the ‘Scope photography by Cybel Martin and the editing by Cooper Troxell. I also enjoyed the music in the film, especially the song over the closing credits. I should also mention the actor Meeko who plays the important role of the Christian bookshop manager. The ‘King of Glory’ shop is a ‘real’ location, owned by one of Mensah’s relatives. Anya Migdal was one of the producers of the film and she also plays the the first generation Russian-American next door neighbour in the Bronx who remembers Sarah from the local high school. This was also a promising narrative strand, but like the bookshop perhaps not fully realised.

Queen of Glory won a prize at its home festival Tribeca and it was well-received by Lovia Gyarkye, The Hollywood Reporter‘s Ghanaian-American reviewer. I’m sure it would find a UK audience if some form of release is possible. Here’s a festival trailer.

Da 5 Bloods (US 2020)

dafivebloods

Taking the knee

Spike Lee  is one of the most interesting film directors working today not only because he brings an African-American perspective to the world but also he doesn’t let convention stifle his message; he’s always been a Brechtian filmmaker. BlacKkKlansman even saw Lee getting Oscar recognition (not that I believe it is an arbiter of what’s good just a signifier of what’s acceptable in the mainstream) and there’s a great line in Da 5 Bloods about the Klansman in the Oval Office. Lee doesn’t pull punches and even if he sometimes goes ‘over the top’ it’s always in a good cause. But what to say about this film which feature four vets returning to Vietnam apparently to bury a lost comrade?

By the end I hated it; it was like watching Tarantino’s Django Unchained where the brilliant representation of racism is curdled by the stupidity of the final scenes. It’s not just Da 5 Bloods ends badly but it’s totally misconceived; Kermode hits the mark:

What is less certain is the rather more awkward Three Kings-style adventure into which Da 5 Bloods mutates, as our antiheroes get chased, shot at and blown up in the jungles of modern-day Vietnam, selling their souls for gold like the fortune hunters in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.

That said, he quite liked the film but the mis-steps, for me, overwhelmed all that’s good. It’s not as if mixing Sierra Madre into the politics of the Vietnam War couldn’t have worked but it is ineptly done. It’s a failure at the level of the script which was written by Lee and Kevin Willmott based on an original script by Danny Bilson and Paul De Meo; I surmise that whatever the merits of the original it doesn’t work with what Lee and Willmott introduced. Too much of what we see is risible: the land mines; Paul’s (Delroy Lindo) madness; Otis’ (Clark Peters) discovery. It’s not as if any of the narrative threads are impossible just they are not integrated comfortably into the whole.

There is much to like in the 155 minute running time: Newton Thomas Sigel’s brilliant cinematography that captures the beauty of Vietnam and, in the flashback scenes, uses 16mm to give the feel of documentary footage from the time. Lee throws in numerous references to Apocalypse Now!, the helicopters in the sun and The Ride of the Valkyries in particular, and uses footage from Civil Rights police violence and numerous black voices including Mohammed Ali and Martin Luther King Jr. All these work brilliantly but I was so alienated by the film from the time they find the gold that I had to force myself to keep watching. It’s available on Netflix.

Queen & Slim (US 2019)

This photo, taken ‘diegetically’ in the narrative, has been used in promotions for the film

Queen & Slim is a début feature film for Melina Matsoukas working with the prolific writer Lena Waithe, the first African-American woman to win a ‘comedy writer’ Emmy for her work on the series Master of None (2015). Waithe was also a producer on Dear White People (US 2014). Matsoukas has had a long career as a music video director topped by her contribution to Beyoncé’s Lemonade. It’s not surprising then that two such talented women should enable Jodie Turner-Smith to create the character ‘Queen’. It’s a terrific performance and with Daniel Kaluuya as ‘Slim’ they make a memorable couple.

The film came to the UK with some glowing reviews after its US release in November 2019, but there was little UK promotion – at least from my perspective – and I didn’t really know what to expect. But there were two reasons I wanted to see it. First, I knew that it begins with an altercation between a white police officer and the black couple after he stops their car with the result that they are forced to go ‘on the run’ with every police force looking for them. This links directly to the earlier The Hate U Give (US 2018) which I have worked on as a possible study text. There is also a later incident the film that directly links the two films as well. Second, I read somewhere that the narrative in some way references the idea of the ‘Underground Railroad’ by which slaves were able to escape from plantations and eventually to get to Canada in the pre-Civil War period. This was recently the central part of the story of Harriet Tubman in Harriet (US 2019).

