Victoria & Abdul
There are multiple pleasures to be had by witnessing a powerful, still-vital woman finding unexpected late-life joy of the platonic variety.
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 beneath them.
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 such controversy.
“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.
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