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Films by Margarethe von Trotta

Posted by keith1942 on January 10, 2019

This is a package of films from the important German film-maker distributed round Britain at the start of 2019 by the Independent Cinema Office with support from the Goethe-Institut London and German Screen Studies Network. This is a welcome initiative. Some of the titles, such as Rosa Luxembourg (1986), are rarely seen. Some, like The German Sisters / Die bleierne Zeit (1981), have not been available theatrically for years. The films are circulated in new digital versions; but German digital transfer are usually very good. What I find less happy is the title of the programme, ‘the personal is political’. This seems to me back-to-front; von Trotta’s films actually suggest that the ‘political is personal’.



In The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum / Die verlorene Ehre der Katharina Blum (1975, co-directed with Volker Schlöndorf) the titular character becomes a victim of tabloid journalism. Whilst this results from a personal relationship what fuels her persecution by the media and the authorities is her supposed political connections. The focus of the film these reactionary aspects of West German culture.



One can see this in von Trotta’s first solo feature, The Second Awakening of Christa Klages / Das zweite Erwachen der Christa Klages (1978). The protagonist Christa is a young mother involved in running a free nursery. It is the problems of the nursery that lead to her actions, some of these being criminal. The film certainly addresses motherhood but this is in a social context. At one point in the film Christa and her friend hide out in Portugal where they work in an agricultural commune. It is this type of political and social context that dominates the film.



The political and social context is just as prominent tin her next film, one of my favourites, The German Sisters. Dramatizing in fictional form aspects of the famous/infamous Red Army Faction. One sister, Juliane, is a feminist journalist; the other, Marianne, is a member of a revolutionary faction committed to armed action. Their relationship, the travails and disputes that arise, all follow from their political rather than their personal positions. The film indeed dramatizes female relationships and [again] motherhood but this is within the political discourses in which the two sisters reside.



The fourth film is Rosa Luxemburg. This is a biopic of one of the outstanding revolutionaries of the early twentieth century. Luxemburg is a feminist icon and she fought against the patriarchal tendencies within the revolutionary movement. But her driving force was the class struggle and proletarian revolution. The way that she utilised bourgeois marriage is indicative of a stance that prioritises the political over the personal. The characterisation of Luxemburg emphasises the revolutionary standpoint, that the political informs the personal rather than the other way round. Luxembourg prioritised the class struggle over the struggle round gender. Whereas ‘the personal is political’ often tends to prioritise gender over class.

I am looking forward to revisiting these fine films by von Trotta. Apart from her undoubted cinematic and narrative skills this film director is unusual [in contrast to the majority of male and female film directors] in skilfully integrating fine film-making and story telling with the central political issues of our time.

Rosa Luxemburg is screening at the Hyde Park Picture House on January 15th.

Posted in Film Directors, German film, Political film | Tagged: | 1 Comment »

The Wind That Shakes the Barley Eire / Britain / Germany / Italy / Spain / France / Belgium / Switzerland 2006

Posted by keith1942 on January 27, 2016

THWTSTBThe Wind That Shakes the Barley received a very hostile reaction from right-wing political commentators in British newspapers on its release, being called a

“poisonously anti-British corruption of the history of the war of Irish independence” (Tim Luckhurst in The Times) or a “portrayal of the British as sadists and the Irish as romantic, idealistic resistance fighters who take to violence only because there is no other self-respecting course” (Ruth Dudley Edwards in the Daily Mail).

However, the reaction from film critics – as opposed to political commentators (some of whom, like Simon Heffer, attacked the film before even seeing it) – has been generally extremely positive. The right­wing Daily Telegraph‘s film critic described it as a

“brave, gripping drama” and said that Loach was “part of a noble and very English tradition of dissent”.

The film critic of The Times said that the film showed Loach “at his creative and inflammatory best”.” (

The response summarised above is not unusual for a film directed by Ken Loach. His 1966 television film, Cathy Come Home, was followed by one of the earliest television ‘balancing’ programmes. His films about organised labour, Questions of Leadership (1983) and Which Side Are You On? (1984), were effectively banned. When the subject was Ireland, as in Hidden

Agenda (1990) on the ‘shoot to kill’ policy, the campaign became almost hysterical. And so the BBC series, Days of Hope (1975) which included labour and Ireland, provoked leaders in both The Times and The Daily Telegraph.

The Wind That Shakes the Barley compounds its sympathy for Irish republicanism by drawing parallels:

“I think what happened in Ireland is such a classic story of a fight for independence, to establish a democratic mandate and to resist an occupying army. Yet it was also a fight for a country with a new social structure. The British army in Ireland during 1920-21 did what armies of occupation do the world over – adopt a racist attitude towards the people they are attacking and occupying. They destroy people’s houses, engage in acts of brutality and generally oppress the people -and in Iraq that’s exactly what the British army is doing.” (Loach interview

The Irish dimension

A Republican 'flying column'.

A Republican ‘flying column’.

Few of the reviews have actually explored these parallels in detail, focusing mainly on the Irish dimension. Quite often such comment include odd asides. Stuart Jeffries in the Guardian:

“To be fair, there is surely a bigger market for anti-Brit diatribes across the Channel”

And Edward Lawrenson in Sight & Sound comments re the anti-Treaty hero

“is his implication that any deviation from Damien’s principles is perfidy and his distaste for the very idea of compromise appropriate in these post-Good Friday Agreement times?”

Lawrenson goes on to make a point common to a number of reviewers:

“This coarsening of Loach’s artistry is most evident in the director’s depiction of the English and Scottish soldiers as either pantomime toffs or brutish squaddies.”

He believes that Loach is using stereotypes, a technique not peculiar to this director.

In the same issue of Sight & Sound there is a review of United 93 (US 2006). This is also a historical reconstruction on film. The characterisation of the hijackers gets no mention in that review. What the film offers is a stereotypical group who

“pray, read the Koran, bow to Mecca, perform ablutions, and hug goodbye-the rites of religious cleansing before a holy war.” (Cineaste, Fall 2006).

Moreover, the only other foreign accent in this film belongs to the one dissenting voice among the passengers. It would seem that stereotypes are at least partly in the mind of the beholder.

Form and Style

The Wind That Shakes the Barley 6

What receives less attention than the political standpoint of the film is its form and style. As Loach remarked film

“is absolutely a group activity”.

Some sense of the production team and their use of film techniques is presented in a Channel Four documentary Carry on Ken. The title reflects Ken Loach’s liking for the oft­ reviled Carry On films. The programme includes examples of the improvisation techniques of actors, and points out the way that a long lens is used.

One comment on the staging is by Lawrenson who refers to the farmhouse where several acts of violence by the British occur. He comments:

“It comes across on the screen as an implausible and heavy-handed bit of symbolism.”

This is to ignore the way that place can function to enrich stories. This is another aspect of the film accorded little attention, in that it builds on the iconography and generic elements of the cycle of films dealing with Irish Republicanism. The majority of such films have tended to stereotype the liberation fighters. Typical are two portrayals, James Cagney in Shake Hands with the Devil (1959) and Miranda Richardson in The Crying Game (1992). Both are psychotic killers. More sympathetic films romanticise the republicans, as doomed victim in Odd Man Out (1947) or as heroic leader in Michael Collins (1996). In neither case is there much involvement with the politics of the Republican movement, or of the occupying power, Britain.

