Tag: african-american

Hale County This Morning, This Evening


Hale County This Morning, This Evening (2018)
★★★ / ★★★★

“Hale County This Morning, This Evening” will likely challenge most people’s idea of what a documentary can be. Instead of tackling its subject head-on, it employs a lyrical and ponderous approach—certain to test the patience of those possessing a strict definition of “documentary,” so much so that one might claim that the film is simply a collection of random images that could have been captured with a camera phone.

So then what is a documentary, at least in my eyes? To me, it is an act of capturing reality from a specific perspective. In this case, the picture’s goal is to provide a portrait of how a number of black people live in Hale County, Alabama, specifically those who reside in impoverished neighborhoods, from the perspective of an insider, RaMell Ross, who wrote, produced, and directed the film. An open and seemingly desultory approach is most appropriate because to provide only one portrait of a poor neighborhood could be considered a lie—and an act of further marginalizing an already marginalized community. It is clear that Ross is interested in showing the entire canvas instead of focusing only on a particular cloth of that canvas.

It subverts expectations from a storytelling point of view. The opening minutes show two young men, Quincy and Daniel, who dream of reaching their goals through school and sports. By the end of the film, an argument can be made that only one of them is closer to his goal. The other’s focus turns on his growing family. There is no wrong choice because it is their choice to make.

Notice that every time the two subjects are front and center, the images are shot in a matter-of-fact way. No shots of starry skies, no time lapse photography of highways, not one extended look of an open field. Victories, failures, life, death, and moments in-between are raw and unflinching. I found it fresh that the passage of time is not shown using subtitles or title cards. Instead, we are asked to look at the children and observe how much they’ve grown from one scenario to the next. The documentary spans five years.

Constantly we are reminded, however, that this is not just Quincy and Daniel’s stories. It is about a community: how it celebrates, how it fights, how it mourns, how it copes, how it moves on. We watch children play, tease, laugh, and scream. We see grandmothers get challenged by teenagers—and how these elders snap back. We listen to an old man playing the blues on his guitar. Teenage girls sing despite not knowing a song’s lyrics entirely. A father and son waiting for rain. Blink and miss an insect landing on a fingertip. Churchgoers singing, cheering, yelling, crying. A boy at a barbershop. An infant being buried in a cemetery.

These are impressions—which some may find moving while others are left cold. It all depends on life experiences, I think. I belong in the former group because I grew up in a time and place where neighbors are like second family. People talked to each other, gossiped with one another, and sometimes fought against each other. Neighbors were more than strangers you felt obligated to greet when you cross paths. The documentary is, in a way, about the collective African-American family living in the Deep South.

Eve’s Bayou


Eve’s Bayou (1997)
★★★★ / ★★★★

During one of the Batiste’s parties, the family led by Louis and Roz, Samuel L. Jackson and Lynn Whitfield, respectively, Eve (Jurnee Smollett) caught her father having sexual relations with another woman (Lisa Nicole Carson). Louis was one of the most successful doctors in town so he was able to provide a good life for his family. To Eve’s surprise, it turned out that her mother, aunt (Debbi Morgan), and others in the community were fully aware of Louis’ infidelity. But what triggered Eve, according to her own words in the beginning of the picture, to kill her father just when her youngest sibling (Jake Smollett) was only nine years of age and her eldest sibling (Meagan Good) just turned fourteen? Written and directed by Kasi Lemmons, “Eve’s Bayou” consisted of familiar story lines but it was elevated by complex characters covered in moral dilemmas. For instance, Eve, still a child, could easily have been driven by simple motivations. The first few scenes were almost predictable: Her mother seemed to prefer the company of her brother, while her father enjoyed dancing with her sister. Naturally, we would assume that Eve would reveal the secret she stumbled over, specifically, a secret she didn’t fully understand, out of bitterness because she would want to get back at someone and attention would be directed at her. But that didn’t happen. Instead of focusing on the main character’s immaturity, the material focused on how a child became less immature over time because something foreign was thrown on her lap. Seeing her father having sex with a familiar woman was not the issue of the story. It was what opened her eyes and allowed her to evaluate the world in a different way. As a result, the material felt fresh. It also felt exciting. Eve’s family and community believed in gifted individuals with the ability to look in the unseen. While it did provide some of the amusing scenarios, it didn’t make fun of people who believed in alternative explanations. The question was whether or not we believed but whether the characters would continue to believe or stop altogether. There was a thoughtful contrast between science (personified by the adulterous husband), supposedly something we could always trust, and faith (personified by the fortunetellers like the mysterious Elzora played by Diahann Carroll). Lastly, all of the actors were natural in their roles especially by Jackson. His character was a nice man but there were certain scenes when he would assert his gentleness to get exactly what he wanted. That calculating nature hinted at something darker within. “Eve’s Bayou” was a beautiful portrait of an African-American community in 1960s Louisiana. Instead of going for the easy answers, it allowed us to look at its threads a little more closely.

