An e-convo between Odienator and Boone at the close of 2007.
Over the holidays, in between hustles, flows and festivities, two African-American filmgoers exchanged emails about a 2007 film that kept gnawing at them, American Gangster. As is wont to happen, the conversation meandered into some interesting places...
What's up, Odie? Let's talk flicks.
I recently caught up with this movie American Gangster, after hearing so many friends and complete strangers rave about it. Actually, they mostly raved about how clear the bootleg is. "JUST like a DVD, man, I mean CLEAR. No heads in the picture." When the movie first opened, I overheard two teenage boys discussing it on a Bronx bus: "My dude, that shit was crazy! You gotta see it. Dude is sitting at the dinner table, talkin' to his peoples, right? Yo, he gets up, says 'scuse me, goes down the street and pops this dude in the head. Bong bong. Goes back up the street, to the dinner table, like, 'And where was I?' I was like, "Yyyyo!"
I thought back to that kid's reaction when I read this comment about that scene, from Matt Zoller Seitz: "Even if it really happened, the staging feels badass-phony. (Scorsese's characters behave like savages because they are who they are; Scott's behave that way because the director wants to hear the crowd exclaim, "Motherfucker's crazy!")"
American Gangster exists only to rip the "oh shit"s out of you. It is a compendium of post-Scarface gangster movie cliches that I have given the alternate title Godfather Carlito's Scarfaced Blackfellas. The only thing interesting about it is the tough time Denzel has playing a don't-give-a-fuck sociopath-- the same trouble he had in Training Day.
"Dat's alpaca, you don't rub it, you blot dat, YOU BLOT DAT SHIT! Simple Simon muthafuckas!" I want to see Denzel Washington and his sidekick Chiwetel Efejiofor do a remake of one of those adorable Cosby-Poitier comedies from the '70s. Denzel sells so many woof tickets in this movie, it reminds me of that scene in Uptown Saturday Night where Bill Cosby, clearly terrified of an impending run-in with a local gangster, says, "Dude jump bad wit me, I'm gon' knock him out. Know why? Cuz I'm from off the CORNERS!!" No, Bill, you ain't from off no corners, and that was the delight of that moment. (Also, in Inside Man, the two-shot of cops Denzel and Chiwetel trying their damndest not to stare at a witness's gigantic breasteses is comic genius.) Denzel is so pathologically upright and square that watching him put every last acting muscle to coming off loose-limbed and what my mother would call "triflin" is uniquely entertaining. It also supports what looks like the film's thesis, that Frank Lucas was not the typical flashy street hood, but an ambitious control freak who should have just opened a chain of groceries or something.
Ridley Scott attempts to make his first ugly-looking film, succeeds beautifully. But aside from one or two sincere moments from Denzel and Maximus, the movie's mostly just a series of false sensationalized incidents.
But but the real question is, do we need any more, um, "urban gangster films"? I've argued with Black intellectuals and artists who want to do away entirely with the so-called 'hood movie. They say there's nothing left to see there, whereas I feel that there's a universe of possibilities left unexplored. Just because a handful of filmmakers have chosen to go in circles around the same tired Iceberg Slim/Donald Goines themes of urban hell doesn't mean that cinema should stop looking at the hood. To answer my own question: No, we don't need even one more "urban gangster film" but we desperately need an avalanche of movies about everyday people in the ghetto, by master filmmakers who are thirsty, not bloodthirsty. What do you think?
Funny that you chose tonight to start this discussion. Right now, Den-ZELLL is on Oprah Winfrey (not like that--damn!). He's there with Forest Whitaker talking about The Great Debaters. The last time Miss Sofia was this high on a movie on her show, the movie was Barry Levinson's Toys. "And when the teddy bears started fighting the war, I was just cryin' my eyes out!" she told Levinson and LL Cool J. After I saw that movie, I said "she must have been eating Blow Caps instead of Sno Caps while she was watching this shit." The Great Debaters looks more up Denzel's alley than these badass Sweet Sweetbacks he's been playing. Ostentatious bad guys are for Wesley Snipes and Terrence Howard; Denzel's power is his quiet indignation, something he shares with Sidney Poitier. (And I think Denzel and Eddie Murphy ought to do Uptown Saturday Night.) Nobody seethes like Denzel. Nobody can cut you down with words like Denzel. The problem isn't that he can't be a credible bad guy. The problem is that he can't be a credible bad guy who doesn't give a fuck.