Republican traditions

This is exactly what The Wind That Shakes the Barley does do. And it does so by tapping into Irish academic and popular traditions of Republicanism. So the film not only relied on Irish locations and casting, but the narrative features actual figures and events from the period. It also uses the iconography of Irish films. Little is seen of these in the UK but they go back to the early years of the Irish Free State. Channel Four screened The Dawn (1936) in the 1990s. This film centres on two brothers with different responses to the war, and it features scenes of marching volunteers and ambushes of the Black and Tans. But it does not address the post Treaty Civil war.

Box Office

Despite or because of all the publicity, good and bad, The Wind That Shakes the Barley has done very well – for a Loach film (£3.7 million and on initial release). The UK release was planned to be only thirty prints, but with 300 touted for France, the UK figure was upped to 105. On the first weekend the film posted £390,000,

“nearly three times that of his previous biggest opening Sweet Sixteen” (an 18 rather than a 15 Certificate film). ‘

The Numbers’ column in Sight & Sound went on to point out that:

“The Irish territories accounted for 73% of the … box office total.”

The Irish territories apparently include the North and the South; both lumped in with the UK. This is a poetic confirmation of the argument put by Dan (Liam Cunningham) against the Treaty,

“England would still rule you”.

(In France the film has made over £3 million.)

Value judgments

A warm reception on the Continent

A warm reception on the Continent

Two aspects of the critical responses strike me especially in relation to The Wind that Shakes the Barley. Whilst critics do not claim to be objective, there is a sense in which they claim to be judging films on identified technical and aesthetic standards. Yet the revealing asides in so many reviews indicate that value judgments are often just as important. As with Loach himself,

‘politics inform your aesthetics.’

British critics also tend to dislike didactic cinema,

‘film with a message.’ Jeffries comments: “but there is a deeper problem: we are always sure whose side Loach is on and the dramatic journeys he take us on are ultimately not engaging because we know where they are headed.”

The reviewer’s comments on United 93’s message reckons that it:

“terrifyingly conveys the nature of the threat facing the world today and poignantly conveys onscreen the decision by a few brave individuals to fight back”.

Both films clearly embrace and present a set of value judgements about the world of their story. The differing comments are revealing. Ken Loach was quoted on one occasion:

“I’ve spent as much time defending my films as I have making them.”

Does he mind that much? Just because his films are not mere entertainment but social and political interventions, they spark discussion and debate. I think it is highly likely that the arguments in the review columns are endlessly repeated and developed long after audiences have left the cinemas.


Sight & Sound reviews of the two films are July 2006. ‘The Numbers’ is August 2006.

Carry on Ken, A Feasible Film for Channel Four tx More 4 on 17 June 2006.

Kevin Rockett, Luke Gibbons and John Hill (1987) Cinema and Ireland, Routledge

Originally published in ITP in the picture November 2006.

Posted in History on film, Movies with messages, Political film, UK filmmakers | 3 Comments »

Capitalism: A Love Story USA 2009

Posted by keith1942 on January 21, 2016


Written, directed and co-produced by Michael Moore. Now an established and famous voice on screen Moore tilts at his largest target yet. In fact, the title is somewhat grandiose: rather than deconstructing the contemporary mode of production, Moore is mainly concerned with the Financial Sector, especially the Banks. The film has all the familiar ingredients: the director’s caustic commentary and stunts, ordinary people coping in extraordinary situations, the revealing but till now unseen [or at least unnoticed] stories, background and leaks in the media. Regular fans may well experience a feeling of déjà vu. There is a hint of this in the closing comments by Moore himself, [over the end credits] as he pleads with his audience to join him in ‘action’. Reports of the film’s performance suggest this has not activated hordes of ordinary people. Yet, like some of his more vacuous fellow celebrities, Moore has winning charm. He also has a newsman’s nose for the scoop and the overlooked exposé. So, much of the film is absorbing, at times entertaining, and to a degree shocking.

Moore’s ‘capitalism’ does not start in the 13th century or with the rise of the Protestant Ethic. His villain is Ronald Reagan. Here Moore places the blame for deregulation, the rise of short-term profits, and the regressive changes in taxation. Certainty he provides ample evidence for the greed of the financial barons, and also for their myopic fall into chaos, ably abetted by Government Regulators. The most poignant sections are when Moore visits victims of this legalised robbery. As always, Moore can both facilitate the voice of the oppressed and exploited, and construct a powerful mosaic of anger at injustice and malfeasance. He also manages to find more reassuring groups who have organised resistance: a worker’s occupation in Chicago fighting for their wages: a community that rehouses an evicted family. So the audience are shown both the exploitation and the resistance.

But Moore’s virtues are partly undermined by his limitations. His films lack a full historical context and even more a rigorous analysis. The current crisis, which he examines, is only the latest in a cycle which goes back at least two centuries. And the majority of US citizens have suffered the expropriation of their surplus value since they arrived in the United States, either soon after birth or immediately on immigration. This matters since the direction that resistance takes will determine its success. One can find similar stories of both poverty and deprivation as well as of resistance and fight-back in the Great Depression. But eighty years on another remarkably similar financial bubble has wreaked havoc on the ordinary working people.

Like other liberals (for example, Naomi Klein) Franklin Delano Roosevelt appears to be one of Moore’s heroes. Near the end of his film Moore screens a long and (seemingly) forgotten newsreel by FDR calling for basic rights for ordinary people: rights that should include health care, a home, employment, pensions . . . As Moore points out these rights have never be legalised in the USA. The problem with this argument is that there have been existing rights in law, including those against arbitrary arrest, false imprisonment, secret surveillance, and torture. As in the UK the state has been able to tear up the paper on which such laws were written. Moore’s film also seems slightly opportunistic. His treatment of Barrack Obama is rather ambiguous, and he dwells once more on the joy that greeted Obama’s election rather than the policies since then. But Obama does not appear to be about to change that part of the capitalist system that is Moore’s target. In the film at one point the commentary refers to the coalition that pressurised Congress to agree to the Bailout of the Banks: despite the vocal opposition of a majority of the electorate. This included both the President and President-Elect, the aforesaid Obama. And the commentary also identifies a number of the latter’s advisers who earlier belonged to the most successful finance house, Goldman Sachs. As Balzac observed,

“behind every great fortune there is a great crime.”

Despite these limitations Moore’s new film is an entertaining two hours which also contains many nuggets of useful information. One is an interview with the chairperson of a Senate Committee charged with Oversight of the Banks, woefully confessing that she could not even force the banks to explain how they spent the monies received in the bailout. And of course there are his inimitable stunts. At the end of the film Moore unwinds a roll of police tape marked ‘crime scene’ round the Wall Street Financial buildings. That anti-social clique that controls the nation’s economy watches him from inside the buildings. They are clearly discomfited and embarrassed. Unfortunately I don’t feel that Michael Moore’s film will take us any farther. We need something more drastic. But we also need at least this level of assault on the equivalent nefarious activities in the UK.


Originally posted  on the film’s release.

