By NNPA News Wire Film Critic Dwight Brown
The 18th annual Tribeca Film Festival featured films, docs, shorts, TV, tech seminars and immersive experiences. It was a 21st century gathering place for filmmakers, artists and fans.
Black films, directors, actors and artists shared the glory and attention with other contemporaries who were proud to have TFF as an international venue. As the festival inches towards the two-decade mark, it’s only getting better and maturing like a fine wine.
Black Films, Filmmakers, Actors and Artists
17 Blocks (****) Life expectancy in the U.S. averages out to around 79 years of age. That statistic skews much lower in this poignant and profound documentary about a Washington, D.C. family that’s on a different path. In 1999, nine-year old Emmanuel is given a movie camera. He uses it to chronicle the exploits of his mom, older brother, older sister and extended family. His lens captures the love in the air, the danger outside and the hope he brings to his family for a son who could be the first in their brood to go to college. Drugs, gangs and violence lurk. Emmanuel’s destiny takes a turn that will leave viewers spellbound. Over a 20-year period, this family’s dynamics, conflicts, breath throughs and tribulations are recorded like an urban allegory. The span of time is reminiscent of the Oscar-nominated drama Boyhood. The soul of a young man gets an enduring legacy thanks to the power of film.
The Apollo (***1/2) The Apollo Theater was always so much more than a performing arts venue. Since 1934, it’s been a community center, talent scout hub, training ground for countless artists and a mecca that is destined to be both a shrine and a progressive cultural home—for years to come. Director Roger Ross Williams helms this ambitious project, Lisa Cortes is a producer and the perceptive writing by Cassidy Hartmann and Roger Ross Williams pays respect to the hall’s past and its extended family. The footage is most exciting when it depicts performances by legendary artists (Ella, Duke, Dinah, Billie), Motown (Smokey, Supremes, Temptations) and comedians (Moms Mabley, Richard Pryor). Veterans (e.g. Patti Labelle) share their anecdotes. The late Ralph Cooper recollects starting Amateur Night. Rarely has a history lesson been so damn entertaining.
Burning Cane (***) And what were you doing at age 17? Phillip Youmans was writing his first script, which he turned into this Southern Louisiana melodrama about a mother (Karen Kaia Livers) who deals with an alcoholic adult son (Dominique McClellan), his boy (Braelyn Kelly) and a recently widowed and stressed-out preacher (Wendell Pierce). The sun beats down on this luckless family, who grinds itself into a deeper and deeper hole. Youmans’ premise and maturity go well beyond his years. He puts his characters in an angst that hovers over the entire production. For tone and drama, he gets an A+. For storytelling, a B-. For tech elements a C. The gritty feel is reminiscent of a John Cassavetes movie. Youmans’ cinematography needs developing; camera placement is questionable as is the lighting. If the footage has a Beast of the Southern Wild synergy, it’s because this movie’s executive producer, Ben Zeitlin, was that film’s director.
Devil’s Pie—D’Angelo (***1/2) Lots of musicians attract a following, but D’Angelo’s fans can be classified as an avid cult with extremely good taste in soul music. Part of the Grammy winner’s mystique centers around his 14-year-absence from recording (Voodoo in 2000; Black Messiah in 2014), which stunned his admirers. That mystery, his childhood, resurgence, live shows, recording sessions and musings are on view in this wonderfully crafted homage. Home movies and photos depict his upbringing, influential grandmother and days as his church’s organist. Personal anecdotes reveal his problems with alcohol and drugs. Attesting to his musical savvy and eccentricities are Questlove, Dave Chappelle and Erykah Badu. Though many put D’Angelo in his own niche (R&B, soul, funk, sexy songs with a hint of jazz), Prince’s influence is quite obvious when the singer wails. Thank documentarian Carina Bijlsma for the candid glimpse at a musical innovator who should be called a genius. Get ready to tap your toes and sing along to “Brown Sugar.”
