AFI film festival shines spotlight on racism and more
Sammy Davis, Jr.: I’ve Gotta Be Me

LOS ANGELES—The star-studded American Film Institute’s AFI FEST 2017, one of L.A.’s top annual film festivals, highlighted racism this year, with features and documentaries about African Americans, Native Americans, Australian Aborigines, etc. The film fete’s director, Jacqueline Lyanga, a young Black woman born in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, helped bestow an international vibe on the Nov. 9-16 annual extravaganza, held this year in Hollywood. Amidst Tinseltown’s Sturm und Drang about race, gender discrimination and sexual harassment, the festival included powerful films about racism, highlighted female talents, and screened other politically themed pictures. Here are some highlights:

Roman J. Israel, Esq.—Denzel Washington portrays a Sixties-style William Kunstler-esque attorney trying to cope with contemporary society in writer/director Dan Gilroy’s (Nightcrawlers) second feature. Co-stars Colin Farrell and Carmen Ejogo (Coretta Scott King in 2015’s Selma, the title character in 2000’s Sally Hemings: An American Scandal) appear as members of a fictitious organization that’s a cross between the ACLU and Black Lives Matter. It’s a cautionary tale about what happens when people stray from their ideals.

Denzel is almost unrecognizable (except when he laughs) as the schlubby title character, an activist attorney who seems to be somewhere on the autism or Asperger’s spectrum. This may be a clever metaphor for capturing the essence of someone out of step with his times, as Roman struggles to hold onto the “power to the people” values he was steeped in back in the day and is confronted by the harsh realities of the Trump era. Mainly a behind-the-scenes litigator, Roman is especially out of place when the partner who provided the small firm’s public face and courtroom pyrotechnics fighting the good fight suddenly dies. The firm is taken over by George Pierce (Farrell), who is more profit- than prophet-minded. Suddenly, Roman is thrust from behind-the-scenes litigration into the courthouse and limelight. As creeping materialism sets in, Roman abandons his fervent values, with devastating consequences.

Hostiles—Cherokee actor Wes Studi, who played the title character in 1993’s Geronimo, may become the first indigenous thespian to win an acting Oscar for his portrayal of Chief Yellow Hawk in Scott Cooper’s Old West epic. Christian Bale stars as a cavalry captain, Ben Foster as a soldier, Rosamund Pike as a woman whose family is butchered by Apaches, plus Adam Beach and Q’orianka Kilcher (Pocahontas in Terrence Malick’s The New World) as Cheyennes in this rumination on racism, redemption and how the West was lost.

Writer/helmer Cooper—whose directorial debut was 2009’s Crazy Heart, which scored Jeff Bridges a Best Actor Academy Award—was introduced at the TCL Chinese Theatre’s gala screening to much fanfare. In his speech about Hostiles Cooper practically screamed: “This is High ART!! So you better pay attention!” Predictably, the two-hour-plus Western is pretentiously ponderous, while Bale’s dialogue is often inaudible. The cowboys-and-Indians genre is known for being action-packed, but this thinking man’s version of the Western is slow-paced, punctuated by the inevitable, periodic gunplay.

Nevertheless, there is spectacular big screen imagery of Big Sky country, etc., Studi is stellar, and the would-be epic does make some powerful, much-needed points about the colossal, racist, unjust, unfair mistreatment (can you say “genocide?”) of America’s indigenous inhabitants, who like, you know, just happened to be here first. The lovely ending seems straight out of central casting for a South African Truth and Reconciliation tribunal, but is still moving and beautiful, especially in an era when the White House (and boy oh boy, do I mean white) is stirring up the racial pot. Here’s hoping the Academy will redress some of the cruel, stereotypical depictions of America’s Natives as “barbaric savages” by giving Wes Studi a well-deserved Oscar.

Sammy Davis, Jr.: I’ve Gotta Be MeSam Pollard’s 100-minute biopic (to air on PBS’ American Masters series) provides a historical chronicle of and personal look at the iconic singer/dancer/actor/activist. Davis’ politics are highlighted: On the one hand, he embraced Nixon and kissed Archie Bunker, but he also raised money and marched for civil rights with Dr. King. It’s unfair and unfortunate that Pollard leads off with Sammy’s Nixonian hug—shouldn’t we evaluate someone’s life in its entirety and not focus on the most odious objectionable moments?

As the doc shows, JFK snubbed Sammy by refusing to invite him to the White House during Democrat Kennedy’s Frank Sinatra-organized inaugural party there because Davis had—shudders—married a white woman. This doesn’t justify Sammy’s stance vis-à-vis Republican tricky Dick, but considering the performer’s risking of his neck and big donations to the “we shall overcome” movement, it doesn’t seem right that Pollard focuses on Davis’ lowest political point in his otherwise excellent documentary.

Of course, this biopic about a legendary entertainer contains plenty of clips, including his star turn as an eight-year-old in 1933’s delightful Rufus Jones for President opposite an adult Ethel Waters. There are plenty of Rat Pack vignettes, where Davis’ cavorting with Sinatra, Dean Martin, etc., was viewed by some as reflecting the era’s integration movement, although others may find the racial jokes and skits portrayed at Vegas showrooms and on TV to be cringeworthy. Surprisingly, Sammy’s expert impressions of celebs such as Bogie raised eyebrows because a Black man was imitating Caucasians, despite the fact that his mimicry was right on the mark. Unfortunately, what was likely Davis’ dramatic debut, opposite Eartha Kitt in the black and white film Anna Lucasta, is missing in action from this doc.

Sammy’s son Manny Davis and George Schlatter—who produced TV’s Laugh In, wherein Davis memorably spoofed an old time “Here comes de judge” comic routine—participated in an enjoyable post-screening panel.

