A VOICE RINGS OUT FOR FREEDOM WITHIN THE SILENCE

The works talked about here, in this essay, will all attest to the title I chose for it. Read on to find out more.

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MA RAINEY’S BLACK BOTTOM(2020)

A work like MA RAINEY’S BLACK BOTTOM is not just another piece of social anthropology we need in our current point in history; it reimagines a day in the life of two individuals and their extended units without beautifying the blunt edges, the internalized bathos of the world around them and by giving pure truth to their frustrations and collective, intersecting histories.

I particularly appreciate the manner in which its director GEORGE C. WOLFE chooses to put it together as a compact narrative. So it begins with young kids running across the woods at night and at that moment, we sense danger tailing them owing to their place within a racially segregated society. But their flight is towards a destination that ultimately provides them soccour among their own: a canopy under which the legendary Mother of Blues and titular figure performs to an admiring community of fellow African-Americans. This happens in the notoriously testy terrain of the South.

Shortly thereafter, newspaper clippings about the passage to Northern states of Southern African-Americans, with lofty promises of hope, employment and identity covers the screens. As the day wears on, trains passing by punctuate the soundtrack and appear visually to chart a commonplace legacy of people in Chicago, one among the same promised lands which houses the recording session pivotal to this script. Two men from Ma’s entourage eventually enter a store to buy her Coca Cola bottles but filled as it is with just ‘white men’ and they all freeze upon seeing both, the musicians have to make wordless exits. That’s why this adaptation of an August Wilson play is so not commonplace; these little details and their unobtrusive placements in the screenplay mattered to me greatly as I watched it last week.

Of course, the dialogues, natural and avoiding neat grandiosity of language, sing, with a certain rhythm and bounce in crucial exchanges among cast members; helping to cement the theatrical interiority of locations and style but also maintaining the purpose that accommodates them together, seemingly blurring racial and class lines, only to reveal the jolts in their spirits.

This musicality is at the heart of its two towering lead portrayals. Viola Davis is inimitable as Ma, a lady confidently passing on her shine to her nervous, stuttering nephew, ensuring that belief ultimately rubs off on him after a dozen takes while recording her album. Then there’s the late, great Chadwick Boseman as Levee ( his name itself anticipating great turning points for his extroverted energy and optimism) burnishing their intertwined souls with the weight of their personal and inherited communal history. They are almost mirror images and it’s ironic then that while Ma holds reins as a rare woman of colour in the very early years of the 20th century, Levee is a marginal figure, delivering a power-packed monologue at half-point to verbalize a painful journey that monetizes and exploits the pain of hidden figures. All the other actors occupying this lean roster of performers rise to the occasion.

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The end point is hence devastating as Levee suffers a mental breakdown that was always signalled by his fierce determination cloaking an already dead-weight spirit while Ma, away from that specific scenario, looks on while in the car, straight at us or maybe nowhere in particular, knowing that all the patronizing from her white manager or her own legend isn’t up to any good in the long run. Then an all-white male studio ensemble records Levee’s original composition and the screen fades to black. The choice to end MA RAINEY’S BLACK BOTTOM with that image becomes all the more reasonable as we ourselves, in 2021, reach the fag end of a regime that has revived racist fiats and a continuum of such historical betrayals overwhelms the discourse. Racism informs the bitterness in the leads here and makes a case for lost profusion of hope, in a country with no real rationale for diversifying its stance.

It is the reason why this work is so important for all discerning viewers as through the construction of a real life figure, it only threads our present era.

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ALEX HALEY’S QUEEN, EPISODE 1( A 1993 3 PART MINISERIES)

I’m fortunate enough to have discovered this underrated, Halle Berry fronted miniseries from her early career on YouTube. As her great admirer, I thought it gives credence to her own personal history as an African-American personality by tracing the roots of her community through the 19th Century and beyond.

