Review: Dear White People

DWPSam Biting satirical racial films are rare these days in the so called post-racial-America that was spearheaded by the Obama presidency. Justin Simien’s debut film that he wrote, produced, and directed is a testament that America’s issues with race are far from over, but that’s not as much of the focus as one might glean from the title of the film alone. Dear White People is far more of a journey of self discovery in the modern age. Four Black students discovering who they truly are in midst of racial animosity, confusion, and eventual maturity. Dear White People focuses on four Black kids at an Ivy League college. The four have very different trajectories that they set out on and where they land is not as obvious as it might appear. Playing within the lines of what it means to be Black in America during a time of seemingly the highest amount of racial understanding can sometimes be the hardest time; lines get crossed by the unknowing, and by the uncaring. Samantha White (Tessa Thompson), often addressed as Sam, is the bi-racial young woman who runs a local radio show on campus entitled 'Dear White People.' Its obviously controversial due to Sam’s affinity to call out White people’s micro and macro aggressions. She makes statements such as “Dear White, dating a black person to piss of your parents is a form of racism.” Obviously, Sam is easily one of the most militant of the Black students on campus. She refuses to compromise her blackness in any way.

The second, and likely most relatable character is Lionel Higgins (Tyler James Williams). A journalism student who is tasked to do a character piece on Sam, but suffers from a level of being an outsider that makes him familiar to the audience in one way or another. Lionel just can’t seem to fit in anywhere. He bounces from house to house trying to find a place to land, literally and figuratively. He is afflicted with the notion of being not black enough for the Black kids, and too Black for the white kids; sounds like how Barack Obama was describe by many during the 2008 campaign. Sadly this is a very common Black experience for college students in the age of information. Where cultures are more widely colliding, seemingly in a good way, how do we stay true to our own culture? A question that Dear White People proposes, but doesn’t need to answer because it let’s the audience figure it out for themselves. Lionel’s journey is that of self discovery in this cultural middle ground.

Next is Colandrea Conners, often referred to as CoCo, (Teyonah Parris) an extremely bright young woman who is the very definition of craven. She works as a lens into two distressing aspects of Black culture, but she is explored incredibly well. CoCo while majoring in Economics at this Ivy League college has aspirations of much more; sadly that is reality television stardom. She meets with a producer about it and learns that controversy is the way to truly make it. She sets out on that path to extremely damaging consequences. Her desire for fame is a very common thing, not unlike wanting sports/music stardom over education. The other aspect of CoCo is her self-hatred. She makes every attempt to distance herself and reject her Blackness. She covers her hair, apologizes for her skin tone, and rejects men of her own race out of hand. She sees herself as progressive but in reality she is likely the most damaged. Her arc is that of discovery from the point of learning to love yourself and continue on the path she began when she enrolled in college.

Last but certainly not least is Troy (Brandon P. Bell) who is the son of the Dean of Students, played by Dennis Haysbert. Troy is the most popular, good looking, and charming man on campus. He is dating the President of the college’s daughter and the world is his oyster if he wants it. However, Troy lives between two worlds much like Lionel. Struggling between being the passable Black guy that puts White people at ease at the behest of his father, and being his own man. Living in the middle is torturous for Troy and it works to make him a generally miserable person to those around him. His father wants him to fulfill a dream that was never his, but can Troy walk away from it and go his own way? While trying to be his own man, Troy becomes the ultimate code switcher and lap dog for the son of the President of the college. There is something truly sad about Troy’s character and likely eerily familiar to many Black Americans. How do you break the expectations of the previous generation while respecting what they have accomplished?

Dear White People has a provocative title that will lend to ridiculous comments from people who will never see it. However, in the end the film should probably be called Dear Black People. Its plays as an excellent view of what four Black kids face in their college years. These experiences are not uncommon and can even happen to Whites as well. However, the unique Black American experience is what makes the four personal journeys that much more fascinating. The characters run parallel to one another, but in the end cross paths in a way that shouldn’t be spoiled here. Many complain that Black American cinema is not prominent or sophisticated enough, but Justin Simien’s Dear White People not only disproves this but goes one step farther. He manages to make a film that is inclusive to people who would likely pass it by due to its title alone. When I saw the film the theater was nearly 50/50 Black and White, that bodes well for these future generations.

The dialogue was on par with what you might expect in a film like this. Young college kids doing their best speechifying impressions, and it works so well. Tessa Thompson truly stands out a the provocateur of the film, while Tyler James Williams's Lionel is the true break out. It's nice to see young black actors not fulfilling stereotypes to further or in some cases jump start their careers. At times Dear White People might be harsh and in your face, but in the end its a movie that EVERYONE should see regardless of race or ethnicity.

[easyreview title= "Review of Dear White People" cat1title="Jay's Rating" cat1detail="Overall Review" cat1rating="4.5" overall= false]

Review: 12 Years A Slave

12 Years A Slave

An actual account of the American slave trade is practically impossible to find. However, Solomon Northup, an educated free man who was sold into slavery did just that. Director Steve McQueen (Hunger, Shame) goes all out to present one of the best on screen representations of the American slave era and its gut wrenching effects on those who were victims of it. This film stars an all-star cast lead by Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, and Lupita Nyong'o.

