Tuesday, November 01, 2016

IFFBoston Fall Focus 2016.01/03/05: Moonlight (2016), I Am Not Your Negro, and Loving

Is it kind of unfair to group these three films together, even if they were all co-presented by the Roxbury International Film Festival (dedicated to films by and about people of color), but do you really need me saying that I'm not necessarily the best guy to review three movies that are in large part based on the African-American experience? Maybe, I guess, especially if I Am Not Your Negro is, as might be deduced from the title, addressing white folks like myself who may not be particularly well-versed in Baldwin and the background he brings up.

All three are strong movies in different ways, which is exciting in and of itself - Moonlight looks at three spots inits protagonist's life in fascinating manner, I Am Not... builds a documentary out of Baldwin's unfinished book, and Loving eschews melodrama in a way that movies about landmark moments generally don't. The trio made an exciting week of movies, period, and it was gratifying to see them sold out.

Of course, being sold out sometimes meant close quarters, and the lady next to me for I Am Not Your Negro let out a gasp at every ugly bit of racism, seemingly surprised rather than just disgusted, which seemed weird, given that she was older than me. Granted, I did find myself a little shocked at Americans parading around with Nazi symbols in the 1960s, wondering how this crap went on during my parents' life, although one of the more nauseating things in this miserable election has brought to prominence is just how many people don't mind identifying as such. Clean this up, America - we shouldn't have to be cynical when someone reacts to awful things with surprise.

Moonlight (2016)

* * * * (out of four)
Seen 23 October 2016 in the Brattle Theatre (IFFBoston Fall Focus, DCP)

Barry Jenkins has not been idle in the seven or so years since his debut feature Medicine for Melancholy premiered, but it often takes a bit of luck to catch a director's short films at festivals, making it feel like he disappeared or went into some sort of cocoon. That serves to make Moonlight feel like an exciting discovery both for those who have seen the prior movie and the much larger audience that hasn't, and make no mistake, it is something exciting for film lovers, a fresh, intimate portrait that never gets too caught up in its somewhat unusual structure.

It's not a complicated one, simply spending roughly equal amounts of time in three periods of one persons life. Jenkins introduces Chiron to the audience as a 9-year-old called "Little" (Alex Hibbert), a quiet boy from a rough black neighborhood in Miami who is cruelly bullied, befriended by local drug dealer Juan (Mahershala Ali) after taking refugee in a crack house, although there are a fair number of doors it takes a while for him to connect despite being a resourceful kids. The bullying hadn't stopped by the time he's become a teenager (Ashton Sanders), with Terrel (Patrick Decile) being particularly hard on him, although, on the other hand, it's looking like here might be something between him and classmate Kevin (Jharrel Jerome). Maybe not right away, but ten years or so later, when Chiron has moved to Atlanta and started dealing under the name of "Black" (Trevante Rhodes), only to receive a call from Kevin (André Holland) out of the blue.

Jenkins built his screenplay from an unproduced play by Tarell Alvin McCraney, and it's easy to imagine that play having a very different structure, maybe stretching out the third act where Chiron and Kevin are sitting in a diner, talking, maybe discussing what happens in the first two segments rather than showing it. It's a smooth, charming sequence, with what tensions it has low-key, the whole thing lubricated by how André Holland connects with how the adult Kevin is not just the person most comfortable in his own skin in the entire movie, but aware of that. Even when he starts challenging Black during their conversation, it feels natural and accommodating, locating the burden of deciding who Little/Chiron/Black is going to choose to be on the man himself, but not isolating him.

Full review on EFC.

I Am Not Your Negro

* * * * (out of four)
Seen 26 October 2016 in the Brattle Theatre (IFFBoston Fall Focus, DCP)

No matter the size or seriousness of a topic, if it is something to which its chronicler has a personal connection, then that account will almost inevitably reveal as much about the author as the subject itself; the personal is hard to escape. Had James Baldwin finished Remember This House, his book on the Civil Rights movement and the three assassinations that punctuated it in the 1960s during his lifetime, that almost certainly would have been the case, and part of what makes I Am Not Your Negro so good is that director Raoul Peck runs with this rather than trying to stick with what Baldwin originally tried to create, a decision that retains his distinctive voice even while reminding the viewer that this was and is a people's struggle for a ideal rather than the string of individual triumphs and tragedies to which it is often reduced.

