african-american directors series: neptune frost (saul williams and anisia uzeyman, 2021)

This is the twenty-first film I have watched in "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2023-24", "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 9th annual challenge, and my fifth time participating (previous years can be found at "2019-20", "2020-21", "2021-22", and "2022-23"). Week 21 is called "Afrofuturism Week":

Afrofuturism is an exciting subgenre of science-fiction movies that has been gaining traction in the past few years with mainstream offerings such as the Black Panther and Spider-Verse films, as well as the TV show Lovecraft Country. Afrofuturism is all about centering and taking pride in the Black experience in alternate or imagined realities where Black people can define themselves, potentially without the influence of Western ideas or understandings. These stories can inspire people to build toward a better future and question the past and present social structures that create and maintain cultural and economic inequality between races. Common tropes include the use of African iconography, a rich color palette, and a focus on how technology and culture intersect.

This week, let’s escape the real world and venture forth into a world of new realities made possible by Afrofuturism with this list here.

From the examples I have seen, I think I had a mistaken sense of what made Afrofuturism. I'd seen the mainstream offerings, the Black Panther and Spider-Verse films and the TV show Lovecraft Country. If I'd looked at the suggested list more closely, I might have had a better feel for what Neptune Frost might be like. Touki Bouki ("unencumbered by the 'rules' of cinema"), Sankofa ("uses time travel to place a woman from modern times back into the horrors of the old South"), Fast Color ("a superhero movie, although a very low-key one that can be approached as just a mysterious fantasy"). The introduction above of Afrofuturism is a useful description of what happens in Neptune Frost: "centering and taking pride in the Black experience in alternate or imagined realities where Black people can define themselves, potentially without the influence of Western ideas or understandings" including "the use of African iconography, a rich color palette, and a focus on how technology and culture intersect."

That describes Neptune Frost, but in truth it's a film that defies ordinary description. Saul Williams and Anisia Useyman create a unique world, rooted in Burundi but taking place in a future connected intrinsically to technology. A community of young adults, dedicated to a different kind of world, use unexplained hacking skills to subvert the larger society while staying hidden (China and Russia are initially blamed for the hacks). The connection to "The Internet" eventually destroys them, or rather, the discovery of the community by the outside world allows the powers that be to destroy them. One person remains ... I don't know if this was meant as a positive ending, perhaps it's meant to be ambiguous.

Oh, and it's a musical.

Gender fluidity, colonialism, and yes, science-fiction ... it's a unique blend. Willliams and Useyman deserve praise for creating something new. Sometimes inscrutable, but always fascinating to look at ... I, at least, had never seen anything like it.

geezer cinema/african-american directors series: american fiction (cord jefferson, 2023)

American Fiction is based on Erasure, a novel by Percival Everett, and it's a model of how to adapt a novel to a film while retaining what makes the book interesting in the first place. It tells the story of Thelonious Ellison, nicknamed Monk (played by Jeffrey Wright), an African-American novelist and professor whose novels, which are heavily academic, don't get much of an audience from the readers who buy books. His agent says Monk needs to write books that are "more black", which Monk rejects out of hand. But when a new novel titled We's Lives in Da Ghetto, steeped in stereotypes (and thus "more black"), becomes an enormous best-seller, Monk decides to write a parody, which he calls My Pafology. A publisher gives him an enormous advance for the rights to the novel, after which a film producer offers even more money for the film rights before the book has even been published.

A crucial scene in the film occurs when Monk begins writing My Pafology (which becomes Fuck). Writer/director Cord Jefferson illuminates the scene from the book by having two of the characters (played brilliantly by Keith David and Okieriete Onaodowan) act out what Monk is writing, pausing occasionally to ask Monk just what he wants them to say. It's crucial, because it adds an honest, serious level to what is a mocking representation of stereotypes. One of the problems I had with the book is that Percival Everett includes the entirety of My Pafology, and he's far too good at it ... the book is as bad as it is supposed to be, and thus it's a burden to get through. Jefferson steps beyond the badness. (It helps that the book is only a few minutes in the movie, rather than ten chapters of a book.)

The characters, in general, are a bit nicer in the film. Issa Rae as the author of We's Lives in Da Ghetto gives the character substance ... she's not just a pulp writer out for a buck. And Myra Lucretia Taylor's family housekeeper Lorraine has a good relationship with Monk, whereas in the book, she doesn't much like him. Also, the relationship between Monk and his sister, Lisa (Tracee Ellis Ross), which has a barbed feel in the novel, is more congenial as played by Wright and Ross, without losing an edge.

