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Archive for the ‘Hollywood’ Category

Love & Basketball (2000) is a Hollywood film, a love story starring Omar Epps and Sanaa Lathan. It was written and directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood (I will do a post on her). Lathan and Epps grow up next door to each other in the 1980s in Crenshaw, a black part of Los Angeles. They both love basketball – and, even when they do not want to admit it, each other. Basketball brings them together – and tears them apart.

This was the film that made Sanaa Lathan’s name and got Boris Kodjoe noticed (he takes her to the spring dance). Tyra Banks got a bit part but was already world-famous as a supermodel.

Gabrielle Union is in it too, then also pretty much unknown. She tried out for the lead but lost out to Lathan. Instead she got a part as one of Epps’s girlfriends. Union was to make her name that same year by starring in “Bring it On”, a cheerleader film.

Supporting characters: Debbi Morgan and Dennis Haysbert play Epps’s parents, Alfre Woodard plays Lathan’s mother.  In addition to the love story and the basetketball, the film shows Lathan’s relationship with her mother and Epps’s with his father. Debbi Morgan was great as a woman past her prime in a failing marriage.

The best scene except for the end was at the the spring dance: Lathan is dancing with Kodjoe and Epps is dancing with Union and they are playing Zapp and Roger’s “I Want to Be Your Man” (1987). Not only do I love that song but Lathan looked absolutely beautiful in that scene.

It is one of those movies I kept hearing about but never saw – till the other day. At the time it came out I had no reason to see it: I did not know Lathan then and my wife is no fan of Epps (too short?). I like Alfre Woodard but she is no big Hollywood star so I never know if she is in something until I am already watching it: “Hey, look, Alfre Woodard!”

It was a sweet story – though, truth be told, I would have probably watched it if it was just two hours of Sanaa Lathan breathing or waiting for a bus. If Halle Berry is bread, Sanaa Lathan is cake. With icing.

Lathan had played basketball only twice in her life before she got the part. They had to shoot the basketball scenes so you could not tell – partly by shooting the action from her point of view.

All the basketball players wear Nike shoes: because Nike had enough shoes from the 1980s for a period film. Prince-Bythewood, the director, tried to stay as in period as possible – though right in the opening scene set in 1981 she plays a song from 1983 (“Candy Girl” by New Edition). In the director’s commentary I found out that she knew that – she was just about the same age as the main characters in 1981 – but thought the song was too good to pass up.

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“Alice in Wonderful” (2010) is the second Disney film of that name, this one directed by Tim Burton, who did “Nightmare Before Christmas” (1993). Johnny Depp plays the Mad Hatter. Unlike the first Alice film by Disney in 1951, which used straight animation, this one uses live actors with computers drawing in the background and even parts of the characters. It also features an older Alice, 19 (played by Mia Wasikowska) who is faced with a Wonderland that has become dark and evil.

I loved the Alice books and I loved “The Nightmare Before Christmas”, so I was looking forward to this film. I thought it could be a masterpiece. Sadly, it is not. While the acting, the sets, the special effects and the costumes were all great the plot was not.

The plot was tired. It is the very same plot you see in Star Wars, the Hobbit and the Wizard of Oz: our hero is an ordinary person who finds himself fighting against some great, terrible evil power. On his way to face said evil power he gathers an odd set of companions and a bit of magic power.

So in place of Chewbacca or the Scarecrow you have the Mad Hatter. In place of the Force or ruby slippers or a ring you have a vorpal sword. In place of Darth Vader and the Death Star you have the Queen of Hearts and the Jabberwocky. Blah blah blah.

A plot like that has plenty of built-in suspense, but I was never in suspense. I blame the writers for that.

So the plot seemed weak and tired and not-again. I felt like I was watching cable television on a large screen. It would make great late-night television. Sorry to say, but it should have gone straight to DVD.

I saw it in 3-D: they give you special glasses for that. That was a waste too – the film did not gain much by being in 3-D. I am glad I did not pay even more to see it at an IMAX theatre.

It is a shame because Tim Burton certainly has the imagination and the right spirit to make a great Alice film. It being Tim Burton I expected a dark Alice but I also expected to be surprised and wowed, like I was with “Nightmare Before Christmas”.

Johnny Depp was good. I particularly liked Anne Hathaway as the White Queen. She was always holding up her hands and had this wide-eyed stare and kept telling us she took a vow not to use violence – even as she let her subjects do their worst to the forces of the Red Queen.

