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CULTURE ARCHIVES FILM 2021 FILM ARCHIVES From The Archives

Gay Generational Divide Explored in Low-Key Israeli Drama ‘Sublet’

Arriving in Tel Aviv, Michael Green (John Benjamin Hickey), a 56-year-old American travel writer, finds the apartment he’s arranged to sublet still occupied by its owner, Tomer (Niv Nissim), a 20-something student and budding filmmaker. Tomer and his friends shoot scary movies in his apartment and the cluttered, disorganized space is clearly a bit of a horror to the buttoned-up Michael, who decides to go find a hotel. Alarmed, Tomer grabs a bottle of cleanser and begins using his feet to scrub a towel across the floor before admitting that he really needs Michael’s sublet cash. Travel weary and charmed by this handsome gay man, Michael agrees to stay.

Sublet is the first film in seven years from the New York born, Israel raised writer-director Eytan Fox, whose 2002 debut feature, Yossi & Jagger was a sensation the world over. Detailing a love affair between two men in the Israeli Army, it remains a daring and much-admired film. In subsequent movies, including the excellent Walk on Water and The Bubble, Fox has continued to draw nuanced performances from first-time actors, while clearly drawing inspiration from Tel Aviv’s youth, many of whom prioritize sexual freedom and personal expression over politics and tradition.

When it becomes clear that Tomer doesn’t have another place to stay, Michael invites him to sleep on the sofa. Equating Michael’s sight-seeing itinerary to “a Jewish princess on her birthright tour,” Tomer begins showing Michael the city, and eventually takes him to meet his mother (Miki Kam) at a kibbutz in the countryside. It is there that the tightly-held Michael will reveal the recent trauma that’s led to a depression he’s done a poor job of concealing.

Michael’s reality, in which the pains of the near yet distant past lay against nearly every moment of his present, runs counter to Tomer’s insistence that life be sex-filled and complication-free. He’s young, in other words, and Fox and co-writer Itay Segal have fashioned for Hickey and Nissim  —a consummate pro and a gifted newcomer — a series of conversations that lay out the classic generational divide. Typically cavalier, Tomer dismisses AIDS out of hand  (“It’s so depressing. Why does everything always have to go back to that?”) only to be left speechless when Michael tells him he lost his first boyfriend to the disease.

Despite their continuing debates, it’s in their silences that the two men ignite change in one another. Tomer’s kindness loosens the knot within Michael, while the visiting writer’s soulful presence appears to move Tomer to feel more deeply than he usually allows. Like Michael himself, Sublet is almost painfully restrained — you might long for a stirring speech or two by the end, but both men would surely hate such a thing. Real friends don’t need speeches.   ❖

Quad Cinema

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CULTURE ARCHIVES FILM 2021 FILM ARCHIVES From The Archives

Nights of Alienation in the Noir Classic ‘Le Cercle Rouge’

However supercool and desperate and retroactively magnificent it is, American film noir rarely had — film for film — much deliberate philosophical torque. They were mass-made factory product, and came by their collective resonance after the fact, first in the hearts of French cineastes, and then for everyone. It was Jean-Pierre Melville, looking from the outside in, who transformed the noir paradigm into a self-conscious night of modern alienation, and he did it coldly, remorselessly. He never winked. His thieves and crooks and nowhere men are all resigned to their dooms, and never see any reason to get upset about it.

Melville was a one-man filmmaking combine who famously lived in an apartment above his own studio; both Bertrand Tavernier and Volker Schlondorff schooled there, and the Cahiers du cinema crowd loved him. Le Cercle Rouge (1970), his penultimate film, is something of a summation, slicing through its overcast, uncaring, starkly capitalist world by way of Alain Delon’s weary shark-like gaze. He’s a hood released from prison on the condition of a corrupt warden’s idea for a heist. Simultaneously, Gian Maria Volonte (looking every bit of Joaquim Phoenix a few years from now) is an escaped crook chased by a massive manhunt led by grimly toast-dry detective Andre Bourvil (ending a long career as a comic playing against type). 

Diners, rainy street corners, winter fields — the fraught paths meander and cross, but neither the film nor the characters are in a hurry; fatalism is, after all, the long story. Eventually, Yves Montand, as an alkie sharpshooter (suffering the DTs in a cheap, oddly Lynch-like room), is recruited, and the silent jewel thievery begins, but the spirit of the film hardly gives us hope that they will succeed — even when they do — because the trouble comes around again, as it must. In Melville’s trenchcoated nexus (a suite of eight films, over 17 years) the social crisis of noir becomes a steely fable of Godlessness.    ❖

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It’s the ’90s again in ‘Every Breath You Take’

Working up a spritz in its humorless, predictable fashion, as if it were 1992 all over again, this grade-B thriller is working from a nobody script that’s been unaccountably floating around in option-land for almost a decade — buzz has it that Harrison Ford and Zac Efron were attached once. Casey Affleck is a mumbly psychiatrist whose young son has recently died in a car crash, a backstory he set fire to in Manchester by the Sea, but which seems here to make him sleepy. His wife (Michelle Monaghan) was driving, so they’re not really talking. One of his patients, a fraught girl with an abusive boyfriend, commits suicide — caused, some say, by his unorthodox (and unseen) therapy methods. But the real tragedy shows up in the form of Sam Claflin, whose face seems to have spent months at the face-gym, lifting face-weights, and who claims to be the dead girl’s brother. We know better, because we’ve seen a hundred movies like this, but nobody else seems to, and no one thinks to Google him (remember, the script is old), and so we stand numbly by as the twitchy, grinning psycho stalks the family, seducing Monaghan’s angsty mom and charming the family’s goth-rebel teen daughter (India Eisley). If he’d talked Affleck’s pants off, too, then we might’ve had ourselves a real soiree (and a nod toward the pansexual invasions of Pasolini’s Teorema), but no such luck; the post-Fatal Attraction-era vibe consistently leans into a fog of dated glossiness, Vancouver real estate porn, and, of course, plot switcheroos we saw coming at us like lobbed badminton birdies.    ❖

Every Breath You Take
Directed by Vaughn Stein

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CULTURE ARCHIVES FILM 2021 FILM ARCHIVES From The Archives

Hoping for Death in ‘This is Not a Burial, It’s a Resurrection’

Just as the primacy of movies has taken multiple shots to the knees in recent years, what might be a “developing nation” renaissance of indigenous filmmaking seems to be emerging — we’re seeing movies from places that hadn’t even had film industries before, including Laos, Ivory Coast, Dominica, Ghana, Vanuatu, and Guatemala. (There’s a film from Malawi, The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind, on Netflix.) Streaming services make these rockets from elsewhere available on tens of millions of American screens, in sharp contrast to the meager urban audiences most African or Asian releases might’ve fielded a few decades ago. Or am I being too glass-half-full? Aware of it or not, global film culture is finally becoming authentically global.

Of course, being a tourist in these film worlds doesn’t get you scholarship points, but it beats getting your foreign cultural perspectives from Tucker Carlson or Thomas Friedman. The first film exported from Lesotho (go ahead, Wikipedia it, it’s the small donut hole in the center of South Africa), Lemohang Jeremiah Mosese’s third feature is confrontational even with its title, coming insistently at you as This is Not a Burial, It’s a RESURRECTION — fireworks are promised. A realist vision of southern African village existence that’s also saturated in myth and tribal tradition, the movie is set in the nominal present day, but in a realm where there’s no significant difference between now and the distant past. The tale is framed by an old yarnspinner (Jerry Mofokeng), loitering in the corner of a village shebeen (speakeasy), blasting toots on a lesiba (native stringed mouth-harp), and rasping out a yesteryear folktale about life just before everything changed — that is, before the dam was built, and the modern world finally invaded. (Lesotho has been building dams since the ’90s, mostly to redirect water to South African lowlands — a fact not lost on the locals.)

The heroine is Mantoa (Mary Twala), an octogenarian widow whose stripped-down life in her subsistence-farming hamlet is cut down further when she hears that her grown son, working far away, has died in a mining accident. Left with literally nothing, Mantoa begins preparations for her own funeral — “Death has forgotten you!” someone tells her — not long before news arrives of the dam’s construction, which would leave the entire village underwater (a la Jia Zhangke’s Three Gorges Dam ode, Still Life). This of course includes the local graveyard, home to family members both long dead and freshly interred, and for Mantoa this is the intolerable crime. Her protest inspires the villagers; she even heads to the local government building, where the gears of bureaucracy quickly grind her down. Finally more fed up, she then dedicates herself to buying a gravesite and getting in it before the waters come — and again the community follows her lead, ignoring the inevitable resettlement and planting crops regardless. Eventually, the unseen powers of state take notice and violently strike back.

