★★★ / ★★★★
Carlos López Estrada’s directorial debut is an exciting piece of work—certainly ambitious because it attempts to tackle an enchilada of challenging topics from white police shooting unarmed black men, gentrification, a convicted felon’s place in a society with a bias against them, to racial identity and the disparity between how one feels on the inside versus how one is actually perceived. These are elements easily found in dramatic pictures but somehow, almost miraculously, “Blindspotting” is also quite comedic—and, it works. Here is a film in which one does not walk away without an opinion—or, at the very least, a strong impression. It is meant to incite discussion.
Collin (Daveed Diggs) is three days away from finishing his probation. But it will prove to be a long three days after Collin, on his way back home for curfew, witnesses a fellow black man—without a weapon in hand—being shot four times by a white cop. The police gave only one warning and the time span between the warning and the gunshots is less than two seconds. The encounter haunts both Collin’s dreams and waking moments. He begins to have anxiety about every little thing that might send him back to prison. It does not help that his hot-headed best friend, Miles (Rafael Casal), has recently purchased a gun and insists on bringing it wherever they go.
The film’s energy is highly infectious. The screenplay by Rafael Casal and Daveed Diggs is so devoid of storytelling shackles that characters may end up rapping for whatever reason. These need not have a point or contain pointed social commentary. At times it is simply because it would be a fun or funny thing to do. However, these sung poetry almost always provide insight about the character spitting out the words—sometimes during that moment in time and other times how he perceives his place in Oakland, California.
As someone who lives ten minutes away from Oakland, I appreciated that the film is not afraid to show the city as is in 2018. So many movies, television shows, and songs paint Oakland as a dirty, scary place where crime is prevalent. While it may embody these characteristics depending on the neighborhood, Estrada is also willing to show the brightly painted houses, clean streets, people so diverse and multicultural that seeing my reality on screen made me feel proud. Also, it actually shows that people do wish to move to the city, not just a place to run away from. It reminded me how films—to this day—still represent or portray the San Francisco Bay Area in general with one scoop of truth and two scoops of lies because it needs to be more digestible by vanilla America.
Its comic moments aside, it works as a dramatic piece. This is a work in which the viewer can capture the moment when one character’s opinion of another changes. Strong impressions are not expressed right away; as in life, we keep what bothers us to ourselves until a seemingly small trigger breaks the dam and all of it comes pouring our of mouths. Tension-building is a required ingredient in strong dramas—the filmmakers are always aware of this. Sometimes more is said in extended silence than sitting through a barrage of words.
Although it does not compare to Spike Lee’s great social dramas (“Do the Right Thing,” “Get on the Bus”), it is apparent that “Blindspotting” is inspired to function on a similar wavelength. By comparison, it is not as confrontational to the point where it threatens to offend more than handful of viewers. Personally, it could have used a bit more spice, particularly when it broaches the subject of gun violence, but I was disarmed by its flavor.
★★★ / ★★★★
Director Spike Lee’s “BlacKkKlansman” is correct to be frightening, disgusting, eye-opening, and entertaining all at once because the subjects it broaches and explores, all falling under the umbrella of racism in modern America and our relationship with it, are meant to give us indigestion—so to speak—a strong visceral reaction of having experienced something we are not supposed to because it might be considered not kosher, or that it is offensive, or too extreme. But that’s exactly what I loved about the film, both in its vision and final product, because it strives to paint a complicated portrait of where America is right now through the scope of a real-life investigation that took place in 1970s. You will not walk away from this film without an opinion.
It has been a while since I felt the veteran director being so free with his craft, from the utilization of archival footages, dramatic but out of place music, shots clearly inspired by blaxploitation pictures, to fusing two genres with seeming ease. And yet the material commands cohesion. It does not rely solely on the comedy which involves Detective Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) infiltrating the terrorist organization Ku Klux Klan’s local chapter in Colorado Springs. Instead, for instance, it also touches upon the dichotomy of Stallworth being a cop whose goal is to make real changes in a police station that tolerates racists—one of the cops is so proud of killing an innocent black teenager, he actually brags about it like it is some sort of achievement.
