The Inkwell

Dir: Matty Rich, 1994. Starring: L. Tate, J. Morton, S. Douglas, G. Turman, V. B. Calloway, J. P. Smith. Black Cinema.

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.

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Posted by:
Edythe Smith
Aug 3, 2010 4:21pm

The Spook Who Sat By the Door

Dir. Ivan Dixon. 1973. Starring: Ramon Livingston, Lawrence Cook. English. Black Cinema.

For years I was inundated by requests for this seemingly much-in-demand film that I'd never heard of. It played in theaters for only three weeks upon its initial release before being yanked. Despite being successful and popular, the FBI and COINTELPRO put pressure on the film's distributors, fearful of what it might inspire in viewers. When it finally came to DVD, I watched it.

The plot concerns a white U.S. senator whose political career is faltering. In a cynical bid to appeal to black voters and save his career, he voices his support for a C.I.A. drive to recruit more blacks into the organization. This works but - in a move that's both comical and obviously designed to rile up viewers and sets the tone for the rest of the film - the new recruits are graded on a curve. Only one of these new, token black agents can pass - quiet, polite Dan Feldman. And Dan learns that his new position will be as Reproduction Chief which requires him to man the copy machine in the basement at all times.

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Posted by:
Eric Brightwell
Feb 9, 2008 3:36pm

The Wiz

Dir: Sidney Lumet. 1978. Starring: Diana Ross, Michael Jackson, Mabel King, Nipsey Russell. English. Musicals/Black Cinema

The Wiz has one of the worst reputations in film history. It was a commercial and critical flop and is said to have ended not only Diana Ross' film career but Hollywood's investment in musicals and the era of black-centric movies that had recently evolved from blaxploitation to character driven drama and comedy. Made in 1978, it is the film version of the staged musical that took Broadway and the Tony's by storm in 1975. The staged production starred a teenage Stephanie Mills (who would later become an R&B sensation) who was also signed to play Dorothy in the film version. That role went to Diana Ross who critics, and even some involved with the production, felt was too old for the part. She was supported by an outstanding cast including a young and vibrant Michael Jackson as the Scarecrow and Ted Ross reprising his Tony award winning roll as the Cowardly Lion. Unfortunately, Joel Schumacher wrote a flimsy script using very little of the play's libretto and instead infused it with “feel good” jargon from motivational guru Werner Erhard including the song “Believe in Yourself.” The critics nailed the film and Ross' performance with brutal accuracy but also gave high praise to its practical production including costumes, choreography, and cinematography. In fact, it was nominated for 4 Oscars but failed to win any. As a child I was mesmerized by this film. Dorothy did seem too old in the beginning but as she began dancing down the yellow brick road her joy and beauty emerged until I thought she herself was magical. I remember rejoicing in the new “modern” versions of the Scarecrow, Tin Man and Lion. They felt so tangible and textured - more so than The Wizard of Oz of 1939. The Munchkins were kids, like me! And the people of Emerald City were extravagantly beautiful. I remember being frightened and on the edge of ...

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Posted by:
Jessica Kaman
Feb 11, 2008 3:30pm

Three The Hard Way

Dir: Gordon Parks Jr, 1974. Starring: Jim Brown, Fred Williamson, Jim Kelly, Jay Robinson, Alex Rocco. Black Cinema.

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.

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Posted by:
Sean Sweeney
Mar 17, 2011 3:38pm

Touki Bouki (The Hyena's Journey)

Dir: Djibril Diop Mambéty. 1973. Starring: Magaye Niang, Mareme Niang. French. Black Cinema/African Cinema/Foreign.

Two poor, restless University students in Dakar (Mory and Anta) attempt to raise the funds to move to Paris in search of a better life. To accomplish this end, they engage in petty thievery and steal some expensive threads from a rich, gay fellow who's picked up Mory and taken him back to his palatial estate. In the process of raising funds they ride around on a motorcycle adorned with a cow's skull.

The tone is langourous and playful, similar to Godard's Pierrot Le Fou or Malick's Badlands. Unlike the didactic types in many of Mambéty's peers' films, Touki Bouki's protaganists are merely two characters in a diverse milieu which views neo-colonialism vs. African traditionalism with a fair amount of ambiguity. The visuals are pretty stunning too. There are a lot of shots of the heroes riding around the city and countryside on the aforementioned motorcyle and in a beautiful, customized Citroën 2CV. There are a lot of great threads and vibrant colors fill most of the stylishly composed frames.

