The Vue at Leeds Light refused to sell me a ticket for the film showing I wanted as it had ‘gone from their computer’. Given that they regularly run 20 minutes of ads, I don’t think it was unreasonable to ask for a ticket 20 minutes after the recognised start time. Later I realised that I could have bought a ticket for any screening and then switched auditorium. To be fair the tickets are only £4.99 so I plonked a fiver down for my second choice, Night School. I chose it on the reasonable grounds that I’d enjoyed Girls Trip directed by Malcolm D. Lee and starring Tiffany Haddish and the two are together again in Night School. The real star of the film is, however, Kevin Hart, who I knew much less about – OK, nothing at all. My research reveals that he has been a very busy stand-up and film and TV comedian/comic actor who on this film is also a writer and producer. I don’t watch US TV or mainstream films, otherwise he would be very familiar. Comments on Night School from critics and audiences suggest that most of Hart’s antics in this film have been seen before. The ratings for the film are generally low but it has still made a lot of money – $84 million at the time of writing, with the UK and Australia as major overseas markets.
I enjoyed the film but I feel it has one major weakness – it’s far too long at 111 minutes and could lose 10 to 20 minutes quite easily. The problem is in the opening sequence which takes too long to introduce the narrative disruption – and therefore delays getting into what is essentially the ensemble piece which makes the film work. As various commentators have pointed out the film attempts to meld two different but connected narratives. The first sees Teddy (Kevin Hart) as a successful salesman who has wooed a beautiful and highly successful interior designer to whom he is about to propose, but in the process he has put himself into severe financial difficulties. When disaster strikes Teddy finds himself in debt, with no job and no chance of getting another because he left school without qualifications and now he can’t get the high-powered job he needs without passing a GED test (which employers will accept as an alternative to a high school diploma). To get this he decides to go to night school – at the same high school he attended twenty years earlier. The narrative about his romance and the one about his learning difficulties with formal tests don’t really fit together. The night school introduces Tiffany Haddish as Teddy’s teacher and a varied group of misfits as his classmates. There is even a pantomime villain in the form of the school principal who Teddy insulted when they were high school students together.
The night school story seems to me to be well-written and sometimes very funny. It’s a familiar generic narrative but Hart and Haddish and the others make it work. The ‘second chance’ that night school offers easily fits the Hollywood dream promise. Interestingly, although this is an African-American film, the night school student group comprises three white and three black students and one Latino (the story is set in Atlanta). The students are there for different reasons (including one in prison doing the course via Skype). Tiffany Haddish plays quite a different role from the party girl in Girls Trip, although she does get at least one action sequence.
What struck me most of all was that this film is in many ways quite old-fashioned and draws on decades of similar comedian-led narrative escapades in which the hapless central character works hard and is defeated many times, but eventually succeeds, wins the ‘girl’ and defeats the authority figure (here the school principal). Kevin Hart is short (with a high-pitched voice when his fears are exposed), but he offers a character who is ‘smart’ and attractive on the outside but damaged by a sense of failure beneath. That’s perhaps the modern aspect of the narrative – otherwise it seems to me very familiar from the comedy vehicles of my childhood, the films of Norman Wisdom in the UK in the 1950s and early 1960s that were massively popular.
I was going to add the trailer for the film, but it includes many of the jokes and ‘explains’ the whole film in ways that mean that you may feel that you don’t need to see it. It undersells itself. Why can’t Hollywood make trailers? Still, I think Night School confirms the promise of Girls Trip in showing that African-American cinema can justify a wide release in the UK – and that’s no bad thing.
It’s very exciting to see a Spike Lee film back in wide release in UK cinemas. BlacKkKlansman just scrapes in as a wide release with 217 cinemas but these had the highest average audience numbers of any film in UK cinemas last weekend. I have a great deal of time for Spike Lee as a filmmaker with passion, creativity and political intelligence to go with a deep knowledge of cinema and the skills to make memorable films. Having said that it’s also the case that he makes a wide range of features, shorts, documentaries and other types of moving image work and sometimes he chooses projects that puzzle me. Too often he falls foul of UK distribution companies and their notorious reluctance to release African-American films. All of this means that I hadn’t actually seen a Spike Lee ‘joint’ since I managed to import a US DVD of The Miracle at St. Anna in 2009. After all the build-up to the release of BlacKkKlansman and its Cannes Grand Prix I did worry that it could be a let-down, but it isn’t. This is Spike returning to the form that produced Do the Right Thing (1989) and Bamboozled (2000), the former universally acclaimed, the latter larger ignored – but both important films.
The first point to make about BlacKkKlansman is that it is packed with a great deal of material and ideas and I found that the 135 minutes flew by. I think it will take several more viewings to properly ‘read’ the film and come to any sensible conclusion about what it might mean to different audiences. Spike Lee at his best is always provocative and attempting to build a polemic using humour as well as political insight is often rejected by audiences looking for clear resolutions. My feeling at the moment is that BlacKkKlansman makes important political statements. It certainly made me think about strategies and ways to articulate arguments and it made me question some of my assumptions and ways of thinking about politics in the UK as well as the US and indeed universally. I did also wonder at moments whether Spike gets the balance right and whether his satire works – but in the circumstances I think that is inevitable.
