Native Sons: Dope vs. Straight Outta Compton

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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.

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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.

 

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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.

Timbuktu (2014) review

TIMBUKTU, Ibrahim Ahmed and Abel Jafri, 2014.

TIMBUKTU, Ibrahim Ahmed and Abel Jafri, 2014.

“Where is God in all of this?” asks the local imam during a critical scene in Abderrahmane Sissako’s Timbuktu. A horde of radical Islamists have charged into a mosque during prayer – not only wearing shoes, but toting guns – and without ever raising his voice the imam makes it clear that they are not welcome. Sissako’s film is full of emblematic scenes like this, beautifully constructed and weighted with irony. In fact, it’s largely this – tragedy levelled with the director’s wry, reserved gaze – that saves the film from the conventional melodrama it very easily could have become. Of course, the imam’s question goes unanswered, but this early moment frames all that unfolds next: the fatal ramifications of a nation violated.

When the Mali city first comes under occupation by religious extremists intent on jihad, the inhabitants meet their presence with bold contempt. Understandably so; these men are outsiders, awkward and immature, and crucially unable to communicate with the people they now police (a translator must accompany them through every interaction).  What’s more, their regulations grow more and more unreasonable by the day. A ban on music and sports and smoking soon graduates to a ban on “any old thing.” At first their hypocrisy and incompetence is amusing. In one scene, the jihadis hear music and investigate only to find that the perpetrators are singing in worship. Stumped, they wonder aloud, “Shall we arrest them?”

But the amusement does not last long. A presumably adulterous couple is buried up to their necks and stoned to death, while another woman (Malian musician Fatoumata Diawara who sings the end credits song “Timbuktu Fasso”) is sentenced to a public whipping of 80 lashes – 40 for singing and another 40 for being alone with men who are not related to her.  

TIMBUKTU, a female fishmonger resists policing, 2014.

TIMBUKTU, a female fishmonger resists policing, 2014.

Meanwhile, on the outskirts of the city, kindly cattle herder Kidane (a measured and heartbreaking performance from newcomer Ibrahim Ahmed) lives peacefully with his wife Satima (Toulou Kiki) and their 12-year-old daughter Toya (Layla Walet Mohamed), generally undisturbed by the draconian measures of the jihadis. But no one is to escape their infringement unscathed. This is not so much Sissako’s design as it is nature’s. These men are not unsympathetic; to the contrary, the horror of it all is how human their fear and insecurity and intolerance is. But unchecked authority in such hands is never a good thing.

Sissako’s grim, but visually stunning tale of one city’s trauma comes at an important time politically. Timbuktu is an explicit indictment, not of Islam but of repression. Unsurprisingly, those most vulnerable to this theocratic vigilance are women. Satima delivers perhaps the film’s most powerful line to the leader of the jihadis, Abdelkrim (Abel Jafri), who insists she cover her hair – while she’s washing it, it should be noted – when she replies that he should not look at what he doesn’t want to see. This misogyny, exacerbated by sexual frustration proves, predictably, to have devastating consequences. One man asks a wizened mother for her daughter in marriage, but when the mother refuses, he takes the girl anyway. This theme gives way to several winking, illustrative images: perhaps the most overt, a shot of a man firing into the distance where two large mounds rise, separated by a carefully positioned patch of grass. 

Arguably the most brilliant scene to emerge from  Timbuktu is the pantomimed football scene where a group of boys, forbidden to play sports, enact a match with an imaginary ball. Beautifully choreographed and filmed with a graceful eye, there’s a palpable sense of triumph about the sequence, particularly after a pair of suspicious jihadis ride through on a motorbike only to leave with no obvious cause to arrest the group.

These moments of levity feel necessary to a film as bleak as Timbuktu often gets, and Sissako masters this tonal balance effortlessly. These little victories won by a stifled people come as a welcome reprieve, and their unrewarded resilience adds yet another layer of tragedy. It’s unfair, but like the climactic shot of Toya racing toward the screen –  echoing the hunted gazelle from the film’s opening sequence – they carry on.

