Category Archives: Black Directors

Famous films made by black filmmakers in order to celebrate February’s Black History Month, as well as raise awareness of these great films and the history of black cinema.

Black Directors Feature #9 – Friday (1995)

friday-1995-poster-artwork-ice-cube-chris-tucker-nia-longFriday (1995)
Directed by: F. Gary Gray
Written by: Ice Cube, DJ Pooh
Starring: Ice Cube, Chris Tucker, Nia Long, Tiny Lister, Jr., Regina King, Anna Maria Horsford, Bernie Mac, John Witherspoon

The final film in our Black Directors marathon is another triumph from the American independent film boom of the 1990’s.  F. Gary Gray’s directorial debut Friday was a surprise hit that helped to further push Ice Cube into the mainstream as a multi-talented actor, launched the career of incredibly popular comedic actor Chris Tucker.  Gray would go on to direct future hits like The Negotiator, The Italian Job, Be Cool, Law Abiding Citizen, and most recently the critically acclaimed Straight Outta Compton – he is also attached to direct the upcoming Fast 8.  In regards to helping the careers of three incredibly successful young African American’s in Hollywood, Friday is an absolute triumph.  Luckily for Gray and company, the film was success at far more than just that.  The acclaimed stoner comedy was shot on a budget of just $3.5 million, and went on to earn over $28 million at the box office.  Not only was Friday an unlikely financial success, but it also garnered positive reviews from critics of the time.  It was celebrated by critics for being a consistently funny film with two charming and energetic lead performances from Ice Cube and Chris Tucker – something both men have been praised for over and over through their careers.  Since its initial release in the mid-90’s, Friday has gone on to develop a rabid cult following, mostly due to the film’s nearly-infinite quotability – It also helped lay the groundwork for future successful stoner comedies like Pineapple Express, Dude, Where’s My Car?, and Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle among others.  The film’s success led to two sequels being developed (Next Friday in 2000, and Friday After Next in 2002), as well as a very short-lived animated series titled Friday: The Animated Series in 2007.  Both director F. Gary Gray and co-star Chris Tucker would not reprise their roles in future sequels, due to Gray following other passions, and Tucker becoming a born-again Christian.  A fourth film in the series, currently known as Last Friday, is currently in development and could see a release later this year.

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Bernie Mac, Chris Tucker, and Ice Cube in F. Gary Gray’s 1995 stoner cult classic, Friday.

Friday follows a day in the life of best friends Craig (Ice Cube) and Smokey (Chris Tucker), two young men living in South Central Los Angeles.  Craig has just lost his job and only source of expendable income (on his day off, no less), and Smokey is a weed dealer who smokes his supply faster than he can sell it.  Smokey tells his friend that today is the day he’s finally going to get Craig high, as he does not smoke despite the protests of his best friend.  The two friends encounter a wide assortment of characters from around their neighbourhood throughout their day, including Smokey’s intimidating weed supplier Big Worm (Faizon Love), Craig’s crush Debbie (Nia Long), his wealthy neighbour Stanley (Ronn Riser), the adulterous Pastor Clevor (Bernie Mac), and Deebo (Tiny Lister, Jr.), the neighbourhood bully who seemingly gets off on stealing from those weaker than him.  After Big Worm questions Smokey on his lack of his money, the young stoner throws his best friend under the bus, claiming that the two smoked some of his supply to help Craig cope with the recent loss of his job.  After hearing Smokey’s claim, he gives the two young men until 10:00PM that night to either hand over the money, the weed, or both Craig and Smokey will die.  Both men try unsuccessfully to borrow the money from family members and friends throughout the afternoon.  Eventually, Craig’s father Willie (John Witherspoon), finds Craig with a gun and learns about his son’s situation.  Willie tries to talk Craig out of using the gun, telling him instead that using your fists goes just as far, but doesn’t hold all the consequences that using a gun does.  Craig ignores his father’s advice, and he and Smokey desperately continue their search for Big Worm’s money.  Will Craig and Smokey be able to get their dealer his money, or will the two young men suffer the grave consequences?  Find out in F. Gary Gray’s cult stoner comedy, Friday.

I wasn’t sure at first what to expect going into Friday, seeing as how I’m not a huge fan of the stoner comedy genre, nor am I much of a fan of the more obnoxious aspects of weed culture in general.  Thankfully, Friday ends our Black Directors marathon on a very positive note!  After the disappointment that was Menace II Society (especially following two legitimate modern masterpieces in Boyz n the Hood and Malcolm X), I needed something of a pick-me-up, and Friday did just that.  This film is absolutely hilarious from top to bottom, and somehow manages to be incredibly touching at the end – even though its ending is essentially just an all-out street fight.  The amount of quotes that come from this film –  “Bye Felisha!” and “You got knocked the FUCK out!” in particular – are both incredibly funny in context, but makes me wonder how both of these quotes became part of the semi-regular lexicon of internet culture.  Chris Tucker’s performance in the film is easily the highlight, and it’s absolutely no wonder why he went on to become one of the most popular comedic performers of the 2000’s in the Rush Hour series.  Ice Cube does a very competent job of playing the straight man to Tucker’s eccentric Smokey, but I don’t buy for a second that Cube’s Craig has never smoked pot before.  Speaking of Craig smoking, the scene where he feels the effects of Smokey’s weed is an absolute knockout, even in its incredibly over-the-top nature.  I don’t think I’ve laughed at any recent scene as hard as I did during this one, especially with Ice Cube trying to maintain his composure in front of his crush.  The chemistry between Cube and Tucker can be felt in every minute they share the screen together, and they play off one another perfectly.  It’s a shame Chris Tucker didn’t participate in the film’s sequels, as they might have been worth checking out with his involvement in them.  Another standout in the film is John Witherspoon’s Willie, Craig’s father.  Witherspoon plays a grumpy and somewhat goofy dog catcher, and his interactions with his son are always either hilarious or profound in an odd sort of way.  His constant badgering of his son was something I looked forward to in every scene the two shared, and always got a smirk out of me.  Witherspoon’s highlight is a brief moment when he is watching a television program involving a mailman being chased by an angry dog, while being cuddled up on his bed with a giant and adorable plush dog toy.  The acting is very much the best aspect of Friday, especially since F. Gary Gray’s directional is so subdued and not nearly as energetic as the atmosphere the film gives off.  Though this hurts the film somewhat, it also helps build the chemistry between Ice Cube and Chris Tucker, as the camera isn’t busy constantly moving or searching for other interesting things on screen.

