By Dwight Brown, NNPA News Wire Film Critic
The 17th annual Tribeca Film Festival provided an urban showcase for 96 feature films. The fest’s documentaries outshined the narrative and international features, while a host of TV shows, shorts, tech seminars, immersive experiences and special events also filled out the programming.
Black films, filmmakers, actors and artists basked in the glow of a festival that has matured nicely into a friendly, well-run event that is attracting a wider, more sophisticated audience.
Black Films, Filmmakers, Actors and Artists
All About Nina (****) If you liked Ladybird, you’ll love this far more adult and bitterly sarcastic feminist tale. It’s an ode to a troubled but hugely talented comedienne named Nina (Mary Elizabeth Winstead, The Hollars and TV’s Fargo). Spanish writer/director Eva Vives (Raising Victor Vargas) displays a keen sensitivity for funny and graphic language, female/male relations, lust and New York vs. Los Angeles living.Winstead is brilliant as the comic with a dark past who works out her demons on stage eviscerating men and bragging about her one-night stands. Finally, she meets her perfect counterpart, the very caring Rafe (Common), who treats her with respect. The dance the two do around feelings and past emotional disasters is ingenious. In one endearing performance, the rapper/Oscar-winning songwriter/actor Common turns himself into a very bankable leading man.
Blue Note Records: Beyond the Notes (***) From a jazz fan’s point of view, the Blue Note Records label had a history of featuring impressive artists: Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk. For musicians in search of a fair deal, this company run by German Jewish refugees Alfred Lion and Francis Wolff and started in 1939 in New York, treated them equitably, paid them royalties and guided their careers. Several living legends—Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Robert Glasper, Norah Jones—share their experiences with the eight-decades old label they call home. Their stories touch the heart and mind as deeply as their music. Masterfully directed by Sophie Huber and perfectly edited by Russell Greene with evocative photos and footage that bring back memories of the pioneers of jazz.
Mr. Soul! (***1/2) For five revolutionary years (1968-73), the daring public television showSOUL!showcased emerging black musicians (Labelle, Novella Nelson, Al Green), poets (Nikki Giovanni, Sonia Sanchez, The Last Poets), intellectuals (James Baldwin, Kathleen Cleaver, Angela Davis) and dancers (Judith Jamison, George Faison, Alvin Ailey). The show was the love child of the brainy, very sociable and now deceased producer/host Ellis Haizlip. His niece, Melissa Haizlip, and veteran documentarian Samuel Pollard (Sammy Davis, Jr: I’ve Gotta Be Me) have directed and produced a stirring homage to the TV program that broke the mold. In today’s socially and politically tumultuous times, SOUL! and its forward-thinking MC seem so prophetic. During the TFF opening night screening The Last Poets (Abiodun Oyewole, Umar Bin Hassan and Felipe Luciano) reunited, the legendary Sonia Sanchez read her fiery poetry, Lalah Hathaway and Robert Glasper performed, Blair Underwood, who provided Ellis’ voiceovers in the film, was the host and the loving spirit of the TV trailblazer Haizlip hovered above.
Obey (**1.2 ) Six black directionless adolescents roam the streets of East London looking for trouble. Leon (Marcus Rutherford), who is built like a basketball player but prefers boxing at his local gym, is particularly adrift, emotionally and psychologically. He’s staying with his alcoholic mom (T’Nia Miller) whose white boyfriend is a bully. Leon escapes into the arms of a white girl named Twiggy (Sophie Kennedy Clark), a squatter at an abandoned townhouse. Chaos, uprisings and riots surround them in the streets, where police battle disenfranchised youth. Writer/director Jamie Jones sets the story, location, urban scenes and tense relationships in a boiling pot brimming over with illicit drug use, binge drinking, petty crime and the wildness of youth. The situations look vivid (Albert Salas’ camerawork), but the film’s purpose seems blurry and its storyline leads nowhere. T’Nia Miller’s raw, outstanding performance as a scarred maternal figure is so blistering it could peel paint off walls. Anyone can write a story about hopelessness. Only a few know how to take it further. Jones does not.
O.G. (**1/2 ) Jeffrey Wright (Basquiat, Ride with the Devil, Angels in America) isn’t often cast as a lead in a film, so this performance is a rare gem. Louis (Wright), an old-timer in a maximum-security Indiana prison and a former, powerful prison gang leader, has mellowed. He’s weeks away from freedom, after serving nearly 24 years for murder. Just as he nervously readies himself for a new life outside the pen, he takes a new inmate (Theothus Carter), who is in deep trouble with a rival faction, under his wing. Will Louis look forward or risk being snared in jail forever? Opening scenes languish on Wright’s face, which in glances and grimaces intricately lays the foundation for a convict who is dealing with inner turmoil and outer rivalries and who has a persona that’s as solid as the prison’s cement floors. You never question the surroundings or circumstances because the Louis character is such a strong anchor. The script (Stephen Belber) and direction (Madeleine Sackler) shoot for stark realism but settle for soft TV-ish drama (no graphic violence, or nudity). Yet, still, one of America’s most talented actors creates an indelible character—from ashes.
