Tag Archive: ava duvernay


 

13th

I want to stay away from the obvious cliches when I judge this film on its own and within the long view of Ava Duvernay’s career (‘this is an important film’), so I’ll try to find the right words at the end…

The conceit of this documentary is that while the 13th Amendment abolished slavery…it really didn’t.  The U.S. Civil War (like pretty much every other war, ever) was about economics.  The Southern economic system was destroyed, so…something had to replace it.  And as a side note, all those blacks who that economic system was completely dependent on…what about them?

So that’s your starting point in this, incredible film.  Writing it down as I am now really doesn’t do it justice, but you get a five star ‘the History of Black America’ story in under two hours that rarely, if ever, moves too far away from its thesis.  You want a quick lesson in why (the original) Birth of a Nation is so important for all the wrong reasons?  It’s in here.  You want to know how coded language has evolved from nigger to ‘crack users’ to ‘thugs’ over the years? It’s covered pretty well here.  You want a quick political science lesson in how Nixon won over the South to the Republican party, and how the Clintons figured out how to neutralize that advantage?  It’s in here.

It’s history but make no mistake, this is a ‘film’ as well.  It’s art.  The use of graphics to illustrate how the prison rate keeps escalating, the use of hip hop to guide us through the political eras (I reflexively threw up my fist when Public Enemy came on.)  The editing is superb; in the early sections you will question why aren’t black people constantly boiling over in anger, in the present day Black Lives Matter section, I had to look away as the film makes you relive Trayvon Martin and Tamir Rice and the still growing list of boys who’ve been killed for being.

I have no inside information on if Ava even cares about industry awards, but as I write this either this film or the more L.A. centric story about race, ‘O.J. Made in America’ is the frontrunner for Best Documentary.  What I can say is that this is in my opinion the best film she’s directed to this point in here in her career by far.

Streaming on Netflix.  Watch it.

 

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In light of some really nice moments from Ava and Oprah’s new show last night, conversations with my own old man, and general mood, this one fell into the playlist right on time.  My single favorite single Will has done.

Enjoy!

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Returned to the director’s chair. Made a quality short that will find a new audience every holiday season (like the film its based on, ironically). Wrote my first original pilot. Wrote my first spec based on a TV show I love. Producer on another ‘legacy’ project that’s one of those ‘once in a lifetime’ things I’m thrilled to be a part of. The period of time from the last Ramadan to this one has found me in another peak period. Stability and consistency have arrived.

I’m mastering how to be as efficient as I can, I’ve reverse engineered the remaining details.  It’s happening.  The endgame (which we’ve half jokingly, half seriously called, ‘Muslim Clooney’.) Not as one giant home run swing, but by stringing together all the daily and weekly victories.  Far from over, but constant forward motion.  With a lot of help and support from many of you, I’ve worked myself into a position where I can think but not ‘overthink’, I’ve created a sense of ‘home’ (stability) which makes me more confident in myself and my natural voice.  We still have more fun than we should at times, but I’m reverting back to being more selective about when and where and in front of whom I act like the ‘devil may care goofball who doesn’t take anything too seriously’ and re-establishing my go-to move as being the ‘socially conscious, politically aware artist who prides himself on being a world citizen.’ The consistency.

Part of it I guess was aging into it, but I’m completely comfortable in ‘my spot.’  When I was younger, I’m sure some people thought I’d be some version of DeRay McKessen.  I love and support what that brother is, but I don’t know want his life.  When you hear me hype up Ava DuVernay or Issa Rae, I’m not angling for a gig; their voices and what they represent are important as well.  Even the young brothers who at some point maybe I was ‘suppose to be’, like Justin Simien or Ryan Coogler, I feel no envy.  They’re not telling my specific story or doing what I specifically do. I now live in the moment more than I ever have, but my eyes on the Big Picture; something bigger than I will ever be and something that will be here long after I’m gone.  This may be an easier statement for someone as defiantly individual as I am to say, but I believe it’s true: you will be challenged at every turn, you will have to fight for what you believe in at every step, but, what’s meant for you? No one can take that from you.

So back to this moment. The past couple of weeks I’ve started to strip away the unnecessary things, and this is part of it.  As much as is practically possible in 2015, I’m taking a social media and blogging hiatus for Ramadan (which starts later this week.) As I’ve told the people close to me, for the first time in I don’t know how long, I don’t have to ‘fix’ anything in my life.  I can routinely place my hand on the brass ring, but haven’t quite put my fingers around it. So my goal is making sure I maintain and continue to build upon my (say it with me now) stability and consistency.

I’m off for deep meditation and to protect the Future here in the dry lands.  If it’s meant to be and the time is right (say mid July?), we’ll get back to it.

Take care.

‘Selma’

 

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She did it.

That’s the simple but accurate description of what Ava DuVernay has accomplished with ‘Selma’.  The (still criminally) short list of Hollywood backed films about black history, where black characters are actually the centerpiece of the story, has another worthy entry.  From the opening sequence which contrasts King’s Nobel Peace Prize winning speech to four little girls walking down into the church basement (and if you know black history at all, you know how that ends and you immediately get a lump in your throat), the tone is set.