Gully (*1/2) Music video director Nabil Elderkin steps into the deep end of feature filmmaking and flounders. His technique is solid, especially the ways he moves the camera (cinematographer Adriano Goldman) around on evocative shots of palm tree-lined streets in Los Angeles. However, he’s wasted his talent on a misguided script (Marcus Guillory) that focuses on three unlikable and aimless adolescents (Jacob Latimore, Charlie Plummer, Kelvin Harrison Jr.). The trio go from playing violent video games to assaulting people on the streets—without any obvious motivation. Yes, they each have troubled pasts, but nothing that warrants physical attacks. Never believable. Never compelling. Pointless. Kids have excuses for making bad decisions. Adults, like the ones who made this repulsive drivel, do not.
Inna De Yard: The Soul of Jamaica (***) Showing admiration for reggae musicians from the ‘70s and ‘80s is this very inspiring doc’s goal. Shot largely in the hills above Kingston, British director Peter Webber gives a comeback platform to senior reggae stars like Ken Boothe, Winston McAnuff, Kiddus I, and Cedric Myton. Long past their heyday but still able to sell a song. Their stories of past triumphs are riveting and it’s a joy to watch them record again. They’re backed up by young musicians eager to play with their heroes. Judy Mowatt, legendary former Bob Marley backup singer, is a revelation. Reggae music, like Jamaica, is all about peace and love. That’s the takeaway. That’s what the audience will remember about this rousing, heartfelt documentary.
A Kid from Coney Island (***) We’re well-acquainted with basketball’s most successful players who soared into fame and fortune (Kobe, Magic, Michael, Larry, LeBron). We’re less familiar with hoop dream athletes who struggled. Stephon Marbury grew up in the Coney Island projects, where the only choices for rising above the fray was becoming a rapper, drug dealer or basketball player. Obsessed with the sport from a young age, he was influenced by his dad and brothers and nurtured by his older sis and mom. Steph was destined for greatness. He became a city champion, college star, draft choice and NBA legend. Only fate tossed him curve balls. Under the prying eye of doc directors Coodie Simmons and Chike Ozah, viewers watch a very talented man withstand the death of a parent, depression, a career that stalls and a surprisingly spiritual path to redemption. In this eye-opening and sobering documentary, we see how an eight-pound orange ball can take an inner-city kid to the other side of the world. More ups and downs and as exciting as the Cyclone roller coaster ride on Coney Island.
Lil’ Buck: Real Swan (***) The kids in Charles “Lil’ Buck” Riley’s low-income outer Memphis neighborhood flocked to the local roller rink at night and waited for the skating to stop and the dancing to begin. Jookin’ is the local dance form, akin to Crunking, Gangsta Walking and Michael Jackson’s stop-start-twirls. Lil’ Buck won a scholarship to a Memphis dance school, and added ballet to his mix. His blend of urban dance and classic technique is amazing to watch. Equally entrancing is this beguiling look at a young kid who blossoms as a person and a dancer. A career in L.A., performances with Yo-Yo Ma and touring the world are like a dream come true. Director Louis Wallecan doesn’t miss one step. Interviews with family, friends and admirers highlight a hybrid street dance, an art form created by an innovator who transcends life and description.
Only (**1/2) What if? What if after the apocalypse a virus became a plague that only killed women? That’s the premise of writer/director Takashi Doscher’s ultra-modern and very scary sci-fi nightmare. The focus is on a couple, Eva (Freida Pinto, Slumdog Millionaire) and Will (Leslie Odom Jr., Hamilton) who survive indoors using hazmat suits to stave off danger. Every scene is as creepy as the premise. Nice performances from the two leads. Ugly cinematography (Sean Stiegemeier) done in shades of gray, greens and browns make footage dreary. Can’t say Dosher is an accomplished filmmaker—yet, but this movie hits a nerve. Also, coming from a male director there is a misogynist undertone that just doesn’t feel right.
Recorder: The Marion Stokes Project (***) Saying she liked keepsakes is putting it mildly. Librarian, TV producer and political activist Marion Stokes had an obsession: capturing the news as it was depicted on TV. From 1979 (Iranian hostage crisis) to 2012 (Sandy Hook tragedy), she recorded newsfeeds from the networks on 70,000 VHS tapes. For an enlightening and somewhat somber history lesson, view this documentary to see how far society has evolved and what it has left in its wake. Documentarian Matt Wolf handpicks clips, adds in the essence of Stokes’ personality and interviews witnesses to her hobby. He creates a thought-provoking look at the upheavals, controversies and conflicts that have shaped this country. Racial and social issues come to the forefront.
