It was timely of MUBI to post this film of Swedish National Broadcast Company news footage on American Civil Rights protests. Director Göran Olsson discovered the footage whilst researching and realised it needed to be presented to a contemporary audience. He starts with an interview with a white, small businessman who reiterates the myth of the American Dream and this frames the impossibility at the time of even believing in the Dream if you were a ‘person of colour’. The Swedish journalists went to where it was at and interviewed, or filmed speaking, key campaigners for Black Power: Elaine Brown, Stokley Carmichael, Eldridge Cleaver, Angela Davis, Huey Newton and Bobby Seale. Although, as Olsson says in a Film Comment interview, his film is about the Swedish point of view of the time, in order to not overly privilege this viewpoint he included a contemporary African-American view on the footage with comments from musicians Erykah Badu, John Forté (of The Fugees) and Talib Kweli and professors Angela Davis, Robin Kelley and Sonia Sanchez. As he says, these voices have a feel of a DVD commentary and it’s especially good to hear Angela Davis; the footage includes her trial for abetting murder which was such a farcical charge that (you’d hope) it had no chance of sticking.
Unfortunately what’s most striking about the documentary is how little things have changed for African Americans. The same police brutality and government connivance in repression: all in the ‘land of the free’. One difference is, of course, social media were we can readily see police violence though it is unnerving how this does not curb their brutality. The news media, in the 1960s, were probably more likely to ‘call out’ government malfeasance as the increasing corporatisation of news since the 1980s has mitigated risk taking and investigative reporting. The Swedish reporters’ ‘neutral and friendly’ demeanour comes through strongly as they were seeking the ‘truth’; though Angela Davis’ brilliant putdown, whilst being interviewed in prison on the trumped-up charges (was that phrase named after him?!), showed the inevitable limitations of their perspective. Olsson also includes footage of a tourist bus tour of Swedes in Harlem in which the racist assumptions aired are shocking today.
The ending, rightly, is bleak as heroin flooded into Harlem and so, successfully, dispersed Black radicalism; a similar policy was used in LA in the 1980s. This uses footage from Lars Ulvestam’s documentary Harlem: Voices, Faces (Sweden, 1973).
The story hasn’t ended; currently there have been more than two weeks of protest in America after George Floyd’s murder on camera by police. It would be nice to think that this will be a turning point, particularly with the Hater in Chief currently occupying the White House and the fact that the protests have extended worldwide. It was good to see slave trader Colston’s statue being plonked into the harbour in Bristol, UK, last weekend though it is likely the forces of reaction will be not far behind. That such mass protests are happening during a pandemic (though police are more likely to kill African American males than Covid19) is worrying.
This strange film arrived in the UK over two months after its North American release. Between its Toronto festival appearance and its release, writer-director Dan Gilroy cut up to 15 minutes off its running time and ‘re-configured it’ – not usually a good sign (quote from this interview). It appears in the UK now, I suspect, mainly because Denzel Washington has been Oscar-nominated as the titular character. Although it’s a Sony/Columbia release, it’s actually the product of several small production companies with additional funding from ‘Culture China – Image Nation Abu Dhabi Fund’. There must be a story behind this. I’m clearly at a disadvantage here in not having seen Nightcrawler (2014), Gilroy’s earlier writer-director outing focusing on crime journalism. Gilroy suggests that Roman starts as the opposite of the lead character in Nightcrawler in terms of having a ‘moral compass’. I’m thinking that perhaps Denzel’s star performance and the many cultural references to African-American activism and problems with the law are not meant to be as central to the narrative as I want them to be.
The film’s reception has been very mixed. I went to the first local screening and I was the only person in the auditorium for what turned out to be a subtitled screening for ‘hard of hearing’ audiences – something I hadn’t picked up from the listings. I did wonder if it was simply an accident. Since I often struggle to distinguish the ‘realist’ dialogue of modern Hollywood, this was fine with me.
The story (as distinct from the film narrative which I won’t spoil) begins when Roman J. Israel arrives at his LA law office to discover that his ‘partner’ (I was never clear about the legal arrangement) has had a heart attack and been taken to hospital. Roman is the backroom legal wizard who never goes near an actual public court and when he finds himself attempting to deal with the day’s courtroom business we immediately discover why. His partner’s family decide to bring in a family acquaintance, hotshot city lawyer George Pierce (Colin Farrell), to wind up the current business and close the company which has been losing money for many years. Roman is taken aback and fears himself to be redundant but George later re-appears with an offer. In the meantime, Roman visits a ‘Civil Rights legal support group’ and tries to offer his services. It was this sequence in the trailer that first attracted me to the film. I won’t say any more about the plot as such.