5/5 *

About A (Privileged) Boyhood (2014)

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Boyhood, the latest overpraised effort from Richard Linklater, has the misfortune of playing at a very tense time in America. Right now the residents of Ferguson, Missouri continue to protest after the fatal shooting of yet another unarmed black teenager. This time it was 18-year-old Michael Brown, who was due to begin college this past Monday. His murder set into motion a series of events (chiefly, the protection of the officer who shot him and the blatant smear campaign against the victim by releasing a video of an unrelated robbery) that highlights the worst of the systematic racism so thoroughly intertwined in our culture. Boyhood, for all its claims of ubiquity, presents an altogether different portrait of American adolescence, perhaps not ideal, but still one unencumbered with too harsh realities.

The film follows the life of Mason Evans Jr. (Ellar Coltrane) from age six to age eighteen, and a lot of people seem impressed by the 12 year-span of the shooting schedule  (Boyhood was filmed from the summer of 2002 to October 2013). We watch Mason grow alongside his older sister Sam (Lorelai Linklater) while their single mom Olivia (Patricia Arquette) struggles to provide a good life for herself and her children. Mason’s life is punctuated by frequent appearances from his liberal bohemian father (Ethan Hawke), who does a bit of growing up himself over the course of the film. In the meantime, Mason moves several times across Texas as his mother returns to university and two of her marriages subsequently fall apart. While Boyhood does a fairly precise job of capturing all the usual plot points of a young person’s life–first beer, first kiss, first love, etc.–the darker aspects (two alcoholic stepfathers, domestic abuse) are glossed over. None of these issues are explored very deeply, much less their effect on Mason examined. It seems a boy’s life is less defined by individual experiences than by checking off certain rites of passage. Then again, for a film as universal as Boyhood wants to be, one has to deal in generalities, which brings me to my main problem with the film.

The very title suggests some sweeping, even global depiction of youth, and it’s clear steps were taken in pursuit of that goal, like Mason’s general lack of a personality, making him more a vessel for the audience than an actual character. Coltrane does fine with the material for the most part, though he’s never given a lot to work with, and as he gets older, he’s prone to insufferable musings about the meaning of life, made, if possible, even worse when he is joined in a scene by other characters trying just as hard (and failing) to be profound. If the film succeeds at anything, it’s Mason’s apathy and ennui, typical of those who have been handed most things in life. Because we already disproportionately see films from the White heterosexual male perspective, Boyhood, considered apart from its coming-of-age in real time gimmick (which has also been done before), is rather unexceptional. Perhaps worse, it perpetuates the myth of White privileged childhood as “the norm” when it is actually very specific. By the time we’re made aware of them, the film’s stronger points about taking responsibility, being present in the moment, have been lost in a polarizing narrative. Linklater may have realized this, or some version of this, because there’s an immigrant storyline (for lack of a better description of a two-minute arc) slapped on that is at best useless and at worst White savior-ish.

All that said, Boyhood is not a bad film.  The acting is good, the cinematography engaging, and the film boasts several sincere, endearing moments between Mason and his family.  But This Boy’s Life (1993) and The Tree of Life (2011)  did it better.

3/5 *

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014) review

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The original Planet of the Apes (1968) prided itself on false depth.These days, its conveniently overlooked (largely because it failed) attempt at social allegory on race relations in America–with particular attention to the Vietnam War and the Black Power Movement–makes it one of Hollywood’s more obvious controversial products. Based on Pierre Boulle’s 1963 novel La Planète des Singesthe franchise essentially poses the laziest of questions: What if the roles were reversed? What if blacks were the ruling class and whites subject to their tyranny? The African-American community naturally resented this problematic narrative, especially its reinforcement of that age-old racist comparison to apes. Commercially and critically however, the film succeeded. Much like the similarly successful, yet hollow The Help (2011), Apes masqueraded as a sincere condemnation of that evil boogeyman Racism without managing to be very complex or at all precise about the matter. It’s no wonder then, whatever “good” intentions on part of the filmmakers, that rather than force its audience to think, the film only fueled fear of “the Negro” and their inevitable “domination.” No need to discuss the 2001 remake, for Tim Burton (and I can never look at him or a film of his in the same way again) essentially underlined in bright, aggressive red everything that was reprehensible about the original.

