THE TRIAL OF THE CHICAGO 7 is a timely political drama lacking conviction

Chants of “the whole world is watching” linger after sitting for Aaron Sorkin’s timely ‘The Trial of the Chicago 7’. Having absorbed news on protest movements all week; from Nigeria to Belarus to Hong Kong, this chant rings even truer and may score my future engagements with fiery citizen power. However, the conviction of protestors worldwide is something Sorokin lacks in his sophomore directing effort.

Unlike an earlier Netflix stand out, ‘Da Five Bloods‘, which meshed seamlessly with the Black Lives Matter movement, ‘Chicago 7’ feels less earnest, only acknowledging conversations about the progress or lack thereof America has had since the riots of 1968, (which followed protests against the Vietnam War at the Democratic National Convention) instead of jumping headfirst into the subject matter with scathing barbs and overpowering sense of place. The year 2020 has drummed home the fact the time for half measures is over but Sorokin may be yet to get his memo.

‘Chicago 7’ is a glossy film, maybe too glossy. That slick Sorokin touch is almost always welcome; from the chillingly prescient ‘The Social Network’ to the imperious ‘A Few Good Men’. I imagine this gloss will attract the buzz of the awards circuit and the performances from this excellent ensemble here thrive on Sorokin and his sensibilities; sensibilities seemingly amplified by mostly courtroom or courtroom adjacent settings.

As indicated by the title, the riots of 1968 culminate in eponymous trial and we meet the key players on as they plan their respective trips to Chicago ahead of the Democratic National Convention to protest the Vietnam War. In an opening montage, spliced with news footage highlighting the stakes of the movement against the war, we meet Eddie Redmayne’s clean-cut Tom Hayden and Rennie Davis (Alex Sharp) who want to centre the young American casualties of the war in their protest. In contrast, the free-loving Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen) and Jerry Rubin (Jeremy Strong) favour spectacle and anarchy in their approach to the revolution. We get this early scene of Rubin giving lessons on how to make a Molotov Cocktail.

Then there’s David Dellinger (John Carroll Lynch) who is totally against violence and was a conscientious objector during World War II. He never expected to be in the eye in the storm of a riot. Then there’s the peculiar yet familiar circumstance that enveloped the eighth defendant in the case, a co-founder of the Black Panther Party Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), who was in Chicago only for some four hours to deliver a speech.

After the intro, the film fast-forwards five months after the riots to a meeting between newly elected President Richard Nixon’s Attorney General (John Doman) lawyer Richard Schultz (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and Thomas Foran (J.C. MacKenzie) who have been tasked trying the eight men who have been accused of instigating the riots. The former has minor reservations but is ultimately a company man.

This is clear political manoeuvring, a weaponisation of the justice system by the Nixon administration to set an example for the anti-war movement. Leading the defence of Hoffman, Hayden and the rest of the seven is the perpetually frustrated attorney William Kunstler (Mark Rylance) who tries to plead his case before Judge Julius Hoffman played with remarkable venom by Frank Langella who has played Nixon in the past but seems to be cut from the dangerously hapless and vile cloth of President Donald Trump.

There is thespian talent oozing through the cracks in ‘Chicago 7’ with Kelvin Harrison Jr showing up as the Black Panther’s Fred Hampton whilst what would have been a nice surprise cameo by Michael Keaton as the Attorney General in the previous administration was ruined for me by a Netflix display picture.

Sorokin, also a writer for the stage, is terrific at putting actors in a position to shine with swooping scenes laced with dialogue to die for. Polished speeches and exchanges abound, sometimes to theatric and preposterous effect. Consider the ‘our blood’ moment during a mock cross-examination between Kunstler and Hayden which still baffles me.

Rubin and Hoffman seem to be having the most fun in Sorokin’s playhouse, trolling Judge Hoffman and America with snide quips whilst mirroring the lack of expectation of audiences who know the idea of justice at the end of the trial is a pipe dream. There is a fun retort from Rubin in a presser to a journalist; “you’ve posed that question in the form of a lie”, which is a line I will be stealing for all eternity.

Their gung-ho “Yippie” demeanour is at odds with the plight of Bobby Seale who is a marker for a different layer of injustice in America. Why is there an eighth person in this film defined by the number seven? And I’m not asking for the surface answer. Seale yells it to us time and time again. But at the heart of Seale’s visceral anger, so well embodied by Mateen II, is an understated (maybe too understated) part of this film that dithers in effectiveness. But it affords Sorkin the opportunity to deliver a truly haunting scene that is as critical as he gets in attacking the justice system and as good as he gets directing-wise.

But this is just by the way. Seale is soon jettisoned as he leaves the trial and so is the layer of race. What we’re left with, and probably what Sorokin is most interested in is the dynamic between Hoffman’s chaotic approach to the revolution and Hayden’s respectability approach to radicalism. The Yippies are uncompromising towards the fraught structure of governance and constantly remind us that this is a political trial.

But Hayden retains a belief in the system, somewhat like Sorokin, argues in favour of due process and importance of keeping up appearances for election’s sake. “If you don’t win elections, it doesn’t matter what is second,” he says in a heated exchange with Hoffman. Hoffman makes the point that their visions of victory differ, which is clear for all to see, but Sorokin, of course, makes this more momentous than it actually is.

Some moment also had me tagging Hayden as insular, which is harsh, but a manifestation of the sometimes purposeful lack of clarity from Sorokin who is allowed to make multiple points and clumsily string them together with a worn-out string much like the state does with some of the defendants. But like I said earlier, 2020 has reduced the margin for half measures and I really wanted to know where our director’s convictions lay. That would have got my emotional buy-in and elevated this film from merely an engaging courtroom drama.

Some elevation could have come with bolder direction. The structure of the screenplay is impeccable, weaving between the present day and events around the riots with seamless cut-ins. Sorokin, however, stops short of hitting us with the full force of the brutality. We get a taste with chilling images of police taking off their badges and name tags right before brutalising protestors and Sorokin flirts with footage of actual state violence from the protests. A taste is, however, not enough for a period defined by chaos and angst and the tone never reflects this. A major failing on Sorokin’s part.

The whole world was watching, almost literally as ‘Chicago 7’ has been the second most-watched film on Netflix since its release. The world won’t learn anything novel about Sorokin. He will still be defined by his slick scripts and that’s fine, just not enough for a film staged around a citizen movement led by very human icons being attacked by a corrupt state.

OCTOBER 1: Revisiting the tortured foundations of a nation in Kunle Afolayan’s layered totem of neo-Nollywood

Nigerian Cinema has come a long way in the last decade. It has seen blossoming global exposure thanks to streaming, improved aesthetics and a growing sense that it could nail the three pillars of the business of film. The only thing missing is the prestige associated with some of the iconic forbearers of African cinema.

There is the sense that Nollywood’s growth is still too tethered to the exploitation video boom of the ‘90s and ‘00s. Log on to Netflix and all the Naija offerings emit a vibe of frivolous chaff. Frankly, it is a bit of a disappointment. Are my expectations too high? Maybe.

The height of my expectations may be down to Nigerian filmmaker Kunle Afolayan and his impressive period piece ‘October 1’. His 2015 film remains one of my favourite cinema experiences, offering the kind of historical and socio-political awareness I normally travel back in time to Francophone Africa for. It is essentially Naija’s most accessible entry into colonial confrontational cinema whilst probing at trauma and violence that laced the birth of a nation.

