Spine

moonlight

Barry Jenkins has become a household name with the release of his second feature film. The screenwriter and director of the stunning Moonlight decided three different actors should portray the three stages of central character Chiron’s life: childhood, adolescence, and adulthood. Jenkins feels the actors’ eyes are similar enough to each other that the spirit of the character will translate to audiences without causing much distraction. One of Chiron’s defining characteristics is his bowed head. Fear and rage and shame constantly bubble behind those lowered eyes. His body language speaks volumes for a character who struggles expressing himself with words. How Chiron carries himself throughout the film illustrates his growth as he learns to fit in his own skin.

We meet the youngest Chiron (aka “Little”) running from a group of kids chasing him home. He seeks refuge in an abandoned building and is found by a neighborhood drug dealer, Juan, who later becomes a surrogate father. But throughout their time seated at the table of a nearby restaurant, and later in Juan’s home, Chiron’s eyes are aimed at his plate. In high school, Chiron–now insisting to be called by his given name–continues to have trouble with his classmates. He generally walks the halls alone, shoulders hunched, looking at his feet. Teresa, Juan’s partner and the matriarch of Chiron’s second home, at one point lifts his chin, reinforcing that he shed any shame, especially while under her roof. It’s no easy task for the confused teenager. Adult Chiron, who as adopted the moniker, “Black,” is more sure of himself, but it’s more facade than confidence. No one can see through the veneer easier than Kevin, Chiron’s only friend.

The moment that holds the most weight in this film is in the second to last scene. Kevin is pressing Chiron on his current image, a far cry from what he expected since high school: platinum fronts in his mouth, a flashy muscle car, and a prison yard physique. It’s clear that Kevin is the only person who ever understood Chiron’s personal struggles. When he finally lets his guard down, he speaks the first full truth about himself since running for his life in the first moments of the film. Not only is his confession to Kevin one of the most important admissions, but we see him stand up straight and lift his chin for the first time. On his own. Kevin smiles knowingly, giving Chiron confidence to be himself and finally shed his shame.

Listen to the team talk about the film at the Toronto International Film Festival earlier this year.

Be good.

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Ryan Coogler Delivers Prestigious George E. Kent Lecture

Students: We don’t have an African American Studies program here.

Coogler: What?

Students: There is no African American Studies program here.

Coogler: … (nods slowly; rubs forehead in disbelief)

Students: (laughter)

Coogler: Ya’ll doing something about that, right?

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Director and screenwriter, Ryan Coogler, visited the University of Chicago students last week to deliver the annual George E. Kent Lecture. Twenty-nine and currently a force in the film industry, he walked to the podium—the creator of two award-winning films, and holding the keys to a Marvel movie—and told us he was nervous. Wait, what? That sounds like one of those obligatory somethings a “regular” guy would say; an artifice of humility that folks use when they’ve been asked to do something important, like speak to young black students at a major university that lacks an African American Studies program.

As the night progressed, we all in attendance learned that Coogler’s feet are, in fact, planted firmly on the ground. The audience was continually impressed by how “regular” he is. After giving a few words of encouragement toward the plight of black students at a predominantly white institution and giving thanks for being invited as the speaker for such a prestigious event, he casually asked his fiancé if she had lotion with her. She tossed a small tube up to him on stage and, after applying a bit to his palm, he tossed it back to her before taking his seat for the Q&A with Chase Woods, political chair of the Organization of Black Students at the University of Chicago. It was a “blackest moment ever,” if ever there was one.

Another was his long-noted expletive when asked what new media he was consuming. He drew a blank. 2015 was a blur since he’d both shot and released Creed the same year. After racking his brain (and with a bit of help from the audience) he remembered Kendrick Lamar and Drake released music, and even mentioned some comics he’s into. Coogler’s list of all-time favorite movies exemplified his randomness as a human, and complexity as a director. The crowd responded with gleeful laughter when he mentioned The Mighty Ducks and respectful applause when he mentioned La Haine: a film often referred to as a French Do the Right Thing. His range had everyone by the ears.

