Tuesday, February 28, 2012

BLACK WOMEN IN INDEPENDENT FILM IN 2011 (Dark Girls, Pariah & The Black Power Mixtape)

'Pariah' (2011)
I don't wanna get carried away and make a crazy statement like: "There was an EXPLOSION of black cinema in 2011" (something I'm sure a lot of people would be quick to say) but at the same time, there was enough to make a small dent, which is better than nothing (Pariah, Black Power Mixtape & Dark Girls). Most of these films were centered around a demographic that often gets overlooked and is constantly misunderstood & misrepresented on the big screen: Black Women. I imagine some of you may be thinking; "But Marcus, what about The Help?." In my opinion, even though I love Viola Davis, the whole vibe of The Help comes off like another Drivin' Miss Daisy to me (just my opinion). It's a confusing mixture of humor, drama & oversimplified racism. From the poster, to the trailer, which came off somewhat "upbeat", it gives off this vibe as if to say: "Oh Boy that segregation sure was a doozy! Ah boy, being black in the 1950's sure was wacky, wasn't it?" I'm honestly amazed (and VERY confused) at the amount of positive reviews and acclaim The Help has been getting. But at the same time I get it. It makes (some) white people feel good about themselves and (most) black people will blindly support anything "black" without putting too much thought in to it (there, I said it). As I watched Octavia Spencer win an academy award the other night it almost made me cringe as everyone in attendance gave her a standing ovation.
Precious was another recently praised film that also confused me. It brought up all these emotions and feelings that honestly make me feel like I'm alone in this world sometimes. Upon receiving an article from my father about how Hollywood likes dysfunctional black characters (which is kind of true), stemming from Mo'nique's academy award win for best supporting actress in 2010, I had this to say (you may wanna read this article below before going any further):

"Hollywood Likes Dysfunctional Black Characters"

And now read how my simple email response to my father slowly turned in to an essay/rant hybrid...

the person who wrote this article doesn't completely know what they're talking about.

for example:

"Okay, so we all know that Mo'Nique deserved the best supporting actress Oscar she won this past Sunday. Her performance in "Precious" was brilliant, and there’s no way I’m going to diss my homegirl"

NO! her performance wasn't "brilliant". shes not even a good actor. its just a novelty. a comedic personality plays a serious role for the first time, and people automatically jump all over it. Actually, id like someone to point out the difference between Mo'nique's character in precious and the actress who played Ice Cube's mother in Boyz N' The Hood. Where's her academy award?? Plus, the span between those two characters is almost 20 years. that's proof right there that black film isn't really moving forward. in fact its come full circle. 20 years later, and the same angry, single, bad black mother character is still being portrayed (and praised).

another example that the person writing this article doesn't know what they're talking about:

"Of the six black Oscar winners since 2002, only Morgan Freeman and Jamie Foxx played African-Americans who were even close to normal."

no way. he's talking about morgan freeman's oscar win for "million dollar baby". its like black people don't even realize that in a pivotal scene in million dollar baby, morgan freeman's character beat up a black person to defend a white person...the same white person who called him a "nigger" at the beginning of the movie. But he's morgan freeman, so no one (especially black people) can criticize him, because hes the wise sounding, smooth talking, old black guy. but i see through that. I'm not fooled. how many role's has morgan freeman played the helpful black sidekick to the white lead? or how many times has he played the wise, mysterious black person who always helps the lead white character (sometimes sacrificing his own life)? plenty.
Black people aren't critical enough if you ask me. we accept things way too easily. its like black people are saying; "did a black person just win some shiny trophy?? well, I'm gonna automatically support that person and the movie, and not even take the time to break down what the movie is about, or break down the performance of the character." and the few times a black person does criticize negative black roles, the black community pulls that "why do black people always have to tear down other black people?" crap. i don't wanna hear that shit. and white people don't want to say anything about negative black roles, because their scared someone is gonna pull the race card.
to say Hollywood likes dysfunctional black characters is kinda vague, because how many white actors have been nominated or won oscars and other various awards for playing dysfunctional characters? plenty. There's bigger issues concerning black people in film today


Now here we are two years later and not much has changed. A lot of the things I said in that email response above still apply today. I'm sorry (actually I'm not sorry) but characters like Tyler Perry's "Madea" (which looks like it wont be going away any time soon) and Mo'Nique's performance in 'Precious' have a negative effect on the image of black women. And I'm not denying that Octavia Spencer and Viola Davis didn't give great performances in The Help, but at the same time, I'm done with movies like that. Is it possible to make a film showing black women not just in a positive light (because that's a little vague vague), but show how beautiful, attractive, complex and talented they are? Thanks to recent films like Pariah, Dark Girls (which has yet to be released) and The Black Power Mixtape (which is starting to develop quite a lil' cult following), things are lookin' up!

