Thursday, February 26, 2009

Chameleon Street

Fact: Some of the greatest art is made on no budget.

Fact: Directors who write and star in their own productions make some of the best films.

Fact: Wendell B. Harris is on a different Wavelength than the rest of the world.

Chameleon Street is a testament to the previous statements. Director, screenwriter, and star Wendell B Harris proves to be a one-man army in this tale about the too cool for school con artist William Douglas Street. This is a film that displays the ingenious of a new director and the quirkiness of the decade that influenced his style.

Although this film is mainly a comedy, there are parts in this film so suspenseful that it is almost painful to watch. Street places himself in situations that the viewer knows is destined for doom. While, there are laughs from end to end, this film is nothing less than a great modern tragedy. I find something haunting about the last frame of the film that solidifies this statement. As the final frame is frozen, Harris breaks the fourth wall with what seems as an expression of insanity and for the first time in the film he is shown as a villain.

In the extra features on the Chameleon Street DVD there was a trailer for Wendell B. Harris’ most recent film, Arbiter Roswell. This was actually a little more than a trailer and more like a preview of select scenes. I must admit, I was turned off by what was presented. The project did not seem cohesive and lacked a point. It seems that his recent work on aliens and conspiracies is a lot like the SETI program. He is sending a lot of signals into space with out any kind of response. However, for a period of time in 1989 when he made Chameleon Street, I picked up his signal.

On a side note: When I was thirteen I received the Blackstarr album from a family friend. One of the tracks on the album was “Brown Skin Lady.” This track sampled a scene from the beginning of Chameleon Street. While watching Chameleon Street it was somewhat surreal to finally watch the original scene that the song had sampled. That scene can be seen here.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

From the Archives- Coming to America v.s. Friday

Two Years ago, I was the online editor for my college newspaper. When I found time, I also contributed to writing film reviews and opinion articles. I decided to bring present an article that I wrote a couple years ago since it goes along with the topic of this month, Black film. Enjoy.

Within the last year, I began looking at films differently. I stopped going to see the latest releases and began watching movies from various top 100 lists.

With my new appreciation for film, I engaged in a general debate with my co-workers about two very different comedies: "Coming to America" and "Friday."

I heard both sides use highlights from the films to support their positions.

Whether it was an infamous barbershop debates or front porch dialogue, the debate was limited to the films' punch lines.

I later came to the conclusion that Coming to America is by far a better film.

I based my initial opinion solely on the representation of blacks depicted in the two films.

Coming to America showcased an assortment of black characters, while Friday did not.

Coming to America painted blacks as royalty and business owners while not overlooking the street hustler and layman. Although Friday is entertaining, its protagonists are lazy, jobless drug users.

I view Friday as a catalyst in the resurgence of blaxploitation films. In the 1970s black action films, the protagonist is often a character who resorts to illegal means to "beat the system."

Although similar characters are seen in Friday, the film ignores the possibility of a greater existence. The two main characters are 20-somethings who seem content living with their parents.

With so many obvious differences, can Coming to America truly be considered a black comedy?

It may surprise some people that Coming to America was not directed by a black person, but rather a Jewish man named John Landis.

I would not consider this a black film. I consider this film, responsibly presented by Jewish Americans, a genius social commentary of the ongoing black culture.

F. Gary Gray's first feature length film, Friday, had obvious rookie mistakes.

The presentation of minorities on screen relied heavily on stereotypes for laughs.

I believe film should be an artistic medium to communicate theories about human emotion, meaningful events and the overall human experience.

But black comedies rely on less than honorable stigmas to generate revenue.

I challenge black directors to make more responsible material when working with black subject matter.

I find it ironic that the Jewish director and writer of Coming to America view black culture in a more complete fashion than the director and writers of Friday.

I challenge the black community to diversify its cinematic libraries with not only black- made films, but films from around the world.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Diary of a Mad Black Woman (Directed by Darren Grant)

Ok, I must admit, Diary of a Mad Black Woman wasn't as bad as I thought it was going to be. Although the film proved too long and predictable, this film has punchlines for even the toughest critics.

I was originally introduced to Tyler Perry through his plays that were sydicated on Bootleg DVDs. At the time I was really shocked by the caricatures of African Americans presented on stage. I think it was the role of Madea and Mr. Brown that struck a nerve in me. Personaly, I thought it was too over the top. For the film release, director Darren Grant made the wise decision of limiting Medea's screen presence. The character that is largely associated with the film appeared in less than 25% of the actual film. I believe this was intentional as the movie was set to reach a wider audience instead of the niche market the plays were made for. This proved to be a wise decision that saved the integrity of the film.

As mentioned earlier, this film was way too long. I believe this film could be cut in half and still retain the laughs and message.

The beginning of the film was surprisingly good. However, the film slowly crept down the drain until it reached the point of no return during the church scene at the end of the film. This scene has to be one of the cheesiest attempts to resolve several intertwining sub plots at one time. It was atrocious. This film relies heavily on the rhetoric of Traditional African American Culture. Outside of this following, this attempt of an ending is seemingly corny.

Ok, I must admit, this isn't my most thorough review. But this film, like so many mainstream "black films," was not made for serious critiques. This is a care free comedy that should be taken as just that.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Medicine for Melancholy

Medicine for Melancholy is the debut film of director Barry Jenkins. I have not personally seen the film, but apparently it takes place the day after a one night stand as two lovers are trying to get to know one another. It is tagged as "A night they barely remember becomes a day they'll never forget."

