Review: ‘The Harder They Fall’ (2021), starring Jonathan Majors, Idris Elba, Zazie Beetz, Regina King, LaKeith Stanfield, RJ Cyler and Danielle Deadwyler

December 4, 2021

by Carla Hay

Danielle Deadwyler, Jonathan Majors and Zazie Beetz in “The Harder They Fall” (Photo by David Lee/Netflix)

“The Harder They Fall” (2021)

Directed by Jeymes Samuel

Culture Representation: Taking place in Texas in the mid-1880s, the Western action drama “The Harder They Fall” has a predominantly black cast of characters (with some white people, Latinos and Native Americans) representing the working-class, middle-class, wealthy and the criminal underground.

Culture Clash: When cowboy Nat Love finds out that his arch-enemy Rufus Buck has escaped from prison, Nat assembles a posse that battles against Rufus’ gang.

Culture Audience: “The Harder They Fall” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in well-acted, action-oriented Western dramas about the underrepresented African American cowboy culture of the 1880s, but viewers of the movie should have a high tolerance for over-the-top violence.

Regina King, Idris Elba and LaKeith Stanfield in “The Harder They Fall” (Photo courtesy of Netflix)

With grisly violence that is almost cartoonish, “The Harder They Fall” puts a well-acted spotlight on real-life African American cowboys of the 1880s. The movie’s excessive violence might be a turnoff to some viewers. But for viewers who can tolerate all the blood and gore, “The Harder They Fall” is a bumpy and thrilling ride with a top-notch cast.

“The Harder They Fall” is the feature-film directorial debut of Jeymes Samuel, who co-wrote “The Harder They Fall” screenplay with Boaz Yakin. Samuel has said in interviews that the title of the movie was inspired by the 1972 movie “The Harder They Come,” starring reggae singer Jimmy Cliffnot the 1956 Humphrey Bogart/Rod Steiger movie “The Harder They Fall.” Samuel is a British filmmaker (he’s the younger brother of pop star Seal) who grew up adoring Western movies. However, Samuel eventually found out that these Westerns often gave inaccurate demographic depictions of what post-Civil War life was like the Old West of the 19th century.

In reality, people of color and women had much more agency and independence in Old West culture than what’s shown in most old-time Western movies, which usually portray only white men as leaders of cowboy posses. “The Harder They Fall” aims to course-correct these historical exclusions by doing a fictional portrayal of real-life African American posse members from the 19th century. In case it wasn’t clear enough, a caption in the movie’s introduction states in big and bold letters: “While the events are fictional, the people are real.” (At least the movie’s main characters are based on real people.)

“The Harder They Fall” also doesn’t sugarcoat the reality that there were good and bad cowboy posses. Black people are no exception. The African Americans in the movie are not portrayed as subservient stereotypes, but they aren’t exactly saintly either. Most are just trying to get by and live good lives, while there are some hardened criminals who create chaos for people who have the misfortune of crossing their paths. “The Harder They Fall” takes place in various parts of Texas, but the movie was actually filmed in New Mexico.

“The Harder They Fall” opens with a 10-year-old boy named Nat Love (played by Chase Dillon) witnessing the brutal murder of his parents—Reverend Love (played by Michael Beach) and wife Eleanor Love (played by DeWanda Wise)—during a home invasion. The gangsters shoot Nat’s parents, but they spare Nat’s life. The leader of this gang uses a knife to carve a cross on Nat’s forehead.

About 20 years later, Nat (played by Jonathan Majors) still has the scar on his forehead. And he’s had a lifelong obsession with getting revenge on the gangsters who killed his parents. Nat knows that Rufus Buck (played by Idris Elba) is the gang leader who is the main culprit for the murders. Rufus has recently been in prison for armed robbery and murder.

However, Nat finds out that Rufus has made a prison escape. Two of Rufus’ loyal cronies—ruthless Trudy Smith (played by Regina King) and smooth-talking Cherokee Bill (played by LaKeith Stanfield)—have hijacked the train where prisoner Rufus was being transported, and they broke Rufus out of the cell where he was being kept.

After Nat discovers that Rufus is now a free man (but still wanted by law enforcement), Nat assembles his own posse to get revenge. The other members of the Nat Love Gang are Mary Fields (played by Zazie Beetz), who is Nat’s feisty love interest; Bill Pickett (played by Edi Gathegi), who is a loyal and logical; Jim Beckwourth (played by RJ Cyler), who is a cocky young cowboy; and Cuffee (played by Danielle Deadwyler), who lives as a transgender man.

Nat makes a living by finding “wanted dead or alive” criminals for reward money. Nat has no qualms about killing these criminals if he thinks they deserve it. That’s what happens in an early scene in the movie when Nat shoots and kills a wanted criminal who shows up at a Catholic church with the intention of robbing the church. Nat’s reward is $5,000.

