african-american directors series/geezer cinema/film fatales #106: one night in miami (regina king, 2020)

Many times I have said that while one great performance in a movie shows how good an actor is, when the entire cast comes through, it says something good about the director. All four of the key actors in One Night in Miami are excellent: Kingsley Ben-Adir (Malcolm X), Eli Goree (Cassius Clay), Aldis Hodge (Jim Brown), and Leslie Odom Jr. (Sam Cooke). Credit to all, but also tip your cap to director Regina King, who elicits those performances in one of her earliest works as a director. (It seems like many want to call this her debut as a director, but she has done a lot of TV, including a couple of features ... One Night in Miami is her first feature to play in theaters, or it would be if movies were in theaters right now.) The point is, King is no amateur, but ultimately it's beside the point: the film has great performances across the board and she directed it.

The setup, with a screenplay by Kemp Powers from his own stage play, is perfect. Four important American black men meet in a hotel room. The event took place in real life, but no one knows what happened in that room. So Powers can pretty much do whatever he wants. If he strayed too far from what we know of the four men, he would be called on that, but as long as he is honest in his portraits of the four, we are willing to be taken for a ride. Indeed, all four resemble what we imagine the real people were like, and the play is believable on that level. There are things missing ... we get no hint of Brown's problems with domestic violence, for instance ... and the timeline sometimes moves a bit away from what/how things really happened. But Powers gets to make his points about what it meant to be an African-American male in the early-60s without going too far afield.

Besides working with the actors, King has to deal with the staginess of the material, and she does a decent job, moving conversations out of the hotel room on occasion without being obvious about it. You never lose sight of the stage origins, but she avoids the problems that sometimes accompany stage-to-movie productions.

It can't be overemphasized how terrific the main performances are. I'm hard pressed to single out one over the others ... I'm hard pressed to figure out which characters are major and which are minor (I'd say they are all major), and it will be interesting come awards time which of the four end up in the running for Best Actor awards and which will be presented as Best Supporting Actor. But Malcolm X is probably the most interesting of the characters ... he's the one whose interactions with the other three are key to what we learn about all of the men. So it's possible that Kingsley Ben-Adir will contest the Best Actor awards, while the others, especially Leslie Odom Jr., will turn up in Supporting Actor lists. All of the actors have to deal with the fact that at least some of the audience remembers the actual people, so Odon Jr., for instance, isn't just playing a part in a movie, he's competing with our image of Sam Cooke. This is always the case with biopics and their ilk, of course. Ben-Adir and Goree have a double conundrum, because they are not only dealing with the images of Malcolm and Clay, but also of the indelible performances of Denzel Washington in Spike Lee's Malcolm X and Will Smith as the title character in Ali. Both actors are good enough so that, if we don't exactly forget about Washington and Smith, we accept these new and different interpretations of the characters.

The pacing is a bit uneven, with some scenes going on a bit too long (the "dispute" between Malcolm and Cooke being the most noteworthy example), but every scene matters, and even though in the end One Night in Miami boils down to four men talking to each other for a couple of hours, King keeps us from noticing the talkiness, varying the focus on the characters so nothing feels static. It's a fine job, one that makes you hunger for more films directed by King.

I can't resist one last note that is irrelevant, but I can't help myself. None of the four stars are unknowns, but Eli Goree is the closest to a new-to-us performer. Yet at our house, he is known for his work on The 100, and it was a delight to see him in a major role in a major motion picture. Here's a short scene of him in The 100:


african-american directors series/film fatales #104: little white lie (lacey schwartz and james adolphus, 2014)

This is the sixteenth "film" I have watched in "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2020-21", "A 33 week long challenge where the goal each week is to watch a previously unseen feature length film from a specified category." This is the 6th annual challenge, and my second time participating (last year can be found at "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2019-20"). Week 16 is called "Black Women Writers/Directors Week".

A serious note to follow:

In the past year in America, racial tensions have reached a boiling point. BIPOC members of our society have suffered from social, political, and countless other forms of strife and injustice due simply to the color of their skin and the deep ceded racist ideals that exist in our society. This, of course, includes the film industry. Stories by black creators often don't get the attention or support that they deserve, especially so for women of color. I know the whole Season Challenge is created for fun, but I think it would behoove all of us to think more about the films we choose to watch and hold on high. With all that being said, let's use this opportunity to take in works by women of color, and to go forward with the idea of supporting their works in the future. Let us hear the voices that have gone criminally unheard and that offer unique experiences and perspectives. And, at the risk of sounding clichè, isn't that what cinema is all about?

