Blue Caprice ~ A Review

Screen Shot 2015-12-08 at 10.42.20 PM

Alexandre Moors’S Blue Caprice is a chilling film. This first time writer/director’s film imagines the backstory to the 23 days of terror in the Washington Metropolitan area instigated in October 2002 by John Allen Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo, better known as the D.C. Snipers. This film is haunting, and right from its opening, you know Moors has created a dramatization of events that will leave you feeling depressed, and he doesn’t let up. The atmosphere is cold, distant, and dreadful. Moors’s exploration of revenge, for example, uncovers how deep it cuts into the spirit and what revenge manifests in the human psyche once it is enacted.

Muhammad (Isaiah Washington) and Malvo (Tequan Richmond)

Muhammad (Isaiah Washington) and Malvo (Tequan Richmond)

What is alarming about this film is the danger many of our teenagers encounter when the usual suspects of societal systems are breached, and therefore leaves them open for anyone to facilitate their coming of age. I’m talking about family, church, and/or community. Without these systems and healthy guardianship, the intense need to belong makes them susceptible to forces that will destroy them. Isaiah Washington gives a superb performance as Muhammad, and he makes seamless his character’s transition from concerned surrogate father to seasoned sociopath. Tequan Richmond as Malvo illicits some sympathy because all the while you are thinking his parental abandonment at the age of 15 made him vulnerable to Muhammad’s abuse and manipulation.

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The Butler – A Review

Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker)

Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker)

I, Too, Sing America
I am the darker brother.
They send me to eat in the kitchen

Tomorrow, I’ll be at the table

They’ll see how beautiful I am
And be ashamed—

I, too, am America.
–Langston Hughes

The “darker brothers “and sisters have burst out of the kitchen, and they have arrived strong and beautiful on the doorstep of The White House in Lee Daniels’ impressive film The Butler. The film calls up a history that can be traced back to the time when the prevailing plantation system meant that the enslaved cut and hauled each stone to build that house; that George Washington would bring his enslaved servants, Ona “Oney” Maria Judge and Hercules to it (both eventually escaped); that Paul Jennings, President James Madison’s servant/slave would come; that Elizabeth Keckley would be modiste to First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln and William Slade, President Lincoln’s butler; and, finally, that Eugene Allen, the butler on whose life the film is based, would join them in a history proving that the African American has had and continues to have an intimate relationship with The White House, our national home.

Elizabeth Keckley

Elizabeth Keckley

William Slade

William Slade

Paul Jennings

Paul Jennings

Daniels firmly holds on to his dramatization of the socio-cultural and racial dynamics as he moves the butler, Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker), through his thirty-four years in the White House. Who would have predicted, however, that the elegance of domestic science would sashay out and rise as the star of the film! The conventions of manners, grace, and poise within the national home reign supreme, and they are invigorating. As the tea cups, water glasses, dinner plates, silverware and cloth napkins are set and folded respectfully by the hand of each butler, one cannot help but think of Booker Taliaferro Washington, who also thrust a long arm into the presidential suite throughout his career. Say what you will about Washington’s philosophy on and his praise of industrial education, the former slave-turned-consummate educator and founder of the esteemed Tuskegee Institute (1881) understood all too well the attractive art of domestic science and its “neatness and system”. In Working with the Hands, the sequel to his autobiography Up From Slavery, for instance, Washington discovers that seeing the artistry in the product of his manual labor cultivates a positive sense of self. After surveying the results of his handiwork in grounds-keeping while in the service of Mrs. Viola Ruffner, his most exacting white employer, Washington proclaims,

when I saw and realised that all this was a creation of my own hands, my whole nature began to change. I felt a self-respect, an encouragement, and a satisfaction I had never before enjoyed or thought possible. Above all else, I had acquired a new confidence in my ability actually to do things and to do them well. (9).

Booker T. Washington

Booker T. Washington

The Hampton Normal and Agricultural School in Virginia (later Hampton Institute) nourished Washington’s self-respect as the school attended his book-learning with its practical industrial education curriculum. At Hampton, Washington learned grounds-keeping, iron and woodwork, cooking, agriculture, personal cleanliness and protocols in behavior. The industrial arts , later to be called Shop Class and Home Economics, then enjoyed an easy collaboration with liberal arts education–that is until, I would surmise, the national effort to integrate public schools in the 1970s. There was a push to focus college/university degrees in the liberal arts, or what Washington labeled “mental and religious education”. This change, unfortunately, shoved to the side the industrial arts such as cabinetmaking and carpentry; mechanical drawing and brickmasonry; dressmaking and tailoring; and welding and mechanic. Almost overnight, “satisfaction inspired by the sight of a perfectly made bed,” and “pillows placed […] at the right angle, and edges of the sheets turned over” became, it seems, anathema to Black progress. (11). Shop Class and Home Economics, then, began their slow but sure decline.

Eugene Allen serves President Gerald Ford and guests at The White House

Eugene Allen serves President Gerald Ford and guests at The White House

Fortunately, The Butler remembers, with deference, the craftsman who works with his hands, and he stands proud along with the iconic Pullman Porter and Chauffeur. Central to The Butler is the acknowledgement of three fundamental components essential for the success of a craftsman’s training: First, expertise for the butler, acquiring an appreciation for etiquette; second, apprenticeship, to hone the craftsman’s skills; and, finally, teachers with an ardent investment in student learning. The African American male and the white mistress, notably, tutor Gaines, and their tutelage produces The Butler, a precise craftsman bearing grace and confidence.

We have watched African American women pass down this legacy in Jonathan Demme’s Beloved and, more recently, Tate Taylor’s The Help. We have heard Oprah Winfrey testify to Diane Sawyer on ABCNews.com’s Person of the Week, “I am the daughter of a maid; my mother was a maid; my grandmother was a maid” to draw attention to the women in her family who worked with their hands in white households. The Butler puts front and center this same legacy in the African American male and his apprenticeship in domestic science.

