At the Brattle series highlights the boom in black cinema in the early 1990s

In a cinematic landscape where everything is a franchise, it’s infuriating that we’re not yet on our fifth or sixth Easy Rawlins movie. 1995 director Carl Franklin’s mysteriously underrated “Devil in the Blue Dress” stars Denzel Washington as the private eye of Walter Mosley’s marvelous detective novels, slyly avoiding corrupt cops and blackmailed politicians with the help of his slightly psychotic sidekick Mouse (Don Cheadle) in highly segregated post-war Los Angeles. You couldn’t pick a better movie to kick off the Brattle Theater ‘”Neo-Noir African-American” series this weekend, a collection of four terrific images from the early 1990s boom in black cinema that put the problems racial in the foreground of curvy, flashback crime stories. Classic blacks of the 1940s and 1950s reflected and amplified the anxieties of traumatized men returning to a changed America after WWII, while these ’90s counterparts applied this sort of dark, old-fashioned fatalism to structural social injustice. It’s a more comfortable fit than a lot of audiences at the time could have been comfortable with.

The most luxurious of the quartet, “Devil in a Blue Dress” presents Washington in fine and swift form as a laid-off factory worker hired to track down the missing girlfriend of a mayoral candidate who we learn. the bulky Tom Sizemore, insinuating fixative, has “a predilection for the company of negroes.” A costume design and production marvel, the film brings classic Hollywood glamor to nightclubs and neighborhoods that would never have been allowed onscreen when the film is set. Director Franklin reveled in old-school techniques like retro voice-over and cross-fade editing, making “Devil” look like a movie that could have been shot in 1948, with the exception of course of all the foul language, brutal sexuality and black people.

Don Cheadle and Denzel Washington in “The Devil in the Blue Dress”. (Courtesy of the Brattle Theater)

Cheadle’s silver-toothed mouse and his hair-triggering temper are so important in the movie that I always forget he doesn’t show up until an hour later. unfortunate, the “Golden Girls” spin-off without Bea Arthur, “The Golden Palace”, and a star was born overnight. (Few artists can steal scenes from Denzel Washington, let alone an entire frame.) Their crackling chemistry is just one of the film’s bountiful pleasures, as Easy expertly navigates through two very different worlds. where black and white do not dare to cross without disastrous consequences. It drives me crazy that Mosley wrote 13 more of these books, but Washington is doing sequel to “The Equalizer” instead.

A longtime television actor from the no-budget Roger Corman genre film school, Carl Franklin had caused a sensation three years earlier with “One False Move”, an elegantly understated and white thriller thriller that is not so secret. on cultural conflicts and the color line. Originally slated to go direct on video, the film ended up receiving a theatrical release thanks almost entirely to the tireless TV cheerleaders of critics Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert, with the former naming it his favorite 1992 film. as a teenager I made my first trip to the Coolidge Corner Theater, walking an hour on the T from distant Melrose, to see “One False Move” because Gene and Roger didn’t want to be quiet about it .)

After a brutal drug murder in Los Angeles, three fugitives – including ponytailed pre-“Sling Blade” Billy Bob Thornton, who co-wrote the screenplay with Tom Epperson – head to their hometown of Star City, Arkansas, where they don’t know two LAPD officers are already on the prowl. The townspeople enlisted the help of local Star City sheriff, Dale “Hurricane” Dixon, a kind rub of boundless enthusiasm played to perfection by Bill Paxton. Mainly known at the time as the comedic relief of Peckerwood in the James Cameron films, Paxton was a killer cast because of how the revelations of “One False Move” allow both the character and the performance to deepen and upset our expectations, before ending for a moment. of enormous emotional power.

The protagonist of Michael Tolkin and Henry Bean’s screenplay for “Deep Cover” from 1992 was originally written as a White Man, but sought to capitalize on the surprise blockbusters “New Jack City” and “Boyz n the Hood. “, the folks at New Line Cinema cast Laurence Fishburne (then still billed as Larry) in the lead role and hired director Bill Duke to shape the story into a new critique of Blaxploitation capitalism, steeped in the shadows of 1930s expressionism and a cheerfully decadent and amoral atmosphere. (The recent canonization of the film by the Criterion Collection is well deserved, but I’m afraid it makes the presentation of what works best as a rotten crime picture look too academic.)

Jeff Goldblum and Laurence Fishburne in "Deep coverage." (Courtesy of the Brattle Theater)
Jeff Goldblum and Laurence Fishburne in “Deep Cover”. (Courtesy of the Brattle Theater)

Fishburne stars as an idealistic recruit recruited by a rotten DEA agent (a fun counter-type, Charles Martin Smith) for a not-quite-legal undercover mission, in which he teams up with the Jeff Goldblum’s shady delusional criminal lawyer on a designer drug scheme. Like Franklin, Duke started out as an actor. His creepy onscreen presence was a staple of ’80s action flicks, usually the penultimate guy the hero killed before moving on to the main antagonist. Duke made his feature film directorial debut the year before with an adaptation of Chester Himes’ “A Rage in Harlem”, clashing with producers on the tone of the picture. Released two weeks before the LA riots, “Deep Cover” highlights the script’s latent racial resentments, with Goldblum giving one of his funniest and funniest performances as a privileged child obsessed with all that concerns ebony. His fixation on black culture is presented as increasingly vampiric, until in the end he is dressed as Nosferatu.

The only box office success and perhaps the most ridiculously entertaining of these films wraps up the series on Sunday. “Set It Off” stars Jada Pinkett Smith, Vivica A. Fox, Kimberly Elise and Queen Latifah as four janitorial workers turned bank robbers in this breathtaking melodrama from director F. Gary Gray. What’s so much fun about the movie are all the ways that screenwriters Takashi Bufford and Kate Lanier update traditional tropes of “woman photo” for contemporary concerns, with a hard-core banker boyfriend for Pinkett Smith played. by Blair Underwood as a 1950s Love Doris Day Film. The gender shift becomes meta when these women sit around a conference table in an office they clean and prepare for a flight, speaking in Marlon Brando accents while the music of Nino Rota from “The Godfather” plays on the soundtrack.

It’s easy to see why “Set It Off” became a sensation (when I worked in a video store it was hardly ever in stock) and how the inventively staged heist sequences allowed the director Gray to play hip-hop and Ice Cube clips. from the stoner comedy “Friday” to Hollywood action pictures from major leagues like “The Italian Job” and “The Fate of the Furious”. Latifah is an absolute shout out in this arena, sending out all the uber-macho gangsta rap stereotypes of the era like lascivious lesbian wrapping heat. While it can get a little silly at times, the film nonetheless expresses the anger of the audience who embraced it. One of the women explains to her co-conspirators, “We’re just stealing the system that’s screwing us up,” which is a sentiment you can see bubbling up through these four beautiful films.

“African-American Neo-Noir” takes place at the Brattle Theater from Friday September 24 to Sunday September 26.


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