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:


african-american directors series: the guilty (antoine fuqua, 2021)

I have seen a lot of Antoine Fuqua movies, for some reason. Training Day was pretty good, Chow Yun-Fat's English-language debut The Replacement Killers was pretty awful, and all of the others I have seen are mediocre. (Letterboxd list of Antoine Fuqua movies I have seen.) It's not that Fuqua is incompetent ... he made a lot of strong music videos prior to switching to movies, and his films are not disastrous (except Replacement Killers). But rarely do his movies rise above competence. All of which is why I am happy to say that The Guilty is one of Fuqua's best, which is all the more remarkable because due to COVID, Fuqua directed the entire film from a van parked outside the set.

It's a remake of a 2018 Danish movie I liked a lot. I've read several discussions of the differences between the two movies, most of which argue that the American remake is inferior. But as I watched, I had no such feelings. Fuqua maintains tension throughout, and Jake Gyllenhaal delivers in a demanding role that requires him to be on the screen virtually the entire time. It's the kind of performance that often gets Oscar attention (although Will Smith is the solid front-runner with the oddsmakers), and I don't necessarily mean that in a positive way. But Gyllenhaal is the best thing about the film, as was the case with his Danish counterpart, Jakob Cedergren, in the original.

Fuqua adds some touches ... there is a political context to much of the plot, which I don't recall being as strong in the 2018 film. Nic Pizzolatto wrote the screenplay, and he deserves some of the credit, as does Gustav Möller, who wrote (and directed) the original. Something I wrote about the original is true for this movie as well: "The Guilty is a genre exercise that achieves all that it sets out to do, and that is far more rare than you'd think."

african-american directors series/film fatales #126: time (garrett bradley, 2020)

This is the fourteenth film I have watched in "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2021-22", "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 7th annual challenge, and my third time participating (my first year can be found at "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2019-20", and last year's at "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2020-21"). Week 14 is called "'I've Been Meaning to Get to it...' Week":

Listen, we all let some films fall through the cracks; there's just too many movies! Here's your chance to see one that passed you by from 2020.

This week's challenge is to watch a previously unseen film released in 2020.

One of the larger lists of films to choose from: anything from last year that I haven't seen. (From the list they provided, I haven't seen more than 29,000.) It's my first encounter with Garrett Bradley, an interesting director who doesn't limit herself to narrow genre exercises. She won the Best Documentary Director at Sundance for Time (the first black woman to do so). Time was nominated for a Best Feature Documentary Oscar, losing to My Octopus Teacher, not a bad choice but it would have been nice to reward the more adventurous Time.

It's not easy to pin down the central theme of Time. The basic "plot" (if a documentary can be said to have a plot) is about Sibil Fox Richardson (aka Fox Rich), who is trying to get her husband released from prison. The two of them committed an armed bank robbery during a time of financial desperation. She did 3 1/2 years ... he got a 60-year sentence. Bradley intended to make a short about Rich, but was surprised when Rich gave her 100 hours of home videos she had shot over the years. Bradley used that footage to extend her short into a feature.

Rich is a fascinating woman, charismatic and seemingly capable of an endless combination of hope and calmness. Both are tenuous ... at one point, after an extremely polite phone call to someone in the legal system, she explodes after hanging up. But she lives by the concept of never giving up, and the film ends happily with her husband finally coming home to his wife and their six kids.

Bradley's techniques are impressive, and Rich is an ideal central character. But I wanted to know more specifics about the case. We see the family grow over the years, and the kids are turning out great, but based on Time, their successes are rooted in a strong mother and a belief in God and family. I accepted that explanation, because that's what Bradley and Rich give us, but I wasn't convinced, which is why I wanted more. Nonetheless, Rich is easy to root for, and it's hard to deny the pleasure that comes from the happy ending. #362 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century.

african-american directors series: king richard (reinaldo marcus green, 2021)

King Richard falls into two fairly predictable genres, the biopic and the sports movie. Sports movies often have a thrilling conclusion ... boxing and horse racing work this quite well. Biopics? They can get our attention if we are fans of the person in question. Both genres suffer, though, from restrictions. There is usually a beginning, a rise, a drop off, and then a finale that leaves the audience happy.

As a sports movie, King Richard does have a twist or two, mostly because the people we care about the most, sisters Venus and Serena Williams, are secondary characters, with their father, the titular King, being the focus of the film. It's not that Richard Williams is uninteresting, it's just that the reason we've heard of him is because of his daughters. You would be forgiven if the movie gave us more Venus and Serena and less Richard. Having said that, Venus and Serena are executive producers of King Richard, and they seem fine with the focus on their father.

Biopics usually fudge facts to make for more entertaining movies, and King Richard is no exception. It helps that Will Smith gives the kind of performance people will remember come Oscar time. But then, most stars of biopics get that kind of attention. In recent years, we've had Best Actor nominations for Gary Oldman (twice), Rami Malek, Michael Fassbender, and Bryan Cranston (not to mention Will Smith in Ali), while Viola Davis, Andra Day, Renée Zellweger, Cynthia Erivo, Margot Robbie, and Natalie Portman getting Best Actress nominations. Some of these performances are excellent, although there's a tendency to congratulate and actor for imitating their subject. The biggest problem with biopics is that the real lives of the characters matter, but making entertainment matters more, and when you opt for entertainment, you are likely telling something less than the truth about the actual human being.

King Richard holds our attention, albeit for too long a running time (144 minutes). But it doesn't help when you learn more about Richard, when you learn what was left out.

Saniyya Sidney as Venus makes up for a lot, though. She is the best thing about the movie. The result is a movie I am glad I saw, but not a movie I will rave about.

african-american directors series: the blood of jesus (spencer williams, 1941)

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.

25 favorite films update

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:

Black Panther (Coogler, who does not appear on the list)

Near Dark (Bigelow, who does not appear on the list)

The Rapture (Tolkin, who does not appear on the list)

The Sorrow and the Pity (Ophuls, who does not appear on the list)

Stories We Tell (Polley, who does not appear on the list)

Winter's Bone (Granik, who does not appear on the list)

Steamboat Bill, Jr. (Keaton, who did get 2 other films on the list)

The Beaches of Agnes (Varda, who did get 4 other films on the list)

And my choices that made the list, in reverse order:

Performance (Cammell and Roeg, tied at #923)

Bonnie and Clyde (Penn, tied at #570)

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (Ramsey et al, tied at #519)

Get Out (Peele, tied at #442)

The Wild Bunch (Peckinpah, tied at #247)

A Separation (Farhadi, tied at #196)

Rio Bravo (Hawks, tied at #135)

The Rules of the Game (Renoir, tied at #71)

Mad Max: Fury Road (Miller, #60)

Jeanne Dielman, 23, Quai du Commerce 1080 Bruxelles (Akerman, #57)

The Third Man (Reed, tied at #46)

Do the Right Thing (Lee, #29)

The Godfather Part II (Coppola, #21)

Tokyo Story (Ozu, #20)

The Passion of Joan of Arc (Dreyer, #19)

Citizen Kane (Welles, #9)

In the Mood for Love (Wong Kar-wai, #8)

Finally, here is the Top Ten list:

  1. 2001: A Space Odyssey (Kubrick)
  2. Mulholland Dr. (Lynch)
  3. Vertigo (Hitchcock)
  4. Apocalypse Now (Coppola)
  5. The Godfather (Coppola)
  6. Taxi Driver (Scorsese)
  7. Persona (Bergman)
  8. In the Mood for Love
  9. Citizen Kane
  10. Seven Samurai (Kurosawa)

african-american directors series: summer of soul (ahmir-khalib thompson, 2021)

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.