Sundance Diary, Days 1-4: Exploitation BluesSundance Institute
On Saturday evening at Park City’s library theater, which can hold 486, an athletic-looking, well-preserved woman claimed six additional seats using whatever outerwear she had. With minutes to spare, an indifferent friend eventually arrived to assist by seating herself. When they’d run out of wearable placeholders, they turned to a readable one: a magazine draped over a seat cushion, turning a non-commodious folding chair into something like a commode.
People hold seats. I hold seats. But what has always been a hassle here has turned into a farce. Some of the most eagerly awaited movies are being watched by gloves, and Real Housewives are turning into junkyard dogs. I took a seat in a row in front of the woman guarding these increasingly coveted spots and got to hear her shoo away the dozen-plus people who asked if they were free. She made aggravated, pleading phone calls. She negotiated with volunteers who insisted she remove her things and let punctual ticket holders sit.
I don’t know exactly how she did it, but 20 minutes into Rick Famuyiwa’s desperately anticipated Dope, five similarly fit, well-preserved women, in creamy cashmeres and soft-looking leathers, scooted and shimmied to their seats. It was worth noting because a purse or two made contact with my head, and also because I didn’t enjoy watching this movie with them. Dope tells the story of a chicly nerdy high school senior named Malcolm (Shameik Moore) who discovers his backpack contains a handgun and bricks of drugs.
The movie is a comedy set in the brown, predominantly lower-middle-class, crime-prone Los Angeles–area city of Inglewood (it borders LAX), and it doesn’t trust an audience, particularly the predominantly white audiences of this film festival, to seize upon the irony fueling the action. In the opening minutes, a narrator (Forrest Whitaker, one of the producers) has to explain how much Malcolm is different from the other black kids in Inglewood. Basically, he and his two sidekicks — a macho, light-skinned lesbian (Kiersey Clemons) and a polyracial goofball (Tony Revolori, the bellhop from Grand Budapest Hotel) — are into “white shit” that certain black people love, including Donald Glover, TV on the Radio, and good grades. Malcolm and his pals are in a garage band, Awreoh, whose peppy, electro-Fishbone songs are actually Pharrell compositions.
These guys intersect with the rest of Inglewood. Malcolm and the local drug dealer, Dom (A$AP Rocky), both like the same girl (Zoë Kravitz). One night, they all wind up at a nightclub when a shootout erupts. Dom has the presence of mind to re-stash his cargo with an unwitting Malcolm, who’s soon being hunted for the drugs by a rival dealer and has to transfer his nerdiness (he worships ’90s and ’90s-ish hip-hop and trusts in Bitcoin) into street smarts. There are shootouts, sex scenes, and Malcolm’s pending Harvard interview with a successful Harvard alum. When Dom calls Malcolm from prison and tells him where to take the backpack, the specified location features a young woman who traipses around the premises nude and with her eye on Malcolm.
Malcolm & Co.’s painfully self-conscious black identities extend to their use of the n-word as form of address. This wouldn’t merit a mention except that it’s forced, like when certain television shows mockingly want you to know that a black character is obnoxiously classy by having her drop French expressions into most of her lines. In Dope, having these kids use the n-word points to a reverse sophistication. They’re anti-classy, except when a white character arrives saying the word. His use inspires a momentarily clever conversation — one that other shows and films and video series have had — about who can say it. It flies liberally anyway, as do bullets and the chips on the film’s shoulders.
Part of me doesn’t know how Famuyiwa got this movie made. The elevator pitch requires a second elevator. You can see him going for a certain class of skuzzy Los Angeles odyssey, like the ones of Quentin Tarantino and Paul Thomas Anderson. This is more like Go, which was like Kwik-E-Mart Tarantino. But Dope isn’t made with even the sustained wit of Go. It has its moments, all of which involve the attempt to humorously unpack racial baggage. There just aren’t nearly enough.
