This joyous documentary deserves a wide audience who will lap it up. I was going to categorise it as a music documentary but it has two other important elements. It is also about one woman’s fight against cancer – a difficult subject for documentary – and about her personal biography (which introduces themes about identity, racism and the music business).
I’d heard about Sharon Jones and The Dap Kings but never registered their music or knew much about them. It was wonderful to hear the music. I didn’t know the songs but the sound was so familiar – the mainly southern soul of the 1960s and 1970s with allusions to Stax, Atlantic, Chess, FAME etc. Although Jones is based in New York her family is still in Georgia and the North-South (and West) axis of the band led by Gabriel Roth, AKA Bosco Mann, harks back to the time of the link-up between Stax and Atlantic. Roth and Jones met up musically in the mid-1990s and ‘Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings’ was born soon afterwards. Miss Jones became a star later in life than most artists and she enjoyed a decade or more of success with live shows and records under the band’s own label, Dap Tone. Then in 2014 she started treatment for pancreatic cancer and the band’s future seemed uncertain. Somehow the band’s new recording was completed and a tour was organised even as Sharon recovered. It’s this period through 2014 and into the early part of 2015 which provides the drama in a documentary by two-time Oscar-winning documentarist Barbara Kopple (honoured for Harlan County, USA in 1976 and American Dream in 1991).
Kopple’s approach is to stick fairly close to Sharon Jones during her recovery from treatment when she convalesces with a friend, visits her family and finally gets back into recording and onto the road for live shows. During this time the singer talks about her life and the attitudes she met in the music business when she was told she was “too black, too short and not pretty enough”. You have to feel that this is the modern culture of Black Music in the US – it was once a question of whether you could sing and if you had ‘soul’ – Ms Jones clearly has both attributes. Kopple weaves her footage together effortlessly and intersperses it with band interviews and live performances. The screening was in the Centre for Contemporary Arts a couple of blocks down from the Glasgow Film Theatre, in the ‘Theatre’ space which had a big screen and good sound so these performances worked very well. (But I learned to accept an extra cushion for my next screening in this venue!)
Miss Sharon Jones! played at Toronto in September 2015 and the New York City Doc Festival a month or two later. A US release is expected in 2016 but as yet the film doesn’t have a distributor and Barbara Kopple’s Cabin Creek Films doesn’t seem totally geared up just yet. There is a Facebook page for the film and you can check out Cabin Creek Films and the band’s own website. I do hope that the film gets a cinema release in the UK. It’s a great story and although it would still work on TV, I think the live performances are best on a big screen with an audience.
I chose to see Creed because I wanted to see an African-American film (not always easy in the UK outside London and a few key cities). I missed Fruitvale Station (which certainly didn’t have a wide release) from director Ryan Coogler and star Michael B. Jordan. I saw the original Rocky film starring Sylvester Stallone in 1976/7 but I don’t think I’ve seen any of the sequels. Creed sees the illegitimate son of Rocky Balboa’s greatest ring competitor Apollo Creed trying to live up to his father’s name in the fight game. Creed has had a wide release in the UK, probably because of Stallone as actor, producer and co-writer – i.e. the Stallone factor gives distributors more confidence that the film will appeal beyond the Black British audience. I find this sad, but that’s the way the industry in the UK is. Even so, I was once again the only person in a 90 seat cinema. I like being on my own, but I do wonder how the cinema keeps going. Anyway, I had a great time. I’m glad I saw this in the cinema and I have to say I was surprised on several counts.
