Tongues Untied (1989)

The most impressive, inspiring films are always the ones that achieve a transcendent artistic effect with subprofessional resources or distribution. By that metric, Tongues Untied is one of the most impressive films I’ve seen in a long while. Its means are severely limited by its VHS aesthetic & camcorder-level resources, which makes it initially register more as D.I.Y. video art than legitimized Cinema. Still, it pushes through that financial gatekeeping barrier to achieve a fantastic poetic effect that’s frequently surreal, furious, grief-stricken, hilarious, and erotic, sometimes all at once. The film’s distribution was controversial to the point of near-extinction, sparking a highly-publicized national debate about whether or not it should be allowed to be broadcast on the PBS network because of its explicit sexuality (no doubt largely due to that sexuality’s homosexual orientation). Still, it lives on decades later as one of the most vital, fearless documents of American gay life in its era, legendary on the same level as more frequently canonized works like Paris is Burning & The Queen. Tongues Untied is D.I.Y. filmmaking at its most potent and least timid, throwing stylistic & political punches far above its budgetary weight class and landing each one square on America’s crooked jaw.

At its core, this is an essay film about black gay life in the United States during the darkest days of the AIDS crisis. Building off the thesis that “Black men loving Black men is a revolutionary act,” a small sample of interviewees (including director Marlon Riggs himself) intimately share their life experiences as a kind of collective Oral History. They start by explaining how they’re outsiders in every community they inhabit, demonized & othered either through racism or through homophobia in every direction they turn. These confessionals gradually give way to an overt call to action as the film continues. They demand that more queer black men untie their tongues and become vocal about their own sexuality, so that their shared identity can become more normalized and less of a shamefully hidden peculiarity. The direct-to-the-camera messaging, photoshoot backdrops, and VHS patina of these interviews often recall a 90s anti-drug PSA or a local doc from a PBS affiliate, but the raw pain & sensuality of their stories smash through any potential aesthetic roadblocks. This is a doubly marginalized group who have to muster all of their collective strength just to be able to proclaim “We are worth wanting each other,” a revolutionary act after centuries of being told from all sides that they are worthless.

Even if it were just limited to these oral history interviews & editorials, the film would still be an essential document of black homosexual identity in late-80s America. Marlon Riggs pushes his work far beyond that humble act of self-anthropology, though, and instead aims to achieve pure cinematic poetry. Collaborating closely with the poet Essex Hemphill (who appears onscreen just as often as Riggs), he abstracts the interviews & essays at the core of the film by warping them into a layered, rhythmic vocal performance – as if all onscreen subjects were sharing the same artistic voice. The effect can be surreal or literary, making direct allusions to Ralph Ellison & Langston Hughes to tie the film into a black poetic tradition, and using a Gertrude Stein-style punishing repetition of phrases like “Brother to brother, brother to brother” to completely obliterate the audience’s senses. It can also be hilarious in a sketch comedy way, allowing for out-of-nowhere tangents into the sassy art of snapping or the playful sleaze of 1-900 dial-up phone sex. Most importantly, it unlocks the film’s full potential so that it’s not just a vocal diary of black gay men’s lived experiences but rather a soul-deep expression of all the pain, anger, lust, and joy they feel all at once within a society that would prefer they didn’t feel anything, or exist at all.

Tongues Untied uses the vocal rhythms and subliminal associations of poetry to crack its videotaped oral histories wide open, unlocking something much greater and more resonant than its means should allow. It is a transcendent work of art just as much as it is an anthropological time capsule, which makes it uniquely valuable to both cinephiles & political academics. There are plenty of examples of video art that pushed past the boundaries of fringe D.I.Y. experimentation to genuinely achieve cultural significance. However, I doubt there are many that could legitimately claim to be one of the greatest films of all time the way this scrappy, urgent VHS poetry relic could.

-Brandon Ledet

Movie of the Month: Fried Green Tomatoes (1991)

Every month one of us makes the rest of the crew watch a movie they’ve never seen before and we discuss it afterwards. This month Britnee made Hanna, Brandon, and Boomer watch Fried Green Tomatoes (1991).

Britnee: Growing up, my main sources of movies were cable TV, Debra’s Movie World (a local video rental store in my hometown), and the local public library.  The highlight of my weekend was checking out the TV guide in the newspaper to see what movies were going to be on TV (mostly the TNT, TBS, and USA channels) and taking a trip to Debra’s or the library to browse through the racks of VHS tapes.  When borrowing movies from the library, I was limited to two.  My first pick was always a film I had never seen before, and my second pick was always reserved for one of my go-to movies.  Almost every time, that go-to movie was Fried Green Tomatoes.  The film is adapted from Fannie Flagg’s novel Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe, which I was also a fan of.  I even did a book report on it when I was in the seventh or eighth grade!  I was, and still am, very much in love with this movie, and I’m so excited to share it with the Swampflix crew for our April Movie of the Month.

Fried Green Tomatoes is a heartfelt, hilarious, tearjerking masterpiece that focuses on the relationships and lives of Southern women.  Evelyn Couch (Kathy Bates) is a housewife in early 1990s Alabama.  She’s riddled with low self-esteem and is desperately trying to add life back into her dull marriage.  One of the most iconic scenes in the movie is when Evelyn fantasizes about wrapping herself in a cellophane dress to seduce her husband but, sadly, he’s even just as boring in her fantasies as he is in real life and isn’t into it.  While visiting her husband’s aunt at a nursing home, who really doesn’t enjoy Evelyn’s company,  Evelyn meets Ms. Threadgoode (Jessica Tandy).  Ms. Threadgoode begins to tell her stories about the lives of the residents of a small town named Whistle Stop during the Depression Era.  The two stars of her stories are Idgie Threadgoode (Mary Stuart Masterson) and Ruth Jamison (Mary-Louise Parker), two women who are in an obvious lesbian relationship even though it’s never blatantly stated.  Evelyn becomes obsessed with hearing these stories and starts making regular visits to the nursing home to hear Ms. Threadgoode tell them.  The stories bring Evelyn back to life and inspire her take control of her life, all in the name of Tawanda!

The relationship between Idgie and Ruth is both beautiful and tragic.  The two women are soulmates who are known throughout the town of Whistle Stop as “really good friends” beacause, well, this is the South in the 1920s.  Both women run The Whistle Stop Cafe (yay for female business owners!), serving pies, BBQ, and you guessed it, fried green tomatoes.  Fun Fact: The Whistle Stop Cafe building used for the film was actually turned into a real restaurant Juliette, Georgia.  It still looks just like the restaurant in the movie and serves up fried green tomatoes and BBQ (hopefully not like the “secret sauce” BBQ in the movie).  Prior to the cafe, Ruth was in an abusive marriage, and when Idgie discovers Ruth is both pregnant and being beaten, she rescues her.  The two women start their own life together, and Idgie helps Ruth raise her child.  Everything seems to being going okay for the two until Ruth’s husband goes missing, and Idgie is a suspect for his murder.

