How’s this for an understatement? Movies made by African-American filmmakers tend to carry undercurrents of rage.
The understated part, of course, is this: Often, there’s a distinctly palpable rage expressed in the work of black filmmakers, ranging from Melvin Van Peebles to Spike Lee.
In both the blaxpoitation films of the 1970s (“Shaft,” “Foxy Brown,” “Superfly,” etc.) to more contemporary studies of American black life (“Do the Right Thing,” “Poetic Justice,” “Dead Presidents,” etc.), rage invests every frame with heat.
The whys of this are easy to understand. Long-held grievances, the same grievances that can be found on virtually every page of American history - even if you sometimes have to read between the lines - act like untreated wounds.
As reactions to sins past and present, they’re more likely to fester than simply heal over.
New black cinema (and theater and literature and music and so on) feels, in many cases, like the first necessary step toward a hoped-for healing. It amounts to a draining of the emotional poison that rage merely fuels.
Art can come from this process, and often it does. And yet so does the chance for understanding.
But is rage all there is to black America? Isn’t there more to the black experience than just stories about crack babies, about drug dealers, about overt racism, about street gangs, about drive-by shootings? The answers, respectively, are yes and of course.
When he directed his version of Richard Price’s drug-dealer-themed novel “Clockers,” Spike Lee spoke directly to this. He said he was intentionally attempting to kill off a whole film genre.
“I didn’t want to do a black gangster, hip-hop, shoot-‘em-up, in-the-drug genre,” Lee said at the time. “Myself and movie audiences are becoming fatigued with the drug movie. It’s time for it to die.”
Lee’s hope hasn’t come true. But maybe his concerns have had some effect. If nothing else, Lee might have made it easier for Theodore Witcher to bring his movie “Love Jones” to the big screen.
“Love Jones,” which never played Spokane but is available this week on video, is a pleasant change of pace.
It’s refreshing in that it is a romantic tale about love/lust and commitment among a group of prosperous, ambitious and twentysomething African-Americans. While this is serious cinema, in that it attempts to look at the angst of life as lived by its characters, you won’t find a hypodermic, a Glock 9mm or a teen pregnancy anywhere.
The plotline is simple: Darius (Larenz Tate) is an aspiring writer who, while reciting some of his poetry in a nightclub, tries to impress the beautiful Nina (Nia Long). He does, though it takes awhile for them to fully click.
And, really, “Love Jones” concerns nothing more than that - allowing a personal relationship to work in the face of demands created by work, friendships and the continual lure of other ready, able and utterly willing warm bodies.
The film dwells on its central characters, and on their struggles, but it also gives voice to a cast of secondary performers who, in their interaction, provide the kind of commentary to which, Spike Lee at least, tends to overly draw attention (see “Jungle Fever”).
My only real complaint with the film is Tate, whose voice and presence (until he takes off his shirt) doesn’t seem commanding enough to attract someone like Long. But that’s merely a quibble.
Ultimately, “Love Jones” is no great work of art. Its strength is its writer/director’s insistence on sticking to a reality that, while common, is not one that most studios would consider likely to attract a wide audience.
Since it never opened in a Spokane theater, it’s hard to argue with their business decision.
*** Rated R
The week’s other major release:
John Singleton (“Boyz N the Hood”) directs this story of the real-life massacre of an African-American town that occurred in 1923 Florida. Much of what Singleton does reflects his growing ability as a visual storyteller, and he deserves credit for even attempting to tell the story of another shameful episode in American history. But in attempting to make his point, Singleton doesn’t let the inherent power of the story carry the film. He invests too much symbolic weight in a fictional character, aptly named Mr. Mann, and the silly touches at the end (a gun barrel saves the day!) don’t do justice to the real-life event nor to the survivors, some of whom are still alive. Rated R
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