Denzel clearly does, and it definitely hinders his performance in American Gangster.
I paid $12 to see American Gangster here in the boondocks, because National Amusements has this racket called "The Director's Hall." You pay more money to sit in what's supposed to be more comfortable chairs. You pick your seat before you go in, and some pimply face teenage poster boy for To Catch a Predator takes your concession order. What next? Bootleg DVD's recorded at National Amusements Theaters will come with Weave(TM) if you pay $3 more? After the lights came up, I asked myself "so where was this masterpiece I'd heard so much about?" Maybe the folks who got the bootleg saw the director's cut. I was at the Director's Hall, and I saw a nice polite B- of a movie. Part of the problem is Ridley Scott and a script that didn't build the momentum it needed to be epic.
The bigger problem is Denzel himself. He's too worried about that persona to roll around in the dirt with Frank Lucas. I don't care if Lucas in real life was as country as a chicken coop and easy like Sunday morning, the guy killed people, nearly killed his own brother, and did less for Harlem than Rudolph Giuliani. Where was this guy on the screen? Scarface was so ludicrously over the top because Al Pacino, for better or worse, committed to Oliver Stone and Brian DePalma's psychotic vision of Tony Montana. He didn't "give a chit" about what people thought of Al Pacino.
Remember when Denzel told The Fresh Prince, "Don't you kiss no man," when Smith was doing Six Degrees of Separation? His reasoning was pure bullshit: he cared about what the audience would think of Smith as AN ACTOR, not as the character he was playing. Smith played a gay man, so it wasn't a leap or a jump to imagine his character had been engaging in congress with men. They shot the kissing scene in a stupid manner rather than head-on, so that you couldn't actually see Smith kissing Anthony Michael Hall. It was asinine because later in the film, Smith asks a man "I was wondering if I could fuck you," and even later in Smith's career, he kissed The King of Queens. What was the big deal? This is Denzel's problem. He can play a bad guy, but he can't commit to a total sociopath with irredeemable qualities because he has Too Much Dignity. I liked Training Day (and Denzel's performance) more than you did, and where it shone was in its early moments, where Denzel's Alonzo was messing with Ethan Hawke. Alonzo was a badass for sure, but one with a purpose early on. I got into some of the common sense things Alonzo said about surviving in the job. Once he started telling us how much shit King Kong had on him, however, I could see Denzel struggling to convey he really believed what he was popping.
Please compare the scene you cite where Lucas just shoots somebody in the head before returning to his Eggo Waffles with a similar scene in New Jack City, where Wesley's Nino Brown rolls up on the Jamaican drug dealer and shoots him point blank in the head. Both seem to come out of nowhere, and both seem to be played with somewhat comic intentions. But Nino's ambition and his ruthlessness played better than Lucas'. Let's stick with New Jack City a moment here. People in my theater were with Nino Brown UNTIL HE PICKED UP THAT LITTLE GIRL TO USE AS A SHIELD. Then, man, EVERYBODY in the audience wanted that fucker dead. Frank Lucas might have picked up a little kid to shield him from bullets, but Denzel-as-Frank-Lucas damn sure wouldn't have. That's what's wrong with American Gangster.
Next time, I'll talk about Ruby Dee's character, a character I'd love to see in more hood movies: the Black Single Mama Who Looks The Other Way While Her Pride and Joy Gets All Trifflin'. She was one of the people in my neighborhood, in my neighborhood, in my neigh-bor-hood...