The scenes between 10-year-old Cecil (Isaac White) and his father Earl (David Banner) in the cotton fields; 15-year-old Cecil (Aml Ameen) and the aged plantation mistress Annabeth Westfall (Vanessa Redgrave); and Cecil and Maynard, the dessert shop servant, (Clarence Williams III) are stirring illustrations of mentorship across lines of gender and race.

Mistress Wentworth (Vanessa Redgrave) and the making of The Butler

Mistress Wentworth (Vanessa Redgrave) and the making of The Butler

Let us move to a Georgia cotton field. Earl teaches Cecil how to pick the best cotton, using his hands to demonstrate the details of that labor. It is a lesson wrapped in humor: “Now you know the cotton is ready when the bud splits and the bowl is star shaped, like a big old star in the sky–like your big ol’ head!” After a traumatic event in the cotton field, Mistress Annabeth “promotes” Cecil to the big house. There, she instructs him on the rules of perfect service, which, for certain, would cause Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man to holler from the underground when he hears her first rule, “[Be] quiet when you’re serving,” and go on to say, “I don’t even want to hear you breathe. The room should feel empty when you enter it.”

Maynard (Clarence Williams III) coaches Cecil

Maynard (Clarence Williams III) coaches Cecil

Upon his “graduation” from the plantation to the city, Maynard tutors Gaines on how to serve white patrons: “Slow down; better to look at their eyes—see what it is they want; see what it is they need. Anticipate.” From the cotton fields to the big house to high society, Cecil’s discipline and pride in his work stand him ready to enter into his national home. Because we have seen him in these contexts, we feel such pride when Gaines announces himself at the White House gate, “I’m Cecil Gaines; I’m the new butler.”

The job is prestigious, but the national, political and the personal domestic spheres inevitably clash. The negotiations Gloria (Oprah Winfrey) and Gaines have to make to maintain their marriage, home, and parenthood are engrossing to watch. Secrecy and curiosity, no doubt, infiltrate their household. Gaines has access to the most highly classified information in the world: that requires the confidence to practice discretion. Gloria polishes her respect for this aspect of her husband’s job yet, understandably, yearns to see inside of the White House. This exclusion eventually takes its toll on Gloria. On notification of the Kennedy assassination from her husband, she retorts, “I’m really sorry about the President, I really am. But you and that White House can kiss my ass!”

Poster

Lee Daniels marks how an ordinary man who is educated on a Georgia plantation navigates the verbal and emotional restrictions required by his extraordinary job. This kind of control takes reserve; and, more important, respect for the gravity of one’s place. In all, The Butler pays homage to African American males in domestic service and to those who teach them. In the process, the filmmaker bestows honor on the hands that cleaned the china and polished the silver; that ironed the sheets to make the beds; and that prepared meals and served every one of them with dignity and style. The greater tribute, though, extends to the hands of every enslaved African American who hoisted the stones to build the house that President Barack Obama and family now live in. They, too, are singing America!

A special ‘thank you’ to Professor Emeritus Robert Haller (UNL) for lending his expertise in syntax.

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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 http://www.quefilms.com 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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Samuel L. Jackson & Stephen in Django Unchained (part 2)

Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson)

Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson)

Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson) works in Quentin Tarrantino’s Django Unchained. Then again, he does not. What makes him run? Well, Stephen rests in a most controversial place in the annals of film / slave history, and we know him: Uncle Tom. Uncle Rastus. Ol’ Uncle Ben. Coon. Buffoon. Stepin’ Fetchit. House Negro. Any person of African descent perceived to be a sell-out to his race receives at least one of these labels. During a Meet the Press conference for MovieManiacsDE, Jackson calls Stephen “the most despicable Negro in cinematic history.”

In Django, Jackson plays ‘the House Negro’ with the rancor of a disturbed rattlesnake attended by the cunning of a fox! Indeed, he is the villain who ‘grins and lies’ for Master ‘Monsieur’ Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio) in the presence of visitors; yet, behind the Paul Dunbarian mask, Stephen governs the Candieland plantation with unmitigated terror. Jackson rightly recognizes Stephen as “the power behind the throne; the Dick Cheney of Candieland!” (BlacktreeTv). Under his piacular eye, those enslaved, such as Broomhilda von Shaft (Kerry Washington) and Cora (Dana Gourrier) live in a virtual domestic hell. The plantation regime itself compounds the situation.

Two cinematic figures coalesce to form “the power behind the throne”: the Tom and the House Negro. Film historian and critic Donald Bogle, author of Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies & Bucks, defines the Tom as the character who “ne’r turn against their white massas, and remain hearty, [and] submissive”. Malcolm X’s famous speech to the SNCC Workers in Selma, Alabama February 4, 1965, no doubt made firm the characteristics of the House Negro:

the House Negro always looked after his master. When the field Negro got too much out of line, he held them back in check. […] The House Negro could afford to do that because he lived […] up next to the master. […]. He ate the same food as massa [and] [h]e could talk just like his master; he had perfect diction. And he loved his master more than his master loved himself. If the master got sick he’d say “what’s the matter boss? We sick?” He never wanted his master’s property threatened, and he was more defensive of it than the master was. That was the House Negro!

In the Big House, Stephen, accordingly, achieves both power and contempt living up next to his master. More striking, the House Negro wrangles respect for his position from the Candie family planters and from the brutal plantation overseers as well. How does he do it? On one hand, he is ‘charmed’ because a cotton ball never touched his hands; somehow he bypassed labor in the cotton fields and kept on walking for 76 years. On another, slave historian Kenneth Stamp would argue that Monsieur Candie succeeds in one of the missions of plantation owners: “persuade bondsmen to take an interest in the master’s enterprise and to accept his standards of enterprise” (147) (my emphasis).

