Armond White

Stander Delivers

You may not know who Andre Stander was but Stander, the movie about this modern South African folk figure, brings back vivid memories of the struggle against Apartheid. Not a conventional political statement, the film revives the righteous rebellion that peaked for Americans during the 1980s trade sanctions and the stirring protest anthem "Sun City" (that was a key example of 80's multiculti pop, made into a rousing music video by Jonathan Demme). Americans intrinsically know something of Andre Stander's defiant spirit but writer/director Bronwen Hughes and the film's star Thomas Jane extend that defiance into a welcome action-movie myth.

Stander, who was a white Afrikaner and not a freedom fighter, served on the Johannesburg police force. He was part of the riot squad that quelled the 1976 Soweto uprising. After that experience of a brutal ruling minority attempting to crush the blacks and students seeking equal rights – several were in fact killed – Stander flipped and opposed South Africa's social system by becoming a bank robber. This would be a dishonest movie if it attempted to show Stander as a Robin Hood figure. Instead it takes a more complex approach by illustrating the young man's moral objection but insisting upon his restless dissatisfaction.

As portrayed by American actor Thomas Jane (who first came to prominence opposite Ice Cube and Samuel L. Jackson in Deep Blue Sea), Stander bears some resemblance to the role Cube played in Dangerous Ground (1996) as a transplanted hiphopper living in South Central Los Angeles who returns home to South Africa to bury his father and find his misguided brother. This represents a convoluted Hollywood approach to non-political heroism that is a rather typical mainstream way of seeming topical without too much specificity. Just as Cube had no political position, only acting out of a sense of necessity, Jane's Stander reacts personally, following what could be called a personal sense of honor. He feels the need to take down South Africa's institutions by attacking banks – symbols of its economy. ("He has made us look impotent in our own country," says one of the cops chasing Stander.) But the fascinating thing about Hughes' movie is that it shows this mischief – although only linking it to the Oedipal conflict of Stander's relationship with his father General Stander (played by Maurius Weyer) – with a genuine, deep-hearted sense of triumph.

While Stander is in prison (after three years of flouting the laws he once pledged to uphold), the movie switches the usual Hollywood tactic that would have our hero being taught by an actual black character about how heinous and deeply entrenched are the flaws of South African politics and racial injustice because Stander knows that already. Thus, he meets two other white convicts: David Patrick O'Hara's Allan Heyl, a burly Burt Reynolds' type, and Dexter Fletcher's skittish Lee McCall, run-of-the-mill criminals whose portraits further represent the discontented class in Johannesburg society. A moving speech by Heyl directly connects this discontent to South Africa's racial inequality, yet the film's moral thrust – and the thrill these three gang members get out of bank robbing – expresses a simpler, all-too-human fervor. They're rebels running alongside a cause.

As a result of this undisguised mythic narrative approach, Stander exposes how rare it is to see a movie where the activity of bad-ass characters is held up to moral or political scrutiny. It especially embarrasses the fake sociological alibis used in the ludicrous 1996 female-bank robbers movie Set It Off. That film wound up disgracing the plight of ghetto sisters, while Stander illuminates the unacceptable ideology of Apartheid. It accomplishes this because Hughes shrewdly positions Stander's legend to do more than seduce audiences with the pleasure of free money and greed. (Money itself means little to Stander who always had it.) Hughes cleverly critiques that culture's whites-only ideology. It was a social and psychological problem that would inevitably, eventually lead to dissension – whether Nelson Mandela's, the type Stevie Wonder sang about, or the type Denzel Washington portrayed as Steven Biko in Cry Freedom.

