• David Parkinson

Parky At the Pictures (15/1/2021)

(Reviews of MLK/FBI; The Forty-Year-Old Version; and Never Rarely Sometimes Always)


So, here we are in Lockdown 3. This means that cinemas across the UK are closed until mid-February and all releases will be online. In addition to Curzon Home Cinema. MUBI, Netflix and the BFI Player, it should also be possible to access the titles under discussion below via iTunes, Apple TV, Amazon, Sky Store, Virgin, Microsoft, Vimeo, Google Play, Rakuten, BT and Playstation. Good luck and stay safe!


MLK/FBI.


As its title would suggest, MLK/FBI is a dual-focus documentary that would need a 14-part series like Eyes on the Prize (1987-90) to do it justice. Sam Pollard directed two of those episodes and he treads carefully through the mass of evidence and archive material at his disposal. However, one would need access to the FBI's surveillance tapes of Martin Luther King, Jr. to get the full story and a 1977 federal court order has decreed that these must remain shelved at the National Archive until February 2027. Even then, it's likely than an extension might be granted, as the recordings made of Dr King in various hotel rooms could have a detrimental impact on a country that has already become a tinderbox.


Drawing on David J. Garrow's book, The FBI and Martin Luther King, Jr.: From `Solo' to Memphis, screenwriters Benjamin Hedin and Laura Tomaselli establish how J. Edgar Hoover turned the Federal Bureau of Investigation into a personal fiefdom between 1935 and his death in 1972. He had actually been in charge of state security since 1924 and Pollard shows how he persuaded Hollywood to show his G-Men in a heroic light in such features as Gordon Douglas's I Was a Communist For the FBI (1951) and Mervyn LeRoy's The FBI Story (1959). These procedurals were produced in the shadow of the House UnAmerican Activities Committee's Red Scare campaign and it was King's association with Communist lawyer Stanley Levison that provided Hoover with an excuse to increase surveillance the head of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.


Domestic intelligence chief William C. Sullivan had declared King to be the biggest threat to the nation's future after he had delivered the fabled `I Have a Dream' speech during Bayard Rustin's March on Washington For Jobs and Freedom on 28 August 1963. As an advocate of Civil Rights, President John F. Kennedy had personally asked King to sever ties with Levison. But his refusal prompted Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy to approve the use of wiretaps and they provided Hoover with previously unsuspected evidence that King was a serial adulterer.


Despite the incendiary nature of these recordings at a time of when fear of black male sexuality bordered on the hysterical, no outlet felt compelled to publicise them, especially after the 35 year-old King became the youngest-ever recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964. Indeed, the media silence even continued after King alienated several liberal allies in the press, as well as President Lyndon B. Johnson, by denouncing the Vietnam War in 1967. Moreover, by following his conscience, King made himself a target for the conservative establishment.


Frustrated by his inability to besmirch King, in spite of the evidence provided by such inside informants as photographer Ernest C. Withers and SCLC office worker Jim Harrison, Hoover branded him `a notorious liar' and sent a sample taping to his home with a recommendation that he should do the decent thing before the scandal broke. Pollard refuses to speculate about how Coretta Scott King reacted to proof of her husband's infidelity, but he does consider the strain that King must have been under, as he continued both to crusade for reform and hook up with his mistresses and casual connections in hotel rooms across the country right up to his assassination at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee on 4 April 1968.


Pollard briefly explores the possibility that the FBI had conspired in King's death and that James Earl Ray may not have pulled the trigger. But he steers clear of overt controversy for much of this interesting, if rarely conclusive skirt around the evidence newly in the public domain. By sticking to the core story, for example, he dodges a discussion of the difference between press discretion in the 1960s and the scoop-seeking sensationalism of the `fake news' social media era. He also opts against delving too deeply into any assessment of how the revelations about King's private life (including Sullivan's handwritten file accusation of being an accessory to a rape by a Baltimore minister) might have affected his moral authority and the extent to which they still might impact upon his historical legacy.


Nevertheless, there is much to ponder in the off-screen contributions of King's close friend Clarence Jones, politician Andrew Young. academics Beverly Gage, Donna Murch and David Garrow, journalist Marc Perrusquia, former FBI Director James Comey and retired agent Charles Knox. So, while it might lack the edge of Pollard's collaborations with Spike Lee on 4 Little Girls (1997) and When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts (2006), this offers fascinating insights into King's 13-year career of advocacy and nonviolence. In particular, it highlights his assurance when speaking from a podium or to a camera, while also conveying the gravitas, commitment and charisma that made him such an effective leader. By contrast, Hoover comes across as an egotistical, puritanical reactionary, who recruited agents in his own likeness to do his nefarious bidding in upholding white supremacy.


