Duality (The Hate U Give, 2018)

the_hate_u_give_posterStarr and her family live in the poor part of town. But her mother pushed for sending Starr and her brother Seven to a prestigious (and mostly white) school. There Starr lives a very different life, downplaying any aspect of herself that might invite the accusation of being “ghetto”. She even has a (white) boyfriend named Chris. Chris is a goofy guy who wants to be a bigger part of her life, but Starr wants to keep he and her friends their separate from the world of her home life.

When one of her oldest friends, Khalil is gunned down by a cop  in front of her, Starr’s world rapidly starts to unravel. She tries to retain anonymity, but finds the weight of injustice harder to compartmentalize than the rest of her life has been. As she becomes more vocal, her friendships and family relationships are tested.

Based on the book by Angie Thomas, The Hate U Give is a painful and yet hopeful exploration of blackness in America. Starr’s family has faced a lot of adversity, including her father having been the right hand man to the local drug lord King.  After a stint in prison, Maverick Carter turned his life around, working hard to be an honest man with a local business. Her mother Lisa, on the other hand, would like to leave their community for a safer place.

The film might be a hard watch for some whites, especially those who are prone to “blue Lives Matter” ideas.  The film does not flinch from challenging the whole problem of such arguments. And the film very deftly offers those defenses first through a black man, Starr’s uncle Carlos. Played by Common, the police officer takes a more middle ground position. In one scene, he calmly explains the struggle police face in a routine traffic stop. And it really seems logical…until she asks what would happen in a white neighborhood.  In that moment, he confesses a white man would get a warning before being fired upon.

The film only has one truly sympathetic white character, and he is capable of cringey moments. After learning about Starr being the previously anonymous witness, he pleads that he does not see color. He does, however, prove himself an ally in his willingness to trust and help Starr when she needs his support. But Starr is not a fragile child.  Amandla Stenberg portrays her with sweetness, but also an edge.  And when she finds her voice, it is a powerful moment.

I think that this film is a very strong rebuke to a culture that likes to pretend racism is no longer an issue of prominence.  Emotionally engaging, heart breaking and inspiring, The Hate U Give is a message that cannot be heard too much.

Urban Legends (The People Under the Stairs, 1991)

People_Under_the_Stairs_PosterIn 1988 Wes Craven explored Voodoo, but it was through the eyes of a white man in Haiti.  With the People Under the Stairs,  Craven looks at the plight of under privileged communities and the underlying causes of crime (poverty).

There are rumors of a creepy house that hides a fortune. Leroy wants to get into the house in the hopes it is true and recruit’s his girlfriend’s younger brother Fool. But when they break into the house, they discover that it is booby trapped. Once trapped inside, Fool has to dodge the disturbed couple who live in the house.

Fool discovers a teen girl locked in the house, a victim of abuse…he also discovers there is something in the walls…something dangerous.

I feel like this is an under-rated film from the Wes Craven catalog.  It is creepy to the point of uncomfortable.  The couple, simply named Man and Woman appear to be bondage loving racists (saying more is revealing too much). Fool is a fun character, he begins as a pawn for a crime and becomes a hero.  Craven’s choice to focus on a young black boy is pretty bold.

I really like the film, Fool is a character that is pretty easy to root for and when he teams with Alice (the teen girl) it makes for some good old fashioned comeuppance for the bad guys.  I do wish this one got more respect, and think it is one of Craven’s more interesting films.

Voodoo Salvation (Scream, Blacula, Scream, 1973)

Scream_Blacula_Scream_PosterBlacula was a straight forward vampire film. And it spawned a sequel.  Because if Dracula can keep coming back, why can’t Blacula??!!

In this film, the embittered son of a voodoo priestess seeks revenge against the Voodoo Community names another member as her successor.  He raises Blacula from the dead, who swiftly turns him into a vampire. Again they start to build a vampire army.

A police Detective, Justin Carter is trying to solve the case of mysterious deaths, which lead him to Lisa. Lisa is the woman chosen by the Voodoo Community and a former lover of Carter’s.  Blacula comes to desire Lisa and also believes she may be able to cure his vampirism through voodoo.

The film has some weird points, such as the bizarrely Nice Racist trope in the sheriff. He does not hate Justin, but he is dismissive of him at times.

While the film is not quite as good as Blacula, it does have some great moments.  And both Marshall and Pam Grier turn in great performances. There is one scene between Blacula and Carter where there is a cat and mouse dance. It is an effectively tense scene.

