Category: African-American Drama


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The first “important” book that I ever read was The Autobiography of Malcolm X as told to Alex Haley. I read it in middle school long before I could fully appreciate the complexity of Malcolm X and Alex Haley’s examination of what it meant to be a black man in America in the middle of the 20th century, but even as an adolescent, the power of El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz’s fury and critique of American culture stuck with me in a way that forever changed my life. Although I’m white, I have biracial family members of African-American lineage and, growing up, my family took care of a family of four African-American foster children for many years. And through my immersion in real life to the legacy of institutionalized racism (and the more casual kind that still lingers to this day) as well as my exposure to Malcolm X’s story at such a young age, I was always aware of and sensitive to issues of race in ways that few of my white friends are or ever will be.

Even as a child, I was always astounded by the ways that people in the American South (West Virginia may have technically been part of the North during the Civil War, but we were one of the last states still actively fighting racial integration in the 60s) romanticize antebellum chattel slavery. These are people who have seen Gone With the Wind one too many times, and their idea of slavery are happy Mammy’s and Prissy’s who were glad to serve at their master’s beck and call. Clearly, they never read Roots. It is impossible to read Roots or The Autobiography of Malcolm X and have any romantic feelings towards the factual history of slavery and institutional racism in America. Yet, people do. We can add British director Steve McQueen’s masterful film 12 Years a Slave to the list of must-see works on that dark page of American history.

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The Academy Award winner for Best Picture is easily the darkest and most complex film to win that award since Schindler‘s List although for my money 12 Years a Slave is an entirely different class of filmmaking, and it is easily one of the finest films of this decade so far. In fact, 12 Years a Slave has such a richly faceted point to make about morality and ethics that I’m unsure if the Academy actually understood the subtext of the film because films this fatalistic and cynical don’t generally win Academy Awards. As an examination of the way that society is capable of normalizing cruelty and how the institutionalization of cruelty against marginalized groups robs even victims of their ability to empathize with other sufferers as they simply try to avoid more victimization themselves, 12 Years a Slave is a masterful philosophical treatise at a Bergman level.

12 Years a Slave is the true story of Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free black man living in New York in the 1840s, making a living as a violinist with his wife and two children. Solomon accepts an offer from two men in a traveling circus to play his violin as part of their show, but when they reach Washington, D.C., they drug Solomon and sell him to slave traders. And it isn’t long before Solomon, who was born free and had never been a slave his entire life, is sold to a string of masters in the American South and is exposed to the cruelty and barbarity of antebellum slavery firsthand.

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Upon being kidnapped and sold into slavery, Solomon’s name is changed to Platt, and he is beaten several times within an inch of his life as he protests his new appellation. Solomon must also hide the fact that he can read and write from his new masters because a slave that could read was considered the most dangerous type, even more than runaways. And although Solomon is initially sold to a relatively decent master, Ford (Star Trek Into Darkness‘s Benedict Cumberbatch), it isn’t long before a fight with a cruel overseer results in Solomon’s sale to a brutal and barbaric rapist and sadist, Edwin Epps (X-Men: First Class‘s Michael Fassbender) where he will spend many long years, a witness to not only his own suffering but also that of Patsey (Oscar-winner Lupita Nyong’o), Edwin’s favorite slavegirl that he rapes and abuses at a whim.

The obvious “text” of 12 Years a Slave is that slavery was a barbaric, unfathomably cruel system that no civilized nation can ever explain away. The text is likely what 12 Years a Slave won its Academy Award for, and Steve McQueen captures the barbarism in no uncertain terms. Slave women are raped repeatedly. Solomon and Patsey are both beaten towards the point of death, and we are given graphic looks at their backs where the flesh has literally been ripped from the bone. Mothers and children are ripped apart and when the mothers cry, they are beaten for their tears. McQueen ensures that there is no way to sit through this film and think that slavery was anything other than the evil system of exploitation and cruelty that it was.

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But, what makes 12 Years a Slave the masterpiece it is (and easily the greatest Best Picture winner in over a decade) are the nearly countless levels of subtext in the film. There’s a moment somewhat early in the film where Solomon has nearly been lynched by a foreman of the first plantation he worked on, and although the plantation overseer stops the lynching, he leaves Solomon hanging from the tree for hours to make a point. And in a magnificent long take, you start to see other slaves leaving their dwellings and return to their daily routine. Almost none of them so much as look at Solomon (one kind soul gives him water) and slave children play in the background eventually. It shows how in the world of slaves where you can be beaten or killed for one stray look, no one sticks their neck out for one another. You simply try to survive, and because of that, the film resists the temptation to even romanticize the suffering of the slaves by trying to make them too heroic or noble.