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Craig (Ice Cube) and Debbie (Nia Long) in 1995’s Friday.

Overall, I very much enjoyed what F. Gary Gray’s Friday had to offer.  It’s incredibly sharp and hilarious, and credit is definitely owed to both Ice Cube and DJ Pooh for writing the original screenplay.  You can feel the influence on later films in Friday’s strongest moments, especially those involving smoking pot and dealing with weed dealers and the wacky neighbourhood characters.  The chemistry between Ice Cube and Chris Tucker is far and away the best thing about the film, and I wish they had collaborated on more than just the one film.  Friday caps off our Black Directors marathon on a hilarious note, and becomes the final highlight of the incredibly rewarding month long series.  Friday is highly recommended.  

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Black Directors Feature #8 – Menace II Society (1993)

MPW-26165Menace II Society (1993)
Directed by: Allen Hughes, Albert Hughes
Written by: Tyger Williams (Based on a story by: Allen Hughes, Albert Hughes, Tyger Williams)
Starring: Tyrin Turner, Jada Pinkett, Larenz Tate, Samuel L. Jackson, MC Eiht, Glenn Plummer

Following the enormous success of John Singleton’s hit Boyz n the Hood, films set in South Central Los Angeles were going for a dime a dozen, and the hood drama was becoming all the rage in early 1990’s North America.  In 1993 – just two years following that hit – the Hughes Brothers, Allen and Albert, made their high profile directorial debuts with the surprise hit Menace II Society.  The film takes a great deal of thematic and stylistic inspiration from the aforementioned Boyz n the Hood, which was the case for a great deal of films of the time.  The twin brothers capitalized on its success the same way Gordon Parks Jr. did with Super Fly after his father’s hit Shaft was met with such widespread acclaim.  The pre-production and casting phase of the movie went through various stars before shooting could begin, with hugely popular rappers MC Ren of N.W.A. fame and Tupac Shakur both attached to the project at some point.  Tupac’s involvement is perhaps most notorious, as it resulted in a lawsuit after the hip hop star assaulted one of the film’s directors following a series of arguments about the religious views of one of the film’s primary characters.  The film stars future big names like Jada Pinkett, Samuel L. Jackson, and Larenz Tate.  Shot on a budget of only $3.5 million, Menace II Society was a modest hit at the box office, raking in a very impressive $30 million and ensuring that Allen and Albert would find Hollywood careers soon after. Menace II Society was made with positive reviews upon its release, helping the small production slide into a more mainstream audience.  The film was noted for its gritty portrayal of young black Americans in South Central, holding no punches when it came to the violent content displayed on-screen.  It received an award at the 1993 Independent Spirit Awards, and was regarded by many critics as one of the better films to see a release that year.  The Hughes Brothers have continued to work in Hollywood since their successful debut, directing hits like Dead Presidents, From Hell, and most recently The Book of Eli.  In 2013, Allen Hughes would make his solo directorial debut with Broken City, temporarily leaving Albert to work on projects of his own.

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Tyrin Turner (Caine) and Larenz Tate (O-Dog) in 1993’s Menace II Society.

We follow young Caine Lawson (Tyrin Turner) as he struggles with living life in South Central as a young, underprivileged man of color.  Caine’s father was killed in a drug deal, and his mother is currently a heroin addict.  The young man has grown up with his grandparents, who are proud of what he has accomplished despite everything.  What they don’t yet know is that Caine is a drug dealer himself, and associates himself with a group of young gangbangers.  After being an accessory in a brutal convenience store shooting that his friend Kevin (or O-Dog) (Larenz Tate) triggered, Caine’s life as a young dealer will never again be the same.  After being carjacked and seeing a friend killed, Caine, O-Dog, and A-Wax (MC Eiht) track down the murderers and kill them, furthering the cycle of violence.  Caine and O-Dog are soon recruited by a local thug named Chauncy (Clifton Powell) for more petty crimes, but are arrested after the police are tipped off about their activities.  Caine is suspected by the police for taking part in the convenience store killings, but the evidence is too shaky to prosecute the young man.  Soon after being released, Caine finds out a fling of his has resulted in a pregnancy, and his partnership with Chauncey quickly begins to deteriorate after aggressive behaviour from both parties.  Will Caine and his friends be able to escape from the hood lifestyle that has claimed the lives of so many of their peers, or will the cycle of violence make its way back to them?  Find out in The Hughes Brothers’ Menace II Society.

There’s a lot to admire about The Hughes Brothers’ debut feature, especially because of its status as a first-time project from both men.  Menace II Society feels incredibly competent in the way it’s directed, with its camera never stopping for too long, and instead constantly moving and jumping around as Caine’s situation gets more and more dire.  The editing and cinematography are two more elements to be appreciated, especially because of the relatively low budget of the film.  South Central feels hot and grimy during the movie’s many daytime scenes, with its night scenes giving a sense of dread and mystery lying in the darkness of the hood.  The very large problem with Menace II Society comes in the form of its script, which is far too problematic for this to be a “good” film in my books. Where Boyz n the Hood realistically portrays young people in desperate situations doing desperate things, Menace instead opts for a great deal of incredibly violent sequences that don’t do anything to further the stakes at hand.  There’s absolutely nothing subtle about any moment found in Menace II Society – in fact, I’m not even sure if the film would know the definition of the word.  The characters suffer greatly from poor writing, with not a single character except for Caine’s grandparents and lover being sympathetic in any way. When the violence erupts on screen, you feel absolutely nothing for these young men. There’s no sense of hatred, despair, or empathy – instead, even the most brutal moments are met with a shrug of the shoulders and the hope that maybe the next scene will be more impactful.  But that next impactful scene never comes.  The performances found in the film are surprisingly good, especially given the material they’re left to work with.  The standout performance comes from Larenz Tate, who plays O-Dog.  Tate’s young character is truly despicable in almost every scene of Menace II Society, never making a single good or unselfish decision in his actions.  He views violence as an afterthought, and never seems to hesitate when acting out violently.  Tate’s performance is delightfully fun to watch, despite the very clearly horrific things he’s doing.  Samuel L. Jackson’s brief showing is also a delight, but is ruined by more senseless and emotionless violence found in the film’s screenplay.

