Jordan Peele’s “Get Out” is a devilish little bit of social commentary that takes the essence of “Guess Who’s Coming to Diner” and forces it, with vehemence but also panache, into a “Wicker Man”/“Stepford Wives” construct. The result is something clearly borrowed, incredibly fresh and nearly perfect in light of the current political climate. What’s also remarkable is that the horror flick-cum-black comedy marks Peele’s directorial debut, and a surprising one at that – not only because is it so sharp and confident, but also because Mr. Peele is better known as half of the comedy team of Key and Peele on Comedy Central.
The setup’s simple enough. Chris (Daniel Kaluuya), an aspiring photog, agrees reluctantly to meet the parents of his girlfriend, Rose (Allison Williams of “Girls”), whom he’s been dating for five months – just long enough to have to take these things seriously.
“Do they know I’m black?” Chris asks, a question that the lily-white Rose shrugs off, telling him that her dad would have voted for a Obama for a third time if he had the chance. It’s a pointed little barb, but since “Get Out” started filming long before it played at Sundance in January, I’m not certain Peele understood the whole political backdrop he’d be facing. Given the results of the election, the daggers the film throws couldn’t be any more on point. Continue reading →
On Tuesday, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences will announce their slate of Oscar nominees, a lineup that will certainly be eyed with much scrutiny for its diversity. Last year, the #OscarsSoWhite controversy exploded after people of color were noticeably left off the Academy’s ballot for the second year in a row — a move backward considering 2014’s Best Picture winner, “12 Years A Slave.” Given the films that found success in 2016, both critically and commercially, the list of nominees should successfully change the tide.
The origins of the hash-tagged tumult, which had notables like Spike Lee and Jada Pinkett Smith boycotting the ceremony last year, are two-fold. For starters, the Academy’s makeup is not diverse by any measure — a Los Angeles Times analysis in 2016 found it was 91 percent white and 76 percent male. Secondly, the industry was not producing many quality films made by, or featuring, people of color.
When the nominations came out last year, Academy President Cheryl Boone Isaacs, who is black, promised immediate action. Following a unanimous vote by the board eight days later, rule changes stipulated that members who had been dormant in the industry for over a decade would be be moved to emeritus status (effectively losing their voting rights) and the recruitment of new members would begin immediately. Though, past winners and nominees retain full membership status and voting rights. The list of 683 invitees contained a notable presence of women and people of color (Rita Wilson, American Repertory Theater stalwart Cherry Jones, Nia Long, Mahershala Ali now in “Moonlight” and “Hidden Figures,” and John Boyega).
The industry too, almost as if on cue, made an initial, responsive roar when Nate Parker’s slave uprising saga, “Birth of a Nation,” garnered a record-setting $17 million distribution deal at the Sundance Film Festival in late January of last year. Expectations for the film were high, but when it finally poured into theaters, the edgy concept of a bloody revolt against injustice, while admirable, didn’t measure up at the box office. “12 Years a Slave” it was not and Parker’s past allegations of rape (he was acquitted) didn’t help either.
In light of “Oscars So White,” “Birth of a Nation” registered something of a disappointment, but the industry, in its own organic way, was quietly on the mend. The later crop of films featuring diverse filmmakers, casts and subjects shone — from “Moonlight,” the saga of a gay black youth, bullied and growing up under the negligent eye of a crack-addicted mother, to “Loving,” the haunting recount of the interracial couple who boldly broke the anti-miscegenation law in segregated Virginia and, more recently “Hidden Figures,” another based on true events, pre-civil rights movement drama about African-American female mathematicians working at NASA during the space race. Overall, 2016 was a year the blockbuster faltered and small films about people with varying backgrounds and experiences, navigating adversity, took center stage.
In two very different films opening this week, much is asked of society. In one, “The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution,” a documentary about the black activist group going to extremes to illustrate the plight of blacks in post-civil rights America, equality, fairness and a place at the table are demanded with shotgun bravado and mod hipness; in the other, a sleepy slacker tale, “7 Chinese Brothers,” Larry (Jason Schwartzman), the central protagonist, would like to drink and do drugs and not have to worry about money or work.
Larry’s not a bad guy, he’s got an inert French Bulldog with the greatest facial expressions and he looks after his ailing nana (Olympia Dukakis ) who’s in a nursing home, but he does get fired from his waiting job for stealing booze – and keys a coworker’s car on the way out. Around the corner at the same shopping mall complex, Larry quickly lands a job at a Quick Lube oil change shop, where her enjoys the discipline of assembly line work (he vacuums out the cars and has to pay a loose-money finders fee to the lube monkeys higher up the food chain) and falls for his new boss Lupe (Eleanore Pienta).
Not much really happens in “7 Chinese Brothers,” written and directed by Bob Byington. The muscular guy who got his car keyed (Jonathan Togo) looms, as does Lupe’s quick-tempered ex (Jimmy Gonzales), but the real stake through Larry’s world is Major (Tunde Adebimpe), the caregiver who looks after Larry’s nana, supplies him with pills and has a killer way with the ladies – including Lupe – and is the closest thing Larry has to a has to a human friend. Continue reading →
In the wake of the George Zimmerman trial, you couldn’t ask for a better movie – or I should say movies – to help carve out a common understanding in the middle of the racial divide. No matter how you took the Zimmerman decision, Ryan Coogler’s “Fruitvale Station” delivered an air-tight version of the same story with the same tragic end, the main difference being that the shooting took place before an audience of cellphone cameras, leaving no wiggle room for conjecture as to what happened between two men in the dark. But also, and more to the point, the “based on real events” docudrama tapped eloquently into the plight of the young black man struggling to succeed in a society reticent to give him a fair shake based on the color of his skin.
To underscore that, and for anyone who’s of the mindset that we’re beyond the Civil Rights era and affirmative action and that opportunity is out there for all to take on equal terms, sit through “Lee Daniels’ The Butler” and see if you still feel that way. Perhaps the best way to describe “The Butler” is as a short, painful history of the black man in America. The film centers on one, who grew up basically a slave in the early 1900s and went on to serve eight presidents as a staff server in the White House. Continue reading →
In the wake of the George Zimmerman trial and the cries of justice for Trayvon Martin, “Fruitvale Station” could not come at a more appropriate time. It won’t ease the current emotional swell, but it will aid in furthering the conversation.
At 2 a.m. New Year’s Day in 2009, Oscar Grant, a 22-year-old black man, was shot and killed by a transit cop as he lay face down and partially restrained on the platform of the subway stop of the title. It was a tragic end to a buoyant and hopeful evening as Oscar and his friends tried to make their way back to Oakland, Calif., from a sojourn across the Bay to see the fireworks. Continue reading →