African-American Movie

A Gathering Of Old Men

1987

Consolidated Productions/Jennie & Co.

Directed by Volker Schlondorff

Produced by Gower Frost

Screenplay by Charles Fuller

Based on the novel “A Gathering Of Old Men” by Ernest J. Gaines

It’s a boiling hot summer day in a Louisiana sugar cane field once upon a time in the 1970’s.  An overweight black man named Charlie runs for his life, yelling for help.  And with good reason.  There’s a white man pursuing him on a tractor with a shotgun.  In desperation Charlie runs into a house as he simply cannot run any more.  The white man gets off the tractor and strides toward the shack, shotgun at the ready and loudly proclaiming his intention to enter the house and kill Charlie.  A shotgun blast comes from the house, killing the white man.

The house is owned by Mathu (Lou Gossett, Jr.), an elderly black man who tells the younger one to make a run for it.  Since we’re not shown who fired from the house we don’t know if it was Mathu or Charlie who did the killing but it hardly matters.  As one of the characters says later on in the film; “Ain’t no colored ever kilt a white man in this parish and got away with it.” Even though it’s the 1970’s and still in the white-hot passion of the civil rights movement everybody who lives in the parish knows full well that things really haven’t changed all that much.  Somebody’s going to get lynched over this.

Mathu lives on land owned by the Marshall family and it’s Candy Marshall (Holly Hunter) who concocts a plan to save Mathu from certain arrest and the probable lynching: she sends out a call for all of Mathu’s equally elderly friends to fire off their shotguns and bring them along to Mathu’s house.  She also calls for her fiancé, journalist Lou Dimes (Will Patton) to come to Mathu’s house to document what happens next.  And it could get bloody.  The white man who was killed was a Cajun and his father Fix (Stocker Fontelieu) intends to see to it that the man who killed his son pays for it.

Stuck in the middle is Sheriff Mapes (Richard Widmark) who started the day intending to go fishing and certainly didn’t plan on having to deal with this mess. Because each one of Mathu’s seventeen friends proclaim loudly and with finality that they were the one that did the killing and here’s the just fired shotgun to back it up.  And each one of those seventeen friends have brought along more shotgun shells as they don’t intend to see their friend lynched.

A GATHERING OF OLD MEN is a movie that is so far under the radar it isn’t funny.  I remember seeing it on CBS just once way back in the 1980’s and I’ve never seen it aired again on network television.  Which is a shame because it’s a powerful piece of filmmaking with outstanding performances from Richard Widmark, Holly Hunter and a cast of classic black actors such as the late great Joe Seneca, Woody Strode, Tiger Haynes and Julius Harris.

It’s a story exploring the desire of black men in the twilight of their years having one final chance at regaining their manhood and standing up for themselves.  It gets even deeper into the various attitudes of the white characters who all have their own agendas regarding the black characters.  The Cajuns want blacks to “stay in their place” so that they have somebody to feel superior to.  The Marshall family are guilty of patronizing the blacks and believing they are superior to Cajuns which they despise for being “poor white trash”  The patronizing attitude of the Marshalls is brought out sharp and clear in a scene when Candy proudly proclaims that these are “her” blacks and they “need” her to protect them from “those” white people.

It’s a story that doesn’t pull any punches and there are some today who might be uncomfortable watching this movie.  Especially now in this era of the Obama presidency where many believe that racism doesn’t matter and that we all walk around holding hands and singing “We Are The World.”  A GATHERING OF OLD MEN is an engaging reminder that such is not so.  And it’s simply a damn fine piece of ensemble acting that can be enjoyed as such on those terms.  It’s available on DVD and well worth your time to track it down.  Enjoy

Ganja & Hess

GANJA & HESS

1973

Kelly/Jordan Enterprises

Directed and Written by Bill Gunn

Produced by Chiz Schultz

If you’ve been reading my reviews here at The Ferguson Theater or listening to me pontificate over at Better In The Dark then you know full well that one of my particular bugaboos is how African-Americans are so poorly represented in horror movies.  Despite its reputation as a ground breaking horror movie that has a black man as the lead character, I can’t get behind the original “Night of The Living Dead” on that basis.  Oh, it’s a superior horror movie, I don’t dispute that.  But every decision Ben (Duane Jones) makes gets somebody killed.  Ironically, he survives the night by doing exactly what another character suggested at the beginning of the movie: he goes into the basement and stays quiet.  Earlier on, Ben had rejected that plan and insisted everybody stay upstairs while he nails all the windows and doors shut, keeping every light in the joint burning like its New Year’s Eve.  Naturally, every zombie for miles is attracted to the light and noise.  You know the rest.

