I made good use of the long Thanksgiving weekend by watching Al Jazeera’s poignant video about a man discovering the world after a 44-year prison sentence, along with the 2013 documentary, 20 Feet from Stardom, which focuses on the unsung heroes of the stage: back-up singers. Read on for a sneak peak at the upcoming Nate Turner biopic and a Brazilian movie making waves thanks to its handling of issues of race and class.
The Birth of a Nation
Nat Turner is the stuff of legends in the African-American community due to his leadership of the 1831 slave rebellion in Virginia. Despite having a life full of drama, intrigue, and historical significance, Turner has not been given any major cinematic treatment. That is about to change, however, with the film The Birth of a Nation. Nate Parker, who is starring as Turner, wrote and directed the film, which makes an excellent and ironic reference to the racist 1915 film of the same name.
I was excited when this project was first announced over a year ago, and even more so now that stills from the film have been released. I definitely wish I had a ticket to Sundance; the film will premiere at the festival this January.
One of the best decisions I’ve made over the last few weeks was liking the Remezcla Facebook page. An online news site that promotes all aspects of Latino culture, from music and movies to sports (i.e. soccer) and food, they have been filling up my timeline with media that I would never have come across on my own. Such is the case with Casa Grande.
The Brazilian film, directed by Fellipe Barbosa, follows Jean, a teenager from a wealthy family in Rio. As his family slowly unravels in the face of mounting debt, Jean meets a girl from outside his circle of rich kids and begins to grapple with the realities of race and class differences. The film is now available to rent on Fandor, and, according to the site, passes the Bechdel Test. Sounds like a winner to me!
My Life After 44 Years in Prison
This short documentary by Al Jazeera tells the touching story of Otis Johnson. Jailed at 25 years old for the attempted murder of a police officer, Johnson was recently released after 44-years in prison. Despite an excessively harsh sentencing, Johnson refuses to hold onto anger, instead choosing to find joy and wonder in today’s technologically advanced age. It is refreshing to see the world through his eyes as he marvels at the now ubiquitous microphone-equipped headphones and multicolored sports drinks, neither of which existed before he entered prison.
The video is particularly heartbreaking as he describes leading a lonely life after having lost contact with his family in the late 90s. With an excess of free time, Johnson focuses on his personal growth and development through meditation. His story is a reminder of the importance of gratefulness for the things we often take for granted, along with the need for serious criminal justice reform.
20 Feet from Stardom
This Oscar-winning documentary has been in my Netflix queue for ages, thanks in part to Darlene Love’s rendition of the gospel song “His Eye is on the Sparrow” during the film’s acceptance speech.
My mom and I spent a cozy night in after Thanksgiving watching the film on OWN. The focus is on the singers we rarely notice during concerts: the back-up singers. The women, who vary in age and fame, speak about their most memorable collaborations and their tumultuous career paths. Many were unable to find success as solo artists, despite being well-known in the industry due to their amazing voices. Darlene Love‘s story is one of the most infuriating in this regard. After getting a record deal as a solo artist, she soon discovered it was a Milli Vanilli set-up and her vocals were being used for another group. She ended up stuck in her contract for decades! Fortunately, she was able to find success later in life thanks to her Christmas records and role in the Lethal Weapon series.
A number of famous singers, from Mick Jagger to Bruce Springsteen, provide insight into the importance of these incredible singers to their own records. In one of my favorite scenes, Merry Clayton describes being awakened in the middle of the night to work on a song for The Rolling Stones. She proceeded to blow them away with her vocal range and contribute to one of their most iconic songs: “Gimme Shelter.”
20 Feet from Stardom is a lovingly crafted film that weaves a tale of fun, youthful memories with the realities of unfulfilled dreams, without succumbing to a melancholy tone. If you want to explore a little known side of the music industry and witness some amazing harmonies, complete with sumptuous lens flares in the recording studio, then check this documentary out.
Bonus Points: The Wiz Live! + Strolling (USA)
1. The Wiz Live!
Shortly after posting this week’s blog, I realized I left out a major program: The Wiz Live! Unlike most black folks, I only recently saw the beloved 1978 movie version, starring Diana Ross and Michael Jackson, as part of a Black Theatre course. Despite not being too impressed with the musical, I decided to tune in to the live broadcast. I was pleasantly surprised and truly enjoyed the production.
It was a great mix of modernization (the Voguing scene in the Emerald City was fire) and a nod to the 40-year-old Broadway production (Stephanie Mills, who originated the role of Dorothy, showcased her vocal chops as Auntie Em). The wealth of talent, namely Elijah Kelley as the Scarecrow and Mary J. Blige as Evilene, along with the stunning costumes and makeup made for a memorable show. I even discovered two new songs to add to my musical theatre playlist: “Everybody Rejoice/Brand New Day” and Uzo Aduba’s surprisingly lovely rendition of “Believe in Yourself” as Glinda. The Wiz Live! was a wonderful reminder of the awesome creativity and talent the black community produces.
2. Strolling (USA)
Cecile Emeke brings her international documentary series to the States and allows Americans, whose hypervisibility has come up more than once in other episodes, to have their say. I have only seen the first four minutes of this episode and it is already giving me life!
Gabby, the young woman being interviewed, perfectly describes the unique dynamic between black Americans and other members of the African diaspora in New York. I definitely have felt the sense of distancing and superiority that comes from some black folks of Caribbean or African descent upon hearing that I am African-American. And don’t even get me started on asinine comments like “Black people don’t have culture” or the dismissive “You don’t know where you’re really from.” I really need people to crack open a book (or a new Google tab) and turn to the chapter on the Atlantic Slave Trade. It has been well-documented by historians that enslaved Africans were renamed and purposely separated from those with whom they shared a language or tribe. Considering that slaves were considered less than human, records are scarce. I didn’t have much say in the matter of knowing where I’m from.