Anthony Mackie

Seberg

13/01/20

In the year 2020, who even remembers the name of Jean Seberg? Not many people judging by the meagre crowd gathered at tonight’s screening. 

But hers is a fascinating story of toxic stardom, of a young performer whose life was systematically destroyed by the FBI; of a reckless but well-intentioned young woman, who got embroiled in events she couldn’t hope to control – events that would eventually destroy her. 

Catapulted to stardom at the age of seventeen, Seberg starred in Otto Preminger’s Saint Joan and suffered serious burns when her character’s onscreen immolation went horribly wrong. A few years later, she became the darling of the French New Wave when she starred in Jean Luc Godard’s Breathless. But Seberg, directed by Benedict Andrews, examines her ill-fated trip to Hollywood in the late 60s, where she’d gone to film the Western musical Paint Your Wagon. (Or ‘Clint Eastwood Sings!’ as it’sfondly remembered my many.)

Seberg (Kristen Stewart) reluctantly leaves her husband Roman (Yvan Attal) at home with their young son. On the plane to America, she meets up with Hakim Jamal (Anthony Mackie), an influential player in the burgeoning Black Power movement. She shows solidarity with his cause, contributing funds for the school he runs and, shortly afterwards, embarks on an affair with him. This brings her to the attention of the FBI, where operative Jack Solomon (Jack O’Connell) is directed to put her under intense surveillance. When Seberg starts to engage with more powerful members of the Black Panthers, the agency sets put to discredit her by making the details of her affair with Jamal public – and, in the increasingly poisonous atmosphere that ensues, Seberg’s sanity is pushed to the edge of the abyss…

Seberg is an interesting if somewhat flawed film. Stewart is an assured actor (and, given the invasive media coverage she herself has endured, it’s easy to see what attracted her to this role), but the fictional elements of this retelling of Seberg’s story are rather less successful. O’Connell’s tightly buttoned FBI man doesn’t really have enough to do, hanging around the edges of events, listening in on her via bugging devices and serving as the audience’s collective conscience. His exchanges with his hard nosed colleague Carl Kowalski (Vince Vaughan) are nicely drawn but don’t add much to the telling.

The era is nicely evoked but I would have liked to have seen some recreations of the filming of Paint Your Wagon thrown into the mix. (This is, after all, a biopic.) Perhaps there simply wasn’t the budget for that approach or more likely the filmmakers couldn’t obtain the rights. There are a couple of tantalising glimpses from St Joan and Breathless, but its not enough.

In some ways, this could be seen as the tale of a luckless individual crushed by the corrupt might of American law enforcement. But really, as Seberg herself says, ‘I am not the victim here.’ There is a much bigger  story – a shocking demonstration of the depths that the American justice system will sink to in order to prevent black people from ever achieving any sort of equality.

There seem to be quite a few such stories around right now. Add Just Mercy and Richard Jewell to the mix and we’re beginning to see a familiar trope. All of these films offer the same narrative: America is a corrupt and unforgiving place and things aren’t getting any better for the poor and the dispossessed.

This is worth seeing for Stewart’s powerful performance in the title role, but I can’t help feeling it could have been more effective than it ultimately is.

3.8 stars

Philip Caveney

 

The Hate U Give

27/10/18

Adapted from Angie Thomas’s YA best-seller of the same name, The Hate U Give is a powerful film, with a compelling central performance by Amandla Stenberg as Starr, a sixteen-year-old black girl struggling to fit in. Her mother doesn’t want her to attend the local public school, where the kids from her neighbourhood go to fight and get high. Instead, Starr is sent to a private – and mostly white – establishment, where she has to hide huge swathes of her identity to get along, to be ‘the non-threatening black’ her new friends find palatable.

So far, so standard teen movie, but then Starr’s childhood friend, Khalil (Algee Smith) is killed by a cop who pulls them over as they’re driving home from a party: shot dead for being a little mouthy, for reaching for a hairbrush, for doing these things while black. Starr is the only witness, and she’s afraid. She knows that speaking up will mean media coverage and instant fame, and she doesn’t want to draw attention to herself this way. Partly because of school, where she reveals little of where she lives, but also because of King (Anthony Mackie), the local drug lord, who doesn’t want the authorities to know that Khalil has been dealing drugs for him.

It’s an uncompromising story, with strength in its convictions, using Starr’s confusion to  confront this whole big ugly mess. When media pundits dismiss Khalil as a lowlife dealer, Starr demands they stop blaming him for his own death: we already know that he sells drugs because there’s no easy way to make money in their no-hope suburb, and that there’s no universal healthcare to ensure his grandma gets the cancer drugs she needs. When her white friends use the cop’s acquittal as an excuse to walk out of school to protest that ‘Black Lives Matter,’ Starr is appalled, not because she doesn’t agree with their sentiment, but because they’re blatant in their insincerity – they want to avoid a test. She doesn’t want them to co-opt his name for their own ends, especially not Hailey (Sabrina Carpenter), who’s unequivocal in her belief that the cop was just doing his job.

Okay, so sometimes it’s a little clunky and heavy-handed, more of a message than a story, but it’s a prescient and vital message nonetheless, told with nuance and with heart. We’re offered various points of view: Starr’s uncle Carlos (Common) gives us some insight into why cops might sometimes shoot before they should; her boyfriend, Chris (KJ Apa), shows us how to be a white ally. It’s a learning curve for me, at least, and I suspect I’m not alone.

4 stars

Susan Singfield