The story has the oracular rhythms and brute force of a folk legend, and Mosese’s realizes it with a totemic visual vocabulary, full-frontal, and in no fucking hurry, drenched in deep colors, de la Tourian candlelight, and mountainous vista dizziness. (This is not an earthly place we’ve seen before — a formidable, chilly highlands Africa, south of where sweaters are the norm.) The primal poetry of gravesites, gravedigging, and ancestral presence is in your face; a tragic house-burning concludes with a snowstorm of ashes and a huddle of curious sheep. Still, Twala is the film’s most authentic force — like Mofokeng, she is a veteran South African actor, and her memorable appearance in Beyonce’s Black Is King turned out to be her final work, before she died from Covid-19 last July. Often silent, with a deadly gaze, Twala doesn’t act so much as profoundly exist, with a face so beaten and creased by time and life that looking at her feels like looking at a forgotten truth about human life on this planet.

A big fest winner, from Sundance to Hong Kong, Mosese’s film feels like a movie of the moment, bringing a sense of powerful handcraftedness to the serious business of speaking for indigenous peoples as they confront the upheavals of development. Mantoa, unable to lure death and defying the exodus march to the end, could be a secular saint for the new century.    ❖

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The Africentric Cinema of Julie Dash

Of Homegirl Goddesses and Geechee Women 

Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust has been described as the first translation of the sensibility found in contemporary Black women’s literature to the screen. Logocentrists and literary scholars beware: Dash’s achievement is not simply a matter of grafting the thematic concerns of Hurston, Morrison, Walker, and Naylor to the screen. The filmmaking magic and craft of Dash and her cinema­tographer, Arthur Jafa, shows through most brilliantly in the film’s comprehensive Afrocentric visual aesthetic and richness of period detail. Daughters evokes the spirituality and emotional depths of those writer’s mytho­poeic prose styles. It is a film of visionary power conceived with a passion for pure research.

Ostensibly about a Gullah fam­ily whose younger generation are making plans to leave their ances­tral islands for mainland U.S.A. at the crest of the 20th century, Daughters is also an interrogation of Black America’s cleft soul, split between the quest for modernity and a hunger for the replenish­ment of roots. Zeroing in on the family’s women, it captures the shifting faces of dignity, denial, yearning, and elegance that give shape and meaning to Black fe­male subjectivity. Daughters is an unparalleled and unprecedented achievement in terms of both world cinema and African aesthet­ics. In this it extends ten thou­sand-fold the canon of Black film to have emerged from the UCLA-based Black filmmakers Dash joined in the late ’70s — Charles Burnell, Haile Gerima, Larry Clarke, Alile Sharon Larkin, Billy Woddberry, Zeinabu Davis. Pending a distribution deal this summer, the film should be in a theater near you this fall, making it the first feature-length film di­rected by an African-American woman to gain a national theatri­cal release. Anybody in need of more encouragement than this to give Julie Dash her props is just wasting my breath. — Greg Tate

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Greg Tate: Did you feel you were engaged in a heroic, historic act while you were making the movie?

Julie Dash: Absolutely. Everyone involved in Daughters was aware that these were the islands where the slaves were quarantined and fattened up after the Middle Pas­sage and before being sent to the ports of Charleston. Since we were working with available light, we’d go out and wait every morning for the sunrise. When the sun would rise everyone in the crew would stop unless we were actually shooting. Often people would weep. Then there were things like the sandstorm that hit us all of a sudden on a clear day in the mid­dle of a heavy dramatic scene. It was like [whistles Twilight Zone theme]. We slopped shooting and ran for cover in the woods behind the beach. One of the actresses, Verta Mae Grosvenor, came up and told me, “You stirring too much stuff up girl.”

Tate: What do you use as a guide­post for translating African mysti­cism and spiritual experiences to the screen? How do you know you’re on the right track?

Dash: You don’t. Every morning I’d get up and say, please ances­tors help me. All the rituals are based on extensive research. But sometimes you have to trust your gut to do or not do something. For instance, we found an ancient African graveyard, and the first thought was, this is great, these are slave graves, the old souls are buried here, we can construct our Ki-Kongo graveyard on top of this. We’ll be on sacred ground. We got our props there and our production designer Kerry Mar­shall looked at me, and said, “This is not right.” And I said, “You’re right, let’s go find ground where people aren’t buried.”

Tate: Why a story about the Gul­lah at the turn of the century?

Dash: The Sea Islands are sacred ground. All our ancestors came through these islands. I wanted to do a story set at the turn of the century about the first generation of free Blacks, and a story about a pivotal moment in the lives of the women of the family. Also, be­cause my father’s family came from that area, I’ve heard Gee­chee and Gullah dialect, and eat­en the food all my life. I don’t remember much from my visits during the summer when I was a kid, but I was influenced by the Geechees I knew on 165th and Amsterdam Ave. There was a bar called The Office and mostly Gul­lah and Geechee would go there. Whenever we wanted to call my father, we’d call The Office. My mother will die to hear me say that. For me hearing heavy Gullah dialect is not strange. My grand­mother speaks that way.

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Tate: You made a decision to not do the film in a thick dialect with subtitles.

Dash: My original intention was to have thick Gullah language with subtitles and then segue into Gullah dialect. Some people seem to have problems with it, but to tell the truth, I had problems with Miller’s Crossing. It made me re­alize that I’ve done that all my life, pushed through on accents until I understood them. Why is it with Daughters of the Dust that people almost seem offended by it? When they bring it up, I tell them, “Release on it, you’ll under­stand it in a minute.” You may not understand every sentence but you’ll surely get the general idea, the sensibility of the whole thing. We’ve grown up translating. We have no other choice.

Tate: Does the whole question of whether you’re pushing an audi­ence too hard ever come into it for you? When do you release on that?

Dash: I think it’s on a project-by­-project basis. On Daughters it was about breaking through, doing something different. I mean, all the main characters are grounded in West African cosmology. The narrative is not driven by the Greek gods but Oshun, Oya­-Yansa, Yemoja, Eshu-Elegba. Then there’s a lot of subliminal stuff happening. We have a mas­ter talking drummer playing mes­sages very subtly throughout the film, saying in Yoruba, “Remem­ber me, remember my name, take me with you, take me where you go.” I know people can’t under­stand it, but I want it working on people’s subconscious. All the mu­sic by John Barnes was composed in certain astrological keys. We had Santeria high priestesses came in and sang secret songs to Oshun. There’s so much working in this film that has never been done be­fore. All the principal actors had worked in films by other Black independent directors. We worked with fine artists like Da­vid Hammons, Tyrone Mitchell, Kerry Marshall, Michael Kelly Williams, Martha Jackson-Jarvis. All these people coming together make it an exciting grand experiment.

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Tate: In terms of Black female ico­nography and beauty, Daughters is a breakthrough.

Dash: We brought in Pamela Fer­rell of Cornrows Incorporated from D.C. This woman is a mas­ter cornrower and hairstylist who studied in Africa. We have hair­styles representing people from Senegal, the Ivory Coast, and Madagascar. We didn’t take any­thing lightly. I remember many years ago I was doing an intern­ship on Roots when I was al the AFI, and of course all the hair-dressers were white. Being my young naïve self I asked them what gave them the idea for giving these slave women pressed hair. One said to me, “Oh yes, we re­searched this, and they were try­ing to emulate their masters.” I thought, wait a minute. Would the people in Dachau, if they could, try to dress, or even act, like their German captors? It made no sense. It was ridiculous. Not to mention that you’ve never seen that hairstyle in any drawings or photographs from the period.

Tate: The film is praise-song to the beauty of dark-skinned Black women. But, I heard, that after the screening a few weeks back, one black woman critic reduced Daughters to being a film that was “about hair.”

Dash: I guess it’s all about what your nervous system can stand. As a Black woman you’re constantly being bombarded by all these oth­er images like the Revlon woman pulling out her blow dryer like a gunfighter. Those things affect your concept of what you have to do to be a “real woman.” There’s a lot of drama around Black hair. Teachers treating girls with soft straight hair nicer than those with short nappy hair. I could try and be a filmmaker who was myopic about it, like this really isn’t an issue, but it would be untrue. The other thing is, in all other types of films, you see women with all kinds of hairstyles and no one no­tices. You have Black women wearing something other than a doo-rag, and all of a sudden, you’re self-conscious in the follicle area. I wanted these women to look like nothing you’ve ever seen on the screen before, and I wanted them to have ancient hairstyles.

Tate: Body language is more im­portant than dialogue in Daugh­ters, and a lot of other Black wom­en’s films, as a way of communicating.

Dash: Body language was impor­tant in West Africa. Women standing arms akimbo, hands on hips — was first seen in this country through slave women doing that. The young child straddling the mother’s hip is another exam­ple. Averting the eyes, turning your face away from someone you respect, like a grandparent, is a West African sign of respect that still persists in the Black commu­nity. Those motor habits persist.

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Tate: In terms of world cinema, how do you see Daughters?

