Over the past three months, Stranger staff writer Jasmyne Keimig and Stranger philosopher-in-residence Charles Mudede have analyzed, discussed, and giggled over five extraordinary films directed by five extraordinary Black directors: Antoine Fuqua's Olympus Has Fallen, Barry Jenkins' Medicine for Melancholy, Janicza Bravo's Lemon, Charles Burnett's The Glass Shield, and Kathleen Collins' Losing Ground.
In honor of Black History Month, we've compiled every article and video discussion in this post for your viewing pleasure. Thanks so much for following along and keep your eyes peeled for potential new installments in The Stranger's Film Club.
Antoine Fuqua's Burning White House
The President is rushed to the bunker by the Secret Service. There has been a hostile breach of D.C.'s airspace. A huge plane packed with all kinds of powerful guns is blasting everything in the air and on the ground. Fighter jets explode and fall. Bullets burst the bodies of tourists visiting the symbols of a civilization that dominates the world but is still very young (just under 250 years old—the Arab control of Spain lasted for a little over 700 years).
Before a white man and white woman running from the plane can find a safe place on the street, their limbs, chests, and heads are exploded by bullets that can easily pierce the armor of a tank. A massive chunk of the Washington Monument falls on and crushes a young white family.
The director of this 2013 action thriller, Olympus Has Fallen, is black, Antoine Fuqua. This is his eighth Hollywood movie. Fuqua has never made an indie feature. He might be the first black director to begin his career in motion pictures with a big budget, Replacement Killers. Most of the actors he's worked with have names: Jamie Foxx (Bait), Denzel Washington (Training Day), Bruce Willis (Tears of the Sun), Mark Wahlberg (Shooter), Richard Gere (Brooklyn's Finest).
A Quick Trip Back to 2008
Moonlight director Barry Jenkins' first feature film Medicine for Melancholy is deeply rooted in the dawn of the Obama era. Debuting at South by Southwest in 2008 with a wider release the following year, the movie neatly includes what I now consider artifacts from the late aughts. Those hideous tight caps with a tiny bill. A street vendor offering SoBe. Velcro Converses. Nylon messenger bags. Casiotone for the Painfully Alone blaring in the background. I even gasped when I saw Myspace's 2008 interface, which plays a pivotal plot point in the film.
Of course, the movie doesn't set out to capture the cultural milieu of that very specific era. Jenkins made the film for a meager $15,000 (less than the cost of your car, he says) and rarely had permits to shoot around San Francisco, the city he was trying to document. The casual junk of young, urban, relatively well off Black San Franciscans seeped in because it had to. But it reflects the conversations and people Medicine for Melancholy is so deeply interested in.
Lemon's Unrelenting White Male Mediocrity
When looking at Lemon solely for its parts, you might find a typical-ish Hollywood bro comedy. Against the bright backdrop of Los Angeles, Isaac, a failing and schlubby actor, gets broken up with by his girlfriend of 10 years. His career is going nowhere. His family drives him up the wall. But there's a beautiful woman who's interested in him, which provides some measure of hope. The film's poster looks appropriately Wes Anderson-esque—meticulous, vintage, stylish.
But all of those elements don't come together as you'd expect. Instead of a slacker-turned-hero comedy a la Judd Apatow, Lemon relentlessly smacks its viewers in the face with failure. Isaac pisses himself. Isaac brings fish sandwiches on set. Isaac stars in a Hepatitis C commercial, despite his ambitions for something greater. Isaac is a disappointment to his family. Isaac fumbles his chance at another relationship. Isaac sucks.
Why It Is So Hard to Be a Black Cop
Charles Burnett is, in my opinion, the greatest black American director in the history of cinema. His second feature, To Sleep With Anger, is up there with the defining productions of his generation: Toni Morrison, August Wilson, Anthony Braxton. His first film, Killer of Sheep, received a great deal of attention when it was restored in 2007 with the financial help from Steven Soderbergh. His third film is forgettable. But Burnett's fourth film, The Glass Shield, which received considerable capital and promotion from the Hollywood studio Miramax, went down in flames not because of a lack of funds or star power (Ice Cube, Elliott Gould, Lori Petty, M. Emmet Walsh) or artistic imagination. It didn't work because its police officer, who is black (Michael Boatman), actually does the kind of work most police officers do: which is protecting those who have things from those who do not. If Burnett made a black cop like SE7EN's Morgan Freeman (tracking down a serial killer), or even Training Day's Denzel Washington (basically a black Harvey Keitel in Bad Lieutenant), the mainstream movie-going public would know him as well as they do Spike Lee or F. Gary Gray.
The Art and Architecture of Losing Ground
The semi-autobiographical story follows Sara Rogers (Seret Scott), a philosophy professor struggling to write a paper on "the ecstatic." She's also grappling with her fraying marriage to her charming painter husband, Victor (Bill Gunn, an absolute revelation and indie king in his own right). After relocating to upstate New York for the summer, both of them start looking for love and passion in other places, and the two must reconcile with their fractured relationship.