Archive for May, 2021|Monthly archive page


In Uncategorized on May 5, 2021 at 7:54 pm

Makeup artist Sergio Lopez-Rivera, hair department head Mia Neal, and Viola Davis’ personal hairstylist, Jamika Wilson, making history at the 93rd Academy Awards presentation.

You know what? Even with all the changes and the straitened circumstances engendered by the pandemic, I actually enjoyed the Oscars, maybe more than at any time since I was a kid and thrilled to watching Streisand and Hepburn tie in 1968, or hearing Audrey Hepburn’s uniquely stirring cadence when she announced “A Man for All Seasons!”, or rejoicing when it seemed the Academy was finally getting hip the night Isaac Hayes blew the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion apart, performing Shaft, nearly naked and hung with gold chains (and presenter Sammy Davis Jr. having a conniption, right after).

Taking the right cue from the surprisingly delightful Grammys, the scaled-down dinner party effect was both agreeably intimate and elegant, and the collegial feel among the nominees felt authentically warm, preferable to the synthetic, alienating vastness of former Oscar venues, requiring the ridiculousness of ‘seat fillers’ to convey an empty, worthless illusion akin to that delusional Trumpian boast about his crowded inauguration. In any previous Oscar telecast, I would have been lucky to find just one moment to which I could really relate and have my heart touched, and those were usually generated by the sight of some dear old icon, who’d managed to survive, gratefully back in the spotlight again.

But last Sunday night was full of them, partly the result of the truly revolutionary lack of time limits on speech, almost as if the Academy was saying “Yeah, it’s been a brutal year for us all – you’re allowed to show your humanity, so tell us about you.” And to a woman and man, they did, speaking their truths in speeches, which – going against all formerly vehement Oscar protocol – were almost universally political, and not just political, but defiantly and gloriously so. It strikes me as nothing less than ironic – among other things – that so many people online who are so vehemently “Black Lives Matter” dissed this year’s Oscar ceremony as “unwatchable,” “boring,” “I turned it off,” etc. However, life-changing and invigorating it may be to march alongside fervent comrades for an assuredly worthy cause, is it so difficult to just sit there and listen to the real stories of black lives, being lived NOW?

Hair & Makeup winner Mia Neal set the tone for the night with I think the greatest acceptance speech ever, mentioning her forebears and their involvement with the Tuskegee airmen, historic college racism, professionally breaking the glass ceiling and so much else, that, if you’re human at all, tears were unavoidable, listening to her, with maybe the addition of a “Shaft” era-approving, “Right on!”After her, the emotional intensity just continued, from beautiful Daniel Kaluuya’s words which also invoked important history, as well as hilariously mentioning parental sex which drew the most divinely priceless reactions from his mother and sister, to Tyler Perry who, however much his movies suck to me, proved himself to be so very admirable as a person, to our now new senior version of irresistible adorability a la Ruth Gordon, Yuh Jung Youn, who both delights and instills me with pride as a fellow Korean. The ebullient richness which kept overflowing throughout the night had nothing to do with couture or borrowed Cartier, and everything to do with being gorgeously creative, human and honest.

I was quite disappointed that the best film of the year, the superbly real family portrait, “Minari,” only triumphed in the Best Supporting Actress category. It should have swept all the major awards in the way that “It Happened One Night” did, including screenplay and the omission of Han Ye-Ri as a Best Actress nominee, not to mention cinematographer Lachlan Milne, was criminal. “Nomadland,” for me, was a terrific, important premise that Chloe Zao was unable to render dramatically, being more of a random tract or outline for a documentary that, however, poignant the plight of its heroine may have been, never really moved me once. And the next time I want to see Frances McDormand, she better be wearing something slinky and a fascinator, playing maybe a madcap heiress, because all of these perpetually deglamorized, salt of the earth characters she plays, each of them filled with the feisty confidence of their own exhausting self-righteousness against the System, are beginning to pall.

Set squarely in center frame of all of these recent vehicles, muttering and busily bustling away in each of them, McDormand for all of her avowed unpretentiousness, can seem just as much of a spotlit diva in a vanity project as in anything more glitzy, regardless of how grimly serious she wants to present herself. I never felt I really got to know any of the other arc-less characters in the film, only their various disenfranchised plights which introduces them. Hey, but look! here comes good ole Frances in the trailer park again, waving a sparkler and – very out of character – vivaciously calling out “Happy New Year!” to whoever.

Ain’t she just a stitch?

And don’t you want to just know her?

Not really.

The thing about some of this year’s so-called smaller crop of indie efforts was that, however universally worthy their intentions might have been, the same could not always be said about their execution. For example, I stopped watching The United States v. Billie Holiday when Andra Day found it necessary to doff all her clothes when she was arrested for drugs. It begged the question: How high WAS Billie Holiday? I’m sorry – call that singing legend fucked-up and a loser as much as you want, but I choose to believe in – and wish Lee Daniels had left her – her dignity. Making his actress do that was not all that removed from the gratuitous exploitation Halle Berry had to undergo to win her (undeserved) Oscar, at the behest of this same, ironically gay-identified director. At that point, I just turned the film off, dreading the further undoubted and excessive victimization of the character to come.

