By Chaya and Deni
Hi Readers—we’re really thinking about all of you inside. Hope you’re doing ok. Here on the outside it’s pandemic movie-tv watching with all the inequalities and contradictions that brings up. Here’s some of what we’ve seen.
MA RAINEY’S BLACK BOTTOM (review by Deni and Chaya)
Set in 1927 Chicago during a recording session, and part of August Wilson’s 10-play Century Cycle, the film has powerful performances by Viola Davis as queer blues singer Ma Rainey and Chadwick Boseman (his last movie role before he died) as Levee, a trumpet player in her band. The film maintained the play’s intense snappy dialogue, the sets and lighting enhanced time and place, and the music was outstanding. It addresses the impact of racism on the musicians’ lives and white appropriation of Black music. Rainey is shown to be a strong, commanding woman, an incredible performer fighting against racist and sexist odds. The statements she makes about the meaning of the blues and how she’s used and abused by the white male music establishment are powerful. But we learn little of her life story, while Levee’s forceful soliloquies give a far greater understanding of his life. However, Viola Davis said when she first saw the play, “What struck me is from the moment she came on the stage, [Rainey] knew her worth. . . . She just absolutely took the space without apology.” In other words, Rainey’s presence is her story. The film’s portrayal of lesbianism is a problem, with stereotypes of a lesbian lusting for a younger cute woman who barely reciprocates and is far more engaged sexually with a man. Rainey deserved better. Coming up in the next MC is info on a play being developed by 3 generations of Black queer theater artists about a Black queer character inspired by August Wilson’s plays.
FUNNY BOY (review by Chaya)
Based on the novel by Sri Lankan-Canadian Shyam Selvadurai, this 2020 Canadian film set in Sri Lanka follows Arjie from getting in trouble as a boy playing dress-up in drag to coming out as a young man. It takes place in the 1970s-1980s amidst the growing conflict/civil war between the majority Sinhalese and minority Tamil people. Arjie’s family is wealthy, not typical for Tamils, and class issues are a part of the story. The theme of finding your true identity includes the storyline of Arjie’s biggest childhood supporter, his Auntie Radha, who is a free spirit, but suffers the consequences. The film was a bit long and the political conflict needed to be clearer and stronger. It has been criticized for its use of Sinhalese actors playing Tamil roles (including Brandon Ingram who plays Arjie as a young man). Ingram lives in the Sri Lankan capitol of Colombo, acts in local theater and is openly queer. Sri Lanka still has anti-LGBTQI laws, a leftover from the British colonial occupation. Director Deepa Mehta said she believes that some Tamil actors may have rejected roles in the film “given it’s a criminal offense to be queer in Sri Lanka.” It was Canada’s Oscar submission for Best International Film 2021, but was rejected by the Academy for having more than 50% of the dialogue in English. Worth seeing.
RESIDUE (review by Deni)
This stunning film by first time writer-director Merawi Gerima takes place in Washington D.C. Filmmaker Jay (Obi Nwachukwu)) returns home to write a script about his hometown and confronts gentrification, mass incarceration, police violence and their effects on his family, old friends and his Black community. Excellent politics, cinematography, writing, acting, and its combination of metaphor/symbolism and reality. Filmmaker Gerima is the son of filmmakers Haile Gerima and Shirikiana Aina, both part of the L.A. Rebellion film movement of the 1960s-80s. His father made the award-winning 1993 film Sankofa and in 1982 his mother made Brick by Brick, an acclaimed documentary about the gentrification of poor Black D.C. neighborhoods. Powerful and haunting, Residue is a film to see if you can.
40-YEAR-OLD-VERSION (review by Chaya)
Actor, playwright, rapper Radha Blank wrote and directed her first feature film—a semi-autobiography—starring herself as an actor, playwright and rapper facing middle-age in New York City. Both Radhas (the character and the playwright) make hilarious and insightful personal and social commentary while trying to navigate relationship and professional situations (like authenticity vs opportunity). Lena Waithe (Master of None) produced it and Radha thanked Waithe for trusting Radha’s vision and giving her room to do it. The film won several awards including Sundance’s Vanguard Award honoring her directorial debut and NY/LA Film Critics awards. It’s not every day we get to see a Black queer woman filmmaker! Great movie.
