geezer cinema/film fatales #151/african-american directors series: the woman king (gina prince-bythewood, 2022)

The Woman King delivers on everything promised in the trailer: great action, powerful women, inspiring story.

Tony and Oscar winner Viola Davis is as you've never seen her before, and it is inspiring to have a black woman in her mid-50s personify the action heroine. There are fine performances throughout the movie, so many that it's not fair to single out anyone in particular (but I'm going to do it anyway and mention Lashana Lynch). Gina Prince-Bythewood gives us strong and coherent action scenes (shoutout to fight choreographer Jénel Stevens). She pulls this off on a budget of only $50 million. Compare that to the $70 million she had to work with on The Old Guard, a solid actioner with Charlize Theron that was released on Netflix, and you'll ask yourself why after proving her action chops, Prince-Bythewood got a smaller budget to make a film centered on Black people.

But then there's the controversy, and while I tended to agree with Prince-Bythewood, who said "You cannot win an argument on Twitter", and I thought this was another case of people condemning a movie before they'd seen it, now I'm not so sure. The Woman King plays as intended if you don't know any of the history of Dahomey. But the more you learn about the history, the more problematic The Woman King becomes. (Julian Lucas has an excellent piece in The New Yorker that illuminates this.) The Woman King does acknowledge some of Dahomey's participation in the slave trade, but it deflects that history to make a "better" story. In the movie, the slave trading is connected to the Oyo Empire, who are the enemies of Dahomey, and the fight led by the Agojie (Amazons) is against slavery. In reality, Dahomey was complicit in the slave trade. As Lucas notes, "'The Woman King' chooses to make resistance to slavery its moral compass, then misrepresents a kingdom that trafficked tens of thousands", and "The film’s conceit is, charitably, an elaborate exercise in wishful thinking: Wouldn’t it be nice if Dahomey’s brave women warriors had also been fighters for justice?"

These are all worthy of discussion ... I have learned more about the history of Dahomey from reading about the protests against the film. As good as the movie is, I'm a bit surprised by the clunkiness of the responses from Prince-Bythewood and Davis to the criticisms. Davis claimed "Most of the story is fictionalized. It has to be." In the same interview, Julius Tennon (a producer on the film who also acts in it and is Davis' husband) says "It's history but we have to take license. We have to entertain people."

This may be why The Woman King, for all its excellence, isn't as good as Black Panther. The latter film is entirely fictional, and so the story can be reflective of reality without needing to copy it. The Woman King wants us to think it's based on fact, but then alters facts to "entertain people".

african-american directors series: nope (jordan peele, 2022)

I guess after three successful movies, we've moved beyond the part where the co-star from a popular TV sketch show has become one of our most anticipated directors. Jordan Peele (Get Out, Us), is on a roll, working in the horror genre but never limiting his options. There is so much going on in Nope that people will be writing senior theses on it until the next Peele movie. But, as with his other films, Nope also works on the surface ... you don't need a degree in film studies and African-American history to like it. But it doesn't hurt to have something extra when the inevitable analysis comes.

Peele is not particularly specific about the deep dives in his movies. You could say he's vague. Or he just likes filling Nope with Easter eggs. It's an interesting approach, making a movie that is enjoyable and scary while leaving itself open to detailed examinations after the fact. I can imagine people wanting to see it more than once, which I think is unusual for a horror film ... you can only be scared for the first time once. The result is a film that is filled with good parts (including the acting and cinematography). It runs a bit long ... each of Peele's movies has been longer than the previous one (Nope is almost half-an-hour longer than Get Out), and while I understand Peele wanting to stuff all of his good ideas into his film, Get Out is not just his shortest movie, it's his best.

But I complain too much. Nope is another fine movie from Jordan Peele, a step up from Us, which was pretty good itself. Peele is now 3-for-3.

film fatales #143/african-american directors series: the watermelon woman (cheryl dunye, 1996)

The Watermelon Woman is a fascinating feature debut for Cheryl Dunye, who followed it with several features and, in the last several years, work on many television series, including Lovecraft Country. It is a selection in the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress for being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant". Which is true ... it was the first feature directed by a black lesbian. But the pleasures of The Watermelon Woman go beyond its historical status.

