Tuesday, January 19, 2021

‘Miss Juneteenth’ Paints an Impactful Tale of Phenomenal Women Onscreen and Off

Miss Juneteenth film poster. 

Strangled, crushed dreams are often the reality of American life, especially Black American life. They can work forever and ever and still not accomplish what they most desire. 

In a time of too many redundant Hollywood remakes and revisits, Miss Juneteenth is a satisfying original story desperately needed in all the theaters right now. It combines the beauty pageant arena and the history of June 19th— the day the last remaining slaves in Texas were set free years later— in a sweet, hearty serving, a unique structural setup weaving its way into a fascinating contemporary story about love, hardship, and triumph. 

Turquoise (Nicole Beharie) and Ronnie (Kendrick Sampson) are an estranged couple coming back and forth tied by history, mostly their fourteen-going-on-fifteen-year-old daughter, Kai. 

Turquoise Jones, a former Miss Juneteenth beauty queen, is surrounded by failure. The hardworking former stripper manages Wayman’s BBQ, a bar/restaurant and is in/out of a complicated marriage with Ronnie, a car mechanic still chasing the unattainable like a fly trying to catch honey. Yet residual hope lie in Kai, their fourteen-year-old daughter— the testament of moving along her own inner inhibitions. As history repeats itself in a downward spiral, it is also a heavy burden to pressure a new generation into something most unwanted. 

Kai Marie Jones (Alexis Chikaeze) has big dreams of her own.

Kai, fixated by the exciting world of dance, is reluctant to follow in Turquoise’s footsteps. She faces her mother’s disapproval full on— disapproval of dancing and boyfriends (Turquoise rightly housing bad associations for both). The push and pull dynamic between Turquoise and Kai is a strong bond more loving and perhaps healthier than Turquoise and Pastor Charlotte, her sanctimonious, part-time alcoholic mother. There are charged moments that almost trigger Turquoise’s compulsive frustration like Charlotte. Turquoise is able to refrain and channel through calmly and rationally, concentrating only on the pageant, determined to break the generational cycle. 

Turquoise (Nicole Beharie) giving makeup and confidence boosting to Kai (Alexis Chikaeze). 

Turquoise often reflects on the day that should have started her life far away from Charlotte. In that cherished memory, she is a young, beautiful Miss Juneteenth winner, pageant waving in a soft yellow dress and the sparkling tiara. Unfortunately, she could not escape the tragedy that befalls Black girls— teen pregnancy and the severest fall from grace narrative. Black teen moms do not get the MTV coverage or news outlet media that celebrates them. Black teen moms can suffer in silence, working harder to provide for their families, doing things they never would have to in order to survive. Although she and Ronnie were in the early honeymoon phase of love then (and still trying to salvage something), early motherhood put college on the shelf. 

Many people encounter Turquoise in town, speaking on her squandered potential. 

Yet Turquoise sees Kai only as a blessing, the most important part of herself and she will do anything in her power to ensure that her daughter does not repeat certain mistakes. In Kai’s boyfriend, Turquoise sees Ronnie and in dancing, her old days as a stripper fresh after winning a beauty pageant.  

Miss Juneteenth pageant contestant Kai (Alexis Chikaeze) at the center of it all— in a significant yellow dress. 

Channing Godfrey Peoples’ impressive debut illustrates the validity of Black girls, their range and glory, their eclectic talents, their very existence with Maya Angelou’s famous poem, “Phenomenal Woman,” providing a commendable backbone. This brilliant script devises the perfect way to bring Turquoise and Kai together, glueing their family unit further together. Other positive women relationships include Turquoise and Betty Ray— her lovely, humorous co-worker and even pageant head, Mrs. Washington, Turquoise’s former mentor whose disappointment overshadows any lasting genuine affection. Turquoise cares for Charlotte, she takes steps back, always placing Kai ahead of anything else. Although pageant culture itself sets up the same faults as the ones absent of true inclusivity, between choosing the right silverware, correcting posture, straightening kinky hair, and cattiness of other girls and their parents/guardians/mentors, the pleasing factor is that the winner receives a full ride to a any Historical Black College/University of her choosing. 