Dash: I think it’s a timeless piece, not something that’s trendy for right now. It’s a huge photograph that whoever sees it could take and put in their mind’s eye, and walk around to the end of their days and feel better about a whole lot of things. It’s like a balm. I think people will look at it 10, 20 years from now and discover new things and new emotions in it. You won’t be able to do that with a whole lot of other films.

Tate: You think there’s a popular audience out there for it?

Dash: I think the audience we get will suprise some people. It clearly frightens most white males and they are the ones who get to say what kind of audience is out there for a Daughters of the Dust. They don’t understand it for the most part and don’t want to say that they don’t, so they say it’s not good, or it’s not well crafted or the dramatic themes were spotty. Daughters should be promoted as a woman’s film, as an art film. It’s not a homeboy film, it’s not even a homegirl film. It’s interesting that most of the people doing the homeboy/homegirl films didn’t grow up in that section [of the city]. I grew up in the projects so I’m not doing those types of films.

Tate: Could you ever see yourself making a film about growing up in the projects?

Dash: Yes, I could, but it would be very different from what we have out there now. Those are coming-of-age films for males and I’m not gonna do that.

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Tate: How has Black women’s literature affected your work?

Dash: That’s the reason I’m doing it. I stopped making documenta­ries after discovering Toni Morri­son, Toni Cade Bambara, and Alice Walker in high school. I’d wondered, why can’t we see mov­ies like this? I realized I needed to learn how to make narrative mov­ies. I couldn’t believe it when I first read books like Toni Morri­son’s Sula and Toni Cade Bamba­ra’s Gorilla, My Love, I’d put the books down and say, I know these people. I’ll never forget reading about “the Deweys” in Sula, and thinking that the lady who took care of me would do this. Name all three of her kids Dewey, like it didn’t matter. Miz Edwards. As I think back on it, she had a pro­found effect on me, because she would comb my hair and burn it so no one could get hold of it. And talk about hiding your pictures so no one could put gopher dust on them and drive you crazy. All this kind of stuff became normal to me, not something you have to point out. So when I have stuff like that in my films, it’s not like, look, we’re about to pour on this ritual now. I see these things as a part of our everyday life. It’s our culture and tradition. ❖

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Surface Tension: Michael Mann’s “Heat”

In Michael Mann’s wide-screen, West Coast gloss on his own Miami Vice, the locations almost upstage the stars, Al Pacino and Robert De Niro. Mann is a locations visionary. He sees a city not so much for what it is as for what it might become. Just as Miami remade itself to better resemble its image in Miami Vice, L.A. may rise eventually to Heat‘s desolate, sand­blasted impersonality.

Mann’s City of Lights, where Vin­cent Hanna (Pacino) and Neil McCauley (De Niro) go through their paces as the last of the existential cops and criminals, couldn’t be more re­moved from the gothic, phosphores­cent L.A. of David Fincher’s Seven. Heat’s color scheme is ultracool. In one inconsequential scene set at a con­struction site, Mann finds a 20-foot­-high pile of baby-bunting yellow sand that perfectly balances the film’s basic bleached blues and grays. The image stays in the mind’s eye long after the formulaic plot has faded. So does the ultimate showdown between Vincent and Neil on the far reaches of an air­port runway, where the immediate question of who lives and who dies is dwarfed by the planes roaring over­head. Mann’s use of scale is as mean­ingful as any great modernist painter’s.

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The splendid visuals aside, Heat is a cosmically silly movie — which does­n’t make it any less entertaining. Mann manages to have his romance of ob­sessed masculinity and send it up too. The joke is in the casting. Pacino and De Niro are as much dinosaurs as the parts they play; Mann doesn’t demand a suspension of disbelief. If anything, thee competition for acting honors be­tween these two ethnic superstars (relics of the wilder side of ’70s cine­ma) eclipses the fictional face-off of cop and criminal.

Though there are no big surprises in either performance, my preference is for Pacino, whose head-fakes and er­ratic speech rhythms have the improvisatory flair of the new Knicks. Pacino manages to be playful even when he’s excessive and never less than true even when he’s over the top. Moment to moment, he’s a pleasure to watch.

Pleasure has never been part of De Niro’s game. He’s a lot better here than in Casino (which isn’t saying much), and just about as proficient as he was in GoodFellas. At his best, these days, De Niro seems admirable rather than awesome. Once upon a time, his rigid­ity was a desperate defense against a rage that might erupt at any moment. He could make one both fear and long for the return of the repressed. But over time, the rage imploded into a black hole, sucking the life from him­ — and from anyone who watches. Here, that inner heaviness, though it doesn’t make for a thrilling performance, is right for the character — a career crimi­nal who’s ultimately undone nor by the desire for love he so carefully guards against as by a need for revenge that is the one thing he can’t control.

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Mann has never gotten the credit he deserves as an actor’s director. In Heat, he does well not only by his two stars but also his supporting cast, par­ticularly Val Kilmer as the most volatile of the partners in crime, Ashley Judd as his intermittently loyal wife, and Diana Venora as a woman who knows she’s too smart to stay married to a cop. She’s so smart, in fact, she almost gets away with using the word “detritus” in the middle of a love scene. ❖

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Travels With a Geechee Girl

Where is Frogmore?

For years I’d been hearing Vertamae talk about her trips back home to the Sea Island region of South Carolina — particularly Frogmore, on St. Helena Island. Vertamae Grosvenor is a writer and one of the actresses in Julie Dash’s film Daughters of the Dust. But she is also a collector of tall tales, so any story she tells always has these wacky little twists like how there really is no Frogmore but people could always send a letter there and have it delivered. People on St. Helena Island still live in areas known by their old plantation names: Fripp, Wallace, Frogmore. That is to say, there is no downtown Frogmore, not even a village of Frogmore. A couple of years ago well-­heeled newcomers to the island decided they liked the name and had the govern­ment set up a Frogmore post office. Nev­er mind that the post office was not in Frogmore. (As we went to press it was announced that the post office was re­named St. Helena,)

Things are never what they seem in the Low Country and folks there will often just say “uh hmmm” when you ask a question because they know the answer may be too complicated for you. You being what some Gullah call a “fa come here.” And because things can get very compli­cated, without a sense of humor you will never find Frogmore, or anything else.

It’s like the Frogmore stew I read about in The New York Times — a wonderful­-sounding jambalaya of shrimp, corn, and sausage. Well, everybody makes a differ­ent stew, but if you ask them is it Frog­more stew you’ll get a “uh hmm” because that’s simpler than explaining. That’s why I went. I wanted to see what I might see, or not see — know what I mean?

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My first destination on the way to the Sea Islands was Charleston, where Vertamae invited me to a book party. What could be more Charlestonian than a party for two cookbook authors at a shop that car­ries only books about food? John Taylor, proprietor of Hoppin’ John’s, at 30 Pinckney Street across from the old open-air market, was throwing a party to celebrate the reissue of Vertamae’s Vi­bration Cooking, or the Travel Notes of a Geechee Girl and Bill Neal’s Southern Cooking. The food alone was worth the ride: Smithfield Ham and biscuits with homemade mustard, pickled okra, south­ern-style Irish soda bread, and Mexican watermelon. Verta informed me that the occasion was probably historic, no doubt Charleston’s first integrated book party. In any case, it was a fitting introduction to South Carolina, everyone at the party being at least an amateur culinary an­thropologist. They knew a lot about what I call “roots food,” dog bread, hoppin’ john, shad roe with hominy, bride’s bis­cuits, and cabbage pudding.

Several hours later the cooks sent me to a nouveau French eatery overlooking the market and the Confederacy muse­um. The food, arranged on ’50s floral upholstery tablecloths, looked like it was designed by a magazine stylist, but it was quite good. The owner, a portly white man with a David Mamet crew cut, asked me where I was headed on my Carolina visit. “The Low Country,” I answered, adding that I like to go to church when I come South, just to hear the music. He pointed to a burly young black man in the kitchen and advised me to go to his cook’s wife’s family’s church on St. John, and warned me that if I didn’t know what I was doing I wouldn’t see the real Gullah people.

“You have to know where to go. I sug­gest you go to Edisto.” It seemed he’d been raised by a woman from nearby Edisto Island. “Edisto is where I go and I can tell you they are not like the Gullah some will take you to meet.” What did he mean? “All I can tell you is they’re real, they’re just very very real.”

A preacher I know from the hill coun­try in South Carolina had already told me that everybody has “their” Gullah people, especially white folks, but I still couldn’t believe my ears, I told Verta about it and she laughed. “You know,” she said, “when I hear white folks say that I al­ways wonder how they got to be experts and I didn’t because you know I was raised by black folks too!”

Gullah folk have by now become part of the tourist promise in South Carolina, right along with house-and-garden tours and the ramparts of Fort Sumter. Gul­lahs, real or otherwise, are a society and culture that have always been remote and mysterious and, ever since the Civil War, threatened with extinction. I suppose it makes people feel better about slavery to be able to point to “real” Gullahs still surviving, but it’s a sign of how bad things really are.

