Tag Archives: African-American

Far From Heaven

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Far From Heaven (2002), Todd Haynes’ sterile, domestic melodrama à la Douglas Sirk, is an exercise in how to beautifully execute a facsimile. Starring Julianne Moore, Dennis Quaid and Dennis Haysbert as walking mannequins, the film unravels a story right out of the pages of a 1950’s film criticism class, if that class were taught today. The drama, heavily lifted from Sirk’s film “All That Heaven Allows,” has updated the strife with the still semi-taboo subjects of homosexuality and interracial love and displays them as pretty and ultimately empty set pieces against a back drop of pristine, Connecticut, alleged perfection.

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Julianne Moore, who plays Cathy Whitaker- housewife supreme- is a master at portraying finely tuned characters who brew a simmering pot of unfulfilled desire. However, while she is directed deftly enough in the ‘on the surface’ portion of her performance, director Haynes has missed the mark when it comes to having her present even a glimmer of what’s underneath.

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For his part, Dennis Haysbert, who brings his usual charm and smooth voiced grace to his role of Raymond, simply walks through the film doing his best ‘magical Negro’ until the denouement, when he actually leaves the white, attractive, but baggage laden Cathy.

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It is only Dennis Quaid who delivers on the unsettled, perturbed messiness of a man on the edge who maneuvers his imperfections with a mix of shame and hubris.

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Haynes, at a technical peak, employs the same saturated tones and sweeping score (he got the ‘melo’ part right, at least) of Sirk’s masterful Hollywood period, only he forgets to include characters about whom anyone might care one iota, beyond their hair, costumes and lighting. Here, Haynes is a mettuer en scene in the truest sense.

With only an intimation of emotion emanating ever so slightly from every frame of film, the audience is left to wonder whether the characters are even aware of the world they are supposed to inhabit, or if they are simply moving from one deliberately designed set piece to the next. The diegetic detail is convincing enough, however during supposed climactic moments, neither the harm inflicted on a child, nor the discovery of a husband’s betrayal are enough to elicit emotional force more dramatic than head hanging resignation or gritted teeth.

While Haynes gets everything right about the look of the film, he seems to have paid only cursory attention to the text, and with only a hint of tension and character development, we are left filling in the blanks, with regard to the implied subversiveness of his intent. It’s filmmaking as paint-by-numbers. The replication appears accurate enough, but that is the only level the film ever reaches- that of a replica.

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The Human Stain

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Coleman Silk has problems. His wife has just died, he has resigned from his job of 35 years under accusations of racism, he is sleeping with an inconvenient woman half his age. And he’s black. Sort of.

 

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Coleman Silk, the lead character in the 2003 film The Human Stain, is an interesting study of a man caught between two worlds for his entire adult life. He is, on the surface, an older, Jewish professor leading a life of academic gentility whose only concern seems to be the truancy of two students in his Classics course. That academic world, however, is rocked when, in a moment of casual query, he asks if anyone in the room has seen the students, “…or are they spooks.” That word, “spooks,” becomes the fulcrum on which Coleman’s life tilts as he is instantly branded a racist and angrily resigns his post under a dark cloud of politically correct, asinine hogwash.

This would be enough to bring anyone to the brink, but the other side of Coleman’s particular fulcrum is that the entire affair is made more problematic for Coleman and the audience when it is revealed that he is a black man who has been passing for white for the last 50 years. Nevermind that Coleman could have ended his employment woes by asserting that he is, in fact, black- that point is driven home in the film’s final moments- it is his journey to reaching the literal point of no return that is more worthy of exploration.

It is easy enough to reconcile that the strongest thread of the film is secrets and the cost of living with them. But less easy to reconcile is is the notion of the “Stain” of the title. There are the stains of death and destruction, the stain of a life of lies, the stain of failure and the stain of the loss of family. All of these are important to the characters at one point or another, and in the cases of Coleman and his girlfriend Faunia, all at the same time.

Coleman’s stain begins in 1948 where we meet a teenaged Coleman ‘Silky’ Silk, already skilled at living a dual life as, on one hand, a boxer and on the other hand, a student seemingly on his way to Howard University. However the sudden death of his father marks a turning point for Coleman, as the only real impediment to life as a white man is removed. With the stroke of a pen, his life and the lives of his family are altered forever as be goes from being Coleman Silk ‘Negro’, to just Coleman.