It turns out that Nat and his gang are outlaws too, because they make money by stealing from robbers. Therefore, one of their least-favorite people is Bass Reeves (played by Delroy Lindo), a U.S. marshal who’s determined to put a stop to all this criminal activity. In addition to seeking revenge on Rufus, the Nat Love Gang also wants to avoid capture by Reeves and his law enforcement team. The posse members on both sides are also mistrustful of Wiley Esco (played by Deon Cole), the Redwood City mayor whose allegiances can be murky.

It should be noted that in real life, Bass Reeves is the inspiration for the Lone Ranger character, which has been played by white actors in movies and television. Reeves was considered a pioneer for African Americans in law enforcement, because he did a lot to change American viewpoints that white people aren’t the only race who can become U.S. marshals. In real life, Reeves worked closely with Native American leaders. It’s an alliance that’s depicted in the movie too.

In many ways, “The Harder They Fall” follows a lot of the traditions of typical Westerns, with gun shootouts and chases on horseback. There’s also some romance, as Mary and Nat have an on-again, off-again relationship. Mary, who works as a saloon singer, has a hard time trusting Nat because he’s cheated on her in the past. Nat is an emotionally wounded rebel who’s trying to win back Mary’s heart, but first he has to learn how to heal his own broken heart.

And there’s inevitable fighting among posse members. Most of the friction in Nat’s gang comes from Jim and Bill having personality clashes with each other. Bill thinks Jim is arrogant and reckless, while Jim thinks that Bill is uptight and too cautious. It’s the classic older cowboy/younger cowboy conflict that’s often seen in Westerns.

There are also some gender issues with Cuffee, who wants to live life as a man, but some people think that Cuffee is a woman just doing a drag act. There are parts of the movie where people aren’t sure whether to call Cuffee a “he” or a “she,” since the word “transgender” did not exist at the time. And when Cuffee has to wear a dress (for reasons what won’t be revealed in this review), it makes Cuffee very uncomfortable. After seeing Cuffee in a dress, Jim blurts out that he now knows why has kind of attracted to Cuffee.

Damon Wayans Jr. has a small role in the movie as Monroe Grimes, someone who is captured by Nat’s posse members to get information about Rufus. As for Rufus, he’s a cold-blooded killer who has enough of a twinkle in his eye and swagger in his walk to indicate why his posse subordinates find him so magnetic. Mary can give Rufus a run for his money, in terms of being fearless in battle. Cherokee Bill is violent too, but he’s more likely to use psychology to try to outwit an opponent.

“The Harder They Fall” isn’t particularly innovative in the story structure and dialogue, but there are some impressive camera shots from cinematographer Mihai Malaimare Jr., and the movie delivers when it comes to adrenaline-filled action scenes. A standout camera shot is in a scene where the camera zooms in with a bullet-like trajectory at a group of posse members to then reveal that there are others standing behind them. Also adding to the striking visuals of “The Harder They Fall” is the first-rate costume design by Antoinette Messam, who brought a practical yet fashionable look to many of these Old West characters.

All of the actors perform well in their roles, with the best scene-stealing moments coming from Majors, King, Elba, Beetz, Stanfield and Deadwyler. Where the movie falters a bit is in how it abandons its mostly gritty realism for some stunts that are so heavily choreographed, it takes you out of the realism and just becomes a reminder that this movie’s fight scenes can sometimes look like ultra-violent parodies of fight scenes in Westerns.

What doesn’t come across as a parody is how credibly the cast members portray their characters. These engaging characters bring real heart and soul to “The Harder They Fall.” (There’s also a poignant plot twist/reveal at the end of the movie that might or might not be surprising to some viewers.) Even though not everyone makes it out alive by the end of the movie, it’s clear by the movie’s last shot that there’s room for a sequel for a spinoff.

Netflix released “The Harder They Fall” in select U.S. cinemas on October 22, 2021. The movie’s Netflix premiere was on November 3, 2021.

Review: ‘Nine Days,’ starring Winston Duke, Zazie Beetz, Benedict Wong, Tony Hale and Bill Skarsgård

September 5, 2021

by Carla Hay

Winston Duke and Bill Skarsgård in “Nine Days” (Photo by Michael Coles/Sony Picture Classics)

“Nine Days”

Directed by Edson Oda

Culture Representation: Taking place in an otherworldly dimension, the dramatic film “Nine Days” features a racially diverse cast of characters (white, black, Asian and Latino) representing souls who can observe humans on Earth.

Culture Clash: A “soul gatekeeper” must decide which one among five soul candidates will get to be reborn as a human on Earth. 

