Saturday, March 13, 2010

Build Your Own Black History Mumf

By Odienator
(for all BHM @ BMV posts, click here)

(Odienator Note: Get your requests in below. I start posting my choices the week of April 5th.)

Folks, if you've been counting, you'd know that this year's Mumf (and last year's for that matter) was shorter than 2008's. Only in 2008 did I adhere to a piece a day, a rule I imposed on myself as a challenge. Unfortunately, the past two Februaries haven't exactly been the most wonderful time of the year for me. Life has kicked the hell out of me, and when life took a break, all this work travel picked up the slack. If Tyler Perry made Up in the Air, it would star me instead of George Clooney. I should also have appeared on House, since I've been hospitalized and cared for by mean doctors who look like Hugh Laurie.

Now, this is my show, so I could have just let this slide. But I like challenges. So, here's a new one for me. I've decided to take requests for the 4 pieces I shortchanged you in February, 2010. You know the rules. Don't post here asking me to write about some John Hughes movie. It's still BHM @ BMV. If you request Birth of a Nation or Soul Plane, I'll kill you myself.

I'll make the final picks and start writing, unless it's something I plan on covering for BHM 2011 (provided there IS a BHM @ BMV 2011). So, post your requests below and I'll pick a few and see what I can do. I'll credit you so the Internet knows who to blame for this.

Friday, March 05, 2010

The Quinn-tessential Denzel

by Odienator
(for all posts, click here)

There’s a scene in 1989’s The Mighty Quinn that I looked forward to revisiting when I sat down to write this piece. It occurs an hour into the film, just after the best scene in the picture. Police chief Xavier Quinn (Denzel Washington) steps into a noisy Caribbean island bar. His appearance alone silences all the rowdy patrons, who stop slamming dominoes to see what the Chief is there to do. Chief Quinn walks to a closed piano, opens it, and then Denzel Washington, an actor not known for outlandish expressions of joy onscreen, plays a raucous blues number by Taj Mahal. Washington sings it as well, and the fun he has is infectious. The late director Carl Schenkel keeps his camera on this transformed man, and I wish the scene had run longer. We rarely get to see Washington’s easy-going side, especially in a film where he plays a cop. You would think a musical number in a murder mystery would be odd, but only if you hadn’t been listening to the dialogue.

The Mighty Quinn uses dialogue to convey more than the movie visually depicts, and attention must be paid. Sensing the short amount of time The Mighty Quinn has to deliver its story, screenwriter Hampton Fancher, adapting A.H.Z. Carr’s Finding Maubee, puts important details about the characters and the mystery in the sing-songy cadences of the actors. Much can be gleaned from a throwaway line like the one Quinn’s estranged wife Lola (Sheryl Lee Ralph) tosses off about her husband giving up the piano. She later says that he’s changed himself in order to sit at the table with the politicians and power brokers who oversee the island. “But they’ll never invite you,” she scolds, “because you’re not one of them.” Whenever the Maubee of Carr’s book title is mentioned, we feel that his reputation is legendary to the locals. He’s a womanizer who has never worked a day in his life, and at The Mighty Quinn’s beginning, he’s wanted for murder. “Maubee is a lover, not a killer,” says Lola to Quinn, and it’s an eerily prescient line.

The governor is a former poultry farmer on the island, and the only one to speak ill of Maubee. His primary objective seems to be to keep the rich White folks happy on his island, regardless of the cost or how much justice his decisions obstruct. One such rich White person, Mr. Elgin, played by sinister Brit character actor, James Fox, is leaning on the governor to stop Chief Quinn’s murder investigation of one of his hotel patrons. Chief Quinn defies Elgin’s request to send the decapitated body found in a hotel Jacuzzi directly to an airplane to be flown back to the mainland. Quinn instead sends the body to the hospital for an autopsy. This infuriates the governor, who wants to know why Quinn defied the island’s biggest benefactor. After all, Maubee’s been placed at the murder site by his famous little black book, which he left in the room. When Quinn mentions he’s without a motive, The governor provides him one:

“His whole life long, that little nigger watches the laughing rich,” says the governor, “and finally, his poor impoverished heart screams murder. How about that?’

Quinn keeps getting in Elgin’s hair, and Elgin’s sense of rich entitlement doesn’t take too kindly to being disrespected by this uppity Negro. Quinn interviews Elgin’s wife, played by a sexy Mimi Rogers. Elgin interrupts, but not before Quinn charms a little information out of her. After Quinn steps away, Elgin turns on his wife like a dog. When pressed by her husband, Mrs. Elgin tells him she gave Chief Quinn “comfortable answers to uncomfortable questions.” Elgin then refers to his spouse’s history of being down with the swirl. “If I’d waited another minute before I came in here, would I have found you two on the floor?” he asks her. Rogers responds by slapping him, a move that is reciprocated. “You try not to lose control of yourself until this is over,” he warns. Rogers lets it slide, for now. Elgin makes one more attempt to intimidate Quinn, to no avail.

