Category: African-American Cinema

Dear White People (US 2014)

dwp_poster This is a satirical film on ‘race’ in contemporary USA that was produced, scripted and directed by Justin Siemen. So on that basis he presumably bears the major responsibility for the final product. It is certainly interesting, and has a number of distinctive qualities but I also found it fairly flawed. This seems to be an example of the influence of the contemporary meaning of the concept ‘auteur’; young filmmakers want to produce a ‘personal work’. One certainly gets a sense of a personal edge to the film. However I thought that the film would have benefited from a separate and critical view of the script. A friend at the Hyde Park where I viewed the film thought that the director is a ‘developing talent’ and that should allow for flaws. I thought a much sharper focus and delivery would have enhanced both the comedy and the satire. The film began its career through crowd funding. On completion it won an award at the 2014 Sundance Festival. So it falls into the tradition of US independents, but also relies on developments in the industry. The basic setting is an Ivy League University with problems about ‘race relations’. So on one hand this places it in a cycle of films that followed on from John Landis’ campus-based National Lampoon’s Animal House (1978) and also, more explicitly, Spike Lee’s School Daze (1988). Both films are mentioned in reviews but the most important influence cited would be Spike Lee’s Bamboozled (2011). Spike Lee is referred to in the film’s dialogue: one character bowdlerised [badly] the title of his film production company and another provides the line ‘by any means necessary’. A film within the film reminded one of an early Lee short. Lee’s influence can also be seen in the form of the film, drawing on his Do the Right Thing (1989). For me unfortunately, this only highlighted the greater quality, cinematically and in terms of content, of Lee’s films. Even so the film has a lot to offer in terms on interest and entertainment. The primary focus are four Afro-American students at the fictional Winchester University. These are Sam White ((Tessa Thompson) whose campus radio slot is titled ‘Dear White People’. There is her ex and the current House President Troy Fairbanks (Brandon Bell), whose father is the University Dean of Students. Lionel Higgins (Tyler James Williams) is gay, has an impressive Afro-hair style and is a developing journalistic talent. Finally ‘Coco’ (Teyonah Paris) is a would-be TV name, and an expert blogger. All have media ambitions, which are a key target in the film. All four come from relatively comfortable backgrounds, obviously have talent but are all conscious of the demeaning and often disadvantaged experience of being black. It is worth noting that the film also has quite a gallery of key characters, and one of its merits is the way that it handles this. There is among the characters a certain amount of sexual activity across the ‘racial’ divide, though much less evidence of any across class divides. dear-white-people-sam Given the genre, it is not a great spoiler that the film’s contradictions come to a head at a House Fraternity party. The film here explicitly foregrounds the often implicit but not always recognised contempt for black people amongst sections of the white population, including the so-called intelligentsia. And, in a montage of stills, the end credits draw attention to the actual scandals that have demonstrated this in the higher Education world in recent years. One of its debts to Do the Right Thing is to offer a clearly staged structure, with a prologue, a number of chapters and finally an epilogue. The film also essays a certain style [often termed Brechtian] offering some distance for viewers. Thus the style of much of the film is almost observational and then becomes very much almost ‘blog-on-the wall‘ for the party. However, like the satire, many of the techniques seem over emphatic. The film uses positioning of characters, often with deep staging, in the mise en scène. But whilst some of this is very effective – a couple of sequences involving Lionel: at other times when it uses the University architecture I rather wondered what the intended point was. I was also distracted by half-a-dozen shots with characters set against a light source: typically a window. This may have meant to offer a visual comment: but it seemed to just diminish visibility. This also applies to the editing, there are some very effective cuts between parallel scenes, for example in the office of the Principal and Dean cutting to characters in the student halls – which suggest both comparisons and contrasts. But at other times, cuts between – say a group of black and a group of white students – seems to be for effect, but with little added meaning. Dear-White-People-group I should note that I did not pick up on all the references in the film. A couple of friends at the screening had similar problems. This presumably relates to the language in the USA, in use by Afro-Americans and in the college system. I was also bemused by the music. There is a seemingly important reference to Taylor Swift but the credits do not seem to feature her music. What was immediately recognisable were extracts from Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake and Bizet’s Carmen. Their relevance escaped me, though the choice of music may well have been dictated by cost as much as by choice. My major reservations were to do with the values inscribed in the film. Satire is a tricky form to take: it tends to be over-the-top which can make some of the views and positions grotesque. This is a problem, but not the major problem in this film. That I think is how it tackles the interests and prejudices at the University and amongst its characters. The film clearly addresses ‘race’ and class in the contemporary USA: to a lesser degree gender and sexual orientation. And when we reach the epilogue the writing presents the cynical collusion of interests between academia and the representative of the media and Capital. But at the personal level, amongst the key characters, we get a more or less satisfactory resolution of their personal lives. It seemed to me that the contradictions that had arisen in the course of the film were not amenable to such a pat closure. And there seem to be a couple of lacunae in the resolution of the plot. This is where Lee’s Bamboozled stands out: with a final sequence that is both cinematically and politically devastating. I would recommend re-visiting this film if you are able: I intend to revisit School Daze as well. I would reckon Dear White People is definitely worth seeing. A note of warning, the distributor is Curzon Film World and judging by exhibitor’s experience in West Yorkshire it is hard work to get the film. The film was shot on a 4K Red digital camera: but it seems to be circulating in a 2K DCP, which is not that complimentary to some of the exteriors and long shots. It runs for 106 minutes, in colour and 1.85:1. In terms of entertainment, two of the people I talked to after the screenings really enjoyed it and found pretty funny: two others were less impressed but still very interested by what the film had to offer. And it is a film and a treatment that is still relatively uncommon on British screens.

