No fence

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Some context. In less than a week, I’ve seen three major awards-season movies with significant African-American roots: Ava DuVernay’s stunning documentary The 13th (nominated for Best Documentary); the adapted Pulitzer Prize-winning stage play and Denzel Washington vehicle Fences (nominated for Best Picture, Actor, Supporting Actress and Adapted Screenplay); and Moonlight (nominated for Best Picture, Director, Supporting Actor, Supporting Actress, Adapted Screenplay, Editing, Score and Cinematography). By further coincidence, I also saw episode two of the History Channel’s 2016 remake of Roots, showing here for unfathomable reasons on BBC Four, and different from the 1977 original mainly in the more visceral depiction of its violence, which is a sign of the times.

But it’s Moonlight I want to talk about, as I believe it’s as close to a perfect film I’ve seen this year, and I think it’s going to be hard to beat. It’s behind a paywall but I’ve picked up via social media that Moonlight was trashed for effect by the just-passing-through film critic Camilla Long in the Sunday Times Culture section. The gist of her pasting seems to be that its story of a young black male coming of age in Miami has been made to appease a straight, white, guilt-ridden, middle-class audience. This is bullshit, and I speak as a straight, white, guilt-ridden, middle-class man. This charge devalues the fact that it is adapted from an unpublished stage play about a specific black experience by a black writer, Tarell Alvin McCraney, and directed by a black director, Barry Jenkins, and yet it is a film so universal it will appeal to any demographic. (She disparages the central character for lacking any defining characteristics beyond “sad” and “gay”. That we’re talking about a low-budget indie film whose central characteristics are being “sad” and “gay” but which has broken through to the mainstream feels like a massive breakthrough.)

Long’s misrepresentation also subtracts from the fact that the film’s cast is almost 100% black, a straightforward reflection of the milieu in which it’s set, and thereby not an “issue”. (No need for handy white racists to prop up the story of black kids dealing with prejudice that comes in many colours. Sadistic, whip-wielding, white plantation owners are not required on this particular voyage.) Moonlight is not a film about the African-American experience through which we are led by the colonial hand of a white interpreter. Nor is it a film that wrings its hands about the statistical odds stacked against a child born black in 21st century America. That Chiron, our protagonist, is born to a single parent who is herself an addict who turns tricks to feed her habit, and has to fend for himself on the streets and at school, is not the defining narrative. For Moonlight is a love story. It is also a “gay” love story.

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The love that dare not speak its name is, we intuit, even less verbose among black males in what we’ll call working-class neighbourhoods. You have to assume progress is being made every day in terms of sexual diversity as well as racial diversity, even in more “traditional” social groups, but the story of Chiron from school age to manhood is all about keeping a dark secret. (I’ll refrain from detailing the plot too much, as you’ll want to experience its revelations in the moment, without forewarning. There is one that’s simply devastating. You’ll know it when it comes.)

I had never heard of Barry Jenkins. He’s still pretty young, 37, but I never caught his first film, Medicine for Melancholy, in 2007. Moonlight nails him to the map. Sometimes it’s just timing. This is his time. Arriving, as it does, in an America of #BlackLivesMatter and reinvigorated prejudice of all kinds, Moonlight shines especially brightly and beautifully. (You can see from the stills that it’s a picture to behold – cinematographer James Laxton has also been working for years, but this is his calling card – but its often moonlit, often sun-bleached beauty is played for sincerity and irony, aesthetically. What I mean is: even its violence, or the result of its violence, has a certain artistry. But it never detracts.)

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We have to commend the cast. Only the better established actors, Mahershala Ali (a mainstay on House of Cards) and Naomie Harris (one of our best known BME exports, and it’s a crowded field), have been nominated for major awards. I suspect the sublime Ali – playing paternalistic but conflicted drug dealer Juan – might take Supporting Actor on Oscar night. But while both are strong, it’s the unknowns who pump the blood through the film. Let’s hear it for Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders and Trevante Rhodes, who cumulatively play Chiron; and for Jaden Piner, Jharrel Jerome and Andre Holland (familiar to fans of The Knick), who give life to Chiron’s best friend Kevin. The casting is almost magical: the two acting trios look enough like each other to convince, but not enough like each other to distract. And each acts with the same relaxed, unforced poise. Kevin talks constantly, while Chiron keeps his own counsel (adult Kevin observes that he never says more than three words at a time). Both characters require care and attention to get right, and if the world was fair, all three could be nominated collectively for a single Oscar, or Bafta, or Globe.

