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Sundance: Master

“It’s never going to change.”

The presence of three black women at a predominantly white New England college unleashes a dark and mysterious force in the new horror movie Master. Written and directed by Mariama Diallo in her feature debut, the film stars Regina Hall as Gail Bishop, the new “Master”, aka dean of students, for the fictional Ancaster College. As Bishop tries to settle into her new role at Ancaster, she’s tasked with guiding the board of directors in deciding whether the only black professor on campus, Liv Beckman (Amber Gray), deserves tenure. One of Beckman’s students, freshman Jasmine Moore (Zoe Renee), is struggling to acclimate to Ancaster as she’s constantly confronted with subtle but potent forms of racism from faculty, staff, and fellow students. Ancaster is known to be haunted by a former student and Jasmine happens to have been assigned the same room where the student had committed suicide decades before. As the holidays approach, the deeply rooted racism that has been part of Ancaster’s history from the very beginning manifests itself into an evil force that is hellbent on destroying the women.

Master tackles one of the horrors of our everyday world. In the film, racism haunts its victims like a ghost. It’s a mysterious force that takes many forms and is passed down through generations. It persists no matter how much the characters struggle against it or how much they’re gaslit to believe that progress has been made. Diallo effectively demonstrates the power of racism in pretty much every aspect of this film. The message is there: racism will never truly go away. And that is a horrifying reality.

A must-watch, especially for the performances by Regina Hall and Zoe Renee.

Master premiered at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival and will be available on Amazon Prime March 18th.

Sundance: Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul

After controversy drove away all but a handful of congregants from the Wander to Greater Paths Baptist Church, pastor Lee-Curtis Childs (Sterling K. Brown) dreams of a new beginning. With his wife Trinitie (Regina Hall), AKA “The First Lady”, by his side he gets to work relaunching the church just in time for Easter. In his time, Lee-Curtis  shared a prosperity gospel from a gold throne, sold worship DVDs, has laser shoes and did “praise miming.” All spectacle for what ended up being false righteousness when he was accused of sexual misconduct. As the story unfolds, we learn more about the details of both his controversy and his crumbling marriage. The couple and their church are the focus of a documentary series with a camera crew following their every move. And the person taking center stage is Trinitie/The First Lady, who feels forced to keep up appearances and support her husband despite all signs warning her to escape.

By filmmaking duo Adamma and Adanne Ebo, Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul is a satisfyingly funny satire that features two wonderful performances from its stars Brown and Hall. Regina Hall especially shines in her portrayal of a woman falling apart on the inside but trying to hold it together for everyone else. The story loses steam in the last half and I wish the filmmakers had stuck to a strictly mockumentary style format rather than shifting back and forth from it.

Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul premiered at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival.

Sundance: We Need To Talk About Cosby

We need to be willing to have the difficult conversations about uncomfortable topics if we want things to change. Director W. Kamau Bell does just this with his 4-part documentary series We Need to Talk About Cosby.

Many of us who grew up in the 1970s and 1980s were part of the “Cosby generation.” We were raised on television programs like Fat Albert and The Cosby Show. Dr. Huxtable was a household name. Cosby was an inescapable fixture in popular entertainment. He was funny, likable, and confident. He projected this vision of Bill Cosby that we all grew to know and love. And that vision was shattered when the many allegations against Cosby came to light. As of today, over 60 women have come forward to tell their stories of being drugged and raped by Cosby. While some in the public rejected the notion that  he committed these crimes, the rest of us had to grapple with a new reality: America’s dad was a monster this whole time.

W. Kamau Bell’s docuseries is a series of conversations with many individuals about Bill Cosby as an entertainer and a man in order to come to terms with all that’s been revealed about him. Interview subjects include writers, hosts, entertainers, professors, actors, critics, editors, producers, etc. Some knew or worked with Bill Cosby in real life, some are experts in subject matter relevant to the topic and others were his victims. 