The closing scene was a nice touch – reminding you that the earth itself is a wonderland.

You also get to see a bandersnatch. I do not remember Tenniel ever drawing one for the Alice books. Tweedledee and Tweedledum were played by the same actor, by the way, not by twins.

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“Shaft” (1971) was Hollywood’s first blaxpoitation film to become a hit. It starred the then unknown Richard Roundtree. It is most famous for the Isaac Hayes song that opens the film:

Who’s the black private dick
That’s a sex machine to all the chicks?
(SHAFT!)
You’re damn right

You see this cat Shaft is a bad mother-
(Shut your mouth)
But I’m talkin’ about Shaft
(Then we can dig it)

The parts in parentheses were sung by Stax singers Telma Hopkins and Joyce Vincent Wilson, who later became the Dawn of Tony Orlando & Dawn.

The opening scene shows John Shaft, a black New York City detective in a long brown leather coat, walking through Times Square as the song plays. A wonderful opening but then it  becomes like a late-night movie. Shaft tries to save the daughter of a Harlem crime lord to prevent all-out war with the Mafia. It only gets good again towards the end.

Blaxpoitation films were made by Hollywood in the 1970s for black audiences. They were mostly crime dramas with black leads. Pam Grier made her name starring in them. They pushed stereotypes of blacks as oversexed, badass and violent. Shaft himself is a good example of all three.

Civil rights leaders condemned it but black audiences loved it: back then almost no film had a hero who was unashamedly black.

“Shaft” had a black director, Gordon Parks, and two white screenwriters. One of them, Ernest Tidyman, created the character as a sort of black James Bond, writing seven books about him. Tidyman is one of the few whites to win an NAACP Image Award.

Sex machine to all the chicks: He has a main chick, Dina, who wears a wedding ring, another one on the side, Ellie, and, to put the “all” in “all the chicks”, he picks up a white chick at a bar for a one-night stand and has a shower scene with her.

Ellie: I love you
Shaft: Yeah, I know. Take it easy.

Shaft lives in a huge, well-furnished apartment and always takes the taxi – like he is made of money. He reads Essence magazine and uses what seems like too much slang. He likes to say “Right on!” and holds up his fist, like some bad stereotype of the 1970s.  Everyone is cat, dude or baby. That slang, I later found out, was put in over the protests of Tidyman.  But in the end it did not matter: the language was picked up by black teenagers. So was Shaft’s habit of crossing the street without looking.

In the opening scene, at the newsstand, you can see Naomi Sims on the cover of Essence.

It is amazing how much New York looks the same nearly 40 years later.

The film cost $500,000 (370,000 crowns) to make but brought in $13 million! Two sequels and a short-lived television series dutifully followed. In 2000 John Singleton brought it to the next generation with Samuel L. Jackson playing John Shaft’s nephew.

– Abagond, 2010, 2016.

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Paul Newman

Paul Newman (1925-2008) was a Hollywood actor and sex symbol, from the 1960s and early 1970s. He was married to Joanne Woodward for 50 years.

On this blog at the end of 2009 he was voted the eighth most gorgeous man in the world – over a year after he died at age 83!

His best films (those receiving an IMDb rating of at least 8.0):

  • 1958: Cat on a Hot Tin Roof
  • 1961: The Hustler
  • 1967: Cool Hand Luke
  • 1969: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid
  • 1973: The Sting

The first he did with Elizabeth Taylor, the last two with Robert Redford, both Hollywood sex symbols in their own right. He is known for playing anti-heroes. He was acting almost right up to the end of his life.

His name was put up for an Oscar for best actor eight times, but only won once, for “The Color of Money” in 1987. Some say his acting got better with age – the Oscar nominations seem to bear that out.

He was born the son of a Cleveland shopkeeper. Both sides of his family come from Eastern Europe (Slovakia, Hungary, Poland). Like his father but unlike his mother he is Jewish.

In the Second World War he wanted to be a pilot and fly planes but his colour blindness prevented him. He almost fought in the battle of Okinawa but the pilot of his plane got an ear infection and they stayed back. Everyone else in their detail died in battle.

