The other side of America – December Monthly Top
The mainstream cinema that dominates the American landscape is closely followed by a more political cinema, which deviates from the myths glorifying the nation. We’re talking about films that focus on episodes obscure to collective memory, which describe a distorted “American dream”, out of the comfort zone of postmodern anthropology, which simulates interest in marginalized people, without giving them a say. Independent filmmakers realize that we’re not all white, straight, and Christian, and dig into the past as much as into the present to compensate, at least symbolically, for how we relate to each other. Our December feature presents four films that treat marginal subjects with respect and empathy, from the popular indie Tangerine about the hidden face of LA to the segregationist cartography explored in the essay film Rat Film.
What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire? (dir. Roberto Minervini, Italy, USA, France, 2018)
Texas-based Italian director Roberto Minervini is well-known for his straightforward and realistic style in portraying characters and isolated communities from the American South. Often crossing the border between documentary and fiction and building political narratives by observing marginalized subjects abandoned by the system, Minervini’s films tackle contemporary issues of the US society such as poverty, violence, drug use, xenophobia and racial segregation from a socio-anthropological perspective. What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire? revolves around various representatives of the African-American community in Louisiana against the backdrop of a string of brutal killings committed by the police force. Shot in black and white, the film leaves the background aside and focuses on the protagonists, offering them the space to express themselves. Thus, we are introduced to Judy, who is trying to save her bar from gentrification; Ronaldo and Titus, two brothers raised by their mother while their father is in prison; Kevin, who tries to preserve the traditions of the Mardi Gras Indians; and last but not least, the members of the Black Panther Party, whose mission is more relevant than ever. Using his signature approach, i.e. fly on the wall, the director never makes his presence felt, although he gets extremely close to the subjects. Shot handheld, What You Gonna Do… delves into the daily lives of these people, conveying their latent fears and a general feeling of being alert. The director’s immersion is so subtle that certain scenes seem fictional, recording bias-free conversations about the African-American identity. Perhaps the most striking moment is when even the kids conclude that it doesn’t matter what color you are, but what race you belong to.
What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire? is available on Mubi.
Tangerine (dir. Sean Baker, USA, 2015)
Infused with a neo-realist sensibility, Sean Baker’s film portrays without bias the picturesque of Los Angeles’ stigmatized red zone, home of prostitutes, pimps, drug addicts, dealers, and all the outcasts of society. Shot with a phone camera and using various filters, Tangerine follows two trans friends who work the streets on Christmas Eve. Played by Kitana Kiki Rodríguez and Mya Taylor, non-professional trans actresses who also collaborated on the script and research for the film, Sin-Dee and Alexandra set out to find the woman with whom Chester, Sin-Dee’s boyfriend and pimp, has cheated on her while she was in prison. Deconstructing the classic Hollywood image of the immaculate Christmas through garish, oversaturated chromatics, where the classic dinner in an Armenian family is interrupted by the husband’s interest in queer extramarital sex, Baker looks with irony at mainstream cinema’s attempts to depict reality. A fiction based on fact, Tangerine is built mainly upon the interest in the suburbs, which conditions the form and aesthetics of the film, contrasting the classic road movie with an on-foot exploration of the city, at the pace of the portrayed social classes. The strength of the film is doubled by the dizzying rate with which the story unfolds and the dynamic dialogues that enhance the authenticity of the diegetic approach. The soundtrack supports the melange of cultures and hyperactivity of the neighborhood, mixing trap with classical music and the oriental sounds of belly dancing. Symbolically, in the alternative Los Angeles, Alexandra has to pay to have a voice; she rents a space where she can perform.
Tangerine is available on Mubi.
Rat Film (dir. Theo Anthony, USA, 2016)
Theo Anthony’s debut film turns to rats – animals used in scientific experiments to simulate the effects on humans – to build a discourse on urbanism in Baltimore, one of the cities with the highest crime rate in the United States. Using the symbiosis between rodents and humans as a model for society, the director traces a history of scourge dating back to the Great Depression, when a decree banned African-Americans from moving into white neighborhoods, perpetuating a system of apartheid with ill effects to this very day. In the opening scene, whose point will be reiterated several times throughout the film, a rat that can jump up to 2 feet high is trapped in a slightly higher dustbin. Similarly, the city’s residents are condemned to live in a vicious circle that perpetuates privilege and discourages inclusion. The director knows how to balance the repulsive with the playful, alternating scenes where some neighbors, armed with bait and fishing rods, go fishing for rats among dumpsters with an eccentric character playing the flute while holding rodents on his shoulders, or the philosophical exterminator who points out that Baltimore’s real problem is the people. It’s interesting how through a genealogy of the scourge correlated with Google Maps and archival cartography, Rat Film links the past with contemporary economic geography. In the end, new maps overlap with the old ones, and the living experience could be improved through a more diversity-friendly space architecture.
Rat Film is available on Mubi.
Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun? (dir. Travis Wilkerson, USA, 2017)
If we see film noir as a means to identify villains, criminals, crooks, or psychopaths through the use of suspense, with the intention of denouncing or emphasizing the corruption of the system, then Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun? ticks off some of the conventions of the genre. But the case it investigates and the answer to the titular question are all too familiar to the American filmmaker who reconstructs the murder of Bill Spann, an African-American killed by the director’s great-grandfather, H.E. Branch, seven decades ago. Outraged that such a crime went unpunished thanks to the complicity of the authorities at the time (probably KKK members like Branch), Wilkerson begins an investigation similar to a family exorcism in which he throws every possible tool, from autobiographical essay film to road movie and talking heads documentary. Using the voiceover, the director states that this is not a white savior narrative, despite his guilt by association, contrasting his own investigation with Atticus Finch’s portrayal in To Kill a Mockingbird. Unlike Harper Lee’s classic, Wilkerson does not appropriate the victim’s tragedy but rather points out that while his ancestor is celebrated by his descendants, Bill Spann is buried in an unmarked grave, appearing only in the public records of the day. Performative and at the same time anthropological, epistolary but also self-critical, the film expands a personal pang of conscience to exposing an alternative American past.