I had assumed that this was a film with a strong interest in African-American culture and specifically in the problems affecting black youth in the Los Angeles district. In a way it is. Roman seems to still be living in the 1970s/80s. He sports an Afro, dresses in wide-lapelled, colourful but ill-fitting suits, listens to 70s soul and jazz, doesn’t drive (in LA!) and lives in an old apartment block surrounded by constant re-building. Roman presents as a man literally adrift from the modern world and still wrapped up in a world where researching and documenting the institutionalised racism of the US legal system is a very important part of activism. Contemporary gender politics is just one of the developments that have passed Roman by. Denzel goes the full hog on his appearance, apparently removing cosmetic work on his teeth and, I assume, wearing prosthetic jowls and extra padding on his torso.
What kind of story development did Gilroy have in mind? Many reviewers have described Roman as autistic, possibly with Asperger’s. We are back in the same territory as Newton (India 2017), though the two titular characters are quite different. The clues to Roman’s autism aren’t totally convincing – and anyway, it has been argued that many people are somewhere on the autistic spectrum. It could simply be that after so many years working in the office, Roman is overwhelmed by being confronted with real live defendants. Because of his background in civil rights and as he terms it ‘revolutionary action’, there was a moment when I thought Roman was like Jeremy Corbyn – suddenly faced with the need to be pragmatic but still trying to hang on to the deep political commitment of ‘the struggle’. Corbyn negotiated the change of context and the need to change his own presentation. Roman eventually reacts in a way that I wasn’t expecting. I’m still wondering if the film is a satire on the US legal system or possibly of professional middle-aged African-American men. The last third of the film is very odd and I can understand why critics take against the development of some familiar genre tropes. I’m not sure what to make of it. Though the films are very different, there are some elements here that reminded me of Spike Lee’s magnificent but critically divisive Bamboozled (US 2000).
As well as Colin Farrell as George there is one other significant character, Maya, at the civil rights community legal centre. She’s played by Carmen Ejogo who I have now learned is a Brit and who previously appeared as the wife of Martin Luther King in Selma (2014). Again, I was not expecting her role in the story.
I think part of my problem with the film is that while US and English (as distinct from Scottish) legal systems have the same basis in English Common Law, the contemporary practise of law is different. I didn’t totally understand the importance of some procedures. I’ve read comments that the representation of US law practices in the film is not accurate but I don’t think that matters since it is the impact on Roman and his life that is the focus. The film looks very good (thanks to the cinematography of Robert Elswit) and I was intrigued by the new transit system which takes Roman to Santa Monica. The film also sounds good thanks to Roman’s choice of tracks to play on his headphones. I suspect that Roman J. Israel Esq. might flop in the UK, but who knows? I’d like to be able to read a diverse range of UK reviews. Most of Denzel Washington’s performances are worth catching and his Roman is one of the more intriguing ones.
Film 4 in the UK began a week of documentary screenings, kicking off with this Oscar-winning film about some of the most revered ‘backing singers’ of the 1960s, 70s and 80s. I enjoyed the film which features some of the faces and the lives of the great singers who are often in the background as performers. Viewed objectively, however, it seemed to me that the film’s narrative was poorly constructed and we didn’t learn as much as we might about the dilemmas facing such singers, the industry in which they worked and the technical details about their performances. Later, I also came across the claims that some of the testimonies by the singers were perhaps misleading.
The film’s director, Morgan Neville, is a very experienced director of popular music documentaries, mostly for US TV, I think. He has explored a range of popular music forms – different genres, eras, stars etc. so I was a little surprised by some of the film’s missed tricks. The film focuses on a group of mainly African-American women, many the daughters of families rooted in gospel music and the church. Darlene Love, Claudia Lennear, Merry Clayton, Judith Hill and Lisa Fischer provide the main focus but there are others as well. We find out something about the stories of each of these women and also hear the commendations of stars like Bruce Springsteen, Mick Jagger, Stevie Wonder and Sting as well as record producer Lou Adler and various other industry personnel. My suspicion is that Neville and his team got carried away with some of the great stories that these women could tell and didn’t spend long enough working out what kind of narrative they wanted to construct. The film as a whole lacks a clear focus. Darlene Love has the longest and most emotional story – and she bears the brunt of the negative comments about her time contracted to Phil Spector. I did know about her problems with Spector (shared by many others) and she may well have ’embroidered’ her account a little, but she certainly deserves to be cut some slack.
