Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

December 6, 2018

Black America seen through the prism of seven films released this year

Filed under: african-american,Film — louisproyect @ 2:16 am

Likely a combination of pressure applied on the Hollywood film industry to be more racially inclusive and the street protests led by Black Lives Matter, 2018 was marked by a bumper crop of films about Black America. Perhaps the most significant evidence of a shift was the long and flattering article in the May 22, 2018 Sunday NY Times Magazine section titled “How Boots Riley Infiltrated Hollywood” that was unlike any article I had seen in the magazine in a long time, maybe ever:

“Sorry to Bother You” comes out in wide release in July. The film is visually ingenious and funny, yet grounded by pointed arguments about the obstacles to black success in America, the power of strikes and the soul-draining predations of capitalism. A self-described communist since his teens, Riley has said he aims “to help build a mass movement that can use withholding of labor as a strategy for social change.”

Another such film that opened to universal acclaim was Spike Lee’s “BlacKkKlansman”, which some critics viewed as his best work ever. I avoided seeing the two films when they first came out partly as a reaction to the hype surrounding them. In general, I stay away from Hollywood films for most of the year since they hardly seem worth the money I would spend to see them. As I expected, I received screeners for both films and can say at this point that my skepticism was warranted. This has also been the case with just about every other film I have seen in this capacity except for the surprisingly great “Can You Ever Forgive Me?”

As it happens, the best in this group of seven under consideration was a low-budget neorealist indie film titled “Life and Nothing More” directed by a Spaniard who used nonprofessionals exclusively. Except for this film, the others were flawed in one way or another. Despite that, I have no problem recommending them all since they at least engage with the realities of racism that have deepened horrifically under the white supremacist administration of Donald Trump.

Sorry to Bother You

The main character in this surrealist satire is a young African-American man named Cassius Green (Lakeith Stanfield) who has just started a job as a telemarketer in Oakland. When he fails to sell much of anything, an older co-worker played by Danny Glover advises him to use a “white voice”. This leads to success, so much so that he gets promoted to a highly paid “power caller” position on a higher floor. When his co-workers on the ground floor form a union to strike for higher wages, Green crosses their picket line.

The combination of losing friendships made on the ground floor, estrangement from his girlfriend–a radical artist, and the dark secrets he discovers on the top floor is enough to make him quit his power caller job and join the resistance.

Both the ground-floor and top-floor operations are owned by a man named Steve Lift who might be described as a combination of Jeff Bezos and some villain out of a Marvel comic book—not that there’s much difference. Lift has begun building a slave labor work force based on Centaur-like creatures called “equisapiens” that are produced by a gene-modifying, cocaine-like drug that Green himself is persuaded to take in Lift’s office.

As a genre, surrealist satire generally leaves me cold. Although I have seen no references to this, it strikes me that the work of directors and screenwriters such as Spike Jonze, Charlie Kaufman, Michel Gondry, Wes Anderson, Alejandro G. Iñárritu and Terry Gilliam helped shape “Sorry to Bother You”. Such works strive for shock value rather than dramatic intensity based on realism. In Riley’s film, there is almost no attempt to develop one of the equisapiens into a sympathetic and identifiable character such as the slaves in Pontecorvo’s “Burn” but there is no doubt that the sight of a man’s body with a horse’s head must have been enough to impress most film critics.

BlacKkKlansman

This film was “inspired” by the real life experience of a Black cop in Colorado Springs named Ron Stallworth who teamed up with a white cop in the 1970s to infiltrate the KKK. Since he was working undercover at the time to gain information on “extremist” groups like the local Black Student Union that had invited Kwame Ture (née Stokely Carmichael), he decided to branch out and investigate the Klan. So the film sets up an equivalence between Kwame Ture and David Duke, a cast character playing a major supporting role in the film. Doesn’t this remind you a bit of how Trump and his “there were bad people on both sides in Charlottesville”?

Ironically, despite Boots Riley’s devastating critique of Lee’s film, they both rely on the same device—a Black man using a “white voice” to deceive someone on the other side of the line. In Stallworth’s case, it was to communicate with the KKK about future meetings, etc. Once a hook-up was arranged, a white (and Jewish) cop named Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) would show up representing himself as Stallworth.

Stallworth’s initiative in penetrating the KKK elevated him in the eyes of the local police force who at first regarded him either paternalistically or in an openly racist manner. In the film’s conclusion, he uses a wire to record a racist cop who is dragged off to the delight of Stallworth and his white cop supporters. It is not exactly clear why he is being arrested since racism is completely legal, especially in Colorado.