No more hood movies? That's like saying "No More Whiny White Suburbanite Flicks." Not gonna happen because let me tell you a secret: Black folks live in the 'hood! And an even bigger secret: Black folks go to see these movies! Hollywood is a business, and when they see something that makes money, they make 100 million carbon copies of it. So as long as Oscar gives nominations to stuff like Little Children and House of Sand and Fog, the machine will turn out more Whiny White Suburbanite movies. And as long as Folks go to see stuff like Belly 2, Soul Plane 2: The Heretic, The Friday After the Friday After Last Friday and Not Another Mo'Nique Movie, they'll keep making them. I'm not even going to consider the argument that they should go away. They ain't. Live with it, Black Intellectuals. I think y'all afraid you might see something in one of these movies, reflecting like a mirror and reminding you of yourself or your family. So let me quote one of my favorite Black intellectuals: "You'll admire all the number book takers, the pimps and pushers and the big moneymakers. Driving big cars, spending twenties and tens, and you wanna grow up to be just like them." Folks wanna see this in movies, bootleg or at the Director's Hall. Sorry.
However, I'm completely in step with you on broadening the horizons of hood movies in general. Not everyone in my neighborhood was a drug dealer, a pot head, a crack fiend, a criminal, or looking for their baby Daddy on their 14th visit to Maury Povich. There's such a rich cornucopia of hood people and their stories to be told. I just wish we had someone like Oscar Micheaux around to start a grass roots style foray into making small films about all types of people in the struggle. If we could have George Jefferson and J.J. on TV at the same time, why can't we have them both at the cinema?
Here are some possibilities for the Cosby-Poitier remakes:
Potential Cosbys: Denzel, Jamie Foxx, Dave Chappelle, Bernie Mac, Mos Def (in five years or so), Tracey Morgan, Anthony Anderson, Chris Tucker. Possible Poitiers: Cuba Gooding, Jr., Chiwetel Efejior, Don Cheadle, Shawn Wayans (Don't make that face--he's a good straight man), the dude who played the mean husband in Diary of a Mad Black Woman, Wayne Brady (a seriously slept-on comic actor), Dre from Outkast (in five years or so). (Remember, I'm talking about their profiles in those Cos-Poitier movies, not in general. Otherwise, I would never expel the same carbon dioxide molecules over the names Poitier and Wayans.)
The other big dream-duo question is, who to play the new Pryor-Wilder team?
I've been to the "Director's Hall" at the National Amusements theater in White Plains. Put it this way: I didn't feel like no director.
As I said elsewhere, Ridley Scott is a builder of otherworlds and voluptuous fantasias (no, not her). Watching Scott trying to strip down to French Connection skivvies isn't much fun. The man who made Legend is supposed to create a 1970's urbanscape with popping colors, smoke-saturated rooms and Cadillac-wide frames packed with 12-inch afros. He should have gotten high and watched Wattstax. I wanted him to let loose with the racial paranoia that is lurking timidly under the pallid surface of this film (and goes topside, madly, in the exterminate-the-brutes epic Black Hawk Down.)
Ruby Dee in American Gangster reminds me of that Eazy-E line from We're All in the Same Gang: "My baby ain't never hurt nobody!!"/"Yeah, but he still got smoked at Bey-Bey's party."
As a performer, Wesley Snipes enjoys a freedom that Denzel Washington simply does not. Denzel was groomed as the new Poitier probably as early as St. Elsewhere. Wesley was just the dude who scared the shit out of Michael Jackson in Bad and provided eye candy for Goldie Hawn in Wildcats. He was free to pursue a career as varied and strange as Denzel's is sober and conscientious. Which of the two do you think would even consider playing the titular sex maniac/revolutionary in a remake of Sweet Sweetback? Denzel's rendition would be the awkward acting equivalent of Spielberg's shooting-and-cumming montage in Munich. Wesley's would be groovy.
You said, "I just wish we had someone like Oscar Micheaux around to start a grass roots style foray into making small films about all types of people in the struggle." Well, those cats are out there. I've been hearing from some of them lately and plan to cover more of them in BMV in '08.