Good Hair


Good Hair (2009)
★★★ / ★★★★

When I look at people, the first thing I notice about them is their hair. Directed by Jeff Stilson, “Good Hair” follows Chris Rock as he interviews all sorts of people from the United States and India about hair: how natural African-American hair is now regarded as less valuable and less appealing as European and Asian hair. I thought this documentary was absolutely fascinating. I learned so much because I don’t have the kind of hair that African-Americans do so I don’t really know much about their experiences and the pressures they feel about getting “good hair,” a type of hair that the media glamorizes. For me the film reached its highest point when Rock went to India and tried to learn about why so much hair was coming from India. I didn’t know that some Indians viewed having hair as a vanity so they sacrifice their hair for a higher power. While in America, hair symbolizes power and directly correlates to one’s self-esteem. I thought that contrast was so nicely done by Stilson and I realized that, despite the film’s amusing look at the hair industry, there was an inherent sadness about it all. I couldn’t believe that hair cost thousands of dollars and some women would rather pay for a weave than make sure that they have food on the table. On the other side of the spectrum, women choose to buy very dangerous “relaxers,” which is pretty much sodium hydroxide, a very strong chemical. I loved the way the picture showed an experiment where a can was placed in a container full of NaOH with varying rate of exposure. (I’m a sucker for science experiments.) I was so shocked when one of the cans literally melted when exposed to NaOH for about five or six hours. The movie then connected the usage of sodium hydroxide to health–how some parents choose for their children, who are barely three years old, to undergo such extreme (and painful) chemical application for the sake of having so-called good hair. What didn’t work for me, however, was the whole hair competition angle. I thought it made the picture very convoluted and it took away some of the movie’s power because the pre-competition and competition scenes lacked momentum. I wanted more scenes of very funny conversations among Chris Rock, regular folks and celebrities. I thought it was a laugh riot when the film switched its focus to men and how they felt pressure to give their girlfriends money for a weave. All these elements show that having “good hair” is not just a woman’s issue nor is it even a race issue. It’s about increasing number of individuals adapting to a particular mindset of society regarding what is considered beautiful and what isn’t.