Fruitvale Station (US 2013)

This publicity photo released by The Weinstein Company shows Michael B. Jordan, left, and Kevin Durand, right, in a scene from the film,

Arresting the Other

It’s quite extraordinary how many black people are being killed by law enforcement officers in America and getting away with it. Racism is so institutionalised that even when Trayvon Martin, an unarmed 17-year old, was shot in the back by a vigilante, George Zimmermann, the latter was found ‘not guilty’. Clearly it is open season on people of colour. The UK is not without its problems, Mark Duggan for example, but we can’t compare to America.

Fruitvale Station, which recounts the last hours of Oscar Grant (Michael B. Jordan, brilliant in the role) before he was shot in the back whilst being arrested lying facedown, was released around the same time of the Trayvon Martin verdict. Its $16m North American box office was indicative of the film’s topicality as well as its quality.

As further evidence of the racial divide of America some commentators sought to attack the film because of its inaccuracies. For example, Grant is seen tending to a dog, victim of a hit and run, as it died. Although this never occurred, writer-director Ryan Coogler is clearly using the dog a melodramatic emblem of the way African-Americans are treated. The dog’s bloodied mouth mirrors that of Grant’s after he has been shot. So Kyle Smith’s attack on the film, in Forbes, is more interesting for what it says about Smith than the film. Spike Lee has been the subject of similar attacks when the dares to confront racism in America. Do the Right Thing (1989) was particularly vilified by critics (see here) who suggested that the representations of the subordinate position of African-Americans was designed to stir up trouble. As Ed Guerrero says:

When a commercial film depicting a social issue or perspective challenges Hollywood’s strategies of ideological containment, that film usually comes under attack for inflaming and exacerbating the very problem that it seeks to expose, engage or change. (Guerrero, 2001: 18–19)

Although these films are dramatising the social problem, right wing critics characterise them as being part of the problem. Unlike Zimmermann, the transport policeman was found guilty and sentenced to . . . two years (served 11 months). His defence was he thought he was firing his taser. The video footage, filmed by numerous onlookers (it was the early hours of New Year’s Day, 2009), may have helped get the conviction though this is doubtful as it didn’t help Rodney King get justice. The film starts with this ‘confused’ footage and then reconstructs Grant’s last hours, using a realist handheld camera style and shooting on Super 16 to avoid any slickness.

The film reminded me, as we followed Grant’s fairly ordinary last day, of Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep (US, 1977) as it focuses on ordinary people’s lives who happened to be black. It is strikingly rare to see such representations of ethnic minorities in cinema. Fruitvale Station was produced by Forest Whitaker’s Significant Productions, also responsible for the recently released Dope; presumably Whitaker is taking it upon himself to get the ‘African-American’ voice into film as Hollywood won’t do it.

I found the film compelling, not only because of the excruciating climax which is superbly staged, but also because of the performances: Melanie Diaz and Octavia Spencer, as Grant’s girlfriend and mother, are both standout. Ashley Clark’s perceptive review, in Sight & Sound, finishes with a quote from James Baldwin’s The Devil Has Work:

“The root of the white man’s hatred [for black men] is terror, a bottomless and nameless terror, which focuses on the black, surfacing, and concentrating on this dread figure, an entity which lives only in his mind.”

It seems, for many law enforcement officers, the only way to combat this terror is to shoot it.

Reference:
Guerrero, E. (ed.) (2001) Do The Right Thing, London: British Film Institute.

