The Brilliance and Banality of Beasts of the Southern Wild

tmy_chronicles, phd

Beasts of the Southern Wild. Movie Poster

 

Beasts of the Southern Wild catechistically instigates us to contemplate the origin of our existence.  Is life an evolving conversation between past action and future possibility?  Is one’s survival best informed by obedience to a natural order, or adaptability?  Is modernity a gift or a curse?  Beasts also wants us to examine what responsibilities we hold for self and others, and at what costs.  What tutelage best prepares a child for impendent life after parents passing?  What is one’s obligation to self and community? The film’s success lays in positing such weighty and philosophical questions, situating the audience as contemplative explorers in search of answers instead of passive observers.  However, the way the movie itself unfolds and investigates these questions becomes its own Achilles’ heel; its exploration and exposition of them becomes duplicitous.  The exploration and exposition are mired by unexamined stereotypes, entangled within meandering abstractions, and obscured by mishandled juxtapositions of past and present.

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A Place to Belong: A Place to Become (Movie Review)

Montclair YWCA

I remember the lessons learned as both member and president of the local youth chapter of the National Council of Negro Women where I grew up. The strengthening of sisterhood through bringing divergent points of view into focus on a common goal. Learning the importance of outreach, of volunteering, to make a difference in the lives of others. Attending meetings that bridged the emerging ambition of young folk with the tempered sagacity of elders.  It was an organization where the variance in our hues and hair was neither asset nor liability. We were sisters.  It was an opportunity where our capacity and consciousness could grow and be harvested, not pitted in covetousness or competition. It was the space where we spread our wings, tested our steps, and built our dreams into edifices for future generations.

Meeting in that small community center room, it was a place for each of us to become.

In the documentary “A Place to Belong,” oral historian and filmmaker Allison Bonner Shillingford chronicles the lives of eight women members of the Montclair YWCA for African American women and girls from 1920-1965. Weaving them together, they become for the audience an historical, social and cultural tapestry.  What unfolds is a beauteous but hard-stitched textile.  Juxtaposed against the realities of racism via redlining, blockbusting and de facto segregation, we learn the many dreams of these members of the Great Migration, and what they and their families hoped to mine and actualize from moving to Montclair.  It is the textile through which we learn how involvement in numerous clubs, community events and summer camps claimed their hearts, cultivating sisterhood between them.  It is the textile through which we learn how gaining and applying leadership and collaboration skills becomes fodder and tools for later practice in these women’s’ personal and professional lives.  It is the textile through which we learn how women of color across decades, including multiple generations within the same families, deliberately came to the YWCA to garner and harness a sense of self- ownership, affirmation, empowerment and pride in themselves and one another.  In defiance of the enforced separation or hidden prejudice harbored within some of the people of the landscape, the landscape for them became promising and replete with possibility. The Montclair YWCA became their beacon, a blessing, the bonfire of sisterhood around which they assembled and grew together.  Because of their individual and collective experiences at the YWCA, they learned how to live their lives as counter-narratives to gender, racial and economic inequities.

Through hard-told truths, wit, fond recollections and even giggles, these women pioneers—Norma Jean Darden, Daisy Booker Douglas, Lauretta Brandice Freeman, Rosemary Allen Jones, Sandra Lang, Dorothy Hatchett Morton, Elberta Hayes Stones, and Lucie Coleman Walton—make us privy to private experiences, rendering them as public texts.  In so doing, we learn lessons of the resilience that harbors deep in heart and soul.

In attendance during the Q & A session were Allison Bonner Shillingford, executive producer and Director of the Montclair Historical Society Jane Mitchell Eliasof, and President of the Montclair Historical Society and project director Claudia Ocello.  Also in attendance were several relatives of the women from the movie, spanning several generations. The session began with one audience member inquiring about the genesis of the film. Jane commented that “there is a huge story that is not being told,” and thought it important that the story of the YWCA be captured, particularly since the renovation of the building where the YWCA was housed has little represented within it of this important history. Allison elaborated that finding former YWCA members was a challenge, but was finally successful, including the fortune of finding one member who was 100 years old at the time of her first interview. Then, several family members intimated their thankfulness for the film being created. Next, an audience member asked about the film’s availability, which Jane shared is for sale at the Montclair Historical Society.  Jane also shared that there were be several more group showings of the film throughout the year.  An audience member then asked how long did it take to make the film, in which Allison shared that it took 2 ½ years, initiated by Claudia contacting Columbia University to find someone who was an oral historian who would be interested in this project. Allison answered the higher calling.

(This movie review is also posted at the Montclair Film Festival Website, http://montclairfilmfest.org/2014/05/a-place-to-belong-finding-a-place-to-become/)

Finding Fela: Music is the Weapon (Movie Review)

 

Fela Kuti is a musical marauder, hallowed hedonist, and political phoenix, living a life rife with controversy, contradictions, chaos, conflict and curiosity. But between the beats and bruises we behold the brilliance and benevolence of a man.

 

In the biopic, Finding Fela, the finery and flaws of the iconic Afrobeat composer, multi-instrumentalist and activist are unfolded. Director Alex Gibney creates a mosaic picture from the shards of a complex complicated man. Extracted from almost 1,000 hours of archival footage, interviews of those impacted by his life, and artifacts of his career and politics, is the portrait of an impactful but imperfect rebel. The documentary educates us about Fela’s lyrical activism and the firefight he gave against governmental corruption in his homeland of Nigeria. Yet, also of his upholding of sexist messiness due to patriarchal viewpoints and hedonistic indulgences illustrated in him marrying 27 women in one day when already being married and harboring several mistresses. He is industrious in pursuit of precision in his music, yet persistent in smoking marijuana. His remains resilient against physical brutality and has unbreakable constancy, yet crumbles into himself and becomes spiritually obscure following his mother’s death. The film does not render a clean and pretty portrait. In its place, the ferocity, failure, and frailty of Fela are revealed as what makes him a masterpiece.

The craft underlying the film Finding Fela is it bringing multiple ways of telling a story together, yielding a harmonious concert for the viewer to both learn from and experience. People from all walks of Fela’s life mine their memories to share with the audience. Longtime friend and band member Tony Little intimates his friend’s personal visions for changing the musical landscape of their country as well as challenges to accomplishing it. Michael Veal, biographer and professor of ethnomusicology at Yale University, articulates the genius behind Fela’s musical compositions, detailing both its mysticism and empirical design. Fela’s sons, Femi and Seun, and daughter Yeni, each share memories of their father’s political and personal decisions and the impact they had on their lives. Muse and mentor Sandra Izsadore shares of her dissemination of political texts and ideas from the Civil Rights Movement, helping both inform Fela and push him to use music as a tool for education. Several other personal narratives are divulged, spanning fond memories and impressions held by his former manager Rikki Stein, journalists chronicling Fela’s resistance to being beaten down by the government and kowtowing to it, and longtime friends who brag about their dear friend comically and cosmically.

