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Sundance: Passing

In her directorial debut, Rebecca Hall adapts Nella Larsen’s novel about race relations in 1920s New York with her film Passing. The film stars Tessa Thompson as Irene, a light-skinned black woman who ventures into the city, passing as white as she runs errands and enjoys tea time at a fancy hotel. At home she lives a comfortable life with her black husband Brian (Andre Holland) and two children. One day she reunites with an old friend Clare (Ruth Negga), who is also passing for white however lives more boldly and is married to a racist white man (Alexander Skarsgård) who has no clue about Clare’s background. Clare is intrigued by Irene’s life in the black community and ventures into the world she left behind. As Clare spends less time passing, she and Irene develop an intense queer connection that threatens to destroy their marriages and possibly their relationship.

Passing is devastatingly beautiful. The film was shot in black-and-white which speaks to the binary set by culture but also makes us think about these constructs are arbitrary. The cinematography is stunning. For those who love the era, there are plenty of visual splendors to take in. The actresses wear gorgeous period appropriate costumes. (I secretly wanted to steal all of Tessa Thompson’s cloche hats).

Thompson and Negga are brilliant as Irene and Clare. Their movements are gentle and methodical; almost like a choreographed dance. Andre Holland delivers a powerful performance as the troubled Brian. The movie is less about passing as it is about the 1920s Harlem Renaissance, queer identity and the segregation of white and black communities. Rebecca Hall, who is mixed race  and has some African-American heritage on her mother’s side, offers viewers a stunning film with plenty of food for thought.

Passing premiered at the virtual 2021 Sundance Film Festival as part of their U.S. Dramatic Competition.

Update: Passing will screen in select theaters starting October 27th and will stream on Netflix November 10th.

Double Exposure Investigative Film Festival: MLK/FBI

In February 2027, the Martin Luther King Jr. surveillance tapes recorded by the FBI will be unsealed and made available to the public. These tapes are the result of J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI’s extensive harassment of MLK. Hoover sought out sordid details of MLK’s extramarital affairs hoping that the information would ruin his public image and in turn weaken MLK’s leadership. What Hoover didn’t anticipate is that ultimately no one cared. The movement was full speed ahead and even one of the most powerful men in America couldn’t stop it.

Directed by Sam Pollard, MLK/FBI is both a compelling look into one of the darkest times in the history of the FBI and a brilliant portrait of a charismatic leader who was able to mobilize a community into peaceful action despite all the challenges that faced him. The documentary is comprised of photographs and archival footage as well as clips from newsreels and relevant classic movies. It was based on recently released documents made available by way of the Freedom of Information Act.

The talking heads narrate but are not seen until the end of the film. The narrators include Civil Rights leaders, historians and former FBI employees including former director James Comey. The greatest value of this documentary is the amount of quality archival footage of MLK himself. I have seen several documentaries about the Civil Rights movement but none  have included this much actual footage of MLK. The film is based on recently released documents made available by way of the Freedom of Information Act.

MLK/FBI is a priceless documentary that sheds light on the past and serves as a warning for the future.

MLK/FBI recently screened at the 2020 virtual Double Exposure Film Festival. It will be released by IFC in January 2021.

AFI Fest: The Lost Astronaut

Representation matters. When a young Edward Dwight Jr. saw a photo of an  African-American jet pilot in the newspaper, everything he dreamed about suddenly became a possibility. That one photo sparked something inside him and Dwight set out to achieve his dreams. He proved to be an excellent pilot and served as a captain in the Air Force. Dwight was selected as a NASA astronaut trainee by the Kennedy administration, the first African-American to be chosen. And while he was an exceptionally trained pilot, he never made it passed phase two of the training. It’s clear that the world wasn’t ready for a black astronaut. Dwight could have let this disappointment drag him down but instead he reinvented himself.

Directed by Ben Proudfoot, The Lost Astronaut is an intimate short documentary that profiles an extraordinary man. This 14 minute film is part of The New York Times series Almost Famous while profiles subjects in similar circumstances. The extreme close up on Dwight’s face as he recounts the story of his life makes the viewer feel like Dwight is an old friend that we care deeply about. What’s so exceptional about Captain Edward Dwight Jr.’s story is that his career happened during what the director refers to as “collision of the space race and the civil rights movement.” Had he been born a few decades earlier he may never have become a pilot. Had he been born a few decades later he might have become a NASA astronaut.

The Lost Astronaut was screened as part of the Meet the Press program for the 2020 virtual AFI Fest.

John Lewis: Good Trouble

“The vote is still the most powerful non-violent instrument or tool we have in a democratic society and we must use it.”

