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.

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Creed (2015)

I did not expect to begin 2016 loving a long-running franchise boxing movie, but in truth there have been plenty of excellent ones over the years (and, indeed, there’d been enough critical praise coming out of the US for Creed that I wasn’t entirely surprised). Still, what I think is most interesting about the film — and, like Straight Outta Compton, also what has undoubtedly been most overlooked by the prestigious awards ceremonies (you know the one) — is that this is a film that wants to engage with a specifically Black experience of the United States. Of course, that said, it’s a mainstream picture which cleaves to certain generic rules, so any anger or systemic critique is contained within a familiar and audience-pleasing narrative arc, focusing here on Adonis (or ‘Donnie’ to his friends, played by Michael B. Jordan, still most familiar to me from The Wire), the son of Stallone’s key antagonist Apollo Creed from early in the Rocky series. The film follows his life, from troubles as a disowned and abandoned kid, to growing up in affluence with the love of his stepmother, to reconnecting with something essential about his roots. In doing so, the film loops in a love interest in the form of Tessa Thompson’s musician Bianca (a character far more interesting and nuanced than the film really has time for, but excellently acted within those parameters), and of course Sylvester Stallone. His Rocky Balboa is the figurehead that every Rocky film is going to have to deal with, but the way he’s used here is masterful, as a mentor and coach, as a link to family and history (including film history, inevitably), but still very much supporting Jordan’s title character and his story. Along the way there’s some spectacular fight cinematography from veteran DoP Maryse Alberti, and it’s this interplay of lucid camerawork and tight plotting with solid acting that makes this one of the best sports movies of recent years.

Creed film posterCREDITS
Director Ryan Coogler; Writers Coogler and Aaron Covington; Cinematographer Maryse Alberti; Starring Michael B. Jordan, Sylvester Stallone, Tessa Thompson; Length 133 minutes.
Seen at Picturehouse Central, London, Sunday 17 January 2016.

Dear White People (2014)

It’s worth celebrating this film for what it is and what it achieves, rather than cavilling about the things I wish it had done. After all it is rare enough to see a mainstream depiction in a film from the United States of lives other than privileged white kids, especially within a stylistic framework that equally evokes Wes Anderson (the Ivy League-like setting additionally recalls his Rushmore) and Stanley Kubrick (whose Barry Lyndon gets referenced via some of the classical music cues), amongst others. In fact, given the film’s budget, it’s a wonder that it looks as good as it does, shot in crisp bright colours, beautifully lit and with a lot of frontal framing of the film’s black faces. It’s in these boldly direct images that the film scores highest, with challenges to such things as racial power dynamics (the myth of black ‘racism’ for example) and the crassness of media representations of minorities, generally delivered by its forceful leading lady Tessa Thompson (playing a character called Sam White, head of her college house’s student body).

Aside from the titular radio show in which Sam delivers further challenges to her collegiate audience, the film is filled with other references to the co-optation of ‘authentic’ black experiences by privileged white people (all the college’s houses are named after black jazz musicians, there’s a reference to the audience for aggressive rap music largely being non-black, while the denouement involves a staging of a hiphop-themed party at a white fraternity). Meanwhile, its other lead character, the student journalist Lionel (Tyler James Williams), moves from being stand-offish around his black colleagues as a show of resistance to black stereotypes, to being part of their movement to challenge campus-based racism. His arc seems to reference Spike Lee’s Mookie in Do the Right Thing, though his climactic rage at the white fraternity he was a part of has less of the power of Mookie’s trash can moment in that film, possibly because none of the white characters here are in any way sympathetic (or indeed given particularly rounded roles — not that that’s a problem, of course). The narrative also becomes more conventional as the film progresses, dissipating some of the early excellent character work and humorous barbs.

However, much as I wish it had been angrier — its target seems almost quaint within a media landscape currently dominated by stories of murderous police aggression — it never allows the power of its black protagonists to be co-opted or dissipated within the dominant power structures. I look forward to further films from this cast, and from writer/director Justin Simien.

Dear White People film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Justin Simien; Cinematographer Topher Osborn; Starring Tessa Thompson, Tyler James Williams, Brandon Bell, Teyonah Parris; Length 108 minutes.
Seen at Picturehouse Central, London, Monday 13 July 2015.