Black Is King (2020)

I’m posting a second recent film today, which I don’t usually do… however, this new ‘visual album’ from Beyoncé was released today, therefore I watched it and present my thoughts below.


I haven’t seen the 2019 remake of The Lion King nor have I listened to the compilation that Beyoncé curated for that film’s release (The Lion King: The Gift), but I’ve seen this film now, and it obviously ties in stylistically to what she’s been doing for the last few albums, most notably with Lemonade (2016). Again there are the musical segments, choreographed and beautifully designed and costumed, sitting alongside the poetic fragments of voiceover (Warsan Shire’s poetry pops up once more, along with what I assume are clips from The Lion King film). If that previous visual album was harking back to a specifically African-American history, this one obviously looks to Africa instead, and Beyoncé has recruited a range of co-directors both from the continent and from its diaspora to capture the textures, colours and rhythms of some of the countries within it. It’s impossible (for me) to really meaningfully critique this work: it stands or falls on how much you love Beyoncé I suspect (and I do), but it’s also bold in the way it takes its influences and shapes them into something hovering right on the edge of narrative, neither a music video nor a feature film as most of us understand them, but something beautiful and opaque and fascinating.

Black Is King film posterCREDITS
Directors Beyoncé Knowles-Carter, Kwasi Fordjour, Emmanuel Adjei, Blitz Bazawule, Ibra Ake, Jenn Nkiru, Jake Nava, Pierre Debusschere and Dikayl Rimmasch; Writers Knowles-Carter, Yrsa Daley-Ward, Clover Hope and Andrew Morrow; Cinematographers Muhammad Atta Ahmed, David Boanuh, Michael Fernandez, Santiago Gonzalez, Ryan Marie Helfant, Erik Henriksson, Danny Hiele, Laura Merians, Nicolai Niermann, Kenechukwu Obiajulu, Malik Sayeed, Benoit Soler; Length 85 minutes.
Seen at home (Disney+ streaming), London, Friday 31 July 2020.

The Old Guard (2020)

I’m taking a pivot today from documentaries to feature a very recent release on Netflix, the action superhero film The Old Guard, most notable perhaps for its star turn by Charlize Theron, but with I think quite a lot of hidden depth. It’s an odd outing for a director previously best known for romances like the stellar Love & Basketball (2000) and the equally excellent Beyond the Lights (2014), but a very solid one too.


I see this is pulling down a good range of opinions, but even as someone who hasn’t always been so thrilled with the comic-book adaptations/superhero genre in the past, I thought it was great, punchily shot and edited and with some fine performances. One could quibble that not all the writing was up to the same standard, but it almost doesn’t matter with supporting actors of the quality of Chiwetel Ejiofor or KiKi Layne. At the heart of the film though is Charlize Theron and her gang of immortals, and it’s a difficult thing to convey hundreds if not thousands of years of existence adequately, but I think Theron pitched it at the right level. The film allowed moments of existential reflection, not to mention moral qualms about resorting to violence — already more than most genre films manage — but they key is in the characters and the performances, I think. Plus it all fit together expertly, and while she may be better known for romances, director Gina Prince-Bythewood shows herself to be a solid action director too.

The Old Guard film posterCREDITS
Director Gina Prince-Bythewood; Writer Greg Rucka (based on the comic book by him and Leandro Fernández); Cinematographers Tami Reiker and Barry Ackroyd; Starring Charlize Theron, KiKi Layne, Matthias Schoenaerts, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Marwan Kenzari مروان كنزاري, Luca Marinelli; Length 125 minutes.
Seen at home (Netflix streaming), London, Thursday 16 July 2020.

Unrest (2017)

A documentary which won the Illuminate Award at the 2017 Sheffield Doc/Fest is this one, dealing with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, a still misunderstood and under-researched ailment suffered by a large number of people. It’s one of a range of documentaries which are dedicated to publicising situations which don’t get much media attention, in the hope of effecting some meaningful change.