On the other level, even the kindest whites (with one major exception) are only able to extend mercy or understanding to slaves to a certain point before it begins to inconvenience them. At that point, they simply revert to believing that the blacks aren’t real people and that they can’t risk themselves to help them. Ford is kinder to Solomon than any of his other owners, but when Solomon tries to tell Ford that he is truly a free man, Ford refuses to hear any of it and sells him to Edwin Epps even though it’s clear that Ford believes Solomon on some level. And a friendly plantation neighbor to Epps allows Solomon to keep his wages for playing his violin, but he still utilizes Solomon for slave labour in the cotton fields. And, one seemingly friendly white quickly sells Solomon out because he thinks it will make him a quick buck.

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But, the kicker to the film’s themes of how systematic repression and cruelty robs victims of their ability to empathize with one another is a scene with actress Alfre Woodward (Primal Fear) as a former slave who was freed when she married her master (the same man who allowed Solomon to keep his earnings for a violin performance). She has been a slave. She was in the same position that Patsey was in. But, now, she lives in the comfort that is provided to her on the back of the forced labour of her former people. She gives a small speech at the end about the karmic judgment waiting men like her husband, but she seems totally unaware of the hypocrisy of her own position. And it’s because her suffering has created a mindset of “at least, I’ve managed to escape the lash for now.”

It also doesn’t hurt 12 Years a Slave‘s case that it has one of the finest ensemble casts in years. Chiwetel Ejiofor gives one of the best leading man performances of last year (in a year overflowing with superb performances) by playing Solomon’s suffering as realistically and with as little melodrama as possible. Solomon is human, and even he becomes tone deaf to the suffering of those around him on occasion, and by simply making him a man (rather than a symbol for all of slave’s suffering), Ejiofor and McQueen turn him into one of the most well-crafted characters of the 2010s.

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Although I’ve yet to see any of the other Best Supporting Actress performances besides Julia Robert’s in August: Osage County (she’s great in that film, but the movie is terrible and also Roberts was the leading lady), I can’t imagine I’ll be at all upset about Lupita Nyong’o’s Oscar win. Although she spends much of her early moments on screen not actually speaking, Nyong’o’s role eventually blossoms into an example of the suffering slave women (particularly beuatiful slave women) faced at the hands of male master’s who saw them not as people but purely as tools for giving them pleasure. And, one of the most memorable scenes of the film’s involves Patsey begging Solomon to kill her and put her out of her misery and his refusal to do so because he knows how much trouble it would be for him if Epps found out.

Michael Fassbender got a well-deserved Academy Award nomination as well (I have trouble believing that Jared Leto was ever better than him in anything but I haven’t seen Dallas Buyer’s Club yet so I can’t judge) as the bordering on psychopathic Edwin Epps. Fassbender makes it clear how brutal and sadistic Epps can be, and his actions in the film are monstrous, but Fassbender never turns Epps into a total monster, and that’s the beauty of his performance. Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Giamatti, Garrett Dillahunt, Paul Dano, Brad Pitt, and Sarah Paulson also all shine in smaller roles.

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After a quick scan of the last 20 odd years of Best Picture winners, there seems to be little question that 12 Years a Slave is the best winner of that award since Unforgiven. Although I’ve enjoyed every Best Picture winner of the 2010s, I haven’t thought any of them were remotely Best Picture worthy, and it is beyond refreshing to see a film of this magnificent a caliber finally being rewarded with the highest honor in the film industry. I still have to see most of the other Best Picture winners (the only others I’ve seen so far are Captain Phillips and The Wolf of Wall Street), but 12 Years a Slave has set not only a high bar for them to clear but also any other prestige films to come out the rest of this decade. It is a must-see film event for all who love the fine art of film.

Final Score: A+

 

 

 

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In the many years that I’ve closely followed the Academy Awards (starting in 2004 when Return of the King took home a record-tying 11 Oscars), I’ve only cared twice about who won Best Original Song. The most recent time was in 2012 when I desperately wanted to see Flight of the Conchords‘ Brett McKenzie win an Oscar for “Man or Muppet” from The Muppets. The first time was in 2006 where I would have likely started a riot if Three 6 Mafia hadn’t picked up the Oscar for their instant hip-hop classic “It’s Hard Out Here For a Pimp” from 2005’s Hustle & Flow. No matter what your other thoughts are about the film, there’s no denying that song’s place in the canon of great original movie tunes. Now, if only the rest of the film were as great as that song and the performances from Terrence Howard and Taraji P. Henson (Baby Boy).

There are few things more upsetting as a socially conscious film-goer than when you watch an obviously well-constructed and well-performed film but are also forced to recognize that there are some thematic… missteps in the work. And more than any of us would like to admit, there are a lot of great films that simply do not know how to handle their female characters. And Craig Brewer’s Hustle & Flow is one such film. As a portrait of desperation and the lengths we’ll go to achieve a dream even when our backs are against the wall, it’s a soaring success, and its social realism and gritty approach are greatly appreciated. But when every single woman in this film is simply a literal sex object and simultaneously used to massage the ego and self-esteem of the male star, that’s a problem of our male-centric film industry.

