Cinema in Color Review #5: Life

life

Disclaimer: I do not claim ownership of any photographic material used unless otherwise noted. This blog is intended for purposes of film criticism, commentary, and humor. If you wish to start this journey from the beginning, start with the prologue here.

*****

Konichiwa, pardner. I am the Wild West Samurai’s raging bile duct.

Today, I will be reviewing a 1999 film called Life.

What’s the story? It’s about the lives of two black men who were framed for a murder they didn’t commit in 1932 by a racist white sheriff and sentenced to life in prison at the Mississippi State Penitentiary, more infamously referred to as Parchman Farm.

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For a brief warm-up, after the Civil War ended in 1865, slavery was… technically abolished, but it didn’t really go away. The American South was dependent on slavery like a circus clown is dependent on alcohol. You can take away the bottle and the bar along with it, but you know he’s just gonna make hooch in the bathtub.

At first, the South tried placing freed black slaves under “apprenticeships.” You see, it wasn’t slavery, it was just forcing people to perform hard manual labor against their will without pay. They weren’t property, they were just people whose rights were greatly limited under the benevolent supervision of plantation owners. Orwell himself would have marveled at the audacity of the doublespeak involved.

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He’s not dead, per se. He just… got cold feet at a Westerosi wedding.

So, like a toddler put in timeout for misbehaving, the South was put under military occupation until she learned to behave herself and treat black people like actual human beings. The South stubbornly refused, eventually wearing the North down until the military was withdrawn in the 1870s.

During this time, this new system called convict leasing came about due to a loophole in the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery:

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Once the South realized she could simply throw black people back into slavery by saying they had committed crimes, freed slaves and their descendants were being charged by the thousands with crimes as minor as vagrancy or loitering, with the foreknowledge almost all wouldn’t be able to pay their fines, and then leased to plantation owners and mine owners who paid those fines in exchange for years of free labor. In some ways, this system was worse than antebellum slavery. For one thing, slaves in the pre-Civil War South were usually expensive investments their owners would beat but still wanted to keep alive as long as possible to make their investments worth the expense. Convicts, on the other hand, were leased so cheaply, they could be worked to death in a short amount of time and easily replaced just as cheaply. For another thing, this form of slavery met with less resistance due to the stigma of criminality attached. Whereas abolitionist propaganda made a fairly effective case that slaves were victims being exploited, arguing that criminals who, in society’s eyes, deserve brutal punishment are being exploited and victimized is a much harder case to make.

Don’t believe me? Just ask a random person on the street, “What do you feel should be done with rapists?” Take a wild guess at the general consensus. And for all that talk about what criminals deserve if only pesky things like due process and human rights wouldn’t get in the way, Americans are practically amnesiac about what that would actually be like, considering its dark past where nothing sold out a ropemaker’s stock faster than an allegation a white woman had been raped by-

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Right, right. So, what does all this have to do with Parchman Farm?

Well, in 1894, the state of Mississippi made convict leasing technically illegal, although it still remained in common practice until at least the 1940s. As a result, Mississippi couldn’t just lease convicts to private parties anymore. So, in 1901, the state bought a cotton plantation – because, of fucking course – and converted it into what would become the Mississippi State Penitentiary. It was little better than the convict leasing system it was supposed to replace, since forcing men to work twelve-hour days for free for a private enterprise somehow doesn’t strike me as that much different from forcing men to work twelve-hour days for free for the state.

This is where our two main characters are sent to in 1932. Our main characters are… played by Eddie Murphy and Martin Lawrence?

… And the film is a comedy?

……… Ummmm…

… odd choice of genre, but it coooouuuuld work? Maybe? Let’s find out.

*****

So, the film opens up with the very somber combination of the hip-hop song “25 to Life” and the R&B song “Wake Up Everybody” while the credits open over a prison cemetery full of crosses while a funeral is being held for our two main characters in 1997.

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Welp, we’re off to a depressing start.

