Sapphire (UK, 1959)

Passing blonde

This social problem film is fascinating and shocking. It was scripted by Janet Green, who also wrote Victim (UK, 1960), an important film about male homosexuality which was illegal at the time. Both were directed by Basil Dearden. Sapphire’s social problem is race and was released a year after the Notting Hill ‘riots’ caused by white racists and it is framed as a detective story about who murdered the eponymous character. The film starts with a gripping shot, unusual for Dearden whose direction is prosaic, of Sapphire’s body being disposed of so we don’t get to know her other than through other characters. SPOILER ALERT: she is mixed raced but is passing for white and is pregnant by her white boyfriend.

The film is fascinating because it shows us the liberal viewpoint on race at the time; shocking because it is in many ways illiberal. Whilst the protagonist, Nigel Patrick’s investigating officer, Hazard, is shown to be non-racist, in contrast to his assistant (Michael Craig), he still is accepting of racist attitudes. For example, a landlady says she runs a ‘white house and Hazard is shown to be understanding when she explains that for economic reasons as she doesn’t want to get a reputation for housing blacks. Such discrimination was criminalised by the Race Relations Act 1965 and shows how important it is to legislate agains bigoted behaviour. I’m sure one of the reasons the racist right are emboldened is because they can enjoy the ‘echo chamber’ of their own views on social media. The old racist complaint, ‘I’m only saying what you’re all thinking’, probably seems to be true in their filter bubble.

As David Olusoga’s brilliant book Black and British: A Forgotten History shows, during the post-war period black people were increasingly demonised as responsible for economic problems which has more than a few echoes of recent years. Whilst the ruling classes view tended toward the importance of racial purity, hence the fear of miscegenation, the general public were apparently more tolerant. However, scapegoating minorities for the failure of others, fanned by a right wing media, is nothing new.

Sapphire’s problem in representing race is most apparent when Hazard interviews ‘lowlifes’. It is in this scene that the racist tropes, developed by Hollywood, are most evident. The eye-rolling villain, and giggling sidekicks, suggest degenerates and one (black) character states that even though some can pass for white “once they hear the beat of the bongos” they give themselves away.

Racist trope

On the other hand Earl Cameron (the ‘ebony saint’ of British cinema and like Sidney Poitier born in the West Indies), who plays Sapphire’s brother, is represented simply as a grieving brother. He tells Hazard that, “I’m staying at the Dorchester. They take us there.” The line is almost thrown away but is a telling slight on the times.

‘Ebony saint’

Finally a note on the detectives. Patrick’s performance is perfectly one note as he’s meant to play the patriarchal, unruffled copper; there’s one incoherent chase sequence but otherwise it’s the plod of his brain cells. The film suggests we can completely trust the Metropolitan Police to prosecute cases without fear or favour. It was barely 20 years later that the Met’s treatment of black people led to the Brixton riots and so Sapphire stands as an example of propaganda as well as liberal period piece.

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Mudbound (US, 2017)

Bound in pain

Mudbound is one of the best films of the year but you’ll be lucky (from a UK perspective) if you can see it in cinemas even though it was only released yesterday; it’s a ‘Netflix original’. I wish I could see it in the cinema if only for Rachel Morrison’s beautiful cinematography. I’m not just referring to the sunsets but also the mud-sodden fields where much of the action takes place. I’m not having a go at Netflix,  at least they supported a black, female director – Dee Rees – in making an uncompromising film about racial hatred in 1940s America.

With high quality television sets, high definition streaming and sound bars, watching films at home has never been better. I remember watching Tarkovsky’s Solaris (USSR 1972) on a black and white portable television, I still enjoyed it but… One thing we’re likely to never know, however, is how popular Mudbound is with audiences as Netflix doesn’t release figures. That’s commercially sensitive information allowing it to know what types of film to make so anyone with a Netflix subscription watch it! The film’s won festival awards and is being linked to the Oscars but ‘box office’ figures will forever be absent.

I struggled slightly at the start of the film to orientate myself as the film sprawls somewhat in setting up the backgrounds of the two families; I also struggled with the accents of the characters but I could have put on the subtitles. However, the early scenes are important and once the McAllans arrive in Mississippi the narrative grips. Part of my struggle may have been because a number of characters have their own voiceovers which made it uncertain who were the main protagonists. I’m indifferent to voiceovers usually, unless it’s film noir, as they seem to be a failure of cinematic narration; however in Mudbound they work superbly to offer a multiplicity of viewpoints.