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You might argue that no film is perfect. You might be right. But back to context. I saw Fences the day before I saw Moonlight, and without wishing to judge Fences too harshly (it, too, contains a performance worthy of accolade: Viola Davis), it feels almost pantomimic next to Moonlight’s grace and subtlety. Denzel Washington, directing himself, simply puts the camera down and points it at a Pulitzer-winning play. It’s not cinematic; it’s theatrical, and didactic. Jenkins never moves his camera without meaning, or subtext. Sure, its tracking shots could be dismissed as showing off, but the opening one, detailing Juan’s routine, checking up on a corner boy, asking about his mother, is surrounded by the camera, which spins around not for technical effect, but to reveal the wide open space of the dealer’s world: flat, bleached out, salt-flecked, while expressing the practical truth that a dealer needs to be able to see at 360 degrees. When a gaggle of schoolkids races past him suddenly, we feel his surprise; we didn’t see them coming either. (Jenkins cuts here to the boys, chasing through wasteland, and it’s only then that we see that it’s a pursuit, and a homophobic one. I cannot wait to see this opening sequence again.)

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Moonlight is a serious film, but not without humour, or hope, and certainly not one without tender mercies. It’s an acting and directing masterclass that’s all the things Camilla Long seems to think it isn’t: necessary, important, urgent, relevant. It’s also warm and sensual and streaked with tears.

Some fences are built to keep people out, some fences are built to keep people in, but Moonlight contains no clunky fence metaphors.

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First …

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First they came for BBC Three, and I did not speak out –
because I don’t watch Snog, Marry, Avoid.

Then they came for BBC Worldwide, and I did not speak out –
because I don’t really know what that is, or does.

Then they came for Strictly Come Dancing and The Voice, and I did not speak out –
because I mainly listen to Radio 4 and watch BBC Two and Wimbledon and Question Time.

Then they came for the whole of the BBC, including Radio 4 and BBC Two and Wimbledon and Question Time and Strictly Come Dancing and The Voice
and there was no one left to broadcast that fact in a trustworthy manner.

After Pastor Martin Niemöller, 1946

Downturn Abbey

TA122Laughs aplenty this week on Telly Addict, although not, to be honest, from Downton Abbey on ITV, whose fourth series continues to play out like a Smiths song; elsewhere however, comedy abounds: The Wrong Mans on BBC2 (already reviewed in great detail on this very blog), London Irish on C4 and the comeback farewell of The IT Crowd on C4; also, while we’re about it, By Any Means on BBC1, Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. on C4 (nice importing!) and a lovely Culture Show special on Northern Soul on BBC2 that allowed incoming Channel Four News culture editor Paul Mason to spin like a twisted wheel.

PS: I hadn’t seen the final episode of Breaking Bad when we recorded this yesterday. I have now. But I doubt I’ll be able to meaningfully review it on Telly Addict for fear of spoiling it for law-abiding citizens of the UK who don’t subscribe to Neflix. I may blog about it here instead, in a safe zone.

Anything goes

I started writing this blog entry yesterday afternoon, before I heard of the sad death of Elisabeth Sladen. I’m going to continue with it, as it should act as a tribute to a very important woman in my early life, and in the lives of others of a certain age. Elisabeth Sladen 1948-2011

I can’t believe I’ve actually found this. It’s the moment in the first Tom Baker Doctor Who story, Robot (or The Giant Robot), where Sarah Jane Smith, frightened by the giantness of the robot in question, runs away and, in true damsel-in-distress style, falls over. This episode aired at the end of 1974, which makes me nine going on ten at the time. All I know is this: when I caught a momentary glimpse of Sarah Jane’s underskirt riding up her thigh, I came over all funny. This can’t have been exactly sexual at that age, but I was aware that I had seen something I shouldn’t have seen, something forbidden, not for my eyes. An underskirt, which is what we used to call a slip in the early 70s, was exactly that: a skirt that went under an outer skirt. It was an undergarment, and I was old enough to know that underwear was secret.

I have had this image imprinted on my mind’s eye ever since, despite having only ever seen it once, that day in 1974. Even 35 years later, I could still see it. And now, thanks to a rare clip of Doctor Who on YouTube (which I think has been edited with some silly music, I didn’t listen to it), I can actually see it again. It’s still pretty racy isn’t it?