The title makes it clear: this isn’t a complete biopic of King as Spike’s film was about Malcolm X.  ‘Selma’ focuses on this key moment in time when Dr. King was a big enough name to routinely meet with President Johnson (played by Tom Wilkinson, one of many great character actors in the film), but far from universally loved by the people who were holding up the status quo, or some of the young black students who were already wearing thin on the idea of ‘nonviolent resistance’.

I went to a screening where Ava and David Oyelowo participated in a Q&A following the film.  When asked about his process, David talked about his experience on ‘Lincoln’ and watching Daniel Day-Lewis (very telling).  To do an impersonation of a famous person, if you break it all the way down, is usually mimicry while amplifying a mannerism or a cadence, usually for comedic effect.  What David does in this film is not impersonation.  There’s more than enough in look and cadence so the audience knows this is Dr. King, but it’s deeper than that.  And for what ‘Selma’ does, it should be.  I researched this whole era as a teenager so no information in the film, whether real or used for creative license surprised me.  But, if all you know of Dr. King is what you here one day in January every year, or every February, you…might get some new information.  I like to believe between my film geekness and passion for history, I’ve seen every ‘big time’ portrayal of the man, but I’ve never seen Martin Luther King portrayed so human.  So flawed.  David got all the nuances right.

Award season? We shall see. Timely? Obviously. In my opinion, it’s Ava’s best film to date; if (American) audiences had any doubt David could be the leading man in the right role, let’s squash that now too.

Go see it.

 

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First, the macro level:

For my generation, we all looked up to Spike (with John and Reggie not far behind).  and in those days, it’s fair to say we all had some form of a ‘hero complex.’  Without getting into a much bigger conversation about black leadership in America, what we grew up on is ‘one voice up front that speaks for everybody.’  We kid each other now, but I can recall many early meetings with friends that usually started with someone walking in the room more or less saying ‘I’m here now, so you got what you need to make a movie!’

What hip hop has evolved into for the past couple of generations, and the (thankful) direction black filmmakers have been successfully growing into is the much more true to life idea that there are several points of view, even those who contrast with each other, that are all ‘authentically black.’

(How’s that for a segway into the micro?)

Dear White People is built around four archetypal characters every black person (especially if you went to college) will recognize: Tessa Thompson as the biracial kid who’s metaphorically yelling Black Power louder than most of the ‘fully’ black kids. Tyler James Williams as the (closeted homosexual) kid who’s not quite black enough for the brothers, but too black to hang out with the white folks.  Teyonah Parris as the bougie black person who goes a little too far to prove she’s not like ‘those hood black people.’  Brandon P. Bell as the good looking, and polished legacy kid whose every decision is setting himself up to be ‘The Guy’, right on down to the white girlfriend.

The jokes come quick and hit the bullseye when the come, especially in the first half.  There’s a Gremlins joke that I think is in one of the trailers that’s still funny.  There’s a throwaway line that you have to take as a direct reference to Dawn on Mad Men (where Teyonah appears often but doesn’t give her the opportunity to show the range and the sexuality that she does here, and I LOVE Mad Men.)  There are other direct and indirect references to Spike in the film.  Do I see Dear White People as School Daze 2.0?  Yes I do, but that’s by no means an insult.

Do I think it’s a perfect film?  No.  I have nitpicks in the third act and (like a true Spike Lee joint) there were some tone changes and convenient circumstances I didn’t really go all in for.  But as a first film?  Go back now and watch She’s Gotta Have It.  Even Spike has publicly said how much now he hates some of the choices he made with the third act of that film.  Look at the progression Ava DuVernay has made I Will Follow to Selma.  The young brother who directed this film, Justin Simien, he’s clearly got talent and he has a ‘voice’ that’s not what everybody else is doing.  I for one, look forward to seeing what he comes up with next.

 

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I’m not a man of regrets as most of you know, but I do wish I moved a little faster and had a film or a performance that was reviewed by Roger Ebert.  Along with Gene Siskel, he was America’s (hell, the world’s) film critic, and the new documentary Life Itself captures his personal and professional life tremendously well.

Chicago born and bred, the film uses Ebert’s autobiography as the backdrop of how this small town chubby kid from Southern Illinois became an American icon.  His perfect use of constructive criticism (which I certainly try to emulate) earned him generations of followers, both among the film geeks who would tune in weekly to his show, the studios who would come to have a mostly love (though it started as hate) relationship with him, and even a bond with many of the filmmakers who would become his peers (among them Martin Scorsese and Ava DuVernay, who both appear in this film). His most high profile relationship, with Gene Siskel, gets the appropriate coverage here (there was definitely some alpha dog fights between the two of them), along with the show they created that was Pardon the Interruption for movies wayyyyy before we had it for sports.