 

Blended with personal narratives is concert footage marking pivotal times throughout his life. Excerpts of interviews of Fela himself illustrate his charisma and candidness. Still pictures of life in the commune, album artwork, and news articles further help add color to the margins of his story, marking both the changing times and the evolution of the artist/activist within them. Footage from the 1978 Berlin Jazz Festival marks the breakdown and building back of his band, and the artistic and political impact of its transformation from Africa ’70 to Egypt ’80. Further complementing the building of the beautiful jigsaw that is both Fela and Finding Fela is behind-the-scenes footage chronicling the two years of creating the Broadway play, revealing the challenge and “higher calling” stakeholders took on regarding what to tell of Fela’s life, how to tell it, and why.

The movie chronicles how Fela used music as a tool of illumination and excavation. Throughout Nigeria’s iterations and instability stemming from civil war, government corruption and mismanagement, we learn Fela used his music as lens and commentary, a platform and place for espousing critique of government, and uplifting from such rubble the beauty of Nigerian tradition and identity. Consequently, he created Africa Shrine, a temple of music and political exchange, a place where he and his people could breathe, dance, and debate together. Part tabernacle, part juke joint, Fela employed it to lambast and lampoon politics, while also providing its audience a forum to raise and germinate ideas. Songs such as “Zombie,” “Coffin for Head of State,” and “Teacher Don’t Teach Me Nonsense” are just a few examples of his massive repertoire of music used a political critique. Singing in pidgin was his means for speaking to the masses. But being successful as an anti-establishment activist and counter-hero were not achieved without great consequence. Numerous beatings, jailing, and the targeted attack of his home are shown in the film as becoming a regular part of his life. To this point, one interviewee remarked about Fela in that “Great musicians are created by the times within which they live.” As described in a 2011 LA Times article, Bill T. Jones calls Fela a sacred monster “Because he is so flawed. There’s something megalomaniacal about him. But he makes art as not only something you consume and have a good time with, but art that has aspirations of speaking to power and art that speaks for people who can’t speak for themselves.”*

Gleaned from Finding Fela is that Fela Kuti is a musical marauder, hallowed hedonist, and political phoenix, living a life rife with controversy, contradictions, chaos, conflict and curiosity. But between the beats and bruises we behold the brilliance and benevolence of a man.

 

http://exclaim.ca/images/Fela-Kuti---David-Corio.jpg

 

During the Q&A period, several audience members inquired about the logistics behind making the film, what was it like for some of those interviewed to see the film, Fela’s relationship with his parents, and the director’s vision for the film. In attendance were the director, Editor Lindy Jankura, and Ogugua Iwele, one of Fela’s friends who was also in the film.

Ogugua was asked, “What is it like to watch what you lived through?” After choking back deep sentiment, he then responded, “Emotional.” The director was asked how he became involved in the film project. Alex explained that Steve Hendel, one of the executive producers of the film, initially wanted Alex to do a film about the play “Fela!” while on tour in Africa. But what became more fascinating and attention-grabbing was archival footage about Fela’s life. After examining such footage the film project took a different direction.

Then, the editor was asked what footage from the play production and Fela’s life that, although did not make the final cut in the film, made the greatest impression on her. She shared that there was so much footage and so many remarkable things that she could not pin down one specific piece. Then, an audience member shared an observation of Bill T. Jones in the film (who co-wrote the book that the play is based, and was the co-conceiver of the play, its director and choreographer), perceiving his discussion with one of Fela’s friend’s about Fela as grilling and corrective in nature. Ogugua explicated that what occurred was not confrontational, more so, Jones’ interpretive struggle to get at the heart of Fela’s life story, doing so as a Black man in America examining and trying to best understand and then illuminate the life of a Black man in Africa.

Alex also clarified Jones’ actions, explaining that when “you do this work you enter as stranger and ask fundamental questions [so as to] come to [a] reckoning of who is this person.” Next, the director was asked what he wanted the audience to take away from the film. He hoped “people come away with the greatness of the man and was not perfect.” At the Q&As conclusion, Alex was asked to share final words. He in turn asked the audience to join in saying together, “Yeah yeah,” returning back to Ogugua’s earlier teaching of the audience the Nigerian salutation.

 

http://africanah.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/05/fela-kuti-portrait.jpg

 

The initial publishing of this review can be found on the 2014 Montclair Film Festival Website at http://montclairfilmfest.org/2014/05/finding-fela-music-is-the-weapon/. 

*The Sunday Conversation: With Bill T. Jones. December 11, 2011. http://articles.latimes.com/2011/dec/11/entertainment/la-ca-conversation-20111211

The Brilliance and Banality of Beasts of the Southern Wild

Beasts of the Southern Wild. Movie Poster

 

Beasts of the Southern Wild catechistically instigates us to contemplate the origin of our existence.  Is life an evolving conversation between past action and future possibility?  Is one’s survival best informed by obedience to a natural order, or adaptability?  Is modernity a gift or a curse?  Beasts also wants us to examine what responsibilities we hold for self and others, and at what costs.  What tutelage best prepares a child for impendent life after parents passing?  What is one’s obligation to self and community? The film’s success lays in positing such weighty and philosophical questions, situating the audience as contemplative explorers in search of answers instead of passive observers.  However, the way the movie itself unfolds and investigates these questions becomes its own Achilles’ heel; its exploration and exposition of them becomes duplicitous.  The exploration and exposition are mired by unexamined stereotypes, entangled within meandering abstractions, and obscured by mishandled juxtapositions of past and present.

 

African American Maleness as Caricature and Courageous

The film’s presentation of masculinity and fatherhood is wrought with typecasting.  Resuscitated is the portrayal of an African American man as inept, damaged and uncivilized.  He is deemed ill-equipped to take care of his own life and the lives of those for whom he is responsible.  The character Wink “actualizes” these suppositions as he holds no steady job and does not draw in sufficient income to sustain his family’s current living or future prospects.  The housing he provides himself and his daughter Hushpuppy is makeshift and dilapidated, comprised of discarded trailers that harbor few resources or necessities, brimming with debris. Hushpuppy’s food is a putrid mixture of gravy and cat food which she has to mix together herself, and roast chicken supposedly kept “sterile” in a dirty cooler.   Wink is not depicted as a provider; he is reduced to a scavenger of the land. Their transportation is a truck bed made afloat by plastic drums.  Livestock and wild animals run rampant, uninstructed by fences, inappropriately comingling while also left to fend for their survival, garnering what little food he tosses to them.  Dismally, Wink is presented as inadequate in providing for self, daughter, and animals in his charge.

 

home squalor

 

Beasts also portrays Wink as enfeebled by responsibility, falling short in several physical and educative duties a parent is expected to fulfill.  He comes across as incompetent.  Although he “teaches” his daughter independence by having her live in a separate shack, a dress rehearsal for life after he dies, his instruction-for-survival is left to her inference.  Other than when Wink actually demonstrates for Hushpuppy how to fish by snatching a catfish from the water with bare hands and in his words “whacking it in the head,” Wink is rarely shown teaching her specific roles, responsibilities, or rituals that will help her survive in life.  “Feed up time” is an insufficient summoning of Hushpuppy to come over to his quarters and eat as a family, although they are never shown breaking bread together.  Instead, she squats on the rubble underneath his living quarters in a crude coup where she scarfs a chicken carcass in solitary.  During a community meal, when a friend of a family begins teaching Hushpuppy how to open a crab with a tool, her father brutishly interrupts, instructing her to “beast it” by cracking it open with her bare hands. The film attempts to convey Wink as a dutiful father struggling to make ends meet and make the frayed parts of life hold together.  But instead, Wink comes across as unprepared, unskilled, and drunken.  He is a vivified aberration and mockery of the Biblical endowment of humans having dominion over the earth.

