Movies We Like
Handpicked By The Amoeba Staff
Films selected and reviewed by discerning movie buffs, television junkies, and documentary diehards (a.k.a. our staff).
African American Lives
This is a great documentary that uses history, genealogy, and new technologies to retrace the violently and deliberately erased ancestral histories of a group of participants, all of African ancestry whose relatives were, for the most part, brought over involuntarily from Africa. The answers it provides are often thought-provoking in ways that most discussions about race aren't.
The host is Dr. Henry Louis Gates Jr, a W.E.B. DuBois professor of the Humanities and the Chair of African and African-American Studies at Harvard University. I’d seen Gates in Wonders of the African World where he seemed to feign ignorance about everything he learned on his travels in Africa. I mean, he’s got some pretty big credentials and yet he’d continually act like he had no idea about the realities of his chosen subject of expertise until his interviewees revealed it to him. It seemed like he felt that pretending that everything was new to him would make him more identifiable to us, the presumably ignorant viewers. In this documentary, unfortunately, he does the same schtik which is just about the only shortcoming of the documentary, although it can be sort of funny. For example, he “guesses” that, given his appearance, his ancestors came from the East African kingdom of Nubia (huh?!), despite the fact that nearly all slaves in the U.S. came from the West Coast slave centers built centuries earlier, not by Europeans, but by other Africans. Of course it turns out that 0% of slaves were Nubian. His surprise at his DNA results seems genuine though when they reveal that his matrilineal line goes back to Ireland.Continue Reading
Raisin in the Sun
"What happens to a dream deferred? Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun?"
Langston Hughes' opening lines to his poem "A Dream Deferred" inspires the title of the film, which is adapted from Lorraine Hansberry's 1951 Broadway play. The story is about the working-class African American family in Chicago, each member struggling against the idea of deferred dreams. The way each character has to fight against generational prejudice to achieve their dreams makes a most powerful, touching story, as deep to the core of African American history. And while I want to cry at the injustices that bind many to social despair, I am inspired by the moments of strength that the human spirit can possess.Continue Reading
Godfrey Cambridge plays Jeff Gerber, a happy-go-lucky, casually racist and sexist insurance salesman who’s oblivious to the fact that nearly everyone that knows him finds him unpleasant and unlikeable. One morning he awakens to find, to his shock and repulsion, that he’s turned black in his sleep. He blames it on his daily devotion to his tanning bed but not even his doctor can explain it. As far fetched as it sounds, they try to explore the drastic change in Jeff's appearance in a fairly logical way. Of course, it ultimately can't be explained and the film moves into making humorous social commentary.
Some of the jokes are a bit formulaic. For example, his supposedly liberal wife is horrified at being married to someone who's turned black. Jeff stays indoors after his race switch until he works up the nerve to head to “the colored part of town” to buy some skin-lightening creams which (of course) fail to work.Continue Reading
La Noire de... (a.k.a. Black Girl)
Black Girl was the first feature length film made in Sub-Saharan Africa by an African which is why its director, Ousmane Sembene, was known universally as the "Father of African Cinema." He didn't end up being a prolific director, but he was one who regularly made amazing films up until his final film which came out which he made at 81, three years before his death in 2007.
Sembene began his creative career as an author but realized that he could reach a far larger audience with film. As a speaker of Wolof, his films would only be understood by Wolof speakers and the small audience which subtitles can reach (being problematic due to widespread illiteracy in Africa and further language barriers). To overcome these obstacles, Sembene used a cinematic solution, the employment of a highly visual style which owed more to Soviet aesthetics than to mainstream Hollywood or European films. It also suited his background as a Communist primarily concerned with social change. The thoughtfully-constructed visuals would convey his lifelong concerns with post-colonial identity, racism and later in his career, African corruption and negative cultural practices.Continue Reading
Killer of Sheep: The Charles Burnett Collection
Killer of Sheep is a beautifully simple urban tale of an African-American community set in Los Angeles' Watts district during the1970s. Yes, the 1960s held a cultural revolution for racial freedom, but history often assures us that problems lie on far more complexities than just a cry for racial freedom. Every community has its individual fight and here we follow Stan, frustrated with the monotony of working at a slaughter house, and how it affects his life at home.
Noteworthy of the film is how personal it feels. It makes sense – Charles Burnett wrote, produced, shot, and directed it with a budget of less than $10,000 with the help of many close friends and family. The result is a natural, humanistic style. It takes a lot of courage for a director to let a story work inside out, and that's where the simplicity lies. Emotion is often wallpaper when complicated plots involve twists and turns. Instead, here, we are embraced in moments within relationships, moments of hardship, moments of tenderness, and moments of family-hood.Continue Reading
Set in the last days of Cooley High’s 1964 class, the film follows the extracurricular exploits of a disaffected young writer, Preach (Turman), and his more matriculatedly inclined friend and local sports star, Cochese (Hilton-Jacobs). Based on the post-adolescent years in Chicago’s Cabrini Green housing project of writer and the film’s primary auteur, Eric Monte, the story serves as a counter-narrative to the white-flight reactionary dreaming of American Graffiti. Where that film sought to return the disillusioned 70s mainstream audience to simpler and happier times, pre-JFK assassination, Monte places his characters right under the storm cloud a-brewin’ and still manages to find the same teen-aged joie de vivre one encounters in Fast Times at Ridgemont High or Dazed and Confused.
