Q. There have been movies about James Brown, Jimi Hendrix – a film on Miles Davis in the works. Do these movies make it difficult to teach their music to a new generation? Are there any African American writers whose lives should be placed on the big screen?
I have to say, I’m worried . . . again.
The trailer for Miles Ahead is beautiful. Some of the scenes are clearly designed from extant photos of Miles at work in the studio. We see him leaning over the piano, working through the composition with Gil Evans. We see the iconic image of Miles, seated on his stool amidst the many musicians on the sessions, leading the company towards what was going to turn out to be one of the most genre defying and form defining performances in the history of the music. Cheadle manages, at least in the trailer, to use his own voice in a way that suggests Davis’s hoarse whisper without tripping into caricature.
Cheadle is a tested and brilliant actor. What we see in the trailer is inspiring. So why am I worried? Because I’ve seen those other films, and so many like them.
If all you’d seen of the Hendrix film had been a trailer, you might have felt good about that one. Andre Benjamin didn’t seem a bad choice for the lead, despite earlier film fiascos, despite not knowing how to play a guitar (in a film that calls upon him to fake it left handed). When word came that the Hendrix estate wasn’t cooperating, I began to think the script might not be what I would hope for. My bigger worry in that regard was that the screenplay was coming from John Ridley.
If you’ve seen 12 Years a Slave, you might know why I wouldn’t have chosen Ridley for the Hendrix project. For one thing, too many people forget that there was an earlier film of 12 Years a Slave, released in 1984 under the title Solomon Northup’s Oddyssey. That earlier film, which aired on public television’s American Playhouse series, was directed by no less than Gordon Parks. The script, based on Solomon Northup’s 1853 book, was written by Lou Potter and Samm-Art Williams. Both films deviate in places from Northup’s narrative. It would be impossible to be entirely faithful to such a book in a film of a couple hours duration, and I have never been one to demand absolute fidelity in an adaptation. On the other hand, there is poetic license and there is desecration. Think of what Hollywood did to Faulkner’s Sound and the Fury on first attempt. (We have another version of that coming, saints preserve us.)
Yes, both films alter what Northup had written. But keep in mind we’re not talking about the adaptation of a novel,. As with the Miles Davis and Hendrix films, we’re talking about the adaptation of an historical figure’s life. In Ridley’s retelling of this masterpiece of autobiography, Northup’s wife is erased from the great final scene of reunion with his family. This could have been a tense and dramatic scene simply by following the lead of Northup’s book, and there seems no reason within the dynamics of the film for this erasure to have happened. But far worse than the erasure of Northup’s wife is the insertion of an egregious bit of sexual suggestion. Early in the film, as Northup has been kidnapped into slavery and is being transported, Ridley and the director, Steve McQueen, take it upon themselves to add an element of sexual intimacy with a stranger that not only never happened, but would seem surpassingly unlikely within the very situation the film is depicting. Why is this scene in the movie? It has nothing to do with depicting the ways in which people in bondage created opportunities for themselves to have intimacy, family, love, all of which are shown much more realistically and movingly elsewhere in the film.
There has been a long-standing fixation upon black sexuality in mainstream film, and the mostly British production of this American classic continued that daft and deleterious tradition.
As have the preponderance of films about African American musicians, mixed well with extended scenes of drug taking and alcohol consumption, etc. Again, I am not suggesting that such things didn’t happen or that bio pics should pretend they did not. But I am suggesting that mainstream film has made these things the centerpiece of their telling of African American music history for far too long. The recent Queen Latifah flic about Bessie Smith is a telling instance. Watching that movie, you’d be hard pressed to know why so many have been so moved by Smith’s music. You seldom get to hear more than a snippet of a song. Clint Eastwood’s movie about Charlie Parker, already marred by having such flubs as a flashback inside of which another person has their own flashback, gives us a Bird who is really only about dissipation. The Hendrix movie flunks on just this score. Those of us who saw Hendrix during his life time hoped for a film that would convey something of his virtuosity and brilliance. What we got was a film about a guy who beats women up, crushing their faces with telephones. And of course, when you make a film about a recent musician, there will still be people on the scene who know the truth of what happened. In this case, the very woman depicted getting abused by Hendrix has testified repeatedly that none of this ever happened. So why is it there?
Given what we know of Miles’s own histories of drug use and violence towards women, all of which was detailed in his own autobiography (though there are reasons to mistrust even some of that representation), can we trust the current project to give us a Miles, moral blemishes and all, who is really about the thing that made him worth attending to in the first place. Will we get, at long last, a movie about an important musical artist that conveys something of the drama of composition, the excitement of improvisation, the kind of musical transcendence DuBois describes so well in many of his writings? (While waiting for the new Miles movie, you might go back and watch A Man Called Adam, a film that centers on a Miles-like character, and that features Cicely Tyson – The movie has its own problems, but is interesting to see in light of the approaching release.)
But no, these films have not really caused any problems for me when I am teaching my students about the music, because they aren’t about the music, though they cause problems when you try to talk about the life.
When Motown was making Lady Sings the Blues, I was puzzled by their casting Diana Ross in the lead. When I went to the movie, I spent the first several minutes thinking, “that didn’t happen – that was somebody else – where is that coming from?” But then I realized that the way to watch that particular film was to forget everything you knew about Billie Holiday. To forget that there had ever been a Billie Holiday, and just try to appreciate the film as a movie. Still, Motown gave us a Billie Holiday who was a mass of symptoms. Where was the mastery of voice; where was the triumph of phrasing; where was the invention of new relationships to melody and rhythm? Watching Lady Sings the Blues, would you really know why Lester Young always wanted to play with her?
So I will go to the Miles movie, hoping that Cheadle and company will avoid the usual pitfalls and really give us a cinematic Miles, the man who changed the face of music at least three times in one life. Yes, Miles beat Cicely Tyson, something for which he could never really atone. Yes, Miles fell into the grip of drugs. But that is not the reason we want to see a film about Miles; we can watch reruns of The Wire if that’s what we’re after.
And so – there should be major movies about DuBois (hell, there should be four or five movies about DuBois) – about Hughes, about Hurston, about Wheatley, about Harper (Frances and Michael!) About Baraka for sure – I wouldn’t be surprised if we see a Gil Scott Heron film one day. (Please don’t let Common anywhere near that project!) But I’m not hopeful I’ll live to see these films, and given the track record to date, I’m not sure I want to see them.
Will the African American experimental film makers please step forward!
(By the way, Billy Woodberry is set to premiere his documentary on Bob Kaufman, a project about which I am considerably more optimistic. Now there was a cinematic life!)