Culture Audience: “Nine Days” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in watching thoughtful dramas about what spiritual life could look like before being born.

Zazie Beetz in “Nine Days” (Photo by Michael Coles/Sony Picture Classics)

What if you were given the responsibility of deciding which souls could be born into humans? And what if you were one of those souls who had to be evaluated as “worthy enough” to be chosen? Those are the questions facing the main characters of writer/director Edson Oda’s feature-film directorial debut “Nine Days,” a somber-yet-hopeful meditative film about the existence of spirits in a dimension where they are chosen to either continue their lives in a human being or disappear entirely.

It’s a heavy burden for anyone to bear, so it’s no wonder that “soul gatekeeper” Will (played by Winston Duke) takes it so seriously, he almost never cracks a smile during the entire story. Will exists in an unnamed dimension that looks like an outpost house in a remote area, where he spends a lot of his time looking at several stacked-up TV monitors at once. (“Nine Days” was actually filmed in Utah.) Each TV monitor shows Will what’s going on at that moment in the lives of various people on Earth. The monitored people’s entire lives are recorded from birth to death on VHS tapes (yes, you read that right), so Will has a massive archive of people’s histories.

There’s one monitored person in particular who has a profound effect on Will. She is a 28-year-old successful violinist named Amanda Grazzini (played by Lisa Starrett), who was a child prodigy and is described as “emotionally strong.” That’s why it’s a shock to Will when Amanda commits suicide by driving her car into a wall. This tragic death happens early on in the movie and is the catalyst for what happens in the rest of the story, so it’s not really spoiler information.

Amanda’s suicide sends the usually unflappable Will into an emotional tailspin. With her soul having left Earth, Will now has to decide which soul will be born on Earth, to replace Amanda’s life that was taken away. Five soul candidates arrive at the house and are interviewed separately by Will.

Each candidate is evaluated for nine days. All of the candidates are told that after this nine-day evaluation process, anyone who isn’t chosen will then cease to exist. Each rejected candidate gets to decide on a personal ultimate fantasy that will get fulfilled as a sendoff.

The five candidates are:

  • Mike (played by David Rysdahl), a serious soul who is prone to worry a lot.
  • Maria (played by Arianna Ortiz), a shy soul who’s somewhat afraid of trying new things.
  • Kane (played by Bill Skarsgård), an arrogant soul who thinks he’s smarter than everyone else.
  • Alexander (played by Tony Hale), a wisecracking soul who can be neurotic and insecure.
  • Emma (played by Zazie Beetz), a “free spirit” soul who is naturally inquisitive.

Will has a friendly co-worker named Kyo (played by Benedict Wong), who is not as uptight as Will. Kyo’s job is to give his opinion to Will on whether or not Will has chosen well. Even though Will has a monumental task of deciding which souls will live and which will cease to exist, “Nine Days” makes it clear that Will is not God or some other supreme being. In fact, at one point in the story, Will describes himself as “a cog in the wheel.”

The candidates are told they must answer certain questions about what they would do when faced with certain ethical dilemmas. Will assures them that there are no right or wrong answers, but they must answer truthfully. All of the candidates except for Emma answer the questions.

Emma tells Will that she can’t answer the questions because she doesn’t know how what her answer would be in these ethical dilemmas. Emma also replies to Will’s questions with more questions. This back-and-forth conflict irritates Will, but it also intrigues him.

During this evaluation process, the candidates are encouraged to look at the TV screens to watch the lives of three people on Earth: Rick Virgil (played by Sterlin English), a 14-year-old who is being bullied; Luiza Coolin (played by Erika Vásquez), a newlywed; and Fernando Pereira (played by Álvaro Cortez), a police officer.

“Nine Days” is a richly layered film that might be too much to wade through for people who prefer more straightforward stories about life in other dimensions. The acting is solid all around, but the heart of the movie is in how Will and Emma get to know each other better. Will has a dark secret that is hinted at and eventually revealed. It explains a lot of his angst. If viewers are willing to tolerate the slow pacing of “Nine Days” and immerse themselves in this fascinating story, then they will be rewarded with seeing a movie that will inspire existential thoughts that go beyond the movie’s 124 minutes.

Sony Pictures Classics released “Nine Days” in New York City and Los Angeles on July 30, 2021. The movie’s theatrical release expanded to more U.S. cities on August 6, 2021.

Review: ‘Still Here’ (2020), starring Johnny Whitworth, Maurice McRae and Zazie Beetz

September 2, 2020

by Carla Hay

Maurice McRae in “Still Here” (Photo courtesy of Blue Fox Entertainment)

“Still Here” (2020)

Directed by Vlad Feier

Culture Representation: Taking place in New York City, the dramatic film “Still Here” has a racially diverse cast (African American and white) representing the middle-class and working-class.

