African-American director won't be boxed in, and `Lightning' is proof

FILM

From action flicks to a concert film

February 11, 2005|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

White filmmakers - [Martin] Scorsese, Oliver Stone, Michael Mann - make films about all kinds of subjects," African-American filmmaker Antoine Fuqua told Variety's David Weddle two years ago. "They don't put themselves in a box. Why should we?" So it's not surprising that after guiding Denzel Washington to his best actor Oscar for Training Day, Fuqua put Bruce Willis through his paces in the commando flick Tears of the Sun (2003) and then directed Clive Owen in a revisionist version of the Camelot legends, King Arthur (2004).

More satisfying to my eyes and ears, with the help of none other than Scorsese, he took the helm of today's Charles opening, Lightning in a Bottle, a concert film that is smashingly effective without mimicking Scorsese's towering film about The Band, The Last Waltz (1978). It's a showman's movie.

If Fuqua doesn't quite succeed at his stated goal of making Radio City Music Hall come off as a juke joint, he does catch the most expressive moments of a cavalcade of performers. His dramatic instinct is keen enough to amplify the clicking sounds that Mavis Staples uses to punctuate the close of "See That My Grave Is Kept Clean" and to keep his cameras trained on Odetta as she ferociously strides off the stage after singing "Jim Crow Blues."

The piecemeal opening of Lightning in a Bottle (it's been bopping around the country since mid-December) may be small consolation to Fuqua for the 2004 cancellation of what looked like a major epic, American Gangster. It would have reteamed him with Washington in a factual tale about a Harlem kingpin who smuggled heroin from Vietnam in American soldiers' caskets, then helped a detective break up his crime ring.

Despite the Fuqua-Washington track record, and a script by Schindler's List's Steve Zaillian, Universal canceled the production and chalked it up to disagreements over a volatile budget. Commented African-American film historian Donald Bogle, "We still have a long way to go: I don't think they would have done that to Tom Cruise."

Happy 50th

CineMaryland, the cable show dedicated to made-in-Maryland movies and filmmakers, marks its 50th show with a collection of greatest hits from the past seven years, including a conversation with the indefatigable Maryland-bred standup comic Judah Friedlander, who turned heads as a nerd's nerd in 2003's American Splendor. For show times on 10 channels, go to www.cinemaryland.com.

At AFI Silver

Tomorrow from 10 a.m. until 6 p.m., the AFI Silver Theatre (8633 Colesville Road, Silver Spring) hosts This Is How, a program dedicated to celebrating African-American moviemaking on the 45th anniversary of the Feb. 1, 1960, sit-in at the Woolworth's in Greensboro, N.C. The Next Generation Awareness Foundation has assembled a dozen short films, one full-length comedy-drama and a full slate of talents. They include writer-director Mark Brown, whose feature The Salon, starring Vivica A. Fox, receives its Mid-Atlantic premiere, and Yvette Freeman - best known for playing Nurse Haleh Adams in ER. She's also the writer-director of the 2000 short The Blessing Way, which gets a rare area showing. For details go to www.urbanfilmseries.com.

Film talk

A month ago, the "father of African cinema," Senegalese filmmaker Ousmane Sembene, won the best foreign language film award from the National Society of Film Critics for Moolade. Tomorrow, the Pratt Library Film Discussion Group, FilmTalk, presents Sembene's 1968 dramedy Mandabi, about a poor Muslim man with two wives and seven children whose life gets upended by a money order. Showtime: 10 a.m. in the Wheeler Auditorium at the Central Library (400 Cathedral St.).

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