The film is about a budding director, Cheryl, played by Cheryl Dunye herself, who discovers a little-known actress in an old film who is listed only as "Watermelon Woman". Cheryl sets out to learn more about this woman, whose name turns out to be Fae Richards. Fae was a lesbian, and was said to have had a relationship with a white female director, Martha Page. Cheryl begins working on a film about Richards, and Dunye moves between Cheryl's work and her personal life. Gradually, we come to know Richards through old photographs, brief film clips, and interviews Cheryl does with people who knew Richards. (She even interviews Camille Paglia as herself, who says things like "If the watermelon symbolizes African-American culture, rightly so, because look what white middle class feminism stands for: anorexia and bulimia.")

The transitions between the quest for knowledge about Richards, the attempt to make a movie, and the presentation of Cheryl's personal life are not always smooth, but Dunye never loses our attention throughout The Watermelon Woman's short running time (90 minutes).

Dunye has one last trick up her sleeve, or rather, the trick has been there all along but we in the audience are never quite certain we've got the trick. During the closing credits, we see pieces of Cheryl's documentary about Fae Richards, taking us back to the still photos and movie clips Cheryl has collected. Except the credits end with the following statement: "Sometimes you have to create your own history. The Watermelon Woman is fiction. Cheryl Dunye, 1996"

The concept of the film is audacious, but perhaps even more impressive is the technical skills used to pull it off. The stills and footage were all shot by Dunye and her crew. They aren't just old items gathered for other purposes ... the clips from Fae Richards' old movies and all of the photos we see from Fae's past are faked. And they are pretty flawless. Maybe it's not super-Marvel CGI, but it's a different accomplishment that is equally noteworthy. That it is used in a work that has historic significance is the icing on the cake.

geezer cinema/african-american directors series: inside man (spike lee, 2006)

[This is the seventh in a series that will probably be VERY intermittent, if I remember to post at all. I've long known that while I have given my share of 10-out-of-10 ratings for movies over the years, in almost every case, those movies are fairly old. So I got this idea to go back and revisit movies of relatively recent vintage that I gave a rating of 9, to see if time and perspective convinced me to bump that rating up to 10. Of course, it's always possible I'll drop the rating, but time will tell.]

In 2007, I wrote:

Denzel Washington is the perfect combination of movie star and actor (the two don't have to go together), Jodie Foster nails her few scenes, the supporting cast is fascinating … there's a lot to like here. It's also an intelligent movie, or perhaps more accurately, it assumes an intelligent audience....

Inside Man is ... smart and stylish, but with characters who break free of the stereotypes that informed their creation.... The characters in Inside Man are ... closer to real human beings, with all of the quirky randomness that implies.

I also went on a rather lengthy discussion of Clive Owen in the movie that I suspect is more interesting to me than to anyone else. Suffice to say that Owen is also strong here. To some extent, I think critics liked Inside Man in part because it wasn't a typical Spike Lee movie ... he didn't write the script, and he doesn't usually do this kind of genre piece. It's as if Spike decided to show people that yes, he is that good, he can crank these out with the best of them. Inside Man is a terrific heist movie with great characterizations. Yet I can't see myself raising its rating to the Big 10. Maybe I can't go the extra step for a genre picture that is for the most part only a genre picture. (On the other hand, my dissertation was on hard-boiled detectives ... it's not like I don't appreciate genre work.)

african-american directors series: crooklyn (spike lee, 1994)

Spike Lee is one of my favorite directors. Just based on the number of his films I've seen, he ranks high (Letterboxd tells me I've only seen more movies by three directors: Scorsese, Spielberg, and Hitchcock). At various times, I have listed Do the Right Thing as the best film of 1989, the best movie of the 1980s, and one of the 25 best movies of all time. In my most recent list of the top directors, I had him at #37, between Werner Herzog and Bernardo Bertolucci. The quality of his films is variable ... just think of Bamboozled ... but that could be said about most directors not named Jean Renoir (think Casino or Hook or Rope ... OK, some people like that last one).

One way to think of directors is by looking at their most typical films, typical meaning it falls in the middle of his films as I rank them. Like, say, 25th Hour, a good movie but not a great one. Spike Lee is always capable of making a movie as good or better than 25th Hour, and that's a high standard, one that makes each new Spike Lee joint something to look forward to. Which means I'm not sure why it's taken me almost 30 years to get around to Crooklyn.

