Category Archives: Black Lives

Brief Musings: Passing, Dune, The French Dispatch, and just in time for Halloween, Antlers

Finding a common ground within the variety of movies that I watch, sometimes back to back because such is my life of living on the edge, can be a challenge. Looking at the list of what I’ve seen during the Halloween season alone makes me look like a human kaleidoscope, and because I’ve limited time to sit down and write something comprehensive, sometimes, like now, I have to clump them together and hope that the damn thing makes sense. The four movies I’m about to write some petite mots about don’t have much in common: two are based on novels, one is a director’s incursion into folk horror, and the fourth is a homage to none other than the elitist read, The New Yorker. And France, if you want to include that. What they all have in common is that all are the works of a creator stepping into the ambitious.

Ruth Negga is Claire Bellew in Rebecca Hall’s Passing

If only Nella Larsen had lived long enough to see her 1929 novella Passing be made into a movie. It makes me wonder how no one seemed to notice her work before when she was a part of the Harlem Renaissance. It might be possible that because she only published modestly, and has only two novels to her name, Larsen somehow disappeared into literary obscurity. Rebecca Hall brings her tragic story to vibrant life with her debut movie. This is the story of two African American women of mixed heritage, so mixed that they could ‘pass’ for white during the 1920s. When we meet Irene “Reenie” Redfield (Tessa Thompson), we only catch glimpses of her wide-brimmed hat as she flits about town, barely noticed. Hall surrounds Thompson with so much sun and light that presenting it in black and white leaves Thompson virtually drowning in a sea of whiteness, and that’s the purpose. You see, Irene, comfortably married to a doctor (Andre Holland of Moonlight), so she has the means to spend her days shopping and visiting places that even in New York would still be almost 100% white.

When Irene runs into a blond woman looking right at her at a chic restaurant, she seems shocked that anyone would know her since she seems to enjoy the anonymity of moving in predominantly white neighborhoods without as much as leaving a ripple. The woman turns out to be Claire Bellew (Ruth Negga), an old childhood friend whom she hasn’t seen in 10 years. The women catch up, and we learn that Claire has married rich, but upon meeting the husband, we become informed that he is virulently racist, and Claire has effectively fooled him in her ruse, even pretending herself to hate black people. But the movie moves away from Mr. Bellow (Alexander Skarsgard) and focuses on Irene and Claire, and the effect Claire has on everyone she meets. The danger of their rekindled friendship is that for a woman like Claire, being seen in Harlem might raise eyebrows, and it’s not long when the inevitable comes to pass, with dire consequences for both women.

I’ve been seeing Tessa Thompson for some time now in movies and her fascinating role in Westworld. To be honest, I’ve become almost enamored with her acting style. As Irene, Thompson is all internalization with her wide, Bette Davis eyes, her flawless enunciation, her delicate manners that recalls old Hollywood. Negga, meanwhile, counterbalances Thompson as she exudes a girlish sensuality that hides some inner pain. Just look at her deep-set eyes. The women seem to be also telegraphing some queer desire — I wouldn’t put it past Irene, who rebukes kisses from her husband, that she may have some deeply buried attraction to Claire, often seen bathed in light and exuberance. Then again… desire may be a simple observation. It makes me wonder if Irene might also quietly covet the type of life that Claire lives. She certainly reveals quite a lot when attending a function and discussing race with a close friend (played by Bill Camp). The movie manages to express quite a bit when Camp’s character, initially fascinated by Claire, upon learning her secret, basically ignores her. It’s as though he sees her as a fraud rather than the more genuine Irene who isn’t trying so hard to be noticed. His comments on the muscularity of some of the black men who attend the function leave a lot to say on how attraction shapes desire and the ongoing fetishization whites have often had towards blacks.

What I love about Hall’s movie is how she manages to convey so much with so little. Much like Todd Haynes’ 2015 movie Carol, Hall allows her characters to inhabit their own world and their spaces, and even when they talk, what they state may mean one thing but what their body language does may mean something else entirely. Hall definitely learned her time as an actress: she has a keen sense of placement, lighting, and cadence. Her movie might be deliberate, but it is never slow. If anything, it marches relentlessly to its climax, building tension scene after scene like a pressure cooker that at one point must release. If she decides to do more movies, and I hope so, I’ll be at the ready to see what she does next.