It is kind of interesting to note that this came out the same year as Ganja & Hess.  They approach the vampire myth from very different perspectives. Ganja & Hess is a deep dive into addiction and is largely an arthouse horror film.  Scream, Blacula, Scream is a very standard sequel that is about quick scares and blood.

Really, though, Scream, Blacula, Scream manages to be a pretty entertaining follow up to the first film.

Blood Prince (Blacula, 1972)

Blacula_PosterThe 70’s were a time of revolution in cinema. Directors were finding greater freedom in the stories they could tell and what they could put up on the screen for mainstream audiences.  Those years also saw the rise of blacksploitation films.  Blacula was one of the first of that era’s blacksploitation horror films. It also was one of the rare films of the time with a black director. If you want to hear some interesting stories of what it was like, see Horror Noire (currently on Shutter), which includes interviews with Blacula director William Crain.

Opening with Prince Mamuwalde seeking help from Count Dracula, he instead finds himself cursed with vampirism. Dracula locks him away in a coffin until the Prince is freed in the 1970’s. He quickly starts claiming victims and building a small army of vampire followers. His main goal is to seduce Tina, the spitting image of his lost love Luva.

Meanwhile, Dr. Gordon Peters is trying to solve mysterious deaths, that he starts to realize are vampire attacks. He then must convince the police.

Blacula is a lot of fun.  William Marshall has great presence and a Princely attitude that gives Dracula a real run for the money.  The Doctor is obviously meant to be a Van Helsing stand in, but he is a nice blend of action hero and intellectual. Vonetta McGee is is lovely, but has a character limited by being the love interest and victim.

William Crain has a strong eye as a director and fought for a lot of what he got to put on screen. One great scene features a wild eyed and haired vampire running towards the audience in slow motion as she is going in for the kill. Another has a surprise reveal of Blacula that is really effective, even though I thought the victim was not long for this world (but I thought they would last longer).

Honestly, my only real criticism is one that probably is tied to a long history of watching horror. But the vampire deaths feel kind of…underwhelming… they just kind of…fall over in sunlight.

But that is a pretty small criticism.  I really enjoy Blacula.  It has some good performances, Marshall is a great Vampire Prince. I wish Crain had gotten the opportunity to direct more films, and I feel like I need to check out Dr. Black and Mr. Hyde (His only other feature length film credit, though he worked on a lot of TV shows from the 70’s and 80’s).

A Million To One (Get On the Bus, 1996)

Get_On_the_Bus_PosterOrganized by Louis Farrakhan, the Million Man March was a march on Washington for black men. The purposed was a reclaiming of roles that some leaders felt had been taken from black men (both through institutional racism and by their own choices).  Farrakhan was always a rather controversial figure (mainly due to his tendency towards anti-semitism).  But back in the 1990’s he was still seen as a leader for many black Americans.

In 1996, Spike Lee directed a film that chose to explore what was behind the drive for the men who attended.  And what Get on the Bus tells us is…It’s Complicated.

Get on the Bus follows several men on a chartered bus ride to attend the Million Man March. The passengers include Evans Sr. and his son “Smooth”, who are (due to a court order) chained together (Lee and writer Reggie Rock Bythewood were not being subtle there). There is Flip, an ego driven and boisterous actor. Xavier is an aspiring director making a documentary. Jamal and Randall are a gay couple whose relationship is at an impasse. And Pops is the sixties radical who seeks to inspire the young men around him.

Spike explores some of the more obvious areas of white racism against the black community.  This is highlighted in a sequence with the lone white character in the film, a substitute driver played by Richard Belzer. It is a well done scene because you can both sympathize with Belzer’s Rick and yet cringe as he stumbles through a myriad of attempts to offer a defense. And Charles Dutton’s George (who works with Rick) takes some pity and steps in to defend him and get the others to back off.

But Lee also does not hesitate to turn the camera on issues specific to the black community. There are arguments regarding parenting, the treatment of black women, what it means to be black (one character, Roger, who had a white mother, has his “black cred” challenged).  And Lee takes on homophobia among black men pretty directly.

But really, the heart of the film is in both Evan Sr. and his son Smooth and then Pops.  Pops is that guy for whom the March is a chance to reclaim those days of past.  Days of revolution and the marches for Civil Rights. Offering words of wisdom, he quietly connects himself to these men, resulting in a moment where the men must put aside their differences, their egos and anger to unite. Evan Sr. is a man who knows he has let his son down and desperately wants to correct this.

