The Bluest Note ~ A Review

The blues notes no longer play for Tony Mann (Len Xiang)

The blues notes no longer play for Tony Mann (Len Xiang)

Marques Green (Que Films) is in good company with Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes because this independent filmmaker understands fully the ‘tune o’ those weary blues’ surveyed in his film short, The Bluest Note (2012). Penned by Oliver Webb, Jr., The Bluest Note is a brooding film that never releases the audience from its descent, even though we are hopeful until the very end. Hope indeed is the bluest note.

Len Xiang is Tony Mann, a once successful R&B / Jazz stylist whose own instrument—his voice–has betrayed him after having carried him through the hallowed halls of fame. The ‘blue notes’ elude him, and with every screech and scrag, Mann elicits from the audience a fervent plea to his vocal chords to serve the artist just one more time. Please? We learn later that a ruthless siren, Niva, has placed us under a spell. Played with uncompromising desire by model Jaynelle Clarke, Niva lures Mann to sing despite the vocal letdown. Mann’s wife, Christine (Stacey Lewis) relentlessly pushes her husband to see that Tony is “not that person anymore”, but she is no match for Niva. We, too, want Christine to stay out of our business!

Lewis inhabits Christine’s hope, taking care to throw into sharp relief the despair over what marriage itself cannot save. Both Tony and Christine yearn for a revival of sorts. Mann craves what he once was in the public spotlight; Christine collects pieces from their marital past with the hope Tony will see the value in a life the two of them created in private before the intrusion of fame. Of her character, Lewis explains,

Stacey Lewis (Christine)

Stacey Lewis (Christine)

Tony and Christine genuinely loved each other and were committed to their marriage. I believe, however, it was nearly impossible for her to accept and to understand that she and the life they had before the fame were not enough for him to stop seeking validation from the public. I think Christine’s anger, sadness, and jealousy stemmed from the fact she was no longer Tony’s muse and was not a strong enough deterrent to keep him from self-destructing.

The seduction and taunt of celebrity culture without question have caused Christine’s ‘weary blues’, and Lewis notes, “once celebrity is achieved by someone that person will move heaven and earth to maintain it, even to their own detriment and to the detriment of their loved ones. It’s as if the idea of being regulated back to ‘normal’ is emotionally, mentally, and physically painful.”

We feel the pain. Mann strives for his voice to recognize that they once were a team, and to remember the vibrancy of their performances. He actually could sing again. All he has to do is take better care of his instrument, practice, and schmooze among his fellow artists. After all, people remember him … but only ‘when’. It is an agony born out of loss and desperation, and Green dramatizes without restraint the emotional cost of a gift that has vanished only to return in disrepair:

I think the loss of one’s gift is a very challenging thing and can cause people to react in all sorts of ways. With The Bluest Note our intention was to explore this loss. […] This particular case is extreme, but I do feel that many can relate to losing something that is very important to them.

Xiang, who in real-life performs on trains in New York (called a ‘Buster’), appreciates Green’s exploration of ‘finding your way back’ after disappointment and failure in The Bluest Note. He believes this particular journey receives short shrift by mainstream Hollywood when telling the Black artist’s story:

I am so honored to be a part of this film. Eminem’s 8 Mile, 50 Cent’s Get Rich or Die Tryin’, Carey’s Glitter and others … they show the rise to the top; Hollywood perpetuates this image of us loving the struggle because we were slaves and this is where we come from. I’m over that! There is so much info and research that goes into our lineage as Black people. Why not the story of somebody who has made it to the top then falls down? What choices do they make?

With piercing heaviness, Xiang bears Mann’s burden of choices as he makes a ‘come back’ but only to a place that has no role for him to play anymore. Personally for Xiang, he is all too aware of an artist’s everyday hustle to ‘make it’ in a highly competitive market and what is necessary to sustain his status once success actually is achieved. His character’s journey, he reveals, touches close to his heart.

Really, there is no character there, that’s all me! The music, the songs, too. Tony’s struggle is a struggle I am going through right now, so it was an honor to be that brutally honest in that film. Artists have to figure out how to continue to be artists if they fall. What are those ways? Right now, I’m pushing my way into an industry that is no longer how it used to be. It used to be you signed with a label, and there it was. Now all of that is out of the door. YOU are your own label; your own brand.

The Siren, Niva (Jaynelle Clarke) returns for Tony

The Siren, Niva (Jaynelle Clarke) returns for Tony

In Green’s project, Xiang seamlessly interfolds his own story but still defers to Tony Mann and all of the identity politics that come with him. The Bluest Note glimpses, through Mann, the transition of an artist’s identity from a ‘you’ that embraces you then casts you out into the land of ordinary or onto the strip of normal. Clarke exploits the camera’s power and grants Niva full range to mock Mann with her wisps of possibility. Her skill on the runway, moreover, bolsters her threat not only to Mann’s marriage but to his psychological well-being as well. More striking, cinematographer Giacomo Belletti films Mann’s loss and Niva’s seduction in alluring shades of dark chocolate, maroon, and blue/grey mist; then, he shifts to hues of apricot, rose and ivory to frame Mann’s once sung happiness.

