Portrait of a Black Man

Written by admin on . Posted in Arts & Film, Film.


Let the coincidental openings of Death at a Funeral and Teza start a healthy dialogue on the generally dismissive way modern culture treats movies about black people. The remaking of the 2008 British comedy Death at a Funeral into an African-American burlesque indicates a readiness to see black folks in a trivial way. This contrasts the media’s scant regard of Teza, in which director Haile Gerima opposes the utter triviality of movies about black peoples’ lives. He’s made a deeply-felt drama about the complexity of the diaspora experience—a connection to Africa, the Mother continent, that gets totally ignored in most films we see, but has been perversely distorted in the work of Portuguese cineaste Pedro Costa, whose largely unseen films about Africa exiles have received almost hallowed acclaim, culminating in an unusual new DVD box set from Criterion.

Send in the clowns: Lawrence, Morgan & Rock.

In Gerima’s Teza, Anberber (Aaron Arefe) returns to his Ethiopian village as a broken, haunted man. After a long stint in Europe among counterculture Socialists and other Ethiopian exiles, he’s still an intransigent thinker concerned about solving the problems of Ethiopia life. Tragedy overshadows Anberber coming home to a country embroiled in civil war, expending its young men and testing the faith of its elders, including his illiterate mother. This dilemma is an indication of Gerima’s larger story: the black intellectual’s tragic fate in interacting with the West.

It takes an exorcism with a local shaman to reveal Anberber’s physical and psychic damage: a series of flashbacks to the 1970s detail his rebellious years in West Germany, even a brief mission in Addis Ababa after Emperor Haile Selassie is deposed. Anberber’s clique of Ethiopian exiles, including Tesfaye (Takelech Beyene), his best friend and political motivator. Exiled once again, they see the fall of the Berlin Wall and new political changes that exclude the best interests of immigrants.

Anberber and Tesfaye’s names translate as “Warrior” and “Hope” yet their terrible fortunes almost parallel the lives of African immigrants from Cape Verde who wind up derelicts and drug addicts in Fontainhas, the Lisbon neighborhood that Costa depicts in the films that comprise the Letters From Fontainhas box set. Costa’s exiles don’t have an intellectual background or much of a cultural tradition; they’re trapped in the sinkhole of Western colonialism. Costa’s movies fetishize this disaster into art-cinema etudes. This isn’t much different from the peculiarity of Death at a Funeral. That project puts black performers in the hamster cage of one of the most idiotic British films of recent years, essentially trapping them in a template that replicates humiliating, predetermined, cultural expectation.

Teza, however, attempts large-scale political and dramatic explication of his exiled blacks’ geographical, spiritual and political roots. While Teza tracks Anberber’s personal path, it also portrays an entire culture’s uneasy shift between feudalism and communism, but Costa’s films simply concentrate on the stasis of post-colonial urban decay. Zombie-like characters inhabit miserable social conditions (poverty, drugs, AIDS) that Costa slants into a new existential complacency.

From now on, can we dispense with the inane argument that black people deserve to be shown in various (usually demeaning) depictions? Such ignorance—and acceptance of the racism’s status quo—favors movies that repeat black stereotypes whether rowdy upwardly mobile blacks or Lisbon’s zoned-out and destitute. In Death at a Funeral, the cast of colored clowns offers no revelation. While good actors like Martin Lawrence, Columbus Short and Zoe Saldana prove their expertise, they’re way short of the roots-deep recognition. Despite a few more laffs than the British original, the cast seems to be operating on auto-pilot—the sort of regular clownishness that lets director Neil LaBute make his standard implication that nothing in (black) American life is to be taken seriously.

Gerima vividly accounts for the pain in post-colonial living, Costa anesthetizes sorrow with aesthetics and LaBute numbs reality with crude humor. These three intersecting film events place contemporary black film portraiture at a crossroads.


Teza
Directed by Haile Gerima
Runtime: 140 min.

Death at a Funeral
Directed by Neil LaBute
Runtime: 90 min.

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Portrait of a Black Man

Written by Armond White on . Posted in Arts & Film, Posts.


Teza
Directed by Haile Gerima
Runtime: 140 min.

Death at a Funeral
Directed by Neil LaBute
Runtime: 90 min.

Letters from Fontainhas
Criterion’s Pedro Costa DVD box set

Let the coincidental openings of Death at a Funeral and Teza start a healthy dialogue on the generally dismissive way modern culture treats movies about black people. The sudden remaking of the 2008 British comedy Death at a Funeral into an African-American burlesque indicates a readiness to see black folks in a trivial way. This contrasts the media’s scant regard of Teza, Haile Gerima’s first since the 1992 slavery epic Sankofa. In the modern-day Teza, Gerima opposes the utter triviality of movies about black peoples’ lives. He’s made a deeply-felt drama about the complexity of the diaspora experience—a connection to
Africa, the Mother continent, that gets totally ignored in most films we see, but has been perversely distorted in the work of Portuguese cineaste Pedro Costa, whose largely unseen films about Africa exiles have received almost hallowed acclaim culminating in an unusual new DVD box set from Criterion.

