Native Sons: Dope vs. Straight Outta Compton

dope-movie-download-poster

Young black men coming of age in troubled environments (read: the hood) have proven successful with audiences and critics for some time now: Do the Right Thing (1989), Boyz in the Hood (1991), Juice (1992), Menace II Society (1993), Baby Boy (2001), etc. It’s a familiar tale, and this year two films on the same theme enjoyed much the same welcome. Yet for all their promise, Sundance-darling Dope and N. W. A. biopic Straight Outta Compton both fail – not just politically, but cinematically – to meet the standard of a genre packed with classics. Unlike their predecessors, here the acclaim (especially over the top in Compton‘s case) two such mediocre pictures managed to achieve feels almost patronizing.

They do succeed, however, in one critical way, essential really, to these Black Boy-narratives.

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Apart from black casts and black directors – a rare thing, admittedly – Straight Outta Compton and Dope don’t seem immediately comparable. Dope tells the story of self-proclaimed “geek” Malcolm Adekanbi (Shameik Moore), who finds himself saddled with an incarcerated drug dealer’s stash, forcing him to sell the drugs for his own safety and threatening his dreams of Harvard. Meanwhile, Straight Outta Compton chronicles the success and hardships of N. W. A. members Dr. Dre (Corey Hawkins), Ice Cube (O’Shea Jackson Jr. – Cube’s real life son) and Eazy – E (Jason Mitchell), whose anthem “Fuck the Police” galvanized a generation.

Straight_Outta_Compton_poster_usa

On the brink of Straight Outta Compton‘s release, Selma director Ava Duvernay tweeted, “To be a woman who loves hip hop at times is to be in love with your abuser.” Much like hip hop, when consuming these immensely popular films that center black boys and diminish black girls, the latter is continually expected to compartmentalize. You see, a win for black men is a win for us all. The black male experience in America has long meant to suffice for the black female as well. Except, black manhood in America has been, from its origins, a tricky ordeal steeped in insecurity. All the privilege of gender coupled with the disadvantage of race gave way to many anxieties, not least of them the “healthy achievement of manhood” (bell hooks, Ain’t I A Woman) predicated on the subordination of black women. Such is the pleasure of misogynoir, that space where sexism and racism overlap for black women. So you can see why this is a dangerous face for the whole of the black experience to wear.

From the beginning I suspected Straight Outta Compton would have a serious “Woman” problem. It didn’t take long to appear either. Even before filming started, a leaked casting call raised eyebrows and turned stomachs with its racist physical requirements.

STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON: Hawkins, Jackson, Mitchell, 2015.

STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON, Hawkins, Jackson, Mitchell, 2015.

Dope, meanwhile, seems to possess all the ingredients of something new, progressive, and different – a lesbian main character, a nerdy black hero – but does nothing with them. In many ways, the film is a kind of meta-work: a loving shout-out to the ’90s and indeed the era of hip hop N. W. A. themselves helped to usher in. No doubt Famuyiwa even took most of his cues from Gray’s own Friday. But stunning costumes aside, the film’s performances are lopsided (its best actors Kimberly Elise and Roger Guenveur Smith are wasted although Moore makes for a solid lead); the plot is meandering, bordering on clunky; and there is a bizarre perpetration of dangerous myths about the black community. And while certainly a diverse entry into the – largely white – teen comedy genre, for a film set in present-day Los Angeles, there is not a single dark-skinned female in sight, much less within the main cast. What’s more, none of the women who do appear have anything resembling a personality. Chanel Iman makes a humiliating cameo as a messy, poor little drugged-out rich girl; Kiersey Clemons’ Diggy is defined strictly by her sexuality and her “boyish” appearance; while Zoe Kravitz is sidelined as little more than the object of Malcolm’s sexual fixation.

Zoe Kravitz, DOPE, 2015.

DOPE, Zoe Kravitz, , 2015.

Historically, black music, film, and literature has often juxtaposed the fair-skinned black woman as romantic and feminine next to the dark-skinned black woman, nagging and sexless. But Dope and Straight Outta Compton have removed the latter altogether.

While unsurprising in both cases, with the film’s surviving subjects Dre and Cube acting as producers while their close friend F. Gary Gray directed, Compton never really stood a chance. The result: a predictably safe vanity piece, sacrificing complexity for likability when it comes to its main characters. No matter. The underdog elements inherent in N. W. A.’s story along with their wide fanbase assured the film blockbuster status long before it hit the big screen. Fans of the group and hip hop in general are rewarded with iconic tunes and endless cameos, including Snoop Dogg and Tupac. The performances – particularly from Jackson as Cube and Mitchell as Eazy – are solid. There’s even room for some lasting imagery like the group running from police after a concert. But Compton breaks no rules. You learn nothing new; in fact, you’re more likely to be misled by the film than you are to get an honest sense of its heroes. 