 Hushpuppy and Wink Eating

 

The lacking of material and emotional provisions is “supposed” to result in Hushpuppy becoming self-sufficient and better able to deal with strife and struggle.  Sadly, the dearth that prevails perpetuates a hackneyed representation of Wink as an incompetent man and father. This portrayal diminishes an otherwise potentially powerful message of fathers facilitating their offspring in garnering grit and resilience.  Perversely, Wink’s paternalism is portrayed as a cloaked form of “tough love.” But, it is unclear in the movie exactly what kind of life this father is preparing his child to live. To the film’s credit, adverse to the commonplace assumptions and depictions of African American men abandoning their families, it magnifies Wink’s resolve to remain in Hushpuppy’s life and raise her after her mother’s departure.

 

Wink

 

Beasts gains redemption for portraying Wink as a man and father that does not allow the absence of Hushpuppy’s mother to speak greater than his presence.  As single parent, he remains and assumes paternal and shepherding responsibilities. Although shabby provisions, he provides food and shelter. He protects his daughter when the major storm hits.  He spends time with her.  He gives her advice. He embraces her when she is scared.

However, this same character is perforated by a harmful representation, embracing formulaic imaginings constantly associated with an African American man as inhuman, savage and reckless.  Unable to deal with life’s trials, Wink lashes outward and inward.  When he becomes enraged, things get hurled. When stressed, he indulgently and excessively gulps down bottles of liquid sedation. When around fellow community members he is loud and brash.  When rescued, he becomes ireful, grunting and shoving away rescue workers who are trying to save his and his daughter’s lives.  This is not to suggest that there is a best, absolute, or singular way to portray “real life” people through characters on film. However, the opportunity to render an informed and multifaceted African American male character is left untilled and unsown.

 

Wink at party

 

But to the film’s credit, Wink is a plausible character.  Dwight Henry renders a compelling embodiment of a flailing protagonist in a world where scarcity abounds.  It must have been toilsome vexatious work for Henry as an African American man to embody one epitomizing so many repressive stereotypes and potentially no redeeming qualities. Yet Henry does, and in spite of the typecast, imbues Wink with humanity and genuineness.  Because of Henry’s skillfulness to empathize, he renders Wink as more than his physical, economic, cultural and social ineptitudes. Despite the clichéd scripting of Wink as broken, Henry infuses Wink’s character as one of deep convictions with an undeniable resilience to uphold them.  Consequently, Wink comes across as a man fervently and justifiably adhering to living out his beliefs no matter what. Because of Henry, there is no doubt that Wink loves Hushpuppy with ferocity and devotion, a love supreme.  Amidst the pyre of stereotypes, Henry’s rendering of Wink makes him exhibit the qualities of a phoenix. Wink is ever-rising from the ashes of deteriorating health and an economic scrapheap to prevail for his daughter.  Despite the preponderance of one-dimensional writing of Wink as hapless and helpless, Henry’s industrious portrayal of Wink redeems his storying as a devoted African American man and father.   Henry’s portrayal of Wink transforms Wink so that he emanates not with debilitation but with determination.

father and daughter

 

African American Femaleness as Object and Archetype

Portrayals of the African American woman do not fare better in Beasts.  The gamut of the expression of her womanhood is limited in scope, shrunken to magnify shortcomings and body parts.  The audience’s closest understanding of Hushpuppy’s mother, a woman pivotal to Wink’s and Hushpuppy’s reality, comes only through these two characters’ sparse memories.  We are not made privy to her heart, soul, and thinking.  We are intentionally left in the dark about the chronology of her interactions with the main characters, and her  involvement with them both as individuals and as a family.  Life lessons, familial impartations and spiritual teachings are veiled, thinly suggested, or just plain absent. Yet, her “presence” is seemingly so central to whom they have become and their current predicaments.  Her absenteeism is an unraveled bow that, paradoxically, binds them together.  For Hushpuppy, “mother” is only a voice that softly lulls and talks back from a tattered jersey strewn over a worn dining room chair.  For Wink, her disappearance is fondly distilled into a sexually charged flirtation.  For both, she is disintegrated, fragmented, enshrouded within a characterization of absence, allure, and arousal.

 

Mother Jersey

 

The film entertains an extended but dichotomous metaphor of an African American woman’s sexuality as sensual and manipulative, seismic and predatory.   The “mother” has raptorial eyes that invite, penetrate, and capture.  Flames instantly alight under pots as her hips sway pass; water yields to boil.  Frost from the fridge exhales and surrenders white emissions when she bends down and opens it.  In one particularly perverse flashback, while outside lounging with Wink, she spots an approaching alligator, draws a riffle, and blasts it.  Then, in intentional slow motion, the film slows down so she is shown strutting, assumes a model stance, and spreads gleaming legs apart (rifle propped beside her). Turned frontward, she reveals animal blood splattered and soiling bright white briefs.  This imagery is problematic, seemingly exaggerating the mother’s sexuality for titillation, proliferating sex over substance in character. In this scene, Beasts perpetrates and perpetuates a ridiculous and irrelevant melding of gender, sex and violence, eroticizing menstruation and associating slaughter with foreplay.  Consequently, the film’s treatment of the Black woman and her body becomes exploitative, reviving the Hottentot Venus.

 

the mother

 

The film’s singular and myopic focus on a woman through her sexuality is revisited when it hyperbolizes prostitutes as maternal surrogates.  After returning from the rescue center to The Bathtub, Hushpuppy and her entourage endeavor an emancipatory swim. They happen upon the Elysian Fields, a brothel barge.  After boarding, the innocents survey the unfamiliar setting. Sensing their wonder, the prostitutes then congregate around them, affectionately welcoming and marveling over them. Several take it upon themselves to embrace and cuddle each girl in a scene resonating with imagery of mothers reuniting with and reclaiming their missing daughters.   Hushpuppy happens upon a young cook strongly resembling her mother.  The cook is immediately endearing. She takes it upon herself to fry alligator to feed her (perhaps harkening back to the erotic rifle episode), administers advice, holds her, slow dances with her and then in tears departs, leaving Hushpuppy alone.   Providing a jarring collection of images and associations, Beasts is unclear in relaying why maternal acclimation and affirmation would be readily available in a place where conventionally no one would want to purchase them.

To its credit, the film does promotes the idea that the provision of love is not limited or exclusive to biological progenitors.  Acceptance and nurturing can be found anywhere and given freely from anyone.   To this point, in a muddled melding of motherliness and “love for sale,” prostitutes are therefore elevated to the status of parental replacements.  However, a contradiction then surfaces.  Selecting female prostitutes as its exemplars, the film’s supposition endorses a sex-based stereotype that there is a maternal instinct infused within the genetic coding of all females, transcending station in life, whether or not one has given birth.  When called upon by the universe or happenstance, that genetic calling will activate action, and any female courier in the vicinity will instantly comply to deliver love.  It is an overreaching generalization and presumptuous assertion to make.

