Category: African-American Cinema

The Birth of a Nation (US-Canada 2016)

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This film is now getting a general release in the UK. I saw it at the Leeds International Film Festival. The Catalogue quoted ‘The Playlist’,

“In script and performance, the film is an articulate howl of anguish and rage given depth by a discerning comprehension of the ways various communities can rely on faith for very different means.”

However, Nick Pinkerton in Sight & Sound took a rather different tack, savaging the film in his review. Pinkerton has form as he equally savaged Spike Lee’s Chi-Raq. In both cases he has a certain amount of justification and I agree with many of his criticisms. But I also have strong reservations about his critique. For one he mixes ‘art’ and ‘artist’ in his comments: and the relevance of this escaped me. More importantly he does not discuss the substance of the film, concentrating on its form and style.

But it is the substance of the film that makes it both very interesting and important.

“Nate Parker’s directorial début is a searing account of the life of Nat Turner, the enslaved African-American who spearheaded an insurrection in 1831. Turner believed that revolutionary violence would awaken others to the infernal mistreatment of slaves, and he died for this cause.” (LIFF Catalogue).

I would think that this slave rebellion is not that well known in the UK but it would be in the United States. I read an account some years ago in William Styron’s fine but controversial novel ‘The Confessions of Nat Turner’ (1966). Turner was born into slavery but grew up literate and with an intimate knowledge of the bible. He frequently had what he believed were visions and was an influential figure among the slaves. In August 1831 he led a rebellion in Southampton County, Virginia. About 60 white people were killed before the rebellion was suppressed by armed whites supported by troops. About 50 black rebels were killed but subsequently several hundred black slaves were murdered by outraged and fearful white mobs.

Styron’s novel concentrated on the rebellion and presented this through the voice of Turner himself. The Birth of a Nation works as a biopic presenting Turner’s life from childhood to the actual rebellion. The insurrection only comes at the end of the film and I was expecting it to be treated in much greater detail than the film offers. We only see a couple of deaths until the confrontation with the armed whites and the military. Much of the film is given over to Tuner’s life and his religion. The visions that he experienced are not really adequately presented. And there is an amount of screen time devoted to his romance and marriage to a  fellow slave. There are plot motivations for his turn to violence but the film does not really evoke the apocalyptic drive that seems to have motivated the historical Turner.

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The film is conventional in form and style: note the film is presented by Fox Searchlight. Whilst there is onscreen violence it seems aestheticised by the widescreen cinematography and production design: emphasised by the accompanying score which is often rather lush. The acting also seems conventional and dutiful rather than impassioned.

The director, Nate Parker (who also plays Turner), references 12 Years a Slave in an interview. One can see the influence but whilst that film tended to anaesthetise the violence it also had a strong sense of place and character. Farther back there is the influence of the televisions series Roots but that drama offered a much stronger representation of the grim reality of slave life.

The Festival Catalogue quotes Parker:

“The thing I wanted to get right was Nat Turner’s humanity. That this was a man. In history he’s painted as a religious fanatic that just wanted to kill people. I think that was the narrative that was important for white supremacy and the safety and conservation of racism in that time.”

Certainly my memory of the Styron novel is not that of a religious fanatic. And in ‘humanising’ Turner, Parker seems to have reduced him to the conventional. So the film is a disappointment. However as far as I am aware this is the only film or television version of the important historical event available in the UK. And the film is sufficiently well done to hold the attention.

It does not though live up to its title. This is presumably a riposte to the seminal but racist film by D. W. Griffith from 1915 of the same title. But a riposte already exists in the form of Oscar Micheaux’s masterwork Within Our Gates (1920). As far as I am aware there have not been theatrical screenings of this film in the UK. I have been fortunate to see it twice at European Festivals. Perhaps the BFI could arrange for a theatrical format version as part of its ‘Black Stars’ programme. And it would be good to also be able to see the documentary directed by Charles Burnett for Public Television in the USA, Nat Turner: A Troublesome Property (2003).