Boardroom Politics

Boardroom Politics

Stephen accepts the master’s charge; therefore, he works in terms of our common sense notions about him. There is more. Tarrantino goes further. The director showcases Stephen’s ‘boardroom politics’ in Candie’s drawing room. Man-to-man, casually sipping his liquor in leather seats in front of a roaring fire in the big-house, Stephen points out to Candie every facet of Django’s (Jamie Foxx) and Schultz’s (Christoph Waltz) plan. Then, he leans comfortably in his seat, and unveils the real intention of the two ‘interlopers’’ visit to Candieland. “Them motherfuckers ain’t here to buy no mandingos,” he says, “They’s here for that [Broomhilda].” The ‘board meeting’ is notable for several reasons. First, it makes known Stephen’s keen discernment of people, their body language, and nuances in dialogue. Second, it solidifies Stephen’s main concern, and that is the preservation of his position on the Candie plantation. Finally, the meeting exposes “the power behind the throne”; in this case it is the African/American mind at work that protects the fiscal health of the plantation and, more notable, maintains the ‘prop’ of whiteness.

Yes, Calvin Candie has power, but his is a power founded on inheritance and the installation of white privilege. Stephen, the master observer, apprehends Monsieur Candie has a license to kill his chattel at will. Regardless of his position, Stephen is chattel. Thus, his investment in the “master’s enterprise” not only ensures the economic wealth of Candieland; his investment, no doubt, has saved his life. In this context, Stephen works.

Stephen and Broomhilda (Kerry Washington)

Stephen and Broomhilda (Kerry Washington)

What does not work is Tarrantino’s dramatization of Stephen as a pathological enslaved everyman Uncle Tom. That Stephen practices evil without compromise coerces the viewer to wish for his punishment and/or demise, and Tarrantino obliges. Why? I hazard one reason: Tarrantino presupposes an acceptance of Stephen without question because of Uncle Tom’s loathsome history. He does not anticipate an interrogation of the character nor that we would care about him. Well, I care, and there are some things I want to know: What is Stephen’s backstory? His ‘charm’ betrays an observant if not precocious enslaved child who learned the strategies necessary to manipulate the emotions and psyche of the plantation owners. What fertilized the ground for Stephen’s ‘charm’ to take to such an extent that he could ‘enjoy’ and practice his rule without retribution? Stephen is shrewd. Someone taught him to read the signs. Someone gave him instructions in semiotics and trained him to interpret those signs in order to make him indispensable to massa himself! On another note, did he breed any children/chattel? If so, how did his power play out when they met the auction block or were whipped or raped? If not, what were his feelings as he witnessed families being torn apart by the auction block? What made his ‘evil’ take root in the interior? Finally. And. Finally. Did he ever love?

Arna Bontemps, author

Arna Bontemps, author

In his ‘research’ of slavery, Tarrantino could have taken a cue from Arna Bontemps, the Harlem Renaissance author of Black Thunder: Gabriel’s Revolt: 1800 (1936). Set in Virginia in the 1800’s, Bontemps features Ben ‘Old Ben’ Woodfolk, an enslaved ‘House Negro’ on the Sheppard plantation for nearly 50 years. Old Ben is meticulous in his daily rituals for Marse Sheppard. Every morning he winds the clock and carefully arranges the old planter’s washstand. He fluffs and feathers the old planter’s bed that it looks like a sitting hen; he unties his nightcap. (155). Both Marse Sheppard and Old Ben “were […] well satisfied with their present status” as master and enslaved. (94). Bontemps, however, designs a contemplative enslaved man. Old Ben’s thoughts on freedom and the auction block not only add dimensions to the character; in addition, his narration points up the why and how Old Ben has curried a kind of loyalty to the Sheppards. On the idea of freedom, Old Ben feels,

[…] it was hard to love freedom. Of course, it was the self-respecting thing to do. Everything that was equal to a groundhog wanted to be free. But it was so expensive, this love; it was such a disagreeable compulsion, such a bondage. (93).

As the aged enslaved servant questions Gabriel Prosser’s slave revolt and the “eleven hundred folks going to cross the streams going into Richmond”, memory springs up to remind Old Ben of his own losses at the hands of Marse Sheppard:

Licking [Marse Sheppard’s] spit because he done fed you, hunh? Fine nigger you is. Good old Marse Sheppard hunh? Is he ever said anything about setting you free? He wasn’t too good to sell them two gal young-uns down the river soon’s they’s old enough to know the sight of a cotton-chopping hoe. How’d he treat yo’ old woman befo’ she died? And you love it hunh? (94).

Black Thunder

These historical markers in Old Ben’s life that memory compels him to revisit shed some light on why he betrays Prosser’s slave revolt: The selling of his children and the mistreatment of his “old woman befo’ she died” have formed an interior callous; his age, too, inhibits any motivation to whole-heartedly embrace Prosser & Co.’s enterprise since “[h]e was past that reckless age” (135). Old Ben, therefore, turns to the only thing left to love: the ‘Good Boy’ status watchfully nurtured by him in the Big House on Marse Sheppard’s plantation.

Tarrantino refuses the device of narrative history for Stephen; one flashback or a piece of dialogue would have sufficed. His refusal is his prerogative but I still hold him accountable. The detection of the narrative absences in Django Unchained can forestall fixed beliefs about enslaved people or at least frustrate the inclination. A socio-cultural context as well as auto/biography is indispensable in the dramatization of that history. This call requires filmmakers to consult with those who have conducted research in the field in addition to checking out history books from the library. In other words, do your homework; if you fail to do so, American film/history suffers.

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White Space ~ A Review

Maya Washington

Maya Washington

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

Conversation
Altercation
Love notes whispered
Laughter
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 (www.langstonarts.org); the Indie Boots Film Festival in Chicago (www.indieboots.org) and the Toronto International Deaf Film and Arts Festival in May 2013 (www.tidfaf.ca).

