Collaborative Blogging, Film Reviews

Black Nativity, or: Angela Bassett We Have Heard on High

It’s our 2nd Forest Whitaker musical of the month, and I’m not complaining. Once again playing a rather stern figure who may need to rethink his priorities, will this week’s pick recapture the magic of Jingle Jangle? I mean, will anything?

The Film:

Black Nativity

The Premise:

Facing eviction ahead of the holidays, a Baltimore mother sends her son to stay with his grandparents as he unravels family secrets and inevitably learns the true meaning of Christmas.

The Ramble:

Named for the Harlem Renaissance poet (and playwright who scripted the inspiration for our film), our young hero Langston is experiencing a rather unhappy Christmas season. On the brink of eviction from their Baltimore home, his mother Naima sends Langston to stay with his estranged grandparents in Harlem for the holidays. Promising to join her son soon, it seems impossible that Naima will follow through on this.

Less than stoked to spend time with his grandparents, who share a troubled relationship with their daughter, Langston’s trip goes from bad to worse when he steps off the bus and immediately loses his backpack to a thief. Even more aggravating is his arrest after being accused of stealing a guest’s wallet in a hotel lobby.

A Black grandfather shows a picture to his grandson, a small collection of antiques and photos in the room behind them.

Luckily, Langston’s grandfather, the Reverend Cornell Cobbs, picks him up from jail…though is less than understanding. Langston fails to score points as a grandchild by expressing confusion that the family says grace before eating. Even so, the Rev shows Langston some family heirlooms related to their proud history of involvement in the Civil Rights movement, including a pocket watch that belonged to Martin Luther King, Jr. himself.

A Black teenager speaks on the phone with a disappointed look, his grandmother and grandfather looking with concern in the room behind him.

Unfortunately, Langston sees the pocket watch as a way to earn money to pay down the rent his mother owes by selling it at the nearest pawn shop. As luck would have it, the pawn shop owner knows Rev. Cobbs and that he would never voluntarily part with the piece.

Though he strikes out with the watch, Langston encounters a man on the street who can set him up with anything he needs, including a handgun. Langston begins to set the wheels in motion in an extremely misguided attempt to get the money needed to stop the eviction.

As he gets to know his grandparents better, Langston begins to unravel the family’s secrets. While reluctantly attending the Christmas Eve service and hearing the Nativity story at church, Langston offers a place to sit to young expecting couple Maria and Jo Jo. Get it? But do you get it since it’s incredibly subtle?

A young Black man and woman look down at their newborn, who is in an improvised manger with light shining down on him.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Christmas miracle of Naima managing to reunite with her family occurs…but does it mean the truth will surface and the power of forgiveness will smooth over past disagreements?

The Rating:

2.5/5 Pink Panther Heads

To me, there are three stages of watching this film (in no particular order): boredom, annoyance, state of awe of Angela Bassett.

Despite the incredible cast (Angela Bassett! Forest Whitaker! Jennifer Hudson! Mary J. Blige!), this is a surprisingly boring and disjointed film. The main plot line involving the family’s history and Langston’s poor decisions is quite predictable, and our talented cast don’t have nearly enough to do. Add to this the well-known Nativity story that’s not done in a particularly interesting or novel way, songs that are forgettable, and increasingly poor decisions by Langston (who TALKS BACK to Angela Bassett), and there’s not a lot going for it.

We do get strong vocal performances from just about everyone in our film, even if the songs themselves aren’t that interesting. And Angela Bassett in particular does rock the role, especially considering what she’s given to work with. However, there was a major missed opportunity for a Dreamgirls mash-up, especially a scene near the end where a reprise of “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going” wouldn’t have hurt at all.

All of this being said, I still teared up a little at the extremely predictable end.

Would my blog wife greet this one with open arms or pawn it off as soon as humanly possible? Read her review to find out!

Collaborative Blogging, Film Reviews

Eve’s Bayou, or: Batiste by Fire

Louisiana: home to crayfish, spicy Creole dishes with extra hot sauce, snakes slithering across tree branches, and fireflies that sing love songs in Cajun French to one twinkling star in particular? Nope–wrong movie. This week’s film may not feature the New Orleans jazz or Mardi Gras celebrations of The Princess & the Frog (the only other Louisiana-set film that springs immediately to mind), but it has more than its share of humidity, moody swamp scenes, and small-town Southern drama. Do all of these elements combine to create a satisfyingly spicy pot of jambalaya?