The French Dispatch

Wes Anderson is an acquired taste, and I mean that with respect. With every movie, he continues to build upon his style to a point where it almost threatens to override his movies proper. With The French Dispatch, he takes his artificial scenarios and pushes them to a level almost approaching abstraction. A movie based on the death of the founder of a magazine (Bill Murray) that seems to be a blatant stand-in for The New Yorker, who decides, as a homage to its creator, to publish five of its best stories, is not something that screams Hollywood. Who would even? Anderson, it seems, and he fabricates worlds so completely unique that we get lost in their intricacies. There are no stars in this movie; the only stars, and heroes if you will, are the writers and journalists who make up The French Dispatch, and as someone who is as budding as they can get, I love it. This is a movie that you may have to see twice to catch the minute details hidden in plain sight: Anderson loves his tiny, mannered quotes, his in-jokes, and his movie is littered with them. His actors are as stilted and deadpan as ever, and it seems everyone he has ever worked with shows up for the tiniest of parts. Notable here is Timothee Chalamet as a self-obsessed but also awkward activist hilariously named Zefirelli who loses his virginity to Anderson regular Frances McDormand as the writer who has to ghostwrite his manifesto, Lea Seydoux, paired with Benicio del Toro, as a crazed artist and his muse, and Jeffrey Wright as an author based on James Baldwin who goes on a wacky Parisian adventure.

The drama behind the making of Dune is long and rambling and I won’t get into it because, not today. I’m into my seventh paragraph and I still have another movie to write about. What little I can say about Denis Villeneuve’s epic movie is that this is one you must, above all else, view in movie theaters. I made the mistake of seeing it through HBOMAX, and nothing against the small screen — even though mine is nothing to cry about — but nothing Villeneuve will show you can be truly appreciated in the comfort of your living room/screening room. Nothing.

The story is as simple and as complex as Lord of the Rings. You have your essential struggle between two warring civilizations over a precious substance, on a planet with its own set of people and otherworldly creatures, all in a sparse but almost eternal landscape that Villeneuve renders as though this was his vision of Lawrence of Arabia. You have a hero, Paul Atreides (Timothee Chalamet again, and perfectly suited for his part, better than Kyle McLachlan ever was even though McLachlan was the same age as Chalamet when he played the part), and his story is the template of how a boy becomes a man. Joseph Campbell could not have written a better journey. We only get to see him at the start of his journey as he battles internal struggles and betrayals and external monsters and the unforgiving climate of Arrakis in order to find some form of safety for himself and his mother as he makes his next move.

I have nothing negative to say about Dune. Not one thing. Even at a patience-straining two and a half hours, I felt it could have been longer. Then again, this is the first of a trilogy, so of course, the entire length of Chapter One seems to be the prelude to a much larger, cosmic fight. Villeneuve has created something three-dimensional, magical, alluring, and yet he still grounds it in its own reality. Nothing seems fake or plastic — a risk many epics take and only the aforementioned Lord of the Rings has passed with flying colors. Nope — not even the Star Wars franchise has been able to replicate this. That story, which could have been ripped off of Herbert’s own work, did have its own dazzling effects of its time. The camera movement during the final battle of the first/fourth movie is a sequence to die for, over and over again. But in terms of characters, plot motivation, and relations, that movie was as cardboard as a cloak and dagger movie from 100 years ago. I could catch visual glimpses from previous movies (Arrival and Blade Runner 2049) filtering in but never intruding. The conflict and its stakes look dangerously real. This, in essence, is Herbert’s novel, intact.

An artistic rendering of a Wendigo

I would not associate Scott Cooper with the horror genre. In a directing career spanning five movies, all of his previous four have dealt with crime and redemption, and the choices men make which haunt them throughout. His latest, the much-delayed Antlers (I remember seeing the trailer for Antlers almost always following St Maud in November of 2019, before the pandemic), seems to be two movies sandwiched into one. On one side we have a domestic situation where a wayward father seems to be abusing one of his two sons; the elder befriends a teacher with a past who connects with his pain and wishes to help. On the other, we get the supernatural element of the movie — hence the title — and this is the part that works in some ways while doesn’t in others. In the middle, we get the tale of the Wendigo which also gets to feature as the movie’s opening quote, and the requisite Native American character (Graham Greene) who enters the plot to dispense some exposition of what the characters are up against.

