Tag Archives: Black

The Last Black Man in San Francisco

14 Jun

‘The Last Black Man in San Francisco’: Occupying family home doesn’t get it back

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Given efforts to address the widening socioeconomic chasm in Cambridge and matters of diversity and affordable housing, there might not be a more apt fable to heed than that of “The Last Black Man in San Francisco” – even if that city’s affordability and economic divide, with its long list of tech startups and horde of nouveau millennials, far outpaces ours. This Spike Lee-sque work about a forlorn young man looking to return to the stately family home where he grew up hits all the right (dis)chords, though. The house, in what was once known as the “Harlem of the West” (in the Fillmore District) is now a tony enclave perched quaintly atop a San Fran hill, streetcar stop and all, that looks right off the Travel Channel. The specter of gentrification is in every frame of this Sundance-winning film, though never directly named.

So what does Jimmie Fails (played by Jimmie Fails, can you dig the meta framing?) do to gain back the the periwinkle-gray Victorian manse? Well, he just shows up and starts cleaning, raking the yard and painting the windows sills – which doesn’t sit well with the current white owners, who themselves are in a financial pickle and forced to move out. That’s when Jimmie and his pal Montgomery (Jonathan Majors), who’ve been in a less desirable part of the city with Mont’s blind grandfather (Danny Glover – again this week after “The Dead Don’t Die”!), decide to move in. None of that is on the up and up, which gives the film its teeth; the stakes climb even higher when the “witch hat house” goes on the market for a cool four mil. Jimmie, a caregiver at a retirement home, and Mont, who works in the local fish market, don’t have a chance in hell of buying it.

The resolution is ultimately beside the point. It’s more about the subtle portrayal of race, the impact of gentrification and the grim prospects for young men of color who have either unwisely stepped outside the law or been passed over by the system. “Blindspotting”(2018) moved in similar waves, but not quite as engrossingly or with such inventive nuance. The film, directed by Joe Talbot (who is white) and conceived by he and Fails, swings for the fences, evoking at points Godard’s “Weekend” and Lee’s “Jungle Fever” and succeeds for the most part, even if the premise feels razor thin, contrived and unlikely.The gathering of tough lads who sit outside Mont’s grandfather’s house and drop the N-word more than the article “the” (if it’s ever even used) become a captivating Greek chorus (one’s a dead drop-in for Radio Raheem) and a reality check on the American dream, not to mention a harsh reminder of the irrational suddenness of street violence and the improbability of making it off the street once you’re there.

Fails–the character, not the actor–is saddled with a lot: mom and dad are absent (due to circumstances it’s hard to have complete empathy for) but remain present in the corners, framed as impactful forces. He’s also spent time in juvie. But somehow his mission and character profile, while palpable and moving, isn’t as intriguing as Mont’s, a complex, multilevel eccentric, an aspiring intellect in tweed, a younger, emotive David Allen Grier. It’s a mind-blowing performance that pretty much makes the film – or I should say, holds us in place. Some of the dreamlike, absurdist scenes orchestrated by Talbot are a wonder to drink in. Boots Riley went this way with “Sorry to Bother You” (2018, also starring Glover as the golden “white voiced” black salesman), and while not every one of that film’s surrealist experiments landed, the sum was visceral and far-reaching in ways far beyond that of a more conventional approach. Same can be said here, about a film whose title says it all. A title change to “Cambridge” would work just as well.

If Beale Street Could Talk

26 Dec

‘If Beale Street Could Talk’: Young and in love, but shackled by brutally cruel racial injustice

 

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The love between two black men at the center of Barry Jenkins’ Academy Award-winning “Moonlight”certainly had the texture and mood of something wrested from the pages of a James Baldwin novel. It wasn’t – it was an original screenplay – but it is fitting to learn that for his follow-up Jenkins has adapted the culture-rattling author’s 1974 work, “If Beale Street Could Talk.” The title, while simple, is telling, reflective of the dangerous complacency of silence and, worse, those eager to score justice without evidence or cause other than the color of skin.