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Larenz Tate as O-Dog in The Hughes Brothers’ Menace II Society.

Menace II Society is an ambitious and incredibly well-made directorial debut from two men who clearly have great chemistry together when working behind a camera.  Unfortunately, it learns nothing from its admiration of Boyz n the Hood, and instead uses the opportunity to festishize hood violence.  The film’s script is a tragedy, as it eclipses some very good performances from a talented young cast, and a well-made picture on most technical levels.  If you’re looking for a highly dumbed-down version of Boyz n the Hood, this one may just be up your alley!  If you’re looking for something a little more substantial and meaningful, especially in the realm of African American filmmakers, then I would steer clear.  Menace II Society is not recommended.

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Black Directors Feature #7 – Malcolm X (1992)

large_tl3Bxpv6pLhm6gZOtokQuqPw7BuMalcolm X (1992)
Directed by: Spike Lee
Written by: Spike Lee, Arnold Perl (Based on The Autobiography of Malcolm X by Malcolm X, Alex Haley)
Starring: Denzel Washington, Angela Bassett, Albert Hall, Al Freeman, Jr., Delroy Lindo, Spike Lee

One of the greatest biopics in film history about one of the world’s most important social activists in history, released in a notably strong year for Hollywood, and made by one of America’s most controversial and misunderstood filmmakers – what on earth could go wrong?  Spike Lee’s Malcolm X came out after a string of critically acclaimed hits from the young director.  How does one follow a filmography with titles like She’s Gotta Have It, School Daze, Mo’ Better Blues, Jungle Fever, and one of the most important movies of the 1980’s – Do the Right Thing?  By making a film about one of the most important and divisive figures in modern American history, that’s how.  The pairing of Spike Lee and Malcolm X seems like a natural pairing in retrospect, but at the time lead up to its release the film had a great deal of naysayers and non-believers waiting for the epic project to crash and burn.  But it didn’t, and instead Spike Lee and star Denzel Washington crafted one of the most intimate, epic in scale, and meaningful biographical dramas ever made.  Covering the man’s young adulthood from his less than glamorous life of crime, to his time in prison that directly led to his adoption of the Islamic lifestyle, to his later political and religious activism in the American South, ultimately leading to the tragic and complicated demise of Malcolm X.  It was critically acclaimed from the moment it was released to the world, landing on many critics top 10 lists for 1992, was highly praised by legendary film director Martin Scorsese, and even ranked as Roger Ebert’s favorite film of the year.  Malcolm X was nominated for two Academy Awards – Best Actor in a Leading Role (Denzel Washington) and Best Costume Design.  Unfortunately for Spike Lee and his labor of love, the epic biopic was released in a year where Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven dominated the awards season, and films like Woody Allen’s Husbands and Wives, James Ivory’s Howards End, Robert Altman’s The Player, Neil Jordan’s The Crying Game, and others like The Scent of a Woman and Chaplin hogged the spotlight.  Washington’s loss to Al Pacino for Best Actor has gone down as a tragic mistake for the Academy, giving the award to an actor who had never won the award, instead of one who truly had the best performance of that year.  Fortunately, Lee’s Malcolm X is now looked back upon as one of the best films of the decade, and lives on in the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry.  Since his critically acclaimed effort on Malcolm X, Spike Lee has made numerous acclaimed films, spanning a wide variety of genres, most notably documentaries like 4 Little Girls, When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts, and its follow up If God is Willing and da Creek Don’t Rise, along with narrative films like 25th Hour, Bamboozled, Summer of Sam, Inside Man, and his most recent Chi-Raq.

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Denzel Washington as Malcolm X in his pre-Nation of Islam days.

Told in three separate acts, Malcolm X explores the entire adult life of the man himself.  Each act takes place in a different period of Malcolm’s life, and chronicles his rise from a relative nobody to one of the most influential and controversial men of his time.  The film begins with Malcolm (Denzel Washington) getting involved in the Harlem crime scene, committing petty crimes for West Indian Archie (Delroy Lindo), a crime boss.  We also come to find out what has happened to Malcolm’s family – his father was murdered by white supremacists when Malcolm was a child, and his mother was institutionalized after displaying signs of mental illness.  After a falling out with Archie, Malcolm flees to Boston and takes up a different style of crime.  Soon enough, his luck runs up and Malcolm and his friend Shorty (Spike Lee) end up in prison, where Malcolm is to serve a ten-year term.  The second act in the film sees Malcolm trying to survive the harsh conditions of prison.  He meets a man with some pull named Baines (Albert Hall), who slowly introduces him to the ways of Islam, and Malcolm becomes a bona fide member of the Nation of Islam.  The third and lengthiest portion of the movie sees Malcolm under the tutelage of Elijah Muhammad (Al Freeman, Jr.), the leader of the Nation of Islam.  Elijah Muhammad and Malcolm form a strong bond, and the young man quickly rises up the ranks of the NOI.  Eventually, Malcolm meets his future wife Betty (Angela Bassett), who becomes a major influence on his life.  After travelling to Mecca, Malcolm’s beliefs are views are shaken and he begins to view things differently than the way the Nation of Islam has taught him to believe.  This sets in motion the events that will ultimately lead to the assassination of the charismatic civil rights activist, and the rest, for better or worse, is history.