Posted in Documentary, Political film, US films | Leave a Comment »


Posted by keith1942 on June 19, 2015


The House of Representative Committee on Un-American Activities was most prominent in the late 1940s and early 19150s, at the same time as the genre of classic  film noir was at its peak. Whilst HUAC or its members or agents rarely get literal representation in these films, the subtexts seem to be full of them. The one notable example is not a film noir:  the pro-Committee Big Jim McLain (1952) has John Wayne  hunting down communists and includes actual film of the Committee hearings with studio inserts. Both the actual Committee and the fictional film world of noir have common qualities, notably a strong sense of paranoia.


The discussions of the Committee are primarily of the 1940s and the 1950s but the roots of what has become known as ‘McCarthyism’ goes back several decades. There was anti-working class USA state action in the years prior to World War I, primarily directed against the Wobblies (Industrial Workers of the World). 1917 saw the Socialist Revolution in Russia and 1918 the official end of the W. W. I. However, a joint military expedition by the UK, USA, France and Japan involved an invasion of the new socialist state in an attempt to suppress the revolution.

The 1920s saw heavy oppression and repression in the USA against working class militancy and the young socialist movement. Edgar Hoover’s new Federal Bureau of Investigation was in the front line here. Upton Sinclair’s novel Oil gives a dramatic representation of these events; [representations completely excised from the film adaptation There Will be Blood, USA 2007].

1929 saw the great financial crash and in 1933 President Franklin D. Roosevelt inaugurated the National Recovery Programmes with radical economic policies. The conservative elements in the political establishment, notably in the Republican Party, regarded this as ‘socialist’: their common language reflected what can be described as ‘political illiteracy’. It in this period that the House of Representatives Committee on Un-American Activities [also known as the Dies Committee, from its chair Martin Dies Jr.] was set up, to expose ‘communists and subversives’. One of their targets was the Federal Theatre Programme, which provided employment for theatre professionals and theatrical presentations for ordinary people across the states. It included many radical elements, among them members of the Communist Party USA. It is worth noting that many of the people who joined the Party in this period were motivated by anti-fascism; their grasp of the analysis of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels was often limited.

One important factor in the conflicts were strikes by Hollywood workers, notably by members of the Screenwriters’ Guild. Walt Disney, whose autocratic style occasioned one strike, blamed it on ‘communist subversives’. In 1938 Dies conducted an early investigation of Hollywood including questioning actors and film crafts people. One actor, Lionel Stander, was fired from the Republic Studio: in No Time to Marry (USA, 1938) the film, [scripted by John Howard Lawson, another blacklisted writer]  has him whistling the Internationale.


Cradle Will Rock (USA, 1999) presents a picture of some of the work of the Dies Committee in relation to the Federal Theatre Programme. John Houseman and Orson Welles produced the show of the title, which was a sort of Brechtian musical exposing the exploitation and oppression rife in the USA. The play’s opening night coincided with the shutting down of the Federal Theatre funding. In the film [written and directed by Tim Robbins] there are several sequences that show the Dies Committee in action  One sequence [80 minutes into the film] has the Committee grilling a Federal Employee re this ‘subversion’: humorous but frightening. The exchanges with the Committee in the film are based on actual records.

The agitation around left politics continued at the end of the Second World War. This period was characterised by Winston Churchill [and George Orwell] as the ‘cold war’: with the Soviet Union and its allies. It is worth noting that there was wholesale repression of National Liberation Movements in the colonised countries and a rapid expansion of US neo-colonialism. Racism, including what is termed anti-Semitism, and homophobia were also rife. And there was a strong strand of misogyny in the culture. In this atmosphere HUAC pursued the phantom of communist infiltration across a host of US institutions, including the media.

Between March and September 1947 HUAC, under the chairmanship of Parnell Thomas, launched an investigation of Hollywood. It is clear that this was partly motivated by the desire for publicity: at the later hearings Arthur Miller was advised he could be excused a hearing if his wife, then Marilyn Monroe, would agree to have her photograph taken with members of the Committee. The initial response of the Industry was strong resistance. But as the investigations continued, with public hearings, the producers buckled. When the Committee cited ten ‘unfriendly witnesses’ for ‘contempt of Congress’, with subsequent jail terms, the Motion Picture Producers Association of America responded with the ‘blacklist’.

The Hollywood Ten – Herbert Biberman, Albert Maltz, Lester Cole, Dalton Trumbo, John Howard Lawson, Alvah Bessie, Samuel Ornitz.  Ring Lardner Jr., Edward Dmytryk, Adrian Scott.

The ‘Ten’ can be seen in the film produced to defend them in 1950 when they were fighting their sentences for ‘contempt of Congress’ in The Supreme Court, The Hollywood Ten written and directed by John Berry.

Red Hollywood (1995) is a documentary that studies the influence of radical filmmakers on Hollywood’s output in the period: a contentious area. It uses an opening clip from Johnny Guitar (1954) as an example: there are numerous references to ‘naming names’ in Hollywood films of this time. But the opening of this documentary also briefly displays the operation of the Committee with clips from films of the period. The film does not really address of the post-war politics of ‘the left’ and the Communist Party USA. The subservience of  the CPUSA to the interests of the Soviet Union meant that revolution in the USA was no longer on its agenda.

When HUAC returned with a fresh investigation between 1951 and 1953 the industry and its members generally collapsed before this attack. Actors and craftspeople who had been friends and/or colleagues of the ‘Ten’ now confessed their activities and even named names. Apart from The Ten many other people in the industry suffered blacklisting and there were similar purges in Television, the media and institutions like the State Department. One result was refugees working in the UK and Europe – Joseph Losey’s career in British film was a direct result of HUAC.

Ten demo

The Way We Were (1973) has a sequence from 1947 presenting a fictionalised version of one attempt by Hollywood stars and filmmakers to support the ‘Ten’. This is followed by a sequence with a conversation between Hubble (Robert Redford) and Katie (Barbara Streisand) that shows some of the attitudes and arguments circulating in Hollywood at the time. Some of the filmmakers involved in the project [like writer Arthur Laurents] had suffered during the blacklist:  it is worth noting that the film was cut of several important scenes for general release.

Film Noir

This Hollywood genre has its roots in German expressionism and many of the filmmakers involved were either émigrés or refugees from Europe, especially Germany. It was also influenced by the French poetic realism of the 1930s. The genre’s title was only applied in retrospect: at the time most of the films fell into crime genres or similar.

The most common and basic plot involved a hero [nearly always male] who is drawn by an attraction, commonly a femme fatale or dangerous woman, into a world of criminality and chaos. The main focus of the plot is whether the hero wills survive – the seeker hero; or whether he will perish – the victim hero.

Double Indemnity (Paramount, 1944) has a victim hero: Murder My Sweet / Farewell My Lovely (RKO, 1944) has a seeker hero. The latter film also has filmmakers involved who suffered under HUAC and the blacklist: Adrian Scot and Edward Dmytryk. A number of the radical and noir films were made at the RKO Studio: Orson Welles worked there. When Howard Hughes acquired the studio in 1948 he closed it down for six months whilst he carried out a check [witch-hunt] of the studio personnel; followed by a number of sackings.

