Harriet (2019)

As is traditional at this time of year, distributors are dumping a lot of their awards contenders into cinemas, along with other uncategorisable films as counter-programming perhaps or just because being winter, a lot of people are going to the cinema and taking more chances. As such, there’s no shortage of things I want to watch coming out this week. One is Jennifer Kent’s The Nightingale, though I’ve done horror films and I’ve done Australian films as themes already, so instead I’m going to focus on films set in the 19th century, starting with Harriet which is the release I was building up to last week with my biopic-themed week of reviews.


This is a curious film, made by the same director who did Eve’s Bayou (1997) but in an altogether different register, a by-the-numbers biopic replete with crescendoes of music to guide our way through the drama, and beautiful shots of the American countryside (around Virginia, I gather), the rising sun casting its glow over Cynthia Erivo-as-Harriet’s newly-freed face. Indeed, there is a constant suggestion throughout that the Divine presence is shining on Tubman, and she is seen frequently falling into reveries that suggest — like a modern Joan of Arc (who is even referenced at one point) — that God is talking to her, as she is inspired to lead slaves out of the South to freedom, avoiding slave-catchers and bounty-hunters along the way. That, though, may be the most interesting twist to the story (suggesting, after all, the director of the gloriously uncategorisable Black Nativity). It feels at times like this needed an even larger canvas, a multi-part structure perhaps, to tell its tale, as it rushes through Tubman’s Civil War exploits towards the end in just a couple of scenes. And though I can’t fault Erivo’s performance, she is curiously single-note as a character — and perhaps that’s the trouble with being an icon (or a saint) — while some of the supporting players don’t feel very much more substantial. Still, there are these gorgeous old-fashioned photos of the cast over the end credits that suggest an evident love for the characters and the period. Perhaps the film will have a valuable educational purpose, but at times it feels just a little inert.

Harriet film posterCREDITS
Director Kasi Lemmons; Writers Gregory Allen Howard and Lemmons; Cinematographer John Toll; Starring Cynthia Erivo, Leslie Odom Jr., Joe Alwyn, Janelle Monáe, Clarke Peters; Length 125 minutes.
Seen at Odeon Holloway, London, Friday 22 November 2019.

The Last Black Man in San Francisco (2019)

I’ve decided to nominate Saturdays on my blog as ‘revisit a theme you’ve already done a week about with a film you’ve watched recently’ so hopping back to my African-American cinema week with this recent release, which is the one whose release I was working my themed week around. It’s directed by a white guy, but (at least partly) written by its star Jimmie Fails, aspects of whose life it tells. It’s a very striking debut feature certainly, and very much worth checking out.


This was a film that surprised me. Obviously it’s impossible to make a film set now in San Francisco without it being at least obliquely (though here less so) about gentrification and the nature of modern capitalism, and I thought that Barry Jenkins’ Medicine for Melancholy had captured all that perfectly well ten years ago, but this is a completely different film in every aspect. I’m rather surprised, indeed, that it’s a debut film, though at times the denseness of the music and image does feel a little bit cluttered. Still, it has a real poetry to the way it evokes — and at the same denaturalises through its aesthetic choices — modern San Franciscan life. It’s about what it means to live in a place, and love it (“you don’t get to hate it if you don’t love it”), but also be pushed away and alienated by it. Jimmie, the lead character who also contributed to the screenplay, has the quality of a young Don Cheadle, and seems to encapsulate something at times quite profound about the city (and most modern cities), while his friend Montgomery (Jonathan Majors) seems to stand equally outside the place, if for different reasons. Still, I sometimes wonder if I’m not just being a bit distracted by the deeply mannered sense of aesthetics, though I can’t deny it caught up with me on several occasions.

The Last Black Man in San Francisco film posterCREDITS
Director Joe Talbot; Writers Talbot, Rob Richert and Jimmie Fails; Cinematographer Adam Newport-Berra; Starring Jimmie Fails, Jonathan Majors, Danny Glover, Tichina Arnold; Length 107 minutes.
Seen at ICA, London, Sunday 27 October 2019.

If Beale Street Could Talk (2018)

Of recent cinematic talent, there are few who have garnered as much attention as Barry Jenkins — not least thanks to his Oscar-winning Moonlight (2016), though that came quite a few years after his debut Medicine for Melancholy (2008). Still, it allowed him to make this film, which is as gorgeous and sensuous a film as any made in the last decade.


