Eyes on the Prize—a rough guide to Civil Rights cinema

Author’s note: A version of this article originally appeared in the March 2015 print edition of Sight & Sound Magazine.

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Selma (Ava DuVernay, 2013)

The African-American civil rights movement is broadly agreed to span a period between 1954, with the landmark Brown v. Board of Education court case to end segregation in public schools, and 1968, the year of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, and the subsequent signing into law of the Fair Housing Act.

The movement has proved to be fecund ground for filmmakers to explore, interrogate and recreate. The latest to do so is Ava DuVernay, whose Alabama-set Selma depicts events leading to the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, a crucial piece of legislation which outlawed racial discrimination in voting. The film is significant for many reasons: it’s the first feature directed by a black woman to be nominated for a Best Picture Oscar; it paints an unusually detailed portrait of the process of nonviolent, direct protest action; it reframes the thrust of the movement from an exceptional ‘great man’ to a grassroots plural, in the process foregrounding the role of women; and — with controversy raging over the unpunished police killings of black males including Eric Garner, Michael Brown, John Crawford, Akai Gurley and 12-year-old Tamir Rice in 2014 — its messages are particularly timely.

Selma, surprisingly, is also the first major cinema release to feature Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as a central character, indicating that other filmmakers have been daunted by his legacy. While King’s assassination (and the subsequent riots) in April 1968 have been repeatedly invoked as a marker of place and cultural climate in documentaries and historical films (Ali, Get on Up) the only other notable recent incarnation is Nelsan Ellis’ cameo portrayal in Lee Daniels’ The Butler (2013), about a real-life African-American manservant who served in the White House between 1957 and 1986. Instead, significant portrayals of King have been confined to TV movies. Abby Mann’s six-hour biographical miniseries King (1978) featured Paul Winfield in the role; its provocative suggestion that King was the victim of a conspiracy prompted an inconclusive congressional investigation. More recently, In 2001, Jeffrey Wright assumed the role with gravitas in HBO film Boycott, a dramatisation of the bus boycotts in Montgomery, Alabama (1955-6) which prompted the U.S. Supreme Court to rule segregation on public buses unconstitutional.

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The Rosa Parks Story (Julie Dash, 2002)

Television has traditionally been the preeminent arena for filmmakers to tell historical stories about the key events and figures of the movement, perhaps because the medium is more suited to a pedagogical approach. This is true for uplifting, informative films like Charles Burnett’s Disney-produced Selma, Lord Selma (1999), which covers much of the same ground as DuVernay’s film, but with a softer touch; and Julie Dash’s biopic The Rosa Parks Story (2002), in which Angela Bassett gives a layered performance as the eponymous community organiser and catalytic figure of the Montgomery protests. In 1991, Sidney Poitier brought his star power to George Stevens Jr.’s TV epic Separate But Equal to play lawyer Thurgood Marshall, the key figure in the 1954 Brown vs. Board of Eduction case.

Conversely, when Hollywood has tackled civil rights, the films have tended to prioritise the experience of white saviours, or sweeten the pill with soothing depictions of interracial friendships. The former is evident in traumatic historical dramas like Alan Parker’s Mississippi Burning (1988), a 1964-set tale of FBI agents (Gene Hackman and Willem Dafoe) investigating the killings of three civil rights workers; and Rob Reiner’s Ghosts of Mississippi (1996), which foregrounds the role of an assistant District Attorney (Alec Baldwin) attempting to convict a white supremacist (James Woods) for the 1963 murder of activist Medgar Evers. The latter, meanwhile, characterises fictional fare like Richard Pearce’s The Long Walk Home (1990), which turns on the decision of a well-to-do white lady (Sissy Spacek) to support her black maid (Whoopi Goldberg) in the mid-1950s Montgomery protests; and Tate Taylor’s The Help (2011), a Mississippi melodrama set in 1963, one year before the Civil Rights Act was signed into law. Selma, refreshingly, refuses to extend this trend—the role of Lyndon B. Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) is deliberately not overstated. In this respect the film has more in common with Malcolm X (1992), Spike Lee’s epic portrait of the charismatic orator who, after initial skepticism, eventually began tentative participation in the movement before his assassination in 1965.