The heft underpinning ‘October 1’ places it firmly in the neo-Nollywood class. Azeez Akinwumi Sesan in his paper ‘The Rhetoric of Return in Kunle Afolayan’s Film October 1’ notes that it slots into “a tradition of quality that advances the technical and dramatic components of Nigerian films.”

This manifests in the inspired casting, noteworthy cinematography and layered script despite the chronic limitations. In the end, audiences are rewarded with a textured story about how Nigeria independence, much like a chunk of sub-Saharan Africa, was built on foundations trauma, exploitation and violence. That the white supremacist colonialists were lording over a fraught ethnic dynamic could only go one way, is one of the arguments Afolayan posits.

Writing about ‘October 1’ and Nigeria as an outsider, I welcome critiques to my assessment that offer more insight. For as I have gleaned from this film since I first saw it in 2015, I imagine there are some layers that may be lost in proverbial translation. Like the finest African Cinema, however, ‘October 1’ proves to be instructive for the rest of the continent amid the struggle for decolonisation.

That there is enough nuance in this film to latch on to and appreciate is in line with more rigorous assessments of neo-Nollywood that highlight the importance of more open-ended approach to storytelling and respect for the audience.

Like the film’s thoughts on the birth of Nigeria as we know it, it opens with violence. A predator hounds a fleeing woman in a scene with an alarming reddish-aesthetic. He catches up to her, rapes and strangles her to death. The last act of this man, who we will come to learn is a serial killer, is to carve into her with a razor. The sense of mystery and unease that follows this opening is almost the same for the prospects of an independent Nigeria.

Enter the worn and lanky Inspector Danladi Waziri (Sadiq Daba), or Danny Boy, as he is referred to in a jovial but condescending manner by his British superiors. We are in the film’s present timeline, a little after Nigerian independence. Waziri has solved the serial killings in the town called Akote and is presenting his report to Winterbottom (Nick Rhys), a colonial official. The British had wanted a clean slate and the case of serial murders closed before relinquishing political control.

Inspector Danladi Waziri (R)

The tensions here, mostly psychological, are evident. The Union Jack still flies proudly and a portrait of the queen leers oppressively into Waziri’s soul as he prepares to narrate the investigation to us. The British flag and the portrait would be taken down by the time a film came to a close, a small moment of triumph. But a domineering aura always lingers in my recollection of the film.

One of the most important causalities of colonial rule was truth. It meant the colonialists shied away from confronting the generational havoc wreaked on Nigeria and the rest of Africa. This is demonstrated in the handling of Waziri’s findings, which implicate a man educated by the crown and the clergy.

Spoilers from here on. Check out the film on Netflix if you can.

The serial killer is the first person that catches our eye as the film flashes back to early days of the murders in Akote. In the village square, we witness the fanfare on the return of the village’s prince, Aderopo (Demola Adedoyin), who oozes charm like it’s his second nature. He has returned from the city the first university graduate Akote has produced. Much like the joy he engenders, he was to cause much more grief. That he is almost always clad in white is the first red flag.

The weight of the narrative is to be judged by the why – why the charming Aderopo would resort to killing Akote’s virgins. This assault on innocence is a manifestation of the hurt and betrayal buried in the manner Aderopo lost his own innocence.

As Waziri probes, all trails lead to offcuts of imperialism. A British priest had offered higher education with one hand to Aderopo with one hand and chipped away at his soul with the other by molesting him. In one swoop, Afolayan attacks one of the altars in the miseducation of the average African as far as the legacy of colonialism is concerned. Christian religion and western education were not brought in a vacuum and are not “advantages” of colonialism.

Aderopo isn’t the only victim dragged down this traumatic path. We meet a farmer named Agbekoya (played by Afolayan), who is briefly a suspect in the murders. One of the victims is found on his farm. Waziri’s detective work later reveals Agbeyoka was also a victim of sexual abuse by the British priest. But he gave up on his educational dreams to halt the abuse. Aderopo was not strong enough.

Agbeyoka’s trauma is more internalised. Whilst Aderopo lashed out at the world, carving crosses into all his victims, the farmer’s repression sees him and his family turn his back on anything western; the English language, formal education and, of course, Christianity (which is wester per se but you get the point).

Agbeyoka (C)

This thread in ‘October 1’ is in conversation with the complex discourse around Afro-Pessimism given the ripple effects of the colonial oppression, both macro and micro, on the small village of Akote. The larger effect of what feels like a conspiracy is evident in the history books and the trajectory an independent Nigeria took. Afolayan spotlights the rotten foundation with not only the insidious corroding effects of Christian actors but in the way in which the truth of the killings was handled.

Winterbottom and a fellow colonial officer lay the final brick in the foundation of deceit by burying Waziri’s findings. This was an indicator of what had happened in the past to Nigeria; like how the operations of the Royal Niger Company (which led to Nigeria as we know it being bought for £865,000), and indicators of what lay ahead for Nigeria given the way Britain’s political and economic interests in Nigeria manifested in unconscionable policies during the Biafran war.

Of course, thoughts on the Biafra war point one towards the delicate ethnic balance. Thousands of Igbos were murdered in a pogrom sparking a chain of events culminating in the Eastern Region of Nigeria formally seceding seven years after the nation’s independence.

In ‘October 1’, not only is the truth of the serial killings in Akote buried, it is buried in the name of ethnic harmony in the trading town. Early in the film, we are treated to scenes of the three main ethnic groups in Nigeria; the Hausa, Igbos and Yoruba living in relative harmony. There a is a nice bar with chill vibes in which they all gather to drink at night and you can feel the longing of Afolayan for what could be.

But our director is acutely aware of what is. He harnesses ethnic tensions with key plot points as Waziri’s investigation unravels. Consider the point where the grieving father of an Igbo girl kills a Hausa man in police custody who is but a suspect caught in the wrong place at the wrong time. Those acquainted with ‘The Gods are Not to Blame’ will know that Aderopo is a Yoruba name.

The parallels to postcolonial Nigeria’s socio-political and historical experience is clear. The awareness but lack of regard for the ethnic balance and callous rush to depart without putting to bed the ethnic and political crises have cost West Africa’s largest nation over the years.

Aderopo, having been snatched into the abyss by the claws of colonialism, is deeply cynical of the prospects of Nigeria’s liberation. “My educated opinion tells me that independence has arrived ten years early,” he says.

Afolayan sides with the character; not just because his cynicism was justified by time but because of the empathy he has for Aderopo’s scarred soul. Cladding the character in white most of the time is probably the film’s way of compensating for the darkness within and reminding us of what should have been before the drops of crimson splattered across his attire. I believe the use of white also signals towards the crimes of the white man in Nigeria. Aderopo, after all, walks around whistling the tune to God Save the Queen.

For as much as they tried to cover up, the white man did not leave with a clean record. Even the resolution of the case, which the British desired, uncovered more rot which the British proceeded to bury.

Waziri is aware of British hypocrisy. He just never confronted it. He is well regarded and chosen to look into the Akote murders because he closed a case involving the murder of a British man in Enugu. We later learn the British victim had a Nigerian man flogged to death for theft and was later killed by the man’s father. This father was hanged for his act of vengeance after Waziri closed the case.

The guilt in Waziri’s tone is palpable as he recounts harsh complexities of this case in a drunken stupor to fellow officers whilst in Akote. At this point, he already feels the heavy shadow of injustice on the horizon.

He gets to make up for this by overlooking Agbeyoka’s confession to a murder of his own; the suffocating of the priest who molested him. This time, Waziri is comfier in the grey areas of this constructed reality.