John Lewis

We live in turbulent times and it’s difficult to stay optimistic when the future looks grim. One man in particular has been able to sustain a sense of hope and determination that things will change for the better. Over the course of nearly 60 years of public service, this man has paved the way forward with his philosophy for non-violent protest and his own indestructible resolve for doing good. That man is Civil Rights leader and U.S. Representative for Georgia John Lewis. And he has one piece of advice for you: “get into good trouble, necessary trouble.”

Protestors and police officers on Bloody Sunday, in JOHN LEWIS: GOOD TROUBLE, a Magnolia Pictures release. © Spider Martin. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures. 

Directed by Dawn Porter, John Lewis: Good Trouble chronicles the life and political career of an extraordinary man. Something that is key to making a good documentary is access. In this film there is seemingly unfettered access to John Lewis himself. We also hear from his brothers and sisters, his staff and many big names in politics. Talking heads include Elijah Cummings (to whom the film is dedicated), Hillary and Bill Clinton, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Nancy Pelosi, Eric Holder and others. The film conveys a sense of gratitude and appreciation for John Lewis’ work and we hear this through the words of politicians and every day people who approached Lewis to offer words of gratitude and appreciation. At the center of it all is Lewis who guides the viewer through his life’s journey.

Porter’s documentary covers the broad spectrum of Lewis’ career in civil service and politics. Lewis got an early start in the Civil Rights Movement when he wrote a letter to Martin Luther King Jr. at the age of 17. Soon he was a member of the Freedom Riders and was one of the key figures protesting on Bloody Sunday in Selma, Alabama. He was arrested 45 times, often severely beaten by aggressors. Lewis’s transition to politics was a natural one. He studied non-violence as a philosophy and has been a staunch believer in that form of protest ever since. He’s been a member of Congress since 1987 and as the film so aptly demonstrates, Lewis is still as active in politics as when he first started.

“John Lewis has consistently delivered a message of doing your best, being honorable, and respecting others for the past 65+ years. I think it’s really needed at this particular moment in history.”

Dawn Porter
Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

John Lewis: Good Trouble serves as a much needed call-to-action during troubling times.

John Lewis: Good Trouble is available in virtual cinemas and on demand today. Visit Magnolia Pictures’ website for more information.

BlacKkKlansman

This post is sponsored by DVD Netflix.

Those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it.”

Set in Colorado circa 1972, BlacKkKlansman follows the Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) as he navigates the racially charged atmosphere of his new job and community. Ron has a passion for police work but being the first black cop at his department means the odds are stacked against him. After he’s promoted to undercover work, he meets and becomes smitten with Patrice (Laura Harrier), a civil rights activist attending a Kwame Ture (Corey Hawkins) event. He’s then assigned to gather intelligence on a local chapter of the KKK. Caught between these two worlds, he devises a plan. He’ll inflitrate the KKK with the help of his white coworker Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) who will do undercover work in person while Ron speaks to key figures, including Grand Wizard David Duke (Topher Grace) on the phone. The tension in Colorado Springs escalates as the Black Panther activists increase their activity and the KKK devises a bomb plot to take out protestors. Ron and Flip must find a way to save their community and themselves before their true identities are revealed.

Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman makes a bold political statement about racism in an effective way. The film is based on the true story of undercover cop Ron Stallworth. Lee and his writing team used Stallworth’s memoir as the basis for the script but made some key changes including a shift in the timeline and the addition of the bomb plot. The final chapter of the film directly links the events in the story to those of the Unite the Right Rally  and the deadly car attack in Charlottesville, VA in 2017. By connecting the past and the present, Lee’s film is giving a clear warning to the future.

Stylistically BlacKkKlansman is stunning. It’s quite an achievement to make the 1970s, known for faded oranges, yellows and browns, look vibrant and colorful. I love how the film stayed true to the era but still finds a way to appeal to the modern eye. As a classic film enthusiast I’d be remiss not to point out how elated I was to see African-American performer and activist Harry Belafonte in the film. He has a small part as Jerome Turner, an elderly man who recounts his stories of witnessing atrocities. His scene is juxtaposed with a KKK initiation ceremony. That whole sequence packs a powerful punch.

BlacKkKlansman is nominated for 6 Academy Awards including Best Original Score, Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Director (Spike Lee), Best Supporting Actor (Adam Driver) and Best Film Editing. I highly recommend following up your viewing of BlacKkKlansman with the documentary Alt-Right: Age of Rage which I reviewed a few months back. 

As a DVD Nation Director, I earn rewards from DVD Netflix. You can rent BlacKkKlansman on DVD.com

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