Tag Archives: Fiction

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.

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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.

Band of Angels

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“Band of Angels”, the 1957 Raoul Walsh film starring Clark Gable and Yvonne de Carlo is  strange tale.  It owes no small debt to the novel Iola Leroy, by Frances Harper, as it shares more than a few plot points. But the film, based on the novel of the same name by Robert Penn Warren, is also a departure for a few reasons.

Amantha, like Iola, is a privileged young woman of light skin, so light as to pass for the skin of a white woman. Both Amantha and Iola are the “issue” of slave mothers, who were the result of seemingly loving and fully fashioned relationships with their white fathers. Both young women are educated away from home and both are informed of their slave status after the deaths of their respective, beloved, white fathers. And both women are suddenly removed from their lives as free, white people and turned over to lives of instant slavery. But here, most of the similarities end.

 

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In the matter of the tragic mulatta, Amantha Starr, does not fit. In fact, Amantha’s tragedy seems to be that she is only momentarily removed from her whiteness and status. She is, however, soon enough restored, in a way, and resigns herself to her fate in her new home with her benefactor, Mr. Hamish Bond.

 

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In the confines of the idyllic New Orleans lodgings of Hamish Bond, Amantha, Rau-Ru and the household of seemingly content ‘slaves’ go about their lives not terribly fazed by the impending war, their lot in life or much else. For a film that opens with such a strong statement regarding slavery and the precarious nature of those individuals with vague light skinned privilege, it takes a turn into an almost fantasy of Beauty and The Beast proportions following the love story of Amantha and Hamish.

 

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The star crossed lovers are thwarted, in epic fashion, by the arrival of the Civil War, a scandalous secret and the vendetta of Hamish’s “high stepper,” Rau-Ru.

Rau-Ru, for his part, is fixed on righting the wrong committed by Hamish in exhibiting his “kindness.” It is the the sort of bleak, misshapen “kindness”, which comes to light later on, and makes for a complexity of character for Bond and Rau-Ru which is not afforded the other characters in the film.

In the end, however, it is the trope of the ‘Magical Negro’, in the form of the previously angry Rau-Ru, that takes hold and any thoughts of vendettas are put aside so that the white people can ride, literally, off into the sunset.

What starts off as a promising story exploring miscegenation and it’s repercussions, ends as a fairly typical love story uncomplicated by any of that messy race stuff. And perhaps that’s as it should be.

Feast of All Saints

 

 

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“Placage promised happiness, but brought only…sorrow.” These words are spoken by a character in the 2001 Showtime miniseries “The Feast of All Saints”. The film, based on the 1979 book by Anne Rice of the same title, is set in New Orleans during the 1840’s, where the aformentioned practice of “placage”, or the (usually) extra-marrital relationships between ‘free’ women of color and wealthy white men, is the norm.

The practice of placage, which is really just a fancy, French word (and if we’re taught anything, it’s that everything is better if it’s fancy and French) for the romantic notion of the exploitation of women of color, is a practice of sexual, social and racial inequity so obvious, that it makes one wonder how could it produce anything but sorrow and pain. The ‘not quite master, not quite slave’ characteristics of the rituals of placage set up a power imbalance so fierce that often the only to way to maintain a life outside of the fields, was to be be born ‘free’ with light skin and good hair and hope to be acquired by the richest white man down the road.
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However, this film wants the viewer to believe that the black women, or “octaroons” of the “Gens de Coleur Libre” held such power and sway that they not only secured financially beneficial arrangements for themselves, but for any children born of the relationship. This power, or bizarre kind of leverage, seems to come from the idea that their blackness or exotic sexuality was enough to keep the wealthy white men of the time spellbound sufficient to keep these arrangements intact for years as a second, unacknowledged, mixed family would emerge into high society with all its trappings.
The film focuses on one of the families created by one of these unions and the problems one would imagine to be rife in such a situation.
We are introduced to Cecile St. Marie and Monsieur Farronaire, played by the completely mismatched and chemistry-less Gloria Reuben and Peter Gallagher, and subsequently to their offspring, Marcel and Marie, played by Robert Ri’chard and Nicole Lyn. We are also introduced to another Farronaire offspring, Lisette; the product of the actual slave/master relationship  between Farronaire and his slave, Zazu, although the film does not make this clear at first. Into this motley crew are thrown the various characters that round out the New Orleans of the pre-Civil War era and provide the backdrop for the film.
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The central theme to the comings and goings of the Gens de Colour Libre, seems to be the idea that they are simply better than other blacks, by virtue of their whiteness and how removed from slavery they are. In fact, the character of Marcel, played as an older man by James Earl Jones, relates that he, indeed, thought the Gens de Colour Libre were “different” and “better” than those he was surrounded by and it is only age and wisdom that forces him to see the shame in his prior thoughts.
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Also problematic for the Gens de Colour Libre in this set up, is the gender inequality that purports to educate the young men produced by placage and to simply turn out into prostitution any females born into it. When beautiful, very white looking Marie St. Marie (neither she nor her brother were given their father’s name) comes of age, she is pressured and almost forced by her own mother, Cecile, into the same life that has made her a “whore” in Marie’s mind and left her totally unable to care for herself. So naturally, because a story like this can’t NOT have an ultra tragic mulatta, the only outcome for Marie is to be raped by five white men in a revenge trap set by her slave sister who envies not only her white skin, but her place in society.
We are left with a story full of characters who find that if they somewhat retain their blackness and wear the mask of their freedom, freedom traded in the whiteness of their flesh and do not pass into white society (although a trip to France is totally acceptable), they might find happiness, but it’s highly unlikely.