Creed has been widely discussed as a ‘reboot’ of the Rocky ‘franchise’. I’m not sure that knowing this is particularly helpful if you haven’t seen the previous films. My impression is that this is a much more sober/sensitive feature than much of Hollywood’s output while still adhering to the generic structure of the sports drama and particularly the boxing drama (boxing being one of the few American sports that has appeal outside North America). Ryan Coogler is a remarkable young director, here also responsible for the story with a co-writer’s credit for the script itself. The film is well-cast – more on that later – and brilliantly photographed by Maryse Alberti. Alberti has had a long career, much of it in TV and independent film productions. He was one of the cinematographers on the Muhammad Ali documentary When We Were Kings (1996) and on The Wrestler (2008) by Darren Aronofsky. I’m no expert on boxing but I’ve seen a few boxing films and Creed convinces me with its fight sequences. Coogler elects to use a long take and sometimes long shot style familiar from arthouse/independent cinema and his editors Claudia Castello and Michael P. Shawver both worked with him on Fruitvale Station along with production designer Hannah Beachler. I’m sure if I looked, I could find more personnel who were on both films. Creed cost around $35 million but has already grossed $161 million worldwide. This demonstrates that a film can be a global hit without resorting to a fast-cutting ‘immersive’ style. Creed is 133 minutes and some have argued that it is ‘flabby’ and could be tightened. Ash Clarke in his very good Little White Lies review uses this term and suggests that part of the Rocky Balboa personal story could be cut. I don’t think that would be a good move, but I concede that a little tightening up in some sequences could trim off a few minutes from the running time. I have to say though that for me there was no flabbiness. Aesthetically, Creed works well. The music seemed fine as well. But what of the narrative?
I think an important issue might be whether Creed is an ‘African-American’ film in the sense that, to take polar extremes, a Tyler Perry or a Charles Burnett film might be so described? Or is this a mainstream genre American film that just happens to have an African-American central character and director? To some extent that depends on whether there is a genuine exploration of a specifically African-American cultural milieu. And this is possibly what makes Creed different. Professional sport, alongside popular music, has long offered opportunities for young Black people to make a decent living and achieve a public profile in both the Americas and Europe. Creed offers us a young Black boxer (Michael B. Jordan), two boxing gyms in Los Angeles and Philadelphia and a relationship for young Adonis Creed with a promising Black singer played by Tessa Thompson (recently seen in UK cinemas in a lead role in Dear White People and in a smaller supporting role in Selma). The sport/music combination is sometimes seen as a restrictive/constraining factor in terms of Black culture, limiting the range of opportunities and typing Black characters in particular ways. Creed partially avoids this charge by making Adonis a character who spends time as a youth in a wealthy home and who gets a good education followed by an executive job in the finance sector. When he ditches the job to follow his dream to be a boxer and goes to Philadelphia he is therefore a ‘different’ character to the other boxers he meets. The film is also interested in Stallone’s Rocky Balboa who must be tempted out of retirement to train Adonis (‘Donnie’) and when he has the big international fight, Donnie and Rocky travel to UK to fight ‘Pretty’ Ricky Conlan in Everton’s Goodison Park football stadium. My feeling was that the script didn’t attempt to type the fight as ‘black v. white’, though I was concerned that the Liverpool boxer was being typed as a working-class ‘Scally’ figure. Again, however, I think the script handled this well in the end. The ‘real’ pro boxer Tony Bellew plays Conlan and I thought the fight was credible. I’m guessing that the inspiration for this pairing was the recent history of Ricky Hatton’s fights in the US. By all accounts it was Stallone’s interest in Everton that located the fight on Merseyside. Some location footage of the stadium on a (football) match day helped the fight sequence feel genuine (though I was disappointed not to hear the Z-Cars theme and I’m sure someone was waving a Liverpool scarf).
Michael B. Jordan is excellent as Creed and I was impressed by Stallone’s Rocky Balboa and the way the script handled the relationship between the two. Tessa Thompson was also very good and it was a shame that her role was not explored a little more. One potential narrative about her career and tensions between Adonis and a group of musicians seemed to be cut off too soon. If there is a follow-up, her role and that of Phylicia Rashad as Apollo Creed’s wife and the woman who fostered Adonis Creed after he was placed in juvenile detention could be usefully developed. Overall this film has helped restore my faith in the potential of Hollywood genre movies and I’ll certainly seek out a follow-up if it is made.
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. 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. 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.
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.
Guerrero, E. (ed.) (2001) Do The Right Thing, London: British Film Institute.