Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Disney Takes a Giant Leap of Faith With "Queen of Katwe"

Queen of Katwe film poster has that The Lion King vibe.
 "This just isn't a game, it is a way out."
Queen of Katwe paints marvelous touches on desires to become bigger than improbable circumstances. On the canvas, set in Uganda, Phiona Mutesi, a young, intelligent Ugandan girl selling maize alongside her little brother to make desperate ends meet, leads this engaging biopic. Uniquely enough, showcasing continent from within, hardships and strife hold hands with love and joy, rarely seen in an African based film.

Nakku (Lupita Nyong'o) and her daughter Phiona (Madina Nalwanga).
After her brother speaks of Robert Katende, an educated happily married man, showing village children something new and exciting at the community center, Phiona comes along, immediately curious and drawn to activity of chess. She quickly picks up the challenging game, emerging from beginner to novice quite fast.  Her low-spirited shyness dissolves as building confidence takes place. Of course, Phiona's mother, Nakku is against anything that isn't helping keep a roof above their heads. Night, Nakku's other daughter, fancies moneyed boys and an "easy" way out of impoverished slums whereas always-doing-right Phiona is Nakku's most reliable girl. Chess becomes the vehicle driving emotional threads to Phiona and Nakku's close relationship, threatening to divide a mother's need for stagnant consistency and a daughter's newfound commitment to better her situation.

Robert (David Oyelowo) is impressed with Phiona's (Madina Nalwanga) skills and pushes her to continue playing.
On quest to become a Chess Master, Phiona falls into arrogant behavior.
It is understandable.
Phiona hails from a predicament where women aren't to have dreams beyond finding a financially sound man. The situation is worse still. Night's ups and downs consist of receiving monies, fine clothes, and accessories as well as being systematically dumped several times. It isn't the life Phiona wants.
Moments in which Phiona is strongly defiant, wanting to compete in every chess competition she can, are intensely moving. Sure the audience is expected to believe that she is getting carried away with her forceful motivation. Yet implanted hope grows regardless.
Phiona is deserving-- deserving of every good prospect sliding in her direction.

Nakku (Lupita Nyong'o) parting Phiona's (Madina Nalwanga) hair.
Queen of Katwe, a Disney production, celebrates not just Phiona's chess victories. This bold, powerful tale, breaking a tradition of European beauty standards and exclusive fairy tale caricatures, is a testament to young black girls that they can be anything they want to be. They don't have to desire waist length hair, light skin and light eyes, or a romance. They can be their perfect individualized selves without any alteration caused by inherent brainwashing. They can be their own Phiona-- short cropped hair, dashiki fabric, and luminous ebony skin product of pure Africa-- desiring to play chess at highest level possible.
That is an astounding accomplishment.
The "unconventional" can become the normality.

Phiona the champ with one of her guiding lights, Robert (David Oyelowo).
Another solid plus, which is usually typical Hollywood tactic, is that no white saviors assertively present themselves. Mira Nair utilizes African resources to best of knowledgeable ability. From the Katwe slums to the big city, the largely black cast has no need for outsiders. Moreover, Phiona is her own hero. Sure Robert paved the way, shared a gift with Phiona, but her intelligent mind is hers alone.

"Are you my daughter?" Nakku asks. "Yes, I am," Phiona declares.

Queen of Katwe may have a few cases of formulaic principles to amp up drama.
However, that doesn't break away from a triumphant story that will inspire female equations worldwide. Phiona, an unlikely heroine, overcomes humungous odds by besting both boys and girls, with a beaming, wide smile and tender grace. With aide of valiant Robert and once reluctant-turned proud Nakku, Phiona cannot lose. 

Director Mira Nair and Lupita are all smiles in a filming location.
Nair has performed a gracious act by taking on a narrative set in Africa.
With witty charm, comedic chops, and heartfelt sincerity, David Oyelowo is exceptional as a man who sees and honors the potential he sees in lower class pupils. Lupita Nyong'o portrays Nakku with remarkable three-dimensional tenacity. From angrily snatching her children away from Robert to making ultimate sacrifices for Phiona's happiness to utter distraught at Phiona's temporary heartbreaking decision, Nyong'o displays an incredible range of skillful performance. Awards season should knock on her door next year. As for newcomer Madina Nalwanga, she was a standout as the leading focal point. She showed extreme depth, rendering Phiona's passion, strength, and will. This may be the start of an excellent road ahead for this mesmerizing young actress.