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2005’s Hustle & Flow is an underdog story in the mold of Rocky or Brassed Off! although without the cheesy triumphalism of the first or the social criticism of the second. Djay (Iron Man‘s Terrence Howard) is a philosophical and hardscrabble pimp who gets by tricking his snow bunny prostitute Nola (Taryn Manning) under Memphis underpasses. He’s got a stripper, Lex (Paula Jai Parker), with a major attitude problem and a son she doesn’t care for, and he’s got a pregnant “bottom bitch,” Shug (Taraji P. Henson), that can’t trick at the moment, but she loves and supports her pimp. Djay’s life is going nowhere fast, but he finds a chance to be somebody when he hears that rap superstar Skinny Black (Ludacris) will be visiting the bar Djay sells weed to for the Fourth of July.

Djay has one dream in life, beyond scrounging up the money he and his girls need to get buy, and that’s to be a hip-hop emcee. And after a chance meeting with an old high school friend, Key (Anthony Anderson), who pays the rent as a sound engineer for local church recordings, Djay thinks he finally has a shot at making his dreams come true and to get his mixtape into the hands of Skinny Black before his time runs out. And with a help from a local pianist and MPC machine enthusiast Shelby (DJ Qualls), Djay sets up a small recording studio in his house as he deals with the toils of keeping three different prostitutes happy under his roof. Will Djay find the muse he needs to make a genuine rap banger, and more importantly, will Skinny Black listen to it even if he does?

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Terrence Howard gives the performance his career in this film. Had Howard now turned down the supporting role of Rhodes in Iron Man 2 (because of salary disputes) and subsequently piss off all of the big producers in Hollywood, I suspect he could and should have been a big star. The 2005 Academy Awards was absurdly competitive for Best Actor (Philip Seymour Hoffman won for Capote and he was also competing against Heath Ledger in Brokeback Mountain), but Howard’s Academy Award-nominated turn in this film is one of the best of the aughts. Few performers have ever conveyed the feeling of having your back up against the wall and watching your life race past you as well as Howard does in this film. There’s a haunting intensity to the performance, and it’s a shame that he’s more or less disappeared from interesting projects in the 2010s.

And Baby Boy‘s Taraji P. Henson also gives her all to the thankless role of Shug. As I said, the women in this film are flat creations that are literal sex objects in that they’re all strippers/prostitutes (except for Anthony Anderson’s wife who has minimum screen time) and they have seemingly no real desires or character arcs of their own other than to support Djay in his journey. But despite that, Taraji P. Henson brings a wrenching emotional context to the character that certainly wasn’t in the script. She certainly at least deserved an Academy Award nomination in the Best Supporting Actress category at the Oscars that year. It’s a sign of a great performer when they are able to wrest an astounding performance from a mediocre character, and Taraji P. Henson does just that.

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The film’s problems with women can be summed up in one visual from the film. And, spoiler alert, I’m going to spoil something major about the film, but the movie’s nearly 10 years old now, so get over it. Djay is in prison for assaulting Skinny Black after he rejects him. Nola has slept with a radio DJ and gotten Djay’s single played on the radio. The song is called “Whoop That Trick” and a new mother Shug is singing along in full head-banging mode to a song that’s about beating on a hooker which is what she is. It’s like the movie isn’t even aware of the irony of the moment although at times I suspect it is because like Black Snake Moan, there’s a certain element of blaxploitation revivalism to Hustle & Flow. Regardless, the film’s usage of a prostitute singing along triumphantly to a song about beating on her own kind is the worst kind of male tunnel vision.

And those glaring oversights make for a frustrating viewing experience because Hustle & Flow is the kind of underdog film I can actually enjoy (because most are total garbage excepting the documentary Undefeated which manages to be a masterpiece). I sort of actively hate most non-Outkast/non-Killer Mike Southern hip-hop, but this film’s A-Town via Tennessee soundtrack is fantastic, and the film’s got that grainy 1970s cinematography that seamlessly matches the film’s storytelling style. And, as I’ve said, Terrence Howard’s firebrand performance holds the whole film together when it threatens to fall apart. Hustle & Flow falls just short of being a great film, but if you can look past its casual misogyny, it’s a superbly performed tale worth your time.

