Black on Black

When the late John Singleton, who passed away a week ago after battling a series of strokes, directed his first feature film, Boyz n the Hood, thus becoming the first African-American director to be nominated for an Oscar and the youngest nominee (24 years old – 22 at the time the film was shot!) in that category in the history of the prestigious awards ceremony, the public was caught off guard. It was 1991. Los Angeles was soon to become a dystopian war-zone following the 1992 Rodney King riots. LA was in the spotlight, for the wrong reasons, and here he was, a young, black film director from the streets, making a voice for himself and giving voice to those that had not had the right to have one up to that point.
It is important to keep in mind, that almost 3000 miles away, in the far away city of New York, there already was a young, black film student turned director shaking things up. His name was Spike Lee, but Spike, unlike Singleton, was interested in many things simultaneously, and often his work was filled with rage, stereotypes, regret, and most importantly, thematically it was all over the place, thus making it difficult for most everyday audiences to really grasp the world Spike was presenting to them. Do the Right Thing was Spike’s major hit, but its ferociousness, its in-your-face attitude made it somewhat inaccessible for its time. On the other hand, Boyz n the Hood, Singleton’s entry ticket to Hollywood, was easier to digest, like a personal diary made available to everyone. And that is what I want to focus on: how John Singleton made the black experience of growing up in South Central Los Angeles accessible to audiences.

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Young black men out to change the world. From left to right: John Singleton, Cuba Gooding Jr, Ice Cube and Morris Chestnut.

The black experience in the East Coast had been covered in great detail in crime dramas often disguised as blaxploitation films going all the way back to the 70s, when all of a sudden films that would normally be told from a white perspective were taken apart and reconstructed from the angle of a minority. Films like Coffy or Shaft introduced to worldwide audiences proud members of the black film community such as Pam Grier, Gordon Parks and Richard Roundtree that went on to become cult figures in the genre. But, unfortunately, that’s all it was – a genre. And as fun and enjoyable as they were, such films, neatly wrapped in style and action, often failed to convey a larger message about the actual circumstances these characters found themselves in.
Thus, by the end of the 80s, when producers started to take more chances on cheaper, independent films over blockbusters, younger talent emerged – film students from a minority, a marginalized community, like John Singleton that had stories to tell, who insisted on these stories to be told truthfully, were finally offered a chance. This meant only John Singleton could direct Boyz n the Hood, a hood film about a group of young men growing up in South Central LA, a territory infested with drugs, violence, police brutality and street gangs. It was time to shine a light on the black experience in the West Coast, where slowly but surely, black culture was starting to emerge from the ashes mostly through rap music with artists such as NWA and Tupac leading the way.
In one of the first scenes of the movie, Singleton makes the perfect introduction as a black filmmaker; Tre Styles, our protagonist, at this point an 11-year-old boy, after showing boredom and making unnecessary remarks in class, is challenged by his teacher, a pretty white redhead, to stand up in front of the classroom and conduct his own lecture. Young Tre without a second thought rises to his feet and proceeds to walk up to a big world map. He points to the African continent and says ”This is where y’all are from. Where everybody’s from.” The class is in shock. What is this kid talking about? We’re not from Africa, we’re from South Central. Singleton immediately turns the tables around and proves to be in the driver’s seat. This scene is his announcement that the movie that you’re watching is not meant to be watched while munching on popcorn – it is meant to be seen with an understanding, because you might learn something new, something challenging that you, just like the teacher and the rest of the classroom, did not see coming.

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Kids confronted with a bloody reality.

Another aspect that makes Boyz n the Hood accessible is its simplicity in storytelling and the way Singleton uses as a clear reference point Rob Reiner’s hit movie from 1986, Stand by Me, only this time, the director turns the story of four socially-marginalized kids from white-washed Oregon into the story of four black boys from South Central. In Stand by Me the turning point takes place when one of the boys asks, ”You guys wanna go see a dead body?” and the frightened gang follows the friend to the where the body is hidden. In this case, the dead body represents a secret, and a deadly one too, as it is not supposed to be revealed to anyone because then the killer might come out of hiding.
In Boyz, however, when one of the boys, Dooky, asks ”Y’all wanna see a dead body?” the others casually reply ”Yeah. Okay.” When the bullet-riddled, blood-soaked body is revealed to them, they impassively look at it, with the only remark being that it stinks. Here, a victim of a gang shooting is a trivial object, like a souvenir taken from the local context of South Central. The sight of it, even for boys aged 11 or 12, is nothing remarkable. It doesn’t evoke any feelings besides physical disgust. A dead body, unlike in Stand by Me, is no mystery, and this is the first sign of Singleton taking matters into his own hands; he introduces a brand new way of seeing things, as if to say, ”I’m supposed to feel sorry for a bullet-riddled corpse? I’ve seen worse.”