"Are we still going to be Americanah's Ifemulu and Obinze?" Yes. Please. Lupita and David have a beautiful vibe together. Let's hope they make a few more films with each other, especially a certain treasure based on Chimamanda Adichie Ngozi's thought-provoking novel. Is it too much to want Mira Nair or another amazing filmmaker woman of color to direct them again?
Queen of Katwe is worth viewing over and over. The acting, direction, music, and cinematography is an overall celebration of the beauty of Africa and its humbled yet passionately determined people. We all know a Phiona Mutesi-- whether resting dormant inside of us or visibly depicted in another.
Also must recommend staying after film is over for poignant rolling end credits and this special music video directed by Nair with surprising cameos. Such a splendid treat all around!
Let's hope that more authentic stories based in Africa receive the Hollywood greenlight.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Goodbye Pigeonholing, Hello "Queen Sugar's" Mouthful of Honey Dripping Poetry

Queen Sugar is based on Natalie Baszile's NAACP Image Award nominated novel.
True perennial grasses-- sugar cane that is-- has yet touched the lives of the Bordelon offspring. These symbolic sweet acres will, however, become primary inheritance tying them together as deep as shared bloodline. With tantalizing twang and pleasant degree of Southern hospitality comes a story rich in fertile soils watered by Ava DuVernay's compelling flower pot.
On Oprah Winfrey's OWN Network, already renewed for a second season, Queen Sugar is a promising television series coated in profound integrity, placing nature of black family love and burden on the pedestal. Unlike most shows, this hearty drama looks to fulfill a void audiences have long since desired to view.

Nova (Rutina Wesley) is a natural, mediated leader of the three siblings.
"First Things First" is an introductive parlay of muted intimate frames set in beguiling arrangement like trembling fragile pieces desperate to fit together-- DuVernay's signature metaphoric vignette direction. Unlike Baszile's book, which features Bordelon siblings as a duo, the television series has a triad lead by an invented character. Nova is an apothecary magician/contemporary medicine woman carrying on a passionate affair with a married cop; Charley is a spoiled basketball wife/mother living far from humbled Southern beginnings; and Ralph Angel, the youngest, is a troubled young man with anger outbursts often triggered underneath a vulnerable innocence that comes to light in every interaction with his impressionable young son, Blue.
Nova, Charley, and Ralph Angel cannot be anymore different than one another.

Ralph Angel (Kofi Siriboe) with Blue (Ethan Hutchison) and his gender bending Kenya doll.

This special scene embodied the great love a present black father feels for his son. Beaming Ralph Angel came out with Blue's heavily lit birthday cake (more than four years worth of celebration) and connected to Blue's proud face alone.

Three male generations on the hospital bed together is one of the finest scenes ever rendered. That stray tear coming down Ernest's cheek as he holds Blue whilst connective staring at Ralph Angel brought tremors to heart and mind.

At their father's funeral, Nova holds the hands of her brother and sister. They stand out, this united front, only ones dressed in pure, bathing white clothing. This remarkable fashion choice seems to showcase their black, marginalized bodies as earthly angels. Plus it adds an additional current of love to their father who was buried in a white casket. 
"Evergreen," episode two, is a clashing war between sisters (Nova wants to plan every step Ernest's funeral and Charley wants a role) whilst neglecting a brother's desires.
Neema Barnette's helm episode aptly titled "Inherit The Earth" opens with Ernest splitting his eight hundred acre struggling land between his three children. Nova and Charley want to sell, but Ralph Angel is desperate wish to keep their inheritance in the family. He eventually breaks down in Nova's arms in one pivotal scene, sobbing out grief and frustration after almost inflicting great violence.

The unison of Ralph Angel, Charley, and Nova Bordelon are cast perfectly.
Actors are strong and convincing.
Rutina Wesley, True Blood alum and dazzling centerpiece of Queen Sugar, breathes credible life into beautiful, wise, strong Nova. Refreshing Dawn Lyen-Gardner is a force to bear witness as Charley. That remarkable scene where she receives horrific text message video, inserts poisonous truth, and slowly yet purposefully steps on the basketball court to confront her foul husband was absolutely astounding. Kofi Siriboe inhibits layered complexities required for a multifaceted role of Ralph Angel-- a man dangling between moments of sheer blissfulness, hardened distrust, pure anger, and quiet longing.
Queen Sugar is an ethereal, Gothic visual art piece of television history in the making.
Led under Winfrey's nurturing guidance and DuVernay's graceful wings, other women directors and profound musical choices by Meshell Ndegeocello present a triumphant treat. To include many feminine voices in the room is a divine privilege shining brilliantly through each scene.
Thanks to Winfrey and DuVernay, one can only hope exceptional opportunity is a catalyst to have momentous progression continue onward.
Everyone must watch Queen Sugar and become riveted by the Bordelons. They're honest, authentic, and utterly human. Yet also, they're a testament of our time.