The film begins with a series of lushly jazzy romantic framings of lovers Tish (newcomer KiKi Layne) and Fonny (Stephan James) – something that hasn’t really been seen on screen with such poetic resonance since Spike Lee’s great run in the late ’80s and early ’90s (“Do the Right Thing,” “Jungle Fever” and “Mo’ Better Blues”). The soulful score, imbued with melancholy by Nicholas Britell, wells up inside you as the pair’s tightly framed countenances convey deep love, but also the brimming prospect of trouble. Jenkins leverages it for his orchestration of Baldwin’s material: hope and idealism undercut by harsh reality and social injustice. 

Trouble in “Beale Street” (the reference to a throwaway in Memphis from 1916 W.C. Handy blues song, though the action takes place in 1970s Harlem) comes from all angles. Tish, 19, and Fonny, a few years older, have known each other since childhood. When they finally consummate their affection, Tish gets pregnant. The sell to Tish’s parents (Regina King and Colman Domingo, both excellent) is a bit of a challenge, but nothing compared with the fracas that ensues when Fonny’s devoutly religious – and over the top – mother (Aunjanue Ellis) swings by with sisters to learn of the news. With fire and brimstone ire, she professes Tish a temptress and not good enough for Fonny. But then again, Fonny’s not there to speak for himself; he’s in jail for a rape he did not commit.

Yes, this is where Baldwin and Jenkins take us. The palpable helplessness of a person of color snared in a rigged justice system, where getting a rap – whether you did it or not – is simply part of the process. Tish and her mother fight back hard. They get an attorney convinced of Fonny’s innocence and later there’s a harrowing sojourn to Puerto Rico to track down and confront the accuser, who has her own set of unhappy circumstances to contend with.

Throughout it all Jenkins tempers the present with delicate, carefully curated flashbacks, be it the lovestruck Fonny and Tish shopping for an apartment, often turned away because of their pigment, or Fonny catching up with old mate Daniel (Brian Tyree Henry, smoldering quietly) just out of jail himself and with volumes of wisdom to share. The film is at once intimate and universal. Fonny is the face of everyman of color, and yet he isn’t. Jennings finds the perfect balance between social critique and personal tale, and palpably so. 

In the end, however, “Beale Street” is not about vindication – if that’s the movie you’re hoping for, you’re going to be disappointed – but about the sad state of racial affairs that as penned by Baldwin remain too true today. At the heartbreaking epicenter loom star-crossed lovers kept apart by forces with cold, aloof agendas. “Beale Street” is “Romeo and Juliet” for the racially divided now.

Jenkins has done it again: “Beale Street” didn’t just make the Day’s top 10 of 2018, but won Best Picture, Best Score and Best Supporting Actress from the Boston Society of Film Critics this month. Expect more to follow.

Black Panther

20 Feb

 

So does it live up to all the hype and the “revolutionary” tag? Well … somewhat, and no. “Black Panther” is definitely a different kind of superhero film, imbued with the trappings of the Bard while hitting all the usual superhero pratfalls for the fanboys and delivering the requisite wham-bam smackdowns fueled by a glut of CGI FX. In short, it’s a game go, with some nicely layered-in barbs about the state of race relations, and there’s a mound of Oscar gold to be found among the impressive (mostly African-American) cast.

As far as the latest Marvel entry being the first superhero flick to revolve around a black hero, and thus a beacon of hope for young African-Americans seeing iconic representations of themselves on the screen: In the wholesome, square-jawed, side-of-good sense (think Superman or Captain America), that is so, but there have been other black superheroes to grace the screen. Take “Spawn” (1997) or “Hancock” (2008), though those films featured conflicted and tormented protagonists who didn’t fit neatly into the kind of archetypal superhero cape that most want to wrap themselves up in. Messy and flawed is not the way to go for blissful escapism.

“Black Panther” revels in its celebration of African culture and pageantry but also digs at social blight in America (though not deeply enough), making it a mainstream engagement clearly marked by the color and culture of its hero.