Culture Clash: A journalist takes it upon himself to investigate the case of a missing 10-year-old girl because he thinks the police aren’t doing enough in the investigation.

Culture Audience: “Still Here” will appeal mostly to people who don’t mind watching predictable B-movies with mediocre acting and a lot of badly written scenes.

Johnny Whitworth and Leopold Manswell in “Still Here” (Photo courtesy of Blue Fox Entertainment)

The dramatic film “Still Here” desperately tries to look like it’s got a higher social conscience than the average B-movie, but the results are phony, awkward and downright dumb. “Still Here” also wants to have its cake and eat it too: It portrays the New York Police Department as racist and corrupt, but the movie’s entire concept is based on the over-used, racially condescending trope that black people are helpless until a “white savior” comes along to solve their problems.

Directed by Vlad Feier (who co-wrote the screenplay with Peter Gutter), the entire movie reeks of being made by filmmakers who don’t know how to accurately depict contemporary New York City and the African Americans who live there. It looks like the filmmakers of “Still Here” have mostly gotten their stereotypical ideas from what they’ve seen in movies and TV shows. And this inaccuracy is what often happens when people from certain communities are written and directed in a problematic way by people who don’t come from those communities.

The movie’s basic plot is that a working-class African American family is reeling from the mysterious disappearance of a 10-year-old girl in the family. The police don’t seem to care, but a crusading white journalist decides to do his own investigation, and he’s the only one who can get things done and save the day. It’s as simple-minded and formulaic as it sounds.

“Still Here” begins with distraught father Michael Watson (played by Maurice McRae) putting up missing-person flyers about his 10-year-old daughter Monique (played by Zariah Singletary) in the New York City neighborhood where they live. At this point in the story, Monique has been missing for eight days, and Michael is getting increasingly stressed-out because the police haven’t made any progress in the investigation.

Michael, who works as a mechanic, is also seen in a support group for parents of missing children. There’s a scene of him in a group meeting, where he’s clearly agitated. The movie has Michael’s voiceovers during the meeting, so people can hear his inner thoughts, such as “What am I doing here?” As some members of the support group drone on about their depressing situations, Michael can’t take it any more. He abruptly gets up in the middle of the meeting and announces, “This ain’t right,” before storming out.

While Michael is canvassing the neighborhood, looking for Monique and distributing the missing-person flyers, Michael’s wife Tiffany (played by Afton Williamson) has had an opposite but equally distressed reaction: She’s become so depressed that she can barely leave the apartment where she and Michael live with their teenage son Andre (played by Jared Kemp), who has stopped going to school because Monique’s disappearance has caused Andre to have panic attacks. Tiffany doesn’t do much in this movie, except cry near a candle-lit, living-room shrine that’s dedicated to Monique and plead with Michael not to lose his temper when he gets angry over how the investigation is being handled by authorities.

Because “Still Here” lazily throws in as many negative African American clichés as possible in the movie, the Watson family lives in public housing. Whether you want to call it “the projects” or “the ‘hood,” it’s still a ghetto stereotype. “Still Here” repeatedly uses the Watson family’s social class as a way to make these African Americans look as pitiful as possible, so that when the “savior” comes along, he can look even more like a noble do-gooder.

And who is the “hero” of the story who thinks he can solve this missing person’s case all by himself? It’s Christian Baker (played by Johnny Whitworth), a somewhat cocky journalist who works for the fictional New York City daily newspaper The Chronicle. When viewers first see Christian, he tells his editor boss Jerry Hoffman (played by Larry Pine) that he doesn’t want to cover a charity event because it’s not hard news.

Christian obviously thinks that easy puff pieces are beneath him and he’s bored with the assignments that he’s been getting lately. Jerry tells Christian: “You haven’t been delivering for too long. You’re walking a thin line here, sport.” But lo and behold, Jerry has an idea for an assignment that Christian would be willing to do.

Jerry tells Christian about the disappearance of Monique Watson: “The cops aren’t pursuing it. You know how it is: Poor black family in a poor black neighborhood … Cops aren’t interested. They don’t give a fuck. And why should they? They don’t get medals for that.”

Christian eagerly takes the assignment. And this is where “Still Here” really goes downhill, because the movie wants people think that even though Christian makes a lot of stupid mistakes, he’s still a fantastic investigator. In the real world, he would be considered grossly incompetent and lacking in basic common sense. It should also be noted that Christian, who likes to wear scarves and designer coats, is always dressed as if he’s about to have drinks at a trendy cocktail lounge, instead of going to some of the run-down seedy areas where he has to go during the course of his “investigation.”

