From Tyler Perry to Chris Rock to Lee Daniels, there was certainly an interesting selection of films playing nationwide in theaters that brought the black experience to the forefront in 2009. In light of Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday in 2010, there were three movies released on DVD last year that I'd like to spotlight that I feel further honor the clergyman and civil rights leader's holiday.
THE ORDER OF MYTHS - Documentarian Margaret Brown takes us to Mobile, Alabama in 2007, during that city's celebration of Mardi Gras. She takes pride in her hometown's traditions, which pre-date those in New Orleans, but, at the same time, she spotlights a disparity in those traditions, resulting from lingering racism.
Brown shows us the preparations that go into the Mardi Gras parade and the ensuing party where the King and Queen of Mardi Gras are crowned. We're immersed in the world of the organizers, the men and women who prepare the costumes and the floats. Leading up to the Fat Tuesday, interviews also talk about the town history.
Most of the city seems happy and eager for the parade and party. There is one girl who will participate in the festivities but who rejects all the pomp and circumstance.
Like that girl, there are others who will also participate but underneath reject something about it. What they reject, what we come to learn, is blatant segregation. As strange as it is to say in the 21st century, yes, Mardi Gras in Mobile has been segregated.
The parade and party are actually two parades and two parties. One parade is for the white citizens in Mobile. The other is for the black citizens. Same for the parties!
Even though the Civil Rights Act of 1964 ended segregation and the government sanctioning of separating whites from blacks, 40 years later, it's like the struggles of Martin Luther King Jr. never happened, at least not in this town.
Yet, Brown's movie never paints any villains on any side. At the end of the day, people are having fun and enjoying themselves. No one is being hurt, and in-roads have been made to integrate, but it's an interesting study of how racism in some degree is still being perpetuated.
NOT EASILY BROKEN - What's rare is seeing a film about African-Americans depicting middle and upper-middle class, home and family life. One thing that has been accomplished since the death of Martin Luther King Jr., is the growth of blacks in the middle to upper-middle class. So many black films have focused on blacks struggling with poverty and its effect on their states of being, or even blacks dealing with racism or more powerful forces coming down on them.
This film removes that financial and social concern and has blacks facing relationships on a parity that whites had in films for decades. Here you see blacks as judges, art dealers, and real estate agents, not as just athletes or blue-collar workers.
Morris Chestnut and Oscar-nominated actress Taraji P. Henson star as David and Clarice Johnson, a married couple who 13 years into their marriage contend with modern issues. David's dream, in terms of his career, has failed. Clarice is the breadwinner and the dominant force in the household. David's emasculating mother-in-law doesn't help matters with her constant reminders that he's not the "man" of the house.
Testing the limits of which sex should be the strongest in this present-day dynamic becomes the movie's central argument. Henson gives an amazing performance of a strong woman learning when to be strong and in control and when not to be, to let go and let God, as they say. Chestnut equally shines coming into his own fatherhood.
This Los Angeles story, directed by Bill Duke, based on a novel by televangelist T.D. Jakes, addresses the effect on modern, black relationships where the female becomes the stronger, more independent runner of the home.
As with Chris Rock's I Think I Love My Wife and Tyler Perry's Why Did I Get Married, both films revolving around middle to upper-middle class blacks, a similar problem of a man wanting a baby but the woman not and problems of infidelity arise.
The DVD commentary provides great insight, speaking of church-inspired, little sermons, as well as the role of men and women in the modern era, the tug-of-war, especially for some men who feel, "the world took away a man's reasons for being a man."
BALLAST - This independent film won a directing and cinematography award at the Sundance Film Festival. I wondered why until about a third of the way into the movie. The mostly handheld camerawork and jump-cut editing gives the whole scenario a verite feel to it, but it all doesn't come to a head until a car chase and ensuing attack.
Spirit Award nominee Lance Hammer worked with his three principal actors in a way that felt off the cuff. The car chase and attack never seemed scripted. It was as if Hammer just happened to be in the automobile during that ride and during the attack ran after the action, trying to catch with the lens whatever he could.
It was wild. It was frenetic. It was as if Hammer didn't know what was going to happen. In turn, the viewer feels the same. It may seem like sloppy filmmaking and it may be off-putting, but it's more exciting than most well choreographed fight or battle scenes.
In the movie, the absentee father of a young boy commits suicide, leaving the boy to turn to drug dealers. The young boy owes the drug dealers money he can't pay. The drug dealers go after the young boy and his mother. Meanwhile, the twin of the boy's father falls into a depression for which the boy and his mother's troubles oddly may be the cure.
Hammer creates what can only be described as a Blue Mississippi. To maintain that wild and frenetic feeling emotionally as well as visually, Hammer developed the scenes with his actors doing improv. It's a small story, but it shows how a black family can heal, even in the wake of separation, crime and death. The acting is raw and real, and some of the best, if not the most perfect.
THE ORDER OF MYTHS
Four Stars out of Five
Not Rated but recommended for Mature Audiences
Running Time: 1 hr. and 17 mins.
NOT EASILY BROKEN
Three Stars out of Five
PG-13 for sexual references
Running Time: 1 hr. and 39 mins.
Four Stars out of Five
Not Rated But recommended for Mature Audiences
Running Time: 1 hr. and 36 mins.