One possibility might have been to explore the questions about race and gender in the industry a little more overtly. There is plenty of material but the only reference that is underlined is when Merry Clayton describes her own reaction to being asked to sing on Lynyrd Skynyrd’s ‘Sweet Home Alabama’ (the film shows a Skynyrd performance with a Confederate flag as a backdrop). Later Ms Clayton is shown singing her version of ‘Southern Man’, the Neil Young song that prompted the Skynyrd backlash. There are also two references to white performers seeking out black backing singers to give the music more ‘soul’. The first explains that white backing singers were known as ‘readers’ because they could perform any song – but not necessarily ‘feel’ the music. The second reference is to the British singers like Mick Jagger and Joe Cocker who might need an addition of ‘authentic’ voices as white boys singing black music songs. Both these statements needed more examination, I think. The film uses rock for many of its examples and there is a familiar suggestion that while Spector, Ray Charles and Ike Turner may have exploited attractive young black women as singers (and dancers), the British acts tended to treat them more as professional performers. This matches similar claims about Tamla and Stax performers who were more appreciated by white UK audiences than white US audiences in the early years – and the claim that bands like the Stones helped to resurrect the careers of some of the blues acts (and made sure that they earned royalties). This may be just a romantic notion promoted by British journalists, but needs investigating. More pertinent is why none of the well-known black music journalists and scholars are interviewed about the racism in the industry.
The other central issue in the film is the question about why these performers, who clearly have great voices and great musical skills, have not become stars in their own right as solo performers or leading members of vocal groups. There are suggestions and the issue is explored. The one moment when a visual image seems to comment on the argument is when some of the industry personnel and Sting (who appears in awe of Lisa Fischer’s voice) suggests that the real ‘kick’ in singing together with other people is the feeling that your voice is melding with others and the experience becomes ‘spiritual’. We then see a flock of birds (are they starlings?) swarming together in a night sky and then breaking up again, only to reform their ‘murmurations’. This seems the moment when we really might get to an understanding of why some singers emerge as stars and sustain a career. We might argue that although some of the great backing singers have got better singing skills than the stars, they perhaps haven’t got the ego or the drive to be the star out front – or they recognise what to do but don’t want to ‘play the game? Sting is a singer whose music doesn’t always work for me and he has an image that suggests pretentiousness, but in his comments in this section he makes a lot of sense and is worth listening to. He argues that success depends on more than having the talent, the voice and the performance skills. He suggests that sometimes it’s just circumstances, chance/luck – his point is that those who succeed recognise this and deal with it. But just when this kind of analysis gets interesting it stops when someone suggests that it is autotuning that has changed the industry and record producers no longer need great singers if they can digitally manipulate the voice of someone who works as a celebrity/star.
I think this film operates at the level of a standard TV music documentary, albeit with a high level of performance clips and talking head interviews. The subject could also have been explored in relation to a wider range of industry practice issues. For instance, nearly all the examples derive from either rock music or major acts of R+B/soul music. It might be interesting to compare the use of other voices in aspects of traditional country, country-folk and country rock where typically backing vocals are supplied by other singers of equal status. Why is this? I remember a BBC4 documentary on the recordings by Dolly Parton, Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris as ‘Trio’. The three voices came together beautifully but the three albums of material were spread over many years because each singer was contracted to different record labels. For live performances there were not as many problems perhaps? I suppose I’m saying that the film stimulates lots of debates but doesn’t know which is the focus and can’t cover them all in a satisfying way.
20 Feet From Stardom inhabits similar territory to Standing in the Shadows of Motown (US 2002) and also Secret Voices of Hollywood (UK 2013) about the dubbing of Hollywood musicals by singers who were not credited at the time. All these films are worth watching, but for an emotional documentary narrative about a singer who struggled for years to achieve the acclaim that her performances deserved, I’d go for Miss Sharon Jones! (US 2015), the story of the late Miss Jones and the Dap Kings.