Tag Archives: 12 Years a Slave

Heroes of Black Entertainment Part 2

Courtesy of teem.org

Courtesy of teem.org

Last week, I wrote tributes to five incredibly talented and inspiring black entertainers to celebrate Black History Month. Five doesn’t cut it. This week, I’m honoring five more wonderful talents. Ten still is nowhere near enough, but it’s better than five.

Eartha Kitt

Courtesy of harryallen.info

Courtesy of harryallen.info

I can almost guarantee you that you’ll recognize Kitt from her signature gravelly purr and her champagne-gargled helium voice (which was featured in The Emperor’s New Groove). There was always a trace of wariness and a sad-eyed expression behind her gregariously coquettish persona. It could easily stem from her traumatic childhood. Born on a cotton-picking plantation in South Carolina to a white plantation owner father (whose identity was withheld from her by local authorities for her entire life) and a black mother, she was given up for adoption where she was regularly abused by her half-siblings and even raped by one of the half-brothers. At nine, she fled to Harlem and started singing and dancing as a means to escape living in subway stations. She struggled with an identity crisis at the beginning of her career in the 1950s because white film and TV producers were afraid that white audiences wouldn’t accept a sexualized black woman. She made the most of her stage and nightclub appearances where she donned the persona of “the original Material Girl,” singing tongue-in-cheek songs about gold-diggers and la grande vie in seven different languages.

Courtesy of cheesecakeslice.blogspot.com

Courtesy of cheesecakeslice.blogspot.com

Her eccentric persona, which was most iconically displayed as the second Catwoman on the cult 60s TV series Batman, overshadowed the fact that Kitt was also a powerhouse dramatic actress. Her Emmy-nominated performance as a heroin-addicted nightclub singer in I Spy is one of the most uncompromisingly gritty portrayals of addiction I have ever seen (many people seemed to agree as it was widely thought she was actually an addict after this performance). On a Ben Casey episode she gives a heartbreaking performance of a well-to-do and loved doctor’s wife who suffers from crippling clinical depression and mental illness. In spite of the many hard knocks, Kitt has never shied away from her beliefs. In 1968, she was pretty much professionally ostracized from the US for almost ten years when she confronted Lady Bird Johnson about the Vietnam War. I am still partial to her 80s disco phase where she humorously basks in her own outrageousness and otherworldly sexiness.

Louis Armstrong

Courtesy of en.wikipedia.org

Courtesy of en.wikipedia.org

It may seem cliché now since what seems like every musician has cited Armstrong as a musical influence, but it’s totally justified as he was one of the pioneers of modern music. His sense of rhythm and improvisation were as transformative for the times as those who were firsthand recipients of electricity. He coined the terms “cat” and “chops” which are still used in musical vernacular today. When he was starting out in New Orleans in the teens, jazz, which was billed as “race music,” was still very much a niche genre (and almost completely unknown to whites at the time). Once whites became hip and started diggin’ the music, in typical fashion, the press gave all the air time to white musicians and ignored most of the black pioneers. Armstrong, who had a distinctive vocal and trumpeting technique coupled with an effortlessly warm and captivating stage presence (apparently in real life he had a volatile temper), simply couldn’t be relegated out of the spotlight. His enthusiasm for his craft is contagious, even when listening to him or seeing him perform. What I found most interesting to learn about Armstrong was the liberal use of profanity in his vocabulary. On a recording with Billie Holiday his audible use of “fuck” drew much fire from critics and audiences of the day. His presence made even the most tedious of projects such as the Hollywood films High Society and Hello Dolly worthwhile. Although Armstrong was demoted to playing second fiddle to whites on screen, off camera he didn’t put up with their crap. He publicly called out President Eisenhower for not doing enough for civil rights. He was going strong until his bulimia caught up with him and contributed to a fatal heart attack in 1971. Thankfully his soul lives on in the countless recordings and film and TV appearances he made in his productive and jiving career.