I mean, clearly, I was never not going to love this film: Barry Jenkins’ filmmaking is almost the definition of what I like in terms of film style, a swooning, gauzy, gorgeous, beautifully-orchestrated adaptation of a great writer’s work. (I hadn’t even realised that I’d seen the only other Baldwin film adaptation, which is of the same novel, 20 years ago, and while I doubt that Robert Guédiguian’s À la place du coeur is bad, because I have liked his films a fair deal, it also hasn’t stuck in my mind at all…) Anyway, this film has all the beauty and sense of atmosphere he brought to Moonlight, as it follows the love story of these two young people bringing a child into the world. KiKi Layne is fantastic as Tish, in particular, and I don’t know why she’s not getting all the awards attention, but it’s possibly because she pulls her character in so tightly, as this woman who seems to be trying to disappear under the eyes of the adults around her, almost squeaking out her lines, while very clearly having huge reserves of strength and passion within her that at times become far more evident. Jenkins’ style is to draw out these moments with a great, tender eye, such as when the two families meet together, which is like a slow-motion car crash of a scene, at once going exactly how you expect it will, but also with these moments between actors (Teyonah Parris as Tish’s sister is another highlight), as they catch one another’s eye, or react almost imperceptibly but palpably on film. It’s a gorgeous piece of filmmaking, and a beautiful love story too, which happens to make clear the immense amount of difficulty they have to face just going about their day-to-day lives, as young Black people in America. It may be set in the 70s, but one doesn’t feel much has changed in certain respects.

If Beale Street Could Talk film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Barry Jenkins (based on the novel by James Baldwin); Cinematographer James Laxton; Starring KiKi Layne, Stephan James, Regina King, Teyonah Parris, Brian Tyree Henry; Length 117 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury, London, Sunday 10 February 2019.

Three Black American Satirical Films: The Spook Who Sat by the Door (1973), Chameleon Street (1989) and Sorry to Bother You (2018)

Satire has always been a popular artistic form, especially when confronted with the wealth and ingrained power of the American elites. As a form, it has been utilised by a number of filmmakers over the years, notably African-American artists seeking to attack the privilege and entitlement of the (majority white) leaders, whether of government, the media or the corporate world. Whereas a film like Dear White People (2014) and its subsequent TV series may look at the educational system, the films below cover the institutions that support American power most directly — the FBI and corporate America — and in Chameleon Street suggests the contortions that such power inflict on the (Black) psyche.

Continue reading “Three Black American Satirical Films: The Spook Who Sat by the Door (1973), Chameleon Street (1989) and Sorry to Bother You (2018)”

Amazing Grace (2018)

Harking back to last week’s musical theme is this concert film of Aretha Franklin in 1972. Despite being filmed at the time, there were technical issues to deal with, not to mention Franklin herself, and was only released finally last year. As it is essentially a gospel concert filmed in a church, with contributions from Franklin’s own father and others in the same tradition, it provides a slice of African-American religious experience, albeit one that has been elevated and curated for a quite different audience.


We see director Sydney Pollack near the start, chatting to his camera operators as the church is set up, and then throughout the film we see him from time to time gesticulating wildly to get his cameramen to pick out something happening in the audience or away from centre stage. Indeed, because this concert was filmed in a church, there’s not really any space to hide and so, unlike many concert films, there are a lot of shots where we can clearly see all the cameras and sound recording equipment, and somehow that makes this feel all the more intimate and personable. But, as the familiar documentary marketing blurb goes, due to technical complications the footage was never released… until now. (Actually it seems it was ready a decade ago, but while she was alive Aretha Franklin blocked it from being released.)

Aretha is of course staggeringly good, but the film is wonderful in affording time to everything around her: the faces of the gospel choir are featured every bit as heavily, the well-practised patter of Rev Cleveland introducing the songs and helping out on the piano and vocals on a number of the more straightforwardly gospel numbers, and then there’s the audience, who are like a time capsule in and of themselves, getting to their feet, providing the call-and-response that Cleveland expects. On the second of the two nights, word has clearly got around, so Aretha’s father is there (hopping up to wipe down her sweating brow while she’s in full stride), Clara Ward (another gospel singer), even Mick Jagger and Charlie Watts can be spotted up the back in the audience.

Still, ultimately, this is Aretha’s film, and her performance is really spine-tingling, cementing it almost instantly as one of the all-time classic great concert movies.

Amazing Grace film posterCREDITS
Directors Sydney Pollack and Alan Elliott; Starring Aretha Franklin; Length 87 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury (Bertha DocHouse), London, Wednesday 15 May 2019.

Shakedown (2018)

There are of course plenty of African-American women making films, but I think it speaks to some of the depth of talent that many of their recent films (like those of Ava DuVernay, Angela Robinson or Karyn Kusama, amongst others) have not really been about Black people specifically, or set within communities of colour, although of course they have shown a greater diversity of casting and crew hires than many mainstream (white) film directors. There are in any case many excellent examples to choose from, and a film from last year which impressed me as one of the better documentaries was Shakedown, documenting a marginalised sub-culture in a very sympathetic and engaging way.