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South Carolinians are kind of nutty, especially when it comes to antiquity. And they know people find them weird, so they have developed a self-deprecating humor as a kind of polite apology for their obsessions. Like the black woman in her seventies who told me how much Charleston had changed but laughed and said that that wasn’t really true because the most venerable women’s bridge club still judges members by who their grand­mother was.

Then there was my friend John Taylor, who implored me with a devilish grin to stay in Charleston one more night. “Oh, you have to see this,” he said, “you have to.” It was a concert of the Society for the Preservation of Spirituals, Taylor told me the society is a group of elderly whites who miss the strains of the old plantation songs, and so took to singing them them­selves. My God, I thought, they must be 115 years old. I didn’t go.

Preservation at that level is a lot hard­er to come by in the Low Country. When you ask folks, for instance, what indigo looked like, and how it was produced, no one can tell you. I couldn’t find a soul who’d ever seen any, yet thousands of people in South Carolina, mostly slaves, once cultivated this member of the pea family that was used to make indigo blue dye. Much of the history of these Ameri­cans has blown off into the Atlantic wa­ters like this curious little Indian plant that wore out so many lives.

Yet the low-lying countryside south of Charleston seems to look very much like a young black woman described it in the 1860s. Charlotte L. Forten, a young abolitionist and teacher, came to South Carolina during the Civil War to teach blacks who had been freed by the Union capture of Port Royal and the Sea Islands. Forten lived on St. Helena and taught at the Penn School, which is still there near Frog­more. She visited the Frogmore and Fripp plantations just after the owners had fled the island. Forten was the first black teacher to come to the area, and her diary of the period became the first journal by an African-American woman ever published. She was enraptured by the lush vegetation of the Sea Islands, the casino berries, magnolia, jasmine, narcis­sus and daffodils, and the “solemn almost funereal” look of live oaks draped in moss.

To get to the islands today the road takes you through Beaufort, on Port Roy­al Island. From there you can cross bridges to Ladies Island, St. Helena, Par­ris Island, or even further south to Hilton Head Island, which is where Verta and I were going. Verta’s navigation style is pure Yamassee. “Yup, this looks like where we turn, lemme see, yeah, turn here. You know, the police in this area are known for terrorizing folks. Oh. You see this up here, the place I was born is back up in there.”

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Stopping at a roadside stand I thought I would get some homegrown peanuts. I was handed a soaking wet bag of soaking wet peanuts. Verta laughed. “Chile, ain’t you never had boiled peanuts?” I have now, and I’m here to tell you they taste like crunchy black-eyed peas.

We passed the village where Recon­struction congressman Robert Smalls was born a slave. Forten met him when he was running a little general store in the area and notes that he was giving it up to join the Union army. Once in Beaufort on Port Royal, we detoured through the one street “downtown.” Beaufort seems basi­cally unchanged from how it must have looked 30 or 40 or maybe 100 years ago as you drive along the waterfront and look at the old mansions, some quite decrepit. Signs placed by the Daughters of the Confederacy pay tribute to those lonely confederates defeated by the Union troops who captured the island. Forten ran into Harriet Tubman there. “The General,” as they called her even then, was running an eating house in down­town Beaufort.

After driving around some hairpin turns on roads that had ravines where there should have been shoulders, we crossed the Broad River in late after­noon. Frankly I hoped Hilton Head would come up before darkness did, be­cause the cypress swamps were very close by the road. A sharp burning smell blew through the windows and soon we came upon bonfires burning in a scrubby patch of trees. It was an odor I knew but it woke me up like a sudden change of sea­son. Some 20 black men were throwing heaps of wood on the fires, which had grown as tall as they were. They were clearing ground to build a baseball field for the kids. Sparks flew 20 feet into the air.

I was sort of wondering where we were and noted down the name of the Barn­well Clinic across the road so I could locate the spot again. We had already changed road numbers four times, and I felt a deep need for landmarks. On the blacktop road again, the edges of lush golf courses started to crop up, along with a few resort signs alerting us we were near Hilton Head, golf course to the world.

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Another bridge let us onto Hilton Head Island and a post office was our landmark. The turnoff for Spanish Wells was a donut shop, then we were back to “this looks like it.” Spanish Wells is “the 15 per cent,” I heard — the 15 per cent of Hilton Head that is not developed, or where the black folks live. Over shrimp and rice that tasted like cook-up from Trinidad, Verta and Emma Campbell, a teacher in Beaufort, told me a few reasons why so many folks have over the years come down to Beaufort from Washington, Philadelphia, and Harlem, looking for real folk.

Verta: In the ’30s you know, even now if you look in the back of the Amsterdam News, if you check those spiritualists it’ll say “just back from Beaufort, S.C.” I mean, that meant something … Out of state cars be coming here all the time.

Emma: Seriously, they come by here all the time.

Verta: Asking about him, yeah.

Emma: Asking for directions to get to Dr. Buzzard’s house.

“There’s Dr. Eagle, Dr. Crow, Dr. Buz­zard.” Verta was talking. “Then there was Dr. Stringleg. He was up there around Yamassee. This is a true story. My grandmother went to Dr. Stringleg when my father was on the chain gang. They called him Dr. Stringleg because he had a funny leg and he put a string on it.” She demonstrated how he walked by pull­ing his leg on the string. She saw I didn’t believe her even if I was laughing. “It’s true.” All Verta’s stories are true­ — mostly.

“OK. Dr. Eagle, Dr. Crow. You get your name from the animal from which you get your power. Dr. Buzzard got his name ’cause they say his magic was so-0-0-0 good, so powerful, he could make a pot boil without fire. He used to have the buzzards rowing his boat and a crow for the pilot. That’s how bad he was. And you could be on Hilton Head Island, see him get on a boat and go to St. Helena and when you got to St. Helena, Dr. Buz­zard was there to pull the boat in.”

Back in the ’20s and ’30s, Dr. Buzzard was hounded by Sheriff McTeer. “He in­herited the job from his father,” said Verta. “Being sheriff runs in the family,” said Emma. Poor Mr. McTeer, it seems, grew up on a plantation and became in­trigued with the old black people who were root workers, particularly Dr. Buz­zard, whom he knew to be the greatest root worker. “He tried to get him,” said Verta. “He became obsessed with getting Dr. Buzzard. He wanted to put him in jail. He tried to use a law against pre­scribing people medicine orally.

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“So one time Sheriff McTeer had this guy who was a petty burglar in the sta­tion house and something fell out of his pocket. Now each root doctor got their little special gris-gris, you could tell. OK, the thing fell out and he recognized it as belonging to Dr. Buzzard. He said, ‘Buzzy give you that?’ and the guy said, ‘Yeah.’ He said, ‘I tell you what I’m a do. I’m a let you off but I’m a go get Buzzy and you got to tell me that Buzzy was the one to give it to you.’ The guy said all right. So they went and brought Dr. Buzzard back down there to the sheriff’s office and he said, ‘Now, I got this guy here and I’m gonna arrest you Buzzy, ’cause you gave him medicine orally.’ And he says to the guy, ‘Where did you get it?’ and the guy went to speak and start foaming at the mouth and passed out.

“Dr. Buzzard and them would go and chew roots in the court. That’s the thing. They’d be in the courtroom. People would pay money to have a root doctor sit and chew the root. And you would know this person is supposed to get 15 years and the judge would say ‘case dis­missed,’ not even knowing what he was doing, ‘six months,’ whatever. Sheriff McTeer tried to keep Dr. Buzzard from comin’ to court but he couldn’t prove nothin’, I mean, what could you prove?”

Dr. Buzzard became the wealthiest man on St. Helena and went down in Sea Island history, partly be­cause of his good friend Sam Doyle. Doyle, who lived all of his life on St. Helena and went to the Penn School, painted the island history. He died several years ago having become one of the best-known folk artists in the country. His work is still sold in New York, as well as in Frogmore, and he has been documented by a number of art historians. Sam Doyle painted Dr. Buzzard and other root doctors, friends like “Ramblin’ Rose” and “Miss Full Back” (she was full in the back), as well as historic events and supernatural occurrences.

“The paintings Sam Doyle did were a history of the island,” said Verta. “When you walked in his yard, that was his gal­lery, all the paintings were out. Like the ‘Hurricane of 1893.’ One of the first pic­tures you saw was a picture of a baby in a tree, under the Spanish moss. All that moss and a little baby. And the story was, after the hurricane people heard this baby crying and the baby was in the tree. And the descendents of that baby are on St. Helena’s. People said it was a miracle.”