While two younger convicts are shoveling dirt into the graves, an elderly inmate in a wheelchair named Willie Long (Obba Babatundé) begins telling the story of our main characters and we flash back to a Harlem nightclub in 1932. We meet Eddie Murphy’s character, Ray Gibson, while trying to gain access through a speakeasy door, his face looking boxed in by the little window.

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A metaphor for Eddie Murphy’s post-’90s career.

We also meet Martin Lawrence’s character, Claude Banks, who is celebrating with his girlfriend Daisy (Sanaa Lathan) about his new job at… the bank.

… Ha? Ha?

Anyway, she’s pissed because Claude apparently hasn’t popped the question and decided to settle down with her. He goes to the bathroom, where a couple toughs clean out his wallet for money he owes them. Ray bumps into Claude and pickpockets Claude’ wallet, only to find it’s empty when he tries to pay his tab at the club with it. Claude is dragged off for not being able to pay his bill and Ray is dragged off to for running numbers on the nightclub owner Spanky’s side of town. Spanky is played by Rick James.

… What?

Oh, I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking I’m going to post a meme of Dave Chappelle doing his Rick James schtick. You’re thinking I’m going to be the next in a long line of imitators who’ve beaten that dead horse so bad, even Chappelle has gotten sick of people referencing it all the damn time.

Well, you’re wrong. I’m not going to post an image of Dave Chappelle saying that.

… I’m going to post an image of Rick James saying that.

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Spanky’s henchmen begin dunking Claude headfirst into water to drown him, but Ray manages to sweet-talk Spanky into giving the both of them some time to pay him back with bootlegging profits. He even convinces Spanky to front some money and a truck to haul the alcohol with. Huh. For a murderous gangster, Spanky sure is a easy to manipulate. So, Ray and Claude drive down to Natchez, Mississippi- wait, what?

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Why all that distance? Are there no bootleg operations near New York? Were Chalky White and Valentin Narcisse not available?

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Oh. Well… um… Season 5 sucked anyway.

It’s quickly established over a couple minutes of banter that Claude and Ray don’t like each other. Ray is a troublesome risk-taker. Claude is an uptight stick in the mud. Ray tells Claude his dream about opening a nightclub called Ray’s Boom Boom Room and says Claude is welcome to go there. Ray gets offended and rescinds the invitation when Claude tells him he wouldn’t be able to get a bank loan even with Ray’s father’s silver pocket watch as collateral.

Eddie Murphy is clearly carrying this scene, because frankly, Martin Lawrence just isn’t that funny. Yes, his character is supposed to be uptight, but uptight characters can and have been funny before. In comedy, it’s called the Straight Man and Wise Guy character dichotomy. The Straight Man is the character who takes everything super-seriously and the Wise Guy is the wacky clown who plays off him. The Wise Guy makes the punchlines, and the Straight Man sets up the jokes. That doesn’t mean the Straight Man can’t be funny. The humor lies in the Straight Man’s seriousness in incredibly ridiculous situations. If the Titanic is sinking, the Straight Man will be the guy reminding everyone on deck the ship was advertised as “unsinkable,” even while the water is creeping up the deck to the left and the Wise Guy is taking chunks of the iceberg and selling snowcones to the right.

The problem is, Claude isn’t uptight enough.

Take the next scene, for example. Claude and Ray drive up to a gas station to get some pie. When they walk in, it’s like that scene from Roland Emmerich’s Godzilla where the elevator doors open to reveal a bunch of Godzilla babies looking at Matthew Broderick.

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… Wrong floor.

Now, up to this point in the movie, Claude has not been shown to be a confrontational person. He was pleading for his life both when he was robbed and when he was almost murdered by Spanky. When the white lady that owns the joint points out the “No Coloreds Allowed” sign on the door, Claude at first tries reasoning with the woman, saying all he wants is some pie. “No! These are Whites Only pies!” I buy Ray trying to sweet-talk Claude’s and the lady’s ears off, but when the lady tells them the nearest town is 35 miles, Claude loses his fucking shit.

