Thursday, October 29, 2020

Rita Slays Her Demons in ‘Vampire in Brooklyn’


Exactly twenty-five years ago, Eddie Murphy presented Vampire In Brooklyn, a comedy-horror directed by the legendary Wes Craven, written by Michael Lucker, Chris Parker, and the late Charlie Murphy— Eddie’s brother and longtime creative partner. At the center of this Coming to America vibe, is Rita Veder, the carbon copy replica of his longtime love (as it so happens in most vampiric tales). The Caribbean hailed Maximilian has arrived in a bloody boat, looking specifically for her. 

After the untimely death of her mother in a mental institution, Rita has been tormented by strange thoughts and dreams. She moonlights as a painter, integrating the dark, supernatural manifestations into surreal pictures on canvas. In fact, her unraveling behavior presents fodder for her insensitive co-workers down at the precinct. It should be duly noted this shows police are incapable of being compassionate towards those afflicting from severe trauma or mental illness. Only Rita’s partner Justice cares about her troubles, shedding an attentive ear and protective garb. 

However, Rita is no damsel in distress. Although terrifying moments occur, like a coffin appearing with her lookalike stowed inside or a hooded cobra striking at her, Rita stays grounded, keeps her cool. She is surrounded by skeptics and naysayers who believe a Black woman is losing her marbles, but Rita cares little for the opinion of others. When she is almost kidnapped by a disguised Max, she manages to gain the upper hand and save herself. Of course, Justice is pissed that he doesn’t get to be her shiny hero. Rita, though, is angry at him, believing that he was the one giving Nikki, her vanishing roommate, a wild romp night. 

It is wonderful that two gorgeous Black women are onscreen, let alone two women sharing an apartment, but Nikki does not receive full development, let alone a direct conversation with Rita. Nikki is introduced only after Rita lets Justice into the apartment— not before. And yes, there are parts Nikki could have been readily inserted. Nikki tries the seductive temptress route with Justice, but he is not interested in her overly aggressive pursuit. Max, Nikki’s badly mistaken consolation prize, is out in the wings waiting for an opening. She lets the hypnotic vampire inside, succumbing to the full moon needs of sex and blood. Simbi Khali, around twenty-four years old at the time, was definitely underused here. She is a gifted actress, funny, talented. It would have added incredible depth to the script if Nikki were much like the Dr. Zeko character, knowing about the otherworldly phenomenon, talking to Rita about her paintings and her disturbing nightmares. Definitely, missing a potential scene there, but men wrote and directed... 

Academy Award nominated, Golden Globe winning Angela Bassett shines here as the smart, charismatic detective with a profound passion and knowledge for art being wooed by two males eager to dominate. She easily transforms from mourning adult daughter in restricted uniform to a sensual woman drawn to Max’s magnetic prowess. That beautiful black, spaghetti strap dress donned for a first date, accentuated Rita’s deep brown skin— something missing in this colorist landscape of Black cinema. Bassett was absolutely riveting, lighting the screen with her elegant portrayal, miles above the problematic story. As far as supernatural and horror, Bassett stars in several of Ryan Murphy’s American Horror Story anthologies on FX and even survives Critters 4— the only straight-to-video in the tiny furball creature series. 

Vampire in Brooklyn has Rita balancing between the bloodthirsty lure of vampiric existence or remaining an upstanding human. Max wants to show her the entire world, but the cost kills innocents. How could a woman choosing to protect lives handle wreaking such devastation for years and years like Max has? Rita’s internal battle is tough, especially when Justice is literally tantalizing her newfound hunger. She ultimately chooses the best decision fit for the evolution of her selfless character.   

Wednesday, October 28, 2020

‘The Invitation,’ An Allegory For Society?


Tokenism is never an enjoyable sight. 

In a horror/thriller film like The Invitation, incumbent fear heightens for Kira. She is surrounded in a modest grouping, the sole Black woman— dark skinned too. The tender vulnerability of such tremulous situations mirrors fragile workplace environments, walking along eggshells, playing an almost superficial kind of nice. Kira must have been deeply embedded within herself, forcing any residual doubt to surpass just to undergo an awkward evening. All she wanted was to have a nice, normal dinner at her boyfriend’s ex-wife’s house. She kindly greeted everyone, let in no airs or grievances of discomfort. And yet the hosts could not revise their murderous plans. 

