Tuesday, November 27, 2018

'The Diary of Evelyn Lau,' A Raw Exposé On Teen Prostitution, Drugs, And Poetry

Sun TV Magazine spot for The Diary of Evelyn Lau.
The Diary of Evelyn Lau penetrates deeply into grisly horrors young women undergo in this tragic, patriarchal world. Beneath the surface is a talented girl who deserves to share her voice and not her body.

Evelyn Lau, the daughter of Chinese immigrants, has it rough. She is a young writer bursting with talent, but her strict parents place abnormal obligations on her. In the opening scene, her mother takes Evelyn to the bathroom and places her on the scale, immediately slapping her and calling her "fat." Evelyn's father neglects her during this critical moment, demonstrating his partake in her daily abuse, his silence consenting to his wife's toxic verbal, physical, and psychological harassment. 

Evelyn (Sandra Oh) turns to the wrong people for help.
A life on the streets seems the best escape for fourteen-year-old Evelyn. She naively believes that staying with an older man could be safe, but he rapes her in a disturbing scene and blames her for "tempting him." She succumbs to his other advances, not out of desire or affection, but out of safety and comfort-- lacking at home. Except, they want to discard her immediately when the cops arrive. The social services soon have her in custody and they rule in her parents' favor-- for her to return back home. Evelyn has a major breakdown and is immediately drugged and placed in a facility-- a grave mistake considering no one cares about the extent of how damaged she is.

Eventually, two worlds seduce the teen into different directions-- the shotty group homes with too many rigid rules and the streets with its grimy men looking for prostitutes. She tries with both, falling fast for the latter, introduced to drinking and further sexual deprivatity. Through it all, however, she continues writing, her language evolving and maturing as fast as the destructive tornado of homelessness, drugs, and sex combined. She recites to these johns, these immoral older white men, like the most well-trained poetess, her oratory delivery quite concise and articulate, her words sharper than sword blades. They listen, feigning interest, only seeing her body as an instrument to desire. She uses them as they used her-- a machine, their ears.

Sandra Oh on playing Evelyn.
It is no surprise that Sandra Oh beat out 2,000 actresses in her first on-camera role. She is downright riveting as the real-life poet, Evelyn Lau. Although Oh is a twenty-something playing a teenager, she vividly expresses child innocence and its thievery swept in the dangerous undercurrent of the street life. Her depth is remarkable. She conveys-- especially through devoid and lifeless eyes--how desperate decisions can take away pieces of the self that can perhaps never be regained. Oh's natural evolution from a shy, awkward girl with giant glasses and overlong bangs to a drug addicted femme showcases her gifted tenacity early on. Oh was nominated for a Gemini and won a Golden FIPA for Best Actress.

Director Sturla Gunnarsson adapted Evelyn Lau's book with Barry Stevens. It is a dark, bitter film to endure. Certain scenes fuel hatred for male behaviors. These people could have looked out for her, having known her age, but instead took advantage. After overcoming inappropriate lust, gross fetishising, and harmful self-hatred, a poet breaks free and finds her voice. It is a true testament of courage that Lau has survived a disgustingly foul place. Poetry saved her life like no one else could.

Real life Evelyn Lau is an award-winning poet, writer, and college professor, Lau was the third Poet Laureate of Vancouver.

The Diary of Evelyn Lau's poignant ending suggests that though one can be awarded and well-received, some people (even in high circles) can still see a woman to objectify.

Monday, November 19, 2018

'Widows' Is a Hyperbolic Machine of Big Names and Cheap Thrills

Widows film poster.
Widows failed to truly understand and convey the racial turmoil in the gritty parts of Chicago. The weak script-- a joint effort by director Steve McQueen and Gillian Flynn's adaptation of Lynda La Plante's novel-- suffered to stand ground. It relies heavily on media perceptions of black trauma and sugarcoats political strife, but doesn't penetrate inside the underbelly of the problem.

Jamal (Brian Tyree Henry) threatens Veronica (Viola Davis) and her little dog too. 
First of all, the heist plotline didn't adhere in a seamless execution . Jack Mullins is running against Jamal Manning. Contractor thief Harry and his pals have been burned alive with Jamal's two million dollars. Jamal barges inside Veronica's penthouse, threatens her dog-- a dog that she often carries around like a rich white socialite-- and demands she give him that money. Veronica is left Harry's crime book and utilizes this to involve the other widows.

Now Widows deliberately celebrates white desirability in ways that could mentally harm and damage a black psyche. Alice, the youngest, calls Veronica a bitch and a cunt and even slaps her. Meanwhile, Alice's mother is ten times worse. She doesn't undermine her mother face to face. However, she treats a complete black woman stranger like the enemy. She is supposedly too broken and shattered, a woman treated objectively. Yet it is this black woman that she can fully launch unrepressed venom and hatred.

Too little, too late: Veronica (Viola Davis) seems to live for white compassion, i.e. Alice (Elizabeth Debicki). 
Veronica and Harry seem to have the perfect life-- her being a teacher and him being a criminal and all-- but it turns out to be terrible fiction. They play up the background Nina Simone ballad reminding the audience that this sultry magnificent singer with prominent African features and dark ruddy skin had also married a white man. Harry and Veronica's teenage son dies in a twisted, unbelievable cop narrative that just harms true American reality. This catalyst drives them apart, leaving Harry to cheat and make a white on white baby. At the end of the day, white was right and safe for Harry. To worsen matters, backstabbing Harry-- who turns out to be alive and well-- is quick to point a gun at Veronica after she pulls off a finicky heist with Harry's own handwritten instructions. A real win for the interracial love marketing team.