He is afforded the chance for further redemption in this case and eventually stands up to his British superiors for what feels like the first time. It is a powerful moment when he breaks free of the gaze of the queen and demands that Winterbottom, a man young enough to be his son, call him by his full name, not “Danny Boy.”

There is a melancholy underpinning the narrative and rightfully so. You get the sense that as independence beckoned, the likes of Waziri would be too old the drawn on the exhilaration of liberation to drive Nigeria to the promised land. Oppression was all they knew.

But even more tragic are the likes of Aderopo and Agbeyoka; meant to inherit the glorious future but too scarred by oppression to ride the wave of independence.

Black trauma resides at the heart of the incendiary DA 5 BLOODS

Is Spike Lee influenced by the pioneers of African cinema? As his 21st joint, the buoyant, pulsating yet tragic ‘Da 5 Bloods’, overwhelmed me, the tip of Lee’s incisive creative and didactic spear here, the excellent Delroy Lindo’s Paul seemed to be in conversation with one of the more devastating characters from Ousmane Sembene’s catalogue; Pays from ‘Camp De Thiaroye‘.

Someways down the film, there’s this shot of Paul, a Vietnam war vet giving the black power salute after an intense three-minute rant cum soliloquy, the kind we’ve seen Lee deploy before. Up there with the most essential conceptions in Black Cinema, Paul is teeming with pain, resilience and holy conviction. But he’s also wearing a MAGA hat, as crimson as sin in need of cleansing.

In ‘Camp De Thiaroye’, Pays is a mute PTSD-ridden Senegalese soldier returning from the frontline in WWII after fighting under the banner of his French oppressors and serving time in a POW camp. Most of the time we see him, he has on an SS helmet which shrieks at us with its cursed iconography.

I have described Pays as a repressed prophet without a voice but he, like Paul, is a meditation on the complex postwar identity of an oppressed class. These strained identities are painfully spawned from a context that had them fighting for their oppressors as, in the case of Senegal, French soldiers massacred women and children back home, whilst in the US, there has been a perpetual chain of state-sponsored violence against black bodies for centuries. The SS helmet and the MAGA hat Pays and Paul don are but scars; scars that run deep through the film right into our hearts.

The first words we hear in ‘Da 5 Bloods’ are from Muhammad Ali’s inspired explanation of why he refused to enlist in the Vietnam War. Lee’s opposition to the war is crystal and his solidarity with the Vietnamese people a gyre of warmth. The way he deploys the Vietnamese flag kind of springs up on you in the way the star-spangled banner beams with pride in ‘25th Hour’. The only pride on show here is for his fellow black man. Black lives have always mattered to Lee and his message has remained eerily relevant to the global discourse across four decades.

‘Da 5 Bloods’ has a lot on its mind and I guess it is a bit of knock on the film that its ideas perhaps were deserving of more narrative and tonal dexterity. In a plot that brought back fond memories of a childhood favorite of mine, the Gene Hackman-led ‘Uncommon Valor’, ‘Da 5 Bloods’ has the workings of a fun heist adventure that sees four black veterans who return to Vietnam to recover the remains of their slain unit leader from the war and search for a buried cached of gold they hid decades earlier.

For the aging quartet, we meet the “Pigeon-toed” Eddie (Norm Lewis), a seemingly successful businessman; the cheerful and surprisingly fit-looking Isiah Whitlock Jr as Melvin; former medic and brains of the operation Otis (Clarke Peters) and then there’s the feisty Paul (Lindo). They are being helped by a fixer, Vinh (Johnny Tri Nguyen), one of the more prominent Vietnamese characters.

Also flying the Vietnamese flag is Tien (Le Y Lan), a former sex worker Otis was intimate during the war. She hooks them up with a French businessman (Jean Reno) who is ready to help them change the gold into a medium easier to carry out of Vietnam. He demands a 20 percent cut. Paul is not happy with the arrangement and is on the constant lookout for the first sign of heat.

The Bloods encounter a few other relevant faces on their adventure; Hedy Bouvier (Mélanie Thierry), a bleeding bundle of white guilt who has dedicated her riches to dismantling mines from the war alongside Simon (Paul Walter Hauser) and Seppo (Jasper Pääkkönen).

The fifth member of the blood varies depending on the timeline we are in. In the present day, Paul’s son, David (Jonathan Majors) worms his way onto the treasure hunt via a silly plot point. But with some quaint edits, reversions to 16 mm newsy film stock and more squarish aspect ratio, we flashback to the Vietnam War (where all four older actors still play themselves without any de-ageing) to spend time with their squad leader, Norman (Chadwick Boseman), who assumes hallowed status as the film progresses.

Like ‘Apocalypse Now’, which Lee pays homage to multiple times here, the journey is a descent into the madness that is the heart of America. It starts out with our four guys getting their groove on in a club. What follows is a treacherous journey filled with internal and external dangers as we sail upstream; minefields, scheming Frenchmen, still-angry Vietnamese as well as the greed and paranoia that stem from fraught bonds and guilt.

Some other film references come in the form of critiques or just plain mocking. It stung a little when Fugazi and Rambo movies were used in the same sentence by Melvin. Then again ‘First Blood’ technically isn’t a Rambo film. Some shade is also thrown the way of Chuck Norris and the ‘Missing in Action’ b-movies. “All those holly-weird motherfuckers trying to go back and win the Vietnam War.”

Lee then follows up the criticism of the whitewashing of the Vietnam War history with education, cutting in pictures of the likes of Milton Olive, the first black man to win a medal of honor, as the film trots on. Our director does similar things with stills from the harrowing My Lai Massacre, Martin Luther King Jnr’s assassination among others.

It’s the kind of overtness I have become increasingly comfortable with because of how it mimics the directness and urgency of classic African cinema. When you approach every film like it may be your last, you do not hold back on your messages of enlightenment.

Enlightenment is what we get a lot of from Norman in the flashbacks. He is compared to a religious figure at some point and their journey to retrieve his remains has the makings of a pilgrimage. Boseman exudes a calm but radiant charisma in the way he embodies Norman, whose moniker prefix, “Stormin”, feels like an oxymoron.

He speaks truth to power and streams of wisdom flow down from him as well as awareness of the unappreciated sacrifice of black men in the war. It’s why when they Bloods first find the gold on a crashed CIA plane as part of a mission, Norman decides to view it as reparations; some thin facsimile of justice.

Norman also represents torment to Paul, who still calls out his name in his sleep. He was the only one of the four who saw him die. He initially feels most committed to finding Norman’s remains than the gold. But the more we spend time with Paul, the more we realise his canvas is the centrepiece of the film; offering layers and texture that Lee executes masterfully.

On the lighter side, Paul is a troll job in the vein of ‘Chi-Raq’s‘ pantomime war general clad in confederate flag underwear or the screening of ‘Birth of a Nation’ in ‘Blackkklanman’. He spews ignorant anti-immigrant propaganda, is still bigoted towards Vietnamese people and proudly claims he voted from “President Fake Bone Spurs.” And I probably shouldn’t have been howling here but there’s a point when an angry Vietnamese man brings up the My Lai massacre to Paul and he dismissively retorts: “there were atrocities on both sides.”

Lee digs deeper into Paul though, revealing his troubled and sometimes outright toxic relationship with his son by way of moments of glorious catharsis and cruel dissonance. Lindo has already been hailed as a powerhouse in this film but I suspect it will take more viewings to appreciate the subtlety exuding from Majors, who like the rest of the cast, is not a hair off the wavelength Lee requires of them.