Boomer, this film has received criticism for glossing over the lesbian relationship between Idgie and Ruth.  What are your thoughts on this?

Boomer: I was really excited when Fried Green Tomatoes was nominated for Movie of the Month, because I just read the book last October and was itching to talk about the book with pretty much everyone I knew.  The film was also a treasure of a different kind, albeit one that made me turn to my friend with whom I was watching it and say “In the book . . . ” at least twenty times.

The nature of film is different from that of literature, and some excisions are to be expected.  For one thing, the novel is much more realistic in its presentation of period accurate language, which is a polite way of saying that I’m completely comfortable with the fact that studios decided it wouldn’t be much fun to watch beloved actors and actresses say the n-word with the frequency it appears in the novel, even in the mouths of characters we otherwise like and admire, simply to be more historically correct.  Those who have only ever seen the film would also likely be surprised to learn just what a large part of the novel focuses on Sipsey’s family, including grandchildren and great-grandchildren, and the hardships of the pre- and post-King civil rights movements as seen through their eyes.  Of particular note are Big George’s two sons, one of whom is light-skinned and other darker, and how life is harder for the latter than the former despite their identical lineage; one becomes a train porter who lives long enough for his modern grandchildren to be critical of his attitude towards white people (remarking behind the old man’s back that his “bowing and scraping” to white people is “embarrassing”) while the other lives a shorter, more tragic life that involves a self-perpetuating cycle of incarceration following an initial arrest that is extremely unjust, even for its time.  This excision also leaves out, as a consequence, one of my favorite little touches of the novel: Evelyn’s visit to the black church in the novel (unaccompanied by Ninny) involves her sharing a pew with and shaking the hand of one of Sipsey’s great-granddaughters, with no one but the omniscient voice of the author to recognize this serendipitous connection and meeting.

Even though Fried Green Tomatoes was hailed as such a breakthrough that it received the GLAAD Media Award for Outstanding Film in 1992, it’s surprising how understated the romance between Idgie and Ruth is, although it is explicitly and openly queer in a way that I’m surprised to see in such a mainstream film of the time (and which was such a big hit, grossing nearly $120 million against its $11 million budget).  Even more surprisingly, this isn’t that different from the book, which never uses the word “lesbian” or any derivatives which is for the best, as I would hate to have had to watch a scene of aged Jessica Tandy telling Kathy Bates “They were lesbians.”  The closest the text gets is in a scene between Ruth and Idgie’s mother in which the latter begs Ruth not to leave at the end of the summer in which she and Idgie first meet, with only Mama Threadgoode tells her that Idgie loves Ruth in her own Idgiosyncratic (sorry) way.  What the film adds is Ruth’s earlier love of Buddy, which layers on a Schrodinger’s Sexuality element that allows a more conservative audience to dismiss the queer undertones that discomfit them, getting them to unwittingly cheer a queer romance.  That Ruth and Idgie are in love is evident, both to the others in their town and to the reader and audience, without ever having to verbalize or label it, which is beautiful in its way.  It’s also not shot for the male gaze at all, either; although Mary Stuart Masterson and Mary-Louise Parker are beautiful women, but there’s nothing salacious or sexualized about them.  I’d consider it a win across the board . . . were it not for that Buddy/Ruth added element.

So, uh, one thing I didn’t know about this narrative before reading the novel is that unwitting cannibalism is arguably the crux on which the entire story rests.  That was unexpected.  Brandon, what did you think of this development?  Did you foresee it at all; did it take you completely by surprise?  Do you think that a great and grievous wrong was committed against the people of Whistle Stop by feeding them human flesh without their knowledge?

Brandon:  I felt fully prepared for the cannibalism by the time it arrived in the story, but only because the movie trains you to be prepared for anything Fried Green Tomatoes looks & acts like a Normal movie on the surface, but it constantly veers into absurdist humor, grisly violence, and straight-up Gay Stuff that you don’t normally get to see in a Hollywood picture of this flavor.  Before starting the film, however, I never would have guessed that cannibalism would play such a central role in the story, since it looked from the outside to be a good-ol’-days, Simple Southern Living melodrama along the lines of Driving Miss Daisy or Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood.  I even remember chuckling about how adorably quaint the tagline on the poster felt: “The secret of life?  The secret’s in the sauce.”  In retrospect—now knowing that the sauce’s recipe sometimes includes human flesh—that tagline is absolutely horrific, which is a perfectly illustrative example of how subtly bizarre this movie can be.

By the time the cannibalism arrives in the story, we’ve already been thrown for so many loops by Kathy Bates’s cellophane lingerie fantasies & mirror-squatting vagina workshops, the nearby train’s bloodthirsty quest to crush all children, and the local sheriff’s side hustle as a barroom drag queen that I was game for pretty much anything.  I wasn’t even especially aghast that they fed the beautifully barbequed corpse to their clientele, since the only customer we see chowing down on the stuff (in the movie, at least) is an evil cop we’ve been prompted to hiss at every time he appears at the café.  I love how the mystery of who among the main cast killed the KKK member that winds up on the Whistle Stop’s menu is given tons of breathing room to loom large over the plot, but the cooking & consumption of that monster’s body is practically a throwaway punchline.  It’s that exact emphasis on the conventional vs. underplayed indulgence in the bizarre that made Fried Green Tomatoes such a treat for me overall.  It’s both proudly traditional & wildly unpredictable, paradoxically so.

While the murder mystery eventually gets settled (both in the eyes of the law and in the eyes of the audience), I think there’s a much more inconclusive mystery the movie leaves open for interpretation: Who, exactly, was Jessica Tandy playing?  From what I understand, the book is explicitly clear about who the old woman was at the periphery of the central romance (Idgie’s sister-in-law), but I think the movie is a little more ambiguous.  There’s enough evidence onscreen to implicate that the elderly Ninny Threadgoode was actually Idgie Threadgoode all-growed-up, not just some tertiary family member who watched Idgie’s life play out from a distance.  Hanna, how did you interpret Ninny’s identity?  Did you take her word at face-value that she was a distant relative of Idgie’s, or did you suspect that she might be Idgie herself?