The film has received five Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, Best Actor and Supporting Actor, and Adapted Screenplay. I think it would be a worthy winner for Best Picture ... of the nominated films, I'd choose Anatomy of a Fall, and I'm on record as thinking the un-nominated Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse is the best picture of the year, but American Fiction is very good. (Since I last listed my Top Ten of 2023, American Fiction has made the list, replacing Maestro, Barbie has moved up, and I changed the order of a few others.) Of the other categories, I've seen 4 of 5 Best Actors and think Jeffrey Wright is the best of those, I've seen all 5 Supporting Actors and would place Sterling K. Brown at or near the top, and I've seen all 5 Adapted Screenplays, and would vote for Barbie, although it's nonsense that it got placed in the "adapted" category.

It's worth noting that while fans of Erasure will want to see American Fiction, knowledge of the novel isn't necessary to appreciate the movie.

african-american directors series: cooley high (michael schultz, 1975)

Cooley High is a landmark in 1970s Black cinema, and an early showcase from some top figures. Director Michael Schultz followed Cooley High with another landmark, Car Wash, and is still active today, mostly in television. Glynn Turman is one of our finest actors, and Cooley High was one of his first films ... he was later a part of the great cast of The Wire. Soon after his performance in Cooley High, Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs was a frequent visitor into America's living rooms as a main character on Welcome Back, Kotter. And Garrett Morris followed up this film as one of the original members of the cast of Saturday Night Live. Cooley High is often compared to American Graffiti, and like that film, Cooley High started many careers.

I wish I liked it more. It's amiable enough, and its import with the black community is obvious. It has funny scenes, and an honesty that is as important now as it was in 1975. There's a melodramatic turn near the end of the movie that feels too abrupt ... it's not that it is out of place, but the ground hasn't been laid for it, so it sticks out in the wrong ways. Having said that, the ending is powerful.

And the soundtrack is wonderful.

In a timely but sad coincidence, I watched this just days after the death of Norman Lear, who received an enormous number of memories from people talking about his great career. Cooley High was written by Eric Monte, who had worked on several sitcoms with Lear.

For me, John Amos as husband/father James Evans on Good Times is one of the best depictions of fatherhood I've ever seen, and Eric Monte is the person who created that character.

geezer cinema/african-american directors series/film fatales #187: the marvels (nia dacosta, 2023)

The Marvels is the 25th movie I've seen in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Most of those came because my wife chose them to watch, and I find them largely interchangeable ... the two Black Panther movies are the best, Shang-Chi comes close, I'm not a fan of the Guardians of the Galaxy movies, and Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania was the bottom of the barrel. The other 18, they are OK but I can mostly take them or leave them. I like Brie Larson, so the Captain Marvel movies are a tad more appealing to me, but I wouldn't overstate that difference. If I really hated them, my wife would have to watch them on her own, but if it's possible to accept a superhero franchise without either loving it or hating it, that's me and the MCU.

The Marvels has a few things going for it, besides Brie Larson. The other two Marvels, Teyonah Parris as Monica and Iman Vellani as Kamala Khan, are just as good.  Zawe Ashton is a good villain. The movie is a bit sillier than the usual, which is a nice surprise, and at 105 minutes, it is the shortest film in the Universe, for which I say, thank you.

I'd like to say more good things ... it's a woman-based movie, on the screen and behind the scenes (besides writer/director Nia DaCosta, there are co-writers Megan McDonnell and Elissa Karasik). But saying I liked it a bit more than the usual MCU movie doesn't mean I think it's great. Black Panther was great. The Marvels is better than Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania.

geezer cinema/african-american directors series: the inspection (elegance bratton, 2022)

This is the eleventh film I have watched in "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2023-24", "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 9th annual challenge, and my fifth time participating (previous years can be found at "2019-20", "2020-21", "2021-22", and "2022-23"). Week 11 is called "Hidden Indies: levelFilm Week":

These days, indie distributors are a dime a dozen. Some manage to make their names widely known, as in A24 or Neon, but most are content to operate under the radar, releasing lesser-known films that typically don't find their way in front of wider audiences or generate large amounts of buzz. Our focus this week is on one of them. levelFILM (founded in Toronto in 2013) focuses primarily (but not exclusively) on Canadian films, and a quick look at the over 300 titles in the company's filmography reveals a full range of genres and a notable surfeit of quality.

This week, let's avail ourselves of an offering from one of the hidden indies and seek out a film distributed by levelFILM.