Distributing Dear White People

dear-white-people-690x1024

The advance reports on this film had me putting it on my list of films ‘must see’! So I was a little put out when the only Leeds screening at the Hyde Park Picture House was late evening, ending too late for getting home by public transport. However, to pay due credit, I now see that there are two further screenings at the Hyde Park (the first this coming Sunday) and that it is screening at Picture House at the National Media Museum. They are screening it twice, today and tomorrow, Thursday.

The film is a satire on “race” and “racism’ in the USA. Like the very fine Selma (US/UK 2014) this is a timely intervention. The film is set in what I take to be a contemporary US university. The setting suggests an influence by Spike Lee and some of the comments that have slipped past my ‘plot censor’ suggest the same. If this film even approaches the quality of Lee’s Bamboozled (US 2000) it will be worth at least one viewing.

Get On Up (US 2014)

Chadwick Boseman as James Brown early in his career

Chadwick Boseman as James Brown early in his career

I don’t really understand why biopics – and especially music biopics – get such a rough ride from reviewers. Get On Up was the latest offering from my local Film Club and I went along because I actually like biopics and because I like to support African-American cinema. The only thing I could remember about the film’s November 2014 release in the UK was that it was a wide release which didn’t get much support at the box office. I suspect that the poor response was associated with a general lack of interest in African-American culture in the UK. Although major stars such as Denzel Washington or Will Smith are well supported this tends to be only when they feature in mainstream white films.

Get On Up, as the title suggests, is a biopic focusing on James Brown, an artist of supreme importance in the history of Black music but possibly not well known to an audience under 40. Brown had a complicated life and his music developed in complex ways over his life. This long film (139 mins) gives a fair overview using a slightly unconventional approach but is forced to make compromises, thus missing out or only briefly touching on aspects of the star’s life.

The highlight of the film is undoubtedly the astonishing performance of Chadwick Boseman as the adult James Brown. It’s one of those ‘impersonation’ performances and the film should have won awards for the hair stylists. Boseman does sing in the film but mainly mimes to live recordings by Brown. He certainly manages to perform convincing moves on stage (convincing to me with only limited memories of James Brown) despite being much taller. Boseman earlier played baseball star Jackie Robinson in 42 (US 2013).

The slightly unconventional approach involves a non-linear narrative in which the action moves between past and ‘present’ in what sometimes seem random ways. Added to this Boseman/Brown occasionally approaches the camera and addresses the viewer. I think that sometimes these switches of time are connected to Brown’s motivations in connecting his disturbed childhood with issues that arise in his career. Overall, the narrative structure appears to be built out of short groups of scenes (sometimes signalled by titles associated with songs or names given to Brown such as ‘Godfather of Soul’ – with an accompanying date and location). The overall effect is a bit more like a music documentary structure than a conventional drama. I suspect that there are more ‘performances’ than usual even in a music biopic.

At this point I should say that I do like James Brown’s music and the film did remind me of what an important figure he was (I recognised most of the songs). I enjoyed the moments when there was discussion of the music itself – how it was changing – but these were too few and too short. My other concern was about the history of James Brown’s relationship with African-American culture. Again there were some interesting sequences, including a surreal appearance on a Frankie Avalon Christmas Show when a relatively young James Brown and the Famous Flames, dressed in Andy Williams style cardigans, are cavorting for a completely white TV studio audience. There are a handful of similar sequences in which Brown’s ‘blackness’ and his social role come to the fore but not as much as I had hoped for and expected. It was only later that I learned that the screenplay was written by the British Butterworth brothers, Jez and John-Henry and that the Rolling Stones (who are featured in a 1964 show) were Executive Producers (Mick Jagger has a producer credit). The film was directed by Tate Taylor, best known for The Help (2011) and two of the stars of that film, Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer, appear as Brown’s mother and aunt respectively. At some point I think Spike Lee was attached to the project and it would be interesting to find out how he might have approached the film differently.

I think that this film is most likely to be compared to Ray (US 2004), a much more commercially successful film that also won more critical plaudits. I suspect that Ray’s music – which had more crossover appeal – might have been a factor and the inclusion of more obviously dramatic sequences. I think though that two films directed by African-American women (rather than white men) are also worth considering. One is Cadillac Records (US 2008) about the Chess record company and its roster of blues and soul stars and directed by Darnell Martin. The other is Talk to Me (US 2007), a biopic of a radio DJ (Don Cheadle) wonderfully directed by Kasi Lemmons. There is a parallel scene in Talk to Me and Get on Up, focusing on the night after Martin Luther King’s assassination.  The smart move would have been to recruit Lemmons, a vastly underrated director, to helm the male music biopics.

Despite my quibbles I enjoyed Get on Up and I should mention a good supporting turn by Dan Aykroyd as Brown’s manager Ben Bart. Here’s a short trailer: