Each week Elma and I give you 5 opinionated but culturally relevant choices, based on our experience of curating smart sticky stuff for Ovation, Trio, Bravo, A&E, Sundance, Fuse, and others.
Nobody gets through life without bruises.
As our own kids hurtle toward the precipice that is teenager-hood, we’re suddenly realizing how impossible it’s going to be to shield them from “The Heart-ache and the thousand Natural shocks that Flesh is heir to..”
No matter how well adjusted, how smart, how rich – everybody gets knocked around by life.
Most of us survive. But not without a few black eyes. It’s one of the things all of us here with our feet on this planet have in common.
— One reason why the new indie film Moonlight is pegged as an awards contender. Its hero is at the far end of the knocked-around spectrum – a poor gay black boy/man growing up in the Miami hood. But even though the exact circumstances may be alien to most of us, the core of his experience is one we all share.
The director Barry Jenkins grew up in Miami, raised by a mother who was addicted. He based his movie on a play by another Miami native, Tarell Alvin McCraney with a more poetic title: In The Moonlight, Black Boys Look Blue. Although Jenkins and McCraney both grew up in the same part of Miami, they never met growing up.
Jenkins embraced the fact that McCraney’s youth was one degree more alienated than his own – on top of the other challenges, he’s gay.
Moonlight is a little like Boyhood – it accelerates forward through the boyhood of the main character, Chiron. But the technique is more traditional – three different actors play Chiron at three different phases. The three faces are composited in the poster image above.
It’s in limited release this week, goes wider next. We could go on about the movie, but the trailer is really compelling – take a look:
Eight years ago, Jenkins made his first feature on a truly miniscule budget, supported by crew from his film school, Florida State University.
Two young black people wake up together in an expensive bed in an expensive town — San Francisco. They hooked up without even getting to the point of finding out each other’s names. He’d like it to lead somewhere; her, not so much.
They end up spending a day together, playing at being boyfriend and girlfriend. The film is deceptively understated. It’s about many things – race, class, cultural assimilation, gentrification – and about one thing; two people discovering how they fit together.
It’s a three-hander. Wyatt Cenac (The Daily Show) and Tracey Heggins play the couple. The third character is San Francisco, shot in radically desaturated near-black-and-white.
The film was a SXSW favorite – it’s kind of amazing that it took so long for Jenkins to come out with another feature. But even though the two films are very different in many ways, the family resemblance is strong.
Moonlight and Boyhood are alike but very different. Alike in that both are understated and universally accessible coming of age stories. Different in that one is set in the white suburbs and one in black urban neighborhoods. Moonlight, more lyrical; Boyhood, more of a prose poem.
Of course the landmark element of Boyhood is the way Richard Linklater shot it, filming in yearly bursts over a period of ten years with the same cast. The movie skips forward so that you see the actors actually age in fast motion as the boy grows into a young man.
Our favorite Linklater films are the ones like Boyhood, extraordinary in its ordinariness. It’s that feeling you get when Facebook sends you a photo from the past – a moment that seemed so simple at the time now seems saturated with happiness and pain. You suddenly become aware of how life just slips through your fingers while you’re not watching; when you look back it becomes so precious.
Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette play the Mom and Dad. Ellar Coltrane is the boy and his sister is played by Linklater’s own daughter, Lorelei.
Francois Truffaut was 27 when he made 400 Blows (Jenkins was 29 when he made Medicine, 37 now). This is the most personal of Truffaut’s films, and the one that catapulted him from a leading critic to auteur.
Antoine Doinel (Jean-Pierre Léaud would appear as Doinel in 4 more films and a total of 11 for Truffaut) is Truffaut’s fictional version of himself – a neglected 14-year-old who lies, steals, and is sent away; but also builds a shrine to Balzac in his bedroom cubby. The black and white film is inventive but intimate and honest. Like Moonlight and even Boyhood, it draws its power from being meticulously economical and specific.
It can be a bit of work revisiting a classic like this, and we’re not always in the mood – but every time we do, it turns out to be incredibly worth it.
Lee Daniels is less a poet than a prodigy. After building a successful nursing agency by age 21, the openly gay Daniels sold the business and set out to conquer Hollywood, working his way up from talent management (Wes Bentley) to film production (Monster’s Ball) to directing (Shadowboxer, Precious, The Butler), and TV (Empire).
For someone who has so successfully conquered the establishment, Daniels’ choice of Precious as his second film would have seemed opportunistic – if the result hadn’t been so audacious and accomplished.
If you’d asked us when we first read poet/novelist Sapphire’s book Push, we would have said it was unfilmable, on many levels. Its heroine is an illiterate 300-pound black teen who is pregnant with her second child after being raped (repeatedly) by her father.
It’s a brutal story, leavened with elements of humor, melodrama and fantasy. But what holds it all together – and what it has in common with Moonlight — is how Daniels and his screenwriter Geoffrey Fletcher don’t let any of the imbedded issues take over, but keep the movie firmly grounded in character.
The result is that what could have been a horror of a film is not only bearable but redeeming. You come away impressed most of all by the humanity of the characters and by the extraordinary performances – across the board, but most notably by Mo’nique as the monster/mother and the mind-boggling Gabourey Sidibe as Precious.
Dope’s hero is a black nerd obsessed with 90’s hip-hop and “white people stuff”, like getting into Harvard. It’s a traditional coming of age movie with twists on all the standard tropes –Malcolm and his friends stumble into possession of a backpack full of guns and “Mollie” (MDMA) that they must unload for bitcoin.
Dope is the second film director Rick Famuyiwa set in his hometown, Inglewood. His first feature was Wood, an affectionate, funny, and more autobiographical coming-of-age-story. It sounds like Famuyiwa himself was that geek kid. Raised in a quasi-suburban Inglewood neighborhood by Nigerian immigrant parents, he went to USC film school then laid the groundwork for Wood while at Sundance Director’s Lab.
Dope premiered at Sundance last year, and received love it/hate it reviews. Both sides essentially said the same thing – at its core this is a very formulaic coming of age story. Those who liked it were charmed by the characters and by the clever twists on the standard genre beats. Those who hated it thought that made it a sell-out.
Since he finished Dope Famuyiwa has directed Kerry Washington as Anita Hill in HBO’s Confirmation and has been signed as director of mega-budget superhero movie Flash.