Satan & Adam (***1/2) Back in the early ‘80s, the white Princeton/Columbia University grad student Adam Gussow was reeling from a breakup with his girlfriend. He stumbled upon Sterling Magee, aka Mister Satan, who was singing the blues and playing guitar on a sidewalk on 125thSt. in Harlem. The youngster boldly asked if he could play his harmonica with the former backup musician for James Brown. Magee said yes. The odd street duo Satan and Adam, forged in the midst of an explosive racial divide in NYC (the Howard Beach incident), signed a record deal and toured the world opening for acts like Bo Diddley. Documentarian V. Scott Balcerek (LeBron James documentary More Than a Game), pieces together decades of footage, photos and interviews into a tapestry that is never less than heartening. The two souls weathered disdain, fame, mental illness and the aging process on their journey together. Watching their very different lives is captivating.
United Skates (****) When Dr. Dre and Queen Latifah were starting their careers and couldn’t get played on radio, they played their music and made appearances at roller rinks, which have long been credited for being the cradle of hip-hop and rap. For decades, rinks formed social communities in urban areas all over the country from NYC to LA, Chicago to Philly. Adults turned children onto the joy, making the past time generational. This enlightening doc follows several families who’ve bonded and become dedicated rink rats. From what’s on view and told in recollection, roller rinks and skating have followed social patterns that parallel America’s evolution. Some older black skaters remember not being allowed into white rinks, demonstrating against the segregation and being attacked by white supremacists. Others lament the closing and decline of rinks in America due to rezoning, which has made way for condos and big stores, further killing the artform. Directors Dyana Winkler and Tina Brown chronicle the history, examine the racial politics and pay due homage to the one neutral territory where LA’s fighting Crips and Bloods forgot their differences and had fun—a black-owned roller rink. As one fan puts it, “They can take the building, but they can’t take the spirit.” The proof is on the screen. Illuminating, touching and uplifting.
Films of Note
Diane (***1/2) Now the Oscar-winning film Manchester by the Sea has an equally poignant companion piece. This thoroughly compelling story, about a seventy-something mom (Mary Kay Place) whose is coming to grips with a life of incessant sacrifices that have left her depleted, has a similar familial feel and New England location. Faithfully, Diane checks on her belligerent drug-addicted adult son Brian (Jack Lacey, Miss Sloane), her dying cousin (Deidre O’Connell) and the folks at the soup kitchen where she volunteers. She gives, but never takes. Kent Jones’ screenplay creates a cast of local rural characters consumed by small talk and wallowing in mundane lives that seem very working class and universal. Diane tries to make things right in her life. It’s a challenge when your whole life is devoted to everyone else’s needs. Excellent direction, dialogue and ensemble acting make what’s on view a totally captivating look at the passage of time and last chapter of life.
Studio 54 (***)Tracing the rise and fall of Ian Schrager and Steve Rubell, the creators of Studio 54 America’s most famous discotheque (1977-80), is nostalgic and fun: Best friends from college, the two upstarts renovated a Broadway theater (originally built as the Gallo Opera House in 1927) and turned it into the consummate nightclub, attended by chic people, like Liza Minnelli, Grace Jones, Bianca Jagger and Andy Warhol; straights, gays and transgender folk; models, bankers, trendsetters and drug dealers. The guys are widely credited for inventing the velvet rope, because they picked and chose who could enter their Eden. Matt Tyrnauer (Valentino: The Last Emperor) is meticulous in his assemblage of interviews, newspaper headlines, grainy footage and all the visuals it takes to recreate an era gone by that was both progressive and the height of debauchery all at the same time. Schrager is alive to tell the story, and he spills all the beans, shameless or not. It’s enough to make you want to put on your platform shoes and dance under strobe lights.
We the Animals (**)This is a rare coming-of-age film that’s based on a first-time novel by Justin Torres. Torres won an NNACP Image award for writing about his personal experiences growing up in rural upstate New York: Three young Latino brothers, Manny (Isaiah Kristian), Joel (Josiah Gabriel) and Jonah (Evan Rosado) are being raised by a depressed mom (Sheila Vand) and an abusive dad (Raúl Castillo). The kids set up various mechanisms to survive their ordeal. Jonah, the youngest, escapes into a world of fantasy that he records in a diary of images and cryptic writing. The screenplay (Daniel Kitrosser) and direction (Jeremiah Zagar) are great at establishing the characters, time, place and emotional circumstances. However, creating a plausible, consistently-engaging film is beyond those good intentions. The gimmick of Jonah’s drawings coming alive on-screen in very crude animation is distracting, not beguiling. The film never recovers from the irritating tonal shifts, even with the good performances.
A small upstart film festival has matured into a world-class event that is living up to its ambitions, becoming New York’s favorite fest and a worthy showcase for black talent. For more information about the Tribeca Film Festival go to: https://www.tribecafilm.com
Dwight Brown is a film critic and travel writer. As a film critic, he regularly attends international film festivals including Cannes, Sundance, Toronto and the American Black Film Festival. Read more movie reviews by Dwight Brown at DwightBrownInk.com.