Poor Kira. 

Before Kira and Will even arrive to the candlelit party, Will accidentally hits a deer and kills it out of misery. Once they reach Eden’s grand house, where windows are prevalent and doors are mysteriously locked, all seems well— scarily well. Will was once married to Eden and they lost their young son, grieving the loss in different ways. Tragedy drove their relationship apart with Will coping through psychology and Eden finding a new husband in weird behaving David. 

Moreover, Eden and David’s extra notch politeness carries a sinister vibe, but only Will notices the facade. Kira, however, is trying to be everyone’s friend, much like any Black woman wanting to break the ice. By dismantling conditioned stereotypes that requires Black characters to provide cheap laughs, act sassy, or speak Ebonics, Kira is instead a caring, considerate listener, attentive to Will’s outbursts. After all, this quiet, calm house and the company of strangers is Will’s world. Kira is the willing participant, entering into another dimension of her boyfriend’s past and uncertain future. 

The illustrious Emayatzy Corinealdi is the poised Black woman survivor in a film directed by Karen Kusama, written by two men— Phil Hay (Kusama’s husband) and Matt Manfredi. Corinealdi has appeared in a limited horror/supernatural features such as the direct-to-video Vampz and a TV movie called Demons. The fact remains that this solid, multifaceted, utterly gorgeous actress deserves to have more starring roles. She is definitely an admired presence to look up to, considering that Middle of Nowhere (her first starring vehicle) remains a favorite romance. 

Once Kira and Will realize that murder is indeed on the menu, it is high time to flee. For Kira, the getting to know an ex phase has hit an unsuspected curveball. As the guests die one by one, Eden remains beholden to that scary layer beneath the niceness, reminiscent of the squeaky clean white people in Get Out. She is evil without truly comprehending it. With the morbid intensity like that of a religious cult leader, she believes her intentions are genuine, that murdering these innocents provides a service.

Hopefully, after witnessing and surviving that terribly violent ordeal, Kira decided to break up with David and chill out with her normal Black friends offscreen. 

Tuesday, October 27, 2020

The Notable Regression of a Promising Selena in ‘28 Days Later’

In 28 Days Later, Jim woke up naked in a hospital bed and utterly alone much like Rick Grimes in The Walking Dead. He strolled through a church and around an eerily empty London, horrified by a sea of lifeless bodies and helpless to their zombie-like terror until lone survivors Selena and Mark save him from potential infection.

Selena is rightfully wise, hard edged, and resourceful. Her quick-thinking philosophy is fueled by strictly kill or be killed. During an apocalypse, there is no time to be weighed down by others. When trouble arises, Selena does not hesitate to perform whatever duty is necessary to survive another day. When her partner Mark is infected (thanks to Jim foolishly lighting a candle), Selena kills Mark swiftly. Of course, she would later contradict her words on damning the consequences of self-preservation, growing closer to Jim and newer rescuers Frank and his teen daughter Hannah. 

As the film progresses onward, focusing heavily on Jim and what Jim symbolizes, Selena shifts from the earlier anarchism to opening up to the people around her. Selena softens to Hannah (who first doesn’t let clearly unaffected Selena and Jim into safety), growing into both a friend and maternal figure. The two bond at the grocery store and further more in the loaded taxi, playing cards in the backseat. 

Selena’s dynamism loses ground after she, Hannah, and Jim are seemingly saved by militant forces— and these recruits are racist as hell. Selena and Hannah are facing the other nasty condition of the zombie relic—psychologically, physically disturbed men without women, a whole other kind of monster unprepared for. Before the trap is fully set, it becomes obvious that Selena and Hannah— the sole female survivors thus far— are vulnerable prey to a pack of desperate savages. Hannah being cast as a teenager as opposed to being Selena’s age demonstrates the sacred protection of white femininity. While rape and rape culture warrants no fulfilling content by any means, the fact remains that Selena’s age, body, and race are suddenly weaponized against her. She is stripped down, defenseless, subjected to using her sexuality for favors, being called a Black this, a Black that. If the Selena were white, her skin would not be addressed with such venom. This is especially heinous because the captain reveals to Jim that they kept a rage victim captive, in chains— lo and behold a Black man. Also Jim does leave another Black man to die a gruesome death without hesitation. Not once wondering if that poor Black man was purposely manipulated into joining that twisted military cult like some of the others. 

