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.

 

‘Penny Dreadful’ (2014) review

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The latest effort from The Aviator (2004) writer John Logan, Penny Dreadful, made a solid arrival last month, unsurprisingly, with the likes of J. A. Bayona directing and Sam Mendes producing. Showtime’s deliciously creepy new series (already picked up  for a ten-episode second season) takes its name from cheap 19th century British serials,  a tad ironic, given that it boasts appearances from the stars of Victorian classics like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Oscar Wilde’s Dorian Gray. 

Timothy-still-could-get-it-Dalton stars as the formidable Sir Malcolm Murray, father of Mina Murray (whom you may recognize from Brahm Stoker’s Dracula) searching for his daughter in London, circa 1891. He is led by Mina’s former best friend Vanessa Ives (a simmering Eva Green) whose talents as a medium (and perhaps a little something more) help them navigate that treacherous demimonde, where “science and superstition walk hand-in-hand,” and where Malcolm believes his daughter has been lost. Ives enlists the help of mysterious American showman Ethan Chandler (Josh Harnett) as the muscle of their operation, while  ambitious young Dr. Victor Frankenstein (a massively entertaining Harry Treadaway) brings his scientific merits to the table to examine the blood-drinking creatures they discover. On the periphery we have the restless Dorian Gray (Reeve Carney), Chandler’s dying lover Brona Croft (Billie Piper), Frankenstein’s menacing creature Caliban (Rory Kinnear), and  Sembene (a sadly underused Danny Sapani), Murray’s manservant.

The cast is largely solid, with only a few missteps. Billie Piper’s attempt at an Irish accent is distracting at best and downright grating at worst. Reeve Carney pales alongside his co-stars but gives a generally passable performance, hindered only by an anachronistic look and a less grating, but still questionable accent, placing him at stark odds among a convincingly Victorian set. Dalton, who strikes one as a man who could and would take on an adversary such as Dracula, vacillates believably between  dangerous and desperate, guilt-ridden father. He and Eva Green have an amazing chemistry, all at once uncomfortably filial and palpably sexual; and Green, for her part, remains intensely magnetic every time she’s on the screen.

L - R: Sembeni (Danny Sapani), Ethan Chandler (Josh Harnett), Vanessa Ives (Eva Greene), Dr. Frankenstein (Harry Treadaway), and Sir Malcolm (Timothy Dalton) question a creature (Olly Alexander)

L – R: Sembeni (Danny Sapani), Ethan Chandler (Josh Harnett), Vanessa Ives (Eva Greene), Dr. Frankenstein (Harry Treadaway), and Sir Malcolm (Timothy Dalton) question a creature (Olly Alexander)

In just eight episodes, each installment of Penny Dreadful delivered. There’s a lot to cover, but aside from a rushed and arguably unnecessary romance between Ethan and Brona, the shakes, the chills, and the plot have all been paced rather nicely. The episode “Closer Than Sisters” is pure background, yet doesn’t halt the drama at all. In fact, it is in this episode, the gem of an already impressive season, that the emotional stakes in all their complexity are revealed. Thematically the series explores the boundaries of forgiveness, guilt, salvation, all with a decidedly cynical look at redemption, which Vanessa seems to crave. It’s no accident then that Miss Ives–at odds with her country and most importantly Sir Malcolm–is Catholic, for whom redemption and death are perfectly compatible. “Your father loves you very much, and would do anything to save you,” Vanessa writes to Mina, “But I love you in a different way. I love you enough to kill you.” In the next episode, “What Death Can Join Together” Sir Malcolm is forced to face the very real possibility that he might not be able to save his daughter in the way that he hopes. Sembene, veering dangerously toward Ominous Magical Negro territory, tells him as much, and Van Helsing’s personal connection to vampires, which mirrors Sir Malcolm’s, contains tragic implications. Without giving too much away, the season finale sets up an interesting question for next year: With all this talk of salvation, do we even really want to be saved?

In short, Penny Dreadful the series can be summed up in much the same way as Abel Korzeniowski’s delightfully haunting score (and if he is not recognized come award season next year, it’ll be an injustice): Nothing short of pitch perfect.

 

 

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*

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.

*  *  *

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…