Tag Archives: The Help

Black Heroes of Entertainment

Courtesy of thefeministgriote.com

Courtesy of thefeministgriote.com

Although blacks have continually been treated as if they were second-class citizens for hundreds of years they, arguably more so than any other group of people, have played a fundamental role in the foundation of the American identity as we know it. While many choose to (literally and figuratively) whitewash the history of popular culture and exclude the number of talented black artists from their narratives, I would like to recognize some of these individuals who have enriched our society with their originality. It would be impossible to give justice to every talented black artist in a single blog post, so I’ll start out by paying tribute to 5.

Pam Grier

Courtesy of theroot.com

Courtesy of theroot.com

Alas, she wasn’t one of the million black women named by Halle Berry in her rambling Oscar speech; though that isn’t too surprising as she tends to be snubbed in “respectable” circles because of her prolific association with the Blaxploitation film industry. The films’ ultra-low budgets and salacious content lead many to write off these films and the numerous young women who starred in them as less-than-worthy, but what people tend to forget is that there were few opportunities for black actors (particularly women) in mainstream cinema, and most of those roles were reduced to peripheral saintly Negro parts. Artistic merits of the films aside, they gave black female characters not only leading roles, but ones with agency and where they kick ass. Even in the early days amidst the large female ensembles, Grier proved that she was more than just T&A, as she enlivened her roles with genuine eroticism, but more importantly she exhibited a gift for intelligence and gravitas. To see her acting skills, check out her affecting performance as Jim Brown’s long-suffering wife in Mars Attacks! (1996) and as a tough but ethical states attorney who sparred with Stabler and Benson on occasion on Law and Order: SVU.

Billie Holiday

Courtesy of last.fm

Courtesy of last.fm

Like many icons, Holiday tends to be remembered as a one-dimensional myth. As popularized by the 1972 biopic Lady Sings the Blues, Holiday is conceived of as a poor lost soul who abused heroin as a means of enduring physical and emotional abuse from a string of worthless men. This is certainly all true, but it is only one side of her dynamic, multifaceted personality. While her life was strafed with tragedy and hardship, Holiday by numerous accounts lived life to the fullest and had a wild, raucous sense of humor. Other than her otherworldly vocal adeptness and one-of-a-kind phrasing, I’ve always gravitated towards her straight-forward philosophical insightfulness that permeated her songs, interviews, and her autobiography (also titled Lady Sings the Blues). The ironically named “God Bless the Child” remains a timeless and salient critique of the inequality of the status quo and how it’s predetermined from childhood. She always remained true to her voice, which is a near impossible thing in the music industry. The consumer has benefitted from her bravery; the minimalism of her voice and arrangements still feels fresh and contemporary today as then with none of the overproduced saccharine popular in the 1940s and 50s. She was light years ahead of her time, perhaps still way ahead of ours.

At a time when lynching was still legal, Holiday boldly sang “Strange Fruit” as a closing song after nearly every show, often with just a piano background and a spotlight on her face to make the harrowing lyrics inescapable. In her compelling autobiography, she frankly discussed the horrors of being raped (even using the word at a time when it simply wasn’t discussed) and articulated the futility of “The War on Drugs” and how addiction should be treated as a sickness rather than a crime. She may have not overcome all of her demons in the end, but she is far from being a victim and should be celebrated for her trailblazing accomplishments rather than lamented for her tragic demise.

Viola Davis

Courtesy of independent.com

Courtesy of independent.com

No, I’m not including Davis because she is a fellow alum of Rhode Island College (though that doesn’t hurt). I’m blowing my horn (though it’s the complete truth), but I was a diehard Davis fan before she achieved her long-overdue critical and mainstream success. The first Davis performance to blow me away was her guest appearance on Law and Order: Criminal Intent, where she played the ringleader of a group of murderous cops with chilling intensity. This character is interesting in that she is an insecure outcast with some some justifiable anger. She was a formidable opponent for Detective Goren (Vincent D’Onofrio); in one memorable scene, she shows her intelligence where she profiles Goren with the same, sharp observation skills as the detective. Her portrayal was so convincing that it sparked controversy among black organizations. She is one of the few bonafide scene stealers in the business. In just a minute or two of screen time, Davis rose above the tedium of Denzel Washington’s directorial debut Antoine Fisher, contributing a mesmerizing performance as the titular character’s drug-addled mother, one made mostly of reactions of grief and pride. She first rose to widespread prominence with her 15-minute bravura performance in the otherwise dreary drama Doubt, where she etches the only human character as the mother of a student who might have been raped by a priest (Philip Seymour Hoffman), who pleads mercy with a nasty self-righteous nun (Meryl Streep).