I’ve seen some reviews comparing this film to everyone’s problematic fave Paris Is Burning, which makes a certain sense given that it is a film documenting an underground sub-culture involving primarily queer black people, and focuses on the personalities within it. Perhaps the scene in question here seems less like a community creating its own language (as with vogueing and ball culture), but equally I may be being naive: there are definite characters who thread through the narrative, even if there’s less of a sense of various tribal rivalries taking place.

In any case, the scene in question is a Los Angeles-based stripping community, the focus being on Shakedown Entertainment, a group putting on underground shows for largely queer black women (there are men there, but when we see white faces, they usually turn out to be cops). We get to see extended sequences in the clubs, as well as backstage in the dressing rooms, intercut with interviews with the women and some of those around them (the club’s manager, the security personnel, and a modern day interview with one of the dancers called Egypt). Much of the footage is from the early-2000s, shot on the technology of the time, which gives it a curious distance as well as a sort of lo-fi warmth, and any charges of exploitation (as occurred with Paris Is Burning) seem largely avoided because the documentarian was part of the scene being shot. (Indeed, thinking about it, I am reminded of other documentaries about LA-based underground subcultures: Ava DuVernay’s one about hiphop around the same time, This Is the Life; or Angela Boatwright’s Los Punks about more recent Latinx punk communities.)

It’s an engaging portrait of a time and place, and an excellent documentary speaking from the margins, and if anything more focused and fascinating for that.

Shakedown film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer/Cinematographer Leilah Weinraub; Length 72 minutes.
Seen at ICA, London, Thursday 12 July 2018.

Some Films by Women of the LA Rebellion

The so-called “LA Rebellion” was a movement of sorts that arose amongst African-American filmmakers enrolled at UCLA’s School of Film, Theatre and Television in the 1970s, in the wake of the Civil Rights movement and US involvement in the Vietnam War. Their work was challenging the mainstream cinema, which certainly at that time — and you could make an argument for even now — remained a largely closed industry, in the process expanding the range of visual representations of the Black experience in the United States. The most well-known filmmakers to come from this movement remain the men: Charles Burnett and Haile Gerima, most notably. However, there were also a large number of women making films within this movement, some of whom would go on to work elsewhere in the film industry, but none of whom were ever given much of a chance beyond the film school.

Probably the best known of the women associated with the LA Rebellion has been Julie Dash, whose 1991 film Daughters of the Dust may be the single work most associated with the movement, but even she was not given the chance to direct many films (aside from some made-for-TV films). One of her earliest works is the short dance film Four Women (1975), which may be seven minutes of interpretative dance, but there’s beauty and grace, fabric and texture, hair and body, power and defiance in this dance, and in the Nina Simone song that soundtracks it. She followed it a couple of years later with Diary of an African Nun (1977, pictured above), which has a beautiful quality even in the imperfect decaying 8mm grain as it survives in a restored (as much as possible) print. Based on a story by Alice Walker, the film has a dreamy poetic quality that appears as if through a haze, with its central character finding it difficult to reconcile herself to her religious calling. Probably her finest film prior to Daughters is Illusions (1982, pictured at the top of this post), which may be little more than half an hour, but packs a lot into its World War II-era story of Mignon (Lonette McKee), a woman passing for white in a film studio’s production office. Mignon meets a darker-skinned woman employed to dub white women’s vocals in the pictures. The film nimbly enacts the way that race is deployed and erased, sometimes literally (here represented by an army censor), as well as the complex interactions between representation and reality. Plus, it’s beautifully shot and acted.

Another key figure in the movement is Alile Sharon Larkin, who has spent most of her career as an educator, with scandalously few directing credits. Her first student film was The Kitchen (1975), which touches on issues that are still very present and relevant in our own day — topics, indeed, that dominate a lot of the discourse I see online about the treament of women (particularly Black women and other women of colour). In this film, for example, there’s a sense that Black women are put in institutions and stigmatised with mental health issues for being different within mainstream white society. There’s a lot of play with hair in that respect, and the main character seems to be traumatised by memories of her natural hair being tortured into place with red hot irons, which leads to her donning a wig, directly linked to her being placed into care. These themes are undoubtedly even more visceral to those who live within these beauty constraints, and despite being under seven minutes in length, Larkin’s film captures this well. Like Dash, Larkin went on to make a longer work a few years later with A Different Image (1982, pictured above). There’s a certain earnestness, perhaps borne of the era in which it was made or the seriousness of its intentions, but this is an affecting 50-minute drama about the way that sexualised images in the environment affect socialisation between men and women. The film is never heavy-handed in the way it deploys this theme, with passing images contextualised by the men looking at them — at first, easy to laugh off, like a young boy laughing at the sight of our leading lady’s underwear, or her (male) work colleague’s interactions with another of his friends (who ostentatiously reads Playboy and wants to know if his friend has got some action yet). Progressively these become darker and more troubling, and the film continues to hint at an inability of men to see beyond women’s sexual attributes. It’s nicely acted and well shot by Charles Burnett.