Richard Ayoade

Courtesy of movies.yahoo.com

Courtesy of movies.yahoo.com

Indie films and TV shows are supposedly greater outlets for people who don’t fit the norm (anyone not young, fit, conventionally attractive white men and women). Counterintuitively, people of color have fewer opportunities in the alternative sector than in mainstream venues. British comedian, actor, writer, and filmmaker Richard Ayoade has infiltrated this whity tighty community, but strictly on his own terms. His droll delivery, nerdy persona, drawing laughs from constructing the humor of jokes, and his penchant for an absurd point-of-view make Ayoade one of the brightest personalities in interviews, comedy specials, and panel shows. He first gained prominence as one of the nerdy, socially awkward computer geniuses in the Britcom The IT Crowd. In the meantime, he’s directed two films, Submarine and The Double, both of which sound like wholly original concepts done with a dark, quirky touch. The latter film, which should be released sometime this year, is currently on the festival circuit and is drawing great reviews commending his inspired take of a Dostoevsky text. Right now, he’s one of the regular panelists and truthfully the only bright-spot of a too-thin premise British game show Was it Something I Said? His sarcastic defense of Hitler in the first episode is priceless. Since it’s only in its first series, it has potential to get better.

Dee Rees

Courtesy of stuffflypeoplelike.com

Courtesy of stuffflypeoplelike.com

As in life, black women in the film industry are on the lowest on the totem pole, with almost no chance to direct a feature film (though that is slowly changing). It is super inspiring (and perhaps slightly insane) that young writer-filmmaker Dee Rees would double up on what is considered box-office poison; a film that is largely an ensemble of black females and concerns lesbianism as one of its central themes. Yet she has persisted with this vision for years. The film, Pariah, began as a short that made festival rounds in 2007, drawing great acclaim. Despite the positive notices, Rees only received $500,000 to make the feature-length version. In what must have been trying circumstances, she managed to make an excellent film in terms of narrative, production values, and acting, using the unpolished roughness to create a tone that is in accordance with its realist and impressionist mood.

Courtesy of www.blackonblackcinema.com

Courtesy of www.blackonblackcinema.com

Pariah examines the repression and rigidity of the middle class in an upwardly mobile New York City black neighborhood through the experiences of Alike (Adepero Oduye), a thoughtful young adult grappling with being in the closet and trying to deal with her quietly dysfunctional family. Rees’ nuanced script evocatively presents the complexities and contradictions of all its characters, so that no one is strictly one-dimensionally good or bad. Instead, her approach is to present all of her characters as people, rather than archetypes, who are worthy of scorn, empathy, and sympathy. Had an art house theater owner in Rhode Island not shown Pariah, even though he knew he would take a loss, chances are good I never would have seen this film. Although there have been black female directors before Rees, like Julie Dash and Euzhan Palcy, their directorial careers typically fizz out quickly. When Pariah the feature was released in 2011, to another round of raves, Rees didn’t receive much attention from entertainment publications and wasn’t part of any of the major panels of independent filmmakers. If we want challenging films that aren’t the typical Hollywood fare, it is in our best interest as consumers to support artists like Rees who have the vision and the craft to execute them.

Steve McQueen

Courtesy of thewrap.com

Courtesy of thewrap.com

While he shares his name with the iconic (white) Hollywood star of the 1960s and 70s, McQueen, a black writer-director from London, has firmly carved out his own identity. What white McQueen was for escapist action entertainment, black McQueen is for gritty and hard-hitting character dramas. This year, McQueen is the critical toast of the town with his stellar and unrelenting masterpiece, 12 Years a Slave, which by multiple accounts is a faithful adaptation of Solomon Northup’s 1853 memoir. Slave’s lucid somber treatment of blacks is perhaps the first significant antidote to the racist and problematic depictions in Gone with the Wind and The Birth of a Nation. The epic scope of the film unflinchingly depicts them as people with their own feelings and points of view, rather than mere victims. It also convincingly shows how slavery is detrimental to white people’s sanity. Slave has received bits of criticism; some have claimed that McQueen’s art school sensibility overly prettified things while others, like well-known contrarian critic Armond White decried it as “torture porn.” Interestingly, Slave is McQueen’s first film dealing with race issues.