From the trailer, it seems like a departure from the run of the mill black films. It features two Hip, Fixed Gear Riding, African Americans. It will be interesting to see how this story turns out. The only thing that I can forsee being a problem is the acting by the Male lead Wyatt Cenac. Again, I have yet to see the film but I was not impressed by the trailer.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Neo Blaxploitation

Black Dynamite
, a new parody of the Blaxploitation film genre, has recently received rave reviews at Sundance. The reception was so well, Sony decided to pick it up for a $2 million distribution deal.

With so much anticipation, will this film bring a resurgence of the classic Blaxpliotation genre?

In my opinion, Black Dynamite is the black counterpart to the 2006 film, Grindhouse. This film aims to highlight the atrocious acting, dreadful dialogue, and penny-pinching production aspects of the genre.

However, the truth is Blaxploitation films like Shaft, Sweet Back's Bad assss song, and The Mack were taken seriously and were much needed at the time they were created.

Blaxpliotation films provided a new identity for blacks. Once a black hero could take out the “the man” and sleep with white women on screen, there was no going back to the Aunt Jemima and Uncle Tom archetypes. This genre provided characters that blacks and other minorities could relate to. These films were set in the large urban cities that many blacks had recently migrated to rather than the rural settings of the South that they had moved from. With a backdrop of the decade’s most pressing sociological issues of Social and Urban Decay, the main characters were products of their environment. Minority audiences saw themselves in the pimps, gangsters and hustlers who were willing to escape from the American Nightmare by any means necessary.

I don’t believe that there will be a resurgence of Blaxploitation films because they never went away. The films, like the times, adapted to new trends and archetypes. From the start, music was a major influence on the genre and the appeal of these films. By the 1980’s and early 1990’s the roles reversed with the introduction of Gansgta rap. Much of the imagery and ideals from blaxploitation films appeared in the lyrics and music videos of rappers like Snoop Dogg and members of the Wutang Clan.

Nowadays there is a new politically correct Blaxploitation film. These PC films are not exploitative in regards to sexuality and violence but its formulation of an ideal black middle class who exploits hip hop culture for some type of artistic merit or capitalistic gain. Films like Stomp the Yard, Drumline, You got Served, and Brown Sugar are part of this new wave of Blaxploitation films. These films present African American’s as one dimensional characters who can be easily placed from one film to another dealing with Hip Hop Culture. These films are set in the same Urban settings and always showcase African American’s as performers. Although most of these are set on college campuses, it is not their intellect that saves the day, it is their musical or dance performance.

Of course there is always the not so Politically correct Neo Blaxpliotation films. The Madea and Big Mommas House are a return to the Mammy archetype. Other films like Soul Plane, The Friday series, and similar films take a comedic approach to the characters from classic Blaxploitation films.

It seems to me that the classic Blaxploitation films were so influential that modern black films seem to be stuck in the mold. Whether or not this is a good thing depends on personal taste. Personally, I enjoy some and I'm appalled by others.

However, one thing is for sure. The legacy of Blaxploitation films has lead to doors opening for serious black film makers like Spike Lee. The genre opened doors for actors like Will Smith and Denzel Washington. It is these types of artist who look to create a new identity for blacks on screen like the original makers of Blaxploitation films... without recycling their material.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Black History Cinema Month

In 1991, I transferred from a majority white Kindergarten in Tampa, FL to a Majority black Kindergarten in Decatur, GA. My new school, Woodridge Elementary, took Black History very seriously. There were plays and presentations based on historical black figures and large posters with portraits and biographical information that were displayed near the ceilings throughout Cafeteria. My school went all out for Black History Month...

Keeping true to tradition, I will be celebrating Black History month by reviewing, discussing, and presenting some of my favorite (and not so favorite) black films.

To spark off Black Cinema Month I present the trailer to one of my personal favorites, Melvin Van Peebles' Story of a Three Day Pass.

La Pianiste (Directed by Michael Heneke)

As I sat through this film, I couldn’t help but think of it as the Female counterpart to Bad Lieutenant. Both films are about characters in positions of power on the brink of insanity, addiction issues, and self-destructive behavior. Although these two share similarities, it is their differences that make them unique…

Bad Lieutenant is a very grimy film shot on location in the streets, motels, and crack houses of New York City. The ambient sounds of cursing and car horns can be heard throughout the film.

The Piano Teacher is very clean film shot primarily in recital halls, middle class apartments, and hockey rinks. As the title suggest, the sounds of the grand piano is prevalent throughout the film.

One of the things that stands out most about this film is the main character Erika. Erika partakes in the beautiful and intellectual art form of concert piano but is secretly trapped by her own primal sexual fetishes. Throughout the film she explores the depths of her sexuality on the solo tip with various excursions into the worlds of voyeurism, sadomasochism, and pornography. Unknowingly of her sexual journeys, a young and talented prodigy, Walter, begins to hit on her. This film explores the limits of love and sanity as her perversions come to light.

Director Michael Heneke makes the wise decision of selecting a female as the lead. This film would not be shocking if the lead was a male. Pornography is usually made for men and it is somewhat accepted in society that men watch pornography. On the other hand, it is taboo for a female to enjoy pornography. In The Piano Teacher, this issue is explored in the scene where a couple men stare at Erika as she waits to enter a viewing booth in a Pornography Shop. These men stare at her as if she walks into a boys only club and she fights back with her own awkward but defensive expressions until the booth becomes free.

I honestly had hesitations about this film when a friend recommended it to me. After watching it, I can say that the character and message of this story makes me want to add this to my personal collection.