There are so many things wrong with how the movie shows Christian doing his “investigating.” For starters, Christian wants to go to the Watson family home unannounced to talk to Monique’s parents, but he doesn’t know where they live. Instead of researching this information, like any good journalist would do (and the information would be very easy to find by using The Chronicle’s address-finding resources), he decides to go to the neighborhood where the Watson family lives, with the hope that someone can tell him which building is the one where the family resides. Christian walks around a cluster of housing projects, and then asks a group of four young African American men hanging around outside the buildings if they know where the Watson family lives.

The guy who appears to be the leader of the group is named Reggie Green (played by Leopold Manswell), and he can immediately tell that Christian isn’t street-smart at all and takes full advantage of Christian’s ignorance. Reggie basically tells Christian that the only way that he’ll tell Christian where the Watson family lives is if Christian pays him. Christian gives $100 to Reggie, just so Reggie can point to the building where the Watson family lives.

Christian goes to the building and looks at the mailboxes to find out which one is for the Watsons’ apartment. And because this is an apartment in “the ghetto,” of course the elevators don’t work, so Christian has to walk up to the fourth-floor apartment by using the stairs. His unannounced visit is a disaster.

Michael answers the door. Christian introduces himself and tells Michael that he’s from The Chronicle and wants to help with the investigation into Monique’s disappearance. (Christian doesn’t show any identification, by the way.) Michael gives this reply before slamming the door in Christian’s face: “You want to help? Then get the fuck out of here!”

After Christian gets this rude awakening that being a white journalist doesn’t automatically mean that he’ll be welcomed with open arms in certain neighborhoods, he goes back outside and tries to get some more information from Reggie, who’s hanging out in the same place with his friends. Reggie has noticed that Christian is wearing an expensive watch, so it’s no surprise that Reggie tells Christian that he won’t reveal any more information until Christian gives Reggie the watch, which Christian reluctantly and foolishly does.

Reggie then tells Christian something that’s pure gossip and speculation: He says that a taxi driver who lives in the same cluster of buildings used to park in a certain area every day at a certain time of day, but the taxi driver wasn’t parked there on the day that Monique disappeared and the taxi driver hasn’t been seen since. Reggie says that he doesn’t think it’s a coincidence.

And what does Christian do with this speculation? He finds out the name of the taxi driver and tells his editor boss Jerry that this taxi driver is probably the “suspect” that the police have overlooked. It’s one of the movie’s many unrealistic moments, because the taxi driver isn’t a “suspect.” He’s not even a “person of interest,” because there’s no proof that this taxi driver had any contact with Monique.

Christian thinks that the only way for the police to jumpstart the investigation into Monique’s disappearance is if the police are shamed into it by a news report that says that the police overlooked a “suspect.” His irresponsible boss Jerry agrees. And so, the next day, The Chronicle runs a front-page article, written by Christian, with the headline “Taxi Driver, Yann Abellard, Overlooked by Investigators in Monique Watson’s Disappearance.” Christian is both smug and excited about this article.

This inflammatory and very unethical article, which could ruin an innocent man’s reputation, sets off a chain of events, during which “Still Here” tries to hammer over viewers’ heads the ideas that all New York City police officers are corrupt and/or racist and that Christian is the only journalist who can find out what happened to Monique. One of the movie’s disturbing scenes is when taxi driver Yann Abellard (played by Baboucarr Camara) is brought in for brutal questioning by the NYPD. He’s an African immigrant who’s scared out of his mind, and he vehemently proclaims that he’s innocent.

Although the interrogation methods are over-the-top, it’s one of the few times in the movie where there is some realism. The scene shows what can happen when someone is brought in for questioning by police and that person doesn’t know enough about their rights to ask for a lawyer, which (by American law) would put a stop to the questioning. At various times in the movie, there are other people who fall under suspicion about Monique’s disappearance, including her brother Andre and a neighbor in his 20s named Marcus Mitchell (played by Justin A. Davis), who lives on the same floor as the Watson family.

Michael is highly suspicious of Christian’s motives for getting involved in the investigation, because he thinks that Christian just wants to exploit the family’s pain and not help them. However, Michael’s wife Tiffany is more willing to listen to what Christian has to say. Christian eventually wins over the family’s trust when he tells them that he doesn’t like how the NYPD has been handling the case and he can do a better job than the police have been doing in investigating Monique’s disappearance.

As for the corrupt and racist NYPD cops, there’s a scene where the case’s chief investigator Captain Hardwick (played by Steven Hauck) tells a white subordinate cop what he thinks about the media attention over the case: “I’m not losing my job because some black little bitch got lost on the way home.” Captain Hardwick essentially tells his underlings to find and arrest a suspect, even if there’s no real evidence against that person.