Note to filmmakers: Lady Day has been done to death, btw, like Josephine Baker and Dorothy Dandridge. There’s a wealth of other embattled but transcendent dark divas you can cover. Stop being so damn lazy. Think about – or Google if you must – Fredi Washington, Ethel Waters, Alberta Hunter, Bessie Smith, Florence Ballard, Dinah Washington, Sarah Vaughn, Ella Fitzgerald, Barbara McNair, Florence Mills, Aaliyah, Lisa Lopez, Nina Mae McKinney, Mahalia Jackson, Leontyne Price, Lorraine Hansberry, Diana Sands, Ntozake Shange, etc., etc. Hell, wouldn’t Marian Anderson’s life – even just a moment-by-moment re-telling of her immortal D.C. concert appearance – surely make some kind of movie?

Then there was that other filmization of a legendary black singer, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. And no, I don’t believe Chadwick Boseman deserved the Oscar. An absolute tragedy that he’s dead, but there’s no reason for Anthony Hopkins to be remorseful or vilified in any way, because he won as the choice for Best Actor.

What do they say? It all starts on the page? Well, Boseman’s unfortunately belonged to August Wilson, to me the most unaccountably acclaimed playwright of his time. I am well-versed in his work and my opinion is he does not write plays, so much as windy yet empty onstage nervous breakdowns for actors. Simplistic, almost primitive in exposition and as numbingly redundant of the worst of the also overrated Eugene O’Neill, his productions are always arid chores to sit through. Nobody ever seems to want to admit this, because, as America’s most long-lauded black playwright, people feel they must dutifully attend to him. But his melodramatic writing – always dry, never juicy – does not truly fire the imagination, however many histrionic pyrotechnics the performers must pull out in the attempt to make his inert dramaturgy MOVE. His productions are rife with illogical behavior, upsetting physical convulsions and wild acts of sudden violence, followed by their inevitable aftermaths of bereft, remorseful wallowing. Wilson’s theater is a blowhard’s amassing of loud effects with little connective real human logic, presented in a hushed ambiance of portentousness – “THIS is what it’s like to be black in America” – that is sure to blow impressionable, often Caucasian, critics away, followed by all kinds of inevitable awards. For my money, I’ll take the seldom-revived oeuvre – apart from For Colored Girls – of Ntozake Shange, any day.

Despite its 1984 Tony nomination and win as Best Play by the New York Drama Critics Circle , Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, for me, was like watching paint dry, with the added, excruciating annoyance of the continual delay of the actual recording – when she finally sings – where the audience could at least enjoy a momentary musical escape from the dull, repetitive dialogue. (And the film cut great swathes of the play, thankfully.) Here, director George Wolfe tries to enliven the proceedings with much frantic camera movement, a surfeit of period art direction and 89-year-old Oscar winner Ann Roth’s wonderful, richly layered and telling costumes, the best aspect of the movie.

The strenuous performances did not redeem the material or make you particularly warm to the characters. Boseman was practically doing gymnastics all over the place to give some life to the senselessly lurid and combative cartoon he was handed to play, while Viola Davis – Our Lady of the Body Fluids – was sweating like crazy, all fired up and fierce with crazy prima donna entitlement – the angriest black woman who ever walked. But never once did you get any sense of the musical genius which truly made Ma the mother of the blues, i.e., what made her a real artist, instead of just the explosive diva Wilson and Wolfe hand us. A lot of people are always impressed by obvious hard work up there on the screen, thinking that all the effort must constitute a kind of genius. But what I have found with great singers, a few of whom I have been lucky enough to meet in my lifetime, is that singing- to them- is usually as mysteriously effortless as their daily conversation.

All that acclaim for these sloppy presentations of two important black women rudely edged out what was the best female-driven American movie of the year, Channing Godfrey Peoples’ Miss Juneteenth. Covering the annual Fort Worth, Texas scholarship pageant for black girls and how it affects obsessive former winner, penurious Turquoise (Nicole Behari) and the rebellious daughter (Alexis Chikaeze) whom she is determined to win, it had authenticity, engaging conflict and a goddam ton of heart. Beautifully lit by the chemistry and deeply human performances of the actresses – one of cinema’s great mother-daughter duos – it proved that, while the Academy this year definitely displayed a diversity long missing which I hope will not just be be a COVID-engendered phenomenon stemming from the dearth of the usual big studio releases this year, it can still be definitely lacking in real aesthetic discernment. And I say this, with the rueful realization that, given the ubiquitous commercial bottom line and never-ending political elements of the industry, itself, this may may well be something the Academy will always lack.