Movies: Black Fiction, Black History
22 Wednesday Feb 2017
What a great couple of months it’s been for movies about the African-American experience. The African-American Film Critics Association calls 2016 the best year ever for blacks in cinema. Fences, (2016, 78 metascore,) Hidden Figures (2016, 74,) Loving (2016, 79,) Moonlight (2016, 99,) 13th (2016, 90, a documentary), and just released, using the writing of James Baldwin, I Am not your Negro (2016, 96). Confirmation, and Birth of a Nation are both 2016 films also, neither collecting quite the accolades as those above.
Those I have seen are all fine movies, each speaking in a different voice and about different experiences, though all anchored in black reality in America, from the 1950s to today.
Fences, originally written as a stage play by August Wilson in 1983 and set in working class Pittsburgh of the 1950s carries its stage origins, both in the enclosed scenic space and in the dialog heavy script; dialog heavy but dialog powerful as well. Wilson’s ear for dialect and speech rhythms, along with an unflinching embrace of human contradictions, guarantees that. Denzel Washington, director and lead (Troy Maxson) and Viola Davis (Dorothy Maxson) acted together in the 2010 Broadway revival of the play, so the linkage of play and film are direct and visceral. Washington said in one interview, “It would have been impossible to direct and act in this, if we had not done the play.”
Troy sears the air with his anger and disappointments, tongue lashing his high school age son into permanent separation. Despite his friend Bono’s counsels, he takes his sense of aggrievement to another woman and to one of the most emotionally devastating filmed scenes of a woman’s hurt and anger I have ever seen.
While his anger is driven by opportunities denied him by white racism — playing professional baseball, driving the garbage truck instead of emptying the cans — what accounts for the film’s popularity is the every man we see, the echo of opportunities lost, whether imposed by others, or brought on by oneself. Miller’s “Death of A Salesman” and O’Neill’s “Long Days Journey into Night” had embitterment, sorrow and self destruction in their core as well. It’s an African-American story, and a working-class story, unusual for American movies, but its wide appeal is from the resonance in viewer from many families, across ethnicities and up and down the class scale. The family dynamics, the center of which is the bitter, proud, explosive father, could have ignited in any of the other families in the Pittsburgh of the time, many of then European immigrants working in the steel industry, and they surely do today.
Whether Fences is a good film or a very very good film for you will depend greatly on how you respond to the translation from stage to screen. For many, it will be only slightly obvious: there are actors on a big screen, it’s a movie, and what matters are the passions on display. For others, whose aural-visual vocabularies for theater and film are quite different, there will be more disappointment – not because what they are seeing is bad, but because the expressive modes of cinema –besides tight closeups to emphasize enormous emotion– were not explored. [See the New Yorker link below for a good exposition of this.]
I myself enjoyed both the stage play, several years ago, and the film. The claustrophobia of the tight shots and small space reinforced the enclosure of the fences in Maxson’s yard — those he was building and those in his mind, those he imposed on his wife and son. With August Wilson’s reputation rising, and a fine family of plays to consider, Fences is certain to have a long life, on stage and on screen. It will be interesting to see how a different, non stage-influenced director, will handle it.
A Couple of Reviews Here
Hidden Figures (1960s) directed by Theodore Melfi is, in a sense, the lightest of the movies, and the most approachable for young audiences. The discrimination suffered by 3 African-Americans, women, and mathematicians is made obvious for those who didn’t live back then, and is told without a heavy hand. In fact, some scenes are too light. Running desperately for the toilet enlivens many a comedy. It’s not so funny when used repeatedly in circumstances not of personal behavior but cruel discrimination. Of all the films this is the only one that shows the black protagonists operating, daily, in the white world, NASA to be exact, which was not only white but almost entirely male. The women were doubly out-of-place, and made to feel so, not by Klan violence, threats or epithets, but in all the quiet nastiness of the educated and well-off. A coffee pot “for colored only” appearing in the kitchen area, the whites only restrooms, the asides and raised eyebrows only begin to tell the ways.
The actresses Octavia Spencer as Dorothy Vaughan, Janelle Monáe as Mary Jackson, and Taraji P. Henson as Katherine Johnson, carry the story very well, even though there is only one, meaty, dramatic scene to work with. The importance of the film is not only the standard movie criteria, acting, camera work, lighting, script, production values,but the light cast on an all but unknown piece of American history. Many know, in broad strokes, that several hundred years of racial bigotry in America was being brought to public view and pushed back against in the Civil Rights movement of those years. Below the sit-ins, and water hoses and dogs, however, the details of how discrimination affected individual people is not so well recognized, much less that talent and even mathematical brilliance existed among those who had been consigned, by skin-color, to menial work amid judgments of racial incapacity and individual stupidity.
