Step (2017)

I suppose this kind of milieu, the inner-city school, isn’t particularly uncommon, nor even focusing on athletic achievements in that venue (The Fits, although a fiction drama, isn’t so removed from this). And indeed there’s a whole (and great, in my opinion) franchise of films dedicated to this dance style, Step Up. Still, it’s nice to see the dance form tied to a story that’s grounded in a sociopolitical context, and though it’s always worth being attentive to the means of production (the film crew appear to be largely white), I think the resulting film avoids exploitation and is empathetic towards its subjects.


See, I get the reviews calling this film uplifting or inspirational, because that vibe definitely exists here, at least in part. But it’s set in a Black girls’ school in Baltimore, and the context — as we’ve seen only too often, and recently as well — is tough for them. That much the documentary makes clear at the outset. Still, this is about three young women who each approach their goal of getting into college via different means, but all of whom are into step dance. Those sequences could be better filmed (choppy editing and close-ups are all too common in dance films and really don’t help viewers appreciate it), but the pathos is all there, and by the end I think the film really allows for some empathy with its stars. Well, I shed a few tears.

Step film posterCREDITS
Director Amanda Lipitz; Cinematographer Casey Regan; Length 83 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury (Bertha DocHouse), London, Sunday 13 August 2017.

What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire? (2018)

Another film that seems relevant to recent political and social crises is this documentary from 2018, re-edited in a shorter ‘director’s cut’ the following year (where it also screened at the Sheffield Doc/Fest). I’ve seen critiques of the film from Black critics, a sense of it as being overly aestheticised and a little removed perhaps from the lives and struggles it’s showing, but the director was keen to emphasise the collaborative nature of the work.


The director was presenting a ‘director’s cut’ of this film (at 106 minutes, slightly shorter than the version premiered at Venice last year and shown at the 2018 London Film Festival), and though I can’t compare the two versions, this is a beautiful monochrome-shot film about a few different Black experiences of life in and around New Orleans. At times there’s some of the quietly observed quotidian reality that you get in, say, RaMell Ross’s Hale County This Morning, This Evening, or a hint at the kinds of generational stories in the TV show Treme, not to mention a panoply of images that recall a myriad of great films about the American South, even at times a sense of a staged performance (as during Judy’s literal performance in her bar near the end of the film). However, this feels like a film that’s not quite observational documentary but a sort of collaborative improvisation, in which Minervini (as he was careful to stress in an on-stage Q&A afterwards) wanted to present voices and stories that were not and could never be his own, and to respect them. So all those familiar stories, about Black peoples’ lives and deaths, about trying to move beyond trauma, or sometimes the inability to do so, these are presented in a graceful, economical manner — you’re never far from the trauma, but that doesn’t feel like the totality of experience by any means. Judy in her bar, the Mardi Gras Indians sewing their elaborate costumes while singing, the two boys playing outside and alongside railroad tracks, Judy’s mother doing her washing out the front of her home, even the New Black Panthers organising and handing out meals and water to local homeless people or protesting the deaths of Black men at the hands of police, all of these moments are both filled with joy and hope even while being inflected by countless stories, memories and history, ones spoken about and others unspoken. There are three central groups of characters in this film, but there are hundreds of stories in every sequence I think, and that’s what Minervini is great at capturing.

What You Gonna Do When the World's on Fire? film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Roberto Minervini; Cinematographer Diego Romero; Length 106 minutes.
Seen at ICA, London, Friday 12 April 2019.

Sud (South, 1999)

A lot of people are talking about history at the moment; it seems to be a popular topic of discussion in online communities. Apparently statues are unquestionably a very important source of historical context and understanding to, I guess, some people, I don’t know, but apart from those, and apart from books, films can be a source of understanding of historical situations, as well as places and people, intangible things that are perhaps best conveyed via images and sound, things that film does well. I’m going to do a week of various historical films and documentaries, and while today’s is not strictly speaking about history (the specific incident is very recent history), in a way it’s about something that’s been ongoing for decades if not centuries, about the way that attitudes towards history — corrosive feelings of grievance, a lack of understanding in some cases — can inform present-day actions.


