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 100 films (which only scratches the surface, of course).

Posts in the series include:

#1: Vagabond

#2: American Psycho

#3: Daisies

#4: Wendy and Lucy

#5: Me and You and Everyone We Know

#6: News from Home

#7: Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles

#8: Beyond the Lights

#9: Ratcatcher

#10: What Happened, Miss Simone?

#11: Night Catches Us

#12: The Gleaners & I

#13: Bridget Jones’s Diary

#14: Diary of a Teenage Girl

#15: We Need to Talk About Kevin

#16: Citizenfour

#17: Suffragette

#18: Obvious Child

#19: Tallulah

#20: Paju

#21: Stories We Tell

#22: 2 Days in Paris

#23: 13th

#24: Fat Girl

#25: The Intervention

#26: To Walk Invisible

#27: Wanda

#28: Jesus’ Son

#29: Girlfriends

#30: Wonder Woman

#31: Spielberg

#32: Persepolis

#33: Real Women Have Curves

#34: Lady Bird

#35: First They Killed My Father

#36: Mudbound

#37: On Body and Soul

#38: American Honey

#39: A Girl Like Her

#40: Divines

#41: Morvern Callar

#42: Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story

#43: India's Daughter

#44: Faces Places

#45: The Ascent

#46: The Spy Who Dumped Me

#47: The Dressmaker

#48: Private Life

#49: Mustang

#50: RBG

#51: Mikey and Nicky

#52: Leave No Trace

#53: Captain Marvel

#54: Shirkers

#55: La Ciénaga

#56: Exhibition

#57: Booksmart

#58: The Farewell

#59: Blinded by the Light

#60: Craig's Wife

#61: Hustlers

#62: A Woman, A Part

#63: Daughters of the Dust

#64: Tig Notaro: Happy to Be Here

#65: Who Took the Bomp? Le Tigre on Tour

#66: Fleabag

#67: Paris Is Burning

#68: Detroit

#69: Le Bonheur

#70: Little Women

#71: 35 Shots of Rum

#72: Honeyland

#73: The Rhythm Section

#74: American Factory

#75: The Photograph

#76: Portrait of a Lady on Fire

#77: Even the Rain

#78: The Edge of Seventeen

#79: Emma.

#80: Welcome to Me

#81: Knock Down the House

#82: The Nightingale

#83: Zama

#84: Harriet

#85: Cameraperson

#86: Relic

#87: The Old Guard

#88: Leviathan

#89: The Killers

#90: The Assistant

#91: Lost Girls

#92: Crip Camp

#93: You Were Never Really Here

#94: Babyteeth

#95: Dick Johnson Is Dead

#96: The Lure

#97: Never Rarely Sometimes Always

#98: She Dies Tomorrow

#99: The Headless Woman

#100: Totally Under Control

#101: My Octopus Teacher

#102: Jane Eyre

#103: Wonder Woman 1984

#104: Little White Lie

#105: The Invisible Frame

#106: One Night in Miami

#107: Shirley

#108: Nomadland

#109: Sweetie

#110: First Cow

#111: Promising Young Woman

#112: Town Bloody Hall

#113: Shadow in the Cloud

#114: Honey Boy

#115: Saint Maud

#116: Black WIdow

#117: Sword of Trust

#118: Beau Travail

#119: In a World

#120: The Sit-In: Harry Belafonte Hosts The Tonight Show

#121: Shiva Baby

#122: Fast Color

#123: Worth

#124: Birds of Prey (And the Fantabulous Emanicipation of One Harley Quinn

#125: Passing

#126: Time

#127: Meshes of the Afternoon

#128: The Power of the Dog

#129: The Lost Daughter

#130: Zola

#131: Eternals

And the following movies, which would be in the series except I’ve already written about them ... call them Honorary Fatales:

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.

african-american directors series/revisiting the 9s: black panther (ryan coogler, 2018)

[This is the fifth 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. By rough count, I have only given the top rating to 17 non-documentaries from the 21st century. (For some reason, I don't have a problem giving tens to new documentaries.) 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:

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.

The time around, the loss of Chadwick Boseman is deeply felt ... it's impossible not to see T'Challa and ignore the fact that Boseman was working so hard even as he knew he had cancer. Hindsight influences how we see the past, and in the final scenes of Black Panther, I thought he looked gaunt. But I didn't notice back in 2018, and I suspect I imagined it in 2022. Nonetheless, Boseman was suffering during the production of the film, and while that in itself isn't a guarantee of a great performance, the fact that Boseman gave a great performance while he had cancer is simply remarkable. Watching this time, I remained extremely impressed by Michael B. Jordan ... when am I not impressed by him? But I wouldn't say now that he was the dominant actor in the movie. In fact, it's a great thing we have, to see two dynamic performers going up against each other like Jordan and Boseman do here. I can't say it was robbery that Boseman didn't get the Best Actor Oscar ... oddly, I still haven't seen any of the five nominees. Nor have I yet seen any of the Supporting Actor nominees, so while I think Jordan was worthy, I can't make the proper comparisons.

I should note that I watched something of a special version this time. Originally, we saw it in IMAX in a theater. Recently, Disney Plus has begun offering a handful of Marvel films in what they call "IMAX Enhanced". Essentially, it changes the aspect ratio to match that of IMAX. In the case of Black Panther, this isn't true for the entire movie, but rather for specific scenes. The transition was seamless ... in fact, I barely noticed, which may or may not be an argument in its favor.

Black Panther remains the best of the Marvel movies. Of the ones that have been released since then, only Shang-Chi comes close. But, as good as it is, I don't think it quite makes it to the pantheon of greatest films. I am sticking with 9/10 in this case.

ten best movies i watched this year

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 2021. All of them get my highest 10/10 rating. Sorted by release date: