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.
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 (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 (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.
Family That Preys, The (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.