The docuseries does a superb job disseminating how Cosby came to be as an entertainer and a cultural icon. Cosby broke ground for black comedians while also being deemed “safe” by white audiences. In his early comedic career, he avoided jokes about racial strife and by doing so he cast his net to a much larger audience. Tressie McMillan Cottom PhD describes this in the documentary as “incrementalism” in which a black performer will become popular, gain wealth and help their community when they can all while “being the safe, compromised choice.” Bell’s docuseries tackles the history of black representation in entertainment, Cosby’s growth as an entertainer and his meteoric rise with his popular TV shows.  It also reveals his downfall in recent years with his erratic behavior and controversial public statements. Through conversation we also learn about early red flags in which Cosby that we missed and how one black comic from Philadelphia, where Cosby was also from, whose viral stand-up act put the concept of Cosby-as-rapist into the public discourse. The most powerful and distressing moments of the documentary are the conversations with Cosby victims who bravely tell their own stories of sexual assault.

There’s a lot to unpack here and We Need to Talk About Cosby does so brilliantly. You can tell that Bell really focuses on representation with his selection of interview subjects. Some will call this docuseries a “hit job” which I think will be an unfair assessment. We Need to Talk About Cosby is an opportunity for us to really grapple with these two versions of a cultural icon that we have in our heads and come to the brutal understanding that they are one in the same.

Note to add: Cosby, family members, main cast members from The Cosby Show and Cosby representatives do not appear in the series.

We Need to Talk About Cosby premiered at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. Showtime will release the docuseries on January 30th.

Sundance: La Guerra Civil

When Oscar de la Hoya and Julio César Chávez went head-to-head in the boxing ring, it was an event. Referred to as the “Ultimate Glory”, this 1996 match not only pitted two of the most talented boxers against each other, it also started a cultural war. Julio César Chávez was the pride and joy of Mexico. He holds the record of the longest undefeated streak which began with his very first professional match. He was a champ that Mexicans could get behind. Oscar de la Hoya represented the expats. The Mexicans who left their home country years ago to seek opportunities in the States. De la Hoya showed promise at an early age and admired the great Chávez. But the Mexicans scored de la Hoya. Despite his 100% Mexican heritage and being fluent in Spanish, they felt he wasn’t Mexican enough. Not like Chávez. So when it came to that fateful day in 1996, Chávez stood with his country rallying behind him. But de la Hoya came armed with youthful vigor and a secret weapon: a brilliant coach who taught him how to take Chávez down.

Directed by Eva Longoria Bastón, La Guerra Civil expertly demonstrates not only the importance of the Chávez vs de la Hoya fight but also how the careers of these two boxing champions were intrinsically tied to their cultural identities. Both Chávez and de la Hoya were interviewed for the documentary along with sports journalists, latinx celebrities, family members and various experts. There is an air of familiarity in the film. Perhaps the friendly vibe prevented the documentary from going more in-depth into serious matters involving the two subjects including their drug addictions and various tragedies. These are briefly mentioned but not discussed at length.

The documentary is bilingual with interviewees speaking English and Spanish. 

La Guerra Civil premiered at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival.

AFI Fest: Citizen Ashe

Directed by Rex Miller and Sam Pollard, Citizen Ashe is a thoroughly engrossing documentary about the professional and personal life of tennis pro and activist Arthur Ashe. The film follows his journey from his humble beginnings in Richmond, Virginia, to his rise in a sport dominated by white men, to the Civil Rights era and to his unfortunate early demise due to AIDS related pneumonia. Ashe bridged the divide between the white and black communities with his entrance into the world of professional tennis. He broke barriers as a black man in the sport but knew that ruffling feathers would keep him being accepted. However, the calling to activism grew within him and he took strides to be more outspoken about the plight of his community. He used his platform to speak out about civil rights and the AIDS epidemic and to encourage the next generation of tennis players. The documentary was made with the blessing of his widow Jeanne Moutoussamy-Ashe and includes interviews with his brother, his mentee John McEnroe and more.

Citizen Ashe recently premiered at the 2021 AFI Fest as part of the Documentaries programming. The film hits theaters in early December followed by a broadcast premiere on CNN and streaming on HBO Max.

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