The Blood of Jesus was the first "race film" added to the U.S. National Film Registry. Wikipedia describes race movies as "films produced for black audiences, featuring black casts.... They are historically significant due to their ability to showcase the talents of actors who were relegated to stereotypical supporting roles in mainstream studio films." The most recognizable name from The Blood of Jesus is writer/director Spencer Williams, who also played a leading role in the film, and who later appeared as Andy in the TV series Amos and Andy. The movie had a budget of $5,000 and was a financial success. It deserves its place in the National Film Registry.
I'm not sure why I was surprised, but The Blood of Jesus is a religious film. While it is a drama, not a documentary, it preserves elements of the religious life of African-Americans in the South. The community shown in the movie is centered on the shared religion, with spirituals and hymns an almost constant accompaniment to the scenes. It is also a film by and for believers.
I'm a non-believer, so I wasn't convinced by the film's message. And, putting aside its clear historical significance, it was a hard movie to get through, even though it ran for less than an hour. Williams was the only professional actor, and it shows. He was also learning to direct on the job, and given his limited budget, he gets more points for just pulling off the movie than he does for the art of what we see. Still, its emergence in the 1980s after being considered lost was an important moment for film history scholars, and scholars of African-American culture in general.
The print I saw was pretty bad ... The Blood of Jesus would be a good candidate for restoration. It looks and sounds like a film in the public domain, so there is no telling how it looked in 1941. You can watch the whole film on YouTube, among other places.
About a month ago, I took part in a poll at the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They website where users listed their 25 favorite films. They received 1,983 replies, with a total of 5,945 films chosen. The final results of that poll have been posted. I find things like this endlessly fascinating. If you are like me, you'll want to check out the site, where you can see lists like "Ten Highest Ranked Films in the 1,000 Greatest Films List That Are Not in the 1,005 Film Favourites List", "Ten Lowest Ranked 21st Century Films in the 21st Century’s Most Acclaimed Films List That Are in the 1,005 Film Favourites List", and "Leading 25 Directors (Total Votes)". I may delve into this further in a later post, but for now, here again are the 25 films I chose, listed by their ranking on the final list. First, films that did not make the Top 1005:
Summer of Soul is subtitled "(Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)", which carries some irony in this streaming era when the movie was released simultaneously in theaters and on Hulu. But one of the most dumbfounding things about the film is that in effect is wasn't televised, or even shown anywhere at all, for fifty years. Seeing it now, it seems impossible that the footage of the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival was buried, while Woodstock, which took place at the same time as the Harlem festival and was turned into an Oscar-winning film in 1970, has been hailed as the chronicle of a generation ever since. Of course, the reason Woodstock triumphed while the "Black Woodstock" went undiscovered is obvious. Only one musical act appeared at both festivals: Sly and the Family Stone.
It's impossible to single out any one moment in Summer of Soul, because it is filled with them. I can't resist listing a few favorites.
There's the 5th Dimension, singing "Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In". Thompson shows Billy Davis and Marilyn McCoo watching the footage with tears in their eyes, explaining how important it was to play Harlem for the first time. (Rolling Stone had a nice little piece on this.) And there's one festival attendee, talking about how beautiful McCoo was, admitting as if he was realizing it for the first time, "God, she's my first crush." This segment also shows that Thompson, a novice film maker, understands better than most how to integrate interviews with music. It is a pet peeve of mine that movies of musical performances too often truncate those performances, as if there was something more important we should pay attention to, This happens in Summer of Soul, but it's an interesting move by Thompson: the words blend with the songs, make the songs expand, give them context. He never loses a connection with the performances, but he invites the interviewees into those performances. At those times, it seems impossible that Questlove had never directed a movie before.
The gospel section is thrilling. We see the Bay Area's own Edwin Hawkins Singers. We see the Staple Singers. We see Mahalia Jackson. And then, a beautiful moment, set up at the festival by Jesse Jackson, who said "Precious Lord" was Martin Luther King, Jr.'s favorite song. Mahalia Jackson was scheduled to sing it, as she had at King's funeral, and once again, Thompson knows exactly where to put interview material. Mavis Staples says Mahalia was her idol, and then, as if she were narrating what we are seeing, she said Mahalia "leaned over and told me, 'Baby, Halie don't feel too good today. I need you to help me sing this song." Thompson inserts relevant footage of King's last minutes as Jackson speaks, and then Mavis sings. After a verse, Mahalia stands up and takes the microphone, and she sings (the captioning says simply "VOCALIZING"). Mavis steps up, and the emotions as they sing together are overwhelming. Mahalia hands the mic to Mavis (in her interview, Mavis says, "When she gave me that microphone back, I said, 'Oh, she likes what I'm doin'").
Sly and the Family Stone demonstrated not just that they were a pre-eminent band, but that they changed everything. This is more apparent here than in Woodstock, where their monumental appearance is just a great moment among great moments. Thompson once again uses interviews to set the stage for what we are seeing. One man describes his expectations for R&B groups at the time: all men in matching suits. "You're wondering, 'What are they doing with girls in the group? What is white people doing up there? And a white guy is the drummer?' We couldn't get this thing, that the white guy is the drummer. You know, he's not supposed to be able to do that. As soon as everything was kicking, it was on!" A female attendee says, "To see a Black woman playin' a trumpet made me feel great." None of this would matter if Sly and the Family Stone weren't also one of the great bands.