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Emma told me about when some folks tried to sell “Miss Try Me” at an auction. “We went to it. Nobody would buy it. They were even embarrassed. See, he named his paintings for characters and people on the island. ‘Try Me’ was a lady with big hips like this and she used to walk around the island saying ‘try me.’ ”

“Plus,” said Verta, “he would paint a painting over. That used to upset the art dealers. ‘Cause he’d say, ‘Oh, I sold a lot of “Miss Try Me,”‘ and he’d do another one because his idea was to keep all the paintings so he could tell the history. There’d be a picture of Sherman, the undertaker — Sam said he was the first man to own a car on St. Helena.”

And he painted the local haints too, like Whooping Boy, said to be the spirit of a beheaded slave buried to protect treasure. “Not Whoopin, Woopin’, Woop­in’ boy!” Verta whoops. I still couldn’t say it. “No. Hoopin’. He’s on St. Helena. Sam Doyle heard him make the last whoop, he don’t come out no more, Mr. Doyle said, ‘since the automobile area.’ ”

Verta maintains that all this is part of an Africanness that may have preceded slavery in the region. That is, she likes to tell folk that the Gullah, who originally spoke a language they called Ngulla, were from Angola and that in prehistory — you know, when the continents were all at­tached — what is now South Carolina was joined to what is now Angola. Fascinat­ing, I thought. “But were there people around then?” Verta just shrugged her shoulders.

I checked this out and there’s just this one little problem. It seems that when the continents were attached what is now South Carolina was next to what is now Mauritania, which would mean the Gullahs originally spoke Berber or Tuareg or some such thing. Those Africans too make a beautiful blue dye. ■

Categories
FILM ARCHIVES From The Archives

Julie Dash Films Gullah Country

FAVORITE DAUGHTERS

Gullah country, more commonly known as the Georgia Sea Islands, starts off the coastline of Beaufort County, South Carolina, and stretches south into Georgia. The islands are connected to the mainland by bridges of recent vintage; locals refer to the whole region as the Low Country. To get there from here you must be driven 50 miles from the Savannah airport, perhaps by a retired gentleman from Buffalo who affably shares news of his upcom­ing trip to Minneapolis for cancer treatment. So much for smalltalk. Kick back, enjoy the ride and the countryside: winding blacktop flanked by high-rise forests, ranch houses, trailer homes, and the occasional dog or possum come out from under some semi’s wheels to lump up the road, organic sculpture from the Francis Bacon school. Peculiar to the region’s foliage are nifty, atmo­spheric ornaments: drooping spools of Spanish moss and spiky palmettos. Half­way to our destination, the Royal Frog­more Inn, my compañera asks me what I notice first when I visit a new place and I say the houses. Beulah Joe says she looks at the dirt and wonders what the differ­ence between us means. I tell her it means I’m a house Negro and she’s a field Negro and she laughs, well, we already knew that.

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The Royal Frogmore is a motel on the island of St. Helena. The black people who populate St. Helena and most of the other islands off the Georgia and South Carolina coasts are known as Gullah or Geechees. People who don’t know any better think Gullah people talk funny. Those in the know realize that Gullah is a bona fide dialect and are confident in the scholarly thesis that ‘Gullah’ is a contrac­tion of ‘Angola.’

But me and Beulah Joe aren’t here to gaze upon the Gullah. We’re here to see black independent filmmaker Julie Dash go into intensive labor on her feature-in­-utero, Daughters of the Dust, a turn-of­-the-century tale about a fictional Gullah family. Dash has three other films to her credit: Four Women, a choreopoem based on the Nina Simone song of the same name; Diary of an African Nun, from the Alice Walker short story; and Illusions, a 34-minute original starring Lonette McKee as a black woman exec passing for white at a Hollywood studio during the wartime ’40s. The latter has received standing ovations from Amy Taubin, J. Hoberman, and the dean of black inde­pendent film crits, Clyde Taylor.

Daughters is Dash’s most ambitious project to date on several counts, not least for being shot on 35mm color stock, which costs $365 per two-minute reel. Dash’s financing for the two-week shoot comes from several grants — $25,000 from the National Endowment for the Arts, $5000 from the Appleshop Southeast Re­gional Fellowship, $9000 from the Geor­gia Endowment for the Humanities, $16,000 from the Fulton County Arts Council. By the end of her Beaufort stay, Dash says, she’ll be worrying over how she and husband/cinematographer A. J. Fielder are going to pay their rent and phone bills. Dash’s plan after initial shooting is to edit a trailer on video then seek out investors and more grants. As independent film financing schemes go, it’s as sound as any.

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Dash’s personal demeanor suggests both dreamy-eyed fabulist and fo­cused professional. Her attitude on the set is casual but only be­cause her preproduction work is meticulous, worked out in fine detail on the Toshiba PC she’s installed in her Royal Frogmore office. Day charts detail­ing the entire two-week shoot drape the walls with information on costume changes, locations, camera angles, and special effects. She considers herself more a technical director than an actor’s director, and very little dialogue goes on between her and the actors on the set. Dialogue with the crew is also at a minimum. Once Dash sets up her shots and sound and camera get rolling, the action plays until the takes sync with her vision. Her mood on the shoot is chill maximus.

Dash’s eyes, spunky and alert eyes, per­petually gleam. They are set in a doeish face that maternal weight-gain has left somewhat stout. On location the director wears pearl-drop earrings and coral lip­stick, jeans, a fisherman’s cap decorated by a Palestinian Film Institute pin, and a Venezia sweatshirt. The island’s kamika­ze gnats and mosquitoes dive over her Reebok hightops, leaving her legs and ankles a spotted red.

The production’s budget crunch will have Dash pull triple-duty as wardrobe mistress, makeup artist, and director. In this she’s not alone: Her coproducer Ber­nard Nicolas functions as troubleshooter, fogmachine operator, and soundman. Art director Kerry Marshall will take time away from building a graveyard, Eli’s blacksmith shop, and an indigo process­ing plant to play a bit part as a Muslim bowing toward Mecca from the beach. First assistant cameraman Will Hudson will step from behind the camera to por­tray a slave in a flashback scene.

Set in 1902, Daughters focuses on a Gullah family whose young adults are preparing for a mass exodus north and a junking of their Gullah heritage in their diaspora to industrialized America. An acknowledged point of departure for Dash’s script is the work of Toni Morri­son, particularly evident in Dash’s han­dling of Gullah women’s communal infrastructure. The leading characters are, with one exception, female. There is the wizened, snuff-chomping matriarch Great Mother Palmer, an African born in captivity who fears the young people’s connection to the ancestors will be severed by urbanization and Christian con­version. Opposing her is Hagar — an edu­cated convert, brashly sarcastic toward Great Mother Palmer’s “hoodoo” reli­gion. Yella Mary has recently returned from a life of surrogate mothering and prostitution in Cuba. Eula is young, preg­nant, and victim of a rape by a white man. Her husband Eli, the community blacksmith, suspects the baby ain’t his. Dash’s personal favorite among her dra­matis personae is The Unborn Child, a spritely five-year-old vision of Eula and Eli’s progeny who romps unseen on the margins of key scenes.

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There are several dream sequences in the scenario. Ancestral spirits visit the living to chase away their inner de­mons — an Africanist switch on conven­tional film use of both phantasms and psychoanalysis. While the offscreen rape would play as melodramatic fodder in a David Wolper postbellum potboiler, Dash uses it symbolically to probe black wom­en’s wombs — investigating their powers of regeneration and the psychic scars left by forced miscegenation. Like Morrison’s novels, the script for Daughters is a testi­mony to the secret celebrations and packed-away sorrows of African-Ameri­can women.

Dash was raised in the Queensridge projects but her daddy was a Gee­chee. Dash’s mother used to tell her, if you think your father talks funny you should hear some of his backwoods cousins. Dash remembers her daddy as a fancy dan who loved ballroom dancing. One day he brought a bucket of crabs home and set them loose on the living room floor (the Gullah being re­nowned for their shrimp and crab fish­ing). Dash smiles at the memory of climbing over the furniture, screaming with delight.

Dash’s uncle Julien was a jazz saxo­phonist who wrote the swing hit “Tuxedo Junction” for Erskine Hawkins’s band and made Super-8 and 16mm films of his life on the road. Her uncle Roger, who resides in Los Angeles, has been an in­dustrial film producer for 15 years. Nei­ther of these relations, Dash says, played any role in her decision to become a film­maker 17 years ago. That she attributes to the Studio Museum in Harlem, where Dash went to meet a girlfriend and found herself seduced by the 16mm hardware floating around a cinematography class her homegirl was taking. The equipment had been donated after the riots, part of the era’s gliberal program to quell the rage of Harlem youth. A few years later the gear would be reclaimed by its do­-good donors. Dash recalls the teaching method as hands-on and the esthetic as verité.

