The Brownest Eyes: African-American Girlhood on Screen

Toni Morrison's powerful first novel "The Bluest Eye"

Toni Morrison’s powerful first novel “The Bluest Eye”

Toni Morrison is best known for her heart-wrenching epic Beloved (1987), but I think she put out her real magnum opus earlier than that. The Bluest Eye (1970) tells the story of Pecola Breedlove, as seen through the eyes of nine-year-old Claudia MacTeer–both of them, young black girls living in in Ohio. Pecola is the resident black scapegoat, a figure of boundless ridicule and unrestrained contempt in her own community; she is the physical embodiment of their self-hatred, their pain, their subjugation. Hers is the story of a girl who has been called ugly all her life, a girl who is emotionally neglected, sexually abused, and for whom there can be no happy ending outside her disordered, mangled imagination. Depressing as that is, it’s probably one of the frankest, most beautifully realized portraits of black girlhood I’ve ever read about. I don’t believe anyone has ever optioned this novel for the screen, although it is probably the most cinematic and accessible of Morrison’s works. I doubt anyone ever will.

It should come as no great shock to hear (especially from me) that black actresses don’t exactly get the pick of the litter when it comes to roles. It’s unimaginably worse for Asian actresses. To be fair, most women in Hollywood, both in front of and behind the camera, continue to find themselves stymied by the industry’s stubborn lack of imagination, which is why they’re now racing for TV in droves (see Jane Campion’s miniseries Top of the Lake and Jodie Foster directing an episode of Netflix’s Orange is the New Black–a success for female actresses and characters in its own right). There’s just no getting around the fact that today, in 2013, television–once considered a sure career-killer–strides forward where film retreats: Kerry Washington helms Shonda Rimes‘s latest ABC hit Scandal; Taraji P. Henson regularly kicks ass on CBS’s Person of Interest; and most recently, up-and-comer Kylie Bunbury flips “the popular girl” trope on its head on ABC Family‘s Twisted.

Meanwhile, black women on film are stuck playing Mammies and the sassy and/or wise ethnic friend, amounting to little more than comic relief or props to assist the main character(s) on their journey.

Quvenzhane Wallis in Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012)

Quvenzhane Wallis in Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012)

It seems that if you must be female and a minority in this industry, it’s better to be under fourteen. Apparently, that’s where the real meaty roles lie. Over the past few years, independent filmmakers continue to produce engaging, heartfelt stories about and from the perspective of young African-American girls: Eve’s Bayou (1997), Half Nelson (2006), and now Benh Zeitlin‘s critically acclaimed Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012) marks another triumph. It’s hardly a trend, and these films certainly have their flaws, but at the very least it offers people of color a chance to shine on screen as human beings rather than concepts.

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Eve’s Bayou

Jurnee Smollett in Eve's Bayou (1997)

Jurnee Smollett in Eve’s Bayou (1997)

Eve’s Bayou was one of the most critically acclaimed films of 1997, but unfortunately overshadowed in popular consciousness by “the other black movie” of the year, George Tillman Jr.‘s Soul Foodwhich packed more star power (it starred Vivica A. Fox, Nia Long and Mekhi Phifer at the height of their careers) and boasted a more palatable (literally) “message.” Both films dealt with the destruction of families, black families specifically, except Soul Food offered audiences comfort in a neatly packaged happily-ever-after conclusion where Eve’s Bayou had none to deliver.

Kasi Lemmons‘ directorial debut tells the story of ten-year-old Eve Batiste (Jurnee Smollett), the middle child of an affluent black family in small town (the Eve’s Bayou of the title) Louisiana, circa 1962. One night Eve wakes up to a scene that will forever change the course of her life. Who knows what kind of shenanigans an Eve who did not wake up in the carriage house that fateful night might’ve enjoyed that summer? How much longer would her innocence, her carefree love of life have lasted? No way to tell. For our Eve discovers her father Louis (Samuel L. Jackson) making love to a woman who is not her mother (Lynn Whitfield), and it is this event that becomes the catalyst for one of the most haunting coming-of-age stories ever to grace the big screen.

