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FILM: Passing Strange Is Good For Your Soul September 14, 2009

Posted by Aymar Jean Christian in Uncategorized.
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Passing Strange is Good For Your Soul. (click: Original Article)

(Grade: A-)

All media is marketing. It’s easy to forget that sometimes, and media saavy people can be easiest people to fool. Sophisticates think they watch Mad Men only because it’s subtle and rich, or District 9 because it’s a commentary on the brutality of man. Sure, I say those things. But I also try to remember Mad Men boasts a cast of really hot people, and the District 9 trailer has lots of things blowing up.

I was not enthused, then, when I first saw the first poster for Passing Strange, the now-cancelled Broadway musical written and created by musician Stew (and his creative partner, Heidi Rhodewald) about his journey as a teenager from South Central to Europe and back again as a man. The poster image is of Stew, with his guitar, amid the lights of the city, looking kind of sad, or, more generously, introspective. But let’s be real, he looks sad. If you’ve seen the musical, this makes sense. It’s very much about Stew and his existential crises.

I hate poor marketing. Why hide the fact that it also boasts a cast of really hot young people? Or that it looks — in terms of set design — bright and fresh? Why so serious? Not expecting these amusements, by the end of the first act, I was flabbergasted. It was the best thing I’d seen on Broadway since Rent. In fact, it was the new Rent. It would be a hit, I was sure (I saw one of the earliest shows).

Cut to now. It’s cancelled. But! Luckily there are at least a few rich black people willing to lend their names to good art about other black people that need to find larger audiences — think Oprah for The Color Purple, Oprah and Tyler Perry for Precious, and now Tyler Perry for For Colored Girls (okay it’s a short list). Spike Lee swooped in to shoot the musical and preserve it on film. Sundance picked it up and it is now showing at the IFC Center in New York and available for purchase OnDemand. (more…)

FILM: SCARY TREND ALERT: Obama Biopics December 9, 2008

Posted by Aymar Jean Christian in Uncategorized.
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Apparently Hollywood wants to make a movie about the 44th president before he even takes office.


Photo by Matthias Winkelmann.

Spike Lee stopped by my office yesterday for a chat. Okay, he didn’t come to see me. He spoke to an undergraduate class at Penn about his movies, black film and, of course, sports. At some point while discussing how hard it was for black directors to find funding for movies that aren’t Soul Plane or Get Rich or Die Tryin’, he mentioned something very scary:

There are several scripts floating around Hollywood about…Barack Obama.


I hope I heard wrong, but I don’t think so. Lee dropped that little bombshell when asked if he would ever direct an Obama flick. He wouldn’t, he said, because it’s already being done. He has other projects in mind, including a planned Joe Louis biopic.

Current events and biopics are great film staples, and audiences are used to seeing presidents on the big screen. Heck, Frost/Nixon is out this week to rave reviews. But the iconic Nixon, a perennial symbol of corruption, is long dead. Sure, there have been many movie Nixons, but it was at least 10 years after his resignation before big movie portrayals started rolling out, and Hollywood released Oliver Stone’s Nixon after the former president’s death.

Plus, the pillaging of current events has reaped mixed results. The paltry $30 million grossed by Stone’s W. proves the senselessness in making movies of sitting presidents. If BoxOfficeMojo is correct, Primary Colors didn’t fare much better. The post-9/11 movies have ranged from spectacular to so-so; I have avoided most of them. United 93 had me crying more than I ever have during a film. While I didn’t see Stone’s World Trade Center (Oliver Stone, what’s going on!) and The Great New Wonderful, the latter received solid reviews but the former’s were mixed. A truly great 9/11 movie will take years; the event is still too fresh.

Obama is far, far too fresh for a film. Please, hasn’t the past year provided enough spectacle and drama! Honestly, any film made about Obama now would fall flat. No actor could match his already boundless persona—t-shirts in Harlem have christened him the figurative son of either King, Kennedy or Lincoln. No director could match the excitement and anxiety of the longest campaign in history. All the events, both petty and weighty, are too ripe. Indeed, I’ve spent hours on YouTube reminiscing over dozens of countdown and reaction clips from election night. They’re riveting, more raw and visceral than any blockbuster could achieve at the moment. How can a film beat The View the day after, when Sherri Shepherd cried over being able to tell her son he had “no limitations”? Or journalist Keli Goff explaining on BET how her grandmother and mother picked cotton and got spit on but now get to see the country elect one of them?

It is now officially cliché to say the story of Obama’s candidacy is so improbable “it would be laughed out of a Hollywood pitch meeting for its sheer degree of incredibility,” as New York Magazine wrote after Obama’s grandmother died a day before the election and after Obama subsequently shed his first public tears (narrative symmetry with Hillary letting it rip before New Hampshire). See all this drama? Best to wait until the end of an Obama movie is not his election but his accomplishments—and failures.

Hollywood: be wise, follow cliché and laugh all Obama film projects out of the room, at least for the next 25 years. That’s how long it will take for the sheer grandiosity of the event to distill. Then you can go crazy, as I’m sure you will.

FILM: Spike Lee, The Black Man with a Right to be Angry October 2, 2008

Posted by Aymar Jean Christian in Uncategorized.
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The Angry Black Man

Spike Lee’s transparent Oscar bid Miracle at St. Anna isn’t great, but its critical drubbing reveals the cultural underestimation of a great director.