Get on the Bus could have been unbearably preacher in lesser hands. And I do not mean just Lee here. The cast is excellent.  Charles S. Dutton is perfectly cast as the jovial George, who is exuberant in bringing these men together for something he hopes to be a life changing event. Dutton has a friendly authority throughout the film. Andre Braugher is irritating as the boastful Flip…but that is the point. You are never really meant to see his side. He is the selfish man, going to the March more for the image he thinks it will project than any more noble reasons.

Probably the weakest sequence is the over the top Republican character. This is not the fault of actor Wendell Pierce, but rather the fact that the character is less a character and a diversionary gag.

Get on the Bus feels as relevant and challenging today as it was back in 1996.

Sugar and Spite (Alita Battle Angel, 2019)

Alita_Battle_Angel_PosterSet 300 years after all but one “sky city” fell to the earth, Dr. Dyson Ido finds the remains of a cyborg with a still functional human brain. In this future, cybernetic are a part of life, there are many that have cybernetic limbs.  Ido runs a clinic helping the people of the earthbound Iron City that is in the shadow of Zalem. He provides her with a body and when she awakens with no memories, he names her Alita.

Alita soon starts to make friends with locals and grow close to Ido as a parental figure. When she discovers she seems to have incredible combat skills and a bit of taste for action, Ido hopes to keep her from learning too much. Especially when she becomes interested in local boy Hugo. Alita is determined to learn who she is, but also finds that she is facing the threat of local crime lord Vector.

Visually, this is a pretty impressive film, which is not to unexpected from a Cameron connected film. Alita looks pretty lifelike, yet at the same time, her design includes eyes that are slightly too big.  This works for the character and sells that she has an artificial body, yet a very human brain beneath the shell.

On the other hand, there is one character design that just did not work for me, but the character is ion the scene for a very short time…so I cannot really be too bothered.

I really like the chemistry between Waltz and Salazar.  It is very sweet and feels much like a man who is finding a second chance at being a father for someone who may have lived a long time without the love of a parental figure.

The action is very easy to follow, even in high velocity sequences, I never found it confusing.  Again, I am not surprised as director Robert Rodriguez is a skilled director of action.

My biggest criticism is that it feels like that, since they knew they were trying to kick off a franchise, they spent most of the movie establishing there world, and the final half of the story was an afterthought.  It was as if they reached a point and realized they would have a six hour movie, but still needed a certain resolution for the first film. The final part of the film’s story just seems super rushed, including certain character’s arcs.

Alita Battle Angel is not a perfect film, but it is exciting and has some solid emotional beats (especially in the relationship of Ido and Alita).

Voodoo Vengeance (Sugar Hill, 1974)

Sugar_Hill_PosterDiana’s beloved has been murdered…seeking revenge, she reached out to Mama Maitresse who calls forth the mystical Voodoo Priest Baron Samedi.  He raises an army of the undead, telling Diana to “put them to evil use…it is all the want!”

The sole feature directed by future Police Academy producer Paul Maslansky, Sugar Hill is a unique zombie film. There had been films in the past about zombies and voodoo, but this was set in America and the protagonist is a young black woman. Being a blaxploitation film, the villains are whitey.

The look of the zombies is intriguing.  They have bulging silver eyes and are covered in cobwebs. Add to the fact they are former slaves, wearing shackles and chains.  This makes for a really good creepy moment early as an early victims hears the rattle of the chains as he is stalked by the zombies.

The deaths get pretty inventive, such as in one scene where the zombies feed a man to pigs (the zombies in the film are more agents of retribution, rather than flesh eaters).

The racism in the film is not subtle…in one scene, the girlfriend of Langston (the main heavy) states at one point, “That ain’t class, that’s color.”  This does result in some clunky dialog…mostly from Bey’s Diana.  Whitey and Honky feel kind of dated. But the disgust and racism from the white characters is palpable.

Don Pedro Colley is very entertaining as the scenery chewing Baron Samedi.  Richard Lawson is the slick homicide detective and Diana’s former lover Valentine.  But the film really rests in the hands of Marki Bey. Attractive and driven, she is quite impactful.

A product of it’s time, Sugar Hill is a fun horror film with a good cast (I feel like Bey should have been a bigger star. In spite of some of the dialog, she has presence). This is more of a “B” movie, but in the way you want a B-Movie to be.

The Art of Addiction (Ganja & Hess, 1973)

Ganja_and_Hess_PosterDr. Hess is attacked by his assistant, who promptly commits suicide. When he awakens, Hess has no wounds and he has a compulsion to drink blood.  He stores his assistant’s body for safe keeping, but then is contacted by Ganja, the assistant’s wife.  Ganja discovers her dead husband,  but ultimately is both seductress and seduced by Hess.

