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Moonlight Wins Oscar as Best Picture

Monday, February 27th, 2017

In a surprising but welcome upset, Moonlight wins Best Picture at the Oscars.

La La Land had been the favorite going in, and picked up six Academy Awards during the ceremony, but then, Warren Beatty, looking clearly confused, got the wrong card, and co-presenter Faye Dunaway incorrectly announced that La La Land had won the award for Best Picture at the 89th Annual Academy Awards.

But it hadn’t. The real winner was Barry Jenkins‘ groundbreaking indie film Moonlight, a fact that only emerged after several minutes of speeches from the La La Land team, but culminated with La La’s producer Jordan Horowitz graciously stepping forward to clear up the confusion, stating flatly “Moonlight, you guys won best picture. This is not a joke.”

As reported in The Washington Post, Horowitz continued, “‘Moonlight has won best picture.’ Confused gasps and stunned silence from the crowd quickly turned into a standing ovation. He held up the card that proved it: ‘Moonlight … Best Picture.’”

Host Jimmy Kimmel tried to smooth things over with a joke, but Horowitz graciously declared “I’m going to be really proud to hand this to my friends from Moonlight.” And thus a small “picture that could” took on the Hollywood establishment and won, proof that even in a hyper-commercial industry, a film with a message still has a chance in mainstream cinema.

Now, let’s see Moonlight rolled out nationally in a big re-release, with this emotionally charged moment to reach the widest audience possible, after providing Academy Awards viewers with a moment that will surely go down in the Oscar history books. If anything, this will be the one Oscar moment everyone talks about- which can only bring the picture more well-deserved attention.

Moonlight is the Best Picture of 2016 – it’s official.

Hyperallergic: Gordon Parks’ Long-Forgotten Color Photographs

Monday, January 16th, 2017

Gordon Parks was a master photographer – and some of his best work has been hidden – until now.

As Chris Cobb writes moving in the journal Hyperallergic, “when Life magazine sent Gordon Parks to document the daily lives of three black families living in Alabama, it was 1956, during the Montgomery bus boycott. He knew he could have gotten beaten or killed — but he went there anyway.

He was in Alabama shortly after Rosa Parks became world famous for not giving up her seat to a white man and around the same time the Klu Klux Klan had mobilized to defend segregation. In other words, Parks’s assignment was to become a fly on the wall during one of the most turbulent times in American history. While there, he witnessed, among other things, the emergence of a young leader named Martin Luther King Jr., then known as the president of the Montgomery Improvement Association.

But Parks was not there to photograph King; he was always in the foreground. On the contrary, Life wanted Parks to reveal what had always been in the background — ordinary black families — and show the magazine’s readers how they really lived. The project was to be a counterpoint to misinformation spread by segregationists who claimed that a racially separated, caste-based society was good for everyone.

So Parks followed various people around, going to the store, to the mall, to playgrounds, and to school; he hung out at their ramshackle homes, most of which looked like they were straight out of the 19th century, which they probably were, and took pictures everywhere he went.

In the end, Life published just 26 of those photographs — all shot on color slide film — and then the rest were put away in a small box and forgotten. Since that time, nobody has seen them — not until they were rediscovered in 2012 by archivists at the Gordon Parks Foundation. The gorgeous, large prints now on view at Salon 94 are a selection of those images, and like a candle in a dark room they illuminate that long-forgotten history.

Significantly, most images of the Civil Rights era are in black and white, shot mostly by photojournalists. Parks, however, was no ordinary photographer — he was an artist who happened to also be a photographer and as these pictures show, he frequently deviated from his journalistic impulses to capture what can only be considered great art.

The central photograph in the show is unmistakably brilliant and, I’d say, somewhat of a modern masterpiece. ‘Ondria Tanner and Her Grandmother Window-shopping, Mobile, Alabama, 1956′ surpasses the documentary tradition Parks excelled at, transforming everything in his viewfinder into charged symbolic space.

To get this image Parks placed himself on the other side of a big glass display case that was full of white-skinned mannequins and framed a woman and her grandchild in such a way that it seems as if the little girl were being guided through a forest of white, soulless zombies. You get the sense the woman and girl must tread lightly and be careful — lest they awaken these dangerous figures.