Hanna: I was one thousand percent convinced that Ninny was Idgie.  In fact, part of my brain is still refusing to acknowledge any evidence to the contrary that may be provided in the book.  It would have been pretty easy to establish Ninny’s selfhood outside of the Idgie’s story (e.g., “Idgie’s sister told me … ” “I was visiting my brother when I heard …”), especially considering that Ninny’s identity is made clear in the source material. More than that, I would like to keep myself blissfully ignorant because I like the idea of Idgie telling her own story disguised as a secondary source; I feel like that mischief is in keeping with Idgie’s character in general.

I also have to say that I was pleasantly surprised by the presence of the queer romance. I really didn’t know that much about Fried Green Tomatoes except that “Were Idgie and Ruth lovers in Fried Green Tomatoes?” is apparently a popular question on Google. Based on the need to ask the question, I assumed that the love would be purely subtext, projection, and wishful thinking; I was surprised by the tender sensuality between the two, especially in that bee scene!  I do wish the relationship had been pushed further, I think it was a pretty perfect depiction of what a lesbian love would look like during that period of time.

Besides the queer Southern lady romance, the mythos of Whistle Stop is one of my favorite aspects of the movie: the shadow of the ever-present Trauma Train, for example, or the mysterious circumstances surrounding the death of Ruth’s horrific ex-husband.  Idgie is nestled at the center of all of these myths, and she weaves her own, too: she robs trains and Robin Hoods the spoils away!  She is a friend to bees!  She’s a free-wheeling, entrepreneurial, Southern lesbian!  She’s like a considerate version of Tom Sawyer, embodying the spirit of wildly compassionate independence; her unconventional bravery raises her as a kind of folk hero in the eyes of her community, and just as much in Ninny/Idgie’s stories for Evelyn decades later.  I think this is another reason I’m prone to believe that the sisters-in-law are the same person: I am in love with the idea of an elderly Idgie leaving an offering of honey for her lady and disappearing into the woods at the end, cementing her status as the grand ghost of Whistle Stop.


Lagniappe

Brandon:  I also found it incredibly refreshing how open this film was about the romantic spark between Idigie & Ruth . . . up to a point.  There’s an early scene where Idgie takes Ruth on a picnic to pull honey for her directly out of a beehive (a total show-off move that invites horrific My Girl flashbacks) where I thought “Is this a date?,” but I initially brushed it off.  Later, when Ruth kisses Idgie on the cheek after a round of drunken nightswimming, I was astonished that we were actually Going There.  And then the movie just kinda drops it.  The two women eventually establish a Boston Marriage version of domesticity while running the Whistle Stop Cafe, but we never get to see them share that kind of intimacy again after the kiss.  The closest we get is some light sploshing during a flirty foodfight scene in the Whistle Stop kitchen.  Otherwise, their daily routine mostly consists of Ruth looking after her baby at home while Idgie tends the store, together but separate.  I’m not saying that I was aching for a passionate on-screen love affair, but over time I did come to miss the private, intimate conversations between the two women, since their connection was one of the main anchors of the story (before it evolves into a murder mystery, at least).

Speaking of Lesbian Content, I was not at all shocked to learn that Fannie Flagg was at one time in a relationship with feminist author Rita Mae Brown.  Brown’s landmark lesbian novel Rubyfruit Jungle is not as wildly chaotic as Fried Green Tomatoes in tone or narrative, but their settings & thick Southern drawls are remarkably similar.  I suspect that a movie adaptation of Rubyfruit Jungle would resemble this film a great deal; it would just have to swap out the cannibalism for explicit lesbian sex.

Hanna: Usually in these Present/Past movies, one of the two storylines drags a little bit, and it’s typically the present (e.g., Big Fish, although the final with the father still gets me).  Evelyn’s story, on the other hand, is just as delightful as the Idgie storyline.  I would watch a whole movie about Evelyn ramming the cars of youngin’s in the parking lot, attempting to familiarize herself with her vagina, and bashing down the walls of her own house in the name of Towanda (decked out in her fabulous 90s prints, of course).

Boomer: (Content Warning: mention of Sexual Assault)
My favorite thing that was in the novel but not in the film is the fact that Frank Bennett (Ruth’s abusive husband, who is also a gangrapist in the novel) has a glass eye.  It’s so well made that he makes a habit of challenging strangers to a bet to see if they can guess which one is real, and he never loses.  Until, that is, a homeless man correctly identifies the glass eye; when asked how he knew, he admits that the manufactured glass eye was the only one of the two that had a glimmer of humanity in it.  It’s as poetic an indictment of a character as I’ve ever read.

I also love that, in the novel, the judge presiding at the trial is actually Curtis Smoote, who had years before been the one investigating Bennett’s disappearance.  He sees straight through Idgie and Company’s ruse from the very beginning, but the omniscient narrator tells us that his own daughter had been a victim of Bennett’s, even fathering a child with her and then beating her when she came to him for help for the baby, so he lets the farce play out.  The world won’t miss an asshole like Frank Bennett, and there’s a kind of justice that supersedes the law.

I only get five channels clearly with my TV antenna, and one of them is Buzzr, a game show whose most up-to-date regularly aired program is Supermarket Sweep.  I’ve seen many an hour of The Match Game and author Fannie Flagg is consistently one of the funniest contestants.  Nobody asked, but my dream Match Game lineup is  Scoey Mitchell, Brett Somers, and Charles Nelson Reilly on the top row and Marcia Wallace, Dick Martin, and Fannie in the bottom row.  I swear that I am in fact 32 and not actually in my 80s, and I will be taking no follow up questions on this subject at this time.

One of the caveats of Movie of the Month selections is that the film has to be one that no one else in the group has seen before (it’s right there in our charter), and I was positive I never had, but there was one scene that I had seen some time in my primordial memory was Buddy getting stuck in the train tracks.  That scene imprinted on me pretty heavily, and over the years I folded that memory and the scene in Stand By Me when the kids run from a train into one and “stuck” this scene there in my mind.  When I rewatched Stand By Me recently, I was struck by the fact that I had fully inserted a scene in it which did not exist, and thought, “Well, that must have been in The Journey of Natty Gann.”  But nope!  Here it was, waiting for me to rediscover it in Fried Green Tomatoes after all this time.

Britnee: One of the most beautiful scenes in Fried Green Tomatoes is when Idgie retrieves honey from a tree for Ruth.  This is how she gets her romantic Bee Charmer nickname.  Mary Stuart Masterson actually did the bee scene 100% herself without a stunt double.  Her stunt double quit before the bee scene because she was too afraid to do it, so Masterson performed the stunt herself.  There’s a great article about the scene from the blog of the Asheville Bee Charmer honey shop where they speak with one of the location scouts from Fried Green Tomatoes.  The shop is owned by a lesbian couple, and the name of the shop was inspired by the film.  Fried Green Tomatoes lives on!  Tawanda!