There are very films sitting at the 200 minute mark that I’ve enjoyed every single second of, but I can say without a doubt that Malcolm X belongs to that very exclusive and prestigious club.  The 1992 biopic could have just been yet another run of the mill and standard story of an incredibly important man in history, which is why I’m so thankful for Spike Lee’s involvement in the project.  His passion for Malcolm X and the history of African Americans in the United States can be felt throughout the 200 minutes, and Lee’s timeless directorial style elevates it from what many would consider “Oscar-bait” into a truly brave and outstanding production from all perspectives.  After seeing and being highly disappointed by Lee’s acclaimed film 25th Hour, I thought that nothing in his filmography could ever reach the highs of movies like Do the Right Thing and Chi-Raq, but boy was I wrong.  Malcolm X may be not only the greatest biopic ever made, but also my favorite Spike Lee joint.  Nearly every aspect that I can think of featured in Malcolm X is outstanding, from the production design to the acting.  Every act feels different in its tone and deals with different themes, from discovering oneself in the first, to finding answers in spirituality in the second, and later to making profound discoveries about yourself and changing major views you once passionately held true.  The locations and costumes help bring the world around us to life, and allows the audience to completely sink into the era.  The true standout here is very clearly Denzel Washington in his portrayal of the titular X.  His portrayal always exudes the confidence that Malcolm X so clearly had in order to go so far at the rate he did, but also gets across the overly-serious nature of the man, as well as his later struggles with his faith in the Nation of Islam.  I’ve never seen Denzel better than he was here, and it’s a damn shame that he didn’t take home the Oscar on the fateful night in March of 1993.  Backing up Washington’s performance is a terrific roster of supporting players like Angela Bassett, writer-director Spike Lee himself, Albert Hall, and Al Freeman, Jr.  I firmly believe that Washington’s performance wouldn’t have been half as great as it was if it weren’t for incredible direction by Spike Lee.  If anything, the man knows how to direct an actor to a terrific performance, and this is easily his finest work.  Spike’s usual stylistic flashes are toned down in Malcolm X’s first half because of its historical and serious nature, but they’re still noticeable when they’re there.  The final act of the film is drenched in style, including montages and the incredible arson scene.  His quick editing style matched with the use of occasion long takes to get a point across works tremendously, especially in the film’s final twenty minute stretch.  While the death of Washington’s Malcolm X is incredibly hard to watch, the impact it has is a testament to the power of the picture.  You know it’s coming for three hours, and yet it still manages to shock and move you when the time finally comes for it.

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Denzel Washington as the titular Malcolm X in Spike Lee’s 1992 joint.

Please – if you haven’t seen Spike Lee’s Malcolm X before reading this review, for the love of all things holy do yourself a favor and track down the film.  While the run-time may scare some viewers away, I can promise you that the experience flies by, especially once X has gotten out of prison and embraced his new found way of life.  This is an incredibly moving and powerful film about a man who I greatly admire, flaws and all.  It does his life and accomplishments justice, and still isn’t afraid to look at Malcolm X with a highly critical eye.  I firmly believe that this is Spike Lee’s greatest accomplishment, and a treasure of African American cinema.  Whether or not you have interest in the subject matter or the man, see this movie as soon as you can.  It’s a masterpiece on every level.  Spike Lee’s Malcolm X gets my highest recommendation.

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Black Directors Feature #6 – Boyz n the Hood (1991)

Boyz_n_the_hood_posterBoyz n the Hood (1991)
Directed by: John Singleton
Written by: John Singleton
Starring: Cuba Gooding, Jr., Ice Cube, Morris Chestnut, Larry Fishburne, Nia Long, Angela Bassett, Tyra Ferrell

From the dirty streets of 1970’s New York featuring pimps, prostitutes, dealers, mobs, and crooked cops, to the corruption and confusion of the Senegalese government and its people, we arrive in the hoods of 1990’s South Central L.A., with our first truly modern film of the marathon.  Instead of the complications involving crooked and underage officers of the law, high-scale drug pushing, and complicated governmental affairs, we see young men and women risking their lives on a daily basis, just living from day to day.  Given few opportunities by the leaders of their country and the educational establishments of the time, many of them are forced to take up arms in order to defend themselves and their families from hostiles.  Director John Singleton’s Boyz n the Hood was an incredible and unique vision at the time of its release, garnering universal acclaim from critics and audiences.  The film was praised for its terrific lead and supporting performances, the tight and concise screenplay with little wasted moments, and for its down-to-earth and unsentimental look at the urban lives of young black Americans.  Boyz n the Hood would go on to earn over $55 million at the box office in its North American release, all this on a meager $6.5 million budget.  On top of its massive critical and box office success, at just 24 years old John Singleton would become the youngest person ever nominated for Best Director at the Academy Awards, as well as the first ever African-American honored with the nod.  The film earned nominations for Best Director and Best Original Screenplay, but lost to the much more popular The Silence of the Lambs and Thelma & Louise, respectively.  Despite not picking up any major awards, Boyz n the Hood and director John Singleton have been honored in other historically significant ways.  The film now sits in the American Library of Congress’ National Film Registration, and has gone on to influence two generations of black filmmakers in America and abroad.  It’s also notable for jump-starting the career of future Oscar-winner Cuba Gooding, Jr., and served as the big screen debut of N.W.A. rapper-turned-actor Ice Cube.

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Tre (Cuba Gooding, Jr.) and Ricky (Morris Chestnut) in 1991’s Boyz n the Hood.

