After “Follow Me Home” was turned down by every mainstream
distributor in America, a new distribution plan was conceived: It would be
booked one theater at a time, around the country, with a discussion scheduled
after almost every screening. For the last year this difficult, challenging
film has found audiences in that way, and now it arrives at the Chatham 14
multiplex here. There is a lot to discuss afterward.
The film is about four graffiti mural artists who pile into a
van and head cross-country from Los Angeles to Washington, with a plan to cover
the White House with their paintings. In an age when Christo wraps up
buildings, this is perhaps not as farfetched as it sounds, although I imagine
they'll have trouble getting an NEA grant through Congress.
The artists include an African American, an American Indian and
two Chicanos; on their odyssey most of the people they meet are white weirdos.
One is reminded of the ominous rednecks encountered by the hippie motorcyclists
in “Easy Rider.” The whites are stereotyped in broad, unfair strokes, but then
the movie throws you off-balance by throwing in one decent white guy and one
redeemable one, and by making one of the painters into a fulminating cauldron
of prejudice. By the end, you realize “Follow Me Home” isn't making a tidy
statement about anything, but is challenging the audience to make up its own
mind: to view racial attitudes and decide where they come from and what lies
The writer-director, Peter Bratt, might almost have taken “Easy
Rider” as his model--the parts that work, and the other parts, too. Some of his
dialogue scenes are too long and disorganized, but then suddenly everything
snaps together in a scene of real power.
Consider, for example, a scene in a diner where a waitress feels
she's been mistreated by one of the men (she is right). The owner comes out,
lays a shotgun on the table and delivers a lecture about their right of free
speech and his right to bear arms. What is this scene about? A racist gun
owner? Not necessarily, or entirely. The four men in the booth have different
ways of seeing the situation, and the scene is about styles of intimidation.
Along the road, the men encounter whites wearing various
costumes. There's a white guy who dresses like an Indian; they steal his
antique tomahawk. Later, they encounter three white guys dressed in uniform for
a U.S. Cavalry re-enactment. Are the soldiers so inflamed that they mistake the
men of color for savage redskins? The development and outcome of this scene are
hard to believe, but since it builds into magic realism, belief isn't the
point. It's about a battle between two myths: the white myth of taming the West
and the black/Indian myth of soul power.
A key character in the film, encountered midway, is an
African-American woman played by Alfre Woodard. She takes a lift from the guys,
and gets angry when one of them can think of no words for a woman except “whore”
and “bitch.” Her powerful speech (“Look at me! I am a woman!”) quiets him, and
later woman power saves them all.
The personal styles of the four painters are all different. The
black guy (Calvin Levels) is an intellectual, vegetarian and pacifist, who uses
terms such as “patriarchal theocracy.” The Indian guy (Steve Reevis) is a
recovering alcoholic (a little stereotyping there?). The leader of the
expedition, Tudee (Jesse Borrego), is the idealist whose vision brought them
together. His cousin Abel (Benjamin Bratt) is angry at everyone, especially
women. Are they a cross section? No, just a collection.
Watching the film, I resented the broad caricatures of whites.
Then I reflected that broad caricatures of blacks were a feature of movies for
decades and decades; just their luck that when a generation of black filmmakers
arrives, stereotyping has gone out of style. I don't think Bratt is a racist,
however: He's an instigator. He's putting highly charged material on the screen
and standing back to see what happens. Most movies are too timid to deal in
“Follow Me Home” is being shown in just the right way. It needs
that discussion afterward. It doesn't come as a package that you can wrap up
and take home. It's open-ended. It shows how films can cut, probe and wound. It
can awaken a sense of fair play in the audience. And in its fantasy and symbolism,
it evokes a mystery level, beneath explanation. Most movies are over when
they're over. This one is only beginning.