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Collaborative Blogging, Film Reviews

Miss Juneteenth, or: Queen Me

Sad as I am to bring this year’s Feminist February to a close, I’m so pleased with the films we’ve experienced on the Collab. I truly hope to see continued changes in the (lack of) diversity behind the camera in filmmaking not only because movies directed by women of color have been some of my favorites, but also because greater inclusion & representation should be a goal in and of itself. We watched films by Black women directors this month, though rest assured: we will continue to highlight diverse directors and filmmakers throughout the Collab.

The Film:

Miss Juneteenth

Director:

Channing Godfrey Peoples

The Premise:

A single mother and former winner of the Miss Juneteenth crown pushes her daughter to follow in her footsteps, like it or not.

The Ramble:

Though hardly meeting the criteria for overly competitive stage mom, this year’s Miss Juneteenth pageant is certainly bringing out the worst of these tendencies in single mother Turquoise Jones. Crowned Miss Juneteenth as a teen, Turq is determined that her daughter Kai will follow in her footsteps. The competition secures the winner an opportunity for greatness, including a full scholarship to the HBCU (Historically Black College & University) of her choice…chances that Turq missed out on.

Carrying around a massive chip on her shoulder after being unable to attend a 4-year college when she became pregnant with Kai, Turq holds things together working multiple part-time jobs as the de facto manager of a bar and a beautician at a funeral home. Unable to move on from the past in more ways than one, Turq is in an on-again/off-again relationship with Kai’s father Ronnie, possessor of good looks but poor decision-making skills (whose character is a much nicer person in Ghosting: The Spirit of Christmas!).

A man stands behind a woman, hands around her waist as she looks into the mirror in front of her.

Because she feels constantly judged for her failure to measure up as a former Miss Juneteenth, Turq cares a great deal about what other think. Unfortunately, her obsession with appearances and rehashing the past make it impossible to recognize the self-assured person her daughter has become…one who is much more interested in dance than a pageant competition.

A teenage girl wearing a yellow shirt and ripped jean shorts stands onstage, teenage girls in formal gowns standing on either side of her.

As Turq works and attempts to get Ronnie to pay up his share for the expenses of the pageant, she balances the perspectives of her alcoholic mother, the funeral home director who wants to provide for her, and the proud but aging owner of the bar wearied by years of fighting as a Black business owner.

A woman wearing a crown resting askew on her head sits on a step outside of her front door, chin resting on hand.

While bills pile up and Kai predictably shows no interest in jumping through the competition hoops, it feels the world is conspiring against Turq’s plans. Can Turq reframe the past in time to realize what it means for her daughter’s future?

The Rating:

4/5 Pink Panther Heads

The relationship between Turq and Kai is well written and the performances are strong, capturing the power and nuance of their mother/daughter bond. Though Turq comes across as fiercely determined to outside observers, Kai knows well the insecurity at her core. It’s actually really beautiful that Kai can understand her mother so clearly despite the amount of time it takes Turq to recognize her daughter’s own identity and dreams.

Set in the context of a Miss Juneteenth pageant, the story challenges some of the rather problematic ways this type of beauty contest presents barriers to young Black women even as it proclaims to lift them up. Internalized beauty standards that connect to whiteness (which Kai memorably breaks towards the end of the film) are challenged, as well as a very narrow definition of what it means to be considered great. With the setting around Juneteenth, we as an audience are reminded that survival despite the odds against Black Americans and those formerly enslaved is itself a remarkable accomplishment.

In addition to Turq and Kai, our story is about a Black community in Texas, the multiplicity of identities represented as part of it, and broader connections to Black identity and culture. The relationship between Turq and Wayman, the owner/manager of the bar, is understated but so important as she carves out a space for herself. It’s by building upon Wayman’s legacy that Turq is able to accomplish what she’s wanted for such a long time.

The story feels strongly connected to Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, also about a woman deciding for herself who she will be and on what terms. I love the ending so much, and it seems fitting for both Turq and Kai. Miss Juneteenth provides the perfect note to wrap up Feminist February 2022.

Would my blog wife crown this one the winner or eliminate it from competition before the first round? Find out in her review!

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Collaborative Blogging, Film Reviews

Zola, or: It’s a Long Story (But Full of Suspense)

Based on a viral Twitter thread about a woman’s mostly true story of a weekend in Tampa gone awry, this week’s pick continues the monthly focus on films directed by Black women. This one did get quite a bit of hype leading up to its release–does it live up to its reputation?