What may have been the most affecting aspects of Coogler’s appearance were 1) his thoughtful attention to each question, and 2) his unabashed black identity. Coogler’s tendency to answer intelligently and completely was refreshing, given the current campaign season. The conversation veered toward some of the socio-political happenings of the day and he encouraged us as the thinkers and seekers of answers to “pop the hood” on some of the bigger questions; to get to the root of the something , such as The Academy Awards, and find out its components. Ask how it’s possible that there are no people of color nominated for any major categories. When the director was asked what he thought of the #BlackLivesMatter movement, there was a pregnant pause. A nervous laughter bubbled in the crowd, tinged with anxiety that he may try to execute a socio bob and political weave. Nope. He asked if there were history majors in the audience. Then followed up by explaining history as a series of evolving “movements.” He drew connections between slavery and the exploited free labor of the prison system. Left hook. He made clear the link between the minority student frustration on campus (see leaked racist emails) and the importance of an African American Studies Program at UChicago. Right cross. He stressed that the hashtag is simply a symbol of the need to “go get it,” whatever “it” may be for this generation. Uppercut.

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Coogler admits growing more inquisitive with age. The relentless desire for answers dictates the content of his films. He uses filmmaking as the vehicle to seek those answers (i.e. how Oscar Grant can be shot and killed while handcuffed and lying on his stomach was seed for Fruitvale Station). But when it comes to his film’s audiences, he doesn’t compromise the question for the sake of appeasement. Becoming a change agent is a difficult choice, but Coogler refers to films as “acts of journalism” that get people discussing subject matter that needs action or resolution.

Following the lecture and Q&A, was a reception that consisted of a more intimate group of students and program board members invited to chat with Coogler and his fiancé at the Office of Multicultural Student Affairs. Perhaps among 25 people, he spoke more candidly about some of his experiences growing up and how he battles the identity crisis within “a system that divides successful African Americans from their people” (thanks for the quote, George). It’s easy to get a bit of notoriety and separate from who and what one knows, but he’s found his balance. His brother now inhabits his old bedroom from their childhood home, and has since fashioned it into a makeshift music studio to produce songs for the soundtracks of both of Coogler’s films. His relationship with his father spawned the idea for Creed. And he also let us know that his perspective is his greatest asset. Blackness and youth present a unique view to the Academy’s older, white demographic; the writer/director possesses a cultural currency that they need. Minority status does have advantages. Being able to seek, connect, and collaborate with other minorities is a benefit and he encouraged students to do the same on campus, because the dynamic doesn’t change after graduation.

As the night wound down, after revealing that Sylvester Stallone had actually thanked his director in his acceptance speech at the Golden Globes, informing us how he was able to reflect authenticity in his characters, discussing the gender politics that exist in the film industry, and referencing the pressure of placing the crown and burden of race or gender on any one person (see Ta-Nehisi Coates or Ava DuVernay), I was able to ask Coogler a question: given the way he speaks (his Bay Area accent is quite prominent), his youth (he was 24 when he began shooting Fruitvale), and his undeniable blackness (remember the lotion?)—how was he able to walk into a room full of old white people and convince them to let him spend their money to make a film? To put it plainly, he was comfortable. He knows he’s good at his job and the other people in the room aren’t doing him a favor; they’re going into business with him. It’s a collaborative effort that is a boon for all parties involved. Once he gained the cachet of respectability politics, he was and is able to walk into any room, whether in a suit and wingtips or jeans and sneaks, and belong there. Coogler deserves his place in the industry just as much as anyone else. And for that, I am proud.

Be good.

Jordan vs. Coogler

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Spike and Denzel? Singleton and Fishburne? I don’t know if these pairing comparisons can be made, just yet. Both Ryan Coogler and Michael B. Jordan are still young craftsmen in the film industry, but maybe that proves the point. Their work together on Fruitvale Station and now this Rocky spin-off shows their relationship has moved beyond simply budding and become officially the stuff of movie magic.