The film, based on the comic serial by Stan Lee (who conceived it in 1966, before the similarly named U.S. activist group lead by Bobby Seale and Huey Newton seized headlines), begins with a quick, cool animated rewind of how the fictional African country of Wakanda came to be. Hit by a meteor of vibranium (the stuff Captain America’s shield is made out of), Wakandan tribes have leveraged the all-powerful material to build radically advanced technology (supersonic transports that look like something from a “Guardians of the Galaxy” chapter, a train system that rides on a magnetic field and comm devices that are tiny little gumdrops behind the ear) and use it to remain invisible and impervious to the rest of the planet, even as world-shaping events (slavery, world wars and so on) carry on around them. Think of the cloaked island of Amazons in “Wonder Woman,” off the grid and out of sight until Steve Trevor crash lands there during the Second World War, and you have it. Continue reading

Get Out

24 Feb

Jordan Peele’s “Get Out” is a devilish little bit of social commentary that takes the essence of “Guess Who’s Coming to Diner” and forces it, with vehemence but also panache, into a “Wicker Man”/“Stepford Wives” construct. The result is something clearly borrowed, incredibly fresh and nearly perfect in light of the current political climate. What’s also remarkable is that the horror flick-cum-black comedy marks Peele’s directorial debut, and a surprising one at that – not only because is it so sharp and confident, but also because Mr. Peele is better known as half of the comedy team of Key and Peele on Comedy Central.

The setup’s simple enough. Chris (Daniel Kaluuya), an aspiring photog, agrees reluctantly to meet the parents of his girlfriend, Rose (Allison Williams of “Girls”), whom he’s been dating for five months – just long enough to have to take these things seriously.

“Do they know I’m black?” Chris asks, a question that the lily-white Rose shrugs off, telling him that her dad would have voted for a Obama for a third time if he had the chance. It’s a pointed little barb, but since “Get Out” started filming long before it played at Sundance in January, I’m not certain Peele understood the whole political backdrop he’d be facing. Given the results of the election, the daggers the film throws couldn’t be any more on point. Continue reading

Oscat Not So White

30 Jan

This Year’s Academy Awards May Just Counter ‘Oscars So White’ Controversy

Alex Hibbert and Mahershala Ali in "Moonlight." (Courtesy David Bornfriend/A24)closemore
COMMENTARY

On Tuesday, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences will announce their slate of Oscar nominees, a lineup that will certainly be eyed with much scrutiny for its diversity. Last year, the #OscarsSoWhite controversy exploded after people of color were noticeably left off the Academy’s ballot for the second year in a row — a move backward considering 2014’s Best Picture winner, “12 Years A Slave.” Given the films that found success in 2016, both critically and commercially, the list of nominees should successfully change the tide.

The origins of the hash-tagged tumult, which had notables like Spike Lee and Jada Pinkett Smith boycotting the ceremony last year, are two-fold. For starters, the Academy’s makeup is not diverse by any measure — a Los Angeles Times analysis in 2016 found it was 91 percent white and 76 percent male. Secondly, the industry was not producing many quality films made by, or featuring, people of color.

The cast and crew of "Spotlight" accept the Oscar for Best Picture in 2016. (Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP)
The cast and crew of “Spotlight” accept the Oscar for Best Picture in 2016. (Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP)

When the nominations came out last year, Academy President Cheryl Boone Isaacs, who is black, promised immediate action. Following a unanimous vote by the board eight days later, rule changes stipulated that members who had been dormant in the industry for over a decade would be be moved to emeritus status (effectively losing their voting rights) and the recruitment of new members would begin immediately. Though, past winners and nominees retain full membership status and voting rights. The list of 683 invitees contained a notable presence of women and people of color (Rita Wilson, American Repertory Theater stalwart Cherry Jones, Nia Long, Mahershala Ali now in “Moonlight” and “Hidden Figures,” and John Boyega).

The industry too, almost as if on cue, made an initial, responsive roar when Nate Parker’s slave uprising saga, “Birth of a Nation,” garnered a record-setting $17 million distribution deal at the Sundance Film Festival in late January of last year. Expectations for the film were high, but when it finally poured into theaters, the edgy concept of a bloody revolt against injustice, while admirable, didn’t measure up at the box office. “12 Years a Slave” it was not and Parker’s past allegations of rape (he was acquitted) didn’t help either.

