Trial by Fire
The film plods at points, trudging along, and there are a few misguided narrative "devices" tacked on, but still, "Trial by Fire" bristles with anger.
Black on Black Cinema is a three-and-a-half-year-old podcast that features four African-American gentlemen: Terrence Carpenter, 35; Jay Jacksonrao, 36; Micah Payne, 35; and Rob Shively, 36. These men may not be Pulitzer Prize-winning critics, but it’s often a hilarious, insightful blast hearing them dissect films, whether it’s Oscar winners like "12 Years a Slave" (episode link here), underseen indies like "Pariah" (episode link here) or hood favorites like "Belly" (an episode they still get negative comments about for the way they slammed it).
Black on Black Cinema is just one of many podcasts these gents send out on the regular. (Jacksonrao runs TNP Studios, home of the Nerdpocalypse, which features podcasts that cover film, politics and gaming.) But Black on Black is not only a must for black-movie connoisseurs. It’s also a show that movie-podcast junkies could easily have in their favorites, right next to You Must Remember This and Filmspotting: SVU. It can also serve as a welcoming gateway for people who’ve been curious about black movies, but were afraid all the blackness would be too intimidating/overwhelming.
RogerEbert.com got the four men to talk about the podcast, as well as what a movie has to have in order for it to be Black on Black Cinema material.
Well, let's start with the obvious: What made you all decide to get together and do a podcast?
JAY JACKSONRAO: We decided to get together and do the show after we had a silly conversation in a private Facebook group about doing something that did nothing but make fun of Tyler Perry films. That progressed into the idea of a show about just terrible black films. This conversation evolved yet again into a much more serious idea of looking at black films in general and providing a unique voice from four black men that is clearly lacking in the film review arena.
ROB SHIVELY: We were already kinda doing this in a private FB group and it just seemed like a no-brainer considering we were already involved in podcasting. We didn't expect it to blow up like this at all. It was just for fun. Honestly, it still is fun!
What's brilliant about the show is the fact that you're obviously all friends, so the podcast mostly sounds like guys just getting together and shooting the shit about movies and whatnot, and the listener feels he or she is part of the gang. Is that camaraderie what you guys were looking to exude in this podcast?
JJ: That camaraderie, as you put it, isn’t something we planned. We are all friends and we just wanted to be real so it comes out naturally. A lot of shows seem to force relationships for the sake of better airplay, but what you hear from us is real. There has always been an effort to make sure the show sounds like you are getting a seat at the table of a conversation rather than us talking to the audience similar to the evening news broadcast.
TERRENCE CARPENTER: To be honest with you, I never really thought about that. I've known Micah for about 10 years. I'd met Rob in passing because all three of us worked for the same company at one point or another. I met Jay strictly through the podcast. I'm so cool, it’s hard not to like me. I guess over time we've built a certain rapport with each other that makes us click while doing the show. I'm just being myself when we record.
MICAH PAYNE: I think a “black movie” is one of those things classified as “knowing it when you see it.” I have my own personal set of loosely followed rules:
1) The film should star a black person.
2) The film should talk about some issue facing the black community.
3) The film should be made by black people.
4) Any combination of the three.
RS: For me, it has more to do with a film that touches on the experience of a black person in some way, shape or form. Thinking back, I'd have to say "Tangerine" isn't the first film we've done that I wouldn't consider a black film. "After Earth" (episode link here) comes to mind—unfortunately—which was done because it stars a well-known black actor and his son. For his part, Will Smith can most certainly speak to the black experience growing up. I have no idea what anyone in "Tangerine" has experienced and didn't learn about them in this film. I'd like to see at least a little of that in the films we watch.
You do review a wide spectrum of black movies, from obscure, art-house flicks to "hood classics." Was it important that you gave many, diverse black films a shot at being reviewed?
TC: Yes, we know there are certain movies that all black people have seen—or if you haven't seen them, you get your black card revoked. In knowing that, we have these movies in our back pocket but we also wanted to bring movies that more than likely no one has ever seen before—"Pariah," for example. That is probably one of my favorite movies that we've done, and I probably would have NEVER watched it had it not been for the show. Movies speak to people in different ways and what we are presented with, as black people in the mainstream, really doesn't touch on all that we are.
I have to admit, my favorite eps are when you go off on really bad movies, like Tyler Perry's "Temptation: Confessions of a Marriage Counselor" and the straight-to-video flick "N-Secure," because you guys just let it rip. You even dare to bad-mouth beloved hood movies like "Baby Boy" (episode link here) and "Belly." Are those as fun for you to do as it is for me to listen to it?
