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Sundance: Truth and consequences

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Right now I feel a little like Samantha Bee, Senior Sundance Correspondent, with a fake backdrop of Park City’s Main Street behind me. Owen is still on the festival scene for another day, making his way to screenings past phalanxes of slender young women in Uggs, each sylph holding a Starbucks venti and a BlackBerry. But I’m actually back at EW in New York, having witnessed the Presidential inauguration mid-air on a seat-back screen, our new Commander-in-Chief’s crisp words interrupted by route info from the pilot and announcements from flight attendants about peanuts for sale.

Watching yesterday’s thrilling events, though, was a good filter through which to wrap up my own half of the Sundance critic-as-correspondent act by considering Why We Laugh: Black Comedians on Black Comedy and Endgame. The first is a square documentary assembled by far-from-shy actor and Hollywood Shuffle director Robert Townsend, based on a history of American black comedy by Darryl Littleton. The second is a square drama about the last days of South African apartheid, based on a book by Robert Harvey and directed by Pete Travis (he made Omagh, the stunning, must-Netflix docudrama about a 1998 political bombing in Northern Ireland).

Neither fulfills the festival’s grammatically wacky, anniversary fortune-cookie slogan proclaiming Sundance as “twenty-five years of where the next begins.” But the two do represent one year of where the now is — or at least where the now is when the indie filmmaking population isn’t telling stories of young people finding themselves, getting laid, or (lucky young people!) finding themselves by getting laid.

 

Why We Laugh has this going for it: Dick Gregory, Bill Cosby,

Richard Pryor, Eddie Murphy, Whoopi Goldberg, Chris Rock, Dave

Chappelle. And that’s not nothing. See, the producers have cleared the

rights to carefully negotiated bits of snippets of moments of archival

performance footage by some of America’s most brilliant black

comedians. But the documentary also has this going against it: A

word-dense, bombastic script narrated by Angela Bassett as if

declaiming at the Lincoln Memorial; historical images used multiple

times, with a flat-footedness that cries out for a respite viewing of

John Hodgman’s definitive YouTube documentary Hobo Matters;

and a lot of time-filling, wheel-spinning, log-rolling talking-head

commentary from scholars, political leaders, and fellow comedians who

confirm that Gregory was great, Pryor was great, Cosby was great, etc.

There’s also a hearty chunk of time devoted to Robert Townsend talking

about the importance of Robert Townsend’s Hollywood Shuffle — a bit, erm,

tacky, no? — and a leading producer of the documentary talking about

the importance of being a producer of black entertainment.

That’s not to say that a viewer won’t learn something from this

workaday presentation of a great subject. And certainly there are some

laughs as a reward. But what the explosive popularity of non-fiction

films at Sundance also teaches the astute moviegoer is that a good

subject is only half of what makes a good documentary; form and

discipline matter. And that requirement applies whether the form is

classical or experimental, linear, diced, or twisted into a timeline

Moebius strip.

Endgame takes a traditional approach: After some brief,

backtracking exposition to establish why South Africa is on the edge of

revolution and who the players are in the armed showdown between the

African National Congress (led from prison by Nelson Mandela) and the

minority white government of President P.W. Botha, the forward thrust

of important history retold (much of it likely to be new to a non-South

African audience) is enough to propel this elegant drama. Screenwriter

Paula Milne focuses on the unlikely bond that develops between ANC

leader Thabo Mbeki, played with quiet intensity by Chiwetel Ejiofor,

and Afrikaner philosophy professor Willie Esterhuyse, played with

notable nuance by William Hurt. Both historical figures are committed

to their roles in the delicate, secret negotiations toward national

peace and black South African freedom; both actors are inspired by the

integrity of the men they represent. And as a result, Endgame,

while not particularly a standout (as a piece of moviemaking, it

doesn’t carry nearly the punch of Omagh, which benefited from a great,

muscular script by Paul Greengrass and Guy Hibbert), knows enough to

get out of the way of its own way and let gravitas take its course.

Then again, a Sundance with no frippery — or cute coming-of-age

dramas — is like a day without a venti soy latte. So cancel everything

I’ve just said. See you next year at the Eccles.

Why We Laugh has this going for it: Dick Gregory, Bill Cosby,Richard Pryor, Eddie Murphy, Whoopi Goldberg, Chris Rock, DaveChappelle. And that’s not nothing. See, the producers have cleared therights to carefully negotiated bits of snippets of moments of archivalperformance footage by some of America’s most brilliant blackcomedians. But the documentary also has this going against it: Aword-dense, bombastic script narrated by Angela Bassett as ifdeclaiming at the Lincoln Memorial; historical images used multipletimes, with a flat-footedness that cries out for a respite viewing ofJohn Hodgman’s definitive YouTube documentary Hobo Matters;and a lot of time-filling, wheel-spinning, log-rolling talking-headcommentary from scholars, political leaders, and fellow comedians whoconfirm that Gregory was great, Pryor was great, Cosby was great, etc.There’s also a hearty chunk of time devoted to Robert Townsend talkingabout the importance of Robert Townsend’s Hollywood Shuffle — a bit, erm,tacky, no? — and a leading producer of the documentary talking aboutthe importance of being a producer of black entertainment.

That’s not to say that a viewer won’t learn something from thisworkaday presentation of a great subject. And certainly there are somelaughs as a reward. But what the explosive popularity of non-fictionfilms at Sundance also teaches the astute moviegoer is that a goodsubject is only half of what makes a good documentary; form anddiscipline matter. And that requirement applies whether the form isclassical or experimental, linear, diced, or twisted into a timelineMoebius strip.

Endgame takes a traditional approach: After some brief,backtracking exposition to establish why South Africa is on the edge ofrevolution and who the players are in the armed showdown between theAfrican National Congress (led from prison by Nelson Mandela) and theminority white government of President P.W. Botha, the forward thrustof important history retold (much of it likely to be new to a non-SouthAfrican audience) is enough to propel this elegant drama. ScreenwriterPaula Milne focuses on the unlikely bond that develops between ANCleader Thabo Mbeki, played with quiet intensity by Chiwetel Ejiofor,and Afrikaner philosophy professor Willie Esterhuyse, played withnotable nuance by William Hurt. Both historical figures are committedto their roles in the delicate, secret negotiations toward nationalpeace and black South African freedom; both actors are inspired by theintegrity of the men they represent. And as a result, Endgame,while not particularly a standout (as a piece of moviemaking, itdoesn’t carry nearly the punch of Omagh, which benefited from a great,muscular script by Paul Greengrass and Guy Hibbert), knows enough toget out of the way of its own way and let gravitas take its course.

Then again, a Sundance with no frippery — or cute coming-of-agedramas — is like a day without a venti soy latte. So cancel everythingI’ve just said. See you next year at the Eccles.

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