Preferring lived experience to the more academic variety, Preach spends his days ducking classes, gambling, drinking, smoking dope, trying to get into the pants of the best-looking girl in the neighborhood, Brenda (Davis) and dreaming of being a Hollywood writer. Cochese has considerably less trouble with the girls and makes plans for college. With a bit of movie magic, it turns out that Brenda loves the same poets Preach does, while Cochese has learned that he’s going to the school of his choice with a full scholarship. Although the film delivers as many comedic highs as any suburban teen comedy, the graffiti-ridden streets framed by the petroleous columns of Chicago’s metro railways taints the wish-fulfilling qualities it shares with a John Hughes flick. And, sure enough, the film takes on a more somber tone after Preach and Cochese go on a joyride with some felonious friends in a Cadillac.Continue Reading
This fine piece of mid-70s Americana is a gem criminally overlooked by hepcats since it’s one of the better blaxploitation movies produced in or out of the studio system. The funkiness is laid down with the traditional baaaad theme song, near-unbelievable fly threads, I mean, uh, costume design, and some joyously over-the-top acting by the principals, but the flavor is maintained with an excellent storyline & direction, terrific technical-production values and, I feel, an indefinable sense of care and love in the production near-universally absent from most ‘70s exploitation flicks.
The basic premise of the movie is classic Greek tragedy: the hero’s hubris bringing about his utter downfall and eventual self-redemption or catastrophe (more likely). Our man, Willie D., is a stylin’ pimp, dope dealer and rakish man-about-town in his oversized & fur-lined EVERYTHING. He runs afoul of the other playas, gets several kinds of “the law” on his case and for the real kicker, a “do-gooding” social worker with a past is trying to reform his ladies into honest citizens. Misery piles on constant misery (especially poignant and hilarious for me is his beloved mack Caddy Eldorado getting towed TWICE then street-stripped by neighborhood kids) as The Man wears down poor Willie ‘til he’s reduced to a self-loathing and impotent utter rage not seen in other blaxploitation protagonists.Continue Reading
Released in 1972, Gordon Park’s Superfly immediately became a classic of the “blaxploitation” genre. Sporting the most stylish pimp threads of the early seventies, Ron O’ Neal plays “Priest” — a smooth talking, high rolling, cocaine dealer with a steely gaze and a firm backhand.
As the story opens, Priest finds himself in a bit of a mid-life crisis. Realizing that his days in the business are numbered and that if he wants to make it off the streets alive, he needs to cash in with one big final score of the white. The problem is, the police want him in prison or dead, and the mafia have no intention of letting their top earner enjoy an early retirement.Continue Reading
Ice Cube delivers in his directorial debut with Players Club, a fast paced drama that leaves plenty of room for action, comedy and some well-rounded camp. Many of the scenes resonate with the feel of a late 90's music video on MTV, filled with tons of grey and green hues, over-exposed camera shots, and quick-cut editing. Players Club contains elements of some of my favorite films within the past 20 or so years. Morals are lifted from movies like Showgirls (the passion to stop at nothing to find and finish your dreams) but without all the over-acting and ham-fisted directing. Or it could even be compared to a newer film like The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things (the human spirit going to the darkest recesses of the mind to rise above the constraints of reality no matter what the cost).
How about we stop here to say I really do not want to turn this review into a serious critique on film and cinema by using these movies as examples of the human struggle in comparison to Players Club, but this movie has the goods and goes into situations all of us have to face in daily life. Showing us how our actions have consequences. With all that said, remember, this film has a strong "scent" of the movie Friday written all over it, so it's not all just drama and seriousness. Ice Cube hasn't forgotten that films are here to entertain us. ....STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON!!!Continue Reading
Replace the repressed white male anger of Fight Club with that of the repressed white housewife’s in order to explore the terrain of Jungle Fever and you get the gist of writer/director Larry Cohen’s debut. Instead of fitting squarely within the genre of blaxploitation, the film examines some of the stereotypical representations of the black male which helped make the genre possible to begin with.
Bernadette (Van Patten) is a bored Beverly Hills wife who lounges by the pool when she’s not spending her husband’s money. Her husband, Bill (Duggan), is the prototypical American salesman who’s invested so much of his life in the manufactured desires of advertising that he no longer remembers if there’s anything real behind the imagery. (We see him dreaming of selling junkyard cars filled with bloody corpses.) As George Costanza said, “it’s not a lie, if you believe it.”Continue Reading