Director Alton Glass
USA (95 mi) 2014 d: Alton Glass
USA (95 mi) 2014 d: Alton Glass
Made for an estimated $750,000, this is another low-budget black indie film that, like his earlier films, will likely end up being released on television. Despite winning five awards at the American Black Film Festival, including Best Film, Director, Screenplay, Narrative Feature and Actor (Keith Robinson), where the much more inventive Jeffrey C. Wray’s The Evolution of Bert (2014) was not in competition, this speaks more to the lack of a black presence in the film industry, an inherently white owned business where whites end up writing nearly all the black-oriented film projects. According to Gregory Allen Howard from Portside, July 31, 2014, The Whitewashing of James Brown | Portside: “There are over fifty black iconic biopics and black-themed movies in development in Hollywood, including multiple Richard Pryor projects, five Martin Luther King projects, multiple Marvin Gaye projects, and civil rights projects, and only one or two have an African American writer. Our entire history has been given over to white writers.” In an industry where black talents like Viola Davis and Forest Whitaker have received critical acclaim for playing maids and butlers, is it any wonder that so many black-themed films are laced with generic stereotypical characters where an important consideration is that they be perceived as non-threatening to whites, a continued reflection of how white people view blacks even in contemporary society. Even in films written by blacks, like this one, where the producer/director owns Glassrock Entertainment in Los Angeles, there remains a perception hovering over Hollywood that in order to be successful they have to be able to sell a product that is acceptable to whites, which accounts for so many of the exact same kinds of generically acceptable characters, such as male figures who are a product of their identification with sports, where even as adults they are defined and/or imprisoned by their youthful masculinity, former athletic heroes on the basketball court during high school in what amounts to their glory years. Now fifteen years later, each having gone their own separate ways, the film reunites these former state champions who have lost contact with each other through the years.
Seen through the eyes of Marshall ‘M.O.’ Ogden (Keith Robinson), a rising star in a successful law firm, owner of that million dollar house in Malibu, he is written much like other single dimension characters on TV, like the prototype of the near perfect Blair Underwood part on the television series L.A. Law (1986 – 1994), where he’s perceived as rich, good looking, and a killer of a ladies man, seen early on in the company of several women in his bed, supposedly the ultimate male fantasy. All of these are signs of male virility and success as seen through the prism of television, which strictly deals in stereotypes when it comes to people of color. Once he becomes a partner of the firm, gladly welcomed by Harry Lennix, the CEO of the company, the audience quickly realizes something is not right. While Marshall continues to believe he’s invincible, he’s diagnosed with kidney cancer, which begins a slow deterioration of his health. His male cockiness is challenged throughout the rest of the film, where his standard comebacks just don’t work anymore. He becomes a liability to the business, where his health is impeding his work, but until he’s officially instructed to go home and take some time off, he’s in utter denial about his condition. Cue the sad orchestral music, which is uninspired, standard fare from Kurt Oldman, where the director simply doesn’t trust making more original musical choices, as if that’s a less significant aspect of his filmmaking, or working without music altogether, where the performances of his actors would be forced to carry the entire weight of the film. Instead the director relies upon a repeated flashback sequence, which we see about a half a dozen times, losing any attempt at subtlety, but it shows the kids driving their own car back home from the state high school basketball championship. Victorious and in a celebratory mood, there is plenty of drinking going on leading to that inevitable crash, where all survived, but their big man, Richard Hughes (Richard T. Jones), permanently injured his knee and flamed out, never becoming the pro star he was expected to be. Instead he’s now a middle-aged family man that takes parenting seriously, coaching basketball while living vicariously through his son R.J. (Jermaine Crawford) and his budding athletic prowess, while married to his intelligent and attractive wife Michelle (Melissa De Sousa). Richard has held a grudge against M.O. since the accident, holding him responsible as the driver, and hasn’t spoken to him in all these years.
Through the help of perhaps Marshall’s closest friend Alex (Diandra Lyle), a sultry fox who always seems to be there when he needs someone, though she’s rarely seen in close ups like the featured male characters, instead the director always shoots her in a tight, form-fitting dress wearing heels accentuating not only her figure, but her power and stylish individuality, she urges him to reconnect with his teammates, best friends from his past, as they were once a tight-knit group growing up together, knowing each other’s secrets, where they shared the happiest moments of their youth. Contacting them one by one, including Eric (Antwon Tanner), whose life is amusingly surrounded by child support payments with different women, Adisa (Sammi Rotibi), an Army recruiter targeting young black men, and Richard, who begrudgingly comes along, they are all invited to his palatial Southern California estate for a weekend reunion. While there’s the usual cliché’s of good times and laughs, where they pay tribute to their seemingly unbreakable friendship, each one goes through their own personal transformation from the past, where they’ve grown yet remain transfixed in time, still reliving that one earth shattering moment that they can’t escape, as the bad blood between M.O. and Richard only resurfaces, where any hopes of healing old wounds are derailed by frayed nerves and a long build-up of mistrust. There is obviously a special understanding between these guys, but they exist side by side with personal torment and wrenching anger, where many of these hidden emotions rise to the surface, bluntly expressing themselves in inappropriate moments, where whatever hopes Marshall might have had in finding the right time to come clean about his illness evaporates into thin air. No attempt is really made to flesh out the characters of any of these men, as it’s all placed in a similar context of what we’ve seen before, turning this death and redemption story into a sad tearjerker by the end when the friends learn the ultimate truth. The entire atmosphere surrounding the film exists in a kind of Southern California fantasy world, where all the money in the world seems to have been dropped at one man’s feet, yet it still can’t buy him happiness. While Alex gives the film a special edge, where we’d like to see an entire film devoted to her character, this is otherwise trite and overly conventional throughout, yet it’s a feelgood story about boys who aspire to be men, with fair to middling results.