Meagan Good as Cisely in Eve's Bayou

Meagan Good as Cisely in Eve’s Bayou

I was pretty young–probably too young, barely eight–when I first watched Eve’s Bayou, and family viewing it was not. No matter, I’ll forever credit this film, this character and Jurnee Smollett’s rendering of her with sparking my love of movies. Disney was all fine and dandy, but here was a little girl, not unlike me, and though her story was not quite my story, through her I experienced powerful catharsis. 

And so I wept with Eve–this relatively normal girl, free from all pretentions–over the loss of innocence in the worst way. For despite being gifted with “The Sight” or clairvoyance, like her Aunt Mozelle (played by Debbi Morgan), she is no melancholy, wise-beyond-her-years Haley Joel Osment balking at her supernatural ability. Eve is first and foremost a child like any other; a child  satisfied to go outside and run; a child who longs to be smothered with affection and independent at the same time; a child who sees her father’s preference for her older sister, sees her mother’s depression, sees her aunt’s loneliness.

The film then becomes an exploration of what such a dark adult world looks like to a kid. If you haven’t guessed, it doesn’t look all that great. Eve is appropriately confused and acts out several times. Before the film’s end we see her steal money from her parents, torment her siblings with merciless teasing, not to mention a disastrous cursing outburst in front of both her mother and aunt. None of this would have worked had Smollett brought an ounce of affectation or traditional Hollywood precociousness to her performance. Fortunately, Eve’s Bayou succeeds firmly in the hands of its young star who emotes like a pro.

A great deal of credit, obviously, is due Lemmons, an impressively meticulous writer and director, given that this was her directorial debut. All her female characters are carefully constructed, and above all else, real. They cannot be defined in a word–strong, brave, confident–for they embody all spheres of womanhood at once. They are both tough and fragile, independent and vulnerable, smart and foolish. If there’s one complaint I have about Eve’s Bayou it’s that her male characters aren’t given the same treatment. They are thinly, unfairly drawn, and pale miserably in comparison to their female counterparts. 

But perhaps that’s just as well. The film belongs to Eve and somewhat less to her older sister Cisely. Lemmons imbues Eve with an autonomy rarely permitted black people on screen, let alone black women: She is the author of her own story. She needs no well-meaning young white person to relay the tale on her behalf (see–or don’t, actually–The Help and/or pretty much any movie about sub-saharan Africa). Framing the film is adult Eve’s shockingly cool voiceover: “Memory is a selection of images, some elusive, others printed indelibly on the brain. The summer I killed my father I was ten-years-old.” And like that she becomes our guide, leading us through this world. Her world.

Smollett and Lynn Whitfield in Eve's Bayou

Smollett and Lynn Whitfield in Eve’s Bayou

Cisely, by the same token, is given the freedom to be downright unlikable.  She is fourteen, trapped in that horrible purgatory between childhood and adulthood, struggling to find who she wants to be. She’s snobbish, a shameless daddy’s girl, and consistently uses her father’s affection to undermine her mother, playing an inadvertent role in wedging them apart. Although, it can be argued that her biggest mistake, which brings the story to its dark climax, is intended to bring them together. Whatever the case, it’s doubtful that you will like her for it by the end; and that’s okay. The point is she exists beyond the rigid confines usually placed upon characters of color and women, and Eve does, too. 

Somehow, writers and filmmakers have confused the demand for “strong female characters” with “perfect female characters.” “Strong” does not necessarily equate with being likable or perfect or saintly. It simply means carved in the image of truth.

These are the characters I fell in love with when I was a child and made me–unable to phrase it at the time, but surely able to feel it–long for more of the same: Girls who were like the ones that I knew. Not perfect, just real.