Final Score: B+

 

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Among many people of my generation, what I’m about to say may not sound particularly controversial, but for older readers, it may shock. I consider the greatest piece of popular fiction ever made to be the fourth season of The Wire. By examining the myriad ways that bureaucratic institutions (but, specifically, the schools and city hall) fail our most at-risk children, The Wire crafted one of the most tragic, heartbreaking, and painfully honest stories ever told, not just on television but in all of fiction. Honestly, The Wire begins to transcend fiction and becomes a sociological survey of the dying American city but that’s an essay for another day. 1997’s indie drama Squeeze traverses some of the same thematic territory as The Wire, by focusing on young children on the verge of manhood trying to survive urban poverty and urban decay. Obviously, it isn’t half as good as The Wire, but, what is?

Squeeze‘s political ambitions aren’t nearly as broad and far-reaching as The Wire or even a John Singleton film, but by narrowing the focus to the external pressures bearing down on three teenage boys, Squeeze makes a statement of its own. The film doesn’t comment on why urban poverty exists or the moral failings of political institutions that have allowed the drug trade to destroy the inner cities or the cyclical nature that turns our nation’s inner city youth into “criminals.” Instead, Squeeze is content to let those phenomena simply exist without showing why they do. And, instead, it shows how the nature of violence and crime tear apart the lives of people at individual levels and that while there may be hope for people to escape that senseless cycle, seemingly insurmountable obstacles must be overcome to make it happen.

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Squeeze is the story of three young friends who have tried to stay out of the crime tearing their neighborhood apart. African-American Tyson (Tyrone Burton), Puerto Rican Hector (Eddie Cutanda), and Vietnamese Bao (Phuong Duong) work at a gas station begging for change to pump someone’s gas until a local gang intimidates them and runs them out of their job for no other reason than spite. In a moment of frustration with their lot in life, the boys attack a lone member of the gang and rob him, permanently earning them the ire of the gang and the knowledge that at any moment, the gang could kill them for revenge. The boys get a job working with a local youth group as an attempt at protection but when they far it isn’t enough, they seek the help of a Boston drug dealer who will offer them protection in exchange for them becoming dealers.

The performances of the three leads are a mixed bag. Phuong Duong can’t act, and the most consistently grating aspect of the film is having to listen to him laugh. Thankfully, then, he has less screen time than the others. Eddie Cutanda’s performance varies from surprisingly effective to emotionally wooden, often within the course of the same scene. A perfect example would be a moment shared between Tyson and Hector right after Hector’s mother shoots herself. At first, Hector seemed so sad it hurt, but then Eddie Cutanda lost his groove half-way through the scene. Thankfully then, Tyrone Burton’s performance was mostly fantastic for a child actor from beginning to end. He had some missteps as well, here and there, but mostly, it was a fierce and haunting performance from a kid’s debut film performance.

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I’ll keep this review short. It’s my day off and I want to actually enjoy as much of it as I can. I just started playing Max Payne 3 last night, and I can already tell that I’m going to love that game, and I want to play more of it tonight. So, here’s the low-down on Squeeze. It’s ending is a little too upbeat, to the point that it borders on disingenuous. And not every sequence in the film hits the right marks, but when the movie taps into something raw and powerful, it can be very difficult to watch. And that’s the sign of of realistic urban cinema. It presents truths that you would rather not face. Squeeze has those moments (though it takes a while to get there). It’s not as masterfully pulled off as a Spike Lee film or a John Singleton movie, and clearly, it isn’t The Wire. But if you have an interest in independent urban cinema, you should give Squeeze a chance.

Final Score: B+

 

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Long time readers may be familiar with something I’ve referred to as the Juno effect. When all I hear about a film for months before I get a chance to see it is positive hype, there’s a decent chance the movie is going to disappoint me. Expectations become too large. I’ve become pretty good about tempering those expectations and enjoying a film simply for what it is… as opposed to what I want it to be, but still, there are movies you just naturally find yourself very excited for. 2012’s “little indie film that could,” Beasts of the Southern Wild, racked up nothing but accolades after its showing at last year’s Sundance and while it remains a visually sumptuous ode to the fierce power of nature and the bonds of family and is carried on the shoulders of one of the greatest child performances in years and years, the movie never managed to strike a real emotional resonance.

Beasts of the Southern Wild is an allegorical, fantastical drama centered around a little girl named Hushpuppy (Quvenzhane Wallis) that lives with her father Wink (Dwight Henry) in a deeply impoverished but tight-knit community in the Mississippi Delta called “the Bathtub” beyond the levees that keep cities like New Orleans above water. Hushpuppy’s daddy begins to get sick right before a massive hurricane (possibly Katrina) bears down on their community. When the hurricane arrives and destroys the Bathtub, Hushpuppy and her daddy set off in their boat to find anyone else in the community who refused to flee when the storm arrived. And as they try to build a new life in an environment that is quickly becoming a water-drenched wasteland, Hushpuppy learns to grow up and take care of herself. Because Hushpuppy supsects (though her dad would never tell her so) that her daddy is dying.