Colman Domingo as Hark, Nate Parker as Nat Turner and Chike Okonkwo as Will in "The Birth of a Nation." (Courtesy Fox Searchlight Pictures)
Colman Domingo as Hark, Nate Parker as Nat Turner and Chike Okonkwo as Will in “The Birth of a Nation.” (Courtesy Fox Searchlight Pictures)

In light of “Oscars So White,” “Birth of a Nation” registered something of a disappointment, but the industry, in its own organic way, was quietly on the mend. The later crop of films featuring diverse filmmakers, casts and subjects shone — from “Moonlight,” the saga of a gay black youth, bullied and growing up under the negligent eye of a crack-addicted mother, to “Loving,” the haunting recount of the interracial couple who boldly broke the anti-miscegenation law in segregated Virginia and, more recently “Hidden Figures,” another based on true events, pre-civil rights movement drama about African-American female mathematicians working at NASA during the space race. Overall, 2016 was a year the blockbuster faltered and small films about people with varying backgrounds and experiences, navigating adversity, took center stage.

Continue reading

‘The Black Panthers’ and ‘7 Chinese Brothers’

13 Sep

In two very different films opening this week, much is asked of society. In one, “The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution,” a documentary about the black activist group going to extremes to illustrate the plight of blacks in post-civil rights America, equality, fairness and a place at the table are demanded with shotgun bravado and mod hipness; in the other, a sleepy slacker tale, “7 Chinese Brothers,” Larry (Jason Schwartzman), the central protagonist, would like to drink and do drugs and not have to worry about money or work.

091115i 7 Chinese BrothersLarry’s not a bad guy, he’s got an inert French Bulldog with the greatest facial expressions and he looks after his ailing nana (Olympia Dukakis ) who’s in a nursing home, but he does get fired from his waiting job for stealing booze – and keys a coworker’s car on the way out. Around the corner at the same shopping mall complex, Larry quickly lands a job at a Quick Lube oil change shop, where her enjoys the discipline of assembly line work (he vacuums out the cars and has to pay a loose-money finders fee to the lube monkeys higher up the food chain) and falls for his new boss Lupe (Eleanore Pienta).

Not much really happens in “7 Chinese Brothers,” written and directed by Bob Byington. The muscular guy who got his car keyed (Jonathan Togo) looms, as does Lupe’s quick-tempered ex (Jimmy Gonzales), but the real stake through Larry’s world is Major (Tunde Adebimpe), the caregiver who looks after Larry’s nana, supplies him with pills and has a killer way with the ladies – including Lupe – and is the closest thing Larry has to a has to a human friend.  Continue reading

The Butler

15 Aug
Cambridge Day, Charleston City Paper and Here and Sphere

‘The Butler’: He serves eight presidents, and as a tale of black experience in U.S.

By Tom Meek
August 14, 2013

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In the wake of the George Zimmerman trial, you couldn’t ask for a better movie – or I should say movies – to help carve out a common understanding in the middle of the racial divide. No matter how you took the Zimmerman decision, Ryan Coogler’s “Fruitvale Station” delivered an air-tight version of the same story with the same tragic end, the main difference being that the shooting took place before an audience of cellphone cameras, leaving no wiggle room for conjecture as to what happened between two men in the dark. But also, and more to the point, the “based on real events” docudrama tapped eloquently into the plight of the young black man struggling to succeed in a society reticent to give him a fair shake based on the color of his skin.

081413i Lee Daniels’ The ButlerTo underscore that, and for anyone who’s of the mindset that we’re beyond the Civil Rights era and affirmative action and that opportunity is out there for all to take on equal terms, sit through “Lee Daniels’ The Butler” and see if you still feel that way. Perhaps the best way to describe “The Butler” is as a short, painful history of the black man in America. The film centers on one, who grew up basically a slave in the early 1900s and went on to serve eight presidents as a staff server in the White House.  Continue reading