(*homocinematically inclined)

Monday, November 11, 2019

Reverend's Reviews: Race Relations


Whether white/Caucasian, black/African-American, Hispanic/Latinx or other, racial differences remain an enduring source of both tension and celebration in our good ol' U.S. of A. An intriguing assortment of new theatrical, cinematic and home video offerings explore this with considerable success.

Slave Play is currently one of the hottest tickets on Broadway and definitely the most provocative. Written by the young, black and unabashedly queer playwright Jeremy O. Harris (who, coincidentally, was doing a theatre residency at Yale University earlier this year while I was doing a chaplain residency at the neighboring Yale New Haven Hospital), it is a satiric yet hard-hitting look at three bi-racial couples – straight and gay – seeking to address their relationship issues via "antebellum sexual fantasy therapy." In short, they each re-enact a 19th century master-slave dynamic under the supervision of two researchers. Are you sensing the potential for controversy yet?

Harris' play is presented in three acts but without an intermission. Act one introduces the three couples as they play out their various scenarios. While definitely uncomfortable in the use of racial slurs as well as abusive power, these scenes are also unexpectedly, intentionally funny as the modern characters adapt to their regressive situations. Most interesting is the gay couple because the white partner, who is revealed to believe himself to be black, plays slave to his legitimately-black "master."

Act two details the couples' processing of the experience with the researchers, who realize they are in over their heads as things turn confrontational. The final act focuses on one couple, the black Kaneisha (a standout performance by Joaquina Kalukango) and white Jim (Paul Alexander Nolan, who is nude for most of it), as they directly, painfully address their power/control imbalance.

All the actors are excellent in their physically-revealing and emotionally-challenging roles, which necessitate comic timing in addition to absolute seriousness. Robert O'Hara provides incisive direction as well. I came away from the play wishing Harris had shown how the other two couples end up as he does with Kaneisha and Jim. Nevertheless, Slave Play is disturbing, thought-provoking, amusing, and erotic in equal measure while engaging throughout. That's no easy feat when dealing with our country's dark history of slavery and its enduring legacy.

Newly available on home video from Breaking Glass Pictures is writer-director John Butler's Papi Chulo. This dramedy stars out actor Matt Bomer (the Magic Mike movies and currently Will's fiancée on TV's Will & Grace) as Sean, a gay weatherman on the verge of a mental breakdown after an apparent breakup with his longtime partner. In the process of having the deck of his home re-painted, he hires a middle-aged day laborer named Ernesto (Alejandro Patiño from The Ballad of Buster Scruggs).

Sean, desperate for companionship, is soon paying Ernesto to join him on personal day trips. Despite their differences in age and ethnicity plus a language barrier since Ernesto is Spanish-speaking, the two men develop an unexpectedly profound friendship. Ernesto proves to be the catalyst for Sean's eventual effort to put his life back together. Bomer and Patino are great together, and enjoyable support is provided by the fun actress-comedians Wendi McLendon-Covey (The Goldbergs, Reno 911) and D'Arcy Carden (The Good Place's all-knowing Janet).

Papi Chulo proves to be a touching film despite some uneveness in tone and late-hour screenplay histrionics. Butler deserves credit though for respecting Ernesto and Sean as their own men, culturally-speaking. Most amusing are scenes wherein Ernesto speaks truthfully with his supportive wife on the phone about the nature of his and Sean's relationship, often in Sean's presence but in Spanish. The movie shows that truth, respect and friendship can overcome any differences.

While racial differences aren't made an issue in Doctor Sleep, the terrific new sequel to The Shining now playing in theaters, they are present nonetheless. A young black girl with powerful psychic abilities named Abra teams up with the grownup Danny "Doc" Torrance, the prequel's similarly gifted but white child, to take down a nasty group of deathless RVers who literally suck "the shine" from unsuspecting children. Their cunning leader is Rose the Hat, and the climactic battle between her, Danny and Abra is set in the notoriously evil Overlook Hotel.

Mike Flanagan (who previously helmed Gerald's Game and Netflix's The Haunting of Hill House series) does a superb job of both adapting Stephen King's 2013 sequel novel and honoring Stanley Kubrick's 1980 movie, which King largely disavowed. One of the most significant differences between The Shining novel and film is that the Overlook burned down at the end of the novel while Kubrick left it standing. Fortunately, Kubrick's decision has given Flanagan as well as the film's legion of fans a great cinematic opportunity to return to the long abandoned but still haunted resort. King has reportedly approved of Flanagan's take.

Here's Danny!

I would love to see Doctor Sleep's lead trio of Ewan McGregor (as the long-tormented Danny), Rebecca Ferguson (Rose) and talented newcomer Kyliegh Curran (Abra) receive serious awards consideration. Indeed, Ferguson makes Rose the Hat one of the most memorably vile movie villains in some time, tearing into innocent children with no reservations. Veteran actor Carl Lumbly makes several welcome, spectral appearances as Dick Hallorann (played by the late Scatman Crothers in the 1980 movie), while Cliff Curtis (Fear the Walking Dead) has a nice turn as Danny's compassionate new friend.

References to Kubrick's film abound, arguably too much at times. Most importantly, though, Doctor Sleep illustrates in a quiet yet powerful way how racial differences don't matter at all when it comes to defeating the forces of evil.

Reverend's Ratings:
Slave Play (on Broadway): B+
Papi Chulo: B
Doctor Sleep: A-

Reviews by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film and stage critic of Movie Dearest and Rage Monthly Magazine.

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