Both of the above  films above demonstrate the stylistic tropes of the genre, which make it rather distinctive for the time. Extensive use of chiaroscuro or light and shadow: notable camera angles: the voice-over and confessional mode. And overall the films frequently project an atmosphere, of cynicism, fear and paranoia.

Critics have offered many suggestions for the rise and influence of this genre in the 1940s particularly. There were the dislocations and uncertainties in the post-war world. An air of cynicism was common. The changing roles of women with changes in the mores of sexuality produced a reaction and often misogyny. Despite the horror at the excesses of the Third Reich there was frequent public anti-Semitism, racism especially directed at Negroes or Afro-Americans, and pronounced though not usually explicitly articulated homophobia. But undoubtedly the activities directed at so-called Un-Americanism also had a powerful effect, especially on the workforce in Hollywood.


Lady from Shanghai (Columbia, 1947, written and directed by Orson Welles) offers an example of coded language which could be seen as anti-capitalist [the dominant value system in the USA] or anti-USA  values, with subtle allusion to US racism. The scenes with an argument between Michael (Orson Welles) and Arthur (Everett Sloan), with Elsa (Rita Hayworth) and George  (Glenn Anders ) looking on, is a good example.

Red Menace (Republic, 1949) shows some of the attributes of noir being used to attack ‘anti-Americanism’ and communist ‘subversion’ with a portrayal of a villainous Communist Party USA akin to the mafia.

Another critical example  is Body and Soul (Enterprise, 1947) which was written by Abraham Polonsky, later one of the Hollywood Ten. The film demonstrates how crime organised crime is effectively ‘business’ and capitalist business.  The film stars John Garfield, whose treatment by HUAC was possibly a factor in his early death. Both men were involved in a number of film noirs or films with liberal values and both had Jewish heritage. Polonsky would go on to write and direct Force of Evil (MGM, 1948).  This is the great ‘political’ film noir. The drama is set in the numbers racket, [organised gambling controlled by a criminal ‘mob’]. During the story a take-over is organised by a larger combine: the parallels with a critical observation of the operation of capitalism run throughout the film. The film includes wire-taps, surveillance, the ‘naming of names’, betrayal and tragedy. And in the personal dramas, interweaved with this corporate action, there is a frequently a strong sense of paranoia.


The above is taken from the notes for a Study Day at the Swarthmore Centre in Leeds.

Wikipedia has detailed pages on ‘The Hollywood Blacklist’ with links to other Webpages.

The Inquisition in Hollywood Politics in the film community, 1930 – 1960 by Larry Ceplair and Steven Englund, University of California Press, 1983 is the best study of HUAC in Hollywood that I have read.

Posted in History on film, Hollywood, Movies with messages, Political film | Tagged: | Leave a Comment »

Selma, USA 2014.

Posted by keith1942 on April 30, 2015



This is the best mainstream film that I have seen for some time: it is certainly better than the competitors that carried off Academy Awards. It may sound banal but perhaps the members of the Academy felt that honouring 12 Years a Slave in 2014 sufficed. Perhaps more tellingly, the only Oscar awarded to Selma was for Best Song ‘Glory’. It would seem that the US discourse around “race”, ethnicity and colour still suffers from stereotypes, such as Afro-Americans only make good entertainers and sports people!

Revisiting on film the Civil Rights movement in the USA of the 1950s and 1960s is like revisiting the European holocaust or some of the brutal events of colonial and neo-colonial history – always something of a shock. The sheer violence and viciousness of the system of oppression and apartheid turns out to be even more extreme than one remembered. Here the story is the organising of a march by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama in order to pressurise President Johnson to pass a Voting Rights Act. The main aspect of the film is a portrait of both the public and private figure of Dr. Martin Luther King. But it is also a portrait of an important group of black leaders in the Civil Rights Movement: of some key individuals involved in that struggle: and of other key political figures involved in these events, which occurred in 1965. The film presents and dramatises the conflicts between King’s public and private life: the tensions and conflicts in the black civil rights movement: and the conflicts within the US political establishment between leaders seen as liberal or conservative.

The film has a striking opening. Dr. King (David Oyelowo) stands in front of a mirror rehearsing a speech: his wife Coretta (Carmen Elogo) helps him adjust his tie/Ascot: Dr King receives the Nobel Peace Prize. As he delivers his speech the film cuts to a Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. A group of children playfully descend a staircase and a violent explosion, killing four young black girls, shatters the calm. The last sequence was shot using noticeable CGI techniques, which the film tends to eschew later on. It provides a shocking moment, which of course, was the frequent experience of black people in the South at that time.

The film continues with scenes from the private life of Martin and Coretta. We see the preparations by black leaders for the march, including some dissension and arguments. Cameos of ordinary black characters fill out the actual day to day experience of the black population. And there are high level meetings between President Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) and Dr. King and his colleagues. One effective technique is the use of onscreen Teletype titles, which record the spying by the FBI on Dr. King and his colleagues. We also get a brief glimpse of J. Edgar Hoover.

The early parts of the film tend to the low key, with limited musical accompaniment. When we do hear it there is frequently a noticeable percussion strand.  Church meetings, where Dr. King’s charisma electrifies and galvanises the ordinary black population, punctuate the plot.

When the film reaches the actual march the drama and the onscreen violence increase dramatically. The sound of noises, such as truncheons hitting heads, are obviously increased in volume for effect. And the musical accompaniment moves up several notches: as the marchers cross a now famous bridge it swells with orchestral accompaniment: an infrequent trope in the film. This is the mode of the melodrama of protest, and the film very effectively uses those conventions to draw the audience and their sympathies to the courageous black marchers. Somewhat unusually in this genre, though the film ends with the torch of the struggle for Civil Rights carried forward, it does also close with an identifiable victory, the passage of the historic Voting Rights Acts. On screen titles chart the course of the central characters: the continuation of white-on-black violence: but also the effect of the right to vote for black citizens.


Whilst in this sense the film is agitational it also addresses more complex matters. So the speeches and discussions by the black leaders gradually impart to the audience the actual mechanics of the racist denial of voting rights. The politics and political manoeuvring are also apparent: and the film delineates the actuality of non-violent protest in an extremely effective manner. The meetings with Johnson demonstrate how this ‘liberal’ politician was actually driven [like F.D.R.] by popular and organised pressure to effect the historic legislation of his Presidency. And the range of attitudes and prejudices within the political establishment are well aired. What the film does not essay, perhaps understandably given its intent, is an attempt to understand the basis of white prejudice in the way that it explores black resistance.

If the Academy’s Best Picture Award is for a film that has the highest quality in every department, [and is invariably an English language film], then I cannot think of a better candidate than Selma. Indeed, it is worthy of an Oscar in several other categories. It is beautifully produced, has an intelligent but highly dramatic approach to its subject, and this itself is an important topic and not just in the USA. I have seen the film thrice now, on each occasion there were good sized audiences who were clearly impressed by the film – you can tell by how many and for how long the audience sit through the final credit sequence. After the most recent screening the manager told me a number of people stopped to remark on the power and emotional impact of the film

The film is obviously well scripted, by British Paul Webb. However, in an interview in Sight & Sound (March 2015), the director Ava DuVernay explained how she had rewritten and added to the script. This was cleanly a substantial addition though she does not seem to have an onscreen credit: she does though get ‘a DuVernay film’. Judging by her comments she added considerably to both the intelligent and dramatic treatment of the subject. And whilst the film is serious it has its lighter moments. At one point Mahalia Jackson renders a spiritual down the telephone to hearten Dr. King. And when activists preparing for the final march hear that some Hollywood black stars, including Harry Belafonte, are coming to join them they break into a chorus of Deooooo! Daylight come….  [The opening lyric of a Belafonte hit].