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“What?! I’m not driving no 35 miles to get no pie! Lady- MA’AM! ‘Kay, now, we-we want some pie, okay?! Can- We are hungry, okay?! We want- Billy! We want some pie!”

First of all, this seems really out of character for Claude. He pussies out when two guys rob him and threaten to break his legs and whines about rats when he’s about to be murdered by Spanky’s men, but suddenly pulls his balls out of his back pocket when arguing with white racists in Mississippi over a slice of pie?

Second of all, he himself yells about why they have to die over a piece of pie when Ray tries to calm him down. Meaning he knew he was risking being killed over this, well before the lady pulls a shotgun on them and they quickly leave, and he put his foot down anyway. If this were a point of character development for Claude, where he’d finally had enough with being an uptight pushover, I’d be fine with it, but the whole scene just comes off as confusing rather than either hilarious or disturbing.

Anyway, Claude and Ray make it to Natchez to get the moonshine from a fat man named Slim. Ray’s reaction face is actually pretty hilarious.

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Slim tells Ray and Claude to go check out the gambling and prostitution down at the Under-the-Hill district, and Ray can’t resist the temptation. Claude goes back to being the uptight one by saying they shouldn’t be wasting their money, but tags along to keep an eye on Ray.

That goes right out the window when a girl named Sylvia (Lisa Nicole Carson) seductively asks Claude to buy her a drink. Sylvia downs her entire shot in one long sexy swig. This is arguably the first genuinely funny moment from Claude, where he nervously gulps down his drink. It fits his character, and the expressions on his face are hilarious. I certainly don’t blame him for being nervous. I mean…

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I am thirsty as fuck.

Sylvia takes Claude upstairs after convincing him with those doe eyes to spend his last $2 “doing God’s work” with her, as Ray puts it later.

Meanwhile, Ray loses all his money and his father’s pocket watch in a card game to a cheat named Winston Hancock (Clarence Williams III), who was helped by a waitress. Ray and Claude get into an argument about the money being lost, and my God, Murphy’s lines are fucking gold. “Hey, where’s that girl that was working over here?!” “What girl?” “‘What girl?’ We’ll see! Well, the next time I come in here, whichever bitch I start choking, that’s what girl!”

Ray and Claude head outside and find Hancock’s bloody body in the stables. A bunch of white hicks hobble over and take our heroes to the jail at gunpoint, where Sheriff Pike (Ned Vaughn), who actually killed Hancock in a previous scene, tells them they’re going on trial for murder. Claude figures he can just explain to the judge that they just found Hancock sprawled out on the ground and the moonshine in their truck belongs. “What’s the worst that could happen?”

A white judge gives them life in prison.

Claude and Ray get bused up to the Mississippi State Prison’s Camp 8, where the white Sergeant Dillard (Nick Cassavetes) and his black trustee with a shotgun named Hoppin’ Bob (Brent Jennings) explain the rules of the prison. “You will eat only what you can grow. Your crop don’t come in, you go hungry.” “We ain’t go no fences here at Camp 8, we don’t need no fences. We got us the gun line. […] You are now inside the gun line. You step outside the gun line without my permission, you will be shot. You trip and fall over the gun line, you will be shot. You spit, you pee, you so much as stick your Johnson over the gun line, you will be shot.”

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Shot in the head or in the Johnson? Because my head’s still inside the line.

Claude and Ray are put to work on a chain gang digging a ditch, where Dillard and Bob quickly establish themselves as two peas in a pod- er, two dicks in a wad when Claude is the one bitching about how hot it is under the sun and Ray is the one who gets gut-punched for it. On break, Ray reads a fellow convicted man’s letter for him, as he and Claude are the only ones who can read. Claude finds himself being eyeballed by an inmate named Jangle Leg (Bernie Mac), who’s apparently taken… quite a liking to Claude. They all go to lunch and Ray and Claude boast about how they went on a multi-state killing spree, since the other convicts have much better what-you-in-for stories than they do.

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“What you talkin’ about, Biscuit? You the one that skinned your landlady alive and made a jacket out of her.”

