Monthly Archives: January 2021
One Night in Miami(1/15/2021)
There’s this Key and Peele sketch from the second episode of that show which always stood out in my memory: in it we peak in on this community theater caliber two man show called “Lunch With Greatness” being performed in what looks like a church basement. This play appeared to dramatize a meeting between Martin Luther King and Malcolm X in some sort of hotel room. The play does not look like the deepest of works; it appears to have both figures speaking to one another face to face using rhetoric they would be likely to say to large crowds and has some corny exposition like “it’s a beautiful morning here in Montgomery Alabama.” As it goes on the two performers realize that every time their characters say something righteous the audience nods and goes “mmm hmmm,” and when the guy playing Malcom X realizes that the guy playing Martin Luther King is getting more of this applause he starts going off book in order to get more approval than his co-star. As the sketch goes on the two start ignoring the script entirely to see which performer can out-pander the other, culminating in Malcolm X calling for the re-election of Obama and King randomly giving a shout out to the “strong, beautiful, black women” of the world. The sketch is ultimately more about the egos of these fictional actors than anything, but you do get the sense that a lot of this was born out of a certain frustration and boredom with the tired unchallenging way a lot of black history is dramatized and how so much of it has long been centered on these two figures and their debates with one another. And I must say, the fictional play in that sketch was the first thing that came to mind when I heard about the new movie (itself based on a play) called One Night in Miami, which also looks at a hotel meeting between a quartet of black leaders from the 60s.
One Night in Miami looks at a meeting that took place on Febuary 25th 1964 in a hotel in Miami. Muhammad Ali (Eli Goree), who at the time was still going by Cassius Clay, had just knocked out Sonny Liston for the first time becoming the heavyweight champion of the world. Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir), Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge), and Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr.) all attended that fight in different capacities and the four met up afterwards to celebrate. This much is recorded fact but no one really knows the specifics of what they discussed (to the best of my knowledge the one surviving member of the quartet, Jim Brown, hasn’t discussed it) so from here the film enters into a sort of speculation about what the four men might have discussed. All four were sort of at turning points in their lives: Ali was about to formally join the Nation of Islam, Malcolm X was feuding with the Nation of Islam’s leadership and was on the verge of leaving, Jim Brown had just started his acting career which would eventually lead to his retirement from football, and Sam Cooke had just written his signature song “A Change is Gonna Come” and was about to become more overtly political in his music.
Much of the film’s conflict is between Cooke and Malcom X, who believed the singer had not done enough for the cause of black liberation, which Cooke believed was unfair given the work he’d done as an entrepreneur and the inroads he was making in the music industry. So, liberation through attacking the system vs. liberation from accomplishments within the system. This conflict takes up much of the film’s first half, to the point where you almost feel like Muhammad Ali and especially Jim Brown are almost being short changed, though he does serve something of the role of being a bit of a straight-man and audience surrogate given that he’s not a Muslim and isn’t on the defensive in the movie like Cooke is. This historical accuracy of some of this is a touch dubious; Cooke had actually already released “A Change is Gonna Come” shortly before this meeting, so the timing of that has been fudged a bit for dramatic effect and I must say I have my doubts that Malcom X would actually admit to his own schism with the Nation of Islam to Muhammad Ali before his public conversion, but these seem like reasonable enough liberties to take to fit a narrative like this.
The film rather notably has opted not to fill its cast with major stars and I doubt that’s for lack of interest from various actors who would almost certainly want to portray icons like this. The biggest star here is probably Leslie Odom Jr, a stage actor who rose to a certain prominence playing Aaron Burr in “Hamilton.” That the film’s biggest star was cast as Cooke is probably a function of the fact that he is probably the one of these figures modern audiences will have the least familiarity with and also because they probably wanted someone who could sing. The rest of the cast is filled out with people I frankly hadn’t heard of and they had some pretty big shoes to fill. Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali had both been played by major movie stars in high profile biopics before and people in 2020 know an older Jim Brown pretty well from his various television appearances both as an activist and former football player. Ultimately though this proves to be less of an issue because the version of these men seen here are a bit distinct from what we see of them elsewhere, particularly in the case of Malcolm X, who is in something of a vulnerable moment of his life here. We did see some shades of what we see here in Denzel Washington’s famous portrayal, but only in certain parts of that famously lengthy movie and here we focus in on his more human side which admits a bit more self doubt that what we see in Spike Lee’s version of the character.