 

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Coleman’s betrayal causes his mother to label him a “murderer,” and this is another thread, that of “murder,” that runs through the film, to great effect. The lives of all presented are touched by this in some way, whether literal or figurative, and these deaths tie together a difficult story with as neat a bow as possible. It is ironic that the one person in which Coleman has confided his dark secret, his fantastically troubled girlfriend, Faunia, is also the one murdered with him, thereby (almost) taking his secret to both their graves.

Brother to Brother

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Brother to Brother is an ambitious 2004 film from first time director Rodney Evans that weaves a tale of past and present through the eyes of artists from both eras. That the film is a debut feature from the filmmaker is notable, for while it tells a story of an era that is surprisingly not oft told, it almost falls victim to the first time director curse of trying to do too much.

The film introduces us to Perry a young, African-American student in New York, struggling with personal trials in the face of his family’s recent discovery of his homosexuality. He is not alone on his journey, however, as we meet the friends and classmates that populate his world and who seem to accept him as he is. Where the film comes alive, though, is in Perry’s ‘meet cute’ on the streets of the city with an older man who both vexes and fascinates him.

 

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The older man turns out to be Bruce Nugent, a prominent figure of the Harlem Renaissance who, like Perry, is gay. It is in their meeting and subsequent socializing that the film takes the audience out of the present and back to the vibrant and tumultuous world of Bruce’s past.

We meet Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Wallace Thurman, and others of the day, who create a Harlem of artistic truth and freedom the likes of which the young Nugent is eager to get in on. These Harlem Renaissance portions of the film, which are shot in black and white for effect, offer parallels for current day Perry that he has never previously considered.

 

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While much time has passed since the days of the Harlem Renaissance, Perry and the audience find that not much has been done in the way of widespread black, or African-American, lack of acceptance of homosexuality. Then, like now, creatives who happen to be black and gay are brushed under the collective societal rug in an effort to pretend that these people don’t exist and can’t sully the race with their unnatural doings. Within their own sphere, there is none of that exclusion, however. Instead, black and gay artists are often fetishized and exoticized by the usually wealthy white people, like Carl Van Vechten, who is portrayed here, who, when it was convenient, inhabited and profited from their world.

That idea, fetishization, is also something that current day Perry has to come to terms with, as he finds himself the object of exotic desire and ‘otherness’ of his down-low, white lover, Jim.

 

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The most heart wrenching scene in the film, for this viewer, was a scene that takes place between Perry and Jim. In it, Perry, after some positive association and time spent with older Nugent, comes to the realization that the only things he’s after are love and true acceptance, and that he is, indeed, worthy of that love and not the crumbs of sexual desire currently on offer. If that were the film’s only redeeming quality, which it is not, it would be enough. There are countless young, gay, black people who could use that particular lesson and perhaps, a viewing of this film.

Dark Girls

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When I was a little girl, my mother had several pieces of African art in our house. One painting in particular showed a beaming, black baby with the words, “Black is beautiful,” painted next to her. Growing up, I saw this painting every day, and although I didn’t know it at the time, those words and the constant message of positivity were rescuing me before any calamity had come my way. At 9 years old, a boy at my school, a black boy, decided to play ‘The Dozens’ using me as his target. At some point in his little display, the words, “You’re so dark…,” came out of his mouth. I registered no reaction, mostly because I was truly confused. He tried again, this time with the words, “You’re so black,” but again, he got no reaction. What had happened was that I could not see his words as the insult he intended them to be because for me, the damage had already been done. That damage came in the form of the blows against the colorism and internalized racism that my mother had already struck because she knew I would face these forces as a dark skinned, black girl in this country.

 

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After watching the film “Dark Girls,” I’m heartbroken at the thought that messages like the ones my mother gave me have not reached every black person in this country. Whiter skin color has always been seen as currency in this country and this currency still carries value, in that the lighter a person’s skin, the more ease that person is perceived to have to move and elevate him or herself in society.

But hearing the stories in “Dark Girls,” one is struck by the notion that this internalized racism goes much deeper than perceptions of economic mobility. Indeed, the attitudes of black people who are victims of this kind of post traumatic slave disorder seems to be that lighter skin, in many cases, simply makes a person better. Dark skinned women seem to possess, in a greater amount, the thing about black men and other black women that they hate about themselves, which is their very blackness itself. It is not difficult to believe that the energy trauma of slavery has imbued itself in the DNA of black folks, if we are to understand the very deep and long lasting attitudes about dark skin the film wants to portray.