At the very end of Pariah, a coming of age tale about a New York teen coming to grips with being a lesbian, I couldn't help but worry that newcomer; Adepero Oduye (who gave an AMAZING performance in her first starring role) might turn in to another Shareeka Epps - another young black actress who gave an equally commanding & original performance in Half Nelson, but has yet to be seen in much since (which was over 5 years ago). Sure, there may be factors as to why we haven't seen her in many other films (maybe she just didn't want to act that much or maybe she wanted to focus on school give her age). But I tend to lean towards whats probably the real reason - the American movie industry is pretty messed. Generally speaking, American filmmakers don't seem to know how to portray black female characters that don't look a certain way. I mean really, stop and ask yourself why Nona Gaye (Ali), Naomie Harris (Miami Vice), China Shavers (Beginners) and even Nia Long (who's clearly found the fountain of youth) don't turn up in more films in starring roles.Look at European actresses who have made the transition in to mainstream/American studio films like Juliette Binoche, Marian Cotillard and Audrey Tatou. How come beautiful black actresses based out of France like Aissa Maiga (Bamako, Russian Dolls) or Mati Diop (35 Shots Of Rum) haven't made the same transisiton? Surely acting ability or beauty isn't the question. I know Kerry Washington has been holding it down, but she cant do it all by herself. What makes Kirsten Dunst, Natalie Portman, Cameron Diaz or Emma Stone more attractive or more appealing than the aforementioned black actresses? I mean, I know we all know the real reason, but I'm just sayin'...
At the moment things are looking up for Adepero Oduye. At the golden globes Meryl Streep gave her a shout out in her acceptance speech and then overnight she got signed to a talent agency. Lets see how the film industry can use her.
In Pariah we follow "Alike"; a Brooklyn teen who isn't exactly in the closet, but isn't exactly openly gay either. She almost leads a double life. When she's home or around her parents (a religious mother who senses that Alike is gay, and tries to "fix" her; and a father, also in denial about his daughter's sexual orientation, although slightly more caring) she tries to dress and act more feminine. When she's not at home or around her parents she dresses more "boyish", hangs out with one of her only (also gay) friends and frequents a popular gay club. As the film progresses things kinda start to spiral out of control for Alike and she learns things about herself and the people around her which forces her to grow up and mature faster than others her age. Pariah walks the same path as films like Mouchette, Match Factory Girl & Welcome To The Dollhouse (Adepero Oduye's performance was also reminiscent of Whoopi Goldberg in The Color Purple).

Its obvious that the Swedish documentary The Black Power Mixtape wasn't JUST about Angela Davis, but at the same time she was (literally) the poster child for the film. Next to the section that focused on Stokely Carmichael, the parts on Angela Davis are probably the most memorable. I've always been intrigued by Davis and this documentary just heightened that intrigue. From her signature afro right down to the way she carries herself in interviews, she's one of a kind. It makes me wonder why more films don't focus on her. Its a sad state of affairs when there's more of a demand for a Sarah Palin biopic then there is for one on Angela Davis (or even someone like Assata Shakur for that matter). The Black Power Mixtape is a documentary made out of hours of edited footage taken by Swedish filmmakers in the 1960's & 1970's who went to Oakland and Harlem to document the Black Power movement for the Swedish news. The doc features great archival footage of speeches and interviews from many prominent black civil rights figures and revolutionaries (Davis, Carmichael, Bobby Seale, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr, Eldridge Cleaver, etc) with up to date interviews and voice-over commentary from artists like Erykah Badu, Talib Kweli & Questlove. This documentary has structure but its also chaotic and unstructured at the same time (if that makes any sense) which is what I love about it so much.
I think the most unique thing about the making of this film is that even though its captured through the eyes of white Europeans, it still doesn't objectify or misrepresent black people in any way. But at the same time I shouldn't be all that surprised given that so many modern European directors like; Michael Haneke (Code Unknown & Cache), Nicolas Provost (The Invader) and Claire Denis (No Fear, No Die & 35 Shots Of Rum) seem to be the main directors making most of the progressive films concerning black people and race issues today.

Bill Duke is similar to Tom Noonan. As an actor he's mostly known for stuff like Predator & Commando (similar to how as an actor Noonan is mostly know for Monster Squad & The Last Action Hero) but as a director Duke focuses on more personal stories (like Tom Noonan's directorial debut; What Happened Was..., which might be one of the most personal & real stories to ever be put on the big screen in the last 25 years). Duke's latest documentary; Dark Girls addresses real issues concerning black women and could have easily been twice as long. When I caught this at Toronto it was nice to see a packed theater. When you're like me and go to the regular movie theaters I go too (Anthology Film Archives, IFC center, Film Forum, etc), you're use to being one of the only black people there (even at screenings of films that speak directly to black people).
Dark Girls is a complex film about the racism, struggles & pressure black women face all over the world. Duke focuses on internal racism inside of the black community (black men not being attracted to black women because their too dark, black women being encouraged by their family to be with someone lighter or white so they don't have dark kids, etc), and he interviews everyone from actresses like Viola Davis to "every day" women. Certain aspects of the documentary were summarized and wrapped up a little too nicely for my taste, but at the end of the day this documentary dealt with issues that other films haven't so its a success in my book.


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...