Crooklyn is one of the good ones, reminiscent of Do the Right Thing in its insightful portrait of a neighborhood and a community. Crooklyn mostly lacks the biting social commentary of Do the Right Thing ... at its core, it's a family drama. As we have come to expect, Lee gets many of the details right. You could call Crooklyn affectionate (it's rated PG-13, a rarity for Lee). He gets a large cast of fine actors to do fine jobs, including people like Alfre Woodard and Delroy Lindo, Lee regulars like David Patrick Kelly, Spike's sister Joie, and Spike himself (the two of them, along with brother Cinqué Lee, wrote the screenplay, which emphasizes the semi-autobiographical nature of the film). Young Zelda Harris is great in the key role of Troy, the lone girl in a family of brothers. Harris is a teacher now, having become frustrated by the way the movie industry tried to typecast her as "the best friend" ("Your Friendly Black Sidekick").

Special mention must be made of the soundtrack, filled with 1970s tracks, so filled, in fact, that it took the release of two soundtrack albums to get it all in.

Special mention must also be made for an odd decision by Lee to remove the anamorphic adjustment for 20 minutes that take place when Troy spends time with family outside of Brooklyn. Lee wants to show visually how disorienting the trip was for Troy, and he certainly succeeds, such that audiences thought there was something wrong with the projection. Signs were placed in theaters warning viewers in advance that it was meant to look as it did. Watching on TV, I cursed Starz for a while, thinking they'd screwed up, before I checked online and found what was going on. For me, this was a failed experiment.

african-american directors series/revisiting the 9s: moonlight (barry jenkins, 2016)

[This is the sixth in a series that will probably be VERY intermittent, if I remember to post at all. I've long known that while I have given my share of 10-out-of-10 ratings for movies over the years, in almost every case, those movies are fairly old. So I got this idea to go back and revisit movies of relatively recent vintage that I gave a rating of 9, to see if time and perspective convinced me to bump that rating up to 10. Of course, it's always possible I'll drop the rating, but time will tell.]

Back in 2018, I wrote:

The film is seamless as it progresses through three different periods in a young man's life, with the three actors portraying the boy/man clicking on an emotional level, no matter whether they look like the same person. Like the best coming-of-age stories, Moonlight is passionately specific in its story yet remarkably universal in its appeal. It feels true to the life of a black boy gradually discovering his gayness, but the insights into his life let everyone in the audience into the story. Complex, but made with such confidence that it never confuses. Great acting across the board, as well. #89 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century.

Well, some one out there has changed their opinion of Moonlight: it has risen on the 21st-century list from #89 to #75 to #28 and now to #22. I haven't really changed my opinion. I still found Moonlight to have universal appeal, with great acting. But I never felt like I was watching something I had underrated before. I have great regard for Moonlight, placing it at #1 on my list of 2016 films, ahead of other excellent movies like I Am Not Your Negro, The Handmaiden, and 20th Century Women. Back then, I didn't know Mahershala Ali. Since then, he has won two Oscars, one for his work in Moonlight. Naomie Harris gave her usual fine performance.

I'm not trying to belittle the accomplishments of Moonlight. But it still falls just short of 10/10 for me. And if this doesn't demonstrate how silly ratings are, I don't know what does.

african-american directors series: attica (stanley nelson, 2021)

Documentaries that pretend to objectivity are usually that, pretend. A point of view is there whether or not the film makers are open about it. Attica has a point of view: that the inmates had righteous grievances, and that the state (personified by Nelson Rockefeller) brutally and murderously shut it down. If you don't accept this, then you will likely have problems with Attica.

Stanley Nelson compiles footage from the event, adds current interviews with some of the participants who are still alive, and tells a compelling and infuriating story. The basic facts are there ... prisoners rebel, take hostages, make demands, observers enter the picture (many of them well-known), change seems possible, and then the whip comes down. People are dead, people are tortured, all at the hands of the state. When it is found out that several of the hostages died, the state claims their throats were cut by inmates. Which stands until the medical examiner says no one's throat was slashed, that they all died of shootings by the authorities.