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‘Django Unchained’ – A Review (in parts)

Django (Jamie Foxx) rides with confidence

Django (Jamie Foxx) rides with confidence

I could whip Quentin Tarrantino’s %#! up and down Main Street for making a multi-faceted piece of work that a 700-800 word review cannot contain. Readers, this film review is long … well … so is the film for that matter. To accommodate the cornucopia of ‘stuff and things’ this eclectic director packs into all 165 minutes on celluloid, ‘Django Unchained’ has to be written in parts. Here is Part One. Be forewarned: you will need some tea and an afternoon to read through it. Bear with me.

‘Django Unchained’ is a rich filmic kaleidoscope paying homage to film and literary genres, art forms, political currents, and moments in the history of the United States. To begin, the director reflects on the Spaghetti Western of the 1960s (The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly, and Django, 1966; Find a Place to Die, 1968); and the Blaxploitation western (Buck and the Preacher, 1972 and Take a Hard Ride, 1976) and plantation drama of the 1970s (The Legend of Nigger Charley, 1972 and Drum, 1976). Second, Django’s blue velvet suit (with knee pants), and fancy buckled shoes, imagined by costume designer, Sharon Davis, bring to mind The Blue Boy, painted in 1770 by English portrait and landscape painter Thomas Gainsborough, and Richard Birch’s illustrations of Little Lord Fauntleroy’s costume in the children’s book of the same name (1885-1886). Third, ‘Mandingo Fighting’ decidedly refers to not only the film Mandingo (1975); the brutal sports event is a strong allusion to “Battle Royal”, a chapter in Invisible Man written in 1952 by African American novelist Ralph Ellison. Finally, but not complete, the ex-slave narratives of the 18th and 19th centuries; the abolitionist movement; the North Star (Frederick Douglass’s newspaper of the same name and the icon of the Underground Railroad); even Opera (Richard Wagner’s Gotterdamerung of 1876) cohere to build a charming love story infused with German folklore (Siegfried and Brunhilde) within the framework of slavery in the United States.

‘Django Unchained’ nestles easily within the genre of romance, and this element forms the rare pearl within the film. The context that frames the love story warrants a brief commentary before I continue. As Nathanial Hawthorne examines Puritan culture in The Scarlet Letter (1850), and Arna Bontemps assesses the slave revolt in Black Thunder (1936), Tarantino reaches into the past to consider present-day socio-cultural moeurs.

Scene from Sankofa by Haile Gerima (1993)

Scene from Sankofa by Haile Gerima (1993)

Despite the nimiety of posts and articles swirling about Tarantino; Spike Lee’s rant; and questions over whether or not white people can tell our stories; when all is said, read, and done … slavery happened. Period. Yet, the historical distance compromises our national memory as attempts are made to chain this ragged but alert specter to the past. We have heard, if not entertained, every excuse and plea to disremember its legacy: I didn’t do it; I was not there! Why can’t we just forget? What is the big deal? Every so often, however, that specter will agitate for a production of a story to activate yet another discussion in its honor. We can depend on our popular culture to oblige its request. John Korty’s televised production The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman (1974) and Marvin J. Chomsky’s dramatization of Alex Haley’s Roots (1977) compelled my generation to remember as we feasted on the fruits of integration; and for those who were allowed to see them in the movie theater, the plantation dramas of the 1970s as well. As a young woman in search of a purpose in the 1990s, Haile Gerima’s poignant Sankofa (1993) encouraged me to continue learning my own history.

The popularity of ‘Django Unchained’ attended by a whirlpool of discourses, then, not only is important; it is necessary. The election of President Barack Hussein Obama ushered into the White House three generations of African Americans: the First Lady’s mother, Mrs. Marian Lois Shields Robinson; the President and the First Lady; and Natasha “Sasha” and Malia Ann. Some people are tempted to declare that race no longer matters and, now, well we can … exhale. Tarantino’s ‘Django Unchained’ antagonizes this temptation. Thanks to his reputation, the present-day generation has taken notice. ‘Django Unchained’ transports this generation into its own sankofa, Akan meaning “to go back and get it”. They are “to get” that the plantation regime released capillaries infected with a psychology that took a firm hold on the American psyche, culture, and society for some 300 plus years. Kerry Washington even concedes in an interview with The Daily Beast,

It’s so unthinkable that my ancestors endured all the torture and pain. I saw things in the script and thought this never happened. But then I talked to Quentin and he showed us the history books that illustrated the masks and other items used to inflict torture and violence on the slaves. It really blew my mind and made me appreciate even more what my ancestors made it through.

That Tarantino informs Washington of her ancestral history solicits critique, but let us reserve that for another review and move on to the love and the passion.

The consideration of the Django (Jamie Foxx) and Broomhilda (Kerry Washington) love story brings to relief an interview ABC’s Good Morning America host Robin Roberts conducted with the Obamas while on the presidential campaign trail in 2008. In that interview, Roberts turned to the GOP backlash over a remark Mrs. Obama made on being an American. Mrs. Obama leaned in to answer but Mr. Obama interjected on her behalf with the following statement:

If [the GOP] think that they’re going to try to make Michelle an issue in this campaign. […] I find unacceptable, the notion that you start attacking my wife or my family. […] lay off my wife. She loves this country. For them to try to distort or to play snippets of her remarks in ways that are unflattering to her is, I think, just low class. I think that most of the American people would think that as well.

In essence, Mr. Obama drew the proverbial line in the sand and dared anyone to disparage Mrs. Obama in any way, form, or fashion. Any move to the contrary, and he was coming back to collect some dues.

Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), the ruthless plantation owner

Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), the ruthless plantation owner

Django (the ‘D’ is silent) is a slave-turned-bounty hunter in desperate search to find his wife, Broomhilda. She was sold down the river to the notorious Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), owner of Candieland plantation in Mississippi. He locates Broomhilda with the help of Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz). Django stands ready to defend her at all costs but he has to court discipline before he (re)acts. Django’s poise corresponds not only with Mr. Obama’s warning to the GOP; also, his composure calls up moments in African American history when Black men supported families in an oppressive culture that generally denied the recognition of the institution for the enslaved. The film opens in 1858 somewhere in Texas–eight years after a more restrictive Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 took effect. James Buchanan is president of the United States. The year before, the Supreme Court ruled in Dred Scott v. Sanford that an enslaved Scott could not obtain his freedom because he was not a U. S. citizen. Until that final decision, Scott petitioned not only for his freedom, he sued for the freedom of his wife and children. In another but similar vein, research shows that African Americans searched for family members before and after the Emancipation Proclamation. Help Me Find My People: The African American Search for Family Lost in Slavery (U of North Carolina P, 2012) by Heather Andreas Williams is worth the read. Django’s pursuit of Broomhilda after obtaining freedom undeniably complements these histories and contemporary politics.

Thomas Jefferson by Mather Brownn (1786)

Thomas Jefferson by Mather Brownn (1786)

In Django’s quest, Tarantino crafts an African American Hero who slays the ‘dragon’, gets the girl, and lives to tell his own story with witnesses to spread his legend. Foxx plays Django with the confidence of a panther stalking its prey. Even though enslaved, he is not a slave in mind. He speaks with a purpose, walks with the familiar cowboy swagger, and commands a horse to ride and to dance. More significant, his unwavering focus on the rescue of Broomhilda dispels several stereotypes and myths. First, he is not the subservient “yes’m massa” enslaved who, if freed, would not know what to do with his freedom. Second, Django overturns the myth of the enslaved and his inability to manage emotions President Thomas Jefferson so brazenly posits in his ‘Notes on Slavery’ written in 1785. Jefferson believes,

[t]hey are at least as brave, and more adventuresome. But this may perhaps proceed from want of forethought, which prevents their seeing a danger till it be present. When present they do not go through it with more coolness or steadiness than the whites. They are more ardent after their female: but love seems with them to be more an eager desire, than a tender delicate mixture of sentiment and sensation.

Broomhilda (Kerry Washington)

Broomhilda (Kerry Washington)

Eager desire? Want of forethought? Who cannot feel the sheer urgency of Django’s yearning to liberate the black woman from torture and to facilitate the restoration of her honor? Who cannot appreciate Django’s steady nerve in his methodical assessment of every situation? Django not only will die for Broomhilda; also, for his woman, he will live! More significant, who cannot apprehend Broomhilda from Django’s point of view? In his eyes, she is his true love rising up through the mist in the lake. Through the lens of the plantocracy, however, Broomhilda is but property to be raped and branded. Is it not striking to see Django plead to stand in for Broomhilda as the overseer strips her back in preparation for the lash from the whip? That Broomhilda harbors her own belief in Django–not in massa or anyone else—is even more meaningful.

‘Django Unchained’ is a well-made film. We must remember, however, Tarrantino has not done anything new, but viewing ‘Django Unchained’ is crucial for today’s generation. Others came before him and offered up their own powerful stories of captivity and oppression. Let me suggest again Sankofa, a fervid narrative of bondage by Haile Gerima, and add Quilombo (1986) by Carlos Diegues (both on DVD). Each deserves your interest and dollars just as much as Tarrantino. On the whole, these are stories we all have to summon the courage to witness.

(A special ‘Thank You’ to Sandra Denise Clifton and historian Herbert Jefferson for their valuable insights and stimulating discussions on this film; to Dr. Robert Haller for editor’s notes.)

Stephens (Samuel L. Jackson)

Stephens (Samuel L. Jackson)

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‘Barbasol’ – A Review

Barbasol Poster 1

Trickster that it is, ‘coming-of-age’ will not be ignored. I remember when the trickster tapped my dad, and he answered by teaching me how to drive a 1972 Volkswagen Beetle. “Equal distribution … Equal distribution,” he chanted as I, in herky-jerky frustration, tried to shift the gears and push in the clutch. To this day, I only will drive a manual transmission in honor of my dad and, even more notable, his courage.

In his heart-rending film short ‘Barbasol’, independent film director Ralph K. Scott uses the tradition of shaving to pay homage to his own memory of his father. Scott knows all too well that it takes a brave soul to ‘talk about’ a parent in a public venue and, more onerous, to choose what to portray of him onscreen. He says,

I wasn’t sure how deep I should go into my own life experience with telling the story about my father. He would yell at the drop of a hat, and that existence kept me and my sisters on edge. I did not, however, want to portray him as an ogre; there were gentle times.

Ralph K. Scott, Director

Ralph K. Scott, Director

Scott finds his mettle in ‘Barbasol’, a wonderfully passionate film that is mindful of its autobiographical element. “My father never really treated my mother with any harshness,” he remembers, “it was like she had a grip on his anger.” This is the memory he weaves into the story. For 19 minutes, Scott explores two African American parents, Harper (Stephen Hill) and Grace (Ebbe Bassey) Collins, who are cast into a domestic crisis when ‘coming-of-age’ calls on them. This ritual usually is a child’s transition into young adulthood, and the parent and/or guardian guides the initiate into the next phase. Scott, however, is to be applauded for a savvy filmic twist: the director focuses on Harper and takes him on a journey from father to daddy – the latter signifying the compassionate teacher. Harper has difficulty talking to his son, Grant (Elijah Williams) yet rests comfortably in the verbal synergy enjoyed by him and Grace. More laudable, Scott appoints Grace, (played with sharp patience by Bassey) to guide Harper and Grant during this crucial turning point. Their quiet scuffle points up the respect husband and wife have for their turn at coming-of-age. Barbasol, the soft moisturizing beard buster of shaving creams, serves as the tool to move things along.

Practically every scene in ‘Barbasol’ is a pressure cooker of change, and writer/producer Kiara Jones meticulously charts the strains running through the Collins household. She remarks,

there is no ticking time bomb in this film but I wanted to parlay the sense of urgency for this family. It is now or never, and I have them ask the unspoken question: Are we going to repeat the same things or are we going to work on this urgent call?