A moving and quite effective documentary about ME (also known as “Chronic Fatigue Syndrome”). If nothing else, the filmmaker — Jennifer Brea, also the primary subject of the documentary and someone who lives with this — makes it clear how little understood the disease is (partly a lack of understanding and funding by those who have the money and power to effect proper research), and how much scepticism about it remains within society. She also is very clear about how debilitating it can be, and while she herself is sometimes mobile, she interviews a range of people at various places in the spectrum, including a bedridden young woman in England and a man in the States who is almost completely immobile and silent, and (it turns out) the son of a leading researcher in the field, whose desperation to find sources for funding turns out to have quite a personal impetus. For this kind of personal documentary, it’s quite well-made and presents a clear case for further understanding and empathy with those who deal with it — which is, it turns out, a surprisingly large number of people.

Unrest film posterCREDITS
Director Jennifer Brea; Writers Brea and Kim Roberts; Cinematographers Sam Heesen and Christian Laursen; Length 97 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury (Bertha DocHouse), London, Monday 6 November 2017.

Chavela (aka Chavela Vargas, 2017)

Plenty of documentaries, especially recently, have explored all kinds of facets of lesbian, gay, bi, trans and queer identities, in various areas of life. Documentaries can often bring wider recognition to people and causes which aren’t very familiar to a mainstream audience. One recent film that shines a light on a Latin American performer is Chavela, which screened at the 2017 Sheffield Doc/Fest.


There are documentaries that break moulds and innovate the form, and then there are ones which may take a venerable approach (talking head interviews, archival footage, historical research) but do so in the service of presenting a fascinating and little told story. This is surely one of the latter, and for someone not brought up in the hispanophone world I was entirely unaware of Chavela Vargas, a Costa Rica-born Mexican singer who achieved great fame in both Mexico and Spain for her heartfelt and passionate singing, not to mention her outspoken lesbian identity at a time when (and in a place where) that was much frowned upon. It’s wonderful to both hear from those who knew her, loved her or worked with her, and to see the footage of her performing in the final act of her career which ran from the early-90s to her death in 2012, as she took to the stage again in her seventies and kept performing, unable ever to fully retire.

Chavela film posterCREDITS
Directors Catherine Gund and Daresha Kyi; Cinematographers Natalia Cuevas, Gund and Paula Gutiérrez Orio; Length 93 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury (Bertha DocHouse), London, Thursday 26 July 2018.

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.

Two Made-for-TV Biopics about African-American Women: Introducing Dorothy Dandridge (1999) and The Rosa Parks Story (2002)

Moving on with my films-seen-on-YouTube theme, it can be a great resource for television movies, given many of them never received “proper” releases. Two that I saw in close succession were fair-to-middling biopics about prominent Black women of the mid-20th century, albeit covering quite different stories in some ways. It may be telling that while one was itself directed by an African-American woman (Julie Dash! a great director at that), the other was directed by a white woman; however, the production history and writing credits suggest it’s not quite so straightforward. In any case, the film about Dandridge certainly dwells more on the more negative aspects of her life, although it’s covering a whole career rather than just a single defining time in civil rights history. It’s probably worth looking into the comparison between the two more closely, except that neither is a particularly memorable film in the end, though both are successful in their own ways.

Continue reading “Two Made-for-TV Biopics about African-American Women: Introducing Dorothy Dandridge (1999) and The Rosa Parks Story (2002)”

Queen & Slim (2019)

Obviously this film is addressing a lot of issues, to varying degrees of success depending on your viewpoint, but at least one thing it’s asking is whether it’s possible to make a romance involving two people who don’t actually really seem to like each other at all (at least, initially). It’s also a lovers on the run story where it’s the forces pursuing them that are from the wrong side of the tracks, because our central characters are largely upstanding people who’ve been forced into a corner. It’s not an obvious continuation of my week’s romance theme, but it’s an interesting film.