Having said all that, the film has limitations. It’s bookended by prologs and epilogues for all four men which are good but perhaps a bit straightforward and I may have liked there to be more screen time for the main “four icons talking to each other” section, which maybe could have used one extra conflict or beat. Beyond that, well, the movie is certainly better than the play from that Key and Peele sketch I was talking about earlier but there are some slightly cringey bits here that still sort of reminded me of that. There’s some questionable exposition here and there and the film likes to pull out these sort of “Mad Men” like moments where characters will say things that the audience will respond to using their knowledge of history to know it has greater significance like when Malcolm X asks Muhammad Ali to remind him what “that British band” he was hanging out with were called (The Beatles) and one of the other characters calls them a fad. Some of these moments land a bit better than that but there are a few clunkers here and there. Beyond that the film never quite makes an argument for this meeting being anything more than a historical curiosity, but it was a curiosity that was worth taking a peak at and audiences that are interested in the history behind these four men will want to give this a look.
***1/2 out of Five
Home Video Round-Up 12/31/2020: Amazon Prime Edition
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom(1/1/2021)
On August 29th 2020 the world received the sad news that the actor Chadwick Boseman had died after a secret fight with colon cancer, probably the most shocking Hollywood death since the announcement that Heath Ledger had been killed by an accidental overdose before the release of The Dark Knight, which would have changed his career. Almost as shocking as the death was the fact that the actor had apparently been working pretty consistently with the shadow of death hanging over his head. He was diagnosed with cancer in 2016, meaning that he played Black Panther in four different movies, played Thurgood Marshall, made that 21 Bridges movie, and also made his contribution to Spike Lee’s Da 5 Bloods all while fighting for his life without anyone knowing it at the time. Now it’s likely that he didn’t know that whole time that his condition was terminal, but still, this clearly says something about his passion for performing and how important he viewed his work. If you look at the movies he chose to make during that stretch that 21 Bridges movie is the only one that stands out as being something of a frivolous paycheck depending on how much you value an MCU film like Black Panther. There was, however, one final screen performance he gave before his passing and it looked like quite the acting showcase in general: a new adaptation of the August Wilson play “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.”
The film is set in 1927 in a Chicago recording studio. A session has been set up for the blues singer Ma Rainey (Viola Davis) to record some singles. The record label owner Mel Sturdyvant (Jonny Coyne) and Ma’s manager Irvin (Jeremy Shamos) have arranged to bring in a band of studio musicians to back her. This band is led by a trombone player who’s worked with Rainey before named Cutler (Colman Domingo), an older piano player named Toledo (Glynn Turman), a relaxed bass player who goes by Slow Drag (Michael Potts), and finally a young upstart trumpet player named Levee Green (Chadwick Boseman). Green has come up with a new arrangement for one of Rainey’s signature tunes “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” and Irvin has brought him in with the intention of recording that version, which hues closer to Louis Armstrong style improvisational jazz than traditional blues, but Cutler isn’t interested in recording that version and is fairly certain that Rainey won’t either when she arrives. This sparks a series of conflicts that escalate over the course of the afternoon.
Ma Rainey’s Black Body can in some ways be viewed as a follow-up to the 2016 film Fences as both are based on plays from August Wilson’s Century Cycle and like that film it’s produced (though not directed by or starring) Denzel Washington and features Viola Davis in a major role, but this time Broadway veteran George C. Wolfe is in the director’s chair. The Century Cycle is set up in such a way that there’s a different play for every decade with Fences being the play about the 50s and this being the play about the 20s, and that place in history is pretty important here both in how it’s looking at a particular moment in the great migration north and unlike all the other plays in the cycle this is set in Chicago rather than Pittsburgh in part because the differences between that city and the south is particularly emblematic of changes in the music industry that are key to the story. The play and film are about a number of key themes beyond the great migration, it’s also about black music and its commodification by a white record industry, about what African Americans need to do to get respect in white institutions, and also about the stresses that African Americans needed to live under and how that plays into black on black crime… it’s heavy stuff, but it doesn’t make these points in didactic ways.