Creed is a very well made movie. Simple as that. Without spoiling too much (though perhaps some spoilage) I’ve seen all of the other Rocky movies. And I saw them as they were released, not because of a Spike TV marathon that’s on because Creed is currently in theaters. This new installment has all the staples of any Rocky or sports movie: training scenes with motivating scores, tender moments of loss and overcoming life obstacles, fights outside the ring as well as within, and even a chicken-chasing scene. I found myself with only three legitimate nit picks about the film, but I’d rather talk about the scene that stood out most to me: the jail scene.

The title character, Adonis, reaches that point in every film where a lie is revealed and there is an irrational, emotional reaction that leaves our severely six-packed protagonist at his rock bottom. No trainer, no guidance, no love interest–no access to anything he needs to be the best him. This movie is about creating an identity and when Adonis is suddenly derailed from that journey, he lashes out. At everyone. He sits in jail, as if a caged animal. Stallone’s Balboa comes to talk some sense into Adonis, but he’s not hearing it. Jordan’s ability to move through a scene showing reflection, anger, sadness, vulnerability, and closed-off-ness is an astounding acting feat in and of itself–but in a boxing movie? Million Dollar Baby is the only other flick I can think of that has great talents who generate a similar emotional response for viewers. Coogler gets a few similar scenes from Jordan in Fruitvale, ironically, also in a jail scene with the character Oscar’s mother who is appalled to see the kind of person her baby can be, but it’s his survival self. A self generated by street life. The same goes for Adonis. He starts in the streets and–though he does find consistency and love from his father’s widow–he harbors a deeply-rooted anger that bubbles beneath the surface.

The one-two punch (ha!) of this actor and director/writer team must be relished because of how rare it is when both parties are black. Quentin Tarantino and Samuel Jackson spring to mind as another more recent example of a duo that came together early, but TWO black guys producing juggernaut performances like this? Psh. This is great art, jo. Also, the other films I mentioned were on a smaller scale or were not entries in major franchises with major studios that have cumulatively made major bank. Coogler is trekking some interesting terrain here and he and Jordan are carving a wondrous path that’s exciting to witness.

Oh, and Mr. Coogler; don’t think I don’t see that Creed has elements of Boyz n the Hood, homie. Young Adonis starts the movie with a fight because of what another kid says, same as young Trey Styles. Both kids end up moving to get guidance from the parent who seems best equipped to handle his particular set of challenges. Older Trey gets mad after a run-in with police and shadow boxes in the living room while crying. The actor that plays young Adonis does favor a young Trey, too. Sooo…basically, Creed is the exact same movie as Boyz n the Hood except it’s in Philly with slightly more boxing. I see you, Mr. Coogler. So when you gonna do your Higher Learning? Poetic Justice, maybe? Dang…Malcolm X. We’ll be watching and waiting, homie.


Be good.

Dope Mans

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Aight. I just came from checkin’ out Dope; that new joint from Rick Famuyiwa. When I first saw the preview, it looked like The Wood meets Go. Funny, cuz I ain’t even know the same dude wrote and directed The Wood, at first. After peepin’ the actual film, I’d say you could add to the mix Superbad and the rebooted Jump Street franchise. And don’t think I ain’t notice the score hollerin’ back to classics like Juice. Yeah, that’s it. Juice. Dope was like a big ol’ coming-of-age smoothie from Jamba Juice, or something. But instead of adding a shot of wheat germ or vitamin whatever for energy boost, you add a shot of Crown…for blackness. Or maybe it ain’t so much a smoothie but more like a Dockberry shake. You can still chase it with Crown, tho.

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This movie comes down to identity. A bunch of times in the flick, Malcolm is asked who he is. His usual response: “I’m just Malcolm.” That answer ain’t good enough in most cases except with his boo thang hopeful, Nakia. From credits to credits, Malcolm either has to be someone that he isn’t, or someone that he doesn’t want to be in different situations. Straight survival mode. When with his best friends, Diggy and Jib, he’s probably closest to the ‘himself’ he wants to be. With Nakia? Malcolm’s like a little kid. Possibly the teenager he would be if he wasn’t from “The Bottoms”, Inglewood, California.

