Category Archives: FIlm

17Dec/21

Swan Song Review: Mahershala Ali’s Touching Performance Explores an Ethical Dilemma

Mahershala Ali as Cameron (Left) and his clone Jack (Right)

*Spoiler Alert*

When I saw the trailer for Swan Song, an Amazon series called Solos (starring Anthony Mackie) came to mind, specifically an episode entitled Tom. A 2 minute and 35 seconds-long glimpse at Mahershala Ali’s performance coupled with actress Naomie Harris‘ charisma led me to believe this sci-fi film would be nothing short of exceptional. Can I tell you I was not disappointed?! Performances by Ali and Harris kept me fully interested in this slow-paced film. I like Anthony Mackie (Falcon and all), but Mahershala Ali did a helluva job. 

Saying So Much Without Saying Anything 

I was impressed early on with a scene between Ali (Cameron) and Harris (Poppy) when their characters first met on the train. It’s actually my favorite part of the film! As Poppy sits in front of Cameron, while on the phone and snaps off a piece of chocolate on the table between the two, Cameron assumes it’s the chocolate he ordered moments before Poppy came onto the train. He slides the chocolate towards himself, breaks off a piece, and eats it, all the while smirking at Poppy. The two take turns eating the chocolate while Poppy is still on the phone. They’re clearly intrigued by each other. The chemistry here was uncanny, and so much was said without even an exchange of words between the two. After Poppy gets off at her stop, Cameron realizes he was eating her chocolate as he discovers his own chocolate bar was still in his jacket pocket.  

Mahershala Ali (Cameron) and Naomie Harris (Poppy)

Ali and Harris’ Performances 

Ali does a fantastic job portraying both Cameron and his clone, Jack. His reaction to first seeing the clone was completely expressed through his eyes. His reaction to seeing his clone for the first time was incredbly believable, and his clone’s reaction to its initial awakening seems as accurate as could be. Ali’s eyes alone provide all the emotion needed to perfectly portray what is required in certain scenes. 

Naomie Harris is charismatic, as usual. Her love as a mother is believable and feels genuinely organic. The scenes where she is heartbroken after her twin brother’s death creates a need for Cameron to be ambivalent about deciding to be a clone or not. I couldn’t blame Cameron; watching Poppy shut down and become distant was so concerning. In addition to Poppy being pregnant, Cameron is also concerned about his son not having a father while growing up and how that would affect him. 

Cameron meets Kate (Awkwafina), a woman on her deathbed who decides to undergo the transition of a clone taking over her life. At times, it seems Kate is ok with the decision and even displays a bit of humor as her lifeforce slowly deminishes, but I could tell from her conversations with Cameron (after he met her clone and daughter) that she misses her life. Although the island where the transition ensues seems fitted with the appropriate resources and comfortability, it is still somewhat isolated. No one knows you are there besides Dr. Scott and her two colleagues. 

What would be my concern if I was in Cameron’s shoes? Well, that scenario comes up when Cameron witnesses his clone interact with Poppy via facetime right in front of him. It was so eerie to see the connection and love with his wife replicated without Poppy even noticing a difference.

I like how the writer gives Cameron another variable: if Cameron decides to abort the program and tell his wife he is dying, the clone would be terminated. The clone, Jack, made a compelling case to live, which threw me off. But hey, Ali was playing this role, so why wouldn’t there be depth to the clone?

The film ends with Cameron escaping the island after passing out from a seizure as he went to spend his last hours with his family before the clone takes over. The clone allows Cameron to see (through his eyes) Poppy tell him she’ll love him always, an emotionally challenging but meaningful way to end the film. At this point I had a little eye sweat, then again, it may have been allergies. 

Mahershala Ali and Awkwafina (Kate)

Presentation

One of the first things I learned in filmmaking is to show the audience and not tell; this film does just that. It shows the audience that the movie is set in the future with the use of advanced technology. From the coffee-serving A.I. to the self-driving cars, this film has some pretty cool technology that I wish I had access to. The solid colors used in different scenes creates significant effects and mood. Swan Song uses a non-linear structure to explore Cameron’s history and transmit his memories and thoughts into his clone, which is kind of cool and not too overwhelming. I didn’t find myself getting lost as I have with similar movies in the past. 

Who Looked at My Playlist? 

The soundtrack of the film was on point! It uses songs from artists I am a fan of, Frank Ocean and Moses Sumney. The pieces used were well placed throughout the film and added to the scenes’ moods. For example, when Frank Ocean’s reimagining of Moon River played during Cameron’s flashbacks of his life with his wife. It pulled on my heartstrings, so I took a break and watched a couple of Tony Baker videos. Shoutout to the music supervisor of this film. It felt like they hacked into one of my playlists! 

In another cool scene, Cameron goes through his routine and watches his son sleep while Moses Sumney plays in the background. As he takes out his earbuds, the music lowers from the soundtrack to real-time, making me feel like I was a part of the scene. 

Overall, Swan Song is a great film that challenges the audience to think about what they would do in the lead character’s position. This actually would be a great film to watch with a group of friends or family, because it would serve as a fascinating conversation piece. This film is worth watching and I recommend putting it on your watchlist. 

Swan Song will be released and streamed on Apple plus on December 17th.

21Nov/21

King Richard Beautifully Captures the Journey of Venus and Serena’s Father

There is always a sense of nervousness that comes over me when I hear of a biopic about historical Black figures coming to theaters. These projects could be beautifully developed like Ray or the opposite could unfold (insert name of one of many horrible biopics here). When it comes to King Richard, I was delighted to see this film was not another lukewarm attempt. I know some skeptics may automatically think the movie stars, Will Smith, as the father of two sports icons (rolls eyes), then cringe at the thought of Wild Wild West. And let’s not forget how we were painfully subjected to the Michael Jackson biopic, Michael Jackson: Man in the Mirror. I’m happy to say this was not the case! I walked away quite satisfied with this film and have some notables you can check out for yourself. 