Thus, the black women depictions were not kind, lacking genuine tenderness and care. Belle is introduced to Veronica as the driver. They attack each other without reason. The only scene they are alone together, the two women have no dialogue. As if McQueen's camera artfully focusing on their gazes at one another is enough. Well, it's not. It's lazy. In one unnecessary scene, the slender, muscled Belle beats a punching bag like she's Rocky. Again, she's just the driver. Yet also a single mother, she spends more time with Linda's kids than her own-- an indentured servant role, the black mother nursing white babies, or in Belle's case Latinos. She barely shows affection to her daughter. Whereas, Veronica, the older woman, mother hens everyone. Other than distracting flashbacks with Harry, she has no purpose beyond obtaining Jamal's money. 

Veronica (Viola Davis) leads the three: Linda (Michelle Rodriguez), Belle (Cynthia Erivo), and Alice (Elizabeth Debicki).

The casting decisions were not the best. Viola Davis-- astounding in the degrees of acting proficiency-- could not rescue this tangled web that hurts more than it helps. Whereas Elizabeth Debicki is bad and difficult to watch, Michelle Rodriquez's Linda is severely underdeveloped. Cynthia Erivo is thrown in rather late in the film. As a whole, these actors (a majority of overseas talent) were not believable Chicagoans. Despite McQueen's avante garde camera angles, Widows was not the film in which one could be creative and thought-provoking due to the terrible script.

Widows is especially insensitive to the needs of black women film viewers, demonstrating by story and imagery a glaring disrespect that is calculative and deceitful. This painful illustration is not at all as intelligent as the trailer disguises itself to be. 

Other than that, Adepero Oduye deserves better than this.

Monday, November 12, 2018

'Rafiki' Defies LGBTQIA Odds in Fiction and Reality

Rafiki film poster.
Rafiki is a modern forbidden love story told in a strict political society condoning unions between same sex couples. The heinous parable is introduced through a silent male figure. He is constantly abused by other men-- verbally and physically assaulted for existing as gay, illustrating also etched in miscontrued religious context. His story, seemingly small, is a significant integration into the lives of main characters, Zika and Kena.
Zika (Sheila Munyiva) has dreams of being a nurse, but it's Kena pushes her to become more.
Zika and Kena's fathers are running for the same political post. Zika works in her father's store and hangs out with womanizing Blackstar and his posse-- the bullies who abuse the gay man. Outgoing, carefree Kena is always out with two lively girls dancing and jiving, entirely girlish. Her big smiles and pastel rainbow hair seem an anomaly in their environment. Zika often watches Kena, intrigued yet shy.

Zika and Kena come together in a refreshing, natural way. Their mesmerizing camaraderie sewn eloquently-- an abandoned van for clandestine trysts, raw, unconfined joy at the carnival, glowing together at a nightclub.

Once the fallout happens, the families reactions are both expected and surprising. Yet the community's reaction is ugly and horrific.

Sheila Munyiva and Samantha Mutgatsia are dynamite partners portraying Zika and Kena. Their chemistry blooms beautifully from tentative stares to an affectionate friendship to passionate kisses. The actresses resonate a genuine tenderness for these characters and for each other, articulating vulnerabilities and demanding strengths. It is also a plus that Munyiva and Mutgatsia have distinctive skin tones and features lacking in black films. The camera poignantly focuses on Munyiva's eyes and lips and Mutgatsia's hair and smile with deliberate celebration and pride.

Kena (Samantha Mutgatsia) and Zika (Sheila Munyiva) have the most fun together. 
Other wonderful highlights include a great soundtrack (the opening sequence plays high colored credits while Muthoni Drummer Queen's Suzi Noma pumps in the background), cinematography has amazing shots of Kenya city life (and chapiti), and African print cloth duelly operating as fashion and home decor. Every stitch of the film comes together to deliver a special experience.

The church is no taboo to show love for Kena (Samantha Mutgatsia, right), but Zika (Sheila Munyiva, left) isn't ready.
Africa Academy Award winner (for From a Whisper) Wanuri Kahiu overcame a huge battle in obtaining Rafiki's rightful consideration for representing Kenya in the tight Oscar category Best Foreign Language Film. Kenya retains outdated opposition on same sex relationships and allowed government interference in this colossal case against Kahiu.

Activist art is imperative across the globe. Kenyan Wangechi Mutu, whose has a framed collage featured, creates pieces centering Afrofuturism and earth and runs Africa Now!-- an organization advocating for the continent's LGBTIA communities. South African Zanele Muholi and her team document harmed lesbians, telling their stories inside endless galleries and institutions. Meanwhile, Kahiu's great cinematic achievement expresses hostile turmoil, aggravated battery, and cruel separation in communities collectively despising and interfering on a love that does not look like their program.

The goddesses of Cannes: Sheila Munyiva (Zika), Rafiki writer/director Wanuri Kahiu, and Samantha Mutgatsia (Kena).
Rafiki is a gentle outstretched hand. On the fine, delicate lines of the palm, rests a beating heart yearning for human decency, acceptance, and respect. The viewer has no choice but to succumb to Zika and Kena's everlasting love. Forced bigoted trials and tribulations are no match against the strongest, most sacred emotions. No time or distance (or government interference) can defeat such an important narrative.