I loved Elisabeth Sladen as a kid. Or was it Sarah Jane Smith that I loved? It doesn’t matter. It’s actually both. I loved her in the same way that I loved Tiger on The Double Deckers around the same time. Even though too young to “fancy” fictional characters, or the actors that play them, you develop an attachment to certain among them, and – for obvious reasons – the Doctor Who companions were an automatic focus. (Just as Jon Pertwee was my first Doctor, Tom Baker was the first Doctor I saw regenerate at both ends of his era; following this pattern, Jo Grant was my first companion, but Sarah Jane was the first companion whose first and last adventures I watched – The Time Warrior in 1973 to The Hand Of Fear in 1976, and yes I had to look that up. I am, or was, a Doctor Who fan, not a Doctor Who Fan!)

The point I was going to raise here off that back of that abiding image of Sarah Jane’s underskirt is just how innocent the times were that I grew up in, sexually speaking. It’s 2011. Times have changed. We are, in many ways, more sexually liberated than we were in the 70s, a decade when, despite the progress of the apparently permissive 60s and the political leaps forward made in terms of women’s liberation and gender equality – not to mention attitudes to homosexuality – it was still a dark age. Society and popular culture were inherently sexist (watching Dave Lee Travis drool over Pan’s People in a recent edition of Top Of The Pops on BBC Four from 1976 was particularly repellent). Clearly, aged nine, and even into my teens, I wasn’t aware of this. I accepted things as they were handed down to me, as any young boy in any era might. My confused feelings, the ones that eventually develop into urges, were all heterosexual ones, and within that broad area, I guess they were natural enough.

But in the 1970s, if you wanted to think about women, you were lucky if you could see a picture of any more than an underskirt. It will strike young people of today as either quaint or pathetic that we used to find pictures of models wearing bras in the Kays catalogue oddly illicit. Clearly, Charlie’s Angels were sexy. They sometimes wore bikinis. But not always. And the camera did not linger too long on their bodies. (I saw the latest Fast & The Furious film yesterday; and Gal Gadot, an Israeli actress whose character is nominally a “strong woman”, is seen going undercover in a tiny bikini and the camera sticks to her as she walks, from behind and in front, for what feels an age. It’s a 12A certificate.) You saw busty women and women whose swaying bottoms required saxophone accompaniment on Carry On films; indeed some of the 70s ones were considerably fleshy. But these were framed by silly, falling-over comedy; this was not even the softest porn, not in the context of today’s on-tap titillation. What I’m driving at is that in that faraway era before video, DVD and the Internet, you had to be grateful for anything. Oh how rude we thought National Lampoon’s Animal House was in 1979! This was my first, legal “AA” certificate, which you had to be 14 to see. I suspect today it would look pretty tame – nothing you wouldn’t see on television – but at the time, it felt like Deep Throat. (When I was much older, around 17, a bunch of us went to another boy’s house at lunchtime and he showed us some of Deep Throat, which his parents must have had, on video. I was not only shocked and fascinated by the frankness of it all, I was a bit scared. Maybe that’s just me. Or maybe it’s a sign of more sheltered times.)

The underskirt question, to get back to my point, is simply one of context. A glimpse of bra strap would have had the same effect in 1974. When Sarah Jane was eventually replaced by Leela, a savage who by default wore a suede bikini, you might say that Doctor Who was moving with the permissive times. Certainly she seemed pretty saucy for teatime. (I seem to recall my Dad taking more of an interest in the programme at the time – or am I post-rationalising?) Already, social and sexual mores were changing, right before my eyes!

I like to think I have grown up without hang-ups. I certainly prefer to use my imagination than have images served up on a plate. When I actually came of age, in the early 80s, the girls round our way wore long pinafore skirts, and multiple layers. It was the fashion. You wouldn’t see midriffs, or bra straps, or legs. (A girl called Heidi wore a midriff-revealing cut-off t-shirt at a sixth form party in 1983 and it was the talk of the school.) The kind of Goth girls my friend Kevin and I revered in mid-80s Northampton wore three of everything, layers upon layers. I realise now I sound like someone who grew up in Victorian times, but ironically, with those elaborate clothes, always done up to the neck, that’s exactly what they were like. (I’m free-forming now. if I was writing this as a think-piece for a magazine, I’d get on with the second draft.)

I know I’ve gone off the subject of Elisabeth Sladen, but I hope, elliptically, I have positioned her in my life and expressed how important she was to me. Not just as a woman on the telly whose skirt once rode up in front of a giant robot – once! – but as an iconic figure, someone with whom I identified and someone whose adventures I followed, religiously, at a formative age. I always liked her more than I liked Kate Jackson from Charlie’s Angels.