Friday, July 12, 2019

Ava DuVernay on GANDHI

Ava DuVernay, one of the most gifted and significant filmmakers of today, has been sharing her warm and non-intimidating classic film knowledge on TCM (Turner Classic Movies.).  I write "non-intimidating" because I've heard some male film critics and historians get on TV or radio and when they begin discussing some classic films, they sound as engaging as a college textbook. You wonder if they're trying to bring viewers and listeners into an appreciation of the film arts or if they're trying to impress their fellow high-tone male film critics and historians.  Filmmaker Ava DuVernay (of the Oscar-nominated SELMA and Netflix's blistering, brilliant WHEN THEY SEE US) is for the people and bringing them into an appreciation of the film arts.
This year, she's been the co-host of "The Essentials," a Saturday evening feature on TCM. The late Robert Osborne hosted it and invited such celebs as Carrie Fisher, Sally Field and Drew Barrymore to be cohosts. After Mr. Osborne passed away, actor Alec Baldwin hosted "The Essentials." He brought on buddies like Tina Fey and David Letterman. I like Baldwin. However, when Baldwin hosted "The Essentials," we got doses of movie trivia about the classic film shown or, in Letterman's case, we got snarky comments about some of the stars. DuVernay fully grasps the concept of "The Essentials" -- that it's a presentation of a film that's a must-see for those who are serious devotees of classic films. She not only brings her charm, wit, terrific knowledge and viewpoints, her presence alone is a race/gender inclusion that brings TCM into the 21st Century. She is an African American female director/writer who has selected films by other female directors, such as Agnes Varda, and films by people of color, such as Julie Dash's DAUGHTERS OF THE DUST and Satyajit Ray's PATHER PANCHALI, in addition to films by Vincente Minnelli and Sidney Lumet. Ava has broken national TV's decades-long practice of giving us looks at classic films mostly through the white male critic/historian/TV host gaze. Ava brings a fresh, passionate, informed and contemporary perspective. This Saturday, July 13th, Ava DuVernay and primetime TCM host Ben Mankiewicz present 1982's GANDHI starring Ben Kingsley. The biopic is about a famous social activist. The film is a call for social activism and the star's career is an example of success crashing through a Hollywood barrier of inequality.
Ava DuVernay grew up in South Central L.A. So did I -- years before she did. I grew up on 124th and Central. I attended a high school in Watts just a few years after the Watts Riots. Classmates and teachers in my school knew then I was fascinated with classic films. I never saw a Black person review movies or work on-air as a movie host on local Los Angeles TV. After I graduated from college in Milwaukee, I got a job on Milwaukee's ABC affiliate as a weekly movie critic and celebrity interviewer. I was the first Black person to do that work on local Milwaukee TV.  I got a job offer from a New York TV station in 1985 and took it.  I was in New York for 20 years and still had not seen one Black person as a weekly or semi-regular film critic on local TV or network TV.  Each network morning news show -- the ones on ABC, NBC and CBS -- had a white male movie critic doing reviews every Friday.

Some of the work that got me the New York job offer included an interview of Ben Kingsley, the screen newcomer in GANDHI. My interviews of Kingsley and GANDHI director Richard Attenborough aired nationally a week before they won Oscars for the film.

The 1982 junket, the studio's promotional weekend of press interviews, took place at the Century Plaza Hotel in Los Angeles. I was invited to it.  In those days, the number of other Black correspondents doing entertainment interviews for TV was always small. We'd make a point of seeking each other out at the screenings or the post-screening dinner. After the GANDHI preview screening, I was chatting with two other Black men covering it for TV. We were all stunned by Ben Kingsley's brilliance. It didn't seem like a performance. It seemed like Mahatma Gandhi himself had resurrected. That's how remarkable Kingsley, born Krishna Pandit Bhanji, was in performance and look. One of the guys said, "If he wins Best Actor, and he should, I sure hope he can get work afterwards."
The two of us knew exactly what he meant. I was thinking the same thing. Hollywood would see Ben Kingsley as a man of color and there was an ever-increasing list of Black/Latinx actors -- mostly women -- who got one Oscar nomination, maybe even won the Oscar -- and then had to turn to TV for steady employment because Hollywood had no other good scripts for them. Hollywood had fewer opportunities for actors of color.  Ava DuVernay presented WEST SIDE STORY as one of "The Essentials." Rita Moreno won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for that Best Picture of 1961 Oscar winner. Then she did not have any film work for seven years. She had to turn to TV. The same goes for one-time Oscar nominees Cicely Tyson, Diahann Carroll, Angela Bassett, Alfre Woodard, Taraji P. Henson and Gabourey Sidibe. They all went to TV. After two Oscar nominations, Viola Davis had to go to TV. After an Oscar win in her two nominations, Whoopi Goldberg had to go to TV.

The lack of opportunities for actors of color and the lack of inclusion of film critics of color have been hot issues in the entertainment industry for the last three years.

Sir Ben Kingsley won the Oscar for Best Actor. GANDHI won for Best Picture. Kingsley went on to get Oscar nominations for BUGSY (1991), SEXY BEAST (2000) and HOUSE OF SAND AND FOG (2003). Bravo, Ben!
Because of the Oscar success of GANDHI -- Best Picture, Best Actor and Best Director -- Columbia Pictures offered director Richard Attenborough another deal. Columbia released GANDHI. Director Richard Attenborough was free to select any project on Columbia's roster as his next film. Mr. Attenborough told me this himself.

He chose to direct the film version of the huge Broadway musical hit, A CHORUS LINE. He chose Michael Douglas to play the choreographer/director. Did you see the movie?

If Mahatma Gandhi had been alive, he would've gone on another fast to make sure something like that never, ever happened again to a hit Broadway musical.

Watch Ava DuVernay and Ben Mankiewicz present GANDHI Saturday July 13th at 8p ET/5p PT on TCM.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Before Astaire Danced on the Ceiling

 In the late 1980s, I was a veejay and talk show host seen daily on the VH1 music channel. Those were three of the happiest, most fulfilling...