So, Ruby Dee got a Screen Actor's Guild nomination for her performance in American Gangster. It's nice to see her get some due, even if her role is rather small. She has that one effective scene with Denzel, where she says she looked the other way long enough. What I love about that scene is what she implies with that speech. I'm reminded of that line in I'm Gonna Git You Sucka when Ja'Net Du'Bois says to her son Keenen Ivory Wayans, "I know your brother wasn't shit." Mothers know, and far too many in my neighborhood looked the other way, leading to lots of their kids being smoked at parties like Bey-Bey's. Dee knows how to steal a scene, doesn't she? And she can be so intense. I always think back to her anguished cries during the riot in Do The Right Thing. She reminds me of so many women I know, poised and proper one minute, and ready to dress you down the next. She's a treasure, and she elevates American Gangster with her moment of clarity. On recasting Blaxploitation movies: Wesley would be a good Sweetback, but after seeing Talk To Me, I'm convinced nobody can be Sweet Sweetback in a remake except Don Cheadle. Mario Van Peebles did a spectacular job in Baadassss! playing his Dad and directing that film, so let's get him to direct it.
Is Don Cheadle the most rounded Black actor out today? He can play anything, from nobility to nigrability, which is an asset in the monolithic world of Black actor persona. I can't see Wayne Brady as Sidney Poitier, but if he grew a mustache and you teamed him up with Ryan Gosling, you'd have the stars for the remake of Silver Streak. Gosling can play neurotic like Gene Wilder, and Brady's turn on Dave Chapelle proved he could be edgy. Pryor's stand-up persona never fit in the "Please don't scare de White folks" roles he kept being cast in; Brady is in the comfort zone of the mainstream. He could play both sides of the fence, pretending to cater to the mainstream while sending us some wicked asides. You could never buy Pryor in something like The Toy. Brady, however, would be perfect. Let's jump from Gangsters to Legends. I saw I Am Legend the other night. I don't know if it's progress that a Black man can be cast as the last man on Earth, or as God, and nobody points it out, not even in passing. When Morgan Freeman was cast as God in Bruce Almighty, I envisioned those old Black grandmas, the ones with the picture of Jesus that looked like Nick Ashford, turning to the camera and saying "SEE! I TOL' Y'ALL JESUS WAS BLACK!"
Now we have Will roaming New York City, but we never see him up in Harlem. He lives in Washington Square Park with a German Shepherd and a slew of rabid rats. At night, he runs from zombies who are either all White or victims of vitilgo. I point this out because it raised an interesting, unexplored question in the movie. If Will is the only survivor, and seemingly the only Black, did that super virus kill all of us too? This would have been a fascinating (and paranoid as shit) avenue to cover, even in passing. But I Am Legend is a slew of missed opportunities. Smith gives a performance that deserves to be in a movie that didn't need a last act action sequence to satiate 12 year olds. I was jonesing on the creepy vibe the film put out in its earlier passages, before it turned into both a standard actioner with lousy CGI and a commecial for Nick Ashford's doppelganger, de Lawd. Late in the film, Smith says "There is No God." I haven't heard a Black actor say that since A Raisin In The Sun. The film lets it hang there, and I found that daring. It was humankind's "Why hast thou forsaken me" moment. But at the end, the first image of salvation we see is of a church. It's been 25 years since I read I Am Legend, so I don't remember if Matheson injects any commercials for Christianity into it. But it really seemed out of place in this movie. Funny I'm writing all this on de Lawd's birthday. I'm sure there's a lightning bolt with my name on it being sent down from On High right now. I can see Mahalia Jackson In De Upper Room with Jeeee-zus, handing over a bolt for Him to craft and toss in my direction.
While I wait for it, have you noticed the Old Testament vibe running through some of the most acclaimed movies of 2007? No Country for Old Men, for example, Sweeney Todd, and even Before the Devil Knows You're Dead have a distinctly unforgiving view of vengeance and punishment being meted out. Nunna dat "Turn the Other Cheek" hippie bullshit.