There’s nothing subtle about Lindo though. I do not want to disrespect Denzel Washington’s turn as Malcolm X under Lee’s auspices but Lindo is in God mode here; delivering the first truly electrifying performance of 2020.

As I said, Lindo is the tip of the spear for Lee and his ability to harness the most primal of emotions left me in awe. There isn’t the linear descent into psychological bedlam one would expect upon seeing the iconography from ‘Apocalypse Now’. There are instead contained and measured explosions from Paul that push us towards the film’s central truths.

There are times Paul is a manifestation of America’s history of violence, sometimes mistaken as badassery. He also morphs into the dark side of the warning given him by Norman; about war being money and money being war. Think dragon sickness from Tolkien lore. But most poignantly he is a wounded and angry black man broken by his country.

Much will be made of the aforementioned rant against the US government and us; where he becomes Lee’s own voice in the desert crying. But the scene in ‘Da 5 Bloods’ that broke me evoked the final moments we spend with Ben Foster’s PTSD-stricken character in Debra Granick’s ‘Leave No Trace’ as Paul howls and lumbers like a wounded bear towards a forest as he cries out Psalm 23 like a man on the gallows. I felt the cold grasp of damnation reaching towards me.

Like the Vietnam war itself, noble intentions only took one so far. The Bloods were ultimately returning to cursed ground and the desire to rally for their dead leader battles against the weight of an unjust war amplified by their standing as black Americans. As the story develops, you realise there is a timelessness to the toll of the war on this fraternal unit and a purpose to keeping their ages consistent across timelines five decades apart. It’s not that they carried the trauma of Nam away with them. They never really left.

And the trauma of being black in America still filtered through to the soldiers in the war. In a flashback, the Bloods listen to Vietnamese DJ, Hanoi Hannah (Ngô Thanh Vân), who announces the death of Martin Luther King Jnr to the Black GIs. Four of the Bloods are ready to raise hell, much like many black people today angered by the police murder of black men. But Norman, in the moment, rises from his Huey Newton-esque throne of palm branches in messianic splendor and calms them down.

The detail and flourishes are markers of an auteur at the top of his game. Lee’s meshing of style and idealism in mainstream American filmmaking is probably only matched by peak Oliver Stone, a filmmaker who did well not to whitewash his own account of the Vietnam War. Stone’s influences may even run deeper when you consider the way Lee is becoming more and more comfortable with weaving archival footage into his films. Also, if you squint a little it feels like Lindo is channelling the essence of Willem Dafoe and Tom Berenger from ‘Platoon’.

Lee is, of course, doing much more than lament about the horrors of a misguided war. Otherwise, this would just be ‘Triple Frontier’.  He’s as always all about centring the black experience and giving it life and humanity. He does so in a film that is entertaining as hell, violent and an incendiary, even if sometimes unbalanced, mix of tone and genre carried on the visceral presence of Marvin Gaye, whose work on the soundtrack is almost as important as Lindo at the centre of the film. And the two combine for a haunting rendition of a song called ‘God is Love’. A moment of real power.

I end with the question I started with: Just how much is Lee influenced by the pioneers of African Cinema? There doesn’t appear to be much of a link given his past declarations. He has always considered the “Treasure of the Sierra Madre” to be one of his favourite films and that is noted as one his influences in ‘Da 5 Bloods’.

No African filmmakers feature on Lee’s list of essential films for young filmmakers. But would that list change if it was a list for young black filmmakers? Maybe. The art of black filmmakers gushes forth from a collective trauma that has defined our realities tailored the calling of many artists. Lee is drawing from the same well of black tears as Sembene, Sissako and other icons for African Cinema. Like these icons, Lee makes his politically charged art in hope of a day when the well will run dry.

BAMAKO puts the World Bank and IMF on trial as the soul of Africa withers on the margins

There are some uber aggressive didactics on display as Mauritanian-born Malian director Abderrahmane Sissako drags totems of neoliberalism; the World Bank and the IMF before a tribunal that is still going on till this day. The surrealism and idealism of the trial at the centre of 2006’s ‘Bamako’ waver between tedious and electric. But blink and you will miss the oceans of depth on the periphery producing violent waves that crash us back into our depressing existence.

The tribunal is being held in a compound house (significant for being the director’s childhood home) and the plaintiff is Africa. There is a panel of black and white judges hearing the case like the fate of the world depended on it. Teams of lawyers, also black and white, represent each side amid articulate debate on imperialism, neocolonialism and the globalisation that has wrecked the continent. Sissako sought out real judges and lawyers as he laid the foundation for a verité approach to this part of the film. He also assembled a cross-section of witnesses comprising childhood friends, a former minister of culture, among others, all appearing as themselves.

The unscripted discourse smoulders with timeless urgency in what is said and left unsaid. The first person on the stand, an elderly un-educated man who has been unheard all his life, is denied his catharsis. Justice is lost in translation as the condescending translator abuses his bilingual gifts to convince the man to leave the stand despite the judge agreeing to hear his testimony. “My words won’t remain within me,” he says in his native Bambara with a cadence more haunting than it needed to be.

I felt a subtle jab from Sissako here; something having to do with the disenfranchising and devaluing of people on a basis as basic as language. By the next witness, we’ve sadly forgotten about this man. The stand sizzles with the measured provocative testimony of a writer. As she declares George Bush the conductor of Africa’s “pauperisation”, she sets the tone for the eloquent and angry speeches that follow from other regular Malians who highlight the dysfunction brought on by colonisation, globalisation, capitalism, debt and the like, ably supported by the scathing barbs from the prosecution.

Sissako has no interest in balance here. He knows his audience will not suffer any counterarguments along the lines of innate corruption and like as responsible for Africa’s ills. Though he is asking questions; on whether the architecture of Bretton Woods institutions, their neoliberal policies and their handlers from the west, have contributed to the impoverishment and demoralisation of the continent but like some of the cinematic forbearers of the continent, his message is clear for us to see.

And it is 2006 here but Sissako is also wary of the growing influence of China and it would be interesting to see what the 2020’s multipolar iteration of ‘Bamako’ would look like.

On the margins of the court proceedings, which are also being filmed and broadcast on radio and loudspeakers, life goes on. Sissako cuts way from the trial intermittently to nose around the interactions that traverse generations, gender, class and the like. Some of our incursions are dour, like the time spent with an ailing man seemingly on his death bed or a child thrust into motherhood.

Other encounters fascinate, like the baby who’s steps are scored to a squeaky toy or with the photographer with obviously morbid tendencies who holds death to be the cradle of truth. And more pertinent to the flow of the film, there’s a cross-eyed soul-piercing investigator who probes for a missing police officer’s gun in what ostensibly feels like a search for one’s masculinity.

The question of masculinity ties in with the quietly miserable life of Chaka (Tiécoura Traoré). He has a daughter with his stunning singer wife Melé (Aïssa Maïga) who has all but tapped out from the marriage given her cold cadence Sissako’s clever depiction of brazen infidelity here. It doesn’t help that Chaka is unemployed, reminding us that, ever so delicately, Sissako is meshing the big socio-economic ideas of the raging trial with fraught existence of the average African.

Less is definitely more on this front as Sissako and ‘Bamako’ demands a rewatch to fully appreciate the precision on the margins on the trial. There is an overpowering sense of melancholy that simmers from the ruins of reality the antagonists in the premise of the film have seemingly and systematically constructed. Our director insists that you will not appreciate the arguments in the trial till you inhale the fumes of the machine of empathy roving about in the society.

