Sunday, October 30, 2016

Movies: Stillborn, local monopoly exhibitor aborts Parker's "Birth"

I spent over ten years as a film reviewer for various media; I also spent 3 1/2 years on the Jamaican equivalent of the Ratings Board, assigning ratings to films to be shown by the monopoly exhibitor, the Palace Amusement Company, whose existence dates back to 1921.

Altogether, that's a lot of hours spent in dark rooms, watching movies and making judgements about them. Add to that at least two films a week viewed from about the age of say, 8 or 9 years old, and cumulatively, I have some kind of platform for determining the worthiness of films.

Given that depth of interest and close association, I naturally follow the release schedules of the local monopoly exhibitor very closely. I'd been tracking Nate Parker's "Birth of a Nation" ever since that big deal at the Sundance Film fest, and, when I saw a poster of the film in the "Coming Soon" standee outside the company's Sovereign Cineplex (in reality, 2 adjoining rooms holding about 100 viewers each), I was in a state of high anticipation.

But with the passage of several weeks and no move from "Coming Soon" to "Now Showing" I began to have some concerns. These were heightened when the poster, which had been there for at least three solid weeks, was summarily removed, replaced by, among others, Tyler Perry's latest Madea misadventure.

I have nothing against Tyler Perry - his story is well documented and he deserves his success, even in so formulaic a vehicle as Madea.

My issue, is the the monopoly exhibitor (are you getting the pattern here?) after advertising a particular film to be screened for local audiences, has summarily yanked said film - with no explanation whatsoever - this despite several phone calls placed by myself, and a direct visit to the Cineplex - where a woman at the box office, after waffling for a few minutes on the question, finally blurted out "I don't believe there a lot of people who want to see a movie like that."

Like what?

Well, for starters, "The Birth of A Nation" (whose title boldly references D W Griffiths' blatantly racist "masterpiece" of 1915) is based on the pivotal 1831 slave revolt led by American Nat Turner. That revolt left over people dead and helped pave the way for the eventual legal end of slavery in the US some 30 years later, amid the U.S. Civil War.

It parallels a similar revolt, the Christmas Day uprising, led in St James by Samuel "Daddy" Sharpe, a Baptist minister (like Turner), whose memory is immortalized in the main square in Jamaica's second city of Montego Bay. Like Turner's revolt, Sharpe's Christmas rebellion helped pave the way for the eventual end of slavery in Jamaica and Britain's colonies throughout the Caribbean - first in 1834, with the institution of the Apprenticeship system, and the eventual dissolution in 1838.

Parker's film then, is important, not so much as an historical document, but as a symbolic document of resistance to oppression on the part of Africans and  African-descended people in the New World. It's cinematic release in North America has been dogged by the controversy of a 1999 rape trial involving Parker and his roommate, Jean Celestion. Parker was initially acquitted, his friend convicted, and then, on a second trial, the case thrown out, with the accuser deciding not to appear as a witness.

However, I seriously doubt that the spectre of writer-director-star as an accused rapist is what has given the monopoly exhibitor in Jamaica cold feet. Its more likely that Parker's teeth-baring battle cry and bloodstained shirt have halted their plans. Not because such content is too graphic for local viewers (horror movies with far more blood and gore frequently make it to the local box office). I suspect the Grahams, the principals of Palace Amusement are loathe to show a movie depicting a slave uprising, especially one as pivotal as Turner's, and especially one told by a black writer and from a distinctly black perspective.

If the above charge is unfounded, then I urge the directors at Palace to furnish us with a fulsome explanation for the withdrawal of the film form their slate. Truthfully though, I won't be holding my breath for that. The Grahams have not been the most forthcoming owners in the past, and there's no reason to expect a change in their modus  right now.

So, I'll content myself with seeing Parker's piece outside of the cinema (this is part of the reason why bootlegging will never die) and hope that somehow, Jamaicans will develop a taste for demanding more from the monopoly exhibitor, not in welcoming more indigenous content (like the new Lennie Little-White production that just opened), but more those films which might make the vestiges of the planter class a little uncomfortable.

Fond hopes, but then, I'm the eternal optimist.

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