The unruly brain and bad habits of a writer, actor, and grilled cheese sandwich-enthusiast.
Never underestimate the importance of undergarments as a gift. It sounds so dull when you’re a kid, but a grown-up can appreciate the gift of clean socks when they come along. They save you the trouble of having to go out and buy them yourself. They may not be the hottest new toy, but that hot new toy will only be popular for a little while. The socks will keep your feet warm and comfortable for a long time. Practicality is your friend.
Reserved fella that I am, my family members never know what to get me as gifts. As such, they fall back on the old chestnuts of clean undies and cash. Y’know, things a person actually needs in this world. That’s why it’s not necessary for me to be there for the opening of presents: I already know what they got me. I hope they like what I got them, but they don’t need me there for that. If anything, I think of myself as a hindrance, an albatross weighing down their good time. They clearly don’t notice when I’m gone, so it’s best for me to leave as soon as possible.
“Negroes will be mentally healthier if they do not suppress rage but vent it constructively and its energy peacefully but forcefully to cripple the operations of an oppressive society.”
– Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., as reported in Congressional Record of 1969, p. 14429
Why is it so goddamn hard for film-makers – Black ones in particular – to make a good film about contemporary police violence against Black people? It’s not as if the problem has been solved or if it’s taken place so long ago that contemporary generations can’t relate. No, it’s something that’s happening every day – in this country, in the UK, in South America, and all over the globe. Yet, the cinematic response has been sorely lacking. From an outright terrible Hollywood response to a few indie films that pull their punches (Oakland’s own Blindspotting, for one), it’s as if everyone’s less concerned with dramatizing violence against Black people and more concerned with not offending White people.
Queen & Slim tries to be different. Lena Waithe’s script owes so much to Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song that I half-expected our two protagonists to start singing “You bled my mama…” The first 15 minutes are, as a short film, as great as any full-length feature I’ve seen this year, with the dialogue of the first date appropriately direct, awkward, funny, and realistic. This is followed by a normal traffic stop by a White cop who always sees Black drivers as criminals. The harassment was so real (I say this from personal memory) that it made the violent aftermath all the more visceral. Cue opening credits.
Had that been the entire film, it would be perfect.
Unfortunately, Waithe doesn’t really know the difference between making Black people into complex, imperfect characters and just making them forgiving of their own faults as they’re killed by White people. It almost works: scenes in which our couple are forced to deal with fact that everyone has a life and past are compelling – and, again, the dialogue is sharp. But our couple are also shown overly forgiving of Black folks when they’re violent pimps, Black cops who look the other way, or murder-happy young Black folks (the inclusion of that last one made my blood boil). Did Waithe feel she had to head off the “Not all White people” arguments by having terrible Black folks? Fuck that!
And then there are the conventions of the genre that drag the film down. We know our couple are going to fall in love because one is a straight/cis dude and the other a straight/cis lady. Yes, they’re brought together for a first date, but during after that date they realize they have nothing in common. Why are we expected to believe they were meant to be?
Queen & Slim certainly isn’t the worst film of this type (again, see my The Hate U Give review above), but it doesn’t elevate it either. It makes many of the same mistakes, albeit with much more beautiful cinematography. Perhaps we’ll one day get a Sweet Sweetback heir apparent that celebrates Black folks’ right to live. Maybe one day, but not today. And not with this film.
“Songs and proverbs, all talk of woman’s fickleness. But perhaps you will say these were all written by men.”
– Jane Austen, Persuasion
Maybe it’s because I’d just come out a film that made me super-conscious of my Blackness, but I can scarcely recall a time when I was so obviously the darkest face in the cinema. Maybe during the 2007 Wondercon? (That’s when I went to see a Zack Snyder-hosted IMAX screening of 300 and had to suffer through two hours of White boys cheering as random men of color – most of them just White dudes in make-up – got slaughtered by our chiseled Aryan ‘heroes’.) This screening wasn’t that bad, I was one-of-maybe-five non-White faces (two Arab women and a handful of East Asian women) and I swear I was one of the few under the age of 50. So, yeah, I stood out in the crowd.
Y’know what I did have in common with all those old folks? I had a helluva time watching this film. It humanizes Jo and her sisters in a way the other film versions didn’t. The ‘90s version with Winona Ryder was in such a damn hurry to hit all the major plot points that it didn’t bother to give us any reason to care about them. Greta Gerwig’s version makes the sisters, for lack of a better term, real. She juxtaposes the past scenes with the “present”, making things like Beth’s repeated illness feel as if they’re happening in two alternate timelines. She (and Florence Pugh of Lady Macbeth and Fighting with My Family) make Amy the annoying little shit we always felt her to be (when she inevitably calls Jo’s hair her “one true beauty”, I’m surprised Jo didn’t strangle her), but still lovable enough that we want her to be happy. And Jo… God, I wish Winona Ryder had been given this scripted version of Jo. She had the skills to pull it off, just not the adapted text. I don’t think I’ve ever believed her romance with Friedrich – whose criticisms of her writings are valid – until now.