One huge, if widely overlooked aspect of N. W. A.’s legacy was their unabashed misogyny. True, these talented young men revolutionized a genre and articulated the pain of a generation; but they also really hated women. Black women, specifically. It was not just an image; it transcended their music and seeped into the way they lived their lives. Somehow, Dre emerges as the film’s beacon of light: a humble genius dedicated to the music and a kind of savior (after all, it’s Dre who convinces Eazy to stop selling drugs and focus on rapping). Hawkins puts in a commendable effort, but anybody who knows even a little bit about Dre and his scowling persona could spot the deceit in this depiction of him.

Ironic that in the effort to sterilize this history, the film itself becomes an act of misogyny. Much ado has already been made over the decision to remove Dre’s brutal assault of music reporter Dee Barnes from the film, but it hardly ends there. Dre also physically and emotionally tormented his ex-fiance and mother of his son, R & B singer Michel’le, even going so far as to shoot at her.

Of course, the waters of controversy quelled as soon as Dre made a public apology. The film went on to earn millions worldwide and the reception – for all its shortcomings – has been nothing short of glowing.

It’s a disappointing departure from the diversity of last year’s black cinema when we had comedy (Top Five), satire (Dear White People), period drama (Belle), romance (Beyond the Lights), and historical drama (Selma). We seem to have returned once again to the conventional, and it’s true, there’s no place for black women there.

 

On ‘Girlhood,’ ‘Juice,’ and Depression in the Black Community

L - R: Assa Sylla as Lady, Mariétou Touré as Fily, Lindsay Karamoh as Adiatou, and Karidja Touré as Vic

GIRLHOOD, Assa Sylla, Lindsay Karamoh, Karidja Touré, Mariétou Touré, 2014.

Given the current climate of the movie industry – that is, the general lack of films about black people who are not servants, slaves, or sassy best friends – I’ve lately been returning to some “old” gems from my childhood. Perhaps naturally, upon reaching adulthood an instinctive nostalgia sets in, but it’s hard to deny that the ’90s was a relatively prosperous era for black film and television. The stories and representations of blackness varied on the big and small screen. Today, television fares much better when it comes to diversity and casting black people “against type.” But the fact remains in the ’90s we had The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Moesha, Martin, The Parkers, Smart Guy, Sister Sister, Cousin Skeeter, Kenan & Kel, Living Single, Family Matters, among many others; today we have Black-ish and Empire. And consider this: the most recognizable (largely because they have been “legitimized” by the Academy) black filmmakers working today – Ava DuVernay, Steve McQueen, and Lee Daniels – have received such recognition for strikingly monolithic films about black oppression.

Black suffering framed as cinematic is hardly a novel business. Black and white filmmakers alike have profited from such images. But whatever the intention behind them, however objectively “good” these films turn out, few have emerged with a full, meaningful depiction of this pain – why it is, where it comes from.

Until recently, I had written Juice (1992) off as one such film: a half-painted portrait of black man-pain. Ernest R. Dickerson’s directorial debut follows four best friends – Bishop (Tupac Shakur), Rahim (Khalil Kain), Steel (Jermaine Hopkins) and Q (Omar Epps) – through the treacherous, if familiar streets of Harlem. The teenagers regularly forgo school for arcade halls, record shops, and Steel’s house while his parents are at work. A necessary ennui clouds the first half hour of Juice, and it’s the chemistry and earnest performances from the actors that keep the film engaging. When the unlikable if immensely sympathetic Bishop sees on the news that an acquaintance has been shot during a robbery, something disturbing awakens in him. Already grappling with classical notions of masculinity, he decides they should hold up a nearby corner store. At first, his idea is met with resistance, especially from Q, who would rather be DJing. But by the time he returns from a successful audition to spin records at a neighborhood nightclub, Bishop has convinced Rahim and Steel to participate in the heist. Q concedes reluctantly, but no good can come of this, and predictably the once close group of friends find themselves violently ripped apart by fear, guilt, and murder.

JUICE, Tupac Shakur, Jermaine Hopkins, Omar Epps, Khalil Kain, 1992.

JUICE, Tupac Shakur, Jermaine Hopkins, Omar Epps, Khalil Kain, 1992.

