Saturday, February 27, 2021
Movies Screen Grabs Screen Grabs: Black history and protest films to stream...

Screen Grabs: Black history and protest films to stream now

Plus: Judy & Punch, Ursula von Rydingsvard, This Teacher, Cineola Film Festival, and more new movies.


As public outrage towards police violence against the Black community (like the gun control movement) has too often seemed to wane in the Trump era, drowned out by his constant scandals and distractions, it’s a welcome turn that this issue looks like it just might be the one that orchestrates this administration’s downfall. Numerous institutions and high-profile individuals are coming out with statements of general Black Lives Matter-esque support—some of a rote brand-protective nature, but still better than silence. One useful aspect of the reaction has been many media outlets highlighting films relevant to African-American struggle, protest in general, and/or by black artists, often making them free of access.

Among local organizations, SF Indiefest is recommending its 2017 selection documentary Working in Protest by Michael Galinsky and Suki Hawley, which assembles footage shot at some fifteen US demonstrations (including some right-wing actions) over a thirty-year course beginning in 1987. It’s available here for viewing on Vimeo for a nominal fee. Similarly, Sabaah Folayan and Damon Davis’ Whose Streets? from the same year uses material shot by on-the-ground activists to chronicle the responses from both the community and heavy-handed authorities to teenager Michael Brown’s death by a police officer’s gun in Ferguson, Missouri six years ago.

If people are stunned by the fact of uniformed force being used against peaceful protestors and even apolitical local residents now, they’ve evidently got a short memory. It’s available through Roxie Virtual Cinema, with the theater’s share of proceeds going to minority activist and leadership training organization Know Your Rights Camp. Rafael Film Center in Marin is also offering several relevant recent features, including the campus-set drama 1 Angry Black Man, hiphop documentary 16 Bars, and (as of this coming Friday) acclaimed features about literary lions James Baldwin and Toni Morrison. More info here.

For a deeper historical perspective, Goran Olsson’s archival compilation Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975 is being offered free by IFC Films on Amazon Prime and Apple TV through June. The Criterion Collection, prestigious distributor of much certifiably “classic” world cinema, is also lifting the streaming paywall for many films in their collection about black issues and by African-American filmmakers, including ones by Julie Dash (Daughters of the Dust), silent pioneer Oscar Micheaux (Body and Soul with Paul Robeson), Cheryl Dunye (The Watermelon Woman), Charles Burnett (My Brother’s Wedding),  Maya Angelou (Down in the Delta) and more. Film School Rejects has assembled a handy guide to 25 such films currently being made free by Criterion and other platforms, a list that also encompasses such more recent mainstream features as Monsters and Men (which we reviewed here), Selma and Just Mercy.

This Friday brings a brand new Spike Lee joint, Da 5 Bloods, a drama about black Vietnam War veterans that premieres on Netflix. In the meantime, three new streaming arrivals don’t particularly focus on racial issues, but have plenty to say about struggle and inequality from disparate female perspectives:

Judy & Punch
One of the more adventurous big-screen feminist statements in recent years is this Australian whatsit from Mirrah Foulkes, an actress (Top of the Lake, Animal Kingdom) making a very accomplished feature debut as writer-director. Unfortunately, having waited to make a year and a half since its Sundance premiere to get a general US release, it’s only going to be seen on a small screen near you—but nevermind, it’s still worth it.

A considerably toughened-up Mia Wasikowska, no longer the wispy ingenue of yore, plays the heroine in this seriocomic fable set in a non-specific, “storybook” past of superstition and hardship. Judy is mother to a baby and wife to Punch (Damon Herriman), “the greatest puppeteer of his generation.” But he’s also a drunkard whose popular act is largely the result of her own artistry and skill. When his sodden negligence leads to a catastrophe, then extreme spousal abuse, Judy goes underground—but only to plot her elaborate revenge.

A sort of medieval fairy tale with some brutally un-whimsical aspects and no lack of playful anachronisms, Judy & Punch isn’t a complete success, but it’s a bracingly imaginative leap that largely works. If you thought the dreadful 2006 remake of cult classic The Wicker Man failed because it turned a black-comedy genre tale into a witchy revenge on patriarchy, think again—this movie does much the same thing, but well.

Ursula von Rydingsvard: Into Her Own
The often monumental sculptures in wood of this celebrated artist have a fanciful yet organic, overpowering yet inviting feel that would not have been out of place in Judy & Punch’s grungy-magical alternative universe. She was born in 1942 Germany to foreign-laborer parents forced to work for the Nazis; then largely raised in refugee camps until the large family moved to the U.S. in 1950. They established themselves successfully enough there, though the shadow of a perpetually abusive, insecure father would hang over her life and that of her siblings. Fleeing marriage to a schizophrenic in 1975, she moved from Oakland to NYC in 1975, commencing her artistic career in earnest at that city’s lowest point of blight and crime.

Daniel Traub’s hour-long documentary portrait isn’t so much about her personal life or history, however, as her process—which is often very labor-intensive, and by necessity involves many people. Still as driven as ever on the cusp of her eighties, she now sometimes works in copper or bronze, although typically still working from models in her preferred medium of cedar. Her works can be seen locally at SFMOMA and SF International Airport; we also see archival footage of her readying a large piece at Capp Street Project thirty years ago. Whether you’re already familiar with her art or require an introduction, Into Her Own offers an absorbing look at an artist whose methods are highly tactile, and who unlike most sculptors welcomes her audience to have a tactile experience with their striking end results. It’s available for streaming through Roxie Virtual Cinema, Rafael@Home , and BAMPFA’s Watch From Home.

Also currently available through the Roxie is the Cineola Film Festival, a “platform for Latin American stories” whose two programs of diverse documentary shorts can be streamed through Fri/12. More info here.

This Teacher
This third feature from writer-director Mark Jackson (not to be confused with the veteran Bay Area stage writer-director-actor of the same name) is one unsettling watch. Parisian native Hafsia (Hafsia Herzi) arrives in NYC to visit her childhood friend Zahra aka Sarah (Sarah Kazemy), now an aspiring actress with a yuppie husband (Gabe Fazio) for whom she’s a kind of trophy wife. Alternately berated and ignored by a BFF she no longer feels much commonality with, Hafsia eventually decamps to an upstate rural cabin where her vacation goes from weird to more-than-a-bit freaky.

Divided into three chaptered sections, This Teacher is never fully explicable, least of all in its protagonist, whose variably sullen, bored, furious, ecstatic and panicked moods are rendered no more intelligible to others by her limited command of English. She clearly has issues, and being a religious French Arab in an Islamophobic US only adds to her personal baggage—particularly in a climactic sequence where the combination of alcohol and discovery of her Muslim faith by an argumentative, presumptuous young all-American couple (Lucy Walters, Kevin Kane) does not go down well.

With the main actress playing a character who shares her real name in a movie written for her, it’s hard to tell just how much of Hafsia’s erratic onscreen behavior is meant as fictionalized self-portrait or as sociopolitical metaphor. In any case, nary a scene here doesn’t cause acute discomfort, as interpersonal dynamics and jarring events (some of them red herrings) stir a hornet’s next of complex viewer responses while seldom offering the relief of narrative resolution or explanation. It’s a film that always seems to know exactly what it’s doing, even if Jackson’s intent is often baffling to the viewer.

Hardly a pleasant experience, This Teacher nonetheless impresses as that rare work which truly earns the overused term “provocative”—and not for the usual reasons of gratuitous sexual or violent content, neither of which are much apparent here. It’s available On Demand and on DVD as of Tues/9.

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