TC: Ummm, yeah. I can tell when I'm watching a terrible movie that we are going to have a good time when we start recording. The one time I wasn't sure was when we did "The Wiz" (episode link here) because EVERYONE loves that movie. But, on that day we all saw eye to eye and it was amazing.
RS: I know it's a cliché answer but every episode is fun for us. There have been a couple of times where it wasn't fun and you guys have only heard one of those, which was the "Fruitvale Station" episode (episode link here). Other episodes that weren't fun simply weren't aired. If we aren't enjoying ourselves or having a meaningful conversation then there's no point in subjecting the listeners to us having no interest in the subject at hand.
JJ: When we have to review the bad films, we have an absolute blast. We had to institute a rule between us that we don’t talk about the films to one another before the microphones are on because, the second we got together, we would be burning through our material. I have had tears streaming down my face during a particular episode from laughing so hard. My favorite films are the ones that generate the really tough and deep conversations, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t love doing terrible films like "N-Secure" or any of the Tyler Perry movies. Again, our reactions to those movies are as genuine as it gets.
You also do preview shows the week before each episode where you usually talk about race-related issues in the news. What made you guys start doing that as well?
MP: Our preview episodes used to consist of Jay introducing the next movie and playing the trailer. He noticed that those mini-episodes weren’t being listened to as much, so he decided to have this larger format to give folks something to listen to during our off-week, and to allow us to give our opinion on topics other than movies.
JJ: We wanted to give our listeners a little bit more bang for their buck (the show is free after all), and we thought this would be a great way to further film conversations as well. The four of us talk about other topics privately and thought that maybe we could figure a way to work some of it into the show. I think it’s been a pretty successful addition.
You did a preview ep where you talked about the "#OscarsSoWhite" controversy. Jay, you made an interesting point how both white and black people have a problem giving props to certain black films and black audiences should be more attentive to supporting many kinds of black films. What was the response you received from that? Do you still think that's a problem?
JJ: I think it is still a problem, but I think the #OscarsSoWhite thing brought much-needed attention. I see more black folks talking about some indie films that would likely have not been on their radar because of the Oscars situation. There seems to be a need to hunker down and really support our community’s work. I think that is, in the short term, the best we could have hoped would come out of all of this. Hollywood seems to be slowly getting the message, but I put zero faith in them to do it on their own. They need to be pushed to wake up and recognize that people of color, not just black, exist in film and television. Honestly, when was the last time you saw an Asian male lead that didn’t run a convenience store or do martial arts in a movie?
At the top of each episode, Jay reads five-star reviews from listeners who also suggest movies to review. I thought I'd use this time talk to you all about the wealth of mid-to-late '90s black movies you haven't reviewed yet: "Drop Squad," "The Walking Dead," "Caught Up," "Ride," "Trippin'," "Def Jam's How to Be a Player" and let's not forget the black rom-com troika of "Booty Call," "Sprung" and "Woo." Will those movies ever be reviewed?
JJ: All of those movies are definitely on the list. As we gain more and more fans and listeners, we get a barrage of suggestions. We have a list and we are trying to curate it and give the people what they want. We also are working to give our audience movies that we know they likely haven’t seen before. With all of that said, we also love to be challenged as film reviewers as well. So there are times we pick something that we know will split our views, so we can hit a movie at different angles that will generate necessary conversations.
Ultimately, what do you want audiences to take with them after listening to Black on Black Cinema?
RS: That we are open to all listeners, not just black folk. We want to have fun with you guys and, hopefully, make you think—so come one, come all!
MP: It’s my hope that people are introduced to different films and would be willing to support different types of films. I hope people are driven to discussion about the topics we discuss, whether they agree or not. Lastly, I hope people, if nothing else, are entertained.
TC: I just want people to be entertained. If they end up watching a movie they've never seen before that we brought to their attention, even better. I'm just glad people listen and enjoy our foolishness.
JJ: Black cinema is a representation of people at the end of the day. Yes, they focus on black people but the stories that are told should be seen as a possible common experience that everyone can find some connection with on the most basic of levels. "Pariah" is about homophobia and self-acceptance in the black community. However, at its core it’s about being a teenager who is trying to find herself. That’s a topic we can all understand and hopefully appreciate. Black cinema should not be seen as a wall that keeps non-black people out, and neither should our show. We do the show to help bring our community’s work out to a larger audience if possible and in the process teach people that, at the end of the day, we are no different than anyone else. Lastly, we do the show to rip down the occasional Tyler Perry movie for the absolute joy of it all ... but also the aforementioned things as well, too.
This message came to me from a reader named Peter Svensland. He and a fr...
A tribute to Doris Day.