Famuyiwa is a black male in his early forties who has made two well-meant Los Angeles comedies. The Wood from 1999 was a slice-of-life comedy set in the 1980s and loosely in the Diner and Cooley High tradition. Our Family Wedding, from 2010, tried for an all-brown Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner but was more comfortable with stuff like having a Viagra-crazed goat hump Whitaker’s leg. Going for something Tarantino-esque, Dope has the aforementioned gratuitous nude drive with a nose full of Molly, among other social-media-friendly humiliations. As the movie lumbers toward the finish, it drags with it an audience apparently hungry for the gallery of stereotypes Famuyiwa thinks he’s upended. Nothing here is as fresh as the filmmakers think it is. These black characters are crammed into a box that Famuyiwa lacks the imagination to think beyond. The characters’ fetishization of the 1990s holds for him, too.
He’s pitting the era’s hood movies against the self-questioning buppie intellectuals of NBC’s A Different World. The film’s convoluted argument is that it’s not pitting gangstas against geeks — it’s society, it’s you, Sundance audience. Malcolm is told that his personal essay for Harvard has to be personal. It is instead self-righteous and bogusly, abstractly defensive: Would you ask a white kid why he’d want to go to Harvard? No one, of course, asks this question or anything like it. Here, Harvard is such a joke that Malcolm’s enrollment feels as foregone as it does for the white characters in other works of popular culture.
So the movie permits itself to make the geek a gangsta because it’s an expedient route to a distribution deal. Indeed, after four days, this movie has been the most hotly auctioned film of the festival. I don’t know whether Open Road and Sony Pictures, who’ve acquired Dope, went for it because it feels, to them, authentically black or because the blackness is familiar to the world’s marketplaces. Once my disgust hit its limit Saturday night, I turned around for a look at the women behind me. They were rapt and content-looking. I didn’t need to see them in order to know that. I could hear their laughter and gasps. Famuyiwa had them eating out of his hand. More power to him. But he’s feeding them black shit white people like.
Fifteen years of attending this festival allows you to notice that some narratives here are impossible to expand. This is an event that prefers its black men criminal, imprisoned (wrongly and otherwise), or tragically dead. There’s a chilling, rigorously assembled documentary here, 3 and 1/2 Minutes, about the murder of 17-year-old Jordan Davis and the Florida trial of the man who, in 2012, shot him repeatedly at a gas station for playing his music too loud. Davis is black; the assailant, Michael Dunn, is white. I admired the craftsmanship, and my blood boiled whenever director Marc Silver furnished yet another deluded outtake of Dunn’s jailhouse phone calls to his grieving fiancée. Silver makes an unwieldy legal case easily digestible. The movie works on its own terms. Yet, at Sundance it’s another reminder of the limited occasions one can see black people at the center of a film.
Really, what we’re talking about is a matter of exploitation. That sometimes is the issue with all kinds of storytelling, and it often rears its head at this festival. Who should profit from, say, the proliferation of the same tired ideas of black urban life? Would that distribution deal for Dope have been as rich if Famuyiwa actually showed Malcolm on a college campus instead of dancing in the streets of Los Angeles, as Moore does over the closing credits? The movie never crosses into the complicated self-preservation of blaxploitation. Super Fly is a punch line courtesy of Malcolm’s missing dad. Dope is just black exploitation.
This is a matter of race. I thought about this while watching The End of the Tour, a gently made, scrupulously written adaptation of David Lipsky’s published transcripts of his conversations with the late novelist David Foster Wallace. Jesse Eisenberg plays Lipsky; Jason Segel plays Wallace. It’s one of the best movies I’ve seen about the intense, fragile connection between writers. Lipksy goes to Wallace’s suburban Illinois house for a Rolling Stone profile and tags along on a couple of stops in Minneapolis on a book tour for Infinite Jest. The movie, which James Ponsoldt directed and Donald Margulies wrote, operates with care and humor and curiosity about human nature. Lipsky’s journalistic interest both flatters and appalls Wallace, whose pathological self-consciousness Segel makes beautiful and sad but mostly amusingly self-protective and legitimately probing. Segel rarely gets to give a character much layering. He and Eisenberg practically make a Napoleon together.