Jefferson In Paris

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Released in 1995 during a particularly lush output from Merchant Ivory Productions, “Jefferson In Paris” is a study in ‘how to fit as many films as possible into one’. Indeed, the film seems to be four films in one, with each  relating only slightly to the others.
The film opens in a cabin in rural Ohio, with James Earl Jones narrating a personal history to a journalist. On the surface, this wouldn’t be an event, but as it stands, the personal history being relayed is that of Thomas Jefferson and his slave descendants, of which Jones’ character is one. The scene is brief, but seemingly sets the stage for what should be the story of how Jones and his relatives came to be. Instead, the viewer is thrust head long into a meandering historical drama about Thomas Jefferson and his time in Paris, which brings us to our ‘second film’.
Director James Ivory takes us on a well appointed, if visually staid, tour through Jefferson’s arrival in Paris, and his subsequent homesteading in a palatial manse inside the city. We meet Jefferson’s oldest daughter, Patsy, played by Gwyneth Paltrow, and follow them as they insert themselves into French society at every level.
Though the film is titled, “Jefferson in Paris”, one would hope to find that there was more to the story than dinner parties and impromptu violin and harpsichord concerts, but our ‘second film’ takes the rather unexciting view that this aspect of Jefferson’s time in France is important to the viewer, even though not many of the motives for any of the characters’ actions are ever fully explained, or even hinted at. There is much non-captioned French dialogue, gesturing and the like, but the story is not ever really advanced by these scenes. Characters that are thinly drawn, or not drawn at all, compete for our attention with the subdued lighting and well made costumes and almost lull us into a Merchant-Ivory slumber.
The third bit of storytelling involves the oncoming French Revolution. The scenes, and that is what they are, a collection of scenes half-heartedly woven into the larger story for effect and not so subtle overtones on equality and emancipation , are such a jumbled mess, they hardly warrant mentioning, but they are distractions that serve to break up the action taking place elsewhere in the movie.
The real meat of the film is the ‘fourth film’, involving the arrival of slave Sally Heming and the youngest Jefferson daughter from Virginia.
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In an odd bit of film making, it’s the appearance of a slave character, one who should at least kind of embody the misery of her condition, that enlivens the entire production, even though she’s neither seen nor mentioned until an hour into the action. However here, Sally Heming, portrayed by the luminous Thandie Newton, seems only a slave ‘on paper’, as she flits and struts through the film with all the Southern charm of a belle awaiting her cotillion. The relationship between master and slave is one ease and harmony and when, in the final moments of the film, she is presented with the opportunity to become a free woman, she has a crisis like that of a lover who can’t fathom the thought of a break up. While the viewer may understand the difficulty of her position and the youth of the character, the film nevertheless portrays Sally as little more than a confused mistress, rather than an uneducated and exploited child/slave.
That the film insinuates it was Ms. Heming who instigated the sexual aspect of her unconscionable and utterly lopsided deal with Mr. Jefferson, is a slap in the face to almost EVERYTHING that has been reported about slavery in America. But, because the film is titled, “Jefferson in Paris” and not “Sally Heming in Paris”, we can only shake our heads and watch in disgust as the title cards roll, explaining what became of poor, little Sally and the future president.
The telling of the Jefferson/Heming relationship warrants its own film, and sadly, this is not it.