african-american directors series: devil in a blue dress (carl franklin, 1995)

This is the seventeenth film I have watched in "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2022-23", "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 8th annual challenge, and my fourth time participating (my first year can be found at "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2019-20", the second year at "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2020-21", and last year at "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2021-22"). Week 17 is called "LA Films Week":

This week's challenge is to watch a previously unseen LA film.

Carl Franklin has had an interesting career. He grew up in Richmond, California, went to Cal, and as an actor appeared as a regular in many TV series. Then in 1986, he enrolled at the AFI Conservatory, got a Master's Degree, and went to work directing films for Roger Corman. Then, in 1992, came a terrific movie, One False Move, followed by Devil in a Blue Dress. The sky would seem to have been the limit. Franklin has always worked, but he only directed four features after Devil, moving instead to television, where he has directed episodes of some of the top series of the era.

Devil in a Blue Dress was based on the first book in the Easy Rawlins series by Walter Mosley. Mosley has become a highly-acclaimed author, and his Easy Rawlins books now number more than a dozen. Lead actor Denzel Washington already had an Oscar (and another nomination). It's clear from the final scene of the film that the door was left open for a series of Easy Rawlins movies. But Devil in a Blue Dress is still the only time Rawlins has appeared on the screen. The film was a critical success, but it flopped at the box office. Denzel has remained one of our best actors, but the only film series he makes is the mediocre Equalizer movies.

Devil in a Blue Dress has a lot going for it besides Denzel. Don Cheadle gets his first big role and steals all of his scenes. Franklin and crew do a great job of creating Los Angeles in 1948. Cinematographer Tak Fujimoto's work is impeccable. And Franklin (and Mosely) shows how racial relations are ever-present, as Rawlins steps around the charged atmosphere of a time and place where white people have the power. Devil in a Blue Dress works on all of these levels. It's a shame it didn't resonate with a big enough audience at the time.

geezer cinema/film fatales #158/african-american directors series: bessie (dee rees, 2015)

This is the fourteenth film I have watched in "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2022-23", "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 8th annual challenge, and my fourth time participating (my first year can be found at "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2019-20", the second year at "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2020-21", and last year at "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2021-22"). Week 14 is called "Queer, Black, 21st Century Week":

This week's challenge is to watch a previously unseen film from Letterboxd's Queer, Black, 21st Century: A Pride 2020 List.

Always good to see Queen Latifah ... she was arguably the best thing in Chicago, and the ensemble piece Set It Off is underrated. She is fine as Bessie Smith ... whatever the faults of biopics, they usually do a decent job of casting the lead. Latifah's singing as Bessie is strong. When we hear the real Bessie singing during the closing credits, we recognize the difference, but we don't decide Latifah was inadequate to the job. There are gems scattered throughout the cast: Mo'Nique steals scenes as Ma Rainey, Michael K. Williams never disappoints, and Khandi Alexander brings her usual intensity. The film keeps close enough to the real story. It won an Emmy for Outstanding Television Movie (it's an HBO production).

But it's still just a biopic. Director Dee Rees (Mudbound), who also co-wrote, doesn't make many missteps, and she lets her cast shine. But the film leaves too many holes in the story, or at least, it gives that impression. Events that might have a big impact are diluted when they seem to come out of nowhere. It's not that anyone acts out of character, but when, for instance, Bessie shows up with an adopted daughter, we haven't been prepared for such an occurrence, and this happens to often. This makes the movie move forward quickly, and Rees gets it all in under two hours. But at times, I wanted things to slow down a bit.

Bessie is well worth watching, and it doesn't do much damage to the true story for people who are learning about Bessie Smith for the first time. Lots of biopics do less.

a few 2022 movie lists

I'll probably watch a few more movies this year, but unless one is an all-time classic, these will likely remain the best movies I watched in 2022 for the first time. I gave all of them a rating of 9 on a scale of 10. Sorted by release year:

Best movies I re-watched this year (all 10/10):

  • The Wizard of Oz (1939)
  • Citizen Kane (1941)
  • A Hard Day's Night (1964)
  • Jaws (1975)
  • The Last Waltz (1978)
  • Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)

The ongoing Geezer Cinema list. We watched 48 Geezer movies this year, beginning with Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse back on January 4:

[Letterboxd list of Geezer Cinema movies]

And this list of everything I watched this year:

[Letterboxd list of movies I watched in 2022]

geezer cinema/african-american directors series: black panther: wakanda forever (ryan coogler, 2022)

The problem for every sequel not named The Godfather: Part II is that the excellence of the original leads to negative comparisons with what comes after. Wakanda Forever is not as good as Black Panther. That does not mean it's a bad movie. In fact, Wakanda Forever is a fine film that is an honorable continuation of the story. To return (for the last time, I promise) to my earlier statement, Wakanda Forever may not be as good as The Godfather: Part II, but it's better than The Godfather: Part III, and any attempts to claim otherwise are nonsense.