Do the Right Thing


Do the Right Thing (1989)
★★★ / ★★★★

Written, produced, directed by and starring the talented Spike Lee, “Do the Right Thing” is an astute, mutilayered movie driven by the core of what Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X are about: how we choose to react when faced by people who see us as less than and how we perceive other people who are different than us. The bulk of the story of this picture was set in a very hot summer day where everyone was involved in their regular businesses, whether it came to working hard to maintain one’s job, being a bum in the streets, or just watching the day go by and hoping that the breeze will provide some sort of temporary comfort from the heat. As the day got hotter, tempers ran up until the climactic riot that transpired toward the end of the picture. A certain tragedy happened that sparked the riot but different people have different answers on who should carry the blame for what had happened. I think this film is very accurate and realistic because it actively avoids a typical happy ending via telling the audiences what simply is. I enjoyed the very vibrant characters such as the Italian family who owns a pizza place (Danny Aiello, Richard Edson and John Turturro), Lee’s sensibile sister who knows and is comfortable with who she is (Joie Lee) and the energetic DJ who runs a radio station (Samuel L. Jackson). Each of them had something valuable to offer to the table–a certain insight or an interesting point of view. I’m glad that there was a spectrum of African-Americans portrayed in this film. Most of the movies I watch nowadays, they’re either the violent one, the extremely gifted one (with some sort of a handicap or a traumatic past), or the funny one. Here, we get to see different sides of one character often in a single scene so it was a breath of fresh air. A lot of people consider this classic, especially if they grew up with it, and I can understand why. It has a certain resonance because “the right thing” is constantly changing–like Heraclitus’ idea of the impossibility of stepping on the same river twice–and therefore is arguably nonexistent, yet we still (or should) strive for it. I’m very interested in seeing this again because it has all the elements in a film that I look for.

Set It Off


Set It Off (1996)
★★★ / ★★★★

This film was about four ladies (Jada Pinkett Smith, Queen Latifah, Vivica A. Fox, Kimberly Elise) who decided to pull off several bank robberies to untangle themselves from each of their respective binds. Smith wanted to put her brother through college, Latifah wanted to customize her car, Elise needed the money to get her son out of the city’s protective custody because they suspected that she was a negligent parent, and Fox was fired from her bank teller job because she “didn’t follow procedure” when another group of criminals robbed the bank she was working in. I’m glad that this film did not fall into an all too common trap of featuring criminals who do “bad things” just because they were African-American. F. Gary Gray, the director, actually took the time to establish each of the four leads so the audiences could truly understand their motivations. I actually rooted for the leading ladies even though, indeed, they decided to rob banks and harmed people along the way. I felt the desperation of each character. I completely understood that their actions were not who they were on the inside. In fact, they really were good people who were pushed into a wall without any means of escape other than to attack the aggressor (in this case, the cops and the law). I also liked the fact that Latifah’s character being a lesbian was not a big deal. It was simply who she was and there was no need to comment on it. Still, this picture is far from perfect. The four characters have street-smarts so I expected them to get better at what they did (robbing banks) as the film went on. Instead, eventually all of them became too sloppy and risk-taking. Not one would them suggested that they slowed down or planned things more thoroughly especially when the banks that they decided to rob became increasingly more difficult to get through. Despite its shortcomings, I’m giving this movie a recommendation because it was nice to see Black actresses carry an entire film. Most pictures I’ve seen of this kind usually go to white men so “Set It Off” offers a nice change.

Miracle at St. Anna


Miracle at St. Anna (2008)
★★ / ★★★★

I heard that one of Spike Lee’s motivations for making this picture is to highlight the fact that African-Americans did participate in World War II–something that is not apparent in other World War II movies (notably Clint Eastwood’s). Although I did enjoy this 160-minute feature in parts, when I look at the bigger picture, I realize that it didn’t use its potential to be great. Las Alonso, Omar Benson Miller, Derek Luke and Michael Ealy star as four American solders who were forced to wait in a Tuscan village because they were surrounded by German soldiers. Along the way to Tuscan, Miller stumbles upon an enigmatic Italian boy (Matteo Sciabordi) who has an imaginary friend. Eventually, the two form a friendship that underlines the religious aspects of the film. I found it strange that Lee wanted to represent African-Americans yet he has characters that were drowning in stereotypes. I’m not black but I felt offended as I was watching the film because I know that some characters would’ve been the same if certain stereotypes were absent like that glaring gold tooth that one of the characters has. Story-wise, I felt as if it was all over the place. One minute the plot was about resistance fighters, the next minute it was about faith, the next it was about invaluable artifacts, and the next it’s about a love triangle. I would’ve preferred if Lee focused on just three issues and made a leaner film that offers a lot of insight about the psychology of a soldier who’s fighting for a country that treats him as a second-class citizen. Whenever “Miracle at St. Anna” related being in an actual war in another country and feeling like one is in a war in his own country, the movie becomes that much more alive and interesting. During those scenes, I was so engaged to the point where I caught myself thinking, “Oh, I never thought about it like that before.” Instead, it tried to tackle too much so it lost considerable amount of focus. The emotion is there and so is the entertainment value. However, what’s missing is the mark of great filmmaking. Therefore, “Miracle at St. Anna” is not as powerful as it should have been so it disappears in the sea of motion pictures about World War II.

