Mudbound is one of the best films of the year but you’ll be lucky (from a UK perspective) if you can see it in cinemas even though it was only released yesterday; it’s a ‘Netflix original’. And in the cinema I wish I could see it if only for Rachel Morrison’s beautiful cinematography. I’m not just referring to the sunsets but also the mud sodden fields were much of the action takes place. I’m not having a go at Netflix for at least they supported a black, female director – Dee Rees – in making an uncompromising film about racial hatred in 1940s America.
With high quality television sets, high definition streaming and sound bars, watching films at home has never been better. I remember watching Tarkovsky’s Solaris (USSR 1972) on a black and white portable television; I still enjoyed it but . . . One thing we’re likely to never know, however, is how popular Mudbound is with audiences as Netflix doesn’t release figures. That’s commercially sensitive information allowing it to know what types of film to make: anyone with a Netflix subscription watch it! The film’s won festival awards and is being linked to the Oscars but ‘box office’ figures will forever be absent.
I struggled slightly at the start of the film to orientate myself as the film sprawls somewhat in setting up the backgrounds of the two families; I also struggled with the accents of the characters but I could have put on the subtitles. However, the early scenes are important and once the McAllan arrive in Mississippi the narrative grips. Part of my struggle may have been because a number of characters have their own voiceovers which made it uncertain who were the main protagonists. I’m indifferent to voiceovers usually, unless it’s film noir, as they seem to be a failure of cinematic narration; however in Mudbound they work superbly to offer a multiplicity of viewpoints.
All the performances are extraordinary from Carey Mulligan to Mary J. Blige, unrecognisable (she’s in the image above) without her make up. Rees’ direction is subtle: I particularly liked a shot on V.E. Day with Ronsel, a member of General Patton’s Black Panthers, with his German lover looking out of the window at the celebrations in the street. He’s in the background and, despite the joyous scene, it’s clear he’s unhappy because it means his relationship is now over. She’s equally confident in the battle scenes conveying the visceral horror and fully setting up the relationship between two veterans when they return from war.
This superb documentary on James Baldwin, who died in 1987, is timely in the light of the neo-Nazi demonstrations in Charlottesville earlier this month. Baldwin was an important figure in the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s. He refused to align himself with the radical Black Panthers, Martin Luther King, NAACP (which he deemed middle class) or Malcolm X but, through his articulate arguments and his feted novels, offered an intellectual perspective on racism. Raoul Peck’s film intermingles archive footage, much of it of Baldwin speaking for himself, with Samuel L. Jackson’s (beautiful) voiceover speaking Baldwin’s words.
The film uses the unfinished Remember This House as its starting point. Here Baldwin was trying to come to terms with the deaths of King, X and Medger Evers who was murdered by white supremacist, Byron De La Beckwith; it took 30 years for Beckwith to be convicted. Whilst this may seem to be dilatory justice the American judicial system, as the Black Lives Matter campaign illustrates, is still highly reluctant to convict when the victim is black. One of the most notorious incidents in recent years is Trayvon Martin, shot in the chest by a vigilante, George Zimmerman, who was unbelievably found ‘not guilty’ of murder. Peck intersperses the film with examples such as Martin’s to illustrate that racism is still destroying lives. At Charlottesville, social media footage shows, a supremacist shouted “Nigger” and then fired a gun at protestors; the police did not intervene.
During the 1960s it must have seemed that, through the Civil Rights protests (see Selma for example), things were going to get better for minorities. However, what has become clear, although there have been improvements in equality with the abolition of Jim Crow laws, racism is still endemic (see 13th) and the increased profile of neo Nazis is symptomatic of this. In the film there is footage of 1960s racist protests which include banners emblazoned with the swastika . I’m not sure what is most shocking, the neo Nazis of today or those of the ’60s, just 20 years after the end of the war in which Americans had died fighting against fascism.
Baldwin’s sophisticated analysis of racism, including much on cinema from his book The Devil Finds Work (1976), concludes with the statement that black people know more about whites than whites do about black because white people don’t see blacks as people. Whites are the ones who invented the ‘nigger’ and, Baldwin asks, what is it about white people that led them to do this? What is their problem?
I enjoyed Girls Trip. I didn’t get all the jokes and I didn’t recognise all the cameos of music performers, but then I’m not part of the demographic targeted by the film. I watched the film because I thought that perhaps this would be a breakthrough of some kind for ‘popular’ African-American cinema. So far, it looks like it will be, since its opening weekend in the UK saw it at No 5 in the chart with £1.56 million (including previews) from 345 cinemas. After three weeks it has a box office of $95 million worldwide. For a film with an estimated $19 million, that’s good business. There are several possible explanations for this success, but first here’s an outline of what the film offers.