 

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Although she hadn’t reached the career heights she is now experiencing, Viola Davis’ presence in the film is important, as is her current success. As she says, she grew up not seeing any examples of women or girls who looked like her in the media, so her visibility itself could, for young, black women watching her career now, possibly be the thing that causes someone to put down the jar of Porcelana and pursue something else. It could also be a catalyst for young black men to shift their harmful, incorrect and delusional attitudes about the beauty of black women, simply because she is, now, being held up as a symbol of beauty and positive sexuality.

 

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“Dark Girls” is the movie I wish were shown more on television instead of the current ‘mulatto follies’ on stations like BET. Strangely, as it stated several times in the movie, some white people seem to appreciate and find beauty in dark skin. As dark skin gets more positive, widespread media exposure, perhaps it will be these white people who will aid in helping some black people find and appreciate that same beauty. Stranger things, like racism itself, have happened.

Imitation of Life

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“Ya just gotta learn to take it.” These words, spoken by Louise Beavers as Delilah in the 1934 filmed version of Imitation of Life, perfectly sum up the lot of the characters of Delilah and her daughter, tragic mulatto extraordinaire, Peola.

 

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The film, based on the 1933 story by Fannie Hurst, follows the turn of fortune in the lives of a once down-on-her-luck widow, played with pluck by Claudette Colbert and domestic pancake genie Delilah, played by Beavers. The women share more than a need for money, however, they also share the fact that they are single mothers, each trying to raise a daughter. If that were the whole story, it might make for a light diversion, but as it stands the film is much, much more and is one of the better melodramas of the period.

Louise Beavers, who should go down in history as the first come to life Negro spiritual, portrays Delilah with all the bowed head, soft voiced ‘Mammy-ism’ she can muster, and here, she is used to great effect. Her portrayal is offensive in many respects, but because the character is given an actual storyline that does more than simply push along the story of the white characters, she is notable for whatever dignity with which she manages to imbue the character.

 

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However it is then appearance of Fredi Washington forty minutes into the film that we are given the first real tension and conflict of the story. Rather than the tantrums of a misunderstood child, Washington shows us a Peola who has the full, lived experience of an extremely light skinned woman who longs to fit into one world and who rejects the possibility of fitting into another.

 

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With possibly one of the most perfect castings to ever capture an accurate portrayal of an actual African-American who is light skinned enough to realistically pass for white, Fredi Washington, enlivens the sad character of Peola with a sense of anger, confusion and disgust with her situation that she is easily the best part of the film. In hindsight, what makes the casting even more perfect is that Washington, in her real life, was such a fierce and staunch advocate for Civil Rights for black people, that her portrayal of a woman trapped in cage of self-hatred is a revelation. This is a good thing, since the dumb, almost childlike portrayal of Delilah by Beavers, whose only wish in life is for a grand funeral, is sometimes anger making in its earnestness.

While the Delilah/Peola storyline is a co-plot, it is one of the first instances in film where a black character’s storyline carries equal weight with that of the white characters. This should be a good thing, but since the storyline consists of maternal difficulties, a delusional child, a life of servitude and death, I’m not so sure that this is a positive net gain.

Queen- A Plantation’s Child

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In Alex Haley’s 1992 mini-series, Queen, we are presented with a “child of the plantation, just like thousands of others.” For Queen, played by Halle Berry, is a mixed race little girl born of a slave and her master who, we are told, would be better off with her “own people.” But the question of who, exactly, those people are, seems to be an area for exploration in the mind of the titular character.

Queen starts off much like the later film Jefferson in Paris,  presenting a relationship that is as light and airy as cotton candy and with the slave, Easter, pursuing her master. It was said that Haley wanted to show a lightheartedness and tenderness to the relationship of Easter and her master, and he got what he wanted. While unnervingly unrealistic, slave and master romp about the plantation and eventually produce a love child named Queen.

Young Queen , who is keenly aware of the difference in the melanin in her skin, in relation to other slaves in her surroundings, grows and is made the handmaid to her half-sister, thus beginning her life as “little miss in between.”

While shown to be educated to a degree and literate, Berry as Queen insists on using a kind of slave-speak so offensive as to be laughable. It is made all the more jarring because no one in her life, that we are shown, speaks this way. This bit of acting choice follows Berry throughout the series and is, I suppose, her way of becoming ‘black’ or ‘slave-y’ enough to come across as said “child of the plantation.” It does not work, and is really the only sticking point, acting wise.