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Out to conquer the world.

After its opening act where the characters are introduced at a young age, the film skips to seven years later, when the boys are in their late teens, and by that time, in South Central you’re expected to be a man, have a family, put bread on the table and act like a grown up. And while a director like Spike Lee is more interested in the flavor and oddity of each character, Singleton’s priority as a director is to tell a story. Most of the characters that are in Boyz resemble each other in many ways; they all have similar backgrounds, fears, regrets, but above all, they all have one goal in common – to get out of there.
Because while Spike’s Brooklyn is a place where the characters feel at home despite many threatening factors such as neighboring gangs and ”nigger-hating” police officers roaming the streets, Singleton’s LA (ranging from South Central to Compton) is a hellhole that everyone wants to run away from. Even the most basic, primitive characters such as Doughboy (wonderfully played by a young Ice Cube) have as their dream neither gangbanging, nor drinking ’till late, nor screwing the most beautiful girls in the area; their dream is to be better, to the point that they can fly out of a place where, as the opening line to the movie states ONE OUT OF EVERY TWENTY-ONE BLACK AMERICAN MALES WILL BE MURDERED IN THEIR LIFETIME. MOST WILL DIE AT HE HANDS OF ANOTHER BLACK MALE. Singleton’s characters are simple and easy to understand, driven by the same thirst to elevate themselves above life-threatening mediocrity.

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Danger around the corner.

Finally, Singleton’s real secret in telling this personal journey of growing up in a tough environment is his understanding of what a general audience wants in a way that will allow him to keep their attention all the way through. In other words, Singleton, unlike Spike Lee (who, lets be honest, loved to light firecrackers in people’s faces with his thought-provoking, twisted and controversial films) at the age of 22, knew exactly how to make a conventional movie, one that despite its difficult subject matter would not stir controversy but welcome viewers with open arms, broadening their vision of what it meant to really struggle in marginalized working class America.
Singleton many times argued that to him Boyz was structured like a Western, meaning it was structured like the oldest tale in the book – a tale filled with moral dilemmas, life lessons and dramatic turns that will lead to an inevitable end. Boyz does just that, with the bandits being the gangbangers that go looking for trouble as they cruise down the street and police officers making death threats to common citizens, the cowboys being the young protagonists desperately trying to take care of their loved ones and protect them from the bandits, and the wise sheriff, who in this case is represented by Tre’s father, Furious (a fantastic Laurence Fishburne), a man who watches over the neighborhood and has come to accept one absolute truth: that African-Americans need to stick together and be aware of their strength as a unit, rather than their strength as individuals.

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Under a father’s supervision.

In most Westerns, the cowboys eventually have to accept their darker survival instincts if they want to defeat the bandits, yet in Boyz Singleton desperately fights this convention, ultimately making his characters suffer and choose different approaches in dealing with the same nagging problem, which is the burden of life in the neighborhood. The question whether a cowboy will become a bandit depends on many factors, and Singleton makes sure to highlight each one of them: love and supervision from relatives, education, a balanced sense of justice, one’s own values and priorities. Like any good director, or artist for that matter, Singleton does not try to put all of his eggs in one basket; instead he makes sure to truthfully depict the many faces of South Central and the many ways one can go about living one’s life in such awful circumstances. This may seem like the obvious thing to do, but numerous movies that thematically tackle street life, street crime and the margins of any society prefer to take the easy way out and put the blame on the system, on a higher power, on the evil eye that watches over us. In Boyz, the 22-year-old film director doesn’t follow suit: he furiously rows up against the stream because the story deserves to be told the right way.
After the movie’s incredible financial and critical success, Singleton’s career did not take off the way everyone imagined. The films he went on to make, from the likes of street melodramas like Poetic Justice to mindless blockbusters like 2 Fast 2 Furious, did not reflect his incredible skill as a director and storyteller, but that is even more of a reason to celebrate the nature of Boyz n the Hood, a hood film that allowed audiences from all over the world to truly grasp a (small) part of the black experience in modern-day America.