After the war he went into acting, at first on Broadway and television and then in Hollywood films. He did terribly in his first film, “The Silver Chalice” (1954), but then did well two years later in “Somebody Up There Likes Me” (1956) – a part he got through the death of James Dean. Soon he was starring opposite Elizabeth Taylor. His acting was not as good as, say, Marlon Brando’s, but his good looks made up for it.

In 1958 he starred with Joanne Woodward in “The Long Hot Summer”. That year he divorced his first wife of nine years and married Woodward. He has three children by each wife. In 1960 he and Woodward moved to Connecticut.

In 1978 his only son died of a drug overdose at age 28.

Newman was a race car driver. He came in second at Le Mans in 1979.

He used to make salad dressing as a Christmas gift. It caught on and in 1982 he started selling it under the brand name Newman’s Own. He later branched out into spaghetti sauce and popcorn. Since Newman was not interested in getting rich, he gave the profits to charity – education, health, the environment, disaster relief, etc. He joked that Newman’s Own brought in more money than his acting ever did (true).

In 1988 he started the Hole in the Wall Gang, a free summer camp in Connecticut, between New York and Boston, for children who are dying or who have spent a long time in the hospital.

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Angela Bassett in “Waiting to Exhale” (1995) in her most iconic scene.

 

Angela Bassett (1958- ), an American actress, is perhaps the best black female actress alive in Hollywood. She is both more beautiful and far more talented than Halle Berry, the only black woman so far to win an Oscar for best actress. Bassett has played Tina Turner, the wife of Malcolm X (twice) and the mother of Biggie Smalls.

Some of her films:

  • 1991: Boyz N the Hood
  • 1992: Malcolm X
  • 1993: What’s Love Got to Do with It
  • 1995: Waiting to Exhale (pictured above)
  • 1995: Strange Days
  • 1998: How Stella Got Her Groove Back
  • 2006: Akeelah and the Bee
  • 2008: Meet the Browns
  • 2009: Notorious

I already knew who she was by the time she appeared in “Malcolm X” but apparently it was playing Tina Turner a year later in “What’s Love Got to Do with It” that made her name with mainstream American audiences.

She lost the lead in “Introducing Dorothy Dandridge” (1999) to Halle Berry. She turned down the lead in “Monster’s Ball” (2001) because of how it shows black women – and because she does not do nude scenes. Halle Berry took that part and went on to win an Oscar for best actress.

Angela Bassett was born on the very same day as Madonna: August 16th 1958. She was born in Harlem but her mother soon moved to St Petersburg, Florida, where she grew up in public housing.

In 1974 she saw James Earl Jones in “Of Mice and Men” on a school trip to Washington, DC:

I just sat there after the play, boo-hoo crying, weeping. I couldn’t move, and I remember thinking, “My gosh, if I could make somebody feel the way I feel right now!”

From that moment she began to think about becoming an actress.

She got a scholarship to Yale. After getting her degree in African American Studies, she studied acting at the Yale School of Drama. She had to unlearn her Southern accent. There she met Courtney B. Vance, whom she would one day marry.

After Yale she acted in some television ads, the soap opera “Guiding Light” and two August Wilson plays. Then her friend Larry Fishburne helped her to land a part in “Boyz N the Hood”. She played the mother of the main character – but to her she was playing her own mother. That got her noticed as a serious actress in Hollywood.

In 1993 she starred opposite Fishburne in “What’s Love Got to Do with It”, with her cast as Tina to his Ike. She broke her hand during shooting – but that only helped her to play Tina Turner even better. Tina Turner did her make-up and taught her the dance moves. One reviewer said that Bassett, “captures the erotic youthquake that was Tina Turner in the ’60s and early ’70s”.

In 1997 she married actor Courtney B. Vance. He played her husband when she appeared in the last season of “ER” (2008-2009). They have a boy and a girl: Slater and Bronwyn, both born in 2006 by means of a surrogate mother (Bassett was 47 at the time of their birth).

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White Saviour

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White Saviour (1700s- ) or Mighty Whitey is that thing where a white hero saves the “natives” (people of colour). It is so unlike white history, yet so beloved in white fiction.

Examples of White Saviour stories:

  • 1826: The Last of the Mohicans
  • 1912: Tarzan of the Apes
  • 1962: Lawrence of Arabia
  • 1975: Shogun
  • 1987: Cry Freedom
  • 1988: Mississippi Burning
  • 1990: Dances with Wolves
  • 1995: Dangerous Minds
  • 1997: Amistad
  • 2003: The Last Samurai
  • 2007: Freedom Writers
  • 2009: Avatar
  • 2009: The Blind Side
  • 2011: The Help
  • 2012: Lincoln

I remember watching “Cry Freedom” thinking it was going to be about Steve Biko, a hero in the fight against white rule in South Africa. Imagine how I felt when I found out that the hero of the story was – a white reporter!