ARAB FILM FESTIVAL (reviews by Deni)
BETWEEN HEAVEN AND EARTH by filmmaker Najwa Najjar is a road trip movie in which Salma (Mouna Hawa) and husband Tamer (Firas Nassar) travel from Ramallah to Israel for a reluctant divorce. It’s a complicated (occasionally confusing) plot which includes many historical issues: Mossad assassinations against Palestinian activists in 1970s Beirut; Arab Jews who emigrated to Israel and had their babies secretly adopted by Ashkenazi Jews; and the 1948 ethnic cleansing of Iqrit, a mainly Christian village on the Lebanese border, which won an Israeli court case to get back its land—only to have the Israel Defense Forces destroy almost everything. The personal journey and the mystery about Tamer’s father were told amidst checkpoints, Israeli soldiers and discriminatory laws. Beautiful cinematography and excellent acting.
DHALINYARO/YOUTH In this 2018 film, one of the first from Djibouti in the horn of Africa, filmmaker Lula Ali Ismail tells an emotional, funny, dynamic coming of age story about 3 best friends (played by Amina Mohamed Ali, Tousmo Mouhoumed Mohamed, and Bilan Samir Moubus), young Djiboutian women in their last year of high school. The film intersects class, womanhood, family and relationships with a cinematically stunning view of Djibouti City. Blending modern and traditional, the women struggle to make choices about their futures. It’s a beautiful and moving film.
BARZAKH by Karina Dandashi, a Syrian American Muslim writer and director. A fascinating short dystopian futuristic queer film. A Syrian refugee misses her deportation launch to Mars (recently colonized) as the US government sends refugees and undocumented immigrants there. Left on earth, she makes a musical connection with another woman, a local DJ.
SON OF A DANCER, a 2018 Lebanese film by award-winning queer filmmaker George Hazim, tells the poignant story of 20-year-old Majed, grieving his mother who recently died. Shocked when he learns that she was a belly dancer and kept a separate apartment, he must deal with his feelings about this, his father’s silence in grief and guilt, and his own desire to dance. A moving film with beautiful imagery.
IN A SPACE EXODUS (2009), Palestinian artist/director Larissa Sansour created the first of her sci-fi trilogy. She adapted scenes from Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey but with a Middle Eastern political view. Traveling through the universe, the first Palestinian in space lands on the moon and plants a Palestinian flag. “A small step for a Palestinian, a giant leap for mankind,” her voice echoing through her helmet. Quirky, funny and political.
M’ENTENDS TU? CAN YOU HEAR ME? (guest review by Claire)
This tragic-comedy Netflix series from Quebec takes place in a poorer section of Montreal that you usually don’t see on television. The three main characters, women who’ve been friends since middle school, are poor and rely on each other when dealing with their messy lives and seek solace in each other’s company. The strength of the series is that it deals with real issues plaguing real people like addiction and domestic violence and doesn’t shy away from the serious day-to-day struggles of poor people’s lack of resources. Being from Montreal, I was thrilled with the authenticity of language and place. A show to watch, don’t trust me but Rotten Tomatoes gave it 100% rating.
GOOD LORD BIRD (review by Chaya and Deni)
This 7-episode Showtime series, created and executive produced by Ethan Hawke from Black author James McBride’s novel, stars Hawke as white abolitionist John Brown. Brown is presented as an “over the top” charismatic religious character morally driven to free enslaved people. It’s part farce, part drama, part annoying. The story follows Brown as he tries to marshal his forces in pre-statehood Kansas, which was struggling over whether it would be a free state or a state with enslaved people. Building toward his goal of raiding the federal armory at Harpers Ferry to trigger a rebellion of enslaved people and white supporters, Brown meets a variety of people including Frederick Douglass (Daveed Diggs, in a small but dramatic role), Rafael Casal as one of Brown’s followers and Zainab Jah as Harriet Tubman. Each episode begins with “All of this is true” followed by “Most of it happened.” The unsuccessful raid did happen, the big revolt didn’t, but the Civil War was sparked. The story is narrated by 14-year-old “Onion” (Joshua Caleb Johnson), the enslaved child that Brown semi-adopts after causing the death of Onion’s father. Mistaking Onion for a girl, Brown gives him a dress to wear. Onion assumes the identity of a girl for his own safety, which numerous Black characters see right through and white characters don’t. This is one of many running jokes in the series, but it’s not really funny—it uses the idea of a trans person just as a plot device. We’ll end with a question Black queer photographer/artist D’Angelo Lovell Williams raises in his excellent NY Times Magazine article: “How precisely one ‘gets it right’ when it comes to the intersection of slavery and Hollywood is at this point unclear. . . . Can a white person ever usefully tell a slave story—or, more specific, can they tell a story that is useful to the descendants of the enslaved, rather to their own egos or cinematic fantasies?”
