Lady Sings the Blues
The most celebrated singer-turned-actor performance ever might be Frank Sinatra in From Here to Eternity. It revived his career and was a turning point in his legacy as he moved from a teenybopper idol to the more mature crooner he is best remembered for today (and he followed it shortly with another important performance in The Man with The Golden Arm). But Sinatra had been acting in musical films for years (On The Town). In terms of degree of difficulty, for a first major role Bjork’s performance in the torture-fest sorta-musical Dancer in the Dark is certainly impressive and many singers have gone on to have their film careers eclipse their singing success (Cher, Mark Wahlberg, Will Smith, and to some extent Bing Crosby and Barbra Streisand). But the most audacious acting debut from a mega-star singer has to be Diana Ross taking on the role of troubled iconic jazz singer Billie Holiday in Lady Sings the Blues. Directed by journeyman director Sidney J. Furie (The Ipcress File, The Boys in Company C) and based on Holiday’s own (said to be mostly fictional) autobiography, Ross throws herself into the role with aplomb, having to go to emotional depths that would challenge even the most veteran thespian. The film also made a kinda-star of her leading man, Billy Dee Williams, and helped establish a movie career for stand-up comedian Richard Pryor. Executive produced by Motown founder Berry Gordy Jr, it was the first flick made under the Motown banner and it would also prove to be the apex of the the historic record company’s forays into filmmaking.
Lady Sings the Blues is a mostly typical music bio in that it's one of those classic “rags-to-riches-to-total self destruction” stories. No matter how many times I’ve seen this kind of tale, if the lead performance is dynamite, I’ll buy in. I don’t know how much of it is actually true but it’s still a doozy of a rollercoaster ride. After being raped as a girl, Billie took the only jobs that seemed to be available for a young black woman during The Depression: a cleaning woman and a prostitute. She eventually talked her way into singing in a little smokey nightclub where she meets her dream man, Louis (Williams), and catches the attention of a couple of white musicians who take her on the road to build up her name and also turn her on to drugs. The film seems to be more fascinated with Billie’s messy and ugly personal life than her voice, which most experts rate as one of the most seminal and important of the twentieth century. As Billie climbs the stardom ladder she is met with racism and humiliation, with her devoted but frustrated husband Louis lending support. (Though he comes off as Mr Wonderful here, it’s been reported that in real life Billie’s husband was just as much of a creep as the other men who exploited her. Ironically he was a technical advisor for the film, which may explain the whitewash.) Billie continues to sing her way to the top, but she falls deeper and deeper into heroine addiction. Her only friend appears to be her piano player (real life junkie Pryor, excellent here in a supporting role). Of course Pryor would reveal his own special kind of genius later with his two landmark concert films, Richard Pryor Live in Concert and Richard Pryor Live on the Sunset Strip. Hospital stays, arrests and even true love aren’t enough to end the torture for Billie. Though she does have a triumphant Carnagie Hall comeback show, it’s still a story of another legend dying young.Continue Reading
Nothing But a Man
"They don't sound human, do they?" - Duff Anderson
When I was a kid, movies took up a big slice of my daily routine. I was an introverted introvert with nary a friend to call my own. Pop's wasn't around so that left my mom, sister and our RCA television to raise me. I was devouring movies at such an alarming rate my mother began to worry. But that's what mothers do; they worry about their children - especially African mothers. (How will she ever get a grandchild from someone who prays to a TV set?) By the time I was seventeen, I was a self-proclaimed film buff. (Not like I had anything else going for me.) I openly mocked peers with my cinema prowess, brandishing pithy one-liners and pop culture references to put them in their place. But one of those underlings asked an interesting question: "What was my favorite film on African American life?" It made me ponder how much Black cinema I've actually seen. The answer startled me. Now, outside of John Singleton, the Hughes Brothers, some Blaxploitation movies and the occasional Spike Lee joint, there weren't that many I was exposed to. I blamed it on the fact that compared to others, African American movies were far and few between. Heck, I saw more movies from Alfred Hitchcock than all the directors I named above combined. But that was lazy and actually quite inaccurate. There was plenty of gold to be had. So I started to dig. Nothing But A Man was one of those gems I discovered. Now this may come off as hyperbolical fluff but I honestly believe this is not only one of the best films on African American life, but American life, period. I never liked the distinction between the two anyway. It's rare to see a film on this subject handled with such tact and elegance - a quiet, sensitive piece with the delicacy and finesse of a Swiss watch.Continue Reading
New Jack City
Going back all the way to the beginning of the talkies, the gangster flick, with its rise-and-fall narrative, has always been a dependable formula for Hollywood. And whether it’s Cagney or Pacino, the movies seem to have more fun with the “rise,” while the “fall” often feels like a tacked on message to mitigate how glamorous the first half may have seemed. The inner-city crime saga New Jack City is no different; though characters may take the high road and exclaim to the camera about how much the crack epidemic is ravishing the hood, really it’s an excuse to show the playas living large with their champagne in the pool, nifty guns, foxy ladies, and horribly colorful 1991 hip-hoppity fashions. And like so many gangster flicks before and since, New Jack City is a lot of fun and, as long as you don’t try to buy into its sermonizing, it holds up well as a cartoony period piece.