Boyz n the Hood follows the life of young Tre Styles (Cuba Gooding, Jr.), who we see grow up from a potentially troubled but intelligent young man, to a responsible young man with the successes of adulthood within his line of sight, and all the potential needed to become something truly great.  After getting into a fight at school and disobeying the rules set by his intellectual mother, Tre is sent to live with his somewhat estranged father Jason (or “Furious”) Styles (Larry Fishburne) in order to have a responsible and influential male figure in his life.  The downside to living with his intelligent and responsible father is now having to grow up in the ghettos of the Crenshaw district of South Central Los Angeles.  Tre grows up with friends Doughboy (Ice Cube), his step-brother Ricky (Morris Chestnut), and Chris (Redge Green), and the four of them regularly see and hear things like shooting, drug dealers, gangs, and burnouts.  After establishing our principle cast and the neighbourhood these boys are living in, we jump seven years into the future.  We come to find out that Doughboy has just recently been released from prison, and is now a member of the Crips, Tre’s friend Chris is in a wheelchair after complications from a gunshot wound, and Doughboy’s brother Ricky has a young son and is being scouted for a scholarship by a local university.  The four of them reconnect in many ways, but all parties involved know just how different they all are from each other, and just how much hood life has affected their lives.  Eventually, Tre and Ricky are put in immediate danger after inadvertently getting involved in business between Doughboy and his Crip friends, and Ferris (Raymond Turner) and his gang, members of the rival Bloods.  Can Tre and Ricky live up to the potential that their family and friends see in them, or will the violent and complicated hood lifestyle of South Central L.A. ruin their chances at a truly good life?  Find out in John Singleton’s Oscar-nominated Boyz n the Hood.

After hearing about this film for years and often unfairly dismissing it as just another dated 1990’s social issue movie, I’m so incredibly glad to say that I couldn’t have been further away from the truth.  Boyz n the Hood is hard-hitting, emotional but never hackneyed, and features an incredible cast and crew of people who should have had far more successful careers than they’ve had to date.  This is a truly memorable and heavy experience, which is something I never expected to see – especially from a first time director and a cast of young and relatively inexperienced actors.  The real shining beacon here is John Singleton, who both wrote and directed the film.  His script has incredible weight to it, but is never afraid to use comedy and lighter moments to develop its world and the characters living in it.  Tre, Ricky, and Doughboy all feel like three-dimensional character, and it helps the film’s heavier moments feel that much more impactful.  Recurring themes like the aggressive and racist police officer reminds the audience that little changes in this neighborhood, and creates a sense of hopelessness and despair.  You want so badly to see these young men and the people in their lives succeed, but you can very clearly see how much of an uphill battle it is.  Singleton’s direction is far more restrained than most first time directors have ever been, never afraid to linger on a scene for a few extra frames in order to get a point across.  The acting is another commendable aspect of the film, especially in performances from Cuba Gooding, Jr. as Tre, and Ice Cube as Doughboy.  Both men are starring in their first leading roles on screen, but have the presence and command of far more experienced actors.  It’s a shame that Cuba’s career went so downhill after his Oscar win for Jerry Maguire, because he’s incredibly talented as both a dramatic and comedic actor.  It’s so easy to get behind Tre as somebody with a great deal of potential trapped in a confusing world, mostly because Cuba plays him perfectly as a brave and idealistic young man.  Ice Cube’s performance as Doughboy made me long for more dramatic roles from the former rapper, because his performance steals the show in the film’s climax.  You can see the pain in his eyes in every scene, especially in moments where he interacts with his more successful younger brother, and his mother who is clearly playing favorites.  He quickly goes from being an unlikeable character to somebody you desperately hope can escape from the lifestyle he’s made for himself.  Another standout supporting player is Larry Fishburne, who plays Furious, Tre’s father.  Furious is the most positive influence these young men have in their lives, and he does everything in his power to make sure that his young son doesn’t end up like so many others in the neighborhood have.  Fishburne brings his wealth of talent and experience to the role, and perfectly suits the wise young father-figure who watches over the neighborhood, damning the community for their constant infighting.  His passion and frustration is clear in every single scene Fishburne is involved in, and his scenes in the final act help remind us just how much is at stake here.

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Larry Fishburne as Furious in John Singleton’s classic Boyz n the Hood.

If you can’t tell from reading this, I loved every minute of John Singleton’s Boyz n the Hood.  It has an incredible message that still rings true to this day, and is a subtle and touching look at the lives of relatable young people in a perilous situation.  While it’s undeniably full of social commentary, every second of it is handled gently.  It’s a film that should still be shown to young people around the world, as it’s a damning condemnation against violence and hatred, especially within America’s black community.  Boyz n the Hood is masterfully written and directed by a filmmaker who I hope has a resurgence someday, because his work on this movie is truly remarkable.  The acting from the entire cast is incredible, especially in its highly emotional final act.  It’s a relevant and entertaining look at a lifestyle that is often ignored in Hollywood, and is absolutely an essential film from its time period.  John Singleton’s Boyz n the Hood gets my highest recommendation.

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Black Directors Feature #5 – Killer of Sheep (1978)

KILLER OF SHEEP (1977)Killer of Sheep (1978)
Directed by: Charles Burnett
Written by: Charles Burnett
Starring: Henry G. Sangers, Kaycee Moore, Charles Bracy, Angela Burnett, Eugene Cherry, Jack Drummond