I recommend the Sight and Sound (September) interview with Spike Lee (I have some arguments with the rather negative review of the film in the same print issue but the online piece by Sophie Monks Kaufman is also very good). Queried by Sight and Sound interviewer Kaleem Aftab about how much of the film is actually based on the real events described by Colorado Springs police officer Ron Stallworth, Lee simply re-iterates “[the film] is based on a true story”. It’s a reasonable question – and response. Some aspects of the narrative seem so fantastical that it is hard to believe that they ever happened, but at other moments the narrative seems only too ‘real’. Ron Stallworth (played with bravura by John David Washington, son of Lee regular Denzel Washington) was the first African-American to join the Colorado Springs force in 1972 as a cadet. It wasn’t until several years later that as an undercover cop he answered an advertisement for applications to join the Ku Klux Klan. Establishing himself on the phone as a ‘white supremacist’, it then required a white officer to physically attend KKK meetings posing as ‘Ron Stallworth’. This was ‘Flip’ Zimmerman (Adam Driver). Lee and his co-writers decided to compress the story so that the events seem to take place over a few months in 1973/4. Apart from a familiar strategy to speed up the pace of the narrative, this also allows Lee to highlight questions around black identity at the time of the ‘Blaxpoitation’ cycle of films in the early 1970s alongside the fashions, the music and the ‘Black Power’ iconography.
The wonderful Afros on display, the clothes and the music and the discussion of Shaft and Superfly and Pam Grier (complete with on-screen film posters) provide a rich mise en scène which allows Lee to explore issues within African-American culture. Ron’s first undercover job was to ‘infiltrate’ a student-organised event at which Kwame Ture (aka Stokeley Carmichael, played by Corey Hawkins) makes an impassioned plea to the students to prepare for revolution. That evening Ron meets Patrice (Laura Harrier) the student president and begins a relationship. This relationship is an invention which in genre terms allows Lee to explore a romance-thriller narrative thread. We worry about Patrice, although she is generally quite capable of looking after herself and her fellow students. But as Herb Boyd in Cineaste (Fall 2018) points out, we learn relatively little about Patrice and, apart from two or three key moments, the relationship between Ron and Flip is much more important. It is Flip who is in the most danger. The script emphasises how much the Klan are anti-semitic and Flip is someone who has never really thought about his own Jewish identity. This danger (of exposure) is an element of the romance thriller that also generates the possibility of comedy and it is these scenes (i.e. Flip among the Klan members) that test Lee’s ability to balance humour and anger. He’s helped by wonderful performances all round and especially by Jasper Pääkkönen as the most suspicious Klansman and Topher Grace as David Duke, the Klan ‘Grand Wizard’. These two are chilling and completely absurd at the same time.
While much of the film narrative remains within the familiar mode of ‘Hollywood realism’, Spike explores the legacy of racism in Hollywood through extracts from Birth of a Nation (1915) and Gone With the Wind (1939). I don’t want to spoil the impact of how he does this, but the appearance of Harry Belafonte is thrilling for anyone old enough to remember one of the great figures of the Civil Rights movement. Alec Baldwin’s appearance might be more puzzling for some audiences outside North America, although I guess his YouTube appearances as ‘Donald Trump’ are easily accessible around the world. The crucial question is how does Spike Lee end his narrative? We know Ron Stallworth survived his involvement with the Klan because he wrote his memoir in 2014. But it would be dangerous to leave us laughing and feeling good about victory. In fact, I think there is a narrative thread running throughout which keeps us querying Ron’s actions and his motivations. When the final section comes I think it works very well and I hope that BlacKkKlansman will become a classic ‘joint’ like Do The Right Thing.
BlacKkKlansman took £1.2 million on its first UK weekend and it looks set to be one of Spike’s biggest hits. I’ve failed to mention the initiative of Get Out writer-director Jordan Peele who initially brought the project to Lee and also Blumhouse Productions the company which made Get Out. Peele and Blumhouse are both part of the production background for BlacKkKlansman, demonstrating that Spike Lee is very much still part of the cutting edge of African-American cinema. Terence Blanchard, Lee’s long-time collaborator is still on board composing a fine score and including an array of great 1970s tracks. Cinematographer Chayse Irvin is new to me but Spike Lee has a strong track record in working with exciting camera people and Irvin’s work contributes a great deal to the look of the film. I want to finish by urging you to see this film. I also want to emphasise that there is much, much more to say about it so I hope some of you will add your comments.
The film recounts the rape of a young Afro-American woman and mother in 1944 in Alabama by a gang of white men. This was before the period of activism known for ‘The Civil Rights Movement’. Rape of black women, like the lynching of black people, was common in the period dominated by the racist culture called ‘Jim Crow’. Recy’s struggle for justice was supported by National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People [NAACP] and by one of its field officers, Rosa Parks. Parks is famous for her role in the ‘Bus Boycotts’ in the 1950s. But this case was equally important in the development of black resistance to the racism endemic in the USA. The NAACP, committed to constitutional action, was for decades the lead organisation in the struggle for equality for African-Americans.