 

Meeting with Momma

Maternal surrogate

 

Yet amidst equivocal typecasts and askew representations, Beasts does provide positive portrayals of women and girls.   In spiritual and natural form, and across age ranges, there are several occurrences in the movie where the notion of female is attributed to guidance, information, and assistance.  Hushpuppy’s “mother,” teacher and surrogate incarnate are there for her in critical moments and turning points.  While cooking, Hushpuppy takes down her mother’s basketball jersey from its shrine and drapes it over a dining chair, perhaps as a ritual.  They begin conversing, with the mother-in-voice “checking in” and affirming her daughter.  This suggests that, no matter what, a mother’s love is always within reach.  On the barge, the cook, which the film alludes to being Hushpuppy’s real mother, admonishes her on how to handle the bitter and the sweet in life. She advises Hushpuppy as if knowing her immediate circumstances, and maternally, forecasting what she will later experience:

 

“When you a child, people gonna tell you life is all happy and honky dory. I’m here to tell you that it’s not, so get that out your head right now . . . One day everything on your plate gonna fall on the floor. Nobody gonna be there to pick it up for you.  It’s gonna be all on you.  You understand what I’m saying?  So smile girl, cause nobody like a pity-party-having-ass woman.”

 

Hushpuppy’s teacher personifies a strong, resolute, steadfast woman.  At the beginning of the film, she puts forth a crude lesson about the survival of the fittest; she admonishes her young students to prepare for an eminent storm, and allegorically, teaches that hardship is a cyclical yet essential part of learning how to become self-sufficient:

 

Meat. Every animal is made out of meat. I’m meat, y’all asses meat, everything is part of the buffet of the universe.  This here is an auroch, a big fierce mean creature that used to walk the face of the earth back when we all lived in caves.  And they would gobble them cave babies down right in front of the cave baby parents.  The cave man couldn’t do nothing about it, ‘cause they was too poor and too small.  Who up in here think the caveman was sitting around crying like a bunch of pussies? Y’all gotta think about that.  Any day now, the fabric of the universe is coming unraveled. Ice caps gonna melt, water’s gonna rise, and everything south of the levee is going under. Y’all better learn how to survive now.

 

Throughout the film, she functions as an educator, griot, and nurturer.  Despite teaching from a one-room schoolhouse, she is resourceful and resilient in giving what she believes best equips her students to survive.  She is shown giving Hushpuppy several herbs to use with her father whenever he faces a health crisis. In another scene, she checks on Hushpuppy to find out what she needs when sitting alone in front of the schoolhouse (as no one has picked her up).

 

Beasts situates the depiction of young girls in a positive light.  Hushpuppy is a character who conjures female archetypes; in her case, as consoler, guardian and informer.   In her father’s dying days, Hushpuppy tenderly fulfills a dying wish, feeding him his last supper,  sharing with him the nourishing vestiges she saved while on the barge. It is an endearing moment of affirmation and ushering provided by a daughter.   She also shares a dual role as a character and omniscient narrator. She personifies an “old soul,” enabled to witness relationships across different plains.  She is a medium between natural and spiritual worlds, constantly listening to animals, placing them to her ear, attentive to what they have to say.  She is an observant conduit between prehistoric and current times, keenly aware of the impact of imbalance.  Throughout the movie, she relays premonitions and warnings about what will occur if humankind and nature do not strike a balance.

 

Hushpuppy holding little chick

 

However, two things become problematic with the way Hushpuppy is constructed and rendered.  One problem lies within the dual role of Hushpuppy as simultaneously omniscient narrator and young character. How much can she know about natural order and only be all of six years old?  At that age, how can she articulate mythic aspects and prehistoric shortcomings of mankind?  Second, the archetypal aspects of her character that are positively represented become beclouded and muddied by the imagery of a pickaninny. Uniformed in wild hair, tattered clothes, dirty white galoshes and underwear worn as outer clothing, she reinvigorates the image of a “nappy-headed,” “backwater” wild child, which conflicts with the exaltation of her as a keenly aware wise child.  Although the film is attempting to maintain consistency across the situational context of the story and its setting by having Hushpuppy look and dress as she does, instead, her depiction echoes back to a depreciative doppelgänger.

 

Hushpuppy alone

 

Hushpuppy white boots

 

Place-Based Identity and Regional Stereotypes

Place plays an important role in Beasts.  Set in a seemingly pristine pre-Katrina expanse, the inhabitants of The Bathtub on the fictitious Isle de Charles Doucet keep to themselves. And want it to stay that way. Though part of Louisiana, The Bathtub functions solely within a self-exiled enclave.  It is disconnected by choice from any state-based identity, holding ties only as deep and wide as its own exclusive commune.

To the film’s credit, it situates The Bathtub within a larger narrative about the impact of modernity on people; despite conveniences offered by modernity, what can result are the unforeseen consequences of materialism.   The residents of The Bathtub are portrayed as minimally dependent on contemporary trappings and accoutrements.  Their reliance on herbs to heal, the catching of shellfish and fish with bare hands, and owning few material possessions, illustrates the residents as observers and preservers of simplicity.   This suggests that The Bathtub is a kind of paradise, and its inhabitants are frugal Adams and Eves.

 

Regionalism

 

Residents of The Bathtub intentionally make no attempt to interact or connect with the land and people on the other side of the levees.  Hushpuppy at her young age recognizes and adopts the dichotomous distinction between “them” and “us.” As stated by Wink while floating on the water with Hushpuppy, The Bathtub is deemed as unspoiled, versus the other side of the levees as ugly and stained by modernity:

They ain’t got nothing we got.  They only got holidays once a year. They got fish stuck in plastic wrappers. They got their babies stuck in carriages.  And chicken on sticks.

Modernity is situated as a threat, a contaminant that will dismantle the residents’ way of life in The Bathtub. If allowed.  Modernity is foreign, equated with being adversarial, inimical and unhelpful. However, the residents of The Bathtub come across as imbecilic. The attempt to portray the residents as preservationists results in them coming across as ignoramuses. Even if modern means are the only ones that can save them, they will resist and refuse them.  If not accepting the benefits that come with change kills them, so be it.  Literally.  For example, Wink vehemently refuses the benefits of medicine, even if it means increasing his longevity for his daughter.  Early in the film he is seen marching back home from the hospital, still wearing the bracelet and gown issued to him when admitted. He rebuffs needed care.  This will not be the only time he or fellow residents either flee from or flat out refuse help.

Although Beasts celebrates The Bathtub’s residents’ collective spirit of preservation against modernity, it exacerbates the typecasting of rural residents, characterizing them as too callow to accept help even when facing dire circumstances. Against better judgment to relocate to a safer place, several residents, including Wink and his daughter, choose to remain in The Bathtub during a massive storm. Afterwards, those that survived are salvaged, evacuated from the rubble, and relocated to a rescue facility. Kicking and screaming.  At the shelter, they collectively rebuff care.  The food is different, so Wink admonishes Hushpuppy to not eat it. The clothing is different; Hushpuppy is shown uncomfortable and made to feel awkward as she stands still, wearing a clean dress and combed hair.  Then, unexpectedly, in a hasty mass exodus, several of the residents flee from the “Open Arms” rescue facility. Their actions at the shelter and their fleeing is an exhibit more so of ignorant panic than deliberate calculated rebellion.