I’m guessing that the relevant genre mix derives from films (none of which I’ve seen) like The Hangover (US 2009) and its sequels. Those films dealt with a group of male friends let loose on a weekend in a ‘party city’ with the sequels including some darker elements along with comedy. The more recent Bad Moms (2016) shares some elements but is essentially a female-centred ‘domestic comedy’. More importantly, perhaps, is that The Hangover and Bad Moms were both successful as ‘R’ rated comedies (’15’ in the UK), allowing a level of sexual innuendo and ‘bad’ language beyond the norm for comedy films. Girls Trip is similarly ‘R-rated’, but its four central characters are forty-something African-American women (the actors’ ages range from 37 to 47) who became close college friends as ‘The Flossy Possy’ in the 1990s. Now they are scheduled to meet up after several years at the New Orleans ‘Essence Fest’, the annual music festival for African-American women hosted by Essence magazine. (As the poster above illustrates, Girls Trip isn’t exactly subtle – and this poster was banned in the US, I think – but at least the women get to ogle the men.)
The plot revolves around Ryan (Regina Hall) who has become successful with her husband, ex-NFL star Stewart. The couple have a best-selling book and TV appearances and Ryan has an all expenses paid trip to Essence Fest where she hopes to land a big TV deal that will make her the next Oprah. Sasha (Queen Latifah) is a journalist whose career has stalled. Her future may depend on scooping celebrity scandal at Essence. Dina (Tiffany Haddish) is a party girl who has just lost her job and Lisa (Jada Pinkett Smith) is a seemingly uptight single mother. (Pinkett Smith is also in Bad Moms.) These roles easily set up a range of narrative possibilities and the ‘inciting moment’ comes a little way into the narrative when it is revealed that Ryan and Stewart’s marriage is less than solid and the exposure of the rifts during Essence could scupper the TV deal. Ryan needs her Flossy Possy for support but everything the other three women do, consciously or unconsciously, threatens to undermine her.
As well as the mechanics of the plot and the performances of the leads, Girls Trip has two other important attractions in New Orleans itself as location and the music festival with its galaxy of stars of hip hop, rap and other forms of Black music. This even includes the music of acts like Chaka Khan and Kool and the Gang who old people like me remember. All of this is marshalled into a hectic narrative of action set pieces and girl talk by Malcolm D. Lee. Lee is representative of one of two major strands in popular African-American cinema. His run of hits began with The Best Man in 1999 which he has turned into a mini-franchise and he has also participated in other series with Scary Movie 5 (2013) and Barbershop: The Next Cut (2016) – the latter series is the only one I’m familiar with (see Barbershop (2002) but it seems clear that Lee’s interests lie in comedy with both melodrama and action elements. Lee’s main rival is Tyler Perry who has been releasing his own, almost ‘one man’ (he writes, produces, directs and stars in) productions through Lionsgate at the rate of two a year since 2009. Perry has confounded critics and become very successful. Both these filmmakers have been successful in addressing a mainstream African-American audience with only marginal interest by white audiences as distinct from the work of Denzel Washington, Spike Lee, John Singleton and more recently Barry Jenkins who have been recognised by critics and whose work traverses both African-American culture and generic Hollywood concerns.
The main difficulty in discussing this work from a UK perspective is that most African-American films (i.e. with a direct focus on Black culture) struggle to get a (wide) UK release. UK distributors, when they do take these films, often restrict them to urban areas where they think there is a significant Black audience, but even then, they don’t really seem to know what they are doing. I think Tyler Perry’s work is only available on DVD in the UK. It is this history which makes the success of Girls Trip so important. I watched it in a Cardiff multiplex in an afternoon showing with a mainly white audience of younger women who certainly got more jokes and more references than I did, partly, I imagine because they knew the music stars and contemporary African-American celebrities better than I do. It should still be around in UK cinemas so I’d recommend Girls Trip as an alternative to superheroes (though it does include some fantasy sequences). One other interesting observation is that apart from the UK the only significant overseas market for Girls Trip so far is South Africa (as it has been for earlier films from Perry and Lee). It seems odd that France in particular has not received these titles.