Viola Davis plays Ma Rainey, who was an actual historical figure though she has been turned into a fictional character for August Wilson’s purposes. She doesn’t have quite as much screen time as you might think given that she’s the title character but her time in the film does sort of challenge you to consider what you think of her. Rainey is what you’d call “hard to work with.” She shows up late, makes all sorts of diva-ish demands, and is completely closed minded about plans to jazz up her son and you are somewhat tempted to take the side of the white record executive and manager as well as Levee Green in thinking she’s a pain in the ass, but as the film goes on you start to see a lot of this behavior less as a sort of needless stubbornness and more as a sort of fight to stave off exploitation. Levee Green, who would probably be the most important character if you were to choose a lead out of this ensemble, is similarly fascinating as someone who is just trying to break into music but isn’t quite as savvy and as the film goes on you come to realize that he’s somewhat unstable in part because of some very rough experiences he had early on in life and this makes him rather confrontational when dealing with the rest of the band. Chadwick Boseman appears in the film rather gaunt and noticeably less muscular than when he was playing Black Panther, which seems like something of a sad reminder that he was fighting terminal cancer when he filmed this, but ignoring that it fits the character as this is supposed to be a rather younger man than the 43 year old Boseman. Boseman takes on a bit of a southern dialect here and manages to really nail some key speeches and does a great job of conveying some key changes in mood at certain points.
If there’s anything that holds back Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom it’s that at its core it still very much feels like what it is: a stage play adapted to film. Major character swings seem to happen over the course of an afternoon, it’s largely told through dialogue and there’s even a key moment when someone essentially soliloquizes to the camera, which are all moments that scream “stage play” and while much of it retains its power and is done well, there is always going to be something of feeling that a square peg is being inserted into a circular hole. I don’t want to make this into a bigger problem than it is, frankly as someone who doesn’t get out to much live theater it’s nice to have adaptations like this, but with rare exceptions their basic nature make them kind of hard to view as ten out of ten type things even when they’re as well made as this, you just kind of feel like giving more of the credit to the original playwright than you do to the filmmaking, at least when they don’t bring any particularly new twists to the table. Still, when the underlying play is this good, the actors assembled are this good, and the direction works out this well, it’s hard to complain too much.
**** out of Five
Home Video Round-Up 12/19/2020
Crash Course: Small Axe
Is “Small Axe” a series of movies or an Anthology TV show? This is the question that has been tearing apart the critical community and as I write this intro, having not yet watched most of them, I’m not yet sure. “Small Axe” is a series of five films (episodes?) made by the acclaimed British director Steve McQueen (of 12 Years a Slave fame) each about the common theme of the black British experience during the 20th century. Some, but not all, of the installments played at film festivals and they were financed by and debuted on the BBC in the UK and premiered on Amazon Prime stateside and I don’t know that they ever would have played in theaters even without the pandemic. In the past that TV premieres likely would have been the end of the discussion for me. I tend to be pretty strict about this sort of thing and when I deem something to be TV I generally don’t write about it on the blog or deem it eligible for things like my year-end top ten lists or The Golden Stakes. I don’t have a lot of patience for wishy-washy “don’t put things in boxes” protestations, boxes create order dammit! I also bristle at the rather snobby undercurrent that often pervades these discussions implying that as soon as something is good it needs to be “saved” from the TV label and join all the real movies at the grown-ups table.