 

Seven Samurai (Japan 1954) and The Magnificent Seven (US 2016)

Kurosawa's original with Mifune Toshiro in the foreground

Kurosawa’s original Seven Samurai with Mifune Toshiro in the foreground

The new 'Seven' led by the man in black (Denzel Washington)

The new ‘Seven’ led by the man in black (Denzel Washington)

The new version of The Magnificent Seven is an entry in a major global franchise. The universal elements in the film’s story have been around for a very long time. Robin Hood, for instance, is a story in which a group of outlaws protect villagers from the Sheriff’s men. But the specific story structure of seven ‘professionals’ recruited to protect a village comes from the imagination of Kurosawa Akira and his collaborators and the folk tales and history of 16th century Japan that created the 1954 film Seven Samurai, widely regarded as a classic action film. Seven Samurai prompted the original Hollywood remake in 1960 and several sequels. In his chapter on ‘Remaking Seven Samurai in World Cinema’ in East Asian Cinemas (eds Leon Hunt and Leung Wing-Fai, I. B. Tauris 2008) David Desser explores the influence of the film on a range of productions in Hong Kong and India as well as in the US. My interest is in the extent to which the new film draws on Kurosawa and how much is lost through the process of adaptation. The scriptwriters of the new film, Nic Pizzolatto and Richard Wenk, are credited alongside the original writers Kurosawa, Hashimoto Shinobu and Oguni Hideo. I note that Pizzolatto is a novelist who has written for the TV serials True Detective and the US remake of The Killing, and that he has also taught writing – all of which might give some hope that he could make good use of the original script.

There are certainly aspects of the original script still present, but the new film is 133 mins long, roughly 65% of the running time of the Kurosawa film, so quite a lot is missing (there is no ‘padding’ in Seven Samurai). The location of the story has moved north from the 1960 version and re-located in the Sierra Nevada (“three days from Sacramento”) in 1879. This makes sense since Seven Samurai was similarly based in the mountains in an isolated village. The date and setting make the new film a ‘mountain Western’ with gold mining. Here is the first problem in that the townspeople of Rose Creek don’t have a visible farming community and their attachment to the land is symbolic rather than being portrayed realistically. (In the original, the bandits have already been to steal the rice harvest and are expected again for the barley harvest.) The new script isn’t quite sure what to do with the gold miners and it doesn’t have time (or enough imagination?) to represent farming. Instead it introduces the villain as a capitalist exploiter and the main motivation of the townsfolk to be expressed through Emma (Haley Bennett), a woman who wants “righteousness” after her husband was killed by the exploiter “but will take revenge”. A similar figure was a minor but important character in the original. Apart from the preacher, none of the other townspeople is given a narrative function as such. Because of this, Kurosawa’s main theme is lost.

Seven Samurai is about a distinctive clash of caste and class presented as a humanist epic. The farmers in the isolated village normally despise the samurai, whose societal role as warriors employed by feudal lords is under threat during the 16th century when many of them are unemployed, becoming ronin or ‘masterless samurai’. The samurai who are recruited to help the farmers are poor and hungry – they will fight for three bowls of rice a day. But they are also men of honour, so they will fight to maintain that honour. Kurosawa makes this explicit and deeply moving by a decision to employ what was already becoming his trademark, the ‘master and apprentice’ roles within the group of samurai. Shimura Takashi as Kannei is the ‘master’, the older man who is a wise warrior, a skilled fighter and a leader of men. Katsushiro (Kimura Isao) is the young man, the devoted follower and the one with most to learn because he is distracted by a young woman from the village. Shimura was the actor used most by Kurosawa. But he isn’t the star of the film. That’s Mifune Toshiro. Mifune plays Kikuchiyo, the man who would be a samurai. His secret will only emerge later when we learn that he was a farmer’s son and that he had been abandoned as a baby during a raid by pirates. Kikuchiyo forms the bridge between the samurai and the farmers. He understands both and despises both, yet supports both. It is his human story that reveals the film’s theme. The genius of the Seven Samurai script is that we learn about a wide range of characters – so there are individual stories – but those stories also inform the overall narrative about a society in which both farmers and samurai/bandits are suffering (but in which the farmers will be the long-term winners).

