The '68 Comeback Special: Black Jesus

There are naturally a few places where I split with popular opinion, at least with regard to relevant criticism. I love a bunch of things few others care about but more damningly I hate a few films that cinephiles really love. Hating A History Of Violence isn't the best way to let other critics know that you know what you're talking about. But hate it I do. Ok, maybe not hate, but it struck me as too intensely silly and ham-fisted (ye gods that music) to be taken seriously. I was missing something everyone else saw clear as day. Last year's darling Upstream Color did nothing for me, ditto Network, every Quentin Tarantino film after Jackie Brown, Fight Club, Amelie, Star Wars, Full Metal Jacket, Barry Lyndon, the films of Brian De Palma, and, finally the collected oeuvre of Sergio Leone. That last is of particular relevance to today's entry in the '68 Comeback Special, wherein David Cairns and I talk a little about every film that never got a shot at the Palme D'or after a protest cancalled the 1968 Film Festival. I admit up front that before I'd seen a foot of his distinctively styled films, my dad had cursed Leone's name up and down. He hated the man's films, didn't understand why everyone loved them, put up with the many half-truths and anachronisms or how haltingly dull they were. Now, as a kid I took it as gospel, as I did most everything he said, but I got older and curious and everybody else seemed to love them so I gave them a chance. I should have listened to my dad. Leone had an eye, sure, but he also had a way of making handsome people look like they'd been sculpted out of cow shit. He sucked the energy and life out of every single scene by making it last six or seven times as long as the stakes would reasonably allow. I got on bended knee and prayed for Once Upon A Time West and The Good, The Bad & The Ugly to please god end already how many times can we watch the same shit happen over and over again?!?! I didn't believe anything, I didn't care about anything, I didn't like anything. I didn't mind the bit in For A Few Dollars More where the villains go on a blue-hued drug trip, but that was about all I got out of the whole canon. To put it mildly, I'm not in the majority. 

I'd always been curious what it would look like if an editor went at a Leone with a chainsaw, cut all the extraneous horseshit, took out the Hanna-Barbera sound effects and gave them a sense of purpose beyond fanning the western genre with a palm frond while carrying it on your back like a princess through the streets of a backlot Arabian kingdom. I suspect it would look like Valerio Zurlini's morbid but moving Black Jesus (note: if you were to go the reverse direction and amp up the cartoon-style antics to break it out of its taxidermied sluggishness, you get Gore Verbinski's The Lone Ranger - win-win, either way). It's worth pointing out that it was David's review of Black Jesus as part of his series over at Mubi's Notebook, The Forgotten, that got the ball-rolling on this whole endeavor! I'm happy to give my two cents because I think the film's good enough to cover twice. Zurlini proves himself Leone's painterly equal, framing fore and background objects with the precision of a glassblower. He's much more influenced by war photographers, attaining a docu-realistic quality to a lot of the action, but he wasn't completely quit of the shadow of John Ford, which Leone wore like a bear skin cloak. After all, playing his Petrice Lemumba stand-in was the great Woody Strode, whom Ford loved dearly and had already turned into a christ figure in the unjustly forgotten Sergeant Rutledge, after a lifetime of playing supporting roles in classics. He's dubbed, unfortunately, but his face is pan-lingual and he's easily my favourite movie Jesus. The ironic thing is that he doesn't look a thing like the African extras that fill out the margins of the film. He looks a little divine, as David pointed out in his review, but he also has movie star charisma leaking out of his pores. There is no mistaking Woody Strode's cheekbones for the softer features of Petrice Lemumba. The ideal candidate to play him would have been Malcolm X, but a few factors, including his 1965 assassination, made that impossible. X easily could have been the subject of this film if Lemumba had managed to survive. Strode was however the best possible man for the job because he could stare into the middle distance and make you reconsider every mean thing you've ever said or done. That quality made him the quiet soul of many American films since the early 40s. In '68 audiences were given two opportunities to assess Strode's gifts and his place in cinema history. Refused leading man stature in the states he went to Italy and worked for both Zurlini and Leone. Only one of them gave him the spotlight. 


Leone killed Strode ten excruciating minutes into Once Upon A Time In The West, casting him because John Ford had done so first. He's not an actor, he's window dressing. Zurlini, on the other hand, saw that Strode had immense gifts as a performer and tried as hard as he could, through a language barrier, to allow him the space in which to deliver the performance of his career. Ultimately the Leones of the world would win and Strode would be reduced, like so many other American character actors, into rounding out the overstuffed cast lists of shitty Italian jungle movies, a prop used to raise money instead of an actor. But forget that for a minute, because his work here is commendable. So far that matter is Zurlini. He's a gifted image-maker, but what I loved most about it was the way he handles silence. There are long, aching stretches where no one speaks, but it's an organic, rather than a formalist boast as it is in Once Upon A Time. The story: a deposed leader is caught by white colonialist forces. They try him in an ad hoc court secreted away from the people who believe in him. Lemumba has little to say to his oppressors, knowing they have no right to judge him, and not wanting to give them the satisfaction of acting like the man they think he is. Jean Servais, his interrogator, does most of the talking. Meanwhile a few other criminals are brought to the cells along with him, and they'll be killed just for being confined to the same cell with him. The title of the film is a bit of a spoiler and Zurlini plays a diabolical waiting game. Servais and his men have all the power, so in prolonging his trial and imprisonment, they're toying with Strode, just as our director does with the audience. Every second of silence, every overheard scream from some other poor sap being tortured elsewhere in the building is a little reminder that bad men will alway wield all the power. The sound design makes it seem like you can hear every whisper for miles around.  Zurlini conjures a powerful atmosphere, and I like that he's not saying that Lemumba was specifically christ-like, but that as long as the wrong people are in charge, christ-figures are gonna keep coming out of the woodwork to combat them. One could easily make a film that turns Malcolm X into Jesus, and I'd pay good money to see it. The wrong guys with the right ideas always get killed because that's the dynamic we choose over and over again. The burial of Black Jesus after Cannes (possibly) prevented both Zurlini and Strode from being recognized. It's impossible to say if the film winning the Palme d'Or would have made a difference in either man's career, but the what-if makes me furious all the same, especially while Sergio Leone enjoys an untouchable reputation as one of our greatest artists. Now, that's hardly on par with wrongful crucifixion, but life's full of little trials like that. All we can do is be on the right side of history. 

2 comments:

D Cairns said...

The chorus of approval greeting Leone today may have something to do with the fact that really no critics liked his work while he was making it. Filmmakers liked him. But reviewers held Italian westerns in general in contempt, and Leone was not seen as superior to the rest of the filmmakers in that sub-genre.

Scøut said...

I know I'm largely alone, but I feel like those fellows had the right idea...