Much of the best contemporaneous civil rights-era cinema focused not on the machinations of protest, but on the lived realities of African-Americans in the segregated south (Michael Roemer’s superb, neorealism-inspired 1964 drama Nothing But a Man), and in the north, where de facto discrimination in housing and employment blighted black family life (Daniel Petrie’s beautifully-performed, faithful adaptation of Lorraine Hansberry’s Chicago-set play A Raisin in the Sun [1961]). Meanwhile odd, daring films utilised high concepts to explore both the absurdity and terror of racism. Carl Lerner’s earnest Black Like Me (1964) told the fact-based tale of a white Texan journalist who spent six weeks travelling throughout the racially segregated south while disguised as a black man. Melvin van Peebles’ Watermelon Man (1970), meanwhile, starred comedian Godfrey Cambridge as cocky, racist white man who one day awakes to discover – to his horror – that he is black. By the end, he’s come to terms with his blackness, and is seen practicing combat with a black militant group: a harbinger of the burgeoning Black Power movement, and a jarring reminder that legislative gains did not end racism. Set in the direct aftermath of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jules Dassin’s criminally under-seen, Cleveland-set Uptight (1968) – a remake of John Ford’s 1935 film The Informer – follows the final days in the life of a troubled young black man (real-life civil rights activist Julian Mayfield) who finds himself hopelessly caught between his family, the police, the bottle, and his radical activist friends.

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I Heard It Through The Grapevine (Dick Fontaine, Pat Hartley, 1982)

Away from fiction, contemporaneous low-bugdet documentary filmmaking — like Haskell Wexler’s The Bus (1964), Charles Guggenheim’s Academy Award-winning Nine From Little Rock (1964), and Ed Pincus and David Neuman’s Black Natchez (1967) — accounted for some of the most bracing insights into the movement’s internecine and procedural complexity. The great black independent filmmaker William Greaves was commissioned to make a documentary about “good negroes” for public television during a time of growing unrest, but bucked the assignment to deliver, in Still a Brother (1968), a non-pat investigation of the mental revolution that was transforming the consciousness of black people of all classes. 1970 saw the (sadly limited) release of Sidney Lumet and Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s exhaustive, three-hour archive footage film King: A Filmed Record… Montgomery to Memphis (1970), which won an Academy Award, and is now thankfully available on DVD. The civil rights documentary ur-text, however, remains PBS’s mammoth Eyes on the Prize, which covers the movement in forensic detail across 13 hours.

The passage of time has seen a flourishing subgenre of documentaries adopting a reflective approach to assessing the era. These include Dick Fontaine and Pat Hartley’s I Heard it Through the Grapevine (1982), in which author James Baldwin retraces his time in the South during the movement to see what’s changed; Spike Lee’s galling Four Little Girls (1996), about the racist bombing of a baptist church in Alabama in 1964; and Brother Outsider (2003), a study of the openly gay Bayard Rustin, a key figure in organising the famed 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Finally, The March (2013) is both the title and subject of John Akomfrah’s superb commemorative account of the event on its 50th anniversary. It, like Selma, sheds valuable light on a thrilling, terrifying and instructive time in contemporary history.

Mike Leigh’s Naked—what did Johnny do next?

Author’s note: Back in 2013, as part of Little White Lies magazine’s special 50th issue, writers were issued a year at random, asked to pick a film from that year, select a single image from the chosen film, and then write something around it. I got 1993, which was a perfect opportunity to write about one of my favourite filmsMike Leigh’s harrowing drama Naked. Last year, at the Toronto Film Festival, I watched Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson’s animation Anomalisa, whose main character is a sexually, spiritually and emotionally troubled marketing and self-help guru voiced by David Thewlis, who, years before, played Naked’s Johnny. I couldn’t help but see a connection between these two disturbed souls. Had I seen Anomalisa before writing the below piece, it would have turned out very differently. Alas…

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The dishevelled figure above is not, contrary to appearances, Scooby Doo’s Shaggy as re-imagined by Hieronymus Bosch. Rather, his name is simply Johnny, and, as unforgettably played by David Thewlis, he’s the central figure in Mike Leigh’s scabrous drama Naked. This stark image is taken from the film’s enigmatic final shot.