In Gerima’s Teza, Anberber (Aaron Arefe) returns to his Ethiopian village as a broken, haunted man. After a long stint in Europe among counterculture Socialists and other Ethiopian exiles, he’s still an intransigent thinker concerned about solving the problems of Ethiopia life. Tragedy overshadows Anberber coming home to a country embroiled in civil war, expending its young men and testing the faith of its elders, including his illiterate mother. This dilemma is an indication of Gerima’s larger—obscure, but crucial—story: the black intellectual’s tragic fate in interacting with the West.

It takes an exorcism with a local shaman to reveal Anberber’s physical and psychic damage: a series of flashbacks to the 1970s detail his rebellious years in West Germany, even a brief mission in Addis Ababa after Emperor Haile Selassie is deposed. Anberber’s clique of Ethiopian exiles, including Tesfaye (Takelech Beyene), his best friend and political motivator, unsuccessfully attempted to promote a new black Socialist government but bloody confusion sent them back to Europe. Exiled once again, they see the fall of the Berlin Wall and new political changes that exclude the best interests of immigrants.

Anberber and Tesfaye’s names translate as “Warrior” and “Hope,” respectively, yet their terrible fortunes almost parallel the lives of African immigrants from Cape Verde who wind up derelicts and drug addicts in the Lisbon neighborhood Fontainhas that Costa depicts in the films that comprise the Criterion box set Letters From Fontainhas. Costa’s exiles don’t have an intellectual background or much of a cultural tradition; they’re trapped in the sinkhole of Western colonialism. Costa’s movies fetishize this disaster into art-cinema etudes. This isn’t much different from the peculiarity of Death at a Funeral. That project puts black performers in the hamster cage of one of the most idiotic British films of recent years, essentially trapping them in a template that replicates humiliating, predetermined, cultural expectation.

Teza, however, attempts large-scale political and dramatic explication of his exiled blacks’ geographical, spiritual and political roots. While Teza tracks Anberber’s personal path, it also portrays an entire culture’s uneasy shift between feudalism and communism, but Costa’s films simply concentrate on the stasis of post-colonial urban decay. Zombie-like characters inhabit miserable social conditions (poverty, drugs, AIDS) that Costa slants into a new existential complacency. The political indifference that prevails in contemporary film culture is newly indulged by Costa’s artiness. His style—long takes, chiaroscuro compositions, minimal movement—is a highly refined decadence. It allows guilt-free detachment from the reality of his characters and the many non-professional actors he enlists. This indifference is what Gerima contests, both in Teza’s expansive story (many references to Mussolini’s destructive campaign against Ethiopia ironically suggests that the film’s family narrative is as complex as The Best of Youth) and in his effort to promote Teza to a culture that doesn’t normally grant esteem to stories of black experience.

Costa’s films are never subjected to the “bad taste of racial recognition that Gerima takes as a given. Luc Sante’s accompanying Criterion essay curiously ponders, “Can we rise to the level of [a character] extending mercy and pronouncing sentence, despite our not having earned her experience?” Sante’s mystification contradicts the basic purpose of art, which is to relay the experience of others as our own. Costa’s petrified art stays remote while Gerima’s griot-like unfolding of stories within stories manages the marvelous art of connecting Anberber’s struggle to the desperation of all others. A generational tree image has biblical import and dimension. An extraordinary address by an old Selassie loyalist to Anberber’s young upstarts conveys brotherhood. It contrasts Costa’s gnomic figures, who sleepwalk in an infuriating stupor.

From now on, can we dispense with the inane argument that black people deserve to be shown in various (usually demeaning) depictions? Such ignorance—and acceptance of the racism’s status quo—favors movies that repeat black stereotypes whether rowdy upwardly mobile blacks or Lisbon’s zoned-out and destitute. In Death at a Funeral, the cast of colored clowns offers no revelation. It’s business as usual, but not even as authentically as the 2001 Kingdom Come, since the ripped-off British farce about a patriarch’s burial that triggers the disclosure of family secrets doesn’t probe the depth of lost identity and blended-family chaos. While good actors like Martin Lawrence, Columbus Short and Zoe Saldana prove their expertise, they’re way short of the roots-deep recognition. Despite a few more laffs than the British original, the cast seems to be operating on auto-pilot—the sort of regular clownishness that lets director Neil LaBute make his standard implication that nothing in (black) American life is to be taken seriously.

Gerima vividly accounts for the pain in post-colonial living, Costa anesthetizes sorrow with aesthetics and LaBute numbs reality with crude humor. These three intersecting film events place contemporary black film portraiture at a crossroads.

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