Acting out the white perspective, Thomas Jane has the unique fortune of making anti-Apartheid activity look dashing. Jane brings nuances to the part that reveal Stander's personal neuroses (his second marriage to the same woman Bekka played by Deborah Kara Unger makes this plain). But Stander's quasi-hipster legend is more than entertaining (that's all you could say of Johnny Depp's comic bad-boy performance in Pirates of the Caribbean), Jane makes it enlightening. In the scenes where Stander commits his robberies in broad daylight, sometimes in disguise but mostly simply dressed as himself, the film offers one of the most remarkable revelations in the history of mainstream movies: It dramatizes The Invisibility Of Whiteness.

For those academics and action film fans who were thrilled by the exploitation of race in The Matrix movies, Stander presents more intriguing fodder for intellectual dissection. It's a morally-committed action movie that, in its honesty, shames the subliminally racist antics of movies that ask filmgoers to worship Arnold Schwarzeneger, Sly Stallone, Bruce Willis and more recently Matt Damon in The Bourne Conspiracy and Tom Cruise in Collateral. Those actors embodied shameless, unprincipled action. Thomas Jane exposes the privilege that mainstream culture affords even to white criminals and killers. Jane's Stander behaved selfishly (and ironically was killed in multiculti Miami after having eluded South African authorities), yet his story still stands for something.

Macho Macho Mamet

"I saw the sign!" Derek Luke exclaims in Spartan. This is his first mainstream Hollywood role since his debut as Antwone Fisher and the B-movie Biker Boyz. Here Luke plays Curtis, a novice in the special task force of the Secret Service, working under his superior officer, Scott (Val Kilmer). Searching for the kidnapped daughter of the President of the United States, the duo uncovers a ring of white slavers. Young Curtis shows the evidence of his sharp eye, good training and political sensitivity when he spots proof of the girl's sequestering. As he raises his voice and demands to be heard, the relationship between Curtis and Scott takes on a fascinating dynamic. The jaded Scott mellows, becomes benevolent and trusting. When the two agents uncover an in-house conspiracy and go underground to break the slave ring, Scott's instructions to Curtis became familiar; he refers to him as "baby."

This form of address is not sexual but it, too, is a sign. It shows us Hollywood's typical seduction of black audiences, through dangerously deceptive terms of endearment. As intimacy grows between Curtis and Scott, Spartan uses their closeness as a unique demonstration of military solidarity. These soldiers share a belief in duty, which translates as a dedication to American principle. The movie is a coolly played espionage action thriller, so there isn't much pretense of warm, fuzzy, uniracial compassion. Spartan suggests that something tougher goes on in the company of men; it's the brotherhood of sacrifice -- a very timely subject. This topicality gives Spartan some fascination beyond the usual genre exercise.

Note the remarkable flash in Luke's eyes when Scott tells Curtis he will have to kill on an upcoming mission. None of the many gangsta movies we've been subjected to has approached that complicated look of shock, fear and -- ultimately -- consent that Luke expresses. For a very brief moment, Spartan allows a black actor to demonstrate a rare complexity of feelings. Curtis carries a rule book given to him by his father that later comes in handy for Scott, who treats it respectfully. This moment comes across more credibly -- and more trenchantly -- than the clichéd father-son parallel between Robert DeNiro and Cuba Gooding, Jr. in the maudlin Men of Honor.

Spartan upholds the classic myths of military masculinity with unexpected seriousness. There was a fresh take on the new military when David O. Russell's Three Kings showed the various antagonisms among Ice Cube, George Clooney, Mark Wahlberg and Spike Jonze; those Desert Storm enlistees brought all of America's social striations with them to the Middle East. Spartan is based in current geopolitical history but it is essentially a fantasy about teamwork: the common, soldierly sense of obligation that is needed to hold a military unit together; to compel men -- and women -- to make caring sacrifices (at one point a female secret service agent tells a suspected bomb carrier "I'm 10 minutes from the bomb squad. If it's Happy Birthday, let's do it now!"); and finally to unite a nation in war.