I suppose it’s fair to say that Chantal Akerman doesn’t do issues-driven documentaries quite the same way that others do. Sud is about the murder of a Black man in the American south (James Byrd), but it’s first of all a film about a place (Jasper TX) — its streets, shops, sounds and people — as Akerman’s camera tracks along from a car (long lateral car-bound tracking shots to take in a sense of a place are familiar from her other documentaries like D’est), or as she listens to residents. And then there’s a move into details of this specific case, which happened shortly before she arrived, and we get more details from a local reporter and from the town’s Sheriff, just as we see the funeral too. But all along her documentary is keen to return to the roads, the ones that mark this town out and give it a specificity, but also ones that are the site of ongoing racial violence, confined not just to the past but continuing into the present, haunted by white supremacism and racism.

CREDITS
Director/Writer Chantal Akerman; Cinematographer Rémon Fromont; Length 71 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Thursday 3 January 2019.

Set It Off (1996)

In many ways this is a genre heist flick, a product of the Hollywood system, but unlike most such products it’s very clearly rooted in a systemic understanding of class and racism as it applies to the home of the movies, Los Angeles, where haves and have nots are strictly separated. It’s about four women just trying to get by, but being repeatedly failed by a corrupt, racist system — the one that every so often the rest of America is forced to admit is broken before everyone moves on, and then it’s all repeated once again. This is precisely the world of state and police violence against Black communities that so many films in the 90s were about, and which has continued to recur ever since in popular culture and, sadly, in reality.


In the 90s, it seems, it was difficult to get funding for films about Black lives or experiences unless they were gritty, set in the projects, and had an almost moralistic sense of come-uppance for those whose lives dared to transgress the boundaries strictly set by authority, so I regret that we didn’t get an Oceans 11 style heist caper in which everyone managed to get away, but that’s not what this film is about. In fact, one of its particular strengths is in making it clear just what exactly is oppressing our heroines, and it’s not other Black women. This is Los Angeles, after all, and there aren’t many opportunities available to these women. Through a series of events that are as brutally predictable as they are unsuprisingly still very current, each is beaten down to the point where committing a bank robbery seems like a viable option, and so it goes. The action when it comes is pretty thrilling and grandly done, and even the token figure of white empathy feels somewhat rounded (John C. McGinley, who seemingly always used to play these sorts of authority figure roles), even if in the current climate it feels difficult to believe he’d actually Care. This is a strong film that bucks certain trends while playing into others, but it’s never unclear who the empathetic heroes of this film really are, and that’s as it should be.

Set It Off film posterCREDITS
Director F. Gary Gray; Writers Takashi Bufford and Kate Lanier; Cinematographer Marc Reshovsky; Starring Jada Pinkett Smith [as “Jada Pinkett”], Queen Latifah, Vivica A. Fox, Kimberly Elise, Blair Underwood, John C. McGinley; Length 123 minutes.
Seen at Mid City, Wellington, May 1997 (and most recently on Blu-ray at home, London, Tuesday 21 April 2020).

The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution (2015)

The historical antecedents to the current turbulent relationship between Black people and entrenched white power in the contemporary United States stretch back a long way, obviously starting with slavery, but developing through the Civil War, Jim Crow policies in the South, the Great Northward Migration of the early-20th century (on which topic The Warmth of Other Sons by Isabel Wilkerson is excellent), and then the Civil Rights era. It is during this latter period that the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense (they subsequently shortened their name) were a key player. Agnès Varda filmed a short documentary about them in 1968, but a more thorough retrospective work is this one by Stanley Nelson. Incidentally, you can see a bit of their current work in Roberto Minervini’s documentary What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire? (2019). The Black Panthers continue to be committed to supporting their own communities in straitened times. The hope for revolution may have receded, but systemic change is very clearly still very much required, and ever more urgently so.


