Do the Right Thing (US, 1989)

I’ve just published a guide to Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing. Here’s the introduction:

In Florida on February 26th, 2012, 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, who had been shopping at a convenience store, was shot and killed by vigilante George Zimmerman. Zimmerman had called ‘911’ to report Martin’s apparently suspicious behaviour and was told not to follow him. However the vigilante did so and claimed self-defence after shooting the boy. Florida’s ‘stand your ground law’ meant, as officers accepted Zimmerman’s version of events, he was not charged. After a national outcry he was eventually sent to trial where he was found ‘not guilty’. For many this outcome was another example how the American legal system discriminates against ethnic minorities and, in response, the activist movement Black Lives Matter was created.

This lack of concern about black lives certainly wasn’t new: in 2009 Oscar Grant was shot and killed, when he was lying face down on the ground being arrested, in Oakland, California; the killing was dramatised in Fruitvale Station (2013). The officer, Johannes Mehserle, was prosecuted for involuntary manslaughter and served very little time in prison.

Initially Black Lives Matter seemed to have no effect as African American lives continued to be lost in contentious circumstances. Michael Brown, an 18-year old, was shot in 2014 in Ferguson, Missouri, and several days of protests followed. Earlier that year, in New York, Eric Garner died after being held in a chokehold by officers even though the NYPD had banned the use of this method of restraint. Nearly 30 years after Do the Right Thing featured the death of a black man at the hands of the NYPD using a chokehold, it is clear that the sore of racism, with its roots in slavery, still festers.

Spike Lee’s emergence as a high profile filmmaker wasn’t simply due to the quality of his films but also because he became, for a time at least, an African American voice that mainstream media could not ignore. Although Lee’s messages were often misrepresented, the success of his films and skill in promoting himself led him to be considered to be a spokesperson for African Americans. Due to the institutional racism that restricts Black and Minority Ethnic (BAME) access, non-white voices are heard relatively rarely in mainstream media. Hence Lee, one of the few high profile African Americans in the film industry, became the conduit through which the mainstream media and audiences heard an African American perspective. Although his ambition was to be a filmmaker, not a spokesperson for his race, he hasn’t shirked the responsibility and has ensured that, in most cases, he has control over his films so he could say what he had to say.

However putting the burden of representation on one person’s shoulders is not only unfair but also impractical: one person cannot speak for a variegated group. One of the consequences of this is that Lee became a focus of criticism from African Americans because his films didn’t represent black culture the way they understood it.

At the other extreme, racist critics attacked Lee simply as a tactic to shut up a ‘diverse’ voice. The burden carried by Lee, and other ethnic minority artists who have mainstream appeal such as Beyoncé, is their art is inflected by race in a way that white artists’ work rarely is.

In 2017 Michael Slager was sentenced to 20 years imprisonment for killing, when a police office, African American Walter Scott. Maybe this is a sign that the Black Lives Matter movement is working. As Do the Right Thing suggests, it is vital to continue fighting against racial oppression.


Available at Amazon here.


Dark River (UK, 2017)

Outsider trying to get back

Spoilers ahead!

I must admit I had reservations when it became clear that the trauma suffered by Alice (the excellent Ruth Wilson) was being sexually abused by her father when a child. There is a danger that such a horrendous breach of trust will become a cliché if it is wheeled out too often; I first felt this when seeing Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon. However, in the film Clio Barnard does manage to add to our (my) understanding of the lingering effects of the abuse.

Ruth returns home after the death of her father, played with brooding presence by Sean Bean in the flashbacks. Her brother, Joe, a slightly unhinged character played by Mark Stanley, is less than welcoming but the film is nuanced in its portrayal of characters that – dad aside – can mostly be seen to also have a ‘good side’. Ruth is a character of immense strength who single-handedly looks to be capable of turning the farm around but the absentee landlords ensure that profit comes before the land.

What makes Barnard’s film interesting is the way the flashbacks are integrated, like Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool, into the continuity editing so that the past is integral to the present. The scene shifts back many years with an eyeline match editing; Ruth’s memories momentarily seem as if they are happening now. This shows how the abuse Alice suffered 15 years earlier is still ‘present’ in her existence.

Adriano Goldman’s cinematography captures the ‘it’s grim up north’ beauty of the moors more effectively than God’s Own Country (UK, 2017). The farming community is unsentimentally and sympathetically portrayed. In one scene Joe eulogises about the millions of insects that can be hosted on one field in stark contrast to this week’s report that bird populations in France are plunging because of insecticides.