When it comes to blacks in horror movies I always point to “The People Under The Stairs” and “Anaconda” in which not only does the brother (Ice Cube) live to see the end of the movie but a Latina as well (Jennifer Lopez).  Those two movies are superior examples of black leading characters in horror movies.  I’d also add the two “Blacula” movies, “The Omega Man” “The Beast Must Die” “Sugar Hill” (which is actually more of a superhero movie than horror) “J.D.’s Revenge”and “Candyman”

And then there’s GANJA & HESS.  It’s a vampire movie unlike any other vampire movie I’ve ever seen.  I’ve heard about this movie for years but it has been notoriously hard to find.  Once again I have to bow in respect to Turner Classic Movies and their Saturday night “Underground” as they have repeatedly come through in airing long forgotten movies I had given up all hope of seeing.  But hey, they aired “The Apple” and for that alone, they had me. They regularly show GANJA & HESS so keep an eye out for it there.

Duane Jones from “Night of The Living Dead” is starring in this one  He’s Dr. Hess Green, an archaeologist and geologist whose particular field of expertise is the ancient and long dead African civilization of Myrthia.  He’s breaking in a new assistant, George (Bill Gunn) who seems to be borderline manic depressive as he’s given to these long rambling stream-of-consciousness conversations that really aren’t conversations as he’s the only one talking.  Hess mainly smokes and listens to him in silence.  No doubt wondering if he shoulda checked out this cat a little more in depth before hiring him.  The camel that breaks the straw back is the night when Hess finds George sitting up in a tree, drinking wine and contemplating suicide.

That same night, George attacks Hess, stabbing him with a bone knife from Myrthia.  George kills himself afterwards but Hess amazingly has not died.  The bone knife has infected him with the curse of vampirism.  But it’s not the type of vampirism we’ve come to know from other movies.  Hess can be seen in mirrors.  He walks around quite comfortably in daylight and rather than shunning churches and the cross, he keeps crosses in his house, employs a minister as his chauffeur and actively professes his Christian beliefs.  But the bloodlust is there and to satisfy it, Hess is forced to steal from blood banks and prey on lower class street people.

The situation is complicated by the unexpected arrival of George’s wife, Ganja (Marlene Clark) who is broke and demands that Hess produce her husband so that he can give her the money he promised.  Instead, Hess offers her George’s accommodations in his palatial mansion.  It’s not long after that they begin a sexual relationship that develops into love and marriage.  It’s then that Hess decides to turn Ganja into a vampire like himself.  And that’s when things really start to get strange…

What sets GANJA & HESS apart from any other vampire movie for me is the clash of African blood rituals and American Christianity depicted.  Hess is plagued by visions of a Myrthian queen (Mabel King) but at the same time he is drawn toward Christianity as a means of curing himself or at least of saving his soul.  Ganja’s influence drives him in a new directly as she is motivated solely by material possessions.  It’s an amusing scene when she first meets Hess and assumes he’s a servant.  If and when you see the movie, observe how fast her attitude changes when she realizes that Hess is wealthy.  For her, wealth covers a whole lot of multitude of sins.  Even murder and vampirism.

But be advised that this is a movie shot on the cheap.  There obviously wasn’t much money to spend on this.  But that works in the movie’s favor as if has a gritty, realistic feel that adds to the horror, especially during one of the movie’s more powerful scenes where Hess kills and feeds on a whore and her pimp.

Marlene Clark walks off with the acting honors and well she should.  By the time she did GANJA & HESS she had already racked up numerous roles in blaxplotation films and TV shows.  What I like about her in this one is her naked lust for material wealth that in itself a form of vampirism.

So should you see GANJA & HESS?  Now that’s it’s also available on DVD I certainly think you should.  It is slow moving in spots and almost blatantly surrealistic at times.  But it’s a powerful exploration of the vampire that I found engaging and highly interesting and I’m betting you will, too.  Enjoy.

110 minutes

Rated R

Stomp The Yard

2007

Screen Gems

Directed by Sylvain White

Produced by William Packer

Screenplay by Robert Adetuyi

I’m going to be really upfront with you guys and tell you right from the start that there’s not a blessed thing original in STOMP THE YARD and if you’ve seen the trailers you’ve pretty much seen the movie. Fifteen minutes after the movie started Patricia leaned over and said; “Even I can tell how this one is going to go.” Usually it aggravates her that I can be 90% accurate in predicting the next scene of a movie we’re watching and how it’s going to end but this time she was the one doing the predicting. That’s how By-The-Numbers STOMP THE YARD is. But that’s not to say it doesn’t have enjoyable moments and some interesting performances as well as being a movie with an African-American cast that is refreshing in its choice of location and characters.