TO  BE CONTINUED…

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Movies I Love That You Probably Hate

THE GREAT GATSBY (1974)

GREAT-GATSBY-THE-1974-006

If you thought critics were harsh on Baz Luhrmann‘s recent adaptation of The Great American Novelmore popularly known as The Great Gatsbythink again. Equally as hyped as its 2013 big screen successor, the 1974 version of F. Scott Fitzgerald‘s classic was uniformly ripped, swallowed, and projectile vomited; it currently holds a miserable 37 percent approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes (that’s 12 percent less than Luhrmann’s gaudy 3D fest). Penned by Francis Ford Coppola at the height of his game–the auteur had just won the Palme d’Or for The Conversation (1974) and was on the verge of releasing The Godfather Part II later that year–with Jack Clayton in the director’s seat, the film also featured seventies’ hotshots (now icons) Sam Waterston, Mia Farrow and Robert Redford.

With all this going for it, the film seemed a sure hit, and it was, financially if not critically. Despite all the naysayers, audiences seemed to like the flick, which even earned the endorsement of none other than Tennessee Williams–a name as worshipped and adored as Gatsby‘s own author–who remarked  that the film “even surpassed, I think, the novel by Scott Fitzgerald.” 

Apropos, the novel itself was met with ambivalence upon its initial release. It sold far less than expected and literary critics were loathe to call the book decent let alone a classic. Nowadays, the distinctly American story of dreamy bootlegger Jay Gatsby and his tragic love for the rich and ultimately unattainable Daisy Buchanan can be found on the shelf of any half-enthusiastic reader, if only because they forgot to return the book to their high school teacher at the end of term. It’s not so much required reading as it is so ingrained in public conscious that by now it’s inescapable.

Mia Farrow as Daisy Buchanan in The Great Gatsby

Mia Farrow as Daisy Buchanan in The Great Gatsby

Criticism of the film wasn’t all bad; in fact, most of the detractors commented on what a faithful adaptation it was, but argued that the novel’s spirit and vibrancy was somehow lost en route to the big screen. Obviously, since I’m writing about it, I humbly beg to differ. I’m not a huge stickler for faithful adaptations, unless diverging from the text somehow compromises or oversimplifies important elements, but I thought the filmmakers translated in all its literal and spiritual beauty rather well, when all is considered. I can’t imagine it’s an easy feat filming a novel renowned and loved for its lyricism above all else. Rather boldly, Fitzgerald’s words are limited to a framing device, rather than sprinkled heavy-handedly throughout the film like a certain more recent adaptation.

Robert Redford & Mia Farrow in The Great Gatsby

Robert Redford & Mia Farrow in The Great Gatsby

The performances here are nothing to sneer at either. Bruce Dern as the haughty bully Tom Buchanan, Karen Black as his ill-fated mistress, and Waterston as our  jaded narrator, all put in some of their best work.  Unfortunately, the film’s leads are not as up to the task. To be fair, Daisy Buchanan is meant to be a flighty and unlikable character; so in that respect, mission accomplished. But Daisy is also described as vivacious and charming; she is the siren that beckons Gatsby to his doom. Farrow’s Daisy is shrill and fatuous, and Redford’s Gatsby could not be more uninterested. According to Farrow, Redford was too invested in the Watergate scandals (and just two years later he would play Watergate reporter Bob Woodward in All the President’s Men) to care much about the project at hand.  It’s a pity because Gatsby isn’t a hugely complex  character to begin with; the legend of Jay Gatsby is more interesting than the actual man, a naive seventeen-year-old’s invention, singularly defined by an obsession with worth–for it is worth that he’s ultimately after. It’s not love that motivates Gatsby so much as a tragic desperation to fill up his life with these things of value–Daisy being the topmost prize–and consequently give himself the value he cannot seem to find within. It’s not a role that you can phone in, because Gatsby is more of a concept than a character, a stand-in through whom the American Dream is revealed for all its emptiness, and a bored performance like Redford’s makes this glaringly obvious when it really shouldn’t be.

 In that way, this Gatsby does fail, but somehow not enough to diminish the film in my heart.  Maybe chalk it up to nostalgia, or fine performances from the supporting cast, a winsome score, a flawless Ralph Lauren wardrobe, and above all else, a story that hits home as hard today as it did almost ninety years ago.