The two subordinates who’ve been tasked with most of the investigation are black cop Anthony Evans (played by Danny Johnson) and white cop Greg Spaulding (played by Jeremy Holm), who have very different views on how they should handle the case. Anthony has no problems carrying out their boss’ orders to find and arrest a suspect, regardless if there’s no evidence. Greg is more reluctant, and he feels guilty about possibly targeting someone who might be innocent.

It’s implied that Anthony is willing to go as far as frame someone for the crime. And the fact that it will probably be a fellow African American doesn’t seem to bother him in the least. “Ain’t no shame in the game,” Anthony tells Greg, in one of the movie’s many cringeworthy lines. It speaks volumes that the filmmakers wanted to make the African American cop a bigger villain than his white colleague.

Zazie Beetz shares top billing in this movie, probably because she has a red-hot career right now, but her headlining status for this movie is misleading. Her fans and other viewers should be warned that Beetz only has one scene in “Still Here,” which has her on screen for about five minutes. She plays Keysha, an ex-girlfriend of Marcus. This movie can’t get enough of pointing out the cultural differences that Christian experiences as a white “fish out of water” in a predominantly African American “ghetto.” There’s a scene where Reggie tells Christian that Keysha might have some information, and Christian has trouble pronouncing her name.

The actors in this movie don’t do anything particularly outstanding. McCrae is given a few scenes where he convincingly expresses anguish as the father of a missing child whom the police don’t seem to care about, while Wentworth doesn’t seem to have a lot emotionally invested in his drab role as Christian. The movie shows almost nothing about what kind of person Christian is when he’s not working, except a random scene of him dancing suggestively with a woman at a nightclub. This nightclub scene’s only purpose is to establish that Christian is sexually interested in women, so that viewers know that Christian is the prototypical good-looking, straight white male who usually gets to be the hero in movies like this one.

“Still Here” is not the worst movie you could ever see. It’s just an incredibly lazy and culturally tone-deaf film that offers nothing that’s impressively creative. In the real world of New York City newspaper journalism, a dolt like Christian wouldn’t last on a crime beat, let alone be given front-page assignments, because he’s just so bungling and willfully ignorant of how crime investigations work. The next time that “Still Here” director Feier makes a movie, let’s hope he makes an attempt to tell the story in a more authentic way.

Blue Fox Entertainment released “Still Here” in select U.S. cinemas on August 28, 2020, and on digital and VOD on September 1, 2020.

Review: ‘Seberg,’ starring Kristen Stewart

February 21, 2020

by Carla Hay

Kristen Stewart in “Seberg” (Photo courtesy of Amazon Studios)

“Seberg”

Directed by Benedict Andrews

Culture Representation: Taking place in the United States, France and briefly in Mexico, the biographical drama “Seberg” has a racially diverse cast of white and black characters representing the middle-class and upper-class.

Culture Clash: The film tells the story of American actress Jean Seberg, who was the target of FBI surveillance because of her support of left-wing civil-rights groups such as the Black Panthers.

Culture Audience: This movie will appeal mostly to fans of Jean Seberg, Kristen Stewart (who plays Seberg in the movie) and people who like movies that have a very Hollywood version of real-life politically related events.

Jack O’Connell in “Seberg” (Photo courtesy of Amazon Studios)

The title of the “based on true story” drama “Seberg” should have been renamed “Seberg and Some FBI Guy Who Tried to Warn Her That They’re Out to Get Her.” That’s because even though the movie is supposed to be about American actress Jean Seberg (played by Kristen Stewart) during the first few years that she was the target of a political FBI intimidation campaign, much of the movie also focuses on the life of fictional FBI agent Jack Solomon (played by Jack O’Connell), one of the people tasked with making her life hell but he has a guilty conscience about it.

It’s one of the many disappointing choices made by the filmmakers of “Seberg,” which was directed by Benedict Andrews and written by Joe Shrapnel and Anna Waterhouse. Based on the end results of how this movie was made, the filmmakers didn’t think Seberg was fascinating enough to show a more well-rounded view of her life, and instead they gave a lot of screen time to show the personal life of a fictional FBI agent.

Because Jack Solomon is a fictional character and the filmmakers want to make sure that his personal story is given almost as much weight as Seberg’s, the movie cheapens her real-life ordeal by spending so much time on backstories/subplots for other characters that were invented for this movie. There’s even a cliché “good cop/bad cop” duo that is the epitome of trite screenwriting.

Seberg was 40 years old when she died of an apparent suicide in Paris in 1979. The movie mainly depicts the years 1969 to 1971, when Seberg was one of the people targeted in the FBI’s then-secret COINTELPRO campaign, which investigated and harassed high-profile and influential people involved in left-wing politics. Because of the Freedom of Information Act, the media revealed details of COINTELPRO, which was under the leadership of then-FBI director Herbert Hoover, a known right-winger. The exposé of COINTELPRO happened after Seberg’s death.