To the strains of Andrew Dickson’s simultaneously celestial and ominous score, the battered, bruised anti-hero limps, snarling and twitching, down the middle of a wide road, while the camera accelerates away from him at a rate his shattered figure can never hope to keep pace with. Then, without warning: a cut to black, a final, brutal, orchestral clang on the score, and Naked vanishes, leaving an acrid taste in the mouth and a mood of unresolved sadness.

Before we can consider where this urban scarecrow might be headed, we must establish where he’s been. The first clue lies in the towering structure looming in the background, brutishly intruding on that bright morning skyline. It’s the house where Johnny—drifter, misogynist, intellectual bully, vulnerable loner—first shores up having fled Manchester looking to escape a kicking. Leigh was looking for something epic for his central location, and he found it within spitting distance of Hackney Downs. From outside, the house looks vast, but it is boxy and constricted inside. Within this cancerous home-as-heart, the grimy rooms act as ventricles and the dank stairwells as valves, pumping transient malcontents around in a perverse, restless simulacrum of screwball comedy. There’s Johnny’s sad, Mancunian ex-girlfriend Louise (Lesley Sharp), her wayward flatmate Sophie (Katrin Cartlidge), and, eventually, yuppie rapist landlord Jeremy (Gregg Cruttwell). 

Jaundiced Johnny heads from this bleak house into an appropriately Dickensian Londona poetically realised, roughly stylised Capital of dislocated, anomie-stricken waifs and strays, where geographical verisimilitude vaporises like the fog in the night air (for example, Soho magically becomes Shoreditch). Eventually taking a beating from a gang of ne’er-do-wells, Johnny makes a tentative bond with Louise. But it’s a false dawn, a real kicker: when she goes to work he steals a wad of cash and heads off on that road to … well, where, exactly?

We could interpret Johnny’s final betrayal of Louise as evidence of him being on the metaphorical road to hell. In my darker moments, I envisage Johnny as being so spiritually bereft, so disgusted at himself and the world that, following that cut to black, he limps up to the infamous Hornsea Lane Bridge and hurls himself off, thereby joining the likes of Janis Joplin, Jean-Michel Basquiat and Kurt Cobain in the ghoulish “27 Club” of troubled souls who fail to make it past that age.

But hang on. Let’s say Johnny doesn’t give up on life; let’s say that his fizzing disaffection keeps him going. Only an optimist could dare hope that Johnny would turn around on that road, return the money and head back to Manchester with Louise. But maybe he’d get there eventually, patch things up, and land a part-time job in, say, an anarchist bookstore. What of his woman problem? Maybe age would help his sporadic moments of tenderness calcify into a greater maturity; his peacockish misogyny left behind for good.

We know for a fact that the world didn’t, as Johnny had fervently espoused, end on August 18th 1999, even though one can very well imagine him freaking out about the much-vaunted ‘Millennium Bug’. So Johnny would be 47-years-old today. But if he thought the world was hopelessly materialistic in 1993, what would he have made of New Labour? Of Britpop? Of Big Brother, or reality TV in general? Twitter? Buzzfeed? Contactless payment? Google Glass? The mind boggles, but I’m given to suspect he might be well-suited to internet forums, littering below-the-line comments sections with conspiratorial, poorly-punctuated post 9/11 jeremiads.

Of course, Naked being a thing of fiction and all, we’ll never know. The lasting greatness of Leigh’s film derives from the teasing ambiguity of that beautifully poised final shot. Leigh could have killed Johnny off, or resorted to a moral, final conclusion. Instead, by inviting us to speculate, and rejecting the impulse to tie things up neatly, Leigh ensures that the vividly-realised Johnny can live on, limping through our collective consciousness forever.

Dope | review

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By Ashley Clark

[A slightly different version of this review — plus a full plot synopsis — appears in the September print edition of Sight & Sound magazine.]

The central character in Rick Famuyiwa’s overly slick high school comedy-cum-crime caper Dope is Malcolm (Shameik Moore), an African-American student and self-identifying “geek” who excels academically, has a fetish for 1990s popular culture and, alongside his best friends Jib (Tony Revolori, of Grand Budapest lobby boy fame) and Diggy (Kiersey Clemons), plays in a punk band called Awreeoh. Their name — a phonetic, ironic riff on the word Oreo: a cookie that’s dark brown on the outside and white on the inside — is one of the film’s few genuinely good jokes. If their songs sound suspiciously polished and radio-friendly, it’s because they’ve been written by the disconcertingly ageless Pharrell Williams.