Beginning with the relative normal life of a free black family in Saratoga, New York the Northups were seemingly treated like everyone else around them. The father, Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), is beloved by others and they view him with a level of respect and admiration. All of this happening while the southern portion of the nation is ripe with the use of slaves from Africa. There is something particularly jarring about seeing Solomon and his family so happy and normal at these times. It feels out of place from the known history most are taught. However, life in certain areas was as it was portrayed in Saratoga in 1841.

Solomon made his living by playing the violin, and was offered money to play at a circus by two men, Scoot McNairy and Taran Killam. These men drugged Solomon and sold him into slavery. After drinking and eating with these men all night he awakens to shackles and endures beatings the very next day. The brutality and horror by which we see Solomon’s freedom be taken away is not only heartbreaking but incredibly frustrating. The notion that a human being could do this to another is unfathomable in today’s society, but it was so common place at the time. Solomon is shipped off to Georgia where he is sold to William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch). However, before he arrives at Ford's plantation we get moments of the slave trade itself. The selling of slaves like animals or equipment was harsh. Watching mothers being separated from the children was a hard hitting narrative that McQueen touches on quite often. This scene prepared the audience for the emotional brutality that was to follow.

Solomon was not kept at Ford’s plantation too long before being sold into the hands of Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender). Epps was a brutal tyrant in a time of many tyrants. He stands out in the crowd of despicable people in the film. He is described as a “breaker of niggers” before we even meet him. A man of religiosity and yet the purveyor of such pain and suffering, Epps plays well to the purposeful compartmentalization of Christian values and known slaver. Like many slave owners Epps had an affinity for a particular female slave. That woman was is Patsey (Lupita Nyong'o), and she is one of the most profound characters I have seen in film. Dancing the line between pure innocence and unimaginable internal despair, Patsey is everything that Epps loves and hates. He feels that he must possess her in every possible way; simple ownership is not enough. Her beautiful onyx skin plays as a further contrast to who Epps is and what he wants. Solomon befriends this woman and their interactions are fascinating. She is looking for the fastest ways out of her situation, while Solomon works to tell her that she must endure; both pay dearly for their opposing views. There are no easy answers or even definitive ones, but all the characters are set on their path. When Solomon is given his opportunity to make it out, he takes it and others do the same. The idea of survival is challenged quite often with Solomon even stating explicitly, “I don’t want to survive, I want to live.”

The acting performances in 12 Years A Slave, were the best I’ve seen this year. The cast featured an array of big names, rising stars, and relative unknowns all playing their parts in great harmony. Lead by Chiwetel Ejiofor, who’s Solomon Northup had purpose and a genuineness that isn’t often seen. The degradation of going from a free man to a slave was no simple task in showing, but Ejiofor did it was such vigor that at moments you lose him in the role. Michael Fassbender is one of the best working actors of today. He will certainly go down as one of the best that’s ever done it, and I honestly love the guy’s work. However, I hated his guts in this film; a true testament to his skill as an actor. He is deplorable, hypocritical, and down right vicious. With two leading actors putting some of the best performances of their careers I think they were ultimately overshadowed. Lupita Nyong'o delivered nothing shy of an Oscar award winning performance. She never let up for a second. Whenever she was on screen she stole the spotlight, even from Ejiofor and Fassbender. She is the gem of the film. From being exalted by Epps to the final outcome of their relationship she runs the gamut. Nyong’o was able to portray a woman who is the absolute product of her horrible circumstances. She plays the loved slave/doll and works to become more. She accepts her plight but not before making some understandable choices. I look forward to seeing Nyong’o in more stellar roles like Patsey.

In conclusion, director Steve McQueen was able to craft a film that respected and brought to life the true story of Solomon Northup. There will never be another detailed slave story quite like Solomon’s and there will never be a film with the level of impact, brutality, insanity, and reality quite like 12 Years A Slave.

[easyreview title= "Review of 12 Years A Slave" cat1title="Jay's Rating" cat1detail="Overall Review" cat1rating="5.0" overall= false]

Review: Newlyweeds

newlyweeds

The full length film directorial debut of Shaka King is a powerful mash up of a classic soulful narrative and subtle elements of stoner comedy. Newlyweeds tells the story of Lyle (Amari Cheatom) and Nina (Trae Harris) as they go through life as a couple with a serious ‘addiction’ to smoking marijuana. A smart film that has a lot more to say behind the haze of smoke.

Lyle and Nina’s story begins with the two laying together smoking, as they do quite often, and talking about their dreams and aspirations. Lyle works as a repo man for a rent-to-own store, while Nina works a children’s guide/storyteller for a local museum. The two pondering under the blanket of weed smoke about traveling the world becoming more enlightened. There is a moment while wearing a foreign tribal mask, Nina ponders the limited use of our brains. She expounds on the ability to unlock the other cultural regions of the mind. For anyone who has been around people who are high on marijuana or have been themselves this scene was not only familiar, but bizarrely comforting at the same time. Nina, a true smoker through and through. She does it when times are good and when times are rough. She is known to “smoke like a dude” when it comes to quantity. She is a character of privilege. Growing up in what can be ascertained as an upper middle class black family. She has seen foreign lands and yearns for those opportunities again.

