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Posts Tagged ‘Kevin Willmott’

Trai Byers

“THE 24th” My rating: B+ (Opens Aug. 21 at the Screenland Armour and on streaming services)

101 minutes | No MPAA rating:

An overlooked landmark in both black history and military history gets a compassionate/angry examination in “The 24th,” the latest from KC-area filmmaker Kevin Willmott.

The subject is the 1917 “riot” of black soldiers in Houston TX. After months of abuse from  both white citizens and the local police department and fearing they were about to be attacked by a white mob, the soldiers went on a late-night killing spree.  By the time the sun rose 11 civilians, five police officers and four soldiers were dead.

The upshot was the largest murder trial in American history, with 156 soldiers of the Third Battalion of the all-black 24th Infantry facing homicide and mutiny charges.

In capable hands of the Oscar-winning Willmott (“C.S.A.,” “Jayhawkers,” “Destination Planet Negro”…as well as the screenplays for recent Spike Lee efforts) the story of the 24th becomes an intimate epic, filled with suppressed fury and perfectly balancing personal moments against the sweep (one almost wants to say inevitable sweep) of history.

Astoundingly, this is accomplished on a bargain basement budget, with filming limited to less than three weeks.

Yet the movie never looks cheap; neither are its sentiments.

We meet the members of the 24th as they show up to provide security for the building of Camp Logan outside Houston.  There’s a war in Europe, and the men are anxious to prove their worth on the battlefield; the Army, though, cannot see them as anything but uniformed ditch diggers and night watchmen.

Our protagonist is William Boston (Trai Byers, co-writer of the screenplay with Willmott), who as a graduate of the Sorbonne is better educated than any of the white officers calling the shots. This is not lost on the regiment’s commanding officer, Col. Norton (Thomas Haden Church), who unsuccessfully urges Boston to sign up for officer training in Des Moines.

Boston is an idealist out to prove that colored soldiers are second to none; alas, his intellectual interests (in his spare time he reads!) and his light complexion make him suspect, especially to the  perennially angry Pvt. Walker (Mo McRae).

And then there’s Sgt. Hayes (Mykelti Williamson), the scarred black NCO who boasts of charging up San Juan Hill with Teddy Roosevelt but has spent the last 20 years in an alcoholic funk  kowtowing to a system that respects none of his sacrifice.  He cannot even look a white officer in the eye; occasionally he takes out his frustrations on his men.

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“BLACKkKLANSMAN” My rating: B-

145 minutes | MPAA rating: R

As confirmed by the six-minute standing ovation it received at May’s Cannes International Film Festival, Spike Lee’s “BlackKKlansman” is the right movie at the right time.

The film so effectively punches certain cultural hot buttons, so taps into the current political zeitgeist that it takes an hour of its 145-minute running time to realize that as drama it’s pretty weak stuff.

Based on the real story of Ron Stallworth, a black police detective in Colorado Springs who in the late ’70s infiltrated and even joined the Ku Klux Klan, the film is an uneasy melding of suspense, liberal uplift and  satire in which every element — performances, writing, pacing — is subservient to the delivery of a political message.

I’m down with that message. The film opens with a 50s-era “educational” film in which a eugenicist (Alec Baldwin) rants against the threat posed by race mingling. It closes with news footage of neo-Nazis marching last year in Charlottesville VA (and President Trump giving them a pass).

Even so, the movie (Lee co-wrote the screenplay with Charlie Wachtel, David Rabinowitz  and K.U. teacher and filmmaker Kevin Willmott) is notably heavy handed. Yeah, today’s audiences haven’t much use for subtlety, but even so…

We encounter Stallworth (John David Washington…Denzel’s son) when he applies to become the first black officer on the Colorado Springs force.  He’s warned by the Chief (Robert John Burke) that he’ll have to have a Jackie Robinson-level of tolerance for abuse.  It’ll come at him not just from the public but from  his fellow officers.

But Stallworth is ambitious. So when Civil Rights activist Stokely Carmichael is booked to address African American students at a local college,  the department’s sole black cop jumps at the chance to go undercover. He’s assigned to attend the rally and report back on Carmichael’s speech (the activist was long a target of Hoover’s FBI).

The fallout from the event is considerable.

First, Stallworth exhibits his value as a plainclothes officer, leading to his elevation to the rank of detective.

Second, he meets and eventually falls for Patrice (Laura Harrier), the student activist who organized the event — although it will be some time before he confesses that he’s one of the “pigs” she so despises.

Third, he finds himself unexpectedly inspired by Carmichael (Corey Hawkins), whose message of black pride/power hits hard. But did Lee really have to punctuate this scene with artsy montages of young black faces transformed by the speech? Aren’t Carmichael’s words powerful enough?

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Teyonah Parris (second from left) as Lysistrata

“CHI-RAQ” My rating: B

118 minutes | MPAA rating: R

In recent years even Spike Lee’s biggest fans may have wondered if the creator of “Do the Right Thing” was circling the drain of irrelevancy.

Worry no more. Lee — with an assist from the University of Kansas’ Kevin Willmott and the long-dead playwright Aristophanes — has come roaring back with “Chi-Raq,” a passionate indictment of black-on-black urban violence.

It’s a swing-for-the-bleachers effort that is by turns furious, raunchy, sad, silly and savage.

This mashup of rap concert, poetry reading (the bulk of the dialogue is in rhyming verse) and burlesque sometimes slips into preachiness or heavy-handed satire, but even the shortcomings become part of the film’s overall strength.

“Chi-Raq” begins with titles informing us that in recent years there have been more gun deaths among the citizens of the Windy City than among our special forces fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Then Nick Cannon’s furious rap “Pray 4 My City” kicks in as a sort of profane overture: “Y’all mad cause I don’t call it Chicago / I don’t live in no *** Chicago / Boy, I live in Chi-Raq.”

The city’s South Side is torn between two gangs, led by the preening, cocksure Chi-Raq (Cannon) and the one-eyed, comically goofy Cyclops (Wesley Snipes).

When a little girl dies in a gang crossfire, Chi-Raq’s girlfriend, Lysistrata (Teyonah Parris of “Dear White People”), is so moved by the sorrow and anger of the girl’s mother (Jennifer Hudson) that she organizes the women of both gangs into a movement.

They will deny their men all sexual favors until the guns are put away and violence renounced. Pretty soon their message is taken up by women all over the world. Hookers stop hooking. Porn stars stop porning.

A man can’t get no relief. (more…)

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