Malcolm wants to attend Harvard, but his dreams seem circumscribed by his surroundings: he lives in a rough, crime-riddled Inglewood district named “The Bottoms”; he refers in an arch voiceover to his stereotypically underprivileged upbringing (absent father, overworked single mother); and his application essay — a critical analysis of rapper Ice Cube’s 1993 hit ‘It Was a Good Day’ — is dismissed by his supervisor as a sign of his arrogance. Malcolm unexpectedly comes into the possession of a bounty of drugs (for reasons too convoluted to explain here) and finds that selling them might be his only way out. To peddle or not to peddle? This is the moral dilemma upon which the ensuing narrative hinges.

One one hand, it’s tempting to laud Dope for broadening the ethnic, racial and socioeconomic scope of what we’ve come to expect from the teen movie genre. It’s a playing field which is largely populated by white middle-class types, as Charlie Lyne’s recent documentary Beyond Clueless effectively demonstrates. Yet the film gives Malcolm and his friends little to work with beyond cynically surface signifiers of cultural taste, seemingly precision-tooled to appeal to some perceived hip young “post-racial” demographic.

Though Moore is a reasonably expressive performer, the character he plays is frustratingly blank, while the ethnically ambiguous Jib is barely characterised at all. His sole notable trait is his belief that he’s qualified to use the word “nigga”, presumably because he sees it as a state of mind (like Chinatown?) The epithet-cum-term of endearment peppers Famuyiwa’s script with disturbingly egregious regularity, and its use — by a white character, not Jib — is only vaguely challenged by Diggy in a toe-curlingly non-committal scene late in the film.

Meanwhile Diggy’s defining characteristic is that she’s a lesbian with a boyish appearance. In one supposedly humorous scene, she flashes her breasts at a vulgar club doorman to prove she is female. But Diggy is just the tip of Dope’s groaning iceberg of woman problems. Zoe Kravitz, as Malcolm’s putative love interest Nakia, is charismatic, but woefully under-utilised — in her case, Famuyiwa has clearly confused “ethereal presence” with “forgetting to write a decent part”. As drug moll Lily, poor Chanel Iman has an even worse time of it: her role is limited to vomiting on Malcolm’s face; publicly pissing in a bush; and crashing a car, all while in a drug-ravaged state of near undress. It’s comic relief for people who like seeing beautiful women thoroughly debased. Moreover, for all Dope’s pretensions to modernity and freshness, there’s no place on screen at all for dark-skinned black women.

The nostalgic obsession of Dope’s characters is reflected in Famuyiwa’s cloyingly retrogressive filmmaking approach. Plot-wise he pilfers liberally from Paul Brickman’s Risky Business (1983), but replaces the earlier film’s streamlined menace with myriad contrivances and implausible coincidences. His dialogue, meanwhile, is Tarantino-esque in a bad way, riddled with unconvincing discursive patter and tortured monologuing — the great actor Roger Guenvuer Smith (Do The Right Thing‘s Smiley), playing a whispering villain, does his level best with one of the worst speeches I’ve ever heard: some baroquely incomprehensible flannel about Amazon and buying drugs.

With its expertly curated hip-hop soundtrack, eye-catching costumes and Rachel Morrison’s gleaming, candy-coloured cinematographyDope might be shiny on the outside, but it’s one stale cookie on the inside.

Dope is in cinemas now. You’ve been warned.

Book review | ‘The Nigerian Filmmaker’s Guide to Success: Beyond Nollywood’ by Nadia Denton

Living In Bondage (Dir. Chris Obu Rapi, 1992)

Living In Bondage (Dir. Chris Obu Rapi, 1992)

I interviewed Nadia Denton—author, consultant, programmer, and more—for this site around the time of the release of her excellent last book, ‘The Black British Filmmaker’s Guide to Success’ (2011). Denton has applied that book’s insight and practical rigour to a new subject for her latest project.

‘The Nigerian Filmmaker’s Guide to Success: Beyond Nollywood’ is an extremely well-resourced and -structured reference manual designed for a new generation of ambitious Nigerian filmmakers who, says Denton, “want to have theatrical runs of their films, compete on an international level, tour festival circuits, secure favourable distribution deals and win academy nominations.” In her introduction, Denton argues that Nigerian cinema is on the brink of a renaissance, and primed to move beyond the stereotypical landscape of straight-to-video/TV histrionics. The book does a fine job of illustrating how such a revolution might come to pass.