The film is also conscious on the issue of gender. On the way to Selma the black leadership group stop at the home of a female activist for a meal: women nearly always provide the food in this film. When Malcom X appears to the chagrin of the black male leaders, Coretta King is deputised to meet and talk with him. However this is followed by a scene where Correta visit Martin in prison and shows herself more open to the political implications of the visit.

In addition to this DuVernay has ably marshalled a sizeable production team, all of whom should be commended for their inputs. The acting in the film has been duly praised and honoured. David Oyelowo has been singled out deservedly. Ironically along with two other fine performers, Tom Wilkinson and Tim Roth, we have a key ‘American film’ where major characters are performed by British actors. Carmen Elogo is excellent and so are the many performers working as colleagues of King. And the cameos are finely drawn with Ofrah Winfrey offering one as activist Annie Lee Cooper. White characters do tend to the stereotypical, but that too is in line with the intent of the film.

The cinematography by Bradford Young is excellent. At times mid-shots and close-ups takes us into the personal drama. But longer shots and high and low-angle shots accompany the action sequences. What struck me especially on the second viewing is the use of lighting. Young uses an amount of rim lighting, which is very effective in setting out the black faces with their darker pigmentation. In an early speech Dr. King tells the congregation that they must stand up ‘in the daylight’. This becomes a theme in the film, as the lighting develops a pattern of light and shadow, reaching its culmination at the final rally in Montgomery. Here in bright sunshine and standing before the white capital of the State, King addresses his jubilant followers. Just to give an example of two sequential scenes. At a moment of doubt in the campaign King has a conversation with a young activist in a car. They are partly in darkness, mainly lit by spill and reflective lighting. As the conversation develops we see moments where the light falls frontally on them. And in the following sequence a rejuvenated King stands with his colleagues in the brightness of the State Supreme Court Building and is joined by Coretta. [In what is almost now a convention Martin Sheen appears as the Judge].

The film was mainly shot on location. This in itself provides rich denotative and connotative meanings. A key site, the Edmund Pettus Bridge, was named after a southern general, Senator and one-tine leader of the Ku Klux Klan. There is a very effective recreation of the period both in settings and costumes. And there are nice touches that set off the subject. There is King and Johnston arguing beneath a portrait of George Washington. Then we see a Southern style meal eagerly despatched by the black leadership, waited on by a female black activist. The meeting between Malcom X and Coretta is shot against a brightly coloured stained glass window. Right at the end we see Johnson, with the Stars and Stripes on either side, siting regally in the Oval office. More subtly King’s home features a portrait of Gandhi. However, at one point marital tensions arise when Coretta is sent a tape recording by the FBI that suggests King’s extra-martial affairs: a small statuette of Gandhi, notable for his calls for purity, is positioned in the foreground.

And the film has a very effective and well-balanced soundtrack. Whilst the voices and accents seemed to be authentic the dialogue is mainly easy to follow. There is a judicious use of noise, which is amplified for the action sequences. And the music is minimal at times and then reaches effective crescendos at times of action. This is several times combined with well-known songs or offers music which clearly has a base in the spirituals beloved of the black communities. At one point as police violence is meted out to the black protesters on a key site, the Edmund Pettus Bridge, we hear Mahalia Jackson on the soundtrack: later, again on the bridge, the marchers are accompanied by Odette’s rendering of ‘Masters of War’. And at the end of the credits, after the Award winning ‘Glory’, there is a medley of protest songs sang by ‘workers in Selma’.

The end of the film uses archive footage of the actual march intercut with the film’s recreation. Both are in the 2.39:1 anarmorphic ratio, which means stretching or cropping the archive footage – this is not a technique with which I am happy but it seems to work well here. I did have other concerns. It seems that the production could not use King’s actual speeches as they are already copyrighted: though those in the film seemed perfectly in keeping with the King I remember from television and film. The speeches have been copyrighted to Steven Spielberg, who also planned a film on Martin Luther King. I assume that this production requested their use – I would have thought Spielberg could have been satisfied with offering an effective portrait of Abraham Lincoln. Finally the film was shot on 35mm but has been digitally re-mastered for cinema exhibition [and for other formats]. The re-mastering has been done at 2K. I do not think the 2K standard does justice to good quality 35mm. The longer the shot, the greater likelihood of a lack of definition and I noted this at times in this film. And given the film’s play with light and shadow the dynamic contrast of 35mm or 4K digital would have served this better. In the scenes with chiaroscuro there was sometimes a lack of definition in the background, and I am sure this would have improved with higher quality. When filmmakers are using 4K for digital film and exhibitors proudly advertise 4K projectors this seems an unacceptably stingy practice by producers and distributors.


Religion and religious motifs are central to the film, as one would expect. In a key scene between the imprisoned King and a colleague, shot in chiaroscuro, we hear a quotation from the Gospel of St Matthew. King’s sermons/speeches to church congregations are vital moments in the development of the political campaign. Comments and discussions are full both of political and religious illustrations. And moment like the initial explosion or before the stained glass window constantly remind of the central role of religious experience and commitment in the black civil rights movement.

In terms of its politics this film is only partly radical, as you might expect when the distributor are C20th Fox and Pathé. A colleague suggested that the film reflected the politics of Ofrah Winfrey, who is also a producer. I only have a generalised notion of her political values, but the film is clearly reformist. One can see this in its treatment of the agreement between the black leadership and the US political establishment. It is clear again in the cameo for Malcom X, who in the last days of his life was rethinking his politics. However, the struggle around voting rights is mainly about the oppression of the black US population rather than their exploitation. In that sense the film charts an important opening up of black political power.

However, the film’s ending does emphasise one side of the struggle. Among the end credits, which give ‘what next’ for the main characters, we find a woman who shortly afterwards was killed by the Ku Klux Klan. And of course, Martin Luther King, Malcom X and even George Wallace died or suffered from extreme violence. But others leaders, like Andrew Young, had successful political careers: the dominant tone here. Yet in recent US elections it has been clear that, especially in the South, that the restriction of entitlement for black voters is a continuing problem. There are the continuing series of deaths of Afro-Americans at the hands of the police.  And Barack Obama, who obviously approves of this film, himself still suffers some of the derogatory attacks endured by King and his colleagues decades earlier.

Still this is a powerful and moving drama with a lot more politics at its core that is the norm for Hollywood.  If you see one Oscar winning film this year, make it Selma – you will be absorbed, shocked, moved and entertained.


Posted in Hollywood, Political film | 1 Comment »

The Angry Silence, Britain 1960

Posted by keith1942 on January 29, 2015

Angry silence

I wrote this piece to accompany a viewing for students. The focus on the film was in terms of Identification and Positioning. It was fairly clear that all of the viewers identified quite strongly with the Tom Curtis character (Richard Attenborough), who in this narrative appears to embody the message of the film – the individual against the group. Here I just wanted to note some of the ways that I felt the film attempted to ‘position’ the audience.

