“There are stories out there to be told, and the talent is out there” — an interview with Debbie Tucker Green

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

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Kai Francis Lewis and Kai and Nadine Marshall as Jax

After fifteen years of international success on the stage with powerful dramatic plays including random and generations, London-based Debbie Tucker Green makes her screenwriting and directing debut with Second Coming. Elegantly and effortlessly blending elements of social and magical realism, it’s a hushed, disturbing parable starring Nadine Marshall as Jax, a married woman who mysteriously falls pregnant. It doesn’t seem that her partner Mark (Idris Elba) is the father, so who is? Perhaps the clue is in the title.

Green is famously publicity-shy, and rarely talks to the press, so I was pleased to be granted a rare interview at her agent’s offices in leafy West London. She’s far from retiring in person, though, speaking in a rapid-fire London patter, with her hands making a flurry of arcs and gestures in tandem with her words.

Ashley Clark: After working in the theatre for so many years, how did you come around to the idea of making a film?

Debbie Tucker Green: It’s a mountain to climb from thinking you’ve got a film — or even a script — to getting it made. Random started off as a stage play, and ran for years. I had no intention of it going onto screen because I don’t think things always translate very well [Tucker Green adapted it for Channel 4 in 2011]. It was just apparent when I was writing that Second Coming was a feature. I think in pictures, so I saw lots of air around this story. Visually, it had a different tone.

With regard to industrial practice, how did you find the process differed between stage and cinema?

When Film4 looked at an early draft, they were very into it. For me, it’s story and script first, and the other industry drama comes after. There’s more people involved in film, even when it’s low budget — more fingers in the pie. So that was a little newer. That was probably the biggest difference, people putting in their two-pence worth. If you “get it”, then it’s fine, we can work on the script; but if I don’t think you’re “getting it”, then we’re in a bit of trouble… With Random, at Channel 4, we had some rough and tumble. But we turned it around quite quickly. It was a case of “I haven’t got time for politeness, let’s just get on it.” I’m not saying it’s a horrible thing. There are a few more zeroes involved in film, and people are a bit more jumpy, so I understand it. You have to push back though, because, trust me, I recognise my film! [laughs]

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Debbie Tucker Green

Second Coming is, in places, purposefully ambiguous, or at least it absolutely refuses to spoon-feed information, and is happy to unfold at a measured pace. Was there any pressure on you from executives to explain more to the audience?

I thought the film was quite definitive! But it’s been interesting watching it with audiences, because it’s more open-ended than I’d thought, which is fine. It’s sparked debate, with people having little rows about what they thought happened. But there wasn’t much pressure on me about the ending. For me it was interesting to watch this woman over [the course of] her pregnancy and not be sure. It’s all played out in a day-to-day way; a lot of it for Jax is behind the eyes; her trying to keep up.

And Nadine Marshall is especially good in a tricky role…

She’s alright [laughs]. No, I’m joking. The part wasn’t written for her, or anything like that. I don’t write for actors. The script was there, I’d worked with her before. There was a thought process: she was right, age-wise, for one. And whoever played Jax, Mark and the kid… you had to feel it before you could see it. Sometimes I don’t always believe family units onscreen. I was still thinking about combinations. I can’t remember at what stage we cast Kai [Francis-Lewis, as Jax’s son JJ], but things started falling into place. I hadn’t worked with Idris before, and Kai had only done one job. The brief to the casting director was that I just wanted a regular kid who goes to drama club once a week or whatever— nothing against signed-up stage school kids.

Your dialogue is rhythmical and intricate; it loops and repeats and interlocks. Is your writing more influenced by music than than other playwrights?

I definitely love music, and what it can do. There’s something for me about the playfulness of dialogue; music reflects on language definitely, whether it’s kids or grown-ups. It’s something that we have that’s very flexible. Yet the film gets quieter and quieter as we go through. You’ve got a character [Jax] who becomes more internal. There’s something quite powerful [cinematically] about having the time, and space, to watch her do that.

I wrote for this magazine in 2013 about Horace Ové’s 1976 film Pressure, and how it’s still so depressingly rare to see everyday black British life — in this case a family of West Indian heritage — represented on film. Too often I feel we see still black British representation pegged around certain limited issues: youth crime, absent fatherhood etc. Your film was so moving for me because it was just like going around to my Jamaican grandmother’s house — I was watching it at the Toronto Film Festival, having not long moved to live in the States from London, and I honestly welled up at the sight of a bottle of Encona Hot Pepper Sauce on the dinner table! How can it be so rare to see ourselves represented? Was that issue a consideration for you?