The sweetness of the gesture and the vibrant image shot in radiant color evoke both warmth and danger at the same time. More striking yet is the almost invisible reflection of the photographer in the window. It is not a didactic image; it is composed more like a Botticelli painting or a mannerist allegory.

About this photograph, Parks Foundation official Peter W. Kunhardt Jr. said, ‘So this is Ondria Tanner and her granddaughter looking into a white clothing store and sort of the life she doesn’t have … and you know Gordon really didn’t stage these pictures. He would follow them around and just observe what they were doing.’”

I was lucky enough to meet and talk with Gordon Parks in 1969, when he was moving from still photography into motion picture direction with The Learning Tree (1969), a truly pioneering film about civil rights which Parks wrote and directed. To my mind, at least, it is a forgotten American masterpiece, even though the film was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”

But it still needs to be seen more often, as does his still photography work, which made his initial reputation as an artist of the first rank. I was working as a writer at Life at the time, for a new magazine that never came about – Life Movie – and Gordon Parks walked into my office one day, and we sat down and talked for awhile. He was kind, generous, and really excited about making the shift to motion pictures – and he pulled it off magisterially.

That there is so much of his work still to discover is a real gift in 2017.

Sterling K. Brown and Issa Rae to Host Spirit Awards

Monday, December 5th, 2016

The 2017 Spirit Awards are much more interesting than the annual Oscar race.

As Matt Warren reports on the Film Independent website, “if it wasn’t already obvious from its beachfront locale (bring your swimsuit!) or avant garde approach to red carpet fashion (that psychedelic cowboy-hat-and-poncho combo is just fine by us), you should know by now that the Film Independent Spirit Awards are not your typical awards show.

The purpose of the Spirit Awards isn’t to anoint individual filmmakers or performers and elevate them into some sort of untouchable, aristocratic fraternity of Hollywood bigwigs—it’s to celebrate independent moviemaking as a whole.

It’s beyond cliché at this point to observe that film is a collaborative exercise, one that brings an entire micro-community of likeminded artists together to create something new and unique. So really, “community” is the key watchword here—and what better way for likeminded communities to celebrate each other’s work than to break bread together. Or, in this case, breakfast burritos.

The actual 2017 Spirit Awards ceremony won’t drop until February 25, but on Saturday, January 9 this year’s honorees will once again gather for Film Independent’s annual Nominee Brunch in West Hollywood in order to toast the past 12 months in independent film (and perhaps sip one too many mimosas) and watch as Brunch co-hosts Sterling K. Brown and Issa Rae take the stage to award a trio of filmmaker grants: the Piaget Producers Award, the Truer Than Fiction Award and the Kiehl’s Someone to Watch Award.

And if that wasn’t enough, the Sprit Awards have announced that the great David Oyelowo as the honorary chair of the 2017 awards, as announced by Film Independent President Josh Welsh. Need a quick refresher about who the 2017 Film Independent Spirit Award nominees actually are? Check out our Nominee page here, or watch last week’s press conference announcement, featuring Jenny Slate (Obvious Child) and Edgar Ramirez (Carlos).

As for this year’s Brunch co-hosts, Welsh said, ‘Sterling K. Brown and Issa Rae are two of the most captivating and talented actors working today…we’re so happy to have them host our Spirit Awards brunch.’

Sterling K. Brown rose to fame in 2016 with his jaw-dropping portrayal of Christopher Darden in the FX phenomenon The People vs. O.J. Simpson. He currently stars on the hit NBC drama This is Us. Rae—who joined us at the LA Film Festival “Diversity Speaks” panel in June (click here for a full recap)—is the creator and star of HBO’s critically acclaimed dramedy Insecure, which recently wrapped its first season. The show is an adaptation of Rae’s popular web series, The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl, which you can find here.

