Apr 29, 2009

Tribeca 09': Everybody's Protest Film - On Salt of the Sea, Black Dynamite

Having been admitted to the Tribeca Film Festival press corps at the last minute, after the festival's first weekend had come and gone, any hope of having a coherent and thoroughly planned screening agenda was immediately cast aside. You look at a grab bag of titles screening at any given time and go with your intuition. If a festival has good programming, as Tribeca, at least in its leaner, meaner incarnation, seems to, then you have a fairly good chance of finding some surprises. The first couple of narratives I've stumbled into in the past few days, while both on my radar, were surely not tops on my list of things to see. While nothing about either of these vastly different films bowled me over, when viewed in close proximity, they speak volumes about each others successes and failures.

Annemarie Jacir's Salt of the Sea, which screened in Cannes' Un Certain Regard last year and is making its US debut here, is an earnest, handsomely lensed protest movie, an angry and humorless slice of oppression that centers on a beautiful Palestinian-American who travels to the West Bank with the desire to settle there and reclaim her grandfather's money, which the British-Palestinian Bank has withheld since he was expelled from his home in Jaffa by the Israelis in 1948. The bank, which no longer recognizes the account, refuses to give her the money, an amount which totals somewhere in the neighborhood of $15,000 US dollars. Soraya, played with great intensity by Suheir Hammad, plots to rob the bank with the help of Emad, a naturalized Palestinian who, unlike his inevitable love interest, only wants to leave the West Bank for a better life in North America. They flee to Israel after successfully robbing the bank, but face constant harassment and fear as they travel toward their respective families' original hometowns of Jaffa and Dawayima.

Why has this luminous young American woman left the relative comfort of life in Brooklyn (well, so we assume - she looks like Park Slope material) to become a criminal in the Middle East? She certainly never articulates or reveals experiences or ideas from her previous life that make this leap into heedless identity politics and dangerous if justified theft ring true. Jacir isn't interested in expositing Soraya's personal motives, other than placing her desire to become truly Palestinian within political and historical machinations; the movie never refrains from offering us another example of Israeli contempt, paranoia or arrogance, never misses a chance to reference the economic and militaristic dominance wielded over the Palestinians. Yet once Soraya returns to her families seaside home, now occupied by a complacent and attractive Israeli woman who puts her up for a night but refuses to sell her the home back, Soraya practically sounds like Netanyahu refusing to discuss peace with Abbas until the Palestinian Authority officially "recognizes" Israel's Jewish "character". "I get to decide if you stay. These windows, these walls, they were all stolen. They are all mine!" she yells at the befuddled Israeli woman, who of course isn't interested in recapitulating the reasons that she gets to live here (i.e., the guilt of Europe) and Soraya doesn't. Reconciliation is never an option in Salt of the Sea, and in larger mini-genre of Palestinian protest movies that has sprung up over the past few years; considering the possibility of the oppressor's humanity is also off limits.

James Baldwin, in his famous essay "Everybody's Protest Novel", which attempts to reveal the limitations of the protest genre in American literature, from Harriet Beecher Stowe to Richard Wright, offers some insight into this type of project when he says:

It must be remembered that the oppressed and the oppressor are bound together within the same society; they accept the same criteria, they share the same beliefs, they both alike depend of the same reality. Within the cage it is romantic, more, meaningless, to speak of a "new" society as the desire of the oppressed, for that shivering dependence on the props of reality which he shares with the Herrenvolk makes a truly "new" society impossible to conceive... To flee or not, to move or not, it is all the same; his doom is written on his forehead, it is carried in his heart.

Perhaps this is why the two-state solution, referenced as an endorsement in a conversation early in the film, isn't something Soraya feels much affinity to or any desire to work towards. The solemn fact of a project like this, which is badly needed given the rampant misinformation about this particular conflict in the western media, is that such devotion to empty archetypes and one note characterizations, however effectively rendered, creates a vacuum around the emotional lives of the characters that sucks out everything but the anger of the oppressed, which in turn becomes a self-fuffilling prophesy. That the film fails to provide an Israeli counterpoint besides the banality of evil (and in this case, the ability for the formerly oppressed to take up the mantle of the oppressor) is unfortunate, even while it remains unnecessary; it would have made up for the imposed humorlessness and prodded the audience to open dialogue as opposed to the feelings of retrenchment and/or shame that Hebrew audiences, in the Middle East and the West, are likely to experience after watching Jacir's promising but problematic debut.

Imposed humorlessness is never a term one would use to describe Black Dynamite, the blaxploitation send up which takes a genre that was essentially one of earnest protest and makes fun of its myriad deficiencies. Grafting elements of Three the Hard Way, Coffy, Dolemite and Black Belt Jones onto a narrative that ups the absurdity levels about as high as they can go, Scott Sanders' first feature since his under appreciated HBO film Thick As Thieves is quite alot of fun for both the uninitiated and those who've seen Black Caesar a dozen times (me), but it lacks the sophisticated critique that the best blaxploitation movies, despite their rough edges, imposed on unsuspecting and uncritical young black audiences, most of whom were lined up for cathartic experiences of black rage and agency that only reenforced the stymying black essentialism that African-American culture endured for the following three and a half decades.

Michael Jai White is very funny as the title character, a Vietnam vet and one man killing machine who is out to avenge his brother, who died at the hand's of white mobsters while working for the police as an undercover operative. The supporting cast, which includes under appreciated performers of 90s Black B movies like Bokeem Woodbine and Salli Richardson-Whitfield (in the Pam Grier role, minus the feminist window dressing) have some fine moments, as do people as disparate as John Salley, Richard Edson and Arsenio Hall. Yet one can't help but watch this movie and sense, regardless of how much dick shrinking malt liquor is on display, that there was a opportunity missed here. I know, I know, i've thought about the ideological implications of blaxploitation more than most, but the writers and filmmakers, despite delivering a fun and involving (if overly episodic) movie, seem on autopilot when it comes to dealing with just why black audiences could take these movies seriously in the 70s. They forget that Sweetback and its progeny, however bad most proved to be, were actual protest movies and the best of them, like The Spook Who Sat By The Door and The Final Comedown were relevant and thoughtful accounts of Negro grievance and desire. At least when we couldn't see the boom mikes.