Will Smith and Aunjanue Ellis Academy Buzz

Will Smith has been snubbed a few times at the Academy Awards, but he just may win this prestigious honor with his performance in King Richard. I found myself forgetting that Will Smith was portraying Richard William because of his fantastic performance. From mannerism to language, Smith captured the essence of Williams and even provoked some anger out of me during some of Richard’s questionable decision-making. The Richard character was compelling because he wanted the best for his children, he worked hard for them and loved them, but sometimes his insecurities got the best of him. His wife, Brandi Williams (Aunjanue Ellis), points out one of his biggest hang-ups in the film: he doesn’t want to seem like another dumb Black person to the world. It’s not easy writing a character the audience can cheer for and also be upset with, but the screenwriter and director do a great job tackling this dynamic. I found it especially intriguing to see this character portrayed so organically; a nod to Smith’s acting abilities. 

Smith was not the only actor to garner attention in the film; Aunjanue Ellis should also be acknowledged for her performance and considered for nomination, in my opinion. Her supportive, but firm, portrayal of Brandi Williams elevated her to my Top Five Favorite Black Movie Mom list. From her Sistah Girl role in Undercover Brother to Hippolyta Freeman in Lovecraft Country, Ellis has played strong and intelligent characters over the years, some of whom she seems to have channeled for this role. When Richard makes questionable decisions, she puts him in his place without embarrassing him. She even lets him know she has taken on the responsibility of holding the family down despite having her own ambitions. Another favorite Brandi moment for me was when she confronts her neighbor who called Child Services on them. She reminds the neighbor that they both have daughters (Brandi having five) and how tough it can be, then ends the conversation with “don’t make me come over here again.” All I can say is can we give Aunjanue her flowers now?

I can recall a few powerful moments in this flick. The first for me was when the neighborhood thugs assaulted Richard. They had tried multiple times to harass his oldest daughter while she studied during Richard’s practice sessions with Venus and Serena. Richard decided to get his gun from his security job and kill the group leader, but a drive-by shooting beat him to it. The other was when Richard argued with his wife after pulling Venus from her first pro tournament. This was a powerful scene and showed how supportive Brandi was of the family. 

The Film, The Story 

I often feel biopic movies miss the mark when it comes to making an exciting project, but King Richard held my attention and, from what I could tell, the entire audience’s attention throughout the whole film. It may be because I grew up watching the Williams sisters and remember each of the events portrayed in the movie. I think the acting, plot, soundtrack, and editing helped make this film amazingly nostalgic. This film could’ve easily lost its focus while covering any part of the Williams’ lives, but the filmmaker made a great choice following Venus’ first pro tournament and ending with her defeat which was really a win for the Black community. It was also good to see Richard sitting in the stands with the family to show support for his daughter. During most of the matches, he was out of sight. This is a reminder he would be there for his daughter no matter what the situation. Earlier in the film, Richard told a story of how his father watched him get beat up by three adult white men and then ran away as the beating continued. I can remember the commercials and the amount of support the Williams family received for representing the community. 

King Richard is also a reminder of how society looked at and still does look at Black families. It was assumed that since they came from Compton, they weren’t educated enough to make the decision to (or even willing to) take any steps to leave their rough neighborhood. Richard spoke confidence into his daughters, ensured they received a good education, and made sure they didn’t cave into the stressors of being young tennis players as many of their counterparts did. 

Venus and Serena

The two actresses who portrayed the Williams sisters were great. I love how they gelled as sisters on screen. The portrayal of Venus (Saniyya Sidney) in the last act was so exciting as I, too, could feel the nervousness she felt facing the number one tennis player in the world. Demi Singleton as Serena was spot on as the determined and strong-willed younger sister. I would say if this were a series, I would love to witness Serena’s growth into the icon she is, but the film should stay as is, a solo project. Save the biopic of Serena for later as its own story since she is one of the greatest athletes of all time. These two actresses made me think of all the young Black girls who will love this film and be inspired just as the real Williams sisters inspired people all over the world. 

I enjoyed this film and, undoubtedly, so did my fellow audience members in attendance. The film was so engaging that I found myself cheering for Venus during her epic match against the number one seeded even though I already knew the outcome of the match. With excellent acting and hard-hitting themes, I recommend everyone watch King Richard. I know I will be watching it for a second time with my beautiful strong Black nieces, looking for that spark of inspiration in their young eyes. 

You can catch King Richard on HBO Max and in theaters on Nov.19th.

 

16Nov/21

Bruised is a Redemption Story for both Jackie Justice & Halle Berry

Halle Berry showing off abs she gained while training for film Bruised on Netflix

I just viewed Netflix’s virtual advanced screening of Halle Berry’s directorial debut, Bruised, that I was invited to by the Urban Action Showcase & Expo anddd… I’m here for it. I watched it without bias or prejudgment and allowed the film to take me on the journey with Jackie Justice, the MMA fighter portrayed by Halle Berry. The synopsis of the film is a disgraced fighter finds redemption in the cage and the courage to face her demons when the son she had given up as an infant unexpectedly reenters her life.

The Good

First of all, Halle Berry is 55. FIFTY-FIVE. On November 8th of 2019, she posted her amazing rock-hard abs on Instagram that she achieved while training for the film. In the film, she is standing next to women half her age and was giving them a run for their money even during her disheveled scenes. Outside of her aesthetic, Berry did amazing with the fight choreography. In her post-screening Q&A with H.E.R., who wrote and sings the film’s anthem, Berry stated that she was given a script that was originally intended for an Irish-Catholic white woman. In her head, she rearranged the role for a Black woman who has been beaten up by life and had to find her way through. She was tasked with finding a director but ultimately opted to take on the role herself when no one could bring to life what she saw because it only existed in her head. With this freedom, she was able to capture the intensity of her fight scenes as she dreamed because she was also executing them WITHOUT a stunt or body double. Berry trained in various martial arts styles for over 2 years to make her role as authentic as she could.

