Friday, May 24, 2024

Film Ahead is a weekly column highlighting special events and repertory programming for the discerning Camberville filmgoer. It also includes capsule reviews of films that are not feature reviewed. 

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Black History Month on film: The power of “The Woman King”

Gina Prince-Bythewood’s filmography spans genres and atmospheres: After her breakout hit, the sultry, character-driven romance “Love & Basketball” (2000), came the stunning and under-the-radar “Beyond the Lights” (2014), Netflix’s history-sweeping “The Old Guard” (2020) and her most recent, “The Woman King” (2022). The linking element is the warmth and compassion she gives her characters. Her lens always homes in on intimacy.

“The Woman King” is the filmmaker at her very best and most refined.

In it, writer Dana Stevens, story contributor Maria Bello – more known for her acting (“A History of Violence”) – and Prince-Bythewood continue an emerging cinematic trend of alternate, redemptive histories that bend toward utopianism, a body that includes the “Black Panther” franchise, “RRR” (2022) and Quentin Tarantino films such as “Inglourious Basterds” (2009) and “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” (2019). 

“Woman King” reimagines the Agojie or Dahomey Amazons, the inspiration for comic book writer Christopher Priest and artist Mark Texeira to create the Dora Milaje, the female bodyguards of “Black Panther” (2018). The actual Dahomey were enslavers. In the film, General Nanisca (Oscar winner Viola Davis) convinces King Ghezo (John Boyega) to stop selling war captives to the Oyo Empire and Portuguese enslavers. In another thread, Nawi (Thuso Mbedu), an overconfident recruit and audience surrogate, adjusts to the Agojie lifestyle – like an entire film filled with the Themyscira scenes from “Wonder Woman” (2017), but without super powers. This is a pan-African/pro-Black military unit of ordinary women gathering strength through camaraderie, training, ceremonies and the killing of enemies.

The film’s massacre of enslavers provides a much-needed catharsis after decades of watching black bodies being tortured. Depictions of defeated Agojie includes implications of sexual violence, but dignifies the diaspora by suggesting that descendants of captured and sold Africans were just as impressive, rejecting any room for victim blaming.

“The Woman King” has a higher aggregated critics’ score on Rotten Tomatoes (94 percent) than most 2023 Oscar nominees for Best Director (“Triangle of Sadness” has 72 percent, “Tar” has 91 percent and “The Fabelmans” has 92 percent) and Best Picture (“Women Talking” has 90 percent). Its international cast – including British actor Lashana Lynch as a swaggering, whiskey-swilling warrior – also deserved nominations. Prince-Bythewood is greatly overdue.

It’s only part of what makes the snubbing smart that much more. While more subject and filmmaker diversity is beginning to take hold in the Oscars, only one Black actress has won in a leading role (Halle Berry) and only one female of color has been nominated for a Best Directing Academy Award (Chloé Zhao) in almost 100 years. No Black women directors have ever been nominated.

Here are just a few terrific films directed by Black women that deserved greater notice, praise and a place in the larger discussion of what makes a great film.

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“Losing Ground ’’ (1982), by Kathleen Collins, follows a philosophy professor (Seret Scott) who grows jealous of her artist husband (Bill Gunn) and his model (Maritza Rivera). Collins’ take on the yearning that comes from wanting to be seen and recognized as you are by a partner comes alive in color and music, with costumes standing out vibrantly against metropolitan grays. “Losing Ground’’ is available to rent on Amazon Prime Video, Apple TV+ and Vudu.

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“Eve’s Bayou” (1997), by Kasi Lemmons, just received a gorgeous Criterion Collection edition – much-deserved, considering the film’s heady subjects and how gracefully this sprawling family drama handles them. The Southern gothic starring Jurnee Smollett, Samuel L. Jackson and Lynn Whitfield marked Lemmons’ debut as a feature filmmaker. It’s on Hulu and Showtime.

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“Daughters of the Dust” (1991), by Julie Dash, has cemented itself over the years as a great cinematic achievement despite (or perhaps, due to) its grainy cinematography. Acting more as a tone poem revolving around a generational divide, “Daughters” is hypnotic and moving. It’ on Amazon Prime Video. (Sarah Vincent and Ally Johnson)