 

Flee from Open Arms

 

Return to the Bathtub

 

While the film attempts to elevate The Bathtub’s residents’ vigilance and preservation of land and customs as good things, it actually undercuts and undermines these postulations via regional and economic typecasting. Residents of The Bathtub, and by implication rural Southerners, are depicted as shiftless, unemployed, and alcoholic.  In all their vehemence against modernity, the modern invention of alcohol thrives; rivers of it are drunk abundantly and to excess.  At no time in the movie are the residents shown as resourceful.  No one is shown working, farming, repairing, etc.   These rural southerners of few economic resources do not come across as resourceful, resilient, and innovative, as “make way” or “make do” people.  While good-intentioned on the part of the filmmakers, what occurs instead is a morphing and caricaturing of them as boozy, loutish, and unconcerned. They are displayed singularly as only and simply scavengers of the land succumbing to folly.

 

A Mash-up of Historicism and Mysticism?

The film’s attempt “to go deep” succumbs to the weight of doing it well.  The intermixture of exploring how inhabitants of a bayou live out a belief of libertarianism/self-governance, complemented by Hushpuppy’s harkening of prehistoric times, makes the movie implode on itself.  Blending these two threads falls short because the film tries to do so with underdeveloped arguments, ambiguous allegories, and unexplained symbols. The argument of all life being interconnected between time and space, and that responsibility must be exercised in preserving such connection, is imprecisely and vaguely explored. References to aurochs, their thawing out and their stampeding toward The Bathtub to restore order are anachronistic. What does this specific group of animals who are not from the region or time period have to do with what is currently occurring?  The presentation of aurochs as a symbol of the past coming to correct the present is obfuscated by myriad questions of why the writer and filmmaker selected this particular species.  Combining these two storylines, one of the past coming to render judgment on the present, and the trials of survival within a specific bayou,  creates cacophony rather than co-informed clarity.  Such abstracted associations detract from what could otherwise be a potent message.

 

Auroch and Hushpuppy

Beasts of the Southern Wild sets forth on an ambitious experiment amalgamating several conflicts within one film.  Character versus self, character versus nature, and character versus society each receive treatment and examination within a combinative narrative.   As if not challenging enough, it valiantly explores them blending numerous genres, culling from avant-garde, fantasy, magical realism, ethnography, coming-of-age and memoir.  Yet it is the scope of multiple conflicts and genre blending that eclipses its potential genius.  As well, the film’s effort in exposing how race, class, gender and regionalism inform these conflicts and complicates their resolution is equivocal. At best.

Unleashing the Beast from Within: Movie Review of “Animal Kingdom”

Multi-award winning crime drama “Animal Kingdom” (Sony Pictures Classics, 2010) shines a focused light on the tension, turmoil, and tenacity of a family bonded by their familial investment . . . in criminal enterprise.  Enter the Cody family, consisting of grandmother, three brothers, estranged daughter and her teenage son.   Don’t anticipate a conventional family like that of The Cleavers, Bradys, or Cunninghams, or idyllic scenes of Sunday dinners or family vacations.  All is not what it appears to be, as the façade of family barely gilds twisted ruminations.

Instead, we are thrust smack into the tangled dynamics of this deranged family, and the perverse loyalty shaping and shaming it.  Narratives of twisted maternal instincts, sinister sibling rivalry, bilious behaviors, benevolent friendships and coming of age are slowly unraveled and witnessed.  Matriarch Janine “Smurf” Cody showers her sons with a love that borders on the incestuous, and yet harbors a diabolical willingness to sacrifice some cubs to preserve those most cherished by the pride.  Actions taken by eldest brother Andrew “Pope” to protect him and the family are at times paternal and psychotic.  Teenage grandson Joshua “J” Cody comes to live with the family after his mother overdoses, but realizes that he has to grow up fast and choose allies carefully, whether police or kin, if he is to survive.

The movie will not belittle your sensibility with an admonishingly bow-tied retelling of the adage “I am my brother’s keeper.” It is replaced by revealing brute savagery that the family inflicts on one another to preserve the herd, no matter the sacrifice.  The intertwined and wicked relationships unravel the extent and cost the members of the Cody family will pay in preserving the frays of family.

The movie will not distract you with scenes of armed bank robberies to titillate and fulfill our propensity for special effects and bedazzlement.  Movies such as “Set it Off” and “Heat” do a unique job of using such scenes to propel plot and inform characterization. Instead, a montage of bank camera photos during opening credits takes care of this revelation.  What is more deeply and intimately investigated are the aftershocks of crime, its residual impact on loyalty.

It’s damn near sinister and shameful the extent kin will go, and blood be shed, to procure peace. Everyone fears one another.

With rightful cause.

Ridley Scott’s “Prometheus” as Metaphor: The Search, Seizure, and Salvation of Humanity

(Spoiler alert, elements of the plot will be revealed.)

The movie “Prometheus” accomplishes more than serving as a prequel to the “Alien” series.  Ridley Scott did an incredible piece of work in assembling complex storylines and impressive settings to create an odyssey of intellectual, moral, and spiritual wanderings.  What unfolds before us, and within us, is an exploration what it means to be human: its best, brilliant, base and brutal aspects.  In this movie review/literary analysis, I discuss how these aspects of humanity are explored and excavated throughout the movie.  As a spoiler alert, some characters and parts of the movie are revealed . . .

The Search

“Prometheus” keenly conjures our need as humans to know and understand where we come from.  Are we created by our own decision? Are we created by higher powers? For what purpose?  These questions are what instigate archaeologists (husband and wife team) Shaw and Holloway to search the world for evidence of higher powers and origins greater than themselves, and business tycoon Weyland to coordinate their efforts along with his to find the source of humanity.  Yet while the search could be universally regarded as in the pursuit of greater good, not everyone’s goals for this search are universal and uniform.  Depending on the character, some like Shaw naively believe the mission is for promoting the greater good of all humankind, while others host singular selfish motivations exclusively for their personal gain.  Scott does complex surgical work in craftily interweaving characters’ agendas and ascents into a compelling mosaic of the symbiotic and parasitic relationships people form with one another toward the goal of knowing the origin of humans.