The film also comes equipped with a great supporting cast. Stephen McKinley Henderson is Pops, the inspirational “old head” who remembers who Jackie was and sees who she can be. Sheila Atim is Bobbi Buddhakan Berroa, Jackie’s elite trainer and mental sanity. Adriane Lenox is Angel, Jackie’s mom with the hella ironic name. Then there is Danny Boyd Jr. as Manny Lyons Jr., Jackie’s son who reenters her life and stole our hearts as viewers.

The Not So Good

I fully expect this movie to be ripped apart. We’re in a day and age where everything Black people touch is scrutinized under a microscope. There are definitely some cringy and eye-raising moments that will probably need to be explored in post-release interviews. I’ll leave those up to your interpretation, but I will say that the script felt like a lot of stories that needed to be fleshed out more. We received the gist of Jackie’s origin (some of it was even predictable), but there was room left to round out how she spiraled into the Jackie we were presented with.

The was also a scene where Jackie should’ve cracked someone in the face and didn’t but I guess her leaving was sufficient (eye-roll).

The Best

Danny Boyd Jr in Bruised

Earlier I mentioned Danny Boyd Jr portraying Jackie’s son, 6-year-old Manny Lyons Jr. Danny should be about 11 now which should’ve placed him between 7 and 9, if the math is mathing, when he was filming. This young king’s facial acting tugged at all of our heartstrings. He had to play a traumatized boy inside a range of emotions from scared to angry and all I wanted to do was protect him. I was ready to fight errybody. Throughout all of the storylines, I just kept wondering how whatever was currently happening was going to inevitably affect Manny. He drew me in. He understood his assignment. Mission Accomplished.

Will You Watch Bruised?

I think you should. Bruised is directed and led by a Black woman. Check. It has a predominantly Black cast that shows a range of Black lifestyles. Check. The soundtrack is all women artists. Check. It has literally kick-ass fight choreo with women who are powerfully strong (no bad running scenes or terrible punches, praise whoever you pray to). Check.

Bruised releases on Netflix on November 24th.

30Oct/21

SPIKE: A Collection of Movie Photography With Contributing Photographer, David Lee

David Lee

Movie set photos are the first of what we see of upcoming films. Before the trailers, the soundtrack singles, and promotional material, the images give the audience a visual of what is to come. Spike Lee‘s new book, SPIKE, features film still photos, behind-the-scenes, and on-the-set pictures of all of the Award-winning director’s life’s work. Most of the photographs were provided by Lee’s brother, veteran lensman, David Lee. David has provided photography for most of Spike’s films from She’s Gotta Have It to BlacKkKlansman. Taji Mag was able to discuss the creative’s experience and contribution to the new book. 

Picture of Spike Lee

Falling In Love With the Art 

David explained his first exposure to photography was when he was twelve or so. His mom had bought a brownstone and one of the tenants was a photographer. Lee said, “He (the photographer) taught me how to process black and white film. I had a 35mm camera with the screws falling out at the time. It was not that great of a camera.” When asked when he fell in love with photography, he said, “The moment photography really clicked was when I was at my maternal grandmother’s house in Atlanta. My grandfather had a Kodak Brownie camera and, to operate it, I had to look down. It gave me an idea of composition and, as I walked around with it, I saw perspectives changing and never forgot that experience. I understood that I could express what I saw from that moment on, and the camera would be my paintbrush. There is no getting tired of photography for me. My muse is in my photography.” 

David did photography throughout high school. In college, he aspired to be a renaissance artist much like Langston Hughes, Richard Wright, and other artists he was exploring at the time. His inspiration for the written arts came from his mother, an English and African-American History Teacher. His father, a musician, inspired him to explore music, but that all came to a halt around age twenty. He’d finally realized his creative potential and even wrote screenplays himself, but had difficulty writing essays. So he followed his true passion, photography. 

“Photography will be the artistic expression that will be with me my whole life.” – David Lee

How to Capture the Moment 

Lee explained how he captured the moment by saying, “At first you just try to capture and cover everything. With digital, I shoot too much and bury myself in editing. I pride myself in picking the right photo out of hundreds to capture the moment. It’s a great position to have. After all, you are pretty much limited because sometimes your only shot is next to a camera.” Lee further explained, “You have to find the right space, the right lens, and get the shot that is usable. Most importantly, you have to capture the moment. It’s the visual component of visual storytelling.” 

Pictures from Mo’ Better Blues

David walked me through what it’s like to discover those good photos after shooting, stating, “Sometimes your good shots are intentional and other times you don’t realize what you have shot until later.” He recalled a moment when he caught a fantastic and unplanned shot, explaining, “…I just did photography for Denzel Washington’s new film Journal for Jordan. We had this one-shot with Michael B. Jordan; he was shirtless, as usual, and with a baby on a couch. Two film cameras are running on each side, so I had to squeeze in between them to find my shot. As Michael raised the baby, the baby reached down, grabbed the dog tags around his neck, and looked at it. All I could think was, “Yes! Yes! This is a great shot!” This was an unscripted moment, and I knew right away that was the shot.” 

David explained that he was proud of himself. The next break the crew had for filming, he downloaded the shot and showed the photo to Denzel on a computer. He recalled Denzel being so excited that he ran into another room to grab the co-star of the film, Chanté Adams, to see it. Once Chante saw the photo, she burst into tears. David continued to explain that Denzel called up Dana Canedy, whom the film was based on, and sent the image to her. “She too burst into tears. Everyone who saw that shot became emotional because it was as if it had channeled something”, he described.  