As a whole, I will say that Antlers is better than its story should be. Its mood is as bleak as it comes, and it seems that its Oregon setting never sees the sun come out, ever. The woods form a backdrop that seems dense enough. Where I wasn’t sold was in the creature itself, and how its dark legacy passes through to humans, in essence, corrupting them. It seems that perhaps this may have had a little of the allegorical but the movie never plays it with fantasy, but straight. Scenes in which the tragic father meets an unfortunate transformation are painful to watch and rival (but don’t surpass) the werewolf scene in An American Werewolf in London. The dread element is intense and foreboding. However, characters start behaving like tropes in every horror movie known to man — so much that at one point, more than once, several players do the tired, “Is anyone there?” line, and one character literally exists to die soon later. To add insult to injury, the movie never seems to know when to stop but continues to barrel ahead as if this were a long, drawn-out gunfight, instead, replacing guns with a Final Girl and a Creature.

I wish that Cooper had taken a different route with Antlers. There are two excellent movies inside one that looks and feels mashed up but is far from unwatchable. The relation that grows between the boy (Jeremy T. Thomas) and Final Girl Jeri Russell is poignant and deserved better. Her relationship with her actor-brother Jesse Plemons suggests more than what it ultimately reveals. Had the lore of the wendigo been less supernatural and closer to “wendigo psychosis” I would have enjoyed it better. As it stands, Antlers is imperfect, stilted, but fans of folk horror who also saw Ben Wheatley’s eco-horror In the Earth (which also has its own folk thrown in) will sit back and be repulsed in a good way.

Eugene Ashe Revisits Old Hollywood glamour in Sylvie’s Love

It’s both a shame that a movie like Sylvie’s Love had to be made now, and both a blessing and confirmation as well. In the 1950s a movie depicting Black love would have definitely raised some eyebrows. The closest the studio system got to make such a film was in 1957’s Island In the Sun, starring hot commodity (but criminally underused and underappreciated) Dorothy Dandridge in a biracial romance that barely survived the censors.

While Eugene Ashe’s movie doesn’t delve into biracial topics, it simply contents itself in depicting a story that has been told over and over since the history of movie-making with increasing amounts of gloss and sheen to add to the allure, the magic of meeting, falling in love, and losing love. At its heart, it’s a basic story of star-crossed lovers who simply met at the wrong time and whose paths have them dovetail, but never truly blend together.

When we meet Sylvie (Tessa Thompson, who smolders during every second she is on the frame and needs to break out into major stardom, not just Westworld fame), she’s a gamine with a fashionable 50’s pixie cut that perfectly frames her wide eyes drenched in the expression of the young. She works at her father’s record store, but we infer that she longs for more than just her immediate reality by the way she gushes over I Love Lucy episodes. In essence, Ashe has created a Black counterpoint to the type of beauty Audrey Hepburn encapsulated — a lovely work of art just aching for a moment under the camera lights, dressed in Valentino or Balenciaga.

Into Sylvie’s life walks Robert (Nnamdi Asomugha), a young saxophone player who also has ambitions of being a jazz player in the vein of Coltrane (which becomes a running motif during the film). Both meet, and boy, do sparks fly, Their conversation yields more erotic tension than any sex scene. When it is over, there is a sense of incompleteness, of something left unfinished. It is frustrating, but in the best of romantic movies, this plot point is essential to keep the story edging on suspense.

It turns out that even when both Sylvie and Robert clearly belong together, they’re already separated by class and societal expectations. Sylvie has a fiancee who is in Korea, and Robert… really can’t offer her more than what he has, high hopes, and the rosy aspects of love. However, life and destiny has other plans in sight, and while they do separate, it is not before they share a moment of passion that itself generates a secret she must keep, and Ashe, a director stepping into the shoes of Jacques Demy or Douglas Sirk, makes it effortless, breathless, and bursting with repressed desire.