A Fantastic Woman (Una Mujer Fantástica, Chile-Germany-Spain-US, 2017)

Super hero

I saw this Berlin Festival winner (best screenplay) at a preview and managed to avoid knowing anything about the film, apart from it was directed by Sebastián Lelio who’d made Gloria, which was enough recommendation for me. This proved a boon given the film’s subject matter, which I won’t give away.

A Fantastic Woman is a brilliant melodrama and Lelio isn’t afraid to go way off realism; in one sequence the protagonist Marina (Daniela Vega) is walking down a street tracked by the camera. The wind gets up blowing detritus into her face. It gets stronger and, at the end of the scene, she comes to a dead stop leaning almost 45-degrees into the wind. This is symbolic of the difficulties n Marina’s life but, like Gloria, she continues to battle.

In a film about identity it is no surprise that mirrors are seen throughout the film including, near the end, in one telling shot that questions how biology shapes who we are. In another bravura scene, workmen carrying an enormous reflective surface stop in the street and Marina is shown in the wobbling mirror: another great visual metaphor about body image.

It’s a cracking film.

Phantom Thread (US, 2017)

Please let it end

I’m happy to admit I don’t get P.T. Anderson: Phantom Thread is meritorious tripe . I think it may be the third shot of the film when the klaxon sounded that I may be wasting two hours of my life: the ever-intrusive music swells as if for a revelation, the camera pans up to show a spiral staircase where the women workers of the fashion house ascend… That’s it. I had similar problems with There Will Be Blood; by the time I worked out what the film was trying to say I didn’t care and wasn’t interested in what it was saying anyway. In fact what I said about Anderson’s The Master is relevant to Phantom Thread:

‘What is the point of The Master? Its narrative is suitably elliptical for a ‘arty’ house film; it lacks the clear drive that’s bespoke Hollywood. It features lauded performances of the sort that Oscar voters like. It’s beautifully  shot and superbly set designed with some striking  compositions …  The music, both ‘found’ and scored (by Jonny Greenwood) is terrific… What’s the film’s point?’

I only went to see Phantom Thread for Daniel Day Lewis but when his character sees the next ‘love of his life’, Alma, and she seems to fall for a man twice her age immediately my doubts about the film were doubled. Anderson is a tasteful old-fashioned filmmaker but such patriarchal pap doesn’t stand watching in, what I hope is, our #MeToo era. It’s not simply that Lewis’ character is abusive, but the idea that young women readily desire old men is long past its sell-by date.

The milieux  of ‘high fashion’ was never one that was going to interest me so I was prejudiced against the film which is beautifully shot by Anderson himself. By the end (halfway actually) I was watching in a detached way that is rarely useful in film watching and so could observe how Anderson used close-ups, and more swelling music, to nail a devastating point about Lewis’ character. BUT IT WASN’T INTERESTING! I’ll shut up now…

Except I’m not sure why the music was so high in the mix. I loved Jonny Greenwood’s score for The Master and his old fashioned scoring for Phantom Thread is in keeping with Anderson’s aesthetic but it sometimes seemed to flood the mise en scene; this Pitchfork review is enlightening.



No Love for Johnnie (UK, 1961)

Unsentimental too

I knew the title but little else when I spied this on Talking Pictures channel and what a discovery it proved to be. Peter Finch plays a careerist Labour politician whose lack of success in government, and disastrous personal life, sets the scene for an unsentimental portrayal of a middle aged man in crisis. I expected the film to be sympathetic to him and feared the worse when he starts an affair, after his wife has left him, with a woman half his age. However, the film went against my expectation and the female characters are portrayed as stronger than he is.

As Roy Stafford outlines, the film doesn’t quite belong to the ‘new wave’ cinema of the time though there are ‘obligatory’ shots of ‘it’s grim up north’ – Halifax standing in for a generic northern town. Because the focus is on Parliamentary politics, and it’s obviously in the know as it’s based on a novel by Labour MP Wilfred Fienburgh, its metropolitan milieux takes it away from the working class world that reinvigorated late ’50s-early ’60s British cinema. Although the costumes of the characters, particularly the women, seem to belong to the ’50s, and the music they bop to is jazz, the mores of the time are more in keeping with the nascent ‘sexual revolution’. The uncredited Oliver Reed plays a drunk at a party and, in retrospect, gives the film a forward-looking feel. There’s no sense that the ingénue Mary (Pauline West) should be censored for sex outside marriage and Billie Whitelaw portrays the neighbour, who holds a flame for Johnnie, as a strong woman; though the scene were he gets violent toward her, with her forgiving response, sits uneasily today.