Here, the cops and dealers are showcased equally. For the good guys, you have undercover NY cop Scotty Appleton (rapper Ice-T, in his first lead acting role); he may be tough but he shows some heart to a junkie stick-up kid named Pookie, (comedian Chris Rock, in a rare dramatic performance that may’ve encouraged him to work on his stand-up more). Scotty helps him kick the dope after busting him. Meanwhile, on the other side of the tracks, dealer Nino Brown (Wesley Snipes) is able to enhance his business when he is introduced to a new cocaine concoction called “crack.” With his top lieutenants, Gee Money (Allen Payne) and Duh Duh Duh Man (Bill Nunn, Radio Raheem in Do the Right Thing) they get the posse together (called the "Cash Money Brothers") and take over an apartment building, turning it into a successful crack assembly line and retail outlet.
Night Catches Us
The low-budget period piece, Night Catches Us, is a rare kind of film these days - a complex, quiet, adult drama. More rare it’s about black people, and though it’s intense, the intensity comes from the characters' personal torment, not on-screen violence. In a perfect world Night Catches Us would catapult its first time feature director, Tanya Hamilton, as a major new relevant voice in film, but unfortunately there are no robots or superheroes in this story. The two lead performances by Anthony Mackie and Kerry Washington reaffirm their standing as two of the most reliable actors of their generation.
What happened to the “Movement” and how does that generation of black revolutionaries learn to live in a world after the revolution has fizzled out? The film slowly opens up and unfolds. It’s 1976, after years of being in exile as a snitch, ex-Black Panther Marcus Washington (Mackie) returns to his Philadelphia neighborhood to confront his past. The word on the street was that he got his best friend killed by the cops, which makes him an enemy to the folks in the hood, except that friend’s ex-wife Patricia Wilson (Washington). Also once a radical, she’s now a respectable lawyer raising a daughter as a single mother. She and Marcus seem to have something between them. Is that why her husband was killed? Or are they both just haunted by the death of a man and the loss of a way of life? What's left to fight for or stand for? These are two people lost in the past desperate to find a future. Though they do come together, there are too many ghosts between them to let them really fall in love, which in an Ibsen-like twist is what creates their bond.
I am perhaps one of the few people willing to admit that I really, really loved the ‘90s. The high-end and runway fashion, loud patterns in advertisement, classic high-heels on ladies, and squared haircuts on men are all things that I’d be more than happy to see return. The music in many genres did leave much to be desired, but I loved the sense of empowerment and justice found in many of the films in the ‘90s, and even heard through some of the music.
About the only thing this Shaft remake has in common with the original Richard Roundtree cop classic is that great Isaac Hayes theme song and similar funky score (and Roundtree pops up in a supporting role in this one). Both Shafts are swinging ladies men and both have to deal with race issues being African-American cops in a hostile world and working with a corrupt police force. What makes the remake stand out as more than just a serviceable late night TV time killer is the presence of two great unlikely villains teaming up, played by two great actors, Christian Bale and Jeffrey Wright, working at their scenery chewing best.
The original Shaft, directed by Gordon Parks is usually unjustly labeled "blaxploitation," but it’s degrading because Shaft was actually much closer in class and style to an acclaimed crime film like The French Connection than say, some jive like Superfly. Shaft became a minor cultural phenomenon, birthing two decent sequels and even a short-lived television series. The inevitable remake comes 30 years later, and though it might not have delivered as a franchise starter, it does deliver perfectly as a solid action guilty pleasure.Continue Reading
The Brother from Another Planet
Who knew that you could use extraterrestrials to make a bold statement about racial conflict and immigration? Seems all too easy when you think about it, but John Sayles did it here with a surprising amount of brilliance.
It's been years since I've seen the film, and one of the joys of revisiting a classic movie is being able to finally understand its message through the humor and irony of the plot. In the movie we find an alien with African-American features (Joe Morton) who ironically crashes his spaceship at the Ellis Island Immigration Center. He hobbles around injured and observes the foreign surroundings before healing his wounds with a simple touch. Though he's unable to speak or make vocal sounds, he can understand every language on Earth and has other abilities that could be compared to that of a psychic superhero. The first that we observe is his ability to touch inanimate objects and hear the pain and anguish from spirits that used or were around the object. The only physical feature that sets him apart from others, besides the fact that he's black, are his three oversized toes as feet, which he keeps covered, of course.Continue Reading
Three The Hard Way
One of the goofiest flicks of the Back Exploitation era, for gratuitous comic book quality, Three The Hard Way features the superstar teaming of Jim Brown, Fred Williamson, and Jim Kelly, who manage to shoot and karate chop dozens of people in the process of trying to stop a neo-Nazi millionaire’s plot to poison the water supply with a serum that kills blacks (whites are immune to it). As imagined, everything about this film is over the top; it’s Shaft times three, but director Gordon Parks Jr. is not his father, so it’s actually an entertainingly epic, low-rent affair (Parks Sr. directed Shaft and was a majorly acclaimed photographer). Don’t question the plot too closely or look under the rug, just sit back and enjoy the inane violent fun.