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I was floored by the feral and natural performance from Quvenzhane Wallis as the young hushpuppy. Considering that she was only five years old when she was first cast (she’s 9 now making her the youngest actress to ever be nominated for Best Actress at the Oscars), director Benh Zietlin’s discovery of this spectacular talent could be considered one of the greatest casting coups of all time. She’s now up there with Anna Paquin in The Piano and Abigail Breslin in Little Miss Sunshine, except maybe she might be even more impressive cause she was so much younger. She wasn’t the usual precocious child type that tends to draw attention. She was just a child raised in an entirely different social environment than you’ve ever encounted and Wallis sold the wild child at the heart of this little kid. She could break your heart, make you smile, and make you laugh. She outperformed virtually all of the adults of the film.

And although Benh Zietlin had a tendency to overstate the fantasy elements of the film (the last scene with the aurochs seems especially egregious and unnecessary) to the point where the film’s keen visual style threatened to overpower every other aspect of the film, it’s still impossible to watch this film and not be overwhelmed by the beauty and visual poetry that Zietlin finds in the poverty and environmental catastrophe that is Hushpuppy’s home. The film doesn’t poke fun at its heroes and instead it celebrates the life these men and women choose to live while capturing the noble suffering they face when the environment (and man-made levees) return to remind them who actually has the power. The film can be a phantasmagoric, colorful evocation of the spirit of the American south and the wide-eyed wonder of childhood.

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Sadly, I could just never really invest myself in the actual characters outside of the film. Any investment I had in Hushpuppy was related to a biological instinct to care about children in danger as well as Quvenzhane Wallis’ sublime performance. The characters often seemed one-note and (dare I say it) almost racist caricatures of how blacks in that part of the South are portrayed. The film becomes such an avalanche of one traumatic event after another that the characters rarely have the chance to breathe and grow. They aren’t given a chance to respond to the horror in a quiet moment here or there and so when the film reaches its inevitable tragic conclusion, it doesn’t hit with half of the strength that it would have if Zietlin had let up the pressure just a bit here and again to let us really become attached to these characters.

Beasts of the Southern Wild is still an endlessly charming and wonderful film even if it falls just short of being greatness. In its presentation of rural poverty, it has become this year’s Winter’s Bone (although not nearly as good) and as a sociology lesson, it should prove especially fascinating. I only wish that the film proved more cohesive from a character and narrative standpoint. Regardless, for anyone with an interest in the human costs of natural disaster and the heart and beauty of people living on the fringes of normal society, Beasts of the Southern Wild was a wonderful reminder of the strong year that 2012 proved to be for cinema.

Final Score: B+

 

Well, it’s that time of year again. The Oscar nominations came out a week or so ago, and much like last year, I’m beginning my attempts to watch every single film that was nominated for Best Picture. All of the films that received Oscar nominations in these categories (Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor/Actress, Best Supporting Actor/Actress, Best Original/Adapted Screenplay, Best Animated Film, Best Documentary Feature, and Best Foreign Language Film) along with similar awards from the BAFTA’s, Golden Globes, and the Independent Spirit Awards have been placed in the master list for my blog which has been randomized again to take into account this new slew of films. However, the films nominated for Best Picture are so culturally relevant that I try to watch all of them as soon as I get the chance so they take precedence over everything else on my blog. I did the same thing last year and was pleasantly surprised with the quality of films nominated for Best Picture (even when I thought about half of the fim’s nominated for Best Picture were better than The King’s Speech, particularly The Social Network and Winter’s Bone) since the lowest score was a B (The Fighter) and every other of the 9 films scored a B+ or higher. Well, 2011’s crops of film isn’t off to as good a start as The Help is the worst film I’ve watched nominated for Best Picture since The Blind Side, and the only reason it isn’t a completely racist (I’ll explain what I mean there in a second) failure is the strength of its many exceptional performances.

The Help, based off the 2009 fictional (I can’t begin to express how frustrated I was when I found out this wasn’t real) novel of the same name, is the story of aspiring author Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan (Superbad‘s Emma Stone), who has just finished college and moved back to her hometown of Jackson, Miss., to write for the local newspaper during the 1960s. Assigned to the housekeeping column, Skeeter seeks cleaning advice from the maid, Aibileen Clark (a phenomenal Viola Davis), of a family friend. Witnessing the shame and injustice that these maids are regularly forced to endure (the last straw being her former friend Hilly (Bryce Dallas Howard) trying to push through a law requiring separate bathrooms for black housekeepers in everyone’s home), Skeeter decides to write a book from the point of view of the help. The first nanny she’s able to convince to come to her side is the stoic Aibileen, but when local maid Minny (Octavia Spencer) is fired for using Hilly’s mother’s bathroom (rather than go outside during a fierce thunderstorm that claimed over a dozen lives) and accused of thievery so she can’t gain any future employment, it leads to a revolution of local help agreeing to help Skeeter write her book and shed light on the racial injustices occurring in this town.

