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Thursday, November 8, 2012

Two New Black Films Reclaim the Male Voice, with Different Results

Often times, especially when it comes to more current black dramas, we tend to see stories about or for black women--whether it is the story of a woman coping with her husband's imprisonment (Middle of Nowhere) or a lesbian coming of age tale like 2011's Pariah. Even this year's Think Like a Man, a movie about male and female relationships, favored the female point of view. So when does the guy get to to have the last word again?

Well, they may finally have gotten a chance at the mic with two small but provocative films that explore the lives of men at a crossroads--Common in LUV and Lance Gross in The Last Fall. Written and directed by first-time filmmaker Sheldon Candis, LUV follows Vincent (Common), the fresh-out-of-jail budding entrepreneur looking to turn his life around and open up a crab restaurant in his hometown of Baltimore. He moves back home with his mother (Lonette McKee) and nephew, Woody (impressively portrayed by relative newcomer Michael Rainey, Jr.). In essence, Vincent has began approaching life in a more trepidatious and wiser way, even stepping in to care for Woody while his mom his "away" and driving him to school sometimes--setting an example.

But trading guns and drug money for a clean--albeit fishy--lifestyle proved difficult for him. His former demons slink out of hiding to invade his new found outlook. 24's Dennis Haysbert plays Mr. Fish, a brute kingpin that's looking for one final task from Vincent before he considers lending him the cash he needs to get his business off the ground.

And he's not the only one pulling Vincent back into the scrappy drug business. In fact, everywhere he turns he's running into previous associates--from shady law enforcement officers to fellow hustlers anxious to find out about and put down his new plan. When the bank turns him down for a loan, Vincent learns that avoiding his past life is nearly impossible for him, especially with Haysbert's greasy offer looming over him, and pretty soon he's lured back into the dangerous streets.

A rugged and emotional performance from Common catapults the film from going down its gangster after-school special road to become a tender portrayal of a man on the edge. Desperate to start a new life, desperate for money, desperate to just fix things, Vincent's tough guy character turns into a moving protagonist, someone you really want to root for, despite where he comes from. Candis smartly avoids spelling out each circumstance for the audience, which leaves us with an unshakable uneasy feeling as we watch it all unfold.

And like Vincent, defunct football player Kyle Bishop (a breakout performance by Lance Gross) in The Last Fall is also looking to forge another path for himself. Or, maybe not. While his desire to

He constantly toys with the desire to return to the field, he decides to head back home to California to take what he perpetrates as a "break." He delves into the party scene with the same vigor he used to approach on the field and even picks up a few groupies, who manage to repair his bruised ego if only temporarily.

But once his car is repossessed, and a riff between his sister Chris (Yaani King) and mother (Vanessa Bell Calloway) puts further tension on the relationships he had hoped to rebuild upon his return home, Kyle realizes he's finally hit rock bottom.

He decides to try his hand at being a working stiff at a gym, while still shifting his head back to the game every time his agent calls him with another tentative promise.

Kyle's not the easiest character to like, or even care about. But the way Gross portrays him makes the audience want to feel as passionately as he does, about anything--football, repairing his broken home, the ladies. But somehow he falls short of actually doing so.

Interestingly enough, the most fascinating relationship he haphazardly forms is the one with Faith (sensitively played by Nicole Beharie), a former high school sweetheart who he abandoned for football much to her chagrin. She is now a mom of a little leaguer and not without a few skeletons of her own with which she's dealing. With both characters juggling conflict, it makes for engaging dialogue, until it sometimes interrupted by the introduction of Kyle's ill father (Keith David).

While mounting storylines that too often end up dangling is certainly something to poke at in The Last Fall (after all, at its core, it's a movie that spends a lot of time building, destroying, and rebuilding relationships in which you hope to engage), the movie doesn't fail at writing a wonderful yet flawed male character with which many could probably identify. Kyle will undoubtedly turn off some viewers--more than likely those of the female persuasion--but I have a feeling writer/director Matthew A. Cherry (a former ball player himself) would be more satisfied with the fact that he held true to Kyle the man, and not Kyle the hyperbolic character he's expected to be.

LUV is in theaters January 2013
The Last Fall is playing in limited theaters throughout the U.S. Check the website for more information.


Kimberly Renee said...

I enjoyed The Last Fall. But I wanted to know wHat was going on between the mom and sister. There was a lot of tension between them. Lance exceeded my expectations with his performance. He was solid. I'm looking forward to seeing LUV. Interested in seeing Common's performance.

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