Movies I Love You Probably Hate…

THE TREE OF LIFE (2011)

The O'Briens in Malick's The Tree of Life

The O’Briens in Malick’s The Tree of Life

It shouldn’t, and likely doesn’t, come as a surprise that the most polarizing film of 2011 came from Terrence MalickThe Tree of Lifewhich I consider to be the auteur’s magnum opus–is a sprawling, arguably pretentious, undeniably poignant, elegy to childhood and ode to the human experience. An ambitious effort, to be sure, all the more praiseworthy that Malick managed to pull it off, if a bit awkwardly. It’s true the film is long and could do with a fair bit of editing. It jumps back and forth between the present and the past, and blurs the line between memory and sheer fancy (such as a scene where baby Jack meets a giant in a random room) to further complicate things. And yet, the film is all the more amazing despite these flaws. The very definition of imperfectly perfect, The Tree of Life is true to life in that the journey is all over the place and so many questions remain unanswered; if you’re looking for an ordered trajectory or neatly packaged conclusion here, you will be disappointed.

As always with Malick, you either hate him or you love him. I can’t imagine anyone witnessing a Malick production and then emerging indifferent. Although that year The Tree of Life managed to scoop up the Palme D’or, the highest honor the Cannes Film Festival has to offer, the film divided critics and audiences alike. Several people reported walking out in the first third of the film, and even some of those who stayed regretted it. Naysayers have called the film “dull,” “a mess,” and of course, “pretentious.” But I have to say, for me, the things that most people hated–lingering shots of the landscape, drawn out silences, whispered, half-finished thoughts–are the things I loved.

Mr. Malick filming Jessica Chastain & Laramie Eppeler

Mr. Malick filming Jessica Chastain & Laramie Eppeler

Malick’s brand of filmmaking reminds me of the John Keats quote in Bright Star when he is explaining the “point” of poetry:

“The point of diving into a lake is not immediately to swim to the shore but to be in the lake, to luxuriate in the sensation of water. You do not work the lake out, it is a experience beyond thought. Poetry soothes and emboldens the soul to accept the mystery.”

And this is Malick in a nutshell.

Adult Jack O’Brien (Sean Penn) reflects on his childhood in Waco, Texas with his younger brothers (Laramie Eppeler and Tye Sheridan) and their parents (Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain in a breakthrough performance). In the film’s opening moments, Jack’s mother–the emotional crux of the film–describes the difference between Nature and Grace. “Nature only wants to please itself, have others please it, too…Grace accepts being slighted, forgotten, disliked…”

Jessica Chastain and Hunter McCracken in The Tree of Life

Jessica Chastain and Hunter McCracken in The Tree of Life

Young Jack (in a heartbreaking and natural performance by Hunter McCracken) struggles to walk the way of Grace, and envies his brother R. L. (Eppeler), to whom it seems to come rather natural. Moreover, R. L. is clearly the favorite of both parents. This, combined with Mr. O’Brien’s totalitarian disciplinary measures, causes Jack to act out in ways that distress his family, but most of all himself.

It would be disingenuous to say that the film has no plot, because it certainly does, but what we’re mainly experiencing is one man’s memories. This is no clearer anywhere than in the plot summaries of the film, which simply describe it as a chronicle of a boy’s “loss of innocence.” But there’s no one event that shatters Jack’s innocence, yanking him into the messy, complicated world of adulthood. Quite simply, we get to watch him grow up. All of the random, seemingly meaningless or innocuous scenes–Jack swimming with his brothers; seeing injustice for the first time; seeing death for the first time; undergoing a sexual awakening–all these things contribute to a much larger portrait of what it means to become a man.

Mrs. O'Brien & her boys

Mrs. O’Brien & her boys

And that’s probably what I find most amazing about this film: Malick took a universal, supposedly mundane experience and turned it into something truly remarkable to behold. Or maybe he just made us realize the truth of what it’s been all along.