Nelson presents an air-tight case. The problem, as is often the case with documentaries, is that what we see is selective. Nelson has a point to make, and he chooses what to show us to help make his point. This isn't exactly false, except by omission. There are a lot of questions to be asked, if you think beyond the film itself. Nelson's work is so powerful that those questions don't necessarily jump to the surface. I was convinced, but then, I came to the film already assuming the prison authorities and politicians up to and including Rockefeller were corrupt. (Nelson adds Nixon's name to the list of infamy.) I believed what I saw, and after the fact, I still believe. But this is not a perfect movie just because I agree with it.

film fatales

So I don’t have to explain this every time, some history about a series I began in 2015 that I call “Film Fatales”. The name comes from a group with the same name that describes themselves as “an inclusive community of women feature film and television directors who meet regularly to share resources, collaborate on projects and build an environment in which to make their films.” When I discovered them, I checked out a couple of lists of films by women directors, and the more I looked, the more lists I found. Since then, my own list has grown to almost 250 films (which only scratches the surface, of course).

This used to include links to all the relevant blog posts, but after keeping it updated for a few years, I realized it's a lot easier to just refer to this:

[Letterboxd list of Film Fatales movies]

geezer cinema/african-american directors series/film fatales #130: zola (janicza bravo, 2020)

The inspiration for Zola is more interesting than the film itself. The story was told as a Twitter thread which went viral. Rolling Stone ran a piece by David Kushner, "Zola Tells All: The Real Story Behind the Greatest Stripper Saga Ever Tweeted". In that article, Kushner showed that Zola's Twitter story was essentially true. James Franco was involved early in the process of turning the story into a film, but he dropped/was dropped off when he was confronted with sexual harassment charges. Eventually, Janicza Bravo, who had a handful of shorts, one feature, and lots of TV work on her resume, took over as director and co-screenwriter (with Jeremy O. Harris).

Zola is a waitress and part-time pole dancer in Detroit who meets Stefani, another stripper, who convinces Zola to join her on a road trip to Florida, where she says the two can make big bucks stripping. What ensues is a tale of sex trafficking, as Stefani works as a prostitute for a pimp while Zola wonders what she has gotten into. As my wife said, it was a case of "bad decisions on top of bad decisions". The "based on a true story" angle means actions that seem ludicrously pumped-up for sizzle appeal apparently happened. Which doesn't make the accusations of bad decisions wrong, but there is no denying it affects how we view the characters and their actions.

Bravo does some interesting things turning tweets into cinema, and Taylour Paige is excellent as Zola. Riley Keough is an effective choice to play Stefani. Stefani is a white character made especially unlikable in the way she emulates what she thinks is "black". (The IMDB tells us that Keough "had to get special training on how to play a white woman trying very offensively to sound a certain type of 'black.'") As the IMDB also reminds us, Keough's casting as a white person appropriating black culture is a bit ironic, given that her grandfather was Elvis Presley.

Colman Domingo (Euphoria) as the pimp is friendly and menacing when needed, and he is another positive aspect to the movie. Still, while I feel odd complaining about the actions of characters when those actions mostly actually happened, nonetheless Zola isn't as much a warning about the dangers of sex trafficking as it is an example of people who are just clueless enough to get into trouble.

[Letterboxd list of Geezer Cinema movies]

[Letterboxd list of Film Fatales movies]

geezer cinema/african-american directors series: spider-man: into the spider-verse (bob persichetti, peter ramsey, and rodney rothman, 2018)

Not a lot to add, here. I watched this a couple of years ago, and haven't changed my mind since. It's a very good movie. We watched it because it was my wife's turn to pick this week's Geezer movie, she wanted to watch Spider-Man: No Way Home but we have temporarily stopped going to theaters, and she had never seen Into the Spider-Verse. Here is what I said when I watched it before:

I've finally seen it, and it is every bit as good as people said. Endlessly inventive and full of surprises. I guess fans of the comics weren't as surprised as I, who hadn't read any of the related versions. They knew that the Spider-Verse featured multiple versions of Spider-Man ... I was unspoiled and thus amazed.

Into the Spider-Verse is a bit like if Philip K. Dick had written a Marvel book. We get at least two Spider-Mans, a Spider-Woman, a Spider-Man Noir, even Spider-Ham ("Peter Porker"). Each has distinguishing characteristics, and not just visually ... time is taken to give depth to each character. It's an ambitious movie, but those ambitions are extended beyond the usual spectacle to include a human element....

Champions of Into the Spider-Verse were right. To use a cliché, it's not just a good animated film, it's a very good film, period. Fans of Marvel will like it. People who don't often take in superhero movies will like it. I liked it.