THIS FALL, FILM SEEKS TO PEER INTO THE SOULS OF BLACK FOLKS
By T.T. Stern-Enzi
For those unfamiliar with the complexities behind the production and release schedules of films, this fall will appear like a concerted effort by Hollywood to address the damning concerns raised during last year’s awards season, in particular the #OscarsSoWhite campaign. The dearth of nominations for people of color felt like a return to the unenlightened days before the historic gains of the aughts. No ethical person or contemporary system in our democratic society wants to be seen as lacking in diversity or, worse yet, racist, so when the alarm bells start ringing, swift steps must be taken to right the perceived wrongs, am I right?
Well, let’s get something straight. As a new crop of films features a wide range of African-American experiences, let us not think that the system can correct itself this quickly. These projects were in gestation long before the perceived snubs of would-be contenders like “Selma” and “Beasts of No Nation” by the golden boy of Hollywood. Nor does this spate of films guarantee that the Oscars won’t turn a blind eye towards works like these this year, but as I vociferously argued a little over a year ago, at least we have more potentially award worthy films heading into the season.
Starting things off as a late summer treat moreso than a real fall prestige main course is writer-director Richard Tanne’s “Southside With You,” which lovingly details the first date between the highly motivated Michelle Robinson (Tika Sumpter) and a loveably thoughtful, chain-smoking community organizer named Barack Obama (Parker Sawyers). Tanne takes us back to the summer of 1989 when Janet Jackson cooed over funky Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis-produced soundscapes and the media was concerned about the potential for Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing” to lead to rioting in the streets.
What matters, though, is the initially contentious bickering between our future first lady and the man who would become the first African-American president of these United States, and the film wisely downplays the cute factor of our knowledge of the inevitable. At its core, “Southside With You” simply lets us get to know these two characters as they are in this moment, and the real credit here belongs to Sumpter, who takes command of the screen just like we imagine Michelle Obama does in every facet of her life today as first lady.
It appears now that no film will have a more fraught run through the fall than Nate Parker’s “The Birth of a Nation.” Having burst out of the Sundance Film Festival gate with a historic purchase by Fox Searchlight and claiming top prizes along the way, this labor of love about the revolutionary slave uprising led by Nat Turner (Parker) was posed to be an Oscar favorite, but revelations concerning rape allegations against Parker and his screenwriting partner Jean McGianni Celestin (when they were Penn State students back in 1999) have divided the nation, before many have even had the chance to set eyes on the film.
As an African-American critic, I must admit to my own divided mind about “The Birth of a Nation” on the eve of its still-scheduled unspooling at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), just a few short weeks away. Can I watch the film and judge it as a creative work beyond the context of Parker’s heinous personal history? Should I? I wonder if Fox Searchlight might not ultimately end up taking the film out of contention, which would be another sad defeat.
On a more hopeful front, I have taken to social media to trumpet the return of director Barry Jenkins to the big screen as he follows up his indie gem “Medicine for Melancholy” (a wonderful morning after a one-night stand focusing on an African-American couple in San Francisco) with “Moonlight,” a three-part exploration of black masculinity through the lens of urban life and homophobia in Miami. Jenkins film seeks to lay bare issues of homophobia with startling intimacy and stands now as my personal must-see at TIFF.
Potentially bookending the season, it looks like Denzel Washington will finally get around to presenting “Fences,” the first adaptation of celebrated playwright August Wilson’s epic vision of the African-American experience across 10 decades. Washington earned acclaim for his stage appearance in this Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award-winning work, and he re-teams with his Broadway revival leading lady Viola Davis for this feature adaptation about a black patriarch struggling with race relations in the 1950s.
I don’t know about anyone else, but I am looking forward to these reflections and the host of others that will likely start a different and much-needed critical discussion about what it means to be American during this year’s awards and political seasons.