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At the end of the day, we’re all looking for the same thing.
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Real Lonely

Last time around I talked about Michael Mann (here) I focused on the Chicago native’s ability to entertain audiences with the sheer brilliance of his visual style. What I didn’t do, and what I plan on doing now, upon concluding a marathon of his entire filmography (starting from his 1981 directorial debut, Thief, and ending with his recent misfire about the hacking underworld, Blackhat), is to have a look at what really lies at the core of the director’s body of work. We all know and love him for his memorable camerawork, his hyper realistic shootouts resulting in some of the best sound design to ever grace the silver screen, his ability to capture the beauty of big cities at night, be it Miami, Los Angeles or Chicago, and his overall rediscovery of the crime genre. Yet, oddly enough, when asked about this idea of his films belonging to the crime genre, Mann answered coldly ”I don’t make genre films, I make dramas,” which is a valid response considering his films, if studied closely, are all about relationships and love. That’s it.

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A filmmaker who is definitely not afraid to get his hands dirty.

Relationships are hard to define, and most of the time cinema, especially Hollywood productions, have a hard time creating convincing, realistic portrayals of two people interacting with each other in an intimate way. How many times do we hear an audience member walk out of a film saying ”Yeah, I just didn’t buy that whole love story” or ”That was okay, I just wish there was more to A and B’s relationship, you know?” Better yet, how many times have we seen in the last decade or so, films that made us truly care about characters’ relationships? Very few, I’d say. And that’s why Mann is a fascinating director to watch; most of his films are considered macho features, male-oriented with male protagonists that are either on the good or the bad side of the law, cops and robbers, vigilantes and crooks, honest workers and corrupt yes-men. At first sight, female characters are few and their screen time is considerably limited compared to their male counterparts. However, their importance is priceless. One could even go as far as to say Mann’s male characters depend on women. Without these women, Mann’s protagonists have nothing going for them.
Let’s start with Thief, the story about a jewel thief who gets into trouble with a mob boss, where Frank (a post Godfather Jimmy Caan) is desperately trying to make sense of his own life. Amidst all the violence, all the robbing, all the swearing and drinking, there is a very tender story about a man who, raised as an orphan, uneducated, an ex-convict, wants to have something to show for his own existence. When he’s not stealing diamonds, he’s busy chasing Jessie, a young, timid restaurant clerk. Soon, Frank builds his whole life around his wife and child and they become the focal point of the movie itself. In other words, what initially set out to be a stone-cold crime flick about a man who finds himself in a tight spot slowly turns into a story about a man and his family, his everything, who must escape the violent reality they live in. Jessie is Frank’s ticket to safety, proof that there is something truly worth fighting for.

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Frank desperately fighting the system for the sake of his family.

Skip to Manhunter, 1986, where the protagonist is a straight arrow, a former FBI man, Will Graham, whose life has been a mess ever since he caught the most dangerous criminal in recent history – Dr. Hannibal Lecktor. Here, Mann places his protagonist in a spot where he is forced to walk a fine line between being the antagonist, as his method of investigation is based on getting inside the mind of psychopaths and serial killers (which eventually resulted in him ending up in the psych ward for some time), and that of a hero, hailed by newspapers as the man who stopped Lecktor and looked upon by his son as this imposing, admirable father figure. Manhunter is thriller 101, the precursor to every other major bloody Hollywood flick (think Silence of the LambsSe7en or even Gone Girl), mainly due to the fact it is very much aware of what makes tragedy worth caring about; Will’s job is likely to put his family at risk, as his wife keeps telling him to back off and to not get involved with another serial killer case; he eventually soon becomes responsible for the fate of his loved ones. In other words, his family and his relationship with his wife is the only link that separates the investigator from total insanity, resulting in the following tagline ”Enter the mind of a serial killer… you may never come back.”  It is not a coincidence that at the start of the film we see Graham, along with his son, build a wire fence around a spot on the beach where turtle eggs have been laid; the film is more about the constant anxiety of protecting our dear ones than it is about catching some psycho killer as one would deduce by reading the movie’s premise.

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At the end of the day, it is all about coming back home.

In 1995 Mann made arguably his greatest film to date, his magnum opus, Heat, where the lives of a bank robber and a cop chasing him get intertwined.  What follows is a legendary game of cat and mouse, of shootouts, action and violence, but at the core of it there’s the element of relationships all over again. Love as the ultimate downfall and salvation. It is difficult to talk about this movie as every time I rewatch it I notice something different, things seem to align in a new, fresh way each time I press play. The premise to Heat is the famous quote ”Don’t let yourself get attached to anything you are not willing to walk out on in 30 seconds flat if you feel the heat around the corner,” with most of the characters ultimately fighting off this strict mantra, their feelings clashing with their profession, be it that of the criminal whose duty it is to leave everything behind once the cops start chasing you, or the policeman whose duty it is to leave everything behind once the chase is on.  After all, when I think of love in Michael Mann’s Heat, I think of two relationships; Val Kilmer and Ashley Judd’s and Al Pacino’s and Diane Venora’s. Both relationships are troubled for different reasons. Val Kilmer’s character is a bank robber who ends up losing all the money he makes gambling in Las Vegas and Reno, while Ashley Judd’s character is an ex-call girl turned housewife who wants some stability in her young, newly wed life. There is a tragic disconnect between the two, with Kilmer admitting to De Niro’s character ”The sun rises and sets with her, man,” when asked if he’d be able to cut off ties with her if the situation required it. The two want to make things work, at all costs, but they don’t have the right ingredients. They want to be better, but they can’t. Or simply don’t know how.

