A little over a decade ago, VH1 premiered one of its many mediocre television biopics, Hendrix. Playing well against type, Wood Harris starred as the iconic guitarist, alongside Vivica A. Fox (as girlfriend/groupie Faye Pridgeon), and Billy Zane. A general overview of Hendrix’s life, the film chronicled his time playing with black artists like Little Richard, his period as a recording artist in London, his breakthrough performance at the legendary Monterey Pop Festival in 1967, and his untimely death at the age of 27. It had all the hallmarks of most rock ‘n roll biopics: the tough childhood, the discovery of genius, the hit single, the hard partying, the groupies, the hangers-on, the drug problems, the fall from grace. But it was missing something, one major element. The music. Getting music rights has been an uphill battle in many a musical biopic, and last year, with the announcement that a new Hendrix movie called All is By My Side was set to begin production, getting rights to the rocker’s extensive discography once again became an obstacle for filmmakers. Hendrix’s estate withdrew all support for the movie, and barred writer-director John Ridley (who paradoxically also wrote 12 Years a Slave and Undercover Brother) from using seminal Hendrix songs like ‘Purple Haze’, ‘The Wind Cries Mary’ and the ‘Hey Joe’ cover in the movie. Ridley, determined to tell his version of the Hendrix story, sidestepped this slight inconvenience by crafting a story set specifically before the debut of Are You Experienced. Andre Benjamin plays Hendrix, discovered by Keith Richards’ girlfriend Linda Keith (Imogen Poots) while playing backup guitar at New York’s Cheetah Club. The two strike up a romantically-tinged friendship, as Linda works tirelessly at helping him find a manger and get a record deal. Eventually, under the management of former Animals member Chas Chandler (Andrew Buckley), Hendrix moves to London, shacks up with feisty party girl Kathy Etchingham (Hayley Atwell), and begins his journey towards starting The Jimi Hendrix Experience and becoming one of if not the greatest guitar players of all time. Continue Reading
I wonder if, for our readers in France, a series like this is akin to what CNN’s Black In America series is for us in the USA. Long-time readers of this blog will already know that we aren’t too high on those Soledad O’Brien-hosted episodes, and wish they’d die a quick death. Alas, they must be a cash-cow for the network, otherwise it wouldn’t continue to broadcast them. But really, if you’re a reader of this site, and you live in France, I’d love to read your reactions to a series like this. Granted it’s Al Jazeera, a network that I actually trust and watch a lot of very informative, thoughtful, useful content on. However, I don’t like to make assumptions. Al Jazeera presents a 3-part series that the network says will tell the story of blacks in France – a long history of segregation, racism, protest, violence, culture and community building – from the turn of the 20th century until the present day.
The series actually began yesterday, August 29, with episode 1. Episodes 2 and 3 will air next week Thursday (September 5) and the Thursday after that (September 12), respectively. It doesn’t appear that it’ll be available to American viewers. I wasn’t able to play any of the clips. It appears that Al Jazeera and the newly-launched Al Jazeera America will each broadcast their own location-targeted content, unlike before Al Jazeera America debuted, when those of us in the USA could watch just about every Al Jazeera program via their YouTube channel, or their website. Not anymore it seems, which stinks! I hope they reconsider. CONTINUE READING ABOUT THE UPCOMING EPISODES
PARK CITY, Utah — Ryan Coogler was at home in Oakland on New Year’s Day 2009 when it happened: Oscar Grant, a 22-year-old unarmed black man, was killed by a transit policeman at the BART station in the city’s Fruitvale neighborhood. Cellphone videos of the incident soon went viral, sparking protests and demonstrations.
“I saw the videos almost at once,” the 26-year-old filmmaker said. “He was dressed like me and my friends dress, he looked like us. It was kind of like it happened to me, or someone I know.”
At the time, Coogler was a graduate student at USC’s film school and had come to view movies as “my outlet for my fears, for the things that make me angry or frustrated, for messages I want to get out. I was terrified, shocked, angry. I felt this was the film I was born to make.”
And so, with the producing help of Forest Whitaker, Coogler wrote and directed “Fruitvale,” his first feature-length film, and landed it in the Sundance Film Festival. The drama follows Grant, charismatically played by Michael B. Jordan, on what turns out to be the last day of his life. It’s the standout film in the festival’s dramatic competition and was acquired for distribution by the Weinstein Co.