Monday, September 19, 2016

67 Years of Funny White Women in the Lead

The 68th annual Primetime Emmy Awards aired Sunday night.
For so long, we had waited for a chance to be considered the Best Leading Actress in a Television Series. Cheers came loud and proud from Debbie Allen to Kerry Washington to sistahs in between. Last year, at last, Viola Davis shattered predominantly white glass ceiling by winning coveted Best Actress trophy for her remarkably layered performance as Annalise Keating on ABC's How to Get Away With Murder. It took sixty-seven years to honor a black woman-- which was a lot sooner than the thirty-two years for a Best Leading Actress in a Comedy Series.
Yet here we are, after sixty-eight years, stuck with pathetic results-- one black woman winner for lead in a drama, one black woman winner for lead in a comedy.

Isabel Sanford (with Sherman Hensley) with her big Emmy win.
Back in 1981, sixty-four-year-old Isabel Sanford took home the golden statue after her third consecutive nomination in the category for playing Louise "Weezy" Mills-Jefferson on The Jeffersons. She was the first black woman to win Best Leading Actress in a Comedy Series.
So far, she is the only.
Diahann Carroll, Isabel Sanford, Nell Carter, and Phylicia Rashad paved a way. On the television screens, they were warm, smart, delightful, and funny-- playing major matriarch role in a slew of uplifting black family sitcoms. Generation after generation found a "mom" to call their own, a maternal hand that playfully slapped common sense into their children's naivety. In moments of despair, attentive audiences counted on these remarkable women to make us chuckle, giggle, and chortle. Sometimes they made us cry. They even made us think, question ourselves, our identities. 
Although other intelligent shows shared comedic chops from A Different World to In Living Single to Girlfriends, not one black woman could break into the Emmys five to six entry ballot often primarily reserved for white women.
Yesterday came a moment simmered in longing and desire.
After a thirty year absence, a black woman was finally accepted as a worthy nominee.

Three decades passed by and Tracee Ellis Ross (as Rainbow "Bow" Johnson in Black*ish) is nominated.....
but it's Julia Louis-Dreyfus as Selina Meyer (Veep) for the win. Again.
With Julia Louis-Dreyfus's fifth straight victory in this category, she beats out Mary Tyler Moore and Candice Bergen for most Leading Actress in a Comedy wins. She also holds the record for most Emmy wins out of twenty-two nominations. That almost doubles the amount of total nominees black women have received altogether. Heck, adding fuel to the fire, Louis-Dreyfus, Moore, and Bergen's combined trophies beat them out as well.
TVline's Michael Ausiello's short case for why Louis-Dreyfus needs to exit the race almost seems positive. He mentioned Bergen's polite dropping out:

In 1996, shortly after winning her fifth non-consecutive Lead Actress Emmy for Murphy Brown, Candice Bergen took herself out of the running in order to give one of her peers a shot at the gold statue.
Next sentence in, Ausiello says:

In this era of #PeakTV, a Louis-Dreyfus-less Lead Actress competition would not only allow one of her overdue rivals to grab gold, but it would create a much-needed vacancy in the six-person race, paving the way for the Michaela Watkins’ and Constance Wus and Rachel Blooms of the world to sneak in.

Constance Wu is brilliant in the wickedly humorous Fresh Off the Boat. One of several key snubs robbed of an Emmy nomination this year. Like black women, Asian women are scarcely seen as being capable of delivering weekly humor, let alone seen competition in what is seemed to be known as a white woman's sport. Hence why the yearning to be freed from stereotypical burden has been the strongest initiative in campaigning for the right of television equality and inclusivity. Women of color deserve to play more than pigeonholed constructions. If they can bring out laughs whilst dismantling white supremacy at the same time, they should not be punished or ostracized.

In 1969, Diahann Carroll (Julia) is the first African American to be nominated for Best Leading Actress in a Comedy Series. The role was non stereotypical.
Isabel Sanford (with Sherman Hensley) has received seven nominations for Best Leading Actress in a Comedy Series-- the most of all. This total also outnumbers the combined amount of the other nominees-- a dismal six.
Nell Carter has two nominations for Gimme A Break!
Phylicia Rashad also scored two nominations. She played Claire Huxtable on The Cosby Show for eight seasons.
Perhaps the 68th Annual Emmy Awards could begin another perspective, another way of correcting a large, glaring problem when it comes to this particular category. After all, it hasn't been inclusive since America Ferrera won an Emmy for Ugly Betty back in 2007.
Emmy voters have to stop choosing the same leading white woman year after year. Same selected roster of names are tossed onto ballots each year, the same old finalists, which means the same old predictable outcome.
Let black women and other women of color have a real, fighting chance to shine.
That would give audiences something to be proud of and aspire to as well.