Cast surrounded by writer/director: Nicole Beharie (Turquoise), director Channing Godfrey Peoples, Kendrick Sampson (Ronnie), and Alexis Chikaeze (Kai).

Miss Juneteenth leads by the multifaceted Nicole Beharie (American Violet, Shame, and 42). Her layered complexity as a past beauty queen and sacrificial mother overcoming an ugly past is rendered with raw ferocity and tenderness that only a gifted actress could inhibit. With hopefully more nominations and trophies to come, the long overdue Beharie has already won the Gotham Independent Award for Best Actress against current awards season favorite Frances McDormand. If not, it does not matter— her performance was a highlight in a turbulent year and that is enough for most. 

Texas born newcomer Alexis Chikaeze in her first major film role delivers astounding promise as the illustrious Kai Marie Jones— “Queen of Everything.” Her exquisitely crafted chemistry with Beharie makes the film all the more authentic and beautiful as though these two Black women were meant to partner together and create a believable mother/daughter dynamic. Meanwhile, Kendrick Sampson, having shown impressive range in How to Get Away With Murder and Insecure holds his own as a down-on-his-luck father grasping tightly onto his own bright, simple dreams that continue slipping through his hands, failing over and over to keep his family afloat as everyone in town ridicules him behind his back. He in himself is a familiar, heartbreaking tragedy played well by Sampson. 

Turquoise (Nicole Beharie) telling Kai (Alexis Chikaeze) the good news. 

It is great to see a film that takes passing the Bechdel Test to phenomenal heights and cinematography that lights Black characters with a purpose beyond just looking good. The warm, saturated color scheme coordinates alongside Rachel Dainer-Best’s costume design, Emily Rice’s music selection, Courtney Ware’s editing, Olivia Peebles’ production design, and of course Peoples at the forefront of a mostly phenomenal women crew. 

Miss Juneteenth is worth watching again and again, especially with close girlfriends and teenage girls seeking validation tied to an imperative history lesson. They may say “winning is not everything,” but sometimes while claiming or losing the victory prize, an even better, unexpected treasure comes instead.  

Saturday, January 16, 2021

Directed By Women Films To Watch During MLK Jr. Weekend

Scene from Sophia Nahli Allison’s award-winning A Love Song for Latasha.

Martin Luther King Jr. Day is the unofficial pre-kick off before Black History Month takes over February. Films such as Spike Lee’s Malcolm X, Four Little Girls, or Do The Right Thing or classics To Kill A Mockingbird and The Long Walk Home are always ranked high as the best watches for this weekend. Nowadays offensive titles like The Help and The Green Book are being added to the equation. 
Other suggestions focus heavily on the Black male point of view, on justice for Black men. 
Who better to highlight the Black girls and women’s own campaigns for fairness, for humanity than a Black woman behind the lens? Although Ava DuVernay’s Oscar winning Martin Luther King Jr. biopic Selma and Regina King’s One Night in Miami are primarily focused on Black male point of view, DuVernay and King are able to deliver nuanced perspectives thanks to their incredible direction of talented ensemble casts. 
Here are solid films (including a few tearjerkers) directed by Black women that either depict true historical moments with poignant touches of fiction, bringing light to figures advocating justice or those strangely simmering in the complicated thick of finding themselves drawn to both good and bad sides of societal life. These chosen works grapple with King Jr.’s themes in creative albeit challenging manifestations: benevolence, strength, grace, humility, and growth exploring our past, present, and future in a prejudiced world still saturated in pure, undying hatred. 

Selma film poster.

1. Selma directed by Ava DuVernay, 2014 (also When They See Us and 13th

Down on the Delta film poster.

2. Down on the Delta directed by Maya Angelou, 1998 

One Night in Miami film poster.

3. One Night in Miami directed by Regina King, 2020

Miss Juneteenth film poster.

