With the exception of one narrative chiller and a look at singer Karen Carpenter, the best films I saw were documentaries on the lives and careers of significant African Americans.
This year’s Woods Hole Film Festival presented a distinctive program of lesser seen narrative and documentary movies. With the exception of one narrative chiller and a look at singer Karen Carpenter, the best films I saw were documentaries on the lives and careers of significant African-Americans. Two of these were real eye-openers.
Going to Mars: The Nikki Giovanni Project This is an impressionistic documentary on the life and work of the acclaimed, much-awarded poet, who turned 80 this year. The title comes from a line of her poetry: “The trip to Mars can only be understood through Black Americans.” The idea of transport, reinvention, and empowerment alluded to in that sentiment echoes throughout her work. This film flips forward and backward in time, drawing on recent interviews with other Black artists. Archival footage and striking images are interwoven with readings from Giovanni’s verse. The writer writes and speaks eloquently about history, family, independence, aging, and Black liberation. In an interview from 1971, at age 28, she holds her own in conversation with 48-year-old James Baldwin. She is often smiling, but this is not a woman who suffers fools or compromises.
With Peter Bradley The octogenarian abstract painter shares his thoughts on life as we watch him go about his creative work. Every day, outside the shipping-container he uses for a studio, Bradley sets out large canvases onto which he pours and drips water and paints. The results are rivers of color. “I watch them grow” he explains. Bradley’s art employs happenstance and the vicissitudes of the natural world to create glowing, densely textured paintings.
Bradley’s last show was in 1972 at the André Emmerich Gallery in New York. In those days, Black abstract painters were rare, solo shows even rarer. He was most likely the first Black artist to be represented by a major New York gallery as well as the first Black art dealer on Madison Avenue. In those days he met numerous celebrities and held long conversations with successful contemporary artists. Always a sharp dresser and a lover of jazz, which he says inspires his work, Bradley became close friends with the period’s great jazz musicians. Eventually, he fell on hard times, even spending a short period living on the streets of New York. His passion for painting never wavered. Bradley currently lives and works in Saugerties, New York, where both he and the documentary’s director, Alex Rappoport, reside. With Peter Bradley is more than just the rediscovery of a neglected artist. We watch him, in action, creating art as he speaks eloquently about his commitment to a meaningful life.
Marin Jones uncovers the astounding legacy of her grandfather in the documentary, King of Kings: Chasing Edward Jones. Jones was one of three sons of fiery preacher Edward Perry Jones, who died in 1924. Following his death, the sons organized a numbers racket in which thousands of people, for as little as a penny, could buy a chance to win money by hitting the daily number, drawn from a spinning cylinder. Edward took charge of the enterprise and he did so without violence or subterfuge. Because he was honest about the game’s finances, he was trusted by the people and became a multimillionaire. His organization was called the Policy Kings.
When the law threatened his operation, Jones moved with his family to Paris. He eventually moved back to Chicago, but the Italian mob muscled in. He fled again and took the family by train to Mexico. This fascinating documentary moves along with the aid of archival footage, clever animations, and informative interviews, including one with musician Quincy Jones, whose father worked as a carpenter for the elder Jones. Sylvie Laurent drives home the film’s conclusion: “As long as white supremacy is something to feel guilty about … we will have to rely on African Americans to tell their own story. But we have to allow them to. As Frederick Douglass said, ‘power is never given — it’s seized.’” So you have to seize the right to tell your own story.” It is surprising that Jones’s story is so little known — it calls out for a feature film adaptation.
Karen Carpenter: Starving for Perfection Gifted with one of the purest voices in pop music and an accomplished drummer, Karen, along with her brother Richard, made up an enormously popular duo. They were a sensation, but their music, in contrast with other pop acts of the ’70s, was often regarded as syrupy and out of touch. They were monitored closely by their parents, particularly an overbearing mother. Despite that, the family remained close. Richard became addicted to Quaaludes, and in 1983 Karen passed away from anorexia. Todd Haynes tells the same story in his short 1987 documentary Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story. The stars of that effort are, ironically, Barbie dolls. Still, despite the quirky format, it approached Karen’s problems with understanding and respect. This new documentary uses celebrity testimonials and a wealth of archival and concert footage to help us appreciate Karen’s accomplishments and her extraordinary gift.
Somewhere Quiet This feature film was written and directed by Cantabrigian Olivia West Lloyd. Meg (Jennifer Kim), after being rescued from a mysterious kidnapping, leaves for a secluded Cape Cod family cabin owned by her husband (Kentucker Audley). She is hoping to find healing and solace, but the isolation turns out to be anything but restful. The surprising appearance of Scott’s cousin Madelin (Marin Ireland), with her unctuous grin and overly calm demeanor, adds to Meg’s growing discomfort. The bond between Madelin and Meg’s husband, particularly their continual (conspiratorial?) whispering, leaves the protagonist feeling marginalized. Increasingly upset, Meg goes into a psychological tailspin driven by hallucinations and paranoia. The film’s unsettling atmosphere is calculated to leave viewers off-kilter: Is Meg suffering from PTSD? Or is she the victim of manipulation and gaslighting?