I noticed the same thing about I Am Legend! Why no Harlem? Why didn't he ever go a-cross a-hundred-and-tenth-Street? They could have played the song. But the whiteness of those zombies was no mystery to me: He was in Greenwich Village and Lower Manhattan. Astronomical rents ran people of color off the island long before any ol' plague. There was some kind of perverse thrill watching Will conduct mad scientist experiments on the former hipster/yuppie denizens of downtown, but, as skilled an actor as he is, its clear that the only madness he has ever experienced is Summer Madness. Still, when it was time for him to completely lose his shit, he did a respectable imitation of Prodigy in Mac 10 Handle
I could eat the sunsplashed, anamorphic widescreen look of I Am Legend up with knife and fork. The dodgy CGI wasn't as important as the director's patient way with the frame and deeply subjective, revelatory approach to building suspense within the scene. Val Lewton woulda hired him on the spot.
Ah, yes, de Lawd. When the beautiful Spanish woman kept smiling up at Will and violating his personal space, I took her glow to mean that she was ready to have therapeutic, post-traumatic sex. They'd just put the little boy to bed. Will had spent several years ogling mannequins from afar. She'd just saved his ass from certain doom. I mean, damn damn--showtime! The last thing I was thinking about in that moment was de Lawd. The climactic Will-as-Christ hand grenade sacrifice felt just as false. I guess he was ready to join his wife and kid in the hereafter, but it looked as if de Lawd had sent him a fresh wife-and-kid set to carry on with.
Old Testament vibe? Wait til you see Woody Allen's latest, Cassandra's Dream. Though, as the title suggests, he's calling upon Greek tragedy yet again, Biblical comeuppance and some Cain and Abel static dominate the film's second half. I know from your comparison of Prairie Home Companion and All That Jazz how you feel about aging filmmakers turning away from the abyss, but damn damn, how does one contemplate the Upper Room with such a relentlessly bleak view of life down here? I see such films as sort of tantrums at the prospect of leaving this here mortal coil for good. As Linda Manz said in Days of Heaven, that's touchin'.
Happy New Year!
I just came back from doing my New Year's tradition--seeing a movie. I saw The Great Debaters, which in a way pulls me full circle to the first thing I said in this discussion. But since you're quoting my favorite Malick, let me allow Linda Manz to set the stage for my final E-mail:
"Nobody's perfect. There was never a perfect person around. You just have half-angel and half-devil in you."
We've already seen and discussed Denzel's devil inside. Debaters looks at the more angelic Denzel Washington. Since he's our Sidney, it's only fitting he tackle Poitier's Sir. Now, I'm a sucker for these inspirational teacher movies (except Dead Poet's Society, which is a sin before God, nature and literature), so take this next sentence with a grain of salt. I loved this movie. I absolutely loved it. It's cliched, somewhat by the numbers and is Oscar bait, but that didn't stop my eyes from welling up while watching it. This movie has a far better turn by Forest Whitaker than that ooga-booga movie for which he just won the Oscar. Whitaker is scary good, and he's well supported by the three young actors Washington cast (Nate Parker, Denzel Whitaker and Jurnee Smollett from Eve's Bayou--she ain't no little girl anymore. Damn!). Denzel Washington is more at ease here than in American Gangster, and he's more believable. As a director, he's still a little shaky, but he gets fine work out of the famous cin-togger Philippe Rousselot.
Over at Slant Magazine, Nick Schager wrote of Debaters "[w]ithout unpredictability or the possibility of an unhappy ending, how can a film truly inspire?" Good question. It can truly inspire by showing me something I've been starving to see more of onscreen: stories of intelligent Black people in the struggle. It can inspire me by serving as a reminder to the kids of today of the shit those who preceded them had to go through so these kids can run around acting like dumbasses today. It can inspire me by being moving and emotionally involving, cliches be damned. Fuck putting a critical or an academic spin on it (and you know how I feel about academic theories being applied to something as subjective as the arts--they're ALL BULLSHIT and the equivalent of penis envy to us natural science majors who actually have things we can objectively prove).
I was moved by the little nuances of the film that were calibrated on our wavelength. The stern, emotionless way Forest Whitaker speaks to his son, and his reaction when the son hugs him late in the film; the way Kimberly Elise has a throwaway line about the superstitious qualities of black-eyed peas; and the look of fear on the faces of these young Black kids as they stepped into a lily White spotlight, a look not unlike the one Whitaker's character has on his face after running over a White farmer's pig. Yes, we've seen scenes like this before, but does that mean we shouldn't see them again?