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Two young lovers trying to make it work…

On the other side of the spectrum, there is an entirely different level of disconnect. Al Pacino’s character, Vincent Hanna, is at his third marriage, and this one is going bad too because again, he cannot seem to get through to his wife. His work absorbs him, sucks him dry, and his wife does not accept this. The two of them, unlike Kilmer and Judd’s young couple, are both starting to face the fact that things will most likely never work out; both are moving on in years, both are unable to function like normal human beings (she’s high on prescription drugs all the time, while he’s addicted to the sound of his work beeper) and both seem reluctant to face this problem together, as a couple. Incompetent when it comes to family matters, Al Pacino’s Hanna is convinced that relationships are nothing more but a burden in a man’s life and yet, at the same time, he keeps coming back to them. In the celebrated diner scene where Hanna and Neil (De Niro) meet for the first time, Pacino admits ”My life’s a disaster zone. I got a stepdaughter so fucked up because her real father’s this large-type asshole. I got a wife, we’re passing each other on the down-slope of a marriage – my third – because I spend all my time chasing guys like you around the block. That’s my life.” Once again, like in Mann’s previous works, what is at stake is not money, fame, success or anything of the sort; it’s the relationship. Each character seems to do everything for the sake of saving/maintaining a relationship. if you get killed running out of a bank, you won’t see your wife again. Same thing happens if a bad guy puts one in your brain. Love, once again, is a man’s downfall and simultaneously, his only salvation.

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…two older lovers failing to make it work.

The final two movies I want to mention are Mann’s ode to machismo and action cinema, namely his remake of the original television series, Miami Vice and his quite recent venture into gangster territory, Public Enemies. In the formal we witness as Crockett, an undercover police detective, flirts with a woman from the other side of the fence, an accountant for the number one drug kingpin of Miami that Crockett happens to be investigating. In the latter film, John Dillinger, America’s most notorious bank robber of the 30s, afraid of getting killed with nothing to show for his own life (just like Frank in Thief) gets involved with a young desk clerk, Billie Frechette (Marion Cotillard). Both films, although dealing with opposite sides of the law, show two desperate men trying to find comfort in love. One objective. Whether it is because the world has gotten too violent (as Crockett witnesses one killing too many)…

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Toying with the enemy.

…or too modern (as Dillinger is faced with a new reality where robbing banks is a thing from the past), love, and relationships yet again come into play and slowly but surely become the focal points and the dramatic anchors of both films. Both relationships are daring,  life and death situations but somehow, our protagonists, one being a smart, perhaps the smartest undercover cop in all of Florida, and the other being the smartest bank robber at the time, are willing to take a huge risk by potentially compromising their ‘business’ with something as fragile as a relationship with someone they barely know anything about. And yet… and yet somehow it all makes sense, because Mann knows how to sell it; love becomes an indispensable element of each protagonist’s arch, as it can lead to many things; failure, exposure, damaged reputation or even, as in Dillinger’s case, death. It all comes to full circle, and at the end of the day, the sun rises and sets with her.

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Bye, bye, blackbird.

The Gaze

Today I want to talk about the act of looking in film. Looking is perhaps the simplest activity one can do. You just open your eyes, and that’s it – you’re looking. When we see a movie we look at the screen, we look at the characters, we look at the story unfold.
One thing about looking in film is that we often confuse the act of looking with the act of witnessing something. A lot of movies nowadays feel extremely distant, and not because of their plots or the narrative they use, but because they aim to tell a story without needing the participation of the viewer. Witnessing a movie means trying to figure out what’s going on. Usually when people get into an argument on screen we feel detached from their reality. We feel like a bunch of intruders walking into the lives of those strange people. We’re clearly unwanted.
Then there is looking, and looking, if done right, can be the epitome of a true cinematic experience. When we look at a film, at a story, at a moving frame, we’re not viewers anymore. We’re more than that. We’re participants. That is why today I chose Jean-Pierre Melville’s brilliant crime film from 1970, Le Cercle Rouge, to try and make an argument about the importance of the act of looking.