Courtesy of collider.com

Courtesy of collider.com

Again, she was stellar in The Help, transforming her archetypal servant role to something profound, giving a three-dimensional performance of a kind, intelligent woman who is stifled and quietly angry by her lack of opportunity. While the film on the whole was lightweight and frivolous, Davis was robbed of a Best Actress Oscar. Many speculated that she would have had the award in the bag had she campaigned for Supporting Actress, but she bravely (and rightly) went for the top prize because she wants leading roles where her character has agency, and she’s still strongly vying for that goal even though she’s almost 50. Let’s hope she makes it as she certainly has the talent and charisma.

Ivan Dixon

Courtesy of nndb.com

Courtesy of nndb.com

Even if you don’t recognize Dixon’s name, if you’re of a certain age or a classic sitcom buff, chances are good that you’d know his face, as he was the sole black cast member of the 1960s WWII sitcom Hogan’s Heroes. It is a pity that it is his best-known work as the limited, token part gave him the least room to show his quietly powerful acting where he played complex characters who were not always sympathetic. Higher quality roles came from guest appearances on other TV dramas of the time. Highlights include the dark and dramatic pilot of I Spy (the first show to feature a black actor, Bill Cosby, in a leading role), where he plays a sports star who defects to China for monetary reasons with abrasive gusto; as the cold and clinical psychologist and a gentle and generous African ambassador on separate episodes of The Fugitive; as a hard, militant but intelligent black power leader and a nonconformist and idealistic politician on separate episodes of The Name of the Game. He received an Emmy nomination for his starring role in a TV special The Final War of Olly Winter, which from what I’ve read is one of the first hard-hitting portrayals of the Vietnam War; it is perhaps more notable for having a black man and an Asian woman (Tina Chen) as the protagonists. By the 1970s Dixon almost exclusively directed films and TV episodes.

Courtesy of wrongsideoftheart.com

Courtesy of wrongsideoftheart.com

His most notorious effort was the highly controversial 1973 film The Spook Who Sat by the Door that was a hit before it was abruptly seized by the FBI who feared that the content would incite blacks into overthrowing the government. It didn’t see the light of day until its release on DVD in 2004. Spook, a favorite of the Black Panthers, is about a man (Lawrence Cook) who is the token black hire for the CIA. Angered by the racist and condescending treatment by the bureau, he uses his training and organizes a race war. It is more known for its unrelenting treatment of its subject and message than final artistic product, but that message continues to impact audiences today.

Ice-T

Courtesy of theguardian.com

Courtesy of theguardian.com

Throughout its entire stay, most cultural critics have decried rap music as a crass and immoral force on (white) American society. Certainly like every other musical form, rap produces its fair share of mind-numbing inanity and no-talents. However, there are some thoughtful artists like Ice-T who have used rap as a means of protest, to illuminate the hard truths of the ghettoes that Middle America and the news media choose to ignore.

Ice-T’s 1992 punk song “Cop Killer,” about a vigilante killing cops who have systematically abused him, sparred national controversy and made him the target of criticism from the LAPD and President George Bush Sr. Like many of the edge 90s works, it was wrongly branded as being gratuitous. The impact of the song is how it unflinchingly reflects the deep seated antagonism between the police and people on the streets and its suggestion that the two can’t co-exist, which might be true. Although he’s shifted to acting these days (ironically most famous as a cop on TV), Ice-T hasn’t lost his edginess. As one of the SVU detectives on the dark series Law and Order: SVU, he gives his role a gritty realism and a flawed, but overall decent character, not like the typical clean-cut cop.

Tune in next time for more tributes of some iconic black artists and entertainers. Who you include on your list?

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.