I did not want to like this movie. I intentionally avoided this one at the theater despite it being recommended to me by several people. The reason being is that I disapprove of movies containing black characters where their only worth is in the fact that they are black. Meaning, Hollywood only uses black characters when the purpose of the film is to exploit victims of racism. If we have a role for a doctor, lawyer, fem fatale, supervillian, superhero, love interest, rival, mother, daughter, husband, father, killer, angel, demon, cowboy, or alien, they give it to a white person.
The only good movies with black people in them are the ones that are specifically about being black. Well, that and sports (Hmmm?!). I saw an interview once with an actor who said that an actor of a marginalized group (race, ethnicity, gender, or sexual orientation) will know he/she has finally been accepting when they get the juicy role of a serial killer because they finally see you as an “actor” not a “fill in the demographic actor.” Over the past 5 years I’ve noticed things have gotten dramatically better. In the last year alone, many of my favorite movies (Bridesmaids, MI4, Unstoppable, X-Men) have contained black actors/actresses in roles where not once in the entire movie do they even mention the fact that they are black. They are just characters. Now certainly, movies about race are very important and they’ve played a critical role in the progression of race relations in this country. But those shouldn’t be the only movies black folks get to be in.
After its nomination, I knew I would have to finally watch this film for my Oscar preview (see the sacrifice I make for my faithful readers) but reluctantly went into it with the prejudice of “another movie where all the discriminated black folks are saved by a white person.” I am here to admit that I was wrong. This is a very good movie. There are great characters, full of depth and nuance. Sure there are a couple cartoon-like bigots that you take pleasure in getting what’s coming to them but for the most part the screenplay and the actors bring their A game.
I did learn a few things. Turns out, white people in 1960’s Mississippi were in fact retarded (I know I’m not supposed to use the R word but I can’t think of any other word to describe people who can’t make a sandwich, change a baby, or put on a coat). Also, without the help, all white people including the babies would have starved. They should have skipped the bus boycott and went straight to “make your own damn fried chicken.” That would have shut Jim Crow down day one.* Much of the film revolves around access to toilets which sets up several very funny scenes that keep the weight of the larger political and moral issues from crushing the story. However, the most impressive feat may be that with its cross-racial/cross-socioeconomic/cross-society female bonding, this film avoids the white savior/helpless black folks trap that Hollywood loves so dearly. Maybe Hollywood is finally getting it.
*BTW…do not watch this movie on an empty stomach. 50% of it takes place in someone’s kitchen while cooking extravagant southern food and by the end I was absolutely starving to death. It’s like watching a team of Paula Deens for 2 ½ hours.
The Tree of Life
This bastard is a doozy. I know it’s unlikely a single one of my readers has actually seen this film and that’s probably a good thing. As I’ve mentioned many times, I’m a director’s film-goer and in general I like very visual filmmakers. My favorite director is the late Stanley Kubrick and my favorite film of his is 2001: A Space Odyssey. If you’ve made it through that masterpiece of minimalism and visual/auditory spectacle you know where I’m coming from when I say, The Tree of Life makes Odyssey seem like a Michael Bay production of Transformers. This monster is one existential mind trip.
Brought to you by the world’s most divisive director, Terrence Malick, creator of prior epics, The Thin Red Line and The New World, this one is a hard sell.
There is no real narrative to speak of and therefore comes off as an unbroken string of captured snippets of a tough-love 1950’s father (Brad Pitt) raising/disciplining his 3 bruising crew-cut sons juxtaposed against the nurturing images and philosophizing of their delicate and loving mother. Intermixed are small vignettes of one of the now grown sons (who appears to be an architect or something and honestly I wasn’t even sure which of the 3 sons he actually was. One of the sons may actually die at some point but I’m not even sure about that-whew!) portrayed by Sean Penn in modern-day, contemplating his role in the world and the meaning of life.
If that wasn’t enough for you, the transitions between the two life phases are sprinkled with gorgeous shots of the cosmos, beginning at its fiery birth through to its black hole dissolution. I’ve heard the Blu-ray director’s cut version has been re-titled as simply “WTF?!” The movie is truly breathtaking and I got goose bumps more than once at the majestic spectacle of the cosmos and the stunning cinematography of post war-suburban life. For me there was meaning everywhere. The masculine/aggressive/hard/violent images of the father forging the boys to survive in a brutal world (cut to boiling lava and violent waves of pre-life covered Earth) against the soft textural love of the mother’s embrace (cut to soft linens, dew covered grass, and warming sunshine) so that their souls are not squelched. The contrasting yin/yang that grows the boy into a man also created the universe (or vice-versa, I’m not sure).
The seeds are sewn and through a combination of female-driven nurture and male-driven perseverance life survives. It’s a simplistic view of the world but if you have seen either of the previously mentioned Malick films you know subtlety and nuance are not his strength. It’s pretty heady stuff but daring film making. The film got more attention after being released when Penn essentially admitted he didn’t really know what it was about either.
This film is not for most, but for me the ride was worth taking. The Tree of Life reminds me of a Stephen Colbert joke where he quips “NPR has interrupted its search for the world’s most inaccessible jazz to bring you this message.” The Tree of Life, like its director/writer is certainly a one-of-a-kind and that’s probably a good thing as well.
I’ve previously reviewed this film. You can read it here. Guess I was wrong about that rotten tomatoes score. People really did like this movie. Didn’t get it then and still don’t. It’s a boring movie with no real emotional connection to the characters and a cheesy tacked on relationship between the main character and his daughter in an attempt to give the film emotional grounding. It’s a classic Friday night Netflix rental. A fine movie but not worthy of a best picture nomination.