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Local focus

The 48th annual Boston Science Film Festival sets up in Davis Square from Wednesday through Sunday, with most screenings and events at the Somerville Theatre. The fest kicks off with the documentary “Doctor Who Am I,” about the legacy of a controversial 1996 Doctor Who TV movie and the effect on its writer, Matthew Jacobs. He will be om hand with doc director Vanessa Yuille. Other flicks that grab that eye include “The Warm Season,” which begins with a young girl meeting an alien in the desert (its director, producer and writer will be on hand Wednesday for a Q&A); the Japanese film “Single8,” inspired by the J.J. Abrams-directed “Super 8” (Saturday); the comedy “The UFO Club” (Wednesday); and, channeling M. Night Shyamalan’s “Knock at the Cabin Door,” “Mind Thief” (Saturday); the Spanish-made “The Antares Paradox” (Saturday) is a race against the clock after a family encounters extraterrestrials. Other neat events filling out the BSFF are an introduction to “Isaac Asimov’s Robots” (Thursday), an interactive game inspired by the author’s “Caves of Steel”; the audience will watch a 45-minute video and have to solve a mystery. At The Burren pub on Saturday there’s a master class with Duwayne Dunham, editor of “Blue Velvet,” “Twin Peaks” and “Return of the Jedi.” Also over the weekend there’s the ’Thon (a 24-hour sci-fi movie marathon), with a slate including classics “Stargate,” “Escape from Planet of the Apes,” Chris Marker’s “La Jetée” (the film that inspired “12 Monkeys”), “Terminator 3,” “Total Recall” and recent releases “Bill & Ted Face the Music” and “After Yang.” In the works, with deets to come, is a virtual Q&A with John Refousa, editor of “Avatar: The Way of Water” among other big budget sci-fi staples.

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Valentine’s Tuesday at The Brattle Theatre brings a dynamic pairing of the classic Bogart and Bergman World War II romance “Casablanca” (1942) and Rob Reiner’s cheeky fantasy rom-com, “The Princess Bride” (1987) starring Cary Elwes, Christopher Guest, Mandy Patinkin, Peter Falk, Robin Wright, Wallace Shawn and Shepard Fairey icon Andre the Giant. “Bride” also plays Monday night; here’s looking at you. A new restoration of Peter Weir’s classic 1975 mystery “Picnic at Hanging Rock” plays Wednesday and Thursday, about a day trip in Australia circa 1900 from which several students and a teacher don’t return. The eerie atmosphere and tension hold you to the edge of your seat from frame one. For a less freaky school vacation, beginning on Friday and running through next week comes the annual Bugs Bunny Film Festival of cartoon shorts with Bugs, Daffy, the ever-incompetent Elmer Fudd, Taz and the ever-cheery yet sly Tweety.

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The “Wild About Wilder” Retro Replay at the Landmark Kendall Square Theatre this week is the perfect-for-Valentine’s Day 1955 romantic comedy “Sabrina,” about well-off brothers (William Holden and Humphrey Bogart) – one a notorious playboy – vying for the attention of the eternally exquisite Audrey Hepburn as the daughter of the family chauffeur.

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Before the Boston Science Fiction Film Festival, the Somerville Theatre whets appetites with a pairing of Ridley Scott’s bleak, neon-infused vision of the near future “Blade Runner” (1982) and Denis Villeneuve’s long-brewing sequel “Blade Runner 2049” (2017). Scott’s classic was a box-office and critical miscue, but the set designs and impeccable manually orchestrated special FX still amaze with each rewatch. The two films play Monday. For Tuesday’s celebration of all things amorous, there’s “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” (2004) the sci-fi-ish romance from the quirky minds of Michel Gondry (“Be Kind Rewind”) and Charlie Kaufman (“I’m Thinking of Ending Things,” “Adaptation”), starring Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet as lovers thrown together and pulled apart by time.

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At the Harvard Film Archive this week there are Sunday, Monday and Feb. 19 encore screenings of “Nobody’s Hero,” the latest from French filmmaker Alain Guiraudie; and as part of the “Kinuyo Tanaka – Actress, Director, Pioneer” program, “Girls of the Night” (1961) plays Sunday. Both films deal with themes of prostitutes dislocated by radical changes to their environments. For Black History Month, Nancy D. Kates and Bennett Singer’s 2003 documentary “Brother Outsider: The Life of Bayard Rustin,” plays Friday. Rustin was a disciple of Gandhi, a mentor to Martin Luther King Jr., a key organizer of the 1963 march on Washington and a man who at the time – like James Baldwin – chose to live as an openly gay Black man. (Tom Meek)


Cambridge writer Tom Meek’s reviews, essays, short stories and articles have appeared in WBUR’s The ARTery, The Boston Phoenix, The Boston Globe, The Rumpus, The Charleston City Paper and SLAB literary journal. Tom is also a member of the Boston Society of Film Critics and rides his bike everywhere.