Samuel L. Jackson

I Am Not Your Negro

Politics are an inescapable aspect of our lives, now more than ever. It would be rather difficult not to have an opinion on any number of prevailing issues. Therefore, when celebrities weigh in on social and political topics, I don’t begrudge them their opinion. The collective public response is often an admonishment to “stay out of politics” or “stick to acting,” etc., but do art and politics mix? I Am Not Your Negro answers yes, and quite beautifully.

James Baldwin – for the uninitiated – was a 20th century luminary noted for his writings and political activism. He rose to prominence in the 1950’s, espousing a political consciousness that captivated the White intelligentsia and paragons of Black history alike. Baldwin did not separate artistry from politics; they were part and parcel of his very being. I Am Not Your Negro begins with Samuel L. Jackson’s resonant baritone, his familiar voice a befitting conduit for Baldwin’s poignant musings. Awash in color, the film had an uncommon beauty not typically found in documentaries. Its rich aesthetic was a provocative contradiction of the brutality it depicted, as the film highlights the abject cruelty of a not-so bygone era.

Baldwin’s consciousness was awakened on foreign soil, as he observed the violence visited upon Black Americans from afar while living in France. Disenchanted with a racist America, he’d long since fled to Paris where he found the same artistic refuge as fellow wayward expatriates Josephine Baker and Nina Simone. While he missed nothing about America, he longed for his mother and siblings, and he missed the soul of Harlem. Ultimately it was a photo that brought Baldwin home, the image of a young Black woman being heckled mercilessly as she integrated a school in North Carolina. We can see why the photo struck Baldwin so powerfully: the girl’s face is pained but stoic, her slight frame surrounded by a sea of faces seething with rage and hate. This theme is the foundation of I Am Not Your Negro, an unabashed revelation that hypocrisy is as American as apple pie.

The film is loosely intended to carry forth Baldwin’s untold artistic vision intertwining the stories of Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, and Medger Evers. The film dances around these three narratives in disjointed fashion, splicing current events throughout the film. Director Roul Peck brilliantly draws a parallel between the police brutality of the Jim Crow era and the impetus of the Black Lives Matter Movement today. Baldwin was Black and he was proud, but he was accessible to White America because he did not hate them. He explored the way Blackness had to be packaged to make it palatable, and Peck masterfully uses cinematic examples to underscore Baldwin’s profound speech. Hollywood is rife with the stereotyping and marginalization of which Baldwin spoke, and the film was comprehensive in its discussion of film and media’s effect on the collective psyche of Black and White Americans alike.

Art inspires, but at times it can make us uncomfortable. Let me state the obvious that this film is not for everyone, and the title alone is enough to keep some viewers away. It is not a call to arms, but rather an attempt to rouse the consciousness and to demand that White America to take an unflinching look in the mirror. Powerful and provocative, I Am Not Your Negro is one of the better documentaries I’ve seen. Grade: A.



The Hateful Eight

Tarantino. Scorsese. Lee. Fincher. Nolan. These are some of my favorite filmmakers, and I hold their work up as a measuring stick by which I judge others. Regarding Quentin Tarantino, I’ve been a fan since 1997’s Jackie Brown. His catalogue is varied, but his unique trademark is stamped on each film. He has a penchant for dialogue, frequently utilizes strong female protagonists (see the aforementioned film and Kill Bill), and rarely shies away from controversy. From his gratuitous usage of the n-word to his characters’ oft-displayed bloodlust – the polarizing director sparks rigorous debate in cinematic circles. When I saw a commercial for The Hateful Eight I couldn’t discern what it was about, but I noticed some stylistic similarities to Django Unchained and was sufficiently intrigued.

The eighth (how appropriate) film from Tarantino finds a bounty hunter named John Ruth (Kurt Russell, Furious 7) transporting an outlaw for execution across a frozen, unsettled 1870s Wyoming into the town of Red Rock. The outlaw may be a woman, but she’s no lady. In fact, the surly Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh, The Jacket) is quite a handful. Through swirling, snowy winds they traverse America’s heartland, the brash Ruth determined to claim the reward for his felonious charge. Traveling via stagecoach, Ruth and his driver O.B. (James Parks, Django Unchained) happen upon a hitchhiking Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson, Chi-Raq), a Black former Union soldier on his way into Red Rock with bounty of his own.