Little Women is a film that somehow takes its sweet time whilst constantly moving at a steady clip. It begins with a publisher saying a female protagonist is the same, whether she ends up dead or married. It’s littered with a few mentions of just what (and whom) the Civil War is actually about (though they don’t take center stage) as it gives a lot of its best lines to a character who thinks a woman is better off as a trophy wife (that’s Meryl Streep as Aunt March). There’s a valid argument to be made that it’s merely a reassuring fantasy for White Feminists, but that criticism doesn’t negate the talent and skill on display in the final product.
I haven’t seen many films this year, but of the ones I have, this one was the best.
“A fresh mind keeps the body fresh. Take in the ideas of the day, drain off those of yesterday. As to the morrow, time enough to consider it when it becomes to-day.”
– Edward Bulwer-Lytton, Kenelm Chillingly (1873)
This is how the definitive franchise of the 20th century (and early-21st) ends: not with a bang, but with a whimper. Yes, I said “definitive” – it wasn’t 007, Star Trek, or Marvel (all of which I love dearly), but the impact, influence, and even the messages of Star Wars cannot be denied.
I was… underwhelmed by the prequels, but I didn’t hate them. I was bored to tears by The Force Awakens, but I didn’t hate it. I wondered what the hell the point of Rogue One even was, but I didn’t hate it. And I loved, Loved, LOVED The Last Jedi.
The Rise of Skywalker is a movie I hate. I never thought I’d outright hate something from Star Wars, but then I’ve never hated anything by Tarantino until he did Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood. That’s what kinda year this has been. Throw in the super-stale finale to Game of Thrones and you’d almost think there were some kind of contest to see which pop culture icons could end the decade on a worse note.
And Game of Thrones is an apt comparison: JJ Abrams mirrors David Benioff and DB Weiss (who, before their disastrous finale, were gearing up to make their own Star Wars spin-off trilogy) in how he betrays established character development in favor of repetitive clichés. And that’s when he’s not retconning every fantastic new step forward taken by The Last Jedi. That’s not hyperbole: Abrams and co-writer Chris Terrio (one Zack Snyder’s collaborators for his shitty DC movies) spend the first 15 minutes of this film trying to negate everything Rian Johnson put forth in the last film. Abrams clearly wanted to direct and co-write that film himself, so now he’s stuffed all his second and third movie ideas into one bloated, impotent, two-and-a-half-hour-long (not counting 30min. of trailers) slough that does the franchise no favors.
I don’t want this to run too long (this being third of a triple-review), so here are some frustrating NON-Spoilers:
And those are just the few I bothered to highlight from my notes.
The Force Awakens sucked because Abrams hit the Reset button on the entire franchise, essentially releasing fanfic that was now canon. The Last Jedi had callbacks to the original series, but it moved its characters – both new and old – into a great new level of character development that the series had been missing. I mentioned Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, a play that I’ll be the first to admit was just four hours of shameless fanservice. But it was entertaining fanservice that actually developed its characters.
I once applauded JJ Abrams for breathing life back into Star Trek, callbacks and all. Then he ruined it with a non-sensical, bigger-budget remake of The Wrath of Khan. Then it became apparent: every great franchise of which Abrams has been part became great after Abrams left: Fringe; the Mission: Impossible films; Star Trek Beyond; and yes, The Last Jedi. He isn’t the savior of franchises, he’s the anchor weighing them down. And this time he’s taken down one of the most important franchises of all time. Oh sure, the Disney conglomerate will still pump ‘em out ad nauseum, but with Abrams’ mediocre entries as the example they follow.
We all deserved better.
Looking at the three films above, I gotta wonder: how does that happen? How does an Afrocentric sci-fi-lover spend the day screen-hopping only for the highlight to be the film about the melodramatic lives of (post-)Civil War-era White girls? Definitely didn’t see that coming. At least I can say that I paid money for the Black film, thoroughly enjoyed the indie film, and booed – yes, booed – at the end of the corporate-mega-blockbuster-for-which-I-did-not-pay-admission.
I guess that can be considered an apt summary of my rather thin 2019 movie experience. I’m sorry I missed out on films like Harriet and Midsommar, but I don’t have money to burn on films the way I used to. And just because my options were limited doesn’t mean they were lacking in quality (except when they were). All in all, it was an okay day to spend away from my family.
And yes, they got me socks, undies, and cash.
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