"Life and Nothing More" is a helluva film title.
Its been a week since I sat in the MFAH theatre as a complimentary gift, a perk of membership in HAAB. After 8 days Im still processing. I don't know how to take this film. Half of my mind wants to throw it away because it seemed as if the writer and director took all the negative stereotypes of African-American womanhood and African-American boyhood and forced it onto the main characters, Regina and her son, Andrew. Minus a drug addiction, unless you want to count nicotine as a drug, the family couldn't catch a break. Born into poverty? Check. Under-educated? Check. Young, unwed pregnancy? Check. Incarcerated Baby Daddy? Check. Below minimum wage job as a server? Check. Poor choice in men? Check. Unwanted, unplanned pregnancy? Check. Limited support network? Check. Bad Attitude? Check. Prison as 'rights-of-passage'? Check. See what Im saying? And to watch those beautiful, dark brown, strong-physiqued actors continuously make poor decisions that buried them deeper into generational poverty was hard. I felt like I was being coaxed into accepting a reality of African-Americann-ness that while may be very well true for some, is too often blanketed around the whole. And it wasn't so much the real-life situations the family faced because -ish happens, more so it was the seemingly unavoidable descent into a predestined, stereotypical welfare caste. It was like watching a train wreck, or a news recycled Police killing. (Which almost happened to Andrew in the film after he was kicked out of his home and intentionally wandered past his side of the railroad tracks into a privatized neighborhood... Check.) I looked around at the other viewers in the small theatre and could only wonder if their own concepts of African-Americanness were being affirmed or offended.
Not that poverty is offensive. The offense lies with anyone conspiring to disenfranchise another person or group of people. Its hell to be poor. Living in poverty isn't a criminal act. According to the Census Bureau over 40 million people were living in poverty in 2017. (^) So its not so much that the subject matter of this film was a fantasy. Rather it was lite-weight Poverty Porn.
I think I expected more. Halfway through the film, I began to wonder who wrote it and who was the director. I felt in my intuition they werent women. By the end of the film I suspected they weren't African-Americans either. The film was unforgiving. The treatment of the characters explanatory- she is like this because of this- rather than redemptive and providing hope, or atleast attempting to evoke compassion in the viewer. I mean, dang isn't that the point? I expected a champion story, a women's rites-of-passage. Instead I got a single mother financially struggling to support her family while the live-in boyfriend wants to discipline her teenage son while refusing to obtain a job to help support her, her family and their unborn child absent-mindedly created while 'laying up'. Nah, #issano for me dawg.
This film took my mind so many places- places we don't need to see on film. Not Anymore. Not unless there's some okra and black-eyed-peas strategically placed within the storylines. Undercurrents of modern day freedom songs... "When we were sovereign." Magical, mystical, miraculous men and women. Stories of come-uppance. How we got over and still getting our piece of the American pie. We need more films with wise elders and Indigo children. Wallstreet stories and us conquering the world. You feel my vibe? We need to witness thousands of independent films and big screen movies flooding the marketplace and film festivals with our dynamic likenesses piercing knowingly back at us, reminding the world of our indispensable contributions to society. Its too dangerous to produce films of African-American boys angry at the world about their lack of choices and carrying switchblades into suburban, upper-middle class neighborhoods without also showing how he is provided a support network to help him channel his anger, either with counseling or by being coached by a divine masculine. A fantastic plot twist. Instead we saw what we have already seen too often in real life: Andrew arrested and threatened to be tried as an adult, accepting the plea bargain for juvenile detention. I didnt need to sit for 90 minutes to witness that killjoy. Who was this film's intended audience? We don't need anymore women on the screen raising little girls while choosing worthless, lazy lovers and accepting mistreatment instead of stamping the whole thing, ACCESS DENIED! This film has Regina moving a deadbeat dad into her apartment then choosing to keep their unplanned baby even after he's left her for not choosing him over her son. I rebuke it. Not today Satan.
Plainly, everybody can't tell (sell) the African-American's story. Especially if they're presenting it to international audiences. Nah. Because we already know how that turns out for us. The negative imagery is not in our best interest. If someone not from our culture tells our stories, they cant sacrifice us for their own professional aspirations. A poverty story that is simply a poverty story and nothing more deserves no awards. Those coming to tell our many stories must humanize our condition on screen to soften the world's heart. They need to strategically counter attack the perpetual negative media already tarnishing our reputations. Everything else is propaganda.
Okay, thats my cue. I feel those old "RaRa" feelings resurfacing and thats not where I wanted to take this post. Actually, the theme of this post was to be "It Takes A Village." Because following all of Regina's setbacks her girlfriends were there to lend encouragement and support. The writer and director got that part right. Women need each other- have always needed each other. Its a survival mechanism. We are communal, right up to the healing moral supports. We share our food, homes, childcare, current events and wisdoms. In Life and Nothing More, the women discussed the 2016 Presidential Election and resolved themselves to accept the outcome and make the best of it. They cared after each other. And that was the grace in this film. The only grace. The rest was life and nothing more.
During the ending credits I stood in the back of the theatre by the exit door watching people leave. I wanted to see who else would be challenged with unpacking this film and the images and dialogues submitted for our contemplation. As I stood people watching an older lady in her 70s of European descent remarked, "That was a very strong movie." Indeed it was.
"La Vida Y Nada Mas" (2018)
Antonio Méndez Esparza
Antonio Méndez Esparza