When “Love Jones” opened in theaters in 1997, it was an outlier. Still is.
Hollywood doesn’t make many films about the romantic lives of African-Americans. Written and directed by Columbia College alum Theodore Witcher, the Chicago-shot relationship drama is based on his own dating experiences as a 20-something.
Then and now, “Love Jones” also represents something more complex, LA Times reporter Tre’vell Anderson writes in a recent oral history of the film. At its core, “Love Jones” is about “opportunities people of color know exist for them — in love, life and career.”
Starring Nia Long and Larenz Tate, “it was difficult for Witcher as a first-time director to show these possibilities,” Anderson notes, “especially when most black films on theater marquees at the time were more like ‘Menace II Society’ and ‘Boyz n the Hood.’ Hollywood wanted to make money, and it wasn’t clear that a black romantic drama could do that.”
Witcher will talk about “Love Jones” at screening later this month when the film closes out the 2017 Black Harvest Film Festival, which continues through Aug. 31 at the Gene Siskel Film Center. As always, the fest brings in a variety of genres. This year, I took a look at some of the documentaries on offer.
“Whitney: Can I Be Me” (8:30 p.m. Friday and 6 p.m. Saturday) Director Nick Broomfield (whose past music docs include “Kurt & Courtney” and “Biggie & Tupac”) relies on previously unseen backstage and concert footage as a way into Whitney Houston’s story.
Something about the film feels quietly cynical. It’s as if every interview, every piece of archival footage were presented as evidence of something, rather than a deeper sense of who she was as a person.
She would have turned 54 this week had she not drowned in a hotel bathtub in 2012. In an interview with Newsweek magazine, Broomfield offers this assessment: Houston was “engulfed in a stratospheric fame that she didn’t really want, but sacrificed her own happiness and fulfillment for the sake of those around her. Perhaps that is why drugs became a coping mechanism.” This feels mostly right, and it’s why the documentary feels so profoundly sad. She loved singing, we know that. That voice. That force of personality. That sense of style. But the business of being a celebrity? No.
What the film does capture is how sensitive she was at times. Sitting in a restaurant with husband Bobby Brown, he says their daughter has gained weight. Houston nips that conversation in the bud. She’s a star’s kid, Houston tells him, that’s a lot of pressure; just lay off. But a moment later she’s crying and it feels like both concern and anger that her kid has to deal with any of this — meaning, the life Houston and Brown brought her into, with all that it entailed.
There are also clips from old TV interviews — with Diane Sawyer, Katie Couric and others — and looking back, it’s sort of amazing that Houston submitted to them. They’re politely exploitative and gruesome. And it makes you glad that stars such as Beyonce in more recent times have chosen not to participate in this particular form of performative celebrity. Houston allowed it to happen, but did she know there was another way? What’s interesting is how defiant she seems in those interviews. It’s the truth and a mask, hiding all kinds of insecurities I’m not sure any of us were even fully aware of, despite the headlines.
“On the Sly: In Search of the Family Stone” (8:30 p.m. Aug. 25 and 6 p.m. Aug. 26) Director Michael Rubenstone’s documentary is not so much about Sly Stone — who withdrew from public life in the 1980s — as it is about the filmmaker himself. He just isn’t the draw needed to make this kind of thing work.
Rubenstone spent more than 10 years trying to track down Stone, mostly to no avail (despite getting awfully close). Stone’s career includes classic funk hits such as “Everyday People” and “Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin),” and Rubenstone goes over some of that back story. But as a film, it’s more navel-gazy than a rigorous portrait of anything but Rubenstone’s own obsession and occasional ennui. There’s also the distinctly uncomfortable feeling of watching a film try to force something from Stone, a once-famous person who has since chosen to live more privately. Rubenstone isn’t the guy to unpack that state of mind or consider it against a larger pop cultural landscape.
Two years ago, Stone unsuccessfully sued to collect $5 million in royalties; a lack of money coupled with addiction have been ongoing problems. Clearly, he doesn’t want to talk about it. Any of it.
“Floyd Norman: An Animated Life” (3:15 p.m. Aug. 26) Filming started a few years back on this documentary about longtime animator Floyd Norman. He was 79 and still hanging around the Disney animation campus in an unofficial (and unpaid) capacity. By the time the film ends a year later, Norman has been rehired. It’s a fascinating push-pull relationship he has with Disney, captured here by director Michael Fiore.
This is the story of a man whose love for Disney isn’t absolute. He’s both a company man and also one willing to speak truth to power — or just as often, draw a cartoon that achieves the same point. Probably only someone like Norman could get away with it. He has such a disarming and easygoing personality, and he tends to laugh ruefully when talking about frustrated ambitions. He’s low-key but witty and antic. It’s a winning combination.
He got his start at Disney in the 1950s, when he was the only black artist there, and would end up working on films such as 1959’s “Sleeping Beauty” (his first) and 1967’s “The Jungle Book” before leaving to form his own film company. It wasn’t easy: “Our goal was to be like everybody else,” he says in the film. “And everybody would always hang this label on us: Oh, you’re the black guys. Or: You’re the black film company. Or: You guys make the black films. … No, no, we’re just freakin’ filmmakers. We’re not black filmmakers, we’re just filmmakers.”
He would eventually land at Hanna-Barbera, working on everything from “Scooby-Doo” (“Hate that dog”) to “The Smurfs” before eventually making his way back to Disney, where he collaborated with Pixar on “Toy Story 2.” As Norman recounts in the film, Disney told him it was time to retire. It didn’t stick. His wife also works at Disney; he would drive her in every morning and just stick around. This is so clearly the right move, because Norman is so obviously neither physically nor mentally ready to put his pen down and put his feet up.
He’s 82 now, and in his horn-rimmed glasses and fedora he looks at least 20 years younger. The ageism in Hollywood is real, and Fiore captures terrific conversation between Norman and his former business partner discussing this. Norman wants to work. He needs to work. (Norman and director Fiore will be at the Siskel screening.)
The Black Harvest Film Festival runs through Aug. 31. For more information, go to www.siskelfilmcenter.org/blackharvest
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