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Mississippi Noir - Book Review

BOOKish BLOG: Mississippi Noir by Luvon Roberson 

“Mississippi boasts a notably corrupt state government and the highest rate of poverty in the country. No wonder, then, that area writers have found some pretty nasty stories to tell, several of which are included here: stories about a girl who murders her mother’s live-in boyfriend; a drug dealer who goes to extreme lengths to repay his source; a jilted lover who kills her ex-lover’s wife; college students who are having their fingers removed. And, of course, stories about sex and rage and white trash..” —Booklist

This Mississippi-born reviewer can add to the long list of “noir” features: It’s an acquired taste. And, MISSISSIPPI NOIR, edited by Tom Franklin, shows me noir may just be something I’ll need to develop a taste for. So if like me you’re a neophyte to this genre, you’ll be happy to find that Franklin has organized the collection of 16 short stories into four categories: Conquest & Revenge; Wayward Youth; Bloodlines; and Skipping Town. I think of this organizing as a guide, even an organizing principle: As a kind of taxonomic classification system, like classifying species of birds. Keep in mind that birds are the only living dinosaurs. An extinction event 66 million years ago killed off 75% of plants and all the dinosaurs, except the birds. Survival of the fittest, indeed. That killer-instinct to survive is how I came to recommend four stories for your initiation into noir.

Losing Her Religion, introduces us to Jada Wallace an African-American woman having a hot affair with a white lover and fellow teacher Derek. This is noir: Derek is married, of course; he and his wife are expecting a baby, and Jada is passionately fixated on having Derek for her own even though it’s obvious that he’s only in it for the excitement of illicit sex. Not used to begging a man for attention, Jada begs Derek to be hers. She is his faithful, fervent devotee. Her feelings for Derek are fueled like those of the true believers in a religious cult: No evidence is required as a basis for absolute devotion -- only faith is required. Faith in how right the believer to believe beyond reason or common sense or the advice of others. Author RaShell R. Smith-Spears tells us this about Jada:

“She would make her pilgrimage; she had made it every Sunday for the past month, and would continue to do so until she had reached the nirvana she sought. The journey itself was a sanctifying ritual, working her into a passionate fervor….. Already she felt sacred.” (p.53)

Did I mention that Smith-Spear’s story about Jada is in the Conquest & Revenge category? It’s not giving anything away to say that things don’t end well.     

Jaime Paige’s Boy and Girl Games Like Coupling is about a deadly game that the narrator plays and terrorizes Glen, his girlfriend. In only four brief pages this author somehow throws us in a place of fear and tension – never once revealing the narrator’s name or giving an explanation for anything he says or does. Masterful storytelling that fits perfectly in the Wayward Youth classification. And, even if you feel like running like a bat out of hell, you’d only find yourself in the company of the narrator and Glen, the girlfriend.

Megan Abbott is an acclaimed seasoned noir writer, who serves up Oxford Girl in the collection, also among the Wayward Youth stories. Set within real-world Lyon College and played against the lyrics of a 19th-century English ballad, this story reveals the ugly realities lurking just below the surface shine of youth-in-college life, of the all-American bonhomie of college fraternity and sorority life once the pink glitter and the boozing bravado are ripped away. Still, I was unprepared. I’m guessing you, too, will gasp.

Mississippi-born that I am, there is no way I’d miss God’s Gonna Trouble the Water, Dominiqua Dickey’s brimming, emotionally-packed, entry into the complicated, always-dangerous relations between White people and Black people in small-town Mississippi. Elnora. Cissy. Ed. Graham Lee. Sal. Rayford Drew. She deftly populates the story with a cast of characters, all the while never falling into cardboard or stereotypical characterizations. You will certainly recognize these characters, but I bet you won’t be able to predict their ways of being; their decisions. Twisting and turning plotline in its creation of a Mississippi world in a petri dish, author Dickey keeps us guessing up to that last moment when you see why her contribution is classified as Bloodlines.

John M. Floyd’s, Pit Stop, is a story within a story, with State Highway 25 as much a character as Anna Langley McDowell, Keller, Woody Prestridge, Jack, the nun Sister Mary Patrick/Hippie Girl Mary, and Aunt Penny. Floyd’s storytelling is sharply visual, and we’re on that highway and then off on that road with Anna. Somehow, we’re as much a passenger seated behind the locked doors of the car as Anna’s daughter and son or as Anna and Sister Mary. The story is classified in Skipping Town. This is noirish storytelling, so you’re debating with yourself and you’re screaming at Anna and you don’t want a turn off that highway.