I asked David if he ever had a conversation with Denzel about his creative evolution over the years from Mo’ Better Blues to now Journal for Jordan. He replied, laughing, “You don’t have a conversation with Denzel; you listen. You do whatever he tells you to do.”  

David went on to talk about his history with Denzel. He humorously said, “While shooting Malcolm X, he was throwing me off the set so many times. I was messing up; he should’ve thrown me off the set. During the scene in Malcolm X where Malcolm is copying the dictionary in prison, I am under the table and below the camera, trying to get into a good position. Denzel was like, ‘Get out!’. He explained, “I didn’t take it personally because I [knew] I was distracting him. 

Favorite Films

When asked what films David loved shooting with his brother Spike, he said, “My favorites are Malcolm X, Do the Right Thing, The BlacKkKlansman, and Da 5 Bloods but I mostly like documentaries… When the Leveey’s Broke and If God Is Willing and da Creek Don’t Rise.” He said Spike would send him off to take pictures for the films during the interviews and press. This threw me back into my documentary photography days”, David said excitedly. 

“It was hard for people to watch the opening death scenes of Clockers, but I had fun shooting!” David explained the research process and the method he used to recreate the photos he referenced, stating, “For research, Spike and I went to the Bronx homicide headquarters. We were able to look at pictures and look at old notes from investigations. I used that time to recreate the crime scenes and used my reference Weegee, a classic crime photographer in the 1940’s and 50’s. [With] projects like these, I like to showcase my creativity.”

I asked David how he became a part of this project to which he replied, “The editor, Steve Crist, got in touch with me through Spike. I started a months-long deep dive into my catalog.” David continued, “Three months into my search, I would remember having even more photos to go through. I would call Steve and tell him I had pictures of Lawrence Fishburne when he did the White Lines music video in NYU Film School. It allowed me the opportunity to go through my many years of work and find old photos. This book really covers the span of Spike’s career.”

  • FYI: David Lee has provided photography for films Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, John Wick, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, and Broken Flowers. He is also providing photography for the Denzel Washington-helmed film, Journal For Jordan

SPIKE is genuinely a celebration of Spike Lee’s life and serves as a documentary in book form. I spent a couple of hours revisiting the time in my life when each film was released. It was so cool to see pictures of the handwritten script pages and how many actors/actresses were featured in Spike Lee films before becoming household names, i.e., Samuel L. Jackson, Giancarlo Esposito, Alfre Woodard. I was surprised to find out through the book former President Barack Obama took his wife, former First Lady, on a date to see Do the Right Thing before they were married. Whether you are a creative, movie lover, or Spike Lee fan, you will appreciate the nostalgic journey that David Lee’s photos provide. 

SPIKE will be released on Nov.17th and can be purchased at https://spikelee.chroniclebooks.com/

Picture from Do the Right Thing
06Sep/21

Beckett is a Horror Movie That Ended Like A WWE Match

Synopsis: While vacationing in Greece, American tourist Beckett (John David Washington) becomes the target of a manhunt after a devastating accident. Forced to run for his life and desperate to get across the country to the American embassy to clear his name, tensions escalate as the authorities close in, political unrest mounts, and Beckett falls even deeper into a dangerous web of conspiracy.

My Impression

My reaction to the Beckett trailer was, “Okay, so…this film has to be produced by Jordan Peele because it looks like a version of Get Out overseas.” I mean, the protagonist Beckett, a Black American, crashes a car his car into a house in Greece, and his white girlfriend ends up dying instantly. Yeah, I can see this story going in an interesting direction. A horror movie indeed. 

Does the writer give an exciting and compelling reason for Beckett to be on the run? Not in my opinion. The film had an unexpected twist, but my guess was the local authorities were trying to kill Becket because he unintentionally killed his wife, who we discover was a spy of some sort, but that wasn’t the case. By the end of the film, I was disappointed.

It was crazy that Beckett uncovered that the local authorities were trying to kill him to keep a politically driven kidnapping under wraps. Beckett saw the kidnapped child of an important political figure right after his crash. 

The chase and tension in the film were great. I felt like Beckett couldn’t catch a break though; the locals were surprisingly friendly and even knew how brutal the police were. Multiple tried to help him, despite facing terrible interrogations or maybe even death for their assistance. 

Beckett Beatings

Now for the many ass-whoopings Beckett took in this film. John David Washington made it believable that the character was a regular non-fighting citizen. I’ve known Washington to play some badasses and to see this character get destroyed the whole movie was a change. During the movie, I was like damn I hope he has some good health insurance.

One of the worst beatings he took was in the subway tunnel, where he was punched and stabbed multiple times. Becket was basically knife practice, but he kept fighting and escaped severely injured. During the film, I can say Becket was a survivor because he would run every time, but of course not before getting hurt in some way. 

Becket redeemed himself by not getting caught and killed by the U.S. embassy staff member, Tynan, and escaping the attempts on his life. Beckett’s fights with Tynan and the female antagonist were hilarious to me. I guess he had a “Karen” trigger moment because he smashed the hell out of her head into the concrete. 

But the ending, the ending had me like…

I couldn’t believe it? Beckett jumped off the parking garage and landed on top of the car like Macho Man Randy Savage doing a high-flying elbow in a WWE match. He landed on the car like a sack of potatoes and saved the day. I am sure he had some internal bleeding and probably needed medical treatment for the rest of his life. Of course, the audience is lead to believe Becket sacrificed his life for the child since he was the cause of death for his wife. Although it was an attempt to pay off the heart on Becket’s hand-drawn tattoo given by his wife, there could’ve been a better way to end the movie. 

The film has entertaining moments but I was not happy about the ending or the plot involving the mafia and politics. Maybe if Becket or his wife had direct involvement in the kidnapping it would’ve made for a better story. I am always going to cheer on John David Washington as an actor but I have to be honest, this film missed the mark for me.