Upcoming Movies of the Month
May: Hanna presents Playtime (1967)
June: Brandon presents Funeral Parade of Roses (1969)
July: Boomer presents Marjoe (1972)

-The Swampflix Crew

Jezebel (2019)

I first heard of the new memoir drama Jezebel when the writer-director-star of the film, Numa Perrier, was interviewed on an episode of the Switchblade Sisters podcast this summer, discussing how the deeply personal project came to be. It’s near-impossible to resist the film’s premise as “a true story” wherein Perrier looks back to her teen years in the late 1990s, when her older sister roped her into being a camgirl in the early days of online sex work. The context & conflict of that premise is only made more intriguing by the fact that Perrier performs in the film herself as that older sister character, making the project as personal & intimate of an account as possible. What surprised me most about the film when it screened at the New Orleans Film Fest after months of anticipation was how sweet & delicate it was willing to be with its subject despite its creator’s obvious closeness to its emotionally raw context. Perrier doesn’t shy away from the exploitation or desperation that fueled her sex work as a cash-strapped, near-homeless teen, but she’s equally honest about the joy, power, and self-discovery that line of work opened up to her at the time, making for a strikingly complex picture of an authentic, lived experience.

Thematically, Jezebel falls somewhere between the poverty-line desperation of The Florida Project and the tense online sex work fantasy realms of Cam, but it’s not nearly as aggressive as either of those predecessors in terms of style or sensibility. Mostly, we follow the fictional Tiffany (who performs under the titular stage name Jezebel) as she ping-pongs between two suffocating, cramped locales: an extended-stay hotel room in Vegas and a nearby office space that’s been converted into an online pleasure dome. She has zero privacy in either her work or home life, where her “alone time” & her professional sex acts are quietly under surveillance by authority figures in just the other room. Understandably, a lot of the emotional drama is centered on her relationship with her older sister, who’s ultimately doing the best she can to equip the youngster with a self-sustaining skill (one the sister picked up herself over years of working dial-up hotlines). What’s more striking than that increasingly tense relationship, however, is Tiffany’s relationship with her own body & inner desires. The circumstances of how she got roped into sex work are far short of ideal, but she quickly comes to enjoy the freedom, power, confidence and expanding sexual passions the profession offers her – in a relatively low-stakes form of sexual labor she’s careful not to escalate. That conflict between desperation & autonomy rages throughout the movie, but it is mostly contained under a wryly humorous, surprisingly sweet surface.

While it’s nowhere near as deliberately horrifying as the chat sessions in Cam, Jezebel does a great job of distinguishing both the dangers & escapist fantasies inherent to working as a camgirl. The flood of unfiltered, hedonistic comments from anonymous men online are an overwhelming menace here, something Tiffany is especially vulnerable to as the only black girl working at her jobsite. There’s also just something horrific about how devastatingly young she looks as a 19-year-old babe in the woods who’s treating this incrementally risky line of work as a self-discovery playground. Watching her learn to wield power over her clients (one of them voiced by eternal sleazebucket Brett Gelman) or developing an internal sexual persona of her own, you can tell that working as a camgirl has overall been a genuine good in her life, but it’s impossible to lose sight of the fact that you’re watching a vulnerable child navigate potentially dangerous waters that are gradually rising above her head.

Perrier’s experience in the field is fascinating for the period-specific details of how early webcam lag, lack of audio, and chatroom etiquette informed the first wave of camgirl artistry (which mostly amounted to pantomimed sex acts instead of The Real Thing). Where Jezebel really shines, though, is in how the complexity of larger themes like familial politics, racial othering, financial power dynamics, and self-discovery are effortlessly, subtly weaved into a story that could have so easily been played for flashy shock value. Few things about this scenario are easy or fair, but Perrier finds plenty of room to convey a full inner life for her semi-fictional teenage surrogate, including touching bouts of joy, tenderness, and self-fulfillment despite the subject’s potential for pure exploitation and despair.

-Brandon Ledet

Shock Corridor (1963)

It’s rare to find films of a certain age that take an honest look at mental illness, racism, post-traumatic stress disorder, and other psychiatric issues with sympathy, and fewer still that take a deft approach to the subject. Anything that predated 1975’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest generally treated those with these illnesses as villains or obstacles, portrayed asylums as bedlams that protected society from vagrants rather than places where one could ever hope to become well again, and if the protagonist was unwell of mind, such sickness was something that could be overcome with machismo or the love of a good woman, not through medical practice or therapy. Not so in the case of Sam Fuller’s Shock Corridor (released 1963, one year after the publication of Cuckoo’s Nest, although Fuller had been shopping the original screenplay around since the 1940s), in which mental patients are presented as objects not of derision but as people deserving empathy, not as evil madmen but as victims of society who were pushed to the psychic breaking point and beyond.

Reporter Johnny Barrett (Peter Breck) has spent the past year training with Dr. Fong (Philip Ahn) in order to accurately portray an incestuous fetishist and be committed to a local mental hospital. His goal: to earn a Pulitzer by solving the murder of a patient who was killed by meeting the three witnesses, also patients there. His editor Swanson (Bill Zuckert) is behind this plan, but his exotic dancer girlfriend Cathy (Constance Towers) objects, worried that Barrett’s time among the madmen will break him psychologically as well. She eventually relents and poses as Barrett’s sister in order to have him “involuntarily” committed. Once inside, Barrett must maintain his cover under the observation of Dr. Menkin (Paul Dubov) and kindly orderly Wilkes (Chuck Roberson). He is placed in a room with a patient known only as Pagliacci (Larry Tucker), whose operatic exultations occur day and night, and he sets to work making contact with the three witnesses: Stuart (James Best), Trent (Hari Rhodes), and Boden (Gene Evans).

Each man has been institutionalized after their psyches were fractured by manifestations of America’s social and political failings, representing the dark underside of the American dream. Stuart was the son of a poor, abusive, racist father. When Stuart was captured while serving in Korea, he came around to their way of thinking easily, as they showed him the first kindness he had ever experienced in his life. When he was returned to the U.S. as part of a prisoner exchanged, he was denounced as a traitor and treated as a pariah; despite being brainwashed, his countrymen had no sympathy for him and instead debased and abused him. As a result, he has retreated into a delusion wherein he is Confederate General J.E.B. Stuart, still fighting the war.

