Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Film Review #170: It’s a Fact! … and it could be true
Director: Takia Thompson
Cast: Takia Thompson, Jake Powell, Charles Jackson

Sometimes, years later, you still wonder how you wound up in certain unlikely conversations. This couple hailed from Baltimore; I knew her first because we were graduate students together. Since their daughter was simultaneously doing pre-med at Cornell, my friend’s husband was in Syracuse a lot during those several years. He is a big man, tall and broad-shouldered, with a deep-voiced, easy-going confidence, immensely gracious.

One day we were discussing what he had observed about the behavior of white men in public rest rooms. My friend’s husband said, “I just don’t understand it. You know, they’re in such a hurry that most of them don’t wash their hands.”

I think then he used the expression that it “skived” him.

Without needing to think it over very much, I said, “They’re not in a hurry. They’re scared of you.”

Although young filmmaker Takia Thompson has focused mostly on young African American women in her film It’s a Fact! …and it could be true, this is the sort of situation that she could turn to biting satire. And Thompson says her film grew out of similar, also unlikely conversations with her white friend Jake Powell, who plays fictional TV host Todd Broakon (and most other male bit parts) in her film. Out of such sharing and Thompson’s already-apparent talent has come this short film, just shy of 18 minutes in run-time but packing a much longer slow burn.

Last week Thompson returned to the other Emerald City – her home town of Seattle – with a filmmaker diploma in hand, the day after arranging a movie-sized screening at SU of her senior thesis project for a handful of those involved in making who hadn’t seen it yet plus assorted mothers, friends and cast. Powell was there, looking far younger than he does on film. Several cast members are well-known locally, like the Paul Robeson Performing Arts Company’s Annette Adams-Brown, who plays the back-stage TV director. Sammy Award-winning singer Andrea Moore plays an assistant director who asks Broakon if his news and commentary show “isn’t a little racist?” (He scoffs, “Don’t you know racism no longer exists?”) Journalist and musician Charles “CJack” Jackson plays the best-selling author of Be Proud to be a N___, whom Broakon interviews. Jackson also supplied perfect soft jazz for the closing credits and is working with Thompson, who may return to Syracuse in the fall, in promoting the film.

Thompson structures It’s a Fact! as the taping of an episode in a TV news magazine show whose first segment reports on the results of a purported seven-year investigation of the African American community by the 147 F.B.I. agents and second segment comprises the interview with writer “Assalah Malaykam.” There are three cuts to Broakon’s back-stage interaction with the production crew that comment on the goings-on. A dead-pan Broakon opens by telling the camera that all but one of the F.B.I. agents were lost, their loyalty and attention to business overcome by the “allure” and “witchcraft” of the Black community. Three re-enactments then dramatize what the F.B.I. has since formulated as rules of conduct for whites to safely interact with African Americans. “Never ever touch a Black woman’s hair.” “Never ever tell Black people to quiet down at a movie theater.” “Never ever, ever even think about taking a Black person’s chicken.”

Like that public rest room conversation years ago, these “dramatizations” uncover stereotypes held on both sides of the action that may be uncomfortable to watch or admit – and have certain comic possibilities. The “Never touch a Black woman’s hair” vignette, for example, is an economical little gem of a scene in which three young women chatting on a corner are interrupted by a white man who strides by and raises his arm to catch a taxi, brushing one woman’s hair. Is this “accidental,” or is it a habit of simply not respecting Black women’s physical space so that it’s always her job to step out of the way? Hilariously, as if anticipating that some viewers will ask whether it was an accident, Thompson obligingly re-plays the arm-brush four times in rapid succession. Then, the offended young woman – in slow motion – raises her arms, lets out a thundering roar above the man – now crouching in terror behind a bush – and attacks.

In the second “dramatization” the same three young women set out in high spirits for the movies, much to the consternation of a lone, tight-lipped audience member who employs increasingly indignant whirling around, sighing and glaring to convey his annoyance and the fact that he feels constrained from simply asking for quiet. Actually, I’ve done some whirling and glaring myself, though about the worst offenders I ever encountered were a van-load of snowy-haired white retirees who talked the entire way through a matinee of March of the Penguins at Manlius Art Cinema.

Thompson said she was nervous in May when she showed this film to a full auditorium of other student filmmakers, relieved when most laughed in the right spots and vindicated as the laughter markedly died down. This may owe something to the Wayans brothers’ movies’ popularity among young audiences. Last week, local playwright and poet Jackie Warren Moore praised the younger artist, “This is what art is supposed to do. It’s supposed to provoke and unsettle.”

This is a demanding and provocative film that appalls you even as you’re laughing, and you may not be laughing when it’s over. It’s also well-shot, well-edited, and crisply written. Besides film fest entries, Thompson hopes for a more public local screening later in the fall, along with a talk-back. Catch her early work, because we’ll be hearing a lot more from her.

An abbreviated version of this review appears in the 8/14/08 issue of the Syracuse City Eagle weekly, where “Make it Snappy” is a regular column reviewing DVDs of recent movies that did not have a theatrical opening in Central New York, older films of enduring worth & occasional other films that deserve special notice.