On the other hand… it has become rather difficult to make these judgments in a year where I’m not really watching much of anything in theaters and there have been plenty of movies that went straight to some sort of streaming service or HBO like they’re “real” movies as it seems inane to insist on theater screenings in a year where those basically don’t exist. So that would point to them being treated as real movies right? They are by and large self-contained movies of a feature-length coming from an established film auteur. On the other other hand… the fact that they’re a “series” complicates things. I certainly don’t consider individual episodes of “Black Mirror” to be movies even if those are self-contained stories, some of which are long enough to be features. I also consider the project this is most commonly compared to, Krzysztof Kieślowski’s “The Decalogue,” to be a TV show even though it often gets roped into movie canons despite having premiered on Polish television and having hour-long episodes. Amazon, for their part, put the series in their TV section and their interface describes it as “season one” of a “series” with “episodes,” but then again maybe I’m letting the framing dictate this a bit too much. McQueen could have easily “fooled” us by putting each “episode” out into theaters and we might have never known they were conceived as an anthology series.
So in case you couldn’t tell, I’m a bit torn. But maybe I just need to watch them before I can come to a final judgment and even if I do end up deciding this is a TV show for the purpose of year-end honors I think there will still be value in writing about the latest Steve McQueen project for the site as I come to my judgment.
The first installment of “Small Axe” is easily the longest of the five episodes and the one that can most easily be considered a stand-alone feature. It tells the real-life story of the “Mangrove 9,” a group of people arrested at a protest that occurred outside the Mangrove restaurant, which had been a central meeting place for the West Indian community in London and had frequently been the target of harassment by the police. So in terms of subject matter it’s not too hard to view this as something of a smaller scale British version of another of this year’s bigger movies, Aaron Sorkin’s The Trial of the Chicago 7. Unsurprisingly Steve McQueen’s approaches his film differently from Sorkin, who has a bit more of a maximalist inspirational approach. This isn’t to say that McQueen’s film would be called “minimalist,” in fact it’s probably his most accessible film with the possible exception of Widows, but I’m not sure McQeen finds anything “inspirational” about this story even if it [spoilers] ostensibly has a happier ending. The racial discrimination that by the police that sparks the initial protest in the film is almost comically overt and terrible, the kind of behavior that you’re almost shocked they thought they could get away with (though the victims are rather pointedly not shocked). When it transitions to the courtroom the film doesn’t wildly diverge from the usual tropes of the legal drama but it does effectively show what these people were up against and give a good idea of how clear the injustice of them even being on trial in the first place.
Lovers Rock (12/26/2020)
“Mangrove” is a full two-hour movie and the third movie “Red, White, and Blue” is about 80 minutes, but three of the other five “Small Axe” movies only run between 60 and 70 minutes. That would have been considered a semi-routine feature length in the 30s or 40s and does count as feature-length by The Academy (who consider 40 minutes the cutoff), but it’s also shorter than several premium TV episodes and is also short enough that it would make theatrical exhibition impractical without some sort of added content. “Lovers Rock” is the first of the “short” episodes and is also noteworthy for being the only of the five films to not deal with any real historical figures or events. Instead this focuses on a common house party in West London attended by various young West Indians. So, you could kind of view it as a less comedic black British version of something like Dazed and Confused where you’re sort of dramatizing one memorable coming of age night for some young people. The film is named after a subgenre of reggae music and this party is being DJed by someone who clearly knows their Caribbean music because the film has quite a bit of music playing in the background and some of the highlights are moments on the dance floor when people start to really get into the music. Were this not part of a five-part collective this likely would have felt a bit like it was missing something and could have used some expanding, but within the context of “Small Axe” its purpose is very clear: it’s trying to show positive side of West Indian British life apart while putting the struggle and strife we see in the other films more into the background.