MISSISSIPPI NOIR is edited by Tom Franklin and published by Akashic Books (2016).

Final Take-Away

In MISSISSIPPI NOIR, each writer names the story’s setting, and these Mississippi place names anchor me. I need that anchoring because each of the stories takes me to a place that is fantastical, that is beyond ordinary ways of being and thinking, beyond what is considered reasonable or expected in this thing called life. I was so taken by the place names that I looked them up – they are real! These are actual, real geographical places in Mississippi, in this world. I’m glad I did the research. I needed to know something I could depend on. Noir is just outside that kind of knowing.

 

Mississippi Noir group photo supplied byLuvon Roberson

Front row: Mississippi Noir editor, Tom Franklin and Square Books General Manager, Lyn Roberts. Second row, left to right: Megan Abbott, Chris Offutt, Ace Atkins, William Boyle, John M. Floyd, Lee Durkee, and Michael Farris Smith. Third row, left to right: Dominiqua Dickey, Robert Busby, Michael Kardos, Andrew Paul, and Jack Pendarvis. Photo by Ivo Kamps. From: https://www.squarebooks.com/mississippi-noir

Downhill is doable. [Movie Review]

When a couple (Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Will Ferrell) and their two sons face a life and death crisis on a ski trip in Austria, the husband’s response to the situation leads the spouses to examine their entire relationship.

Downhill is an intense, psychological thriller and while it sometimes drags, overall, it’s a thought-provoking experience and earns a See It! rating.

Often in relationships, it’s not the major issues like cheating or abuse that threatens the bond. It’s an incident or response to a situation that causes individuals to question each other’s commitment. Not only was the wife greatly disappointed as to how her husband reacted to the threat, but that he wouldn’t even acknowledge his wrongdoing. Her frustration is exacerbated by his dishonesty even about cell phone conversations he has during the trip.

We often hear the cliché’ phrases like Oscar-worthy or Oscar-caliber performances. I’ll simply say Julia Louis-Dreyfus nails this role. This film does not work without her. There are also colorful characters like Charlotte (Miranda Otto), an amusing libertine that the family meets upon their arrival at the ski lodge.

Downhill is a downer when it comes to cast-diversity. Today, people of all colors ski, but that’s not reflected in this movie, earning Downhill an “F” for cast diversity.

The most valuable aspect of Downhill is, you’ll talk about it and strongly identify with this couple’s issues. Downhill is rated “R” (for language and some sexual material) and about 90 minutes in length.

Downhill is a See It!

The Photograph. See that Picture. [Movie Review]

When a young journalist, Michael Block (LaKeith Stanfield), visits the home of a veteran seaman, a living room photograph grabs Block’s attention. When Block returns home to New York City, his interest in the image leads him to ultimately meet the now deceased photographer’s daughter, Mae (Issa Rae) who also resides in the Big Apple. Their attraction is immediate. While Mae learns some truths about her mother, she and Block try to figure out if they’re meant to be.

Movies with rich, well-developed characters have always appealed to me. The Photograph is that kind of film. The characters are black. But there’s no violence. No one calling each other the “N” word. No one’s on drugs or in prison. They do fall in love. They have close family bonds and loving and supportive friends. It is important to note that this representation of African Americans is authentic because some see only portrayals of black people engaging in seedy behavior as realistic.

Michael and Mae sizzle together. Writer and director, Stella Meghie, has created very deep, very believable characters. When the couple discussed personalities, Mae wonders if we’re all just the people who fit in with those we’re with at that moment. There are also amusing and honest situations. One evening when the couple is alone, he notices that she seems to be praying. She admits that it’s for will power.

With a very strong cast across the board, the story travels back and forth through time when Mae’s mother is young and first moves to New York City, through Mae’s early childhood and then of course into her adulthood.

At $16 million, the film is low-budget by Hollywood standards and film quality is a bit grainy. The story is set in the mid to late 1980s, but only car buffs will realize that a lot of the cars, even those that are supposed to be new, are from the mid-70s.

The Photograph doesn’t reflect New York City’s true diversity. Other than Chelsea Peretti who plays Blocks’ quirky boss, there’s not a lot of non-blacks in this movie. And it gets a C- for cast diversity.

The Photograph, rated PG-13 for sexuality and brief strong language, is 106 minutes long, and is every bit a See It!