It was produced by Betty Box, one of the few women of influence in the industry at the time, and she’d made – along with director Ralph Thomas – the successful ‘Doctor’ series, starring Dirk Bogarde. She had a prolific career running from the 1940s to the mid-’70s. It’s difficult enough for women to succeed today so what a person she must have been.

Son of Saul (Saul fia, Hungary, 2015)

Harrowing testimony

I visited Auschwitz-Birkenau and found the experience disturbing though not just because of what the Nazis did there. The place was so rammed with tourists, listening to commentary on their headphones, being hurried along to the next exhibition, that I find myself entirely distanced from the place, surely the opposite of the desired effect. The queue for tickets were cooled by a light mist of water that I couldn’t help thinking looked like gas and the only photograph I could bring myself to take was the queue to get into the gas chambers. We must never forget the depths of depravity that humans are capable of but I don’t think the way the camps are run is the way to remember.

Far better are films like Son of Saul that lay out inhumanity and trauma; other films that are effective include The Counterfeiters (Die Fälscher , Austria-Germany, 2007), particularly the ending, and the beginning of Andrzej Wadja’s Landscape After Battle (Krajobraz po bitwie, Poland, 1970). Saul is Nemes László’s debut feature and he daringly uses an extremely shallow depth of field, from the protagonist’s point of view, throughout. I’m not sure I’d’ve coped with the disorientating effect on the big screen (though as I watched it on my iPad whilst suffering from ‘flu I can’t be sure of my reaction), as my eyes insisted occasionally on trying to get more of the image into focus. However, as a technique for emphasising Saul’s single-minded determination to lay his son’s body to rest, played with frightening intensity by film debutant Röhrig Géza, it works brilliantly. It’s also a tour de force of choreography as the long takes require a large cast to be on their marks as Saul moves through the camp.

For years I felt that humanity had put the depravities of the Nazis behind us; how naïve. Son of Saul is a harrowing testament of the Holocaust and therefore a landmark film.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (UK-US, 2017)

Several levels of desperation

Three Billboards is one of the glut of ‘awards’ movies that fill the cinemas in the early months of the year to take advantage of the publicity garnered by the Oscars and BAFTAs. The idea that these are the best films of the year, often middle brow and never blockbusters, shows the one-eyed perspective of cultural commentators as they are usually all English language films. Pity the rest of the world who can’t hope to compete with Anglo Saxon culture!

Three Billboards is, however, good in the sense I enjoyed it and there were moments that were absolutely riveting. The performances are excellent, Martin McDonagh’s direction and script are great. With one proviso, which we’ll come to, it probably is one of the best American films produced last year.

Frances McDormand plays Mildred who places contentious statements on billboards in order to get justice for her murdered daughter. Police chief (Woody Harrelson) is the focus of her ire. One of his deputies, Sam Rockwell, is a racist and not fit to wear an officer’s uniform. The set-up is clear but McDonagh then sets about challenging our preconceptions, much derived from generic expectations, and offers depth to the characterisation. He also, typically of melodrama, over-exaggerates to the extent that Rockwell’s character is barely believable.

So what’s the problem with the film? SPOILERS AHEAD! Rockwell’s Dixon, despite being extremely racist, is redeemed when he helps Mildred. I thought the catalyst for this was weak, a letter from the now deceased police chief, but nevertheless thought it worked in the melodramatic framework. However, as Zeba Blay says in Huffington Post:

‘[The] disconnect between (mostly white) viewers who see Dixon’s having tortured a black man as a character quirk, a shorthand for anger and sadness, and (black) viewers like Denby, who can’t let go of this character quirk in order to root for the character, lies at the center of what makes the award-season success of “Three Billboards” so fascinating.

For a black audience Rockwell’s racism is far less likely to be forgiven when the character redeems himself because using racism as a signifier of weakness downplays its power. I think this is a fair comment and McDonagh’s defence weak:

“That ambiguity is exactly what I was going for in it. So it’s not a surprise, I think, and it’s nothing I can’t happily defend at any stage. I think it’s a really good film, and I think often the backlash is kind of a knee-jerk reaction maybe. And I think certainly in time — not right now, in time — the heart of the film will definitely be seen as something that’s deserving to be recognized.” (also in HuffPo article)

To describe a black person’s reaction to Dixon as ‘knee-jerk’ suggests McDonagh doesn’t understand how racism affects black people as does his self-congratulary contention that ‘the movie says “an awful lot” about race and policing’  I think it says more about white treatment of race than race itself.

However, this is not a reason not to see the film, which I think is very fine but with the qualification that it’s racial politics are, at the very least, contentious.