All posts by jamesblakeewing

In the Heat of the Night (1967)

Spoiler Warning: The ending is discussed at length.

In the Heat of the Night is touted as a groundbreaking films about race. However, it places blackness in the place of otherness and placates the white audiences by being far more concerned with demonstrating how one white man is able to overcome his prejudice and be not that bad of a guy instead of truly confronting the ugliness of racism in America and how it affects black people.

Virgil Tibbs (Sidney Poitier) is the wrong man at the wrong place at the wrong time. His train stop in the small town of Sparta, Mississippi coincides with the murder of a rich white man. But when Virgil is brought in to police chief Gillespie (Rod Steiger), he drops a bomb that he is a homicide detective in Philadelphia. After a series of events, Gillespie reluctantly works alongside the more capable Virgil to solve the murder.

And here-in comes the first great lie of the film: Virgil helping the police in a town that hates him. Virgil knows the town is trouble and that he risks his life as an affluent black man every moment he stays there, but through the worst scene in the film, a white man appeals to the black man’s desire to make the white man look foolish.

Virgil comes off as the greater fool for risking his life for a case outside his jurisdiction and involving people he has no connection to whatsoever. This is not Philadelphia, but the deep south in an area of racial upheaval. Mr. Tibbs risks his life to prove a point, which does not sound like the kind of thing a smart black man would do.

The film tries to build up a friendship between Virgil and Gillespie, but it misses the core difference between the two characters. The black man must risk his very life in order to uphold the law in a town where almost every white man would rather see him dead. The white man only risks being unpopular. That’s hardly equal footing and as much as the film tries to put the two on common ground. Gillespie has no real interest in even beginning to understand what Virgil experiences on a daily basis.

By the end of it all, the film has made Gillespie out to be not that bad of a guy after all. He’s now more open-minded and has evolved as a character, but without any true risk. He already claims the town hates him and at no point is his life in any true peril and yet somehow the film wants to make him out to be somehow admirable by the end of the picture.

Meanwhile, Virgil is the same man he was when he stepped off the train. He’s taken all kinds of risks, stuck his neck out countless times, and gained nothing. The black man takes all the risks while the white man does all the growing, which is both bad storytelling and a horrible way to try to bridge racial divides.

Yes, Virgil may get away with slapping a white man. Yes, he may run mental circles around the dumb white racists charactures of Sparta, Mississippi, but he’s still the other, the figure who does not belong, the one who must be shuffled off back onto the train because the American South is not ready for an educated, affluent black man. At least the film got that much right, but there’s little else it fails to grasp about the complex issues of race.

© James Blake Ewing 2019

Jane Eyre (2011)

I first read Jane Eyre while traveling in Europe. Long train-rides through the English countryside were filled with gazing out the window and reading Charlotte Brontë’s rich writing as she evoked a character whose inner monologue was fascinatingly similar to my own at times. I found in her a kindred spirit with her deep inner loneliness and a strict adherence to holding true to her beliefs even in the most troubling times.

Therefore, I’ve always been wary of the idea of an adaptation of this book. Brontë aligns us so close to the character through her inner-musings and deepest thoughts and I knew some of this would inevitably get lost in translation with the film where the inner workings of the mind are often hard to portray on screen.

And it’s fair to say that the 2011 adaptation certainly loses something in translation but it’s not for lack of trying. Mia Wasikowska plays Jane Eyre with the austere grace depicted in the book and while Michael Fassbender’s Rochester is a bit more prickly than I remember the one in the book being, he gives a captivating performance.

The film tries to work its way into some of the more subjective elements of Jane’s inner mind is by telling the film out of sequence. This allows the film to tinker with moments that will later inform Jane’s actions by drawing certain actions into parallel later actions and moments of decision whereby it begins to make sense why Jane thinks the way she thinks. There’s also a sense in which the entire film plays out as Jane tormented by the events of the book, which heightens the film’s central moral conflict.

And through those means it still captures the quality I found so admirable about the book: the way it captures the moral duty to oneself and God above fulfilling strong desires in moments of passion. Many great romance stories are fits of passion given into with little care about what will happen in the wake of such a storm, but Jane Eyre is acutely interested in the storm such behavior will damage.

This is accentuated throughout the film by the use of locales and weather throughout the film. The English countryside and weather can be fair and lovely during a moment of happiness or barren and harsh when all hope seems lost. It’s a visually affecting film that conveys so much of its emotional weigh through the look and feel of the images.

Any adaptation of Jane Eyre will forever live in the shadows of the book for me, but I think this version tries enough interesting techniques with both the story structure and the filmmaking to make it worth a watch for fans of the story. The core story and central theme still shines through and the film still shows why the story has been adapted so many times. There’s an undeniably potent and timeless story being told here, one worth hearing time and time again.

© James Blake Ewing 2019

Let the Sunshine In (2017)

Claire Denis remains one of the most robust and fascinating female directors working today. Able to navigate horror, drama, romance, comedy and arthouse without much difficulty, she’s yet to make an uninteresting film. One thread that runs through her films are how sensory they are and this film is no exception as it explores the romantic failings of Isabelle (Juliette Binoche), a middle-aged artist looking for love. Continue reading Let the Sunshine In (2017)

Yotsuba&!

I recently finished reading the first 13 volumes of Yotsuba&! And I’m hard-pressed to think of a series that has brought me so many laughs and so much joy. It’s a rare delight, an appropriate for all ages book with enough charm and gags to make each page a delightful, breezy read. It’s not deep, heady, challenging, or serious, but I’d also be hard-pressed to put a lot of more serious and important works above the simple delights of Yotsuba&!. Continue reading Yotsuba&!