Of course, Juice portrays an exaggerated case, but the film this time around struck me as an apt and ever relevant commentary on depression in the black community. We don’t know a lot about Bishop except that he lives with his grandmother and his sickly father who is confined to a wheelchair. We also know that Bishop feels powerless a lot. Two scenes where he’s confronted by a local gang bookend the character’s transformation: In the first scene, his friends come to his aid and he is emboldened by their protection. In the second scene, his friends abandon him and so he resorts to a more dire approach. Violence seems to make him feel powerful. Perhaps understandably so. All of these characters seem trapped by something unspoken and indiscernible: with the exception of Q, none of them seem to hope for a better life than the aimless one they’re living now. This powerlessness, this hopelessness, is depression, which prevails in impoverished communities and is especially exacerbated by systemic racism.

The CDC recently reported black people were 4 percent more likely to report depression than their white counterparts; and considering that generally women are more likely to suffer depression than men, this means black women experience depression at a higher rate than the rest of the population, too.

GIRLHOOD

GIRLHOOD

Enter Girlhood (2014). When I first watched the film at last year’s London Film Festival, I left the theater starry-eyed. Here was the “carefree black girl” film I had been waiting for all my life. Even now, three viewings and countless think pieces later, Girlhood remains a fascinating, if ultimately conventional film. It hurts to admit this – it feels dishonest to the exuberance of my first viewing – but I think black women are so starved for images of ourselves that we don’t always question the ones we do get especially when they’re as beautifully imagined as Girlhood. 

The film tells the story of 16-year-old Vic, formerly known as Marieme (Karidja Touré), who, much like the boys of Juice, also feels stuck. She finds herself switched to the vocational track after twice failing the same year, and the future she sees before her – undoubtedly represented by her single mother who cleans hotels – seems bleak. Physically abused and constantly policed by her older brother, and often left alone to care for her younger sisters, she finds welcome reprieve in a group of lovably fiery girls: Lady (Assa Sylla), Adiatou (Lindsay Karamoh), and Fily (Mariétou Touré). Among them, Vic flourishes and her world doesn’t seem so dim after all. Unfortunately, the film loses all its energy once Vic exits this girl group, inexplicably to become a drug runner for a local dealer.

Far from radical, Girlhood resembles many “hood” and banlieu films before it. The main difference is this time around the film is populated by girls. For all director Céline Sciamma’s claims to the contrary, Girlhood is quite like Boyhood (2014): Both films assume a stance of universality. Little reference is made to the heritage of these girls, not to mention the fact that so many non-black women have co-opted the film as representative of all girls when black girlhood is a famously specific and isolating experience. In an ideal world, universality would be fine. As it stands, we live in a world where blackness is constantly erased or under threat of erasure. In a xenophobic France where immigrants are constantly demonized, Sciamma’s efforts to align these girls with a country that sees them as “other” are arguably noble. But if one has to erase blackness in order to humanize it, can we really call it a triumph?

Let me be clear: It is not a triumph; for while explicitly erasing their heritage, Sciamma’s narrative still benefits from racial stereotypes, at its most glaring when it comes to the film’s men, like Vic’s brutish older brother and the evil drug runner who preys on a hopeless Vic and leads her into a life of danger and depravity. There’s also the question of the violence–heavy-handed and contrived in its execution–that seems to dominate the girls’ lives. Fighting seems to be a casual element of their everyday comings and goings (they even get into a shouting match with another group of girls on a train station platform), and maybe there’s a metaphor in there somewhere, but it feels more like something Sciamma thinks black girls do.

Objectively, Girlhood is not a bad film. if I have any problem with the movie at all, it’s that it challenges nothing. It is not the revolutionary film we all want and need it to be. On the contrary, it continues in the tradition of so many other faux liberal films before it, mimicking rather than exploring what it means to grow up black and stymied.

The Fall of Eve: Female Sexuality in Eve’s Bayou (1997)

eves bayou poster

Yes, I know; I have exhausted the topic of Eve’s Bayou beyond repair, but allow me to add another element to the conversation, one that makes this film extremely relevant in a way I’d never considered before.

My initial reaction to Kasi Lemmons’s stellar directorial debut was something like gratitude. Here was a story about a little black girl, told by a little black girl, that had nothing to do with her blackness. Representation in film is no small thing, especially when almost twenty years later, films from the perspective of African-American girls remain a novelty. Much later I discovered The Color Purple (1985) and Crooklyn (1994), but it wasn’t until 2012 with the arrival of Beasts of the Southern Wild that a film even remotely rivaled the affect Eve Batiste’s story had on me.  That’s largely due to the bottomless implications of the tale Eve (played by Jurnee Smollett) spins for us.