That the women’s talents were recognized, and put to important work is a tribute, most of all to themselves and their determination and equanimity in the face of daily belittlement, and to their families who recognized and supported their rare gifts. It was also due to the few (mostly) men of NASA who recognized genius when they saw it and took leadership to push back the prejudices of the many. Though the three women were probably never accepted as full and equal colleagues, their contributions were not only vital the lives of the astronauts, especially John Glenn, as played by Glen Powell, but opened eyes and opportunities that had long been closed.
The figures they wrote on the blackboards, and could do in their heads, are likely still hidden to most of us. Their lives are not. Often the terrible things of history are not acknowledged or revealed. Here the revelations are of fine, smart, strong women – now taking their place in American history.
A Couple of Reviews
Loving , directed by Jeff Nichols, is also set in the 1960s, the same years as Hidden Figures, and also takes up the story of real people in recent history to inform the present. For civil libertarians and others aware of the slow disassembly of legal and customary obstacles to black citizenship in America, Loving vs Virginia, was a major marker. Unanimously decided by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1967, it declared that the right to marry, by Mildred Loving, a black woman, and Richard Loving, a white man, was constitutionally protected. At that time 16 states had anti-miscegenation laws still in force. 13 more had repealed them only from 1948 on.
Virginia not only wouldn’t allow them to be married — they drove to Washington D.C. for the ceremony– but it wouldn’t allow them to live together as a married couple. In fact, they were arrested, in their bed, and held in jail for several days. Their sentence of one year in prison was suspended if they would leave Virginia for 25 years. After about five years living in D.C., unable to travel together to visit family in Virginia, Mildred wrote a letter to Robert Kennedy, then Attorney General. He referred her to the ACLU which eventually brought the case to the Supreme Court.
The film tells the story in a quiet, PG-13 sort of way, as befits the quietness of their actual lives. Ruth Negga, an Irish-Ethiopian, is luminous as Mildred Loving, both shy and determined. For all the rising Civil Rights protests she was not an activist nor, by her own account, a political person. She was, however, more willing than Richard to see the necessity of fighting, not only for themselves, but for the world outside. Joel Edgerton, an Australian, plays a Richard, so quiet, so withdrawn, we wonder a bit at his capacities. Despite their non-Southern backgrounds, their assumed dialects and quiet respect carry us into the rural Virginia of Caroline County of the 1960s, a region where, apparently, race-relations were not so fraught as elsewhere. As the film shows, county-road drag-racing was a mixed race event; interracial dating while not celebrated was not attacked, at least until notoriety struck.
In June 2007, on the 40th anniversary of the Supreme Court’s decision, Mildred Loving issued a statement that said:
I believe all Americans, no matter their race, no matter their sex, no matter their sexual orientation, should have that same freedom to marry… I am still not a political person, but I am proud that Richard’s and my name is on a court case that can help reinforce the love, the commitment, the fairness and the family that so many people, black or white, young or old, gay or straight, seek in life. I support the freedom to marry for all. That’s what “Loving,” and loving, are all about.
A Couple of Reviews
My personal favorite is Moonlight. The time could be anytime from the 1990s to now, and the story one that has been told almost nowhere: to be young and black and poor and gay. Based on a play written and discarded by Tarell Alvin McCraney, before being picked up by director Barry Jenkins, young Alex Hibbert plays Chiron, a quiet young boy in the tough streets of Liberty City, Florida. With his mother Paula (Naomie Harris) alternately warm and comforting and doped-up scary, Chiron — also called “Little” — is befriended by Juan, a sympathetic drug dealer, played by Mahershala Ali — best known for his role as the power lobbyist in “House of Cards.”
As he begins to find safety with Juan and his girlfriend Teresa (Janelle Monáe), he dares ask the question: what is a faggot? And, Am I one? Juan’s response is as unexpected, in a different way, as the question. Chiron’s adolescent years are played with eloquent sympathy by Ashton Sanders, bullied by many, discovered by one. After a vengeful attack at school, he is led away, to appear next as a buffed ex-con, played by Trevante Rhodes, still looking for the connection he has been denied, and afraid of. The unification of the three Chiron’s under Jenkins’ quiet scene-making is one of the great pleasures of the film.
Another pleasure is the score, written at Jenkins’ request by Nicholas Britell, previously known for the score to The Big Short. It’s quite wonderful, and in this short interview you can hear him talk about how music is shaped out of story and emotion.
By the way, if you’d like to read the script, here it is.
A Couple of Reviews
For a Terry Gross interview with one of the actors, directors and writers, give a listen