Lyle, however, is a man struggling to push his way out of Brooklyn to somewhere better or at least different. His work as a repo man makes for some of the more comedic moments of the film. He stalks non-paying customers to the ends of the neighborhood. He even institutes costumes to make the moments more hilarious. He has the flaws of the common man while the endearing attitude of the classic film trope of a ‘man on a mission.’ Clearly a man who has never seen much further than the edges of Brooklyn, Lyle strives to be where Nina was. He dreams with her about one day leaving all of his life behind and unlocking that part of his mind; life experience. What is the rest of the world like? Can you make it there while still smoking and dreaming about it all day? These are the most pertinent of life’s questions for Lyle.

When Lyle and Nina hit a rough patch in their journey together this is where the heart of the film really lives. Nina’s breakdown without Lyle gives her character further depth and real world tangibility. She is heartbroken but her ‘addiction’ stays true. Lyle on the other hand goes completely off the rails. His true addiction is Nina and his withdrawal is severe. Amari Cheatom does an amazing job portraying this level of loss and desperation. Like all addicts he eventually has his moment of clarity. In the end, Lyle gets what he really needed and to a large degree so does Nina. Watching the two grow and develop as people feels more like watching friends over time than fictional characters. Whether they are marijuana smokers, drinkers, drug addicts, or just people living their lives there is a simplistic sense of familiarity with the Lyle and Nina. Their struggles, their neighborhood, their friends, their dealer, their lives are the perfect representation of the modern American experience.

[easyreview title= "Review of Newlyweeds" cat1title="Jay's Rating" cat1detail="Overall Review" cat1rating="4.0" overall= false]

Review: Fruitvale Station

Fruitvale Station The tragic retelling of Oscar Grant III's murder at the hands of San Francisco transit police is as timely as it is gut wrenching. The Ryan Coogler directed film works to establish a true face to the man yet works to balance out who he truly was. Never making Oscar out to be an angel or a saint, Coogler gives a real look at what the likely day to day is for a 22 year kid in Oakland trying to turn his life around. The film starts out with showing actual cell phone footage of the shooting of Grant. Setting the tone for what to expect in the final act. It had been a while since I'd seen the footage and the moment the gunshot happens I could feel my sadness arise. The footage played powerfully for anyone, but especially those who don't believe things like this happen. From there we are launched into the days before the shooting and we get a fresh look at Oscar's life. We see the relationship that Oscar (Michael B. Jordan) has with his girlfriend, Sophina (Melonie Diaz). Their relationship is rocky at best with assertions of Oscar's infidelity and his selling and using of marijuana. Further establishing Oscar is no saint, but rather a guy who just can't get himself on the right path.

The film works to make sure as a viewer you know the entirety of who Oscar is and who he is working to become. As the day goes on we see this beautiful transformation in him. We've all had those moments of silence when the light just clicks on. For Oscar, the selling of drugs had no more appeal and getting a legitimate full time job and being a fully present family man was his goal. The change was gradual and never felt like it was hitting you over the head. As Oscar goes on we see flashbacks of his rougher days and more establishment that he is just a young man with faults. I've never seen a movie work so hard to kill any possible talk about false sainthood of a character except possibly Spike Lee's Malcolm X. Its a refreshing thing to see in light of the controversial events that happen in the film. The film is 90 minutes and the first 60 are devoted to getting to know Oscar and watching him grow and change. The last 30 minutes is completely dedicated to the events of the shooting and the turmoil that it puts his friends and family though. During the final 30 minutes I've never been so emotionally hijacked while watching a movie. Director Ryan Coogler does an amazing job in establishing and sustain a level of tension and grief throughout that latter third.

The film is a testament to what a young director can do when given material he really cares about. Coogler's passion can easily be seen in the way scenes are shot, and the intensity in which the actors are directed; this was clearly no walk in the park. The fantastic cast headed by Michael B. Jordan as Oscar was full of understated moments of real emotion. Jordan did stellar work to bring the victim's story to light. Showing the dark and light sides of who Oscar Grant III truly was. Melonie Diaz who played Sophina stood out as a beacon to Oscar's wayward ship. Diaz fit so well into this cast that at times you forget that any of them are even acting. Last but certainly not least, Octavia Spencer played the role of Wanda Grant, Oscar's mother. In what I believe is the most powerful performance, Spencer shined. Moments that seems so real that I can't imagine they weren't ad-libbed to a degree. Spencer's performance at times felt like the outpouring of a mother that I've known forever. Her work here should net her an Oscar nomination at a minimum. The rest of the cast was more than serviceable and took nothing away from the film. At the end of the day the film is highly important for many reasons. The sociopolitical times that we are living in makes this movie rise to the top, but the performances, cinematography, and fantastic direction make it truly a piece to see on screen. PLEASE go see Fruitvale Station.

[easyreview title= "Review of Fruitvale Station" cat1title="Jay's Rating" cat1detail="Overall Review" cat1rating="5.0" overall= false]