I first became aware of this film via the responses of the film critics I follow on Twitter, a lot of whom are Black American women and it’s fair to say the reception was largely critical. This hasn’t been the response across the board of course (it has an 82% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes, whatever that ultimately means), and it hasn’t even been the unanimous response from Black (or Black women) critics — and that’s as it should be, though it does make me wary of claiming to understand or critique the film, no matter that its two lead actor are British. Clearly it’s deploying a long and complex cultural history of Black American lives that I, as a white British man, couldn’t hope to fully grasp, but I somewhat expected better from Lena Waithe’s script. It’s based on a story by James Frey, whose name should presumably cause at least a few alarm bells to ring (given his own literary history), but I don’t know the background to the script. I can say it uses two largely unlikeable characters (albeit for different reasons, though Daniel Kaluuya’s Slim is clearly the more approachable at the start of the film) and has them go on a Journey — by which I mean, it’s a road movie, but it’s also a capitalised-J Journey.

As befits the director of Beyoncé’s “Formation” video, it is a gorgeous evocation of a largely unseen America, as the two journey towards the American South, with dreams of getting to Cuba and (they hope) freedom. It’s visually ravishing, and it very much captures a feeling of youth on the run, so when the script imposes certain more fixed ideas it becomes doubly disappointing. There’s a sex scene by Queen’s mother’s grave intercut with a #BlackLivesMatter-type protest in which a kid they’ve just encountered kills a (Black) cop, which is particularly odd (upsetting yes, but also misjudged) given the jarring editing, the meaning (or lack thereof) of the action, and also the fact that this protest seems to be happening hundreds of miles away from where the original incident occurred. Other events happen for equally obscure reasons — more it seems to develop a mood than strictly narratively motivated at times. It’s a rather nasty character, Queen’s uncle Earl (Bokeem Woodbine), who feels like the most fully rounded depiction, though his story is deeply layered with misogyny, which I can accept is supposed to be part of the film’s intention of excavating systemic racism and generational trauma, but doesn’t quite land.

Still, I am removed from this location and culture, so I found a lot to like in the way the film looks and moves, and hope for something even stronger from both director and writer in future. In the meantime, here are some links by writers with more understanding than I have:
* B!tch Media (by Jourdain Searles);
* Just Add Color (by Monique Jones);
* National Review (by Armond White); and
* a positive review in The Undefeated (by Soraya McDonald).

Queen & Slim film posterCREDITS
Director Melina Matsoukas; Writer Lena Waithe and James Frey; Cinematographer Tat Radcliffe; Starring Daniel Kaluuya, Jodie Turner-Smith, Bokeem Woodbine; Length 132 minutes.
Seen at Peckhamplex, London, Monday 10 February 2020.

Jezebel (2019)

One of the many films released today in the UK (which include the rather odd and unsettling The Lighthouse, along with new films by Marielle Heller, Clint Eastwood and Reed Morano, a woman director-cinematographer whose spy thriller The Rhythm Section has been bumped back for release a few times so it’s probably not very good but who knows)… anyway one of the new films is Queen & Slim by Melina Matsoukas. Most films with an African-American subject or director don’t get a cinematic release over here, so like the film I’m reviewing today, it’s more common to find them released fairly unceremoniously online. Netflix is at least higher profile than some other platforms, and it’s where you can find the film I’m reviewing today.


It’s unavoidable perhaps that this intimate drama is working with a low budget, but it’s great that films like this are getting at least some distribution via Netflix, because there was never going to be any cinematic screenings in the UK for this kind of film. Partially I feel that’s because it doesn’t fit into the kinds of stereotyped boxes that distributors over here have pegged for ‘Black’ films, being a story of a young woman in precarious circumstances who turns to sex work to make a living. This kind of precis could certainly lend itself to something exploitative or (worse) judgemental, but the filmmaker, who also stars in a supporting role, makes sure to focus on the title character’s engagement with the cam-girl industry, in ways that you don’t need a ‘based on real life’ title card to immediately get the sense are probably quite personal. There is, indeed, a constant sense of interloping in Tiffany’s world and her struggles that feels very close to the bone, and if the budget means nothing big and flashy happens, it’s all played admirably well, and it’s the acting and the unshowiness of the setting that distinguish it from some rather more clunky tales made in this vein.

Jezebel film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Numa Perrier; Cinematographer Brent Johnson; Starring Tiffany Tenille, Numa Perrier; Length 88 minutes.
Seen at home (Netflix streaming), London, Wednesday 22 January 2020.