Wednesday, July 8, 2009

the all-black cast: honeydripper (now) vs. carmen jones (then)

ive seen a lot of the classic hollywood 'ALL BLACK CAST' films. there was of course hallelujah! by king vidor, island in the sky by vincent minelli, and a few early paul robeson films. they are not very good and astoundingly cringe worthy when looking back at them as normal films. they are of course horifficly rascist but in context, i guess it wasnt so bad. still, the idea of of big lipped black people shucking and jiving near a plate of plate fried chicken whilst speaking the worst of ebonics is enough to make even incredibly un-PC people like myself wince in pain.

im not a scholar on african african cinema. in fact, my knowledge of the genre is highly limited and is mostly based on the hollywood experience or the few films charles burnett ive seen. at the same time, i know that when hollywood was making the sensationalized black films, the black community was making their own films for their own community to watch. not many survived, but they deal with real issues and have acting that is real and not based on stereotypes or perceptions by the white directors.

in the two films i am going to review today, HONEYDRIPPER by John Sayles and CARMEN JONES by Otto Preminger, both directors are white. Sayles has been doing films with afro-centric themes his entire career. passion fish, matewan, lone star all had strong themes of race and race relations and just plain ole human relationships. Preminger was a vet of the studio system ever since he emigrated over from nazi germany and was mostly looked at the as the poor man's hitchcock. anatomy of a murder and bunny lake is missing can both be seen as hitchcock lite with the former being a bonafide classic. other than that, he dabbled with religious epics (exodus), historical pieces (st joan), character development pieces (bonjour tristesse), and most notably and successfully film noir (where the sidewalk ends, angel face, whirlpool).

which one made the better all-black film?

well...technically preminger since honeydripper starred stacey keach as a rascist sheriff and mary steenburgen as a clueless white lady (talk about playing to type!) but for all intents and purposes, it was a predominantly black cast. ok, the answer is honeydripper for realsies.

both films take place roughly in the same time period but have dramatically different ways of looking at the black race. preminger's take is the same sort of tired 'smiley black people' shtick we have seen so many times before that. sayles stars danny glover, charles dutton, and yaya decosta (america's top model?) and got some truly outstanding performances out of everyone. seriously, yaya? she was fantastic! where is her oscar? take it away from stupid jennifer hudson and her crappy overemotive acting self...but i digress.

what i will say for carmen jones is that the music and the songs were outstanding. of course, it was based on bizet's opera carmen. dorothy dandrige, one of the first great black leading ladies has an amazing voice and it is was full on display. in fact, all the voices in the film were outstanding, its a shame the film was a bit crap.

honeydripper wasnt an exceptional film by any means but had a great story and as mentioned above was very well acted. sayles' style of direction is expansive meaning that he doesnt rely too heavily on closeups which at times is a bit distracting and takes one out of the game. still, the overall cinematography makes up for it.

when it comes to sayles though, matewan and esp lonestar were masterpieces.

so, the main difference between them is the difference between black hollywood of then and now. then it was exaggerated and relied completely on outdated stereotypes and now, it is obviously more subtle and um...real.

i guess we can thank charles burnett. for those who have never seen killer of sheep to sleep with anger, i highly suggest a rental. while youre at it check out larry peece's exceptional one potato two potato or cassavette's shadows and of course, pretty much all of sidney poitier's back catalog.