The central event in the film, an assault and rape on the 24 year-old black woman on a Sunday evening as she returned from a church service, is told through the filmed testimony of her family members and audio recordings of Recy herself. The perpetrators were six white teenagers. Though identified the local sheriff contrived to avoid any action. And Recy’s family home was terrorised and there were death threats when she pursued her claim for justice. These testimonies are intercut with contemporary footage, tending to impressionistic, of the settings, in darkness and with travelling shots that suggest a noir, even horror, feel. Alongside this are extracts from documentary film of the period and archive photographs. And as a distinctive addition clips from the ‘race cinema’ of the period and earlier.
The ‘race cinema’ operated from about 1910 to the end of the 1940s. It was a segregated cinema, in its production, distribution and exhibition, not just in the South but across the USA. Whilst it suffered from low production values due the poor economics of the business the films provided a potent experience for black audiences. The films presented black culture in its own estimation, valorised black heroes and heroines, vilified the lumpen proletarian elements in black communities and the racist white communities from which Afro-Americans suffered. The films dramatised the brutalities and inequalities of US culture in the period, including explicit representation of rapes and lynchings and the real violent face of organisations such as the Ku Klux Klan.
These clips provides a dramatic tapestry into which Recy’s story is implanted. And the film uses virtuoso techniques to increase the drama. There are fine superimpositions of archival footage over the contemporary film. There are montage sequences which interweave, factual and fictionalised renderings. And there is added to this a powerful musical accompaniment of sombre orchestral music and well-chosen songs from the African-American culture. Some of the characters in the events are now deceased and are voiced by actors. So the film is partly a drama-documentary and shares some formal aspects with the film of Ken Burns and his colleagues.
The film is directed by Nancy Buirski whose previous films include a documentary The Loving Story (2011) and a dramatised treatment, Loving (2016), of an inter-racial couple prosecuted for breaking laws against ‘miscegenation’. She scripted the film and skilfully orchestrates the various components. There is excellent contribution in the cinematography by Rex Miller and the film uses drone cinematography to great effect. Also deserving praise is the film editing by Anthony Ripoli; the visual effects by Aaron Hodgins Davis; and the work of the eight craftspeople in the sound department. To this the credits add a long list of researchers who must have combed all sorts of archives and collections as well as tracking down people to be interviewed. The film also respect the archive film and materials using their original aspect ratios.
Recy’s family member comment on the issues as well as recounting the events. In the latter stages of the film two contemporary voices add to this analysis: Daniel L. McGuire whose book At the Dark End of the Street: Black Women, Rape and Resistance – a New History of the Civil Rights Movement from Rosa Parks to the Rise of Black Power details the whole violent culture which was inflicted on African-American women over decades. (Published in 2011 the book’s title is taken from a 1960s song.) And there is African-American historian Crystal Feimster. Their contributions place this story in the wider culture of racist violence and black resistance. In particular the film draws out the role of Rosa Parks, a NAACP field officer who took up Recy’s case and worked to develop a widespread protest that reached beyond the black communities. Rosa Parks is more famous for her role in the Montgomery ‘Bus Boycott’, The commentators emphasise how the campaign of support for Recy was equally important in the development of resistance by black people. They also emphasise how important was the role of black women in the movement, both in the 1940s and the 1950s despite the sometime over-emphasis on iconic male leaders. This argument is convincing but I would have liked more on the struggle in the 1940s. The film refers to one other campaign by another black women who suffered rape but the film implies more.
One difference between the 1940s and 1950s was, that whilst the bus boycott led on to increase action and results, in Recy’s case despite widespread campaigning she was not able to get a fair trial of her assailants. The first trial was a mockery and subsequently an all-white jury refused indictments. The film does note that in 2011 the Alabama State Legislature passed the following:
“BE IT RESOLVED BY THE LEGISLATURE OF ALABAMA, BOTH HOUSES THEREOF CONCURRING, That we acknowledge the lack of prosecution for crimes committed against Recy Taylor by the government of the State of Alabama, that we declare such failure to act was, and is, morally abhorrent and repugnant, and that we do hereby express profound regret for the role played by the government of the State of Alabama in failing to prosecute the crimes.
BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED, That we express our deepest sympathies and solemn regrets to Recy Taylor and her family and friends.”
Apart from the long and insulting delay the film, at this point, also includes interviews with white residents from Abbeville. They are aware of the events but are not really prepared to condemn them or offer praise for Recy’s struggle for justice. But we do see her, old and infirm, [in a residential home I think}, and she remains as resolute as she must have been in 1944. She died late in 2017. It seems unlikely that she would have seen this film’ tribute to her courage and resilience.
The film has a limited release into cinemas and is screening at the Hyde Park Picture House this week.
See more on Oscar Micheaux and the ‘race cinema’, including Within Our Gates, a film utilised in this documentary.
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 budget, 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.