A VOICE OF THE OPPRESSED AND THE DAMNED FINDS AN ECHO: on FENCES, FRUITVALE STATION, THE OFFENCE and TOP OF THE LAKE.

*****

FENCES(2016) and FRUITVALE STATION(2013)

For me, the irony in both instances of filmmaking mentioned here first is in the esteemed positions of the actors enacting their parts, summoning the history of the black experience to show that a common humanity pervades ; they are still not above the collective consciousness of a community, as evidenced by Spike Lee’s acknowledgement of the passage from slavery to his own place in the cultural pantheon, as regards his familial legacy, while receiving his first proper Oscar in February 2019 for BLACKKLANSMAN’s original screenplay . In FENCES and FRUITVALE STATION, working class lives are ingrained in the African American experience, with startlingly realistic payoffs taken from real life cases. The truth is never forgotten.

***

FENCES has a lope like movement to the verbose / wordy screen iteration , especially in the case of the chatterbox that is Denzel. Or maybe it is a steady sprint of wordplay to offset darker portals of personal selfhood on his part. It is, to a large degree.

This is a view from the inside out, not a political pan at race. Talking about it is no mean feat as much as we would prefer to put it on a far off shelf. Addressing it within a community is the hard earned task cut out for participants, in an unit, the most universal being the family as is the case in FENCES based on August Wilson’s play. The scalding touch of dreams not fulfilled by systemic racism comes full circle as the protagonist here has a job in the municipality as a garbage collector – essentially a pivotal work of God but lowest in the rungs of our class conscious world. The tipping point is when his jollity mixes with his curdled rage. He swings his bat at destiny and words come out from him which everybody will identify from verbal lashings received at the hands of a patriarch.

Take the title beyond a literal reading ; the untended fence in the backyard of the family’s modest one storey flat is symbolic of the work left to perform on our personal fronts, the one we often sidestep in the name of working for our daily bread and as in here, the surface veneer of a happy family is the front most conducive to humans. The laughter is a mask, the hidden distortion is stubbornly suppressed to show only the laugh lines, not draw one’s eyes to frown lines above. A smile goes on to steady the boat of life, as you see while a frown spells out intensity by the second, sometimes excusable on the man of the house’s facial features as an essential component. FENCES traces the arch of the smile and the frown down to the resignation in an overall historical place for these and brethren like them. These are outsiders who have been undone by their identity, poverty, menial jobs, permanent mental health issues and standoffs endemic to father and son as well as between husband and wife, in that very order. Empathy is not easily detected in a minefield of tempestuous emotions. FENCES makes us achieve that for the man at its center and it’s not very remote from what we see in our own patriarchs : weight of the world and care and concern for a family all split by the side, by a greatly troubled place in the larger navel of existence. The performances are exemplary and Viola Davis shows the range of women’s lives, left to fight against men’s weaker impulses and struggling to humanize one’s own lifetime through sacrifices too many to number and preventing stiff opposition for her traditional thoughts from the new generation, in this case the son(Jovan Adepo) , himself caught in the crossfire between a beloved mother and a father he has come to detest. FENCES is so bristlingly honest, we will be left to question our foundations for defense within our own units. Like you do and I do, almost everyday. Is redemption only for the head of the family? Is a flawed personality a byproduct of too many evils visited upon one individual ? Where is the balance?

Denzel directs with genuine pathos here. The words cut to the bone. It’s a timeless rendering applicable to not just one bracket. Stephen Henderson, Russell Hornsby, Saniyya Sidney and Mykelti Williamson ( so memorable as the best friend in FORREST GUMP) are all excellent.

*****

FRUITVALE STATION is not just a random station in California nor is anything remotely one off about the shooting of an unarmed young African American man in real life. For those who think the spate of racially charged shootings began with Ferguson or as a precursor to a sweeping BLACK LIVES MATTER movement, think again. This is the truth sitting on a cold slab : the disenfranchised always receive the hard end of the berth and not a care in the name of justice. That’s the way through centuries of systemic abuse anywhere.

FRUITVALE STATION does not settle for just a confirmation of mere statistics as it takes one individual life over a day’s course and in hand held, documentary style shows us the fleeting nature of life. Nobody sees it coming. The tragedy of incoming death. An end unto itself. Fans of director Ryan Coogler and his partnership with actor Michael B. Jordan in CREED and the phenomenal BLACK PANTHER need to watch this straight from the gut retelling of truth within the community to which they belong.

It’s about a life of one too young to bear it all: a girlfriend (Melanie Diaz) , their daughter, a previous jail term for nothing other than his race and the specter of unemployment. The less than 24 hour cycle shows him being reprimanded by his mother for driving with his phone to his ear, talking about new beginnings with his girlfriend, trying to get his job back, going out of his way to help a young woman, bonding with a canine friend and calling out the rash drivers who run over him, sharing moments of bliss with his daughter(Ariana Neal) as a very young father can, attending his mother’s birthday, being solitary by the water and ringing in New Year’s Eve with his sweetheart and friends. His innate good graces are accepted by all until gang hooliganism in the subway makes authorities tear him apart and a shot is fired.