Courtesy of npr.org

Courtesy of npr.org

In fact, McQueen’s debut feature, Hunger, is uniformly populated with white bodies, as it tackles the hunger strike taken by Irish Republican Army prison inmates led by leader Bobby Sands (Michael Fassbinder). Hunger acted as a calling card for both McQueen and Fassbinder, but they gained more prominence with their next collaboration, Shame, a NYC-based drama about the tortuous life of a sex addict. Although McQueen has made only three features, he’s been producing art-house shorts featured in museum exhibitions for nearly twenty years, many of which seem to be more about ambiance and movement than plot. Although his works are more towards traditional narrative, McQueen doesn’t seem likely to tamp down the content of his works. Hopefully the success of Slave will grant him (and other black directors and writers) the opportunity to create more hard-hitting and necessary dramas.

Review: Dallas Buyers Club (2013)

How to Make a Profit and Save Lives

Courtesy of ropeofsilicon.com

Courtesy of ropeofsilicon.com

By Adam Tawfik

Dallas Buyers Club has all of the elements for a Lifetime-esque treatment. The protagonist, Ron Woodruff (Matthew McConaughey) is a homophobic white-trash drug and sex addict, who receives a shattering HIV diagnosis giving him 30 days to live. In order to fight the odds, he must stand up to the FDA and medical establishment by smuggling and using illegal drugs.  He encounters a flamboyant transsexual Rayon (Jared Leto), who becomes his business partner, and an idealistic doctor (Jennifer Garner) who initially opposes his tactics.

Under the helm of director Jean-Marc Valleé and screenwriters Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack, Dallas resists all temptations to be pat and preachy (save for a couple of scenes, but they’re minor enough to be forgiven). Dallas instead opts for a lucid and intellectual approach to AIDS, a disease that tends to get overly politicized and emotionalized in popular discourse and films due to its characterization as a gay disease. The film widens its scope so that it’s more than about rectifying homophobia, or about homosexuality and AIDS, or simply one man fighting against the government; it illuminates all of the above.

Courtesy of showbizmonkeys.com

Courtesy of showbizmonkeys.com

The filmmakers wisely let the facts and the characters speak for themselves. The first act consists of a subtle ripple effect of Ron coming to terms with his diagnosis. Although he acts like he’s invincible on the outside, little things show us he’s frightened. As he reads articles and realizes his drug use and unprotected sex gave him AIDS he is uncharacteristically unable to participate in the orgy in his trailer. There is an almost subliminal split-second image of him looking at the calendar and a flashing of red for 30 days representing his limited life span.

Dallas also shows how AIDS victims were ostracized. First, we see in a bar scene that Ron’s friends fear that he’s infectious. When he spits on them after a fight, they freak and cleanse themselves of the evil germs. Then his community shuns him by menacingly standing over his car and not letting him come to work and shutting off his trailer with an eviction notice. This is shown with surgical precision, using concise, short scenes.

Courtesy of huffingtonpost.com

Courtesy of huffingtonpost.com

Ron puts himself in danger by illegally taking AZT and almost dies, but we understand why he takes the risk, as doctors simply gave him 30 days to live, with no hope or medical options. They are impervious to the urgency the AIDS victims are feeling. Once Ron figures out there are more effective treatments that are illegal in the US and begins importing them from other countries, he sets up a distribution center, which he calls the Dallas Buyers Club, making them available to anyone with money by monthly subscription.

The rest of the film then centers on the legal tug-of-war between the FDA and the Dallas Buyers’ Club.  There’s an excellent monologue delivered by a Supreme Court judge where he explains that the law isn’t logical or fair when ruling against Ron’s petition to continue the buyers’ club. This is still timely, considering the healthcare crisis today.