Essentially, Lee’s film is a throwback to Stanley Kramer’s liberal, integrationist films of the 1960s like “The Defiant Ones” and “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner”. Racism is depicted as a function of prejudice rather than institutions functioning to create a reserve army of labor. Lee is a skilled filmmaker but not much different than Michael Moore politically. In 2008, he hailed Obama’s victory as a sign that Washington would soon become a “Chocolate City”. Four years later when it was obvious that it remained vanilla under Obama, he expressed disappointment but still raised a million dollars in a fundraising party at his home for his re-election.

In his takedown of Lee’s film, Riley was a lot sharper than any dialog he wrote in “Sorry to Bother You”:

Look—we deal with racism not just from physical terror or attitudes of racist people, but in pay scale, housing, health care, and other material quality of life issues. But to the extent that people of color deal with actual physical attacks and terrorizing due to racism and racist doctrines—we deal with it mostly from the police on a day to day basis. And not just from White cops. From Black cops too. So for Spike to come out with a movie where a story points are fabricated in order to make Black cop and his counterparts look like allies in the fight against racism is really disappointing, to put it very mildly.

Green Book

Like “BlacKkKlansman”, “Green Book” is based on the experiences of real-life characters but probably taking fewer liberties. In 1962, Jamaican-born pianist Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) needed a driver for a tour that began in the north and that ended in the Deep South. He hired a bouncer from the Copacabana named “Tony Lip” Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen), who was out of work for two months while the Copa did some remodeling.

The film is reminiscent of old-fashioned TV comedy, especially “The Odd Couple” that paired a slovenly sportswriter and a prissy photographer in the same Manhattan apartment after both men had divorced their wives. Felix, the photographer, is always lecturing Oscar about his untidy habits while Oscar is working to wean Felix from his neurotic obsessions over this and that. In “Green Room”, the fastidious and well-educated Black artist is always remonstrating Tony Lip for his lapses. He wants to improve his diction—a Bronx Italian accent done well by Mortensen—as if he were Henry Higgins working on Liza Dolittle. Irritated at first, Tony Lip begins to warm up to his boss after seeing him wow audiences and having the courage to tour the Deep South. In a number of scenes, he confronts racists who have disrespected the world-class pianist even though the film starts with Tony Lip throwing out a couple of glasses that Black repairmen have drunk from while working to fix his refrigerator. If he can overcome his prejudice, why can’t the rest of Italians in the Bronx “get along” with Negros.

The film was directed by Peter Farrelly, a white filmmaker who has teamed up with his brother Bobby for comedies like “There’s Something About Mary”. This is essentially a road movie with a message of racial tolerance as likeable and old-fashioned as bowl of steel-cut oatmeal on a winter morning. It is the kind of film that a white audience in Birmingham, Alabama, which voted overwhelmingly for Trump in 2016, can watch with pleasure even if on the next day they treat Black people with contempt. That’s what films like this are about, anyhow. An escape from a mean and violent world.

If Beale Street Could Talk

Based on James Baldwin’s 1974 novel, this is a film directed by Barry Jenkins, the African-American who made the excellent “Moonlight” in 2016. Set in the early 1970s, it is love story about a 22-year old aspiring sculptor named Fonny and his 19-year old lover named Tish who grew up in Harlem, the children of working-class parents.

Like many kids in Harlem, especially those who took advantage of an inexpensive CUNY education, the two were anxious to live as Manhattanites and put the provincialism of Harlem behind them, especially that of their parents. Tish’s mother is a devout Baptist who practically disowns the two when the unmarried Tish becomes pregnant.

Fonny has a day job that allows him to enjoy a reasonably decent life (this was long before Manhattan turned into Rio de Janeiro) while Tish works behind the counter selling cologne at a place that looks like Bloomingdales. Their prospects brighten when an orthodox Jew named David decides to rent an empty loft to Fonny on Bank Street in the West Village that he can use for both shelter and artwork. Keep in mind that in the early 70s, this is how Soho and Tribeca got started. When Fonny is shocked to discover that a Jew was about to rent something far below market prices (was this an inadvertent stereotype?) to a Black man, he can’t help but ask why he was being treated so well. The reply: I was touched by the love you two shared.

Despite being poised on the brink of a new and free life, Fonny can’t escape the consequences of being Black, even in progressive New York. When a white cop, who has a grudge against Fonny for an earlier confrontation, arrests him on the flimsy charge of raping a woman on the Lower East Side, their dreams are dashed. He goes off to prison despite the best efforts of his mother to track down the woman in Puerto Rico in order to convince her testimony in court.

