Category Archives: Movies

Black IS Beautiful. Does Hollywood Know It?

A couple of weeks ago, Beasts of the Southern Wild got nominated for some big-time Oscar categories, Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actress. It’s the story of a little girl, Hushpuppy, living in rural Louisiana, a place they call the Bathtub, with her father. It’s off the grid kind of living and by the end of the movie, Hushpuppy has to find the strength to navigate that world on her own.

I saw the movie a few months ago, after hearing a lot about it and how vivid it was. Lots of critics loved it and have lauded it for its naturalistic scenes, its celebration of community, and its entry into folklore. Not to mention, who doesn’t love an underdog story of a first-time director filming people who had never before acted in post-Katrina Louisiana? And there is no denying that Quvenzhané Wallis (Hushpuppy) is a powerhouse on screen. She has a ton of presence and is cute as all get out in this interview with Andre Leon Talley:

Andre Leon Talley and Quvenzhané Wallis

But, the same day I saw Beasts of the Southern Wild, I also saw Chicken With Plums, Marjane Satrapi’s live-action movie based on the graphic novel of the same name. It was kind of an indie movie marathon day for me. Satrapi’s Persepolis, a movie that came out in 2007, is one of those movies that I grow to love more each time I see it, and I loved it a lot initially. Chicken With Plums mines the same geography as Persepolis: Iran. It begins with its lead character’s death and the movie tells the story of how that death occurred. What a downer, you might think. But, the movie, though it did make me cry, was achingly beautiful. A beautiful story with an inclination to view life, even this life that we know from the beginning will soon be over, as beautiful. Beasts of the Southern Wild, on the other hand, lacked even an ounce of beauty. The movie tackled the difficult subject of poverty (and we do probably talk about and deal with death better in this country than poverty) and wrenched sympathy from the viewer in shot after shot of Hushpuppy wandering the swamp in dirty underwear looking for her absent father. The shots meant to strike us as uplifting, as a kind of beautiful, like when Hushpuppy breaks into a crab all by herself, felt instead like sport, like poverty porn. A viewer can watch a scene of small triumph for a person who has been struggling and get off on it, derive pleasure from thinking that now all is well for that character and can leave the theater glad that you’re not one of them. Don’t even get me started on Precious.

A couple  walked out of the screening of Beasts of the Southern Wild and I understood the inclination. The movie didn’t make me feel connected to Hushpuppy or the folks of the Bathtub. It seemed to be written and shot to make a viewer feel that they were apart from the characters. Welcome to the Freak Show, I seemed to be told during scenes showing the odd education the children receive, the wretched conditions they live in, or at the kind of love that’s between this father and daughter. The beauty of Chicken With Plums was the belief that the lead character’s story was worthy and that in the telling–even in the sad, inevitable end–there was beauty to be bestowed on any one who watched it. But, in Beasts of the Southern Wild, black and poor and disenfranchised was never made to feel worthy of any more than the pitying gaze of the moviegoer.

I left the theater trying to remember the last time I had seen a beautiful image of blackness in media, maybe I’ll just have to enjoy images like this all the more.

 

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Django Unchained: Reparations for the New Millenium

Liking Django Unchained, director Quentin Tarantino’s slavery era Western, has become the ilk of race traitors. Seeing it, according to some, was bad enough. But enjoying the bloody, hyperbolic film? Out of the question. Tarantino has envisioned a fantasy slavery, that’s true and some viewers take issue with that. Yet, the movie isn’t really about slavery. No one will leave the theater with a clear, historical perspective on the Antebellum south, but the lack of it being about SLAVERY and instead being set during slavery is actually part of why I enjoyed it. It’s a revenge western starring a black man rescuing a black woman, a scenario which feels rare in cinema. Kerry Washington, Broomhilda and the love of Django (Jamie Foxx), is laying alone after she believes she will never see Django again and when he opens the door to find her, he says, “It’s me, baby.” It felt like it had been an eternity since I had heard such sweet words spoken between a black man and a black woman. That Tarantino was the one to get them to the screen might be an issue for another day.

Of course, Django being set in the midst of slavery, even Tarantino’s satirized version of it, does mean that it actually must be discussed. Movies about slavery, or anything that is difficult and troubling to deal with, often end up didactic and therefore static in the thinking and response to it. Spike set color consciousness, intra-racial racism in the black community with its roots in slavery, to music! Why can’t Tarantino have a bold, satirical take on an institution so brutal, an era so painful that it’s rarely spoken of, much less dealt with? Nazi is in our every day lexicon, someone openly acknowledged as evil. But when was the last time, someone was called a slaver? Black people might joke and indict with some of the language of slavery: overseer, y’assuh massuh, but if as a culture we don’t accept and acknowledge, universally, that those labels of slavery are evil, how are we ever assured that the oppression that fed slavery and kept it fat and satisfied for centuries, can one day be no more? Jamie Foxx shooting whites willing to enslave other humans–to buy and sell and demand handshakes over dessert to seal the deal–felt like reparations to me. Payback never looked so twisted and messy and imperfect: kind of the way race relations still looks in this country.

The Souls of White Folks

I finally did it. Like a dreaded homework assignment I’d been putting off, I finally watched The Help. Although I feel like that title is misleading, as though the movie is actually about the help. I feel like White Girl Utopia might have been a better title. Perhaps Miss Skeeter All Growed Up. Or even something a bit more poetic like I Dreamed of Jackson. Dreamed seems appropriate. A hallucination, a fabrication. You know how you wake up and tell people you had the strangest dream and in it you baked a sh*t pie for a white woman in 1960s Mississippi and somehow didn’t end up dead in a ditch?