Courtesy of gazette.com

Courtesy of gazette.com

Even as Ron’s life totally changes, the film doesn’t magically transform him into a saint. He remains a character we admire more than like. He manages a true trajectory, beginning as a disgusting, rude, uncouth rube, slowly transforming his life.  He is never a part of the gay scene and stays resentful of his forced association. But from the beginning his ethical streak is evident and grows as the film progresses.  He approaches the Dallas Buyers Club as a business and he’s always a bit of a huckster, as is his partner, Rayon, whom he enlists to get more clients, particularly the flamboyantly gay ones, with whom Ron is very uncomfortable.

He never entirely gets over his homophobia. So his final scene with Rayon is touching, because the script shows that although he cares about Rayon (even though they constantly spar), he still is squeamish and is reluctant to hug him; this rings true and feels human. He manages to see each individual as a person regardless of their sexuality.

Courtesy of eonline

Courtesy of eonline

McConaughey once again proves that he’s more than a pretty boy and gets full in to his physically demanding role. There’s considerably little of his trademark roguish charm. He gives full conviction to his unsympathetic character, adding moments of humor while never losing sight of the gravity of his situation.  He undergoes a subtle yet alarming physical transformation. In early scenes he is active and physical and as his disease progresses he becomes thin and fragile, all the while maintaining a fierce emotional spirit. This is probably his best dramatic role.

Jared Leto, returning to the big screen after a five year acting hiatus, is back in excellent form.  He delivers a confident, flamboyantly gay character; he portrays the bitchy “queen” very well.  Rayon is also the first character to stand up to Ron and force him to meaningfully consider his situation. We gradually learn it’s all a façade. Rayon has a lot of insecurities. He has been beaten down by life. As he’s in final stages of the disease we see he’s not dying with dignity. He attempts to numb his pain and sorrow with cocaine, thus speeding up his death sentence. It’s made more haunting by the last image we see of him, saying “I don’t want to die” and coughing up blood.

Courtesy of apnatimepass

Courtesy of apnatimepass

[Interesting trivia: some of the wonderful supporting Dallas cast were also featured in the marvelous 12 Years a Slave. J.D. Evermore shines as the hateful, stupid and despicable best friend who becomes the ringleader in ostracizing Ron.  Deneen Tyler, with her cigarette-inflected baritone timbre, brings the right amount of sleaze, toughness, intelligence, and sensitivity to the role of the Buyer’s Club manager. ]

The sorely underrated Griffin Dunne is almost unrecognizable as a rogue hippie doctor practicing alternative medicine in Mexico, who becomes Ron’s first ally.

Courtesy of filmequals.com

Courtesy of filmequals.com

I was most pleasantly surprised by Jennifer Garner’s character and acting. The female character in male-oriented dramas usually lacks depth and is reduced to a love object. Here, Dr. Saks is a well-defined character, and has agency occupying her own storyline. She progresses from an idealistic, but very by-the-book, doctor to one who rebels against protocol for her patients’ best interests. Garner, who’s drop-dead gorgeous in a girly way, subtly plays down her looks.  She nicely shows intelligence and inner strength, and makes the transformation of initially opposing Ron to allying with his cause believable.

The film tastefully and subtly portrays the victims’ progressive decline due to the disease and the makeup and drastic weight loss wasn’t gimmicky, allowing the characters to maintain center stage.

Yves Belanger’s cinematography has an intriguing balance of impressionistic beauty, whilst maintaining the seediness of the locations, especially in the rodeo scenes. Martin Pensa and Jean-Mark Valleé’s brisk and frenetic editing sets the stage for the film’s theme of urgently racing against the clock.

Review: 12 Years a Slave (2013)

The Many Rings of Hell

Courtesy of redcarpetrefs.com

Courtesy of redcarpetrefs.com

A Review of 12 Years a Slave

By Adam Tawfik

*This review contains SPOILERS

Although the institution of slavery officially ended in 1865, its ramifications still remain with us and America hasn’t fully dealt with this national shame. When the film industry takes on this controversial subject, it is usually relegated to the background of a storyline of white characters (a la Gone with the Wind) or, if it’s a slightly liberal film, it offers a chance to glorify or vilify white people while oversimplifying the institution (a la The Help).