It’s neatly and helpfully divided into distinct sections in accordance with the traditional chronological process of getting a film out into the world: finance, development, marketing, exhibition, and distribution (plus a generous index full of helpful weblinks and references.) Each segment opens with a digestible, informative breakdown of the subject’s key issues before segueing into a series of in-depth (but never overly heavy) interviews with industry experts—there are a whopping 78 interviews in total. The talent roster that Denton has assembled is impressive, and speaks to her standing and experience in the field. Particularly informative contributions are made by Kunle Afolayan (The Figurine, Phone Swap) and Chris Obi-Rapu (director of the first Nollywood film, Living In Bondage), who speak in detail about their careers and the subject of financing. It’s notable, too, that Denton has assembled experts from around the globe (Africa, USA, Europe), giving the book an international, accessible flavour.

For anyone interested in the business of Nigerian cinema—at whatever level—‘The Nigerian Filmmaker’s Guide to Success: Beyond Nollywood’ is a must. It’s of equal use as a handy reference tool to dip in and out of, and a book you can read from cover to cover. It comes highly recommended.

Find out how to purchase the book on Nadia’s website.

I’m only human: opposing thoughts on Boyhood

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I grew up being taught that it was OK to hold more than one competing thought in one’s head about a given subject at any one time. It’s an approach that seems sorely lacking in our current cultural/critical climate: just consider the fount of “hot take” articles about certain recent films (American SniperSelma) in which the author stakes out ideological ground and defends it with ferocity at the expense of nuance.

Yesterday, Richard Linklater’s timid epic Boyhood – which has had its fair share of vocal detractors along the way – was subject to a hatchet job editorial which screamed ‘Racism in BOYHOOD is the worst kind’, and compared it unfavourably with D.W. Griffith’s 1915 KKK shocker Birth of a Nation. Just like Kanye West’s indefensibly tone-deaf request that the highly qualified and experienced artist Beck “respect Beyonce’s artistry”, the claim should be taken with a dumpster of salt. Yet the outrageous surface shouldn’t totally obscure the genuine feeling propelling it. While Kanye’s more salient (and perhaps indivisible) points about historical white industrial colonisation of black music are full of merit and worthy of investigation (particularly by many of the white commentators so quick to dismiss Kanye as an idiot), many nonwhite viewers’ ire has been stoked by the non-presence, and patronising representation of, nonwhite characters in a film that’s been described by some as an American epic.

I think what’s really pissed people off is the feeling that Linklater’s film – and much of the critical discourse around it – represents, essentially, a glowing elevation of white mediocrity in a world where such constructions aren’t hard to come by, and where female/queer/POC/disabled people have to fight 76 million times as hard to get their work seen/championed. As I once remarked upon emerging from a screening of Miranda July’s blank-eyed hipster gadabout The Future, “I want to be alive in a time when black people can get to make a film about so fucking little and have it released internationally.”

Anyway, here are my opposing (or maybe even complementary: you decide) thoughts about Boyhood repurposed from a couple of end-of-year round-ups at Reverse Shot, the Museum of the Moving Image, NY’s wonderful online journal. Why now? Well, consider it a cash in. Lots of people are talking about Boyhood this week, seeing as its up for the Best Picture Oscar on Sunday, and I figured this was a decent way to get a few more hits for my blog.

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Good!