Pokerface (Barry Shabaka Henley) is apparently in for killing a Salvation Army bell-ringer in a Santa Claus suit. Willie Long was sentenced at 13 for killing a woman with a claw-hammer. And the stories go on and on. Murder, murder, murder, and more murder. While this does provide some morbid comedy, it begs the question: Is none of these guys in for something other than murder? No bootlegging? No drugs? No debts? No giving a white woman a pearl necklace of the non-jewelry variety? That is stretching disbelief so thin, it could strut on a supermodels’ runway.

Anyway, a big guy named Goldmouth (Michael Taliferro) demands Claude give up his cornbread. Ray intervenes, telling Claude to eat his cornbread and Goldmouth to get his own damn cornbread. This leads to a fistfight outside where Ray is getting his ass whooped. Cookie the cook, played by Anthony Anderson in his first film role, appreciates Ray sticking up for his cornbread. Claude tries getting Ray to throw in the towel, whining, “Not over no cornbread, man!”

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Motherfucker, you were the one ’bout to get your goddamn head blown off by some crazy white bitch over fuckin’ pie!

Ray gets his ass beaten, but Goldmouth carries him inside to recover from the beating. Nice guy. We then cut to a gathering where the inmates’ loved ones come to visit, including Claude’s girlfriend Daisy. All the way from Harlem. Because Mississippi is just down the block and left at the fork in the road.

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Apparently.

Claude and Daisy get some alone time in a shack for a conjugal visit after bribing Dillard, and Daisy tells Claude his cousin would be filing an appeal on his behalf. Daisy asks if an appeal should be filed on Ray’s behalf, and Claude gives an emphatic fuck no, reasoning that he’s only in prison because of Ray.

… Yeah. I don’t disagree with that assessment. You guys had a truck full of booze, ready to pay Spanky back with it, and Ray decides to go gambling in the Under-the-Hill district? Small wonder Claude wants to keep as far from Ray as possible when Ray mentions having an escape plan.

Later that night, when everyone’s in their bunks, Ray tells the other inmates about his dream club, the Boom Boom Room. We get a fantasy sequence where everyone from the camp is having fun in the club, wearing tuxes, sipping drinks, and surrounded by beautiful women – except Claude, who’s apparently waiting tables in this fantasy. So… whose fantasy is it? Ray’s? Goldmouth’s? Pokerface’s? Is it a collective fantasy? Why doesn’t Claude have any input in this collective fantasy? We come crashing back to reality when Hoppin’ Bob bursts into the barracks, and the fantasy, and tells everyone to go to sleep.

The next day, Claude gets some bad news in the mail that his appeal has been denied, so he sidles up to Ray in a hey-old-buddy-old-pal kind of way and asks if he’s still planning on escaping. Ray calls Claude out on this, resenting Claude for pinning all this shit on him.

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“You got to learn a whooole lot more about friendship. A LOT MORE!”

… I’m confused.

Is the general theme or moral of this movie… about friendship?

This is Parchman Farm, not Equestria!

Ray calls Claude “soft,” and this leads to a fight that Hoppin’ Bob tries to break up. When the fight ends, it’s revealed the fight was just a ruse to get close to Bob in order to steal his keys. When they try to escape through the woods later that night, the prison guards hunt them down with dogs, capture them, and bring them back to Superintendant Abernathy (O’Neal Compton), who lets his ten-year-old daughter decide their punishment. “Night in the hole?” Claude and Ray get thrust into these two outhouse-looking boxes and the movie transitions to 1944. Claude has been put in charge of Camp 8’s baseball team, and we’re introduced to a mute prisoner called Can’t Get Right, played by… Bokeem Woodbine?

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So, Mike Milligan has a mute ancestor. Makes sense.

Turns out, Can’t Get Right takes to baseball and is able to knock the ball so far out that he attracts the attention of a scout for one of the Negro Baseball Leagues. The scout is impressed with Can’t Get Right’s performance, and tells Claude and Ray he could get Can’t Get Right out of prison. Claude and Ray stick to Can’t Get Right like buzzards on a resurrected corpse, claiming they’re his “handlers” and would also like to get out of prison.