Nothing is quite that simple, however, and more might have been said about the relationship between King and the media and the ways in which news was disseminated and received half a century ago, as the deep-seated notions of deference that held firm until Watergate meant that grassroots America was slow to react to the seismic changes of the 1960s. Of course, Hoover worked hard to preserve his vision of society and Pollard tellingly contrasts the ways in which the two men sought to use the press for their own ends, with the clips of Hoover's stiff performance on a TV show promoting the FBI being as revealing as the easy eloquence that King displays on chat and news programmes alike. For now, however, the story must remain incomplete, even as its ramifications continue to play out on American streets where the self-evident truth that black lives matter still isn't a given.


THE FORTY-YEAR-OLD VERSION.


Given that she honed her craft in the writers' room of the Netflix spin-off of Spike Lee's She's Gotta Have It (1986), it's perhaps no accident that first-time writer-director-producer-star Radha Blank should also opt to shoot The Forty-Year-Old Version in 35mm monochrome. Despite the overdue post-Moonlight furore about the restricted opportunities afforded African American artists, Blank struggled to raise the finances for this more than slightly autobiographical dramedy. The odd longueur aside, this droll debut consistently proves well worth the wait and announces Blank as a talent to watch.


Despite winning a prestigious award in her twenties, African American playwright Radha (Radha Blank) is in a rut. She teaches a writing class, while urging agent and old friend, Archie (Peter Y. Kim), to find a producer for her latest play, Harlem Ave. When Broadway bigwig Josh Whitman (Reed Birney) dismisses her study of gentrification as inauthentic and offers her the chance to write a Harriet Tubman musical, Radha tries to throttle him. Her disillusion prompts rapper Elaine (Imani Lewis) to storm out of her class, leaving Rosa (Haskiri Velazquez) to cope with a playlet that Waldo (Antonio Ortiz) and Kamal (TJ Atoms) have devised about a struggling sperm.


Unable even to persuade Forrest (André Ward) to workshop one of her plays at his community theatre, Radha fires off an angry rap and goes in search of Brownstone record producer, D (Oswin Benjamin), in the hope of making a mixtape. Having gone home with the hump after dozing off in his weed-fumed home studio, Radha is pleasantly surprised when D shows an interest in her and her rhymes when she pays a second visit. Buoyed by the recording of `Poverty Porn' under the name RadhaMUSprime, she returns to class with renewed energy, although she continues to ignore calls from her brother, Ravi (Ravi Blank), about clearing out their recently deceased mother's apartment.


Much to Radha's astonishment, Whitman agrees to produce Harlem Ave,, providing she is willing to shift the focus on to Black suffering, while also making it more accessible to white audiences. She is also forced to accept white director Julie (Welker White) and has to field awkward questions about the caricatured black wife from Stacey (Stacey Sargeant) during a read-through with co-stars Marcus (William Oliver Watkins) and Jaime (Meghan O'Neill). Moreover, she loses her nerve after D takes her to a club and she freezes in front of Archie and her students after taking a hit before going on stage.


Taunted by Lamont (Jacob Ming-Trent), the homeless man who lives opposite her building, Radha wallows in self-pity. But D takes her to an all-women rapping battle in the Bronx to restore her confidence and they sleep together. However, she makes excuses not to spend the day with him and returns to rehearsals to discover what Whitman has made so many changes that she no longer recognises her play. Having argued with Archie, she meets Ravi and feels a pang when he counters her contention that their artist mother had been a failure by calling her a Renaissance woman. She also persuades Elaine to return to class and encourages her to embrace her crush on the gender-fluid Rosa.


Having intended to boycott opening night, Radha makes a post-curtain speech. in which she disowns her compromised text and fizzes out an angry rhyme about her own situation and the state of the nation. Archie is dismayed and quits at the precise moment that Radha fires him. However, they patch up and Radha also reunites with D, with the consequence that colour seeps into the black-and-white image as they walk into the night performing a beatbox jam.


Colour inserts showing scenes from the play dot the action, which has been photographed with a sense of silvery grey cosiness by Eric Branco. But, despite the benignity of much of the humour, the odd barb leaves its mark, as Blank critiques American attitudes to race, gender and visibility. Having written around a dozen plays before enjoying Off-Broadway success with Seed (2010), she brings an air of deceptively nonchalant authenticity to a story that is sometimes so relaxed that it dawdles. Such is Blank's charisma, however, that time rarely hangs heavy, whether Radha is struggling to connect with her achingly hip students, her smarmily aggressive producer or her new rap rivals.