This week's challenge is to watch a previously unseen film with a black woman writer and/or director.

The story of Lacey Schwartz encourages disbelief. Because we know from the start that Schwartz is black, we are puzzled that she made it so far into her life thinking she was white. It seems obvious to us. One thing Little White Lie does well is to put us in Lacey's young life, so that we start to understand why the "lie" took hold for so long.

She was raised "white" by two Jewish parents. The family was very much involved in the Jewish tradition, and Lacey had no other signposts to suggest to her that something wasn't as it seemed. Without ever saying anything specific, Little White Lie forces us to confront the constructed nature of "race". In the manner of "if it quacks like a duck, it's a duck", Lacey's parents and extended family all treat her as white and Jewish ... she "quacks" white. If anyone questions the way Lacey looks darker than the rest of her family, reference is made to a Sicilian ancestor.

None of this is possible without the deception of Lacey's mother (and probably father). Mom had an affair with a black man, who turned out to be Lacey's biological father. Mom didn't talk about it, Dad didn't admit he knew. There was nothing to discuss. And there is nothing in the film to suggest Lacey had a bad childhood. It's only later, when she realizes that unbeknownst to Lacey, her life was a "little white lie", that Lacey feels the resentment of someone who has been lied to.

There are a few scenes of Lacey confronting her parents, to find out the truth. There isn't much discussion of whiteness and blackness ... for the most part, it's contextual. One wishes the film was a bit longer, that more time was spent on the transition phase when Lacey realized the truth. But there is no denying that the film is fascinating. And there is a sense that the truth sets Lacey free. By any standard, she has had a good life ... Harvard Law School, a documentary film maker, a husband who is now a representative in the U.S. House, twin children. Her childhood, which was also good, was shadowed by a lie; the resolution of that lie allowed Schwartz to move on.

(List of Film Fatales movies)


movies 2020

Top 8 movies of 2020:

Da 5 Bloods

Ma Rainey's Black Bottom

The Nest

Dick Johnson Is Dead

The Trial of the Chicago 7

Never Rarely Sometimes Always

She Dies Tomorrow

Totally Under Control

(Letterboxd list of top movies of 2020)

 

Top 9 movies I watched for the first time in 2020:

Portrait of a Lady on Fire

French Cancan

The Wind

Apollo 11

Blindspotting

Da 5 Bloods

Ma Rainey's Black Bottom

The Shape of Water

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

 

Don't sleep on these movies I watched in 2020:

Sócrates4 Little GirlsFurieDrivewaysDivorce Italian StyleGraduation35 Shots of RumThe KillersAparajitoIrma VepCamerapersonThe PassengerL'ArgentHoneylandBabyteethThe LureThey Shall Not Grow OldThe Age of InnocenceThe Nightingale, The Vast of NightMidnight SpecialPain and GloryLa HaineIf Beale Street Could TalkThe Florida ProjectThe IrishmanMarriage Story1917Baby Driver

(Letterboxd list of movies I watched in 2020)


what i watched

V for Vendetta (James McTeigue, 2005). Missed this one somehow along the way. Not a great movie, but pretty good, and up my alley, so I have no idea why it took me 15 years to finally watch it. The Wachowskis adapted the graphic novel. Hugo Weaving from their Matrix movies plays the title character ("V") and does a great job without ever getting to show his face, which is hidden throughout by a Guy Fawkes mask. There are hints of 1984 and Mr. Robot, although in the case of the latter, the influence goes in the other direction, Mr. Robot coming out a decade after this film. Natalie Portman shines, and there's the usual who's who of British actors: Stephen Rea, Stephen Fry, John Hurt. Sinéad Cusack turns up for an emotional scene. Creative and dystopian, at least until what passes for a happy ending.

