Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Noir Lives Matter

I'm frankly not one to typically notice the imbalance of recognition people of color tend to be on the wrong end of in the arts. It's a blindspot of privilege I've been fairly comfortable operating behind, but even I arched an eyebrow, whistled nervously and wanted to back away slowly when reading the just announced Academy Award nominees. Don't look directly at them you might go blind from the dazzling white glare.

So hey, on MLK Day can I pander just a little to highlight some crime films and books that cross the white lines and have meant something to me?

Snow on tha Bluff - Damon Russell - I caught up with this one over the weekend based on the recommendation of Eryk Pruitt and man it was terrific. Slice of life, found footage/mock-doc about an Atlanta drug dealer (and drug dealer robbing) Curtis Snow who plays a version of himself in the film. Naturalistic, unselfconscious performances all around help blur lines of reality and fiction for maximum emotional engagement.

Uptight - Jules Dassin - A brilliant update of The Informer based on Liam O'Flaherty's Troubles novel set in Detroit and opening on the funeral of Martin Luther King Jr. It chronicles the struggle of revolutionaries and blue-collar workers just trying to get by alike as they capitalize on and react in fear and anger over the assassination. Who-ee it's an intense atmosphere and a heartbreaking film which, in the great noir tradition, focuses not on the heroes or antiheroes of the moment, but rather on the ratfinks and Judases and small-time opportunists trying to make their way by unseemly means. Dassin made some of my favorite and angriest films noir of all time (Brute Force, Thieves' Highway, The Naked City) before being blacklisted and having to leave the country to find work (he made perhaps his best known film as a non-French-speaking American ex-pat - Rififi) before returning home years later to finish his career making other types of pictures. Uptight stands out among his later work as an angry, but mostly sad, and very humane film about the times.

Viva Riva! - Djo Munga - No grand statements here, just a particularly vibrant and sensuous setting (Kinshasa) for a rise and fall of a gangster picture. Great chemistry too between Patsha Bay and Manie Malone. The energy, the urgency and the Congo locale - all rubble and glamour - make it a highly enjoyable flick I'll want to revisit again soon.

Gangster's Paradise: Jerusalema - Ralph Ziman - Another location-centric appealing film about a young hustler who grows into a man of the people stripe of criminal toeing the line of legitimacy in post-freed-Mandela South Africa.

City of God - Fernando Meirelles, Katia Lund - Aaaand to make the exotic-locale picks a trio I'll bring this Rio de Janeiro flick to the fore and ask: is there anyone left who has not seen this movie? If not, get the fuck on it, pronto. This... this is the thing, the one, the holy-shit, did you see that? flick here with its mix of groovy and gritty, funky and frightening, hip and horrifying I've not seen anything remotely like it since its release in 2002. And to be frank Meirelles hasn't done near as much for me since either - I liked The Constant Gardener fine, but it's not got anything near the impact of a dozen different high-voltage scenes and sequences from CoG.
Menace II Society - Albert Hughes, Allen Hughes - I saw Boyz n the Hood as a teenager and felt like I was missing something (which I'm sure I was - haven't seen it since), but the Hughes brothers' debut felt like the proper emotional curb stomping I'd been expecting from the other. Challenged my sheltered sensibilities too.

Brooklyn's Finest - Antoine Fuqua - Okay, sure it's an ensemble and the white guys are bigger in the posters, but it's the relationship between Don Cheadle's undercover cop and Wesley Snipes's back on the block criminal pal Cheads is charged with sending back to prison that really drives the drama.

aaaand a few more..
Blue Collar - Paul Schrader 

Go For Sisters - John Sayles

Clockers - Spike Lee 

and books - do some reading

The Dying Ground - Nichelle D. Tramble

Love is a Racket - John Ridley

A Negro and an Ofay - Danny Gardner

Warlord of Willow Ridge - Gary Phillips

anything by Chester Himes

Or check out Gar Anthony Haywood, Scott Adlerberg, Walter Moseley or Donald Goines and some of my favorite whiteys write black characters in their best work: Roger Smith, George Pelecanos, Richard Price... Shit, I missed MLK day deadline, but there you go.


mtm said...

I like the Old School Books series of black crime novels. Dozen or so. Read them all some years ago and are pretty uniformly good. Like also Pam Grier in Coffy. Probably not exactly what you're going for here, I'm just sayin. mtm

Michael S. Chong said...

I second that emotion for Old School Books especially 'The Scene' by Clarence Cooper Jr. and 'The Jones Men' by Vern E. Smith.

jedidiah ayres said...

I'll have to look into the Old School Books - i'm not familiar with those. I'm red-blooded - I like Pam Grier movies for sure. Not sure why all the movies that occurred to me were more recent ones... For example Larry Fishburne in DEEP COVER was a big influence on my development. Just what I get for pulling all these posts outta my ass I suppose. Thanks for the recs