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Posts Tagged ‘Afro-American film’

The Retrieval USA 2013

Posted by keith1942 on July 19, 2018

This film appears to have only had screenings at film festivals. I saw this US Indie at the Leeds International Film Festival in 2013 [a UK première] and it was attended by the director Chris Eska. Since then it has not surfaced anywhere in my range. This is a shame. It is both an excellent film and an interesting variation on a major genre: the US Civil War movie.

The film is set in the later stages of the US Civil War, 1864. The Union armies are into the Confederate territories and we see both a violent skirmish and the aftermath of some battle. However, what makes the film distinctive is that it focuses on black slaves, runaways and freed slaves caught up in this great conflict. For much of the film we are alone with a small trio of black men. There is thirteen year old Negro boy, Will [a fine performance by Ashton Sanders]. His mentor is Marcus (John Keston) who has trained him to work alongside as they assist a gang of white mercenaries who are hunting down runaway slaves for the bounty on their heads.

Marcus with Will is sent north into Union-held territory to bring back fellow Negro Nate (Tishuan Scott). He is not a runaway but a freed slave. However, six years earlier, in resisting an attempt to capture and enslave him, he shot a white gang member. So the journey involves both revenge and a bounty. Marcus and Will use a tale of a sick brother to entice Nate back close enough to the gang’s camp to enable his capture. As readers can imagine, this is the point at which the contradictions of the war and the period come to a climax.

Most of the film is taken up with the journey and the changing relationships between the three men. On the way they encounter both a live battle and the strewn corpses of the aftermath of another. A civil war film that spends most of its time with three black men is distinctive. However the story in which they are embedded is fairly conventional. I could reckon many of the developments before they arrived and the resolution of the film became more clearly predictable over the course of the film’s 92 minutes.

The writer and director Chris Eska also wrote the screenplay and edited the film. He is quoted in the Festival Catalogue:

“I start with the emotions first, then I tend to work backwards to find the setting of the characters that are going to highlight those emotions and themes.”

Using a civil war setting seems to have been the third possibility considered. This explains why there are so many familiar tropes in the film. In fact the emotions are the strongest aspect of the film. The characters interactions and developments are engaging. There is one very fine sequence when Nate and Will visit the homestead Nate left six years earlier. And they meet his former wife and her ‘new man’. It is sensitively filmed and acted.

The visual aspects of the film are also very good. The film was shot by Yasu Tanida in the 4K digital format. And the landscape along the journey looks great. The ratio seems to be 1.78:1. This is not a a cinematic ratio. I wondered if this was down to using digital or the hope that it would get screenings on television.. Whether that happened I am uncertain but it has been available on online streaming. Eska does not seem to have been able to make any subsequent features.

But there is also a serious weakness to the film. This is the music score by Matthew Wiedemann and the Yellow 6 band. Wiedemann seems to have provided the primary input, with ‘sixteen tracks’. The majority of the score accompanies the sequences of the journey. The music accompanies the changing landscape and also signals dramatic development. But at times it did not seem to have a discernible function. I thought the film was over-scored. This is a shame, because the natural sounds on the track when they appear are extremely well done.

I assume the music was worked out with Eska as he remarked that he and Wiedemann had worked together before. Eska participated in a Q&A after the screening. I, unfortunately, had to leave to catch a bus. A friend told me about some of the discussion. Eska remarked that finding funding for an independent film in the USA was hard: harder than a decade ago. I had found the final closing sequence of the film the most conventional. Eska explained that this was added because one of the producers would not accept the original ending. He talked about the editing which he found was essential in creating the structure that he wanted. He also talked about working with the Afro-American actors, for whom these were the first opportunities to play a leading role.

The film clearly failed to find a British distributor or elsewhere, even in the USA. Independent film distribution has decline din recent years but this would also seem to be an example of the neglect of the Afro-American experience in US cinema. At the time that it was exhibited at the Leeds International Film Festival that famous epic Gone With the Wind (193) was enjoying yet another re-release. This film is, among other matters, an eloquent rebuff to that film. I wonder how long I will have to wait to see it again at the cinema?

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The Rape of Recy Taylor, USA 2017

Posted by keith1942 on June 22, 2018

The film recounts the rape of a young Afro-American woman and mother in 1944 in Alabama by a gang of white men and her struggle for justice. This was before the period of activism known for ‘The Civil Rights Movement’. Rape of black women, like the lynching of black people, was common in the period dominated by the racist culture called ‘Jim Crow’. Recy’s struggle for justice was supported by National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People [NAACP] and by one of its field officers, Rosa Parks. Parks is famous for her role in the ‘Bus Boycotts’ in the 1950s. But this case was equally important is the development of black resistance to the racism endemic in the USA. The NAACP, committed to constitutional action, was for decades the lead organisation in the struggle for equality for Afro-Americans.