Blumhouse has a reputation for low-budget horror productions, such as the very successful Paranormal Activity (2009-15) and The Purge (2013-) series. Get Out has beaten them and parlayed a $5m budget into, to date, $184m worldwide box office. In order to attain such numbers it’s clearly broken out of its teen core audience and shows what can be done when genre pleasures, this is a good horror film, are woven into the zeitgeist. Jordan Peele, the writer-director, has made a film that is about race in the 21st century.
Black British actor, Daniel Kaluuya, takes the lead as Chris who’s going to meet the parents of his white, preppy, girlfriend Rose Armitage, played by Allison Williams. He asks if they know he’s black and she tells him her parents aren’t racist. Chris is obviously not entirely reassured by the blasé statement because he knows that even if they aren’t racist it doesn’t mean that they won’t treat him in a racist way so embedded, particularly in the American psyche, is the politics of slavery.
The end credits state the film’s shot in Alabama, however this location (to my eyes at least) is not obvious in the film. At first I thought this was a missed trick, evoking the Deep South would immediately trigger associations of slavery, however I realised that Peele didn’t want to make a point about the racism of Old America, he was showing racism now anywhere in middle class America.
Peele leads us into the horror with great skill. The Prologue shows a black man being attacked on a suburban street; when he states before the attack that the suburbs are scary he means for a black person. After this the build-up is slow, with enough hints (particularly from Catherine Keener’s mum) that beneath the wealthy, liberal surface there lurks something not right. Allison’s dad points to a cellar, that resonant setting for horror, and states it’s sealed off because of black mould. Chris’s discomfort increases as the wealthy white and their black servants surround him; when he tries to connect with a ‘brother’ he finds incomprehension.
Peele takes us on a tour of references including Invasion of the Body Snatchers (US, 1956), The Stepford Wives (US, 1975 and 2004) and, in the clinical and opulent mise en scène of the Armitage house, Kubrick’s The Shining (UK 1980). These references avoid being derivative because they’re used to make a statement about contemporary racial politics, particularly the #Blacklivesmatter campaign in America. In a fantastic climax it appears the police have arrived to save Chris. He puts up his hands, his white girlfriend is lying on the floor crying for help… Peele knows most in the audience would realise that there is good chance, in those circumstances in reality, that the police would summarily execute Chris.
One false note for me was LilRey Howery’s Rod, Chris’s ‘comic turn’ mate, whose bumbling detracts from the drama too much. As a horror film it has enough gore at the climax to satisfy most and not too much to detract for the squeamish.
I imagine that the film is popular with minority ethnic audiences and demonstrates, like the never-ending Fast and Furious franchise (2009-), that producers daring enough not to assume ‘white’ is the default setting can be a profitable route. The film garnered a bit of controversy in America when Samuel L. Jackson questioned the casting of a British actor rather than a ‘brother’. Kaluuya’s considered response, in Vanity Fair, suggested he is a brother because he is an ‘outsider’:
“When I’m around black people I’m made to feel ‘other’ because I’m dark-skinned,” he explained. “I’ve had to wrestle with that, with people going ‘You’re too black.’ Then I come to America and they say, ‘You’re not black enough.’ I go to Uganda, I can’t speak the language. In India, I’m black. In the black community, I’m dark-skinned. In America, I’m British. Bro!”
Get Me Out is about outsiders and how some poeple use liberal attitudes as a badge of their own character and not as an ideological position to fight for equality. Although not quite directly related to this, an altercation on CNN between a white Trump supporting pundit and three African American voices shows how the default setting of debate is the white setting – click here.
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 puts 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) 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 station. 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’.
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 (1956), 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).
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).
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 either 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 my next 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.
Moonlight won Best Picture at this year’s Oscars, not something that particularly interests me as they are hardly a reliable barometer of great films. The commercial bent of Hollywood, the Oscars are designed to market films that are harder to sell than its usual product, has meant that non mainstream fare is rarely celebrated. Was it because ‘films of colour’ were badly treated at last year’s Academy Awards that this year members leaned toward such minority filmmaking as Moonlighting? Whatever the reason, this year the voters have got it right, not because Moonlight is necessarily the best film of 2016, but because it is a great film about vastly under-represented people, gay men of colour, that should be widely seen.