The Inspection is the debut feature for writer/director Elegance Bratton, who had previous worked on documentaries. The story, about a gay black man who enlists in the Marine Corps, is "inspired" by Bratton's own life. Bratton's experiences were much like the movie character "Ellis French" ... thrown out of his home as a teenager by a homophobic mother, Bratton/French was homeless for many years before joining the Marines. It's assumed that what we see in the movie is true to life, if not in exact details, then in general. Bratton is successful at letting the audience understand what French is going through, helped immensely by the performance of Jeremy Pope (Jackie Wilson in One Night in Miami).

The movie is heartfelt, with a story that begged to be told. But it's presented in a fairly standard way. Bokeem Woodbine is the Drill Instructor, and he's excellent, but mostly he'll remind you of all the other movie D.I.s you've seen. Bratton gives us something like a happy ending ... French makes it through boot camp and begins work as a cameraman. But French never reconciles with his mother, and that gives the happy ending an edge that bites. The Inspection is a solid debut, suggesting we will be seeing more from Elegance Bratton.

geezer cinema/african-american directors series: one false move (carl franklin, 1992)

Carl Franklin is a local guy (born in Richmond, went to Cal) who among other things directed Devil With a Blue Dress, a fine film I watched earlier this year. One False Move came three years before Devil, and while it did little at the box office, it got attention from critics, including Siskel and Ebert, and now seems like the film that really launched Franklin into our consciousness. I saw it when it came out and remembered it being tough and good, but I hadn't thought much about it since then. Criterion recently released a new 4K Blu-ray, which seemed like a good excuse to reacquaint myself. I'm glad I did.

One False Move begins and ends with seriously disturbing violent scenes, but what transpires is a character study with lots of subtle social context. It begins in Los Angeles with some murders driven by drugs and money. A couple of L.A. cops are sent to a small town in Arkansas, where the killers are reportedly headed. The contrast between the big city and the rural South provides some of that context. The three killers are made up of one white man (Billy Bob Thornton, who also co-wrote), a black woman (Cynda Williams) and a black man (Michael Beach). The L.A. cops are one black, one white. And the rural South always has undercurrents of racism. The local police chief (Bill Paxton) casually tosses off the n-word (his wife apologizes for him, saying it's just how he was raised). Paxton initially plays the chief as a bit of a yokel, quite excited about working on a big-city crime.

Things are more complicated than they seem, and the film gets better the deeper we get into the characters, especially Paxton's chief and the three killers. The acting is powerful across the board ... Paxton is always good, of course, Cynda Williams makes you wonder why her career never seemed to take off, and it's fun to see Michael Beach 20+ years before he turned up in The 100. Everything about One False Move is a little better than you might expect, and by the end, you know you've seen something special.

african-american directors series/film fatales #180: nanny (nikyatu jusu, 2022)

This is the first film I have watched in "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2023-24", "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 9th annual challenge, and my fifth time participating (previous years can be found at "2019-20", "2020-21", "2021-22", and "2022-23"). Week 1 is called "99 Minutes Week":

This year marks the Letterboxd Season Challenge's ninth yearβ€”it's the challenge with nine lives! And what better way to celebrate than abandoning last year's Long Time Running theme week (3+ hour films, if you've forgotten) and embracing the Goldilocks of movie lengths: 90 minutes. But to be clever, we've added an extra nine minutes for LSC9. 99! That's two nines! (What's that cricket sound?) Anyway, we've gone the whole nine yards and painstakingly compiled a prodigious list of movies, each of them exactly ninety-nine minutes long, and dressed them to the nines, all beautifully arranged just so.

This week's challenge is to join us on cloud nine and watch a film from π–˜π–Šπ–™π–π–Šπ–“π–˜π–™π–Šπ–Žπ–“'s 99 minutes ⏲️ No more, no less list.

The Letterboxd Season Challenge is supposed to be fun, and sometimes the category of the week emphasizes this. Previous first-week challenges have included topics like "watch the most popular film you haven't seen", "watch a previously unseen film about gambling", and "Central American Independence Week". This year's opener is a bit silly in its exactness: watch a movie that is 99 minutes long. The possibilities are far from limited ... the π–˜π–Šπ–™π–π–Šπ–“π–˜π–™π–Šπ–Žπ–“ list from which we choose has 578 films on it.  I chose Nanny because ... well, it becomes clear soon enough that I quickly forget why I picked a particular movie for the Challenge (I chose all 33 movies more than a week ago). Nanny has a lot going for it ... writer/director Nikyatu Jusu was only the second Black woman director to win the Sundance Grand Jury Prize, all the more impressive because Nanny is her first feature.