Red, White, and Blue (12/27/2020)
So, this actually isn’t my first time watching the third Small Axe movie Red, White, and Blue. I’m on a mailing list where Amazon occasionally has me take part in online focus groups and a couple months ago they had me watch this one film out of the context of the larger Small Axe packaging. I had heard about Small Axe beforehand so it wasn’t like I was out of the loop at the time but I did feel it fair to watch it again within that context given that that first one was technically a work in progress version (though I didn’t notice any changes in the final cut). When I watched it the first time I liked it, but it kind of felt like it was missing, that it felt somewhat incomplete compared to Steve McQueen’s other films. I still basically feel that way now but viewing it as an installment of an anthology makes that incompleteness feel a bit more “right.” The film goes back to the topic of police violence previously examined in “Mangrove” but this one dramatizes the life of Leroy Logan, who was one of the first black men to join the London Metropolitan Police over the protests of his father, who had been a victim of police brutality. From there it becomes a sort of black Serpico with him needing to deal with being something of an outsider and pariah within the department despite trying to be a good cop. But unlike Serpico this doesn’t necessarily end with him taking down the “bad apples” and instead ends somewhat abruptly with the audience kind of led to believe that changing institutions from the inside is perhaps not so possible. There probably were ways to end this more hopefully, I looked up the real Logan and it does appear that over the course of several decades he did make some incremental changes to London policing, and I feel like there could have been room to tell some of that were this a full film rather than an 80 minute entrant in an anthology.
Alex Wheatle (12/28/2020)
In the lead up to my watching Small Axe the consensus I’d gleamed was that the fourth film “Alex Wheatle” was the weakest of the five, and in essence I agree with that. The titular Alex was a young man who was imprisoned for a role he played in the 1981 Brixton Riots who would later go on to be a novelist who wrote about his old neighborhood some twenty years later. This installment is specifically about his youth in Brixton and unlike many of the other Small Axe episodes this isn’t really about any one aspect of society failing black people so much as it’s more of a sweep of what life was like in this place and time. I think more than any of the other episodes here this doesn’t really feel like it was ever going to be able to stand alone as a feature film even in an expanded form, or at least it doesn’t feel like it would have been a particularly notable one. It does however make sense as kind of filler episode in an anthology series, the equivalent of something like that episode of Black Mirror about the soldiers in the VR simulation: not something you’d be crazy for on its own but worth watching as part of an overall package. But maybe that’s selling this thing short. Wheatle does prove to be a pretty intriguing protagonist early on and the film’s dramatization of the time leading up to the Brixton Riot itself is quite good, in fact I think McQueen gravitated to this story because he wanted to address that riot without just making Mangrove all over again but it’s not quite sure what it wants to do with this story after that point and seems to run out of material despite the rather short running time.
The title of the last Small Axe film gives a pretty clear indication of what the theme is, it’s the failures of the British education system when it comes to black children. Specifically it’s about a particular scandal in which it was discovered in the early 70s that many black children were being systematically placed into “special” schools where they receive sub-optimal education. In the film this is represented by the experience of a kid named Kingsley who is sort of a fictional composite of many kids in a similar situation at the time. He appears to be dyslexic and does struggle with reading as a result, but rather than put in the extra effort to educate him they put him in a remedial school which is plainly a joke where the teachers actively don’t bother to educate anyone. I think this was selected as the final entry in the series in part because it ends on a slightly more hopeful note than some of the other films. Much of McQueen’s goal in making “Small Axe” was to provide black Brits with the same kind of canon of civil rights stories that American children get, but given that Steve McQueen generally isn’t the rosiest person these movies don’t have a lot of “we shall overcome” to them. But “Education” is something of an exception as it ends not with the kind of quiet resignation the other films end with but instead with an example of the community coming together to provide something of a half-solution to the issue at hand.
You know, I was kind of hoping that over the course of watching the Small Axe series my position that they were TV rather than film would have weakened over time, but I must say having seen all of them together I’m more confident than ever that this is an anthology TV series rather than a true set of five movies. And there’s nothing wrong with that, TV can be great! Things don’t just become “movies” because they’re well made, movie people don’t need to butt in and announce “we’ll take it from here” the second a TV series like this comes along and frankly I worry I’ve already waded a bit too much into those waters by covering it on this movie blog at all. Having said all that, this is certainly a really worthwhile piece of work regardless of what you label it. These are important stories worth telling and, when collected together, the five films make a pretty powerful statement about what British history in the 20th Century has looked like.