Sissako does something similar within the context of the trial. We expect the story of Malian youth trekking across the desert towards a Europe sure to offer more dystopia than utopia. But there is a flashback almost arbitrarily inserted, at odds with the structure of the film, that stings, as the ghastly testimony of a migrant, now returned home, recounts how a woman disguised as a man was left for dead in the scorching wasteland of the Sahara. This testimony hits harder thanks to the fine editing that cuts to the flowing blood-red dye from the near-by tie-dye business that left me incredibly uneasy in the way it evoked fabric threaded with violence and mundane.

Speaking of structural twists, we a venture into the somewhat surreal with a spaghetti western the community watches on TV called Death in Timbuktu. It stars Danny Glover, who has a producer credit on Bamako, amongst a diverse cast, that captures the mind of its audience metatextually in the way it depicts the cultural exploitation of the continent by foreign entities that has been just as damaging as the economic oppression as a scene features members of the posse gunning down some indigenes with the callousness of hyenas.

On a continent where human life seems to have lost value, the spectre of death still leaves a cold mark across ‘Bamako’s narrative. We get some solace in the pursuit of justice, however fantastical.

But with the highlighting of the blood stained-hands of the economic order comes the plea for something resembling humanity, which remains Bamako’s most compelling attribute. The elderly man at the beginning of the trial eventually returns, this time with a song that dithers between anger and mourning. There are no subtitles to guide, no translator to con us. But his pain is palpable. We later hear his plea from a. more honest translator: “Why don’t I sow anymore? When I sow, why don’t I reap? When I reap, why don’t I eat?”

The latest #ARRAYMatinee gives us another excuse to revisit THE BURIAL OF KOJO

Easily the most accomplished Ghanian film of the last decade and one of my favourites from 2019, Blitz Bazawule’s ‘The Burial of Kojo‘ will be screened as part of an #ARRAYMatinee Netflix watch party on Wednesday, May 13, at 8 PM or 1PM PST on Netflix.

Bazawule, a Guggenheim and TED fellow, will Join the #ARRAYMatinee screening conversation as part of the Netflix Watch Party.

‘The Burial Of Kojo’ meshes magical realism and familial angst and still finds space to demonstrate some socio-political awareness. It’s a story of a father haunted by his past and his daughter haunted by the future that awaits them. You can check out my full review here.

It stars Joseph Otsiman, Cynthia Dankwah, Kobina Amissah-Sam, Ama K. Abebrese among others.

Blitz ‘The Ambassador’ Bazawule’s ‘The Burial of Kojo’ was acquired by Ava Duvernay’s production company ARRAY (Array Releasing) for distribution in and has been available on Netflix United States, Canada, United Kingdom, Australia, and New Zealand.

‘The Burial of Kojo’ is also a 2019 Pan African Film Festival (PAFF) Official Selection and 2018 Urbanworld Film Festival Best Narrative Feature Winner.

I also had a sweet conversation with one of the film’s leads; Joseph Otsiman. Check out what he had to say about his experience staring in the film and what it means to be an actor in Ghana here.

Revisiting Sembene’s XALA and the generations of Africa betrayed by our inept elite

The lacerating guile of Ousmane Sembene and his utter contempt for the African elite-cum-politician remain the most appealing banner of his 1975 masterwork ‘Xala’. As its 45th-anniversary approaches, the only things that keep it from being a beat for beat reflection Africa’s contemporary reality are its allegorical and satirical packaging.

For Sembene, faith in most leaders of African countries was lost right after crossing the threshold of independence. Dancing, jubilation and vibrant traditional garb colour the atmosphere as eight men storm a city’s Chamber of Commerce in freshly Independent Senegal and throw out totems of French imperialism and oppression; like a bust of Napoleon and boots that crushed many bones and spirit alike, whilst chasing out white men who run affairs.

The most telling line as this scene unravels, “our struggle for true independence has finished”, conveys disturbing myopia in the task at hand. It comes as no surprise that in the chilling next scene, a white man commands the security personnel of a sovereign African nation. He orders the soldiers to push back crowds camped in front of the Chamber, stripping them off the privilege of engaging with their own independence.

In Sembene’s eyes, the leaders of our independence struggle forgot the people they claimed to fight for right at the altar. There is a hole in their hearts that is quickly filled with wads of cash from French advisors that double as the first building blocks of Africa’s recolonisation.

But Sembene isn’t interested in the sins of France here. He had already waded in the streams of colonial confrontation to great and tragic effect in ‘Black Girl’ and ‘Emitai’. In ‘Xala’, Sembene was operating with a neo-realist filter that presented the class dynamics in urban Senegal for what felt like the first time.

The film is a double edge sword in that whilst the members of the Chamber of Commerce are stand-ins for the political elite, ‘Xala’ still plays as an effective commentary on corrupt African capitalism and how interwoven it is in our dysfunctional political fabric.

For those who have seen ‘Xala’, and I hope many more take time to watch the full film, which is somehow still on youtube, before finishing this piece, it also features one the most disturbing moments in the history of African cinema crafted as part of a momentous final scene.

I wanted to devote a million words in service to this scene. But on my latest rewatch, a new layer jumped out at me; Sembene’s handling of the women in the lives of our lead character and one of the men who liberates the chamber, businessman El Hadji Aboukader Beye (Thierno Leye).

The basic plot of ‘Xala’, spoilers and all, sees the 50 to 60 something-year-old El Hadji fall from the heights the wave of emancipation took him down into the murky drains ignominy after he is caught selling rice meant for the rural poor on the black market. The corruption was used to finance his luxurious wedding to a third wife.

There is a dexterity to the way Sembene uses El Hadji’s wives as a marker for different generations and layers of African society. Adja, his first and oldest wife represents old Africa; seemingly devoted to tradition, more measured and aware of where she was before her man came along but eerily constrained after being displaced by a second wife and the neglect from the man who vowed to care for her.

The second wife is Oumi; modern, feisty and vain. It is El Hadji’s veneer of wealth that keeps her in check. Oumi emits the vibe of a woman acting 10 years younger than she actually is and she wears a shroud of shrill respectability. She is a marker for the lack of depth we still ascribe to modernity; where we point to high rise buildings and other capitalist and western totems as signs of progress.

There is a lot to glean from Oumi’s dance partner during the El Hadji’s wedding to his third wife; the President of Chamber of Commerce (played by Makhourédia Guèye) who was a sly avatar for Senegal’s President at the time, Léopold Senghor. She hilariously towers over him with her plush hairdo and warm smile but is tamed by power and social capital.

Xala dance

‘Xala’ functioned as a direct satire of the Senghor government, Senegal’s first after independence, and the immoral presence of the Chamber’s President is in conversation with the ills of post-independence African governments.

The president’s fondness of Oumi leans into Sengor’ assimilationist tendencies and I cringe as I think about how Ghana’s current President flirted with making French a compulsory subject in schools and his general affinity for the gaze of the west. Senghor was the antithesis of Sembene, a portrait of crippling compromise who once felt that there was a viable future for French colonies within the confines of French civilisation.

El Hadi’s third wife, deliberately muzzled by Sembene, is an avatar for the future of Africa, at least from the perspective of our leaders because the young bride is a McGuffin intertwined with the heart of the film and the meaning of the title ‘Xala’, which translates as impotence. When El Hadji readies to consummate his marriage, rubbishing some virility rituals and displaying a hypocritical contempt for African culture, he realises he is impotent in what develops to be much more than a private disaster.

