Saturday, October 18, 2014

The Evolution of Bert

Director Jeffrey C. Wray  

USA  (77 mi)  2014  d:  Jeffrey C. Wray  

While indie films are rare, Black indie films are even rarer, where the two that come to mind are Danny Green’s Mr. Sophistication (2012), about an attempted comeback of an edgy black comedian, which premiered at the Chicago Film Festival in 2012 and then was never released, and Barry Jenkins’ extremely popular relationship movie, Medicine for Melancholy (2008), an award winner that played the festival circuit, but was never released on more than seven screens in any given week in the entire country, and was usually only shown on three screens or less.  Many of the more popular “black” indie films are actually directed by white directors, like Craig Brewer’s HUSTLE & FLOW (2005) and BLACK SNAKE MOAN (2007), Lance Hammer’s BALLAST (2008), even perennial indie filmmaker John Sayles took a stab with HONEYDRIPPER (2007), all set in black neighborhoods using primarily black casts.  While the title leaves something to be desired, making it sound like a quirky Walter Mitty style movie about a nerdy character, or a reference to Sesame Street, but instead it’s a funny stream-of-conscious exposé on being black in America, a well-acted film that wears its intelligence on its sleeve, featuring a terrific cast of non-professionals, blending fantasy and fiction, using a jazzy musical score by Kris Johnson, making this a thoroughly enjoyable experience.  Perhaps what’s most unusual about this film is that it was shot 15 years ago when the director was a professor at Ohio University in 1998, shot sporadically over several months, and then just sat on the shelf while family, children, or other jobs took precedence.  While now he’s an Associate Professor of Film Studies/Creative Writing at Michigan State University, it took a grant award to allow the team to shoot the epilogue nearly ten years later, where the post production aspects of the film were only finalized just this year.  So it’s like a time warp taking us back in time, yet loses none of its initial thrust, which is a satiric coming-of-age film, the development of a social consciousness, and a comment on what it means to be black in America.     

Randall Stokes is a refreshing discovery as Bert, your typically intelligent, good-looking, and thoroughly confused black college student who is completing his final semester at school as a history major, but is no clearer about how he intends to spend his future, where his parents are ready for him to enter the job market.  We realize the extent of his difficulties in a hilarious dream sequence where he envisions his future in multiple possibilities, including a black Republican, a token corporate Negro doing the soft shoe, a man following his dreams, and another more emblematic representative of the working man.  The first in his family to graduate college, Bert’s problem is how to define himself, to find what distinguishes him from the rest of the students, as he seems to be a very personable guy with an optimistic streak, hangs with his best friend Nate the DJ (Nate DeWitt), while romancing Nita (Nakeshia Knight), his friendly, attractive, poetry spouting girlfriend for the past two years.  Because he’s so close to the finish line, he starts questioning this relationship, imagining what his life would be like with other women.  Nate immediately tells him not to give up on a good thing, suggesting other girls that respect him as part of a healthy couple wouldn’t give him the time of day if he was single, as a good part of their allegiance is to Nita, where respecting him is part of respecting her.  Easily the most revelatory character is played by the director himself in dreadlocks, playing Duke, a perennial student who’s been through it all and tries to school Bert about what to expect.  His advice about the future is so uncannily accurate that he comes across as a bit of a mystic, always wearing shades, usually found with a smile on his face.  When asked why he never takes off his shades, he gives three reasons:  his eyes are sensitive to light, he refuses to give the white man the pleasure of that smiling face with understanding eyes, where despite the violent racial past, whites still expect the black man to make them feel more “comfortable,” so shades freak white people out, and lastly, he’s just plain cool.  They meet in a quiet moment when Bert is listening to the music of Walter Jackson on his headphones, Walter Jackson It's all over - YouTube (2:57), where Duke is curious what he’s listening too, claiming they both love “old-school” music. 

Losing much of the stereotypes and cliché’s that generally denigrate blacks and lessen their potential cultural impact, music is such an essential ingredient in the film, told in a freeform, essay-like experimental style that integrates black history with contemporary affairs, girlfriend issues, and anxiety about the future, where jazz music, hip hop, R & B, along with poetry readings further emphasize self-expression.  Randall Sisco is a street musician who appears throughout the film, where he acts as a kind of Greek chorus, offering blunt comments on what he observes, while there is also an unusually soulful version of “Caifornia Dreamin” reminiscent of Bobby Womack, Bobby Womack California Dreamin (1968 cover) - YouTube (3:19).  Using a handheld camera by Joe “Jody” Williams throughout, the 16 mm film has a spontaneous feel, where the pace is fast and loose and highly observant, covering a remarkable amount of territory, where the film aesthetic becomes a way of exploring the black experience, enhanced by the authenticity of such well-written, well-developed characters, even those in secondary roles, where the director leads them into inspired monologues, often expressed through long takes, with occasional jump cuts to offer jarring images that express a new experience or idea, becoming a meditation on black identity.  Whether then or now, students are well aware of stereotypes, how black men in particular are pigeonholed into acceptable, non-threatening career choices, where they are forced to follow existing rules and guidelines rather than use their imaginations to invent their own.  Some of the more inspired scenes reveal angered female indignation at the way black men typically mistreat them, where Bert is no different, though he probably realizes afterwards that he deserves a swift kick in the head.  Witty and poignant, the film offers a candid discussion on the black reality, using genuine characters and inspired musical choices, but it’s the poetry that elevates this film to another level, offering several samples from Nita as well as Bert’s final “Resurrection essay,” creating theatrical moments in time that deserve to be treasured and held in posterity.       

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