FIRST COW (review by Chaya and Deni)
Director Kelly Reichardt’s film about life in the 1820s Oregon Territory is beautifully filmed (except numerous scenes shot in complete darkness) but oooh sooo slooow. The cow, played by Evie the Cow, was terrific but didn’t have enough dialogue. We’re a bit baffled—why is this film on so many “best of 2020” lists? And how to portray some degree of historical accuracy without ending up with women and native people almost entirely in the background? Come on Hollywood, do it or moooove over.
THE FALL OF THE ANC: WHAT NEXT? by Prince Mashele and Mzukisi Qobo (book review by Cole)
Like many UV readers, I had in recent years heard serious concerns raised with regard to the integrity of the African National Congress. The massacre of the Mirikana striking mine workers was a horrific wake-up call as to grave problems. The Museum of the African Diaspora sponsored a showing of The Giant is Falling, which documented widespread disenchantment with the ANC. Anxious to learn more, I purchased The Fall of the ANC: What Next.What a waste of money might’ve been a more accurate title. I had hoped to read a principled analysis of the ANC’s shortcomings informed by a non-sectarian leftist perspective. This book is anything but. The authors are adamantly anti-communist; the book is long on rhetoric, short on facts and overlooks some undisputed barriers the ANC faced when taking power. The ANC is criticized for failing to effectuate the Freedom Charter’s plan to nationalize the banks and mines; the simple truth is that action would’ve made them pariahs in the international post-Soviet new world order and further damaged an economy already weakened by massive strikes and sanctions. The authors castigate the ANC for its misapprehension as to the health of South Africa’s economy at the inception of the post-apartheid government and the erroneous expectation that funds existed to provide basic services to black South Africans. While the economy may well have been damaged by strikes and sanctions, the existence of abundant mineral resources and a robust agricultural sector would certainly point to tax revenue adequate to address the legacy of apartheid. The book states that the ANC failed to anticipate the mechanics of governing and overlooks the many cadre that were sent to the Soviet bloc nations for training in economics, social planning and the like. It’s all too easy in hindsight to fault that approach. The authors do speak glowingly of the Truth and Reconciliation process and are generally respectful of Nelson Mandela; guess they felt that they had to say at least something nice.
I acknowledge – however painful that acknowledgment may be – that the ANC has demonstrated major errors in governance and has not actualized Mandela’s vision. An intelligent evaluation as to why would’ve been welcome. This book does not provide that assessment in any way, shape or form. Save your time and money.
BITS AND PIECES
HACKS AND OTHER ATTACKS
As we write, the government is still stumped by the ongoing December hack attack on US Energy, Treasury and Commerce Departments. The true scale of the breach remains unknown, and may have extended beyond the US government. Russia is suspected (surprised?). And what about that NYT story from December 5: “Report Points to Microwave ‘attack.’” Called the “Havana syndrome,” a series of mysterious afflictions hit American employees over the past several years in Cuba, China, Russia, etc. The most probable cause is “radio frequency energy.” Without tedious scientific explanations, we’re warning you to regard any microwave appliances with highest suspicion. Remember: If your microwave tends to the right, it’s not your friend when you cook at night.
IMAGINE OUR SURPRISE!
Police drones are coming for you. Violate your rights when you step out your door? Check. Press a button to dispatch a drone to a location? Check. Have the drone take photos at the scene? Check. Send a live video feed to law enforcement? Check. Tell the drone to fly home? Check. Track people/vehicles automatically? Check. Collect and store video? Check. Hone in on urban areas? Check. See into buildings? Check. Alarm the ACLU about privacy rights violations? Checkmate.
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