A game of contrasts comes to relief as each character wrestles to find answers. Harper barks orders to his son (“Boy! Get Up! Didn’t you hear me??”), but listens affectionately to Grace’s subtle warm plea (“Harper, honey, [Grant] just wants you to like him. It’s not too late.”); the latter sealed with a kiss. Harper’s father is Ed ‘Super Chief’ Collins (played with unfettered zeal by William Jay Marshall). Once a decorated police chief of 25 years, Super Chief now is a snarly curmudgeon throwing insults to Harper and Grant from a wheelchair (“what the hell you standing there with your thumb up your ass for!?”). Father and son scramble to please the Super Chief.

Grace (Ebbe Bassey) and Harper (Stephen Hill) enjoy an intimate momentGrace (Ebbe Bassey) and Harper (Stephen Hill) enjoy an intimate moment.

Grace (Ebbe Bassey) and Harper (Stephen Hill) enjoy an intimate moment.

Cinematographer Eric Branco masterfully envisions the tenuity of marital protocol Grace and Harper must handle at this juncture in their marriage. His establishing shot captures the delicacy of early morning awakenings. “Because some of the dialogue is so sharp,” Branco says, “there is a danger that the film would become too violent, so Ralph and I specifically went for a very smooth and a very pleasant morning scene.” In one instance, Grant enters his parent’s bedroom with caution, and when ‘Grace’ invites him in, Branco treats audiences to a relaxed moment between mother and son. In another, Branco’s medium close-up sharply defines Grant’s alarming vulnerability in the enclosed space of the bathroom. With straight razor in hand, Harper begins his awkward attempt to teach his son how to shave. Grant winces. Harper growls, “Don’t be a little baby! Real men shave!” It is scary but “we know that Grant is safe with Harper because of his gentle interaction with Grace,” Jones reveals, “so we continue with Harper on his journey.”

Harper (Stephen Hill) and Grant (Elijah Williams) and Barbasol

Harper (Stephen Hill) and Grant (Elijah Williams) and shaving creme Barbasol

In conjunction with rights-of-passage, Scott’s direction is a flawless dramatization of health issues most families grapple with as they witness their elders pass from vibrant self-sufficient caretakers to patients suffering with dementia. “When my father started coming down with dementia,” he recalls, “it was scary and tragic. He kept himself together; when I would visit him, his fingernails would be disgustingly long and dirty. I would clip and file his nails. He would sit there just as calm as if I was the prettiest beautician. It is those moments that drew me to write in the story about Harper’s and Grant’s visit to shave the Super Chief.” Ever aware of his father’s legacy, Scott ministers a heartwarming and uplifting denouement to Super Chief’s verbal madness.

Stephen Hill is dexterous in his smooth transition from gruff father to the huggable-lovable teddy bear with Grace to the humble son during his visits with the Super Chief; and, Elijah Williams carries Grant’s vulnerability with honest reserve.

‘Barbasol’ made its New York debut at the Urbanworld Film Festival in September 2012. For more information visit http://www.socialcinemaproject.com

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‘Alex Cross’ – A Review

Alex Cross (Tyler Perry), Monica Ashe (Rachel Nichols), and Tommy Kane (Edward Burns)

Alex Cross (Tyler Perry), Monica Ashe (Rachel Nichols), and Tommy Kane (Edward Burns)

Tyler Perry takes a chance in the middle of a career that he has established carefully as a writer, producer, director, and actor. Refreshing is this cinematic move. Refreshing, too, is Perry’s faith in his followers that they will support his decision to perform outside of the Madea box. Perry’s calculated risk affords him top billing, and a project advanced by a well-oiled advertising campaign; however, the movie rewarded him with a dismal box office disappointment. Not surprising because this newest venture directed by Rob Cohen (The Fast and The Furious; Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story) has too many individual parts that fail to coalesce into a unified filmic ensemble.

Alex Cross is the creation of author, James Patterson, whose entourage of murder mysteries and crime thrillers features an African American homicide detective who is a psychologist with the skill of deduction that mimics Sir Author Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes. Film goers were introduced to Cross in Kiss the Girls (1997) and Along Came a Spider (2001) starring Morgan Freeman. In this installment set in Detroit, Michigan, Cross finds himself tackling a sadistic assassin and serial killer named Picasso (Matthew Fox), so-called because of the cubist drawings he leaves with his victims. Cross believes he can draw Picasso out by psycho-analyzing him; but his sole reliance on textbook psychology leads him to underestimate the extreme lengths Picasso will go to divert the detective from his deadly mission. Picasso snags Tommy Kane (Edward Burns), Cross’s longtime partner, in his lethal coil. Motivated by intense grief and loss, Kane and Cross launch a no-holds-barred man-hunt for Picasso.

Fox delivers Picasso with such an exaggerated passion that it pushes him into caricature; The Joker and The Riddler could be his big brothers. Burns works hard to establish his character’s loyalty to Cross and to make believable to the audience his commitment to his girlfriend Monica (Rachel Nichols).

Picasso (Matthew Fox)

Unfortunately, no one really cares. The most awkward performance, however, is by John C. McGinley who plays the forgettable Captain Richard Brookwell. Who is he again? As for costumes, someone should have advised costume designer Abigail Murray against her design of Cross’s long coat; it looks like two sleeping bags sewn together; and, who made the decision on those dreadful shotguns?

Puzzling, too, is the undeveloped character and confusing storyline of the likeable Pop Pop Jones (Simenona Martinez), a young African American female teenager in jail for murdering two people whom Cross visits. As they sit down to play chess, she says to him, “you can’t save everybody Dr. Cross,” and he replies, “I’m not trying to save everybody, just you.” The film does not fully explain Pop Pop’s function in the story.