The first meeting in a fast-food restaurant

Queen & Slim begins in Cleveland, Ohio when two people meet on a Tinder date. It isn’t going terribly well (neither character has a name as yet) and they have only known each other for a short time when their car is pulled over. What follows is perhaps best presented as a mash-up of Bonnie and Clyde (1967) with It Happened One Night (1934). If that sounds unlikely note that both these classic films are road movies. In one a bunch of ‘outlaws’ rob banks during the Great Depression, become media celebrities and are often admired by people whose savings and land have been ‘grabbed’ by those same banks. In the other, a man and a woman meet on a bus travelling to New York and somehow fall in love despite their differences.

In Queen & Slim, the couple make their way South and have a series of adventures on their way to Florida from where they hope to get to Cuba. They become ‘Queen’ and ‘Slim’ when they attempt to change their appearance at Queen’s Uncle Earl’s house. It’s at this moment perhaps that the film’s approach becomes clear (or rather, is confirmed). This isn’t strictly a ‘Hollywood realism’ film. There are moments when the characters do unexpected or plain stupid things which place them in more danger. Just one example – when they change clothes, Queen chooses a micro-dress which is so short it reveals the bandage on her thigh. Slim selects an outfit I don’t know how to describe but which appears to deliberately ‘type’ him. A little later they agree to be photographed and the resultant image is used on the film’s poster. Nick Lacey commented to me that the image is both striking but also possibly plays on the typing of both African-American men and women.

Queen’s Uncle Earl (Bokeem Woodbine) and his ‘Goddess’ (Indya Moore)

The Bonnie and Clyde tag is applied to the couple by one of the characters and it soon becomes clear that wherever they go in the South, African-Americans (and some white people) know who they are but still help them avoid the police. The Underground Railway reference is also clear when the couple are hidden in a clever way during a police search. These attitudes towards the ‘fugitives’ are also linked to various discourses about how working-class Americans (again mostly but not solely African-Americans) have been treated by government policies and institutional racism.

This is a long film (132 mins) and many commentators have argued that it is too long for the material. I don’t agree, I was engaged throughout and I felt I grew to know the characters. The film was shot, on film, by the British DoP Tat Radcliffe who shares a background with the director in music videos, but who has also worked on action features such as ’71 (UK 2014). Almost the whole film was shot on location in and around Cleveland and New Orleans. The film looks good in a ‘Scope frame and Radcliffe tells us (in this Kodak piece) that in the first part of the film, the camera is often static or ‘locked’ but towards the end there is much more Steadicam work. Radcliffe praises the director’s eye for detail and I was impressed by the use of landscapes and the detail of neighbourhood scenes. Too often Hollywood films seem to show the same nondescript city environments but this felt different (because of the New Orleans location, I couldn’t help thinking about Easy Rider (1969), a film with several similar elements).

A production shot with director Melina Matsoukas

One of the most enjoyable scenes in the film for me is a quick visit to a roadside bar with a live blues band. The band are fantastic and at this stage we are still surprised that everyone knows who this couple are – and Queen and Slim are still learning about each other. The music throughout the film is interesting, but I’m not really competent to comment on much of it. IMDB seems to have failed to find the music credits but lists of the songs and the artistes are available. I still can’t find who plays the live music in the bar. Does anybody know?

I’ve seen a negative comment about the fact that once again the leads in an African-American film are Brits. Jodie Turner-Smith was born in Peterborough but has lived in the US for some time and appeared in US film and TV productions. Daniel Kaluuya must be getting fed-up with this. Cynthia Erivo was also caught up with this kind of comment about her role in Harriet. I’m not sure whether her Oscar nomination  improved matters. I don’t really understand this. Brits have always been part of Hollywood casting. Perhaps it is part of a commentary about roles for black actors in both the UK and US. There are far more opportunities in the US so it isn’t surprising Brits are often keen to go over.

Queen and Slim is an excellent début and definitely a film worth looking up.

The trailer below reveals quite a few aspects of the plot and a couple of the best gags.