The Film:

Zola

Director:

Janicza Bravo

The Premise:

After joining a weekend road trip to earn some extra money, waitress and part-time stripper Zola recounts how it all went wrong because of a backstabbing witch named Stefani.

The Ramble:

By day, savvy Zola is a waitress charming customers while ignoring the problematic and overtly racist things they say. When she waits on Stefani, a young woman who is over-the-top yet fascinating, Zola doesn’t realize this chance encounter will lead to a weekend on the books as one of the wildest she’s experienced.

Bonding over their disdain for fake people (later confirmed as a giant red flag) and their part-time work dancing in strip clubs, the two swap numbers and begin messaging each other non-stop. Based on her initial connection with Stefani, Zola joins her on a road trip to Tampa only days later despite rather hazy details surrounding the event. As an aside, the film incorporates texting & using social media on phones in rather interesting ways that go beyond the standard *box with notification appears onscreen.* The weekend should be an easy way to make some quick money dancing…keyword being “should.”

A Black woman in a form-fitting pink outfit stands reflected in a mirror, refracted into 5 reflections.

Along for the ride are Stefani’s boyfriend and her supposed roommate, a man who is initially friendly yet gives off sketchy vibes from miles away. The group stays in a rather seedy motel during their first night in Tampa. Or, rather, Stefani’s boyfriend Derrek will stay in the motel while the others head to a strip club. Derrek seems concerned about Stefani, waiting anxiously in the motel until meeting up with a local man who promises to show him around Tampa.

At the strip club, where tips are okay but nowhere close to the quick, easy cash Stefani promised, Zola becomes increasingly suspicious about all of her acquaintances’ motives. Learning that Stefani’s roommate X is her pimp isn’t a complete shock to Zola, but realizing that he expects Zola to do sex work that evening does catch her off-guard.

Concerned for Stefani’s well-being, and a bit morbidly curious to see how things will unfold, Zola stays around as clients from the now shut down site Backpage arrive for sex. When Zola learns that X has set a rate of $150 per transaction, which Stefani won’t even see, she insists on increasing the rate. Not necessarily to help either X or Stefani, but on the principle that sex work should be worth more.

A Black woman and white woman stand in front of a mirror, fixing their hair.

Having streamlined Stefani’s sex work, X insists that Zola stay around and continue to make money for him. Derrek, on the other hand, is distraught. Posting Stefani’s Backpage details on Facebook in an attempt to “save” her, Derrek finds himself very much on X’s bad side.

As Zola and Stefani are sent into increasingly disturbing and dangerous scenarios in service of X’s bank account, it’s not such a much a question of what will happen, but how dramatic it’s going to get.

The Rating:

4/5 Pink Panther Heads

The chaos of the characters, their questionable choices, and the wild circumstances they’re thrown into all make for an attention-grabbing series of twists and turns. Some of the ways we examine sex trafficking and victimization are particularly fascinating. Stefani is both victim and victimizer, and her behavior as a woman who is trapped in a pattern of abuse doesn’t necessarily make her likeable. On top of this, there are so many racist encounters Zola experiences that remind us of the problematic racial dynamics between Stefani and Zola–after all, a white woman intentionally misleading a Black woman into a dangerous situation.

Taylour Paige and Riley Keough deserve the most credit for their roles in this film, depicting characters who simultaneously feel exaggerated and real. All of our leads are great, honestly, and I really appreciate the Greg Hirsch vibes Nicholas Braun is channeling for the sort of well-meaning but clueless Derrek.

If there’s a drawback here, it’s the scaled-back commentary from Zola. Her voice coming through in sarcastic commentary (much like that of the Twitter thread) provide the best humor of the film, and I wish we’d gotten more of it. Likely to let the suspense of some of the more tense moments land, the opportunity for comedy is dialed back. We do contend with some serious issues like sex trafficking and some of the extremely unglamorous elements of performing sex work, though in a more matter-of-fact than judgmental way.

I admittedly mostly follow award nominations so I can complain about them, so I’ll continue that trend. This should have gotten at least a best director nod for taking risks and telling a unique story well. There are a lot of clever scenes and camera angles focused on mirrors, image, and deception that look great on camera while underlining these themes throughout the story. I’m particularly aggravated when contrasting this film with recent releases I found boring AF like Belfast and Nightmare Alley that largely played it safe and got quite a lot of Oscar love regardless. *eyeroll*

Would my blog wife join this one for the ride or take the wheel and leave it to hitchhike back home? Read her review (at her new site) to find out!