Trent was the first black student in a segregated university in the American South, who suffered such harassment and hatred at the hands of his classmates that his mind has broken. He is introduced as a thief of pillowcases, and we quickly learn what that means: he steals these from other patients and cuts holes in them to create a makeshift Klan hood. Trent no longer sees himself as he is but as white, and he stirs up the other patients in the ward by shouting racist, white nationalist invective, including inciting violence against other black patients. Finally, Boden was an atomic scientist who, upon realizing the earth-shattering power of the atom bomb and that he had contributed to the scientific “progress” that gave mankind the ability to wipe itself from the face of the earth, broke down and regressed to the mentality of a child. Once a talented artist, he now spends his days wandering the titular corridor, where patients are allowed to congregate and socialize, drawing crude renderings of his peers.

Barrett’s time on the inside begins to have a profound effect on him. As his own mental state begins to deteriorate, the film becomes a race against time to get to the truth before Barrett’s faculties diminish beyond the breaking point.

When looking at the release date and the subject matter, one couldn’t be blamed for jumping to the conclusion that the film would be heavy-handed or unsympathetic, but not so. And even if one knew the film was sympathetic, it would likewise be easy to assume that it would be have the moralistic and paternalistic “eye” prevalent in propaganda of the time, but that is not the case here either. Instead, the tone is like the film overall: a mixture of documentarian distance and character study, which echoes the (color video, in contrast to the B&W film that makes up the plot of the movie) documentary inserts of Japan in Stuart’s psychic break and the indigenous dances and rituals that constitute Trent’s breakdown. Although there are some dated moments, most notably the attack on Barrett by a ward full of glassy-eyed women identified only as “nymphos,” they are few and far between, and do not detract from the film’s overall thesis: mental illness may be “invisible” in ways that physical illness isn’t, but it can be no less debilitating or life-altering, and the key to healing is sympathy, not criticism. Sadly, over half a century later, this is a lesson that still needs to be reiterated, but it renders the film no less potent now than it was in its day.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Bride of the Gorilla (1951)

As monumental as the 1930s King Kong was in influencing special effects innovation in early cinema, there was a nasty undercurrent of racism that flowed from that picture & dispersed into the larger cultural pool. Many ape-themed B-pictures that followed in King Kong’s footsteps preyed on societal discomfort with interracial romance, horrifically coding their villainous primates as African or South American invaders stealing square-jawed Americans’ refined white women. It’s not a genre I tend to pay much attention to as a result, despite my bottomless appetite for schlock, unless there’s a hook like witnessing Bela Lugosi’s decline into poverty row Hell in The Ape Man. 1951’s Bride of the Gorilla is a strange exception to the rule. It’s a deeply racist picture, to be sure, but its avoidance of the usual tropes & grooves of the genre makes it a bizarre, fascinating work as an outlier. More of a melodrama than a B-grade horror and a complication of the way its villainous ape is coded as a racial Other, Bride of the Gorilla surprises & subverts in its participation in a genre that doesn’t deserve the effort. It’s a morally repugnant, but oddly compelling as a cultural artifact.

Presented as a story about “how the jungle itself took the law into its own hands”, this is a tale of adultery, guilt, and the white man’s sense of displacement in the Amazon. A rubber plantation owner’s young wife falls in love with one of his workers. The pair consummate this passion after a fight over their affections leads to the old man’s accidental death. Haunted by their own guilt and a criminal investigation from the Amazonian country’s police commissioner (?) & audience narrator (horror cheapie veteran Lon Cheney, Jr.), the new union is cursed & ultimately tragic. This is compounded by a local witch who poisons & gaslights the new husband/former employee into believing he’s turned into a gorilla. He hallucinates that his body is changing and he is losing his humanity to the jungle, where he begins to spend most of his time instead of comforting his new, wealthy bride. There isn’t a lot of gorilla action in the picture; it’s mostly colonialist melodrama. Still, the psychological horror of this transformation (which is never confirmed to be real) has interesting thematic implications & moments of dread.

Bride of the Gorilla’s thesis that white people don’t belong in the Amazonian jungle is a technically accurate conclusion derived from deeply faulty reasoning. According to the film, “White people shouldn’t live too long in the jungle,” because it “brings out their bad side.” The transformation horror at the center of the film brings into question the sexual threat of the Other that usually permeates its genre. The movie practically functions as a horror of racial transformation, where a white man loses his privilege & civility as be becomes more in tune with the “primitive” culture of the jungle. Because this is a poverty row cheapie rapidly fired off to fill out a double bill, there likely wasn’t much intentional thought put into how the film would participate in, complicate, or subvert the racist tropes of its genre, but the results are fascinatingly muddled all the same. The movie takes an unintended anti-colonialist stance and breaks down the barriers that separate its white man lead from the jungle community he fears. It even does so with an almost exclusively all-white, American cast, which makes it all the more bizarre.

For all of Bride of the Gorilla’s grotesque, Darwinist implications as a racist participation in colonialist narratives, it does have occasional moments of genuine psychological terror. Raymond Burr (of Perry Mason & Rear Window fame) sells the fear of his primitive de-evolution nicely, especially in a scene where he punches in the glass of a mirror that displays a gorilla’s reflection. Late in the film his gorilla form stalks his titular bride through the jungle and the movie takes his first-person POV. It’s a decision that’s intended to mask the truth of his transformation, but accidentally telegraphs the aesthetic of an 80s slasher in the process. Most of Bride of the Gorilla works this way. Its indulgence in prolonged melodrama is likely an effort to limit its special effects budget, but makes it an interesting B-horror outlier in the process. Its subversion & complication of racist ape movie tropes was likely a thoughtless act in the pursuit of a quick, cheap-to-shoot script, but makes for an fascinating discussion anyway. The psychological & bodily horrors of its central transformation, which likely isn’t even “real,” shines through despite the many faults holding it back. I wouldn’t normally recommend anyone explore this particular B-movie territory, but if you find yourself doing so, Bride of the Gorilla is an interesting outlier within a cursed genre.

-Brandon Ledet

Mudbound (2017)

Dee Rees’s latest feature is a perfect example of why we should mourn the death of the mid-budget Hollywood film for adults. Made for just $10 million and barely turning a profit in its sale to Netflix, Mudbound tries its best to convey an Old Hollywood epic on an “online content” scale & budget and does an admirable job of it. If it were made a few decades ago it might have had the mid-range budget needed to fully capture the literary adaptation scope of its look at race relations in the post-WWII American South (it also would almost certainly have been directed by a white man instead of a black woman, so I guess not everything is changing for the worse). Instead, Rees has to be careful about where she spends money to hit with full force even if the grand scale spectacle can’t deliver what’s promised. Mudbound is the story of two families divided by racial barriers in 1940s Mississippi, but it’s also the story of a talented director not getting the full resources needed to properly do their job in the 2010s.