Mississippi Burning


Mississippi Burning (1988)
★★★ / ★★★★

Directed by Alan Parker, this based on a true story film follows Agents Rupert Anderson and Alan Ward (Gene Hackman and Willem Dafoe, respectively): how they arrived in a town in Mississippi, which predominantly favors segregation between white and blacks, and investigated the disappearances of three civil rights activists. I wish I could’ve been more into this film; it dropped my interest from time to time. Although one of its strongest elements is the stark contrast between Hackman and Dafoe’s personalities and methods of getting information, sometimes their arguments can be a bit too much. There were more than three scenes which involved the two of them arguing, which I thought was unnecessary because their actions already reflect their differences. This could’ve been a ninety-minute film without such scenes and other redundant scenes that involve burning homes and churches. I think those elements are a bit too “Hollywood” because this picture uses such images as a crutch in order to get emotions out of the audiences. They really didn’t need to because the story is powerful and important enough to instantly grab its viewers. As usual, I thought Frances McDormand is great as Brad Dourif’s conflicted wife. She might or might not know integral information about her racist husband (who also happens to be one of the members of the Ku Klux Klan) that could help Hackman and Dafoe close the case. This film is set in 1964 so the Civil Rights Movement is at the foreground. However, I would’ve liked to see an African-American to be one of the film’s heroes instead of a victim. Yes, even though it’s based on a true story, I feel like the filmmakers could’ve integrated or hinted that not only white people are doing everything they can to find the missing bodies. Other than that, this is a solid motion picture and I can understand why some university history courses do some project regarding this film. This is one of those movies that holds up a mirror in front of America: how race, fear and assumptions–to this day–still manage to bring out the darkest evil in us.

The Family That Preys


The Family That Preys (2008)
★★★ / ★★★★

“You can’t make yourself happy [by] bringing misery into other people’s lives.” I think that quote sums up the central thesis of this film. Even though it may be a bit soap opera at times because of the multiple storylines and their big revelations, I can’t help but really like this film. There’s something about the characters that are very true to life, especially in a society where everyone wants to climb up on the economic ladder. While most may initially watch this just to see the drama unfold between and within each family, I think it’s worthy to notice the dynamics between the rich and the poor, between the young and the old, between the man and the woman, and between the whites and the blacks. I admired that this film didn’t have any African-Americans that live in the ghetto. To be honest, I want to see more African-Americans living the “normal” life because they do exist and they should be represented. I love Alfre Woodard and Kathy Bates as the two mothers of the family. The way they interacted with one another reminded me of times when I was with my best friend, just laughing our lungs off and not caring about what people think of us in public. I also loved Taraji P. Henson and Sanaa Lathan as the two completely opposite sisters, one sensible and supportive and the other is disrespectful and vindictive, respectively. But I have to admit that Lathan reminded me of myself at times because I can be quite insidious and sometimes I forget where I come from. I don’t like that about myself and I’ve been trying to get rid of those qualities over the past three years (which, I think, has been successful so far). I wanted to hate her but at the end of the day, I just felt really sorry for her because of the way she treats the ones that love her most. There are a lot of memorable and insightful quotes that could be found all over the film; they made me think where I am in life, where I was, and where I will be. This is the kind of movie that made me so happy that I choose to surround myself with people that I can love and will love me no matter what happens. Upon watching the characters figure each others’ intentions, it goes to show that you can have all the money in the world but if you’re not happy with yourself and you forget where you come from, your life is truly not worth much.