The prison superintendent’s daughter Mae Rose (Poppy Montgomery), now a young blonde woman with tits, returns to the prison for… some reason, and she catches the eye of Can’t Get Right. She flirts right back. This leads to an admittedly hilarious scene where several months later, Mae Rose gives birth to a baby boy with… um…

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A full head of hair? … How?

The superintendent calls out all the prisoners to compare the baby to, a process hilarious in and of itself. When he demands to know who the baby’s father is, the prisoners step forward one by one Spartacus-style and announce each of them is the father.

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Now, I openly admit this scene is funny.

Despite the massive leaps in logic, such as why the newborn baby has a full head of hair and open eyes, it works as a comedic scene. In a very racially segregated time, a white prison superintendent’s daughter gets knocked up by one of the black men he is in charge of overseeing as prisoners. It’s an ultimate Take That. A way for marginalized men to have the last laugh at a white supremacist system that imprisons them by literally fucking the object white society cherished and put on a pedestal more than anything: White womanhood.

But…

Then I keep remembering names of the black lynching victims from the past. Between 1877 and 1950, almost 4,000 black people were hanged, shot, castrated, or otherwise extrajudicially murdered by white mobs – and those were just the ones reported as lynchings. For obvious reasons, official records from white institutions and officials weren’t kept, so it was up to civil rights groups like the NAACP to keep track of these murders. For a comprehensive list of the victims, here’s a series of lists. The most commonly cited reason for lynching was a claim of rape or attempted rape by a black man against a white woman, whether there was consensual sex or even no attempt of sex at all. Prisoners weren’t immune to these mobs either. White mobs would break into jails and prisons just to get at their targets and hang them in the streets.

So, with that in mind, it is beyond me how none of this is considered a real and grave possibility in this movie. The superintendent doesn’t torture anyone to find out who slept with his daughter. Why? What’s stopping him? Sergeant Dillard laughs for some reason, because… his boss’ daughter getting knocked up by a black prisoner is funny to him? Are we supposed to find Dillard likable now? None of the prisoners are fearful they may be subjected to brutal treatment because one of them crossed a very taboo racial line?

And I get why the movie doesn’t address the more realistic outcome for this scenario.

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Addressing lynching, rape, the taboo of white women and black men having sex, torture, mob mentality, merciless racism at this point in the film would’ve been too dark for a comedy, unless we’re going for really bleak levels of comedy. Like, Bojack Horseman or Moral Orel levels of bleak.

While Eddie Murphy can go morbid with his comedy, he’s… not really the guy that does bleak, depressing comedy.

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At least… not intentionally.

This is especially odd, because the very next scene goes into straight-up dramatic territory when the prisoners are having a barbecue, and Biscuit (Miguel A. Núñez Jr.) finds out he’s about to leave prison. Biscuit spirals into depression for about one minute’s worth of screentime, fearing his mother won’t accept him as… ummm…

… I’m not sure if he’s homosexual, a cross-dresser, or what his gender identity or sexual orientation is, but the film never explains it.  We see Biscuit wearing a bandana on his head, behaving in an effeminate manner, and wearing a dress in the Boom Boom Room fantasy sequence, but that’s it. Jangle Leg apparently has an affection for him, but that’s not explored either. Also…

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Behold! The sad face of someone who skinned his landlady alive and made a jacket out of her.

Biscuit makes a break past the gun line and gets shot.

Now, I want to give the movie credit for actually addressing the horribleness of life at Parchman Farm. This is a dramatic scene. There are no laughs, no jokes. The audience is supposed to feel something, at this point.

However, there are three problems here:

One, Biscuit has had a handful of lines in the film up until this point, none of which revealed anything about who he is as a character. We got Pokerface mentioning he killed his landlady earlier, but that’s really it. We don’t know him. So, why should we care about him in one minute’s worth of him suddenly being depressed at getting out because his mother, whom we haven’t heard anything about before, might not accept him as… whatever it is that he identifies as?