Friday, November 9, 2018

'Burning' Is a Shocking Thriller To the End

Burning film poster.
Recent fiction major grad, Jong-su works part-time whilst coping with writer's block and caring for the family property while his father is in jail for assault. He runs into former neighbor Hae-mi on a lunch break. Though it takes Jong-su moments to remember, the two have an awkward liason. Hae-mi is aloof, adventurous, and unpredictable as opposed to Jong-su's coy, meek personality. Before she goes to Africa (on a vapid, imperialist mission), she has Jong-su watch her cat, Boil. And the mysterious Boil eventually unravels a key moment.
Jong-su (Ah-In Yoo) runs around daily to inspect greenhouse.
Burning sets up a slow building tension that escalates to an unsettling disturbia. Hae-mi returns with a new friend, Ben. A jealous Jong-su can see their relationship has evolved to a much more intimate capacity, leaving him as a third wheel oddity. His curiosity of the rich, elusive Ben is worthwhile. Ben's sleek insinuation into the lives of two spacy young adults, using them both for sheer amusement like objects on a gameboard raises valid suspicion. Ben soon introduces Hae-mi and Jong-su--whom awkwardly stand out-- to his sophisticated socialite friends. Two worlds collide for Ben with Hae-mi and Jong-su merely setting the stage to entertain his fickle pleasures.

A striking visual of a young boy watching a burning greenhouse.
Burning contains exciting and jarring twists and turns that'll leave hypothetical guesses til the end. Director and co-writer Lee Chang-dong states:
"The leaping holes in the chain of events -the missing piece from which we can never know the truth- alludes to the mysterious world we live in now; the world in which we sense that something is wrong but cannot quite put a finger on what the problem is."
The character triad is a compelling and complicated weave and the chosen actors have crafted the relationships well enough. From glazed stares to pout lips, Ah-In Yoo finesses the quiet introverted Jong-su driven to a simmering madness. Jong Seo-Joen--in her first major role-- plays the naive, storytelling Hae-mi in an airy, effervescent manner despite Hae-mi's flawed, off putting insensitivity about a culture different than her own. Steven Yeun brilliantly oozes charm, sensuality, and danger into narcissistic Ben downright to the creepy laughter and bored yawns. He emotes such cynical precision that is almost frightening in Ben's loving fascination with setting fire to greenhouses. Yoo commiserates, entailing Jong-su's own past as a reluctant firestarter.

Nudity still conveys a strong attribution to male gaze. Whenever Hae-mi is nude (which happens on two separate occasions), her lithe body is the lure and attraction to the males. For example, after Jong-su, Ben, and Hae-mi smoke pot, Hae-mi takes off her blouse and languidly spins around topless. Jong-su's bare form, however, suggests a more constructive narrative. Although he frequently masturbates, especially in Hae-mi's room, his later nude finale conveys power, guilt, rebirth. At the same time, his nakedness is not humorous or self-deprecating as American cinema often ostrasizes male Asian bodies.

Jong-su (Ah-In You), Hae-mi (Jong Seo-Jeon), and Ben (Steven Yeun) revel in the view and smoke pot together on Jong-su's family property.
Burning references classic white male American literature (nodding to William Faulkner and F. Scott Fitzgerald) yet doesn't forsake Asian aesthetics for the Western gaze in this adaptation to Haruki Mumokari's short story, Barn Burning. The cinematography is an excellent backdrop to the intense drama, a thrilling chain of events leaves behind unhinged skepticism throughout twisted narrative. The minor fault is that some sequences are either stretched too long or not given substantial weight.
"So I creep--yeah." TLC came to mind during Jong-su's (Ah-In Yoo, left) amateurish surveilance of Ben (Steven Yeun, right).
Overall, Burning is sensational escapism and utterly deserves the honor of representing South Korea for the Academy Awards Best Foreign Language Film category. It would be an even greater triumph if Yeun and/or Yoo receive awards nods for delivering complex performances-- dismantling the stereotype that Asian actors are not expressive.

With fire symbolically scorching broken histories, abandonment, and evidence, turning structural bodies into char and ash, Burning will stun and disturb throughout suspenseful clarity.

Tuesday, November 6, 2018

Love Cannot Be Barred in 'If Beale Street Could Talk'

If Beale Street Could Talk film poster.
"I hope that nobody has ever had to look at anybody they love through glass."- James Baldwin

The never ending injustices that affect brown and black bodies every single day since separation from Africa, the glaring imprint that slavery has not been abolished, is integrated in the love story of Alonzo "Fonny" Hunt and Tish Rivers. It appears an ordinary and defiant testimony despite the innocuous rage simmering in their neighborhood. Tish and Fonny are first childhood friends sans the boy abuses girl narrative. Their precious innocence naturally blossoms into kindred spirits love-- a refined soulmate tenderness not often bestowed in black romances. They dine, dance, declare feelings, make love with carefree abandon, reveling in a bubbled world of their own creation. This great swelling passion seems impenetrable and permanent.

Fonny and Tish are not the stereotypical struggle love situation. They work hard. They live together. The biggest argument was Fonny upset over Tish protecting him.

Fonny (Stephan James) creates abstract sculptures out of old industrial parts and Tish (Kiki Layne) sells perfume behind the counter at an upscale department store.
The fault of the wrecking ball lies with white supremacy-- a white cop as the highest order of the law. A white cop is never doubted or questioned. Fonny and Tish have a run in with the wrong sort. As revenge, Fonny is taken away for rape despite living on the other side of town. The victim picks him because she is instructed to. For everyone involved-- the Rivers, the Hunts, and the victim's family--the battle for justice is a long and grueling battle. On top of escalating trauma, Tish realizes that she is pregnant. The Rivers are shocked by the baby news, but celebrate over wine. The Hunts are mixed.

In the case-- a very sensitive case--Fonny is obviously innocent. The victim doesn't know that and simply cannot comprehend why a white cop would lie about her assailant. Cops are supposed to be trusting authority figures. Thus, it is disgusting that an above-the-law white cop put Fonny in custody without bothering to seek the real culprit. Beyond petty garbage, he made this a personal vendetta and tore apart a burgeoning family to get even. Sadly, this repeated narrative happens in real life America-- wrongfully accused black men imprisoned for crimes they didn't commit. 