El Hadji has been cursed. On a narrative level, it is a mystery which we are eager to unravel. On a metatextual level, Sembene is the one firing the hex; wittily asserting that the existing template for the average African leader will never be able to satisfy the Africans looking to seize the future with their warped sense of potency and overstayed welcomes.

The tensions between El Hadji’s ilk and the youth are foreshadowed when we meet his daughter with Adja, Rama – the most important woman in the story.

I am against father’s third marriage, Mareme Niang’s Rama says to her mother, almost like a protester venting against a President entering a third decade in power. A secondary layer of tension lies between Rama and Adja, who isn’t bold enough to divorce El Hadji because how would she find another husband? “This house is yours and everything in it,” Rama retorts to remind her mother of the power she wields. But Adja frustratingly remains loyal. Yes, she views El Hadji’s new marriage as adversity but she urges patience to her radical daughter.

This bite from Rama sees her at the end of some physical abuse from El Hadji when she hilariously proclaims that all men are “dirty dogs” and “every polygamous man is a liar.” “Take your revolution somewhere else,” El Hadji retorts in what is Sembene’s acknowledgement of the role he carves out for Rama.

Women have carried a heavy burden in Sembene’s films; from his debut feature ‘Black Girl‘ to his last film, the buoyant anti-FGM declaration ‘Moolade‘, as he built altars to decolonisation.

“There can be no development in Africa if women are out of account,” Sembene is quoted as saying. We can never divorce these sentiments from the stories he crafts about the African condition.

There is a nuance to the way he acknowledges the unique challenges African women face as he births ideas of revolution from mundane and acts of domesticity like rice farming in ‘Emitai’ or the aforementioned confrontation between Rama and her father.

Tragedy and glory also seem to go hand in hand when you consider the arch of women in his films. Glorious acts of resistance are sometimes interwoven with pain like in the invigorating final frame of ‘Emitai’ as stare death in the face with noblest of convictions. In ‘Black Girl’ joy and sorrow wrestle as our heroine takes her life to free herself from a suffocating neocolonial vortex.

Quietly, one of the most enduring scenes in ‘Xala’ is Rama taking time off university to visit her dad at his office. The theatrics, hyperbole and violence in the earlier scene are replaced with more subtle ticks. There’s the significance of imported water which El Hadji offers her, water that is a marker of his oppression and obscenity as we see a pauper use it to wash corrupt business man’s Mercedes-Benz. It’s a hard pass on the water by Rama and a brilliant cut to a shot that has Rama framed with an outline of the map of Africa behind her like a crown or even a halo on her head.

Rama then proceeds to assert her agency as she pleads her mother’s case; as she pleads Africa’s case. She does so in Senegal’s native Wolof to El Hadji’s annoyance and ends the meeting with the line of the film as she rebuffs an offer of money from her dad who asks if she needs anything. “Just mother’s happiness,” is her simple plea, just Africa’s happiness.

This at once challenges our perception of Adja who is elevated to the status of mother Africa, a tool employed by Sembene in the past and other African filmmakers. It makes here relationship with El Hadji even more tragic because she is doomed to be at his side until he leaves.

As Rama leaves her father’s office, he is on the threshold of disgrace. His virility had been restored after a series of visits to some traditional priests but deceit would drag him back into the pit of impotence. His corruption is also about to blow up in his face as his equally corrupt colleagues expel him from the Chamber of Commerce because his thievery was dragged into the light.

As the coda beckons, the central mystery remains; who cursed El Hadji? And does it really matter? His third and second wives move out but Adja remains by his side. Her longsuffering is her curse. But a hoard of undesirables we see earlier in the film, who represent the marginalised and oppressed, besiege his home. It’s a twist I did not see coming and a welcome overindulgence by Sembene.

Violence is the language of the unheard, it is said. But a lynching would have been too kind for El Hadji. Sembene finds a box beneath the homeless physically challenged beggars to shove El Hadji in. Having lost all his wealth and two wives, El Hadji is offered his manhood back. In this constructed reality, we learn he was cursed by a blind beggar who he essentially defrauded in decades ago.

To become virile again, he is to strip down and be spat upon by the untouchables he oppressed and robbed. El Hadji had already proven to be a man who thinks with his penis but that he agrees to the terms is purely fantastical from Sembene, and a nightmare for any politician forced to sit through it.

‘Xala’ ends with El Hadji a nauseating mess; covered in phlegm and spit as his family watches on in horror. It is as incendiary as it is gloriously repulsive. It is the moment we realise we had underestimated Sembene’s disgust for our leaders.

He does not just declare them impotent. He desires to see their utter humiliation for their failings. But the sense of exhilaration dies down slowly. After all, his coda is a fantasy.

We are left with the bleak sense that our leaders stay on top in reality despite having the xala. Look no further than El Hadji’s successor in the chamber; a pickpocket we see rise to prominence after robbing a whole village of its sustenance.

ALOE VERA offers some charm in its vibrant retort to irrational tribalism

Frenzy on the staircase. A packed cinema lobby and sold-out screenings. No, Disney did not spring a Black Panther sequel on us out of the blue. It was Peter Sedufia’s latest feature, ‘Aloe Vera’, that holds the torch as the biggest film released in Ghanaian cinemas so far in 2020. The support from the Ghanaian cinema-going public felt like the real victory for ‘Aloe Vera’ in a dysfunctional creative landscape. That it was largely a competent film was the icing on the cake.

Operating along the lines of a romantic parable with strong garnishes of satire, ‘Aloe Vera’ tells the story of the fictional commune with a deep-seated division that dates back to an unnamed number of years to a hilarious spat between two kids in a debate. Time has flown by and the community is divided by a seemingly endless red band with the sky-blue clad Aloes on one side and the blinding yellows of the Veras on the other.

The band only comes down for duels between the selected champions of the two side when the slightest trace of one’s existence encroaches on the other side. We get the first taste of this when kids playing in the Aloe side lose their ball to Vera territory. The Veras’ leader, with his nostrils, perpetually flaring, charges up the troops with his equal on the other side doing same.

The Aloes and Veras are essentially two sides of the same coin physically and ideologically; a reflection of each other’s prejudices. Their schools are back-to-back, shops too. And even the daily pervasive propaganda seems to be going off simultaneously on either side of the divide like clockwork. But a crack in this mirror begins to show.

Amid the asinine furore a spark flickers between the kids of the two community leaders. The fleetingly charming duo of Aloewin (Aaron Adatsi) and Veraline (Alexandra Ayirebi-Acquah) begin to fall for each with the cute innocence of four-year-olds. It’s a relationship with the coyest of foundations that defies taboo to blossom into something that challenges the way the community thinks about each other.

Glances are stolen across the divide, paper planes fly around with probing messages and musical sequences enacted in surreal plains. But Aloewin and Veraline have to be on their toes as their parents (more like fathers) sniff around looking to quell their apparently forbidden love. Streams of empathy offer hope when their mothers come into play.

The plot is as straightforward as they come. Love will conquer all and yada yada. You can also expect a certain secondary colour to dominate proceedings at the film’s buoyant coda. A lot of the talk ushering in ‘Aloe Vera’s’ premiere was of the setting and community that was built from scratch on location in the Volta Region. It’s a simple setup with elegant wooden huts that still manage to dazzle with the nuanced blues and yellows.