A solid, involving and engrossing story that is rooted in the displacement and fallout from the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s which leads to the formation of the Black Panther Party, which took a rather more militant stance towards (white) aggression but also underpinned it with radical transformative community-based care. It’s in some sense a story of resistance to power, an almost utopian viewpoint albeit one grounded in bitter reality, undone by the forces of the state — and this is where the film’s real bad guys, the FBI (supported by the police), come in. Of course, the story is never really straightforward, and there’s some infighting and fall-outs along the way from within, but on the whole this film is clear about what the Black Panthers were offering, and how tantalisingly close they came to true revolution before being targeted and all-but-destroyed by J. Edgar Hoover’s Feds.

The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution film posterCREDITS
Director Stanley Nelson Jr.; Cinematographers Rick Butler and Antonio Rossi; Length 115 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Thursday 24 October 2019.

The Fits (2015)

This isn’t a new film (and it took a couple of years to make it to London), but I wanted to fit it into my week of American films directed by women, as I really liked it. You can rent it on BFI Player or YouTube, and it’s well worthwhile, a really strong atmosphere piece.


At a superficial level there are similarities with the previous year’s The Falling, but this film is very much its own thing, and a striking debut at that. It deals with young women, part of their high school’s dance team, having fits, but actually that’s only one element, sort of an allegorical rendering of what we already see in lead character Toni’s story (played by the incredibly named Royalty Hightower). It’s really a film about fitting in, though initially I had yet another reading of the title, as I assumed it was about people who were just particularly into fitness (the pre-credits sequence is Toni doing sit-ups, and there’s a lot of repetition of exercise throughout). Indeed I’d say that one of the strong threads in the film is the idea that you can become good at something through repetitive practice (Toni starts out as not very good at dancing), and if sport and dance are the only things we see these kids doing at school, there’s an implication there too about their life options perhaps. What hooks me most though, the acting aside, is the filmmaking vision. The framing is very precise and there’s a minimum of shot-reverse shot sequences (several scenes have characters showing Toni something while the camera just look at her watching). I think this director has great promise, but most of all this is a compelling film about school, in an already crowded field.

The Fits film posterCREDITS
Director Anna Rose Holmer; Writers Holmer, Saela Davis and Lisa Kjerulff; Cinematographer Paul Yee; Starring Royalty Hightower, Alexis Neblett; Length 72 minutes.
Seen at ICA, London, Friday 24 February 2017.

Drylongso (Ordinary) (1998)

Another interesting film touching on the African-American experience, is this low-budget indie from 1998 which can be seen online (on the director’s Vimeo channel). It may not be as polished as some of the debut films coming out in cinemas, but it has its own energy.


There’s a lot that’s likeable in this low-budget indie production which I’d heard about back when I was first getting into films in the late-90s but which never reached me in NZ, and largely disappeared after its initial release. It’s on the filmmaker’s Vimeo account in the absence of any screenings, and it fizzes with a sort of foundational energy, of wanting to tell stories about Black women in their own communities that avoid the usual tropes (the ones that were so prevalent in the 90s, certainly). As a background to the action, there’s a hooded attacker attacking other people by night, but it’s not a gang-based thing, it’s just one of many issues touching directly on the lives of the two young women who are at the centre of the story. One (April Barnett) is trying to get away from an abusive relationship and the other (Toby Smith) is chafing against the restrictions of her photography course: she prefers to take polaroids of young Black men, whom she feels are under threat. It’s not perfect, but the performances are really solid and it has a low-key humour that underlines some of its more dramatic reaches.

Drylongso film posterCREDITS
Director Cauleen Smith; Writers Smith and Salim Akil; Cinematographer Andrew Black; Starring Toby Smith, April Barnett, Will Power; Length 86 minutes.
Seen at home (Vimeo streaming), London, Saturday 28 March 2020.