“Seberg” begins with a brief scene with the actress filming her first movie, 1957’s “Saint Joan,” which was a critical and commercial flop, but that rough start to her movie career is not really mentioned in “Seberg.” The movie also skips over her turbulent first marriage to French attorney-turned-film-director François Moreuil (they were married from 1958 to 1960) and their contentious collaboration when he directed her in the 1961 film “Time Out for Love.”

Also omitted from the story is how she met and married her second husband: aviator/novelist/left-leaning political diplomat Romain Gary, who was 24 years older than Seberg. Gary was her husband from 1962 to 1970. (She gave birth to their son, Alexandre Diego, when Gary was still married to his previous wife.) And the movie definitely doesn’t show what happened to Jean after her much-maligned “Saint Joan” film debut, when she went on to experience international stardom with her breakthrough co-starring role in the 1960 French New Wave classic “Breathless.”

Instead, “Seberg” skips over all of that to show Jean, Romain (played by Yvan Attal) and their young son Diego (played by Gabriel Sky) at their home in France, where Jean says goodbye to them as she leaves to work on a movie in Los Angeles in 1969. (During most of her career, Seberg lived in France and made French and American films, so she spent a lot of time in the U.S. for work.)

While she’s headed to Los Angeles, two FBI agents (who are invented characters for this movie) are shown eavesdropping and doing surveillance recording of an African American political radical named Hakim Jamal (played by Anthony Mackie), who is a Black Panther supporter but not an official member of the Black Panther Party. (The Hakim character is based on the real-life Raymond Hewitt, who was a member of the Black Panther Party.) One of the FBI agents is the aforementioned Jack Solomon, and the other is Carl Kowalski (played by Vince Vaughn).

It’s established fairly early on in the movie who’s the “good cop” and who’s the “bad cop.” While Jack takes a more open-minded and methodical approach to his work, Carl takes a more aggressive “witch hunt” approach. While they’re spying on Hakim, the name of Jean Seberg comes up because the FBI has noticed that she’s been donating large sums of money to left-leaning civil-rights groups such as the Black Panthers and the NAACP. Carl thinks that the FBI should start spying on Seberg too, but Jack doesn’t want to rush to judgment and wants to see if there’s proof that she’s a threat to the U.S. government.

While sitting in the first-class section on the plane to Los Angeles with her agent Walt Breckman (played by Stephen Root, in another of the movie’s fictional character roles), Jean notices a commotion on the plane. It’s Hakim, who’s very angry with a flight attendant because Betty Shabazz (Malcom X’s widow) has been seated in the coach section, when Hakim says that Betty should be in the first-class section. It’s a “don’t you know who she is/show some respect” moment that catches the flustered flight-attendant off-guard.

The flight attendant tells Hakim that she can’t make the accommodation without a first-class ticket, and Hakim gets even angrier and says that he will pay for the ticket himself and he’s not going to sit down until the matter is resolved. Hakim makes it clear that he thinks the flight attendant is being racist. Jean is intrigued by Hakim’s fiery passion and tells him that he and Betty can have her and Walt’s seats. Walt looks slightly horrified.

The next thing you know, after the plane disembarks, Hakim is among a group of Black Panthers on the tarmac holding a photo op with the press.  (Remember, this was back in the 1960s, when people were allowed to be in certain areas of an airport where they can’t go now.) Jean sidles up to the group and holds up her fist in a “Black Power” gesture with them to show her solidarity.

Of course, this bold move doesn’t go unnoticed by Jack and Carl (or should we say Mutt and Jeff), who now know that Jean Seberg has definitely made it known to the public that she supports the Black Panthers, who were considered enemies of the state at the time. And in case viewers haven’t figured out that Carl is a racist, he makes it clear when he speculates why Jean wants to hang out with Hakim and the Black Panthers: “Who knows? Maybe she’s got a taste for dark meat on the bone.”

And wouldn’t you know, it isn’t long before Jean shows up in the middle of the night at the house where a married Hakim is staying to meet with other radical activists. While alone in the house, Hakim and Jean spend a little time flirting, and then they hop into bed together. The FBI has recorded it all.

Carl is infuriated and immediately wants to put Jean under intense surveillance, since he’s decided she’s now a “danger to society.” The movie implies that what really triggered the FBI witch hunt against her wasn’t the monetary donations to activists but because this famous white actress slept with a known black radical.

Carl takes this information to his superiors, and it isn’t long before the FBI approves of spying on and harassing Jean Seberg. While she’s away from her rented home to work on a film set, Jack breaks into the home and plants a bugging device on her phone. Meanwhile, as Hakim and Jean continue their hot’n’heavy affair, Hakim warns her that because he’s under FBI surveillance, she’ll become a target too.