L - R: Kirk Acevedo, Keri Russell, Jason Clarke, and Kodi Scott-McPhee in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014)

L – R: Kirk Acevedo, Keri Russell, Jason Clarke, and Kodi Scott-McPhee in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014)

The prequels have removed race–thematically anyway–from the conversation altogether, clearly in the hopes of subverting controversy for the sake of good summer entertainment. Mission accomplished. If nothing else, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes delivers all that is expected of a good blockbuster: remarkably rendered action sequences, commendable digital work, and passable performances from recognizable actors (Gary Oldman, Keri Russell, James Franco, etc.).

Ten years after the events of the first installment, Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011), the ALZ-113 virus that was originally engineered to treat Alzheimer’s, has plunged the human race into civil unrest. In the forest, Caesar (Andy Serkis) governs the apes with the help of Koba (a brilliant Toby Kebbell) and Maurice (Karin Konoval), his second and third-in-command respectively. At a nearby camp, a group of humans led by Malcolm (Jason Clarke) hope to restore electricity to their base using a dam in ape territory. Caesar sees in Malcolm the same kindness he saw in his old friend Will Rodman (James Franco, who appears in a brief video cameo) and reluctantly decides to trust them, much to the displeasure of Koba, who only sees the dark side of humanity. Malcolm and Caesar try to forge a peaceful alliance, but the resistance around them–which includes Caesar’s son Blue Eyes and Malcolm’s human allies Dreyfus (Gary Oldman) and Carver (Kirk Acevedo)–proves devastating.

Malcolm (Jason Clarke) is followed by Caesar (Andy Serkis), Koba (Toby Kebbell) and Maurice (Karin Konoval) as he tries to make peace with them in a scene from the motion picture "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes."

Malcolm (Jason Clarke) is followed by Caesar (Andy Serkis), Koba (Toby Kebbell) and Maurice (Karin Konoval) as he tries to make peace with them in a scene from the motion picture “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.”

Dawn succeeds, but perhaps a bit too well in its intention. It’s engaging and fun, and although the human characters pale in comparison to their far more dynamic ape counterparts, the relationships between the characters–especially Caesar, Blue Eyes, Koba and Maurice–are brilliantly drawn. But what of its subtext? Is all social commentary lost simply by neglecting to reference race? Well, for one thing, the reboot is framed in such a way that it’s nearly impossible to draw those parallels anymore. Rather than encountering a time warp in space, here the era of the apes begins thanks to one man’s fear of death and another one’s greed. The danger of experimenting on animals, the human race incurring rightful retribution for such a cruel, longtime practice, seems the more obvious takeaway. But there is a brief moment in Rise where Draco Malfoy (Tom Felton for the purists)’s character sprays Caesar with a fire hose, recalling those horrifying images from the sixties, and in Dawn, Caesar tells his son the mistake he made was forgetting “just how alike we [apes and humans–or oppressed and oppressor] are.” So race still lingers faintly around the film, especially given the segregation of the apes and the humans. If that’s the case, then Apes–perhaps unknowingly–brings to light the mistake of a “post-racial/colorblind” society, where we still practice oppression without naming it. But this is a hard one, because as much as I love subtext, I don’t know if I want Apes to have any, especially if that depth inherently relies on a human-animal analogy. This film is one better enjoyed on the surface.

4 out of 5*

 

 

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.

Trending: Women in Love [Relationships] Actually

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For years it has seemed a truth universally acknowledged that all single women must be in want of a husband. Centuries’ worth of stories dedicated to the female search for companionship often end once the relationship has been achieved. Everything after is smooth sailing, right? Maybe not. Lately, films have been slinking away from tradition to explore what it means to truly be in a relationship after the admittedly more cinematic “falling in love” bit.

