REVIEW: 13th

27 12 2016

13th“We have to understand before we can move on,” states an interview subject early in Ava DuVernay’s documentary “13th.” The movie does just that by establishing a baseline of knowledge among people who watch the film. There’s no title cards before the closing credits trying to funnel viewership into political action. In fact, we are more likely to feel complicit in our silence than empowered with our activism.

I’ve seen “13th” twice now, once before the election and once after. Among the many films that I have rewatched in the wake of Trump’s victory, this is the one that feels to have changed the least. That’s a huge credit to DuVernay’s laser-sharp focus on her thesis that the past 150 years of America’s prison system is a reincarnation of slavery thanks to a loophole in the titular Constitutional amendment. She did not try to predict the future; in fact, both of 2016’s major party candidates make appearances in archival material that their campaigns would rather have buried. Instead, DuVernay casts her glance backward at the structural and institutional conditions that allowed “crime” to become a proxy war against black Americans.

“13th” shows less of the inside baseball of politics than the standard political documentary, although some invisible actors like the FBI and ALEC do get properly chided. DuVernay opts to look at cultural flash points such as D.W. Griffith’s “The Birth of a Nation,” which fueled the popular image of black men as indolent indigents, and George H.W. Bush’s infamous dog-whistling Willie Horton campaign ad. These are important to examine both in their creation and their adoption. Were Americans willing to wholeheartedly dismiss these negative images as propaganda, perhaps we would not be in our current situation. But we didn’t, as recent events have shown, and our country may be forced to refight some of the battles that appear settled or reversed by the Obama administration.

But to talk about “13th” purely in terms of content does a disservice to the great artistry that DuVernay brings to the project. The documentary is far more than just a sleek presentation of introductory poli-sci college seminar material. She’s reliant on talking heads to convey the history of American penal injustice as well as to editorialize, yet she usually does not display the subject’s name or affiliation until they have spoken several times. The effect allows us to build up trust and judge their words before we can write them off based on their qualifications. (She also shoots some wonderfully dynamic interview framing, conveying mood and motion along with information.)

DuVernay repeatedly confronts us with the word “CRIMINAL” in big block letters every time the word is uttered. It’s a call to consider the term not as a person but as a construct, one that has been weaponized specifically against one group of our fellow citizens. True, it is technically race-blind. But we must understand that its conceptualization does not align with its practice in order to correct a systemic imbalance in our country. A-3halfstars


7 01 2015

Selma” is not a Martin Luther King, Jr. biopic.

Or, I should say, “Selma” is not just a Martin Luther King, Jr. biopic.  It is so much more than just the story of one man.

Director Ava DuVernay and writer Paul Webb create their “Lincoln,” a film concerning the premier orator of his era set in the twentieth century’s ’65.  This man, standing with little more than ideology and conscience, must work against a political establishment stacked against them.  What is right, in the minds of these officials, must take a backseat to what the voting public is ready to accept.

But DuVernay, thankfully, disposes of Spielberg’s hagiography of Honest Abe that reeked of cinematic mothballs.  She opts for a portrayal of Dr. King that focuses on who he was and what that allowed him to accomplish.  In a way, not receiving the rights to use King’s actual speeches makes “Selma” a stronger movie.  Whether organically or out of necessity, he becomes so much more than a collection of recognizable catchphrases that trigger memories of a high school civics class.

“Selma” certainly does not shy away from some character details that the history books often elide, such as his vehement opposition to the Vietnam War and his marital infidelities.  Dr. King, as portrayed by David Oyelowo, does not always don his shining armor, either.  The film’s most powerful display of racially motivated violence takes place when hundreds of protesters attempt to cross Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge, only to be brutally attacked by a cabal of police and townsmen alike.  King is not there with them.  He is at home, trying to smooth over a marital rough patch with his wife Coretta (Carmen Ejogo).

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REVIEW: Life Itself

10 07 2014

Life ItselfFilm critic Roger Ebert inspired many people and touched countless lives, ranging from saving Martin Scorsese from self-implosion to many much smaller-scale interactions.  One such example is a brief response to a blog comment he made to a then-sixteen year-old movie writer who had just decided to try his hand at scribbling down his opinions about film.

In case you hadn’t guessed, that writer was me, and I still count that sentence among the greatest compliments I have ever received.  (It still, to date, features underneath the name of my site in the header of my blog.)  It likely didn’t take him more than five seconds to write, but it may very well have provided the fuel to sustain the site beyond just dipping my toe in the uncharted waters of the blogosphere.

Life Itself,” Steve James’ documentary on Ebert, provides the ultimate celebration of his life and work.  He gathers an eclectic group of friends and admirers, a tribute to just how wide-reaching Ebert’s influence and esteem truly was.  Anecodotes and commentary range from members of the critical establishment like A.O. Scott and Richard Corliss to filmmakers who he befriended over the years, such as Scorsese, Werner Herzog, Errol Morris, Ramin Bahrani (“At Any Price“), and Ava DuVernay (“Middle of Nowhere“).

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REVIEW: Middle of Nowhere

10 12 2012

Middle of NowhereThis might feel like a bit of a rerun for those of you that read my review of “Lincoln,” and for that I apologize.  But I do think it is possible to admire certain aspects of a movie and still not fully like it, and I will fight hard to defend that assertion.

In case you haven’t figured it out already, those are precisely my feelings on Ava DuVernay’s “Middle of Nowhere.”  It’s an incredibly graceful, poised, and carefully restrained film.  It tells a story that needs to be told about the African-American community, and for once, it actually comes from someone inside of it instead of a white man.  And it feels all the more authentic and genuine for it.

But the whole felt like distinctly less than the sum of its parts; all the virtuosity didn’t add up to an emotional connection for me.  Perhaps it was the film’s moseying, elegiac tone and pace that just kept me cooly disinterested in the proceedings.  But for whatever reason, I just felt distanced from the characters rather than drawn towards them.

I know it has nothing to do with the acting, though, particularly Emayatzy Corinealdi (a name I happily copied and pasted from IMDb) in an impressive leading turn as Ruby.  I had flashbacks to Michelle Williams’ character in “Take This Waltz” with Ruby, as both struggled with falling out of love with their husband and being tempted by a much more appealing man.

But in the case of Williams’ Margot, her husband was merely emotionally distant; Corinealdi’s Ruby, on the other hand, has a physical distance as well since her husband is spending five years in prison.  She does her best to stay faithful and upright, but the years take their toll on her.  And Corinealdi lets that show in moments of quiet breakdowns that allow us to marvel at her acting on a very technical level of precision.  Perhaps in the next big role she lands as a result of her turn in “Middle of Nowhere,” she can add a layer of emotional resonance.  B- 2stars