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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 #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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February Theme – Black Directors (An Introduction)

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With February being Black History Month, I’ve decided to go with something of a broad theme to celebrate.  Our theme for this month will cover nine great and/or highly influential films made by black filmmakers, spanning the blaxploitation boom in the 1970’s to the black independent movement of the 1990’s.  I’ve decided not to cover modern day black filmmakers, as I will more than likely revisit the theme in upcoming monthly marathons.

The directors being covered this coming month all made a giant splash in their industry, whether it be the early independent scene in America, the glitz and glamour of Hollywood filmmaking, or the African filmmaking scene in the French-speaking country of Senegal.  The films covered explore themes of racial tension, economic and social struggles faced by the black community through modern history, and create iconic characters whose influence is still being felt today.

Filmmakers being covered include:

  • Senegalese legend Ousmane Sembene, who is considered to be the father of African film.  His career spanned spanned five decades, creating some of the greatest African movies ever made.
  • Gordon Parks, one of the first major African American filmmakers to find success in Hollywood.  He pioneered the “blaxploitation” genre with the Shaft series of films.  His son Gordon Parks Jr., killed tragically at the age of 44, will also be covered.
  • One of America’s most underrated black filmmakers, Charles Burnett.  Burnett’s film Killer of Sheep took decades to be released on a wide scale because of music rights issues.  His influence on black filmmakers is undeniable.
  • The controversial auteur Spike Lee, who broke into the scene in the 1980’s with groundbreaking films like She’s Gotta Have It and Do the Right Thing.  Lee’s 1992 film Malcolm X found mainstream critical and commercial success, and propelled Lee to become arguably the most successful African American director in history.
  • The 1990’s saw a sudden spike in original, stylistic, and highly influential African American films like John Singleton’s Oscar-nominated Boyz n the Hood, the Hughes Brothers’ independent hit Menace II Society, and F. Gary Gray’s stoner comedy Friday.

The schedule for February’s Black Directors Marathon is as follows:

#1 – Shaft (1971) (Gordon Parks) (Feb. 2)
#2 – Super Fly (1972) (Gordon Parks Jr.) (Feb. 5)
#3 – Touki Bouki (1973) (Djibril Diop Mambéty) (Feb. 8)
#4 – Xala (1975) (Ousmane Sembene) (Feb. 12)
#5 – Killer of Sheep (1978) (Charles Burnett) (Feb. 15)
#6 – Boyz n the Hood (1991) (John Singleton) (Feb. 19)
#7 – Malcolm X (1992) (Spike Lee) (Feb. 22)
#8 – Menace II Society (1993) (Albert & Allen Hughes) (Feb. 26)
#9 – Friday (1995) (F. Gary Gray) (Feb. 29)

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