Much has been made of the absence of Chadwick Boseman, rightfully so. His loss is deeply felt, and Wakanda Forever suffers from that loss. But a lot of people return for the sequel, including most of  the great cast, and, importantly, Ryan Coogler. Coogler has now directed four features, and there isn't a dud among them. He has become one of our finest film makers. And the diversity we see on the screen is extended behind the camera with Coogler: he has used women as cinematographers and editors in all his features (in this case, Autumn Durald as cinematographer, and Jennifer Lame and Kelley Dixon as editors). And Michael B. Jordan has been in all of Coogler's films ... as I have said before, their pairing compares to the icons like Scorsese/De Niro.

I could say some negative things about Wakanda Forever. It's too long (you could watch Fruitvale Station twice in about the time it would take to watch Wakanda Forever once). What made Black Panther the best-ever Marvel movie was partly that it wasn't just a Marvel movie, and while Wakanda Forever is OK in this regard, there are some action scenes in the middle of the film that are more Marvel than anything else, and not that good besides. (In fairness, the climactic battle is excellent.)

And then there's what Coogler and company do about Chadwick Boseman. At the beginning of the film, I thought they were tugging our heartstrings excessively, demanding that we play silent tribute to Boseman as we watched (I resisted, but of course, the tears came to me like they did to everyone). Overall, I think Wakanda Forever more than overcomes that opening. The loss of Boseman/T'Challa is deep, but by the end of the film, that loss is integrated into the movie as a whole, and it's the right call.

The cast? I won't single anyone out, but if you look at the cast list, take my word for it, they are all at the top of their games. (OK, I wasn't gonna single anyone out, but in the tradition of "Hey, it's that guy!", give it up for Lake Bell.) Newcomer Tenoch Huerta makes a good, complex villain, although I liked one comment that said he's 41 years old and now he's signed on to act in a Speedo for the next ten years. (His trainer told him, "Okay, man, now you can rest, you can chill and take your time. But not too much, because if you have to play Namor one more time, you need to go through the same process all over again. So it’s better you take care of yourself and don’t get crazy with tacos.")

Wakanda Forever isn't just a tolerable sequel to a great movie. It's good in its own right, even as it owes so much to the original.

what i watched

Been watching a lot of movies, but various things have kept me away from the keyboard, so here is a catching-up post, with a few movies getting less attention than they deserve.

African-American Directors Series: Soul Food (George Tillman, Jr., 1997). I watched the first season of the television series based on this film, and then lost track of it, as often happens. So perhaps I was affected a bit by this, since for me, the movie Soul Food plays like a TV series. The film features a fine cast (Vanessa Williams, Vivica A. Fox, Nia Long, Michael Beach, Mekhi Phifer, Irma P. Hall), anchored by young Brandon Hammond, playing Ahmad, the kid through whose eyes we see the story of a family unfolding. It's only the second movie from writer/director George Tillman, Jr., and it has a winning honesty, but there are few surprises.

Film Fatales #154: "The Murmuring" (Jennifer Kent, 2022). Not exactly a movie, this is an episode of the television series Guillermo del Toro's Cabinet of Curiosities. But hey, it's a bit longer than an hour, and it's directed by the great Jennifer Kent (The Babadook, The Nightingale). This one is closer to The Babadook ... it deals with grief, it has horror elements, it even stars Essie Davis. Andrew Lincoln of The Walking Dead co-stars, and Kent and her stars make no missteps. It's a welcome addition to Kent's resume.

Geezer Cinema/Film Fatales #155: Causeway (Lila Neugebauer, 2022.). All of these movies are carried by their actors. Causeway is a well-told tale about a soldier with PTSD who connects with another person with a backstory. But there isn't much new in the story or the telling. What raises Causeway above the norm is the acting by Jennifer Lawrence and Brian Tyree Henry (who is apparently incapable of anything but great performances). The odd-couple pairing of the two is both obvious and terrific. Lawrence and Henry make us believe in their characters, who don't know that we've seen similar stories before. Their stories are personal and fresh to them, and the stars convey this in many touching ways.

Dr. No (Teremce Young, 1962). I was feeling a bit under the weather, so I fell back on comfort food, watching this and From Russia with Love on successive nights. My memory often fails me, but I think this was the last movie I saw in a theater with my mother (I also remember it being a drive-in). I read all of the novels, and had quite the 007 obsession in my youth. At this point, Dr. No works mainly as an historical artifact. The movie is OK, we get to meet Sean Connery's Bond, Ursula Andress sets the standard for Bond Girls, but it needs hindsight to imagine that the Bond movies would still be going strong 60 years later. Things definitely took a step up with the next one, From Russia with Love.

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.