For me it’s about this particular family, they’re just regular folks. I’m not looking to represent the whole, because everybody lives differently. It wasn’t a huge “I must do this, that and the other”, but rather I just wanted to stay true to these characters; it so happens they are of specific heritage. To me it’s important these characters have their foundation. People have told me things like you’ve just done, which is great. But you need to go and talk to the commissioners, innit! People who’ve got the money to fund stuff. There are stories out there to be told, and the talent is out there.

Liberated Territories: Haile Gerima in Profile

 

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Author’s note: Around Easter time 2015, I dropped in on Sankofa Video Books and Cafe in Washington, D.C., with the intention of drinking some fine Ethiopian coffee, and the vague hope of catching up with its co-proprietor, the great director Haile Gerima. As it happened, he strolled in moments after I did, and we got talking. I bought a bunch of his films on DVD (support the artist!), an act which may have persuaded him to accept when I enquired whether I could return the following day for a more formal interview. Gerima was insightful, thoughtful, and extremely generous with his time. The following feature first appeared in the January 2016 print edition of Sight & Sound Magazine, but I’ve added in a couple of links and details here, plus a not-fit-for-the-newsstands picture of me grinning alongside him. Enjoy.

The career of Ethiopian-born, American-based writer-director Haile Gerima is a fascinating case study of the challenges faced by left-leaning, formally experimental black filmmakers who wish for their work to be widely seen. Consider, for example, the fate of his 1993 film Sankofa, a visceral, tonally poetic, and visually seductive study of an American fashion model who is magically transported back in time from Ghana’s Cape Coast Castle to the antebellum American south, and transformed into a house slave. Here, she falls in love with a rebellious field slave who implores her to poison her white owners.

Like a more esoteric forebear of 12 Years a Slave (2013), but with no golden-locked Brad Pitt figure to salvage the day, Sankofa is a stark immersion into the plantation experience for both central character and viewer. While functioning as a resounding endorsement of the liberating power of self-knowledge, Sankofa, through its complex, detailed portrait of intra-slave relations, also offers a sharp comment on the continued sublimation of slave mentality and practice within contemporary American society. As Gerima told journalist Assata Wright, “If you view America as a plantation, then you can codify the different classes and interest groups within the society. You find overseers, head slaves, you find plantation owners in a very advanced, sophisticated way.”

Despite Gerima’s serious pedigree — he came to prominence in the 1970s alongside the likes of Charles Burnett and (not that) Larry Clark as a leading light of UCLA’s feted “LA Rebellion” movement — the fundraising process for Sankofa took nine gruelling years. Despite the film’s evident artistic qualities and positive critical reception at international festivals, major American distributors, skeptical of its earning potential and cowed by its revolutionary thrust, wouldn’t touch it.

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Sankofa

Unbowed, Gerima opted for the exhausting self-distribution route. (He wasn’t starting from scratch, though: In 1982, Gerima made Ashes and Embers, an elliptical psychodrama about the spiritual awakening of a troubled black Vietnam vet-turned-actor: its bleak tone is conspicuously antithetical to Hollywood’s Rambo-fication of the war. To enable its release, the director, alongside his filmmaker wife Shirikiana Aina, and sister Selome, set up the company Mypheduh Films in the basement of his home in Washington, DC. Ashes and Embers has recently been restored and released by Ava DuVernay’s ARRAY label.)

So, in the pre-lightweight digital days, Gerima took Sankofa to thirty-five different cities, and it ultimately grossed nearly $3m. It was especially successful with black audiences. As Gerima writes on his website, “I witnessed theaters across America turn into night schools, as intense discourse was sparked among audience members … the black image was re-framed on-screen.”

In 1997, using the Sankofa windfall, Gerima and his family upgraded their operations to a large property unit in Washington, located a stone’s throw from the prestigious Howard University, where Gerima has been a professor of film since 1975. They converted it into Sankofa Video and Books, a venue which, as I discovered on a recent visit, still thrives today. Its walls are lined with DVDs and books about black history, literature, and culture, while Gerima frequently hosts screenings in the spacious parking lot, and schedules open mic nights for poets and musicians.