The film is set in a northern factory. Tom Curtis (Richard Attenborough) is a worker there. His close friend, also working at the factory, is Joe (Michael Craig): he lodges with Tom and his family. Tom is married to Anna (Pier Angeli); an Italian migrant and they have two young children. A dispute erupts at the factory and the workers, led by the shop steward, Connolly (Bernard Lee), come out on strike. However, Connolly is ‘guided’ by a visiting agitator, Travers (Alfred Burke): dialogue suggests that he is a member of the Communist Party of Great Britain, but this is never explicitly stated. During the strike some of the workers carry on working, including Tom, and become targets of abuse and violence as ‘scabs’. The film’s climax involves violence against Tom himself [the culprits include Mick played by the young Oliver Reed]..

Firstly, the narrative is centred on Tom and his family; it is their lives and emotions that we see at close quarters. The film’s structure emphasises this, while there are a lot of quite short scenes (e.g. between Connolly and the manager, Davis – Geoffrey Keen) there are a number of lengthier scenes which portray the traumas of Tom, Anna and their children.

Characterisation is also important, I think the film fairly successfully creates a picture of working class life, and the script cleverly uses moments of inarticulateness to make its points. The casting of an Italian actress as the wife allows space for more emotional scenes than is usual in British films of that period. Note the first time we meet Anna she is listening to an Italian tune on the radio. And there is the way her hair (normally up) is let down for her most dramatic scene, the confrontation with Joe.  Joe is the character who changes his mind and sides in the confrontation: the film rewards him for this.  Earlier we had seen Joe unsuccessfully trying to date Pat (Penelope Horner), a clerk in the factory office: but we see her follow him as he leaves the final union meeting.

The camerawork and montage is very effective for a British film, there are a lot of close-ups, always more emotive and with greater impact. The camera is also used for point-of-view shots (when we see a character or scene as a film character would see this). One noticeable one it the point-of-view shot as Joe sees Anna in their quarrel, with the camera looking down on the distraught and anguished Anna.

The mise en scène or settings reinforces the story, characters and use of camera. The use of large spaces to place the characters in a threatening and lonely situation, as for example Anna lost in the great school playground as she desperately seeks her son Brian. Or Tom in the factory, shown with a depth of field, which places him in relation to his work-mates: after the strike he is cut off by space and obstacles.

A combination of camera and setting is exemplified in the opening sequence, which accompanies the titles – the arrival of Travers The train sounds and the station are unsettling, places of passage rather than rest. As Travers crosses the station he is shown at one point behind a metal barrier, a frequent device for setting people apart. In the station car park waits Connolly, and the manner in which he flips away his cigarette and starts the car reminds me irresistibly of Hollywood gangster movies, a comment on both him and Travers.

The music is very interesting. There are only nine pieces of music spread through the film and one of those just a drum roll. Apart from the titles music signals and accompanies the key dramatic moments of the film, like the closing down of the factory. At this point a theme accompanies the little group who are working on, a theme that recurs later and is noticeable for the trumpet playing in a high register. This theme returns with other factory scenes, and when we hear it for the last time, accompanying the crane shot that gives us a bird-eye view of the final meeting, it has become a wishful, dying tone reminiscent of the Last Post.

The film also makes effective us of soundtrack, note the brief shot that signals the attack on Tom – night-time, a dog barks, running steps, a whisp of wind – cut to the next scene.

There are lots of other devices (or use of film language) in this film, many of which not only develop the story but also seem to aim at affecting the responses of the audience to the story and the characters. If, as I argue, the story carries the side in an argument, then these devices can be seen as trying to place or position the audience vis-à-vis that argument or message.

The film was produced by Beaver; a company set up by Richard Attenborough and Bryan Forbes in one of a number of attempts to develop a successful independent British production facility. Bryan Forbes produced the film that was directed by Guy Green with the story co-written by Michael Craig and Richard Gregson. The film was nominated for both an Academy Award and a BAFTA.  Critics were generally positive: Dilys Powell commented “A film made by people who care about the screen and care what they are saying on it.” Like the majority of the British critics she appeared to endorse the values embodied in the film. The early 1960s saw another of the recurring media attacks on working class militancy. In this case there was frequent publicity about people who ‘scabbed’ [worked during a strike) being disciplined, often informally – the most quoted examples were being sent to Coventry, i.e. none of the work-mates would talk to the culprit.

The British media tended, as they still do, to support the values of the capitalist class and working class actions were perceived as ‘rocking the boat’. The film certainly seems to reflect this set of values.

Black and white, 94 minutes, 1960.

Posted in British films, Movies with messages, Political film | 1 Comment »

The Commune La Commune, France 1999.

Posted by keith1942 on December 9, 2014







Black and white, 345 minutes: directed and scripted by Peter Watkins.

Sight & Sound ’s annual ‘top twenty for the year’ is not exactly a compelling recommendation – how did The Wolf of Wall Street make it in. As is often the case, individual listings are more interesting. Kim Newman included this film in his recommendations, noting that it came out in 2000 but that he had only just seen it.

Watkins is probably best known for the BBC’s vérité-style historical reconstructions, Culloden (1964), and the famously banned The War Game (1964). Since falling foul of the establishment for both the style and content of his films, Watkins has worked mainly abroad. The Commune, his ninth and possibly last film, was shot in Paris. It recreates that overlooked but seminal event, the uprising of the Parisian proletarians in 1871. This was the first truly revolutionary outburst of the new Socialist movement that included both Marx and the Anarchists Proudhon and Blanqui. Watkins recruited a cast from the areas of Paris where the Commune occurred and from migrant Communities such as Africans. Such an approach mirrors the internationalism of the original Commune. The film was shot on 16mm in a  hot-house production process lasting only 13 days. This has contributed to the dynamic and passionate immediacy of the performances. The film includes TV-style reportage, documentary and vérité techniques and docu-drama reconstructions. These are structured by use of reflexive and analytical inserts, e.g. the Commune is presented in the film by two journalists who both talk on-camera and interview participants. This device replays the techniques Watkins developed in his first film Culloden. The final film is committed, compelling and [I believe] likely to become a seminal work in the field. But it will be difficult to see. Watkins struggled to find media support and resources for the project. It has had a single screening in Paris and a single outing on a French Television channel. A London Film Festival screening was on video as they had not been able to strike a celluloid distribution print. It is a sad reflection on the censorship of the market that it is going to be so difficult actually to see this masterpiece. For London viewers there was a screening planned at the French Institute early in 2001. It has not appeared on television as far as I know but is now available on DVD. I would suggest that, like other great but demanding documentaries, Shoah, The Sorrow and the Pity, …, it is essential viewing. Watkins’ final film, like the best of his earlier work, demonstrates how the innovations of Vérité, when sited within an analytical and committed standpoint, can offer a distinctive and enthralling take on our world, past and present.





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Foxfire (France, Canada, Spain 2012).