Based on legendary ROOTS writer Alex Haley’s paternal family history, QUEEN, in its first of three episodes, is an amalgam of emotions, socio-political grounding in facts in pre-Civil War era antebellum South and most of all the personal affinities that each person is bound to. A sense of humanity is sought after but so are accumulated heirlooms of racism and harsh statutes. Looked at in retrospect, it will be probed and must be in our current climate but we have to look at it as a document of the ways and mores that governed these lives, most of which were beyond their control and ruled by laws written down in paper.

I surely got GONE WITH THE WIND vibes from it and the sequences are designed in that old-fashioned, competent, fluid mode, registering their impact with every beat in the one hour, thirty five minute first capsule. Epic is one word that comes to mind and the cast boasts of stellar names as JASMINE GUY, ANN MARGRET, MARTIN SHEEN, TIM DALY, JANE KRAKOWSKI, PATRICIA CLARKSON, WALTON GOGGINS and the always adorable RAVEN SYMONE in an early role besides of course Ms. Berry.

I’ll share thoughts on the other remaining two capsules too as I watch them. For now, make sure to watch this generational saga that puts a family’s fortunes and the lack of them in the post Civil War epoch in perspective, paving way for Queen’s personal evolution consistent with a nation’s and her own community’s standing within a divided society.

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CRIES AND WHISPERS(1972), THE SEVENTH SEAL(1957)

Continuing my fascinating tryst with Ingmar Bergman’s filmography, I finally watched the achingly tragic and hauntingly melancholic CRIES AND WHISPERS. It’s shot with the same sense of stifling repression and physical infirmity that Harriet Anderson brings to her central performance, as one of three sisters suffering from a debilitating condition that leads to excruciating pain. Her commitment to embodying her states of unrest and selective moments of calm hold the key to the emotional structure of this mostly internalized chamber piece. It’s not fair to say this given the film’s nature but Ms. Anderson actually transcends her physicality with her on-screen presence, almost akin to spiritual disrepair waiting for absolution and release from mortal life. With death, we say, comes a certain calm and she attests to that.

Cinematographer Sven Nykvist gives the sibling dynamic here its technical expertise with his tones and colour scheme while Bergman ensures the individual pieces of disintegration and distance become clear courtesy Liv Ullmann and Ingrid Thulin’s performances. Apart from them, Kari Sylwan is almost angelic as she harbours a pristine love for Harriet that breaks boundaries yet is contingent with the situation, for humanity’s sake. Her status as housekeeper and an emotional anchor becomes the other defining feature of her complex choices. Her fount of love comes naturally to her, if you ask me.

CRIES AND WHISPERS, for me, is pitched between pleasure and pain, light and darkness, shadows and mirrors as the ladies’ faces are framed in hazy close-ups, like episodic stills preceding their individual moments. With the final shot, a serene joy illuminates the repository of these interconnected lives, with memory serving them well with possibilities of what once was and could have been. We can’t escape fate and it bows out with that bittersweet realization.

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THE SEVENTH SEAL was sitting on the back of my watchlist for months and boy, did it surprise me with its levity, emotional flexibility, fluid fade ins and fade outs and the way in which the whole cast comes together as one unit. It is one of the earliest as well as the most accessible of all Bergman films, a pastiche of filmmaking of the classic era at its finest and made with such love and care that its mythmaking story concerning a medieval knight(Max Von Sydow) and his game of chess with Death( Bengt Ekerot) becomes interesting while remaining a period piece. But without its genre restrictions. It’s an allegory, a parable, a fairy tale and legend rolled into one.

You can sense the camaraderie among the performers and though Bergman is known for a career that particularly acknowledges heavy-duty emotional relationships, THE SEVENTH SEAL has a charm and a humour about its supposedly dark subject matter centring on the inevitability of death. At the end, it triumphs because it puts a smile on your face and an afterglow of positivity. GUNNAR BJORNSTRAND, BIBI ANDERSSON, NILS POPPE all come up with carefully balanced portrayals. This is now among my all-time favourites and seriously has a pan-family appeal.