Another woman within the LA Rebellion is Barbara McCullough, who went on to a career as a production manager (particularly within visual effects), a little older than some of her contemporaries, but who made a number of short films at the time. The one I’ve seen is Water Ritual #1: An Urban Rite of Purification (1979). There’s real beauty to this short experimental film, beautifully restored on 35mm, as a woman interacts with a sparse, impoverished environment. It’s all fairly oblique but ends in an act of purifying defiance.

Among the lesser-known figures was Anita W. Addison, who went on to direct TV shows in the 1990s as well as getting involved in production, but who died in 2004. I’m not clear if her short film Eva’s Man (1976) was made under the auspices of UCLA, but her name is linked with the LA Rebellion (at least on the Wikipedia page). Her film obliquely tells the story of a woman who kills her husband, with flashbacks to give a sense of why she might have done it, and sustains a nice claustrophobic atmosphere with a bit of free jazz on the soundtrack.

One final filmmaker I wanted to mention is Malvonna Bellenger, who later worked in local television and the recording industry, and who died from breast cancer in 2003. Her short film Rain (Nyesha) (1978) is ostensibly about a rainy LA day, though it’s not exactly about rain per se. Instead it’s about the possibility of a change coming, washing things away that existed before. And it’s about a young woman who seems from her voiceover to be disconsolate who finds herself becoming more certain as the rain comes down and Coltrane plays in the background. It finds its tone somewhere between elegiac and active, and it sticks to it.

Continue reading “Some Films by Women of the LA Rebellion”

Two Experimental Documentaries by Black American Filmmakers: still/here (2001) and Hale County This Morning, This Evening (2018)

African-American filmmakers can often be found working in the documentary form — which often presents fewer financial and political hurdles than feature filmmaking — and some have made entire bodies of work, exploring complex issues of race and urban identity, often within an academic framework. This is where Christopher Harris seems to come from, and listening to the director speak afterwards, it’s evident he has thought very deeply about his praxis and about representation on film. The quiet, observant approach is reminiscent of recent documentaries in a similar vein such as Hale County This Morning, This Evening by RaMell Ross and the work of Kevin Jerome Everson in that sense of a sort of decontextualised Black present-day life, of people seen in a very specific place, albeit always laden with unavoidable historical connotations and meaning. RaMell Ross in his film is a little more playful, using intertitles to sometimes wryly comment on what is seen. And if the structure initially seems haphazard, yet I have no doubt it is very carefully put together.

Continue reading “Two Experimental Documentaries by Black American Filmmakers: still/here (2001) and Hale County This Morning, This Evening (2018)”

Films by Kevin Jerome Everson

Kevin Jerome Everson has been working for fewer than two decades but has already amassed a prodigious body of work, including a huge number of short films. A number of his features and a few short films were presented online as part of a retrospective on Mubi in 2018, which introduced this filmmaker to my attention. Clearly he has his themes and his interests, but with so many films it’s difficult to give more than a hint at his distinctive style.

Continue reading “Films by Kevin Jerome Everson”

Tongues Untied (1989)

There have been a lot of films about the Black experience in America, but relatively few touching on the intersection with LBGT identities, although there have been more prominent works in the last few years, like Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight (2016). One of the key figures who worked to open up this area was Marlon T. Riggs, a filmmaker, poet and educator who died in 1994 at the age of 37 from AIDS-related complications. It’s a bold and provocative work, all the moreso as it was made for TV (and created quite a bit of controversy on this account).


There’s hardly very much I can possibly add to any discourse around this film, but despite being 30 years old, it still feels like some kind of testament to endurance and defiance through so many multiple sites of oppression and erasure. It’s like a compendium of texts (it largely takes its launching point from an anthology of poetry by gay Black men), of multiple voices speaking, declaiming, laughing, a kaleidoscopic text that has as much joy as it has pain. And while there are pieces in it which feel somewhat of its era, there is just so much that I think still resonates strongly; so much of its formal experimentation has been taken up since then, and yet so much of this still undeniably feels fresh. It’s also at times extremely funny (the Snap!thology bit, as one example), even when what’s being expressed is still ultimately about escaping reductive gazes, finding some measure of freedom — not just from racial oppression, but from conservative voices even within African-American communities (the hate speech we hear, close-up on the mouths, is from all kinds of people, not least clips of Eddie Murphy on-stage, which despite the presence of the in-film audience laughter have no comedic power at all when placed in this context). It’s under an hour in length, but so dense with meanings and voices, and experiences so rarely represented even now in film, that it will undoubtedly continue to be relevant.

Tongues Untied film posterCREDITS
Director Marlon Riggs; Cinematographers Vivian Kleiman and Riggs; Starring Marlon Riggs, Essex Hemphill; Length 55 minutes.
Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT3), London, Saturday 30 March 2019.