The first half hour of the film is very dialogue-driven, and although these early moments establish the dynamic between characters, some viewers may find it difficult to keep their eyes open. The language is coarse and both Domergue and Ruth address Warren disrespectfully, as would’ve been expected during the time. Eventually the rag-tag party picks up yet another wayward traveler – this time the new sheriff of Red Rock Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins, Django Unchained), who is stymied by the impending blizzard on the way into town. He boards the stagecoach and the quintet continues on, but not without stopping at Minnie’s Haberdashery on the way.

When our party arrives at Mininie’s, things take a much more interesting turn. There they meet three other gentlemen who appear to be simply enjoying the warm refuge of shelter and whiskey. Now that the gang’s all here, we have our original group of five, plus three haberdashery patrons including Jon Gage, Oswald Mobray, and simply “Bob.” This dour ensemble comprises “The Hateful Eight,” and they must wait out the blizzard before heading to Red Rock. John Ruth is particularly suspicious of his newfound company, guarding against anyone trying to liberate his prisoner. When one of the gang ends up dead, Tarantino masterfully transitions to a whodunit, and the storytelling shifts into high gear.

Tarantino’s greatest strength lies in his superior storytelling, and he used flashback to effectively break up the action and keep viewers engaged. Once his characters are all assembled at Minnie’s Haberdashery, the setting becomes fixed. In order to hold the viewer’s attention, the dialogue and action must be compelling. It’s challenging to have your characters confined to one place, but the static setting allows the performances to shine through. I was pleasantly surprised that the film only got better and better as it wore on, cresting with each successive moment and culminating brilliantly.

If I had any criticism of The Hateful Eight it would be that it started too slowly. Furthermore, I grew a bit tired of the gratuitous usage of the n-word. Yes, it’s historically accurate to place the word within the context of this movie; no – we don’t have to hear it every two seconds. One can achieve sufficient realism and authenticity without assaulting our eardrums at every turn. That aside, Tarantino is masterful at what he does, and The Hateful Eight was a worthy addition to his stellar filmography. I believe it deserves the recognition it has received during Awards season. Grade: A


Spike Lee has been one of my favorite filmmakers since 1989’s School Daze. His earlier career reflected a steady ascent, with Lee giving us classics like Jungle Fever, Do The Right Thing, and Malcolm X; the latter widely considered his best work to date. No stranger to controversy and never afraid to challenge the white power structure, Lee’s career hasn’t always been as commercially successful as it is culturally relevant. I’ll always give Spike a fair shot, so even though the trailer for Chi-Raq left me skeptical, I respect his intentions as an auteur and wanted to see the film for myself.

You’d have to have been living under a rock for the past couple of years not to hear about the gun violence plaguing the city of Chicago. Like many major cities, Chicago is a dual-sided metropolis. On the one hand the likes of Oprah Winfrey and Barack Obama called it home. It boasts the “Magnificent Mile,” a renowned street dotted by high-end retailers and fine restaurants. On the other hand, it was home to one of the most notorious housing projects in the nation, and the fatalities reported in any given weekend could rival reports from Iraq, hence the macabre moniker “Chi-Raq.” There are significant cultural, psychological and social observations worth exploring about Chicago, and film could be a useful medium in tackling the deeply complex issues afflicting the city and its residents. Lee seemed like the perfect director for such a task, given his track record of political consciousness – but I’m not sure the casual movie fan will understand his artistic approach.

Rather than a documentary (like his prior work in 4 Little Girls) or a dramatic, original call to action (Get on the Bus) using real life events, Lee chose a unique way to portray Chicago. Chi-Raq is an adaptation of the ancient Greek play Lysistrata, a comedy depicting its female protagonist’s brilliant plan to end the Peloponnesian War through celibacy, by imploring women to freeze all the men out of their bedrooms in a call to arms to end the suffering. Applying this satirical theme to modern day Chicago, the story is paralleled through local Chicago rapper and gangbanger Chi-Raq (Nick Cannon, Roll Bounce) and his girlfriend Lysistrata (Teyonah Parris, Dear White People). Chi-Raq is the stereotypical rapper: young, arrogant and ignorant. Ambitiously striving to transcend his environment through music, his violent behavior illustrates how he remains a product of it.