I enjoyed that the material exposes the main character’s blind spots and, perhaps more importantly, the fact that these blind spots need not be changed throughout the film’s duration. It is enough for the screenplay to acknowledge them and then trusting the audience to look inside ourselves and consider our own foibles. For example, at some point, I could not help but think about being an immigrant teenager who yearned to belong in America—white America, to be exact—so much so that for years I felt ashamed of my culture, the color of my skin, the texture of my hair, my accent, down the food I took to the school’s lunch table for everybody to see, smell, and ask questions about. To me, the material is so potent that it actually brought me back to when I felt insecure about my cultural identity.
And therein lies its greatest strength: Although it is a film told from a black perspective—in terms of original material, screenplay, and direction—it remains relevant to everyone who has felt like a minority. The institutional racism in America is so pervasive, it is almost inescapable; if it doesn’t erase us, we strive to erase ourselves in order to blend into the white.
Certainly the picture can be criticized over pacing issues, but its energy is taken on such a high gear that awkward pacing that leads to undercooked relationships, like Stallworth’s blossoming romantic connection to Patrice Dumas (Laura Harrier), Colorado College’s Black Student Union president, remains interesting nonetheless. Washington and Dumas share such smooth chemistry, I wished there were a movie of their characters simply talking about random things, like black music or black films, and perhaps even discussing serious issues like white fears in an increasingly multicultural, multicolored America.
I admired its use of language. It employs nearly every derogatory word and phrase not because it can but because we are meant to react to them. And, if, somehow, you find yourself inured to these defamatory and really vile language, it is a clue to get an education, an appreciation of the history of these words and why they are not okay to use. No, it is not just because people are being “snowflakes” or “the freedom of speech is being threatened.” The internet is at your fingertips.
Get on the Bus (1996)
★★★★ / ★★★★
African-American men of diverse backgrounds take a bus from South Central Los Angeles to Washington, D.C. to partake in the Million Man March. Some of the passengers include Evan (Thomas Jefferson Byrd) and Junior (De’aundre Bonds), father and son in chains, Xavier (Hill Harper), a UCLA student working on his film thesis, Flip (Andre Braugher), an actor waiting to hear from an agent about a role starring Denzel Washington, and Jeremiah (Ossie Davis), an older gentleman with a talent for prose and music.
Over several days on the road, they get to know each other and it is revealed to them—and to us—that if they truly hope to make important changes toward the betterment of human rights, specifically within the black community, they will have to start with recognizing what they must work on from within. Though “Get on the Bus,” written by Reggie Rock Bythewood and directed by Spike Lee, may focus on the struggle of a group of African-Americans wanting to be heard, to be seen, and to be regarded as an equal, all minorities are likely tol find themselves relating with it.
The picture demands attention—to be seen, to be thought about, and to be evaluated—right from the opening credits. The focus is on a black body—black skin—pure, without clothing, makeup, or jewelry. This body is bound by chains around the neck, the wrists, the ankles. It is shown only in parts, interrupted by black title cards and names in yellow, never as a whole. The song “On the Line” by Michael Jackson is played prominently and beautifully as images and texts coalesce into a poetic and political statement.
Conversations that are worth leaning into have prejudice coursing through their veins. Flip asks Gary (Roger Guenveur Smith), “Are you a mulatto or just white-skinned?” The emphasis is on the word “just,” the real concern being the former, you see. Having a white mother and a black father, Gary takes offense. There is pause, a suggestion that perhaps his whole life he is plagued by this question, in one form or another, that he is used to being on the defensive. Who can blame him? There is an intonation, one that is resentful, in Flip’s question. Gary considers himself black but Flip, arguably, does not. If you consider yourself one thing and another tells or demands that you are another, how would you react?
“There are faggots on the bus,” someone claims after an argument breaks out between Randall (Harry Lennix), proudly out of the closet, and Mike (Steve White), unsure about whether he wishes to continue being in a relationship. A voice suggests that they be kicked off the bus. “How are they supposed to get to the march?” another asks. A joker declares that they ought to skip there. What is a black gay man’s role in the black community? For a group of people who claim to support equal rights, many of them choose the path of blatant hypocrisy: minorities putting down minorities. Is being black and gay mutually exclusive? Do these attributes cancel each other out?