When Curtis announces that he saw the sign, it indicates his compliance with the military system. Having been taught how to look at the world, he has unconsciously come to a particular political perspective. His story is that of an apolitical kid's political indoctrination. Luke delivers this strong dramatic moment so effectively that he instantaneously becomes the film's hero. Some viewers, understandably swayed, may not realize how this scene manipulates our usual ambivalent feelings about black movie characters who are shown to be part of authoritarian institutions.

Derek Luke's open, youthful quality helps the film's writer-director David Mamet deceive the audience and win its assent to a story that isn't altogether flattering to African Americans' political and cultural participation. First, the movie never gets close to the startling topic of contemporary slave trading in Sudan. Mamet concentrates so thoroughly on the personal tension among his various G-men that they never engage in an actual political discussion. Spartan is the flip side of Mamet's political satire Wag the Dog. This time he scrutinizes the sacrifices of warrior grunts rather than political wonks and politicians. "I'm just a worker bee," Scott says, trying to convince himself and others that there are no moral quandaries connected to the cold, efficient execution of his job.

Mamet devises such a baroque political fable in Spartan that his implicit critique of perfidy and dishonesty in several recent government administrations (showing how it extends to overseas missions and costs the expendable lives of unempowered citizens like Luke's Curtis) gets lost in all the covert mystery and macho daring. This movie is one weird testament to the sacrifice of the working-class soldier. Through Derek Luke's involvement, it also makes a bizarre parallel of the way black actors are frequently sacrificed to the predictable routines of Hollywood action-film production. Just compare his character's destiny to that of Samuel L. Jackson in Twisted and Charles S. Dutton in Secret Window.

Any smart viewer of Spartan would do well to regulate their responses to Derek Luke's performance. We should think about it culturally and politically. In Hollywood terms this bright, energetic worker bee contributing to a politically loaded action movie is also a soldier. Look at the signs in Spartan: Luke undeniably contributes to another kind of ideological war, another kind of slave trade.

Armond White is film critic for the New York Press and the author of two books on pop culture.

What Ice Cube Needs to Know

Independent filmmaking didn't start with the Sundance Film Festival. Black independents can be traced back to the silent-era films of Oscar Micheaux and the "race films" of Spencer Williams in the mid-1940s. These facts are introduced in Movies of Color: Black Southern Cinema (Wellspring), a newly released DVD that examines the history of black independent filmmaking. Bonus features on the DVD include two full-length Spencer Williams shorts The Blood of Jesus andGo Down, Death -- in all, an over two-hour package and a good resource of African American popular art and heritage.

The choices Oscar Micheaux faced during the silent era are no different from those that challenge contemporary black filmmakers Network and cable-TV documentaries on film tend toward such flashy topics as celebrity biographies or the American Film Institute's yearly nostalgia polls, and are meant to send viewers off to the nearest rental store. Movies of Color: Black Southern Cinema is more useful, providing an overview of a neglected aspect of American filmmaking. It's a less glamorous history than that associated with Hollywood extravagance and mainstream recognition, yet it is a central part of the development of film culture and black expression.

Director Tom Thurman organizes this study around talking-head commentaries by an assortment of film scholars. Rather than the usual suspects trotted out on PBS, here's a refreshing panel of faces and disciplines: Bishetta Merritt, John Cawelti, Charles Regester, Gregory A. Waller, Stan Campbell, Stanley Booth and Charles Pace. These black and white representatives of mostly Southern colleges impart a distinctly personal commitment to this obscure topic. They give Movies of Color its sense of discovery and an air of urgency. Pace, who identifies himself as a "visual anthropologist," indicates how important it is to know this relatively forgotten history, implying it is part of the struggle for black identity and self-respect. The essence of independent filmmaking is to be found in the self-definition that under-capitalized, non-mainstream forbearers provided for themselves and their audiences. Ice Cube and Will Smith need to know: these historical examples of regional filmmaking (and regional scholarship) are models for an original, valuable cinema culture.