“The summer I killed my father I was ten-years-old,” she says in voice-over narration, and we witness how, deep in small town-Louisiana, circa 1963, Eve’s innocence is lost. It all starts when she wakes in the carriage house one night to find her father Louis (Samuel L. Jackson) having sex with a woman (Lisa Nicole Carson) not her mother (Lynn Whitfield). This event precipitates not just Eve’s “fall” but that of her older sister Cisely (Meagan Good).  

Lynn Whitfield, Meagan Good, and Jurnee & Jake Smollett in Eve's Bayou

Lynn Whitfield, Meagan Good, and Jurnee & Jake Smollett in Eve’s Bayou

I often came close, but one thing I’ve never deeply examined is how closely the film mimics the Fall of Man, framed in a distinctly feminist context. Our main character isn’t called Eve for nothing. Technically, her namesake is a slave ancestor who healed a cholera-stricken general and then proceeded to bear him sixteen children. But the film’s many Biblical references connect our Eve more strongly to her Biblical counterpart. Of course, we all know the original: God made Adam and Eve, and they lived together in innocent bliss til a serpent tempted Eve with an apple from the Tree of Knowledge. Eve took a bite before offering it to Adam, and thus was born Original Sin, culminating in their expulsion from the Garden of Eden. In the film, there’s a recurring snake motif. Eve and her brother play down by the bayou and stumble across a snake they believe is dead. Eve–and it’s important that it’s Eve–picks it up only to discover that it’s very much alive. In another scene, in order to abate her boredom, Eve places a toy snake on her brother’s pillow beside his head to scare him when he wakes up. Finally, at Eve’s behest, voodoo woman Elzora feeds Louis’s hair to a snake in order to bring about his death.  Eve does her part, too, by hinting heavily to family friend Mr. Meraux that his wife and Louis are having an affair, in a shot set up so that behind Smollett, all that can be seen is a stand stacked with bright red apples.

Historically, culturally, women are regularly portrayed as “seducers” who wield their sexuality like a weapon against men, helpless to resist.  Perhaps that’s part of the reason we as a society can’t seem to wrap our heads around the concept that when a woman’s body is violated it is never, not ever, her fault. In the female-dominated Eve’s Bayou the women are sexually autonomous, not only welcoming but often initiating acts of passion. But considering this is a film placed firmly in the hands of children, a Gothic coming-of-age tale what’s more,  this theme takes on an altogether different, grotesque tone.

The incident that becomes the catalyst for Louis’s death as caused by Eve, is a not very filial kiss between him and Cisely, his clear favorite among his children. The film never gives us a precise answer as to who initiates the kiss, but no matter; it still suggests that black girls are not allowed to explore their sexuality in  a healthy, safe way. Eve, too, certainly suffers a massive blow to her development by witnessing her father with another woman, in what is likely to be her first encounter with sex. I’ve mentioned before in this post the parallels between Eve’s Bayou and Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye (1970). Most importantly both works, astounding debuts from African-American women writers, feature the victimization of young black American girls, whose innocence, traditionally, has neither been protected nor valued in a way that other cultures protect the girlhood of their children. Feminist scholar bell hooks has spoken at length over the years about the fetishization of the abused black female body, especially as it relates to big screen imagery, and this was one of her chief complaints about Beasts and 12 Years a Slave (2013).

This element of the film is not unimportant given recent cases like Amber Cole and Dylan Farrow, and the way girls (women, of course, but most importantly even girls) are still viewed as somehow responsible for being taken advantage of.

12 Years A Slave Review

years a slae

Is it too late to talk about 12 Years a Slave ? Don’t care. I’m going for it anyway. Artist-auteur-genius-king-unicorn Steve McQueen continues to prove himself one of this era’s most radical filmmakers, simply by being honest. His is a voice distinct–powerful, unreservedly straightforward–and much-needed in the sea of shameless monotony that is Hollywood. It should come as no surprise then to learn he is British. More than ever before, media outlets were quick to point out his nationality when the time came to promote 12 Years A Slave, even though, of his three feature-length films, McQueen has yet to make a film located in his native Britain (Hunger told the story of IRA legend Bobby Sands and Shame took place in New York). I can only assume the fact he is British  matters now because detractors failed to find fault with 12 Years A Slave itself.