Naomie Harris is effective in the role requirements of Selena. The Academy Award nominated, BIFA award-winning actress skillfully performed what must be done with Alex Garland’s jaw dropping script. Between moments of physical exertion and mental gymnastics from the vile racism and sexism her character endures in that nearly final act, must have been extremely stressful. Also, Harris is no stranger in the genre realm, having co-starred in two Pirates of the Caribbean sequels, two 007 films, and surviving another science fiction thriller, Rampage. This box office success helmed by Danny Boyle and considered a cult zombie classic, was Harris’s first major film role and earned her a Black Reel Award for Best Breakthrough Performance. 

Amazingly, despite the situations Selena battles with a diligent strength and perseverance, 28 Days Later allows her to say the final words, humble and absolutely perfect with a winning, relieved smile. She is a saving grace considering that 28 Weeks Later, the follow-up sequel, features no Black women characters, but stars Black male actors Idris Elba and Harold Perrineau. So watch this vehicle for the sheer thrill of Selena kicking butt and knowing that she lives til the end. 

Monday, October 26, 2020

Black Women Survival in Horror

While watching horror films (both classic and contemporary), the notion of Black women survival hits hard. To live in the ugly, horrific world of now remains another kind of vicious monster to battle altogether. Yet in October, the month of haunting Halloween and all things ghoulish, the horror genre allows escape into supernatural. Personal favorites include mostly Stephen King (Carrie, Christine, Misery), the traditional Hocus Pocus, the first Halloween, Nightmare Before Christmas, Nightmare on Elm Street, and a Ray Bradbury animated treat (The Halloween Tree). 

However, the grossly, overkilled Black body or their glaring absence can oftentimes ruin the enjoyment of most other films. Or moreover, the lack of Black women seen in horror films or their early demises are downright deplorable. The latter are rather disingenuous caricatures. They are certainly not a monolith, but they do not standby to be viciously killed. 

Alien Vs. Predator (2004)’s Alexa Woods was one of the first Black women to outlive the majority in the 2000’s. With eyebrows raised, waiting and waiting for the beasts to change their minds, to slash her up in the final seconds, it was supremely shocking that Alexa and the alien had an epic stare down, no death in store.

In the vampire realm, Black women are prone to death such as the case for Tina in Blacula who is tragically shot and once turned into a vampire— immediately staked or Queen of the Damned’s Akasha, raised back to life and killed by the very vampire who summoned her. They fare no better in television with Kendra’s disturbing death on Buffy the Vampire Slayer or Tara Thorton’s vampiric turn and eventual murder in True Blood. Still, in two different vampire films made almost twenty years apart, Bill Gunn’s Ganja & Hess (1973) and Eddie Murphy’s Vampire In Brooklyn (1995) differ from their Black women survival. While Ganja was turned, she did not have that final fatal death and Rita rejected becoming a full vampire.

Before dying in Scream 2, Jada Pinkett-Smith survived the dark, sinister events of Tales From the Crypt: Demon Knight, her Jeryline fleeing on a bus just as her Set it Off and Jason’s Lyric (although due to a rather ambiguous ending some do not believe Lyric lived). CCH Pounder’s character kept a modest amount of hope alive, but eventually succumbed to the vile creatures. Still, wonderful to see her holding her own and protecting another, making sure Jeryline sees the next day. That is somewhat missing from the others— a true comrade, a sistah looking out. Although Emayatzy Corinealdi’s Kira makes it through one hell of a twisted dinner party in thriller The Invitation, she seems rather isolated as the stranger joining the fray as the girlfriend, the only Black woman, standing out in a rather uncomfortable way. 