4. Miss Juneteenth directed by Channing Godfrey Peoples, 2020

Clemency film poster. 

5. Clemency directed by Chinonye Chukwu, 2019

Ruby Bridges film poster.

6. Ruby Bridges directed by Euzhan Palcy, 1998

Night Catches Us film poster.

7. Night Catches Us directed by Tanya Hamilton, 2010 

The Rosa Parks Story DVD cover. 

8. The Rosa Parks Story directed by Julie Dash, 2002

A Love Song for Latasha film poster.

9. A Love Song For Latasha directed by Sophia Nahli Allison, 2019

Tuesday, January 12, 2021

Happy Birthday, Issa Rae: Fem Film Rogue Icon Spotlight


On this day, a superstar was born at the right time to a Senegalese doctor father and a teacher mother, Jo-Issa Rae Diop known to the world as simply Issa Rae, a humorous actress, talented writer/producer/creator/New York Times Bestselling author, and avid supporter of Black voices. 

Rae, a Stanford grad took a huge bite of American pie, taking on the web with the terrific series The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl. TMABG was a fresh, relatable view at the other side of Black girl life in a hilarious, vivid arena that television could not touch most likely due to its star and storytelling being unapologetically Black during a moment where such crucial stories were not always told by Black voices, let alone starred monoracial Black women. The big plus was the natural hair movement too— that a dark-skinned J had her big chop and didn’t look back. Essentially, J’s positive mirror reflections would soon migrate into award-winning television. 

Yes. Yes.

Years later, HBO granted Rae the reins to co-create Insecure, another vehicle to showcase her unique characters to a larger audience, showcasing the pitfalls of Black women who still did not have themselves completely together even after turning thirty. They did not have to have it all figured out, let alone be Black women stereotypes. Yet just like in TMABG, female friendships were essential, a glue that was either stuck together or unevenly lopsided much as seen between Issa/Molly. 

In addition to making sure that Black women were watching shows with them first in mind, Rae was producing other talented artists, ushering them into a back door ala Issa Rae Presents, a YouTube platform that features incredible short films like Inamorata and web series like First and the Emmy winning Giants

Nominated four times for a Primetime Emmy including for Best Comedy Series and two time (hopefully three) Golden Globe, this BET Award, four time Black Reel, NAMIC, and Satellite Award winner has made many wonderful things happen onscreen and off. On the big screen, Rae has starred in films: LittleThe Hate U GiveThe Photograph, and The Lovebirds

Coming next for Issa Rae is 
Vengeance, a horror/mystery thriller written by B.J. Novak and a comedy titled Empress of Serenity co-starring Bill Hader. Her Issa Rae Productions will be producing Seen & Heard, a two part documentary on the history of Black television. 

Great moments have happened due partly to Issa Rae’s growing influence— after all, she has defined a whole new vibe. Her vibrant creativity and sweet nod to Black pop culture shows love and respect to those before her while propping up those coming after her. She has inspired up and coming creators to believe in themselves, to acknowledge their respective upbringings, and share unique stories to the forefront. She is not only an innovator, she is a phenomenal leader bringing multitudes of Blackness into a gratifying, fun, hilarious future that we deserve to see. 

Some of Issa Rae’s most memorable quotes include: 

“I’m rooting for everybody Black.” 

“For a long time ... I defined myself by what I wasn’t, which constantly set me up for failure and disappointment. And, my life changed when I focused on what I was good at, what I liked most about myself and what made me stand out.”— from her 2017 Black Girls Rock speech

“It's a bit cliche, but you can't go wrong by writing what you know. Even if you're a horrible writer, your own knowledge and experience is unrivaled. Nobody knows what you know like you know what you know. The way you see things is pretty unique.”

“The black characters on TV are the sidekicks, or they're insignificant. You could put all the black sidekicks on one show, and it would be the most boring, one-dimensional show ever. Even look at the black women on 'Community' and 'Parks and Recreation' - they are the archetype of the large black women on television. Snide and sassy.”

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.