The murder victim is a bigshot from a company called Paeter Industriies. The governor sends the body to the airport, but Quinn has his mortician sneak in and do an autopsy. Keye Luke, sans his Gremlins hair and beard, makes the most of his dialogue and his scenes. Schenkel gives him a memorable entrance, as our blurred point of view is pulled into focus by a pair of Luke's oncoming glasses. Luke also provides a major key to the mystery later, tying it into Lola’s “lover, not a killer” line uttered over an hour prior. The autopsy really pisses off the governor, whose motives are now made clearer. He’s worried about the island’s economy.

“Remember what happened before?” he asks Quinn.
“Yes, but that was ten years ago,” protests Quinn.
“And the island hasn’t recovered since,”
“But you can’t compare 12 White men shot by a Black extremist with an automatic weapon to this!”

“Yes I can,” says the governor, “and so will every asshole tourist who won’t get off the big white boat in the next ten years…if you don’t find Maubee fast, you’re going to be shoveled out of your office faster than dogshit!” He then introduces Quinn to a representative from Paeter Industries, Mr. Miller, “here to tie up some loose ends.” We know something underhanded is afoot, as the rep is played by the great character actor, M. Emmet Walsh, whose presence in a film rarely amounts to anything good happening to those around him. “You don’t think this Maubee character did it, do you?” asks Miller. Quinn’s answer is noncommittal.

Miller follows Quinn to the local witch, Ubu Pearl’s house to talk to her daughter (Tyra Farrell from Boyz N The Hood), who is Maubee’s latest bonk. When the witch refuses to let him in, and he threatens her with arrest, Esther Rolle says “you can’t arrest me. I don’t do nuttin!” When Quinn continues to pursue entry, Ubu Pearl says “I put a curse on you!” Again, this is a line that commands reflection much later in the film. For now, Quinn meets Ubu Pearl’s grandkid, an obviously mixed child. When Quinn starts snooping around, Ubu Pearl lets him find out just how she’s cursed him: he almost gets bitten by her extremely poisonous snakes. Miller watches with amusement.

Maubee isn’t too difficult for his boyhood friend Xavier Quinn to find; he keeps showing up every so often to basically say hello and flaunt his innocence. Robert Townsend plays Maubee as a cocky, ganja-loving slacker who apparently has more than a little mysticism in his aura. Watching this film, you might think Maubee is a Magical Negro stereotype (especially in the film’s last scene) but remember: the Magical Negro NEVER helps himself or other Black people. He only helps White folks. Whatever magic Maubee is pulling out of his ass is purely for his own benefit. Maubee also seems to have magically created the American $10,000 bill, as a witness tells Quinn that Maubee was flashing them around. “But there is no such TING as a ten TOUsand dolla bill,” says Quinn. Oh, but there is, and the government demands that if you find one, you give it to the Treasury department. Money had been stolen from Paeter’s room, and if it were in $10,000 bill denominations, that means Paeter industries, and its representative Miller, have something to do with the Feds.

A Hispanic gentleman shows up and begins shadowing Quinn. Quinn’s not fooled, and questions the guy. We discover that he’s not only in cahoots with Miller, but the reason Miller shows the sinister side for which the actor playing him is famous. Meanwhile, Quinn, who has had an even bigger falling out with his singer wife (Ralph and some Marley family members cover Bob Marley’s Hurting Inside at their club audition), finds himself invited to the Elgin resort by Mrs. Elgin. Here, Rogers and Washington play out the film’s best scene, a sexy battle of wills. Mrs. Elgin wants Quinn, and Quinn wants Mrs. Elgin. But watch how the actors play this scene. There is genuine heat here, and suspense as to where the scene might lead. Quinn proves he’s as mighty as the film’s title suggests—he resists her advances—but that pent up energy needs to go somewhere, and Washington channels it into the scene that opens this piece.

"You liked me before," she tells him. "I like you now," he replies.