Ashe then diverges his characters into separate storylines, in another classic move in which we are meant to see a guy and a girl morph from idealistic young adults into their more rigid counterparts. Her story gets a little more flare than his; she makes quiet (but important) history when she lands the position of assistant to a TV producer who is Black and female. Eventually, Sylvie’s career has her rising the ranks while Robert’s flounders in a move not unsimilar to that of A Star is Born, but Ashe’s movie never loses its focus, which is to keep both Sylvie and Robert connected by a bond that will last the test of time, and hopefully, survive by the time the story begins to wrap its threads up and close.

As I said at the start, it is both a shame and confirmation that Sylvie’s Love could only be made now. To think of the possibilities of having seen a version of this movie starring Diahann Carroll (who Thompson seems to be channeling) and Sidney Poitier, just to name two actors of the time who could have carried a movie of this magnitude on their shoulders. It is criminal to look back and see that Hollywood as a movie-making money machine could not fathom anyone of color having their own story. Instead, they were reduced for the longest time to being “specialty” or playing maids and butlers and an occasional shady character in a blink-or-miss spot, such as Theresa Harris in Jacques Tourneur’s Out of the Past.

Even so, Ashe’s movie takes on a story made popular by White Hollywood to make his own version. It’s not that he succeeds; you never once see Sylvie or Robert or anyone onscreen as a symbol of African Americans under any trauma from race relations. These are fully realized characters with rich internal lives who make the wrong choices in life and still manage to pick up the pieces.

At times the story veers into the artifice of prepackaged romance. I’ve come to believe this is a deliberate move in order to capture the gloss and sheen of the types of “women’s pictures” that were made during the era. Everything has the element of a studio picture down to the smallest detail. Even a tangential rival gets thrown in for good measure and we chuckle because we get it — “She can’t compete with Tessa Thompson; look at her.”

While it may be a bit too soapy for some, this is a type of movie that does not get made anymore. The last time anyone made a picture of this type was back in 2002 when Todd Haynes made Far From Heaven. Even so, Sylvie’s Love is a must-see for anyone seeking a movie that looks and feels like The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. This is a movie with big emotions that ebb and goes with the tides of its passions, it is very old-school, even a tad clunky in some expositions, but that is its magic.

Sylvie’s Love is available on Amazon Prime. [A]

Power to the People: The Trial of the Chicago 7, and Judas & the Black Messiah

In a way, it seems we haven’t really left the 60s. When we constantly see news footage about law enforcement barreling against civilians for performing quiet protest, and then you see the Black Lives Matter movement, you can tell there is still a racial divide, still, a dissonance between what people want as opposed to what those in power — good or bad, elected or shadily elected — have to offer. The difference in both, however, couldn’t be clearer: the riots of the 60s sought to end racism. Black Lives Matter continues the fight and has also been seen as a fringe movement by ultra-conservatives who would still prefer to live in an America that has not existed for half a century if not more.

It’s taken me a longer than usual time to come to these two movies to review them after having seen both of them almost back-to-back. I sometimes wonder if I do have anything else to say about events that transpired before my time. I can only lend a critical eye to the chaos that the nation was embroiled in due to politics, war hounds, paranoia, and the first great wake-up call between those who had a view of a more peaceful, less racist world, and those who would rather keep it that way, the elite always beyond reach, the masses always kept under strict observance of the law, and anyone who would dare step out was deemed “an enemy of the people”.

Two narratives take place almost side-by-side, both in reaction to a war that was going nowhere, and a society steeped in racial divide. Aaron Sorkin’s The Trial of the Chicago 7 can’t really be reviewed by itself — well, I guess it can, but hear me out — because one of its players navigates its waters, and that player is Fred Hampton.

The Rise and Fall of Fred Hampton

Controversial in all aspects, Hampton, a Black Panther leader in the Chicago chapter, was seen as a threat by the virulently racist J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI, and seen as a savior to his fellow African Americans (and minorities who would unite with him to fight systemic racism). His part in Judas and the Black Messiah takes center stage in the fact that Shaka King attempts to give us an observational glimpse into the life that Hampton lived, a life that at 21 was already too old and wise, and tragically cut short by the Chicago police (and Hoover’s paranoid racism).