The goings on of his neighborhood make sure he keeps his guard up constantly and is able to move between the different environments. If he’s caught slippin’, he could lose a Jordan, a spot at Harvard, or even his life. Nakia sees Malcolm for who he is and who he could be. It’s when they’re alone together that we see his window of self preservation roll down a bit and his vulnerability seep through the crack. He even tells her not to fall into the trap of being what folks expect. Selling one’s self short is all too easy, where they’re from. Malcolm makes it clear that he’s “not like these other niggas.” But as soon as Malcolm thinks Nakia isn’t taking him seriously, he rolls that window back up and – “bloop bloop” – sets the alarm. Wearing masks is part of the performance. It’s how he and his friends–and arguably black folks as a whole–get along in life. Just like Dope uses the mask of comedy to discuss “real” issues of black communities, it ruins the image and the style that you’re used to.

Okay. That was a stretch, but I just wanted an excuse to post this pic of Shock G:
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Famuyiwa is a set-up artist. From jump, we see the main trio at the record shop and we learn something that isn’t all that obvious about one of them. Later, we get confirmation about another one–a mini-reveal that had me like, “Yeah, that’s what I thought. I knew I wasn’t crazy,” but I put a pin in it because I could relate to this group of friends. But then the movie told me how I was wrong. See, when I’m introduced to these kids I expect them to be a certain way. Even when they switch it up and, say, rock out as the punk band, The Awreeohs (pronounced like a certain vegan friendly cookie), there’s still a different set of stereotypes I expect them to embody. Because that’s what I need. I use my assumptions about the characters to fill in the gaps of their narrative that I haven’t learned yet. But when a film subverts my expectation, it illustrates the ways in which I, and society at large, constantly and incorrectly categorize people, especially by race, class, and circumstance.

When Malcolm’s advisor says, “Who do you think you are?” trying to knock him down a peg for wanting to attend Harvard, the advisor is me. Every time I walk up to a group of teenage boys who are wearing their pants sagging down to their knees–maybe even rolling up some weed–but who also say “excuse me, sir” and step to the side as I walk past, that’s on me for being surprised they would show me respect. Dope flashes that vanity mirror back at me to remind me that I was a “complicated” kid just like Malcolm, even though he doesn’t realize it through much of the film. I played chess in the cafeteria during lunch and played basketball with drug dealers and gang members after school. I wasn’t a part of either one group or the other; I was part of both.

With that in mind, I recognized the moment that Malcolm realizes himself. Some may say it’s when he erases his Harvard application about Ice Cube’s “It Was a Good Day” and writes an essay on par with that of the MIT gambling protege from 21. Or even when he confronts the man who turns out to be the actual villain of the film. No. For me, it’s before that. It’s when Malcolm reaches his lowest rung of desperation. He’s one errand away from getting out of “debt” and almost loses it all because of a high school bully. We learn in this moment, in a darkly ironic turn, just how far Malcolm is willing to go to not become just another nigga from The Bottoms. He is already perceived as such but refuses to let it become his reality.

*pulls hoodie onto head*

“You got da juice now, dog.”

Be good.
 

If These Animals Could Talk, What Would They Say about Family?

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The original animated Disney crew members are pretty awkwardly clad. I mean, none of the ducks wear pants. The mice wear gloves. No one is sure why Goofy has a complete outfit and Pluto is an honest-to-goodness dog…whose owner is an anthropomorphic mouse…with gloves. This means either Mickey is enormous or Pluto is tiny; probably the former considering the existence of Chip and Dale. But I digress.

Aside from the characters’ garb, much research and discussion has been dedicated to the troubling sexuality and gender issues (the repeated princess narrative and more) and/or racial elements (from Song of the South to The Princess and the Frog among others) that appear in iconic Disney films as time marched on and character choice evolved. Now, I’m not saying these topics don’t deserve targeting, but what about the idea of how these characters are related? What about family? Let’s take a peek behind the curtain and explore the family structures that these movies present to children and families.

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