Emma (Hayley Bennett) becomes a sharpshooter – and the effective leader of the town.

Emma (Hayley Bennett) becomes a sharpshooter – and the effective leader of the town.

The script for the new film struggles to find the same sense of coherence. We do learn something of the ‘back stories’ of ‘Chisolm’ (Denzel Washington) Goodnight Robicheaux (Ethan Hawke) and a few others, but these stories don’t relate to the overall narrative in the same way as they do in Kurosawa’s film. Chisolm does have a personal reason to fight, but like Emma’s motivation it is about revenge against the villain, not about honour. Revenge is not a motive to trigger carnage on the scale depicted here. At the end of the Seven Samurai, the three survivors are the ‘master’, the ‘apprentice’ and the second in command. The other four samurai have been killed and the master observes, as planting begins for a new crop, that the farmers have won. I suppose I shouldn’t spoil the ending of the new version, save to note that what it seems to do is to highlight the new ‘diversity’ amongst the defenders of the village. Yet the weirdest thing about the whole film is that presence of a black law enforcement officer (Chisolm), an East Asian gunslinger, a Comanche warrior and a woman leading the townspeople is never really commented upon. Director Antoine Fuqua has said that he wanted to make the kind of Western that he watched as a child with his grandmother. In this sense his film is ‘colour-blind’. But this is a film set in that period of Western history when the four ‘minorities’ he presents in the narrative were actively engaged in conflicts in the ‘real West’ as well as the Hollywood ‘revisioned’ West of movies from the 1970s onwards. It’s as if movies like Harry Belafonte’s Buck and the Preacher (1972) never happened. In The Magnificent Seven we see the gamblers and saloon girls leaving town when the attacks begin, but in McCabe and Mrs Miller (1973), the brothel-keeper played by Julie Christie is a new kind of female entrepreneur to stand alongside the school teacher and the homesteader as a new female type – and a representative of capitalist enterprise. Instead of running away she would consider selling out to the kind of capitalist exploiter who threatens the town in the new Seven. The East Asian character is again not investigated in any way, even though 1879 was some 10 years after Chinese workers had helped build the first transcontinental railway in the US. Chinese migrants (and therefore East Asians generally) would have been part of the life of many Western towns. I’m not sure how a Korean would have got there, but the point is that Fuqua seems fairly cavalier about both ‘real’ history and the myths developed during the declining years of the Western as a mainstream genre. By contrast, Kurosawa’s historical representations were essentially ‘realist’ with careful research to get things ‘right’.

Kurosawa famously built his village in the mountains, for the most expensive film in Japanese history at that point. He built it to specifications with the various action sequences in mind. Fuqua presumably built his own town on location for the same reasons. Unfortunately he doesn’t seem to have thought so much about how to shoot the action scenes. The only thing I remember from the great battle is the bizarre sight of Denzel Washington performing a riding stunt worthy of a Roy Rogers movie in order to shoot a bad guy. Fuqua did choose to have a church at the centre of the action and this was a good decision, conjuring up a whole host of Westerns, but again I don’t think it was thought through fully. Kurosawa set his battle in the midst of howling winds and torrential rain with swordsmen struggling in a sea of mud to great effect. Nothing as exciting happens in the new film. However, I should record that I actually enjoyed watching Denzel and co. even as I was ticking off the missed opportunities. The film was entertaining, it just wasn’t ‘special’. Seven Samurai still stands at No 19 on IMDb’s all-time list of the Top 250 movies and for good reason. It has a great story, human values, engaging characters, terrific performances, photography and editing rarely bettered, a wonderful score and Mifune on fire. See the trailers below for a quick summation of the differences.

 

GFF16 #3: Miss Sharon Jones (US 2015)

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This joyous documentary deserves a wide audience who will lap it up. I was going to categorise it as a music documentary but it has two other important elements. It is also about one woman’s fight against cancer – a difficult subject for documentary – and about her personal biography (which introduces themes about identity, racism and the music business).