Without wishing to indulge in hyperbole, the real miracle of Richard Linklater’s Boyhood—a moving, intimate family drama shot in small chunks with the same core cast over a period of twelve years—is not simply that its audacious concept was ushered through to completion. (Ellar Coltrane, who plays Mason, the youngster at the center of the film, could have at any moment decided the acting life wasn’t for him, and effectively scuppered the enterprise.) Rather, it’s the unshakable faith that Linklater has invested in stillness, subtlety, and—whisper it—banality, as a pathway to emotional resonance. Think about it: how many other directors would make a film over the same period and resist the temptation to shore up the intimidatingly diffuse timeline with dramatic clichés, coming-of-age touchstones (for instance, young Mason’s hilariously perplexed reaction to a pair of locker-room douchebag bullies), and actorly pyrotechnics? Save for one spectacular, alcohol-fueled family blowout, Boyhood is comprised of hushed, beautifully observed interactions that cut across generational lines, performed with grace and restraint by underrated actors like Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke, who both shine as Mason’s separated parents. Moreover, the film is structured with stunningly brusque ellipses—sometimes the only way to spot the significant passage of story time is in the unheralded alteration of a character’s hairstyle, or the sudden appearance of an ill-advised moustache. Linklater’s decision to shoot entirely on 35mm film lends the potentially patchwork project a rich, sun-kissed aesthetic unity, while simultaneously rendering it a gentle elegy for an ailing medium. Boyhood plays like some magical collapsed-time capsule: inherently nostalgic thanks to its production history and in the sense that it represents an extratextual commentary on the evolution of Linklater as a filmmaker. But with its implacable forward momentum and refreshing belief in the importance of living in the present, it is thrillingly now.

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Bad!

I loved Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, for reasons I outlined in a brief write-up above. That said, it’s an imperfect work. Much of whatever opprobrium has been directed toward it has, not outrageously, focused on its representational approach. One recurring allegation, more or less boiled down: with its pretentions-to-universality title and monocultural core cast, Boyhood posits the white, middle-class experience as default. And it’s certainly true that some critics have fallen into a trap by lauding this representationally limited film for its portrayal of the quintessentially “American” experience, consequently—without pre-planned malice—abetting the replication of patterns of cultural dominance all too familiar to those of us (like me, a critic of color in a white-dominated field) who fall outside the previously described demographic.

I’m a firm believer in critiquing a film for what it does include rather than what it doesn’t, so with that in mind . . . In all of Boyhood’s 165 minutes, there are, I think, four noteworthy speaking roles for actors of color: less controversially, an awkward college roommate, and a young schoolboy who gets teased by his older friends. And there’s mom Olivia’s black female colleague, who in a brief, very curious moment, appears to make sexual advances toward a freshly graduated Mason Jr. (Perhaps it’s the result of a bad edit—there’s no laugh to release the tension—but the scene carries a weird charge, unwittingly reviving the old jezebel stereotype of the sexually ravenous black woman.) And then there’s inarguably Boyhood’s nadir, the use of the character of the family’s Hispanic one-time handyman (Roland Ruiz). He first appears in a scene in which Olivia slightly patronizingly praises his skills, calls him “smart,” and recommends he take night classes. Then, in a forehead-slappingly silly moment near the film’s conclusion, he reappears at a restaurant where Olivia is dining with her now grown kids. He’s managing the restaurant and, rather than let the audience process his presence independently, Linklater has the man gushingly thank Olivia, this shining beacon of white womanhood, for changing his life. The smug, clunky sequence not only ruptures Boyhood’s refreshing absence of diegetic self-referentiality—rarely does Linklater feel the need to have the film comment on itself to foster continuity—it also plays like it was directed by a drunken Cameron Crowe in ultra-sentimental mode.

In the grand scheme of Boyhood—a generous, expansive, and ultimately loveable work—it’s a minor thing, but it did raise my hackles. Linklater had an opportunity to afford a young Hispanic actor a role with agency, but disappointingly opted instead to utilize him as a symbol genuflecting toward that time-honored trope: the white savior.

Get On Up | review

Get On Up

by Ashley Clark

[Editor’s note: an edited version of this review first appeared in the October issue of Sight & Sound Magazine, which hit shelves in early September. The film’s UK release was put back a couple of months after the mag went to print, so the review was unfortunately published way ahead of schedule.]

With his debut The Help (2011) — a whimsical, formally conservative Driving Miss Daisy for the ‘post-racial’ generation — director Tate Taylor offered little indication that he’d be the most appropriate choice to bring the life of the electrifying, pioneering funk musician James Brown to screen. Yet within moments, any notion that Taylor has played it similarly safe are up in smoke; PCP smoke, to be precise.