Sonic Soars! [Movie Review]

Sometimes you just have to get away from it all. That was the case with Sonic the Hedgehog (voiced by Ben Schwartz), who comes to Earth to escape sinister forces seeking to harness his faster than the speed-of-light abilities. Having adjusted to a new, secret life in Montana, he accidentally causes a massive power outage. The government enlists the assistance of the lunatic genius and roboticist, Dr. Robotnik (Jim Carrey) to capture Sonic. Meanwhile, the local sheriff Tom Wachowski (James Marsden) befriends the speedy rodent and helps him evade capture.

The key to successful filmmaking is a fully developed production. A film that has a strong story, superior acting, masterfully directed and state of the art technology - if it’s a sci-fi production. So many movies try to make it on a single device: a marque actor or fancy special effects or copying a story that’s been successful in another venue.

But Sonic The Hedgehog works because it has it all. It starts with Sonic’s journey from outer space, living on earth, and joining forces with the sheriff to battle Dr. Robotnik. Add in a great cast and special effects and it all comes together in an out of this world fashion.

You can’t have a truly great hero without a truly great villain. And Jim Carrey fills that role. It so great to see the master funnyman, Carrey, back on the big screen. Jim, we’ve missed you! He’s middle-aged now. But still has excellent comedic timing and is as good at physical comedy as he ever was. And the writers provide him with great lines. He belittles Sheriff Wachowski by telling him I was spouting out formulas at an age when you are spitting up formula.

The sheriff is played by James Marsden who is a natural in the role of good guy - leading man. His wife is played by Queens’ own Tika Sumpter. They are the obligatory cute leading couple. She’s attractive, smart (a veterinarian) and very supportive of her husband. The typical on-screen wife. The fact that she’s black and Marsden is white, is never even discussed in the film. Which is good. Her sister, however, is also a character we’ve seen before: overweight, sassy, and a single mother.
That leads us to our cast diversity rating. Sonic the Hedgehog gets an “A”. An African American woman in the lead female role. Sonic is blue. And there are people of color throughout the film. Also, the fact that much of the film is set in small-town Montana, this movie is adequately diverse.

Sonic the Hedgehog is rated PG for action, some violence, rude humor (Sonic farts) and mild language. Ninety-one minutes in length. It gets our highest rating, See IT! By the way, the ending screams they’ll be a sequel!

The Rhythm Section misses the beat.

Hollywood actress Blake Lively stars as a young woman struggling to overcome the excruciating pain of tragically losing her family in a plane crash. When a stranger tells her that the incident was not an accident, she starts down a darkly mysterious path to avenge their killing, while not knowing whom to trust. Jude Law and Sterling K. Brown co-star.

The Rhythm Section tries hard to be an entertaining and original action-filled, cloak and dagger adventure. But it’s out of step from the beginning, with the nonsensical notion that an average young lady would even be recruited by powerful international forces to be an agent, in the terrorism and counter-terrorism underworld. Further, the film is formulaic down to the obligatory “surprise” ending.

The cast does the best it can. Blake Lively is, indeed lively, in this role. She and her co-stars try hard to make this weak, implausible project work.

Maybe the best aspect of the film is the cinematography. The Rhythm Section is shot from some amazingly creative angles.

It gets an A- for cast diversity. While the cast is small; it does feature multiple men of color in leading and supporting roles.

The Rhythm Section is rated R for violence, sexual content, strong language throughout, and some drug use. And is reasonably timed at 109 minutes.

But this weekend, do yourself a favor, keep stepping past any theater playing The Rhythm Section, and rent it.

Irving Louis Burgie aka "Lord Burgess" Songwriter of Harry Belafonte Hit Song, Day O, Dies at Age 95

Irving Louis Burgie, who was professionally known as "Lord Burgess," passed away yesterday. Lord Burgess was an American musician and songwriter, and best known as the songwriter of Harry Belafonte’s hit song, Day O.

Mr. Burgie was born in Brooklyn, NY to a Bajan aka Barbadian mother, and an American father from Virginia, on July 28, 1924. Like many black men during his time, Burgie joined the army during World War II, and served in Asia. After the war, Burgie made use of the GI bill, like many veterans of his day, and attended Julliard to perfect his musical skills. He met Harry Belafonte through writer William Attaway. From there, the collaboration between Belafonte and Burgie formed and so did the album, Calypso, which contained the song, Day O.  

