Archive | Country Matters

Hilton Als on ‘Voyage Au Congo’

It’s not an overstatement to say Hilton Als is one of the most important cultural critics working today. The theater reviewer for The New Yorker, he also is the author of the essay collections The Women (1996) and White Girls (2013), both highly original takes on the intersection of class, gender, race, and sexuality.

At Brooklyn’s packed Light Industry venue on July 16, he discussed author André Gide’s “Voyage au Congo,” a 1927 silent documentary that examines African “natives” with an appallingly detached curiosity. Als called it out with his characteristic mix of compassion and candor.

“This is a messed-up film,” he began, clad in a seersucker blazer and white bucks that put the resident hipsters to shame. “But it taught me not to look away.” He went on to discuss the abundant nudity in the film: “Gide had a lot of trouble with the black female body,” he said, and acknowledged the many other white male authors who had the same trouble, including poet Arthur Rimbaud. “Even educated people can be rude and ridiculous,” he said, and discussed recent instances in which colleagues and students had made nasty comments about his own physicality. (Als sometimes refers to himself as a “negress.”) “Perhaps this film would best be shown as a double feature with something by [black folksinger] Carole Walker. Perhaps cinema is not the best way to examine how black bodies have been treated.”

But he went on to say it is important that films like “Voyage au Congo” continue to be watched, so long as films made by people “in the margins” are watched as well. “We need to take in this material and change how it fits into our story and our society. As the world changes, this is our right and our responsibility.”

The applause from the usually too-cool-for-school audience was deafening.

A Fascinating Tattoo: ‘God Loves the Fighter’

Clanging and cantankerous, “God Loves the Fighter” is a sight for sore eyes, though it also might make them sorer. The first feature-length film from writer/director Damian Marcano, it is a dance hall reggae opera pulsing with the rhythms of Port-au-Spain’s gritty Laventville neighborhood, and it is ablaze with a never-ending explosion of color in every sense of that word. Narrated by Lou Lyons as street person King Curtis, a sort of rap-poet Greek chorus who exposes the real dirt behind local news headlines, it focuses on the story of Charlie (The Freetown Collective’s Muhammad Muwakil), a young guy pulled down by the criminal elements that surround him.

Though at times it feels more like a feature-length music video than anything since Baz Luhrmann’s “Gatsby,” this is a wholly original endeavor – and not only because, as a Trinidadian gangster movie, it serves up a much-needed corrective to the excuses for celeb vacations that are Hollywood films set in the Caribbean. Shot during the 2011 state of emergency to fight crime that was declared by Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar, “God Loves the Fighter” whirls in a dust cloud of past and present, fantasy and nightmare, and prostitution, church confessionals, and cocaine. Relentless and sweaty, scenes blur into each other with the beautiful intensity of a heat map – all sea greens, bold reds, and black skin that is properly lit (which is still a shameful rarity). Eventually, though, a too-pat tale emerges from the clamor. In fact, as presented by Curtis, the film actually booms its messages at us in a big basso profundo; even its subtitles bellow in neon yellow. Continue Reading →

Little Big Hearts on the Evening Train

I was on the subway tonight, sitting in the small enclave between the sliding doors and the passage to the next car: two-seat benches on either side of the aisle. Next to me was a weary-looking woman with a beautiful headwrap and big earrings. In her arms was a baby with the saddest, brightest eyes I’d ever seen on a human. (I see eyes like that on dogs and sometimes cats.) His sadness didn’t seem to stem from any mistreatment; though visibly tired, the woman was holding him with a tenderness that seemed constant to me. His sadness felt soul-heavy, as if he registered her pain and wished he could do something about it. More than that, he seemed like the kind of very small person who’d been worrying about everything and everybody even before he was sprung from his mother’s body. Perhaps I am a sadist: It made him cuter to me. Continue Reading →

"All, everything I understand, I understand only because I love."
― Leo Tolstoy