Get On Up begins in Atlanta in 1988, where an evidently high Brown (Chadwick Boseman, giving an energetic and charismatic performance), clad in a green velour tracksuit, marches into his offices, and reacts furiously upon discovering that an interloper has had the nerve to use his toilet: a transgression he can discern by the lingering smell (“Which one of you gentle folks hung a number two in my commode?”) Brown fires his shotgun into the ceiling, reprimands the culprit, then stares straight down the camera in a baroquely Brechtian flourish, beckoning us to join him on his journey of memory. Repurposing this bizarre incident — which allegedly really happened — constitutes a boldly disarming way to kick off a major Hollywood biopic, and is curiously microcosmic of what follows: a portrait that’s irreverent, loose and often fun; but also deeply strange, chronically indisciplined and never quite serious enough about its subject.

Beginning with Brown at his lowest point might imply that a traditional rags-to-riches-to-rags arc is to come, but Taylor and British screenwriters Jez and John Henry Butterworth (who wrote the recent, chronologically playful blockbuster Edge of Tomorrow) fashion an elastic narrative which, initially at least, places proceedings closer to experimental cinema than any traditional biopic template. Key influences seem to be Shirley Clarke’s Ornette: Made in America (1985), an elliptical documentary about the saxophonist Ornette Coleman, which uses an actor to portray its subject as a small child in flashbacks; and Francois Girard’s Thirty-Two Short Films About Glenn Gould (1993), in which discrete stories clatter together to conjure an impressionistic vision of its enigmatic pianist subject. In its first 20-or-so minutes, the equally impressionistic Get On Up hops from Vietnam in 1968 (where a boisterous Brown arrives to play music, and harangue the U.S. Army), to dreamlike passages of a troubled childhood in 1939 Alabama, where alcoholism, abuse, and nebulously-rendered racism lurk in the shadows. We then jump from a 1964 support gig by Brown’s first band for The Rolling Stones, to a press conference at an airport (a scenario which is frequently returned to, and acts as the closest thing the film has to a framing device.) The filmmakers’ desire to do something different with the form is laudable, but the bizarre editing and wild tonal oscillations prove exhausting rather than exhilarating.

The film’s bells, whistles, smoke and mirrors ultimately render Brown an enigma, but Boseman’s nuanced performance at least hints at his character’s transformation from cocky, gauche extrovert into a shark-like businessman who’s as much of a performer offstage as on it. It’s telling (perhaps also of the filmmakers’ priorities) that the sudden death of Brown’s manager, Ben Bart (Dan Aykroyd) is depicted as the single life event that hits Brown the hardest. The death of Brown’s son Teddy in 1973, by contrast, is skirted over in quite literally a matter of seconds, while the portrayal of his relationship with wife Deirdre (Jill Scott) is comically undercooked. If it is Brown who’s supposed to be telling this story, as the inconsistently-applied fourth-wall breakage implies, it never feels like he has much control over it. Sometimes, the use of the straight-to-camera gambit is downright bewildering, such as the late scene where Brown punches his wife in the face, then wanders up to the camera and stares at the viewer with a gormless expression.

Get On Up‘s biggest flaw — other than the rather pedestrian nature of its musical sequences, and a tendency to suggest Brown’s signature talent was somehow magical rather than the result of militaristically rigorous practice — is its failure to engage directly with why Brown meant so much to African-American audiences in the politically tumultuous 1960s and 70s. Brown was a complex, contradictory figure — he considered arch-segregationist and South Carolina senator Strom Thurmond a mentor figure — but his commitment to black self-actualisation was unambiguous and influential. One snippet of ‘Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud’, and a couple of shots of Brown sporting a dashiki hardly suffice. The filmmakers (a white director and two white screenwriters) have the time to include cosily apologetic jokes about the white appropriation, and misunderstanding of, black culture, but they’d have been better served tackling what made Brown’s black audiences tick.

Jamel Shabazz Street Photographer + Q&A with Charlie Ahearn | BFI, 18 June, 18:10

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I’m properly excited about this event, so I thought I’d give it a plug here. The BFI is hosting the UK premiere of this documentary by celebrated hip-hop historian and director, Charlie Ahearn (Wild Style). Its subject, Jamel Shabazz, started out as a teenage photographer in early ’80s Brooklyn, and set out to document the then nascent hip-hop movement. According to the blurb, “Ahearn takes us on a modern day and very personal journey with Shabazz as he revisits old neighbourhoods and talks to friends and colleagues about life in New York, hip-hop culture and its 30-year history.”

Anyway, it looks great. You can book tickets here.

Here’s some more of Jamel’s work to get you in the mood.

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See you there.