The conversations and arguments are captured with great ear. They are allowed to unfold, sometimes neatly and other times messily, but the characters are not required to go through changes. In fact, what makes the film work as a reflection of modern society is that a lot of them do not change. There is no hero or villain. The people on the bus are just ordinary folks with hopes and dreams, capable of being mean and kind, choosing to be open, to be closed, to be tangled and lost in contradictions.
The emphasis is on the experience, as rocky as it may be, and the meaning of the movement to those aboard the bus on its way to the capital.
Da Sweet Blood of Jesus (2014)
★★ / ★★★★
Dr. Greene (Stephen Tyrone Williams) and Dr. Hightower (Elvis Nolasco) consider collaborating on a research project after they come across an ancient Ashanti relic. The latter is invited to stay in the former’s elegant home by the sea with plans of discussing the avenues of their potential partnership. However, having had a couple of drinks, Dr. Hightower attempts to murder Dr. Greene using the Ashanti blade. Dr. Greene drops to the floor, bloody, apparently dead. Guilt-ridden, Dr. Hightower then commits suicide. But Dr. Greene is not dead; he wakes up a couple of hours later, craving blood.
“Da Sweet Blood of Jesus,” written and directed by Spike Lee, is a strange vampire picture not because the bloodsuckers here do not exhibit the expected traits of the mythic creature but because the story, like a corpse, does not move. Events happen but the focus is consistently on Dr. Greene’s home and the people who come to visit. The protagonist is a knowledgeable, wealthy man and I wondered why, after he discovers he has a chance to live forever, he did not choose to travel around the globe and learn whatever there is to be absorbed. Perhaps that expectation is reflective of what I would do personally if I had eternal life.
The protagonist is interesting because other than his addiction to blood, just about everything about him remains human. There is no fear of daylight, no sleeping in coffins, no sensitivity to garlic. He is able to feel like a normal human man which becomes the center of the picture when he meets Ganja (Zaraah Abrahams), the ex-wife of Dr. Hightower. The two cannot be any more different in personality. Dr. Greene is quiet, always keeping to himself, while Ganja is honest to the point where it is almost abrasive. The two performances, although strange in their styles of acting due to a play-like quality about them, command a certain magnetism. This is very necessary since the plot moves slower than a snail’s pace.
Comedic scenes come across false and out of place. Rami Malek plays Seneschal, Dr. Greene’s help. I suppose some of the scenes where Ganja treats him badly are supposed to be funny—amusing at the very least—but these do not work because there is no substance behind the attempt at humor. There is another scene where Dr. Greene chats with two older, white, upper-middle class women who are a fan of the work he has done. They come across shallow, idiotic, buffoons. What is the writer-director’s intention? Does he mean to comment on race? Gender? Social classes? It is not clear and so the humor is off-target most of the time.
Credit to the set decorators for creating a home that is almost like a museum. When a scene is shot indoors, I found my eyes scanning the photos and paintings on walls, relishing the collectibles on tables, admiring the unique-looking carpets. They say you can tell a lot about a person by how his or her home is decorated. I believed that the protagonist is someone who values culture, knowledge, and experience over money. He is the kind of person I would like to get to know if we crossed paths.
The film is not for everyone because it requires not only a considerable amount of patience but also a willingness to sacrifice one’s time especially since the majority of the work does not come together completely. In fact, it is kind of a mess and yet the material is never boring. The most exciting bit involves someone finding a dead body in a freezer but even then there is very little repercussion. In a way, I found that refreshing.
★ / ★★★★
After almost closing a business deal and then derailing it, Joe Doucett (Josh Brolin), an alcoholic, goes on a drinking binge despite the fact that he ought to be attending—sober—the birthday of his three-year-old daughter. He passes out in the street and wakes up in a motel room that is locked from the outside. He screams for help and demands to be let out. No cigar. Cameras around the room record his every move. Twenty years of living in a confined space with no human interaction and living off Chinese food, he is released. The game has only begun.
Although “Oldboy,” directed by Spike Lee, is a remake of Chan-wook Park’s cult favorite “Oldeuboi,” the former has enough differences in the final third to make the two pictures different from one another. However, that is not to suggest that the differences are particularly effective. On the contrary, I found myself quite passive to the revelations when they ought to be exciting or shocking. In the end, though I was not enraged by the denouement, I still thought the experience was a waste of time.