Two actors of enormous depth who have both been involved in projects exploring, with nuance and sophistication, the complexities of African American life in the 2oth and 21st centuries, Rae and Brown are in good company with Oyelowo, widely acclaimed for his performances in films including Middle of Nowhere (for which he was nominated for Best Supporting Male Spirit Award in 2013) and Selma (nominated for Best Male Lead, 2015). Past Spirit Award Honorary Chairs have included Jessica Chastain, Kerry Washington, Benicio del Toro and Jodie Foster, among others.”

Not to be missed. Click here, or on the image above for a video.

The Academy Finally Starts To Get The Message

Sunday, July 10th, 2016

While it’s far from solving the problem, it seems that AMPAS is finally getting the memo on diversity – at last.

As April Reign, creator of the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite notes, writing in The Guardian, “on 29 June, the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences released its list of film-makers, artists and executives invited to join its ranks, and eventually play a part in who walks away with an Oscar. The Academy invited 683 potential members, its largest and most diverse class ever. While this was an important move toward the inclusion of more marginalized communities within the Academy, it is merely one step on a longer journey.

While reviewing the list of invitees, I was struck by the names of individuals that I believe should have been Academy members long ago. Melvin van Peebles, Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Euzhan Palcy and others have amassed such a significant body of work through the years that the 2016 list of invitees was clearly, in part, righting a wrong.

These and other omissions speak to one of the concerns I voiced when discussing #OscarsSoWhite, the hashtag I created: the way in which individuals are nominated to the Academy must be reviewed and revamped so that deserving potential members are not overlooked due to overly stringent rules.

I applaud the effort of the Cheryl Boone Isaacs, the Academy’s president, to diversify its ranks. With 283 invitees from 59 countries, the Academy demonstrates its recognition of amazing talent outside of our borders that should be welcomed. Misan Sangay, Trinh T Minh-ha, and Souleymane Cissé are all examples of international film-makers who have been invited to join the Academy.

It is important to note that not just the acting categories have been diversified. Importantly, casting directors, producers, and directors, those who have significant influence over who works on a film, both in front of and behind the camera, have also seen their ranks become more inclusive.

Overall, the numbers look impressive: this is the largest and most diverse invitation class ever. Of the invitees, 46% are women and 41% are people of color. But when one does a deeper analysis, the results leave something to be desired. More than 300 of the invited members are women. But even if they all accept, the percentage of women in the Academy increases by just 2%, from 25% to 27%.

This is significantly less than the overall representation of women in this country. Similarly, 280 people of color were invited to join the Academy, but their acceptance will only increase the ranks by 3%, to 11% from 8%. This is in stark contrast to recent US census numbers indicating that people of color are 37% of the United States population, and growing.”

In short, this is a good start. But let’s see how many of these people are employed to direct a major blockbuster, or helm an entire series, or, in short, get work as an actor, director or writer on a regular basis – enough to really have full-time employment. Hollywood seems to be making duller films than ever, while the interesting new material, as always, comes from the margins – these people could help to start that process.

Will they be given a chance to do so?

An Essential 5 DVD Set: Pioneers of African-American Cinema

Saturday, April 30th, 2016

A restoration of these films has been a long time coming – get this set when it comes out in July.

This incredible collection – coming out shortly on DVD and Blu-ray, is a must for any serious library of American cinema, featuring some of the most historically vital works of America’s legendary first African-American filmmakers, and is the only comprehensive collection of its kind. There have been DVD releases of many of the individual films included here, but in cheap editions, without digital restoration, and now, finally, we can see them as they were meant to be seen.

Funded in part by a highly successful Kickstarter campaign, the packaged set includes no fewer than a dozen feature-length films and nearly twice as many shorts and rare fragments. Subject matter includes race issues that went unaddressed by Hollywood for decades. The directors include Oscar Micheaux, Spencer Williams, and many others whose films deserve a much wider audience.