Alex Cross is a good enough story, but painful to watch are talented actors working with a script that compromises their efforts. Marc Moss and Kerry Williamson wrote the screenplay that gives generous back story to Cross. During an October 12 interview with Huffington Post Entertainment, Williamson remarks, “What I really wanted to do was an origin story, and introduce [Cross] to a new audience. I knew that it would invite comparisons to Morgan Freeman, and I kind of wanted to pull away from that.” Williamson does more than ‘pull away’; the screenwriter creates a vehicle that firewalls a smidgen of thought of Freeman thereby generating a push/pull viewing experience. Perry portrays very well the homicide detective Williamson draws in the screenplay: the “caring, principled [and] loving family man” whose strong belief in himself and his skill are bolstered by the love of a resilient extended family. Herein resides the strength of Alex Cross and a demonstration of Perry’s promising talent as an actor outside of Madea‘s workshop.

Nana Mama (Cicely Tyson)

Perry’s impressive display of grief when blindsided by tragedy clearly marks not only the gravity of the moment; also, his display sets up the question, “how will the detective present his anger to his family?” Respectfully, the movie pauses to give the audience a private moment with the Cross family and, in this moment, we are party to Cross’s parenting skills as well as to his deference for his mother, Nana Mama (Cicely Tyson). The close-up brings to light the gentle acknowledgment of his daughter Janelle’s (Yara Shahidi) sorrow; Janelle’s acceptance of his tender gestures to console her reveals a daughter’s trust in her father. Cross’s tenderness, though, is transmuted to firm resolve as Nana Mama cautions him against taking revenge. She says with a piercing seriousness that is all Tyson, “Don’t you try placating me! […] Look at cha, self-appointed judge, jury and executioner!” Cross replies with sincere respect wrapped in a blanket of restraint, “Mama, either you step aside or you go back up those stairs, but you’re in my way.” We even are treated to the rituals of the Black church.

Maria (Carmen Ejogo) and Alex (Tyler Perry) enjoy an intimate moment over dinner.

Cinematographer Ricardo Della Rosa contrasts these intense moments with lighthearted interaction between family members. Cross grabs Nana Mama and hugs her as she prepares a meal. Under a smile she feigns annoyance that Cross has interrupted her in the kitchen. Another scene highlights a comfortable banter between Cross and his wife Maria, commendably played by Carmen Ejogo. Cohen’s direction of these playful relationships easily showcases a likeable Black family in everyday situations and thereby builds audience investment in the Cross household.

The domestic levity in the Cross family, however, is insufficient to bind the movie into a unified whole. Even the crimes themselves—as heinous as they are–fall short of holding the pieces together. Hopefully, Tyler Perry will find another action thriller in which to star; he’s good. Perhaps he should write his own.

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Duvernay Arrives at a Poignant Place in ‘Middle of Nowhere’

Ava DuVernay has emerged as the darling of the Black independent film movement. Her finely crafted second feature, Middle of Nowhere, earned the filmmaker the distinction of the first African American female to win Best Director at the Sundance Film Festival 2012. The film made its New York debut at the Urbanworld Film Festival in September, and during the Q&A, the moderator praised DuVernay for organizing film festivals and lobbying for the release of Black independent films via the African-American Film Releasing Movement or AaFFRM. That Middle of Nowhere opened this weekend to the biggest per screen average adds to her laurel wreath.

In Middle of Nowhere, DuVernay stages a moving drama that investigates the consequences of isolation. DuVernay tells a story specifically about women of color and their management of incarceration that entails long bus rides to prison compounds in the middle of nowhere. No doubt, the film critiques the well-known fact that the prison system undermines the family structure. “I know women who actually do have men who are incarcerated,” says DuVernay, “[imprisonment] is epidemic in black and brown communities.” This epidemic has a strong correlation to the auction block, a horrific practice throughout the plantation regime that separated enslaved families of African descent for profit.

With proficient style, DuVernay centers the story on Ruby (Emayatzy Corinealdi) and Derek (Omari Hardwick), a young married African American couple whose choices have thrust them out of their marital bliss into the prison system. Derek is sentenced to eight-years for running guns; Ruby’s strong faith in the possibility for Derek’s early release for good behavior holds the marriage together. She convinces Derek to invest in her blueprint for handling their predicament. He will follow every rule; she will quit medical school and work at night. Her schedule will allow her to take his daily phone calls. They will write frequently; and, she will visit him every week. Derek protests, “keep going with life! I don’t want you to stop for me, baby!” Ruby reminds him, “you are me.” All goes well until Ruby learns disheartening news during his parole hearing.

The visual acuity of cinematographer Bradford Young brings to life the brilliance of DuVernay’s story. A lone bus carrying family members pierces a road leading to the prison compound that is shaded in a muted tan and hazy ice blue setting. Young’s bird’s eye shot of the bus and the barbed wire establishes the desolate environment. Outside, silence permeates as visitors lean against a chain-link fence waiting for entry. Inside, buzzers grate on the nerves, and the clang-clank of iron cell doors echo throughout the prison structure, compliments

Cinematographer Bradford Young

of sound editors Rickley Dumm (Twilight; Sparkle) and Craig Polding (2012: Ice Age). As the film progresses, Young’s use of the ‘close-up’ is considerable yet admirably efficient. Hues of midnight and dusky blues along with deep browns and golden amber compliment Young’s capture of the expressions of joy, anxiety, tenderness, and seduction. A sprinkle of flashbacks provide glimpses into Ruby’s and Derek’s history; and, selective focus combined with the close-up draw attention to the difficult choices Ruby has to make when Brian (David Oyelowo) enters her life. In addition to using the ‘close-up’ to emphasize intense emotions, Young exploits the film form to expand the terrain of intimacy. His expansion includes visuals of Ruby and her mother (Lorraine Toussaint); and Ruby and her sister, Rosie (Edwina Findley) in conversation. “The human body is like a landscape,” says Young, “and I wanted to stretch this idea of intimacy; I start with the ‘close-up’ and then move away.” An example of Young’s cinematic stretch comprehends Ruby’s and Derek’s vulnerable state that you want to touch the screen and hug the couple.