DJ Williams (Columbus Short) and his brother are the leaders of a team of L.A. based competitive street dancers who have the misfortune to be so skilled that they beat another dance posse who turn out to be really sore losers. So sore that during a brutal fight to get money they won betting on themselves, DJ’s beloved brother is killed. DJ’s mother ships her remaining son to Atlanta, Georgia to live with his cheerful aunt Jackie (Valarie Pettiford) and his take-no-bullshit uncle Nate (Harry Lennix) who have agreed to house DJ while he attends Truth University, a black college where Nate is head gardener. DJ has determined to live out his brother’s dream of going to college the best way he can even though his head is clearly not into the college life.

That is, until he literally runs into April (Meagan Good) who he immediately falls in love with and April’s boyfriend Grant (Darrin Henson) who he immediately falls into active dislike with. April isn’t too impressed with DJ until he demonstrates his mad skills on a dance floor and not only does April start wondering what other kind of moves does he has but DJ finds himself being courted by two rival fraternities, Mu Gamma and Theta Nu Theta, both of whom are experts in the art of step dancing which they treat with the intensity usually reserved for tribal warfare. DJ chooses Theta Nu Theta mainly because it’s the fraternity Grant isn’t a member of. The rivalry is to be decided in a national step-dancing contest. It quickly becomes apparent to DJ that they aren’t going to win with the traditional step dancing techniques and he sets out to convince the head of his frat that by adopting DJ’s crunkin’ moves and blending them into the traditional steps, Theta Nu Theta can win and break Mu Gamma’s seven year winning streak.

The situation is complicated by April’s father, Dr. Palmer who just happens to be the Dean of the university (oh, come on now…like you didn’t see that comin’ a light year away). Dr. Palmer has made a gentleman’s agreement with Grant as to April’s future. They’ve got it all planned out for her and they don’t intend for some ghetto rat to interfere with their plans. Can DJ win the true love of his life and help his newfound brothers of Theta Nu Theta win the step contest? Can he win redemption and forgiveness for himself in the process? If you can’t answer those questions for yourself then you must not go to movies much, my friends.

It’s not that there’s anything wrong with STOMP THE YARD. On the contrary, there’s a lot to like about it. It’s refreshing to watch a movie full of black people that’s not set in the ghetto, nobody’s smoking crack or waving gats in each other faces. There’s some serious talk about fraternities and how they’re used as life long financial and emotional support systems for graduates. DJ isn’t portrayed as a barely literate thug. In fact, he’s a sharply intelligent young man with a wry sense of humor carrying around a tremendous burden of guilt at the part he played in his brother’s death. Class issues are brought up, as the relationship between DJ and April turns serious. Dr. Palmer and Grant are upper class and even though DJ is black just like they are they look down on him as if he were some lower form of life. Meagan Good is a joy to watch as she plays an intelligent, sensitive young black woman who thinks with her brain instead of with her hips. She’s great to look at and she’s aware of her sexual power but her character isn’t driven by sex alone.

If anything, STOMP THE YARD suffers from trying to do too many things at one time: it tries to give us a look inside black college life, it tries to be a love story, it’s tries to be a tale of personal growth and redemption and examine the class struggle that exists among blacks today. And it tries to be a dance movie as well. And for me, I thought it really odd that for a movie that sells itself as a dance movie that the dancing was really awful.

Let me explain: in dance scenes it’s really important that you be able to see what the dancers are doing if you’re to have any appreciation of their talent and skill. Look at any classic favorite musical of yours. I betcha you’ll see that in the dance scenes, you can see the entire body of the dancers. Especially their feet. In STOMP THE YARD, we rarely see the dancer’s feet and the camera is constantly moving and unnecessary tricks such as speeding up the action and insanely quick cutting is employed so that the dance scenes are mostly a blur of noise and flashes of arms and legs whipping around wildly. In a movie about dance I think you really ought to keep the camera still and let the dancers move. The director of STOMP THE YARD is a former music video director and it shows. He doesn’t film the dance sequences in STOMP THE YARD like dance sequences. He films them like videos.

So should you see STOMP THE YARD? It’s certainly not going to kill you if you do.   For me it’s a pleasure to see a movie with black youth portrayed as going to college and settling their differences with dance instead of blowing each other brains out. And it’s nice to see a movie where black women are never once called ‘bitch’ and who have more ambition in life other than the constant care of their nails and hair and pursuing men.

But as a movie about black college life? Go Netflix Spike Lee’s “School Daze” instead. As a dance movie? Again, nah. Go Netflix “You Got Served” if you want to see a movie with some really marvelous crunkin’/hip-hop dancing. How about as a movie about a cocky street kid who goes to college and learns how to be a better person? While bringing his mad street skills to a traditional style? Again, no. Go Netflix “Drumline”.  But what I recommend STOMP THE YARD for is the heart and sincerity of the story and the performances.  And that’s worth a lot to me.  Enjoy.

Rated PG-13
109 minutes