Jusu shows great promise, especially in the atmospherics she provides here. Nanny is often unsettling, but at the right times and for the right reasons. It also covers a lot of ground ... it's a story about the lives of immigrants to the U.S., it offers a picture of the clueless assumption of privilege by the white American upper-middle class, and it gives us a powerful performance by Anna Diop in the title role. It's nice to see Leslie Uggams turn up. It's easy to recommend Nanny.

Yet it falls short, I think. It isn't clear from the start, but Nanny is a horror movie. The idea that the life of an immigrant might seem like a horror movie is well taken, but the otherworldly components of the film don't fit smoothly, and the opening up of Nanny into the realm of horror is too gradual ... at first it's hard to even recognize, and then it feels like two movies. It's far from a failure, and when I said it's an unsettling movie, I meant that as a compliment. But it's more a fine welcome to Nikyatu Jusu to the world of movies than it is a welcome to a new classic.

geezer cinema/african-american directors series/film fatales #179: selma (ava duvernay, 2014)

Selma isn't exactly a biopic, which is made evident by the title, which is not King. It's a representation of a historical moment, with many famous participants, of whom Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. sits at the top. But King is shown as a leader amongst equals.

DuVernay effectively tells the story of the Selma to Montgomery march, without moving too far from the actual events. The drama doesn't need much tarting up ... it remains both shocking and inspiring. David Oyelowo makes a memorable King (he is one of several actors from England in key parts ... you don't notice it). Some have questioned the representation of the relationship between King and Lyndon Johnson. I don't think it's a huge flaw, but at times it feels like DuVernay is using LBJ as a plot device to add tension. The film rights to King's actual speeches had already been licensed, so DuVernay wrote versions of those speeches. It works for the most part, although when King is giving a speech you might know by heart, it's a bit jarring.

Selma was nominated for a Best Picture Oscar (it also won Best Song). I've seen all but one of the nominees, and I think Selma is better than the winner, Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance). I might have voted for Boyhood, but Selma definitely belonged in the discussion. The absence of DuVernay in the nominations for Best Director and Best Screenplay, along with David Oyelowo being ignored for Best Actor, pointed to the lack of diversity among the Academy voters.

Selma is solid, raised by some fine acting and a good script. I'm sorry it took me this long to finally see it. #590 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century.

african-american directors series/film fatales #173: reggie (alex stapleton, 2023)

Alex Stapleton pulls off an interesting trick with the documentary Reggie, about the baseball great. On the surface, it seems like a warts-and-all presentation. Reggie says on several occasions that his desire to tell the truth often gets him in trouble, and we are reminded of his conflicts with manager Billy Martin and owners Charlie Finley and George Steinbrenner. But the warts are understandable in the context of the film, which is largely told from Reggie's own point of view. Yes, he had problems with those people, but it was because he told the truth and demanded that he be treated with respect and dignity.

Reggie comes across well throughout the film. He has a lot of important things to say about racism and baseball, and the stories of the experiences he had in the south playing in the minor leagues reminded us of how bad it was back then. (His struggles to be part of ownership reminds us that we still have a long way to go.) It's fun to see him hanging out with his old Oakland teammates, including the late Vida Blue ... he and Dave Stewart exchange memories about when Stew was a youngster growing up in Oakland and Reggie took him under his wing. It's also illuminating to see him talking with fellow legends like Hank Aaron and basketball's Dr. J, sharing as only people who have reached the pinnacle of success can do.

I felt like Reggie would be happy with how the movie turned out.  If someone without a lot of knowledge about Reggie watched this, they'd think he was an OK guy as well as a great baseball player. There's nothing wrong with that. But I felt, without really knowing what they might be, that I was missing other aspects of Reggie as a person and a ballplayer.

african-american directors series: within our gates (oscar micheaux, 1920)

Within Our Gates is of crucial importance in film history, as it is the oldest available film directed by an African-American director. It was Oscar Micheaux's second feature (the first is lost). Within Our Gates was reconstructed in 1993 from a single print discovered in Spain. The reconstruction included taking the intertitles, which had been translated for the print from English to Spanish, and translating them back into English, using an approximation of Micheaux's style of writing.

Micheaux is a colossal figure in the history of African-American cinema, and Within Our Gates should be seen by anyone interested in film history and/or the history of African-Americans. Having said this, Micheaux was working with a poverty-scale budget, and the movie feels pretty raw by today's standards. Lead actress Evelyn Preer is fine and the story, about racism in the North and South in 1920 and featuring lynchings, was timely. But the entire project has a stagy feel to it, no doubt at least in part because of budgetary limitations.

The version I saw had a new musical score composed by DJ Spooky.