Play (Sweden-France, 2011)

What do you think?

What do you think?

I haven’t seen writer-director Ruben Östlund’s Force Majeur (Sweden-France-Norway-Denmark, 2014), one of the most feted arthouse films of this year,  but my anticipation has increased after watching (experiencing?) the film which preceded it, his second feature. There are at least two levels of ‘play’ going on in the film: there’s the ‘play’ of the boys (though it’s actually bullying rather than the ‘innocent’ kind); and the play with the spectator’s head, which makes for an interesting, and sometimes uncomfortable, experience.

Based on actual court cases in Gothenburg, Sweden, the film follows a group of black lads as they part con/part bully two white, and one lad of East Asian extraction, out of their stuff. The racial politics could, in the eyes of the ‘wrong’ (racist) audience, be quite incendiary as the film represents the black lads in a (negative) stereotypical way. As an arthouse film (in both Sweden and elsewhere given the film’s visual style – more below), however, we might expect it to be seen by the ‘right’ (middle class) audience who may be appalled by the racist stereotyping presented.

However, it all happened so it’s not racist is it? These questions might give you some idea of the way Östlund teases (plays) his audience. It’s a bit like near the start of Crash (US, 2004), where two African-Americans talk about negative stereotyping before robbing two middle class white people on the street. It’s shocking to see obvious racist stereotypes in modern cinema (there are plenty of non-obvious ones). Östlund, who co-wrote and directed, doesn’t offer the emotional catharsis of entertainment, which we get in Crash, but the unnerving camera eye, most commonly utilised by Michael Haneke, with which to observe events. The film virtually forces us to ask the question whether we are watching a racist film or not; it is a good question.

The camera is mostly still, with some pans, and uses long takes and long lenses to observe the action from a distance, which often appears to be taking place on location with passers-by oblivious to the filming. This ‘dispassionate’ distance puts us in the position of an onlooker who can only observe and not intervene. Very little intervention from passers-by actually goes on. In one scene, where the black gang beat up one of their own members, a man who saw what was going on tells the victim he’ll be a witness in court for him. While this scene is obviously completely staged (please let it be!), it’s still shocking to think people won’t get involved; though the passivity of people, when confronted with problems on the street, is well documented.

Östlund does not simply ‘have it in’ for the gang, as a coda the dads of the white lads take out their revenge in a quite outrageous way; presumably this too happened. Two women do intervene at this but didn’t call the police!!! Sorry for the exclamation marks but that’s how the film works: ‘call the police!’ was bellowing in my head.

Assuming it all happened, an absolutely key issue for if it hadn’t then the film would be read differently, Play brilliantly questions our morality. The Daily Telegraph reviewer, who gave the film 5*s, felt the film was ‘partly about a kind of paralysis wreaked by political correctness’. That’s to be expected from a right wing newspaper that doesn’t understand that ‘political correctness’ is a term of abuse aimed attempts to avoid discrimination. For me the film’s about voyeurism and interrogates our values; or rather encourages us to interrogate our values. And I don’t think the film is about race, rather it is suggesting that class is the key social factor. The gang have little, compared to their middle class victims, who we first see shopping in an anonymous Mall; one of whom has just lost 500 kroner to no great distress. Their parents, barely seen, seem more interested in work and only belatedly respond to a distress call. In a materialist society, materialism is the source of conflict. Östlund doesn’t take sides he just shows us uncomfortable truths.

A mostly non-professional cast are brilliantly marshalled though I am still puzzled by the scenes on a train with a cradle which seems to show up near the end, but the point is lost on me. Enlightenment welcome in the comments below please.

Fruitvale Station (US, 2013)

#BlackLivesMatter

#BlackLivesMatter

It’s quite extraordinary how many black people are being killed by law enforcement officers in America and getting away with it. Racism is so institutionalised that even when Trayvon Martin, an unarmed 17-year old, was shot in the back by a vigilante, George Zimmermann, the latter was found ‘not guilty’. Clearly it is open season on people of colour. The UK is not without its problems, Mark Duggan for example, but we can’t compare to America.

Fruitvale Station, which recounts the last hours of Oscar Grant (Michael B. Jordan, brilliant in the role) before he was shot in the back whilst being arrested lying facedown, was released around the same time of the Trayvon Martin verdict. Its $16m North American box office was indicative of the film’s topicality as well as its quality.

As further evidence of the racial divide of America some commentators sought to attack the film because of its inaccuracies. For example, Grant is seen tending to a dog, victim of a hit and run, as it died. Although this never occurred, writer-director Ryan Coogler is clearly using the dog a melodramatic emblem of the way African-Americans are treated. The dog’s bloodied mouth mirrors that of Grant’s after he has been shot. So Kyle Smith’s attack on the film, in Forbes, is more interesting for what it says about Smith than the film. Spike Lee has been the subject of similar attacks when the dares to confront racism in America.  Do the Right Thing (1989) was particularly vilified by critics (see here) who suggested that the representations of the subordinate position of African-Americans was designed to stir up trouble. As Ed Guerrero says:

When a commercial film depicting a social issue or perspective challenges Hollywood’s strategies of ideological containment, that film usually comes under attack for inflaming and exacerbating the very problem that it seeks to expose, engage or change. (Guerrero, 2001: 18–19)

Although these films are dramatizing the social problem, right wing critics characterise them as being part of the problem. Unlike Zimmermann, the transport policeman was found guilty and sentenced to… two years (served 11 months). His defence was he thought he was firing his taser. The video footage, filmed by numerous onlookers (it was the early hours of New Year’s Day, 2009), may have helped get the conviction though this is doubtful as it didn’t help Rodney King get justice. The film starts with this ‘confused’ footage and then reconstructs Grant’s last hours, using a realist handheld camera style and shooting on Super 16 to avoid any slickness.

The film reminded me, as we followed Grant’s fairly ordinary last day, of Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep (US, 1977) as it focuses on ordinary people’s lives who happened to be black. It is strikingly rare to see such representations of ethnic minorities in cinema. Fruitvale Station was produced by Forest Whitaker’s Significant Productions, also responsible for the recently released Dope; presumably Whitaker is taking it upon himself to get the ‘African-American’ voice into film as Hollywood won’t do it.

I found the film compelling, not only because of the excruciating climax which is superbly staged, but also because of the performances: Melanie Diaz and Octavia Spencer, as Grant’s girlfriend and mother, are both standout. Ashley Clark’s perceptive review, in Sight & Sound, finishes with a quote from James Baldwin’s The Devil Has Work:

“The root of the white man’s hatred [for black men] is terror, a bottomless and nameless terror, which focuses on the black, surfacing, and concentrating on this dread figure, an entity which lives only in his mind.”

It seems, for many law enforcement officers, the only way to combat this terror is to shoot it.

Guerrero, E. (ed.) (2001) Do The Right Thing, London: British Film Institute.