Green rightly acknowledges, with clarity and coherence, the peculiar nature of talent; how it can lose its flexibility and ease of production at any given moment; and, how it will refuse to stand and deliver no matter the force … no matter the prayer. What happens, then, to the ‘you’ left standing? Langston Hughes well may have replied “You move on, man, you move on.” In The Bluest Note, however, where you move can mean a matter of life or death.

Marques Green, Director (Moses Djeli Photography)

Marques Green, Director (Moses Djeli Photography)

The Bluest Note will be screened at the California African American Museum in Los Angeles on August 10; it screened at the The BlackStar Film Festival Saturday, August 3 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and won the Jury Prize for Best Short. In February, The Bluest Note won the Outstanding Independent Short by The Black Reel Awards: Saluting African Americans in Film.

For more information on The Bluest Note, ‘Like’ on Facebook. Visit for more information on filmmaker Marques Green.

The Bluest Note made its debut at the UrbanWorld Film Festival 2012 in New York.

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White Space ~ A Review

Maya Washington

Maya Washington

The clink of penny change on a sidewalk
The cuddle of coffee cups on a waitress’s tray
Sounds …

Love notes whispered
Sounds we take for granted

Sounds. Spoken Words. Each conducts the melodies of everyday life, but speaking the word is celebrated as the most powerful of social exchanges. In her beautifully imagined film short White Space, however, film director Maya Washington (White Space Poetry Project) gingerly dramatizes silence as the ‘other’ manner of communication in a space that privileges the spoken word: the stage. Washington shrewdly casts subtle clues that lead to an ‘opening night’ so affectionate that the heart stirs to rejoice; it has one other outlet for infinite expression.

The film opens on a street as the echoes of the night accompany a determined young man in a hoodie walking to somewhere. Matt Koskenmaki’s impassioned score forges the film’s serious almost haunting tone with bluesy bass chords dancing with percussion and the brassy buzz of the trumpet. The process of addition by subtraction produced the music’s blend Koskenmaki remembers:

I first saw the film … there was no music; it was very rare for someone to give me a short film like that … most temp in the music. [White Space] was a blank canvas, so what I did was write a lot of music–more music than was needed. When Maya came to hear what I had done, we went for low tones to [evoke] intimacy.

On the way, Koskenmaki’s musical pulses emphasize the intimacy between the young man and the writer of the uplifting phone texts he reads: “I know you can do this; Love you”; and then a plea: “Please don’t mess this up”; “Get here!!!” Cinematographer James Adolphus builds audience curiosity as he alternates between the dots of street sounds and the warm jollity of a small theater called The Alabaster located in the backroom of a laundromat. Slam Poets serve as an entertaining preface to what is to come with their respective rat-a-tat rhythms to socio-cultural critique,

You’re right! I’m overreacting to white folks who liberate they coon selves through the culture of black people replacing stereotypes in hip-hop music with caricatures from Dixie!
–Ant Black

and smooth stylistic musings on the power of inner beauty,

No reflections on glass, shadows or shapes, pictures on the wall, or shimmering lakes can show you what you are: A truly undefinable beauty. – Tanya Alexander

Enter The Poet, the young man in the hoodie, played by deaf performance poet Ryan Lane (Dummy Hoy: A Deaf Hero; Switched at Birth). Koskenmaki stops the music, and the scene transitions from a lively night at the coffee house to an awkward but reverent silence bathed in white light.

Sayna (Washington) and The Poet (Lane)

Sayna (Washington) and The Poet (Lane)

Lane excels in this precarious moment as he laudably conveys The Poet’s self-conscious hesitancy on-stage along with his virtuosity in communication. “When we suck the sound out of the coffee house, the absence of sound becomes more intense,” reveals Washington. For approximately two minutes and nineteen seconds, The Poet transcribes the issues from his heart through his hands. It is silent. “I can’t tell you who I am without telling you where I’ve been,” he signs with such spirit and emotion that patrons nod with understanding. Washington plays Shayna, his girlfriend, whose texts are the love notes of encouragement that drive the poet past his fear.

The Poet (Ryan Lane)

The Poet (Ryan Lane)

It is without question. Lane performs his own frustration as a deaf actor navigating within a business that more often than not recognizes those who hear. The film’s chief virtue, then, is courage—the courage of the deaf artist to perform live and the courage of the audience to hear him. These diegetic collaborations are the fruits of Washington’s own collaborative labors:

Ryan and I collaborated with a hearing poet Herschel McPherson; a poet/interpreter Mona Jean Cedar; and, a deaf poet/actress Zendrea Mitchell (the woman at the train station) to create the poem in the final scene. We had to shape a poem written in spoken English into [American Sign Language] then back into English subtitles. Cinematographer James Adolphus and I thought a lot about how we wanted the audience to experience the ASL visually. [The work of] Brett Bachman (Editor) and Matt Koskenmaki (Composer) […]made the emotion of the scene tangible.