Burgie is also credited with writing the Barbados National Anthem, In Plenty and In Time of Need. He was also astute enough to create his own publishing company. And, by the time he was in his early 30s, he had gotten enough money from the more than 30 songs that he had written for Belafonte that he was considered wealthy.

When What’s The 411 spoke with Mr. Burgie in 2014, at a HealthFirst Black History Month event, he was delighted to know that people still liked his songs. He also wasn’t planning to write any new songs. Lord Burgess jokingly, but seriously stated, he is “getting ready to retire.”

As for any recent contact with Harry Belafonte, at the time, Lord Burgess stated, “oh, we pass each other in the night.”

INTERVIEW: Irving Burgie aka "Lord Burgess" Songwriter of Harry Belafonte Hit Song, Day-O | What’s The 411TV

Irving Burgie aka Lord Burgess, the songwriter of the song, Day O, made famous by Harry Belafonte, spoke with What's The 411TV host, Glenn Gilliam, at a HealthFirst Black History Month celebration on February 27, 2014.

Born in Brooklyn, NY to a Bajan aka Barbadian mother, and an American father from Virginia, Lord Burgess, who will be turning 90 years-old in July is delighted that people still like his songs. Although people still like his songs, don’t expect Lord Burgess to write any new songs. Lord Burgess jokingly, but seriously stated, he is “getting ready to retire.”

As for any recent contact with Harry Belafonte, Lord Burgess stated, “oh, we pass each other in the night.”

 

UPDATE: Irving Burgess aka Lord Burgess passed away on November 29, 2019.

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, really is beautiful | What's The 411 Movie Review

When Esquire magazine writer Tom Junod’s editor assigns him to write a 400-word piece on Public TV star Fred Rogers of the Mr. Rogers program, their meeting is supposed to be a brief interaction. But instead, it turns into a complex, long-term relationship between the two men. Two-time Oscar winner Tom Hanks plays Mr. Rogers and Matthew Rhys, plays Tom Junod, the journalist who wrote the profile of Fred Rogers in Esquire magazine, on which this feature film is based.

I wasn’t sure what to expect with A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood. Thinking back to my childhood, I saw Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood as a hopelessly sappy program that seemed more like a satire than an actual TV show. But this film is substantive, sometimes compelling, but always entertaining. It gets a See It! rating.

From the beginning writers, Micah Fitzerman-Blue, Noah Harpster, convey where Fred Rogers’ priorities lie. When a Make-a-Wish Foundation kid visits the set, Rogers leisurely chats with him and his parents, completely indifferent to the resulting delay in the filming schedule. In other words, people are more important than timetables. Later, Rogers meets the journalist who has a difficult relationship with his father, the TV host makes resolving the issues between the writer and his dad a high priority.

This movie also delves into the lives of both men. The seemingly perfect Rogers acknowledges some issues with his two sons. Yes, Rogers had children, despite definitely being on the list of People We Can Never Imagine Having Sex. He was also a vegetarian even though some thought he was a vegan.

This film is warm and laden with positive messages, without being overbearing, preachy or . . . sappy.

Tom Hanks just seems to be incapable of poor or even average performances. He authentically portrays Rogers as a mellow, kind, yet very real person. Matthew Rhys embodies Junod as a complex, wounded individual who’s trying-his-best to be a good husband and father – and ultimately a good son.

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood gets an A- for cast diversity. It is richly diverse. African American actress Susan Kelechi Watson plays Junod’s wife in the movie, although his real-life wife of over 30 years is Caucasian. And I have mentioned before casting directors can increase diversity by including people of color in minor roles and background scenes. This film does just that. However, the minus is due to the lack of diversity among non-African descendants. There are few Hispanics or Asians despite that there are several Asian Americans producers of this film.

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is rated PG for some strong thematic material, a brief fight, and some mild language and is 108 minutes in length and gets our highest rating, See It!

Ford v Ferrari. It’s not worth the drive | Movie Review

When Henry Ford II, president of the automobile empire, Ford Motor Company, is slighted in a business deal and personally insulted by a fellow car manufacturer, Enzo Ferrari, Ford decides to take on the Italian automaker in the venue that Ferrari’s vehicles donated for years, the Le Mans car race, formally known as, 24 Hours of Le Mans.

Academy Award-winners Matt Damon plays the auto designer and Christian Bale star as the driver of a state-of-the-art car that Ford pours millions into, to combat his Italian rival. Ford v Ferrari, is a long, drawn-out (over two and half hours!) story about how far a powerful man went to achieve victories over his opponent. This is a film you should wait and rent.