What makes the film notable is not so much the struggle for racial justice but the romance of the two young people that director/screenwriter Barry Jenkins conveys well, no doubt a function of his deep devotion to James Baldwin and this novel in particular. In an Esquire Magazine article, Jenkins expresses the challenges of making a film that combines the hopefulness of young love and the crushing social forces arrayed against it:

And yet so rarely has a protest novel contained within it as soaring a love as that between Tish and Fonny. To put it simply, the romance at the center of this novel is pure to the point of saccharine. It’s no wonder that, amongst the more scholarly of his readers, the book is held in lesser esteem. And yet even this is a testament to the magic trick Baldwin pulls here, and a key reason for the tone of our adaptation. We don’t expect to treat the lives and souls of black folks in the aesthetic of the ecstatic. It’s assumed that the struggle to live, to simply breathe and exist, weighs so heavily on black folks that our very beings need be shrouded in the pathos of pain and suffering.

The Hate U Give

Directed by the African-American George Tillman Jr., this is a Black Lives Matter-themed film based on a young adult novel written by another African-American, Angie Thomas (the screenplay was an adaptation written by a white woman named Audrey Wells, who died shortly before the film’s release.)

The main character is Starr Carter, a 16-year-old who lives in a crime-ridden and poverty-stricken neighborhood reminiscent of Ferguson, Missouri called Garden Heights but who goes to a predominantly white and wealthy school “on the other side of the tracks”. Her identity is split between the two places. She has a white boyfriend and hangs out with white girls, making little attempt to fill them in on how she lives in Garden Heights.

One night she goes to a party where she runs into an old friend from the neighborhood named Khalil who offers her a ride home. On the way there, they are stopped by a cop in a typical racial profiling manner who orders Khalil out of the car and to put his hands on the roof. With Starr sitting in the front seat and the cop examining Khalil’s license and registration, he turns around, sticks his head through the window to see how she is holding up. After she says okay, he grabs a hair brush from the front seat and begins resuming the stance the cop ordered him to take. When the cop spots the brush in darkness of the night, he mistakes it for a pistol and in “self-defense” fires three bullets into the youth who dies on the spot.

As the sole eyewitness to the killing, Starr has to choose between two identities. If she comes out as the only person who has a chance of bringing the cop to justice, she risks antagonizing her white friends in high school. One of them even repeats the “all lives matter” excuse for the cops.

Finally deciding that she had to do the right thing, she does a TV interview that charges the cop for being a lawless executioner as well as well as fingering a brutal gang in Garden Heights that is almost as much of a impediment to Black security as the out-of-control police department. As a Ferguson-type protest takes shape in her neighborhood, she reluctantly assumes leadership even as she has to contend with the gang members who want to punish her for the TV interview.

Whether it is a function of the young adult material it is based on or just the author’s inexperience, the main problem of the film is its predictability. Characters are defined and then act according to the role that they are assigned to. Nothing comes as much of a surprise.

That being said, it is of supreme importance that such a film can make its way into Cineplexes where a documentary on Ferguson would never appear. It is even more significant that the novel it is based on has sold 1.5 million copies, presumably to young Black people who have a voice speaking for their frustrations and anger that are heard nowhere else.

The author’s story is very much like that of young people in Ferguson or any other place where a cop killing triggered BLM protests. Born in 1988, Angie Thomas grew up in Jackson, Mississippi, the city in which a progressive Democratic Party city government has encouraged the growth of cooperatives serving the Black community.

Having dreamt of becoming a writer from an early age and graduating from a Christian college in Mississippi with a BFA, she resolved to write such a novel after Oscar Grant was killed in Oakland on New Years Eve in 2009. In an interview with Ebony, Grant described what amounted to as a mission, something probably remote to the average University of Iowa Writers Workshop student:

As a Black woman, I feel like I have a unique experience that we don’t often see in media portrayals of the South. When you say, “Southern” or you speak about a Southern accent, there’s always that drawl and usually from White people. That’s what people associate with the South.

But we’re all different. The Black Southern accent is different. It’s small things like that, and then big things like being from Mississippi, specifically, and hearing the stories about Emmett Till, and being familiar with that from a very young age. Or knowing that I lived maybe three minutes away from Medgar Evers’ home, and that my mom heard the gunshot that killed him. Knowing that I live in a state where whenever somebody would fight for my rights or speak up for me, they were automatically deemed the enemy by the majority.