I’m shortly about to tear this film a whole new asshole, but before I begin ruthlessly eviscerating it, I do want to talk about the one shining light of the film which was its absurdly good ensemble cast. I mostly think of Emma Stone as a comic actress, but she handled dramatic material like an old pro and she was what held the film together. Despite the title of the film, Skeeter was the main character, not “the help,” and Emma aptly carried the weight of this story on her shoulders. Viola Davis has had some smaller parts (Doubt), but this will be the film that likely wins her an Oscar (even if I’d rather see it go to Rooney Mara for The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) and shoots her to widestream attention. She deserves it. She imbued Aibileen with such nuanced anger and pain in an intensely quiet role that would have been far too easy to overplay. She showed the perfect amount of restraint. Jessica Chastain has been everywhere this year, and she was a scene-stealer as local white-trash Celia Foote who was the only person to hire Minnie after Hilly fired her. There was just an innocence and naivete in her very natural performance. Octavia Spencer was also excellent as the fiery and sardonic Minnie. Playing the villain of the film, Bryce Dallas Howard proved that her career is more than nepotism and she was the perfect embodiment of southern belle racism.

Let’s start off with the film’s biggest problem. Much like Driving Miss Daisy and Dances with Wolves, this film is an incredibly offensive, condescending, and exploitative bit of revisionist history made to make modern bourgeois liberals feel better about themselves. This is not a film about African-Americans overcoming injustice and hardships. It’s about a white woman who helped bring the plight of black maids to the public eye. Except, it isn’t even a true story. It’s completely made up. None of this really happened (except the details of being a maid which the author allegedly stole from someone and never compensated them for). Modern audiences are meant to watch this and congratulate themselves on how far we’ve come since segregation. I think it was Stanley Kubrick who said that Schindler’s List wasn’t a film about the Holocaust (i.e. genocide and the attempted extermination of the Jewish race). It was a film about a thousand Jews that didn’t die and the man who tried to help them. This film doesn’t deal with race relations in any relevant way (unlike say a good Spike Lee or John Singleton film). Instead, it tries to create a white hero that modern audiences can go back and cheer for when in reality, nothing like what Skeeter was doing happened, and the realities of being a maid during these days was much worse (sexual assault was a large problem) than this film portrayed. If this film were a true story or had it come out during the 60’s, maybe it would have been more relevant. Instead, it simply contributes to the list of films that want to paint our nation’s unforgivable past in a more acceptable light so that we can feel better about what epic assholes we used to be as a nation.

It doesn’t help the film’s cause that it was also yawn-inducingly boring and that most of the “emotional” moments simply didn’t ring true (Aibileen’s scenes the notable exception thanks solely to Davis’s acting). People can be forgiven for enjoying this film if they think it’s a true story (which you would have to think because the film really wants you to feel that it’s real), but if you know that none of this really happened, it should be impossible to move past how simply condescending and unintentionally racist this film turned out. This does not shed a good light on the crop of films that I’ll be reviewing from 2011 for the upcoming Oscars. The next one that I’ll view is a new Woody Allen film, Midnight in Paris! So that should hopefully get us back on the right track. Don’t just accept this film at face level because you’ll allow yourself to fall for the image it wants to project. Dig a little deeper and you’ll see just how flawed The Help truly is.

Final Score: C

I really hate it when a movie has a lot of things going for it, like great performances, interesting messages, or challenging social themes, and it ruins every last good part of them by the fact that the director didn’t do nearly enough editing and let his film grow to a bloated, unfocused mess. It’s been a while since I’ve watched a movie that so exemplifies this problem as well as Imitation of Life, a 1959 melodrama about a particular aspect of race relations in America in the 1950’s. And while the idea of of exploring the relationship between a light-skinned African-American daughter who grows to resent her dark-skinned mother and the relationship between two single mothers of different races in the 1950’s, this movie was ridiculously way too long and it bounced back and forth between so many different uninteresting plots that I kept begging for the film to be over before it was even half way over.

Imitation of Life is about the relationship that is formed between Lora Meredith (Lana Turner) and Annie Johnson (Juanita Jones). They are both struggling single mothers. Lora wants to be an actress but is not having any career success. They both have young daughters. Lora is a widower and Annie’s husband left before her daughter was born. Annie is African-American, but her daughter is so light-skinned that she is able to pass as white. There is a never-ending friction between Annie and her daughter because Annie resents that her mother is black and she wishes to pass herself off as white. That’s actually probably the most interesting aspect of the film. The film also chronicles Lora’s rise to stardom in the world of theater and film, and how her success causes her to ignore her own flesh and blood daughter.