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Dash remembers her childhood as one spent reading and daydreaming. Day­dreaming has always gotten her into trouble. In third grade she wrote a story about the sun and the moon which her teacher brandished before the class as an example of something called plagiarism. Dash’s mother straightened that teacher out, like she straightened out a meddle­some churchgoer who complained during a Bear Mountain voyage about Dash staring into the water on a cruise. Dash was daydreaming, a frequent pastime to spare herself from condescending adult conversation. The busybody advised psychiatric help for Dash. Dash’s mother told the woman who really needed help.

Mom could relate: she was a daydream­er too. She often told her daughters how as a child she believed she was a princess who’d been shanghaied to North Caroli­na. Dash recently had her astrologer do a reading for Mom. He divined she’d been a princess in a past life. Dash’s mother also used to drape shower curtains depicting a beach or Parisian cafe scene over a door and photograph herself and her daugh­ters playacting in bathing suits. Record­ing this material I glimmer the pleasures it might bring — for some Lacanian film theorist. Dash says she continues to day­dream and often returns to several that play in her mind like ongoing miniseries, some of which she hopes will one day become films.

The movies Dash remembers best from her youth are West Side Story and Gold­finger, but less as theatrical events than Hollywood product appropriated for neighborhood recreation. There were days when the basketball court would fill up with kids reenacting the Jets-Sharks opera. Dialogue from the Bond film became stock for oblique retorts to teachers and school administrators. “I want scenes like those in my films — the kind you never see in Hollywood movies about black urban youth.”

California dreaming brought Dash to Los Angeles upon her graduation from CCNY’s film program in 1974. One rea­son Dash headed West was to escape the tyranny of political documentary film­making then favored on the East Coast. The concept for her first film, Four Women, was rejected by the brothers at the Studio Museum for being irrelevant to the struggle. The project undertaken in its place would show righteous bloods providing victuals to the starving masses.

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In L.A., Dash became one of the youn­gest fellows in American Film Insti­tute history, a fact that provoked more trepidation than pride. “I was surrounded by all of these people who’d done features, had worked in the industry. I felt out of my depth.” In this period she was also introduced to black independents Larry Clarke and Charles Burnett, who’d been classmates at UCLA with Haile Gerima of Bush Mama fame. Clarke was working on his visionary jazz drama Passing Through; Dash helped with the sound. Burnett had by that time produced his short The Horse and the epochal Killer of Sheep — first-prize win­ner at the 1980 Berlin Film Festival­ — which filmmaker Reggie Hudlin rightly appraises as “black independent cinema’s Invisible Man.”

Dash’s first major project at UCLA was an adaptation of Alice Walker’s story “Diary of an African Nun,” a Bressonian exercise in angst and austerity with spooky black-and-white visuals. The au­thor’s response to the film still smarts for Dash. “I struck a print for her out of courtesy and she sent me a 10-page cri­tique. I wanted to tell her, lady don’t you know I’m only a student?”

Dash wound up making her AFI gradu­ate project, Illusions, at UCLA because the powers that be at Greystoke Mansion disapproved of a scene depicting film-recording technology not possible in the ’40s, when the film takes place. Once again Dash was daydreaming up against a brick wall. “They tell you film is a “fanta­sy medium where you can do anything you want and then say you can’t make a film because some technology wasn’t in­vented yet. They make films about black people that have nothing to do with reali­ty all the time.”

Illusions stirs up a racial identity quag­mire by way of Lanette Mckee’s wanna­bee character, Mignon. The film also frames interlocking takes on racism, sex­ism, patriarchal warmongering, and the exploitation of black musical artists by the white entertainment industry. Illu­sions is unique in black independent cine­ma for its period setting, specially con­structed sets, film-within-film action, white chorus line and mostly white cast. First reactions to the film were disheartening for Dash. At a black film festival in London the pan-ethnic screening board thought it had been sent to them by mis­take. Until she met the festival’s director a year later, Dash couldn’t figure why the film was the only one in the festival not reviewed.

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The scenes shot for this round of pro­duction involve four of the principal characters in Daughters of the Dust­ — Eula, Yella Mary, Eli, and The Unborn Child. Alva Rogers, who has the Eula role, is a friend of mine from New York. She’s got a supporting role in Spike Lee’s School Daze and works with the black women’s performance cartel, Rodeo Cal­donia. Rogers is also a “new music” vo­calist who’s done work with Butch Morris and Elliot Sharp. She performs her own music at downtown spaces — sung incantations on race and gender derived from texts by black women writers. Alva is black like Miles Davis, as beautiful and photogenic as the maestro was at 26. Her skin is black in the way that made Bud Powell say to Miles, I wish I was as black as you.

Barbara-O was the lead in black director Haile Gerima’s gritty, epochal Bush Mama, but has also done episodic television — Lou Grant, Laverne and Shirley, and even Wonder Woman, where she played “high-queen of the interplanetary council.” She left acting in 1980 to study filmmaking; Daughters is one of only two roles she’s taken in seven years. Though her fallen-woman character is called Yella Mary, she’s more orange than ochre, with Cherokee high cheekbones, deep-set suc­cubus eyes, and a posture more erect than a Trump tower. She gets into character by leaving her door open at night draped with yellow mosquito netting, awaiting, says she, her lovers.

For this round of shooting Alva and Barbara-O will play their dialogue scenes at a location called Ibo Landing in the script. Slaveships anchored there, and legend has it that a chained group of Ibos once walked down the planks, surveyed the situation, and turned around to walk across the water. There are many St. Helena sites that will serve as “Ibo Landings” during the filming. This scene will take place on the Black People’s Beach, passed which common can property never be of sold St. but Helena’s only blacks, down generation to generation.

This Ibo Landing is a meadow whose centerpiece is a monstrous tree that looks like a thrashing giant buried upside down to the chest. Behind it is a sunken bayou with junked kitchen appliances the crew will have to move — stove, sink, and cabi­nets — followed by yellow marshes and then the shell-strewn beach. As water­front properties go, the Black People’s Beach isn’t much to look at, more Tarzanland than sunbather’s paradise for lack of landclearing funds.

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In character, Barbara-O mounts the tree to lay back on a sturdy limb in full lady-of-leisure regalia: a white waist­length coat, white high-heeled boots with hooksnaps, a gold nose-ring, green con­tacts, and a floor-length lace-shouldered number dripping with petticoats. Her shoulder bag is big and embroidered, her hat is a bonnet on its way to becoming a fedora with veil. For hours on end Barba­ra-O manages to maintain a stallion’s carriage in a chaise-longue recline. I surmise yoga has given this bush mama a truss-rod spine. At one point she leans forward from the waist like a lever topped by a wig and jaw definition Iman would die for. The surprise of the shoot is the debut of Alva’s and Barbara-O’s vari­ations on Gullah dialect. Alva’s is mutant mimicry: a soft singsong, via the moun­tains of Norway and the hills of Jamaica. Imagine Liv Ullman coming out of the mouth like a Rasta jah-jah girl. There’s a mocking stridency to Barbara-O’s accent that makes it less about music than a bitchin’ screen femme fatale attitude. The haughty lilt of the Caribbean is there, sure, but hers is really more like some Lauren Bacall-goes-to-the-Low­-Country stuff. Fierce. At this point I real­ize Daughters of the Dust has the poten­tial to be something we’ve never really seen on the screen before: a black “wom­en’s picture” — not quite in the grand George Cukor tradition, but close enough to be kin. There’s certainly enough atti­tude on the prowl up in here to give the comparison anchorage.

True to the pattern of Dash’s other projects, Daughters has already gone up against two funding agen­cies, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the National En­dowment for the Humanities. At CPB the project ran afoul of a black woman exec who told Dash her script was too mystical and suggested she write some­thing geared toward white midwestern­ers. At NEH the project was rejected, says a letter from the powers that be, for not being written in the Gullah brogue on the one hand, and for being “an intellec­tual exercise” beyond primetime compre­hension on the other. Dash believes what’s really operating here is a fear of black people making political statements grounded in an autochthonous reading of black culture. “The image of the black revolutionary was neutralized through caricature during the blaxploitation era. He was made to seem weak and a phony. Now there exists a fear of black people using our culture to make statements in code. It’s the modern variation on the fear that led slaveholders to take our drums away.” Though the NEH letter applauds Dash’s research and the en­dorsements of her script by respected Gullah scholars, it tries to claim that the film’s symbolic elements are purely flights of her fancy. What Dash has come up against here is the arrogance of someone else’s ignorance — an arrogance forti­fied by what appears to be the common belief that blacks’ self-knowledge is like no knowledge at all.

