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About the Author
An aspiring screenwriter and all around good guy who has dedicated himself to the infinite pursuit of true objectivity - except when it comes to the cool stuff. A love of motorsports explains his positive Fast and Furious scores. He laments the fact that the strongest storytelling is currently told through streaming media and video games. He wants his cinema back! But being the flexible guy he is, has invited people back on his lawn.

The Significance of ’12 Years a Slave’ in Today’s Cultural Climate

12 Years a Slave (2013) | Fox Searchlight Pictures.

As I peruse the awesome film lists that people have been compiling to educate allies on racial inequity, there are a couple films that seem to be missing (The Help and Green Book are decent and all, Hidden Figures as well) but where is Higher Learning or American History X? Where is Queen & Slim? Where is 12 Years a Slave?

… I have an opinion on that.

As a Black man, I’ve looked at many of the recent films on Civil Rights and thought to myself, “That’s not for me. That’s for the white audience.” These are films that focus more on portraying Black people as people of virtue and worthy to be treated fairly. News flash, folks: we deserve equal rights based on our humanity. Nothing more. Nothing less. These films offer no accountability, which is what is sorely needed now. The latter films are rarely mentioned because they hold a mirror to people’s faces and show them things they don’t want to see or acknowledge. I believe 12 Years a Slave is the perfect film to watch if you’re serious about understanding.

To clarify, I’m not saying you aren’t serious about being an ally if you don’t  watch it; I’m saying it’s the perfect film to watch. It’s an essential film based on the craft used to create it alone—impeccably shot. Solidly written. Powerfully acted. Emotionally scored. It has all the makings of a film that garnered multiple prestigious awards. It’s also without a doubt the most unflinching portrayal of slavery ever committed to film. This is what we need right now. Our streets are filled with gas. Our buildings are burning. Alliances are shifting. Friends are becoming enemies. Enemies are becoming allies. It’s a tumultuous time.

Almost all of this turmoil can be traced back to the slave trade, and what better way to educate yourself on a root cause than to watch the best film made on the very subject?

To those who haven’t seen 12 Years a Slave, or are descended from slavery, I’d like to reiterate that this isn’t your typical slavery film. This isn’t about glorifying a historical figure. It’s about narrowing the lens on the crime against humanity that is slavery. This is about one man’s fight for his freedom on a physical and existential level. You can take that harrowing journey and then realize that millions fought that same battle in their own way. Slaves were not a monolith then, just as marginalized people are not a monolith now. The oppressors would have you believe this because it’s how they reconciled their atrocities—by convincing themselves we are not individuals and we are lesser beings. There’s even hope among the chaos, because Solomon Northrup persevered through his ordeal. We, as descendants, can take his example as a microcosm for our own struggles. He survived with his character and dignity intact. He remained sure and proud. He never quit hoping or fighting. We have that same spirit within us. We’ve had no choice, because the alternative is more knees on our necks and guns in our faces.

Chiwetel Ejiofor and other cast members appear in a scene of 12 Years a Slave | Fox Searchlight Pictures.

I’d like to leave you with this in closing: changes in perspective and hard conversations need to happen in order for us to progress. Both of these won’t come by avoiding the elephant in the room—pretend it’s not there and you get trampled. Our streets are evidence of this in recent weeks. I truly, truly believe that 12 Years a Slave will stir something within you. It could be anger. It could manifest as sadness or disappointment. It might even (hopefully, prayers up) awaken you to the pain of a people. Whatever those emotions may be, I say let yourself feel them. You won’t be in a theater. You’ll be in the comfort of your own home or another familiar place. If it gets too tough (and it will) take a break. Don’t fast forward or skip. Gather yourself. Discuss it with your viewing partner. Analyze it. Work through it. Use the film as a tool toward better understanding and empathy.

My hope is that you leave your viewing experience a little beat up and worse for wear, but also energized and ready to take action—even if that’s simply getting another person to watch. The scars of slavery are evident in the Black community down to our inner psyche and the marrow of our bones. There are reminders everywhere—the monuments to leaders who believed they had the right to own us; the confederate banner they fought under; police brutality; malicious legislation; predatory loans and debt; defunded education; mass incarceration; the people afraid to sit next to you at the movies; even the disparity between elite athletes and ownership—all of it is born from the desire to maintain a 401-year-old status quo.

Let’s not make it 402 years.

REVIEW: True History of the Kelly Gang

IFC Films
Rated: R
Run Time: 124 minutes
Director: Justin Kurzel

When a film titled True History begins by telling you that nothing you’re about to see is true, you brace yourself for what comes next. Ned Kelly, the infamous bushranger and Australian legend, apparently said that a man should write his own history and thus the True History of the Kelly Gang was born.

Adapted from the 2000 novel of the same name, True History is faithful in the intent to explore Ned Kelly’s life and the personal and political motivations that inspired his defiance to British colonialism. The approach of both projects is what separates myth from reality. Director Justin Kurzel (Macbeth, Assassin’s Creed) bathes this film in ugliness, and cinematographer Ari Wegner juxtaposes what transpires on screen with beautiful color and dream-like landscapes that can only be provided by the Australian wilderness. Combine those visuals with an almost UK punk aesthetic and you get a movie that’s as divisive as its subject matter. Think Guy Ritchie by way of The Revenant.

There were many moments I failed to understand the significance of what I was seeing. I don’t know Australian history, though a few minutes on Wikipedia and Google will get anyone up to speed on “facts.” As I watched True History I couldn’t help but think that there is a cultural significance to the project that I could possibly never appreciate; the most notable example I can think of is Black Panther. As universally accepted as that film has been, there is a cultural level to it that many of its admirers cannot know. I get the impression that True History is much of the same. I have no doubt it hits on different levels depending on Australian politics and ancestry. There’s plenty I can say about the face value of the film. The acting is great and it’s a technically superb and creative movie. I also know there is a deeper context.

George McKay appears in a scene of True History of the Kelly Gang | IFC Films

I haven’t decided if the film is worth the extracurricular activity needed to fully appreciate it. Perhaps reading the novel or an Internet history lesson will be enough for you; if so, do it before you watch. True History is an ugly film that goes out of its way to bring you the harshness of life in the bush. It explores violence and masculinity in a way that might make some uncomfortable. Though I now have a better understanding of what the project explores, I have no desire to watch it again. I realize that both the novel and the film are a deconstruction of Ned Kelly’s legend. I also realize that there are pieces to the puzzle that I may never be able to fill in on my own.

Recommendation: SKIP IT

REVIEW: The Banker

Apple TV+
Rated: PG-13
Run Time: 120 minutes
Director: George Nolfi

I know how I’m supposed to feel about The Banker.

I’m supposed to see the story and its significance. Two African-American men owned over one hundred buildings in 1960’s Los Angeles, and then went on to own two banks in Texas. Texas, in case anyone has forgotten, was a stronghold of the South in an area rife with oppression towards people of color. That story alone is so amazing I’d find it hard to believe were it not true. Let’s add in the fact that these same men hired a white employee to sit in for them on the business meetings. Now we have some potential fun and intrigue thrown into the mix.

A good story is one thing, but how you tell the story is another matter entirely, and this is where The Banker failed to return on my time investment.

The Banker works on paper. Anthony Mackie and Samuel L. Jackson are the stars. The ever versatile Nicholas Hoult lends support. Nia Long co-stars as a long suffering, always faithful, supportive-to-a-fault wife. They are the winds in the sails of a film that often finds itself afloat in the doldrums. You see, The Banker works on paper because it ticks all the boxes to a tee; there is not one biopic trope that’s gone missing. If the movie felt any less natural, it would be perfectly at home on the Discovery Channel (and if I’m being honest about how I feel, it’s really only missing a narrator and some financial expert sidebars to be that kind of experience). Education is a good thing—endless exposition about the real estate market and the equations to match are the other thing.

Left to right: Nicholas Hoult, Samuel L. Jackson and Anthony Mackie appear in a scene of The Banker | Apple TV+

I do understand why this is the approach they took; these men were playing in a rigged game, and what better way to show it than to have them express their superiority at every turn: they were smarter than everyone, had more money than most, and they had a giant chip on their shoulder. A lifetime living among racism will do that.  These men had to dress as janitors and chauffeurs to secretly be present at their own business meetings. The film uses this fact as a running gag. I see it as a sad commentary. Perhaps it’s both.