The Seizure

Not every character invests in a rightful and principled approach to acquiring an end goal.  While some offer and rely upon unconditional trust, others employ manipulation and deceit.  While some are selflessly motivated, others are myopically focused in achieving goals of personal gain, even at the harm and grave expense of others.  Enter the Weyland family: Peter Weyland, businessman and financier of the Prometheus expedition, Meredith Vickers who is both his daughter and the manager of the mission, and David, who while is an android, serves as a synthetic son and servant to both Weyland and Vickers.  Weyland personifies a king blind to whatever else exists strictly to pursue his ambition and emotional avarice.  He must meet his progenitor.  Even if it means exploiting his subordinate creation David, even if it means demoting his daughter to simply an unloved tool for his success, if there are costs and consequences to others, so be it.  Almost paralleling Shakespeare’s King Lear, Weyland’s offspring tell him the things he wants to hear, and comply with what he wants them to do, in an exploitation of that paternal relationship for self-seeking gain.  Yet Weyland is not a naïve king manipulated by his offspring. He too puts forth an agenda that exploits his offsprings’ talents toward his own self-serving end; David’s knowledge of the humanities and diverse languages, and higher order intelligence; Vickers singular allegiance to the completion of the mission and exacting leadership skills.

There is a predatory allegiance shared between Weyland, Vickers, and David.  Weyland’s offspring (Vickers literally, David metaphorically) each use their relationship with their paternal progenitor, their “father” for their personal gain. David cloaks the fulfilling of his own selfish ambitions under the fulfillment of his ailing and elderly progenitor’s dying wish to meet his own progenitor (whom Shaw has dubbed “The Engineers”).  For example, David seeks to be more human, using his benefactor’s access to resources to learn more about humans, spanning the benign such as researching their movies, languages, and grooming techniques.  He constantly works to reconcile wanting to be human yet being a creation of human hands. He is of them yet not of them, which is constantly made painfully clear in how others subordinate and disrespect him.

Consequently, David becomes progressively sinister in exploiting his benefactor, his resources and the crew he hired.  It is through his unique investigatory research that he tests his hypothesis of what exactly makes one human (and the extent he surpasses them). He commits inhumane experiments such as infiltrating sleeping crew members’ dreams, he detours from the expedition crew for his own explorations (and extractions of alien genetic material), and conducts genetic experiments upon unsuspecting crew members (introducing alien material unknowingly to their bodies).  David, though exploited, exploits his position as a subordinated son, gifted with intelligence and knowledge, to maneuver himself so that he researches humans, interacts with them, and uses them as leverage to explore and learn about both them and the Engineers.   Almost in the fashion of Shakespeare’s Richard III, as the younger brother Richard manipulates everyone to steal the throne from his older brother Edward, David manipulates any and everyone to ascend into a place knowing more about humankind than even humans know about themselves. Yet David and Vickers are not objectified offspring whose acquiesce goes gently into that good night of their father’s dream (and as it will turn out, their nightmares).  Both David and Vickers know their father’s disregard and relegation of them to servants to his dream, but still continue to vie for their progenitor’s affirmation.

Vickers, in Shakespearean fashion, shares a conflicting love of her father.  Weyland’s exclusive devotion to meeting his progenitor has alienated Vickers from him and caused the death of a father/daughter relationship, one that in some small part Vickers desperately wants as she demonstrates in one scene kneeling before him and kissing his hand (only to receive back his clinching knuckles).  It is a relationship of dedication yet saturated with venom and vengeance.  Like Hamlet who pursues the business of avenging his father’s death, and yet feels both love and scornful detest because of his mother’s actions (marrying his father’s murderer), Vickers’ actions too harbor both love and scorn of her father.  She asserts herself to the crew as the person who makes sure that everyone does their job to fulfill the mission (the double entendre being to get her father to meet his maker).  And, although Vickers secretly salivates to ascend the throne upon her father’s eminent death, she just as importantly seeks his love and affirmation.

Godlike and Messianic Complexes 

In many instances throughout the movie there is a seizure of others’ humanity for exploitation.  Weyland believes that he can buy himself into meeting his progenitors, financing a mission and manipulating the talents, convictions, and intentions of others to that end.   David believes himself deserving of respect and regard by his human counterparts, thinking himself at least equal and in many respects superior considering his learnedness of their knowledge, ideas, and habits.  However he is still relegated to not being human, treated as a subordinate, and most of all, remains out of place. As a result, David exploits the relationships they share with one another for his personal gain, even going so far as to compromise select crew members’ health in a test of the limits of their humanity. He also takes it upon himself to conduct covert explorations of the Engineer’s technology separate from the expedition and without full disclosure.

 

The Salvation of Humanity

Needless to say, the crew find themselves in harrying situations, both by their own design and outside forces.  It is through these times that Scott’s “Prometheus” illustrates the resolve that humans call upon to save fellow humans from harm or destruction.  Shaw calls upon her faith to inform her decisions about how to advance the good of humankind.  She demonstrates this throughout her work as a team member of the expedition.  Some realize in moments of peril the ultimate in sacrifices need to be made to serve and protect a greater good, a good that only they can provide.  Janek, the captain of the ship, answers such a crucial call, sacrifices himself and his crew so that others might be saved.  Holloway and Shaw each sacrifice their bodies so that harm does not come to the crew or beyond.  For others like David, upon realizing their past selfish actions have made for dire consequences, they avail their talents and resources wholeheartedly.

In all, “Prometheus” is a movie that compels one to not only reflect on the state of humanity on the outside (as we have much to contemplate given what is occurring worldwide), but also on the inside.  What makes us human? How do we know? What will we do when it is tested? Like any great movie, this one still leaves me with questions.  In the movie, why did the Engineers create humans, and then make the decision to destroy them? Exactly HOW does the myth of Prometheus connect with the topics and themes of the movie?

 

And finally, a question that I ponder outside the movie is this . . . can the search for the origin of humankind occur without first an examination of one’s own self?

The Lone Crusaders of “Valhalla Rising” and “The Book of Eli”: Preternatural Archetypes and Iconic Rebels

This won’t be a review of these two films evaluating their merits and detractions.  More so, this blogpost is an investigative pondering, a thinking out loud about the power of movies serving as introspective lenses into ourselves.  After seeing “Valhalla Rising” a few days ago, it has not left my bones or cognitive preoccupation.  The brooding landscape, the haunting music, the brutal yet beguiling treatment of proverbial conflicts (man versus man, man versus society), the aesthetic achievement of a  movie not ending with a conventionally bow tied happy ending, have moved me.  I am responding to a movement in my marrow, an archetypal and iconic familiarity implanted by my father, now resurrected.

To give context, In “Valhalla Rising,” the clairvoyant Norseman protagonist, One Eye, is introduced as a captive exploited for the gladiator-style sport of combating and bludgeoning fellow captives.  One Eye is temporarily compliant with his slavery and defers to his captor’s bloodlust for combat.  He is then sold by his captor to another who hopes to use him to stave off the Christian Crusaders who have begun the onslaught of whomever they deem infidels.   However, One Eye brutally takes back his freedom, and resumes his quest, accompanied now by the boy (called The Boy) who provided food while in captivity and will provide his voice, as One Eye is mute.   Ironically, they encounter a group of Crusaders embarking for Jerusalem and join them.  Then when the ship is trapped by obscuring mist and stilled currents, some crew interpret the presence of The Boy as an omen of their demise.  Others are resolved in perceiving both One Eye and The Boy as a means to a supernatural confirmation of their quest, with One Eye providing messianic-like security.  The men then land upon a taiga, and begin to realize that they are nowhere near the Holy Land of Jerusalem for which their chartered their course and agendas.  They encounter aboriginals, as well as the fraying interior of the deepest and dilemma-ridden aspects of themselves, leading to revelatory unfolding.

