Tuesday, March 31, 2009

A good week to be black and a cinephile

That I am so over-joyed about my weekend TV and movie viewing is probably a bad thing. It is a reflection of the fact that, even in 2009, there is a dearth of really, good cinematic art about black people. I chose the words "cinematic art" carefully, because I am emphatically NOT talking about any television sitcom or movie with Tyler Perry attached to it. Yes, there are black people on the big and small screen, but how often does the camera really love us? How often does the writing betray a respect and understanding for us? How often do you find a film or TV show that illustrates the nuances of our cultures, rather than play to broad stereotypes?

"A Good Day to be Black and Sexy," directed by Dennis Dortch, is a movie that loves black people. You can just tell by the way the camera glides over the amber, brown and mahogany skin of the protagonists; how the light dances on the kinky afro of one actress as she writhes atop her man; how the dialogue casually captures the banter between black men and black women. I loved this. Loved to see black folks making love (and war) on screen.

The film, which debuted at Sundance last year, is a compilation of short stories about young, black, urban people wrestling with the complications of sex and romance, or as Variety puts it: "navigating the four-lane jam-up of the heterosexual highway, dodging a collision here, pulling off onto the shoulder there." There is a couple in the midst of a late-night argument over sexual reciprocity. She got hers. He wants his. Mistress Helena wants respect; unfaithful spouse D'Andre just wants something easy on the side; his wife wants him to answer his cell phone. Candi wants her lover to try something a little different. Tamala spends her birthday first with a "play brother" whose sweet talk turns to anger and aggression when she refuses him; then with the handsome real brother of a friend, who seems to tenderly appreciate her.

The pacing of "A Good Day to be Black and Sexy" is good. The actors devine. The stories are short but engrossing. What's the bad?

Well, as much as I enjoyed seeing black intimacy portrayed in "A Good Day to be Black and Sexy," I found myself annoyed that the stories presented were so fraught. Black love is so often presented as dysfunctional and extra challenging. Among the selfish lovers and baby mamas and sexually aggressive suitors and cheating spouses, couldn't the movie have given us one black couple who just loved each other? But that's a lot of weight to put on a black filmmaker. I didn't criticize "Closer" that way, when it showcased mad dysfunction among white couples. The vignettes in this film felt realistic, drawn from reality not simplistic beliefs about how black men and women relate. I can't charge one artist with running PR advance for the black race.

One criticism I will stand by involves the film's final story. Jesse, a young black man, is trapped in the bedroom of his girlfried, Emily, who is Chinese. It seems Emily's parents and younger sister have unexpectedly shown up for an impromptu dinner. As we listen to the Li family talk, we learn that while Emily's parents might settle for a white boyfriend "with blond hair and blue eyes," a black boyfriend...not so much. The storyline is interesting. The interaction between Jesse and Emily is fun. The random kung fu movie music and sound effects that accompany the story are...disturbing. For a film that rescues black folks from romantic marginalization to make the gaffe of marginalizing another group is disappointing. The film deserved better.

"A Good Day to be Black and Sexy" is available on DVD and Netflix instant viewing. You can buy the film through the Amazon widget at right.

Don't forget the interview with Dennis Dortch on Black Cinema at Large.

[How rare is it to see black folks loving each other on screen? So rare that reviewers don't know how to properly talk about the black sexuality in the film. "A Good Day to Be Black and Sexy" is sensuous, but not at all graphic. Nevertheless, The Hollywood Reporter, which liked the film, calls it "raunchy" (and also manages to write "dog" as "dawg" and refer to Emily's "yen" for a black, basketball player). Variety (above) refers to a "blaxsploitation corridor of sin" Apparently, just being black and sexy makes everything extra salacious.]

"The No. 1 Ladies' Dectective Agency" (HBO, Sundays at 9 p.m. ET) is not about the sexy, but it is about black people, featured in a way that we rarely see ourselves. How to explain...Imagine the charm of "Murder She Wrote's" Cabot Cove or one the little English villages of a Miss Marple mystery, you know--quirky characters, endearing local habits, mysteries solved by hunches and intuition. Now move all that to Botswana with an all-black cast. See what I mean?
Based on the popular book series by Alexander McCall Smith, the show has quite a pedigree:
The pilot (which debuted on the BBC in 2008) is the last film directed by Anthony Minghella ('Cold Mountain,' Best Director Oscar® for 'The English Patient'), who co-wrote its script with Richard Curtis (Oscar® nominee for 'Four Weddings and a Funeral,' Emmy® winner for HBO's 'The Girl in the CafĂ©'). The pilot was produced by the late Sydney Pollack (Oscar®-winning director of 'Out of Africa' and 'Tootsie'), Timothy Bricknell ('Cold Mountain') and Amy J. Moore. Read more...
The six-part series, which debuted with a two-hour premiere last Sunday, follows Mma Precious Ramotswe (played by the always-luminous Jill Scott):
As a young girl growing up in the African nation of Botswana, Precious Ramotswe was encouraged by her father to follow her dreams, no matter what. Now in her mid-30s, Precious is doing just that — by opening her country's first and only female-owned detective agency for the benefit of those who need help the most.
Like McCall's novels, the series chronicles the adventures of Precious Ramotswe (Jill Scott), the cheerful, eminently sensible proprietor of The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency, located in the Kgale Hill Shopping Center on the outskirts of Gaborone. Aided by her efficient yet high-strung secretary Grace Makutsi (Anika Noni Rose), Precious investigates a variety of cases, helping townspeople solve mysteries in their lives, from missing children to philandering husbands to con-artist scams.
I'm a sucker for an old-fashioned detective shows--light on gore and forensics; heavy on pluckiness and eccentricity. So, it was a given that I would like this. But it is rare that I watch a two-hour premiere twice, which I did in this case. The series just feels so joyous and celebratory of life. Sweet. I know these words don't usually describe HBO series. Don't think that "The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency" isn't groundbreaking. It is, with its all-black cast and filming on location in Botswana.
Here again is a piece of cinema that seems to love black people, and even more rare, Africa. The show follows people through the every day of their lives (going to the club, teaching school, drumming up clients for a new endeavour, burying their dead). These characters have agency and lives and wants and needs. This is not the Africa that we are often shown--an Africa that is monolithic (not 53 countries and myriad peoples), an Africa of famine and war and disease, where nothing good has ever happened, except maybe in Egypt (and even then, only back in the days of the pharoahs). Plenty of bad things happen in Africa, but plenty of good things do too. That is hard for some to grasp. I have caught several reviews that ponder whether the show should be more realistic, spending more time talking about AIDs and other ills. Odd. Rarely is this argument made about shows set in America. A few people around the Web, who have spent time in Botswana, shared that HBO's new series does capture the essence of the place quite well. Perhaps we simply have a hard time believing that people can by happy on "The Dark Continent."
Besides the political, watch this show for unique cases detective Ramotswe tackles, the great acting by Scott, Anika Noni Rose, Desmond Dube and Lucien Msamati; eye candy in the form of Idris Elba; and great ideas on natural hair adornment. (I am totally buying some bright, printed fabric and making some wraps to frame my 'fro like Precious does).
Between my discovery of "A Good Day to be Black and Sexy" and the debut of "No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency," this week is truly a good week to be black and a cinephile.


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