Whereas “the rage” takes over Europe, Naomie Harris’s Selena is the dynamic Black woman ready to kill anyone in Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later much like The Walking Dead’s Michonne played flawlessly by Danai Gurira, the only Black woman survivor (so far) to challenge the zombie apocalypse. As the tethered kill their shadows, Lupita Nyong’o’s dynamic dual performance in Us lets us almost forgive writer/director Jordan Peele for killing Georgina in Get Out. Sure, Georgina is obviously possessed by an old white woman, but seeing a Black man run over a Black woman’s body still upsets the spirit. Also huge props to portrayer Betty Gabriel on a chilling performance. 

Maybe our Black selves are centuries above this frightening, scary monster, psychologically disturbing phenomenon that mostly center whiteness. After all, whiteness still remains a dangerous enemy throughout history of marginalized, indigenous cultures across the globe. That is the true villain. The true undeniable horror. Yet the delicious addiction of the fright looks great with a Black person living, a Black woman leading and existing, being smart and resourceful. While we wait with baited breath for Nia DaCosta’s Candyman remake (and pray that a Black woman survives in it), the world must know that the audience is ready for this genre to be transformed, to give up a universal satisfaction. Yes, Black women are in a lot of horror films/TV, but it is past the time that they rightfully stay alive too. 

Friday, May 29, 2020

‘A Love Song For Latasha’ Is Gentle Prose That Transcends Black Girl Tragedy

A Love Song For Latasha film poster. 
These days are full of fire and rage fueled by the pain of tragic loss. Black bodies are robbed of living and their murderers often receive no punishment. 

Latasha once saved another Black girl from drowning and that girl became her best friend— one of the film’s narrators. 
Art is one remedy that temporarily soothes the affects worldwide racism has historically created over centuries. And that racism is not always black and white. Back in the 1990’s such a turmoil boiled hotly in South Central part of Los Angeles, California between Black people and the Koreans— majority business owners. A Black girl was heinously murdered by a temperamental Korean grocer. 

That Black girl’s name was Latasha Harlins. 

Latasha’s yearbook photo. 
A Love Song For Latasha honors her memory, often lost in the continued escalating violence of today. History allots a paltry paragraph on her death and not a full bodied in-depth look at her short life. Among images of Black girls swimming and Black girls immersed in dreamy flowers, this hybrid short film humanizes Harlins, sculpting a figure beyond the teenager executed for buying an orange juice. Her story is carefully constructed by her best friend and cousin, the narrating women celebrating their lost youth, sharing the innocent desires of building community centers, becoming lawyers. Although surviving to only the tender age of fifteen-years-old, Harlins was a known heroine in her neighborhood, having valiantly protected the most vulnerable from bullies. A loving, caring girl wanted to give back to her community, save it from harm. She lost so much already in her young life including her mother at age ten, but Harlins still reimagined a greater world, an unfulfilled hope of Black utopia. 

When Black girls hang out, it’s a moment of celebrating each other, of simply being and enjoying each other’s light. Latasha brought so much light to everyone she loved, her friends, her family. 
Black girl with flower crowns dressed in white, tall sunflowers surrounding her. 
Between Adebukola Bodunrin’s dark, haunting animation and depicting the value of Black girl friendships through fictional scenes, writer/director/cinematographer Sophia Nahli Allison brings new information to light about Harlins, breaking away from standard documentary format. The long-awaited justice is found here through the scope of Allison’s caring, tender lens, in visually stunning pictures showcasing a rich, insightful look at burgeoning Black womanhood, at something taken for granted, stolen. Latasha Harlins is more than her death date of March 16, 1991. She was a Black girl who mattered, who had some real poignant dreams. 

Black girl friendships are special. 
A Love Song for Latasha is a piece of our past, our present. A valid resource for future generations, demonstrating the worth of a Black life, a Black girl’s life, Allison reveals why Latasha Harlins deserved to live. 

Thursday, May 28, 2020

‘The Weekend’ Is a Smart, Relatable Romantic Comedy

The Weekend film poster. 
Although most romantic comedies contain a grossly exaggerated raunchiness that borders on unrealistic caricature, especially rated R films, The Weekend is well above the average. It has the rarity of putting Zadie, a Black woman in a leading role while also placing her at the forefront of desire— the attention of two men. What is not to love?

Zadie is a sarcastic, wise-cracking comedian. Her standup material mixes situational humor and making light of mental health struggle. She wears basic t-shirts (black, white, yellow) and high waisted blue jeans, even wearing the same outfit twice. In fact, she does not change those blue jeans.