"When one of us wins, we all win."- Taraji P. Henson, 2015

Do better in 2017 Emmys. Do better.



Tuesday, September 6, 2016

"Southside With You" Tells of An Epic 'First Date' And Defines True Relationship Goals

Southside With You film poster.
Even if one didn't know the iconic names Barack Obama or Michelle Robinson (Obama), this wonderfully depicted story of their first "date" is a treasure for romantic enthusiasts worldwide. It has the solid makings for a sweetly authentic biopic. Man knows woman, woman knows man, but can they work together? Of course!
Honest charm and affectionate promise lace between superb dialogue and raw acting as Barack and Michelle discuss racism, feminism politics, activism, and the best of Stevie Wonder.

Michelle (Tika Sumpter) and Barack (Parker Sawyers) share their dreams.
Southside With You begins with Michelle preparing for a community meeting with Barack-- who slyly has plans of his own. Pumping out Janet Jackson, in an old car nearly falling apart, our little master manipulator pulls up to the Robinson home, with old-fashioned Southern hospitality and an effortless swagger. Michelle sees not only severely damaged vehicle, but hidden cigarettes. Her disdain is plain as day. It's the delightful albeit humorous start to several spars and hotheaded differences, a note on two determined individuals who often clash.
And their willful passionate natures is a well-rendered treat.   
At a visit to the art museum, the-not-yet-a-couple find themselves enthralled in urbanism meets Modigliani styled artworks of Ernie Barnes-- elongated black figures, moving, modestly dressed bodies, and bright, vivid colors. These two prominent entities, walking through genre paintings and sculptures of African Diaspora, discussing and analyzing what they see is one of the definite highlights. Their talks are real, honest.
Then it goes downhill with misconceptions and assumptions.
But there's nothing humble pie and chocolate ice cream can't handle.

Barack (Parker Sawyers) and Michelle (Tika Sumpter) against the world.
Tika Sumpter, who is likely to be considered for an Independent Spirit Award (and more) has come a long way since playing Layla Williamson (on-screen younger sister of recent Tony winning Renee Elise Goldsberry's Evangeline on One Life to Live). She's held her own in Sparkle and Queen Latifah's Bessie. However, Southside With You, grants audiences a taste of what an exceptional leading lady Sumpter can be. She has a refreshing screen presence that is dying to continue showcasing tremendous depth and incredible range. With beneficial aide of a dialect coach, Sumpter easily slips into the intelligent, sophisticated role of Michelle Obama, her poised body language (especially Michelle's infamous arched brow) and sharp vernacular right on par. She truly embodied black woman feminism when delivering lines on the struggles of being not just a woman, but a black woman climbing high in a white patriarchal profession.
Newcomer Parker Sawyers was a befitting choice as the young, chain-smoking president-to-be. Utterly charming, silkily smooth, and with Barack's authoritative voice to match, Sawyers was the definite answer to a challenging casting call. First of all, he mesmerizes as a powerful, compassionate orator (one of Barack's finest talents), secondly, shines as a smitten man instilled in the art of wooing (but not in a way that is creepy or  caveman), and lastly, flawed humanism of Barack's shortcomings.   
Barack takes Michelle to see Spike Lee's riveting Do The Right Thing. The direction is awkward, almost clumsy way of getting both Lee's famous work and reactions of the future President and First Lady in cinematic frames.
Their chemistry is an enduring chess match. By day's end, the inner cheerleader roots for the man to win the woman. They're evenly matched-- a winning combination.
Although Southside With You isn't a flawless masterpiece, it is a nice, irresistible treat to nibble on. Whereas most black films feature woman being named ugly names under the sun by cruel, ignorant men or women desperately pandering to masculine appeal, Richard Tanne's first directional/screenplay writing effort dismantles stereotypes and pigeonholes. Barack is a complete gentleman, very attentive, respectful, and protective of Michelle. He is a chivalrous, smart man in early throes of awe. In the meantime, Michelle, guarded, resilient, and tough, slowly starts to fall under the crackling spell of a future commander-in-chief, without losing her dignity and grace. Her dark skinned black beauty, not waxed on poetically, is something witnessed in the way she articulates a word, casts a glance, shifts her body.  And viewers are left astounded by Barack's fascinating testimony.
Southside With You is a film that will stay in heart and mind, retain a certain kind of rustic spirit, that lingers long after John Legend's song and Ernie Barnes paintings disappear from the screen.