Two, the Bury Your Gays trope. Because the most effeminate character in the movie is the one that has to die, apparently. It couldn’t be Goldmouth or Pokerface, who’ve gotten a hell of a lot more lines and screentime. It had to be Biscuit. We saw Goldmouth hugging his son during the reunion scene earlier. Wouldn’t it have been more powerful to use that? Show Goldmouth and Ray growing closer together as friends, only for something to happen to his son on the outside or him falling into depression or something? In other words, take time showing a character’s plight so we can care more when they die.

Three, Biscuit’s death never gets brought up again the entire rest of the movie.

In fact, the next scene is about Can’t Get Right leaving prison due to a pardon the scout helped him obtain. Ray and Claude are angry they didn’t get any pardons, and this leads to a very effective argument between the two.

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“You know… I’m finally wrapping my mind around this whole concept. […] They threw us in this shithole for life, Ray! Don’t you get it?! We gonna die here! We might as well head up to the cemetery, pick a plot, and start digging!”

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“Now, let me tell you somethin’! My daddy died in a place like this because of that shit you talkin’! He gave up hope and hung hisself! And I ain’t goin’ out like that, Claude!”

I will give this scene credit. We’ve gotten to know Claude and Ray – despite some odd character moments here and there – we understand them, so we care about this argument they’re having. We care that they’ve reached their breaking point and are not speaking to each other anymore.

This leads to the song “New Day” playing over a montage of time passing. The convicts keep working, day after day, while we see archival footage of Martin Luther King giving his I Have a Dream speech, Malcolm X, Muhammad Ali, Robert Kennedy, Jimi Hendrix, Richard Nixon, the moon landing, Elvis Presley, the Freedom Riders, civil rights protests, etc. Ray makes more escape attempts that fail. We get a really sad portion where characters like Goldmouth, Hoppin’ Bob, and Pokerface fade away to show the passage of time and that they died over the years.

We wind up in the year 1972, and Ray and Claude are still not talking to each other.

This changes when Claude sees an old white woman baking pies and leaving them on the window ledge of her house just beyond the gun line. Claude sneers, “Whites Only pies.” Then he makes a break for it across the gun line, dodging bullets and stealing the pie to eat. As punishment, Claude is forced to stand on bottles in a box for the rest of the day or get shot dead if he steps off the bottles.

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Totally worth it.

Dillard offers to make Ray a trustee and give him a gun to shoot Claude with, but Ray tells Dillard emphatically, “You know, I got to be- I got to be honest with you, boss. You don’t wanna gimme that gun. ‘Cause I’d probably shoot you with it.”

Dillard forces Ray to stand on bottles right next to Claude, and the two start talking again in a genuinely funny, heartwarming reunion.

The next day, Dillard tells them they’ve been transferred to the mansion of the new superintendent, Dexter Wilkins (Ned Beatty), to work for him. Ray trims Wilkins’ bushes while Claude serves the man’s food. Wilkins talks to Claude about retirement homes, but then makes a point of apologizing for talking about them when he realizes he’s upset Claude about the notion of retiring when he’s in prison for life.

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“40 years… ‘S a long time for any crime, even murder.”

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“It’s a hell of a lot longer when you’re innocent.”

Claude fills in for Wilkins’ driver the next day, to go pick up the new superintendent in Greenville. What follows is arguably the most emotional scene of the movie. There’s no dialogue. It’s just Claude taking in his first time outside the prison in 40 years.

This is fucking sad.

Out of the bus station, Wilkins emerges with the new superintendent in tow – Sheriff Pike (R. Lee Ermey). The exact same Sheriff Pike who’d murdered Winston Hancock and let Ray and Claude take the fall for it.

While Wilkins and Pike are out quail-hunting, Ray and Claude notice Pike checks the time with a particular pocket watch – Ray’s father’s pocket watch he lost in the card game to Winston Hancock way back in 1932.