In the premise, Zadie is spending the weekend at her parents’ rustic bed and breakfast with her ex-boyfriend Bradford and his girlfriend Margo. Now Bradford and Zadie are extremely close exes. Their intimacy is stronger than friendship, unlike a sibling vibe. Margo— who puts on a brave face— certainly feels the rift. The odd dynamic becomes overwhelmingly complicated due to Zadie’s increased meanness towards Margo. Aubrey, the handsome unattached guest, immerses himself into the triad, drawn specifically to Zadie. This incites Bradford’s own green-eyed monster. Beneath his kind and warranted protectiveness lies that need for Zadie. As days steeped in nature slowly press onward, that need cannot stay quiet. Even Zadie’s judgmental mother, Karen, sees it.

Bradford (Tone Bell) enjoys being in the middle of Margo (DeWanda Wise) and Zadie (Sasheer Zamata) until Aubrey (Y’lan Noel) enters the picture with eyes on Zadie.
On occasion, the four young people at the apex of this trip experience third wheel shifts: Zadie’s discomfort with Bradford and Margo, Bradford’s insecurity with Zadie and Aubrey, and Margo’s invisibility with Bradford. Throughout this interplay, Zadie is trying to keep a firm head as her anxiety wavers. She continues acting out, hiding secrets, secrets within herself. Aubrey, fresh from a breakup, is intrigued by Zadie and does not allow her to push him away.

Black girls ruling nature: Zadie and Margo try to have a civil conversation. 
Zadie’s most reliable male relationship seems to be with her father— who is absent during this mini vacation. He “appears” on the phone with her, though the audience never hears his voice. The busiest shirt that Zadie happens to wear is a patterned pink shirt taken from her father’s closet— while bike riding with her two love interests. Still, it is not too difficult for Zadie to embrace being brutally honest. Aubrey brings out another side of her, that awkward girl who often feels like a “supporting character and not the leading lady.” Even though Bradford knows Zadie’s every fault, he broke up with her because the dueling personalities were too heavy a burden. It is understandable, a partner with mental illness can be challenging exercise. However, cultured, sophisticated Margo— the “normal” woman— is not convincing him to commit enough. The well-traveled, articulate, fashionably conscious Margo has the flawless paper performance. Yet Bradford and Margo have not been intimate in months. Bradford sneaks off every chance to see Zadie, warning her against Aubrey, threatened by their obvious connection.

One of the most hilarious scenes in the film are Zadie, Aubrey, and Bradford biking together. 
Writer/director Stella Meghie helmed a brilliantly entertaining piece. The story arouses questions on the longevity of relationships, of finding balance and setting boundaries. There are Black comedians, Black photographers, Black business owners, scenes lit beautifully, capturing brown skin in all its glorious range. Plus, a deep complexioned, 4C haired Black woman leads a phenomenal cast operating smoothly together. Sasheer Zamata has an utterly riveting screen presence as Zadie, able to transition between deadpan humor and an authentic vulnerability with degrees of heartfelt seriousness resonating deeply. Her star should rise further in multifaceted roles, letting that natural candor shine through. The promising Tone Bell (Little), the exceptional DeWanda Wise (The Underground, Shots Fired, and She’s Gotta Have It), leading man material Y’lan Noel (Insecure’s heartthrob Daniel and funnily enough playing a younger version of Issa Rae’s character’s father in Meghie’s other film, The Photograph). Kym Whitley’s Karen provided a sweet, delightful surprise, a humbling performance that too allowed another real-life comedian to show impressive layers of humility and strength.

Tone Bell (Bradford), DeWanda Wise (Margo), Sasheer Zamata (Zadie), Kym Whitley (Karen), and Y’lan Noel (Aubrey) make up The Weekend cast. 
The Weekend is a refreshing look at the ways of discovering the constant things in life that heal us and the others that are quite toxic. Zadie learns in three days what will help her grow and what holds her back.

Zadie in darker jeans, an optimistic shirt, and a new hairstyle.
In the end, Zadie’s bright yellow t-shirt matching a great big smile assures viewers she made the healthiest choice for herself.