At first, Jean doesn’t believe Hakim, but she eventually finds out the hard way how correct he was. Jean starts hanging out more with radical activists and donating money to their causes. She doesn’t believe in violence and instead chooses to support causes such as educational programs for kids and raising money to help improve low-income African American communities. Black Panther co-founder Bobby Seale (played by Grantham Coleman) makes a very brief appearance in the story.

Hakim is more than happy to take Jean’s donations, but he tells Jean: “You’re running in here with nails looking for a cross to die on … You’re playing with fire.” We’ll never know if the real Jean Seberg ever received this type of corny lecture, but the words are particularly cringeworthy, considering that the real Jean Seberg starred in “Saint Joan,” a movie where she played French heroine Joan of Arc, who was burned at the stake.

Another thing that Hakim says to Jean that sounds straight out of Hokey Screenwriting 101 is when he tells her his philosophy on civil-rights activism: “One mind at a time. If you can change that, you can change the world.” He sounds more like Mother Teresa than Malcolm X.

There’s also a soap-opera-ish subplot where Hakim’s wife, Dorothy Jamal (played by Zazie Beetz, in a thankless role), finds out about the affair. How does she find out? Carl and Jack call her anonymously and play her a recording of Jean and Hakim having sex.

Not long after Dorothy confronts Jean about the affair (and Dorothy is a lot calmer about it than most spouses would be), Jean and Hakim end their fling. But the wheels have already been set in motion for the FBI to make Jean’s life miserable. She’s followed everywhere she goes, and she knows her house is bugged. And one day when she’s away at work, a bumbling FBI agent kills her Chihuahua because the dog won’t stop yapping when the agent is snooping around the house.

Speaking of FBI agents, the movie wastes a lot of time showing the personal lives of Jack and Carl. Jack’s wife Linette (played by Margaret Qualley) is a medical student who becomes increasingly disturbed by the signs that the FBI is harassing Jean Seberg. How does she know? Because Jack brings home FBI files that show the FBI is stalking Jean, and her leaves this paperwork indiscreetly out on the kitchen table. When Linette asks Jack about these files, he snaps at her and tells her it’s none of her business. There are also a few unnecessary scenes of Jack and Linette socializing with friends.

Meanwhile, Carl is every bit the jerk at home as he is on the job. His wife and young daughter cringe in fear when he loses his temper, which is pretty much any time they don’t do what he tells them to do. It turns out that Carl has a particular hatred of left-wingers because his adult son (who lives in San Francisco) has become a radical hippie. Did viewers really need to know all of this information for fictional characters? No.

“Seberg” then goes to even more ludicrous levels when Jack takes it upon himself to anonymously call Jean and warn her that the FBI harassment will get worse unless she disassociates herself from the civil-rights movement. Jean’s response is to yell an obscenity at him. You can’t really blame her, because she doesn’t know if the call is a prank or not, since Jack doesn’t identify himself.

The constant surveillance and harassment take a toll on Jean’s mental health and her marriage. She starts to drink heavily and she becomes very paranoid. While on a film set, she demands that a cameraman be fired because she’s convinced he’s a spy planted by the FBI. She yells at people who she thinks might be staring at her too long. And there’s one melodramatic scene where she’s tearing up a room while looking for surveillance, and she ends up in a sobbing heap on the floor.

While in Mexico filming a movie, she has an affair with a local man. And when the FBI hears about her pregnancy, they make sure to plant a story in the media that Hakim is the father. The scandal resulted in a tragedy that won’t be revealed in this review if you don’t know what happened in real life.

Stewart gives a hit-and-miss performance in this film. She’s at her best in the first half of the story, when there are glimpses of the passions that drove Jean to do what she did, knowing that she would risk her reputation and career. But when Jean goes through her downward spiral in the second half of the story, Stewart’s performance becomes a not-very-convincing caricature of a woman having a nervous breakdown. And FBI agent Jack does something at the end of the movie that defies all credibility of what someone in his position would do.

Unfortunately, because the movie skips all of Jean’s life before she got involved in radical activism, it doesn’t provide any context over what led her to this point and how she came to have these political views. Her relationship with second husband Romain is also an incomplete sketch, since viewers never see how Jean and Romain fell in love, as a basis of their marriage that’s tested during this traumatic period in their lives.

The movie’s supporting actors, costume design and production design are all very good, but those assets are wasted on an uneven story that oddly seems too concerned with making a heroic figure out of one of the FBI agents who willingly participated in this psychological torture.

Amazon Studios released “Seberg” in select U.S. cinemas on February 21, 2020. The movie originally had a very limited U.S. release in December 2019, to qualify for awards.