The central event in the film, an assault and rape on the 24 year-old black woman on a Sunday evening as she returned from a church service, is told through the filmed testimony of her family members and audio recordings of Recy herself. The perpetrators were six white teenagers. Though identified the local sheriff contrived to avoid any action. And Recy’s family home was terrorised and there were death threats when she pursued her claim for justice. These testimonies are intercut with contemporary footage, tending to impressionistic, of the settings, in darkness and with travelling shots that suggest a noir, even horror, feel. Alongside this are extracts from documentary film of the period and archive photographs. And as a distinctive addition clips from the ‘race cinema’ of the period and earlier.

The ‘race cinema’ operated from about 1910 to the end of the 1940s. It was a segregated cinema, in its production, distribution and exhibition, not just in the South but across the USA. Whilst it suffered from low production values due the poor economics of the business the films provided a potent experience for black audiences. The films presented black culture in its own estimation, valorised black heroes and heroines, vilified the lumpen proletarian elements in black communities and the racist white communities from which Afro-Americans had suffered. The films dramatised the brutalities and inequalities of US culture in the period, including explicit representation of rapes and lynchings and the real violent face of organisations such as the Ku Klux Klan.

These clips provides a dramatic tapestry into which Recy’s story is implanted. And the film uses virtuoso techniques to increase the drama. There are fine superimpositions of archival footage over the contemporary film. There are montage sequences which interweave, factual and fictionalised renderings. And there is added to this a powerful musical accompaniment of sombre orchestral music and well chosen songs from the Africo-American culture. Some of the characters in the events are now deceased and are voiced by actors. So the film is partly a drama-documentary and shares some formal aspects with the film of Ken Burns and his colleagues.

The film is directed by Nancy Buirski whose previous films include a documentary The Loving Story (2011) and a dramatised treatment Loving (2016) of an inter-racial couple prosecuted for breaking laws against ‘miscegenation’. This new feature falls somewhere in between, a documentary approach but dramatised by particular material and techniques. Buirski scripted the film and skilfully orchestrates the various components. There is excellent contribution in the cinematography by Rex Miller and the film uses drone cinematography to great effect. Also deserving praise is the film editing by Anthony Ripoli; the visual effects by Aaron Hodgins Davis; and the work of the eight crafts-people in the sound department. To this the credits add a long list of researchers who must have combed all sorts of archives and collections as well as tracking down people to be interviewed. The film respects the archive film and materials using their original aspect ratios.

Recy’s family member comment on the issues as well as recounting the events. In the latter stages of the film two contemporary voices add to this analysis: Daniel L. McGuire whose book ‘At the Dark End of the Street: Black Women, Rape and Resistance – a New History of the Civil Rights Movement from Rosa Parks to the Rise of Black Power’ details the whole violent culture which was inflicted on Afro-American women over decades [Published in 2011 the book’s title is taken from a 1960’s song].. And there is Afro-American historian Crystal Feimster. Their contributions place this story in the wider culture of racist violence and black resistance. In particular the film draws out the role of Rosa Parks, a NAACP field officer who took up Recy’s case and worked to develop a widespread protest that reached beyond the black communities. Rosa Parks is more famous for her role in the Montgomery ‘Bus Boycott’, The commentators emphasise how the campaign of support for Recy was an equally important in the development of resistance by black people. They also emphasise how important was the role of black women in the movement, both in the 1940s and the 1950s despite the sometime over-emphasis on iconic male leaders. This argument is convincing but I would have liked more on the struggle in the 1940s. The film refers to one other campaign by another black women who suffered rape but the film implies more.

One difference between the 1940s and 1950s was, that whilst the bus boycott led on toe increase action and results, in Recy’s case despite widespread campaigning she was not able to get a fair trail of her assailants. The first trial was a mockery and subsequently an all-white jury refused indictments. The film does note that in 2011 the Alabama State Legislature passed the following:

“BE IT RESOLVED BY THE LEGISLATURE OF ALABAMA, BOTH HOUSES THEREOF CONCURRING, That we acknowledge the lack of prosecution for crimes committed against Recy Taylor by the government of the State of Alabama, that we declare such failure to act was, and is, morally abhorrent and repugnant, and that we do hereby express profound regret for the role played by the government of the State of Alabama in failing to prosecute the crimes.

BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED, That we express our deepest sympathies and solemn regrets to Recy Taylor and her family and friends.”

Apart from the long and insulting delay the film, at this point, also includes interviews with white residents from Abbeville. They are aware of the events but are not really prepared to condemn them or offer praise for Recy’s struggle for justice. But we do see her, old and infirm, [in a residential home I think}, and she remains as resolute as she must have been in 1944. She died late in 2017. It seems unlikely that she would have seen this film’ tribute to her courage and resilience.

This films uses a complex mixture of personal film and audio testimonies, commentary and archive material. The latter includes a clip from the films of Oscar Micheaux whose work was a central component of the ‘race cinema’, segregated film production and exhibition in the USA from the 1910s to the 1940s.

This promises to be a powerful and stimulating documentary on issues that, as the news constantly reminds us, remains a central problematic in US culture. What would be good would be if we could have a follow-up of a screening of one of Oscar Micheaux’s powerful film dramas: Within Our Gates (1920) is a classic that addresses both rape and lynchings of black people.

Posted in Documentary, History on film, US films | Tagged: , | Leave a Comment »