What’s supposed to be a romantic moment in Rick Famuyiwa’s Dope ends up being one of its more problematic: we see the protagonist, Malcolm, tell his love interest Nakia, “Don’t sell yourself short” when she explains that, should she get her GED, she plans to attend a community college before, hopefully, moving on to Cal State Fullerton or a school in that system.
Malcolm’s remark is meant to be encouraging, to spur her on to defying expectations. But there’s also a touch of unwitting condescension, of classism in play in that response. And the vexing thing about Dope is that it’s a coming-of-age tale that won’t let him see that other side even as it insists he’s maturing before our eyes.
by Guest Contributor Tracy M. Adams, originally published at Monday’s Baby
On Thursday, June 9, I attended a Gen-Art sponsored screening of Victoria Mahoney’s independent feature Yelling to the Sky in Manhattan. Starring Zöe Kravitz and co-starring Gabourey Sidibe, this film has had significant buzz. It made its debut at the Berlin Film Festival and was workshopped via Sundance Institute’s Screenwriters and Directors Lab. Based on synopses I read prior to the screening, I was curious to see if the portrayal of black women(hood) would be complex and fresh (as it was in Ava Duvernay’s wonderful I Will Follow) or if it would stick to the usual, shopworn portrayals that sometimes plague even independent feature films. I was especially interested to see whether Sidibe’s character would be similar to the one she played in Precious or if that image would be turned inside out (Sidibe was actually cast as Latonya Williams in Yelling before being slated to play Precious Jones).
In Yelling, Kravitz plays Sweetness O’Hara, a biracial high school student coming of age in New York City while managing a difficult home life. Quiet (at least for the first part of the film), sensitive, introspective, and intelligent, Sweetness has to contend with an alcoholic father, a mother with emotional (and possibly mental) issues, an older sister coping with young motherhood, bullies at school, and urban poverty. Zöe Kravitz did a great job with the script she was given; her performance was nuanced and quite believable. Actually, most of the actors in the movie were strong (including Tariq Trotter, better known as Black Thought of The Roots). However, despite the actors’ efforts, they could not overcome the disjointed storytelling nor the director’s inability to avoid well-worn tropes of the “coming of age in the ‘hood” drama. And whether intentionally or not, the director played into common cinematic (and real-life) racial memes. There were four that stood out.
Dark(er)-skinned black people are mean and like to victimize light(er)-skinned black people. The opening scene of Yelling involves Sweetness, accompanied by a friend of similar complexion, riding her bicycle right into a group of kids from her high school who in short order take her bike and beat her down in the street. Gabourey Sidibe’s character Latonya is the ringleader of this group, initiating the bullying and fighting, and ultimately ordering her boyfriend to viciously finish the job. The assault only stops when Sweetness’ sister Ola, who like Sweetness is very fair, brutally assaults her sister’s male attacker. While the director may not have intended for this scene to evoke intraracial stereotypes and conflict about skin color, it certainly looked that way on screen. Also, while Sidibe’s character was well put together (her hair was laid and her makeup was popping), she was still an (physically) intimidating bully. Continue reading →
Monday night, I headed down to Black Cat to check out the J*Davey show. In the back room, sans air conditioning, an entire room full of alternablack folks waited for Jack and Brook to hit the stage. While I was waiting, I noticed the sheer diversity of black womanhood represented. Afros, braids, wigs, weaves, relaxers, dreads. Heels, Chucks, ballet flats, Birkenstocks. Women dressed like Jack Davey spoke to women dressed like Nicole Ritchie. Women in wrap dresses and heels swayed uncomfortably on the hard cement floor.
The first opening act was a lost cause, so Boyfriend and I ducked out for a burrito break. But we made it back in time to enjoy the second opening act, Elevator Fight.
Since the only glimpse of Zoe I’ve had is her screen sulking through X-Men: First Class, I was interested in seeing her persona as a frontwoman. Most of the pics of Kravitz have her associated with this ethereal, elven queen, semi-bohemian, flowy 70s glam. At first glance, it is totally possible to assume she’s on that same train as Zooey. Come on – she even lives in Williamsburg, which is the Holy City of Hipster Madness. But there’s still a few things that seperate the Zoes of the world from the Zooeys. Kravitz appeared on stage wearing a black knit cap over messy hair and a shirt about seventeen sizes too large – her other stage outfits have ranged from conventional to rocker chic. At twenty-two years of age, it’s clear that the kid is still trying on her personas. As Jack Davey blew bubbles from the side of the stage, Zoe screamed out her triumph about gay marriage passing in New York, pledged to marry Jack, took shots with her band, and babbled her way through song intros. She came off as anything but whimsical, and her rich vocals complemented songs titled “Post Empire” and “New Pussy.” There was not a ukelele to be seen, but she did do an impressive headbang with one of her bandmates.
By the time she started yelling lewd comments when Jack Davey mentioned the fan was “blowing into [her] mouth,” I figured that if Zoe ever was mistaken for a manic pixie dream girl, she’d probably punch that guy in the head and make off with his jacket. Kravitz can pull off the look like a champion, but the trope – and what the idea implies about who she will and will not be publicly – is far too limiting.
Maybe it was too much to expect X-Men: First Class to show any less of a tone-deaf sensibility than Heroes. Matthew Vaughn, the director, warned us as much:
We talked about race issues because they say X-Men was based on Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, but I think I had enough political subtext in this movie. We’ve already discussed in the next one, does the civil rights movement become part of … But that’s a real hot potato as well, still, so we decided to stay clear. You can only put so much in one film, so, the sequel …
I don’t know. I don’t like talking about sequels because the film could tank and then there won’t be one.
So there you go, everyone. Meanwhile, Arturo and Andrea retraced their initial impressions, and expanded on more reasons why this film can’t be considered more than a well-intentioned failure. Spoiler-riffic discussion under the cut.