Corinealdi and Hardwick embody the confinement that has intruded upon their characters’ lives. Hardwick, especially, carries the weight of confinement with interior depth and strength. In the course of Ruby’s visits, he carefully monitors each physical and verbal gesture that we feel the emotional tightrope

Derek and Ruby discuss strategies for serving time.

on which he walks. Corinealdi plays a vivacious Ruby against Hardwick’s restraint with splendid charm, and her performance sustains the zest for the possibilities.

The filmmaker’s small but noteworthy acknowledgement of one of the culprits behind the tear in the seam of this marriage accompanies DuVernay’s story. One evening, the sisters contemplate Derek’s decision to run guns—an operation which enhanced the couple’s economic status. In one line of dialogue, Ruby accedes to her sister Rosie, “I made him think I’d really be happy with all of that stuff.” What is this “stuff”? One moment in pop culture history could offer some insight. The advent of music videos and television programs such as Sex in the City, The Game, Cashmere Mafia and Lipstick Jungle, cultivated consumer desire for material goods, chiefly, all things designer, if not, haute couture. Designers such as Coach, Manolo Blahnik, Christian “Loubou” Louboutin, Gucci, and Louis Vuitton gained widespread currency in households. Ruby and Derek drop down into this culture, and conceivably “got caught up” in the acquisition of things.

Middle of Nowhere truly is a cinematic accomplishment, and with the talent attached, the film has matured into a very lovely creation. The opening weekend attests to that! Casting Agent, Aisha Cooley, deserves applause for a finely cast film.

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‘Madea’s Witness Protection’ – A Review

Each installment of the Madea franchise guarantees the restoration of order in the landmine of the domestic sphere. Be it the punishment of an impertinent young adult or the reprimand of distracted parents who allow her to act out, we count on Madea’s courage to speak the truth. When she accepts the challenge, she is pardoned for every inane comedic antic. For instance, in Madea’s Family Reunion, we flinch when she reaches in the back seat of the car (butt to camera) to slap the disrespectful runaway Nikki (Keke Palmer). All is forgiven, however, when she inspires Nikki to believe in herself. We excuse the two punches in the face to the rude black male teenager at 3:00 who yells out “shut-up old lady” on the school bus in that same film. In Madea’s One Big Happy Family, she drives her Cadillac through a fast food restaurant but we absolve her of that when she delivers a back-handed slap to H.J. (Stevie Wash, Jr.) for his ill-manners towards her and when she demands that the parents take back their authority within their own household. We forgive her because Perry made her our own mediator in chaos, and we know that she loves us.

Madea’s Witness Protection, however, showcases a Madea with a different approach to chastising white young adults. In addition, the casting of Denise Richards recalls a certain moment in Black film history. These choices bring to relief a film-viewing uneasiness. In summary, Cindy Needleman (Danielle Campbell), daughter of George Needleman (Eugene Levy) and step-daughter to Kate (Denise Richards), is a white teenager who is abruptly thrown into the witness protection program. Her father was set-up to take the fall for a mob-backed Ponzi scheme. The prosecutor (Tyler Perry) hides them in Madea’s house under witness protection, and it is there that Cindy acts out.

Cindy, (Danielle Campbell) throws a pillow at Madea in anger that the matriarch has awakened her..

As aforementioned, in all other Madea films, Madea rightly broaches no patience for insolent Black young adults. In Witness Protection, however, Madea searches for reasons why Cindy is so mad and angry. Cindy tells her stepmother to “go to hell” and, without reserve hollers “you suck” and “I hate you” to her father. In one scene Cindy frustrates Madea’s attempts to awaken her. She yells “Go Away”, and throws a pillow at Madea. A furious Madea pours a bucket of water on the bad-mannered teen. Suddenly the physical violence dispatched to Nikki, H.J., and the student on the school bus isn’t so forgivable. For sure Cindy is not Madea’s child nor a relative, but neither are the other young adults. Nikki, for instance, is a runaway placed in foster care with Madea. In the end, impertinent white young adults need understanding and a “cooling off”; impertinent black young adults deserve a slap, a punch, and/or a battle royal with Madea.

The casting choice of the lithe Denise Richards for Kate Needleman also changes the Madea dynamic. Kate and Madea side-by-side reflect a popular pair in Black film history: Scarlett O’Hara (Vivian Leigh) and Mammy (Hattie McDaniel).

Kate (Denise Richards) looks extremely waif thin in the presence of Madea (Tyler Perry).

The über-thin white delicate body compared to that of the rotund black body ensures two things: the delicate sexy Kate (desirable) and the desexualized and harsh maturity of Madea (undesirable). Consider the Yoga scene. Joe signifies on Madea’s elephantine buttocks during his lecherous eyeballing of Kate’s slim rear-end. Kate stands long and lean in her warrior and tree poses in the living room while Madea prepares breakfast. The camera follows Joe’s focus through Kate and lands on Madea’s behind. In Joe’s eyes, Madea is a “wildebeest in its natural habitat” and her butt must be hungry because it is “chewing through [her] dress.” We laugh.

Wait a minute: Laughing doesn’t feel so good.

Tyler Perry treats us with an array of Black women body types, and Madea fits comfortably within that community. Joe’s taunts generally are dismissed possibly because we all have a Joe/Josephine in the family. “Pay ‘im no mind,” we shrug. Madea’s Witness Protection, though, casts an ominous shadow on Joe’s treatment of Madea in the presence of this white family. An assault on Madea on the silver screen amongst an all-black cast is one thing; but Joe’s insult to Madea to privilege Kate’s white threadlike build at her expense is unforgivable. Madea, when placed against the backdrop of white womanhood, stands as our Matriarch. She is our Elder. She is our Mediator. We intuitively are aware of her stature/status throughout every cinematic portrayal of her. Inside and outside our community she deserves our respect. It is a disappointment that Madea is not afforded this courtesy in Madea’s Witness Protection.

(Note: This review was published in the July 30, 2012 edition of The Washington Informer at http://washingtoninformer.com/index.php/lifestyle/entertainment/item/11509-madeas-witness-protection.)

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