Charles Burnett is widely known as perhaps one of the most under-appreciated and underrated film directors in modern American history, largely due to his work on 1978’s Killer of Sheep.  Burnett wrote the film during his time at UCLA, and quickly went to work on making his screenplay a reality.  Casting friends, family members, and colleagues in the film, Burnett completed Killer of Sheep and spent less than $10,000 in the process.  He opted for a documentary-like style throughout the film, with the camera servicing almost as a fly on the wall for the moments caught on scree.  Burnett’s style is highly reminiscent of films made during the period of Italian neorealism in the 1940’s and early 50’s, a movement that created critically acclaimed classics like Bicycle Thieves, Rome Open City, Nights of Cabiria, Stromboli, and Umberto D.  Though Killer of Sheep is regarded as a triumph today, the film had an incredibly tough time playing to audiences of the time.  Its low budget nature and low quality prints made it hard to screen to mass audiences, and the film’s use of licensed music created legal complications for a wide release.  After fading into relative obscurity for a number of years, Killer of Sheep was restored and remastered and given a theatrical and home video release in 2007 – nearly thirty years after its completion.  Charles Burnett would get the opportunity to work with higher budgets in the 1990’s, directing the acclaimed To Sleep with Anger and later The Glass Shield. Despite having all of the acclaim and talent in the world working on his side, Burnett has opted to make a career out of documentary film-making and various made for television movies, including one for the Disney Channel titled Nightjohn, and an ABC film called Selma, Lord, Selma.  Despite never quite making it into the history books as an all-time great filmmaker with a catalog of revered classics, Charles Burnett has managed to stay relevant and on the cutting edge of his industry in whatever field he chooses to work in.  His influence on independent film-making and black films is undeniable, and the craft and skill he puts into his work is to be greatly admired.  All-time great or not, Burnett will be forever remembered for groundbreaking films like Killer of Sheep, and for carving out his own path in the film industry, and constantly (and admirably) doing it the way he wants to do it.

KILLER OF SHEEP (1977)

Stan (Henry G. Sanders) in 1978’s Killer of Sheep.

Killer of Sheep takes a documentary-like approach to the lives of a black family in the Watts district of 1970’s Los Angeles.  As such, there isn’t much of a coherent narrative to summarize.  Instead of a flowing act-to-act style story, the film observes their real, mundane lives and makes it something to truly behold.  We see Stan (Henry G. Sanders), a father who spends his time working at a slaughterhouse in the area.  It’s implied that the constant slaughtering of these animals is having a subtle effect on his family life, as we see through Stan’s interactions with his wife, son, and daughter.  Stan’s life is dull, grey, and monotonous, and it causes him to ignore the need for affection that his family yearns for.  The story is told through a number of events, none of them following any sort of strict timeline.  We see Stan nearly become embroiled in some nefarious criminal activities, be offered a job working in a shop owned by a white woman, and his attempts to purchase and transport the engine of a car.  What we really see though, is a disillusioned man struggling with existential ideas that are much bigger than himself.  He feels powerless in changing the course of his own life, probably feels trapped in the beautiful and loving family he has crafted for himself, and completely jaded with the life he is currently living.  Killer of Sheep is an experimental film that is nearly impossible to summarize in a coherent manner. It’s a film that needs to be seen in order to be fully comprehended.

Sometimes all you need when analyzing and trying to make up your mind about an experience like this is perspective.  After taking in all of Killer of Sheep and enjoying it – but not quite understanding it – I took to the internet and read some pieces on the film.  When I came across several references towards Killer of Sheep being heavily inspired by the works of Italian neorealists of the 40’s, everything suddenly clicked for me.  The story here is completely secondary to everything that Burnett is trying to get across with his film.  This isn’t a preachy, cliche-ridden drama like so many black films before and after it had been, but instead an unflinching look at the everyday lives of a family, in particular its patriarch.  It’s fitting that I watched Killer of Sheep and Touki Bouki in the same evening for my first viewing of both films, as they both take a very similar approach stylistically and thematically.  Both films are about people who are unsatisfied with their surroundings yearning for something far more grand, but never knowing quite what they want.  The same disconnected, fly-on-the-wall, almost documentary-like style is employed in both films, making both works feel far more powerful in the delivery of their messages.  The absence of a coherent narrative often throws me off for films like this, but Stan is an incredibly interesting lead character, and I found myself really compelled and wanting to know what he was going to get into next.  Director Charles Burnett shows some truly incredible talent in Killer of Sheep, often making neighborhoods in Watts resemble war-torn suburbs, further stressing the disillusionment and sense of un-fulfillment that Stan is feeling.  Everywhere the camera goes something interesting is happening, whether it’s in the background or front and center.  My favorite scene in the film is a very small, beautiful moment that sees Stan’s wife working in the kitchen while his young daughter sings along to the radio in the next room over.  The scene is incredibly simple and in no way technically impressive, but it managed to really touch me in a way I can’t quite describe.  Stan’s family is very lovely despite everything they’re up against, and yet our lead character can’t see just how much he’s taking them all for granted.  Instead, Stan is focused on fixing his car and setting his sights on escaping in whatever mental or physical way he possibly can.

KILLER OF SHEEP (1977)

Stan’s daughter (Angela Burnett) and a young neighborhood boy in Charles Burnett’s incredible Killer of Sheep.

While it may not be an action thrill ride, nor is it the most beautiful and stylistic film you’ll ever see, Killer of Sheep is an incredible piece of art from a filmmaker who has all the talent in the world.  The existential themes of longing for more, escape, and disillusionment are something that many of you can relate with.  It’s a film that resonates with you long after you see it, and one you may not be able to fully appreciate after just one watch.  It’s thematically rich, with an incredible script and a compelling lead character.  It may not be for everybody reading this, but I’m so glad to finally be able to say that I’ve seen Charles Burnett’s incredible debut.  Killer of Sheep is highly recommended.