Knowing that racism is behind the in­stitutions’ failure to support her does nothing to insure that Dash will have dollar one to complete Daughters this spring. But Dash, a veteran of black inde­pendent film’s long march, doesn’t know how to be despondent. “I just read Spike’s book on the making of She’s Gotta Have It, and after all he went through to finish his film, I know we’re going to finish this one.” ❖

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UPLIFT THE RACE
Black Independents’ Coming Attractions 

Yes, Virginia, there is a black in­dependent cinema beyond the genius of Spike Lee and the pound-wise, penny-ante-foolishness and ingenuity of Robert Townsend. You want more dap on it, you are required to read Thomas Cripps’s informative if problematic Slow Fade to Black, wait for Clyde Taylor’s poststructuralist tome on the subject, and by all means to join the Black Filmmaker Foundation. The BFF — 80 Eighth Avenue, suite 1704, NYC, 10011, 924-1198 — has a rental archive of work by nearly 100 black independents, and screens films every month by up-and-coming directors. Had you, for example, been a member two years ago you could have seen She’s Gotta Have It damn near right out the lab.

Five black independent filmmakers were working on Daughters of the Dust. A. J. Fielder has produced a short experimental work, Super 8 transferred to video, and has plans to begin shooting this summer a feature of Joycean intertextuality about his Howard years called Jahamas on Su­per 8, to be transferred to video. First assistant Will Hudson has completed two short video features, Rootman and Winter, that have a gutbucket phan­tasmagoric look. Drama adviser Leroy McDonald, a colleague of Dash’s at AFI, has done a short feature based on the infamous Tuskegee experiments and has another in the works about Olympic gold medalist Tommy Smith, who, with John Carlos, gave the black power salute at the ’68 games and wrecked his sports career as a result. Barbara-O is editing a documentary about black homeless men, and pro­ducer Bernard Nicolas has completed a documentary on his Haitian emigré family. Other names to watch out for are Reggie Hudlin, whose The Kold Waves is on the boards for production by New World this summer; Ellen Sumter, another Howard grad, with two 16mm short features to her credit; Brooklyn’s own Ayoka Chenzira; and Neema Barnette, whose work you may have peeped on two early Frank’s Place episodes. All coming to a theater near you in your lifetime we desper­ately hope. ■

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FILM ARCHIVES From The Archives Uncategorized

Godfather, Part II: The Corleone Saga Sags

“THE GODFATHER PART II” continues the saga of the Corleone family. Now ensconced on an estate in Lake Tahoe, Nevada, near their gambling holdings. The year is 1958, Al Pacino has succeeded Brando as the Don, and there is rumbling in the ranks. While the sun is shining upon little Anthony Corleone’s confirma­tion celebration, storm signs darken the already dimly lit interior of Michael Corleone’s study. The wayward sister (Talia Shire) de­fects, disobeying her brother to run off with a fortune-hunting wastrel (Troy Donahue); Frankie Pentan­geli (Michael V. Gazzo), an old-time clan member into his cups, argues with Michael over his association with Jewish gangster Hyman Roth (Lee Strasberg); Fredo (John Cazale), the chicken-hearted elder brother, is publicly humiliated by his inability to control his floozy Las Vegas wife; and Diane Keaton, as the first lady, continues to smile bravely and swing her hair, but there will be trouble from her, too.

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An attempt on the Don’s life is followed up with an investigation, whose meandering path is intercut with flashbacks to the childhood (in Sicily) and youth (in Little Italy) of the Godfather, played by Robert de Niro. These sections, if all goes according to Paramount’s dreams of lucre, will eventually be joined to the Sicilian sections of the earlier picture to make a complete film — the first part of a trilogy to play, with chronology corrected, as a roadshow package. The Sicilian and Little Italy episodes are filmed in the faded­-browns-and-yellows, Immigrant Portrait style, and in the miniaturized perspective of a spectacle viewed from a great distance.

Brando’s absence hangs over the new picture as his presence — minimal in time but central in effect — hung over the previous one. Ties are disintegrating, the center no longer holds, and the narrative is correspondingly diffuse. In the new script by Coppola and Mario Puzo, the Corleones have brought their way into a respectability hardly more dubious than than of America’s other first families of finance. Gambling is the naughtiest enterprise alluded to, and Michael and brothers are given to quoting the Godfather’s maxims much as the young Kennedys must have treasured patriarch Joe’s pearls or Irish wisdom. The success­ive Corleone patriarchs are odd combinations of Robin Hood and Christ, whose only crimes are, re­spectively, to rid Little Italy of an extortionist bully, and to expunge from the bosom of the family those who would betray its ideals. When these happen to be blood members, well, that’s the way the pignole cru­mbles.

Coppola and Puzo, bowing no doubt to public pressure, have made “The Godfather Part II” consider­ably less violent than its predeces­sor. There are but five or six killings, and the corpses are removed with the efficiency of a Shakespeare his­tory play, as the Corleone saga moves on to another stage of world history: Cuba before, and during, the revolution: the Kefauver crime hearings; an F.B.I. prison; with a swelling Nino Rota score to provide emotional unity.

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It is describing physical locations themselves that Coppola’s imagination comes into play, but the human confrontations staged in those dazzling locales never fulfill their promise. As in “The Conversation,” Coppola opens on the world and closes on the tortured individual, in an image of despair a shade too sensitive and heroic for what has preceded it. Watching this largely non-violent sequel, I couldn’t help but be struck by how crucial violence was to the first film. Without it, the characters are not only not mythic­ — they are not even very interesting.

The pale cast of reflection hovers over “Part II” without ever harden­ing into active thought, much less verbiage. (The use of Italian dia­logue, with English subtitles, can’t quite conceal its inanity). Coppola and Puzo haven’t the curiosity of even a Galsworthy (forget Balzac and Tolstoy) that might lead them to investigate the various branches of the family, and discover a sense of the era through the words as well as the “looks” of its individuals. Even among the brothers, there is a lot or emotional display — hugging, kissing, caressing, eyes watering or smol­dering, but the actual dialogue could be contained on the back of a grocery list. It is — how you say — visual.

What about the women? From what we see of them, mostly their backs. Hyman Roth’s wife makes tuna fish sandwiches and the Mammas Corleone make babies. Mamma the Elder (Morgana King), unlike most Italian mothers of my acquaintance, retires gracefully to the the wings. Coppola makes a gesture to the “new consciousness” by im­plying a certain critical perspective on the patriarchy, when Michael asks his pregnant wife “Does it feel like a boy?” But by focusing audience interest so exclusively on Pa­cino, and by making his enemies either invisible or unattractive, he effectively neutralizes their subver­sive potential.

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It is difficult to discuss acting with performances that are allowed so little articulation of their own, that are controlled and positioned so carefully within an aesthetic scheme. The artiness of Coppola’s aesthetic ultimately becomes an ethic as Pacino, in somber profile, emerges more victim than villain, more a melancholy Dane than a bloody Macbeth.

“The Godfather Part II” is marked, more clearly than its pre­decessor, by a moral confusion at its core which is in sharp contrast to that sense of moral wholeness of the great storytellers of the past, an equilibrium working behind the affairs of men that gave an importance to their actions, and words, that lyrical long-shots and poignant close-ups alone cannot produce. ❖

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The Godfather, Part III: Like Godfather …

First, the bottom line: If you’re an American, you’ll see The God­father, Part III … once. After all, Kennedys aside, the Corleones are the only royal family we’ve got and, as an update on the clan unto their third generation, Godfather III combines the anticipatory ap­peal of Fotomat-fresh family snapshots with the more civic in­terest inspired by the celeb of your choice on the cover of People magazine.

How could it be any other way? Almost a trailer for itself, The Godfather immediately estab­lished Don Corleone’s power over American popular culture (namely Tin Pan Alley and Hollywood) be­fore settling in to dramatize his son Michael’s Faustian bargain to revive the crime family’s fortune. Indeed, the feds have already done their part to raise Godfather consciousness by busting John Gotti only hours before the sea­son’s major movie event had its single, packed preview at Loews Astor Plaza. Although Godfather III is scarcely a comedy, the audi­ence chuckled throughout, with cynical pleasure and friendly derision.

Released in December 1974, The Godfather, Part II ended some time in 1959. When Godfa­ther III — which, in a wonderfully apposite bit of timing, comes out on Christmas Day — picks up the story 20 years later, Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) has gone straight, sort of. The obligatory opening rite of passage (a wedding in The Godfather, a first commu­nion in Godfather II) is here al­most a spiritual coronation, in which Michael, having divested himself of his illegal businesses and become a noted philanthro­pist, is receiving a personal deco­ration from a representative of the pope. Yes, the Godfather meets God the Father, or at least His Vicar.

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The previous Godfather films were ceremonial pageants in which delicately arranged histori­cal tableaux and exquisite loca­tions were inevitably seared by eruptions of fantastic violence. (Coppola naturalized the Cor­leone’s activities in part through the classical use of establishing shots.) Godfather III has consider­ably less finesse (there’s an at­tempt to rub out a virtual Apala­chin conference of mobsters where it literally rains bullets) but it doesn’t lack for ambition. Cop­pola and copilot Mario Puzo blast off for some cosmic Shakespear­ean netherworld of tearful solilo­quies and dynastic tragedy, where sister Connie (Talia Shire) comes on like a tarantella-dancing Lady Macbeth and Michael develops a soul. Although Talia Shire has compared her real-life brother Francis’s latest project to the ceil­ing of the Sistine Chapel, the overarching structure Godfather III more closely suggests is Michael Graves’s postmodern design for the expanded Whitney Muse­um: The earlier Godfather films are incorporated whole into a new baroque framework that not only returns the Corleones to Sicily for the ultimate climax but involves the Vatican and grand opera too.

