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.
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.
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.
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.
I reviewed Korean-American director Kogonada’s Columbus (2017) the other day, but today’s film is far more specifically about the Korean-American experience, specifically as filtered through the lens of the 1992 race riots in Los Angeles. It’s about battered and impoverished communities trying to co-exist, expanding significantly on the sideplot of Korean shop-owners in Do the Right Thing (1989).
An interesting premise from a different viewpoint which takes the context of the ’92 LA riots and uses it to tell a story of tensions between the African-American and Asian-American communities (specifically, Korean in this case) in LA. It’s all filmed in a languorous black-and-white, though there aren’t really any white characters, and that’s one of the film’s strengths: that it’s about communities you don’t often see portrayed on screen. However, beyond that it feels like some of the ways the film is tackling its themes are buried in the dramaturgy, engineering conflicts and pushing them to a head with a death that feels like a cheap tactic given what has preceded it. The writing emphasises some of the ways that poverty begets violence, as characters seem to have no other outlet for their feelings than with violence, which just infects everyone to the extent that otherwise sensitive, thoughtful people are just screaming profanities at each other senselessly at times — this film is therefore pretty removed from the Tarantino model of urban warfare. Still, for all that I didn’t particularly warm to that aspect of things, it was good to see some of these performers and filmmakers, and I’d certainly like to see more from them.
Director/Writer Justin Chon; Cinematographer Ante Cheng; Starring Justin Chon, David So 데이비드소, Simone Baker; Length 94 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury, London, Sunday 18 March 2018.
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”
Australia, like a lot of Western countries, has a demonstrable problem with white nationalism and racism, and a number of recent documentaries directed by women have addressed this issue head-on. This racism, a holdover from the colonialist politics of the British (the country only gained its independence at the start of the 20th century), is directed not just towards the indigenous Aboriginal population but also towards those seeking refuge and asylum from nearby conflict zones (this latter dealt with admirably by Gabrielle Brady’s Island of the Hungry Ghosts). An increasing number of feature films, including those by Aboriginal filmmakers like Warwick Thornton as well as (rather more eliptically) beDevil (1993) by Tracey Moffatt, have examined some of this prejudice historically and as it functions today, and it’s also the subject of director Molly Reynolds in Another Country, which follows the experience of prominent actor David Gulpilil (probably still best known as the boy in Walkabout, and from his appearances in the Crocodile Dundee films). It’s worth noting here that, while I wouldn’t want to sideline his troubling personal history (which includes alcoholism, violence and domestic abuse), it is undoubtedly deeply tied into the conditions still experienced by Aboriginal people in Australia, and some of this comes across powerfully in the documentary.
Continue reading “Two Recent Australian Documentaries: Island of the Hungry Ghosts (2018) and Another Country (2015)”
Following contemporary women-authored stories set amongst communities within white Australia, like Celia (1989) and The Last Days of Chez Nous (1992), it took artist and photographer Tracey Moffatt to become the first woman of Aboriginal background to make a feature film, one distinctive and idiosyncratic enough that she never did make another. I saw it at Bristol’s Cinema Rediscovered festival, a fantastic long weekend of cinema which is modelled after Il Cinema Ritrovato, and takes place at the end of July each year.
An extraordinarily stylish one-of-a-kind film (not least because director Tracey Moffatt never made another feature), it has a heightened unreality that recalls not just studio-bound 50s Hollywood hothouse melodramas but arthouse experiments like Rohmer’s Perceval le Gallois (1978) or Fassbinder’s Querelle (1982). The three ghost stories share not just this visual stylisation but the way they leap between past and present with ease, for these are not just stories, but collective memories or perhaps cultural touchstones, channelling a sort of Australian mythology that (for a change) isn’t rooted just in white men ‘going bush’, but a wide variety of ethnic identities, not least Moffatt’s Aboriginal roots. It’s quite possible the range of reference points is too specific for me (a non-Australian) to pick up on much of it, but it’s a heady watch all the same, a knowing wink at the audience without the suffocating irony and cynicism that too many directors of the 90s considered cool. Maybe that’s why it never made much of a splash at the time, but it’s ripe (in every sense) for rediscovery.
Director/Writer Tracey Moffatt; Cinematographer Geoff Burton; Starring Tracey Moffatt, Lex Marinos; Length 90 minutes.
Seen at Watershed, Bristol, Saturday 28 July 2018.
Gurinder Chadha is the director most famous for Bend It Like Beckham (2002), though she made a splash with her first film Bhaji on the Beach (1993). She’s a British filmmaker, born in a British colony (as Kenya was) and who has lived in London for almost the entirety of her life, and is particularly good at locating stories of characters with South-East Asian backgrounds within a diverse cultural milieu that never feels suffocatingly white (as it sometimes can in other middle-class middle-brow British films). That said, of course, racism is a persistent issue in the background of her stories, and we still see those who are intent on denying the multi-ethnic nature of British society, like the skinheads in this latest film.