A cafe was added in 2007, where one can purchase food items named after esteemed African and African-American directors (“a ‘Charles Burnett’, for example, is a panini filled with pesto, smoked mozzarella, dill, tomato, and olives, suggesting that no sheep were killed in its creation.) Of his venue, the stocky, white-bearded, softly-spoken 69-year old tells me, “When the black community meet here they call it ‘liberated territory’, which means a place where folks can come to study and think critically.”

Sankofa Video and Books is also a crucial part of Gerima’s independent filmmaking apparatus, fitted with editing facilities where he and Shirikiana can cut their films, and educate students. Gerima, who was extremely generous with his time, showed me to his downstairs editing suite and ran me a series of a clips from his ongoing project, The Children of Adwa, a documentary about the Second colonial Italo-Abyssinian War, which lasted from October 1935 to May 1936. Gerima inherited the project from his father, playwright and historian Abba Gerima Tafere, the author of books like Gondere Begashaw, a chronicle, written in the Amharic language, of anti-fascist uprisings during the Italian occupation of Ethiopia in World War II. Gerima has been recording the testimony of Ethiopian fighters for around 20 years, and intends to make the entirety of his research available to historians.

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Teza

The Children of Adwa is a companion piece to both Teza (2008), his award-winning historical epic, and more specifically Adwa (1999), a lyrical documentary about the victory of the Ethiopian patriots over Italian colonial powers in the eponymous concluding 1896 battle of the first colonial war. Gerima screened Adwa at the Venice Film Festival, and its conscious reframing of history through the director’s national lens, plus its unsparing exposure of Italian brutality, offended local sensibilities. “People stormed out,” he recalls. “Here was an Ethiopian history coming, and it ruined their ideas. Italians always say to me, ‘we built roads, we built clinics and hospitals, we weren’t as cruel as other colonialists’, and I would say ‘Oh no, I remember my father’s book!’”

Gerima’s father was his first conduit to a life in art, and a key figure in introducing him to liberationist, anti-colonial politics that would definitively sequester him from the mainstream. When Haile moved from Ethiopia to Chicago in 1967, he attended drama school, studied as a playwright, and would act in his father’s plays. It was at UCLA, however, where he developed his filmmaking chops. After making a pair of ruminative, dreamlike shorts which filtered black liberation struggles through the respective individual consciousness of a college basketball player (Hourglass, 1971) and an imprisoned woman (Child of Resistance, 1972), Gerima made his feature bow with the staggering Bush Mama (1975). Broaching questions of class, race and gender in a manner rarely seen, this riveting blend of vérité-style docudrama and Brechtian agit-prop centres on a black female welfare-recipient (the charismatic Barbara O. Jones) and her broken family surviving in LA’s impoverished Watts district. Its opening authorial credit gives the game away regarding Gerima’s intentions: Rather than “directed by”, a scrawled legend daubed in white reads “Answerable: Haile Gerima, 1975”.

While extraordinarily relevant in a modern climate of #BlackLivesMatter and student protests at the University of Missouri, Bush Mama was the product of a specific political context (the Vietnam war, anti-colonial struggle, institutional racism) which deeply impacted the filmmaking approach of Gerima and his colleagues: “In the early 1970s there was a rainbow of people who had been casualties of racist cinema, who wanted to countermeasure,” he says. He cites filmmakers like Jorge Sanjinés from Bolivia, Glauber Rocha and the Cinema Novo from Brazil, Miguel Littín of Chile, and Fernando Solanas of Argentina as influences. “Their films mediated our ambiguous relationship to cinema; saying ‘Yes, it can be used against itself.’ The fact that cinema was a perpetrator of imperialism created a very ambiguous relationship for me. I wanted to use film against its own established legacy of what it had been doing to non-white people. This came down to the idea of intensely questioning the cinematic grammar itself.”

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Bush Mama

Another huge influence on Gerima was Senegalese filmmaker Ousmane Sembene, widely regarded as the father of African cinema: “When I saw [Sembene’s 1963 debut] Borom Sarret”, he says, “I thought, ‘Oh, I can make an Ethiopian film! It doesn’t need to have an English script.’ English is a very imperial language, and [its prevalence] makes you feel like all your characters have to speak it to be in a movie. I saw Sembene’s film, and that very same night I stopped writing my next movie Harvest: 3000 Years in English and started writing it in Amharic.”