Pretty much the only reason that I was able to finish the film were the strong performances of Juanita Jones as Annie and Susan Kohner as Annie’s grown-up daughter. They both received Best Supporting Actress nominations at the Academy Award and they were well deserved. However, this movie lost me pretty early in and if I weren’t reviewing it for this blog, I probably wouldn’t have finished it. I can’t really recommend this one to anyone, and this score isn’t even lower than it is based on the strengths of certain performances alone.

Final Score: C

With his debut feature, Boyz N the Hood, director and writer John Singleton became both the youngest individual and the first African-American to be nominated for the Academy Award for Best Director. That searing portrayal of inner-city life of three black youths still stands as one of the most influential films to come out of the 90’s cinema and along with Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing is one of the definitive pieces of urban cinema. It would take ten years for John Singleton to write, direct, and produce another film with the same passion and power as Boyz N the Hood, and while 2001’s Baby Boy was not as much the critical darling as his debut feature, I’ll be damned if it doesn’t stand the test of time a decade later as an incredibly powerful look at a very particular aspect of urban life.

Baby Boy is an examination of the way in which black men in the inner cities are stuck in a continued state of arrested development emotionally and intellectually. The basic thesis of the film is that most black men living in areas like Compton or Crenshaw are in fact still boys, still children and are not prepared to take on the full responsibility of being adults. This isn’t their fault but a product of the legacy of institutional racism and the society in which these black men are brought up. Perhaps this is why this film wasn’t as well received as Singleton’s earlier effort which was focused on a more tangible concept of  poverty, violence, and escaping the ghetto. This film is focused on more abstract ideas and a more psychological concept. I was extremely intrigued by it.

Baby Boy explores this theme through its main character, Jody (R & B star Tyrese Gibson). Jody is presented as your typical urban youth. He lives at home with his mother and has children by two different women, although he lavishes the most affection on Yvette (Taraji P. Henson), the mother of his first child. He is unemployed and not particularly mature or stable. He cheats on both his baby-mamas. His idea of getting a real job is to sell stolen dresses to women at beauty parlors. His best friend is Sweet Pea (Omar Gooding), a borderline sociopath who also has kids. Jody is concerned that his own mother plans on kicking him out of her house because she has started seeing a new man, Melvin (Ving Rhames). Things become even more complicated when Yvette’s old boyfriend Rodney (Snoop Dogg) gets released from prison and wants to get back in her life.

I almost look at the characters of Jody and Sweet Pea as what would have happened had Ricky (Morris Chestnut) and Dough Boy (Ice Cube) survived Boyz N the Hood and actually made it to adult hood. This film is an exploration of the characters who aren’t like Tre (Cuba Gooding, Jr.) and don’t have any real chance to ever make it out of the ghetto and must learn to live with the realities of life if they want any chance to survive. I would actually make the argument that this is a much darker film than Boyz N the Hood as no character gets out of the ghetto. There’s no Furious Styles (Laurence Fishburne) spouting out sage wisdom and saving anybody. Each character must live and die on his own. The closest this film has to a Furious character is Ving Rhames’ Melvin and even he is deeply, deeply flawed.

For someone who has made most of his career as an R & B singer, Tyrese did an absolutely fantastic job in this film as the lead role. This film essentially lives and dies based on how well Jody is played, and Tyrese really did the trick. Jody isn’t a particularly likeable guy most of the time and Tyrese manages to keep you consistently changing your mind about whether or not you even like the main character of the film and that’s not an easy task. Ving Rhames is fantastic as always as semi-reformed street thug Melvin and Omar Gooding (who I primarily knew as the odd-ball friend on Smart Guy) is terrifying as Sweet Pea. My only acting complaint is from Taraji P. Henson as Yvette. She just irritated the piss out of me because she was like some sort of strange ebonic stereotype rolled into living human form and I expect better from a John Singleton picture.

As you can tell, this post is much longer than my normal ones but that’s because this film left me with so much to think about, which is pretty much one of the highest praises that I can give to a piece of fiction. It is an endlessly compelling study of the relationship that black men have with the women in their lives and at the same time the way in which black men mature and grow in a society that has abandoned them. If you have any interest in dramatic fiction that examines the more psychological aspects of society, then you really need to give this a go. This film is much slower and more character based than Boyz N the Hood which is one of the primary reasons why it has failed to find a significant audience. But after watching it for the first time since it came out ten years ago, I instantly fell back in love with this picture and there are very few types of people that I couldn’t find myself recommending it to.