And so again and again interviewers and critics asked McQueen if he felt that he could (read: who do you think you are to…) tell this story, and he promptly shut them down each time.  He gave his most beautiful response early on at this year’s Toronto Film Festival:

“Yes, I’m British. My parents come from the West Indies–Grenada. My mother was born in Trinidad. Grenada is where Malcolm X’s mother was born. Trinidad is where (Stokely) Carmichael was born, who coined the phrase ‘black power.’ It’s complex. Marcus Garvey, Colin Powell, Sidney Poitier, Harry Belafonte, I mean American, West Indian, British…it’s about slavery. Chiwetel is British-Nigerian, and then we have Lupita, a Mexican-Kenyan. It’s about that triangle. It’s not about me being British. It’s about me being part of that history.”

The fact that so many have questioned his “right” to tell this story, verging on the most absurd accusations of appropriation, suggests to me he did something right.

A perhaps unnecessary caveat: You will not enjoy Solomon Northup‘s (Chiwetel Ejiofor) tale, that of a free, educated man, loving husband, gentle father, who is tricked from his home in New York and sold into slavery in the Deep South. It is not a story of redemption, and I hesitate call it one of hope. Yes, hope carries Solomon through in the end, and he turns his dreadful experience into a platform for abolitionism and activism, but his captors are never brought to justice. And the film is so thickly shrouded in darkness that even the light at the end of the tunnel seems powerless to overcome it all.

Lupita Nyong'o as Patsey in 12 Years A Slave

Lupita Nyong’o as Patsey in 12 Years A Slave

12 Years A Slave  follows in the tradition of McQueen’s gritty, raw predecessors with its unflinching look–stare, actually–at the stark reality of slavery. This is not for the faint-hearted. The whipping scenes go on and on and on and on and on and on. The cruelty, the dehumanization is even more painful, and that should tell you a lot. One woman is separated from her children and then told by her white mistress, “Have some food…your children will soon be forgotten.” Well, then.

What makes this such a remarkable story on several levels is how straightforward yet complex it is. Far too long slavery and pretty much all films about American history that touch (for they rarely delve deeper) on the oppression of black people have been reductive. This incredibly dark and tragic time in our history has been reduced to little more than a fable. The message is always this: Racism is bad. Back in the dark ages, there were evil white people, but there were good white people, too. The good white people saved the poor black people. Racism is bad. The end. And that right there, is why racism is so far from being over. For it is not a demon perpetrated by evil people. It is a pervasive, deep-rooted enemy, hatred at its worst, but in its most common form it is ignorance. And anybody can be ignorant, willfully or otherwise.  All it needs to survive is privilege. This is evidenced in Solomon’s time with Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch). Ford can hardly be described as despicable. When he first appears, he attempts to buy Eliza (a sadly underwhelming Adepero Oduye) and her children together, only to be thwarted by a callous Paul Giamatti.  Ford rolls over rather easily and contents himself with Eliza and Solomon. Ford is indicative of most people at the time. He is a man comfortable in his own privilege. He likes Solomon, is kind to him, but he is ultimately unwilling to go beyond what is comfortable and safe for him.

Compared to Epps (a deliciously sadistic Michael Fassbender), Ford is a saint. Epps boasts himself a “nigger-breaker,” but it would be more appropriate to call him an alcoholic sociopath. Fassbender delivers a stellar performance, perfectly matched to Ejiofor’s heartfelt, luminous performance as Solomon.  It is at this point that Patsey (newcomer Lupita Nyong’o) enters the film, and practically steals the show with her silent elegance and unwavering dignity. Solomon might be the soul of the film, but Patsey is undoubtedly the heart. Unlike Solomon, as far as we know there is no happy ending for her, and very little reprieve from her despair. She finds herself in a doubly unfortunate position, not just as a slave, but the unlucky subject of Epps’s unwanted attentions, and by turn his wife’s jealousy and disgust. Between the two Epps, Patsey is tortured to the point that she fantasizes about death. Nyong’o easily gives one of the best performances of the year, especially commendable given her comparatively little screen time and dialogue. The rest of the cast (a who’s who of today’s most sought after talent: Cumberbatch, Giamatti, Paulson, Paul Dano, and Brad Pitt) is just strong, doing Solomon’s story justice. 

The film itself is a hard pill to swallow, but if you can manage to swallow it more than once, it’s worth it. Beautifully acted and shot, 12 Years A Slave is definitely due for some recognition come awards season. I can only hope that more than it is recognized it is awarded, Ejiofor and Nyong’o in particular. Perhaps the film’s only failing is the sadly homogeneous score by Hans Zimmer, which, though effective, seems a relatively careless effort and sounds too much like his other scores (most notably The Thin Red Line) to make a real impact.