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Ray steals Pike’s shotgun and turns it on him, loudly accusing him of murdering Hancock and prepared to kill him for ruining his life and Claude’s. Pike reaches for a pistol in his ankle holster…

… Wut.

This action utterly baffles me. I mean, Wilkins has his own shotgun pointed at Ray. He’s on Pike’s side… right up until he asks Pike if Ray’s accusations are true and Pike admits practically out of nowhere, with no further prodding, that he killed Hancock and let Ray and Claude take the fall for it.

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“What the hell difference does it make? At least the state of Mississippi got 40 years of cheap labor out of the deal!”

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Wilkins shoots Pike dead.

He pulls the Dick Cheney defense with an officer later, claiming the killing was an accident. He tells Ray and Claude he’ll get them situated with two pardons in the morning, now that he knows they’re innocent.

Okay, I can’t let this one go. The characters Wilkins and Pike are at the core of the movie’s problems with any social commentary.

Pike is the embodiment of the Evil White Racist and Wilkins is the embodiment of the Good White Savior. By making all the racism in the prison system represented by one unrepentant asshole while portraying Wilkins as this good white man willing to trust his butler and shoot another white man in a split-second decision, the film makes the problems with chain gangs and the prison system at large individual rather than systemic.

By making the villain one evil racist who gets his comeuppance, with the other superintendents either incompetent or well-meaning, we aren’t shown how horrible these places were. We see Ray and Claude go into the hot boxes, but never see what it’s like inside them. We see Dillard gut-punch Ray the one time and gleefully offer to let Ray shoot Claude, but the second instance is practically played for comedy. We see the superintendent’s anger over his daughter having a mixed-race baby, but all he really does is give a hrumph and stomp off like a child. The one death that happens in the prison happens to an underdeveloped character who may or may not be gay and who we don’t know enough about to be emotionally moved by his death, which is never brought up again. Apart from the slow passage of time, we never see our characters experiencing what Claude calls “hell.”

What made chain gangs and convict leasing hellish?

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“To underscore the veracity of [John] Spivak’s description of black life in Georgia, the author published as a visual epilogue to [his] book a series of photographs taken in Georgia’s labor camps. He reprinted reports detailing whippings, extra chains, and ‘put in barrel’—a variation of the sweatbox. One document—titled ‘Official Whipping Report’—listed fifty beatings at one camp in August 1930. A gallery of photographs showed bloodhounds baying at an escapee in a tree. Guards proudly demonstrated to their visitor the latest techniques of punishment and torture—colonial-era stocks, black men trussed around pick handles like pigs ready for slaughter, the ‘stretching’ rack.” – Page 374 of Douglas Blackmon’s Slavery By Another Name

John Spivak was a journalist who published a thinly fictionalized exposé on the chain gang system titled Georgia Nigger in 1932. While the characters in the book were fictional, everything else in the book was taken from what he’d witnessed when touring Georgia’s labor camps. Unlike another exposé titled I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang, written by a white dude and made into a film in 1932, Spivak’s was unapologetic in its depiction of the chain gang system as a systemically racist entity. But it was the book with the white protagonist that became Hollywood’s popular version of social injustice and cast a national spotlight on the abuses of the South’s chain gangs, not Spivak’s more realistic documentary account.

I opened up this review by highlighting the real history behind Parchman Farm and how hellish the place and its history was, and honestly, this film is a bit too comedic.

Like, we’ve had heavy prison dramas such as The Shawshank Redemption and Cool Hand Luke, and especially I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang. Then again, all these films had majority-white casts with white leads. As far as I know, there has never been a serious treatment of convict leasing or chain gangs in American cinema with a realistic reflection of the demographics of the people most impacted by these oppressive systems. While Life does more accurately reflect the actual demographics of chain gangs in the 1930s, the fact that it’s a comedy is its weakness. By highlighting things like conjugal visits, barbecues, Boom Boom Room fantasies, fights over cornbread that are more comedic than dangerous, and baseball games, we never really get the sense that these characters are going through hell-

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Okay, man. Look, just stop right there.