Geezer Cinema: Ma Rainey's Black Bottom (George C. Wolfe, 2020). Oscar bait, which in this case I don't mean as an insult. Ruben Santiago-Hudson's screenplay from August Wilson's play hits the high points, and the direction from George Wolfe gets out of the way of the great performances, which are the main reason to see the film. Those performances are noteworthy from top to bottom, but the ones you'll hear about are from Viola Davis as Ma Rainey and Chadwick Boseman as her trumpet player, Levee. Davis will likely get a Best Actress nomination, although she's on screen for less than half-an-hour. You can believe that all of the men are intimidated by her ... Davis carries a lot of power in her characterization. Boseman is every bit as good as you've heard, and yes, he'll get some nostalgic sympathy because this is his last role, but he doesn't need our sympathy. He almost overpowers the movie, not an easy feat when dealing with co-stars like Glynn Turman and Colman Domingo. Wolfe does everything he can to make the setting feel authentic, but he doesn't try too hard to "open up" the film ... he trusts Wilson's play enough not to mess with it. The result is too often stagy, and your appreciation of the film will depend in part on how much that staginess bothers you. I can't say I was bothered, but at times it did draw my attention away from what I should have been watching. Still, I've never held this against A Streetcar Named Desire.

Since my wife and I retired, we decided to have a weekly date at the movies. We call it Geezer Cinema. We take turns picking movies. We watched 32 (through Emma.) before the virus sent us to our living room.

Letterboxd list of all Geezer Cinema movies


50 favorite movies revisited

It's been nine years since I took part in a Facebook project where three of us chose our 5o Favorite Movies. (Here's a Letterboxd list of my choices.) Of course, I'd do a lot of different things now ... Tomorrow Never Dies didn't belong (I chose it because of Michelle Yeoh, but then she was in another of my choices later, so the 007 movie was unnecessary). And I was too devoted to older movies ... the most recent movie in my Top 20 was The Godfather Part II from 1974, and there were only 4 movies from the 21st century on the entire list.

So here are my favorite movies (as of this moment) for the years 2012-2020, the years after I made that 50 Favorites list. I'm have to think a few of these would make the list if I made it now.

2012: Stories We Tell (Sarah Polley)

2013: Before Midnight (Richard Linklater)

2014: Boyhood (Richard Linklater) (a pattern emerges!)

2015: Mad Max: Fury Road (George Miller)

2016: Moonlight (Barry Jenkins)

2017: Faces Places (Agnès Varda and JR)

2018: Black Panther (Ryan Coogler)

2019: Portrait of a Lady on Fire (Céline Sciamma)

2020: Da 5 Bloods (Spike Lee)


chadwick boseman

This is what I wrote about Black Panther in 2018:

african-american directors series: black panther (ryan coogler, 2018)

I'm not sure I'm up to the task of writing about Black Panther, which is so much more than "just" another Marvel superhero movie. Just to address the Marvel-ness of it, I am marginally conversant with the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and I mostly like the movies I've seen ... well, I didn't think much of the Guardians of the Galaxy movies, but the rest, sure, they're OK. But I usually only see them because my wife is a fan. Personally, I prefer some of the TV series, especially Agent Carter. So one thing that set Black Panther off from the rest is that I wanted to see it; I didn't wait to be dragged into the theater. And my desire was justified, because Black Panther works on its own as a movie, separate from Marvel mythology.

I was delighted to see how much Oakland love was in the movie. We saw it at a theater less than a mile from the Oakland border (in Emeryville, home of Pixar, who are always putting animated local landmarks in their films), and right at the beginning, when a title tells us we're in Oakland in 1992 while Too $hort's "In the Trunk" plays on the soundtrack, the crowd erupted in applause, a tangible example of how audiences see themselves on the screen when watching Black Panther. (It wasn't shot in Oakland ... I think Atlanta was the location ... but given that director/writer Ryan Coogler was born in Oakland, the visuals are on target.)

Black Panther serves its function as an origin story, and since we're told at the end that the character will be featured in Avengers: Infinity War later this year, it is clear that Marvel is in this for the long haul (it doesn't hurt that Black Panther is already one of the biggest grossing films in history). But Black Panther didn't leave me wanting to see Infinity War, even if my wife inevitably gets me to watch it. I suspect this is because, as I noted, Black Panther works as a movie ... it made me want to see the next Black Panther movie Coogler works on, which isn't the same as wanting to see Infinity War because Black Panther will be in it.

Much has been made of the political statements the film is making. Black Panther wears its political heart on its sleeve. The message of the movie is messy, which accounts for the various disparate explanations of what is going on. But you don't have to dig very deep to start the discussion.

I have read some convincing arguments that Black Panther is ultimately something less than revolutionary in its narrative (the plethora of black filmmakers and actors in the film is revolutionary in itself, of course). Much of the film's thrust involves deciding who will be King of Wakanda, and that decision is based more on hand-to-hand combat than on a reasoned confab on politics. Since Erik Killmonger, who proposes that Wakanda should be sharing its wealth to help liberate the oppressed all around the world, is presented as "The Villain", his revolutionary position is attached to a "bad guy". Supposedly, this taints the radical politics of Killmonger, and I understand why it seems that way.