It’s definitely not easy viewing, but I recommend it, for a refreshingly stark portrait of one  of America’s darkest periods.

5 out of 5*

The Brownest Eyes: African-American Girlhood on Screen

Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012)

Quvenzhané Wallis as Hushpuppy in Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012)

Quvenzhané Wallis as Hushpuppy in Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012)

Every year, the all mighty AMPAS deign to recognize (not reward, mind you) one little indie film that could, and last year it was Benh Zeitlin‘s directorial debut Beasts of the Southern Wild. Based on Lucy Alibar’s one-act play  Juicy and Delicious about a little boy who watches his father get sicker as the world comes to an end, Beasts of the Southern Wild remains largely the same wild, magical tale, about a little girl instead. Then 26-year-old Zeitlin (now 30 ) shot with a small production crew and cast locals in his starring roles. Quvenzhané Wallis delivers, at just five-years-old, a weighty performance as the indomitable Hushpuppy, and Dwight Henry is just as mesmerizing and heartbreaking as her ill father Wink.

Hushpuppy and Wink live on a fictional Louisiana island called The Bathtub, and share a close, if unconventional bond. Hot-headed Wink actively implements the “tough love” philosophy with his young daughter, toting her around roughly by her shorts and sneering at any “delicate” behavior on her part. In one memorable scene, he tells her to “Beast it!” while she’s eating a plate of crab legs, and after following his instructions, screams, “Who’s the man?” Hushpuppy replies appropriately, “I‘m the man!”

Director Benh Zeitlin and Quvenzhané Wallis filming

Director Benh Zeitlin and Quvenzhané Wallis filming

But it isn’t long before the fragile walls of Hushpuppy’s world start to crumble and the outside comes creeping in–literally. As a deadly storm approaches, many of the Bathtub’s tight-knit community leave. Prehistoric boar-like creatures called “Aurochs,” recently released by melting icecaps, accompany the storm. Meanwhile, poor Hushpuppy is left to make sense of the disarray as best she can.

Easily the best thing about this film is that it’s entirely Hushpuppy’s perspective. Everything is filtered through her curious, childlike gaze, elevating an otherwise simple story about a girl coming to grips with the end of her world as she knows it to a magical odyssey to self-discovery quite unlike anything we’ve seen on screen before. She’s at an age where she’s in awe of almost everything. Our first glimpse of Hushpuppy is her wandering around, fascinated, after the animals in her yard. “All the time, everywhere, everything’s hearts are beating and squirting and talking to each other the ways I can’t understand,” she narrates thoughtfully in a voice-over. “Most of the time they probably be saying: I’m hungry, or I gotta poop. But sometimes, they be talking in codes,” she says, a bird pressed softly to her ear so she can better hear its heartbeat.

 Part-fable, part-coming-of-age story, Hushpuppy’s journey doesn’t shatter that touching innocence so much as it brings her to poignant revelations like, “I see that I am a little piece of a big, big universe, and that makes it right.” And each time her strength is tested, she confronts the task head-on. Never has courage been so beautiful as the moment Hushpuppy stares down an Auroch at least four times her size. So even when we’re kicked in the gut by the ending, we get the feeling that this kid is definitely going to be alright. She need not be heartless nor callous to be strong; she is brave and unafraid of life’s uncertainties.

Quvenzhané Wallis as Hushpuppy

Quvenzhané Wallis as Hushpuppy

Ben Richardson‘s mesmerizing cinematography and the soaring, powerful score composed by Zeitlin himself and Dan Romer, go a long way into creating Hushpuppy’s world. Though The Bathtub is an impoverished community, there’s not one ugly shot or awkward frame. Everyplace captured holds an otherworldly aura, and the music glides smoothly from the tentative, fanciful piano in “End of the World” to the roaring, jazz-inspired epic “Once There Was a Hushpuppy,” echoing our narrator’s journey from timidity and fear to unshakable strength.

The film opened to widespread acclaim and universal love from critics and audiences alike. Zeitlin went on to garner an Academy Award nomination for directing and the adorable Miss Wallis became the youngest actress ever nominated in the Best Actress category. I will never forgive AMPAS for not nominating the film’s incredible, jubilant score (or Cloud Atlas’s for that matter), but hopefully more people sought Beasts out after every one of its deserved accolades.

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…