It happens in a continuous loop and the stillness of the incidence numbs the conscience, like the mother(Octavia Spencer) who had understood the threat to her son in a racially divisive modern world and cannot even show the depth of her pain. Or the girl who was the great love of his life and their child’s mother. This tale is above demographics of shootings or dynamics of basic humanity. It’s about institutionalized inhumanity per se. It ends on a solemn note, with no real conclusion and in its tone of melancholy, the continuum of lives lost to race and class structures unravels.

On the other hand Rachel Morrison’s photographic credits on FRUITVALE STATION maintain its plane of stark realism.

*****

THE OFFENCE(1973) and TOP OF THE LAKE(2013)

Still waters run deep. Nowhere does this maxim apply than in the atmosphere disseminated in TOP OF THE LAKE. This, along with THE OFFENCE and SILENCE OF THE LAMBS,in my opinion, looks incisively at policing personnel divided by age and gender and yet bound by the mysteries of human evil.

In the instances of the film and television miniseries discussed here respectively, the police officers dealing with the vile crimes of sexual abuse of minors find themselves in a trance, a melancholic state of daze that engulfs them in their living acres. I am sure that the toll of dealing with anti social inhabitants of earthly realm sure affects the human psyche of people trained to withstand the very worst. Works as these also seek to demystify the workings of a flesh and blood fellow mortal who tends to rise above the rubble to bring justice. A calm upper membrane of these personalities is juxtaposed with highly toxic nerve ends of a soul in extreme duress even though they are on the right side of the fence.

The grubby, noirish, dimly lit claustrophobia of THE OFFENCE, directed by the masterful SIDNEY LUMET, does not give out its exact location so it could be in certain sections of a big city in the U. K or a small town. In TOP OF THE LAKE, an idyllic lakeside haven is overrun by the insularity of male ruthlessness(Peter Mullan and David Wenham) operating in slow boil and an objectification of women that does not spare even young girls ( and males too as we discover ; the venal roots run deep) In the passage of six episodes, trauma associated with rape unfolds in psychological crevices of human actions, conflating elements of the past and the present for the detective (Elisabeth Moss) investigating a case involving a 12 year old girl(Jacqueline Joe)

The limited populace seems to take cover under the beauteous expanse of the land they occupy, in this open sky country, thinking that maybe their isolation has made them aloof from the larger world’s moral codes.

THE OFFENCE is more of a double duel between the policeman(Sean Connery) and the suspect. The latter ( Ian Bannen) taunts and verbalizes his toxicity and a lid to the former’s own inner violence spills out in a tense standoff where the naturalism of the exchange is maintained through close ups and nil musical effects. It’s visceral and elemental, bringing human interaction to a dangerous meeting point until the rule of law implodes, just like in a previous instance the officer shares a moment of unbridled tension with his wife ( Vivien Merchant) at home, implying that separating his public and private spheres is a mammoth task. A burden is always hanging on their shoulder blades. Shrugging off evil and the other side of the spectrum is impossible.

In JANE CAMPION’S screenplay for the miniseries TOP OF THE LAKE, the ironic insularity of a feminist commune headed by Holly Hunter is a world apart from the wheeling dealings around town but the mystic beauty of nature and the community’s own beliefs never reach fruition. The bare realism of these world weary facts lend it gravitas as also the oft repeated idea of appearances being deceptive. Man makes hell a paradise and a sanctuary a netherworld.

The depth of the performances haunt me, Elisabeth Moss as the cop taking centrestage, a brave performer who never flinches from the truth ; so do the images and the cyclic pattern of abuse in a place with few avenues for anyone. It hurts, it bristles the insides of the mind. The young girl’s plight constantly mirrors the officer’s own from her teenage years and the dual identification is more powerful in the parallels of generational exploitation, perpetrators getting raw deal in the quantum of punishment and the victim being in a loop for a lifetime. The real sharp objects here are the denials of justice and the inability to confront seething truths. It’s utterly universal in the sense of us failing survivors. TOP OF THE LAKE is immersive and enters the skin, like all great artistic representations of TRUTH do.

 

As for THE OFFENCE, well ever since I have seen it on the MGM CHANNEL, I just couldn’t remove the images of the officer discovering a young girl in the bushes, the horror of the unfolding case, the domestic discord and the two way explosion of the suspect and the cop, ending with Sir Sean Connery saying, “oh my God”; it’s the call of a damaged soul who has seen too much and is now complicit in this culture of crime and infestation in the innards of being. Both these works find echoes of the oppressed and the damned with grave urgency, never shortchanging reality for cinematic bombast. The integrity of the subject addressed in both works demands such an unflinching output. They achieve it.

*****

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