Films in the collection include: Birthright (1938), The Blood of Jesus (1941), Body and Soul (1925), The Bronze Buckaroo (1939), By Right of Birth (fragment, 1921), Commandment Keeper Church, Beaufort, South Carolina (excerpt, 1940), The Darktown Revue (1931), Dirty Gertie from Harlem USA (1946), Eleven P.M. (1930), The Exile (1931), The Flying Ace (1926), God’s Stepchildren (1938), Heaven-Bound Traveler (1933), Hellbound Train (1930), Hot Biskits (1931), Mercy the Mummy Mumbled (1918), Regeneration (fragment, 1923), The Scar of Shame (1929), S.S. Jones Home Movies (1924-26), The Symbol of the Unconquered: A Story of the KKK (1920), Ten Minutes to Live (1932), Ten Nights in a Bar Room (1926), Two Knights of Vaudeville (1918), Veiled Aristocrats (1932), Verdict Not Guilty (1934), We Work Again (1937) and Within Our Gates (1920).

The set features musical scores (for the silent films) by Paul D. Miller (aka DJ Spooky), Max Roach, Samuel D. Waymon, the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra, Donald Sosin, Makia Matsumura, Alloy Orchestra, Rob Gal, Andrew Simpson.

Bonus Features: Optional English Subtitles, 80-page booklet with essays and detailed film notes; Interviews with series curators Charles Musser and Jacqueline Stewart; Documentary on the restoration of the films; Documentary on the restoration efforts of the Library of Congress; Archival interview with actors Ethel and Lucia Moses (1978); Tyler Texas Black Film Collection promo film (with Ossie Davis, 1985) and more!

Although these films have been available for many decades – I’ve run them in my classes for a long time – the film prints were often battered and scratched, 16mm dupes that lacked the depth and quality of the original negatives. Here, these films have been lovingly restored in a collection that is an essential part of the history of the American cinema. This is the part of film history you’ve probably missed – and shouldn’t.

This is an amazing act of historical reclamation – a must have for everyone.

Complete Online Index – “A Short History of Film”

Thursday, April 28th, 2016

A scholar in Germany has created a complete online index to A Short History of Film, 2nd edition.

A scholar in Germany has compiled a complete list of all the films mentioned in A Short History of Film, 2nd edition (Rutgers University Press, 2013), written by Gwendolyn Audrey Foster and myself, with images of either the poster, or the DVD for each film, complete with links to reviews, purchase points, and other information on the film – as well as lots of opinions, of course – which seems like rather an amazing undertaking.

All told, the list covers more than 2,000 films, and runs to 21 webpages in the list, and can serve as a very useful way to access the films discussed in the volume. So if you’re reading A Short History of Film, 2nd edition, or using it for a class, and would like detail on access to some of the many films mentioned – the images here show just a few of the many titles covered in the volume – just consult this list, click on the title, and see what’s available.

A very useful guide – many thanks to the person who did so much work on this.

Nate Parker’s “Birth Of A Nation” (2016) Electrifies Sundance

Tuesday, January 26th, 2016

Here’s a film that’s a real passion project – and really long overdue.

As Dominic Patten reports from the Sundance Film Festival in Deadline, “‘without an honest confrontation, there is no healing.’ That’s from Birth Of A Nation director-producer-star Nate Parker [speaking on January 25th, 2015] onstage at the Sundance Film Festival. In what I have to say was one of the most emotional experiences I’ve had at a movie theater, Parker world premiered what he called his seven-year ‘passion project.’ His telling of the early 19th century slave revolt led by Nat Turner had audience members crying in their seats and jumping to their feet in a prolonged standing ovation at the film’s conclusion.

Potential buyers for the film streamed out of the lobby mere minutes after the cast had left the stage post – screening. Some worked multiple cell phones (with assistants standing nearby fielding calls of their own) in what appeared to be fevered discussions about the awards-bait film. Speaking to the packed Eccles Theater crowd with almost the entire cast beside him after the lights came up, Parker said, ‘I made this movie for one reason only, creating change agents,’ adding, ‘there are still a lot of injustices in our world.’

Sanitizing nothing, from the systematic and brutal torture inflicted by slave owners on the men and women they enslaved to the 48-hour bloody uprising led by Turner depicted in the movie, the film challenges our conceptions of that terrible time in American history and the lives it destroyed.