Movies I Love That You Probably Hate…

Everybody has that one embarrassing flick buried deep within the crevices of their movie shelf; that film you’d never publicly admit to liking, or loving, not even to your closest friends for fear of certain condemnation. Movie snobs, to be sure, are the absolute worst offenders; judgmental as they are, they’re reminded bitterly of their own humanity whenever they find themselves chuckling at a pot joke in a Seth Rogen comedy. For every 2001: A Space Odyssey (1961) there’s bound to be a treasured copy of Mommie Dearest (1981) somewhere nearby. The truth is “high art” is all well and good, but often the connections we bridge to certain stories have more to do with the heart and less to do with the mind.

THE VILLAGE (2004)

village_stills

Joaquin Phoenix in The Village

I know it’s hard to remember a time when people didn’t projectile vomit at the mention of M. Night Shyamalan, but not so long ago he was a promising director and his films much anticipated. In fact, it was probably about the time Shyamalan released The Village, that the general public’s disillusionment with him first began.

For my money, The Village is his best; yes, even above The Sixth Sense (1999). Unfortunately, much to its detriment, the film was largely marketed as a horror/thriller, when actually, the thrills came few and far in between and the horror turned out to be empty threat. Despite massive success at the box office, the film was critically panned and most people emerged from the theater either scratching their heads or demanding their money refunded. 

So The Village didn’t quite deliver on its promise to follow The Sixth Sense in terms of bone-chilling creepiness and somehow managed to be even less suspenseful than Signs, but once you embrace the movie for what it actually is–a  simple ode to what it means to be human–it becomes nothing short of exquisite.  

Pennsylvania, circa 1897: The close-knit villagers of a scenic town live in constant fear of the nameless creatures who inhabit the woods bordering their community. But it’s soon revealed that the mystery of the creatures is nothing compared to the mystery of the town’s elders: August Nicholson (a very understated Brendan Gleeson), who has just lost his young son to illness; kindly schoolteacher Edward Walker (William Hurt); and Alice Hunt (Sigourney Weaver). Each curiously harbors a mysterious green box in the corners of their respective houses, never opened and if it can be helped, rarely alluded to. The younger generation–Alice’s son Lucius Hunt (Joaquin Phoenix), Edward’s daughter Ivy Walker (Bryce Dallas Howard) and Noah Percy (Adrien Brody)–are at the crux of the drama. Lucius and Ivy fall in love, precipitating a shocking event that threatens to tear the village apart at the seams.  

Bryce Dallas Howard in The Village

Bryce Dallas Howard in The Village

 

These characters serve collectively as the film’s emotional compass, and make no mistake, this is a very sentimental film. “The world moves for love,” Mr. Walker tells a wary group of elders. “It kneels before it an awe.” Indeed, almost every action in the film is guided by love, the fear of losing it perhaps even more than the joy of finding it. And though all of this might sound schmaltzy, somehow it works. Phoenix and Howard have a sweet, tender chemistry, making them easy to root for and providing solid, believable foundation for the film’s overarching question: What is fear in the face of love? 

It handles the theme of those darker aspects of human nature a bit more heavy-handedly. Each of the elders has lost a loved one to uncommonly tragic circumstances, but the reveal, or the “Shyamalan twist” is revealed clumsily, way too late in the film for us to really care and long after it even matters.

Thankfully, from a technical standpoint, there’s not a single misstep to be found. You really can’t go wrong when you’ve got masters like Roger Deakins and James Newton Howard in your arsenal. Howard’s score, accented with haunting violin solos from Hilary Hahn, is probably the film’s strongest suit (his composition earned the film its only Academy Award nomination) and provides suspense where the writing otherwise fails. Meanwhile, Deakins’s artful eye echoes the Sublime with his picturesque shots of the Pennsylvania countryside. 

The Village is by no means a masterpiece. No one could ever say that. But it is a fine example of good filmmaking. The sweeping, meticulously shot cinematography, James Newton Howard’s pitch perfect score and some truly transcendent performances (especially given some hard-to-deliver lines) all make for one commendable film.