Washington reaches deeply to shift our perspective on live performance and its conventional venue. In the process, she attends to those issues that tug her own heart. “I want hearing people to […] feel a little anxious and uncomfortable, even if they aren’t sure why,” she explains, “a lot of deaf artists walk in both the hearing and deaf world. I feel like it’s time for hearing artists to do the same.” That ‘walk’, no doubt, is fragile, and as the luminous alabaster stone requires care, so does the journey taken together by the hearing and the deaf. White Space makes that happen, and in all of eight minutes and fifty seconds.

White Space is scheduled to screen at the Langston Hughes African American Film Festival in Seattle, Washington, Monday April 15 (; the Indie Boots Film Festival in Chicago ( and the Toronto International Deaf Film and Arts Festival in May 2013 (

‘Like’ White Space Poetry Project on Facebook
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Digital Media, African American Drama Highlight The Urbanworld Film Festival 2012

The Sixteenth Annual Urbanworld Film Festival 2012 (UWFF) gave the spotlight to an inspirational line-up of panels in conjunction with its screenings of independent film and screenplay readings September 19-23 in Manhattan, New York. As expected, the festival attracted an energetic audience eager to learn more about the business side of filmmaking and the advances made in digital media; producers within film and visual culture generated insight on their productions during spirited post-screening question and answer sessions.

Sponsored by, and HBO & HBO GO, UWFF commenced as a high-spirited, well-attended event at the HBO Theater and the AMC 34th Street Theater. Gabrielle Glore, Executive Producer and Head of Programming, welcomed participants, and expressed the mission of the UWFF:

Our festival is driven by a cross-cultural sensibility that … reflects a diversity that is invisible because it is organic. We seek out the untold, the unexpected, and the unflinching accounts of our experiences, which often ring universally true for audiences. What started as a subculture under the bold leadership of Stacy Spikes, [the festival] has grown into an independent film movement with power beyond measure — the power to expose, elevate, and inspire a filmmaking community.

The corporate and artistic talents slated for the event tapped into that power and, in return, opened a well-spring of knowledge and expertise for attendees. Pre-festival events featured dialogues on the fast-emerging culture of digital media, and two panels served as the festival’s tailgate: Kickstarting Creativity, Community & Possibility: Crowdfunding Your Content and The New Now: Rewriting Opportunity in Content Distribution. Former President of Digital Media for BET, Denmark West, moderated Kickstarting Creativity, an informative conversation on crowdfunding for creative projects via This fundraising vehicle allows aspiring creative artists to independently fund an imaginative venture and to generate fan-allegiance to that project. “Filmmakers used to spend years pushing their product into the marketplace,” said producer Bill Warrell (Crazy Like a Fox 2004). “If the Jobs Act 2012 passes, alternative funding platforms will allow every small investor to actually own a piece of the project he funds. For the filmmaker, he cuts a deal with himself because of the control over the project he will have from the beginning to the end,” Warrell explained.

The New Now panel, a commendable follow-up moderated by Rachel Watanabe-Batton, Producer/Vice Chair, Producers Guild of America-East, included corporate executives who outlined how to disseminate product content to a wider audience. Alvin V. Williams, Executive Vice President-Alchemy Networks, emphasized that no matter the aesthetics of a product, if the creative artist is a good solid storyteller, she will find interest in her content. He also firmly urged creative artists to utilize websites and to circulate their projects:

There is no excuse not to have a page or a website,” he said, continuing, “ is so forgiving. People [in the business] scour websites for new and original content all the time; and, you really don’t need all the bells and whistles. If you have 15 minutes of product content but it is not a great production, if your content is a great story, that is sufficient.

Urbanworld hosted a cornucopia of impressive stories, and the festival treated audiences to remarkable dramatizations that center on a host of subjects that are of concern to the African American community. Power couple Salim Akil and Mara Brock Akil (Sparkle; Girlfriends) officially opened the festival with the world premiere of Being Mary Jane. Gabrielle Union stars as Mary Jane Paul, a news anchor managing her life as a mature single black female. Ava DuVernay (This is the Life 2010), the first African-American woman to win the Best
Director Prize at Sundance 2012, closed the festival with the New York premiere of her outstanding second feature Middle of Nowhere, a story of Ruby (Emayatzy Corinealdi) and Dexter (Omari Hardwick), a couple whose marriage is compromised when Dexter is incarcerated for gun running. DuVernay’s film cannot help but draw comparisons to Marc Forster’s Monster’s Ball (2006).

Watch for more in-depth coverage of this festival in the following weeks when you will be taken behind the scenes and on the red carpet in the review of select films featured during this event, such as those mentioned here. For more information on Urbanworld, visit

In the meantime, Catch a film … Share the Popcorn … Feed Your Soul!

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