All the performances are extraordinary from Carey Mulligan to Mary J. Blige, unrecognisable (she’s in the image above) without her make up. Rees’ direction is subtle: I particularly liked a shot on V.E. Day with Ronsel, a member of General Patton’s Black Panthers, with his German lover looking out of the window at the celebrations in the street. He’s in the background and, despite the joyous scene, it’s clear he’s unhappy because it means his relationship is now over. Rees is equally confident in the battle scenes conveying the visceral horror and fully setting up the relationship between two veterans when they return from war.

As a chunk of Southern Gothic melodrama, Mudbound delivers brilliantly and hopefully Netflix finds it worth while to finance more of Rees’ films.

 

I Am Not Your Negro (Switzerland-France -Belgium-US, 2016)

Plus ça change

This superb documentary on James Baldwin, who died in 1987, is timely in the light of the neo Nazi demonstrations in Charlottesville earlier this month. Baldwin was an important figure in the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s. He refused to align himself with the radical Black Panthers, Martin Luther King, NAACP (which he deemed middle class) or Malcolm X but, through his articulate arguments and his feted novels, offered an intellectual perspective on racism. Raoul Peck’s film intermingles archive footage, much of it of Baldwin speaking for himself, with Samuel L. Jackson’s (beautiful) voice over speaking Baldwin’s words.

The film uses the unfinished Remember This House as its starting point. Here Baldwin was trying to come to terms with the deaths of King, X and Medger Evers who was murdered by white supremacist, Byron De La Beckwith; it took 30 years for Beckwith to be convicted. Whilst this may seem to be dilatory justice the American judicial system, as the Black Lives Matter campaign illustrates, is still highly reluctant to convict when the victim is black. One of the most notorious incidents in recent years is Trayvon Martin, shot in the chest by a vigilant, George Zimmerman, who was unbelievably found ‘not guilty’ of murder. Peck intersperses the film with examples such as Martin’s to illustrate that racism is still destroying lives. At Charlottesville, social media footage shows, a supremacist shouted “Nigger” and then fired a gun at protestors; the police did not intervene.

During the 1960s it must have seemed that, through the Civil Rights protests (see Selma for example), things were going to get better for minorities. However, what has become clear, although there have been improvements in equality with the abolition of Jim Crow laws, racism is still endemic (see 13th) and the increased profile of neo Nazis is symptomatic of this. In the film there is footage of 1960s racist protests which include banners emblazoned with the swastika . I’m not sure what is most shocking, the neo Nazis of today or those of the ’60s, just 20 years after the end of the war in which Americans had died fighting against fascism.

Baldwin’s sophisticated analysis of racism, including much on cinema from his book The Devil Finds Work (1976), concludes with the statement that black people know more about whites than whites do about black because white people don’t see blacks as people. Whites are the ones who invented the ‘nigger’ and, Baldwin asks, what is it about white people that led them to do this? What is their problem?

 

Selma (UK-US, 2014)

On the march

I’ve written about two high profile African-American films recently (Moonlight and Hidden Figures) both of which featured in this year’s Oscars. This was based on merit, however the Academy Awards don’t necessarily deal in merit as the literally scandalous neglect of Selma last year emphasised; it did receive a Best Picture nomination but David Oyelowo’s performance was widely thought to be worthy of at least a Best Actor nomination. I was delighted to catch up with this film that revealed a key moment in recent American history that had been ‘hidden’ from me.

While the events, in 1965, at the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, are enshrined in Civil Rights history it is a strength of commercial cinema that it can both inform, and remind, millions of people about key moments. I was certainly ignorant and so was enlightened having watching the film and experienced exasperated rage at the ridiculous and violent racism perpetrated against the protestors who simply wanted to be able to exercise their right to vote. Racism is not just in history, unfortunately, as the racist right returns to the fray; Marine Le Pen may be been resoundingly defeated in France but she still got 35% of the vote and in the UK the Conservative party is morphing into UKIP.

Oyelowo’s performance as Martin Luther King is the lynchpin of the film’s success. Entirely convincing as the non violent leader in both his actions and his words. Although director Ava DuVernay (Yes! A high profile African-American female director) had to rewrite King’s speeches for copyright reasons, I still found Oyelowo’s delivery stirring. He was excellent also in A United Kingdom (Czech Republic-UK-US, 2016) that similarly unearthed an anti-racist narrative.