 

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But where Berry succeeds is in giving us a desperate Queen; a Queen so desperate for her white family’s acceptance, she initially refuses to leave the plantation for her own possible betterment. However, after the ravages of the Civil War have destroyed the plantation and left her little choice, she does make good her get away and finds herself a young lady in The Carolinas.

She is befriended by a fellow “high yella” woman, played by Lonnette McKee, who shows her the ways of the world and how to use her whiteness as an advantage. These “high yella” women, who easily pass for white (although they are obvious to each other) are made to use their looks to get by when they possess seemingly little else of value. As McKee’s character points out, “We’re lucky we can choose.” And choose she does. Queen passes with disastrous results, finding that her whiteness is both a blessing and a curse, and eventually finds herself on the road again looking for a home. This is a recurring theme, wayward Queen looking for a home, that is not so subtle in its showing.

After breaking down in a church declaring, “I’s negra! I’s NEGRA!”, Queen is finally shown some compassion from her own people (black people) and her life looks like it’s on the mend. It isn’t long, however, that she is forced from her home, yet again, due to some naive personal choices that leave her alone and with child. On the road again, she is faced with betrayal, the lynching of her baby’s father (which scars her in unspeakable ways) and an obsession with her child that borders on unhealthy.
Queen does eventually find that home she was looking for in the arms of the kindhearted and willing-to-overlook-a-lot-of-issues Alec, played with aplomb by Danny Glover. But even her marital and domestic happiness are marred by her disillusionment when, after the death of,her father, she makes her way ‘home’ to the plantation of her youth. She is cast out, once again, by her father’s hateful wife and seems to finally understand that while she filled space physically in the place, it was never her home.

Ultimately, the series is about self-identity and a yearning to belong. Queen’s personal struggle to find where she fits- a home, both within and outside of her- is relieved with her final revelation that, “home is where you are loved.”

 

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Pinky

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Set in a backwoods Mississippi town in the 1940’s, “Pinky” tells the story of a light skinned black woman who returns to her birthplace amid questions, secrecy and complicated racial politics.
Patricia Johnson, or Pinky, as she is known by those in her hometown, has retuned to her roots after completing her nursing education in the North. While she is received joyously by her dark skinned grandmother, played by the remarkable Ethel Waters, her arrival is also fraught with questions regarding the conflict and embarrassment of her passing while away at school. Pinky is immediately shamed and made to repent, in a way, for the sin of passing by enduring difficulties that would have been non-issues had she been a white woman.
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Pinky, whose name can only be a reference to the ‘pinkness’ of her skin, is thrust into situations in her town where she is, at first, taken for a white woman, treated with decency, and when her true background is revealed, then treated with hostility and violence. She goes from protected to detained by the police when she is found to be black, and her body is violated by those same police and other white men who see her only as a thing to be disrespected and abused.
It is no wonder, then, that Pinky decided to pass for white as soon as she had escaped the clutches of the ultra racist South for the somewhat less obviously racist haven of the North. While the audience can easily understand Pinky’s motives for passing, what is more subversive to the plot, is that Pinky herself knows why she has done what she’s done. She hasn’t even de-boarded her train northward before she has passed, and while she is shamed for it later, she is also aware of the caste system that she is both victim and beneficiary of.
If there is a weakness in the film, it is in the casting of Jeanne Crain as Pinky. It was perhaps an unavoidable dilemma, as the two black actresses of the time who were considered ‘black, but not too black’, Lena Horne and Dorothy Dandridge, were, in this instance, too dark skinned to believe as passing for white. This left producer Daryl F. Zanuck with the choice of Crain, who, as a white woman, lacks both the frame of reference and internal turmoil to contend with the subject matter. This practice was not new, nor has it abated, but it is perhaps especially contentious in a film specifically, and not tangentially, about race.
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Although not a weakness, but of note, is the character of Pinky herself. Whether by design or by acting and directing choices, Pinky, with her light skin and all, is a member of Strong Black Woman club. Through her struggle, and there must be a struggle,  to obtain justice for herself and uphold the pride with which she has been imbued, she is also made to uplift her entire race. In the end, Pinky, by her proud affirmation of her true identity, has become the “credit” to her race she was always meant to be.