A 2021 Film Journey: Day 37

Happy weekend. I was much more tired than I thought after last week. I ended up sleeping in significantly later than I have in months. A combination of being busy at work and pandemic fatigue is getting to me. With my morning a complete wash, it cut into the time I had available for a movie today. That combined with the film I did watch’s length meant that even though it was a weekend, I only have on movie to talk about today.

Malcolm X (1992, Dir. Spike Lee)

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Biopics have an inherent flaw that needs to be addressed in their creation: the subjects of the film live long lives with countless important moments to explore. Even for subjects like Malcolm X who had their life tragically cut short, there’s no way to do them any service while compacting them into a 100-minute runtime. This leads many biopics to feel like a string of major events with little through line. The best biopics tend to work by embracing the limited time and telling a shorter story. Spike Lee decided to address the shortcoming in a different direction. Instead of telling a smaller, representative story, he took over 200 minutes to give X’s story the time it deserved.

In theory Malcolm X still succumbs to the issue with biopics. Even at the extended runtime, it’s still not possible to do the man’s entire life the justice it deserves, but the film’s length does give it more power than the alternative. The film feels like more than just a sequence of vignettes in the man’s life. While after watching it, I may only have a surface level of knowledge of where Malcolm the man comes from, I feel like the film succeeds in it’s telling of where Malcolm’s beliefs come from. For a man like he was, that’s the greatest thing Lee could have accomplished.

As important as Lee’s directorial voice was to the success of Malcolm X, the film could not work without a standout performance in the titular role. Thankfully a peak young Denzel Washington was available to play the civil rights icon. Washington was three years removed from his first Oscar win in Glory (1989, Dir. Edward Zwick), and I’m convince the proximity to it is the only reason that he didn’t win his second portraying X. Washington’s impressive range was a necessity to tell the full story of X’s life. He is equally believable as an 18-year-old coke dealer and 39- year-old Muslim minister. Lee as a director can tend to feel a little overstuffed, but Washington’s depiction of one of the greatest and most important men in history keeps even the three and a half hour epic feeling tight and important.

A 2021 Film Journey: Day 36

For all the fluster I’ve been making about finding Black helmed films on streaming services, I’ve had a handful that I’ve been keeping in my back pocket. Not enough to get me through the month unfortunately, but I find films elsewhere. And for tonight I have a film I’ve been looking forward to since it caused some controversy in its country of origin.

Rafiki (2018, Dir. Wanuri Kahiu)

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Late last year when I watched Happiest Season (2020, Dir. Clea DuVall) I told myself that I was kind of done with scared to come out/ unsupportive parents plotline in queer cinema. Gay marriage has been legal in all 50 states for five years now; that story is well trodden and doesn’t need to be rehashed to into oblivion. I’m looking for something new in my queer cinema. That stance needs an important appendment: I’m looking for something new in my US queer cinema. Because in other parts of the world, like Kenya where gay sex can land you in prison for years, this is still the story they need to tell.

Rafiki at first seems to be the exact kind of paint by numbers romance that I’ve grown tired of. An initial conflict is hinted at for our two lovers when Kena’s (Samantha Mugatsia) friend makes homophobic comments against a known gay man. This combined that Kena and Ziki’s (Sheila Munyiva) fathers are political rivals sets up a completely predictable star-crossed lovers’ story.

It’s when the film’s climax hits that Rafiki develops in a way more locally specific. Director Wanuri Kahiu pulls no punches with her depiction of the oppressively anti-gay culture. When Kena and Ziki are caught kissing they attempt to run away in vain. When members of the community find them, it’s not to ridicule them, or to sensationalize their relationship for political gossip, but to attack the girls and leave them in a bloody mess on the ground. When the police arrive, it’s not to arrest their assailants, but to arrest the girls for being in a same-sex relationship. It’s in this moment that Kahiu asserts her purpose in making this film. She forces the audience member in a more accepting world to understand that the fight for equal rights is not over, and to help viewers in her home country to work on changing.

A 2021 Film Journey: Day 35

Another late night tonight as I couldn’t get my head into a movie until late. Tonight I further complicated things by picking a movie in excess of two hours, but it was at least on my list and I knew where it was so I didn’t have to repeat the last two night’s struggle of trying to find a Black helmed film.

The Forty-Year-Old Version (2020, Dir. Radha Blank)

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Watching The Forty-Year-Old Version, I kept thinking of Spike Lee’s first feature She’s Gotta Have It (1986), and low and behold writer, director, and star Radha Blank produced 2019 TV Series of the same name. Knowing that the influence is likely intentional, helps to clarify my thoughts on the film. Blank is a wonderfully talented creative, but at times the talent needs another voice to reign it in. At a hair over two hours, the film feels a bit overstuffed for the content (something that also frequently plagues Lee). Don’t get me wrong, I really enjoyed 90% of this film, that just makes the last 10% all the more tragic.

Blank is a brilliant creator, and her fingerprints are all over the film. Not only did she write, direct, and star in the film, but the film feels especially personal given that she shares a name with her character (for clarity I’ll be using Radha to talk about the character and Blank to talk about the person). Writing her character as a playwright allows Blank to take many artistic flourishes with the film. While the film is shot in black and white, it includes quick slideshow-esque cuts to explain Radha’s thoughts.

Another example of Blanks artistic flare is her depiction of the white characters involved in the making and watching of her play. They are portrayed as awful. This was distracting for most of the film, but eventually I think the purpose unlocked for me. Much like Radha’s initial rap, it’s not supposed to be a realistic depiction, but rather a comment on white people’s tendency to fetishize Black suffering. The decision is another example of Blank’s significant talent but also of the film’s need for a second set of eyes.

