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Bill Traylor: Chasing Ghosts

Posted on April 15, 2021 at 6:15 pm

B
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Not rated
Profanity: Some racial epithets
Nudity/ Sex: References to children with multiple women
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol
Violence/ Scariness: References to lynching and abuse
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: April 16, 2021
Copyright Kino Lorber 2021

Outsider artist Bill Traylor was born into slavery. Traylor was the name of the white family that enslaved him and his family. They were more benevolent than some; the plantation owner’s will provided that Bill Traylor’s family should not be split up when they divided the estate. And so, even after emancipation, Traylor’s family stayed, working as field hands and then as tenant farmers. He lived his whole life within 40 miles in Alabama, farming until he was too old and infirm. And then he spent the rest of his life in a vibrant Black community in Montgomery, fed by a deli owner and sleeping on the floor of another business, drawing and painting all day out on the sidewalk, with whatever materials were available to him, including bright blue poster paint given to him by a teenage sign-painter and torn off pieces of cardboard signs.

“Outsider art” is work created by people who are untrained, self-taught, not a part of the art community, creating art for themselves, not for galleries or museums. We do not know what Traylor would think about the way his work is revered today. In this documentary, directed by Jeffrey Wolf and executive produced by artist Sam Pollard, we hear a story of the one time he did see his work on the walls of a gallery and, according to legend “did not recognize it.” But the commentary in the film suggests that it was not is work he did not recognize but the setting that displayed them. He would be even more amazed at the seriousness with which his work is discussed by artists, curators, and scholars in this film.

I attended the first major show of Traylor’s work, at the Smithsonian’s American Art Museum. As they pointed out, The paintings and drawings he made are visually striking and politically assertive; they include simple yet powerful distillations of tales and memories as well as spare, vibrantly colored abstractions. When Traylor died in 1949, he left behind more than one thousand works of art. The simplified forms of Traylor’s artwork belie the complexity of his world, creativity, and inspiring bid for self-definition in a segregated culture.” His is the only substantial art we have from someone born in to slavery, and it is important as art and artifact, giving us a vital chance to see the world the way he did.

Poster from the SAAM show, Copyright 2018 Smithsonian

This film wisely takes a multi-faceted approach to Traylor’s life and work, incorporating music, dance, poetry, and commentary from historians, critics, curators, scholars, other artists, and Traylor’s own descendants. Some of the historical material is as illuminating for what we do not know as for what we do; the records of the lives of Black Americans during this period are very limited. And some of the expert commentary is more heartfelt than insightful. The best art produces an emotional connection that cannot be reduced to language. Appropriately, inevitably, what is most eloquent here are Traylor’s images themselves.

Parents should know that this film includes discussion of enslavement, lynching, Jim Crow laws, and racism as well as Traylor’s multiple children by different women.

Family discussion: Which of Traylor’s paintings did you like the best? Why wasn’t he seen as an important artist in his lifetime? What pictures can you create about the world you remember?

If you like this, try: “The Realms of the Unreal” about another outsider artist, Henry Darger

We Broke Up

Posted on April 15, 2021 at 5:40 pm

B-
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Not rated
Profanity: Some strong language
Nudity/ Sex: Sexual references and situations
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking and drunkenness, drugs
Violence/ Scariness: Emotional confrontations
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: April 16, 2021

Copyright Vertical Entertainment 2021
Relationships are complicated. That’s one reason we like movies, where they are generally less complicated, and give us the reassuring but inaccurate message that things work out the way we wish they would. The title of “We Broke Up” sets us a premise that looks like a romantic comedy but ends up as a bittersweet acknowledgment that relationships are, well, complicated, and sometimes it is hard to figure out what we want, much less figure out how to make what we want work with someone else’s wants.

Lori (Aya Cash) and Doug (William Jackson Harper of “The Good Place”) have been together for ten years. They have the affectionate verbal shortcuts of people who know each other well and trust each other without reservation. As far as Lori’s mother is concerned, Doug is part of the family.

And then, as they are waiting at a counter for a Chinese food take-out order, Doug impulsively proposes and Lori’s reaction shocks them both. She throws up. By the next morning, they have broken up. The timing is awkward, though, as Lori’s sister is getting married and they are expected at the destination wedding weekend. They are both in the wedding party and they decide to pretend that they are still together so Lori’s sister can have her perfect day free from any tensions or conflicts.

Of course, there has never been a wedding and very few family gatherings of any kind without tensions or conflicts. Lori’s sister is Bea (a radiant Sara Bolger), who, in stark contrast to Lori, is marrying Jayson (Tony Cavalero), a man she has known for just four month. While Lori and Doug seem stuck like bugs in amber, Bea and Jayson are impulsive, impetuous, and show no signs of stopping to think about what they are doing. The wedding is at a resort which was once the summer camp Lori and Bea went to as young teenagers, and there are elaborate plans that include a “Paul Bunyan Day” series of camp-style competitive events, except with lots of liquor. And like all weddings, there are chances to renew connections and meet new people. Doug and Lori, still pretending to be together, find themselves wondering about possible other partners.