It is hard to describe the film, because it is more of an art film than a horror film.  Playwright Bill Gunn was hired to make a blaxploitation horror film by the studio, but had little interest in making another knockoff. The end result is a vampire film that is a surreal exploration of addiction and seeking redemption. It never makes use of the word vampire, Hess is able to walk in the daylight.

The audience in theaters was not interested, wanting something more violent. But Gunn was not interested in this. The studio wanted an alternate cut, but Gunn, his editor Victor Kanefsky and Cinematographer James Hinton all refused, being very happy with the film they made. When the studio recut the film, Gunn walked out of a showing a few minutes in.  Ever confident in the work, he submitted his original edit to the Cannes Film festival where it received a standing ovation.  After decades of the recut and retitled film being the only version available for rental, the correct cut was created for DVD.

The movie ends on a fascinating note, as the film is full of religious imagery, with Christianity seeming to haunt Hess throughout the film.  It is interesting to see Night of the Living Dead’s Duane Jones in the role of Hess. He is more sedated in this role, often being pensive and observant of his surroundings.

For a lot of horror fans, this film may be a tough watch.  It moves at a very subdued pace, but it is such a fascinating watch.  Gunn’s vision is so unique, not just for black horror, but horror in general. I found myself wonderfully confounded and intrigued by the final decisions of Hess within the film.

Ganja & Hess is a fascinating exploration of vampires, addiction, religion and  redemption.

Black Fears (Horror Noire, 2019)

Horror_Noir_PosterWhen you think of horror, it can often seem like people of color don’t exist. The Universal classics were devoid of black people. And even when they were present, they were violent savages (1933’s King Kong).

But Horror Noire looks deeper into the presence of the black community in horror films.  It is not really hard to find black horror fans today. And really, horror has a long history of popularity in the black community…but often with very different lessons.

The film opens by noting the most famous horror film of them all is a film a lot of white people do not often cite as a horror film.  But you can see why Birth of a Nation is truly horrific in its story and racist portrayals of black men.

Through interviews with writers, directors and many actors the decades of horror are explored.  Early on the documentary explores forgotten films from the 40’s such as Son of Ingagi by Spencer Williams (most remembered as Andy from Amos & Andy).

There is a heavy look at the 70’s with regard to films that came out during the height of blaxploitation films. While films like Blackenstein do not fare well, Blacula and Ganja and Hess transcend the genre.

There is a terrific statement in the film:

“We’ve always loved horror. It’s just that horror, unfortunately, hasn’t always loved us.”

The insights from actors in regards to their roles is key. Kelly Jo Minter, Ken Sagoes and Miguel A. Nùñez Jr all bristle at the notion that their roles were incidental. Of course, they were aware that in many cases they were the only people on the set of color…but as Sagoes notes, he was happy to have a check.

Horror Noire is a worthwhile documentary that I found fascinating and educational. I highly recommend sitting down for it.

As an aside…Jordan Peele…while you are changing the face of horror…please do not forget about Keith David, Ken Foree and Tony Todd.

A Time For Grief, A Time for Theft (Widows, 2018)

Widows_PosterVeronica, Linda and Alice have lost their husbands in a tragedy. They discover their husbands were professional thieves. To add to their grief, they find their lives under siege, specifically from Jamal Manning.  While he is running for public office, Manning is also a local crime lord…and it so happen’s the women’s husbands died stealing from him.  He wants his money and gives them a month.

When she discovers her husband’s records of all her heists, Veronica brings the other widows together to try and complete the next heist that her husband had planned.

Widows is one of those movies that you don’t really get prepared for from the trailers.  Most Heist films are heavily focused on the planning and the heist. Widows is more interested in setting up its characters.  Everyone feels important.  We walk with them as their lives intersect. This is to the film’s benefit.  We get to really know everyone involved, both the heroes and villains of the tale.

Viola Davis gives a great performance as Veronica.  She is both vulnerable and tough as nails.  Colin Farrell and Robert Duvall play son and father of a political dynasty that are at each other throats.  Daniel Kaluuya is riveting and immensely terrifying as Manning’s right hand man.

Director Steve McQueen makes some bold choices in the film (one sequence takes place within a car, and we only hear the actors as the camera stays outside, as the focuses on the car itself). The end result is a very compelling character film that happens to feature a heist.  Managing some excellent surprises before it ends, I found Widows a very satisfying watch.

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