Roads (**1/2) Actor turned director and writer Sebastian Schipper (Run Lola Runand Victoria) examines immigration with this vibrant road movie. British teen Gyllen (Fionn Whitehead, Dunkirk) steals his stepfather’s RV while in Morocco and heads towards France to visit his father. Along the way, he picks up a fellow traveler, William (Stéphane Bak), who is from the Democratic Republic of Congo. It’s interesting to watch the way they are treated differently as they travel. Gyllen makes his anger known and is oblivious to danger. The more reserved William knows danger way too well and can smell it before it happens. Their divergent points of view and cultural differences speak more about race relations than a college course. A thoughtful script (Schipper and Oliver Ziegenbalg), nice performances from the teens. Final scenes that depict refugees’ confined lives in France are solemn.
Skin (***1/2) Tsotsi was the 2006 Oscar-Winner for Best Foreign Film and it chronicled the evolution of a hoodlum who seemed beyond redemption. This very daring and similar drama by writer/director Guy Nattiv is equally emancipating in its own way. Bryon Widner (Jamie Bell, Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool), a twentysomething skinhead is bullied by his adoptive parents (Vera Farmiga, Bill Camp) who are violent white supremacists. Life changes for him when he meets a single mom (Danielle Macdonald, Patti Cake$). It takes an even greater turn when he comes under the watchful eye of social activist Darlye Jenkins (Mike Colter, Luke Cage), whose foundation, One People’s Project, specializes in converting neo-Nazis. This is possibly the biggest character arc you will ever see in a film. Tense, suspenseful, dramatic, romantic and cathartic. Excellent performances from all in this stick-to-your-ribs true story. Watching human garbage turn into human beings can be extremely gratifying. Excellent.
What’s My Name: Muhammad Ali (***) Oscar-winner When We Were Kings focussed on Muhammad Ali’s “The Rumble in the Jungle” match. Does this doc have that much majesty? Almost. Director Antoine Fuqua (Training Day) takes a more all-encompassing approach. Using never-before-seen archival footage, and with a great sense of pacing (editor Jake Pushinsky), Fuqua highlights Ali’s pinnacles and low points. He explores the champion’s social activism and personal life. Details about his entry into boxing, teenage years, relationships with Malcolm X and Sam Cooke are on the screen. The most surprising revelation is that Ali’s decision to flaunt a larger-than-life egocentric persona was influenced by the flamboyant wrestler Gorgeous George. Most of the memorable quotes come from Ali’s lips. It’s like he’s reaching back from the grave to remind us how brash and brave he was. Illuminating.
Films of Note
After Parkland (****) Rarely if ever does a film put a lump in your throat and a tear in your eye for its entire length. Be prepared to be awed, humbled and inspired by the Parkland, Florida victims, survivors and activists. You’ve seen their faces on the news, now you get a close-up look at the people behind the headlines and the indomitable spirit they’ve collectively created that is bound to bring about change. The kids and adults are so bright and articulate that their words carry the film: “Someone was hunting my classmates.” “Bullets shred anything in sight. Tissue, walls, desks, backpacks.” “We’re going to change the world.” Expert technique and sensitive filming by directors Emily Taguchi and Jake Lefferman make this an Oscar-caliber documentary.
Crown Vic (***) The cop/crime/thriller genre gets a healthy dose of personal drama in this L.A.-based film noir that’s rough around the edges. First-time feature film director/writer Joel Souza pairs up two L.A.P.D. cops. The older crusty patrol officer Ray Mandel (Thomas Jane, Boogie Nights) shepherds the naive rookie Nick (Luke Kleintank, TV’s Bones) on an overnight shift. Meanwhile, two bank robbers/killers are on the loose. Mandel’s chilling words: “Take your badge off and put it in the glove box.” Their policing takes a turn towards the gutter. The beginning of the film is marred by too much dialogue in a claustrophobic patrol car, which kills momentum. Souza adds in a funny scene with a drunk lady, friction with undercover cops (Josh Hopkins, David Krumholtz) and a search for a missing kid to spice up the night. Jane is the glue and mortar. The dialogue is strong too. Mandel: ‘People Sleep peacefully in their beds at night because rough men do violence on their behalf.” Someone call 911!