In both movies, Hampton’s story frames the stories of others, and perhaps that is intentional. The Trial of the Chicago 7 concerns itself with the seven eight anti-war activists on trial for having participated in violent clashes with the Chicago Police at the Democratic National Convention, accused of incitement to riot and conspiracy crossing state lines. Hampton has a few key scenes in which he attempts to discredit the charges brought up to fellow Black Panther Bobby Seale. In Judas and the Black Messiah, we become privy to Hampton’s life not just through Hampton himself but through the man who infiltrated the Panthers in exchange for serving a jail sentence. That man is William “Bill” O’Neil.

It’s no secret that law enforcement agencies utilize players to infiltrate a group seen as a threat to National Security. Usually, those players happen to be of the ethnicity or religious make-up or beliefs of the group in question and can provide more information than if it were through more conventional means. O’Neil (Lakeith Stanfield, finally coming into his own) plays the mostly straight role here, a man caught in the tangles of petty crime who now has to report to an FBI handler (Jesse Plemons, delivering perfectly coiffed creepy) who in turn is also reporting to the head of FBI, Hoover (Martin Sheen). His infiltration into the Black Panther Party of Chicago has the purpose of getting crucial intel meant to dismantle the threat, and thus, restore order into an already chaotic city.

The tricky part of becoming an informant is that getting in deep into any group and learning its secrets means ascending ranks within the group while pledging allegiance to its ideology. O’Neil has stated in interviews that he had no fealty to the BPP. However, throughout Judas and the Black Messiah, King suggests otherwise without overplaying his hand. O’Neil’s transformation from a simple background foot soldier gathering data for murky superiors to someone who commits the ultimate act of betrayal — not without an expression of total horror at to the depths that he has sunk — is unbelievably complex. You hate him, yet you feel sorry for him.

Hampton, through David Kaluuya’s acting, comes magnetically alive even when his deep-set eyes indicate perpetual sleepiness, a somewhat disconnect from the life that has placed him here. The movie does give Hampton ample ground to get a nuanced development without turning him into a saint, and even then, he remains a bit unknowable. His speeches are a force of nature. Compare that to scenes where he reveals himself as a deeply feeling man capable of giving a mother a moment of comfort. Scenes with Deborah Foreman (Dominique Fishback), while warm, suggest he was an intensely shy individual. There’s almost a Shakespearean quality to how his character manifests itself as he barrels forward, unaware of the betrayer standing next to him.

The Trial

While Hampton wove his way through the minefield that was Chicago, The trial against eight activists was taking place. This trial, meant to set an example to future activists, became a media circus, and Aaron Sorkin cleverly gives the movie enough of that feeling which delivers a sense of how ineffectual Judge Hoffman (Frank Langella) was in handling his court, and how effective the men on trial, in particular, Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen, scene-stealer), were in mocking a system that was already dead in the water.

Sorkin’s movie serves as a documentary if you will about the end of an era, although even then I feel I may have said something rather dull. The story of how these disparate people came together for one mega event and somehow found themselves facing a common enemy (the establishment itself) is riveting material for many a view or a read. The fact that due to his color alone, and his association with the BPP, Bobby Seale (Yahuya Abdul Mateen II) found himself not just on trial but treated with a savagery that has to be seen to be believed. It is by far the most cringing moment in the film, and one that brings forth images of innumerable African Americans who have been treated as little more than animals by a society keen on keeping a foot firmly planted on their necks. One could see that one scene as a bridge between the horrors of slavery and Jim Crow and the recent upsurge of white on black violence, again, inflicted by anyone with a uniform or a badge.

Where The Trial of the Chicago 7 probably suffers is in the trial itself, and its last minutes in which Eddie Redmayne, who plays Tom Hayden, falters a bit in delivering a convincing stance. Perhaps I’m nitpicking. It just seemed a bit too pat if you will, a move meant to seal the trial on its deserved high note. Other than that this is a terrific picture, rife with razor-sharp dialogue (again, a Sorkin trademark), and memorable turns by its entire cast which let’s face it, is rather large.

The Trial of the Chicago 7 is on Netflix. Judas and the Black Messiah played for a month on HBOMAX but is still in theaters until it moves back to virtual platforms. Of the two, I would favor the latter in the sheer complexity of its two lead characters, men caught in a web of power and racial paranoia much greater than they could ever anticipate.

The Trial of the Chicago 7: B+ Judas and the Black Messiah: A