But people have been rooting for the bad guy for a hundred years of movies. Jack Nicholson's Joker is evil compared to Michael Keaton's Batman, but Nicholson's acting in the film is much more enjoyable than Keaton's, and Batman is a bit of a fascist in that movie anyway, so I didn't have any trouble "rooting" for the Joker. It is true that Keaton's low-key approach to his character allows Nicholson to take over the film, but it is also true that without Nicholson, Burton's Batman would be even darker than it already is.

A comparison of Joker/Batman and Killmonger/Panther doesn't completely work. In Batman, not only does Nicholson dominate the movie, entertaining the audience in the process, but Batman is not a benign leader of men, but instead a fascist. In Black Panther, we are led to think of T'Challa as a good ruler ... he is easier to root for than Bruce Wayne. And while Nicholson overwhelms BatmanBlack Panther is full of strong characters (many of them women) and thrilling performances. One reason it's hard to root for Killmonger is that Chadwick Boseman is himself charismatic ... he makes us want to accept T'Challa's way.

Yet I would argue that Michael B. Jordan overcomes Boseman's excellence. I am a longtime fan of Jordan's, so I may be too biased. But he is so great as Killmonger that he breaks through the attempt to make the character into a villain. Yes, Killmonger is a sociopath, but ... OK, I know there is no "but" for some people, but like Nicholson's Joker, Jordan commands the screen with such intensity that I found myself rooting for him, despite the way in the end the film denounces Killmonger. It is like those 30s gangster movies, where the bad guy had to die in the last scene, but when you walked out of the theater you remembered the excitement of the film's first 85 minutes, not the required comeuppance.

Of course, those gangster movies weren't making explicit political arguments. It's a sign of the greatness of Black Panther that it is not only a great spectacle (we saw it in IMAX 2D, which I much prefer to 3D), but it inspires discussion after the fact.


i may destroy you

I've been trying to come to terms with Michaela Coel's astonishing series I May Destroy You, and I've realized I may never get there. Coel turned something from her own life (she was sexually assaulted) into a work of art that is unflinching. I May Destroy You is hard to watch ... Coel is not afraid to show humans at their worst as well as their best, and at times I feared for the future of the human race. But the discomfort you feel when watching the show reflects the very real trauma that Coel, and her fictional character, an author with writer's block named Arabella, have suffered. If we weren't uncomfortable, Coel would have failed.

Arabella's actions over the course of the season are often hard to explain, hard to accept. But, as with the show as a whole, Coel isn't just trying to get the audience to understand what she went through. More to the point, she is working her way through the experience, and yes, she hopes we understand, but she doesn't tailor her writing to please the audience. And there isn't going to be a direct line through which Arabella resolves her feelings, no matter that viewers might prefer that to be the case. She inches towards the finish, two steps forward one step back, and as she struggles, we struggle as well. But since she is willing to show Arabella as not just nice, we are angry with her as often as we are sympathetic. At times, we are angry and sympathetic at the same time.

I was hoping for some resolution at the end ... I don't think I was alone. Coel doesn't exactly resolve anything, but the final episode perfectly establishes why resolution isn't necessarily what Arabella (and thus the show) needs. Arabella goes through a series of what-if scenarios involving her attacker, and I admit, I got vicarious excitement from the scenario where she beat the man to a bloody pulp. But what matters is when Arabella accepts that while she will never erase or forget what happened, she can continue with her life, can finally refuse to be defined by her assault. In what can only be called a delightful turn, she is able to clear her writer's block and finish her book, at which time, we realize the series I May Destroy You reflects the book Arabella writes, and serves the purpose for Coel that it does for Arabella. Coel doesn't give us a by-the-numbers autobiography ... she goes deeper, showing us her emotional journey without needing to exactly match events in her life.

Coel is aided by a fine supporting cast, including Weruche Opia and Paapa Essiedu as Arabella's best friends. Both characters are as finely drawn as is Arabella, equally balanced between good and not-so-good behavior. Life is complicated in I May Destroy You, as are the characters.

I'm pretty sure I haven't gotten to the bottom of my feelings about the show. But it will be hard to forget it.


african-american directors series: 4 little girls (spike lee, 1997)

Spike Lee has made his name as a top director of fiction films, but he has also made some strong documentaries (I am partial to the two-part series on Katrina and New Orleans). 4 Little Girls was his first full-blown documentary feature, immediately establishing his excellence in this genre.