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5 thoughts on “A VOICE RINGS OUT FOR FREEDOM WITHIN THE SILENCE

  1. Sorry I dropped the ball on this, PC. I know I said I would comment some time back, but I did forget about it and/or haven’t had time to thoroughly read it and comment accordingly. I’m curious: What feelings come up for you when someone says they will do something but they don’t deliver on it? I can get very discouraged, very hurt, and feel very abandoned when someone does not respond to something I asked of them. I can stew in anger and resentment which is such a troublesome weight on my light (though often heavy) and sensitive heart and soul. Just curious if you can relate to any of this? Once again, I will attempt to read this post and comment accordingly. I hope you will also comment on the questions I posed in this comment. Love and blessings, Timothy (“Mr. T”)

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  2. Hi PC: I’m really looking forward to seeing MA RAINEY’S BLACK BOTTOM, especially after reading your review. I’m familiar with August Wilson’s play, FENCES, having seen the movie, also of course with Viola Davis. My mom loves Viola Davis, as do I. I don’t believe this film is playing here where I live. Did you see it in a theatre where you live or did you watch it online? I believe it is expected that Davis will will her second Oscar for this film (first was Best Supporting Actress for FENCES). I also heard that Chadwick is a front-runner for an Oscar. I’ll read the rest of your post hopefully later this afternoon. I just wanted to chat about MA for now. It sounds like it had a tremendous impact on you. Both you and I seem to understand that film is a medium that really speaks to our hearts and minds and souls. There are many out there who see films solely for its entertainment, but I think you and I see it for an entirely different reason, i.e., to see what our hearts and minds and souls have to say in response to viewing the film and sometimes desperately needing to change something about ourselves from the viewing. because our hearts and minds and souls have been so impacted by the film. I’m not sure I would be who I am today if I had not had the sincere pleasure of watching Ingmar Bergman’s films, actress Jessica Lange at work, and the consummate entertaining of “The Greatest Star” (FUNNY GIRL), Barbra Streisand. I have to say that as an artist, I have borrowed (well, stole, since I have no intention of giving it back) from these 3 artists. I totally stole from Ingmar Bergman’s THROUGH A GLASS DARKLY when I played Iago in OTHELLO, totally stealing Karin’s entire physical and mental breakdown in that upper room for Iago’s pact with the devil. With Lange, I steal her emotionality to play the heck out of emotions onstage. And Barbra Streisand, especially after seeing FUNNY GIRL for the first time, gave me hope that I might be somebody someday when I felt I was a MAJOR nobody! I know you will keep writing these VERY deep film reviews in a manner similar to mine. Your vocabulary is astounding, so much so that I have to look up many a word for the definition. All that said, you are an extremely talented writer with, even more importantly, an extremely large heart! Blessings, Timothy (“Mr. T”)

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  3. Also, PC, I was reminded of something that happened to me in relation to racism explored in your film review. I was on an online conference call about Black Lives Matter and because I am an animal welfare advocate, I chimed in that All Lives Matter to speak up for nonhuman animals. The moderator of the conference call private messaged me to tell me to keep the focus on Black Lives Matter and not bring in All Lives Matter, as that would take away from the BLM movement. I apologized, of course, and told him I totally understood. I have had time to reflect on it and while I understood where he was coming from, I do think it is really important to keep in mind that, indeed, All Lives DO Matter, the lives of BOTH humans AND nonhuman animals. I didn’t mean to take away from the BLM movement at all, but I did want to highlight the lives of all living beings mattering. I think it’s a very difficult balance when one is passionate about nonhuman animals’ lives and desires to incorporate that at all possible opportunities, even on a BLM conference call. That need for correlation is mainly because nonhuman animals’ live are seen as not mattering AT ALL by many. Ten million farm animals every year in the U.S. alone tortured and slaughtered for food is a very good indicator that many do not think nonhuman animals’ lives matter at all, and I feel I need to be a voice for that AT ALL possible opportunities, especially in the Christian movement where many Christians don’t seem to understand that “God preserves the lives of both people and animals” (Psalm 36:6[b]). I’m glad your film review about racism allowed me the opportunity to remember that while I’m blind when it comes to the color of humans’ skin, I’m also blind when it comes to the difference between humans and nonhuman animals.

    Blessings,
    Timothy (“Mr. T”)

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