The movie I was most reminded of was Dave Chappelle's Block Party. That movie featured a variety of acts at a neighborhood concert in Brooklyn, and the sense of community is so strong ... at the time, I called it "the feel good movie of the year". The same can be said of Summer of Soul, which brilliantly blends great music and social context in a package that is the best new-to-me movie I've seen this year.
Recently, the They Shoot Pictures Don't They website had a poll where users listed their 25 favorite films. They received 1,983 replies, with a total of 5,945 films chosen. They have begun posting the top 1005, spreading things out to keep us in suspense. In the meantime, here were my 25 choices. Each selection received one point, so there was no need to rank them. I'll list mine in alphabetical order:
This is the fifth movie I've seen from The Hughes Brothers, but for some reason it's the first one I've written about. Which is too bad, because The Book of Eli is at or near the bottom of the list when it comes to their movies. Menace II Society was a touchstone, with a terrifying performance by Larenz Tate. Dead Presidents (also with Tate) surprised me ... I thought it was even better than Menace. From Menace II Society in 1993 to From Hell in 2001, the brothers (who are twins) directed four movies together. For reasons not completely clear, they have only directed one movie together in the last 20 years, The Book of Eli. I wish I could say it was a return to form.
The brothers (and casting director Mindy Marin) put together a solid cast, with a couple of reliable leads in Denzel Washington and Gary Oldman, strong support from Mila Kunis in the female lead, and an intriguing list of players in smaller parts: Ray "Titus Pullo" Stevenson, Jennifer Beals, Frances de la Tour and Michael Gambon as an old couple that haven't lost their fire, even Tom Waits and an uncredited Malcolm McDowell. None of them are wasted, but it's really Denzel's show, with Oldman doing a good job of underplaying the villain, something he doesn't always do.
The story, a post-apocalyptic tale that goes mostly unexplained, reminded me of a lot of other movies, most of them better than The Book of Eli. There are a few twists near the end that I won't spoil (at least one of which, I didn't get until I read about the movie afterwards). The fight sequences are well done, with Denzel doing his own martial arts stunts. If you ended up spending two hours watching this movie, you wouldn't hate yourself afterwards. But you might wonder why you bothered. For me, there wasn't much to inspire. If you want to be surprised by a movie you might not know, check out Dead Presidents.
On the one hand, you have two fine, venerable actors in John Lithgow and Blythe Danner. If you are fan of Danner, as I am, you might wonder why she so rarely appears in movies you'd like to see. I probably enjoyed her most in the TV series Huff. Point is, I'm glad to see her name in the credits for The Tomorrow Man, but I don't get my hopes up.
Next, you have writer/director/cinematographer Noble Jones (what a great name!), who makes his directorial debut after working mainly on music videos. He has worked (been mentored) by David Fincher ... he's not a novice. And he seems to have inspired his veteran cast. If had to summarize, I'd say Jones looks to be an intriguing director and cinematographer, but the story didn't do much for me, and the ending simultaneously came out of nowhere and yet was highly predictable. The Tomorrow Man is ultimately harmless, and I'm not sure that's what Jones was hoping for.
So my wife and I, both in our late-60s, were clearly supposed to identify with the geezers on the screen, but they didn't resemble any actual people I know. (One exception: Blythe Danner's character's house is as messy as ours.) Jones got The Tomorrow Man made, and that's no small accomplishment. But he hasn't yet made his first masterpiece.
I lived in Indiana in 1971-72, and one night we attended a showing of a film called The Murder of Fred Hampton. It couldn't have been more lo-fi, but it really grabbed the audience with its powerful agitprop. After the showing, someone from the Panthers said a few words ... I want to say it was David Hilliard, but you know how my memory is. You can watch the entire movie on YouTube:
Judas and the Black Messiah is nowhere near as raw as that documentary, but I didn't expect it to be. I was excited by the advance notices, but I worried that it was going to be more about "Judas" (William O'Neal, played by Lakeith Stanfield) than about Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya). I shouldn't have worried. Shaka King, previously unknown to me, who directed and co-wrote the film, did a superb job of integrating the story of O'Neal into the story of Hampton. The latter is never pushed to the background, and Kaluuya's dynamic performance couldn't be hidden even if they wanted to do so. But as presented, O'Neal is far more than just a snitch. He's placed in a bad position, hounded by the FBI to infiltrate and eventually betray Hampton, and Stanfield, who matches Kaluuya all the way, shows us how O'Neal found himself in such a position, how much he hated himself for it, and how the inspired rhetoric of Hampton draws O'Neal close to becoming a Believer.
There is more going on in Judas and the Black Messiah than just Kaluuya and Stanfield. For one thing, the rest of the cast isn't too shabby, either, especially Dominique Fishback and Jesse Plemons, who underplays his FBI agent so that his evil behavior only sneaks through the surface. King gives us a believable version of Chicago in the late 60s that has too many unfortunate reminders of 2021 ... things haven't changed enough, if at all. Kaluuya is a bit too old for his part, which King rescues by essentially ignoring it, but you lose part of Fred Hampton's amazing life if you don't regularly insist on noting he was only 21 when he died. But these are nitpicks. Judas and the Black Messiah is the best movie I have seen so far in 2021.
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:
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?
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.