White paternalism is what these stories push: White is right, whites are better, therefore natives need their help. The truth is, whites are no better than anyone else – just more powerful. Power does not equal wisdom. Far from it: power corrupts, it morally blinds. So the truth is often the opposite of these stories – which makes them all the more appealing.

Some White Saviour stories are, in fact, true. For example, “Freedom Writers” was not made up. But why a story about a white teacher who gets through to poor ghetto students and not the far greater number of black and Latino teachers who do the very same thing? Because those stories do not help whites to feel good about themselves.

Sometimes the White Saviour goes native, like Tom Cruise in “The Last Samurai”. Sometimes they force their culture on the natives, like Michelle Pfeiffer in “Dangerous Minds”. But either way the racist message is clear: whites are better than natives.

Sometimes White Saviour stories are turned on their head: In “To Sir, with Love” (1967) Sidney Poitier, who is black, plays the White Saviour character while white English students play the natives. In “Apocalypse Now” (1979) the White Saviour goes mad.

Are White Saviours just Magical Caucasians – like Magical Negroes? While both help whites feel at peace with the way race is in America, Magical Negroes are mostly just plot devices while White Saviours are the main character of a story. Also, the White Saviour’s powers do not seem like a mystery to the white audience – even if they go against all common sense, like in Tarzan.

Some might argue that White Saviour stories are a simple business decision: whites will only see a film where the main character is white. Except that it is not true. Even the 1960s Sidney Poitier proved that was not true.

Most people who see Hollywood films are not White Americans. For example, during the first weekend of “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen” (2009), they made up only a third of the audience at best. But most Hollywood directors, writers and producers are White Americans. And they determine what makes a good story for the rest of us. It is part of the structural racism of our times.

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bechdeltest

The Bechdel Test (1985) says that a film is not worth watching unless it fulfils three conditions:

  1. It has to have at least two women who
  2. talk to each other about
  3. something besides a man

It comes from Allison Bechdel’s comic strip “Dykes to Watch Out For”. She in turn got it from Liz Wallace at her karate class.

It can apply to any story but Hollywood fails the test at a surprising rate, even now more than 20 years later.

NPR did a piece on the Bechdel Test a year ago. In it Eric Deggans, who writes about television for the St Petersburg Times, gave his own form of the Bechdel Test for race:

  1. At least two non-white characters in the main cast …
  2. in a show that’s not about race.

I did not know about the Bechdel Test till I read about it in Alaya Dawn Johnson’s post yesterday at the Angry Black Woman, but even I had something like it in my head:

  1. At least two black characters
  2. who are not stereotypes
  3. whose love lives we know about and
  4. who have their own storyline

“The Secret Life of Bees” would pass (the storylines of Alicia Keys and Sophie Okonedo), while the “Imitation of Life” would not (black characters are stereotypes).

Johnson gives the strict form of the Bechdel Test for race:

  1. It has to have two people of colour in it.
  2. Who talk to each other.
  3. About something other than a white person.

Like Deggans, I would add that talking about race would be, in effect, talking about white people.

deniseJohnson says most shows fail, though “Battlestar Galactica”, “True Blood”, “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Veronica Mars” pass.

A show can pass the Bechdel Test and still be racist – and, likewise, it can fail and yet not be particularly racist at all. But it is a quick way of separating those that probably are racist from those that probably are not. And, more importantly, it gives you a way of thinking about stories and how white male they are in their point of view.

Deggans says that most shows fail the Bechdel Test because most successful television writers are white men. They just do not know what women or blacks talk about when they are not there.

Jennifer Kesler at The Hathor Legacy says it is worse than that: when she was learning to write for Hollywood they told her, in so many words, to fail the Bechdel Test: main characters should be white men and no one cares what women (or presumably blacks or anyone else) talk about unless it is about the main characters – who are white men!

But why? Because the white men who run Hollywood say it is what the “target audience” wants. But just what is this target audience? Kesler says in their minds it turns out to be “a construct based on partial truths and twisted math – to perpetuate their own desires”.

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