It’s loaded with what I call false conflicts. Screenwriters’ tool of creating quandaries that there’s really no question as to how they will be resolved. For example, there’s a plotline raising doubt over whether Matt Damon’s character will be hired by Ford to draw up and build the car. Also, the Ford executives don’t like Bale’s character and want someone else to drive at Le Mans. But because Damon and Bale are the stars, it’s obvious how all of this turns out.

Some commentators opined that even if you aren’t into this sport, you’ll be intrigued. Wrong. If you don’t like the sport of car racing, this film will bore you. Especially at the insufferable length of two hours and 32 minutes.

Set in the 1960s, this story will appeal to those who long for that time when white men exclusively held the reins of power. Before notions of equality and diversity took hold. The acting is superior. Damon and Bale shine, as does Tracy Letts as the legendary auto executive Henry Ford II, and Caitriona Balfe who plays Bale’s loving and supportive spouse.

Ford v Ferrari gets a “D” for cast diversity. Other than a few scenes of blacks working in the Ford factory – Ford has a long history of hiring African Americans as early as 1916 – there are few people of color in this film. Understandably, there would not have been black people in executive offices or socializing with the powerbrokers featured in this movie. But blacks made up about a third of the Motor City’s population during that time, including some of my family members. So, they should have been on the streets and other background scenes of the film.

Ultimately, Ford v Ferrari has some historical value and moments of intrigue. But for non-race car fans, this film is too long in length and too short in entertainment.

Ford v Ferrari is rated PG-13 (for language and peril). And it’s a Rent It.

Harriet . . . Hurry it up and See It! | MOVIE REVIEW

Harriet Tubman is a name like Sojourner Truth and Frederick Douglas; all were courageous members of the abolitionist movement. Ms. Tubman, short in stature, barely five feet tall, is a giant in history. And, the film, Harriet, tells the story of Ms. Tubman, the most well-known of all the Underground Railroad's "conductors” and her amazing ability to move in and out of the south. According to the PBS’ Africans in America series, Ms. Tubman made 19 trips into the South and escorted over 300 enslaved Africans to freedom and without capture.

Harriet brings to life a character whose story, without any embellishment, is amazing. Cynthia Erivo in the title role nails it. She’s authentic, credible and exceptional. There was some pushback over Director Kasi Lemmons’ selection of Erivo, a British actress, in the role of an African American icon. But no one can legitimately challenge that choice after seeing the film.

Ms. Tubman created her own true-life Mission Impossible scenarios. Once she alone escaped to Philadelphia, her accomplishment was widely celebrated in anti-slavery circles. But ignoring warnings about repeating the incredible feat, she made multiple returns, and as her reputation grew, each trip became more dangerous.

At first, it was believed that the person who had become known and wanted as “Moses” was a white male abolitionist in blackface. Because only a white male would be capable of pulling off such cunning and dangerous exploits. But once it was learned that Moses was black and female the outrage and determination to capture her grew.

The film opens with one of the claims associated with Harriet. She prays for her owner’s death. His son, Gideon (Joe Alwyn) overhears Harriet’s imploring to the heavens and tells her God doesn’t listen to Ni. . . people like her. Gideon’s father dies that night.

Harriet and Gideon grew up together and as was often the case with enslaved people and their slaveholders, their relationship was complicated.

Maybe I am a coward. But if I had seen Harriet pray for the death of someone and that someone died shortly thereafter, unlike Gideon, I would have been very kind to her from then on.

One feature of Director Kasi Lemmons’ films that I like is her black characters have depth. They fall in love, make emotional connections with each other and pursue hopes and dreams.

But this film also has the typical Hollywood fairytale gloss. There were always perfectly timed messages from above directing Harriet throughout her journeys. Also, as was the case in another story from that period, 12 Years a Slave, blacks in the North are portrayed as full and equal citizens, dressing in the finest wear, living comfortably and interacting with whites as friends and colleagues. And that was simply not the case.

While blacks were free in the North, they were neither the social nor the professional equals of whites and rampant discrimination was the norm.

As to cast diversity, Harriet follows the racial demographics of that time.

Harriet, also starring Leslie Odom, Jr. and Janelle Monae, is a historical, educational and entertaining event, and you should See It! It’s rated, PG-13 for thematic content throughout, violent material and language including racial epithets. Harriet is 125 minutes in length.

 

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