So this is where you came in. After Quinn sings his number, the club starts to sing the film’s title song. Dylan fans know that The Mighty Quinn originally was the Eskimo he sang about in his 1968 song. The film keeps Dylan’s chorus but turns the song into a reggae rap about Maubee and his best friend, Xavier. When Lola sings it early in the film, it’s almost a taunt to Quinn. She’s mocking him for thinking he can become part of the island’s bigwig circle. After the scene at Mrs. Elgin’s, and Quinn’s return to his piano playing ways, the song plays like a celebration of Quinn’s return to his fellow island dwellers. Even Quinn gets involved with singing it, as if his encounter at the Elgins finally proved to him that he can never belong in that world; his place is here.

Watch Quinn’s flirtation with Lola when he stops her bicycle on the road. He sings a few lines of a song in falsetto to her, mocking her before running his fingers up her arms so quickly she doesn’t have time to protest. Their relationship, and its problems, are revealed throughout the film’s runtime, but this moment says more about the spark that still burns between them than any dialogue could. This scene is also the inverse of Quinn’s scene with Mrs. Elgin—here Lola resists him despite feeling the sparks fly, and she walks away. I sensed a tie between this scene and Quinn’s bar number.

With that symbolism in place, Quinn runs into Maubee, who has stolen the governor’s car. The drunk Quinn handcuffs Maubee, who drives him to a spot overlooking the island. The two reconnect and bond as they used to as kids; in the morning, as expected, Maubee has extricated himself from those handcuffs.

By the time the credits roll, to the tune of reggae posers UB40’s remake of yet another song, the murder mystery has been solved. It’s no spoiler to say that Maubee decapitated Paeter, but it’s way more complicated than that. When all is said and done, Quinn has a touching reconciliation scene with his wife and son, and Ubu Pearl’s cursing of both Quinn and Miller (actually, she threatens to kill him from beyond the grave) reconciles itself nicely. The film’s last scene raises more questions than it answers, but if you’ve been paying attention, it doesn’t come out of nowhere. There’s a scene just like it earlier. In fact, I’ve told you everything you need to know to figure out whodunit and how in this review.

One of the best things about The Mighty Quinn is its mise-en-scene. You’re on that island, surrounded by bright colors and lots of reggae music. It’s like being on vacation with a fine story and finer atmosphere. The film opens with a scream, which we realize is coming from a familiar reggae singer providing backup on a song that asks “guess who’s coming to dinner? Natty dreadlocks!” The music carries the film, as a Greek chorus, as in the Mighty Quinn rehashes, and sometimes as mere ironic observer, as when three blind men cross Quinn’s path while holding a boombox blasting a reggae version of “I’m a Girl Watcher.” Everything sort of just happens to you, and the actors are these characters, from the laid back Maubee to the violent Miller. As Quinn, Washington is excellent. Funny, charming, sexy and looser than he’s ever been since, Washington is The Mighty Quinn’s metronome. He keeps the beat and the other actors, all uniformly good, follow his lead.

(Well folks, that’s it for this year’s Black History Mumf. I have two other pieces in my head, and perhaps they’ll show up as regular entries here at Big Media Vandalism soon. Thanks to everyone who has come out to read and post under the entries. Being on the road most of this year’s Mumf has made it hard to keep up, but I think I’ve said what I wanted to say this year. Peace and Soul! –Odienator)

HELP! Jesus is carrying me away from Black History Mumf!

Monday, March 01, 2010

The Content of Their Character Actors: Alfre Woodard

By Odienator
(for all posts, click here)

20 years ago, I went to see a movie with Holly Hunter and Mary Steenburgen, two quirky actors I liked. Steenburgen was great in Melvin and Howard, and Hunter had won me over in Raising Arizona and Broadcast News. Also in the cast was Alfre Woodard, with whom I was familiar from my days as a St. Elsewhere junkie, and also from a haunting TV movie she made with John Ritter. The movie that joined all these wonderful female actresses was called Miss Firecracker, and was written by Pulitzer prize winning playwright, Beth Henley. It sounded like a can’t miss. In actuality, it was one of the worst movies I’ve ever seen. I hated the characters in this movie; they were full of that Southern Fried bullshit that must only be endearing to people who think the South should rise again. Tennessee Williams somehow made this type of thing fascinating—probably because everybody in Tennessee Williams’ plays is a big ol’ drag queen—but Pulitzer or not, Beth Henley ain’t no Tennessee Williams.

Perhaps I wasn’t the target audience for this movie; The Washington Post’s review begins “Set in Yazoo City, Mississippi, "Miss Firecracker" burbles with the music of crazy white people -- it's alive with glorious cracker talk.” I get giddy just thinking how the movie poster could have misrepresented that quote. I’d kill for a Miss Firecracker poster that turned that quote into “It’s Alive With Glorious Crackas!”