Throughout history, some of the more unrelentingly salient critiques of American society have been made by foreign filmmakers, e.g. Otto Preminger, Tony Kaye, Billy Wilder, and Costa-Gavras. British filmmaker Steve McQueen, who previously directed two gritty indies Hunger and Shame, presents an uncompromisingly grim portrait of slavery in his latest film 12 Years a Slave, which seems to be a very faithful adaptation of the memoir of the same name.

Courtesy of patheos.com

Courtesy of patheos.com

The story is told through the lens of Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejifor), a well-respected violinist who is illegally sold into slavery after being tricked by two white “musicians” offering him a fictitious job. With Slave, McQueen proves that he can take on a larger-scale project without compromising the quality.

Chiwetel Ejifor delivers a tour-de-force performance in the leading role, subtly instilling a quiet desperation and strength, holding his ground against his many cruel white opponents. Throughout his rough journey, he subtly demonstrates how his spirit has been broken and shows how he’s been worn down. His ups and downs keep the audience on an emotional roller coaster ride. In certain ways he is a slightly unsympathetic character.

As an educated, literate free man, he feels superior to the other slaves. He doesn’t integrate with them until the funeral of a fellow slave who died from heatstroke and exhaustion on the cotton field, where he joins them in their song.

Courtesy of blackfilm.com

Courtesy of blackfilm.com

This film is a great skeleton, providing a great overview for Solomon and his trying circumstances. For the most part, this is the correct approach as it avoids the pitfalls of sentimentality or oversimplification, but there were a couple of times where I wanted a little more pulping out. One interesting storyline was that of Mistress Harriet Shaw (Alfre Woodard), a former slave who married her plantation owner.

Had we seen her in a couple of more scenes, it might have made an interesting counterpoint to the brutality and helplessness that most slaves were subjected to. I would have liked to have seen how she and her white husband interacted with one another and how she treated her own slaves. Besides, Woodard’s acerbic wit left me craving for more.

Courtesy of stewardshipreport.com

Courtesy of stewardshipreport.com

The stellar screenplay by John Ridley eschews stereotypes, giving each black and white character distinctive personalities, even down to the smallest roles: it’s not the usual binary of white people are mean and stupid and black people are pure and noble victims. Slave refuses to exclusively restrict its narrative and visual scope to Solomon’s story.  The film constantly reinforces that slavery was a collective suffering and as such, the responsibility of a whole society.

While it’s primarily an intensely and unrelentingly dark drama, there are nice fleeting moments of humor organically woven in. One such moment is Mistress Ford (Liza J. Bennett), who sees herself as a good Christian, attempting to console a newly-purchased Eliza (Adepero Oduye) by telling her that she’ll forget about being separated from her children, oblivious to the trauma Eliza is experiencing. Another takes place in a harrowing chase scene where sadistic Master Epps (Michael Fassbinder) chases Solomon, but falls in pig sty and briefly stumbles around before a brutal payoff.

This film has an abundance of well-defined female characters that are especially interesting and integral to the narrative. Eliza and Patsey are catalysts for Solomon’s growth, instrumental in inspiring change in him. Eliza refuses to get over the loss of being separated from her children, and her grief is the only thing that keeps her human and forces Solomon to confront his own resignation to his situation. Adepero Oduye, who starred in the overlooked shoestring-budgeted film Pariah in 2011, again proves that she is a stellar dramatic actress capable of great versatility.

Courtesy of thewrap.com

Courtesy of thewrap.com

Lupita Nyong’o, in her debut feature film, is a revelation as Patsey, the beautiful slave who is the object of Master Epps’ (Michael Fassbinder) lust and the wrath of his violently jealous wife (Sarah Paulson). Nyong’o demonstrates her character’s strength and tenacity while hauntingly presenting the emotional and physical toll of her arduous and hopeless existence as she pleads for Solomon to kill her.