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Posted by:
Eric Brightwell
Feb 23, 2008 3:51pm

Tsotsi

Dir: Gavin Hood, 2005. Starring: Presley Chweneyagae. Tsotsitaal, Zulu, Xhosa, English, Afrikaans. Black Cinema.

We've all seen the gang leader film a few hundred times. We've seen him in "tha hood" starting fights, we've seen him in a classroom getting into trouble and reporting to the principal's office, we've seen him ride slick cars, and we've seen him lead labor unions into civil uproar.

Place him in South Africa - we have a teenager named Tsotsi (meaning"thug") who doesn't know emotion and lives alone in the ghettos outside of Johannesburg. Place him in a wealthy city, and he steals a woman's Mercedes, as well as shoots her. Riding off, he finds himself not alone - the woman's baby is left in the backseat, and he is left by himself to take care of him. The film follows his journey as he learns how to care for someone other than himself, and the lessons and people that come along the way.

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Posted by:
Tiffany Huang
Feb 16, 2008 2:30pm

War Dance

Directors: Sean Fine and Andrea Nix Fine. 2007. English (subtitles). Documentary / Black Cinema.

Recent attention to the children's situation in war-torn Uganda has been spoken about in art events and documentaries such as Invisible Children, and there's a reason for that – international events, especially in Africa, are becoming more and more cared for as history school books fail to cover these contemporary aspects of our global issues.

War Dance, Sean and Andrea Fine's documentary about children competing in the Kampala Music Festival, has been received ambivalent critical review. New York Times' Stephen Holden sums up the conflict:  the film "is so gorgeous that its beauty distracts from the anguish it reveals… in spite of its slickness, is an honorable, sometimes inspiring exploration of the primal healing power of music and dance in an African tribal culture."

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Posted by:
Tiffany Huang
Sep 13, 2008 2:51pm

Watermelon Man

Dir: Melvin van Peebles. 1970. Starring: Godfrey Cambridge, Estelle Parsons. English. Black Cinema/Comedy.

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.

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Posted by:
Eric Brightwell
Feb 2, 2008 3:30pm

Willie Dynamite

Dir: Gilbert Moses. 1974. Starring: Roscoe Orman, Joyce Walker, Diana Sands, Thalmus Rasulala. English. Black Cinema.

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.

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Posted by:
Eddie Vegas
Feb 2, 2008 2:46pm

Yeelen (Brightness)

Dir. Souleymane Cissé. 1987. Starring: Issiaka Kane, Aoua Sangare.Bambara. Black Cinema/African Cinema/Foreign/Fantasy.

Niankoro, a young man in the powerful Malian Kingdom, is relentlessly pursued by his evil sorcerer father Soma in this mythological tale set in the 1200s. It seems Niankoro has stolen secret knowledge reserved exclusively for a secret society of old men with the intention to share it openly. He seeks out his father's twin and fellow sorcerer, Djigui Diarra, for protection. Niankoro's travels take him through the lands of the cosmologically-oriented, cliff-dwelling Dogon and the Peul, whose king enlists Niankoro's aid in protecting them from raiders and giving him a child - which he does (although not through magic) and Niankoro picks up a wife in the process. Niankoro avoids his father but Soma won't back down, however, and the confrontation between father and son becomes inevitable.

Cissé attended the Moscow School of Cinema and Television on a scholarship and Yeelen, based on Bambara legend, is very reminsicent of the Soviet films of Tarkovsky or Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami with a slow, methodical pace and lots of quiet space. Salif Keita and Michel Portal's score is minimal and used sparingly. The use of magic is handled similarly without flashy special effects along the lines of Tarkovsky's Stalker or Peter Weir's Picnic At Hanging Rock. There's ritualistic drinking, sniffing and smoking of various unnamed substances and Cissé depicts everything with an appropriate sort of hazy, dreamlike detachment. For a genre not generally known for restraint, this is one of the calmest films you'll ever see.

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Posted by:
Eric Brightwell
Feb 23, 2008 3:45pm
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