I’d heard about Sharon Jones and The Dap Kings but never registered their music or knew much about them. It was wonderful to hear the music. I didn’t know the songs but the sound was so familiar – the mainly southern soul of the 1960s and 1970s with allusions to Stax, Atlantic, Chess, FAME etc. Although Jones is based in New York her family is still in Georgia and the North-South (and West) axis of the band led by Gabriel Roth, AKA Bosco Mann, harks back to the time of the link-up between Stax and Atlantic. Roth and Jones met up musically in the mid-1990s and ‘Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings’ was born soon afterwards. Miss Jones became a star later in life than most artists and she enjoyed a decade or more of success with live shows and records under the band’s own label, Dap Tone. Then in 2014 she started treatment for pancreatic cancer and the band’s future seemed uncertain. Somehow the band’s new recording was completed and a tour was organised even as Sharon recovered. It’s this period through 2014 and into the early part of 2015 which provides the drama in a documentary by two-time Oscar-winning documentarist Barbara Kopple (honoured for Harlan County, USA in 1976 and American Dream in 1991).

Kopple’s approach is to stick fairly close to Sharon Jones during her recovery from treatment when she convalesces with a friend, visits her family and finally gets back into recording and onto the road for live shows. During this time the singer talks about her life and the attitudes she met in the music business when she was told she was “too black, too short and not pretty enough”. You have to feel that this is the modern culture of Black Music in the US – it was once a question of whether you could sing and if you had ‘soul’ – Ms Jones clearly has both attributes. Kopple weaves her footage together effortlessly and intersperses it with band interviews and live performances. The screening was in the Centre for Contemporary Arts a couple of blocks down from the Glasgow Film Theatre, in the ‘Theatre’ space which had a big screen and good sound so these performances worked very well. (But I learned to accept an extra cushion for my next screening in this venue!)

Miss Sharon Jones! played at Toronto in September 2015 and the New York City Doc Festival a month or two later. A US release is expected in 2016 but as yet the film doesn’t have a distributor and Barbara Kopple’s Cabin Creek Films doesn’t seem totally geared up just yet. There is a Facebook page for the film and you can check out Cabin Creek Films and the band’s own website. I do hope that the film gets a cinema release in the UK. It’s a great story and although it would still work on TV, I think the live performances are best on a big screen with an audience.

Creed (US 2015)

Sylevester Stallone as Rocky Balboa and Michael B. Jordan as Adonis Creed discuss strategy and tactics in the ring!

Sylevester Stallone as Rocky Balboa and Michael B. Jordan as Adonis Creed discuss strategy and tactics in the ring!

I chose to see Creed because I wanted to see an African-American film (not always easy in the UK outside London and a few key cities). I missed Fruitvale Station (which certainly didn’t have a wide release) from director Ryan Coogler and star Michael B. Jordan. I saw the original Rocky film starring Sylvester Stallone in 1976/7 but I don’t think I’ve seen any of the sequels. Creed sees the illegitimate son of Rocky Balboa’s greatest ring competitor Apollo Creed trying to live up to his father’s name in the fight game. Creed has had a wide release in the UK, probably because of Stallone as actor, producer and co-writer – i.e. the Stallone factor gives distributors more confidence that the film will appeal beyond the Black British audience. I find this sad, but that’s the way the industry in the UK is. Even so, I was once again the only person in a 90 seat cinema. I like being on my own, but I do wonder how the cinema keeps going. Anyway, I had a great time. I’m glad I saw this in the cinema and I have to say I was surprised on several counts.