31Aug/21

Candyman: A Horror Classic Filled With Social Commentary

Candyman
Yahya Abdul-Mateen II as Anthony McCoy/Candyman

I remember when the original Candyman first came out, I was scared out of my mind. Granted, I was only eight years old. To even think about saying his name five times in the mirror was a no-no because in my mind the Candyman was real. When news broke that Nia Da Costa and Jordan Peele would be working on the project, I knew horror fans would be in for a treat! This film (unsurprisingly true to its predecessor) provides horror, social commentary, storytelling, and lots of great camera work!

The Candyman Victims

In the first two candyman films, the victims were plenty and there was no discrimination. Candyman was carving up more people than a butcher on meat special Sunday. The 2021 film’s victims were all white and represented some of the stereotypical racists the Twitterverse has made famous of late, starting off with the arrogant art dealer and his girlfriend. This scene was artfully done as they could not see Candyman firsthand, but could only see his reflection (this visual occurs throughout the film). As Candyman is about to murder the art dealer, he slices through a projection screen showing Black people being violently attacked in the 50s during a protest; clearly, he is done with the historical injustice and ready for blood. Not only that, but the different parts of the art space flash red, white, and blue which could represent the American flag or police lights as the victims are being slain.

The rude and arrogant art critic was the next one to go after. She had me pissed after telling Anthony, a budding artist portrayed by Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, about “his kind” ruining neighborhoods, an insult not only to him but also to his work. She said “artist” but the audience knows she meant “Black artist”. Before the art critic’s demise, Da Costa visually deceives the audience with the usage of reflections, mirrors, and camera angles. As Anthony walks the hall of the art critic’s home, he sees the reflection of Candyman and even sees Candyman mimicking his movement. This is preparing the artist to follow his destiny to become Candyman and it also shows that he, too, could be a victim. 

The teenage girls getting slaughtered in the bathroom scene was very reminiscent of today’s social media culture. Those girls did not give a damn what was going on and wanted to play the Candyman game. Their Asian friend fleeing the bathroom before saying Candyman for the fifth time had the audience cracking up because she obviously knew what was up and did not want that smoke. This murder scene in the bathroom was interesting. Seeing the girls pulled, cut, and lifted by Candyman’s hook without anyone actually seeing him was crazy. Great camera-work and editing made the invisible antagonist even scarier.

Side Note: Why didn’t anyone acknowledge that Anothony’s hand looked like a prop from a zombie apocalypse movie? Eventually, Brianna said something, but damn his hand looked disgusting after the bee stung him. Could he get some Neosporin or something? 

Candyman
Teyonah Parris as Breanna Cartwright

Candymen 

I am not sure if the Brianna character’s name was inspired by Breonna Taylor, but I am going to assume that it was. To see her character go through so much and to witness the police bust into the row house and kill Anthony was definitely triggering. Nia De Costa did an awesome job hiding Anthony’s body from the camera’s view, creating a moment where the audience is not sure if the police shot Anthony or if they shot Brianna. That moment reminded me of the tragic story of Breonna Taylor and how her boyfriend, Kenneth Walker, felt while holding her. 

The sequel tie-ins and legend of Candyman were also well written and showed that there were others who carried on the Candyman spirit. The way each was killed was much like how many innocent Black men and women have been killed. As Anthony, the final Candyman, walks around the police car showing the faces of the various Candymen, I could see the victims Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Atatianna Jefferson, Philando Castile, Saundra Bland, etc. 

The stories told via shadow puppets were a great idea. It gave creepy vibes but played on the idea of how many of us used to tell campfire stories and use shadow puppets for effect. It made me think of the television show “Are You Afraid of the Dark?”. 

Candyman
Colman Domingo as William Burke reading Clive Barker’s Weaveworld.
Clive Barker wrote ” The Forbidden” the story in which Candyman is based.

Was Will Right? 

As crazy as Will Burke, the Laundromat owner in Cabrini Green, was I would have to say he had a compelling reason for bringing the Candyman to life. The gentrification of the neighborhood as well as the police ignoring and killing people would drive a person to take extreme actions. It’s akin to when people ask, “Why are the neighborhood folk destroying their own neighborhood” after the wrongful death of a Black person by a police officer. It’s for the same reason. People get tired of feeling powerless, oppressed, and ignored. In this case, Will had seen enough injustice and wanted to give the Candyman all the blood he could possibly want in the form of justice for his people. Although, I must say he was crazy for kidnapping Brianna and for sawing off Anthony’s hand. Jesus, that was gruesome! Made me cringe! 

“Say His Name!” 

The film ends with a cameo of the original Candyman, Daniel Robitaille (Tony Todd), asking Brianna to “Tell Everyone”. This resembles the “Say Their Names” culture in which we live where we consciously recognize all the victims of hate crimes, police brutality, etc. Candyman exacting his revenge by killing the cops who took his life along with the one who tried to intimidate Brianna into telling a false story is seen as a sort of redemption for Black people, a story of vengeance I’m sure many people of color could appreciate. The idea of turning a horror icon into a spirit of vengeance was a great idea and I am not surprised the three writers came up with the idea to do so. Is Candyman worth watching? I’d say yes! Saying Candyman five times in the mirror? Hell no!

07Aug/21

Pandemic Inspired Film, I’M FINE (Thanks For Asking), Encourages Empathy for the Homeless

I'm Fine
Actress/director/producer Kelley Kali

I’M FINE (Thanks for Asking) Synopsis: Danny, a recently widowed hairdresser, and her 8-year-old daughter, Wes, are houseless. Shielding Wes from the truth, Danny pitches a tent and convinces Wes that it’s a fun camping trip. As Danny works to find permanent housing, Wes grows increasingly tired of weeks in the heat, so Danny promises her that they will go home by the end of the day. With clients lined up, Danny is confident that she will have the final cash she needs to secure an apartment, but a series of mishaps threaten to derail her plans. Under mounting pressure, and with roller skates as her only means of transportation, she has to somehow manage to get the money she needs in order to keep her promise to her daughter. 