But I digress, because although I struggled factually with the movie, it’s fine because it’s not like anyone watches this movie and imagines they’ve gotten an accurate history lesson, right? I mean no one uses pop culture as a substitution for facts. Right? I see now the fault was mine because I thought that a movie featuring black women’s stories would have actually focused on the black women. Or did I miss what happened to Abilene’s husband or any family other than her son in the midst of Skeeter getting her hair done? I hate when I miss character development because I start thinking about how cu-ute someone’s hair is! Gee, that dress sure is pretty Miss Hilly. Wait, did the first act of violence in the movie come at the hands of a black husband towards his black wife? And then the only other act of violence on screen come from the police legitimately arresting a woman who had stolen? Well, that’s certainly the only violence I remember reading about in the Jim Crow South. Fiddle-dee-dee Miss Scarlett. Who cares about all that if we can one day sit down at the table of Brotherly Love, soothe white guilt, and eat some fried chicken?

Thurgood Marshall once said: “I’m so tired of trying to save white folks’ souls.” I have a feeling Hollywood’s never heard that one before.

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Undignified

All hail Viola Davis. I couldn’t bring myself to see the movie, but Viola Davis almost convinced me to and this only proves why she’s great and frankly better the material: http://nymag.com/daily/entertainment/2011/11/there-are-three-words-viola-davis-would-rather-not-hear-anymore.html?mid=378086&rid=122574027

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A Good Whitewashing

For the first time a few days ago, I saw the movie I Love You Man starring Paul Rudd and Jason Segel, where they become friends because Paul Rudd needs male friends and a best man for his upcoming wedding. Rudd’s fiancee is Rashida Jones, an actor who has been making her way on shows like Parks and Recreation and who is also the daughter of Quincy Jones and Peggy Lipton.

Negro Girls everywhere I thought could rejoice a bit. Here is a colored girl whose color isn’t the point in the movie. The prospect of her not being white isn’t even mentioned. Color blindness I don’t believe in, but color-beside-the-pointness I can get. At the end of the movie, when Rashida Jones heads down the aisle to meet Paul Rudd, she isn’t escorted by her father, but we’ve been told that her father is out of the picture. Yet, no one at all from the family of Jones’s character seems to be there. Besides a black minister, there doesn’t actually appear to be any people of color at the wedding. It made me…uncomfortable. Was there a decision to not even in a minor way nod to the fact that Jones isn’t just another white girl? Does she want it that way? It seems in more roles than just this one that she is stripped of any racial designation. Or maybe producers and directors want it that way? Or maybe, I was making more of this than necessary. Except for the other day.

Jones is in a new series of Dove hair commercials that asks if your hair has a mind of its own and wants women “to make friends with their hair.” Sure. Sounds good. In the commercial that just started running, Jones shows up to lunch with her white girlfriends. Her hair is a mess, bedraggled, bushy, unmanageable. Is her race equally unmanageable in Hollywood? Dove wants to tame her hair, make it lay down in submission and make it no different than the sleek and shiny hair of the white girls across from her at the lunch table. But, she is different. She isn’t just like them in hair or in color. A decision to be homogenous would make getting roles easier, better to not stand out Rashida Jones might think. I would hope it would actually be better for she and every woman of color be incorporated to make a broader spectrum instead of being whitewashed.

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Filming in Soft Focus

All summer, I ranted about the movie The Help (hear other opinions here and here). I’d actually been ranting since the book came out, but I’ll save my bookstore rant for another time. I still haven’t gone to see the movie, and I have no plans to do so. I’m sure some Saturday afternoon not too long from now, I’ll stomach watching it on Lifetime or maybe OWN. I am a movie lover though, especially a classic movie lover. If I had no other channel than Turner Classic Movies (ok and probably Bravo for Top Chef and The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills), I would be content. I can end up watching old movies all day when I’m supposed to do far more productive things.

Being a Negro Girl, however, troubles the waters of say a Carole Lombard marathon. In Hands Across the Table, Lombard’s love interest Fred MacMurray does a racist impression of a Chinese man. Later, a bumbling black man comes to give Carole Lombard a message. The black man is Fred Toones, better known by his nickname Snowflake. He was often the shoeshine man in the movies and if you look at his long list of films he goes uncredited in most of them. It could be said that films have progressed far from Snowflake, at least The Help is bringing race concerns to forefront. Fred Toones would never have had such luck. Or The Help is just doing an updated version of what lots of old movies did: filming in soft focus.

In The Misfits, screen icon’s Marilyn Monroe’s last movie (and also that of her co-star Clark Gable, he more famously of a movie that speaks to racial depiction and Hollywood: Gone with the Wind) she is filmed in soft focus. Her features are slightly blurred, her eyes soft and welcoming. Who couldn’t fall in love with that idealized image? But whenever there’s a shot that includes her and background, the background is blurred as well. Maybe it was a stipulation of Monroe’s, maybe because of depression and drug abuse, director John Huston looked at the movie and thought it was better for her features to not be sharp. But when you watch the movie, it does more of a disservice to Monroe. If you fall in love with that soft focus, you aren’t falling in love with the truth. And if you leave The Help feeling like you’ve just gotten a history lesson about the lives of black women in the sixties, you’re leaving with a feeling that isn’t based on the truth. The Help and the story of the Civil Rights Movement, of racism and racial struggle itself, are filmed in soft focus. It is a way to make racism more comfortable, more palatable, easily digestible. But I can’t see when there’s ever a time when racism should go down easy. Injustice–fire hoses and church bombings and lynchings–should burn all the way down.

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