Lee put the film together for just a million dollars. The key behind-the-camera collaborators were cinematographer Ellen Kuras and editor Sam Pollard. Lee interviewed family, friends, and lawyers ... his small crew helped make the family and friends comfortable. He also intersperses archival material to give context to the events of 1963, when racists bombed a church, killing four young black girls. This material serves to remind the viewer of just how volatile America was at the time (of course, it feels very timely now, as well). Lee gathers an impressive list of people to comment on the times, including Andrew Young, George Wallace, Ossie Davis, Walter Cronkite, Jesse Jackson, and Coretta Scott King. The result is a movie that works as history, while also making an emotional appeal to the audience. Lee obviously has a point of view, but he lets it emerge naturally from the stories of the families.

Lee and Kuras rely a lot on close-ups ... the speakers become real to us. And 4 Little Girls is tight, with no wasted space. It grips you, it forces you to think, and there is no rest during the film's running time.

(Similar to the Film Fatales series, I have begun a Letterboxd list, "Black Directors Matter", that includes movies directed by African-Americans. I've also added a category to blog posts, "African-American Directors".)


by request: he got game (spike lee, 1998)

In most respects, He Got Game has the strengths Spike Lee brings to all of his films. He gets the expected great performance from Denzel Washington. He draws another fine performance from Ray Allen, a basketball player early into his Hall of Fame career who had never acted before. His canny casting brought Milla Jovovich, a teenage Rosario Dawson in only her second feature, and some of Spike's usual suspects (Bill Nunn, Roger Guenveur Smith, John Turturro, Lonette McKee), along with many famous basketball names playing themselves.

But He Got Game is too long. The Milla Jovovich subplot is unnecessary (she's a prostitute that Denzel wants to help). The plot itself is ludicrous ... Denzel is a convict who is offered a deal by the warden. The governor of the state wants Denzel's son, the best high school basketball prospect in the country, to attend the governor's alma mater, so Denzel is released for a week to get his son to sign a letter of intent. If he succeeds, the governor will reduce Denzel's sentence.

Denzel works the hell out of the plot, but he can't save it. Still, the interactions between him and Ray Allen as his son are often powerful, and again, Allen shines in his first acting job. It's not enough to save the film, but it does make it worth seeing once.

Something should be said about the music, because Lee always delivers, and He Got Game is no exception. The movie features a canny use of Aaron Copland that is on target throughout. And Public Enemy does the title track, which is terrific. They later released an album of their own material with "He Got Game" at its center, and it's arguably the best album of their post-peak life. I love that track in particular. I like the video as well, but it's hard to find an unedited version, so here's a lyric video with the correct lyrics in place:

(Here is a letterboxd list of movies with African-American directors.)


geezer cinema/film fatales#87: the old guard (gina prince-bythewood, 2020)

A superhero movie with a difference, starting with the fact that if, like me, you came to the movie cold, you couldn't tell it was a superhero movie until things were well underway. Gina Prince-Bythewood (Beyond the Lights) gives us a movie that falls into one of my most-used genres, where a movie is praised for what it doesn't do. There are action scenes, but they tend to be more individual fighting rather than car chases. Time is offered to give depth to all of the main characters ... I usually balk at such things, because the efforts are half-hearted and I just want to get to the good stuff. But Prince-Bythewood pulls another switch on the standard superhero film, by making the characters matter. No one wears a costume, and they only have one super power (which does give them the chance to become really good at fighting).

The Old Guard has a strong cast, beginning with Charlize Theron in the lead. Theron is an Oscar winner with a solid pedigree in action pictures as well, from the sublime (Mad Max: Fury Road) to the not-so-sublime (Atomic Blonde). The Old Guard is in the middle, quite a bit better than Atomic Blonde without reaching the heights of Fury Road.

Theron once again does many of her own stunts, which makes her performance more believable. KiKi Layne (If Beale Street Could Talk) is a standout as the second lead, and it was good to see Anamaria Marinca (4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days) in a minor role. The plot is a little silly, and the movie drags at times (it clocks in at just over 2 hours). But you'll find yourself caring, not just about the action, but also about the characters. Which will be especially important when the inevitable sequel arrives.

(Here is a letterboxd list of Film Fatales movies.)

(Here is a letterboxd list of movies with African-American directors.)