Stories about lone crusaders and the conflicts they encounter fascinate me.  The preservation of self despite the infliction or indifference of others, the indestructible resolve to uphold and defend what is believed even at cost to self, are compelling narratives.  One Eye is embedded within an interwoven tapestry of two conflicts—man against man, and man against society.   One Eye does not willfully engage or pursue conflicts with others, or deliberately position himself to take a side for his own advantage.  In his quietude he remains resolute to keep moving, resilient in accepting and fulfilling his premonitions.  Beholding to what seems to be a calling to something greater, he combats through the shadows and valleys of others’ intentions, expectations, and manipulations.  This instinctive perseverance and acceptance of his fate are what confounds some characters and convicts others.

One Eye’s obligatory devotion to fulfilling his premonitions and the path they lay reminds me of my father.  My father was a man who availed his limbs and logic to providing me the best life possible (on earth and heaven).   Specifically, my father upheld the belief that it was his responsibility to instill within me religious practices and spiritual teachers to inform my life going forward.  The most indelible impression he makes upon me are what he taught me about my origin.  He had a way of explaining that we are translation of a divine intention.  Dad taught me about God and Christ, and many Biblical figures to serve me in life as guideposts for my living.  His favorite king was David, a man chosen by God to build and defend His kingdom knowing in his walk of earthen life he would both travail from and prevail against his personal foibles and fallibility.  Jesus impressed him because of His determination despite any and all obstacles to do His Father’s work.  Perhaps the parallel between One Eye and my father’s teachings lay in the fact that regardless of what the eye/s can see, there is a life purposefully divined and driven beyond physical unyieldingness, and to resolve to see and live life beyond circumstance strengthens one’s ability to do so sedulously and steadfastly.

Since seeing “Valhalla Rising,” I have also begun to reflect upon how I was also moved by the movie “The Book of Eli”.  The latter is also a movie that moves my marrow me because of its theme of sight beyond circumstance.  As like One Eye, Eli is diminished in his sight (he is completely blind).  However, Eli’s blindness does not mentally, spiritually or physically deter him.  Instead, his ordaining to deliver the last Bible propels Eli.  The sight garnered by conviction emboldens both characters to resist surrendering to physical limitation or societal intimidation; in Eli’s case, Carnegie’s hunting and assaulting of him to acquire the physical Bible in his care.  Throughout the movie, Eli invokes and demonstrates his Biblically-informed and infused sight to traverse an apocalyptic wasteland, the degeneration of others, and the attempted exploits of demagogue Carnegie to exploit and kill him exclusively for gain.  Unfortunately, Carnegie’s greed and thirst for power literally shrink his sight to only register what is physical.  The Bible Eli carries is written in Braille, which Carnegie cannot read and therefore exploit to wield his power.  The Bible that Eli transports is actually committed to memory: he succeeds bringing it to a repository and printing press housed in Alcatraz before succumbing to his injuries.

My fascination with both protagonists is that the fragile meets the fierce.  Despite what seems to be limits in the flesh, the execution of their beliefs is what avails them strength, courage and wisdom to continue pursuing their higher calling.  Each protagonist prevails against his own carnal limitation.  Despite the exploitation of others—attempted and executed—each remains undeterred to accomplish a goal greater than the obstacles that materialize and plague them.  They remind me of my father, whose spiritual sight helped him to prevail against affliction.  He taught me that we were born ordained to do special work on earth even before assuming earthly vessels, and celestially supported by the hierarchy of Heaven to complete it.    Who we are metaphorically, mystically, molecularly, and metabolically overshadows and overpowers  any obstacle we will experience in our walk on earth (perhaps this is also why movies like ”Contact” resound in me too . . .I’ll save that for another day).  This teaching he embedded in me informs and instructs me some 15 years after his passing.  Ironically, he died just nine days after my Baptism, and though for me premature, I have never believed this to be an accident as a surrender and restful return.

His job done on earth, as it is in Heaven.

A Triptych of Trials, Tribulations, and Redemption: Movie Review of Gun Hill Road

In his first full feature film, writer and Director Rashaad Ernesto Green creates a tour de force in the poignant portrayal of Enrique, Angela, and Michael, a Bronx family on the mend.  Starring Esai Morales, Judy Reyes, and introducing Harmony Santana.  A Grand Jury Nominee at the 2011 Sundance Festival.  A film by SimonSays Entertainment.  Distributed by Motion Film Group.  In limited release in NYC and LA. 

Three Characters Joined and Distanced by Blood

Gun Hill Road is a film about trials, tribulation and redemption.  Within minutes we are thrust into a community and family welcoming home its prodigal son, and it is in this pivotal moment the lives of three family members begin to unfold. Enrique, a father and ex-con, attempts re-entry into a world and family who define him more by his absence than his present potential.  As husband and patriarch, he works arduously toward the reconciliation between past and present.  The mother, Angela, negotiates marriage and motherhood; despite her sacrifices both to make do with and make ends meet with scrapes of life offered, she pangs for her own happiness and completion.  Michael, the teenage son, seeks confirmation of his transgendered self within worlds that work relentlessly to objectify his outer beauty and extinguish his inner beauty.  The three have the best intentions to reunite, but each one’s resistant to being hurt again.  It won’t be easy, but each is resilient to press through harm into hope.

A Story of Contrast and Complexity

Director and writer Rashaad Ernesto Green creates a screenplay that steers away from clichés and stereotypes, instead constructing and vivifying characters with layered complexity.  The experiences of the characters with incarceration, transgenderism, masculinity, fatherhood, and infidelity are not treated as one-dimensional, but in nuanced relationship with each other.  Enrique’s time in jail haunts him even after he gets out, which manifests in both his challenge to again consummate his marriage and the unconventional means he employs to “bring his son around.”  Michael is a teenager struggling to balance his self-esteem and self assuredness.  He accepts who he is, and wants others to do the same.  His struggles for acceptance are detailed through poetic pleas for recognition during open mics, the give and take of one-sided relationships, the guardedness of the fraternity of his community, and the mirror he is both trying to find and resist within his father.   Angela’s sacrificial fidelity to institutions and relatives are juxtaposed by her love interest in Enrique’s absence, being sole provider within an economic and familial gap, and the unconditional promotion and protection of their son.  Green skillfully avoids insulting the audience by telling a story already told.  The film instead invites us into an authentic witnessing of the contemplation and work of three family members trying to gravitate toward individual and familial wholeness.  Brutal truths are relayed with unflinching transparency.