Whatever qualms I had about the film, I feel enriched by the experience of discovering that such writers exist.

Monsters and Men

Directed and written by the African-American Reinaldo Marcus Green, this film is also inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement. Based on the killing of loose-cigarette peddler Eric Garner in Staten Island in 2014 by a cop’s chokehold that inspired the protest call “I can’t breathe”, Green tells the story of three men who were impacted in one way or another by the fictionalized account of Garner’s death (in the film, it is a cop’s gun rather than a chokehold that costs the cigarette peddler his life.)

We first meet Manny Ortega, who like Starr is an eyewitness to the killing. He is hesitant to speak out not because it would diminish his status but because as a poor and underemployed Latino, he cannot afford to piss off the cops. Like Starr, he does the right thing.

Next we meet Dennis Williams, a Black cop who is struggling to stay behind the blue wall of silence that would free him from the burden of testifying against a colleague. Having been stopped by cops six times that year in racial profiling incidents, he has been pushed to the limit. (Williams is played by Denzel Washington’s son John David Washington, who also played the cop Ron Stallworth in Spike Lee’s film.)

Finally, there is Zyrick, a young Black man who is stopped on his way home from baseball practice in another racial profiling incident. For his father, an MTA worker, and Zyrick, baseball opens up the possibility of a lucrative career. When his own experience being stopped by the cops resonates with the killing of the cigarette peddler, Zyrick decides to take part in a BLM protest the night before he is supposed to take part in a game with baseball scouts eyeing prospects for the big leagues. When his father learns that he is going to take part in the protest, he lashes out him for losing his focus. It is nothing but baseball that is important. Black people have been killed by the cops for no good reason since the Civil War. The only answer is to mind your own business and stay out of their way.

The next day, Zyrick shows up at the baseball game with a shirt demanding justice for the slain peddler and takes a knee with other aspiring baseball pros.

In an interview with Remezcla, a website devoted to Latino culture and politics, Green—who is half Puerto-Rican—spoke for many young filmmakers of color anxious to use film to raise political awareness in the Black and Latino community:

This film is my form of activism, however small. I think that’s really what it’s about. It’s about baby steps. It’s about talking about it, continuing the dialogue, and trying to open people’s minds to an issue that really needs to be talked about. It’s happening all around us, we can’t turn a blind eye to the things that are happening to our people and our community. It’s important for us to just stay engaged as a community, the Latino community, the Black community, it’s important for us to come together. As a collective, we’re much stronger, and we need to support one another.

Life and Nothing More

Despite its minimal funding and its brief stay in the Film Forum, this film stands out for me as a major contribution to the body of work about Black Americans going back to classics like “Nothing but a Man”. It should show up eventually as VOD and when it does, don’t waste any time. It is truly powerful.

Using neorealist conventions heightened by a very gifted non-professional cast, the story is defined by the constraints imposed by capitalist society on a single mother named Regina working as a waitress, her troubled 14-year old son, and three year old daughter. Director Antonio Méndez Esparaza spent two years in Tallahassee interviewing single Black mothers to help him write the script for a film steeped in neorealist traditions.

When we first meet Regina, she is working as a waitress at the Red Onion restaurant somewhere in Florida when an African-American man named Robert tries to strike up a friendly conversation with her. Since her husband is doing time for aggravated assault, she is wary of all men. In a subsequent conversation with Robert, she puts him off by saying “fuck all men”. Not willing to take no for an answer, he approaches her again during her break on another day and breaks down her resistance. Since there are so few pleasures in her life, being taken out for dinner and shooting pool with him later is something that she looks forward to. That is the first step in cementing a relationship that finally ends up with him moving in with her and treating the three-year-old with tenderness.

The stumbling block is her son Andrew who is as hostile to adult men as his mother is initially but with less of an incentive to open up to a man he suspects of taking advantage of his mother’s yearning for company. An argument between his mother and Robert in the middle of the night leads to a confrontation in which Andrew pulls out a gravity knife with a warning to Robert to stand down. Fed up with lover and son alike, Regina throws both men out—at least for the evening.

All of these people are living on the knife’s edge. A loss of a job, an unplanned pregnancy or an arrest can push them into a bottomless pit. The authenticity of “Life and Nothing More” is astonishing. It has a documentary-like matter of factness that serves the narrative arc. Given the flammable nature of the social relations in the world occupied by the characters, a spark can set off a conflagration at any minute. It is reminder that if the anger and frustration of Black America ever gets turned at its real enemies, the class struggle of the future will make the sixties look like child’s play.

 

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