Jason Mitchell (Straight Outta Compton) & Garrett Hedlund (Tron: Legacy) star as two Southern men on opposite ends of the racial divide who struggle to readjust to American life after fighting in World War II. Both soldiers suffer PTSD from the war & flirt with alcoholism to cope, but only one has to deal with what it feels like to be a second class citizen after their brief period as a war heroes, thanks to the violent racial bias of 1940s Mississippi. Their respective stories are told in the larger context of two families, one white & one black, who share the same failing farmland (with matriarchs played by Carey Mulligan & Mary J. Blige). Mudbound explores the way post-slavery servitude continued in the Jim Crow South, the tyranny of racial privilege, the weight of war atrocities on the human psyche, the routine disappointments of an old-fashioned loveless marriage, and all kinds of other issues more befitting of a novel or a movie twice its length & budget. At the foundation of this mountain of historical dramas, though, is the horrific connection made between the two ex-soldiers who shared a common traumatic past but lived in two entirely different worlds because of their race. It’s a connection that can only end in misery, a tragic inevitability the film does not shy away from when it counts most.

Mudbound is at its weakest when it’s tasked to convey a sense of grand scale scope it can’t deliver on an Online Content budget. The voiceover narration and scenes of tank & airplane warfare are where the seams of the limited budget show most egregiously. Rees still delivers a powerful punch whenever she can afford to, though, making sure that the muddy & blood details of Mudbound’s smaller moments hit with full, unforgiving impact. Both families at the heart of this story are physically & metaphorically weighed down by the oppressive terrain of 1940s Mississippi farmland. Their lives are literally sinking into the endless mud that surrounds them, inextricably molded by the violence & history of their surroundings. This becomes especially powerful in intimate moments where a flash flood nearly drowns a white man digging up an anonymous slave’s grave or where the sounds of a black man getting kicked in the ribs overpower the soundtrack with the whaps of a baseball bat driving into a punching bag. When the impact of its imagery actually matches the scope of its budget, the movie is an undeniable powerhouse.

Mudbound should have been a $30-50 million adult drama with wide theatrical distribution and a genuine Oscars push. Instead, it’s a third of its appropriate production scale and heading straight to Netflix, where it’s in danger of being promptly forgotten. Considering the resources Dee Rees was afforded to tell this historically & culturally expansive story, she did an impressive job in delivering powerful details in the small, aggressively uncomfortable moments that make the movie work better than it should. She should have never been put into that position, though, and the movie would have been so better if she were afforded the freedom of full, appropriate funding.

-Brandon Ledet

Get Out (2017)

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fourstar

Although they’re often (rightly) called out for their inherent misogyny, there’s a popular reading of slasher films that claims they’re subversively, politically progressive because they ask a traditionally male audience to identify & empathize with a female victim’s POV. Aligning horror nerds’ sympathies with a Final Girl archetype might not seem like the height of radical discourse, especially considering what typically happens to those characters on-screen, but it does have a cultural value to it that might not be the first thing that comes to mind when discussing sleazy 80s slashers. The directorial debut of comedian Jordan Peele recognizes this function of horror audience sympathies and shifts its culturally critical eye from feminism to racial politics. Instead of a virginal, scantily clad blonde running from a masked killer with an explicitly phallic weapon, Get Out aligns its audience with a young black man put on constant defense by tone deaf, subtly applied racism. Part horror comedy, part racial satire, and part mind-bending sci-fi, Peele’s debut feature not only openly displays an encyclopedic knowledge of horror as an art form (directly recalling works as varied as Rosemary’s Baby, The Stepford Wives, Under the Skin, and any number of Wes Craven titles), it also applies that knowledge to a purposeful, newly exciting variation on those past accomplishments. Get Out knows what makes horror effective as a genre and finds new avenues of cultural criticism to apply that effect to instead of just mirroring what came before, no small feat for a debut feature.

Our de facto Final Girl protagonist is a young, hip photographer visiting his white girlfriend’s family home for the first time. Isolated in a secluded, wealthy suburb, he’s faced with the outnumbered, paranoid feeling of being the only black man in a sea of white, smiling faces. The only other POC in his hosts’ community are “the help”, who have an unnatural, creepily robotic way of acting (assumedly in a direct nod to The Stepford Wives). Instead of tackling the blatant, violently hateful kind of racism that would more typically be skewered in this kind of movie, however, Get Out finds horror in racism’s much subtler, more difficult to pin down forms. The girlfriend’s family is initially very cordial with our Final Boy, but in an awkward, discomforting way, plagued with a wide variety of micro-aggressions he awkwardly smiles through to avoid confrontation. By using phrases like “my man,” “thang,” and “Sup, fam?” in an attempt to make him feel welcome and at ease, the family only makes his presence feel all the more alien. They declare proudly that they can’t possibly be racist, since they enthusiastically voted for Obama. Twice! The girlfriend, in turn, makes a big show of pointing out every subtle slight in an attempt to seem cool & above it all. Nothing about the scenario is cool. Through eerie atmosphere, mood-setting jump scares, and surreal nightmare imagery, Peele slowly, steadily reveals the ugly spirit lurking under this try-hard liberalism that reduces a human being into a cultural specimen. And when the corrupt, corrosive nature of that sentiment comes violently crashing to the surface, it’s exposed to be just as cruel & terrifying as the kind of racism usually depicted through white hoods & burning crosses.

Get Out is a good, well made genre film that then becomes spectacularly great in its violent, no fucks given third act. Peele’s well-rounded screenplay brings every stray theme, from the racial discomfort to the main character’s guilt over past inaction to metaphorical motifs as small as roadkill deer, back around for a glorious, purposeful conclusion. The seemingly well-meaning, casual racism that had been lurking under the surface like a paranoid delusion is exposed as a horrifically grotesque monster that reduces black men to physical objects, targets for the white & wealthy’s fascination & possessive entitlement. Additionally, Peele filters this thinly veiled maliciousness through a surreal nightmare where reality is warped by perception-shifting hypnosis. If I had one complaint about Get Out it’d be that it could’ve spent a lot more time diving into the otherworldly imagery & paralyzing implications of its hypnotic dream-space, known in-film as The Sunken Place, instead of chasing tension-cutting meta humor with the film’s comic relief character. The Final Boy’s best friend phones in periodically to act as an audience surrogate, asking questions like, “How are you not scared right now?” & directly calling out the girlfriend’s family as the creeps they so obviously are. He’s an amusing presence in the film, but he’s one that pushes Get Out away from the more unique touches of its modern horror surrealism into a more overly familiar horror/sketch comedy tone. However, Peele still gets the most he can out of his subtle nightmare plot’s moment to moment creepiness, especially from always-welcome character actors Catherine Keener & Stephen Root, and you can tell he made this passion project from the perspective of a life-long horror fan who knows exactly how the format works most efficiently. From Get Out‘s cultural criticism to its play with Final Girl tropes to the gloriously bizarre territory of its third act reveals & Sunken Place surrealism, it’s an impressive, striking debut feature, a great first go for a filmmaker who hopefully has a long career of these horrific, satirical mind-benders ahead of him.

