Wednesday, November 09, 2005
reeling 2005: strange fruit
Strange Fruit is the story of William Boyals, who is, as the Reeling 2005 site summary notes, a high-powered lawyer living in New York City. He has a thoroughly neglected boyfriend -- whom he thinks of merely as a booty call, and who, despite having had a relationship with William for a few months, did not actually know that until an unfortunate exchange near the beginning of the film (and a much much more unfortunate one later on)-- a job he clearly loves, a secretary deeply in love/lust with him (heaven only knows why, since he knows better than even William's booty call how driven he is), and a family so fractured that he hasn't been back to Louisiana to visit in nearly 20 years. He's pulled back to Louisiana by the murder of his closest friend from childhood. The film is a story of William's investigations of Kelvin's murder, and of his tortured relationships with his real family and his semi-adopted family.
Unfortunately, the balance between those elements is badly off, and Strange Fruit simply isn't a very good film. Frustratingly, there's the kernel of a interesting -- if briefer -- film buried inside this one, but it never quite breaks out.
The murder is as horrible, shocking and violent as the title would imply. In one of the few bits of really good filmmaking evident in this production, we don't quite actually see everything that happens to Kelvin, thank goodness. What we do see is quite enough; it's all shown to us as a series of out-of-sequence flashes and images, somewhat surreal. Kelvin (Ron Ayers) is raped, then sodomized with a tree limb, then hanged from that tree. This all happens directly outside the one gay club in the parrish, and nobody sees it happen. Yes. Quite.
Once William is back in Louisiana, the film pretty much goes irreversibly and irretrievably wrong. The excessively bigoted sheriff (Sam Jones -- not the Flash Gordon guy but someone else) decides that he doesn't need to investigate because this is clearly a case of kinky faggot nigger sex gotten out of hand. Right. Yes. Quite. (He pretty much says exactly that to Kelvin's mother, by the by. Lovely man.) Now, to be sure, he has reasons for not investigating -- although they're not what anyone seems to think they are. And, in fact, they're never quite made clear to the viewer, and they should have been, near the end of the movie when things are seriously out of hand. If you pay close attention, the sheriff seems to have two entirely independent reasons for letting things happen as they do -- but only the second motive matters, and it's not at all clear that the second one even exists, despite the way things turn out.
Berlinda Tolbert plays Emma Ayers, mother of the murdered Kelvin. She gives really the only interesting portrayal in the film. It's a pity that it's wasted in this production. This is not to say that the other actors don't do good work, because they do. They're just hampered by the script in a way that doesn't happen to Tolbert; Emma Ayers is the most consistently written character in the entire production. (I honestly haven't a clue how good or bad an actor Sam Jones is; his role is so badly written that I can't tell how much of the scenery-chewing is him, and how much is the writing and direction.)
At every single possible turn, the ability of the story to move forward rests on William being utterly, irretrievably, unbelievably STOOPID. I'm willing to believe that the man has a major chip on his shoulder; we learn enough about his past to understand and accept that. And I'm willing to believe that he's sometimes a hothead who speaks before he thinks -- although, that said, successful lawyers in big NYC law firms very very seldom have that sort of personality. But I am absolutely not willing to believe that he has forgotten everything he ever knew about living in that little backwater parrish. If he'd left when he was five, ten years old, then yes, maybe, but he left when he was eighteen. The sheriff then was the father of the current sheriff. He knew how things worked. Maybe it would have taken him a while to get back into the rhythm of the place, but he simply would never have handled that investigation in that utterly hamhanded, moronic way.
There are only two parts of the film that really work at all. Strangely enough, the humor -- yes, there is some, and as befits the topic, most of it is very dark indeed -- most of the humor actually lands. The funny stuff is meant to be funny, for the most part. And the family relations work, and we see far too few of them.
Interestingly, what we do see of them makes me wonder if perhaps the movie we got wasn't the movie the writer/director wanted to make. As previously mentioned, there's actually the core of an interesting -- if much shorter -- film buried in "Strange Fruit". It makes you wish that directors could get a "do-over" on films; bring back the cast, hopefully find the money they need to do things right, and do things right.
WARNING: BELOW LIE VAGUE SPOILERS! RUN WHILE YOU CAN!
...Still here? All righty, then!
Restructure this film to focus on the family relationships. They're what works, and in a weird way, they're really what this film seems to be about.That's where what little strength this film had lies. It's where the actors were most natural, and where the writing was strongest. Yet they get shifted into the background in service of a thriller plot that really doesn't work.
Keep the first lynching murder. (There are, in fact, three murders, the first -- Kelvin's -- and the last both being apparent rape-lynchings -- and the last murder in fact makes not the slightest plot sense at all.) You can even keep the original motive for Kelvin's murder, which actually works. The first murder, despite everything, is principally a McGuffin to get William back to Louisiana. (THAT said ... William and Kelvin should have stayed in touch, and we should have heard about that. Even if William never came back while Kelvin was alive -- and Kelvin would understand that reason -- Kelvin could have visited him in New York, they could have called, written ... they were, after all, almost family before he left, and Kelvin's family doesn't seem to have turned on Wiliiam the way everyone else did. It makes no sense that William would have dropped Kelvin from his life like that, or that Kelvin would have let him. And if he did, why did Kelvin's mother know how to contact him? William's mother wouldn't have known or cared herself. It's clear that Kelvin's mother and William have a certain affection for each other; that wouldn't be there if they'd been completely out of touch all that time. In fact, I'd think that Kelvin's mother would be really rather angry with him.)
Get rid of the entire murder investigation. (No, really, I mean it.) It makes sense that the family would be descending upon the sheriff's office, demanding answers. However, in a town that small, there is no way on this earth that people don't know, fairly quickly, who did what and why. Would they tell William? No, probably not; he's an outsider. But they would know, and far too many people clearly don't.
Give William a brain. Please. Yes, this type of film -- which it would actually now not be, but never mind that -- depends on the main character being something of a rabblerouser, but they usually go about it much more intelligently, and sometimes even deliberately. Even if you dump the thriller plot, it can only help if William gets to occasionally, you know, think.
Get rid of ultrabigoted sheriff. Make the sheriff William's old high-school acquaintance, who is actually a fairly nice guy with a conscience, and someone who is really trying to do his job in the face of a fairly nasty conspiracy. It's not actually a major part, as currently written, although a periodically important one, so you might lose something, but not much.
You can even keep the last awful things that happen to Willliam. Given why Kelvin was killed, it would make sense that the murderer would go after William. He's even worse, after all; he's not only out of the closet, but he's successful, and he came back and flaunts his success -- he doesn't see it that way, but pretty much every other person in town does. (That said, lose the reason for the second and third murders. Please. Good god, that's some wretched storytelling structure. And lose the murderers' reactions to William at the end; given that they were willing to do what they did to Kelvin and that other guy, it makes not the least bit of sense that anything William has to say would move them.)
And in any version of this film, we should have had a scene with William and his mother at the end, after everything. It doesn't have to be happy. In fact, given their relationship, it really couldn't be. But I truly cannot believe that any mother who ever cared for her child would be indifferent to him after everything that happens. Even if it wasn't a happy ending, this film desperately needed that scene, and it didn't get it.
In any event, if this movie comes to a theater near you ... flee. (Well ... OK, it's not that bad, but for heaven's sake, don't go see it. Not even with a free ticket. If you do ... well, you wuz warned.)
Posted by iain at 01:42 AM in category film
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