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Collaborative Blogging, Film Reviews

Just Another Girl on the I.R.T., or: He Bought a Jeep

Is there anything trendier at the moment than a ’90s throwback? (Maybe early ’00s.) If the Collab is known for one thing, it’s having a finger on the pulse of all that is trendy, so of course this month won’t go by without a peek back into the ’90s as we focus on films directed by Black women.

A note about the I.R.T. for those of us not in ’90s New York: I.R.T. was the Interborough Rapid Transit, one of the former operators of what would become the NYC Subway. Despite the title, there aren’t many scenes on the subway, so this may not be the film for you if you’re only in it for the trains.

The Film:

Just Another Girl on the I.R.T.

Director:

Leslie Harris

The Premise:

A confident Brooklyn teenager with big plans to graduate high school early and become a doctor finds her future disrupted by an unexpected pregnancy.

The Ramble:

A proud ’90s Brooklyn girl, 17-year-old Chantel Mitchell knows all too well what people think of her and her neighborhood. Determined to tell her own story, Chantel breaks the fourth wall frequently to offer her own teenage perspective on her life and future.

Breaking stereotypes, Chantel is loud and bold while earning good grades and planning to graduate from high school early to pursue college and medical school. Her teachers are probably relieved, in all honesty, as Chantel is constantly getting in trouble for talking back and challenging the curriculum’s failure to adequately address slavery and racism. She has decided she won’t be stuck in her job at the corner store forever or end up like her parents, stressed and struggling to make a living.

A group of three teenage girls sit on a park bench, eating lunch together.

In many ways, the future feels like a long way off for Chantel, and nothing will stop her from chilling with her friends and dancing with all of the cute guys at parties. So though she’s a smart & precocious young woman, Chantel is a teenager who acts impulsively and without all of the facts. In a commentary on the lack of sex education in the States (which has not significantly improved), Chantel and her friends believe a number of complete myths, such as having sex standing up makes it impossible to get pregnant.

A teenage girl sits smiling, facing a young man at a party.

It’s in this context that Chantel ditches her not-quite-boyfriend Gerard and takes an interest in self-assured Ty, who has a Jeep, aka a way for Chantel to avoid remaining another girl on the IRT. When Chantel has unprotected sex with Ty, it’s not long before she realizes she’s pregnant. In denial and anxious about her future, Chantel decides to keep things a secret and not make a choice about her pregnancy.

However, surely keeping her pregnancy hidden will only be possible for a rather limited amount of time?

The Rating:

3.5/5 Pink Panther Heads

Director Leslie Harris’ vision was to film the coming-of-age story of a young Black woman at a time when this type of narrative received so little attention or acclaim. Based on the lack of funding for any future Harris ventures, it seems little has changed in filmmaking. In addition to the director’s vision, I love the ’90s fashions and the bold, unapologetic tone of Chantel’s character.

What makes this film feel uneven at times is the tension between two approaches here: that of celebrating Chantel’s coming-of-age and portraying her life realistically. I appreciate the film’s hopeful tone, which embraces Chantel’s tough persona and recognizes her as a determined yet flawed teenager. It’s refreshing to see her self-assuredness onscreen, including when she claps back with facts about the problematic whitewashing of history.

The tone shifts quite significantly when Chantel realizes she’s pregnant and tries to hide from this reality. Structural problems surrounding the lack of education and resources for sexual health have a real impact on Chantel’s life. The pregnancy morphs from scary to absolutely horrifying when she goes into labor prematurely and frantically searches for answers much too late. Shifting from Chantel’s confidence to horror to hope makes the last third in particular feel jarring.

Harris’ commitment to telling a realistic story that breaks down stereotypes and celebrates the everyday lives and survival of Black characters seems to be a major reason her film didn’t gain much traction despite recognition at Sundance. It’s frustrating that she’s been unable to make a film since, as my sense from Just Another Girl is that Harris has significantly more creative storytelling up her sleeve.

Would my blog wife cruise around the city with this one in the passenger seat or make it take the train? Find out in her review!