Chi-Raq’s scenes play out musically, delivered in a lyrical, sometimes rhyming cadence. Samuel L. Jackson (Avengers: Age of Ultron) features as Dolmedes, a fourth wall breaking narrator who frames our perception of Chi-Raq, furthering the action and reminding us that the film’s participants are in dire straits. The film served as a critique of our government and current political climate and a plea to members of the Black community to end our collective apathy demonstrated by misguided thinking like the “stop snitching” movement. Ultimately, I doubt that Lee’s film is accessible in a worthwhile way to the average viewer. Some may misinterpret his farcical approach, given the serious subject matter. Intellectuals and “progressive” types comprise his most likely audience – and they aren’t the ones killing each other.

Although I don’t think Lee crafted a completely successful film, it was not without its bright spots. Teyonna Parris as Lysistrata had more screen time than any other character, and she was captivating throughout. The cinematography was rich and colorful, and some scenes perfectly captured the city’s beauty. Nick Cannon was serviceable as Chi-Raq, though it was hard to take him seriously at times. I understand that the film is a satire, but there were some very cringe-worthy bits of dialogue I couldn’t ignore. All in all, it was a mixed bag for me. Again, I appreciate what Spike was trying to do with the film, but I’m not sure it’s accessible to average viewers in a way that makes it a worthwhile cinematic undertaking. Grade: C

Captain America: The Winter Soldier

I often lament sequels, because more often than not they are unsatisfying. However, sometimes Hollywood manages to build effectively on an original movie by improving upon the protagonist in the sequel. Superhero movies are in a different realm right now, with The Dark Knight trilogy and Marvel’s The Avengers serving as the standard bearers for the genre. Whereas the Iron Man and Thor sequels have represented a slight decline in quality, I thought Captain America: The Winter Soldier was a marked improvement over its predecessor.

Chris Evans (most recently of Thor: The Dark World) reprises the role he established in 2011, but this time the storyline is significantly more entertaining. Evans has the interesting distinction of playing more than one superhero, having also portrayed Johnny Storm in The Fantastic Four franchise. Steve Rogers/Captain America is a much more compelling character, though his straight-arrow persona lacks the texture of his fellow Avengers. The sequel finds our hero adjusting to life in the 21st century while still feeling like a fish out of water. Recall that he was cryogenically frozen during World War II, only to be thawed out in a completely different era.

The movie opens with a reintroduction to the super soldier Steve Rogers as he undertakes a routine mission for S.H.I.E.LD. It’s established relatively early that Captain America has a simple but unwavering way of doing things.  He likes to deal in facts and strives to be truthful and straightforward in most aspects of life: what you see is what you get.  So when he discovers that S.H.I.E.L.D. director Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson, RoboCop) is less than forthright about the mission at hand, he feels slightly betrayed.

Fury’s dishonesty makes Rogers mistrustful of him as well as friend and fellow Avenger Black Widow (Natalia Romanoff) (Scarlett Johansson, Don Jon), who was privy to the deception but doesn’t have the same inflexible “code” as Rogers. This movie differed from the other Marvel entrants in that Fury was featured much more prominently. When he inexplicably becomes the target of assassins, he reveals to Rogers that a splinter group has arisen within S.H.I.E.L.D. That rogue faction is known as Hydra, and they’ve been operating since S.H.I.E.L.D.’s inception. Fury ominously warns Rogers that he can’t trust anyone, and soon he too feels Hydra’s wrath. Robert Redford (All is Lost) is featured as S.H.I.E.L.D. higher-up Alexander Pierce, a questionable character in odd pursuit of Rogers after casting suspicion upon him regarding Director Fury.

The title of this sequel references The Winter Soldier, a soldier every bit as impressive as Captain America. He’s relentless and formidable, complete with a metal arm and seemingly indestructible exterior. His origin is unknown, but Black Widow explains to Captain America that his kills are the stuff of legend. Captain America must expose the Hydra agents within S.H.I.E.L.D., while uncovering their end-game goal. All the while he must contend with The Winter Soldier, a foe against whom he is evenly matched. I’ve tried to describe the movie in a way that is accurate but doesn’t reveal too much – so I’ve been intentionally cryptic about a few details.