-Brandon Ledet

I Am Not Your Negro (2017)

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fourstar

“The story of the negro in America is the story of America. It is not a pretty story.”

It would be an easy feat to find a better-realized or more academically thorough documentary than I Am Not Your Negro among recent releases, given the medium’s current creativity boom, but it’d be unlikely to find one more philosophically resonant in today’s political climate. In its better moments, this critical essay by late author & political thinker James Baldwin (directed by Raoul Peck & narrated by an unusually restrained Samuel L. Jackson) feels downright necessary. It seems inevitable that I Am Not Your Negro will be employed as a classroom tool to convey the political climate of the radicalized, Civil Rights-minded 1960s, but the form-defiant documentary is something much stranger than that future purpose would imply. Through Baldwin’s intimate, loosely structured essay, the film attempts to pinpoint the exact nature of the US’s inherent racism, particularly its roots in xenophobic Fear of the Other and in the ways it unintentionally expresses itself through pop culture media. These are not easily defined topics with clear, linear narratives and your appreciation of I Am Not Your Negro might largely depend upon how much you enjoy watching the film reach, not upon what it can firmly grasp. As the film contextualizes its questions & arguments in a 2010s setting by incorporating Ferguson protest footage & surveillance videos of recent police abuses in contemporary black communities, it makes this line of philosophical probing feel essential for modern survival, even if the individual results can be frustratingly incomplete.

The incomplete, scattered nature of I Am Not Your Negro is, in many ways, unavoidable. Peck constructs this documentary around an unfinished manuscript Baldwin did not see to completion before his death in the 1980s. The initial concept of the manuscript sounds fairly straightforward: a portrait of the Civil Rights 60s told through a triptych of profiles on Baldwin’s personal and professional acquaintances Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr, and Medgar Evers. I’ll admit up front that I’m barely, if at all familiar with Evers as a public figure and the movie does little to profile him in any significant way other than to point out that he was the first of the three men to be assassinated by angered white segregationists. Baldwin himself largely becomes the third corner of this triptych as he reflects on his own political positions of the time, mostly in how he was a perpetual outsider. Trying to find a personal balance between the indignant radicalization of Malcolm X and the measured reason of Dr. King, Baldwin would ultimately feel little more than isolation & deep resentment for the world at large. He felt alienated both by the NAACP and the Black Panthers; he recalls Malcolm X calling Dr. King an Uncle Tom on national television long before the two found their own ideological middle ground; he explores conflicted urges to both move far away from America and to maintain a connection with his community. In many ways I Am Not Your Negro stops being about King, X, and Evers at all, instead focusing entirely on Baldwin’s inner psyche (like the way Heart of a Dog is more about Laurie Anderson than it is about dogs). He recounts his lifelong troubled relationship with America by reflecting on the way its racism bubbles to the surface in its advertising, its cinema, its televised broadcasts. Baldwin himself frequently appears on television and in filmed college lectures, reaching to express something intangible, but deeply grotesque about modern race relations. He draws a line between active racism & uncaring ignorance, making a case that both are cancerous to the nation’s spiritual health. None of this is allowed to play out onscreen in a strictly historical context, despite the manuscript’s original intent. The issue is explained to be as relevant & distressing now as it’s ever been, a problem without a solution.

If I Am Not Your Negro has an Achilles heel, it’s that its subject is often more fascinating than its form. A couple cheesy Chicago blues soundtrack choices, some cheap-looking typewriter text, and Jackson’s overly gritty narration can occasionally distract from the film’s main attraction: Baldwin’s personal philosophies & political ideology. Baldwin expresses disgust & exhaustion with American racism in a deeply personal mode of cultural criticism that somehow cuts to the heart of the problem in a way that an academic history lesson on Civil Rights protest & educational desegregation never could. Peck has some interesting ideas of his own that support these explorations through post-modern montage. Images of the Space Race, Black Lives Matter protests, 1930s cinema, reality television, and Martin Luther King Jr bobbleheads all mix together in a disorienting gestalt that matches the uncertain, incomplete nature of Baldwin’s central text. Not every gamble pays off, but the documentary is often fascinating in its looseness and its attempts to reach beyond its means. If no other good came from I Am Not Your Negro than raising the public profile of someone who was obviously an immensely talented writer & profound political thinker, then the film would still be a worthwhile effort. It’s in reaching beyond that basic, biographic artist profile formula to apply James Baldwin’s theories & anxieties to a modern context where the documentary becomes something more, something truly special. It’s a work that tries to make sense of the modern world by looking back to the criticism of the past, only to take disgust in the realization that not much has changed in the decades since. It’s not a pretty story or even a complete one, but it’s one that needs to be told.

-Brandon Ledet

Hidden Figures (2016)

fourhalfstar

Although it’s a fairly paint-by-numbers historical pic, Hidden Figures stands out as a moving and impressive film, and the Academy has taken notice: Figures has picked up multiple Oscar nods this year in both behind-the-scenes and before-the-camera categories. This is important for a number of reasons, not least of all that it demonstrates that the #OscarsSoWhite backlash has put the old guard on notice. Additionally, it’s worth noting that the current political climate is anti-science, anti-progress, anti-women, and anti-minority, and while this film doesn’t exactly stand in that gap and hold the door, it does serve as a reminder of how far we’ve come and how far we have left to go.

The film follows the story of three real black women who worked for NASA in the 1950s and 1960s as “computers,” numerical analysts who performed and checked the calculations needed to put satellites into orbit, and later to send the first men into the cold vacuum that lies between the stars and bring them down to earth again. Janelle Monáe plays Mary Jackson, a mathematician who becomes an engineer, alongside Octavia Spencer’s Dorothy Vaughn, who leads the “colored women” computing group as a de facto supervisor despite being denied the prestige, title, and remuneration of that position. The cast is largely led by Empire‘s Taraji P. Henson, who plays Katherine Goble (later Johnson), a mathematical and physics genius who is instrumental in the calculations that are used to launch John Glenn (Glen Powell) into orbit and save him from destruction on re-entry. Rounding out the cast are Kirsten Dunst as Dorothy’s foil, an obstructionist gatekeeper, Jim Parsons as Paul Stafford, the head engineer of the Space Task Group, Kevin Costner as Al Harrison, the director to whom both Stafford and Katherine Goble report, Mahershala Ali as Katherine’s love interest Jim Johnson, and Aldis Hodge (so good to see you, Aldis, I’ve missed you so much since Leverage went off the air) as Mary’s husband Levi.