As the action is deflected over­seas, motivations turn inward. Coppola and Puzo take a cue from the original Scarface by heightening the clan’s incestuous longings. Did you think The God­father and Godfather II were about violence, vengeance, crime, capitalism, America? Guess again. “The only wealth in the world is children” are the first words spo­ken in Godfather III, delivered by Michael in husky voiceover. As in popular Yiddish theater, the most intense relationships here are be­tween parents and offspring, sur­rogate or natural. Michael’s daughter Mary (Francis’s daugh­ter Sofia) is the chairman of his charitable foundation, their close­ness mocking Michael’s previous obsession with fathering boys. Meanwhile, Michael’s attempt to persuade his son Anthony (tenor Franc D’Ambrosio) to stay in law school rather than pursue a musi­cal career occasions the movie’s worst soap operatics.

Anthony is the first Corleone to ever sing. The film’s lengthy cli­max, admirably presaged by a choreographed whack mid-Feast of San Gennaro, brings everybody back to Palermo for a production of Cavalleria Rusticana. Nearly a half an hour, this somewhat dis­tended, impossibly convoluted set piece offers the bloodiest bit of backstage intrigue since Murder at the Vanities (not to mention a grandiose reworking of The God­father‘s single most admired se­quence). Still, the edifice is too ornate, the structure is too roomy, Godfather III resounds with ech­oes from previous films — sinister oranges, strategic cannoli, Diane Keaton. (Vying for most outra­geous are the fantasy that Michael and Kay were once a super-ro­mantic couple and their son’s ren­dition of “Theme From The God­father,” sung in special tribute to Dad.)

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The plot, such as it is, is notable mainly for its deadpan delirium. No sooner is Michael “blessed” than the Vatican bank goes broke and, perhaps having learned the lessons of New York City politics, the Don offers a bailout for a piece of the church’s real estate action. It’s the ultimate money­-laundering scheme — the Cor­leones merge with the pope. As Michael tells sister Connie, “The higher I go, the crookeder it gets.” Although this motif is reiterated in a minor key — priests and kill­ers are indistinguishable through­out — from a Catholic point of view, the high point of the movie is surely Michael’s confession, de­livered with appropriate pathos and tolling bells. (The scene drib­bles off, but the lucky priest is named pope.)

The Godfather films have thrived on meaningful casting (en­compassing a subterranean history of the Actors’ Studio) and if Michael is absolved, Pacino is de­nied Brandofication. Not that he doesn’t have a look. The movie’s unspoken premise is that the two decades between Godfathers II and III have somehow electrified the once icy Michael Corleone. Moving stiffly with a pitched forward lurch (as if to pull his plug out of a wall socket), hair brushed up to resemble the steel bristles on an industrial floor polisher. Pacino suggests and even acts like a wired Yoda. There are times when Godfather III bids to become three hours of Michael admonish­ing his obstreperous nephew, Son­ny’s illegitimate son, Vincent (Andy Garcia).

Although Pacino looks like John G0tti could eat him for breakfast, as the last of the Cor­leones, Garcia is an engaging, suave, loose-limbed show-off. He makes his bones when two killers invade the Lower Manhattan tenement where he is trysting with a winsome photographer (Bridget Fonda): his authenticity is vouch­safed when he bumps into Martin Scorsese’s mother on Elizabeth Street or carries on his uncle’s tradition by repeating the family lies to Mary, the younger cousin who adores him. Garcia struts through the movie’s first hour suffering under the delusion that this is a gangster film, rather than the surging symphony of guilt and ex­patiation that drowns him well be­fore the movie ends. The requisite veteran Method actor playing the requisite old mafioso, Eli Wallach flutters and sputters through a mediocre performance. The gang­ster of choice is Joey Zasa, a pub­licity-loving thug obviously in­spired by Joey Gallo and played, with impressively metallic sheen, by Joe Mantegna. “I’d like to get a little pin from the pope,” Zasa sneers, the Bad Fairy at one of the new Michael’s numerous love­fests.

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Still, the most amazing presence by far is Coppola’s 19-year-old daughter Sofia. (Clearly, the pope is not the only one to grant indul­gences.) In a deep and satisfying way, Sofia’s exotic full-moon face and awkward body language justify the film. From the moment she arranges her features for the first of many (no doubt necessary) close-ups, generous lips creased in a permanent, wildly expressionistic sneer, through her last Californiated line reading, she gives a performance that is gloriously be­havioral. “A bad actor,” Jack Smith once wrote, “is rich, unique, idiosyncratic, revealing.” Nothing in Godfather III has more to do with patriarchal power than Sofia’s uncertain glances off­screen; her seeming suspicion that the least important bit player with whom she shares a frame has more right to the camera than she; her fantastically repressed (hence totally affecting) love scene cum cooking lesson with Vincent. This is a woman cursed with two fathers — one who’s inside the narra­tive and another who rules the set.

To the degree that The Godfa­ther, Part III is Coppola’s person­al psychodrama, Sofia is absolute­ly essential. (Once you see the movie, it’s obvious why Winona Ryder — who was originally cast as  Mary and suffered some sort of breakdown during production — could never have played this part.) Sofia was the infant baptized in the celebrated penultimate sequence of The Godfather, it seems more than appropriate that the saga, which opened so evocatively with an appeal to Don Corleone for justice in the matter of a particularly vicious date-rape, would end with her pained, un­comprehending cry of “Da-a-ad!”

Model for the plutocratic family dramas and immigrant miniseries that dominated network televi­sion well into the ’80s, The Godfa­ther is so much a part of our na­tional identity it’s difficult to imagine that Paramount first envisioned the movie as a quick cash-in on a surprise bestseller. As reinvented by Coppola, The Godfather not only raised ticket prices to a new high of $4 but wound up grossing more of those inflated dollars than any movie in history (until surpassed by The Exorcist one year later).

These days, The Godfather is being called the greatest Holly­wood movie since Citzen Kane. It’s a sloppy judgment — Detour, Kiss Me Deadly, Night of the Hunter, The Searchers, Vertigo, Touch of Evil, The Tarnished Angels, The Naked Kiss, The Wild Bunch, 2001, McCabe and Mrs. Miller, and The Last Movie not withstanding. The Godfather is not even really a single movie. Unlike any other sequel, Godfather II actually improved the orig­inal, as well as improving on it. Although Godfather II suffers from repeating too many of The Godfather’s narrative rhythms (a tic that becomes convulsive in Godfather III), it considerably enriched the first film’s allegorical history of America — from the Old World through the frontier settlements of New York and Nevada to the foreign frontier Havana, looping back in haunting post­script to a family dinner on the day the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor

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If, in formal terms, The Godfather was Coppola’s Birth of a Na­tion — a family-centered period piece that, among other things, set out to redress perceived historical wounds and effectively restored classical Hollywood continuity af­ter the narrative breakdown of the late ’60s — then Godfather II was his Intolerance. Although depen­dent for his meaning on the first film, Coppola’s audaciously ana­lytical reworking of the material, a kind of archeological excavation that allowed the story to go simul­taneously forward and backward in time, and Robert De Niro’s brilliant interpretation of “Brando,” illuminated The Godfather and set it, so to speak, among the constellations. To find people who are unfamiliar with The Godfather mythos, you would have to look for them among the characters in Godfather III — ­which, in a sense, is part of that film’s problem.

Despite its unwieldy editing and somnolent second hour, en­cumbered by its tour-guide view of Sicily, Godfather III may be Coppola’s richest filmmaking since Marlon Brando capsized Apocalypse Now. That’s a back­handed compliment, I fear. But what does it profit Paramount if Michael gains a soul but loses his world? Michael’s redemption is presented as abrupt fait accompli: Mary’s innocence must be abso­lute. Devoid of social content, Godfather III represses precisely the period treated in Goodfellas, easy winner of the 1990 gangster-national allegory sweepstakes. Had Mary lived through the ’70s, she would understand her father only too well.

In leaping from period of con­sensus to period of consensus (the 1960-78 era signified only by the opening shot of the void around Lake Tahoe and a quick tour of the abandoned Corleone com­pound), Godfather III surrenders its claim on the historical imagi­nation. Although the movie is not altogether superfluous, it can’t help but suggest Mark Twain’s forgotten Tom Sawyer sequels or the bogus credit-crawl histories that American Graffiti made a cliché. In the context of its predecessors. Godfather III has its place — perhaps the longest, most expensive footnote ever made. ❖