Culture

Paying Attention to Black Lives

Race confusion in three new films.

Two impressions from the first scene of Southpaw: 1) The close-up of Jake Gyllenhaal as white boxer Billy Hope makes him look dark-skinned — a way-late wigger figure who struts, curses, and imitates the limited outlook of black street thugs. 2) Hope’s boxing match consists entirely of unguarded facial punches — a quick indication that director Antoine Fuqua is not simply a crude race hustler: He doesn’t know his subject — he apparently has never watched a professional fight.

The race issue has become as preposterous at the movies as it is dumbfounding in American politics and news media. Southpaw, an early Weinstein Company Oscar-bait release, falsifies the ethnic mixing of the past 30 years, in which hip-hop culture has affected and influenced all social classes, producing anomalies like Gyllenhaal’s Hope. The trite interracial boxing story (an unconvincing reversal of such films as Body and Soul, Champion, The Harder They Fall, Requiem for a Heavyweight, even The Great White Hype) proves that Hollywood still can’t tell the truth about class struggle or ethnic interaction. Hope brokers mawkish, superficial brotherhood with black retired coach Tick Wills (Forest Whitaker); only out-of-touch Hollywood producers and demagogic editorial writers believe in such social piety. (There’s even an au courant sacrificial black teen.)

Southpaw glosses over the impact that family collapse, befuddled masculinity, and rampant materialism (represented by rapper 50 Cent) have had on all lives, even black lives — a crisis dramatized better in Jeff Wadlow’s 2008 mixed-martial-arts/role-model movie, Never Back Down. Gyllenhaal’s overanxious Hope (named after a campaign slogan) is a pretend-noir hero, symbolizing a culture in which the low road to self-righteousness is led by white pity.

*      *      *

Horse Money

Portuguese filmmaker Pedro Costa moves forward in his new film, Horse Money. Not a formulaic hack like Fuqua, Costa the artiste creates his own genre out of post-colonial Europe’s lingering immigration nightmare. Malcolm X might have labeled Costa’s films the “Chickens Come Home to Roost” genre, and Marxist social theorist Frantz Fanon, who analyzed France’s 1950s struggle with Algeria, could have categorized every character and situation that Costa repeats in each film.

Horse Money links with Costa’s Fontainhas Trilogy (1997–2006), which observed black African immigrants from Cape Verde who became drug addicts in Lisbon’s Fontainhas slum, using real-life, destitute non-actors. I found Costa’s concentration on this subject weird and exploitative. His fascination with underclass decrepitude has won acclaim from film culture elites, but it is not so different from Hollywood’s wigger fascination and is equally unacceptable — until now.

Horse Money differs from Costa’s usual poverty porn because he finally lets his victim-actors become expressive. They still stagger about like zombies, but this time their voices have affecting timbre, their eyes light up with thought, and sometimes they even sing. (The song “Nos Terra” [“Our Land”] pines for the Old Country; this stylistic embellishment deepens the longing of these colonized, displaced, alienated people.)

By finding the humanity in these figures, Costa goes beyond what makes them pathological and discovers their universality.

By finding the humanity in these figures, Costa goes beyond what makes them pathological and discovers their universality. Horse Money opens with a series of Jacob Riis stills that invoke timeless, global poverty and social tragedy; the montage then goes from B&W to color, settling on an image of the trilogy’s protagonist, Ventura, that is a framed painted portrait of the septuagenarian actor/derelict a.k.a. José Tavares Borges. Costa’s picturesque social catastrophes offended my sense of how anyone would live given choice and opportunity, but this trope explains his method.

Costa is not a Neorealist analyzing the political circumstances that affect poor people’s lives — like Luchino Visconti, who made La Terra Trema (1948) — but his formalist story structures and stylized vision of depredation finally, in Horse Money, pierce their sociological surface and attain an almost spiritual and political clarity.

Back in the 1920s and ’30s, Hollywood responded to America’s interracial traditions of minstrel shows and social protest with films that flattered public sophistication about the Negro underclass — faux naïf films, usually musicals like Green Pastures (or King Vidor’s trailblazing Hallelujah), that boldly boasted social sympathies. Horse Money updates the faux naïf into its existential opposite: modern tragedy.

#related#Costa doesn’t appropriate the Third World like the European Paul Gauguin traveling to Tahiti; black colonials come to Costa, and he depicts them with depressed exoticism: Ventura’s woman-friend Vitalina Varela cries when reading records of immigration, births, and deaths — her grief is part of Costa’s film noir bleakness. This visual hyperrealism is in rich, immersive, sepia chiaroscuro. Ventura and Vitalina are objectified for their gnarled workers’ features. There’s a grave composition of their dark brown hands, fingers interlaced and in shadows with long, thin, white nails. A striking image, it’s followed — climaxed — by a still-life of Vitalina’s worry beads on a desktop stained with her tears.