It’s rare to see a film this earnest and dorky, but it’s honestly very hard to take against it, however much I found it teeth-grittingly cheesy at times. The thing is, it takes its premise — the real life story of Javed (Viveik Kalra, based on the screenwriter Sarfraz Manzoor), a young Pakistani kid growing up in Luton discovering the music of Bruce Springsteen and finding connections to his own life — and plays it completely straight, without laughing at it or making jokes (though people certainly make fun of him). The first act sets up 1987 school life, complete with British versions of the classic American high school cliques, dominated by the sounds of the post-punk synth-based new romanticism of the mid- to late-80s, such that when our protagonist is handed some Bruce cassettes and starts listening to them, the music is quite different from what we’ve heard thus far. It even puts the lyrics up on screen to emphasise the effect, as he runs through a storm to the sounds of “The Promised Land” with back-projections on the council house walls: this is Gurinder Chadha’s version of total cinema, undoubtedly. It sorta works too, though I think I’d find it even more affecting to watch this on a plane, or on the couch when sick (that’s not a diss; it’s just one of those kinds of films, really comforting at a base soul level). The standout actor here turns out to be Javed’s Sikh best friend Roops (Aaron Phagura), who turns him onto Bruce, and whom I’d have been pleased to see a lot more of.
Director Gurinder Chadha; Writers Paul Mayeda Berges, Chadha and Sarfraz Manzoor (based on his memoir Greeting from Bury Park); Cinematographer Ben Smithard; Starring Viveik Kalra, Aaron Phagura, Hayley Atwell; Length 117 minutes.
Seen at Odeon Holloway, London, Tuesday 13 August 2019.
After yesterday’s review of The Mafu Cage (1978), this more recent film also deals with animals as well as confronting class and race in modern society, although it delves further into creepier, gorier fairy tale elements. (As this is a Brazilian film, I should mention that I’ve got a themed week around South American cinema coming up on my blog in a few weeks’ time.)
As a film pitched somewhere between a horror and a fairytale, the London Film Festival programme went out of its way not to give away any details, and while I don’t quite think their belief that it’s best watched without knowing anything really holds up — not least because I think there are plenty of pleasures to it no matter how much you know — I shall nevertheless try to tread carefully. Let’s just say it takes tropes from well-worn animal-based horror legends and places them in a Brazilian setting (the city of São Paulo), extending the metaphor to be one about both class and race in one of the most starkly divided of cities between those with wealth and those without (a split which is, unsurprisingly, largely between white and black citizens). Clara (Isabél Zuaa) is a maid and nanny to Ana (Marjorie Estiano), who is heavily pregnant with what appears to be a difficult pregnancy. The filmmakers then develop the story with fairy tales in mind, including a picture book-style animated origins sequence, and a heavy reliance on matte painted backdrops, giving the film a sort of distance from its subject matter that aestheticises it just enough that the gore is less shocking, but no less potent in the way it develops its themes. I admired it more than I loved it, but it’s a fine film with some great central performances.
Directors/Writers Juliana Rojas and Marco Dutra; Cinematographer Rui Poças; Starring Isabél Zuaa, Marjorie Estiano; Length 130 minutes.
Seen at Embankment Garden Cinema, London, Friday 12 October 2018.
I wrote about this Mexican film, which I saw at last year’s London Film Festival, in my round-up of my favourite LFF films, and it also made #13 in my favourite films of 2018. Now it’s getting a proper cinematic release in the UK, so if you haven’t seen it, please do.
At the level of plot, almost nothing really happens in this film — a young woman called Eve (Gabriela Cartol) works as a hotel cleaner, and moves around its spaces almost anonymously. Guests ignore her, and those who do seek her help and show appreciation — like a rich Argentinean woman who asks Eve to look after her baby for a few minutes while she’s in the shower, then proceeds to offer her lucrative work in Buenos Aires — disappear from her life with ease. She joins a work educational scheme that is summarily cancelled by the union. At length, she shares a few laughs with co-workers, but even they let her down in the end. Yet while in content it could be grim and unrelenting, it’s really not — and a lot of that is down to the central performance. Eve just wants to be noticed and appreciated, it seems, but she’s enigmatic and reserved, and if it weren’t for the lead actor, maybe even we wouldn’t notice her. It’s a compelling character study, and a fine debut feature.
Director Lila Avilés; Writers Avilés and Juan Carlos Marquéz; Cinematographer Carlos Rossini; Starring Gabriela Cartol, Teresa Sánchez; Length 102 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Soho, London, Thursday 18 October 2018.
It’s interesting that Amma Asante’s debut film takes place entirely amongst white people (that is to say, people who look more like each other than — as the director said in a Q&A at the screening I attended — she looks like them), even if they find plenty of opportunity to sling racial slurs at one another (a Turkish character comes in for some particularly nasty abuse). In a modern climate of anti-immigrant sentiment, it’s clear this stuff has been growing for a while. Asante’s focus is on the small gang of friends in Cardiff, living with very little money and desperate to get by (by any means) — a way of life marked by teen pregnancy, drug use, petty crime, the usual. These are fairly depressing characters, and so it’s interesting that Asante finds some sympathy to them at times, though any short-lived moments of decency are always quickly overwhelmed by hate. I didn’t honestly like everything here — the music in particular seems ill-judged, and rather too redolent of 80s televisual plays. However, the largely non-professional acting is strong, and it seems to capture some of the intersecting ways of being an outsider.
Director/Writer Amma Asante; Cinematographer Ian Wilson; Starring Stephanie James; Length 93 minutes.
Seen at Genesis Cinema, London, Tuesday 7 March 2017.