The one good thing about Miss Firecracker is Alfre Woodard, who plays a bug-eyed seamstress named Popeye who makes outfits for bullfrogs. I hated her character too—every time I saw her my brain kept flashing DANGER: COON!!!—but somehow Woodard made me change my mind about that classification by the film’s end. She was just as weird as everyone else in the picture, but I never saw the actress lose her dignity, and believe me, I kept waiting for that moment as she’s the only Black person in this Southern Gothic mess. There’s even a little sweetness to her delivery of the line “he makes my heart hot.” When you see the “he” in question, you’ll probably think this is the moment Woodard’s dignity goes down the toilet.

Like many great actors, Alfre Woodard has been in material that was far beneath her talents. It seems she’s done that a lot more than I’d like, and it occasionally becomes repetitious, but when she’s given a complex character to sink her teeth into, she’s one of the best actresses around. She can play almost any role--she once even played Winnie Mandela--but she excels in character-driven pieces about conflicted, struggling people. Caregivers show up several times her repertoire; she’s been doctors, nurses and Veterans Administration counselors. But she can also play selfish bitches, occasionally drug or alcohol addicted and always less than pleasant, as in Holiday Heart and Down in the Delta.

The Emmy Awards love her, as she’s been nominated 15 times, winning four of the dangerous looking statuettes. Oscar’s love for her was more fleeting—one nomination for Cross Creek back in 1983. I didn’t see that movie until after Miss Firecracker, but I almost didn’t as it paired her with Firecracker co-star Mary Steenburgen. Cross Creek is actually good, featuring Rip Torn in an Oscar nominated performance he could have played in his sleep: a drunk.

Woodard has been in so many movies and TV shows that a simple piece here won’t do her justice. Instead, I thought I’d pick a few of her choice performances and talk about them.

John Sayles’ Double Feature: John Sayles wrote for Woodard twice, once on the big screen and once on TV. The TV movie, Unnatural Causes, was jarring to me in that it featured John Ritter in a dramatic role. This was the first time I’d seen him outside his goofy, Jack Tripper performance, and he’s excellent as a Vietnam vet dying of cancer from Agent Orange exposure. Woodard plays his VA counselor, a cancer survivor who helps him fight a losing battle to sue the gov’ment for basically killing him. Both actors are great (though the real surprise is an acting appearance by Miss Patti) and Woodard has a line of dialogue that shocked me in 1986. After revealing to Ritter that she battled cancer via the item she uses to hide her mastectomy, she says “now give me my tit back.” Apparently NBC was less skittish about titties than CBS, even back then.

On the big screen, Sayles directed Woodard in Passion Fish, a sort of Driving Miss Daisy Meets Chick Flick that’s far less embarrassing and cringe-worthy than DMD. Mary McDonnell received an Oscar nod for playing a pain-in-the-ass soap star named May-Alice who’s been crippled in a car crash. Woodard plays Chantelle, the latest nurse to fall victim to May-Alice’s mean streak toward her caregivers. Unlike the others, Chantelle is determined not to let May-Alice make her quit. She stands up to her, something Hoke couldn’t do to Miss Daisy, but her actions hide the real reasons why she needs the money May-Alice is paying her. Sayles writes fully developed characters for each woman, and the interaction between McDonnell and Woodard should have been enough to get Woodard a Supporting Actress nod (it didn’t).

Miss Evers’ Boys- Woodard’s most famous role is a fictionalized version of Eunice Rivers, the nurse who, for 40 years, assisted the government with the Tuskeegee Syphilis Experiments. Nurse Evers joins the team at the beginning of the experiment, and willingly allows these men to suffer even after a cure became available. Woodard has a very tricky role to play here. She’s the main character and she has to evoke some semblance of sympathy to keep you with her even as she’s lying to characters we grow to like during the film, including Obba Babatunde and Laurence Fishburne. I couldn’t get with Miss Evers, though, and this is why I think Woodard is so good here. I was so conflicted and angry that, for this piece, I couldn’t even watch the movie again. My reaction to her character, and her performance, stuck with me all these years. I understood Miss Evers’ reasons, but I couldn’t accept them under any circumstance. Director Joe Sargeant would fuck with me in a similar fashion a few years later with Something the Lord Made, but he and his cast got to me here first. Babatunde and Fishburne (who also produced the picture) got Emmy nominations but Woodard took home the prize, and deservedly so. This is a rich, complex performance.

Crooklyn- I’ve talked about this movie enough already here at BHM @ BMV, but I wanted to throw it in here because Woodard reminded me of my own mother, with her hairstyle and her multiple kids and her line “I can't even take a piss without six people hanging off my tits!” There were seven people in my household growing up, so it sounds like something my mother would have said.