Criterion corner: The learning tree, A night in Miami …
Welcome to the Criterion Corner, where we detail some of the news of the month from the Criterion Collection.
# 1106: One night in Miami… (2020, dir. Regina King)
During one night in 1964, a Miami hotel hosted four of the most influential African-American cultural figures of their time: black nationalist leader Malcolm X, new world heavyweight champion Cassius Clay (before he changed named after Muhammad Ali), NFL superstar turned actor Jim Brown and signature sensation Sam Cooke. The specific content of this meeting is unknown, but it inspired Kemp Powers to write One night in Miami … like a foursome imagining what these titanic black cultural figures might have been talking about. And in 2020, he adapted the play into a film directed by Oscar-winning actress Regina King, a film that crackles with the energy of a play but comes to life with a subtle but moving cinematic grammar.
Here, the fateful night between Malcolm (Kingsley Ben-Adir), Cassius (Eli Goree), Jim (Aldis Hodge) and Sam (Leslie Odom Jr.) does not become a mere meeting of the mind, but the scene of an examination. incisive of the state of advancement of blacks in American culture during this era (and, given its 2020 release, contemporary America struggling with issues of racial injustice) and their role in shaping it.
Powers ‘script (and King’s direction, skillful in understanding how to film actors and bring a lackluster’ 60s hotel room to life) plays with the innate dynamics of its central characters, all with different relations with black and white America. Malcolm has vowed to drag them into the militant dismantling of the violent White State, even as his own colleagues in the movement begin to pull away from him. Sam Cooke, meanwhile, understands the value of creating wealth and opportunity for blacks, even if it means responding to the white public and ignoring the struggles of social progress. Cassius is in shock at his newfound fame and the prospect of what it might mean for his own blackness, while Jim Brown is resigned to playing ball and dying in movies for whites who only claim to care about him. . “I hate these motherfuckers more than the rednecks who put everything forward,” he fumed at Malcolm. “And I’ll be damned if I ever forget what they really think about me.”
It’s a dazzling and incisive thing, enhanced by a quartet of performances as anchored in the manners and the cadence of their real characters as in the nuances of their interpreters. Ben-Adir perfectly crystallizes Malcolm’s frenzied and frustrated sense of urgency against his more complacent counterparts; Odom Jr. is a bright and sarcastic foil, all defensive wrapped in that silky voice. Goree nails the singing bravado of Ali’s speaking voice, which he uses to expose unexpected ideas about his own longing for the power he has earned, and Hodge’s barely contained contempt lurking behind the arrogance of a lothario completes the set perfectly.
More than an original footnote in the history of civil rights, One night in Miami … uses this unlikely meeting as a forum to discuss these tensions with incredible eagerness. It’s the showcase of an exhilarating actor and searing exploration of race relations in America all in one, and one of the best films of the past year.
Fortunately, then, Criterion continues to strike a balance between classics and well-curated contemporary films for streaming services that could use some physical media preservation. Like most modern films of this type, the 4K restoration is hardly a revelation; it already looked good on Amazon, where it was created. But it’s still a crisp, crisp presentation, nicely lighting up the warm browns of the hotel room and the crisp browns of Cooke’s costume (alongside the stunning 5.1 surround sound presentation that contains every note of Cooke).
The extras aren’t to shake their heads either, a veritable plethora of interviews and conversations between the cast / crew and other black critics and filmmakers to reiterate the importance of the film. There is a great conversation between King and Kasi Lemmons (note: when is this The Bayou of Eve come to Criterion?) on the unique challenges faced by black female directors; another conversation with King, Powers, and critic Gil Robertson; an excerpt from a 2021 podcast with King and Barry Jenkins; King with his central set; reports on production and sound design, respectively; and a nice essay by Gene Seymour which takes time to distinguish the incredible contributions of each actor to the film.
You can buy One Night in Miami… on the Criterion Collection website here.
# 1107: The Learning Tree (1969, dir. Gordon Parks)
Careers like King’s, however, wouldn’t be possible without Gordon Parks, the acclaimed photojournalist and author who became the first African-American to direct a major studio feature film. The modern public probably knows him better as the father of the genre “blaxploitation” with the years 1971 Tree, but her cinematic work began in earnest with her debut, a heartfelt coming-of-age story adapted from her bestselling novel The learning tree.
Based loosely on his own upbringing in rural Kansas in the 1920s, Park’s first film is a captivating but nostalgic look at his childhood, filtered through the replacement character of Newt Winger (a beautifully vulnerable Kyle Johnson). a calm, sensitive boy who resists racism from his community with a stiff upper lip. Through his eyes we see the reduced expectations of white superiors, like a teacher who insists that black children don’t bother trying to go to college because it will be “a terrible waste of time.” money and time, ”and the violence that occurs when white men rape black women with impunity.
In the midst of these various terrors, Newt projects a patient uncertainty, driven by a deep knowledge of the anti-darkness that his world exudes, but not wanting to stoop to its level. This is exacerbated when he finds himself embroiled in a trial for the death of neighboring farmer Jake Kiner, forced to choose between involving the black man who really did it or sentence an innocent white man to death.
But this sense of calm is contrasted by his friend Marcus (Alex Clarke), who doesn’t have Newt’s aspirations and becomes increasingly frustrated with the injustices inflicted on him by the White Quarter and the police (the latter personified by Kirky monstrously mundane by Dana Elcar). He does not have Newt’s stable family life and he is seething with vehement rage against his plight. Even so, Parks’ treatment of the two children is understandably empathetic, aided by Burnett Guffey’s sun-dappled cinematography (Guffey came out of retirement after filming Bonnie and Clyde shoot Learning tree, and we should be glad he did).
More than the film itself (which is still eminently viewable and empathetic today), The learning tree represents a defining moment for black cinema. As a director, producer, writer and even composer, Parks has broken several lines of color in the world of American cinema in this image; it opened doors for hosts of black filmmakers and creators to come after him. Moreover, it was humanist; contrast with the exaltation of blaxploitation Tree and others, The learning tree was firmly a sensitive coming-of-age story, a stern indictment against white racism that shattered stereotypes of black people, especially black boys, as servile illiterate and wise monsters.
The treatment of the criterion The learning tree is on par with their typical curatorial instincts, with a host of features meant not only to inform the film itself, but Parks as an artist. The 2k restoration is quite nice, reminiscent of Guffey’s bright, textured cinematography (only getting disappointingly blurry in credits / effects shots that probably didn’t have the original negative to work from).
From there, there is a wealth of material on Parks and the making of the film, including retrospectives from black academics and filmmakers like Nelson George and Ernest Dickerson. Parks’ featurettes on set, including one narrated by Gordon Parks Jr., offer a rare glimpse of a man who understands the pressure his position has placed on him and his sincere desire to do good for future black filmmakers. There are even two 1968 documentaries that Parks worked on to give additional context to his earlier creative production. Rather than commissioning an essay, the libretto lets Parks’ lyrical and evocative prose speak for itself – in a 1963 Life photographic essay and extract from his 2005 memoirs A hungry heart.
You can purchase The Learning Tree from the Criterion Collection website here.