You do wonder how Wallace would have felt about the movie, not because it’s bad (far from it), but because he might have preferred the padding of meta-analysis and hyper-qualification, in order to circle back and burrow down. This movie has little intellectual armor but an abundance of warmth in the pursuit of emotional transparency. The film feels true to the essence of what it’s like to read some of Wallace’s nonfiction. This version of him is torn between depressed solitude and a desire for connection. The film wonders if there’s a little of Wallace’s second-guessing and determination to overexplain in all of us, but it knows that bounteous self-consciousness was part of his peculiar genius. That feels very much worth trying to dramatize, worth trying to communicate.
This is a festival stocked with men — white men — communicating, thinking, disagreeing, bonding, having sex, partying with each other. It’d be wonderful to come here and discover more filmmakers of color daring to showcase nothing more complicated but also no less crucial than that: living.
After four days, Sean Baker’s Tangerine is already my favorite movie. It’s trashy, lurid, and hilariously profane — exploitation in the best, most cinematic sense — but without ever losing the thread of human ache that connects the handful of characters (including two transgender prostitutes, an Armenian cab driver, and his family) to each other. Alexandra (Mya Taylor) accidentally tells Sin-Dee (Kiki Kitana Rodriguez) that her man (and pimp) has been seeing someone else. She goes ballistic, stalking the streets of Los Angeles looking first for him, then the actual woman (a “fish”) he’s been seeing. Even among the least-regulated sex workers there’s a code of honor, and “this bitch,” whoever she is, has violated it. Meanwhile, the cabbie, Razmik (Karren Karagulian, a wonderful Baker regular), is making his rounds on the same streets. Obviously, he and the hookers converge for a confrontation, along with some other characters, including the pimp, played like a white-minstrel clown by a self-amused James Ransone.
This is Baker’s fifth no-budget extravaganza. Here he’s working in saturated color and at high velocity. Word on the street is that the movie was shot with an iPhone 5, but it looks as electrically foul as late Tony Scott and paranoid Oliver Stone. The story also gives a legitimate B-movie kick, the kind whose authenticity could fool Tarantino into commissioning a knockoff. (He really is the Madonna of ’sploitation movies.)
When two tweakers vomit in the cabbie’s car, you can practically smell it. Yes, this is a selling point. This is what you come here for. Something that feels real — and not because the filmmakers are telling you it is, but because the filmmaking has brought pavement and doughnuts and wigs and the smell of crystal meth to life. At just under 90 minutes, the film is too long by 15, but you’re so happy to be in the presence of a director who not only has style but command of it. Rodriguez and Taylor could be the Pam Grier and Tamara Dobson of this upside-down world should Baker ever care to revisit it. They’re so fabulously self-absorbed that, with them, close-ups turn into selfies.
Lee Daniels is the only director working with this kind of brazen, absurd funkiness. He put his name on Baker’s Prince of Broadway, another gem. But Daniels is at the point now where he couldn’t do this movie without it having to Mean Something. He’s terrific, but I always worry that the closer to greatish-ness Daniels gets, the more he’ll crave respectability. That doesn’t interest Baker. Respectfulness, yes. Fun, interesting lives do too. The movie risks turning this world into a cartoon in order to show you why the men and women who inhabit it might have chosen to do so. Nowhere else on earth would have them. It doesn’t seem as if Baker, who wrote the film with Chris Bergoch, is taking his cues from the personalities lighting up the screen.
Criminally, Tangerine has been programmed in Sundance’s Next section, which is the festival’s catchall for movies too … something (or not something enough) for the dramatic competition. That’s for crowd-pleasing problems like Dope. If Baker’s isn’t the sort of moviemaking the country’s most important film festival wants to draw attention to on closing night, then why are we here?