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Looking as a key to everything you could ever wish for.

Le Cercle Rouge could be considered by the average viewer a typical crime film with the policeman chasing the bad guys, but trust me. It is more than what’s on the surface. The film’s cast is pure French acting royalty: Alain Delon, Yves Montand, Gian Maria Volonte and Andre Bourvil. And the remarkable thing about this cast of actors is that their chemistry does not get in the way of the story. It is not underwhelming and at the same time it is far from overwhelming. They are just there. Doing what they’re paid to do.
However, what stands out the most about these actors is their capability of looking at each other and conveying a thought just with the use of the simple act of looking. When Delon looks at the camera we get reassurance and inner peace.  When Montand looks at a mirror we get insecurity and error. When it is Volonte’s turn we get wit and perseverance. And at last, when Bourvil confronts us with his eyes we get compassion and arrogance.
This film (much like the rest of Melville’s filmography) is mostly based on the physicality of the action that takes place in the unfolding of the story. Le Cercle Rouge has in fact a simple plot, very little dialogue and whenever a character says something, the sentences are very robotic, characterized by quick rhythm and low intonation. Most secondary characters that appear in this movie have very little to say but an awful lot to do: they engage in gunfights, beatings, car chases and manhunts. Melville does not care about character development or inspirational speeches made during the last five minutes. No. What he does care about is telling a story through the use of movement captured on camera. His attention to detail is perhaps only matched by the likes of Bresson and Hitchcock.

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Is there any difference between the power of a cold look and a pointed gun?

In order to present the following scene I’ll just set it up nicely for those of you have yet to watch the film. The three robbers are planning to steal huge amounts of jewelry and diamonds and sell them on the black market to a trusted buyer.  The heist is to take place in a security covered building where every inch of the area is being monitored by cameras, wires and motion detectors. The jewels are hidden inside bulletproof glass vaults. The heist sequence is in theory very basic, but the way Melville manages to sell it to us is remarkable. There is no dialogue for the entire 25 minutes.
Clearly inspired by its French noir predecessor, Rififi, and its earlier Hollywood take, The Asphalt Jungle, Melville’s crime thriller observes the heist taking place not from the perspective of a random bystander or witness (something usually found in the Bourne Trilogy or even in a movie like Captain Phillips) but rather with the eyes of the camera hidden in the far corner of the room.
The lack of any major sound or music during this sequence not only helps in making the action seem smoother and more realistic but it also serves to heighten the tension of each step one of the three robbers take in order to get to the jewels. Each movement comes at a price and as you wait for something bad to happen, Melville drags you into his world by making you observe what most of us would usually consider to be boring, uneventful and uninteresting. It is the simplicity of what you see that makes this entire watch incredibly special and unlike anything you’ll encounter in most crime thrillers of Hollywood production.

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The three robbers in their own little worlds.

Another topic I want to cover is the way the characters interact with one another. Most scenes include only one or two of the main characters together, separating each storyline and creating a sense of alienation within the criminal underworld these characters belong to. Alain Delon’s Corey is the one character we get to observe the most. Delon’s on-screen presence is very demanding and the attention he brings to himself even in scenes where he meets other characters, such as fellow gangsters or mob bosses, is the trademark of this movie. It seems as if he’s always capable of transmitting a certain sense of hostility with little to no effort. When he teams up with Volonte and Montand’s characters, he behaves just as he did when he acted on his own. His dead-pan expression turns the observer into the observed. While the remaining characters often face mirrors and reflections of themselves, and usually they reflect upon the sight of it, Delon is the one who faces the camera more frequently than anybody else without even blinking an eye. As much as we get to look at him we really don’t know if he’s good or bad, or if we should even be rooting for him at all. His gaze is a challenge to the viewer, a pit-stop on the 2h20 long journey this movie has to offer.
Each character we meet on this journey is unaffected by the people around him. What I mean is, the environment does not offer any kind of change. The environment, similarly to the characters, is just there, because it has to be there. There is no sense of palpable change, the atmosphere is the same all the way through and that is perhaps due to the fact that Melville insists on making his viewers pay attention to the physical, material details, rather than the abstract, the spiritual.
It is safe to say that this movie is one of the ‘manliest’ movies ever made because of how well structured it is and simultaneously stripped of any useless (in Melville’s opinion) cinematic layers such as plot, character development and a conclusion.

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The challenge.

The act of looking is a deadly weapon. You see the right things and you immediately have the upper hand. Melville says, ‘Trust me.’

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Who’s got the upper hand now?