The Rivers ladies are excited for the new generation: Ernestine (Teyonah Parris), Tish (Kiki Layne), and Sharon (Regina King).
If Beale Street Could Talk delivers subtle reminders of Coffy and Ava DuVernay's Middle of Nowhere. For example, black women having afros in love scenes speaks volumes. Back in the 70s, Pam Grier-- blaxploitation goddess-- in Coffy (seen a few years ago) definitely showcased natural hair as a sexy, unhidden gem in and out of the bedroom. Tish's hair is a wonderful halo, as pleasing as any 70's starlet. It operates differently than newer films about the modern black woman cutting off the relaxer, metaphorically using hair as an excuse to be in struggle love relationships. This afro is a part of Tish, as sacred as the deep brown of her skin, as genuine as her love for her family and Fonny-- unapologetic, untamed, and gorgeous. Although one weakness, is the submissive missionary love scene. It would have been a refreshing pace if Tish took the reins and led Fonny her own unrestrained passion. Now it doesn't have to be salacious ala Grier and Bradshaw.

Tish's campaign for justice to free her wrongfully imprisoned man like poor Ruth did in Middle of Nowhere drives home what happens to women during their men's incarceration. Both Tish and Ruth didn't have to face the tough circumstances alone-- having compassionate women on their side. The relationship between Tish, Ernestine, and Sharon are given more considerable story than Jenkins' previous women depictions in Moonlight. Their relationships are lovingly depicted. The mom would do anything for her daughter. The sisters have an incredible bond. Whereas Ruth has a strained relationship with her parolee husband (he cheated with a guard) and enters a new relationship outside the prison walls, Tish is committed to Fonny (who again is wrongfully jailed) and he is devoted to her. 

The most difficult scene to digest, however, is Fonny's father striking his wife (unfortunately some viewers in the audience laughed or applauded) after she expressed blasphemous dislike over Fonny and Tish becoming unwed parents. Nothing excuses domestic abuse-- which at the time was legal. 

This amazing scene features Tish (Kiki Layne) and Fonny (offscreen Stephan James) staring at each other.
Kiki Layne (who recently scored a Gotham Award Breakthrough Performance nomination) leads an extraordinary cast. She pulls Baldwin's story along with astounding tenacity and bravery channeled throughout a fine performance. Her articulate delivery narrating this heartbreaking love story hits key emotional points-- hope, despair, acceptance. Stephan James accompanies Layne, their chemistry poignant and unfiltered. James authentically emotes Fonny's tenderness, his agony, his frustration in ways that coax empathy. Regina King is not simply playing a mother role. She is an outstanding supportive force, igniting the screen with her multifaceted exuberance. Brian Terry Henry is also worth noting. His turn as a wrongfully convicted felon is utterly moving.

This meticulous attention to titillating detail becomes the Jenkins trademark. Alongside the acting, the editing, the sound, the cinematography balance the other. Colors are intense and sharp, like residual and effective German Expressionist paintings. Tish's yellow coat and Fonny's matching shirt. Red encompasses evocative interpretation-- seductive, furious, and flaming hot. The umbrella, splattered tomatoes, the lipstick, Fonny's abused face. The costume design reimagines the times rather brilliantly-- its busy patterns and bright solids.

If Beale Street Could Talk is joyous and painful and remarkable, striking simultaneous cords through a soft, pulsing medley. This piece is so significant and refined that Jimmy himself would raise a glass of the best wine in Harlem to toast yet another Jenkins masterpiece.

Monday, November 5, 2018

Survival Steers The Course in 'Little Woods'

Little Woods stars Tessa Thompson (Ollie, right) and Lily James (Deb, left). 
Nia DaCosta's rustic debut, Little Woods is set in a North Dakotan small town. Low income people are desperately clinging despite limited financial resources. Food, drink, hospital visits, and prescriptions are rising to unaffordable lengths-- an honest portrayal of the current horrors in America's faulty health care system.

The politicized strength ex-convict Oleander "Ollie" carries for the white characters is heavy in moral responsibilitya. She is another symbolic testimony that brown and black bodies should carry all burdens even if most of the grievance lies on whiteness. Almost off probation, she sees a kind, decent parole officer-- a shift from the hardened, callous stereotype. Single mom Deb--Ollie's sister-- prepares to take a college placement exam as Ollie pursues a promising job in Spokane. Ollie is always working. She internally fights old demons to clear her conscious, to help those in her community (migrating prepared and packaged food and hot coffee to workers), and keeping the inherited house in order.

DaCosta's gritty screenplay is a subtle nod to William Shakespeare's Othello with a complicated role reversal. Ollie is the favorite daughter, having been willed the house and is on a fulfilling path towards self sufficiency. Deb isn't ready to be left behind.

The brown bodied savior makes for a jarring tale that raises questions about the societal state, the wounds bared and subdued, the freedom close to the horizon, skeletons dangling on the edge of that opened door. Ollie's clever and resourceful, managing to take daring risks that succeed. She fails, however, on several occasions, but cannot break down in crisis. Instead, she charges onward, believing in end goals, her determination driving hard.

Little Woods contains beautiful musical choices that fit comfortably into scenes without intrusiveness. Tessa Thompson is a knight-in-shining-armor as the intelligent caregiver donning non-existent makeup and dowdy wardrobe. The beauty of this character rests in actions. Lily James delivers poise as a rough, struggling parent in a dead end job and co-dependent ex-boyfriend. Together, Thompson and James form a cohesive pair, sharing two points of womanhood and the affection sharing a kinship as strong as blood relations.