Lee’s film is well-shot and well-made, but it lacks a sinister mucosa. A sense of danger is a requirement in a story like this because this element pushes the viewers to ask questions, to lean in, to be as bewildered or confused or frustrated as the protagonist. Instead, the screenplay by Mark Protosevich prefers to show behavior rather than the inner workings of minds—the mind of a victim who had a chunk of his life stolen from him as well as the mind of a perpetrator (Sharlto Copley) who believes that his actions are justified.
Delving into the psychology of a person requires not only a slow unveiling of key information but also a sense of control of mood with respect to what is being revealed. Here, the mood, tone, and atmosphere remain constant and flat. As a result, Joe’s investigation, with the help of a nurse named Marie (Elizabeth Olsen), is uninteresting for the most part. I felt as though I was watching a pair follow a trail of crumbs—Point A to Point B—rather than starting at Point A and then having a choice to explore multiple paths that may or may not lead to answers that they wish to attain.
Copley is miscast as the man responsible for Joe’s imprisonment. Though he tries to be dangerous in voice and mannerisms, the whole charade comes off as a distracting performance, almost a caricature. He fails to communicate a level of seething anger. Perhaps a more natural approach might have been better. I wondered how our understanding of the mysterious character would have been different if someone like Mads Mikkelsen had played him.
“Oldboy” is a remake and there is nothing we can do to change that. I am not against remakes as long as I feel they are worth my time. Though a few scenes are well-shot— especially in the first half—its lack of nuance in terms of characterization and how the plot develops is an increasing source of disappointment. I was not convinced that the filmmakers really understood what ought to be extracted from the original and what should be changed in order to create a better piece of work.
She’s Gotta Have It (1986)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Nola Darling (Tracy Camilla Johns) had three boyfriends: mild-mannered Jamie (Tommy Redmond Hicks), funny-man Mars (Spike Lee), and narcissistic Greer (John Canada Terrell). What was refreshing about “She’s Gotta Have It,” written, edited, and directed by Spike Lee, was its attitude toward real relationships and how real people would react given a set of real circumstances. The picture didn’t pretend about knowing all the answers either. Sometimes its characters made decisions that wouldn’t necessarily make sense to us, thereby highlighting its themes of individuality and independence. Most of us are familiar with situations like a friend going back to her ex-boyfriend even though, from our perspective, the transgression seems unforgivable. Since each of the men knew that Nola kept her options open, there was no syrupy drama regarding the rules of dating, usually noxious to the comedy genre involving finding and losing romance. Nola wasn’t perfect but she wasn’t stupid either. Upon first glance, one would wonder why she would be attracted to someone like Mars. Apart from his scrawny physical appearance, he wasn’t financially successful like Greer nor was he as sensitive to a woman’s physical and emotional needs like Jamie. But upon closer examination, when the camera focused on Nola and Mars spending time together, having a good time in bed, and talking about silly things, it was easy to see that Mars had something to offer. Unlike Greer or Jamie, Mars was a natural pill of happiness. We’ve all been around someone, whether that someone is a friend or something more, who seems to just lift up our spirits so effortlessly. The unexplainable click is the magic that allows a relationship to go beyond looks and measures of success. I admired the film because it took the time in carefully getting to know each of the main player yet it kept enough surprises along the way that reminded us that although a person’s flaws might irritate us to the bone, flaws also keep us interested. Spice is interesting; perfection is boring. But what made me love the film was its honest attitude about sex. Here was a movie about adults dealing with adult problems. Instead traversing a puerile avenue in terms of being physically intimate with another person–a fart joke here, a penis joke there–the images utilized made a case that sex was an expression of, not necessarily love, but ownership of a moment in time when a man and woman were in charge of what made them feel good. Yes, the sex scenes were shot in slow motion and there was nudity, but they were never gratuitous. If anything, the techniques employed were loyal to the film’s encompassing themes about self-empowerment. One character that did not get enough screen time, however, was Opal (Raye Dowell), a lesbian who was attracted to Nola. Nola asked Opal what it felt like to be with another woman. Opal confided just enough in order to keep the mystery, hoping that she would successfully bed her curious friend. “She’s Gotta Have It” was smart and fiercely eloquent. Don’t be fooled by its black-and-white cinematography. Its scope, concepts, and execution were as pavonine as a sixty-four pack of Crayola crayons.
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.
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.