‘These people thought they were doing good when they were doing bad,’ said Parker of his effort to depict the entirety of the slavery ecosystem. ‘In 2016, that echoes,’ he added, to a roar of approval from the Park City crowd. While comparisons undoubtedly will be made to such films as Best Picture Oscar winner 12 Years A Slave, Parker’s movie has the added visceral impact of a movie like Schindler’s List, or a handful of other well-told films that depict genocide. So often, I wanted to look away at the carnage as the slave owners and their henchmen mutilated their slaves, but in fact I think that this film demands it be looked at with open and honest eyes. That is why the Sundance crowd reacted so strongly to the film Parker made.”

Making the film was an incredibly long struggle for director/star Parker, who vowed in 2013 that this project would be his next film no matter what – and then spent the next two years getting the funding for the film together. As Wikipedia notes, “The Birth of a Nation is written, produced, and directed by Nate Parker, who also stars as Nat Turner. Parker learned about Turner from an African-American studies course at the University of Oklahoma. He began writing the screenplay for a Nat Turner film in 2009 and had a fellowship at a lab under the Sundance Institute.

While he got writing feedback from filmmakers like James Mangold, he was told that a Nat Turner film could not be produced. The Hollywood Reporter said, ‘But what he heard instead were all the reasons a movie about Nat Turner wouldn’t work: Movies with black leads don’t play internationally; a period film with big fight scenes would be too expensive; it was too violent; it wouldn’t work without a big box-office star leading it; Turner was too controversial — after all, he was responsible for the deaths of dozens of well-off white landowners.’

After Parker finished his acting role in Beyond the Lights in late 2013, he told his agents he would not continue acting until he had played Nat Turner in a film. He invested $100,000 of his money to hire a production designer and to pay for location scouting in Savannah, Georgia.

He met with multiple financiers, and the first to invest in the film were retired basketball player Michael Finley (who invested in the film The Butler) and active basketball player Tony Parker. Nate Parker eventually brought together 11 groups of investors to finance 60 percent of the $10 million production budget, and producer Aaron L. Gilbert of Bron Studios joined to cover the remaining financing.”

As director/star Parker said of the film, ‘I kind of sold this project to investors and cast on legacy. I honestly think this is a film that could start a conversation that can promote healing and systemic change in our country. There’s so many things that are happening right now in 2015 — 100 years after the original Birth of a Nation [1915] film, here we are. I’d say that is what I hope sets my film apart, is that it’s relevant now — that people will talk about this film with the specific intention of change.’

And here’s more good news, from Mike Fleming Jr. of Deadline: “In a record-breaking deal for the Sundance Film Festival, Fox Searchlight is wrapping up a deal to pay around $17.5 million to acquire world rights for The Birth Of A Nation. The deal’s still being finalized, but this brings to a close one of the most freewheeling all-night bidding battles ever seen here in Park City.

It also births a major new filmmaking voice in Nate Parker, who directed and stars in a film he scripted and produced. The deal, which calls for a widescreen commitment in awards season, far surpasses precedent-setting Sundance acquisitions like the $10.5 million deal for Little Miss Sunshine in 2006, and the $10 million deal for Hamlet 2 in 2008. So it looks like this film might actually receive the widespread theatrical release it so clearly deserves.

Sony, Universal, TWC, Netflix, Warner Bros, Paramount, Lionsgate and Fox Searchlight were all in the mix early Monday evening, chasing a world rights deal with bids that started around $12 million. At a time when focus has been on a lack of diversity in Oscar nominees for a second straight year, The Birth Of A Nation was viewed by potential buyers as having true awards potential [. . .]

The film marks the feature directorial debut of Parker, an actor who has directed several short films and been part of the ensemble casts of films including The Great Debaters, The Secret Life Of Bees, Red Tails and Ain’t Them Bodies Saints. He will leave the mountain as a major filmmaker to watch [emphasis added]“

The response to D.W. Griffith’s appalling Birth of A Nation we’ve been waiting for - kudos to Nate Parker!

Idris Elba’s Keynote Speech to Parliament on Diversity in the Media

Friday, January 22nd, 2016

Here’s Idris Elba’s powerful speech to Parliament on the need for diversity in the media.