Little Woods writer/director Nia DaCosta.
Winner of the Nora Ephrom Award and Heartland Films' Truly Moving Picture honor, DaCosta is a fresh, compelling voice needed during a rather urgent time for new complex stories. While Hollywood continues remaking nostalgic classics and rebooting superhero origin stories, the indie film industry still has a problem showcasing narratives starring people of color. Let's hope that DaCosta moves forward, changing small-mindedness with a cool, collected volume of great, important stories.

Little Woods blossoms with fascinating degrees of profound and endearing promise. 

Thursday, September 20, 2018

Regina King and Her Three Emmy Wins Matter

Regina King now joins an exclusive club of Emmy winning African American actresses.
Monday was a heartbreaking night for the people of color nominees robbed once during a telecast making light of diversity. In a segment entitled "Reparations," co-host Michael Che tracked down black acting heavyweights like Marla Gibbs, Tichina Arnold, John Weatherspoon, Kadeem Hardison, and Jaleel White to hand deliver them stolen Emmys. Although humorous, the skit laid bare historical problems with the Emmys, with white fronted awards shows in general. Still, one of the profound highlights of the night was Regina King receiving her third Emmy win. In the face of likely mostly white voters, this speaks volumes.

A Primetime Emmy nomination is a godsend and to win the actual thing is a small yet vital showing of progress. For the past four years, King has received four consecutive nods-- three for Supporting Actress in a Limited Series for American Crime and one for Leading Actress in a Limited Series for Seven Seconds.

King--having won three of those four nominations-- is in an exclusive club. Rarely has an African American actress won one Emmy, let alone two and three for her acting efforts. So far, Alfre Woodward has four wins out of seventeen nominations and Cicely Tyson has three wins out of fourteen nominations.

Not to discount King's Black Reel or NAACP Image awards and nominations-- those triumphs are significant and valid. However, the Emmys falsely presented themselves as inclusive after the historic nominations were announced last month. During the ceremony itself, "diversity" jokes were sprinkled throughout. King was the first black winner of the night.

"Thank you for creating an opportunity to tell a story and  hold a mirror up to what's going on today," King says in her 2018 Emmys acceptance speech.

When Issa Rae answered, "I'm rooting for everybody black," before last year's ceremony, the white people were on a rampage. Defensive white social media jumped into people's commentary with typical "why make this about race" statements, personally offended by accurate observational assessments. This gaslighting mechanism is designed to keep African Americans silent about what matters during the watching of award shows-- winners representing reflections of themselves. We're at a time now that speaking up for talented actresses and actors. History suggests that African Americans deserve more than to dress up and present to white people. Viewers, especially to those who are avid champions of the nominees, want to see a real change. It obviously doesn't end on the nominations, it ends on the stage with that statuette.

For King, an outstanding actress for decades, a versatile player from dead serious pensive acting to hilarious comedic chops, is worth applauding. With an upcoming turn in Barry Jenkins' adaptation of James Baldwin's If Beale Street Could Talk, here is hoping that the Oscars will knock on her triumphant door soon.

Sunday, August 26, 2018

'Insecure' Season Three, Recap of Episode Two's 'Familiar-Like'

Daniel is trying to ghost on Issa (Issa Rae) while she's staying at his place. The jig isn't working.

Familiar-Like focuses on Issa for the first time--no Molly and certainly no Dro. The girl is struggling to hold it together while keeping a sane head at Daniel's place.

Defensive Joanne (Catherine Curtin) cannot see the problem with We Got Y'all's graphic artwork (designed by her Pratt Institute niece which thickly lays on another layer to the privilege problem) or the structural problems of her staff. 
We Got Y'all is a work environment that essentially represents our current political climate. "White savior complex" sufferer Joanne is not keen on changing the logo of the white hand holding black children. Yet everyone diligently speaks up, shocking Issa who has found Joanne's ideas and actions problematic for years. This can be uncomfortable to address, especially considering the history of black people fired for speaking up against workplace discrimination.

Issa meets with Kelli to weigh her options. Her credit score is low and finances are still not enough to lease a new apartment.

"Light skin love" Vanessa (Candice Ramirez) is obviously crowded by Daniel (Y'lan Noel) camping out at her place."
At the same time, Daniel's backstory is further explored. Jada, his adorable niece spends time with him in the studio and provides compelling commentary that subtly references why Daniel's career is not taking off. She loves that his music requires thinking, but on the other hand appreciates ratchet (aka the music Daniel doesn't make). For the past few episodes, Daniel has shown great distaste at the artists Seven hooks him up with, talentless people who happen to know bigger (or are related to) musicians Daniel wants to collaborate with.
In addition to music, his relationship with Vanessa appears strictly sexual and lacks a solid intimate connection. She can barely stand being attentive in a conversation, let alone tolerate his presence at her place (and he had only been staying for three days).

Daniel spits some game in Issa's ear and the lighting is fantastic.

When Daniel returns home, he is amused to find Issa cleaning up the apartment. Kelli has gotten into her head. Yes, Daniel is not asking her for anything in return, not even rent money, but Issa's thoughtful gesture, though heavily scented with delayed gratitude, earns some brownie points.

Seven, who earlier promised to support Daniel at the club, chickens out, leaving Daniel stranded. He doesn't want to go until Issa offers to be his wing woman. They leave with Issa in denim and Daniel in an interesting white Playboy sweater (late homage to Hugh Hefner?).

At the club, surprisingly Daniel is not on the list and Seven may be a little responsible for that error. Their high school buddy Khalil, a big time producer, gets them in. He even offers Daniel and Issa seats at his private table.

"We got our own," says the pride wounded guy who would have likely stood outside all night.