Life Itself also goes really in-depth to Ebert’s marriage to his wife Chaz.  How they met and how each’s family felt about interracial marriage; I’ll let you watch the doc itself to hear those stories.  A lot of the ‘present day’ scenes in the film are in the hospital, where we see what he (and she) dealt with on a daily basis when his body started to betray him.  I could do a whole separate post on marriages that work and what ‘for better or worse’ really means.  Those two clearly had it, and it’s really beautiful and inspiring and sad at times to see.

So as a film geek of course I’m absurdly biased on this one, but I think if you’re a Roger Ebert fan, you have to see this one.  In theatres now and streaming on iTunes and On Demand.

Deconstruction

 

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Taking a quick break from reviewing films because I have to talk about this.

A few days ago, Ava DuVernay asked the question all film geeks have had to think about the past few weeks (paraphrasing): can we still love some of these artists if we believe they’ve committed these universally accepted wrongs?

My Twitter (i.e. 140 character) response was this:

Now let me elaborate…

I finally had time (and more importantly emotional space) to read Dylan Farrow’s letter today.  And it was everything I expected it to be. Shocking, and disgusting and sad.  Here’s the thing though.  This was one of the most public versions of that story I’ve heard.  But not the first time.  Or the second. Or the third, even.  I won’t go into further detail about who the women are who told me their stories, but I can tell you, like Dylan’s account, it’s not this Hollywood image of a stranger in a dark parking lot at 1 in the morning (that happens too of course), but in all the stories I’ve been trusted enough to hear about, it’s ALWAYS a male in the family.  So based on my own personal experience, it’s hard to complete dismiss Dylan’s account.

So does this change the way I look at Woody’s films?  At the moment that I write this…no.  The details are way more lurid and obscene than we’ve ever read, but if this is the first time you looked at Woody Allen’s personal life and said ‘He did WHAT?’, I think you missed some details on the way here.  And there is never a ‘good time’ for something like this to be brought to light or be talked about, so I’m trying real hard to not sound insensitive if you want to completely dismiss the man and the artist wholesale (which you have every right to feel).  Not to distract from the issue at hand, but I have in mind, ‘other’ artists, who ‘allegedly’ have similar sexual preferences, and have been unapologetically defiant about it (see interviews done by Toure, and songs like ‘Age Ain’t Nothin But a Number’, and ‘Seems Like You’re Ready’).  Woody Allen from what I’ve seen is defending his name against an unforgivable crime; he’s not saying ‘Yeah, so what, what’s the big deal?’

Timing wise, is this going to cost Cate Blanchett the Oscar?  I don’t know.  Does it matter?

 

 

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Just finished the premiere of the new ESPN 30 for 30 doc, ‘Venus Vs.’, directed by Ava DuVernay.  It’s a good doc; all of this happened in our lifetimes, but I know I’m not the only one who kind of takes for granted now how much ground Venus broke within our generation.

The main storyline of the doc is how (kind of shockingly since tennis has traditionally been the one sport where the female stars can be equal or bigger than the men) the women’s single champion earned less than the men’s single champion at Wimbledon.  Not shockingly Billie Jean King was one of the first people to rattle the cages about the discrepancy, and in time the gap closed until it kind of become insulting in the other direction (you’ll make 95% of what the men make.  See, you’re almost equal.)  As the title of the doc suggests, Venus is credited for using her star power to get that gap completely closed.

What was most compelling to me (and many others I’m sure) was reliving Venus’s journey from tall lanky kid from Compton to #1 tennis player in the world.  I’m guessing the timing is purely coincidental, but there’s another, much more sinister story about a black kid ‘being somewhere he didn’t belong’ (Trayvon) that already doesn’t have a happy ending and is touching the ‘less than equal’ nerves of a lot of the people who probably watched this doc.  And I won’t get any further off track but I’ll throw this out there to for a later conversation: Voting Rights Act.  OK, back to topic…

‘Venus Vs.’ is a clean, efficient hour of filmmaking that’s worth your time.  Props to Ava for another good film!

Middle of Nowhere

 

Better late than never with this one.

Middle of Nowhere is the best ‘Black’ film I’ve seen in quite awhile.  There’s a version of this story that you could see done in a very over the top fashion, but credit goes to the brilliant cast and director Ava DuVernay that the film never goes there.  Not for a frame.  And as a result, the characters feel real, the situations feel real, and most importantly the dramatic tension of how the story will resolve lasts until the credits come up.

The plot of the story centers around a woman named Ruby, whose husband is incarcerated with years of time ahead of him.  Does she stick it out with him, or does she move on with her life?  As the title of the film implies, Middle of Nowhere is filled with double meanings (literal places and their symbolic counterparts).  As an audience you never feel like the message is being beat over your head because…there are no easy answers.  As we learn about the main characters, you feel a level of sympathy for all of them.  There are no true ‘villains’ here, just people dealing with the hand life dealt them.  Ava already took home Best Director at Sundance, and the early buzz is there’s going to be a push for a Best Screenplay nomination.  It would be well deserved. Very well deserved.

Glad I was still able to catch this one on the big screen.  If you haven’t yet, I think it’s worth your time.