Every once in a while Spike Lee likes to say “fuck you,” or, as one of his characters says in his latest movie: “Progress? Nigga please.” Do the Right Thing was something of a cuss-out, as was Bamboozled and School Daze. One could argue When the Levees Broke is too, but I’d argue it’s a poetic cry for justice, an opera of sorts.

This time Lee almost literally said fuck you to Clint Eastwood, one of cinema’s reigning Great Directors, bashing his “white” Flags of Our Fathers and seemingly dismissing his Oscar-nominated Letters from Iwo Jima. Why go after Clint? Maybe Lee wanted buzz for his new movie, Miracle at St. Anna. Or maybe he simply tired of Eastwood and Scorsese winning Oscars while his masterpiece Do the Right Thing sits at #96 of AFI’s Top 100 movies—just added last year, almost a decade after the list’s inception. I think he’d prefer to be off the list entirely. Surely Lee has a right to be a sore winner. He’s by far the most well-known and critically respected black director living today; there aren’t many to begin with, and this is the thanks he gets?

Miracle at St. Anna is so far this year’s most hated Oscar-contender, and I’m wondering why. But first I have to say that most of the time, Spike Lee is not all that angry. To some, he is a bit of an enfant terrible, every once and a while screaming about race when most don’t want to talk about it. Yes, Lee is Mr. Race Riot in New York, but he’s also Mr. Inside Man and 25th Hour, hardly race movies. Many of his other “black” films—Crooklyn, She’s Gotta Have It, Get on the Bus, for example—are more about black communities and black people surviving than about oppression or the Evil White Man. Not even Do the Right Thing is about evil white people. It’s actually pretty fair. All those movies got good reviews. Lee is not an Angry Black Man. He’s not a black nationalist. He supports Barack Obama because of his message of hope! Before Miracle I’m sure Lee felt he’d earned the right amongst critics and viewers to be a little angry.

Still, it’s no mystery why critics were turned off by Miracle. The first image we see is of a John Wayne movie playing on a TV screen. The lead character, living in the 1980s, says to the screen, something hackneyed like “we fought that war too,” “we” meaning black people. The camera pans to a poster of Joe Louis, a black man, recruiting (black) men for World War II. Spike Lee is telling us: YOU PEOPLE FORGOT ABOUT NEGROES! LOOK AT THEM! THEY MATTER TOO AND YOU HATE THEM! Or something like that. The whole scene underscores his tiff with Eastwood and marks the movie as an angry race film. Of course, this is only the beginning. In the movie, there are no major sympathetic white American characters. The Italians are sympathetic. Even a Nazi is sympathetic! But not white America. They are evil. Oh, and incompetent and bad businessmen.

Well, let’s just say that race films don’t always go over well. Indeed a cursory look at Lee’s more combative and challenging films suggests just that. Bamboozled received mixed reviews, as did School Daze. Malcolm X and Do the Right Thing were much-lauded, but cultural theorist bell hooks argued that Lee’s biopic succeeded by making Malcolm X acceptable to a white audience, and anyone viewing Do The Right Thing can easily interpret the end as a call for peace, not war.

Miracle is about war though, so this is where I start to get interested. Not the war in the movie—I normally avoid war movies—but the war with the critics. Why does Miracle have a 37/100 on Metacritic and 30 percent on Rotten Tomatoes? Translation: this movie is crap. After watching the movie, I will acknowledge most of the criticism is fair: the characters are thin, the dialogue self-conscious, the plot heavy and complex, perhaps needlessly so. But it’s also ambitious and has a lot more to say than “there were black soldiers in World War II who weren’t really respected.” It emerges, in the end, as a truly global war movie, a WWII movie for our times: there are no clear heroes, no clear protagonist, no clear victory, it’s a hodgepodge of ethnicities and nationalities, good and evil aren’t always clear, it’s critical of revolutionaries and fascists. In short, its portrayal of war is almost like the movie itself: messy and long, with moments of heroism that don’t amount to much except a human connection. Was this deliberate? Maybe, maybe not. But Lee has directed enough solid, well-told movies that I’m willing to bet at least some of it is intentional.

I side with Roger Ebert on this one: the movie has moments of brilliance. I was expecting, then, reviews that matched the movie’s complexity. Some critics, like Ebert, would call it a great folly worthy of attention, some would nitpick and some would pan it. Instead it was universally panned: “[Lee] has nothing to sell but the theme of our common humanity—in which, on the evidence, I don’t think he believes,” the usually fair David Edelstein wrote. Really? This sounds like an assessment of the “angry I-Hate-Clint-Eastwood” Spike Lee, not the one who actually directs movies. In fact, anyone who has seen Lee’s movies knows he’s, at his core, a humanist who feels humanity is too easily taken away.

Miracle was clearly Lee’s attempt for an Oscar. He deserves one, though not for this movie. Really I just feel bad for the guy. He is brilliant, one of the best directors living today, and yet he still hasn’t had Oscar serendipity: timing, subject, quality and critical consensus. Maybe he doesn’t care, and maybe he shouldn’t. But for me, someone who never plays the angry black man and who discourages others from doing it, at a time when the world’s most famous African-American is trying desperately to not be angry, I’ll say this to Spike: it’s okay to be pissed.