Final Score: A

When I was in middle school, our teacher for one of my classes (It’s been so long that I can’t remember which one) gave us an assignment to read a biography of our choice for the class. Being the over-achiever that I used to be, I chose a book that was probably a little too advanced for me at the time in The Autobiography of Malcolm X as Told to Alex Haley. Picking that particular book for that particular assignment turned out to be one of the most fateful decisions of my life. It was love at first sight, and I’ve read and re-read that book more times than I can count, and I always get something new and meaningful from it each time. Malcolm X is one of the most important and one of my favorite political figures in the history of this country. So, it should come as no surprise that when Spike Lee, the master of the urban film, decided to make a biopic about Minister Malcolm starring none other than Denzel Washingto (perhaps the finest black actor of his or any generation) as Malcolm X, the final product was a spectacular film.

The film chronicles the life of Malcolm X, born Malcolm Little. From his father’s murder at the hands of the Ku Klux Klan to being a street hustler in New York City to going to prison for burglary to his conversion to Islam while in prison to his time as the most fiery and effective minister in Elijah Muhammed’s Nation of Islam to his betrayal by the Nation for being to popular to his conversion to true Islam whilst on the Hadj, the traditional Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca, and finally to his tragic assassination just before his 40th birthday. I would normally complain about the film’s 3 and 1/2 hour length but if ever a man lived an evolving and constantly transforming life, it was Brother Malcolm, and you need to understand the totality of his life to fully appreciate who he was, what he was about, and the greatness of the man that was taken from us too soon.

As spectacular as Spike Lee’s direction is (although perhaps there could have been some editing here and there to scenes that maybe ran a bit too long), this film could only ultimately succeed if the man playing Malcolm X gave a five star performance. Well, Denzel gave the performance of his career. I’ve never seen Scent of a Woman, so I can’t necessarily disparage the Academy’s decision to hand the Oscar to Al Pacino, but his performance would have to have been just one of the best performances ever to beat Denzel in this movie. He becomes Malcolm X. He is fiery, passionate, full of seething anger, and yet charming and likeable at the same time. He delivers those speeches denouncing the white man so well, it almost made me to start to hate myself even though (growing up in a family with black foster brothers and sisters that I am as close to as my biological family) I don’t think I have a racist bone in my body. He sells that fire and passion. It makes you wonder why anybody ever listened to the “turn your other cheek” and “forgive and forget” of other black civil right leaders. This performance is much better than the two performances he actually won Oscar’s for, namely Glory and Training Day.

The film is fully of many (considering its epic length) little moments that let you know exactly what kind of man Malcolm was. Some of my favorites are Malcolm’s trip to Mecca and seeing him interacting and loving and worshiping among people of all colors and races, pretty much any time he gives a speech (I could just listen to Malcolm X’s speeches all day), and when he calls and proposes to his wife, Betty Shabazz (Angela Bassett), over the phone. However, my favorite moment in the whole film is when a member of the Nation has been brutally beaten by the police for no cause. Malcolm marches right into police head quarters and stares down the racist cops and gets to see his man despite their trying to fight it. When the man has to be taken to the hospital, Malcolm organized a march of his people and others following him to the hospital. A race riot is about to break out (while the Muslims stand calm and collected waiting for Malcolm’s orders) when you find that the beaten man will live. Malcolm gives the order to disperse simply by waving his finger and the crowd breaks up. He was so charismatic, so liked, so powerful that he just had to point and hundreds of people did what he said. It’s amazing.

This is one of the movies, like Schindler’s List, that should be requierd viewing in all high schools. It’s thought-provoking and brings the kinds of message that a mainstream public education will never bring. Yeah, the movie is probably way too long. 3 and a half hours is a really long time to sit still. But, it’s worth it. There are few films that are this powerful, and there are few characters in our nation’s history with the kind of bravery, intelligence, and wit that Malcolm X brings to the table. Reading the book changed my life. Maybe, watching the film could change yours.

Final Score: A

It was inevitable that I would finally come to a movie on this blog that left me cold after having enjoyed all of the other ones in some form or another. However, a film based on a book written by televangelist T.D. Jakes should have been the big give away that this was going to be the film that I was going to finally dislike since I have a well-known problem with organized religion and preachy melodrama.

The film, Woman Thou Art Loosed, follows the life story of Michelle Jordan who is on death row for the murder of her mother’s boyfriend who had raped her as a child. The film flashes back and forth between a conversation between Michelle and Bishop T.D. Jakes on death row, her childhood, and the days leading up to the murder of her mother’s boyfriend inside the church during a revival meeting. The film could have been an interesting look at how we put the tragedies and atrocities committed upon us as children behind as adults and the untold stories of women that are molested (and it technically is that), but instead, we get a preachy movie about God and how we can find our salvation through him. And frankly, it’s just insulting. The only thing this film has going for it are strong performances from Michelle’s actress and that of the mother’s boyfriend. Don’t waste your time on this film unless you are one of those religious types and maybe you’ll be suckered in by it’s foolish and overwrought story.

Final Score: C