Down in the Delta (1998)

Last week I focused on female-directed new releases, and this week sees the (online) release of Never Rarely Sometimes Always by Eliza Hittman, a well-reviewed abortion drama from the woman who directed Beach Rats (I’ll get to that later this week). Anyway, this week I’ve decided to focus on a week of American films directed by women. I’ve done films directed by African-American women already, but I’ll kick off with the only film directed by the legendary poet and autobiographer Maya Angelou. In terms of availability, I had to order a DVD (a German one, as it happens) off eBay, but it was pretty cheap.


There’s a lot that’s odd and clunky about this film: it tells a story of a Chicago woman with drug problems who is barely fit to raise a family, rediscovering her roots in Mississippi, finding herself again and uncovering her potential to both change herself and move her own narrative towards redemption and positive change for her community. And if that sounds a little programmatic in its development then it certainly comes across that way watching the film. It’s directed (if not, crucially, written) by the author and poet Maya Angelou, though, so whatever it loses in technical efficiency, it gains a lot in feeling. This is a film, ultimately, that succeeds on the basis of its acting. However simplistic her character arc may be in some respects, Alfre Woodard is a real force and imbues it with a feeling that suggests something far deeper. There’s in general a range of acting talent all of which adds to this drama, and eventually it does get to me. However much I may try to resist, this does have its power and its own peculiar beauty.

Down in the Delta film posterCREDITS
Director Maya Angelou; Writer Myron Goble; Cinematographer William Wages; Starring Alfre Woodard, Al Freeman Jr., Esther Rolle, Mary Alice, Wesley Snipes; Length 112 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Friday 10 April 2020.

Selah and the Spades (2019)

The milieu this film sets itself in — a fairly well-heeled boarding school — is hardly new to cinema, but the telling of this tale is distinctive enough that I think there’s a lot of promise in this director (and of course, the cast, most of whom are fairly new faces, though Jharrel Jerome was seen in Moonlight).


Certainly a distinctive debut in the crowded marketplace of high school-set films, though something about the tone feels a little older than that, since it eschews the usual bright poppiness of that milieu for something darker and more reflective. The tone throughout is rather elliptical and with lots of little flashes of details, slightly off-centre close-ups of little tics and expressions, small touches that create an impressionistic sense of this time of life as somehow heightened and laden with feelings that go beyond just what is happening at a plot level. Entire sequences feel rather abstract in some ways, and plot becomes very much a minor part of the film at times, which pushes it into interesting territory that maybe isn’t always fully successful in its realisation but makes it preferable to something boring and safe (which is, to be fair, where most of this genre is pitched). The minor characters too feel a little underdeveloped, with Paloma (Celeste O’Connor) the standout — some of her dialogue felt contrived, but at other times, when she was just quietly observing, she seemed like the most interesting person on-screen. I’ll look forward to the director’s future work.

Selah and the Spades film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Tayarisha Poe; Cinematographer Jomo Fray; Starring Lovie Simone, Celeste O’Connor, Jharrel Jerome, Ana Mulvoy-Ten, Gina Torres; Length 97 minutes.
Seen at home (Amazon streaming), London, Saturday 18 April 2020.

Films by Khalik Allah

Khalik Allah has built up a distinct style over a number of short films and now a couple of feature films — lyrical imagery of people at the bottom of the power structure, previously the down and out denizens of NYC street corners (of his early shorts and first feature), as well as the inhabitants of Jamaica in his most recent feature Black Mother and an earlier short. His filmmaking seems to have predated his photography, but having taken up the latter form, it has become integral to his vision as a filmmaker, it appears. Sound and image, in particular, are usually rendered separately in his films, often working together but sometimes juxtaposed to make points that photography itself cannot always do so successfully. His art feels particularly masculine, though even in the gritty urban portraits there’s a softness to his approach, an empathy so often lacking in such environments. He has also notably contributed to Beyoncé’s film Lemonade as a cinematographer. A number of his short films are available on YouTube, which is where I watched many of them and hence I’m fitting this post into my seen-on-YouTube themed week.

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