Filmed in Ethiopia in the direct aftermath of the overthrowing of Emperor Haile Selassie, this stunning monochrome drama chronicles a peasant family toiling under the scornful eye of a wealthy landowner. Alongside Burnett’s Killer of Sheep (1977), Larry Clark’s Passing Through (1977), Julie Dash’s Illusions (1982), and Billy Woodberry’s Bless Their Little Hearts (1984), it’s one of the indisputable high points of the “LA Rebellion”, a term retroactively coined by African-American historian Clyde Taylor in 1986.

As it happens, Gerima is not overly fond of the moniker: “It’s not truthful,” he says. “The very people who endorse this movement now rejected it when it happened — the establishment negated and undermined every innovative form we stumbled through, like jazz.” Gerima is also skeptical of the notion of the Rebellion as solely a black cinema movement, as it is widely regarded (for example, a recent Tate Modern retrospective was entitled LA Rebellion: Creating a New Black Cinema). “Initially it had Latin Americans, Asian students, and even some white kids who were into this idea of a cinema of liberation. But then, typical of the black bourgeoisie in America — and the pitfalls of black nationalism — it was excised from its historical context to make it a ‘black’ phenomena because America deals in race relations only.”

He continues, “I had more identification with a Brazilian filmmaker who I did not even like as a person, but he was a proponent of the liberationist cinema we were all thinking of.” (For his part, Jan-Christopher Horak, director of the UCLA Film & Television Archive and mastermind of the ongoing LA Rebellion restoration project, has written: “I believe the name is not only historically justified, but accurate … To ignore the specific cultural and political context of post-Watts Black America would do an injustice to all African and African American filmmakers at UCLA.”)

Gerima is circumspect yet piercingly honest about why the UCLA school of filmmakers have not enjoyed the careers their talents should have ensured: “We could not sustain a communal, collective co-existence beyond our school days, and that has impacted on all of us. Also, we were naive on the business aspect. We were alienated with the ugly culture of capitalism, but we never converted a socialist business idea, to co-produce each other’s movies, to co-exist, in a very formidable way; it’s a shame.” Gerima recently took to website Indiegogo in an attempt to fund a new narrative feature (Yetut Lij), but fell well short of the ambitious $500,000 goal. The process of finding funding may not get easier as the years go by, but Gerima keeps busy, and will remain an inspiration for all advocates of non-mainstream, anti-colonial, liberationist cinema.

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Auteur and author at Sankofa Video Books and Cafe

A centrifugal force: the magnetic sounds of Trevor Mathison

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

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Black Audio Film Collective, 1989

The trailblazing Black Audio Film Collective (BAFC) officially formed in 1982, but began working together as a loose group of fellow students and friends at Portsmouth Polytechnic two years prior. Comprised of seven multimedia artists and thinkers from backgrounds in fine art, sociology and psychology, they curated programs of avant-garde and anti-colonial world cinema, and made their own work using film, slide-tape texts and video.

It’s no accident that the word ‘Audio’ shared level billing with ‘Film’ in their name: sound held equal importance with image in the realisation of their multilayered output. This remained the case when the group disbanded, and three founding members — director John Akomfrah, producer Lina Gopaul, and sound designer Trevor Mathison — re-emerged in 1998 as the collective Smoking Dogs Films.

Mathison was born in London, of Jamaican heritage, in 1960. His intricate work incorporates elements of dub and musique concrète, and functions as a binding agent for the stylistically disparate visual information featured in the group’s work. Akomfrah cites Mathison as a crucial collaborator: “The musical worlds of these films take the form they do partly because I’ve worked for so long with Trevor,” he told Sound on Film’s Daniel Trilling in 2011. “We’re both very interested in noise, for want of a better word: what Trevor at one point called the ‘post-soul noise’. These are sounds that take their cue from pre-existing black musics … but they’ve been defamiliarised, put through a sonic box that renders them strange and unusual.”

“Strange, unusual sounds” pepper the landscape of Akomfrah’s directing debut Handsworth Songs (1986), an essay film about the social unrest in the eponymous West Midlands district, which invites the viewer to reflect on how mainstream news grossly simplified the complex roots of the conflict. Mathison’s meshing of vocal loops, political broadcasts, dubby beats and surging electronics evokes specific musical influences — reggae soundsystem pioneer Jah Shaka (whose music appears in the film); industrial pioneers Cabaret Voltaire; David Byrne and Brian Eno’s cut + paste classic ‘My Life in the Bush of Ghosts’, for example — while heralding a radical approach to imparting information in a nonfiction context. As suggested by Jean Fisher in excellent BAFC compendium ‘The Ghosts of Songs’, the film boasts “a polyvocality of recorded testimonies and intercessional poetic voiceovers that, contrary to the ‘explanatory’ panoptical impulse of the documentary narrator, build an oblique relation to the audiovisual track.”