“In the midst of chaos, there is also opportunity” is a quote by Sun-Tzu that sums up the development of Kelley Kali’s award-winning film I’M FINE (Thanks for Asking) during the COVID pandemic and a heatwave. Kali, like many, was not working and almost houseless when she decided to make the film. Not only is it about overcoming obstacles while raising a child, but it’s also about having empathy for the homeless.

Kali explained she needed to do this project stating, “I woke up one day with a pressing sense of urgency that I needed to create something NOW. I started to think about what resources I had access to and, being from the San Fernando Valley in Los Angeles County, I realized that I had many resources. I thought about what friends would be crazy enough to do this with me and I immediately called my two good friends from USC Film School, Angelique Molina and Roma Kong.” The group of creatives pondered over concepts. Kali stated she had noticed a lot more women on the streets in Los Angeles. Kali said Los Angeles already had a fairly large homeless population, but she specifically noticed a lot more women and children recently. 

“We went through the many issues facing us today, but one issue that hit us all was the threat of  not being able to pay rent and the lingering danger of becoming houseless.” – Kellie Kali 

When it comes to the trials and tribulations of Danny, I can’t tell you how many times I kept saying to myself, “It can’t get any worse than this?”, but as the film continued, Danny’s situation continued to worsen. To top it off, she was also continually sexually objectified by pretty much every male encountered; all but the Asian property manager who clearly was taking social distancing seriously. Chad, played by Deon Cole, was one of the worst of the male characters. He taunted and insulted Danny as he dropped hundred-dollar bills from his luxury car. “The Chad character was just another dynamic added to Danny’s decision-making so far as what she needed to do. Chad is who we, as the creatives, thought needed to be piled on to the drama of Danny’s decision making,” stated Deon Cole. 

This is something we were able to control and make without someone telling us what to do. Doing television, it’s a collective group of people that have a vision. You are hired to portray that vision and bring it to life. – Deon Cole

The beautiful scenery, great camera angles, and natural character interactions were wonderful. Interestingly enough, the actors were the crew. “I decided the crew would be the actors. At first, everyone laughed until they realized I was serious,” Kali explained. I especially loved the scene where after getting high with her friend, Danny falls over into a pool of her troubles. Drowning, while her money and desirables elude her, was a great visual for the film. “As artists, we always want to keep what the audience is watching interesting, especially when it has a social message because we, as the artists, don’t want to be hammering the message on the audience’s head. So we find creative ways to keep you entertained and captivated using metaphors. At that point of the story, she was drowning in her troubles, the grief of her dead husband, not being able to keep the secret of houselessness from her daughter, and not knowing what to do.” 

In the end, I’M FINE (Thanks For Asking) is an inspirational film and a reminder of how the human spirit can persevere. Given the time the film was shot (during COVID and with limited resources), precautions needed to be put in place to keep the staff safe. Production had many obstacles to overcome, but the finished product was well worth it. Star/Producer of the film, Deon Cole, stated the film is “necessary for today” and after watching it, I would have to agree. Check out I’M FINE (Thanks For Asking) when it makes its network debut on Saturday, August 7th at 7 PM ET/PT on BET Her.

I’M FINE (Thanks For Asking): Directed by Kelley Kali & Angelique Molina; Written by Kelley Kali, Angelique Molina, & Roma Kong; Executive Produced by Kelley Kali, Deon Cole, & Capella Fahoome; Produced by Roma Kong, Angelique Molina, Kelley Kali, Capella Fahoome, & Deon Cole.

31Jul/21

Ailey, the Documentary, Is Proof There’s Power in Following One’s Passion

Ailey

SYNOPSIS: Alvin Ailey was a trailblazing pioneer who found salvation through dance. AILEY traces the full contours of this brilliant and enigmatic man whose search for the truth in movement resulted in enduring choreography that centers on the Black American experience with grace, strength, and unparalleled beauty. Told through Ailey’s own words and featuring evocative archival footage and interviews with those who intimately knew him, director Jamila Wignot weaves together a resonant biography of an elusive visionary.

Ailey Director Jamila Wignot
Director Jamila Wignot

A working-class, gay, Black man, he rose to prominence in a society that made every effort to exclude him. He transformed the world of dance and made space for those of us on the margins—space for black artists like Rennie Harris and me. – Jamila Wignot

I moved to DC over ten years ago, and one of the first advertisements I saw was for the Ailey Dance Company at the Kennedy Center. I googled the name of the dance company because I was interested in its origin. After all, it featured Black dancers. To my surprise, I found out the company was well known; its visionary, Alvin Ailey, was even more significant. Ailey, the documentary by Jamila Wignot, gave me a more introspective look at the famous creative. There is so much I learned about Ailey. His passion, hard work, and his resilience as a dance creative were unparalleled. I can say without a doubt that this is one of the best documentaries I have seen at Sundance 2021.

Ailey

As the film starts, voiceovers commence as photos of Alex Ailey are shown on screen. Jamila Wignot does a great job of adding in archived recordings of Ailey. This made me feel as if Ailey was talking to me directly or as if I was watching him chat live at the Actor’s Theater. You can tell the Ailey Dance company is still rich with the passion Ailey provided. When I saw the Artistic Director, Robert Battle, and Choreographer, Rennie Harris, instruct students, I could immediately see Alvin Ailey’s influence. 

I found it interesting that at age 14, Ailey fell in love with dancing, but his gym teacher wanted him to play football. After all, back in that time, the understanding of masculinity was not as broad as it is today. Ailey would be teased if he were to skip men’s athletics to participate in dance. 

