Rupert Pupkin Speaks: Underrated '88 - Marcus Pinn ""

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Underrated '88 - Marcus Pinn

Marcus Pinn is the head writer for the film site PINNLAND EMPIRE.
In addition to maintaining his own site, he co-hosts the Zebras In America podcast with film score composer Scott Thorough and is a regular contributor for The Pink Smoke & Wrong Reel.
https://soundcloud.com/zebras-in-america
Mira Nair has become one of those filmmakers where I anticipate an in-depth interview with her rather than an actual movie release. I guess it’s pretty shitty to start things off with a borderline insult/backhanded compliment, but it is what it is. Nair’s films have become quite safe and a little bland for my taste. But that’s just me. I recognize there is an audience for her recent movies. I’m just not part of that audience anymore. I will always appreciate her on-going effort to make stories about and inclusive of Brown people in a non-contrived way. Mira Nair is Brown. Indian to be specific. So of course she’s going to make films from her perspective in an organic way. That seems to be all the rage now (representation in film). But Mira Nair was in the trenches doing this decades ago yet no one outside of movie nerds seems to acknowledge this. It should also be noted that her Indian roots have connections to the continent of Africa which have been explored in films like Mississippi Masala & Queen Of Katwe. That’s part of the reason why I decided to group the two movies of discussion together. Salaam Bombay & Chocolat are both coming of age feature film debuts from then-up & coming female filmmakers (both films also played/premiered at Cannes in 1988).

A case could be made for modern female filmmakers and their ability to make exceptional coming of age stories. From Lynne Ramsay (Ratcatcher) & Celine Sciamma (Water Lilies & Tomboy) to Eliza Hitman (It Felt Like Love & Beach Rats) & Dee Rees (Pariah), there’s a lengthy essay (or even a book) on the subject waiting to be written down the road…

Anyway back to Mira Nair…

Not only was she clearing a path and laying groundwork for the next generation of female filmmakers to follow after her, but she also planted the seeds for popular films like Slumdog Millionaire thanks to her early work like Salaam Bombay (Danny Boyle consulted with Nair during the production of Slumdog). Much like Slumdog Millionaire, Salaam Bombay is set in an impoverished Indian neighborhood. Both films focus on young male protagonists forced in to a life of hustling (both films also have subplots centered around the relationship between brothers). The difference between the two movies is that Salaam Bombay feels slightly more authentic (Mira Nair used mostly non-professional actors which, when done right, can add to the film’s experience).

With the exception of Monsoon Wedding (2001), I wish Mira Nair stayed in that Salaam Bombay/Mississippi Masala-era of the late 80’s/early 90’s and made more films like that (sorry to sound so pretentious). But who am I to demand that a filmmaker stay in the same lane. Not many artists like to be pinned down and labeled. Mira Nair is an artist that likes to venture outside of her comfort zone (while always representing her people in some major or minor fashion). I just happen to be one of those fans that thinks her comfort zone works best for her. Now that we’re in the era of rediscovery & re-assesment (thanks mostly in part to “film twitter” and other forms of social media), Salaam Bombay deserves a rediscovery from those unfamiliar with Mira Nair or her early work.

Now…unlike Salaam Bombay, the next film in this exploration is told partially from an outsider’s perspective. A friendly outsider, but an outsider nonetheless…
Stories about a predominantly Brown country from the perspective of a white person can be a touchy subject (especially when it comes to white filmmakers and the backdrop of Africa). You have an entire continent full of Black people, yet the majority of mainstream films over the years that come from that continent are either written and/or directed by white people (Tstotsi & District 9), or the main characters in those films are white (Donald Sutherland, Susan Sarandon & Marlon Brando in A Dry White Season, Kevin Kline in Cry Freedom, Klaus Kinski in Cobra Verde, Stephen Dorf in The Power Of One, etc). And the biggest kick in the ass is that most of those movies are either “meh” or not very good. How is that possible?

Chocolat is an exception to that unofficial rule as Claire Denis spent time around Black people in her youth, yet doesn't feel the need to brag about it like it’s some kind of cool accomplishment or Rachel Dolezal-esque badge of honor (Denis spent a lot of her youth in various African countries which makes Chocolat semi-autobiographical).

I try to limit my conversations regarding race with white people like that because at some point they love to drop the infamous line; "look, I grew up around Black people. Trust me - I know Black people", as if we're some kind of cool artifact or something. But Claire Denis never gives off that vibe. She knows her place.

I was raised in Africa. But of course France is my country – Claire Denis


Almost 75% of Denis’ filmography focuses on Black characters and various Black cultures (African, Caribbean & Afro-European) without having to remind the audience every five minutes. Denis’ films are natural & uncontrived.

Chocolat may not be one of my favorite Denis films, but so many of the commonly explored elements & themes found in her later work can be traced right back to ground zero. So as a Claire Denis fan – Chocolat is required viewing.

Denis’ feature film debut centers around a young girl ("France") living with her parents and servant/”friend” (“Protee”) in a colonized section of Cameroon. The majority of Chocolat is a flashback told from the perspective of "France" as an adult in the present day. There's a lot of obvious unspoken racial tension throughout the film mostly dealing with racial tension between the white French people living in colonized Cameroon and the native Africans (there’s also some additional sexual tension between France's white mother and Protee).

In the same fashion as other coming of age films like Cria Cuervos and The Spirit Of The Beehive, each character in Chocolat is more than just a person. They essentially represent an entire group of people or an ideal. "France" represents the new/younger generation of French people. France's parents represents the "old way" of French society, and Protee (the servant) clearly represents the oppressed/colonized people of Africa as whole.

The children of people who worked in Africa before independence—and sometimes even after—share a common secret and a common experience of childhood – Claire Denis


Like I said earlier, Chocolat isn't Claire Denis’ best film, but its required viewing if you're a fan of her work and want a better understanding of how she developed as a filmmaker over the years.

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