As well as conjuring fractured, haunting aural landscapes (see/hear also: 1989’s Twilight City), Mathison excels at integrating existing music to imaginative effect. In Who Needs a Heart (1991), a bleak docudrama about London-based 1960s self-styled revolutionary Michael X (aka Michael DeFreitas), avant-garde jazz largely stands in for dialogue. Why imagine words, the film seems to ask, when the feral, squawking horns of Albert Ayler, Ornette Coleman or Eric Dolphy evoke the pain and paranoia of the characters and the era appropriately enough? Jazz is also to the fore in The Stuart Hall Project (2013), which matches the melancholy-suffused music of Miles Davis against various archival recordings of the eponymous scholar in a moving, time-collapsing duet (“When I was 18 or 19,” says Hall in the film, “Miles Davis put his finger on my soul”).

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Trevor Mathison

In postcolonial-historical collage The Nine Muses (2010), Mathison’s scope is at its widest, forcing the viewer to challenge received canonical wisdom: he blends a vast range of classical texts (read by actors in voiceover) with Arvo Pärt liturgicals, negro spirituals and Indian courtly music to bewitching effect. Mathison also appears in front of the camera, playing a silent, deadpan wanderer stranded in a succession of ice-white Alaskan landscapes.

In essay film-cum-Afrofuturist fantasy The Last Angel of History (1996), meanwhile, interviews with esteemed black writers, cultural critics and musicians (including George Clinton, Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry, Derrick May, Carl Craig etc.) are interwoven with the fictional story of a “data thief” who must travel through space and time in search of the code that holds the key to his — and the black diaspora’s — future. Yet subversively, almost none of the cited artists’ music is deployed in the film. “Last Angel proved conclusively to both me and Trevor that you could actually use your own sounds to bring [these worlds] into being,” Akomfrah told Trilling.

Mathison’s work isn’t limited to the BAFC/Smoking Dogs continuum. In March 2001 he, ex-BAFC member Edward George, and Anna Piva, under the name Flow Motion, created a digital audiovisual installation entitled Dissolve based on Michelangelo Antonioni’s lysergic countercultural adventure Zabriskie Point (1970). Mathison has also recently celebrated ten years of collaboration with fellow sound designer Gary Stewart under the moniker dubmorphology. Based in London, they conceptualise, produce and perform audiovisual events and installations largely based on themes of race, nationhood and memory.

Mathison, softly spoken and self-effacing in person, explains the difference in approach between BAFC/Smoking Dogs and his collaboration with Stewart: “When it comes to working with John, my thing is not to compete with the rest of the way the film has been set up — to complicate the situation by putting rhythms against another set of rhythms. The films have a very precise alchemy, a different kind of poetry. When Gary and I are doing our stuff, we can wig out,” he says with a wry smile.

One of dubmorphology’s most recent projects was the ambitious Mission to the Land of Misplaced Memories, a “memory collection spaceship” installation at Tate Britain. It’s a collaboration with writer Gaylene Gould, who told me about their process: “We sat piecing together ideas and concepts, trying to map the complex mess of human behaviour. Trevor, who is also an accomplished artist, would quietly draw a sketch that perfectly encompassed what we’d been trying to grasp. The swiftness with which he is able to embody a complex idea is astounding. I’m convinced he’s a wizard.”

Mathison may be reluctant to sing his own praises, but others are keen to highlight his crucial role in the artistic landscape of the past three decades. Culture critic Kodwo Eshun has hailed Mathison’s pioneering use of tape loops for their ability to make “the imperial anxieties of the early twentieth century resonate… with the multiple fears of the present.” Gould, meanwhile, lauds Mathison as “the quiet centrifugal force behind what we now recognise as a black British aesthetic. Essentially he helped re-imagine how sound and image can work differently to carry an African diasporic motif.” It’s heady, justified acclaim for a quiet man behind a sustained revolution in sound.

Watch Twilight City in full:

 

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

dope1

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.