Sweet Country—This is a sort of Down Under-set To Kill a Mockingbird as an Aborigine (Hamilton Morris) stands trial in 1929 in Australia’s Northern Territory for shooting a white man in what’s obviously self-defense. Sam Neill (Jurassic Park, Hunt for the Wilderpeople) and Bryan Brown (Breaker Morant, The Thorn Birds) co-star in this searing indictment of Aussie racism directed by Alice Springs-born Warwick Thornton. It beggars the imagination to watch the overt racism Australia’s indigenous people were subjected to, and how they internalized the institutionalized bigotry and contempt that viewed Aborigines as being subordinate to whites and less than human. In my view Sweet Country was AFI Fest 2017’s best film.

Mudbound—Another film about racism and friendship, set in 1940s Mississippi, starring Carey Mulligan, Jason Clake and Mary J. Blige, kicked off the festival and was directed by African American Dee Rees (helmer of the 2015 Bessie Smith biopic starring Queen Latifah).

Angelina Jolie—The actress/director and Loung Ung, who wrote the book First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers, which Jolie’s latest film is based on, spoke on “Collaborative Storytelling” and Cambodia, Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge, landmines, Cambodia’s film industry, and Jolie’s Cambodian son Maddox. Scenes from First They Killed My Father, which Jolie and Ung co-scripted, were screened. Did you know that Jolie is a Cambodian citizen?

Molly’s Game—Due to his sex scandal, Kevin Spacey’s latest feature, Ridley Scott’s All the Money in the World, was removed as AFI Fest’s closing night gala and replaced by Aaron Sorkin’s Molly’s Game. Before the screening, star Jessica Chastain paid tribute to Sorkin, as did the writer/director’s lead in The West Wing, Martin Sheen, who proposed that considering the current occupant of the White House, America needs Sorkin’s vision of a liberal president more than ever. Idris Elba and Kevin Costner co-star in Molly’s Game, which is based on a real-life high-stakes poker game raided by the FBI.

Although the best thing about this gala was the personal appearances by Chastain and Sheen, the vastly over-praised Sorkin was ballyhooed as a virtual second coming of the bard from Stratford-upon-Avon. When he spoke about the subject of his directorial debut, Sorkin likewise over-hyped the real life Molly Bloom. Despite her James Joycean moniker, Chastain’s character is a complete idiot, driven to self-destructive behavior, including risky sports-related activity, gambling and substance abuse. This woman clearly loathes herself: Lonely Molly has no love or sex life whatsoever, rebuffs the male or two who courts her, and turns away anybody paying a modicum of attention to her.

People have to be perceptive and not swallow hook, line and sinker whom the Powers That Be present to us as being smart, let alone brilliant. The self-hating Molly Bloom, who only attains a grain of self-awareness at the end of Sorkin’s pretentious, bloated 2-hour 20-minute waste of time, is similarly purported to be a brainstorm, but is in reality just another highfalutin’ dunce. All that glitters is not gold—including Oscars.

Spoor—Polish director Agnieszka Holland, who helmed 1991’s Europa, Europa and was Oscar-nominated for 2011’s In Darkness, described her latest film Spoor as “a feminist ecological thriller.” The animal rights movie features a middle-aged female protagonist. In an onstage Q&A after the screening the outspoken Holland discussed “this wave of women’s situation in the industry, women’s rights” and the downfall of Kevin Spacey, whom she’d directed in Netflix’s hit series House of Cards.

Wormwood—Errol Morris, who won the Best Documentary Oscar for 2003’s The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara and directed the 2013 Donald Rumsfeld doc The Unknown Known, is back with Wormwood. The hybrid 4-hour fiction/nonfiction film explores the CIA’s 1950s mind control program and a possible suicide.

Agnes Varda—The so-called “Mother of the French New Wave” participated in a “World Cinema Master in Conversation” after the screening of her new documentary, Faces Places, which exalts ordinary women across France, including a trucker, dockworkers’ wives and a miner’s daughter. At the end Varda goes to meet one of her old Nouvelle Vague friends, Jean-Luc Godard, at Rolle, Switzerland, with eyebrow-raising results. Varda received an honorary Academy Award at a special ceremony while she was in L.A.

The Leisure Seeker—Donald Sutherland was also given an honorary Oscar as AFI Fest took place. In his latest movie Sutherland and Dame Helen Mirren co-star as an elderly couple who embark on an adventurous road trip to Hemingway’s home in Key West, driving all the way from New England in an old beat-up RV called “the Leisure Seeker,” and raise end-of-life and right-to-die issues. It was wonderful to not only see these veteran thespians act together, but to appear in person and introduce the film at the Egyptian Theatre, with Mirren accompanied by her film director husband Taylor Hackford (An Officer and a Gentleman, Against All Odds and Ray.)

Robert Altman Retrospective—Sutherland was also seen in the 1970 antiwar black comedy M*A*S*H, one of a dozen Altman films, including Nashville (presented by Lily Tomlin in person) and Vincent and Theo, screened during AFI Fest.

AFI’s several films focusing on racism enhance Hollywood’s progress from the Oscars-too-white controversy toward greater diversity. Of course, AFI Fest 2017 presented much more than the films encapsulated above, but to paraphrase Hamlet, “There are more films in heaven and earth, Horatio, / Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”

Ed Rampell is an L.A.-based film historian/critic and co-organizer of the 70th Anniversary Commemoration of the Hollywood Blacklist which can be found on C-SPAN’s website at this link.


Ed Rampell
Ed Rampell

Ed Rampell is an L.A.-based film historian/critic and co-organizer of the 70th Anniversary Commemoration of the Hollywood Blacklist.