Creed has been widely discussed as a ‘reboot’ of the Rocky ‘franchise’. I’m not sure that knowing this is particularly helpful if you haven’t seen the previous films. My impression is that this is a much more sober/sensitive feature than much of Hollywood’s output while still adhering to the generic structure of the sports drama and particularly the boxing drama (boxing being one of the few American sports that has appeal outside North America). Ryan Coogler is a remarkable young director, here also responsible for the story with a co-writer’s credit for the script itself. The film is well-cast – more on that later – and brilliantly photographed by Maryse Alberti. Alberti has had a long career, much of it in TV and independent film productions. He was one of the cinematographers on the Muhammad Ali documentary When We Were Kings (1996) and on The Wrestler (2008) by Darren Aronofsky. I’m no expert on boxing but I’ve seen a few boxing films and Creed  convinces me with its fight sequences. Coogler elects to use a long take and sometimes long shot style familiar from arthouse/independent cinema and his editors Claudia Castello and Michael P. Shawver both worked with him on Fruitvale Station along with production designer Hannah Beachler. I’m sure if I looked, I could find more personnel who were on both films. Creed cost around $35 million but has already grossed $161 million worldwide. This demonstrates that a film can be a global hit without resorting to a fast-cutting ‘immersive’ style. Creed is 133 minutes and some have argued that it is ‘flabby’ and could be tightened. Ash Clarke in his very good Little White Lies review uses this term and suggests that part of the Rocky Balboa personal story could be cut. I don’t think that would be a good move, but I concede that a little tightening up in some sequences could trim off a few minutes from the running time. I have to say though that for me there was no flabbiness. Aesthetically, Creed works well. The music seemed fine as well. But what of the narrative?

Tessa Thompson as Bianca, congratulating Adonis

Tessa Thompson as Bianca, congratulating Adonis

I think an important issue might be whether Creed is an ‘African-American’ film in the sense that, to take polar extremes, a Tyler Perry or a Charles Burnett film might be so described? Or is this a mainstream genre American film that just happens to have an African-American central character and director? To some extent that depends on whether there is a genuine exploration of a specifically African-American cultural milieu. And this is possibly what makes Creed different. Professional sport, alongside popular music, has long offered opportunities for young Black people to make a decent living and achieve a public profile in both the Americas and Europe. Creed offers us a young Black boxer (Michael B. Jordan), two boxing gyms in Los Angeles and Philadelphia and a relationship for young Adonis Creed with a promising Black singer played by Tessa Thompson (recently seen in UK cinemas in a lead role in Dear White People and in a smaller supporting role in Selma). The sport/music combination is sometimes seen as a restrictive/constraining factor in terms of Black culture, limiting the range of opportunities and typing Black characters in particular ways. Creed partially avoids this charge by making Adonis a character who spends time as a youth in a wealthy home and who gets a good education followed by an executive job in the finance sector. When he ditches the job to follow his dream to be a boxer and goes to Philadelphia he is therefore a ‘different’ character to the other boxers he meets. The film is also interested in Stallone’s Rocky Balboa who must be tempted out of retirement to train Adonis (‘Donnie’) and when he has the big international fight, Donnie and Rocky travel to UK to fight ‘Pretty’ Ricky Conlan in Everton’s Goodison Park football stadium. My feeling was that the script didn’t attempt to type the fight as ‘black v. white’, though I was concerned that the Liverpool boxer was being typed as a working-class ‘Scally’ figure. Again, however, I think the script handled this well in the end. The ‘real’ pro boxer Tony Bellew plays Conlan and I thought the fight was credible. I’m guessing that the inspiration for this pairing was the recent history of Ricky Hatton’s fights in the US. By all accounts it was Stallone’s interest in Everton that located the fight on Merseyside. Some location footage of the stadium on a (football) match day helped the fight sequence feel genuine (though I was disappointed not to hear the Z-Cars theme and I’m sure someone was waving a Liverpool scarf).

Michael B. Jordan is excellent as Creed and I was impressed by Stallone’s Rocky Balboa and the way the script handled the relationship between the two. Tessa Thompson was also very good and it was a shame that her role was not explored a little more. One potential narrative about her career and tensions between Adonis and a group of musicians seemed to be cut off too soon. If there is a follow-up, her role and that of Phylicia Rashad as Apollo Creed’s wife and the woman who fostered Adonis Creed after he was placed in juvenile detention could be usefully developed. Overall this film has helped restore my faith in the potential of Hollywood genre movies and I’ll certainly seek out a follow-up if it is made.