Green’s choice of storytelling in his first full feature film, complemented by its cinematography earns him kudos. His courageous storytelling is such that other filmmakers may be too reluctant to discuss.   Gun Hill Road was a finalist for the Jury Award at the 2011 Sundance Festival.  Melding one part memoir, one part journalism, one part documentary, with one part novel, Green bends and blends genres to create a fictitious masterpiece.  He skillfully mimics the gritty eloquent narration of “The Wire,” the journalistic feel of “Law and Order,” the familial realism of PBS’s “An American Family” with the unapologetic and blatantly beautiful truth-telling of Lee Daniel’s “Precious.”  Careful not to typecast, Green’s cinematic truism lies in his inventive work in sequencing the story so that it flows like a trilogy of three distinct narratives, yet harmonizes them to illustrate the portrait of a family.  In this novel movie, the Bronx is its own complex character, captured and depicted well by Gun Hill Road’s alleys and corners for marking identity and reclaiming one’s self, its’ congestion of buildings, the parks where people make and break relationships, serving as an oxymoronic mattress of rest, and even its brilliance in sunrise and twilight I fondly remember witnessing when growing up there in the 70s and 80s.

Getting Behind the Vision:  An Actor’s Just Due

The cast transcended acting well.  They brought to life characters so convincing they reminded me of the people I pass on my way to work in schools in the Bronx.  Veteran Judy Reyes and breakout actor Harmony Santana do hard work to convey with balance and integrity the vulnerable and resilient spirits of their characters without indulging caricature and stereotype.  The supporting cast complements their work, from the beatdowns to the buildups of the lead characters, with realism.  A special “shout out” has to go to Esai Morales, who as the main character and supporter of Green got behind the potential of this movie, and as an inexhaustible dynamo brought it to fruition.  A veteran actor who has garnered acclaim for working in several movies and television shows, and recognition as a self-defined “actorvist,” his talent is given full bloom and due justice in this film.  An actor who surgically brings out the grit and grim of Enrique, yet portrays his vulnerability and frustration with equal precision, Morales’s performance should receive the highest acclaim during award season.

Conclusion: Our Stories, Our Lives

Gun Hill Road is a must see movie.  As an audience member, I found myself intrigued and engrossed within minutes.  The movie unapologetically and unhesitatingly thrusts you into a world of mistakes, misguided intentions, and devotion.  Viewing this movie is an unflinching experience where Green, Morales, the cast, and The Bronx make you privy to the joys and pains of life.  It is a rare film that provides you intimate access to the inner workings of relationships:  those recoiled and renegotiated between family members, those individuals reconcile within themselves, and those carefully (and at times carelessly) brokered and navigated with the world.  The familial and personal skirmishes are not oversimplified.  They illustrate the workings of humans and spirits trying to come back to center.   The movie is one of contrasts, relentless in its confrontation of bitter hard truths and the beauty of life, while relaying both reverently and tastefully.

Spoiler alert: the movie does not dishonor or disrespect the audience with a conventional Hollywood story or ending.  It shows homage to life on an urban landscape, and delivers as such.

Gun Hill Road is currently in limited release in New York City and Los Angeles.  It’s important to support this film, so please spread the word.  We need to seem more films like this, with minority filmmakers who know how to tell their own stories.

Movies as Mirrors: Reflecting on “For Colored Girls”

This blog describes the impact of Ntozake Shange’s groundbreaking choreopoem on my identity as a woman of color and a writer, compared to the impact of attending Tyler Perry’s movie adaptation with my husband. 

In the late eighties, one book changed my life.  Ms. Kupperman-Guinals, our drama teacher and teacher extraordinaire, pulled me to the side after class and gave me a copy of Ntozake Shange’s For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf to read.  Already a self-proclaimed poet, I was writing poems as mirrors of my days–the hardship of being a teenager, the beauty of nature, using big words to say small things, lamenting the crushes I had, and short stories about falling in love with Prince.  When I look back on the reading of that book, it has become a pivotal event in my life.  I know now was given a tool and mirror into so much deeper.

For Colored Girls was the first play I read written as both poem and play–a choreopoem.  In content and structure, it gave me inspiration as a fledging writer to see what can be done with a narrative about being a woman of color, with a unique frame within which to explore and share that phenomenon.  Told from multiple vantage points personified in colors, it bore witness of who we are (and I am) on paper.  Stories of trials, tribulations, triumphs, excavations and epiphanies all woven in a metaphoric tapestry of a rainbow.  A rainbow of womanhood.  Reading the play, I felt like I was seen.  Known.  Believed.   More than a statistic or stereotype.

For Colored Girls has become for me a tool and mentor text for using writing as confession, revelation, empowerment, sharing.  I thank Ms. Kupperman-Guinals for giving me this torch to see myself and the world I could create.  It later fueled for me the inspiration to write an undergraduate honors thesis on the works of Ntozake Shange (“The Negotiation of Silence in the Female Characters in Ntozake Shange’s Texts”), as well as an original play (titled “Episodes of Womanhood/Mahogany Women’s Movements/A Blackened Woman’s Voice from a Different World”).  Years later, in 1992, while writing my thesis, I would have the honor of meeting the original torchbearer herself at Crossroads Theatre who inscribed my copy of  The Love Space Demands with saying “Thank you for being who you are.”

Ms. Shange and Ms. Kupperman-Guinals gave gifts that keep on giving.

So when Tyler Perry’s “For Colored Girls” came out, I was excitedly reserved.  Would the movie he produced captivate me the same way as did the author?  Would I feel the same epiphany and inspiration in being a woman of color again, or would they be muted by the sacrilegious interjection of Madea in womanface?  For me, “For Colored Girls” is one of those works that “should” stay as a text.  Something different, even disappointing, can happen when the vivifying of a text is done onscreen.  Some things get lost in translation, which is what I felt with both “The Watchmen” and especially “Beloved.”  Beloved emerging out of the water and speaking in first person impact the reader in a way that the delivery of an image cannot fully capture.

Bad colds and conflicting dates kept me from seeing the movie with sister friends who wanted to make a dinner and a movie event from seeing the movie.  We knew we would have much to talk about.  Ironically, my husband, a movie buff, volunteered to go.  Fingers crossed . . . we attended.  Afterward, we spent an afternoon walking around the movie theatre parking lot debriefing.

Kerwin recounted that the movie upset him, leaving him to wonder if Tyler Perry hated men.  He felt objectified and shrunk to one dimension.  He disclosed that based upon the characterization of men of color in the movie, a man could only be  a selfish “down low” HIV-positive husband who intentionally infects his wife, a traumatized alcoholic war veteran who abuses his wife and throws his offspring out the window, a slick-tongued rapist, a two-timing non-committal gigolo, or a john.  Or absent.  The married good cop was just a flash in a pan.  To him, there were no layers, textures, complexity explored.  Just stereotypes delivered.  Again.  And when I told him there were no male characters in the original choreopoem, he was befuddled by why they were included by Perry in the movie.

I wished my husband experienced what I did in reading the play over two decades ago.  I genuinely wanted him to know what it felt like for me to see your complexion and complexity captured and given back to you as a gift, as I did with both my teacher and favorite author.  Instead, he saw himself shrunken, caricatured.  Again.  This time, by his own.

Since seeing the movie together, my husband’s sentiments leave in me a feeling of responsibility for using words and images so others can see themselves.  How can the poetry I write serve the goal of relaying my thoughts and ideas yet provide breathing room and a space for others to see and experience themselves?  Relative to the two of us, how do I serve as a mirror of his truthful reflections?  And, relative to us all, how can we live so that we serve as mentor text and mirror to our best and most possible selves?