Daniel and Issa simultaneously gulp up liquid courage.
Daniel then looks out at the stage, observing like a hawk. Spyder, his prey, raps and wows the crowd. He turns to Issa and requests to beatbox in her ear. Beautifully shot in the blue club lights, this riveting scene is much more intimate than anything Daniel does with Vanessa. As Issa bobs her head, lost in Daniel's music, their chemistry is off the charts fiery and hot. Issa, perturbed by his closeness, decides to get drinks. Afterwards, Daniel shoots his shot at Spyder (thanks to an encouraging Issa) and this exchange is awkwardness galore. Daniel doesn't have a lot of confidence, wobbling through words, letting pauses saturate in the club atmosphere. Spyder's behavior is reminiscent of Vanessa, listening but not all present. Sure, he hears Daniel, but his aimless eyes wander around, drifting for something else to entertain him. Still, he gives Daniel a chance. Yet in the course of excitement, someone fires a gun and Daniel pulls Issa down, protecting her body with his own.

A refreshing reboot for Daniel and Issa?
Daniel is able to open up to Issa, unload emotional baggage that Issa is able to weigh in on because she is such a good listener and gives solid advice.

It is a nice episode that shows what Issa sees in Daniel and vice versa, but where can they go from this chapter? They have such a good and bad history. Yet similarly, they are beautiful awkward black people stuck in career quicksand-- a demoted Issa at We Got Y'all and Daniel reluctant to sell his musical soul to be popular. Things close positively on that front with Issa receiving a call back for property manager and Daniel willing to work with successful Khalil.

And Kelli would loudly exclaim that this is "growth."

Saturday, August 25, 2018

Poignant 'Night Comes On' A Reflection On Sisterhood and Regret

Night Comes On film poster.
I left Philadelphia's downtown Prince Theatre from watching Night Comes On with an urgent sea of unhinged sadness rushing forward, wiping away spilt tears and trying to regain some semblance of decent composure. This raw, barren film struck such a resonating cord, my own two lost sisters, two dear friends whom I will never see or hear again, floating at the forefront of my mind.

Sisters on board: Abby (Tatum Marilyn Hall) gets Angel (Dominique Fishback) to go to Long Island under false pretenses.
Night Comes On, set in Philadelphia where every scene bears familiarity, begins with Angel's release from juvenile detention. She is about to turn eighteen, the age of consenting adulthood. The first thing on her agenda, however, is not seeing her sister from whom she's been separated for months. Filled with grief and anger over witnessing a violent tragedy, the revenge devil rests on her shoulder, the dark clouded apparatus that cloaks judgment.

The road to nowhere-- sans dreams and ambitions-- seems to be the package for every brown and black girl in America, a tougher plight in the fifth largest city of poverty, tougher still for one with criminal history. Without a nurturing maternal figure to lead Angel down a redemptive path or a sympathetic counselor to heal inner wounds, her lack of self worth muddies her second chance out in the cruel, harsh landscape. She makes heartbreaking choices, allowing her own body to be disrespected, mentally holding onto the visions of pulling other weaponry triggers

Still, Angel is happy to see Abby despite deleting her text messages. They have an awkward exchange. A silence stretched for miles highlights the fragile relationship between young siblings, a thread that can easily sever at the most tremulous times. Yet the biological bond between sisters is felt as Angel goes to Abby's latest foster home. They make small talk. Abby is more excited about Angel's birthday than Angel. Angel is void and distracted, bloodthirsty. She perks up at the mention of their father. Her stern parole officer couldn't give personal information due to circumstances, but she believes that Abby would.  However, Angel underestimates that Abby is perceptive and intelligent. This will later cause major conflict.

Angel then faces more setbacks. Her girlfriend dumps her, leaving Angel in a hopeless, sunken place. During a vulnerable evening, silent and solemn Angel has no one to ask for help. She seeks loneliness and safety among shady places and those that make her invisible. By the wee dawn, all that is lost is lost again.  
Angel constantly reminisces about her mother (Nastashia Fuller)-- a quiet, gentle figure whose demure presence shapes Angel. Sadly, it is likely that the father had been abusing the mother, but she could not leave him. Angel witnessing her death 
Angel and Abby certainly have different personalities. Whereas Abby can make instant friends, Angel is intensely quiet and guarded. They make friends on the bus to Long Island. These girls are typical friendly girls, a clique of jubilance and innocence, a little younger than Angel and older than Abby. Angel stares at them, observing like a spectator in the wrong group. Abby seems right at home.

Angel is upset by Abby's betrayal-- that their whole trip wasn't to see their father at all.

At the beach, however, Angel and Abby showcases how anger dissolves into splendid happiness and bliss. Everything can be forgiven and forgotten. No amount of time apart diminishes the way sisters can mean to each other. Abby is the remaining light in Angel's life, her hope and moral compass. The love conveyed between them a thrilling spectacle frolicking in the water, their brown girl bodies a beautiful contrast against endless blue waters and coarse white sand. Almost reminds one of Moonlight's Juan and Little.

Girls at the beach.

Angel carries Abby on her back.
Throughout, I was caught by the feelings that an older sister has for her younger one, the follower, the one who looks up, which the screenplay expresses vividly well. I recalled countless annoyances, the many mini battles, late night conversations, good times. For ten years, I shared a bunk bed with her. Like Abby, my sister (and our brothers) were eventually in the system, roaming from foster home to foster home. The family would meet on Mondays at juvenile courts in a room with one door. She was finally emancipated at eighteen. We spent time together-- so much catching up, having been separated. We had spats and arguments along the way. She disappeared in 2010, leaving behind no trace. Her absence cuts like a knife.

Meanwhile, my other younger sister on my father's side whom I never met, died two years ago in September. I will always remember her high pitched voice, our long conversations on Facebook, and regret never taking the time to see her in the flesh.