One can make a political interpretation from such imagery of humans palsied with nerves, languishing in darkness, brightened only by neutral hues of impersonal urban backgrounds in windows. Horse Money is distinguished by a fuller illustration of Costa’s compassion, not just his usual abstraction. The film’s symbolic title mourns its characters as damned: Ventura’s friend tells a story about his horse (named Dinheiro [Money], thus desire), which was torn apart by vultures.

Costa’s previous clinical, bleeding-heart delectation of black miserablism needed to change. It now evokes Spielberg’s eerily dark Lincoln, and its condescension can be felt in the Black Lives Matter “movement” favored by news media and urged by political nihilists. These agitators are less sensitive to the texture of black lives lived than to the potential to exploit them, using black suffering to arouse impulses to anarchy, promoting the collapse of the social order. Horse Money isn’t mere rhetoric; I respect it as an art project more impressive than any arbitrary, bogus “movement.”

*      *      *

Lila & Eve

Charles Stone III is the best American filmmaker exclusively devoted to popular entertainment about black American culture (Paid in Full, Drumline, Mr. 3000 –all superb). The new two-hander Lila & Eve, about black and Latino mothers (Viola Davis as Lila, Jennifer Lopez as Eve) grieving for their children lost to ghetto violence, is Stone’s first theatrical feature in a decade, and though it isn’t up to his usual standard, it still shows signs of his social perception, emotional sensitivity, and seriousness. But Lila & Eve is too serious, lacking the street wit (and humor) of his previous films. Yet it’s good enough to confirm Stone’s authenticity; he’s another anti–Antoine Fuqua.

In the ten years since Stone’s last Hollywood film — years in which the culture broke  – black American social consciousness has been waylaid by unimaginably compounded effects: the illusion of political representation in the Oval Office and the confusion of continued social deprivation and violence. The characters Lila and Eve react to that bewilderment by becoming vigilantes. Their mission of vengeance makes a personal antisocial, apolitical mess. The hackneyed script treats them as triumphant, exchanging feminism for ethnic self-righteousness via Thelma & Louise. This is the fashion of contemporary politics but not of the humanist art that made Stone’s earlier films special.

Stone’s for-hire work here fails by comparison to Costa, who creates a social mood through Horse Money’s images of looted offices, urinals, Ventura talking on dead telephones — all to convey spiritual breakdown. This is what’s missing from Lila & Eve. The women’s lachrymose Death Wish variation is less captivating than Ventura and Vitalina’s sorrows amidst mold-filled apartments, jails, cafeterias, doctors’ offices, laboratories, corridors — evidence of a palpably horrid existence.

Lila & Eve needs a Deliverance ending (lingering guilt, haunting morality), not a Taxi Driver rear-view-mirror ending.

Lila & Eve needs a Deliverance ending (lingering guilt, haunting morality), not a Taxi Driver rear-view-mirror ending that plays into a capsized civil-rights movement and this era’s tendency toward unhelpful political self-justification. Stone repeats the psychic disorientation that Jonathan Demme captured in his film of Toni Morrison’s Beloved. But when Eve tells Lila, “You wanted justice,” accepting the guilt and selfishness of retribution, the film just grazes the morality of today’s race complexity.

Although Lila & Eve’s neo-noir concept is unworthy, it’s interesting to watch Davis and Lopez — both good actresses when they want to be — dig into social truths (pain, anger, sympathy) that they’ve surely witnessed. After a shooting, sharp, tough Lopez tells weepy Davis, “I know you’re freaked out right now. But I know you feel lighter.” Lila is scared only because she recalls the old-time promises of integration, equality, America. (“I found the answer, the Bible. He raised up his son in only three days.”) Stone recognizes how black folks relate — their empathy and compassion. It’s not a secret hidden in the ersatz gospel and protest singing of Selma. As Costa shows, it’s found in paying attention, not in political, neo-noir mystification.

— Armond White, a film critic who writes about movies for National Review Online, received the American Book Awards’ Anti-Censorship Award. He is the author of The Resistance: Ten Years of Pop Culture That Shook the World and the forthcoming What We Don’t Talk about When We Talk about the Movies.

 

Armond White, a culture critic, writes about movies for National Review and is the author of New Position: The Prince Chronicles. His new book, Make Spielberg Great Again: The Steven Spielberg Chronicles, is available at Amazon.

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