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Over a year ago, I wrote about the backlash of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl Trope (which can be read here) to which a lot of these films seem reactionary, specifically Ruby Sparks (2012) and the regrettably overlooked Her (2013). Both films turn the trope on its head by beginning in the way these MPDG fairytales often do: With a lonely, creative boy, buoyed by the idea of a girl. For in the end that’s all she turns out to be: an idea. The real thing is much more messy, so learns Calvin Weir-Fields (Paul Dano) and Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix)–although I do wonder why these lonely, creative boys have such odd, English novel-worthy names. In any case, both films place their male protagonists in the position of “creator”: Not only do they create for a living–they’re both writers–but they both “create” their own women…or at least they think they do before she spins alarmingly out of their control. 

So, let’s begin with Ruby Sparks, shall we?

Weir-Fields is a young wunderkind writer who hit gold with his first novel at just nineteen-years-old. Ten years later, he’s still grappling with writer’s block and regularly sees a therapist (Elliott Gould), presumably to alleviate his anxiety and whatever other psychological causes might be at play. At his therapist’s encouragement, Calvin begins writing a novel, without concern for how awful it might be, and soon finds himself creating his own dream girl Ruby Sparks (Zoe Kazan, who also wrote the film). Fascinated by her, Calvin writes more and more, much to the dismay of his older brother Harry (Chris Messina), who would prefer Calvin engage with a real woman instead.  Then, one day, by some unexplained magic, Ruby appears in his house and claims they’ve been dating for months. After the initial (and hilarious) fright fades, Calvin relaxes into a fun relationship with the free-spirited Ruby. But things cannot stay this way; if they did, perhaps love would never end. Unfortunately–at least for Calvin–Ruby doesn’t always want to be “in relation” to Calvin. Occasionally she wants to do her own thing and be, not just his, but her own. Calvin however possesses the power to form Ruby into whatever he wants her to be just by writing it on his typewriter. At first, he plays with this power lightly. Just writing “Ruby is fluent in French” sends the young woman downstairs spouting off complex, comfortable Gallic. But as the relationship and Ruby veers out of his control, he clings to this “gift” in darker ways.

Paul Dano and Zoe Kazan filming Ruby Sparks (2012)

Paul Dano and Zoe Kazan filming Ruby Sparks (2012)

Kazan’s writing is incredibly on point here, and I was surprised how much depth and truth I found in something so seemingly lighthearted. It’s interesting that Kazan and Dano are real-life partners, being directed by real-life partners Jonathon Dayton and Valerie Faris, and this undoubtedly brought a ring of sincerity to the film. While not without its flaws, Ruby Sparks betrays  a truth we all must accept at one time or another if we are to enter healthy, successful relationships: A meaningful life must make room for people as they are, complicated, messy, sometimes even annoying, and free to be so. Simultaneously incorporating the magic (and limits) of storytelling, Ruby Sparks also considers the importance of seeing women as three-dimensional, beyond a a cute package of quirks. And that’s a rather novel concept, still today.

Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) in Her (2013)

Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) in Her (2013)

This trend seems to be continuing with Spike Jonze’s recently released Her, about a lonely letter-composer (a job of the future apparently) who falls in love with his operating system (voiced by Scarlett Johansson). Twombly is a shy, quiet man when we first meet him, incredibly astute when it comes to observing people, but also, to an extent, crippled in his interactions with them. This all begins to change after installing his brand new O. S., who calls herself Samantha, formed with the collective personality of her programmers and given the very unique ability to develop with each new experience. Mind you, this seems set about thirty to forty years into the future, and it’s a rather scary thought when you really consider it: a computer, already boundlessly intelligent, given the very human ability to be ever-changing. Really, what would then distinguish technology from its users? But that’s not quite–or at least it’s not the only direction Jonze is going in here. Samantha, for all intents and purposes, is a girl with whom Theo falls in love.

“She’s so many things. I guess that’s what I love most about her: You know, she isn’t just one thing. She’s so much larger than that,” Theodore tells his friends, and it’s odd the way he says it as if he’s never met a complex woman before, although he has spent years married to his childhood sweetheart (Rooney Mara), whom he is now divorcing. The surprise that someone can be so many things, can be undefinable, beyond completely knowing, is a revelation both refreshing and frightening for Theo. Samantha, on the other hand, completely loves this aspect of herself, and the tension enters where Theo tries to navigate his conflicting feelings about her existing beyond his discernment, both as a woman and as a piece of technology.