A 2021 Film Journey: Day 34

Today was the closest that I’ve come to not making my goal for the day as part of this project. I had to work a couple hours late tonight, and afterwards I was struggling to focus on anything at all. It wasn’t until 8pm until I forced myself to start looking for a movie to watch, and I was immediately reminded of how difficult it is to find a film by Black voices. I mentioned that briefly yesterday, but the fact that most films in streaming services’ Black History Month sections are directed by white people is appalling. I don’t want to use this as an excuse, and I will endeavor to watch as many Black helmed films as possible this month, but it was just an added frustration to a day that was already going rough. Regardless I found a film that met my criteria and then some and finally sat down to watch it.

Cane River (1982, Dir. Horace Jenkins)

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While it took me a while to find a Black made film, the one I found was one of the most Black made films possible. Cane River was made not only by a Black director, Horace Jenkins, but by an all Black crew. The film itself has a very low budget, made-with-your-friends-in-the-backyard feel to it; that doesn’t make it a bad film in anyway, it just requires some recalibration in viewing. The less than stellar sound mixing is to be expected without a major studio to edit the excessive diegetic sound out but dismissing the film because of that is nothing but gatekeeping Black creators out. Instead of fixating on those deficiencies, I choose to evaluate the film on the aspects that were in its control.

What Cane River is, is a tightly crafted romance between two young people in a Romeo and Juliet influenced story. Peter (Richard Romain) comes from a wealth Black family that may or may not have been slave owners while Maria (Tommye Myrick) comes from a working-class family. Despite the different upbrings, the two quickly fall for each other. While love at first sight stories can frequently seem farfetched, Romain and Myrick have a natural chemistry of individuals who love each other but must be guarded in their feelings, a perfect match for the story.

A unique aspect to Cane River is that it has an almost musical quality to it. While the actors themselves never sing and the music is strictly non-diegetic, when a song comes on the plot is paused and the music is brought to the forefront. Each song is played nearly as a music video and less a continuation of the film, but in a movie so dedicated in portraying a Black story, highlighting Black New Orleans singer Phillip Manuel makes sense with the film’s exploration of Black culture.

A 2021 Film Journey: Day 33

After a somewhat lacking start to the month, I wanted to make sure tonight’s offering was a better film. Looking through films today for something to watch, I realized it is not going to be as trivial to find Black helmed films as I initially hoped. While many steaming services have a Black History Month section, their definition of what counts is rather generous. But I have a list to get through, so it shouldn’t be much of an issue. Tonight’s viewing was a 2020 film that didn’t come out until I wanted to have my list finalized so I put it off until today when it fits the theme perfectly.

One Night in Miami (2020, Dir. Regina King)

One Night in Miami Trailer: Regina King's Oscar Contender from Amazon |  IndieWire

It’s never a great surprise when a great actor moves behind the camera and ends up creating a great acting film. Oscar winner Regina King is another such actor turned director with her debut One Night in Miami. This substance over style approach betrays a slight insecurity over her own directorial skills, but more than makes up for that by extracting four solid to great performances from her lead actors.

A purely fictitious story of an imagined night between feal-life friends Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir), Mohammad Ali (Eli Goree), Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr.), and Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge), One Night in Miami places it’s four larger than life icons in a single motel room for most of the runtime. In here they discuss and argue what each of their place in civil rights movement is and what it should be. Ben-Adir is the easy standout as the civil rights leader. This is partially because of the characterization of the four’s conversation requiring X to be the central figure but is due to Ben-Adir’s subdued depiction of the man. Goree and Odom Jr. as Ali and Cooke flank Ben-Adir’s X with more caricatured versions of their roles creating a welcome contrast, keeping the film moving at a brisk pace. Hodge may be the clear weak link of the four, but his performance has wonderful flashes, and he was given the least to do in the screen play. Together the four build off each other wonderfully under King’s actor first direction.

A 2021 Film Journey: Day 32

Time for month number two. The weekend disappeared far too quickly, and I never fully woke up today, but my work wouldn’t let me take the day off, so there’s no way I’d take today off from here. With the new month, comes Black History Month. For the month, I’m going to do my best to feature films by Black directors. I can’t promise that everything I watch will be by one, but I’m going to endeavor for at least the majority of them to be from Black voices.

See You Yesterday (2019, Dir. Stefon Bristol)

See You Yesterday” Filmmakers Use Sci-Fi to Discuss Police Brutality - YES!  Magazine

See You Yesterday is essentially Back to the Future (1985, Dir. Robert Zemeckis) meets The Hate U Give (2018, Dir. George Tillman Jr.). Together they combine into a high school time travel comedy (complete with Michael J. Fox cameo) that is too real to be fun and an issue piece that interjects too much comedy to make it’s point.

I really wanted to like this movie. I was fully engrossed for the first 20 minutes or so of it when it was just the happy-go-lucky buddy time travel movie. The depiction of brilliant people of color just existing in their working-class neighborhood was refreshing even if the plot lines were a little on the juvenile side. Everything gets messy when the film attempts to balance a critique on police brutality on top of that juvenile styled comedy. While Black people are still being killed by cops on what seems like a daily basis, I’d like the topic to be handled with more gravitas than See You Yesterday was able. A time travel approach to the topic is not inherently a flawed approach, but the tonal dissonance this film experienced prevented me from appreciating the film.