There’s a shattering moment toward the end of the film as she watches Solomon leave that we see the beginnings of her collapse, but the rest of her story takes place off-screen, a cruel reminder that many remained in obscurity. Solomon’s main journey is to regain his will to live, not merely survive, and as he sees the atrocities of working for the Epps (particularly for Patsey), he’s willing to take more chances in order to reach that goal.

Courtesy of nydailynews.com

Courtesy of nydailynews.com

Michael Fassbinder is superlative as the craziest and most sadistic slave lord. Although he’s a wealthy plantation owner, Fassbinder renders a disgusting portrait of an alcoholic bum whose disheveled appearance and sloppy clothing makes him look ironically similar to the slaves on whom he looks down and treats with subhuman contempt. He also superbly evokes Epps’ inner turmoil of loving Patsey without seeing her as a human and this threatens his grip on reality.  

Sarah Paulson fully immerses herself into the role of Fassbinder’s equally vitriolic and screwed-up wife, stripping her character of all joy and compassion. At one point, the script seemed to establish a storyline of Mistress Epps using Solomon as her pawn and had it been expanded it could have added an interesting quadrangle to further complicate the relationship.

Courtesy of blogs.indiewire.com

Courtesy of blogs.indiewire.com

The excellent cinematography by Sean Bobbitt, some of the most expressive I’ve seen recently, has significant narrative meaning. Evocative juxtaposition of extreme long shots emphasize the larger human suffering, and claustrophobically tight medium and extreme close ups intently focus on a character, often in the midst of extreme suffering. There’s a provocative close up on Solomon’s face towards the end that lingers for many seconds as if to challenge the audience to look into his soul and see if we really know the man, even after watching his agony for two hours.

McQueen has come under fire for putting a lot of aesthetic beauty into the film. It didn’t bother me; if anything, it makes the plight of the slaves more sickening as it provides a stark contrast between the refined environment and how they’re treated like animals.

I disliked the Hans Zimmer’s anachronistic modernist violin score because it sounded like a plagiarized soundtrack from his more mainstream Hollywood work. I particularly objected to it in the pivotal third-act climactic scene where Solomon (under duress) and Epps are whipping Patsey on the tree post as it wasn’t in accord with the viscerally and psychologically taxing action.

I preferred the earthiness of the a cappella slave music; it’s been featured in many films before like Song of the South, where it feels uncomfortably racist. Here we see the context for the pain and misery, and how it was an outlet to articulate the drudgery and hopelessness, while helping to restore a sense of relief and sanity.

Courtesy of contactmusic.com

Courtesy of contactmusic.com

The film boasts a good mix of well-known actors and character actors, nobody being too showy. Benedict Cumberbatch, as Solomon’s first master, is a hypocritical Christian and a coward, quoting the Bible. He has no problem using slave labor, justifying his actions by being more humane to his slaves than most owners, though he capitulates to pressure.

Paul Dano, who has been overwrought and miscast in many roles lately, restrains himself yet shows all of his character’s vileness. Garrett Dillahunt excels in a tricky role of a drunken foreman turned indentured servant who pretends to be Solomon’s friend. Michael K. Williams plays a brave and rebellious slave with conviction.

Courtesy of collider.com

Courtesy of collider.com

When I read about the ending of how a Canadian man, played by Brad Pitt, helps rescue Solomon and reunite him with his family, I cringed, thinking it was going to an overly neat resolution with an improbably cliché-ridden happy ending. I was sure that Brad Pitt (who gives a surprisingly serviceable performance), being one of the producers, would make a big deal of his white savior role, but the film wisely downplays his contribution and keeps the focus on Solomon.

The final scene is one of grief and shellshock: there was confusion and resentment on both Solomon and his wife’s part. The epilogue dispelled the potential of hope, reminding us that while he regained his freedom he still faced oppression and injustice.

While many are predicting Slave to reap the Oscars, I suspect that it is far too intelligent and visceral to win.