Monday, March 21, 2011

I Will Follow

I made a bit of an effort to get through the entire review of I Will Follow without mentioning the characters' skin color. I'm not really proud of that; in the twenty-first century, that should be more or less irrelevant information, but we're sadly not quite there yet. Still, it really wasn't that hard to do; the only real temptation I had to mention it was when describing Beverly Todd's character; she reflects an archetype of elderly women, sure, but she makes me think of older black women in movies specifically. It did seem a bit unusual to have this old black lady talking about U2 as opposed to some 1970s soul group, and the character of her daughter did make a bit of a point about it, but soon after that, the point dropped. That the bulk of this film's characters are African-American became a part of the backdrop, not a point of contention.

I mention that here both because I like that sort of approach to race and because, for all that I Will Follow should be a thoroughly accessible movie to anybody who cares to watch it, that the cast is predominately African-American (as, I presume, are the filmmakers) does play into how it gets seen. I don't think it's quite so bad as it used to be - the other day, a friend was telling me about how movies with black stars and filmmakers always got shown in Boston's worst theaters (I wasn't here then, but in Worcester, they always wound up at the Main South Showcase Cinema, and opened on a Wednesday, with the reason given being that it spread the gang presence out). Part of that may just be unfortunate demographics - if a city's black population is centered around crappy neighborhoods, well, crappy neighborhoods tend to have crappy theaters. Of course, if it's because the bookers presume that correlation, that's a different thing.

I wouldn't be too surprised if some of that still goes on; my gut feeling is that a small, independent film with the themes of I Will Follow is more likely to play boutique theaters if it's in Japanese than if it has a black cast. My gut feeling, of course, is almost certainly wrong; I'm pretty sure that if I went over what opened at Landmark Square over the past year, I wouldn't find a whole lot of movies like I Will Follow anywhere, no matter what the demographics; that particular sort of indie just don't play much, period. And while movies with predominately African-American casts do show up, they don't seem to be

Still, I do find myself glad that the group involved in the release of this movie - the African-American Film Festival Releasing Movement is around and appears to be one of many that has struck a deal with AMC. It's not as ambitious as some other film series - the website has them releasing a modest two films a year - but it's a useful one, I think. I don't personally have any sort of obvious stake in seeing more African-Americans represented on screen, but if I'm going to say I want more good movies of any stripe or origin to get seen on the big screen, that absolutely includes things like I Will Follow - and if a good movie like this needs some sort of push to get in front of audiences, I'm glad for any help it receives even as I regret any need for it.

I Will Follow

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 20 March 2011 in AMC Boston Common #14 (first-run)

Ava DuVernay's I Will Follow is a fairly traditional independent film of a certain type: A close, quiet examination of family ties and other relationships, the sort made with a small budget, a single location, and the desire to do something real. That can be a recipe for tedium or self-indulgence, but that's seldom the case here, in large part because there's just as much warmth as turmoil.

Maye Fisher (Salli Richardson-Whitfield) has been putting this day off - it's time to pack up her house and move. Only it's not really her house - she's spent the last year caring for her aunt Amanda (Beverly Todd), who has finally succumbed. Some of Amanda's things have been donated to a music museum in Seattle (she was a session musician), but Maye hasn't touched her room yet - she's waiting for Amanda's daughter Fran (Michole White), who arrives with teenage son Raven (Dijon Talton) and two other kids in tow. They clash, as usual, and Maye is also playing phone tag with her ex-boyfriend Brad (Blair Underwood).

Although she doesn't make a formal, stylistic point about it, DuVernay builds this picture as a series of people ostensibly playing against Salli Richardson-Whitfield's Maye. Richardson-Whitfield is in nearly every scene, although no matter whether she's alone or talking with someone else, Amanda is usually there too, invisible but always in the back of the characters' minds. It's an impressive shadow to cast, as DuVernay doesn't show us much of the larger-than-life figure that Amanda must have been in her prime; Maye's flashbacks are to a woman who, while likely being caught on a good day, is shrunken and weakened; it's through the way everybody else talks about her that we feel her loss.

Full review at EFC.

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