The ambitions of the film, co-written by director Jeff Rosenberg with Laura Jacqmin (“Grace and Frankie”) are impressive, but the characters are too thinly written to support them, despite the best efforts of the actors. The contrast between the impulsive couple heading into marriage and the couple who have made no progress toward marriage or children or, in Lori’s case, a career, is intriguing but plays out awkwardly. There are moments that come across as genuine but they are surrounded by others that are uneven in tone and execution. Ultimately, like the couples in the film, we are not sure what we want for them.

Parents should know that this film has mature material including sexual references and situations, tense family confrontations, drinking, drunkenness, drugs, and references to underage drinking.

Family discussion: Are you more like Lori or Bea? What do you think will happen to them?

If you like this, try: “Plus One,” “The Five Year Engagement,” and “Table 19”

Trailer: F9

Posted on April 15, 2021 at 7:00 am

I think we’re due for a chases and explosions movie, aren’t we? And “F9” looks like just the thing to kick off the post-pandemic world into gear. This is why they should have a stunts category at the Oscars. And why they should give another one to Helen Mirren.

Behind the Scenes: Nomadland

Posted on April 14, 2021 at 6:34 pm

Best Picture nominee “Nomadland” has an intimate, documentary tone. In this peek behind the scenes we can see how writer/director Chloe Zhao (also nomainated) and her production team mingled actors and real nomads to let us see the world of people who choose to live their lives on the road.

Malcom Lee on Updating The Best Man

Posted on April 11, 2021 at 1:58 pm

Copyright Universal 1999

I was lucky enough to join a small group of journalists for an interview with Lee about the original film and the updates. He told us that it was the sixth script he wrote while he was still living in his parents’ basement, and the thought that if this one did not sell, he might give up.

He said that Jeff Friday and Nicole Friday of the American Black Film Festival, the founders wanted to honor him and the cast for the 20th anniversary of its release, but because of the pandemic it was postponed and they got IMDb to televise it. “I asked the cast if they wanted to do it and they kind of all jumped at the chance to do so because the film was wildly respected, loved and beloved. We got together. It was a really good fun time. Lot of laughs. A lot of stories exchanged. Things I didn’t know. Things that they didn’t know. There’s a lot of great energy when we get together. I think it’s a testament to how the actors feel about the movie and about each other.” And we can look forward to another update on Peacock: “The Best Man: Final Chapters

Lee said he never planned that it would become a franchise.

My inspiration and impetus for writing “The Best Man” was the fact that I wasn’t seeing myself represented on screen. The people that I knew, Black American educated middle class aspirational people in movies and television to that point were very unrecognizable to me. Super stiff, clipped English, and devoid of cultural specificity. I said, “I love reunion movies. I love college movies.” College movies rather. I remember seeing “Waiting to Exhale,” which is four very distinct black women and they were all these unremarkable archetypal black men portrayed and I was like, “I want four Black men.” This is fully different and it will all be college friends and have different philosophies and what not and that was the kind of the impetus behind it. The fact that people really took to the movie is great and there was talk of a sequel back then but I didn’t want to be a one trick pony. I didn’t want to just tell one kind of story. I said, “If I’m going to revisit these characters,” which I was interested in doing but I want to do it like maybe 10 years later when the characters have a chance to live some life, and I had a chance to live some life and so that we could tell a fuller story. Not just be like, “What different story are we going to tell now that we just told a year ago.” A lot of time when they make sequels it’s a money grab. It’s like, “Oh. How do I what I did? How do I capture that magic again?”

One core element of the original film was a character’s writing a novel that exposed some of his friend’s secrets, so it was inevitable to ask Lee whether he based the characters on people he knew and how they responded.

It is funny too because the friends that thought they were those characters. I was like, “Well you were not exactly the person I was thinking of.” What’s great about it is that I took pieces from a lot of different people. I knew what I wanted for each of these characters and who I wanted them to be but nobody was a specific individual. They were just pieces of people.

We asked him about casting.

I think when we go to the movies there’s an aspirational aspect, a heightened reality, a little bit of an escapism as well, but also a place where we can say, “Oh like that I can relate.” People love seeing people get married. People love seeing beautiful people get married. And we had such a tremendous response in the acting community to the script. A lot of black actors weren’t getting that opportunity to play full people. Here was an opportunity for eight of them to play these roles. Not just to be the sidekick or the best friend or the one that’s packing the funny jokes or the sassy one or whatever. It was an opportunity for them to play real people and so the response was tremendous.
They were all very excited to take this on.

There was a real joy and opportunity for them to showcase themselves. They trusted the script. They trusted me. I wasn’t just like, “All right. Let’s read the lines.” We worked rehearsal for two weeks. Really let them dive into character and backstory and subtext. I think that was what they were all really excited about and all wanted it to be great. It was even more so for “Best Man Holiday” because the energy in Hollywood was in a weird place at that time where they weren’t really putting much stock into African American-cast movies.

We had to ask about “Space Jam: A New Legacy.”

I think it’s probably the coolest movie that I have ever done. I really like the movie. I like and care about the characters. I think it’s fun. I think it’s funny. There’s a lot to like about it.