I’m not going to judge the film as a work of Queer cinema but as a melodrama; not for any ideological reason but just because I understood the film primarily as melodrama. The three-part story covers roughly three decades of the bullied Chiron’s life from being ‘Little’ to a young man (‘Black’) with the teenage years (‘Chiron’) in between. Melodrama focuses on relationships and often uses narrative in an overtly exaggerated fashion, using coincidence for dramatic effect. Moonlight eschews this aspect of the genre, however, and its relatively slow pace, and sometimes alienating use of rack focus, situates the film’s aesthetics in ‘art house’. Although the narrative is slow, punctuated by one particularly explosive moment of violence that is all the more shocking in the ‘slow’ context, it never drags; the rack focus (a change in the depth of field in the shot so different parts of the image go either in or out of focus) occasionally puts the image’s subject out of focus for no apparent reason which I haven’t seen before. I think the visual style, quite violently handheld at the start, and point-of-view shots, is intended to emphasise Chiron’s subjective experience of a hostile world. In this, the film is expressionist a style that fits with melodrama.
Without spoiling, the most melodramatic moment is near the end of the film when Barbara Lewis’ ‘Hello Stranger’ is played on a jukebox and the song’s words speak the character’s thoughts – a moment to wallow in cinema’s power. The drug dealing milieux is represented through some great hip hop and the film starts with ‘Every Nigger is a Star’. In addition, the character with a Cuban background is celebrated with Caetano Veloso’s classic ‘Cucurrucucú Paloma’ and there’s even room for Mozart. Melos = music and writer-director (adapted from Tarell Alvin McCraney’s play) Barry Jenkins has excelled in bringing melodrama back to its roots where music substituted for dialogue.
Obviously we are invited to empathise with the bullied Chiron . . . I was about to write ‘who wouldn’t?’ but The (London) Times film critic, Camilla Long, managed to spark outrage with her review that suggested that the film would only be watched by straight, white and middle class audiences (you can see enough of the review here). Her bizarre contention seems to be that such art cinema as Moonlight is only for people like herself, such mono-vision is itself evidence of the necessity for diversity in representations. Piers Morgan recently complained that he wasn’t considered to be ‘diverse’ in a spat about . . . well, I’ve forgotten what the publicity seeking hound was bellyaching about but his response was indicative of the fact that challenges to white, male (and straight) hegemony are often seen to have gone ‘too far’ (when they’ve really gone nowhere) by those in the position of privilege. My MP, the execrable Philip Davies, persistently tries to ‘talk out’ legislation designed to protect women on the grounds that men are being discriminated against. You couldn’t make it up but rather than berate the straight-white-middle aged-males for their stupidity it’s best to remember that it is ignorance rather than a lack of intellect that informs their perspective. Where was I . . ?
The film’s strength is not only in its sympathetic representation of black gay men, the first character we meet is the local drug ‘king pin’, played with vast charisma by Mahershala Ali, and the street dealer stereotype is thoroughly challenged as he becomes a father figure to the besieged ‘Little’ in the first part of the story; we might have expected him to cultivate the youngster as a worker for his business. He’s humanised but the film also doesn’t fail to highlight his hypocrisy when he berates the young boy’s mother (a fantastic Noami Harris) for her addiction; she points out that it is he who sells her the rocks. The nuances portrayed in the film offer a complex representation of life.
According to imdb the film cost an estimated $1.5m to make. This is a sensationally small amount for a film with such high production values. Clearly the lives of black men are cheap in America and such humanising representations of an ethnicity under fire need to be widely circulated to call out the racism of those that have made #blacklivesmatter a necessary locus of resistance. So well done to the Oscars for doing social good; if La La Land had won at the expense of Moonlight then 2017 would have been another year of Academy Award irrelevance.
Denzel Washington is an A List Hollywood star and has been for 30 years and he seems to have remained a potent star for longer than most of his contemporaries. To retain an African-American star image in Hollywood is not easy. Most successful Black actors in the US have tended to have careers that have seen them either restricted to certain types of roles in genre films or experiencing periods of great popularity in big budget pictures followed by periods of almost invisibility. Some have become identified with independent films or popular African-American films. Few have been able to span all these positions with the authority of a Denzel Washington. A reliable lead in mainstream Hollywood action films, Denzel has also made major contributions to African-American cinema, particularly in the Spike Lee ‘joints’ Mo’ Better Blues (1990), Malcolm X (1992) and He Got Game (1998): Inside Man (2006) is perhaps an example of both Lee and Washington exploring Black identities more indirectly. But even Denzel Washington struggled to get international distribution for his first two directorial efforts, both of which focused on African-American young men and women and their relationships with an older central figure (played by Washington himself). Antwone Fisher (2002) has several elements in common with Fences, now the third of Washington’s director-star productions. The second film, The Great Debaters (2007), was not to my knowledge released in the UK and I haven’t seen it. Interestingly, all three films have high ratings on IMDb despite some stinging reviews for Antwone Fisher. This suggests to me that the films have been appreciated by the audiences they were designed for. In the UK, African-American films generally have struggled to get distribution beyond a handful of major cities. The relatively ‘wide’ distribution of Fences is therefore something of a breakthrough.