Night Comes On is a medicinal balm soothing the few broken parts inside. Angel and Abby's sisterhood struck a cord-- an art that moved and expressed vicarious feeling difficult to release day by day. It means something profound and sacred to find a tie to one's own personal struggle from that of two characters framing a beautiful picture.

Angel's got a gun.
Jordana Spiro has directed a powerful, significant film with a raw, intelligent screenplay co-written with Angelica Nwandu. The merit lies fully in the dignified performance of Fishback, offering a complex portrait of a girl who realizes at the most pivotal moment that she has something to lose-- her sister, the most important person in her world. Tatum Marilyn Hall in her first role is quite stellar, holding her own against seasoned Fishback, expressing the right emotional notes from heartbreak to disappointment.

Night Comes On is a solid revenge tale with an affectionate twist. Angel faces her demons alone and realizes that the act of pressing forward positively far outweighs the aftermath of an even greater tragedy. Angel can build a new start and become the steady, influential figure Abby can count on. They need each other in order to survive in a remorseless system that chews and spits them out.

Moral of this sentimental narrative: a sister's love will always be eternal regardless if the sister is here on the earth or in spirit.

Thursday, August 23, 2018

Quirky 'Life is Fare' Keeps Eritrean Culture Alive

Life is Fare film poster.

"This is a San Francisco film about Eritrea. It’s colorful and visually whimsical in a way that can only be described as if the Wizard of Oz went to Africa."- Sephora Woldu
That's accurate.

Life is Fare is a humorous story within story that plays like a documentary but is a cleverly disguised narrative. Writer/director Sephora Woldu is Sephora, an Eritrean American girl recanting to her mother (Almaz Negash, her real-life mother) an idea for an eccentric, quite absurd feature. Of course, the traditional parent is not sold on the idea. Beneath the incredible lacings of infectious laughs and moments of joy, there is an underlying quest for uncovering clandestine history in the Northern African country of Eritrea, its present political climate, and the historical on/off relationship with its neighboring sister, Ethiopia.

Haile, the cab driver with unresolved feelings about Eritrea.
The setup is a miniature lesson conducted through quirky drawings, animated hands, and an articulate female narrator. Then the skeptical mother/artist daughter argument fades into the main character-- a young cab driver named Haile. The narrator's voice (kind, funny, and serious) also turns male.

In the meantime, roller blade enthusiast, Sephora is skating around town having conversation with a friend who keeps an even pace. The skates add a layered depth to Sephora's free spirited nature, a fun, witty punchline that reworks the phrase "don't run, walk" with "don't walk, skate." Much later, her friends meet up for drinks at a bar. These second generation girls are not talking fashion. They are divisive about Eritrea's current politics with valid reasons for and against.

Esther Kibtreab, Natra Zehriyun, Sephora Woldu make up the girls. The middle is neutral. Sephora opposes and Esther's character is for.
They also discussed blackness in America and its separation anxiety. Black Americans and African descendants contain differing mindsets due to opposing experiences. Whereas Sephora and her friends have parents that immigrated to America whilst still holding onto their cultural values (language, food, music, etc) and instilling that into their children, most black Americans, having tragically undergone generations upon generations of consequential damage, lost their heirlooms long ago thanks to colonialism. The fascinating outlook counterargues the split between Northern African and Western African (often seen in history and art museums), this notion that Northern Africa has purely Arab peoples and that Western Africa has true black peoples. 

Haile and his dentist form a therapeutic connection.
Haile's world is rocked upside down by his visions of dancing colorful ladies. To his ordinary mundane routine, they bring him tea, cryptic wisdom, and songs with Cheshire smiles. He, however, detests their unwanted influence and finds solace in his dentist. They get to the root-- no pun intended-- of his situation. He had lost a favorite uncle (whom he surprisingly had met only once as a child). As an adult, Haile sees his uncle again at the same bar Sephora and her friends are clashing against contemporary Eritrean politics. The man is not his uncle. It is a singer whose mannerisms remind Haile of someone he lost and loved-- a metaphor about an immigrant's life in a new country, defining his purpose whilst reflecting on his upbringing.

Life is Fare writer, director, actress, Sephora Woldu.

To be a jack of all trades in cinematic verse is quite an achievement, especially if one has the chops to be front and center as well as have behind-the-scenes passion. Sephora Woldu is like Issa Rae sans the awkwardness. Woldu embodies her multidisciplinary talents everywhere. While she has written, directed, and starred in Life is Fare and Impresa! (a silent film about Eritrean owned businesses in San Francisco), she also majors in architecture at the prestigious California College of the Arts (which explains the beautiful shots of building tops) and heads Abyssurdian, a production company releasing indie films and public art projects. Here is a great interview from her award winning presence at the San Francisco Black Film Festival.

Life is Fare delivers magical charm, humor, and inclusive history to the fantasy genre. Woldu has made sure to add Eritrea's musical achievements, pieces of the country's interest in folk instruments. A nod to the qudo dance is present (defined as dancers forming a circle and dancing continuously). The costumes, the cinematography, the coloring, the narrator, Woldu and her mother are reasons enough to watch. There are moments like one character played by Natra Zehriyan who stands at a bus stop and three observing passengers have stereotypical perceptions of her. That experience alone is a universal exchange, especially for people of color, for black people. Sephora speaks in English and her mother often responds back in Tigrinya (Impresa! contains English and Tigrinya subtitles). A trans black woman enters Haile's cab and has the most sweetest personality. Their short encounter has affected him in a profound way, so much so that she is in his imagination in a lovely follow up song/dance scene.

Moreover, as Life is Fare continues its festival rounds, hopefully it comes to DVD release someday. It is a highly recommendable treat.

Sunday, August 19, 2018

'Insecure' Season Three, Recap of Episode One's 'Better-Like'

Insecure season three promo.