Dramatic Chris Tucker? Haven’t seen you since my Friday review.

Why, what’s wrong?

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Look, we get it. The movie isn’t the most accurate when it comes to showing just how brutal the chain gangs and Parchman Farm could be, but man… IT’S A COMEDY! Nobody wants to see Eddie Murphy getting whipped.

Yeah, but…

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No, you fucking listen, man! You want something real? Watch 12 Years a Slave and shit that wins Oscars. But for the rest of us, we don’t like watching movies that make us want to slit our wrists. What is the essential element of comedy?

… Tragedy?

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Exactly. Sometimes, this seriously fucked up shit is… just TOO fucked up to look at. That’s where comedy comes in. You think Charlie Chaplin was making dramas about Nazis? Hell, no! He was making fun of them. Sometimes, you have to laugh in order to keep your sanity intact. Laughing at scary shit makes it… a little less scary.

I… actually didn’t think about it that way.

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I’m not saying the movie doesn’t have problems, but… just ease the fuck up on it. That’s all I’m asking.

…… Okay, Chris.

You’re right. I’m sorry, man.

… I should’ve considered that perspective.

Anyway, let’s wrap this up. Wilkins asks Claude to take him up to the bathroom. Then Willie Long, the narrator, reveals, “What happened is old man Wilkins never come out of the bathroom! Sit right there and died on the shitter! Hahahaha!”

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Anyway, Ray and Claude grow older and by 1997, they’re in their nineties and staying in the infirmary, playing cards with younger inmates. Claude lets Ray in on another plan of his to escape.

That night, the infirmary goes up in flames.

The next morning, two body bags are carried out.

This is when Willie Long reveals that Claude’s plan was to set the infirmary on fire, pass two bodies from the morgue as theirs, and then escape. The gravediggers he’d been telling this story to sigh and bemoan that the plan failed.

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“I never said it didn’t work…”

We then cut to Ray and Claude bickering with each other at a game in Yankee Stadium in New York, with a final title card saying they live together in Harlem.

*****

So, that was Life. How was it?

Despite my previous complaints, it’s not a bad movie. It’s a mixed bag, sure, but not bad.

This was Eddie Murphy’s last R-rated film to date, and I honestly miss that. Because when you got Eddie Murphy uncensored, you got him at his funniest. He was a filthy, foul-mouthed comedian, and America loved him for it. I don’t suppose it’s any secret I’m not a fan of Martin Lawrence, but there are a handful of times in this where he actually made me laugh.

The story was Eddie Murphy’s, albeit the screenplay was written by two white dudes named Robert Ramsey and Matthew Stone. It’s not bad, per se, but it usually struggles to balance the comedy and the drama. In his review of Life, the critic Roger Ebert wrote, “It’s an odd, strange film–a sentimental comedy with a backdrop of racism–and I kept thinking of ‘Life Is Beautiful,’ another film that skirts the edge of despair. ‘Life Is Beautiful’ avoids it through comic inspiration, and ‘Life’ by never quite admitting how painful its characters’ lives must have been.”

I understand that comedy has some place in historical pieces. Not everyone wants to see dramas like Schindler’s List or 12 Years a Slave that can get so depressing you need a stiff drink afterwards. But Life‘s comedy and drama suffer from the fact neither has much bite. It’s a comedy with some drama in it, but it’s not a satire, not a dark comedy, and it never really attacks the institution Parchman Farm itself, let alone the American prison system.

As a comedy, it’s not bad. It’s actually quite funny and will have you rolling at several parts, but when it comes time to shoo out the clowns and get to the drama and even some social commentary, this punchline could’ve used a little more time to bloom.

RATING: Rent it on video – 3 out of 5.

Coming up on January 12th, 2017:

In commemoration of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, the Wild West Samurai will review the 1999 educational children’s special Our Friend, Martin.

2 thoughts on “Cinema in Color Review #5: Life

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