Tuesday, April 28, 2020

The Colorful ‘Jinn’ Comes at the Right Time

Jinn film poster. 
Once a menace came into presidency and signed a dangerous, very prejudiced Muslim Ban into order, this caused a great ruckus across America. Prior to and even after 9/11, films and television ostracized the Muslim community, always depicting them as the bad guy. 

The amazing Jinn portrays the religion in a humanized light, weighing its pros and cons. It centers the significant journey that converting into Muslim religion presents between a Black mother and daughter residing in the Inglewood neighborhood of Los Angeles, California. Jade is a local meteorologist and Summer is a creative, outgoing high school senior and aspiring dancer hoping for acceptance into SoCal’s art program. 

Jade (Simone Missick in maroon) is entranced by the words of Islam and hopes that Summer feels the same rapture. 
Firstly, the carefree Black girl will never be a tiring image. Summer riding her bike, dancing with passionate determination, expertly skateboarding, dying her curls, and even slyly flirting with girls are some authentic, rarely seen film components of a Black girl growing up, unafraid to let spirit and fluidity fly. This adds layers to a refreshing coming of age drama. Interesting parallels uniquely weave how Jade and Summer enter into this new chapter together, how it changes them, how it clashes and creates new boundaries.

Sometimes Jade (Simone Missick) comes off too strongly against Summer (Zoe Renee), who is still very young and learning. 
Jinn’s script illustrates a thoughtful, tender depiction of a religion that is often ridiculed and villainized in media much like that of Black and brown bodies. The writing lends itself to having a loving, tender care, analyzing each part with both a graceful hold and sharp critique. This nuanced treatment shows the beautiful side (the penmanship of Arabic language, the poetry in its words, the incredible headscarves) as well as its disturbing misogyny (that yes all religions hold women to some oppressive standard). For instance, Summer’s #HalaiHottie image causes quite a stir, reaching the mosque. She is humiliated in a stern, heavy handed manner by both the Muslim community and her mother. Jade is suddenly at a crossroads, forgetting too that Summer is still between childhood and adult womanhood. Thus, the storminess crashes down on this peaceful calm that the religion supposedly brings into the weatherwoman’s life. On top of trying to understand her daughter’s actions, Jade faces microaggressions at work, the disdain of mostly white peers unimpressed by her new “unAmerican” look. 

Summer (Zoe Renee) having fun times in her bike with Tahir (Kelvin Harrison Jr.). What a joy!
Love is explored between mother/daughter, father/daughter, father/daughter/father’s girlfriend, mother/religion/daughter, girl/boy. Summer’s parents are not together due to Jade’s compulsion to switch it up on short notice, changing routines like the seasons impacting her forecast. Religion has all the makings of a coupling— the magic of falling in deep and the pitfalls of how it hurts when identity comes into play. Jade has fallen head over heels with the religion, but also the leader of their mosque— which Summer notices. Meanwhile, Summer shows interest in girls in that pansexual, fleeing sort of way, but is drawn to the brooding Tahir, a boy in her class raised Muslim. She is utterly impressed by his parents, almost idolizing. Summer and Tahir’s love is that first burgeoning taste into the unknown. She is the embodiment of American culture and he is the testament of relegated faith. Their pure, innocent union softens the chaos of high school and critical surveillance. 
After killing it on stage with an awesome dance routine, Summer (Zoe Renee) recites a bittersweet poem about her experiences since converting and her tense relationship with Jade. 
Jinn’s every intention from its eclectic music choices to the casting breathes in perfect symmetry. Nijla Mu’min’s soft, poetic narrative collides beautifully with the key saturated hues of Bruce Francis Cole’s cinematography— the light playing on Summer’s bike rides, the intimate close up of Tahir’s fingers untying her red headwrap, the eyes speaking volumes in the silence. The performances of newcomer Zoe Renee, seasoned award-winning Kelvin Harrison Jr. (of Waves, Luce, and The Photograph), and Simone Missick (who stars as Judge Lola Carmichael in All Rise, Misty Knight in all the Marvel Netflix series,’ and a great cameo in American Koko) memorably stand out, leaving behind the hope that Hollywood knows their names as well. 

Jinn gives audiences the solemn promise that emerging Black director/writers are truly out there making must watch film. And we must champion their rise.