As with all historical films, it’s not wholly clear how precise Hidden Figures is in its details (I must admit that I haven’t read the book on which the film is based), but that’s largely irrelevant to the film’s message. Does it matter whether or not the real-life Al Harrison took a crowbar to the “Colored Ladies Room” sign and declared that “Here at NASA, we all pee the same color,” after learning that his best mathematician had to run a mile to the only such lavatory on the program’s campus every time she needed to relieve herself? Not really. What matters is showing young people (especially young girls) of color that although barriers exist, they can be surmounted. It also reminds the white audience that is, unfortunately, less likely to seek this film out that the barriers that lie in place for minorities to succeed do exist despite their perception of a lack of said barriers. What Harrison initially perceives as a failure in his subordinate’s work ethic is, in reality, a fact of her existence to which he is blind because of his privilege; in fact, his position of power has rendered him so above and outside of this concern that the fact it exists is a shock to him. It’s not exactly subtle, but when the truth has to still be dropped like an anvil from the sky fifty years after the fact, there’s no room for subtlety.

Characters like Stafford and Vivian Mitchell could easily be construed as caricatures, but Hidden Figures reminds us that this same kind of oppression is still ongoing. Post-bathroom-desegregation, Vivian and Dorothy both emerge from bathroom stalls and Vivian (who at this point has blocked Dorothy from a promotion to supervisor and taken no small satisfaction in the way that the goalposts have been moved for Mary’s transition to engineer) tells Dorothy that she has “nothing against [her] kind,” she just does her job. Dorothy gives her the only answer that she can: “I know . . . that you probably believe that.” It’s a stark reminder that “following orders” to maintain an immoral status quo isn’t just used as self-justification for the enablers and perpetrators of genocide in a distant past, it’s something that happens every day, hindering progress at every half-step.

There’s a lot to parse in this film, straightforward though it may seem, certainly far more than can be contained in this review (and, it goes without saying but I’ll say it anyway, this discourse is limited by the horizons of my privilege as a white cisman), but Hidden Figures gets a strong recommendation from me. Catch it in theaters if you can; and, if you can’t, make sure to rent it somehow to show to your ignorant friends and family next holiday. Just be prepared to admit that maybe it is hard to buy Glen “Chad Radwell” Powell as American hero John Glenn.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Loving (2016)

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threehalfstar

With his two feature film entries in 2016, Jeff Nichols has established a very clear (although probably unintentional) genre pattern in his career. The director seems to be strictly alternating between realistic familial drama & high concept sci-fi in his work (with a little of the former category seeping in to inform the latter). The sequence so far looks like this: Shotgun Stories (drama), Take Shelter (sci-fi), Mud (drama), Midnight Special (sci-fi), and now Loving (drama). Although Shotgun Stories is contrarily my favorite title from the director, I typically find myself more enamored with the sci-fi end of this divide. Loving finds Nichols returning to the muted, sullen drama of Mud, this time with a historical bent. It isn’t my favorite mode for a director who’s proven that he can deliver much more striking, memorable work when he leaves behind the confines of grounded realism, but something Nichols does exceedingly well with these kinds of stories is provide a perfect stage for well-measured, deeply affecting performances. Actors Joel Edgerton & Ruth Negga are incredibly, heartachingly sincere in their portrayals of real-life trail-blazers Richard & Mildred Loving and Nichols is smart to take a backseat to their work here, a dedication to restraint I respect greatly, even if I prefer when it’s applied to a more ambitious kind of narrative.

Loving, which really does have a conveniently apt title thanks to history, is an exercise in directorial patience & discipline. A decades-spanning dramatization of a young Virginian couple as they raise children & defy a federal law banning interracial marriage in a historical Supreme Court decision, this film could have easily been an over-the-top melodrama about hard-fought courtroom battles & explosively violent racism in the South, especially in the hands of an Oscar-minded director like a Ron Howard or a Spielberg. In Nichols’s version of the story, however, the seething anger over the Loving couple’s interracial romance is just as quiet & deeply seated as their love for one another. The score can be a little imposing in its own tenderly sad way, but for the most part Nichols avoids cliché and mostly just makes room to allow his actors to quietly do their thing. Portraying a couple who were more interested in being left alone than (literally) making a federal case out of the “crime” of being married, Edgerton & Negga brilliantly use the negative space of non-reaction to convey the emotional swell of a scene. Negga is especially skilled at this maneuver, making the mute reaction to a phonecall or a shared physical intimacy with Mildred’s sister hit like a ton of bricks without ever calling attention to herself. The distracting presence of actors Nick Kroll & frequent Nichols collaborator Michael Shannon detracts from that disciplined subtlety, but they’re also playing characters who bring publicity & legal attention to the Lovings’ case, so their sore thumb effect might’ve been deliberately intended. Either way, all of the romance, suffering, and compassion in Loving rests in Edgerton’s & Negga’s steady, capable hands and Nichols’s best moments in this traditionalist drama is in the way he harnesses their quiet energy for a subtly devastating effect.

If you wanted to be especially morbid in your reading of the film, you could say that Loving has an alarming amount of significance in a modern context, given many Western countries’ sudden far right return to horrifying ideology like “God’s law” & “racial purity.” This isn’t the metaphorical, history-minded political statement of titles like the Hitler-themed black comedy Look Who’s Back, though. If anything, Loving reminds me of the quietly measured drama of last year’s Brooklyn (sans the pretty dresses for the most part, unfortunately). It doesn’t force attention-grabbing moments of high stakes drama, but instead details a fragile romance in a perilous era that threatens to shatter it under immense social & legal pressure. Loving is less about racism than it is about, well, loving and the movie only really stumbles when outside personalities disrupt the believable romantic ideal Edgerton & Negga establish in their scenes (Nick Kroll’s presence is especially egregious on that note). Nichols finds interesting detail to signify the era: the early stirrings of rock & roll in exciting hot rod races; playful abandon in Mason jars full of moonshine; the horror movie atmosphere of small town law enforcement creeping through the night. His best impulse here, though, is in the way he backs up to allow space for Negga & Edgerton to work their magic. It’d be tempting say that any director could’ve made Loving, because of that absence of stylistic imposition, but I don’t think many directors would’ve displayed the same level of restraint in a drama about such an important Supreme Court case. Nichols puts a relatable, knowable face to history here (with his talented cast’s help, of course). Although this is far from my favorite work he’s put in so far as a director or as a stylist (Midnight Special makes sure it’s not even his most winning success this year), it’s this exact kind of discipline & restraint that sells his higher-concept work so believably & effectively.

-Brandon Ledet