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)”

The Central Park Five (2012)

The end of this week sees the release of The Last Black Man in San Francisco, which is directed by a white man but deals with the African-American experience in the United States (and reminds me of Barry Jenkins’ debut Medicine for Melancholy, also set in that city and grappling with gentrification and how it displaces longstanding communities). Given that racism has defined a large swath of American history, I thought it would be good to devote a themed week to films that deal with the African-American experience, whether from within the community or looking from outside. The first film I’m featuring is a documentary about a particularly racist incident in recent NYC history, dramatised this year by Ava DuVernay on Netflix.


The Central Park Five is a persuasive documentary that tracks the case of the rape and beating of a young woman running through NYC’s Central Park in 1989, and the subsequent arrest and trial of five boys which rested entirely on the evidence of their video-recorded testimony after days of interrogation, without any circumstantial evidence. Modern-day interviews are accompanied by archival clips from the era, and the vast holes in the prosecution’s case, not to mention the frequent corners cut by those involved, adds up to a fine entry in one of the most enduring genres of American documentary: an account of a wrongful conviction. It’s also very much a statement about the operation of race and class in American public and media life, about the way that certain facts about a case can conspire to increase or limit the audience, and the way the media reported on this particular case becomes as much a part of the context of the trial as anything said in court — to the extent that even now people still believe in the suspects’ guilt, against all persuasive evidence.

The Central Park Five film posterCREDITS
Directors/Writers Ken Burns, Sarah Burns and David McMahon; Cinematographers Anthony Savini and Buddy Squires; Length 119 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Monday 27 May 2019.

Films by Warwick Thornton

In my week focusing on Australian films, I’ve already covered some modern classics including Aboriginal director Tracey Moffatt’s beDevil (1993) and a number of documentaries interrogating Australia’s colonialist and racist societal dynamics, notably Another Country (2015). Warwick Thornton is probably the most prominent director from an Aboriginal background currently working in the country, and over the course of a number of short films and two features has burrowed into this history, stepping back to the 1920s with his most recent feature Sweet Country.

Continue reading “Films by Warwick Thornton”

Out of Blue (2018)

Carol Morley has been a key creative figure in British cinema for over a decade, having made such films as the exemplary hybrid documentary Dreams of a Life (2011), as well as The Falling (2014), a film tinged with as much mystery as her latest film, a US-UK co-production set in New Orleans.


People really dislike this film, it turns out, having looked up some reviews while forming my thoughts, and that really surprises me for some reason. There are aspects of the film that feel to me somewhat over-written at times, the way all those little images and sonic clues come back full circle to gain meaning within the plot later on, not to mention that boldly astrophysical subtext — cinematic strategies that  certainly aren’t always pulled off with any great success in other films. And yet I think director/writer Carol Morley has a really strong feeling for atmosphere, in evoking memory and trauma, an almost spiritual presence that exists beyond the frame. At times it comes across somewhat like a woman’s take on Twin Peaks in that sense, of unsolved mysteries, a woman spiralling out of control, and rather less like, say, the noirish-ness of Destroyer, another recent film about a veteran woman detective coming apart. Also, Patricia Clarkson is a wonderful actor, perhaps the closest that the North American cinema has to Isabelle Huppert. So, yes, I rather liked this film.

Out of Blue film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Carol Morley (based on the novel Night Train by Martin Amis); Cinematographer Conrad W. Hall; Starring Patricia Clarkson, Toby Jones; Length 109 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury, London, Sunday 31 March 2019.

Two Recent Nollywood Films on Netflix: Lionheart (2018) and The Department (2015)

These two recent Nollywood films (which is the popular name for mainstream film production in Nigeria), both by women directors, share that they are set against the backdrop of office politics. Within them is the suggestion, though each follows its own genre cues, of a shared problem in how the country deals with women in positions of authority. They may not have the polish of Western films (thanks largely to their shoestring budgets), but both are pretty successful exercises and well worth watching. It’s worth noting that the director of The Department has also made a number of documentaries, including Faaji Agba (2015), which I reviewed a few years ago.