The dance performance of Carmen at the Lester Horton School was one of the inspirations that prompted Ailey to immerse himself into the art. Ailey would go to the arrangements with his friend, Don Martin. He described the performances as “beautifully executed by incredible creatures that took the audience into another world”. After noticing Ailey in the audience at multiple concerts, Horton encouraged Ailey to come out and try dance. 

Not Easily Broken

I learned from the film how brave Ailey was to pick dancers who were considered atypical at the time. They traveled around the world sharing their dance art when Black performers were not widely accepted. During one of their first tours, they performed for twenty-five people in Australia and were so good that the show sold out the next night. Director Jamila Wignot’s interpretation of this moment was so spectacular, I felt as though I was actually in attendance of this historical event. 

I appreciated the interviews with former Ailey dancers (Sylvie Winters, Sanita Miller, Masazumi Chaya, and Bill T.Jones). They painted a clear picture of what it was like to be a part of the Ailey dancing family. The stories of the terrible hotels, their crowded small bus, and the long rides made the performers’ tours that much more commendable. It was clear that no matter the conditions, they could still perform to the best of their ability and wow the audience.

His Love, His Creation 

The documentary featured his mom, lover, teacher, and the greatest love of his life, dance. They all were essential to his existence and life force, but his mother, in particular, was highlighted for how much she meant to him. Ailey did not have many relationships or close friends; all he had was dance. It was not until later he realized that outside of his biological family, his dance company was his family, and dance was the glue that held it all together. 

One of the relationships explored in the film was with his short-term lover, Abdullah, a young man he met in France who traveled to New York to be with him. Abdullah disappeared one night via fire escape during a party thrown by Ailey and never returned. The death of his excellent friend, Joyce Trisler, caused him tremendous grief. The repeated loss in his life led to several months of him dealing with depression, leading him to eventually enter a rehabilitation center. 

I loved the film because it showed Ailey’s work was inspired by what he was feeling. For instance, when Fred Hampton died, he developed the play Masekela Langage, and after Joyce Tisler died, he created his tribute, Memoria.  

Last Days

Ailey’s battle with AIDS was a struggle; not only was the disease taking a toll on his physical health, but it was also taking a toll on him mentally. What kept him sane and at peace with this mortality? Dance and his dance family. Although he could barely stand, let alone dance, Ailey would watch his dancers rehearse from a couch his team put in the studio. 

After watching this film, I’ve gained whole new respect for Alvin Ailey, and I now see why advertisements for his dance company can be found everywhere. Ailey’s concerts have received standing ovations and encores because audience members love to see a passion-filled project. It’s apparent that Alvin Ailey’s essence was present during the development of Wignot’s project. If you want to see the beauty of Ailey’s growth as a man and his contribution to dance, I would recommend watching Ailey. The documentary is set to be released in theaters nationwide on August 6th, 2021. 

14Jul/21

Spike Lee’s New Book SPIKE Is a Visual Celebration of His Career

SPIKE

As Spike Lee serves as the director for the Cannes Film Festival, he also has something else major his fans can look forward to…his new book, SPIKE. The hardcover book covers Lee’s 30-year film career and includes never seen before photos from the set of his films. Some photos will come from the archives of Lee’s brother, David Lee, and will also feature photos from onset photographers from his films over the years.  

The book is also designed by creative and founder of Vocal Type, Tré Seals. Seals created the custom typography for the book based on Radio Raheem’s iconic LOVE/HATE brass knuckles from Do the Right Thing. The same brass knuckles Lee wore during his win at the Academy Awards for BlacKkKlansman. 

What I Look Forward To? 

I look forward to seeing extra photos from some of the sets of my favorite films like Jungle Fever, Do the Right Thing, Malcolm X, Mo’ Better Blues, and School Daze. These are the films I grew up appreciating because the characters look like me and some of the soundtracks were dope! Seriously, Mo’ Better Blues soundtrack was my gateway into my love for jazz and the He Got Game soundtrack re-introduced me to legendary hip hop group Public Enemy. 

I hope to see more information about films like She Hate Me and Bamboozled because these films were released during a time when I started to pay more attention to social commentary in art and understanding how art imitates life. Lee’s films always prompt audiences to think but never forces the message intended for the viewers. 

The book will also feature some stills and quotes from Spike Lee’s “Is it the shoes?” Nike campaign with Michael Jordan. I really want to see his commentary on that experience, especially when Jordan used to put on a show against his beloved Knicks. I mean Jordan used to embarrass everybody, but he used to obliterate the Knicks! 

“As I Head Full Steam Ahead Into My 5th Decade As A Filmmaker I Was Elated When Steve Crist And Chronicle Chroma Approached Me About Doing A Visual Book Of All My Joints. We Would Revisit All Da Werk I’ve Put In To Build My Body Of Work. Film Is A Visual Art Form And That Sense Of My Storytelling Has Been Somewhat Overlooked. Why Now, After All These Years? FOLKS BE FORGETTING.” – Spike Lee

For the last few years, Spike Lee has received his long-awaited and deserved roses. Of course, many of us have supported and shown appreciation for the quality entertainment he has created but I feel now he is getting worldwide acknowledgment. So if you are a Spike Lee fan like I am, you will enjoy this book published by Chronicle Chroma and can embrace the nostalgia. The book will be released on November 17th and can pre-ordered here.

SPIKE

Spike Lee has been a celebrated filmmaker, a cultural icon, and one of America’s most prominent voices on race and racism for more than three decades. His dynamic storytelling and unique visual style have made an indelible mark on filmmaking and television. This comprehensive monograph will be a sumptuous visual showcase of Spike Lee’s life and work, a must‐have for cinephiles and fans of one of the most influential filmmakers in history.  His career spans over 30 years and includes: She’s Gotta Have It, School Daze, Do the Right Thing, Mo’ Better Blues, Jungle Fever, Malcolm X, Crooklyn, Clockers, Get on the Bus, He Got Game, Summer of Sam, Bamboozled 25th Hour, Inside Man, and more. Lee’s outstanding feature documentary work includes the double Emmy® Award-winning If God Is Willing and Da Creek Don’t Rise, a follow-up to his HBO documentary film When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts, and the Peabody Award-winning A Huey P. Newton Story. In the television arena, he launched his Netflix original series She’s Gotta Have It, which ran two seasons on the platform. The series is a contemporary update of his classic film.

