Dir. Roy Ward Baker | Cast: John Mills, Sylvia Syms, Brenda de Banzie, Earl Cameron, Johnny Sekka | UK Drama 93′
Sixty years ago Sylvia Syms bravely accepted two parts as women facing ostracism because of their choice of partner. Most people know about Victim, but far fewer have seen this film, ironically preceded on Talking Pictures by a disclaimer warning audiences that the offensive language belonged to 1961, in those far off days when the opening credits were accompanied by a brief snatch of calypso rather than reggae or rap.
Yet the characters using such language are shown to be in the wrong; while the sentiments expressed – by members of all communities – are still routinely expressed today, but with less candour. And you only have to pick up any newspaper today at random to discover the sores this film reveals are still fresh. @Richard Chatten
Khadifa Wong’s life experience as a dancer informs her lively if over-talkie debut feature about the origins of jazz dance.
Celebrating its international premiere at this year’s Raindance Film Festival, the film traces the roots of this expressive and iconically American dance form from its early history in the 19th century and through to the current day. And it all start during slavery – wouldn’t you know? Back then it was a vital form of protest, not just a way of expressing enjoyment. Well that certainly makes it a topical film with the current Black Lives Matter month in full swing.
Wong’s ground-breaking documentary also offers a political and social chronicle of the times, alighting on more weighty issues of racism, socialism and sexism while offering up a passionate and thought-provoking musical biopic.
The dancer and director has delved into the archives enlivening her film with cuttings and news footage. Over fifty experts offer up their valuable insight from choreographers to teachers and dancers themselves so it does occasionally feel overwhelming to have so much knowledge and opinion in the space of less than two hours. But the movement and dance elements are what really makes this a winner and Matt Simpkins’ camerawork captures the essence of bodies gyrating to great affect.
Curiously enough it was white men in the shape of Bob Fosse, Jerome Robbins and Jack Cole who really emerged as the forerunners of the form. And one of the most engaging talking heads, dramaturg and choreographer Melanie George shares her thoughts about why these luminaries were so influential while Black innovators were often lesser known. And she discovers that their ability to codify the various forms of jazz dance with Hollywood and Broadway that gave it a different profile that took it above and beyond its roots and origins. The lesser-known artists also have their say, Frank Hatchett, Pepsi Bethel and Fred Benjamin Wong amongst them – although none is particularly famous to mainstream audiences.
Wong cleverly makes the point that jazz dance was actually a pared down version of the tribal form of communication for many Africans, and particularly slaves, enabling them to express themselves with their bodies in highly syncopated, exaggerated and meaningful ways – almost like silent film – relying on strong facial and body language – to make their feelings known. The Pattin’ Juba and Cakewalk were both dances that originated in the plantations of the Deep South where enslavement relied heavily on this kind of vital communication for protest, or even survival.
Eventually jazz became more sophisticated and sinuous moving through the bebop and hard bop years and we start to recognise names such as Charlie Parker, Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk. There is also some impressive clips that show James Brown and Little Richard and really convey the seriousness of their political message – they were not just merely there to entertain.
A documentary about dance expression should always focus primarily on the dancing, and this is the only slight criticism that one can level at Uprooted. Wong has done so much research for her deep dive into the subject seems to focus on talking and commentary over movement and music. When we see Chita Rivera and Graciela Daniele doing their stuff the film comes alive — so their stories of segregation and racial alienation seem all the more poignant. There is a fascinating piece about Patrick Swayze’s mother Patsy, being the only white dance teacher in Texas to allow Black children into her school. If there’s one talent those entertainers have it’s the ability to move their bodies in magnetic and beguiling ways. And Black dancers have it in spades. MT
RAINDANCE FILM FESTIVAL 2020 | 28 OCTOBER – 7 NOVEMBER 2020
Sara Driver’s first documentary Boom for Realis a lively loose-limbed look at the high octane force of nature that was Jean-Michel Basquiat – arguably one of America’s most mercurial and influential artists of late 20th century, whose work is now more valuable than ever, a painting selling for USD 81 million in Christie’s New York in May 2021.
Under a pseudonym SAMO (which was originally the duo of Basquiat and Al Diaz) Basquiat was barely out of his teens when he sprang to fame in the Lower East Side art scene by means of sharply sardonic graffiti epigrams that were posted on school walls – US Bansky-style, announcing his critical talent to amuse, for want of a gallery to sponsor him. And it’s through Basquiat’s prodigious teen and twenty-something output that Sara Driver chronicles the early days of hip hop, punk and street art, brought to life with sparky commentary from his friends and collaborators. With its choppy editing style and blitzy soundtrack, Boom for Real: The Late Teenage Years of Jean-Michel Basquiat sketches out a life pulsating with vim and vitality that soared like a meteor but would eventually crash and burn in New York’s Neon nightclubs and graffitied backwaters.
Chipping in with wit and repartee there is Jim Jarmusch, Fab 5 Freddy, and Patricia Field who offer intimate access to Basquiat’s electric personality and creative energy and the effect it had on the contemporary art scene. This impressionistic documentary catapults us right into the era, picturing the pivotal sociocultural switch from the 70s to the 80s. Driver invigorates her film with a plethora of paintings, posters, audio recordings, original film and archive footage.
Intriguing and entertaining, Driver’s film captures the free-wheeling, chaotic intensity of a time in history where she was also a protagonist working as a director in her own right, and an actor featuring in Jarmusch’s Permanent Vacation and Stranger Than Paradise. Despite its ratherscattergun approach, actually working to its advantage, Boom for Real is chockfull of insight and pithy commentary, conjuring up the sporadic nature of this drug-fuelled creative geyser.
Serving as the perfect companion piece to Celine Danhier’s Blank City (2010) Sara Driver’s doc further fleshes out that Neo-expressionist era, with a highly personalised and first hand testament to a time of gritty uncertainty – danger even – when the New York’s power structures and politics where artistically critiqued by the clever creative genius of this legendary wild child. MT