Continue reading “Two Recent Nollywood Films on Netflix: Lionheart (2018) and The Department (2015)”

Criterion Sunday 233: 野良犬 Nora Inu (Stray Dog, 1949)

A fine crime procedural, which follows a young detective (Toshiro Mifune) who has his gun stolen from him in a moment of weariness on a tram, and spends the rest of the film tracking it down, learning along the way the serious consequences of such a breach of attention. It has a noirish hue, as Mifune goes deeper into the sleazy underworld, and throughout there’s a tangible sense of suffocating heat, characters constantly wiping the sweat from their faces, their clothes suffused with damp. It set up Kurosawa’s interest in refining pulpy generic storylines that he’d further pursue in subsequent films with Mifune and over his career.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • As with many of the Kurosawa discs, it includes a short documentary about its making, part of a Japanese TV series called It Is Wonderful to Create. The format remains consistent: text-heavy and reliant on interviews, with original archival materials interspersed with the words of surviving collaborators. The art director who worked on the film is interviewed wearing a Guns N Roses t-shirt, so there’s that. The image of Mifune doing a little jig, as relayed by the (then) young co-star, is also amusing.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Akira Kurosawa 黒澤明; Writers Kurosawa and Ryuzo Kikushima 菊島隆三; Cinematographer Asakazu Nakai 中井朝一; Starring Toshiro Mifune 三船敏郎, Takashi Shimura 志村喬; Length 122 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 28 October 2018 (and originally on VHS at the university library, Wellington, April 1998).

Criterion Sunday 231: Das Testament des Doktor Mabuse (The Testament of Dr Mabuse, 1933)

Fritz Lang’s last film in Germany is this reprise of his silent film character, a venerable archetype of the genre (a mad scientist locked up for his criminal mastermindery). This film takes the character and creates a mystery thriller with another mad scientist who appears to have been possessed by the spirit of Dr Mabuse, inspired by Mabuse’s detailed writings into committing a series of heists and crimes. There’s a lot of gripping cross-cutting, and some genuinely thrilling scenes as characters look like they’re done for, many of which have been reprised in subsequent cinema history. It’s a top jaunt, and good fun too. Of course, there’s also a subtext about Nazis there if you want to find it (it may have been too early to be specifically about the rise of Hitler, but it’s certainly premonitory and presumably tapped into the stirrings within contemporary German society).


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Fritz Lang; Writers Thea von Harbou and Lang; Cinematographers Karl Vash and Fritz Arno Wagner; Starring Rudolf Klein-Rogge, Otto Wernicke; Length 124 minutes.

Seen at Paramount, Wellington, Thursday 25 June 1998 (and most recently on DVD at a friend’s home, London, Sunday 21 October 2018).

Criterion Sunday 227: Le Corbeau (1943)

One of those crime films with the deep shadows, the chiaroscuro and accompanying shades of moral greyness, that distinguishes film noir, in which all the inhabitants of a small town are brought into conflict by a mysterious letter writer, whose identity gets pinned to any number of people throughout the film, and whose accusations get steadily more unnerving. Clouzot is most interested, it seems, in the way that ‘decent’ people can have their judgement clouded, and become the enemies of other ‘decent’ people, ultimately suggesting perhaps that everyone has base motivations. Given that it was made under German occupation, it’s not a stretch to suggest that Clouzot — if not uncomplicatedly making an anti-Nazi film — is at least not willing to let anyone off the hook for what humanity is capable of.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Henri-Georges Clouzot; Writers Louis Chavance and Clouzot; Cinematographer Nicolas Hayer; Starring Pierre Fresnay, Micheline Francey, Ginette Leclerc; Length 93 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 9 September 2018.

Criterion Sunday 218: Le Cercle rouge (1970)

Connoisseurs of the heist film may be able to speak lyrically about the various differences between them all, but at some stage all these (often French) mid-century heist flicks blend together in my mind. There’s a long, silent sequence of them pulling it off, which harks back to Rififi (if I’m not mistaken), which had a similar wordless heist procedural section. This one also has Alain Delon in a trenchcoat — somewhat as he is in Melville’s other films — but it’s a taut, well-told story with plenty of suspense. Quite why everything is happening is a little vague, but the performances and the snappy filmmaking pull it through, and keep it entertaining.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Jean-Pierre Melville; Cinematographer Henri Decaë; Starring Alain Delon, Gian Maria Volonté, Yves Montand, André Bourvil; Length 140 minutes.

Seen at the Castro, San Francisco, Monday 5 May 2003 (and most recently on DVD at a friend’s home, London, Sunday 17 June 2018).

Criterion Sunday 200: The Honeymoon Killers (1970)

This seems an intriguing film in many ways, because it’s taking that evergreen trope of lurid Americana — the serial killers — and stripping it of any of the glamour usually afforded them in cinema. It doesn’t make either particularly attractive and it doesn’t beautify their crimes, as the film grimly moves its story on from initial meeting to murderousness in slow stages of development, she no less instrumental than him in driving them to their end. Its black-and-white graininess and low-budget quality effectively recalls Sam Fuller’s 50s pseudo-exploitation flicks, those true-crime ripped-from-the-headlines type of films which could run as a B-movie in a grindhouse.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Leonard Kastle; Cinematographer Oliver Wood; Starring Shirley Stoler, Tony Lo Bianco; Length 107 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 25 February 2018.