SPIKE

28Jun/21

Renaissance Woman, Nana Mensah, Impresses with Directorial Debut: “Queen of Glory”

Synopsis: Queen of Glory is the story of Sarah Obeng, a brilliant child of Ghanaian immigrants, who’s quitting her Ivy League PhD program to follow her married lover to Ohio. However, when her mother dies suddenly, Sarah is bequeathed a Christian bookstore in the Pelham Parkway section of the Bronx where she was raised. A follow-up on the classic immigrant’s tale, Queen of Glory provokes laughter and empathy as its heroine is reborn through her inheritance. 

Queen of Glory is a humorous film about identity, family, and culture; a story that shares the perspective of a Ghana-American preparing to bury her mother while following her deep-rooted cultural practices in the process. Like the lead character, Sarah Obeng (Nana Mensah), many of us leave our parents’ nest to explore the world, become educated, and gain exposure to other ways of life. Sometimes we find ourselves embracing other cultures while abandoning our own along the way. This Nana Mensah project proves that growth and self-discovery can be full of humor, even when things are not so much. It comes as no surprise that the film took home the 2021 Tribeca Film Festival’s Best New Narrative Director and Special Jury Prize for Artistic Expression. Mensah was able to take time from her busy Tribeca schedule to update Taji Mag about the film. 

Dapper Dr Feel (DDF): How was the process of making this film?

Nana Mensah (NM): Incredibly long. I had a very, very expensive script that still has not been made but takes place in Ghana and it was a historical biopic. I showed it to my good friend who is an indie filmmaker, Emily Abt, and she was like “Girl, nobody knows who you are. Nobody is going to give you $100 million dollars to make this movie in Ghana. Why don’t you start again and put this script on the back burner? Work on something intimate and small but you can put it in the festival circuit, make a name for yourself as a storyteller. Then that will be the launchpad to the $100 million projects”. That’s how I came to develop my labor of love, my passion project, Queen of Glory. I wrote this story around something film veterans advise young filmmakers to do which is cheap and [sometimes] free. My family owns a Christian bookstore in the Bronx, so I wrote the story around the idea of that bookstore and fictionalized everything else.

DDF: What was the most difficult part of the process?

NM: The hardest part was fundraising and getting resources. As a first-time filmmaker, nobody knows who you are and when you go to them to ask for money they are kind of like “Who, why, what are you using the money for?”. When you are a child of immigrants in the United States, it’s so cliche [that] you become a lawyer, doctor…and those are your options. My network was not a network that was very familiar with investing in film or things like that. Usually, it’s investing in an app or someone’s business, but when it comes to film it’s like, “What does that mean?”. It took a while to really convince people of my vision and to get resources.

I thought the world needed this story because I simply hadn’t seen it anywhere. West African stories don’t quite fit in the boxes Western audiences want to fit them into. In Asante culture— my parents’ culture and that of Sarah’s parents depicted in ‘Queen of Glory’— great joy and celebration can exist right alongside pain and loss. Asante stories show life as a symbiosis of drama and comedy, each stepping in when the other swells too wildly, needing to be checked. – Nana Mensah

DDF: Pit (Meeko Gattuso) was one of my favorite characters in the film. What made you cast Meeko Gattuso? 

NM: There’s a friend and family kind of vibe when it came to casting Meeko. Meeko was directed by my friend, Adam Leon, who also directed Gimme the Loot. Leon also plays Lyle, my boyfriend, in the film. Adam found Meeko. How? I have no idea. I always wanted to work with that guy…he’s so compelling and he’s so, you know, great to watch. We were looking at casting that role in the bookstore and one of our producers was like “Meeko!” and I was like “Really, oh my God, that’s so weird, wait that’s perfect”. It was one of those ideas where you’re like “no, no, no!” when the producers first say it, but then you are like “wait, wait, wait!” Now I can’t imagine anyone else playing that part.

Pit t(Meeko Gattuso) and Sarah (Nana Mensah)

DDF: Sarah’s next door neighbors always have chaos going on. How and why did you create those scenes?

NM: My background is in theater so when you’re watching a play, you get to kind of move your eyes around. You’re not being told where to look. A lot of times you just kind of pick out what you are absorbing. I wanted to play with the idea of being able to do that in film and so I figured with that family there’s so many people and so much chaos it would be great just to have this tableau. Then you get to choose your own adventure. Three of those characters are related, so there was a lot of familial beef they could draw from which worked in my favor.

DDF: What was going through Sarah’s mind when she was preparing for the funeral?

NM: What I was trying to convey was that sometimes you don’t have to do it anymore, and just be who you are. Sarah cutting off the weave and letting her natural hair out and then, like, really grieving her mother…something that she’s been keeping at bay this entire time, you know, keeping a bit of distance between herself and the grief. Letting the loss of her mother wash over her is how I wanted it to end at that point of the act.

DDF: Do you think we will see more stories like Queen of Glory?

NM: I’m just excited to add another contribution to the different ways that Black people live, are being raised, and what they’re being exposed to in the United States; and just adding another Drop in the Ocean of Blackness reflected in cinema. 

Queen of Glory is a uniquely funny film that audiences are bound to enjoy. I found myself connected to the film and especially relating to the lead character. This film is another great project released by Magnolia Pictures and definitely worth watching. Hopefully it will open the door for Nana Mensah’s $100 million dollar film of her dreams. In the meantime, you can also catch Nana in the upcoming Netflix series, The Chair.