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Collaborative Blogging, Film Reviews

The Secret Life of Bees, or: Practice What You Peach

You know, bees on film don’t necessarily have a lot of positive associations for me. Candyman, My Girl, Bee Movie, The Wicker Man (the Nic Cage remake, of course): bees bring about nothing good in these films. Can this week’s pick save the bees, or at least their image in popular media? Either way, Feminist February, featuring films directed by Black women, rolls on!

The Film:

The Secret Life of Bees

Director:

Gina Prince-Bythewood

The Premise:

After running away from home, teenage Lily and her housekeeper find shelter at an apiary owned and operated by Black women in 1960s South Carolina.

The Ramble:

Tragedy strikes Lily Owens’ life at just the age of 4 when her mother dies as a result of an accidental shooting. After leaving behind her abusive husband, Lily’s mother Deborah returns for one day…either to collect her things or her daughter. Lily’s belief that she can live with her mother is quickly dashed when, witnessing a struggle between her parents, she accidentally fires the shot that kills Deborah.

A young white girl sits in front of a peach stand, writing in a notebook.

Years later, as a teenager on her father’s peach orchard in South Carolina, Lily’s most earnest wish is to learn more about the person her mother was. Aaaand guess which topic is the very one that T. Ray has absolutely no interest in discussing? Relying on just a few hidden treasures from her mother’s past to imagine what her life was like, Lily holds on to the belief that her mother was returning for her daughter.

Though largely oblivious to the sociopolitical happenings around her, even Lily learns about the passing of the 1964 Civil Rights Act as she watches the news with housekeeper Rosaleen. While she is fairly skeptical that the law will result in real change, Rosaleen, tired of enduring racist insults and attacks, stands up to a group of white men who harass her. When she refuses to apologize for her actions, Rosaleen is assaulted and arrested. After T. Ray makes the casual remark that one of the more vengeful men may ultimately kill Rosaleen, Lily fears for her friend’s life.

A young woman walks along a rural road with a Black woman.

For Lily, the last straw is really when T. Ray claims decisively that Deborah never loved her daughter and merely returned to the family home to reclaim her belongings. In response, Lily busts Rosaleen out of the hospital and the two run away, with Lily’s agenda to learn about her mother always on the backburner. Stumbling upon a shop in a small town, Lily recognizes the label on a jar of honey featuring the Black Madonna and decides to seek answers there.

The apiary is owned by the Boatwrights, a family of 3 Black sisters: August, June, and May. Lily is reasonably good at lying on the spot and claims her parents are dead; though August sees through the lie, she offers the two travelers a place to stay in exchange for help with the bees.

A young white girl stands on a porch with three Black women.

As Lily learns more about beekeeping, she gets to know the sisters better: maternal leader August, impatient activist June, and sweet but depressed May. Lily also meets family friend and employee Zach, a young man who dreams of being a lawyer who she’s definitely crushing on.

The amount of time Lily spends with Zach does not go unnoticed by the local racists & segregationists, and things take a turn for the horrific pretty quickly. How will Lily and her newfound family endure the terror they face?

The Rating:

3.5/5 Pink Panther Heads

First, the cast is absolutely the element that stood out to me before watching, and that’s even more true after. Our leading ladies Jennifer Hudson, Queen Latifah, Alicia Keys, and Sophie Okonedo are great, particularly given some of the character development limitations. Because the film centers on Lily’s experiences, we don’t always see these characters brought to life as vividly as I’d like. Queen Latifah is charismatic AF in everything she does, but I don’t know if I could tell you much about her character August here except…she’s maternal? Perhaps to a degree that creeps into problematic territory?

On a related note, having Lily’s perspective drive the plot forward is frustrating. I don’t discount the psychological pain she experiences throughout her traumatic childhood. However, focusing on this pain in the narrative fails to give the racist trauma of Rosaleen and the Boatwright sisters the consideration it needs. Lily seems pretty fucking selfish when she puts Black friends and family in dangerous situations multiple times because she hasn’t at all considered the impact. This isn’t really ever addressed, so the film glosses over the terror and violence while allowing Lily to obliviously hold on to her privilege.

I do give a lot of credit for the house and set design; it’s done beautifully and feels every bit the safe haven it’s meant to be. The issue with it being such an idyllic home does reflect a major issue I have with the film: as much as I want this vision of life in the ’60s South to be true, I don’t believe it. We get so close to addressing some of the heavy themes brought up in the story but then immediately back away. The story is so determined to be a happy one that it makes some of the major plot elements ring false.

