Harlem, circa 1990. A burly, balding white man in a dog-collar is leading a demonstration campaigning for a new traffic light. 'We're poor, we're black, we're Hispanic,' he declares. Meanwhile, his cousin, a leading Hollywood director, is recording the event for posterity. Jonathan Demme is filming his long-lost Cousin Bobby.
Demme (whose last work was the multi-Oscared Silence of the Lambs, but who has also made fine documentaries such as the Talking Heads portrait Stop Making Sense) wanted to make a film about the New York ghettos. Coincidentally, he was contacted by his cousin, Robert Castle, whom he had not seen since childhood. Imagine Demme's delight when he discovered that his relative, now 60, was a radical minister plying his vocation in the heart of Harlem.
Castle emerges as a kindly, well- meaning man, though the film discreetly skirts around the breakdown of his marriage; one supposes he was too firmly wedded to his parish. Certainly he's always espousing some community cause - he's seen in the film (shot over 30months) variously campaigning for a traffic light, fighting to save a children's unit at the local hospital or simply lobbying to have a hole in the road filled in.
Half-way through, Demme embarks on a sharp detour. Back in the Sixties, Castle, it seems, was involved with the Black Panther leader Isaiah Rawley. And so we have reminiscences, we have tributes, we have a pilgrimage to his forgotten grave. At one point Bobby can be heard anxiously telling his cousin: 'I don't want to romanticise the Panthers,' but the damage has been done. We hear how great it would be to have a film made about him. Soon we are wondering why the hell this film isn't about him.
But you can guess why Isaiah Rawley is only the dedicatee of Cousin Bobby. This is no self-effacing documentary; it oscillates uneasily between personal family scrapbook and chronicle of a beleaguered community. In the end it's no contest. Demme, who refers to himself throughout, rather archly, as Cousin Jonathan, is constantly lurking there in the corner of the frame; you have the impression that Castle is being filmed, not because of his own work, but because he's the director's relative (the same reason, of course, why the film is being shown in cinemas at all). At one point Demme even saunters in front of the camera during the conversation he's supposedly filming. Harlem and its people wind up as just a colourful backdrop, the brothers and sisters a poor second to the impeccably PC cousins. However worthy its subject, however sterling its intentions, this comes across as another piece of radical cheek.
For a patronising (and ill-made) white film about black issues, however, The Power of One takes a lot of licking. This was directed by John Avildsen, who made Rocky and The Karate Kid, and contains elements of both. It's about a little English boy growing up in South Africa during the Second World War. He survives orphanhood and bullying at his Afrikaner school by learning to box and by sitting at the feet of a string of elderly, disposable mentors, none of whom seems to last more than about 20 minutes of story-time. Finally he becomes a kind of mythic, Messianic leader to the adoring township dwellers and African tribes. This film is both dull and deeply insulting, and is a prime example of Hollywood sanctimoniously pointing the finger at racism on distant shores when, as last May's riots proved, it would do better to put its own house in order.
And so to black-on-black with Straight Out of Brooklyn, a first film by the 19- year-old Matty Rich. What, you groan, another film about a bunch of housing- project youths toting a gun? But this isn't another gang movie (there is a crime, but it's executed with endearing ineptness). It doesn't have a deafening rap soundtrack; the music is lyrical and plaintive. And it isn't afflicted by the casual sexism of almost all new black cinema. In short, Rich has eschewed all the easy choices than would have made his movie commercially attractive - a hit of the order, say, of New Jack City. But his film is infinitely the better for it: in his story of a youth contemplating crime as an escape from the ghetto, and of the family and friends around him, Rich has succeeded in creating a large gallery of sympathetic, rounded characters.
The technique is primitive: in most of the (crudely lit and sound-recorded) scenes, he just points the camera at what's happening, often recording it in a single take - but then that's excusable considering the film cost a princely dollars 100,000. Its power springs from what happens in those scenes - Rich has drawn remarkable performances from all concerned: a confrontation between the crushed, alcoholic father and his battered but still loyal wife segues with virtuoso ease from comedy, to threat, to tenderness. The script has some understandable navetes, but it is passionate, and rather more complex in its grasp of the characters and choices facing them than, say, Juice, whose writer-director is in his forties. By the way, Demme can claim brownie points for helping this gifted beginner complete the picture.
Two flawed thrillers complete the week. In Knight Moves, Christopher Lambert plays a master chess-player and serial killer suspect, and the plot revelations plod along several leagues behind the audience. White Sands, by contrast, has a smart-aleck script that loses itself in endless entanglements before fetching up with our old friend, the military- industrial complex. But there are compensations - the stunning New Mexico sandscapes and energetic character acting, from Willem Dafoe as a local sheriff who bumbles into an international gun- running conspiracy, Mickey Rourke as his friendly neighbourhood CIA spook and the ever-reliable M Emmett Walsh as an autopsy doctor with a refreshingly pragmatic approach to his craft.
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