Monroe Feather (Jay Robinson, better remembered as Dr. Shrinker from the Saturday morning Krofft Supershow) wants to be known as more than just an evil fascist industrialist, so with the aid of Dr. Fortrero (Richard Angarola) and their seemingly giant army of gunmen, they put their poison water plan into effect, going after the water supply of Los Angeles, Detroit, and DC. Luckily music mogul Jimmy Lait (Brown) gets wind of it and tracks down the two baddest dudes he knows, a player with a big gun, Jagger Daniels (Williamson), and a kung fu master, Mister Keyes (Kelly). Somehow Feather hears about our heroes and sends his goons after the badass trio and seems to be aided by the corrupt honky police force, as well. Out of nowhere a massive shoot out takes place in a car wash, the super friends take a goon prisoner and with the help of three motorcycle riding, topless dominatrixes (a black, white and Asian woman) get the full lowdown on the which water supplies they need to protect. In a couple of cool action scenes, each guy fights off a Nazi army in each of the three cities (three the hard way!). Finally leading to a showdown with Feather himself.Continue Reading
A "vacation film" seems to be in order before the summer ends, so I chose an old favorite of mine which was set in the '70s and has early performances from several great actors, many whom have been forgotten, and others who rose to stardom. Larenz Tate (Menace II Society, Why Do Fools Fall In Love) plays the leading role as a young teenage boy named Drew. It's difficult to explain why you start to feel for his character very early on, but I'm sure it has to do with his disposition. Besides being a shy virgin whose only friend is his doll, his parents Brenda (Suzzanne Douglas) and Kenny (Joe Morton) seem convinced that he is mentally disturbed and that a blaze he recently set in the house might not have been an accident. With all the bad vibes floating around they decide to spend the Fourth of July weekend at Brenda's sister's house in Martha's Vineyard.
Upon arrival, things go exactly as they seemed to go for me when I was young and going on family vacations. In fact, I think this is one of the few films I've seen that hits the awkwardness of distant and eccentric relatives on the nose. There's that annoying first night when you're not in your own bed—the aggravation from your cousin(s) who are either more boring than you thought any teenager could possibly be, or worse, they're too cool to socialize with you. For Drew, his problem rests in the latter as his cousin, Junior, is a pompous, smooth-talking bully. But Drew isn't the only one having problems with the relatives, and the narrative of the film works wonders by having people for his parents to hate as well, thus putting them in their son's shoes for once. Brenda's sister Francis (Vanessa Bell Calloway) and her husband Spencer (Glynn Turman) are two conservatives who have all the great Republican presidents' portraits on their wall, while Kenny is a former Black Panther and Brenda wears a dashiki. As you can imagine, things get quite messy between both the youngsters and the adults.Continue Reading
Spike Lee’s films have always been hit or miss for me. I grew up watching them, as they were fictitious and familiar depictions of African-Americans, but for the longest time I fell just short of pleased with his work. Forgive me for going on a tangent, but I feel the need to cite the differences and subject matter of some other Spike Lee Joints before raving about this one.
The first Lee film I saw was Crooklyn, and it is perhaps the only other that I am fond of. In short, it is an energetic, sometimes melancholic film about a family in Brooklyn—more or less through the eyes of the couple’s only daughter in their large brood. Overall, the movie is harmless, though it deals softly with substance abuse and death, but it’s a little too gentle; it held up when I was a child, but lost flavor for me in adulthood. This criticism does not translate to it being a bad film, but rather anticlimactic. Another that comes to mind is Jungle Fever—a ballsy film about two co-workers (black male/white female) who become lovers despite their committed relationships. The movie unfolds with over-the-top characters and events, ultimately making it very black and white, both literally and figuratively. I remember being unmoved by the assumed dangers and taboo thrills of biracial lust. It disappointed me then, and it does now. Do The Right Thing, while it is Lee’s most popular and acclaimed work, still reminds me of the misdirected angst that would follow its release in the form of riots. Obviously the film is not to blame, but in times of such hostility, you'd think a message geared toward working together would be better suited and more universal. Its deadpan racist rants (common among his Italian and Black characters) hit you over the head so hard that it almost begs you to choose sides, if not fails to deliver a clear message.Continue Reading