There is a vibrant symmetry to the production design giving you a slight Wes Anderson vibe. ‘Aloe Vera’ also owes some debt to the staging of a 2013 South African short film called ‘KanyeKanye’. Sedufia’s direction offers none of the American directors’ aggressive idiosyncrasies. His decisions behind the camera are largely functional in the way they highlight the fraught divide between the two peoples.

There is a lack of edge that kept me from investing too much in the story. ‘Aloe Vera’ hits harder if it leans on real-life ethnic divides or maybe if it decided to make our love interests much younger than they are here. Going back on Wes Anderson thread, think ‘Moonrise Kingdom’. And for all the fuss about the production design, it bugged me that the community did not really feel lived in most of the time.

Concerns notwithstanding, ‘Aloe Vera’ works well enough to keep you engaged. The satire is effortless if at times underutilised. This, however, allows room for the comedy to fall into place and there are laughs aplenty. The script even offers some sly meta wit, like gags that seemed to be in conversation with the Kofi Adjorlolo’s (who stars here) real-life persona.

‘Aloe Vera’s’ heart is there for everyone to see, and it’s definitely in the right place. The screenplay has the weight of a feather and it isn’t moving any narrative mountains. But the predictability doesn’t stop it from being the feel-good hit I didn’t see coming.

SPENSER CONFIDENTIAL is a tepid waste of its two leads’ potential

As the years go by, it seems Mark Wahlberg’ grasp on the quasi-B movie star mantle is getting tighter and tighter. Netflix’s ‘Spenser Confidential’ is the latest uninspiring exhibit in this argument after films like ‘Mile 22’, ‘Contraband’ and ‘Broken City’.

His partner in crime over the years, as he is here, has been director Peter Berg, who I fee has gotten more respect from me than necessary. For some reason, his name is right alongside David O’Russell in my mental pyramid of directors. But ‘Spenser Confidential’ may have permanently cleared the scales off my eyes and revealed him for who he increasingly appears to mostly be; the director of the ilk of ‘Mile 22’ and ‘Battleship’.

‘Spenser Confidential’, a buddy action-comedy based on some IP belonging to one Robert B. Parker, feels bad on the surface. Then the experience outright shrivels up like a diseased mango when you realise how off the pace it is from the genres it aspires to and how underused its two leads, Wahlberg and Winston Duke, are.

Wahlberg, playing a soon to be former Boston cop Spenser, channels the real-life violence of his youth (minus the racism) as he batters a fellow police officer with questionable integrity. Spenser spends the next five years in prison and comes out with plans to leave Boston and become a truck driver in Arizona. But the cop he attacked years ago is found murdered and Spenser is briefly a suspect.

The main thing we learn about Spenser is that he can’t keep his nose out of other people’s business, even after being cleared, he takes an interest in the case because a supposedly good cop is implicated in the mess. His heart of gold sparks a slew of tired tropes as he brawls and sleuths his way to the corruption at the heart of the police force. At the end of the tunnel will be a clumsy mishmash of real estate shenanigans, the drug trade and rising property prices.

At Spenser’s side is an aspiring MMA fighter, Hawk (Duke), and they initially offer the promise of a hilariously fraught relationship; with Spenser being the older out of touch vet and Duke seemingly cut from the millennial cloth with his wireless headphones and a constant stream of pings from ios notifications. But they get on pretty easily and with that goes the only other possible reason this film should have existed.

Duke is the one most disappointed by the script. He’s as lifeless and passive a sidekick we’ll encounter this year. And you would think the MMA fighter would be the one in most of the fight scenes in this film but think again. We get to see Marky Mark beat down again and again and again. Not that the director displays any form of competency in filming the action with his tedious staging and pedestrian direction.

On the supporting side of things, we have Alan Arkin as Spenser’s mentor, a very feisty turn from Iliza Shlesinger as Spenser’s ex and Bokeem Woodbine as Spenser’s former partner who runs along the most predictable trajectory in the story.

I sniff at Berg but he has made films with proper bite and narrative coherence over the years, ‘Deep Water Horizon’, ‘Lone Survivor’ and even the understated Hancock. But coupled with the Oscar-winning scribe from ‘L.A. Confidential’ and ‘Mystic River’, I expected much more from this film. It wants for style, wit and energy but just finishes off as one of Whalberg’s most tepid B-movie forrays.

How Mati Diop’s ATLANTICS quietly offers the closure our forbearers never got during slavery

This piece contains spoilers for Atlantics

Did we bury the lede after soaking in Mati Diop’s stunning debut feature film ‘Atlantics’? Rooted in the painful reality of modern sub-Saharan Africa the defining theme of the story for me has grown to be loss; loss of youth, loss of love, loss of dignity, loss of agency loss of being. And the most important character of the story has become the Atlantic Ocean and its glistening but increasingly insidious aura.

As beautiful and calming as the ocean can be, it also remains a gateway to a hellish dimension for some of the youth who brave the violent emptiness in search of work overseas. The basic plot of ‘Atlantics’ conveys this well enough.

We follow in the lonely footprints left in the sand by a young woman named Ada (Mama Sané) who lives on the coast of Dakar, Senegal. She is in love with a boy named Souleiman (Ibrahima Traoré) who disappears via boat to Spain with a group of fellow downtrodden boys from the city.

Souleiman played by Ibrahima Traoré
Souleiman played by Ibrahima Traoré

A lesser vision has would have taken us on board the boat and leaned heavy into Souleiman’s point of view as the horrors of migrants at sea unfold. As someone who spent most of her formative years away from her father’s homeland, Diop wasn’t too keen on leaving the shores of Senegal. She strives to bulid empathy for those who remained behind, for better and worse. In the case of ‘Atlantics’, Diop’s machine for empathy also doubled as a time machine.

As we stared at the ocean with Ada holding onto hope, my mind drifted to the social current that swept through Ghana in 2019; the Year of Return commemorating 400 years since the first enslaved Africans arrived in Jamestown, Virginia in the United States. The idea that Ghana’s Year of Return was myopic in its ethos has been dissected by more capable hands.

Slaves brought to the United States represented about 3.6 percent of the total number of Africans transported to the New World; around 388,000 people. This was considerably less than the number transported to colonies in the Caribbean or to Brazil, which stood at 4.8 million.

And with the setting of ‘Atlantics’ in mind, of those Africans who arrived in the United States, nearly half came from two regions: Senegambia, which comprises, among others today’s Senegal. The Gambia River, which runs from the Atlantic into Africa, was a key waterway for the slave trade; at the peak of the harrowing trade, about one out of every six West African slaves came from this area.

But there is no denying the collective trauma that bonds black people everywhere. And ‘Atlantics’ views the Atlantic Ocean as a massive totem of this trauma. I remember my only trip to the Elmina Castle some 15 years ago and the weight with which we whispered about the door of no return. I guess now I’ve forgotten what it was actually like to peer through the slim passageway – made narrow to allow for easy headcounts of slaves. I do remember what it was like to stand atop the fort and take in the magnificent view of the ocean, almost certainly mirroring standing of the privileged oppressors who watched on as their our husbands, wives, sisters, brothers, lovers were dehumanised into merchandise.

I can only imagine what it was like for the 12.5 million Africans that were shipped to the New World to walk through various doors of no return, towards the ocean which was essentially a gateway to a hellish dimension. Nearly 11 million of our ancestors survived the torturous journey, disembarking in North America, the Caribbean and South America. And for those left behind, the burden of loss and emptiness was their portion, I imagine. Worse still was the fact that there would never be any closure.