Sunday night, Spike Jonze deservedly won for his screenplay, which is nothing short of flawless, and is only strengthened by solid performances from Phoenix, Johansson, and Amy Adams, who plays Phoenix’s neighbor and college fling.

I’ll just finish with this: The French seem to be miles ahead of us in that they understand you can never truly know someone. You don’t know their thoughts or what’s going on in their heads. People are complicated and that’s what makes them exciting. So they’ve separated the expression into savoir–to know a fact or knowledge–and connaître–to be familiar. We can possess people in some sense–my wife, my husband, my girlfriend, etc.–but in so many more ways they’re completely beyond us. And it’s likely that realizing this as the best part of a relationship is the best way of coping with it. It’s just great that film is showing this through those traditionally most stifled characters: women.

Saving Mr. Banks (2013) review

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The best stories often emerge under the shadow of immense pain, brought to life by damaged little boys or broken little girls. P. L. Travers (Emma Thompson), author of the popular children’s series Mary Poppins, was one such broken girl (played with natural grace by Annie Rose Buckley), still grieving her father Travers Goff (Colin Farrell), a loving, but temperamental alcoholic. Over the course of the film, we learn how P. L., born Helen, nicknamed Ginty, goes from that sweet, playful girl in the Australian bush to the prickly, no-nonsense Mrs. Travers, who proceeded to make miserable the lives of all involved in the film-making of Mary Poppins. In particular, she vexes Walt Disney (Tom Hanks), songwriting brothers Robert (B. J. Novak) and Richard (Jason Schwartzman) Sherman, and film co-writer Don DaGradi (Bradley Whitford) to the brink of madness with her demands: No mustache on Mr. Banks, no red in the whole of the film, and, perhaps most important of all, no animation.

P. L. Travers (Emma Thompson) and Walt Disney (Tom Hanks)

P. L. Travers (Emma Thompson) and Walt Disney (Tom Hanks)

Watching her, it’s hard to believe such an austere woman could be responsible for a story as lively and lighthearted as Mary Poppins. That’s where the flashbacks come in handy. We learn Travers inherited her imagination and inclination to fancy from her father, a born dreamer stifled by practicality. Travers and Helen share a special bond–“a Celtic soul,” he calls it–but as his drinking worsens, Helen unwittingly becomes his enabler. Farrell’s and Buckley’s effervescent performances light up the screen during these scenes, and special mention must go to Ruth Wilson, given less to do as Mrs. Margaret Goff, but who shines in one particular heartbreaking sequence. Mary Poppins herself, at least partly, seems to have been inspired by Aunt Ellie (Rachel Griffiths), who comes to help the family after Travers falls ill. A hushed giggle falls over the audience as she quips, “We are not a codfish!” But largely, P. L. maintains that the beloved character “flew through a window.”

The Goff family in Australia: Ginty (Annie Rose Buckley), Margaret (Ruth Wilson) and Travers (Colin Farrell)

The Goff family in Australia: Ginty (Annie Rose Buckley), Margaret (Ruth Wilson) and Travers (Colin Farrell)

It should be mentioned that Travers maintained–publicly anyway–that she hated the film adaptation, and no matter how much Disney begged, she refused to let him bring another one of her books to the big screen. It is ironic that a woman who obstinately resisted her film being Disney-fied has had her struggle itself Disney-fied. That said, the concluding scene seems open for interpretation. To me, it’s a pretty sweet film about daddy issues. Almost everyone’s got them, it seems. Disney discloses to Travers his own complicated relationship with his father Elias Disney in one particularly tender scene. The same scene lays out the film’s ultimate purpose:  how to forgive, make peace, and live a life no longer dictated by the past.