I can’t really put my finger on what I was expecting. I didn’t find myself moved in any particular manner. I see The Banker as safe. It was a rote exercise in Black History, reworked and rewritten—to what end? I felt no real anger or conflict. These men paved the way for integrated neighborhoods in Los Angeles. They “stuck it to the man” and beat them at their own game… For a time. I thought I should feel more jubilation at that, but I don’t. When everything is said and done, they lost a battle in the larger war. The movie paints this as a small victory but I didn’t see it that way. There’s a sad inevitability that looms over the film from beginning to end, and I feel they scrubbed it over to make the movie palatable instead of digging deep into it. I think I would have appreciated The Banker more if they had decided to use the shovels. There’s a fine balance between entertainment, information, and education. I didn’t find an underlying message beyond the history lesson and that leaves me conflicted. I won’t go so far as to tell you not to watch. The scores for this film are above average. I’ll just say that I may not be the film’s intended audience.

Recommendation: STREAM IT

REVIEW: The Way Back

Warner Bros. Pictures
Rated: R
Run Time: 108 minutes
Director: Gavin O’Connor

It’s been darn near impossible to escape news of Ben Affleck lately; his very public battles with very personal demons (and professional “failures”) coincide so closely to his character in The Way Back that I’d be remiss without mentioning it. It’s guaranteed to color how you approach the film. The press rounds he’s been making feel more like an exploration of his life’s struggles than advertising for the film. How much more of the latter is it than the former? I have no way to truly tell, but if I let the film inform my answer then I have to lean towards honesty and healing.

At the risk of sounding insensitive, I have to say that Ben Affleck is perfect for the role of Jack Cunningham. One could argue that this is his best performance—Affleck is usually playing some degree of Affleck—but it’s clearly his most emotional. It’s not emotion for acting’s sake either; it’s a real kind of rawness to see a man succumbing to addiction: you get the peaks and the valleys. You get the “I’m fine,” and the “I’ll do better next time,” and the “give me one more chance.” You get the incomprehensible decisions. Those are staples of these stories. The tropes. We expect them. But the internal struggle is what The Way Back portrays so much better than other films like it. Jack offers generic excuses when it comes to his alcoholism, but only because he numbs himself from a truth more painful than he thinks he can bear—Jack is also the one his Alma Mater calls to coach their basketball team. 

This is the kind of plot that screams melodrama (and in less capable hands it would be just that). Gavin O’Connor has a knack for making a compelling story out of underdog situations and I applaud him for the subtle subversion in a film like this. He did the same for Warrior, and even found a way to ground The Accountant. I don’t see The Way Back as inspirational: I see it more as cautionary, designed to cut away at judgment and foster pathos and empathy. The fires in these people’s lives didn’t light themselves and they won’t be extinguished by winning a handful of league games. I respect O’Connor for understanding that and reflecting it in his story.

Jack Cunningham (played by Ben Affleck) looks on as his basketball team celebrates a victory in The Way Back | Warner Bros. Pictures

That brings us back to Mr. Affleck, doesn’t it? There’s an obvious synergy that exists in viewing the film. He needed this project for his own sake, and the project needed him to elevate it by revisiting those dark places. I wish I could separate the final product from the production history but I can’t, so I won’t pretend to. I can be objective enough to say that The Way Back is merely a good film. I wouldn’t even bat an eye if Affleck didn’t receive a nomination. It’s a straightforward movie to a fault. All that baggage though? The context in which the film is presented to us? I couldn’t help but sit in the theater and root for both Ben and Jack. The Way Back is a lifelong road and my hope is that they never stop moving forward.

Recommendation: GO SEE IT!

REVIEW: The Invisible Man

I’ve always felt that less is more when it comes to horror. It’s about what you don’t see or what’s implied that makes something scary.

At Least They’re Trying…

Do I take what I watched at the Oscars at face value or do I read deeper into what I’m watching?

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