The choices Oscar Micheaux faced during the silent era are no different from those that challenge contemporary black filmmakers and observing Micheaux's filmography demonstrates how differently he responded. Such films as Body and Soul, Birthright and Within Our Gates were made with the audience's political needs -- and its emotional appetite -- foremost in Micheaux's consciousness. That he was more than a commercially aware filmmaker is what makes his movies matter nearly a hundred years later. Movies of Color relates the history of Within Our Gates to the rise of black social and film consciousness following the impact of D.W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation. Charlene Regester clarifies Griffith's aesthetic innovations from his backward, racist politics. This historical paradox - crucial to understanding American film culture -- has rarely been stated so incisively. Thurman helps by juxtaposing images from the Micheaux and Griffith films (side by side in the same frame) to point out the different perspectives. This not only indicates contrasting film styles, but also vividly illustrates the opposing ideologies.

Although Micheaux was from the Midwest, he pursued the interests of Southern blacks. His movies were informed by the social perspectives that developed in the black American south and then spread northward during the Great Migration. In Within Our Gates, Micheaux's story focuses on the Southern practice of lynching (here called "a symbol that the white power structure used to control black behavior"). Pace cites the film's "representation of the major terror, major horror, major reality of black life in the South." Black independent filmmaking of this sort eschewed escapism. It proved that more substantive forms of drama and entertainment were possible.

African American film culture flourished in the new urban communities of the early 20th century. In 1939 nearly 430 black-built theaters provided a showcase for filmmakers like Micheaux and Spencer Williams. This culture derived from the church-based community center because black-themed films (then called "race movies") would be exhibited in churches when white-owned movie houses were restrictive. As a result, many of the Southern black indie films were tailored to church-going audiences. The extraordinary Spencer Williams films The Blood of Jesus and Go Down, Death are among the most spiritually adventurous movies ever made. They conveyed the moral crisis of the urban/country, blues/spiritual musical dichotomies through their documentary style and fable-like narratives. (Go Down, Death was derived from the famous James Weldon Johnson poem.) Among their still-amusing features is Williams' incorporation of moral metaphors and live musical performances. Williams himself was a performer, best known for TV's Amos and Andy series. As a director, he anticipated the same mix of message and music recently seen to less charming effect in The Fighting Temptations.

Evangelism was the purpose behind movies by Eloyce Gist, a Howard grad and a Bahai recognized in Movies of Color as a pioneer. She was America's first black woman filmmaker. Gist's films Verdict Not Guilty (1933) and Hellbound Train (1930) were parables about spiritual struggle on earth. Stan Campbell describes Gist's films as "Astonishing, however crude or primitive or amateurish. For a woman in this time it was like defying gravity." Gist exemplifies the art-making struggles that are taken for granted in today's film culture. Campbell addresses the problem black artists had "at that period of American history to get distributed, to be seen and heard." But these problems have not disappeared for such filmmakers as Charles Burnett, Wendell B. Harris, Neema Barnette and others. Being a filmmaker means becoming an evangelist for black pop expression.

The last part of Movies of Color finds an ideal paradigm for this dilemma in the 1940 film Broken Strings, written by the actor Clarence Muse and directed by Bernard B. Ray. Muse played a concert violinist who wants his jazz-loving son to continue in his tradition. With his visionary belief in creativity, Muse comes to appreciate his son's (the new generation's) taste. In a deep, authoritative voice, Muse confesses, "My heart still belongs to the classics but look what swing has done for me" -- one of the most trenchant moments in American movies, equal to the recent father-son, classical music Chinese film Together.

Armond White is film critic for the New York Press. White was staff writer for The Nation for 12 years and is the author of two books on pop culture.

See Quentin Kill

When you think of the resounding flop of Jackie Brown -- the film Quentin Tarantino made after his 1994 Pulp Fiction changed contemporary movie history -- it's no wonder he offs Vivica A. Fox early in his new movie, Kill Bill: Vol. 1. He wasn't about to repeat the mistake of asking mainstream movie audiences to take a black person's emotional life seriously.

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