I enjoyed the movie because it was entertaining and action-packed. The storyline was more interesting than the first movie, and Rogers’ character was fleshed out more. Additionally, the supporting characters proved to be worthy additions, including Anthony Mackie (Runner Runner) as Falcon, an affable sidekick who fits in nicely alongside Captain America and Black Widow. Men (and some women) will appreciate Scarlett Johansson’s assets, and I thought she more than held her own. All of the Avengers are well cast, and Chris Evans is well suited in the starring role. I don’t go for the “straight-arrow” superhero types, as I like my heroes with a darker side – but he didn’t disappoint. I thought Iron Man 3 and Thor 2 were recent Marvel missteps, but Captain America: The Winter Soldier has the studio back on track and is poised to crush the box office. Grade: A-


The Avengers

My mom reads my reviews, so I’ll censor myself a bit for this one.  Suffice it to say that the excitement I feel when I see a good movie trailer is akin to the adrenaline that coursed through the veins of the women who used to throw their panties on stage at Marvin Gaye et al.  When I saw The Avengers trailer, I didn’t throw my panties at the movie screen.  But I could have.  Oh yeah, I wanted to.

This is my favorite movie going time of the year.  The Oscar movies tend to come out some time in the fall, but it’s the summer (and early spring) that gives us the popcorn fare we love.  There was no question I’d be front and center for The Avengers, even if I couldn’t swing the midnight showing.  The excitement in my theater was nearly palpable, and we were all in for a treat.  If you’ve seen Iron Man, The Hulk, or Thor – you’ll at least be somewhat familiar with these Marvel mainstays.  The movie begins with Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson, Meeting Evil), head of S.H.I.E.L.D., a covert government organization charged with protecting American interests on domestic and global levels.   It picks up where Thor left off, as Thor’s (Chris Hemsworth, The Cabin in the Woods) nefarious brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston, War Horse) has obtained the tesseract, an otherworldly energy source that can destroy the planet.  He wants to harness its power and bring humanity to its knees, enslaving the populace.  Fury knows that he can’t stop Loki on his own, after witnessing him take out an entire room of armed security forces.  His first call is to the Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson, We Bought a Zoo), a spy who is already in the fold.  The other members of the team will require varying degrees of persuasion.  Starks (Robert Downey Jr., Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows) is in.  Thor comes forward of his own volition to battle his brother and fellow Asgardian.  Captain America (Chris Evans, What’s Your Number?) is a soldier who is accustomed to taking orders and as such, requires the least prodding.  Bruce Banner/Hulk (Mark Ruffalo, The Kids are All Right) is the most reluctant of the bunch, as he’s spent the better part of a year trying to keep his cool.  Rounding out the group is Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner, MI: 4), a recently rogue agent who was temporarily under Loki’s powerful spell.  Hawkeye and Black Widow are a tandem, bound by a shared mysterious past.  The movie highlights each hero’s skillset, and by the end they have accepted the values of teamwork and cooperation while forming an unbreakable bond.

The plot wasn’t terribly important, and it’s about what you’d expect: good guys unite to defeat the bad guy, whose wish list includes the subjugation of all mankind.  Some have an issue with the simplified plot, but I don’t.  I mean, it’s always a variation of the same theme.  I didn’t have a problem with the plot but I did have an issue with Loki’s reasoning that humanity’s natural desire is to be enslaved.  Quite the contrary, humans have an innate desire for freedom – so I thought writer Joss Wheedon could have tweaked that element a bit more.  It’s my only very minor criticism in a movie that was otherwise perfect.  What I enjoyed most about the movie was the interplay between each superhero.  Each character in his/her own right is capable of saving humanity, but it will take a concerted effort to defeat a foe as formidable as Loki, who has enlisted an entire interplanetary army to help him.  There was a natural chemistry among all the actors, and I can tell they genuinely had fun making this movie.

The Avengers succeeded where other superhero movies have failed.  Just because a movie is family-friendly does not mean that it has to be corny.  Spiderman 3 was horribly cheesy, and Superman Returns was equally bad, for similar reasons.  There has to be a middle ground between the darkness that Christopher Nolan brings to the Batman franchise and the corniness of those two aforementioned movies.  I believe The Avengers had the right balance of heft and fluff, if that makes sense.  It wasn’t all smiles and sunshine, as Black Widow has a shady past, Captain America is woefully out of touch, Thor is dealing with the worst form of sibling rivalry, Hawkeye needs redemption, and The Hulk is just trying not to spazz out.  The dialogue and interplay between characters was well worth the price of admission.  I think people should refrain from superlatives though.  This was not the best superhero movie ever made.  As long as Batman is still considered a superhero, that distinction remains with The Dark Knight.  That being said, The Avengers is a must-see summer blockbuster.  Grade: A+