As he says in the speech, “I’m here to talk about diversity. Diversity in the modern world is more than just skin color – it’s gender, age, disability, sexual orientation, social background, and – most important of all, as far as I’m concerned – diversity of thought. Because if you have genuine diversity of thought among people making TV & film, then you won’t accidentally shut out any of the groups I just mentioned . . .

Ask women, they’ll say the same thing. Or disabled people. Or gay people. Or any number of under-represented groups. So today I’m asking the TV & film industry to think outside the box, and to GET outside the box. This isn’t a speech about race, this is a speech about imagination. Diversity of thought.” Certainly, that’s not too much to ask in the 21st century!

His talk is illuminating and inspiring – read the full text by clicking here.

African American Film Critics Association Awards

Monday, December 7th, 2015

The African American Film Critics Association has just announced their awards for 2015.

As Patrick Hipes writes in AwardsLine, the sister publication of Deadline Hollywood, “Universal’s N.W.A. biopic Straight Outta Compton has been named Best Picture by the African American Film Critics Association, one of three categories it topped along with Best Ensemble and Best Supporting Actor for Jason Mitchell.

Best Director went to Creed helmer Ryan Coogler, while its star, Michael B. Jordan, won for Breakout Performance and Tessa Thompson was named Best Supporting Actress. Best Actor went to Will Smith for Concussion and Best Actress to Teyonah Parris for Spike Lee’s Chi-Raq.

The AAFCA honors excellence in cinema by creating awareness for films with universal appeal to black communities, while emphasizing films about the black experience and those produced written, directed and starring performers of African descent. It will hold its awards ceremony February 10 in Hollywood. Here’s the full list of winners:

Best Picture
Straight Outta Compton (Universal Pictures)

Best Director
Ryan Coogler,Creed (Warner Bros.)

Best Ensemble
Straight Outta Compton (Universal Pictures)

Best Actor
Will Smith, Concussion (Sony)

Best Actress
Teyonah Parris, Chi-Raq (Roadside Attractions/Amazon Studios)

Best Supporting Actor
Jason Mitchell – Straight Outta Compton (Universal Pictures)

Best Supporting Actress
Tessa Thompson, Creed (Warner Bros.)

Best Independent Film
Chi-Raq (Roadside Attractions/Amazon Studios)

Best Screenplay
Rick Famuyiwa – Dope (Open Road Films)

Breakout Performance
Michael B. Jordan, Creed (Warner Bros.)

Best Animation
The Peanuts Movie (20thCentury Fox)

Best Documentary
A Ballerina’s Tale (Sundance Selects)

Best Song
“See You Again”, Furious 7 (Atlantic Records)

Best TV Comedy
Black-ish (ABC)

Best TV Drama
How to Get Away with Murder (ABC)

Best Cable/New Media TV Show
Survivor’s Remorse (Starz)

AAFCA Top Ten Films of 2015 in order of distinction:

1. Straight Outta Compton (Universal Pictures)
2. Creed (Warner Bros.)
3. Mad Max: Fury Road (Warner Bros.)
4. Beasts of No Nation (Netflix)
5. The Martian (20th Century Fox)
6. 3-1/2 Minutes/Dope (HBO/Open Road Films)
7. Chi-Raq (Roadside Attractions/Amazon Studios)
8. Carol (Weinstein Co.)
9. The Big Short (Paramount Pictures)
10. The Danish Girl (Focus Features)

Congratulations to everyone involved!

About the Author

Headshot of Wheeler Winston Dixon Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of thirty books and more than 100 articles on film, and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. All comments by Dixon on this blog are his own opinions.

In The National News

Wheeler Winston Dixon has been quoted by Fast Company, The New Yorker, The New York Times, the BBC, CNN, The Christian Science Monitor, US News and World Report, The Boston Globe, Entertainment Weekly, The Los Angeles Times, NPR, The PBS Newshour, USA Today and other national media outlets on digital cinema, film and related topics - see the UNL newsroom at http://news.unl.edu/news-releases/1/ for more details.

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