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Black Directors Feature #4 – Xala (1975)

XalaDVDXala (1975)
Directed by: Ousmane Sembene
Written by: Ousmane Sembene
Starring: Thierno Leye, Seune Samb, Douta Seck, Younousse Seye, Fatim Diagne, Myriam Niang

There’s a reason why Senegal-born director Ousmane Sembene is often considered to be the father of all African cinema.  With a career spanning five decades, the great Senegalese director paved the way for entire generations of African filmmakers all over the continent.  His influence on the African film scene can be likened to that of John Ford and D.W. Griffith in America, Satyajit Ray in India, and F.W. Murnau and Fritz Lang in Germany.  With his breakout hit Black Girl (or La Noire de…) in 1966, Sembene captured the attention of an international audience, something that no African film before it had ever done.  Xala was his fifth major motion picture, coming hot off the heels of hits like Black Girl, Mandabi, and Emitai, his film was a stinging satire about the political and economic climate of his home country.  Filmed in French and Wolof, Xala was unlike any work Sembene had produced to that point.  It had a dry wit to it, and its themes were undeniably biting and had a profound affect on audiences.  The film was entered into an early incarnation of the Moscow International Film Festival, but sadly lost out to films by more established and widely recognized directors (Akira Kurosawa’s incredible Dersu Uzala, Andrzej Wajda’s Oscar-nominated The Promised Land, and Ettore Scola’s We All Loved Each Other So Much).  It would go on to receive a great deal of acclaim in America, receiving positive reviews from the great Roger Ebert and the prestigious New York Times.  After the success of his 1975 hit, Sembene would go on to direct five more films throughout the 1970’s, 80’s, 90’s, and the 2000’s. In 2004, his film Moolaade would become arguably his biggest success with a win at the Cannes film festival and critical acclaim across the world.  This film would prove to be his final film as Ousmane Sembene would pass away in 2007 at the age of 84.  Despite widespread acclaim, Xala and the other films of Ousmane Sembene have been all but forgotten by critics and audiences throughout North America, with the majority of his films being frustratingly difficult to obtain and even then only available in less than stellar quality.

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‘El Hadji’ Aboucader Beye in 1975’s Xala.

Xala takes place in modern day Senegal, and mostly follows a group of wealthy businessmen involved in the chamber of commerce.  Our lead character, “El Hadji” Aboucader Beye (Thierno Leye), is an aging businessman looking to show off his success in an extravagant way.  What better way to impress people than to take his third wife?  By marrying a young woman, Beye looks to show off his vast economic and social successes.  Unfortunately for Aboucader Beye, things aren’t so simple.  While attempting to consummate his new marriage, the aging businessman finds that something isn’t quite right, and that things aren’t working in the ways that they usually do.  Beye comes to find that he has been cursed with xala, which is a crippling case of temporary erectile dysfunction.  He proclaims that his manhood has been taken away from him, and suspects one of his jealous and spiteful older wives of putting the inconvenient curse on him.  El Hadji, as he is known to his colleagues, secretly seeks assistance from the powerful men he surrounds himself with.  He and his colleagues go to great lengths to end the man’s xala once and for all, but their attempts are mostly met with no results.  Frustrated and desperate, he consults a marabout in the city to heal him of his affliction so he can get back to his daily business duties, but soon finds everything about his comfortable life unexpectedly crumbling beneath him.  Beye’s life is changed forever after he exposed for his corruption within the chamber of commerce, and worst of all is still cursed with the dreaded xala.  Will El Hadji be able to turn things around in his once cushy life, or will the negative forces working against him prove too powerful?  Find out in Ousmane Sembene’s classic satirical drama Xala!

I was a little nervous going into Ousmane Sembene’s much heralded Xala, especially since my only previous experience with the director was his excellent final film, Moolaade.  Xala is a much more subtle and politically-motivated film than his final effort was, and I was sure that I was going to struggle to find any enjoyment in the film’s nuanced nature.  I’m happy to report that this absolutely wasn’t the case, and I was able to enjoy much of Xala even without much of an idea of Senegal’s (and Africa as a whole) political and economic climate of the time.  While there’s no doubting the very obvious subtext being told throughout the film, the story itself does stand on its own well enough to be enjoyed by any viewer who is up to the challenge.  The entire idea of a wealthy businessman who seemingly has everything deciding to take a third wife in the form of a beautiful young woman is humorous, and becomes absolutely hilarious when the erectile dysfunction problem comes into play.  Everything he knows is flipped on its head and for the first time in his rather privileged life, Aboucader Beye has been stripped of what makes him feel most powerful, and instead shamed into near submission.  His first and second wives and his daughter being completely opposed to the idea of the third wife adds to Beye’s problems, and ensures that no matter what he tries he isn’t able to get ahead in any sense.  Xala’s main character isn’t likeable even for a second, and it really helps nail home the central ideas of the film, which is the complete and utter incompetence and ineffectiveness of many African governments of the time.  El Hadji benefits greatly from being a corrupt business, taking from those around him and trying to show it off to others in the form of a younger woman, far out of his league.  The satire used throughout is absolutely biting, and does an excellent job at letting the audience know exactly how Ousmane Sembene feels about the people running his country and continent.  The ending of the film is where the film absolutely shines, at once being both hilarious and scathing.  Though it may be a little tough to watch for some, it’s always satisfying to see the wrongdoers getting what they truly deserve, and that is especially true for Sembene’s masterpiece.

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Thierno Leye as Aboucader Beye in Ousmane Sembene’s terrific Xala.

It’s too bad that his films are so tough to track down in our day and age, especially with the advent of the internet.  I sincerely hope that a distributor like the Criterion Collection or Twilight Time will get ahold of his filmography and do it justice in the form of an incredible home video release.  Films like Xala are ripe for rediscovery, and deserve to truly be appreciated in their utmost glory.  Xala is funny and sincere in its over-the-top satirical nature, and even without knowledge of the country’s political climate you can feel the frustration in every moment on screen.  Xala is a film that deserves all the acclaim it’s received over the years, and I hope that my review causes even just one person to discover the films of Ousmane Sembene and others from Africa.  Xala is highly recommended to anybody who can appreciate international films, or enjoys biting and intellectual satire.  