Fences is an adaptation of a 1983 Pulitzer Prize and Tony award-winning stage play by the leading African-American writer August Wilson (1945-2005), one of a cycle of ten plays interpreting African-American lives in Pittsburgh with each focusing on a specific decade in the twentieth century. The play was successful on Broadway with James Earl Jones in the lead and was revived for further success in 2010 with Denzel Washington himself in the lead and Viola Davis in support. The two repeat their roles in the film adaptation and Davis has now won an Oscar for her performance. Denzel plays Troy Maxson, a garbage worker in 1950s Pittsburgh who is campaigning for driver’s jobs in the garbage collection service to be available for African-American workers. Davis is his wife and there are only a few other roles, all as members of Troy’s immediate circle. The stage origins are clear as Washington has decided not to ‘open out’ the narrative, nearly every scene being set in the backyard of the Maxson house where Troy takes many years to actually erect the ‘fences’ of the title. These are largely metaphorical and, as Troy’s close friend Jim Bono (Stephen Henderson) points out, they are either designed to keep somebody in the household or keep others out.
Fences deals directly with questions about identity, rights and culture. It is similar in two ways to Antwone Fisher. (I have posted some notes on Antwone Fisher here, taken from an evening class in 2005 – they include a number of extracts from reviews and IMDb ‘users’.) First, at its centre is the story of the working class Black American, whose early family life remains as a scarring presence throughout later life. In the earlier film, Denzel is a navy psychiatrist trying to help the young and volatile sailor Antwone Fisher to overcome his problems and develop his real potential. In Fences, Denzel Washington as Troy is himself the victim of poverty in his southern childhood and the consequent problems he faces bringing up his own sons, and especially his second son Cory, are related to his childhood experiences and his later frustrations playing in the so-called ‘Negro leagues’ as a baseball star in the 1930s. (‘Major League’ baseball became ‘integrated’ in 1947 when the Brooklyn Dodgers fielded Jackie Robinson for the first time.) Secondly, in both films, Washington the director tends towards a seamless ‘Hollywood realism’ style, conventional for a family drama or in the case of Fences a stage adaptation. However, he also includes isolated scenes which work much more like fantasy. Antwone Fisher begins with a dream sequence in which a young Black boy is alone in a field of waving corn when suddenly he is invited into a barn where an enormous community feast is waiting and everyone is expecting him as guest of honour. The final scene of Fences is similarly fantastical and I’m not sure if its theatrical ‘effects’ were evident in the original Broadway production. Also in Fences, when the story moves forwards a few months or years, Washington the director sometimes allows the narrative to work through different visual modes as he sets up the transition to the next segment of the story.
There are two major question marks about Fences that might have prevented it succeeding. The first is Denzel Washington’s decision to retain the theatrical setting and to play the lead role himself. Certainly for the first third or so of the film it did bother me. So much of the narrative depends on Denzel’s delivery of long speeches in scenes which did feel like a filmed stage play. Secondly the play seems to work through the presentation of a limited number of African-American family types and to include all the expected narrative threads. The actors have to deliver performances that humanise the basic types. I think the burden on Viola Davis is very heavy. She is the only female figure on screen for much of the film. Though I’m never going to argue in any simplistic manner against a text which uses types in this way, I do worry that it might backfire in a play like this which has such a strong cultural purpose. Fortunately, I don’t think the film fails on either score. Because the players know each so well and because they are such talented performers, the ideas about the social, political and economic history of African-American life eventually shine through. By the end of the film I found myself very emotionally involved. Be warned also that Sanniya Sidney appears as the bright young child Raynell in the closing scene and the tears are bound to fall. I spent a little time trying to work out exactly when each scene was set and how this matched what was happening to the characters. I think that, apart from the emotions of the family melodrama, what struck me most forcefully was the ‘lived history’ of the African-American family. The narrative ends in the early 1960s with references to John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King. The ‘story’ begins in the early 20th century with Troy as a child in the South (i.e. in the story he tells us). I’m conscious of the hardship and struggle over 60 years and the changes that did eventually come about. The story needs to be told again and again. The serendipity of the release of Fences alongside Hidden Figures and Loving is something to be celebrated and exploited.
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.
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).