Yet, while Blank dominates proceedings, she has also created some endearing secondary characters, with Peter Yim genially effective as Radha's gay Korean schoolmate and Oswin Benjamin rarely wasting a word as the stoner producer who sees Radha for who she is. There's also a family element involved, as Ravi is played by Blank's real-life brother, while the paintings and some of the music were produced by their artist mother and jazz drummer father. Containing echoes of such different pictures as Cheryl Dunyé's The Watermelon Woman (1996) and Barry Jenkins's Medicine For Melancholy (2008), this is at its funniest during throwaway moments like the phone-cam vox pops with Radha's neighbours. But Blank can be excused for both trying to cram so many themes and topics into the mix and for the last-reel lag. Let's hope that when she returns, she has avoided being tainted by acclaim.



NEVER RARELY SOMETIMES ALWAYS.


Having started making shorts around 2008, New Yorker Eliza Hittman made an immediate impression with the features It Felt Like Love (2013) and Beach Rats (2017). But it's her third outing, Never Rarely Sometimes Always, that has established the fortysomething as a major voice. The winner of the Special Jury Prize at the Berlin Film Festival, it was released during the first lockdown and deserved all the praise it received.


When working-class 17 year-old Autumn Callahan (Sidney Flanigan) discovers she's pregnant shortly after being heckled while strumming her version of `He's Got the Power' by The Exciters at a school talent contest, she visits a women's centre in her Pennsylvania town. A pharmacy test confirms she is 10 weeks along and, following a sonogram, she's given a pamphlet by the director (Mia Dillon) about adoption and shown an anti-abortion video before being sent home. Having failed to induce a miscarriage with pills and blows to the stomach, Autumn confides in her cousin, Skylar (Talia Ryder), who steals money from the supermarket where they work part-time to buy bus tickets to New York.


Arriving in the city after Skylar has been chatted up during the journey by Jasper (Théodore Pellerin), the girls find a Planned Parenthood clinic, where Autumn discovers she is actually 18 weeks pregnant. In order to obtain an abortion, she has to attend a surgery across town and the scared cousins spend a night lugging their shared suitcase, riding the subway and playing arcade games because they can't afford any lodgings. Much to her chagrin, Autumn learns from the financial adviser (Carolina Espiro) that a second-trimester termination is a two-day procedure that will use up the rest of her money. She also has to go through a questionnaire about her home life and sexual history with a social worker (Kelly Chapman).


Too broke to buy food, let alone get home, the pair call Jasper, who is pleased to hear from them. He takes them tenpin bowling before they kill time in a karaoke bar, where Autumn selects the old Gerry and The Pacemakers's hit, `Don't Let the Sun Catch You Crying'. Despite Skylar resisting Jasper's invitation to go somewhere private, he agrees to go to a cashpoint with her and Autumn links her cousin's fingers behind a pillar at the station, as she reluctantly gives Jasper a prolonged `thank you' kiss.


Having spruced up with lip gloss in the washroom at the Port Authority Bus Terminal, Autumn keeps her appointment and they use the last of the money to buy some lunch. Skylar asks about the operation, but Autumn keeps her counsel and they laugh together before catching the bus home to face questions from Autumn's mother (Sharon Van Etten) and stepfather (Ryan Eggold).


Although a far cry from the harrowing drama contained in Cristian Mungiu's 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (2007), this impeccably calibrated reflection on the way in which young girls get to learn the bitter realities of gender politics is every bit as potent and poignant. Hélène Louvart's camera picks up each telling detail with such deftness that it takes a while to discern how much is being conveyed by what could easily be mistaken for throwaway gestures and expressions. Hittman is certainly fortunate in this regard to have discovered debutants Sidney Flanigan and Talia Ryder, as their rapport is realised with an intuitive impassivity that beautifully emphasises the often overlooked resilience and resourcefulness of teenage girls


Whether strumming her guitar in anguished isolation on the school stage, piercing her nose with a safety pin or fighting compartmentalised emotions while responding to the `Never Rarely Sometimes Always' questionnaire, Flanagan manages to be revealing and reserved, as she guards the secret of the baby's father and why she was accused of being a `slut' by the jock in the audience at the talent show. But, despite Flanagan keeping things closely guarded, Ryder is always on her wavelength and her unquestioning support (which is epitomised by a tender brush of her sleeping cousin's face) is rewarded with a reassuring pinky tug as she is making out against a very public pillar.


Although the sense of entitlement behind this snogging session blots his copybook, Théodore Pellerin's college student is far from the most objectionable male on display, after the exploitative supermarket manager, creepy checkout customer and the self-fondling drunk on the subway. Yet, having deftly denounced toxic masculinity in highlighting female fragility, Hittman is well aware that sisterhood is anything but all-encompassing and the contrast between the clinical staff in Pennsylvania and New York couldn't be more marked. Her anger at the patriarchy, the healthcare system and urban indifference remains controlled, however, and this restraint complements the naturalism and honesty that should make this exceptional, economical and empathetic film essential viewing on any number of levels.


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