Peck builds the narration of the film almost entirely around Baldwin's words - read by Samuel L. Jackson in a lower, heavier register than the signature voice of either, giving them the more imposing and concrete sound of the written word - so it starts with personal reminiscences of Baldwin being in Paris as desegregation started in earnest, not missing the things that are distinctly American at all but compelled to return because watching this struggle from across an ocean would be irresponsible. Much of the early going of the film is similar, sometimes acknowledged as being taken from correspondence with his editor explaining his motivations and approach and sometimes just seeming that way. It never becomes a biography of Baldwin - there's a specificity to how Peck deploys these memories, a clear application to the subject at hand, even if they are of necessity longer toward the start. If nothing else, it serves as an introduction to Baldwin as a personality for those of us not exposed to him earlier.

It is his ideas and uncompromising expression of them that are the spine of the film, and the collaboration across time between him and Peck ensures that they hit forcefully: Baldwin was, from certain points of view, cynical - from others, simply not one to delude himself - and his brutally forthright examination of how much of white America was only willing to allow a space for other people after slavery ended with great reluctance, whether that be in schools or in the movies, can be a difficult pill for many to swallow, especially when Baldwin (or whatever clip is on-screen) uses vocabulary that has fallen out of favor. Peck structures the movie in part around footage of a 1968 appearance by Baldwin on Dick Cavett's show, where whatever sympathy Cavett gets for seeming a little uncomfortable generalizing about "Negro issues" drains away as he starts to become defensive, leading to a blistering demolition of a white intellectual using many more words to say "I'm sure it's not that bad" and "not all white people..." Last that feel too triumphant, albeit fleetingly, the larger structure is just as pointed - while Peck and Baldwin may mostly be speaking of broad ideas, there is forward momentum to the events being used to illustrate them, and the murders of Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King Jr. are placed so as to remind the viewer that this is not just academic, but that people were dying for it.

Full review on EFC.


* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 28 October 2016 in the Brattle Theatre (IFFBoston Fall Focus, DCP)

There are a number of impressive pieces to Loving, but the impressive thing that they coalesce into is a relative lack of obvious drama. The court case of Loving v. Virginia is a huge deal - one could argue that it struck a blow against segregation at such a basic level that few other forms of discrimination could stand afterward - but its importance comes from the fairly unremarkable situations that it enabled and protected. Those are the moments that writer/director Jeff Nichols gives the time and focus to, and by doing so he reinforces the absurdity of how things were before.

Indeed, he starts the film by seemingly playing events in reverse: Richard Loving (Joel Edgeton) and his wife Mildred (Ruth Negga) are hosting a party in their small house. Then she's telling him that she's pregnant. Then he's building the house. Then he's taking her into a field where he will build the house and proposing to her. Then they're out with some drag-racing friends, and for the first time, the fact that Richard is the only white person in a mostly-black crowd starts to stand out, as it likely would in rural Virginia back in the 1950s, so that when Nichols switches directions, starting to move forward rather than back, that's when their having to go to the District of Columbia to get married starts to take on some significance, with the local sheriff (Marton Csokas) eventually busting down their door to arrest them for miscegenation being sadly inevitable.

Nichols could easily have started from the beginning, showing how Richard and Mildred met (or how they had always known each other), the disapproving glances they would have had to brave before getting to a point where they might even consider marrying, the planning to go to D.C., but he doesn't, and it's a good decision for a number of reasons. As much as it might be easy to stoke a modern viewers' outrage with Jim Crow laws and displays of casual, open racism, not doing so keeps the movie from becoming a risk/reward thing where the audience ever really thinks about whether Richard and Mildred should have married as a practical consideration. It's something that comes up, of course, but a surprisingly large portion of the film is just watching the pair, getting a sense of how the pair is, by an large, not extraordinary.

Full review on EFC.

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