The Kill Team (**1/2) Dan Krauss made a doc about a true-life incident involving an infantryman in Afghanistan in 2010 who dealt with a commanding officer who was violent to innocent locals and his platoon too. He’s turned that project into a feature film, with varied results. Actor Nat Wolff plays the soldier and Alexander Skarsgård stars as the disturbed leader who doles out harsh reality to his men: “We kill people. That’s what we do. Do you have a problem with that?” The enlistee is in a quandary that could take his own life. How would you react? That intriguing premise saves the film. Edited down to 87 minutes (editor Franklin Peterson), the footage is never attractive (Stéphane Fontaine), the performances are only decent and the emotion never runs deep. Still, this film tells a powerful story.
Linda Ronstandt: The Sound of My Voice (***1/2) Singing in Linda Ronstandt’s family was as common as Sunday dinner, and she had the best voice, too. As a teen in a sibling folk group she developed a sense of harmony and a performance presence that kick-started her career in L.A. In the music industry, she stood out as a woman in a man’s world. She led her own band, made her own career decisions and went through a world-famous metamorphosis: Folk, pop, rock, soul, light opera, big band and Mexican folk music—she did it all. Directors Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman bless the footage with childhood photos, concert video and insights by Dolly Parton, Emmylou Harris and Bonnie Raitt. The very well-read Ronstandt herself pipes in with anecdotes and philosophies that underline her intelligence shed light on her battle with Parkinson’s disease. A trip down memory lane, done to the tune of Grammy-winning songs by rock n’ roll’s first female superstar. A visual and audio retrospective that sticks with you.
The Quiet One (***1/2) The meek shall inherit the earth—and other stuff. Bill Wyman, the quietest musician in the Rolling Stones, is a historian. Director Oliver Murray gives the group’s bass player all the room he needs to shed light on his role as the band’s sober member. Fortunately for Stones fans, he was an avid collector of footage, photos and other memorabilia. You could almost classify him as a hoarder, except his stunning collection is so damn neat and organized. He’s stockpiled his knick-knacks in the most orderly filing system with documentation so elaborate it would shame a librarian. Hearing him talk about his idols Ray Charles, Chuck Berry, Muddy Water and Howlin’ Wolf is heart-warming. Behind-the scenes details about the Rolling Stones’ tragedies, fiascos and creative process are equally fascinating. Oddly, the film does not cover Wyman’s controversial relationship with a teenager. Special shout out to Tim Sidell’s gorgeous cinematography and Anne Perri’s astute editing. Wyman is a quiet treasure and so is this doc.
Woodstock: Three Days That Defined a Generation (***) “Well I came upon a child of God, He was walking along the road, And I asked him, Tell me where are you going, And this he told me…” Director Barak Goodman and his co-writer Don Kleszy take audiences behind the scenes of Woodstock to the muddy fields, horrible weather and peace/love vibe that became the legend of the occasion. It’s an event that has never been repeated successfully. Still, from the viewpoint of the common people who went, we get a new perception that those “highly” spiritual and heady days were more than a one-time phenomenon, they spawned a vibe that far outlived the concerts. On the stages, in this temporary city of 400,000 hippies, musicians like Richie Havens, CSN, Jimi Hendrix and the bunch look like heroes, though not as quite as gusty or adaptable as the venue’s stunned promoters: John Roberts and Joel Rosenman. Refreshing and a complete joy to watch in this day and age of hate mongering.
Tribeca is building a solid reputation as a film festival that values diversity, inclusion and new voices. It’s a champ at spotlighting emerging talent from around the U.S. and the world.
It’s no wonder black films, artists, their fans and others are supporting the fest with their work, participation and attendance.
Visit NNPA News Wire Film Critic Dwight Brown at DwightBrownInk.com and BlackPressUSA.com.
This article originally appeared in the Charleston Chronicle.