“This is a career about images. It’s celluloid; they last for ever. I’m a black woman from America. My people were slaves in America, and even though we’re free on paper and in law, I’m not going to allow you to enslave me on film, in celluloid, for all to see.”
– Angela Bassett, interview with The Guardian (11 February 2009)
It’s quite possible that in the years to come Una Great Movie will be regarded as the 2021 equivalent to Hollywood Shuffle. Robert Townsend’s groundbreaking 1987 satire is a landmark in both Black cinema and independent film-making in general. In not only introduced the world to the talent of Townsend and his stand-up comedian friends (including co-writer Keenan Ivory Wayans, whose own film, I’m Gonna Get You, Sucka would premiere the next year), but admirably exceeded its shoestring budget to create a biting send-up of a Black actor trying to traverse the Hollywood studio system.
The ancestry of Townsend’s film is crystal-clear in Una Great Movie, writer/director/co-star Jennifer Sharp’s film about a Black female screenwriter trying not to compromise her story to the Tinseltown machine. It isn’t as sharp as Townsend’s film, but the palpable frustration of being the only Black face in the room is identical.
One thing working against Sharp’s film is that it’s telling two stories at once, but isn’t quite sure which one is more important or why. As the film opens, we’re introduced to Susan (Numa Perrier), newly-arrived in Mexico to reconnect with her old love, Luis (Jose Casasús), now married with children. Knowing nothing about the film beforehand, it was jarring to suddenly see that Susan and Luis are nothing more than characters in the screenplay of Zoe (JoNell Kennedy), an aspiring screenwriter whose work attracts interest, but the white guys who take meetings with her just want her to change, y’know, everything.
Especially the lack of white people in the script.
Incidentally, this was the second film in a row I watched about a female film-maker taking a meeting with condescending wytboi execs who claim they want a story with a strong female lead, but give her notes in the hopes that she will drop that very element. This is the one that didn’t result in a killing spree.
It does, however, have an interesting idea about an artist trying to find their own voice when everyone around her is telling her what her voice is. We see Zoe attend some kind of gathering of unproduced screenwriter that resembles an AA. Her fellow writers encourage her to not compromise her voice, but their pretentiousness is unmistakable. She also has a session with a “script therapist” (which I’ve never heard of, but having worked in the arts for over 20 years, I wouldn’t be surprised if it was real – especially in LA), who supports a female-led story, but can’t grasp why Zoe would set it in “a country full of Mexicans”.
And on it goes, with Zoe meeting friends, colleagues, and would-be networkers who all have an opinion on her script. (The level of the script’s completion is never made clear – Zoe seems to still be writing it, but everyone speaks as if they’ve read the whole thing.)
Those opinions are reflected in Susan’s Mexican adventure, which sees her suddenly in the company of old friend Jenny (Sharp), wooed by token white boys, and interacting with village natives in a way that doesn’t feel too “sight-see-y”. That, at least, can be credited to Sharp’s having settled on her Mexican locale before finishing the script – something we see play over the film’s end credits. She cast non-professional locals for the on-location scenes, which contrasts well with the studio boys’ insistence on good-looking (white) leads. Susan, Jenny, and even Zoe herself have the sort of skin tones and body types Hollywood insists don’t sell tickets.
We do, in fact, see those pretty white body types when Zoe begins seriously contemplating acquiescing to the execs’ notes on how the script should go. It’s one of many compromises with which she wrestles that make; someone at one point advises her to take the money for compromising, then make her own work with the profits.
Those sorts of questions are the seeds of a great film. But Una Great Movie is two films that conflict with each other two much. Sharp’s post-script insists that the film is “91/7% true”, so one can assume that she wrote a script like the Susan story and almost shot it here, but couldn’t pass up the chance to lampoon the studio system that gave her so much grief. In fact, one of the boldest moves Sharp makes is to give her film a “happy” ending that represents a Pyrrhic victory.
Both stories are nice, they just don’t work together.
I honestly hope to see more of Sharp’s work in the future. I bring up Townsend’s film because, institutional misogyny notwithstanding, she shows signs of the very sort of talent that the world needs more. Hopefully her next piece won’t see her trying to say everything at once and drowning herself out.
As Black artists, there already plenty of white gatekeepers drowning us out as it is.
Una Great Movie is scheduled to stream until the 21st of February as part of SF Indie Fest 2021.
The film runs 1 hour 45 minutes.
For information on how to view this and other films, please visit the festival’s official site here.