I doubt it will win anything this upcoming awards season, although it is beautifully shot by John Schwartzman (Jason’s half-brother, by the way) and perfectly acted. Thompson, especially, is in top form here as the steely P. L. She’s somehow funny without turning the woman into a caricature and callous without making her heartless or unsympathetic. Hanks, too, turns in a strong performance as Walt Disney, father of animation and childhood. Schwartzman, Novak, and Whitford also deserve notice for pulling off such high-pressured roles with so much sincerity and openness. All in all, Saving Mr. Banks is a really good film, more than worth the watch and the polite nods its sure to receive in coming months.

4 out of 5 *  

12 Years A Slave Review

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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*

Ain’t Them Bodies Saints review

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One of my favorite Flannery O’Connor quotes goes a little something like this: “Where you come from is gone, where you thought you were going to never was there, and where you are is no good unless you can get away from it.”  It’s from Wise Blood, and it’s an epigraph that would not be out of place in the title cards of David Lowery‘s Ain’t Them Bodies Saints (alongside the actual title card: This was in Texas…) In fact, the whole time I was watching this film, I was reminded of O’Connor and Carson McCullers, those queens of Southern Gothic and their dark homegrown fairytales. But first a little context: That quote from Wise Blood comes from Hazel Motes, encouraging individualism in his followers and nixing the idea of any possible redemption. But somehow it makes me think of Casey Affleck‘s Bob Muldoon on his perilous odyssey back home to his beloved Ruth (Rooney Mara) and the daughter he’s never held.  Here the quote would take on a more obvious, superficial, perhaps even cliched meaning: Sometimes it’s not the destination or the starting point; it’s the journey.

Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara in Ain't Them Bodies Saints (2013)

Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara in Ain’t Them Bodies Saints (2013)

It’s hard to pin down why exactly I think this is a good movie. The story is not particularly exciting or even satisfying. At the beginning of the film, Bob and Ruth are caught after an armed robbery and engage in a standoff with local police. Ruth accidentally shoots someone, but Bob heroically takes the fall and is sentenced to an elongated prison term. Ruth, meanwhile, gives birth to their daughter and raises the girl alone. Bob spends his years writing her elegiac letters and longing for the moment they are reunited, which he seeks to precipitate by breaking out of prison.

From a technical standpoint, the film is almost flawless. The cinematography and the score are pitch perfect, and all the actors turn in careful, measured performances. Mara and Affleck receive much needed support from Nate Parker as Sweeter, an old accomplice of Bob’s; Ben Foster as Patrick Wheeler, the policeman Ruth shot and who harbors a crush on her; and most impressively Keith Carradine as Skerritt, an ambiguous paternal figure to Bob and Ruth.

That said, I felt like Lowery set out to achieve something he couldn’t really deliver on. I left the theater wondering what the point of it all was. What was the deeper truth that I was meant to take away from watching Bob dodge policemen and bounty hunters all in the name of love? What insight into the human experience did I gain? I’m still not quite sure. I know that for whatever reason, seeing Ruth hold her baby daughter for the first time was nothing short of magical. Likewise, seeing her, guilt-ridden and heartbroken, pick up the pieces of her life for the sake of her daughter  is portrayed exquisitely by Mara and it’s these moments–where Ruth reads to her little girl, and tells her how her father used to bop bears on the nose–that are some of the film’s most affecting.

Mara as Ruth Guthrie in Ain't Them Bodies Saints

Mara as Ruth Guthrie in Ain’t Them Bodies Saints

Thematically, all the characters seem to be willing to sacrifice a lot in the name of love. I can’t tell you how without giving away some very important spoilers and it’s much better to watch it all unfold anyway. But given that, Bob needs no redemption. So what is it that makes his journey so compelling? Perhaps it’s our craving for happy endings and seeing the noble rewarded. Poetic justice is hard to come by in real life, and it’s hard to come by here, too. Bob is thwarted at almost every turn. But that tension is where most of the drama comes in. David Foster Wallace once said, “Part of what we humans come to art for is an experience of suffering, necessarily a vicarious experience…we all suffer alone in the real world; true empathy’s impossible. But if a piece of fiction can allow us imaginatively to identify with a character’s pain, we might then also more easily conceive of others identifying with our own…we become less alone inside.”  In this way, I think Ain’t Them Bodies Saints succeeds as well as could be hoped for. 

4 out of 5*