Time for a question from the Black Andy Rooney--let's call him Octo Rooney: Why is it that Black-themed "inspired by a true story" movies with a positive message get subjected to far more scrutiny than their White counterparts? Remember all that mess over The Hurricane vs. A Beautiful Mind? They told so many lies about Russell Crowe's John Nash character PLUS they removed half his sexuality AND he had an imaginary friend who looked like the teenage version of Rutger Hauer's Blade Runner replicant helping him with his homework. Movie wins the fucking Oscar. Norman Jewison twists some facts, changes something here and there in The Hurricane, and the movie gets the criminal treatment.
You'd think Denzel would have learned this lesson and directed a screenplay that didn't take the liberties this one does with the facts. But NOOOOOO. There is some serious poetic license here, and people have jumped all over it. What bothers me is that American Gangster is just as cliched as The Great Debaters, and it's equally fabricated, yet nobody really took Ridley Scott to task. In fact, according to quite a few, American Gangster is a masterpiece! Could it be that it's because American Gangster has Black folks doing something "expected" like selling drugs and killing each other, as opposed to being on a college debate team? Discuss.
It irked me that they changed the school from USC to Harvard in Debaters, but at the end of the day, the message was the same. Here were these podunk kids from some colored university in South Bumblefuck coming up against some sharp, highly intelligent and respected White students in a debate. I identified with the concept of being held up as the Black example, something I've dealt with in my profession and in life. I tapped into that well of feeling while watching The Great Debaters. Does that make me a bad film critic? Probably. But you know what: I get paid to be a computer programmer. So fuck the film critic handbook. I loved this movie because it got to me deep in the darkest, hidden recesses of my nappy soul and yes, I was inspired.
To close out, there was a preview for Cassandra's Dream before The Great Debaters. It looks like Before The Devil Knows You're Directed By Woody Allen. If you go back to my Prairie Home Companion piece, you'll see my issue wasn't with directors dealing with shuffling off their mortal coils, it was with them lying about it being no big deal. Allen's bitter misanthropy has translated into some horrible movies (Deconstructing Harry being a notable exception), and I wish he'd either do something else or, if movies like Match Point are the tantrums he wants to throw in protest of the Grim Reaper's arrival, I wish he'd get on with the Bergman chess match already. This isn't the first time Allen references Cassandra (he does so in the funniest line in Mighty Aphrodite); maybe he should stop being inspired by the ancient Greek's Miss Cleo.
Educated, liberal-minded cineastes find themselves in an uncomfortable position when confronted with Black films or Black art that uses relatively primitive methods and/or reflects a fairly conservative outlook. I think there's some sense of being outraged on our behalf- like, how dare Ho'wood try to sell Black people such simplistic schmaltz. That's why many critics and literary types got Spielberg's The Color Purple wrong. It also explains why the Reagan-era Negro Problem melodrama White Dog is one of the few Sam Fuller films whose crude tabloid/agitprop style is seen as a handicap rather than an expressive glory. Race is like nitro. "Enlightened" critics are comfortable with unshackled Black libido, sentiment, vulnerability and gallantry only if it is safely between quotes. They have little understanding that Black audiences are still starved for the kind of ethereal/sensual (rather than simply chaste/prurient) images of themselves that whites took for granted as early as the 1930's. I was just watching The Awful Truth (1937), and, early on in the film there's this luminous closeup of Irene Dunne that gave me palpitations. In a screwball comedy! This is why Tyler Perry reigns: Amidst the chitlin circuit clutter of his Negro spectacles, there's this Black is Beautiful sentiment that his beaten-down, working stiff audience is desperate enough to take where they can get it. Trust, some even went to American Gangster just for scenes like the one where dapper Denzel buys a grand piano and pays cash, to the chagrin of the snooty Eurasian saleswoman. Standing tall before The Man. We should be well past all that in--sweet Jesus!-- 2008, but you know damn well we're not.