Posted by keith1942 on November 18, 2013


This is the new film by Laurent Cantet {who directed The Class, 2008). He obviously is interested in youth films and is very effective with young and less experienced casts. The film is set in upstate New York in the 1950s. Foxfire is the name chosen by an all-female ‘gang’. This is an adaptation of the novel by Joyce Carol Oates, foxfire confessions of a girl gang (1993). I was so interested by the film that I read the book, the first time I had come across the author. She is apparently a popular writer in the USA and has a high reputation. The film follows the book fairly closely.

The tale is told by Madeleine (Maddy) Wirtz (Katie Cosent) years after the actual events. In both the book and the film Maddy warns the reader / viewer that the telling is based on her record at the time, but may also include mis-rememberings and downright lies. Maddy’s record is a history of the gang, but also a study of the characters in the gang and, most particularly, a treasure of memories of the leader, Margaret Ann Sadovsky (‘Legs’ – Raven Adamson).

The film opens with a rape sequence, which is important in terms of the motivations of this group of teenage girls. Then, after credits, we see another girl climb up and knock on the window – Maddy’s window. At least one review suggested that Legs has entered town and her arrival sparks the girl’s gang. Actually, Legs is already established: she had been sent away to her grandmother and has now returned.

The genesis of the gang is a reaction against a bullying teacher at the school that all the five founder members attend: Legs, Maddy, Goldie (Claire Mazerolle), Lana (Paige Moyles) and Rita (Madeleine Bisson). They are given their own distinctive personalities. Legs is the charismatic leader, Maddy the gang scribe, Goldie is a tomboy, Lana voluptuous, and Rita the girl who is picked on. There is also a German Shepherd, Toby, another victim of male violence. From an initial prank to punish the teacher, Foxfire’s actions develop to punish those who oppress – especially men.

There is not what might be called a gang ideology. But Legs is strongly influenced by an ex-priest and socialist (Father Theriault – Gary Reineke), now down and out, whom she meets and talks to in a local park. From him she develops a rather incoherent amalgam of proletarian and religious rhetoric.

There is a car sequence that occurs [rather differently] twice in the film. In the first instance we witness a joy ride that ends badly but not tragically by an old covered bridge. This leads to institutional justice and Legs’ incarceration in a reformatory. Following a long spell in prison Legs returns, apparently reformed but more driven than ever. The now larger gang rent an old and dilapidated building out of town and set up what attempt to be a commune. Their actions become more direct and targeted: and targeted at men who increasingly seem to represent the enemy.

Their situation and the campaign against sexual oppression develop to a serious criminal act with tragic consequences. At this point the second car sequence occurs, ending by the old bridge but badly. Foxfire comes to an end, Legs dies or disappears and Maddy keeps the notebook until years later when she inscribes their story.

The development of the girl group and their crude campaign is fascinating. And Cantet’s direction and the cast’s performances are excellent. Whilst certain part of the plot are unlikely the film remains convincing.

Intriguingly there are two important sequences in the book, which do not appear in the film. One is a house of serial gangbangs observed by Legs. This chapter reads disturbingly and I can understand it is not being in the film. It would certainly be disturbing and would have certainly raised the certificate from 15 to 18. However, it is important in motivating Leg’s more extreme behaviour in the second part of the story. Presumably the move of the rape to act as an opening sequence is a substitute.

The absence of other sequence is more puzzling. This is when Legs climbs a large water tower: a site where young men have tested their virility and physical powers but failed to reach the top. Legs, of course, is successful. This struck me as potentially an extremely cinematic sequence. It also highlights a side of Legs’ character and her hold over the rest of the gang.

The film does not end with the final part of Maddy’s record. Some years after the demise of the gang she sees a photograph – a woman who could be Legs alongside Fidel Castro in Cuba. At least one viewer found this finale implausible. However, it is in the original novel. It struck me as poetic. Cuban liberation [like the defeat in Vietnam] is something that the US establishment cannot accept. This casts a retrospective light on Legs. The British equivalent would be a British character who decamps to the side of the Argentineans in the Malvinas. The Sight & Sound review struck me as rather moralistic about the later exploits of Foxfire in the film and characterised the post-penal Legs as a bully. It added “there is something depressing about the inevitability of the downhill slide from idealism to criminality..”. The review also characterises Legs as ‘imbibing communist ideas’, a serious misnomer. This is not my sense of the book or the film, though the elisions in the film do weaken aspect of the tale. Legs’ rebellion is unformed and tends to incoherence. Moreover there are quite disparate values within the group, highlighted when Legs fails to persuade the group to accept an Afro-American member. But she and her comrades are fighting actual exploitative and oppressive treatment, and these are directly depicted in the film. This would seem to explain why Cantet and his fellow screenwriter Robin Campillo open the film in the way that they do. And, of course, the retention in the film of the Cuban/Castro photograph suggests a radical strand which outlasts the life of Foxfire itself.

I would recommend both the book and the film to potential readers and viewers.

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Posted by keith1942 on November 28, 2011

In an age of action thrillers, Spike Lee’s controversial 2000 film Bamboozled is unusual, an ideas movie. This explains both why it has generated controversy, and also why it is not an easy film to get to see.

“(In the USA) Bamboozled had a very limited theatrical run. At the time of its release in October 2000, the film seemed to play in a few select theaters only, mostly in New York and Los Angeles. In my hometown of San Diego, it took at least three weeks after the initial release before Bamboozled arrived, and it was virtually buried in theaters that most black audiences and other Spike Lee fans would not normally attend.” (Zeinabu irene David 2001).

In Leeds, where I saw it one and half times at the council funded Hyde Park Cinema, the audiences were very small. I’ve had problems finding people who have seen it and this was a blow because I would have liked more opportunities to discuss the ideas the film explores. But despite its low profile in cinemas, Bamboozled is a film that addresses an important issue, little discussed. At least the DVD release in the UK means it is possible to give it wider exhibition. Apart from the pleasures of good cinema, the film makes an excellent study text.

Narrative concerns

The narrative centres on television writer Pierre Delacroix, his secretary Sloan Hopkins, (both African-­Americans), and their white boss at the network, Dunwitty. Dunwitty regards himself as hip and an expert on black culture. He ruthlessly manages and patronises Pierre. So Pierre decides to expose his, and the Network’s, disguised racism by dreaming up a spoof minstrel show. This is based on the premise of African-Americans in ‘blackface’ makeup to recreate the appearance of the original Jim Crow shows. (Jim Crow refers to a character created by a nineteenth century white ‘minstrel’. The name was later applied to the racist laws that appeared in the southern states after the Civil War and which lasted until the 1960s.)

The new show is constructed around two street buskers, Manray and Womack. Their respective characters in the show are Mantan and ‘Sleep ‘n’ Eat’, supported by the Alabama Porch Monkees. At the pilot performance the audience includes both white and black viewers.

“The first time the performers come out in blackface, the white people look around them to see if black people are laughing, because if they are, then it’s sanctioned, and it’s OK for them to laugh, too.” (Lee 2001)

This is the prelude to the show’s rating and critical success for the network. ‘Political’ African-Americans, including a gangster-rap group Mau Mau, are incensed and attack the show. The contradictions of this situation for the black characters lead eventually to a tragic and violent conclusion. 


The film directly confronts the long history of demeaning representations of black people across the US mainstream media. This is no easy task. Lee recounts the responses of some of the cast; “It took away part of their soul”. And reviews included comments like ‘scattershot’ and ‘rabble-rousing’. Lee’s response is to point to the history of blackface in film and television.