The Film:

Eve’s Bayou

The Premise:

Over the course of a hot Louisiana summer, 10-year-old Eve uncovers secrets about her family that lead to her to take drastic action.

The Ramble:

In 1960s Louisiana, narrator Eve Batiste pulls no punches, telling us right off the bat that she was 10 when she killed her father. Say what, now?

The Batiste family descends from General Jean Paul Batiste and Eve, an enslaved woman for whom the Creole-settled bayou is named. By the ’60s, the family is one of the most prosperous in the area, throwing any number of swanky, well-attended parties. It’s during one such party that tomboyish Eve, always in the shadow of her older sister Cisely, runs off. As a result, Eve sees her father Louis, a respected doctor, sneaking around with a married woman. After Cisely convinces her sister this can’t have possibly been true, Eve buries the memory and pretends nothing ever happened.

A man and his teenage daughter dance in the middle of a crowded room of onlookers.

However, Eve isn’t the only one with suspicions–her uncle Harry nearly has a drunken fistfight with Louis. After the fight breaks up, Aunt Mozelle drives her inebriated husband home…though a car crash on the rainy night leads to his sudden death. A psychic counselor, Aunt Mozelle believes she is cursed as she has lost three husbands to tragic, violent deaths.

A woman wearing a headscarf holds a cigarette, a girl walking beside her and smiling.

Mozelle draws a distinction between herself and the fortune teller down at the market, who is rumored to speak nonsense and practice voodoo. However, after having her fortune told, Eve’s mother Roz becomes convinced something ominous is in the near future. Roz decides the only solution is to keep her children inside for the duration of the summer, never letting them out of her sight.

Two women in elegant dresses walk side by side, a swampy landscape behind them.

Though her younger brother remains oblivious, Eve is a keen observer, using the time stuck inside to notice just how frequently her father is absent and how strained her parents’ marriage is. Meanwhile, Cisely becomes increasingly rebellious, chopping her hair off in favor of a more grown-up style and speaking back to her mother in defense of her father.

In a dark twist, a child is killed after he is hit by a bus. This spells good news for the Batiste children, who are finally allowed outside again now that the foretold danger has passed. However, Cisely reveals to Eve that their father recently sexually assaulted her. Vowing to protect her sister, Eve begins planting seeds of doubt in the mind of Mr. Mereaux, an unsuspecting man whose wife is having an affair with Louis. Eve also pays a visit to the mysterious psychic, demanding to know how one goes about killing someone with voodoo.

Has Eve set in motion a plan that will yield more than she’s bargained for?

The Rating:

4/5 Pink Panther Heads

Though the plot is itself somewhat melodramatic, it feels appropriate for the atmosphere, a Southern Gothic in which everyone is stifled by the heat and long-buried secrets. There are beautifully shot scenes of the Louisiana swamp and its looming cypress trees for days, all the better to emphasize the turmoil in our characters’ lives.

Men are a part of the plot, but this is very much a story about women and sisterhood. Aunt Mozelle in particular is a standout character who is the rock of her family when her brother consistently disappoints. She cares deeply for her family and is a role model to Eve with the strength, independence, and compassion she demonstrates. It seems Mozelle is destined to repeat a cycle of heartbreak for the rest of her life, but it makes her no less willing to continue to open up her heart. Coincidentally, she continues the subtheme of this blog, women who look good smoking, and she does it with ease.

Beyond female power and community, the nature of memory is crucial to the unfolding of the film’s events. The way Eve and Cisely in particular question their memories of specific acts has the power to change utterly how they relate to their family and each other. The effect of memories surfacing or failing to surface in these characters’ minds is chilling.

The only thing that doesn’t sit well with me is the way sexual assault is at the center of the concept of memory as unstable and ever-changing. The way it’s set up in the film, there seem to be two different stories of what happened between Louis and Cisely that are equally likely. This is for dramatic effect, as it makes us at the audience wrestle with Eve’s actions. Is it really relevant, though? Louis is the adult here, and, whatever happened, it feels gross to suggest that Cisely was in control of their relationship in a way that may diminish the actions of her father.

Would my blog wife eagerly consult with this one about her future or loudly denounce its fortunetelling skills? Read her review to find out!