Insecure is back!

What would summer be without the raucous, sexy, awkward, humorous duo of Issa and Molly? The glow up is on lock as the two besties enter this new, fresh season sans Lawrence (and boy are #LawrenceHive upset). The focus on female empowerment is commendable. In the first episode alone, Molly and Issa need each other. The confidante layer of their friendship has always been a strong, regenerative factor. Plus, the chemistry between portrayers Issa Rae and Yvonne Orji remains golden.

Issa (Issa Rae) can't sleep with the commotion. She goes out to Lyft. Only the passenger pukes in her backseat.

In the opening of "Better-Like," written by Issa Rae and directed by Prentice Penny, Daniel's sexual prowess is bringing the house down. For a moment, the sweat induced session appears like the old friends reunited, that Issa's strictly platonic stay turned hot and steamy real quick. Unfortunately, Issa is lying on the couch in utter disbelief, trying to silence Daniel and his night visitor's throes of passion with pillows. The next morning, Daniel is off putting and Issa takes the jab.

Issa's rap alter ego in the mirror is hard to bring out in a roommate situation, but Daniel might like catching the act every once in a while, especially seeing as his studio is struggling to bring talented musicians.

"Guess the color of my shirt?" Daniel (Y'lan Noel) asks the "very observant" Issa. She guesses completely wrong.
Like Daniel's sister, we wonder why Issa chose to stay with Daniel. Yes, her brother sucks. However, she has three other girlfriends. She probably couldn't stay with pregnant Tiffany and her husband, Derek. Kelli would be a riot. Molly isn't over her broken vase, but still is willing to have Issa stay. Co-worker Frieda would have been a good option if Issa hadn't damaged their friendship last season. Then again, they rarely hung outside of work functions. Why Daniel? Issa admits to having lingering feelings for him. The delicate situation between them is filled with unresolved tension. They can play as friends (they have a history), but where can a former non-couple head towards after a friends-with-benefits situation? Daniel definitely still has a thing for Issa (which Issa takes advantage of) and Issa has yet to grow and mature as an intimate partner. Her "me time" is appropriate for right now.

Molly (Yvonne Orji) had a nice, relaxing getaway and even scored a "Vacation Bae" (Chris Brew).
In other relationship messes, Molly is back from her vacation and into the mistake with married man, Dro. Again, it is that same scenario as Issa-- except Daniel isn't married. When it comes to Dro, Molly believes that she can have the cake and eat it too. Yet it is Dro that has the most just desserts. After he spends a night at Molly's, Dro suggests his infamous pancakes and Molly is in. Until his wife Candice calls. Molly has changed her mind on the pancakes. In fact, she wants a strictly physical relationship. None of the manipulation tactics Dro uses to coerce Molly into doing things she doesn't want-- like making her pancakes, everyday calls and texts, and other lovey dovey behavior. Dro is good at cajoling her. This is how this tawdry affair began in the first place. He preyed on her emotional weakness and she caved. Now she is having the hardest time cutting him off because the man doesn't respect her boundaries.

"I don't like him no more," Issa had stated earlier at the diner.


Except the disdain began at the proposition. How dare an old married friend make such a request?

By the end of the episode, Molly and Dro have a screaming match. She has apparently told him about the Lyft fight (again she still lets him in on the intimate friendship level). He lets himself in Molly's apartment with her keys since she hadn't responded to text messages (disturbing, beyond creepy). Dro is a big kid that treats Molly like a toy that he cannot stop playing with. Candice is in the box for later, but Molly has that shiny, new thrill. Molly kindly asks for her key back. Dro, obviously wanting to keep the key/Molly access, simply cannot fathom why.

Molly bluntly lays it out in the open. At the mention of Candice, Dro takes immediate offense.

"First of all, don't talk about what me and my wife do!" He retorts.

The pink elephant has escaped.

Molly has to restate boundaries to get it through Dro's thick skull. Dro gives Molly her key, having had it attached to his personal ones, a rather symbolic gesturing of his options-- a wife or a mistress.

He makes a leave to go, but stands for a moment, as if waiting for Molly to change her mind.

And she doesn't.

The pleasure before the reckoning: Molly (Yvonne Orji) and Dro (Sarunas J. Jackson) . 
While Molly has her professional game together complete with her terms agreed and settled at a new law firm, Issa has been demoted at We Got Y'all, doing remedial desk duty. It is unsettling that despite their fragile office relationship, Issa asks Frieda for help. Issa's unprofessionalism jeopardized her camaraderie and the students relying on We Got Y'all resources. She is fortunate that she still has a job. At the same time, she deserves better and can have better if she pushed herself into believing both. When the schools start dropping We Got Y'all services, Issa takes the initiative (underhanded yes, but necessary) to see why. Joanne, her boss, is upset at Issa's gumption, looking very intent on firing her on the spot. Issa keeps her job. Yet her dignity is falling below the waste side.

At Issa's makeshift home, she and Daniel have reached an understanding.

The Party Lyft was hilarious. Issa's side hustle game has hits and misses.
Things to love: the new obsessive show within a show called "Kevin" starring Erika Alexander, Daryl Bell, and Bill Bellamy, Daniel's sister braiding her daughter's hair between her knees and not liking her parting efforts, Daniel playing guitar and relishing the playback with a glass of Jameson, and rider Nathan (How to Get Away With Murder's killer "Caleb," Kendrick Sampson) beat up a big man in Issa's Party Lyft and tipped her $50.

Also, the cinematography is downright amazing. Some shots alone can be framed artworks. Perhaps one day, there will be a published book on the art of Insecure.

Gorgeous shot of Issa...

followed by a beautiful portrait of conflicted Molly.
Overall, Insecure is off to a fabulous start.