“I mean, we all know what D. W. Griffith did, but when you see Judy Garland, Mickey Rooney and Bing Crosby putting on blackface … well, the critics didn’t want to deal with that. (Lee 2001).

This challenge to racism is carefully integrated with questions of gender and class. Lee describes the main female character, Sloan: “So it was a definite choice to have Jada Pinkett-Smith’s character, Sloan, be the most sympathetic and the most intelligent. At the same time, her hands are bloodied too, but she knows there is blood on her hands, whereas most of the other characters are in denial or just too stupid to know it.” (Lee 2001)

A critical sub-plot refers to Pierre’s own family situation as an educated, middle-class African-American. At one point he visits his father, a stand-up comedian performing in small black clubs with a very ‘strong’ and racially aware routine.

“Yes, I wanted to reveal the fact that they’re disappointed in each other. The father, Junebug, feels his son has no integrity, and at this point Pierre feels that his father is a great talent but that he’s wasting it.” (Lee 2001)

This is partly a class divide, with Pierre, the aspiring executive, separated from his roots. The same divide exists for most of the other characters. Her brother Julius, leader of the Mau Mau rap group, confronts Sloan, the successful assistant to Pierre. Most tellingly, Manray is propelled from penniless street entertainer to a successful and affluent TV star. And these class relations, along with the racialised situation and gender positions, feed into the characters’ final fates.

Pierre, as if fetishising these concerns, begins to collect ‘Black Americana’ – pot and metal figurines of stereotypical characters like the ‘Mama’ and the ‘Piccaninny’. (Many of these objects are from Spike Lee’s own collection). The film ends with a videotape compilation of such types along with clips from a variety of well-known Hollywood movies and US Television shows from the studio period up to the 1960s. (Many of these historical images and others are available in Marlon Riggs’ videotapes, Ethnic Notions and Color Adjustment, see http://www.nitrateonline). This is the most notable flaw in the film; not because of the content but because of the tecniques used. Nearly all the material on the videotape should be in 1.33 or 1.37:1 but it is ‘reframed’ to fit the 1.85:1 ratio of the film. This is odd because the sequnce is motivated by Pierre placing a VHS video tape in a player; and we briefly see the opening clips on a ‘4X3’ television screen. This is fitting into the anachronistic treatment of old film footage in the media, especially television. Some of the images show signs of ‘stretch’ but not all. So Ithink the problem is also what the production can access and in which format. But the result is that the work of the original artists and craft people is distorted.


There is a range of resources to use in studying the film including an official website and a number of review or interview sites. The official site has details on the production and cast, and brief but informative pages on ‘Minstrelsy’ and ‘Blacking Up’ [Some of this appears as extras on the DVD]. Also available is a Symposium on the film in the US journal Cineaste and a special feature in bfm, Black Filmmaker. (Sight & Sound seems to have failed on this count). Cineaste is especially helpful as it has articles by both pros and antis.

A key article by Armand White, ‘Post­Art Minstrelsy’, challenges the contradictions in Lee’s own situation. Whilst Bamboozled is a scathing critique of Hollywood and mainstream US television, this is also where Lee earns his bread. Many of his practices are very similar to the practices of the mainstream media. Witness the merchandising associated with the film of Malcolm X. However, the contradictions of Lee’s situation do not, necessarily, negate the film and its arguments. He retorts, “No examples, no back-up, no nothing.” (Lee 2001)

I too found Armand White and the other antis somewhat lacking in specifics. Some of the arguments refer to issues and debates in the USA African-American communities, and are difficult to judge from across the Atlantic. But there is a sense that these articles are treating the film both as a political tract and as a realist text. Political tracts need to be written. Popular films can dramatise ideas, but are much less successful at analysing them. And whilst the film shares the naturalistic conventions of Hollywood, it is clearly both a fantasy (Greg Tate suggests that it is science fiction?) and is carefully constructed on a Brechtian model. Brecht advocated distancing techniques in order to encourage the audience’s intellectual engagement. Bamboozled is doing this from the opening printed definition of satire, and with the continuing disruptions to narrative flow. Such techniques aim to create a theatre for ‘changing the world’. Lee comments:

“I want people to think about the power of images, not just in terms of race, but how the imagery is used and what sort of social impact it has.” (Lee 2001)

The article by Zeinabu irene Davis, (‘Beautiful-Ugly’ Blackface: An Esthetic Appreciation of Bamboozled) is pro. She discusses the technical and stylistic aspects of the film. It is shot on digital video (Sony VX1000 – Pal) and Super 16 film. The former is used for ‘actual scenes’, the latter for the television productions, an ironic comment on television ‘realism’. One point she makes is on the use of blue in the film’s colour scheme,

“This was a resourceful choice on the part of the filmmakers, since current film technology makes it very difficult to ‘lose’ the blue tint of video as it is transferred to film”.

There is praise for the scenes “in which we see the application of blackface makeup … displaying a rich palette of film color.” These are scenes that are visually pleasurable, but increasingly painful. She also discusses the excellent and evocative score by Terence Blanchard. Be warned this is apparently missing from the soundtrack CD. There are two aspects of the film about which there is more consensus – that the narrative is uneven and flawed: and that the violent ending ducks out on the problems the film raises. Greg Tate in Cineaste (‘Bamboozled: White Supremacy and a Black Way of Being Human’) counters the first:

“Much has been made of Bamboozled’s narrative and filmic lapses, but in retrospect, they seem only to intensify the nightmarish stereotypical grind Lee sees as the lot of African Americans, as both performers and producers in the Hollywood system.”

And for me the ending powerfully dramatised the desires and fate of the characters caught up in this social conflict. The montage of racist images from US TV and Cinema is instructive for UK audiences who may have only seen occasional examples of the ‘minstrel’ heritage.

Finally I want to make a more general point. Spike Lee, in the interview in Cineaste, refers to earlier critiques of the media, including A Face in the Crowd (1957) and Network (1976). One might add Mad City (1997). All three are satires, as defined in the opening credits of Bamboozled. What all the four films also have in common is the combination of a quite detailed recreation of the world and practices of television with a plot that borders on the incredible. Perhaps television, so self-referential a medium, is resistant to satire. For me it was the qualities of ironic and epic drama in the film (à la Brecht), which most powerfully confronted the continuing racism promulgated in the mainstream media. Bamboozled is both melodramatic and contains quite blatant stereotypes. But the form of the film positions the audience not just to laugh or cry, but to puzzle and argue over these. It is apparent from all the responses that even people who disagree with the movie are stimulated by it. 


Cineaste vol. XXVl No 2, 2001. Includes the interview with Spike Lee, Armand White, Greg Tate, Zeibabu irene Davis and others.

Bfm black filmmaker, Volume 4, issue 11. Review and discussion. bamboozled.shtml 200104frbamboo.html fbambooz.html 2001_05ibamboozled.html

Spike Lee also mentions a documentary by Melvin Van Peebles, Classified X.

DVD available from Entertainment Video (includes a Spike Lee audio commentary).

NB – The article originally appeared in In the Picture.


Posted in Political film, US films | 1 Comment »