Free Angela and All Political Prisoners
Shola Lynch's documentary about the "Angela" of the title, legendary professor, scholar, and activist Angela Davis, is indeed a remarkably intimate portrait of the iconic figure of '60s-'70s Civil Rights Movement. Davis herself lends her voice, in all senses, to relate her background, philosophy, and, most crucially, her perspective on the circumstances surrounding a fatally botched kidnapping scheme that landed her on the FBI's most wanted list, with various family members, friends, and supporters also chiming in along the way. Lynch doesn't offer much, if anything, in the way of views that dissent from Davis's controversial Communist politics, and while the lack of some sort of counterbalance may be disappointing as far as painting a complete picture of what makes her such a complex and hence all the more fascinating figure, it also then brings the proper emphasis what is Lynch's more clear cut overarching focus. Not for nothing did Davis insist, upon her imprisonment, that her supporters append "and all political prisoners" to the "Free Angela" rallying cry, and also why Lynch included it in the film's title: regardless of whether or not anyone agrees with Davis's specific views, her story is an all too sobering reminder of how, in the purported land of the free, any voices deemed radical and hence dangerous can lead the powers that be to find any remote angle to silence them by whatever force and means they deem necessary. That it all happened in the most dramatic and extreme way to someone as indisputably learned, worldly, and well spoken as Davis makes the film's message that much more powerful and chilling.
Things Never Said (R)
A young woman trapped in an abusive marriage finds solace and redemption in the arms of an attentive stranger and their shared passion for spoken word poetry. On that most basic plot level, Things Never Said isn't exactly telling a story never told. But as is often the case in film or even in poetry, it's the "telling" that matters, and similar films about escape and release from toxic relationships have not commonly displayed the sensitivity and intelligence that writer-director Charles Murray lends this, his feature film debut after a long career on television. That's a distinction that should be noted, for the patient character etchings of still-developing spoken word artist Kalindra Stepney (Shanola Hampton) and her relationships with the men in her life--her husband Ronnie (Elimu Nelson); and Curtis (Omari Hardwick), a fellow poetry lover with whom she falls into an affair--recall the detail that typically comes with the extended time afforded a series on the small screen. However, Murray achieves such richness of detail with movie-ideal expediency and economy; case in point, a terrific, wordless montage that details in every nuance the entire course of Kalindra and Ronnie's relationship backstory, not only how youthful bliss soured into heartbreak and abuse, but also illuminating character motivation behind even the most questionable of behavior. While thematic issues may be clearly delineated between what is right and wrong, the character themselves occupy a space that is compellingly, realistically grey. Ronnie is destructive to not only Kalinda and himself, but it comes from a place of genuine, if ugly, pain and bitterness, from both his abruptly dashed hoop dreams to the unresolved grief and guilt he shares with Kalinda over a lost child. While Kalinda yearns for escape and fights to earn her dream of expressing her art at the famous Nuyorican Cafe in Manhattan, she doesn't always go about it in the best or most ethical way, ultimately being the aggressor in her extramarital dalliance with Curtis--who, while very hesitant to continue their path once he discovers her status (and, in a refreshing change, learns so fairly early on), himself has his own painful and shameful skeletons underneath his surface nobility.
It goes without saying that none of this would have worked without the right actors in the roles, and Murray's lead three not only deliver terrific and rather relevatory work. Nelson's Ronnie is menacing while retaining a dimension of relatable humanity; Hardwick displays his gift for conveying so much with the most subtle variations in facial expression; and Hampton, in a performance that should help vault her into prominence, effortlessly tackles all of the many challenges of Kalinda: her emotional highs and lows, her complexity and contradictions, and--crucially--the learning curve of her performances on the mic (all the more impressive given Hampton's lack of spoken word experience prior to the film). But in a film about relationships, the ultimate impact of the story and the arcs is fueled by the chemistry. Kalindra and Ronnie may be at a terminally unhealthy point now, but Hampton and Nelson's relaxed rapport speaks the foundation of genuine affection that paired them all those years ago and makes the bond that much harder to sever, even if they've both outgrown it. Hampton and Hardwick have that more impetuous spark of a love that is not only new but also bears the allure of danger and mystery, but the two are also adept in depicting the growing and deepening of their connection into something far more profound than the initial attraction. So mirrors the the film as a whole--by the end of the film, those familiar themes of escaping abuse and self-actualization/redemption/salvation through art become, in Murray and his cast's hands, something uniquely and memorably moving and exhilarating.