I don’t know about the development history of the film; British scriptwriter Paul Webb had been touting the script for some time. Cloud 8 films is the lead producer, set up by Christian Colson who used to work at Celador, who also produced. Celador made Slumdog Millionaire. Cloud 8 has (assuming Wikipedia is up to date and accurate) a ‘first look’ deal with Pathe, who also produced. Brad Pitt’s Plan B and Oprah Winfrey’s Harpo Films represent American involvement. Winfrey appears as Annie Lee Cooper who punched Sheriff Jim Clark in Selma. Winfrey’s obviously a high profile black ‘player’ in the industry and it’s good to see Pitt using his power to get important films made; Plan B was also involved in 12 Years a Slave.

Presumably getting American finance was difficult and British actors Tom Wilkinson and Tim Roth (not forgetting Oyelowo) take on the major roles of President Johnson and Governor Wallace (both excellent). If making money is really the prime driver of Hollywood we should expect more African-American films especially given the success of Hidden Figures. Whilst the Fast and Furious franchise has been immensely successful in transcending the white hegemonic audience, very few films are following. Maybe racial politics trumps money.

Get Out (US, 2017)

‘They really don’t get it, do they?’

Blumhouse has a reputation for low budget horror productions, such as the very successful Paranormal Activity (2009-15) and The Purge (2013-) series. Get Out has beaten them and parlayed a $5m budget into, to date, $184m worldwide box office. In order to attain such numbers it’s clearly broken out of its teen core audience and shows what can be done when genre pleasures, this is a good horror film, are woven into the zeitgeist. Jordan Peele, the writer-director, has made a film that is about race in the 21st century.

Black British actor, Daniel Kaluuya, takes the lead as Chris who’s going to meet the parents of his white, preppy, girlfriend Rose Armitage, played by Allison Williams. He asks if they know he’s black and she tells him her parents aren’t racist. Chris is obviously not entirely reassured by the blasé statement because he knows that even if they aren’t racist it doesn’t mean that they won’t treat him in a racist way so embedded, particularly in the American psyche, is the politics of slavery.

The end credits state the film’s shot in Alabama, however this location (to my eyes at least) is not obvious in the film. At first I thought this was a missed trick, evoking the Deep South would immediately trigger associations of slavery, however I realised that Peele didn’t want to make a point about the racism of Old America, he was showing racism now anywhere in middle class America.

Peele leads us into the horror with great skill. The Prologue shows a black man being attacked on a suburban street; when he states before the attack that the suburbs are scary he means for a black person. After this the build-up is slow, with enough hints (particularly from Catherine Keener’s mum) that beneath the wealthy, liberal surface there lurks something not right. Allison’s dad points to a cellar, that resonant setting for horror, and states it’s sealed off because of black mould. Chris’s discomfort increases as the wealthy white and their black servants surround him; when he tries to connect with a ‘brother’ he finds incomprehension.

Spoiler alerts:
Peele takes us on a tour of references including Invasion of the Body Snatchers (US, 1956), The Stepford Wives (US, 1975 and 2004) and, in the clinical and opulent mise en scene of Armitage house, Kubrick’s The Shining (UK, 1980). These references avoid being derivative because they’re used to make a statement about contemporary racial politics, particularly the #Blacklivesmatter campaign in America. In a fantastic climax it appears the police have arrived to save Chris. He puts up his hands, his white girlfriend is lying on the floor crying for help… Peele knows most in the audience would realise that there is good chance, in those circumstances in reality, that the police would summarily execute Chris.

One false note for me was LilRey Howery’s Rod, Chris’s ‘comic turn’ mate, whose bumbling detracts from the drama too much. As a horror film it has enough gore at the climax to satisfy most and not too much to detract for the squeamish.

I imagine that the film is popular with minority ethnic audiences and demonstrates, like the never-ending Fast and Furious franchise (2009-), that producers daring enough not to  assume ‘white’ is the default setting can be a profitable route. The film garnered a bit of controversy in America when Samuel L. Jackson questioned the casting of a British actor rather than a ‘brother’. Kaluuya’s considered response, in Vanity Fair, suggested he is a brother because he is an ‘outsider’:

“When I’m around black people I’m made to feel ‘other’ because I’m dark-skinned,” he explained. “I’ve had to wrestle with that, with people going ‘You’re too black.’ Then I come to America and they say, ‘You’re not black enough.’ I go to Uganda, I can’t speak the language. In India, I’m black. In the black community, I’m dark-skinned. In America, I’m British. Bro!”

Get Me Out is about outsiders and how some poeple use liberal attitudes as a badge of their own character and not as an ideological position to fight for equality. Although not quite directly related to  this, an altercation on CNN between a white Trump supporting pundit and three African American voices shows how the default setting of debate is the white setting – click here.

PS Infuriatingly the lights were turned on before the film had finished. What’s a few seconds to gather yourself after an excellent film matter?! Cineworld watch out.

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.