Though this analysis has largely been negative (what else would you expect, regular reader[s] of the blog?), this is by no means a bad film. It’s entertaining and sweet, and refreshing to see a story involving a family of Black women building a home and business against the odds. It’s just a shame that these are supporting characters in yet another white girl’s coming-of-age story. Because Hollywood.

Would my blog wife risk a multitude of bee stings for this one or make it kneel in a pile of grits all night? Read her review to find out!

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Collaborative Blogging, Film Reviews

Jean of the Joneses, or: Bury Your Secrets

February brings the opportunity to observe multiple celebrations on the Collab: Black History Month & Feminist February! Rather than choose one, we’ve opted to embrace both of these elements in this month’s theme, which will highlight Black women filmmakers. Kicking off the month is a film by a multi-talented writer & director who I presume is going to have the descriptor “Oscar-winning” in front of her name someday. Hmmmm…if the Oscars can get its shit together.

The Film:

Jean of the Joneses

Director:

Stella Meghie

The Premise:

When her long-absent grandfather dies, Jean begins to uncover secrets that threaten to disrupt the already dysfunctional Jones family.

The Ramble:

Despite showing great promise as a young writer upon the publication of her first novel, Jean Jones’ life has been rather meandering since. After her live-in boyfriend suggests they take a break, Jean has no choice but to plead with the women of her Jamaican-American family to take pity on her.

A woman in scrubs talks to her niece, both of them holding wine glasses.

At the same time, Jones family life is about to implode as the bunch gathers for dinner at grandma’s, only to be interrupted by the arrival of an elderly man, who promptly dies. Jean seems to be the only member of the family willing to help the man, taking an ambulance trip with his body and fatefully meeting paramedic Roy. Surprisingly (but also not at all), the man turns out to be absentee patriarch of the family and Jean’s grandfather, Gordan.

A woman in pajamas sits on a mattress on the floor, seated next to a man.

It should be noted that everyone in Jean’s family has opinions, and they’re usually quite critical. While Jean is shocked over her grandfather’s sudden reappearance and death, her grandmother Daphne is merely annoyed he inconvenienced her by dying on her doorstep.

Meanwhile, Jean learns that her favorite aunt Anne is pregnant with a doctor’s child. Because Anne knows the doctor doesn’t care about her or the news at all, she decides to have an abortion. Though in need of some emotional support, Anne has not the patience for Jean’s messy lifestyle, sending her to stay with her frequently difficult and cutting mother.

A family of 3 women and 2 children sit in an elegantly decorated but dimly lit room.

While rotating between her relative’s homes, Jean learns more and more family secrets, including where her grandfather has been for the past 20+ years, how many new undisclosed family members she has(!), and exactly who knew which secrets & for how long. Oh, the scandal, dished out with appropriate levels of bitterness and sarcasm! Jean is harboring secrets of her own as she stalks her ex and pursues an on-again/off-again casual fling with Roy.

Appropriately, things all come to the surface at Gordan’s funeral service. After so much strain, will the family bond survive?

The Rating:

3.5/5 Pink Panther Heads

The characters and their relationships are at the core of this story, and they keep things compelling. I think the subtle approach works very well here–despite all of the shocking revelations, the Jones women by and large have realistic reactions rather than melodramatic soap opera-style stares. Their love language is definitely sarcasm, and the ways this is both frustrating and endearing to Jean comes across well.

Possibly because I’m tired of living in pandemic-induced limbo, there are times when watching Jean’s indecisiveness is frustrating. She’s (probably eternally) relatable as a 20-something character trying to get her shit together and failing miserably…and the film is necessarily a story of her growth. Even so, I really wanted her to give up on her ex way earlier and stop being so rude to Roy. She also reveals someone else’s secret to the family in a fashion that I find pretty sketchy, and this is just glossed over.

One other criticism: there’s a lot of family and personal drama happening here, which makes some of the elements of the plot feel rushed or not fully explored. In particular, I don’t really understand the choices Anne makes, though her relationship with Jean is one of the most heartfelt of the film. Roy doesn’t always feel like a necessary character, to be honest, but he’s so charming that I won’t complain too much.

Overall, this is an insightful look at family grief and dysfunction that feels real yet hopeful.

Would my blog wife give this one a nice burial in a mahogany casket or let it rot away in a cardboard box? Find out in her review!