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Black Directors Feature #3 – Touki Bouki (1973)

Touki_Bouki_coverTouki Bouki (1973)
Directed by: Djibril Diop Mambéty
Written by: Djibril Diop Mambéty
Starring: Magaye Niang, Aminata Fall, Ousseynou Diop, Mareme Niang

The next two films in our marathon will very much contrast from our first two American journeys into early blaxploitation.  Instead of the gritty streets of New York City, with undercover police officers, pimps, and drug pushers, we move to the French and Wolof-speaking country of the Republic of Senegal.  Our themes with both Touki Bouki and Xala (the next film in our marathon) are much more political in tone, and the films less action-packed and in-your-face, but just as stylistic and game-changing in their own right.  Our first look at Senegalese cinema comes with Djibril Diop Mambéty’s Touki Bouki, released in 1973.  Though Mambéty may not have been as prolific or even as acclaimed as his contemporary Ousmane Sembene, the influence of Touki Bouki on other black cinema and even Senegalese cinema in general in undeniable, and the film has found a great deal of appreciate in the United States and the rest of the world.  Director Martin Scorsese and his World Cinema Foundation restored the film to its former glory back in 2007, and it has since found its way into the Criterion Collection, a rare feat for a Senegalese (or African in general) film.  The Foundation’s aim is to restore films from areas of the world where cinema has been neglected, in order to raise awareness, appreciation, and understanding for these under-seen masterworks from around the world.  Films from Russia, Mexico, Hong Kong, Brazil, Romania, Turkey, and the Philippines joins Senegal’s Touki Bouki in having the honor of being restored and re-purposed by a loving group of artists at the top of their industry, and thank goodness for them.  Mambéty’s Touki Bouki was initially screened at the prestigious Cannes film festival in 1973, and won the festival’s International Critics Prize from the FIPRESCI (Fédération Internationale de la Presse Cinématographique).  On top of being celebrated upon its original release, the film has gone on to become labeled as something of a lost classic.  Director Djibril Diop Mambéty would go on to make a number of films in his home country, but unfortunately would never go on to see the level of success that he saw with the release of Touki Bouki.  He passed away in 1998 at the far too young age of 53, and his films would be mostly ignored by the general public until the World Cinema Foundation stepped in and helped Touki Bouki once again find an international audience.

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Magaye Niang as Mory in Djibril Diop Mambety’s classic Touki Bouki.

Touki Bouki’s story is told in an almost dream-like, not quite linear way. While there is absolutely an overarching story-line throughout the film, the story isn’t exactly the best thing about the film.  Throughout the film, we see Mory (Magaye Niang) and Anta (Mareme Niang) as they meet and talk about ways they can escape to Paris together.  Mory works as a cowherd, and drives a motorcycle with a horned skull proudly displayed between its handlebars.  Both Mory and Anta have been alienated by their lives in Senegal, and no reason but to abandon their responsibilities in their home country and make a break for a relaxed life across the ocean.  With their plans set, both idealistic young people start looking for ways to make money for their voyage.  Eventually, Mory plots to steal the money from a wealthy gay man, and the two young Senegalese idealists are one step closer to freedom.  Unfortunately for both of them, leaving the country proves to be more difficult than expected, both on a physical and mental level.  Will young Mory and Anta throw caution to the wind in order to start new lives abroad, or will the familiarity and comfort of their lives at home in Senegal prove to be too much to leave?  Find out in Djibril Diop Mambéty’s 1973 classic, Touki Bouki.

As a young film-goer growing up in an incredible period of time for our access to media of all nations, ages, and content, I’m incredibly thankful to have people like Martin Scorsese and company at the World Cinema Foundation.  The fact that Touki Bouki has seen moderate success in North America decades after its disappearance is incredibly comforting to me, and I hope that organizations such as the WCF will learn from it in the future.  Though Touki Bouki may not be the greatest film I’ve ever seen, nor can I relate with it on more than a base human level, I’m incredibly happy to have seen it.  The film is a beautiful display of the idealistic nature of young people worldwide, and an interesting look at loneliness and a yearning for more.  It features bright and vivid cinematography, and shows off the work of a director who I wish (for slightly selfish reasons) had become more successful throughout his short career.  It may be deliberately paced and something of a drag in its lingering moments, but it more than makes up for it with its odd set-pieces of Mory and Anta driving by motorcycle (and later a very nice car) through the city and countryside, and the nature of its contrasting themes of young life, death, and the desire to take part in something bigger and better.  We see animals people slaughtered by villagers contrasted with the dull everyday city life of young Mory, and while it may be visceral and disturbing at times, it’s undoubtedly compelling and interesting.  The film’s soundtrack is very effective in its sparing use, and the repetition of Josephine Baker’s classic “Paris…Paris” repeated over and over throughout the runtime is both joyful and welcoming, while also being frustrating and grating on the viewer.  It’s clear that the director took a great deal of influence from the French New Wave movement in 1960’s France, and he does his best to make the frantic style his own through the film’s more daring moments.  It’s difficult to write about Touki Bouki on more than a surface level, because the nature of Mambéty’s film is so incredibly personal.  I can’t say I’m an expert on Senegal’s political scene in the 1970’s, nor can I completely relate to the wants and needs of young Senegalese people of the time, but I still managed to get a lot of the film’s central idea and the plot which conveys those ideas.  You can feel the frustration and longing for more throughout the whole film, which is something that most everybody can relate to.

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Mory (Magaye Niang) and Anta (Mareme Niang) riding the famous bull skull motorcycle in 1973’s Touki Bouki.

Touki Bouki is a joyous and incredibly fun example of just how exciting and different world cinema can be.  I’m incredibly thankful for those who saw worth in the movie’s messages and the way in which is gets them across to the viewer, and I hope young people everywhere discover it and appreciate it in their own way.  It’s a beautiful film both literally and thematically, uses subtle, but effective, comedy to push the idealistic story forward, and has a lot to say about both loneliness and the struggles that young people across the world face when trying to find themselves.  It’s bright and colorful, has a fun and catchy (if repetitive) soundtrack, and can be related with on a basic level whether you’re 15 or 75.  Touki Bouki is a film I’m incredibly glad to have seen, and one that I hope finds more and more success as historians analyse and re-appropriate its significance.  Djibril Diop Mambéty’s Touki Bouki is recommended for all.

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