Door of No return
The opening to a hellish dimension

Perhaps a more chilling tragedy is the fact that centuries later a flawed world order and failed states on the continent are still driving the best of us to be second class denizens in a hostile new world. But the one difference is that now, we are afforded the grace of closure by one way or the other; be it a letter, text message, postcard or whatnot. And even more poignantly in Diop’s world, even death can’t rob us of the closure our ancestors were cruelly denied.

In the massive supernatural twist to ‘Atlantics’, Souleiman and the other boys who departed for Spain return – but only in spirit. Their trip is ultimately fatal as they die at sea. But such is Diop’s affection for the land that she seeks to close the loop by introducing spirits that possess humans.

It’s a beat she says was inspired by the djinns of Islamic culture. True to the shape of the film, which is at its heart a love story, the spirits she narrows in on here are the “faru rab,” or lover spirits. They belong to dead men and take possession of women’s bodies at night. They also are believed to sometimes communicate with loved ones, and punish those who wronged them.

I felt there was some dissonance at play here in my first viewing of the film.  The idea of the men possessing the women’s bodies has a bleak layer to it; in that even in death or separated by time and space, women were literally still subject to their men. But we come to realise there is nothing overtly oppressive about this gender dynamic. It is in service of a bigger idea.

On the surface, the possessed women walking the streets at night (evoking one of my favorite films of the last decade, ‘A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night’) initially ushers in some dread. Their milky white eyes reminded me of insidious feminine presences in Nigerian exploitation horror films like ‘Witches’ and ‘The Visitor’ where women dance with the supernatural en route to exacting vengeance on unruly men.

atlantics-still-1-1160x580
Atlantics also proved to be quite the ghost-cum-zombie story

In ‘Atlantics’, the women also make a beeline to an unscrupulous man and in real-time, for a second, I thought they were scorned sex workers. But the film slowly connects to its opening, where Souleiman and some other boys were agitating after working months on an incongruous building project without pay. It is the harsh exploitation and injustice that forces them into the abyss of the Atlantic Ocean.

In death, the men return to haunt the man who denied them their due. This time it’s essentially a demand for reparations for the loved ones left behind in time and space. It culminates in this brilliant scene where the possessed women count the money he pays them at a graveside rendezvous. We joke a lot about how our reward for labour on earth will be in heaven. This scene captures this idea in a darkly funny but hauntingly cruel way.

The core ideas in ‘Atlantics’ really take shape from this point and yes, there are beats about migration, gender and class. I will admit the latter point may emerge as the defining layer of the film with time, especially given the stellar cinematic discourse on class in 2019 with films like ‘Parasite’, ‘Us’ and ‘Knives Out’. But it’s the strong desire for closure that really permeates bone and marrow for me. Even if for just a few sensual minutes, the scars of past oppression are healed as we revel in the blessing of the reunion. 

There is a purpose for this temporary closure. Diop is trying to spark something; like her forebears who carried the torch of, especially militant, African cinema. First off, let’s not forget Ada is fighting another form of oppression as she contends with a marriage she has been forced into. That she stares longingly into the vastness of the Atlantic hoping it comes to represents something warmer, something more comforting is its own form of resistance against history and an entrenched narrative.

And that does happen. The salt of the sea comes to represent desire and intimacy as Ada finally finds herself in Suleiman’s arms again, affirming a bond that runs through her pores. The mystery is stripped away and desire shapes a new reality for us, a reality informed by the supernatural, of course, because that is the only way. “I’ll always taste the salt of your body in the sweat of mine,” she says in one of Diop’s poetic marvels. More importantly, this encounter has her declaring triumph over the future.

This is but Diop’s ultimate desire, that we peer through the door of return and see a gateway to possibilities as endless as the Atlantic; offering fire and most importantly, love.

 

 

 

BIRDS OF PREY offers a fantabulous emancipation and a hoard of trashy men

‘Birds of Prey: The Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn’ and Men are Trash. Yes, men are trash, the incendiary dog whistle known to bring out the savage in many a folk online, should have been part of the gloriously eccentric title because zero fucks were given for the feelings of the so-called superior sex.

To find a redeemable man in this story will be to search for a needle in a haystack only to be pricked by the needle en route to admission in a hospital with a bad case of tetanus.

But aside from the obvious societal dysfunction that informs the necessary and uncompromising sense of urgency from feminists, there is a purpose to ‘Birds of Prey’s’ cynicism. The whole plot gushes forth from a bad break up in the most toxic of relationships; Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) and The Joker.

A harlequin’s purpose is to serve, our heroine notes someways down the line, as slivers of the abuse she suffered at the hands of Mr. J flash across her eyes. It’s the most we dwell on the past here. Director Cathy Yan is all about the fantabulous emancipation bits as we board this ditzy intoxicated rollercoaster of an action film.

Somewhat disappointingly, this is not the team-up movie the trailer would have you think. The story really is about the consequences of the bad break-up with Joker as Harley becomes hot cake in Gotham; for all the people would like to see her dead. Harley has lost the Joker’s protection and she can no longer jump off stripper poles to break a man’s legs willy nilly.

At the top of the long list of revenge-seekers is Roman “Black Mask” Sionis (Ewan McGregor), the men are trash poster boy; violent, sleazy, vain, erratic, insecure but truly hilarious, especially in the scenes laced with homoerotic tension with his number two (Chris Messina).

If you’ve seen the trailer you know there is a McGuffin diamond that takes this roller coaster up a notch and brings together our anti-heroines. There’s Cass Cain (Ella Jay Basco) the pickpocket who steals the diamond on a casual sidewalk stroll, Helena “Huntress” Bertinelli (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) an assassin who maybe prays to a Frank Castle poster on her bedroom wall, Dinah “Black Canary” Lance (Jurnee Smollett-Bell) a stunning songstress with a voice more lethal than her roundhouses and Detective Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez), a cop cut from the meta cloth of ‘80s action cinema.

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After a stretch where Harley starts to gets a few frantic moments in John Wick’s shoes because every henchman in Gotham is but on her trail, Sionis eventually catches up to her and before he can indulge his fetish for having faces peeled clean off, the two strike a deal. He agrees to spare her life if she gets back the diamond he lost, which is worth infinitely more than it looks.

There’ a weird, somewhat annoying structure to the story; at least for the first act. Keeping in step with Harley’s erratic stupor, the script opts for this nonlinear timeline that is trying a little too hard to be dismissive of order. We weave back and forth in time to introduce each new face as well as Harley’s first few days of freedom from Joker.

But the point is to break the rules. Not just in structure but feel. ‘Birds of Prey’ might as well have been a cartoon. Harley should have been leaving a trail of glitter with each vibrant footstep towards independence. There seems to be a burst of dazzling confetti during every eruption of chaos – like it was being directed by Phoebe Buffet and Wade Wilson. The only thing missing was a cameo from Batnipples.

The action scenes are pretty distinct; meshing sublime choreography with colourful camp. Where other films fall on CGI and asinine explosions in their action codas, Birds of Prey leans into smart physical comedy and inspired set designs that gift us manic set pieces on a trampoline,  merry-go-round among others.

The film did test my patience in a truly incredulous raid on a police station by Harley. I found it distractingly stupid and the one time the style slips into the territory of laziness.

Gripes aside, ‘Birds of Prey’ quite simply offers the most unique staging of action I’ve seen probably since the first John Wick film and never reneges on an invitation to wreak silly havoc. And at the centre of the manic whirlwind is Robbie’s ultimately captivating turn as Harley who is a bundle of lethal but unbridled joy.

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