The idea, Coogler said, was “to humanize these characters you see on the news as being shot by the police. We see mug-shot photos, not people with a daughter, a mother, not full human beings.”
At the trial of the officer who shot Grant, Coogler noted, the dead man’s character was publicly “pulled in two directions. The defense lawyers painted his flaws, his prison time, the trouble he’d been in. And the other side made him out to be an angel. But character is made up of gray areas. Someone all bad or all good is not a human being.”
Whitaker, who has been a mentor to Coogler, agrees. “We exist on that line between good and bad,” he said. “Oscar Grant did have flaws, but he was trying to fix his life, to move forward. Those flaws were no excuse to destroy him, to murder him. We’re tired of that, it’s too much for us to deal with.”
The connection with Whitaker’s company, Significant Productions, started when one of Coogler’s short films was seen by executive Nina Yang. She called him in for a talk and then set up a meeting with Whitaker, who says it was “unusual to meet a young filmmaker with such a strong social consciousness.”
“It meant a lot to meet Forest. He’s a legend; if we were in Blockbuster renting something and he was in it, that validated the movie for us,” said Coogler, who ducked out of a USC class for the meeting with Whitaker. “He’s a successful African American male who grew up in the inner city in California, and he’s a good person. He genuinely wants to have a positive impact on the planet.”
While talking to Whitaker, Coogler listed several ideas he had for features and when he got to the Fruitvale story, “Forest just said, ‘I’ll produce that one, let’s make it,’ and then he walked out of the room,” Coogler recalls. “I wanted to hurry up and write it before he changed his mind.”
Coogler, who graduated in 2011, said his process started with “reading depositions, public record stuff, but you can’t get the truth from a deposition. I met his friends, his girlfriend, his mother. I couldn’t go to Oscar and say ‘what were you like?’ I needed other people to flesh it out.”
A friend of Coogler’s introduced him to the family’s attorney, John Burris. Coogler talked to the lawyer, who introduced him to Grant’s relatives.
“I met with the family, explained to them my reasons for wanting to make the film and who I was. I showed them some of my shorts. We talked and eventually Forest stepped in for reassurance, and they gave their blessing.”
The filmmaker wrote Grant’s part with actor Jordan — best known for his TV work on “Friday Night Lights” and “The Wire” — in mind. Besides being “enormously talented,” Jordan “looked like Oscar, and he has the same distinct smile. It was hard to find somebody who had warmth and an edge. Only a few actors could do that.”
Also important to Coogler was giving the film as much verisimilitude as he could. He gave Grant’s mother a small cameo and shot in as many real locations as he could, including the actual Fruitvale BART station where Grant’s death took place, a delicate situation where Whitaker’s backing for the project proved critical.
Made with assurance and deep emotion, “Fruitvale” is a memorable directorial debut. “Any time you make something, what goes into it can be felt from the other side,” Coogler said. “And pain, work and passion is what went in.”
Added Whitaker of his involvement, “I feel fortunate, I feel blessed.”
My Brooklyn follows director Kelly Anderson’s journey, as a Brooklyn gentrifier, to understand the forces reshaping her neighborhood. The film documents the redevelopment of Fulton Mall, a bustling African-American and Caribbean commercial district that – despite its status as the third most profitable shopping area in New York City – is maligned for its inability to appeal to the affluent residents who have come to live around it.
As a hundred small businesses are replaced by high rise luxury housing and chain retail, Anderson uncovers the web of global corporations, politicians and secretive public-private partnerships that drive seemingly natural neighborhood change. The film’s ultimate question is increasingly relevant on a global scale: who has a right to live in cities and determine their future?
My Brooklyn premiered at the Brooklyn Film Festival in June 2012, and after two sold-out screenings it took home the festival’s Audience Award. Since then, the film kicked off Filmwax’s acclaimed Brooklyn Reconstructed series and has been showing to packed audiences all over the city. It went on to win Best Documentary and Best Director at the Red Hook Film Festival, and has screened internationally at the Architecture Film Festival in Lund, Sweden and the This Human World Human Rights Film Festival in Vienna, Austria. “Anyone who cares about real cities, and real rights to the city, needs to watch My Brooklyn,” says Don Mitchell, a Distinguished Professor of Geography at Syracuse University and the recipient of a MacArthur Genius Award. This coming spring the film will be at the Oxford Film Festival in Oxford, MS, as well as in a film series in Oakland, CA that explores connections in urban planning between Brooklyn and Oakland.