FILMS

Brash is beautiful

Jamaican-Canadian directors debut with style

Brian D. Johnson October 2 1995
FILMS

Brash is beautiful

Jamaican-Canadian directors debut with style

Brian D. Johnson October 2 1995

Brash is beautiful

FILMS

Jamaican-Canadian directors debut with style

In the current movie satire, Canadian Bacon, a U.S. official suggesting a war on America's neighbor to the north says of Canadians: "They're whiter than we are!" Judging by the kind of movies Canadians have made over the past few decades, he would appear to have a point. But in the last few years, Canada's cinema has finally begun to reflect its multicultural reality with such films as the native drama Dance Me Outside (1994) and the re cent Chinese-Canadian comedy of Double Happiness. And this month marks the release of two striking debuts by Jamaican Canadian directors: Clement Virgo's Rude, and Stephen Williams's Soul Survivor.

Both are dramas set in Toronto housing projects, about Jamaican-Canadian men trapped by underworld connections.

And both stories feature gangland henchmen played by Canadian actor Clark Johnson (from TV’s Homicide). The resemblance, however, goes only so far. Rude is a risky, unconventional drama, a multilayered narrative with a surreal sensibility.

Soul Survivor is a straightforward, well-crafted piece of social realism.

Critical comparisons seem almost cruel. Virgo and Williams, both 29, are close friends. Both wrote their own scripts, and they studied together at the Canadian Film Centre in Toronto in 1993. Their films premièred as

official selections at the Cannes International Film Festival last spring, startling European critics who had assumed that Canada’s cultural complexion was as white as its snow.

Rude and Soul Survivor represent a distinct alternative to urban ’hood dramas by blaek American directors. Their stories do involve gangsters and guns, but hardly any shots are fired. Instead, both films dwell on the vulnerability that underlies macho posturing and outlaw bravado. And in place of carnage and nihilism, they offer a promise of spiritual regeneration—more in tune with Jamai-

can reggae than with gangsta rap.

Rude takes place over an Easter weekend. It opens with an incendiary monologue by a deejay at a pirate radio station, a sultry provocateur named Rude (Sharon M. Lewis). Her incantation, which fuses sexual

and aboriginal politics,

sets the tone for the film.

Uttering such slogans as “cock the hammer” and “sharpen the spears,” she calls her pirate station “the last neighborhood in the world,” with a signal that “stretches from the land of the Zulu all the way to the land of the Mohawk nation.” Then, as the camera closes in on her lips, she describes in stroke-by-stroke detail an act of unprotected intercourse.

£ Rude’s voice, poetic

and profane, slices in and out of the film, serving as the Greek chorus in a threetiered narrative. The main story focuses on a former drug dealer and mural painter named General (Maurice Dean Wint), who has just gotten out of jail. He vows to settle down to a law-abiding life with Jessica (Melanie Nieholls-King), a rookie cop, and their young son, Johnny (Ashley Brown). But he encounters bitter resentment from his gangster brother, Reece Johnson), who served as the child’s surrogate father while he was in jail. And Reece’s boss, a venal crimelord named Yankee (Stephen Shellen), is determined to recruit General back into pushing drugs.

The movie’s two other storylines involve Jordan (Richard Chevolleau), a young boxer who joins his posse in a brutal gay-bashing incident, although he himself is a closet homosexual; and Maxine (Rachael Crawford), a window dresser whose decision to have an abortion has left her alone and distraught.

While dissecting racism, sexism and homophobia, Rude never smacks of political correctness. On the contrary, the director seems intent on making his audience squeamish. In one shocking scene, Reece passively submits to an obscene tirade of racist abuse from his white boss, who accuses him of not being a true black man. Later, when Reece tries to reclaim his manhood by forcing himself on his brother’s wife, the pathos is heartbreaking. As Reece, a sympathetic bad man, Johnson is exceptional. Wint, meanwhile, brings a compelling sense of integrity to the role of General.

With the use of theatrical blackouts, offspeed camera techniques and violent colors, Virgo creates jarring images that unfold with the cadence of poetry. His stylized direction requires a leap of faith from the viewer, one that is hard to sustain over the length of the film. But on the whole, his approach is exhilarating. Like General—who paints a mural on a street corner where everyone expects him to be dealing dope— the director takes a resolute stand as an artist within the trappings of the gangster film. Rude lives up to its title: this is brash, sexy, in-your-face film-making.

Soul Survivor conforms to a more familiar genre, as an urban fable of a young immigrant who becomes apprentice to a local godfather and undergoes a tragic rite of passage. Although fiction, the director’s script was partly inspired by the experiences he and his brother, Peter—both born

in Jamaica—lived through after moving to Toronto in 1982. Peter Williams stars in Soul Survivor as Tyrone, a Jamaican immigrant who leaves his low-paying job in a Toronto hair salon to work as a collector for a wealthy loan shark named Winston (George Harris).

Tyrone is caught between two worlds. His father (Ardon Bess), once Jamaica’s leading trade unionist, is now an ailing alcoholic, broken by dead-end jobs and racist attitudes in his new homeland. Determined not to suffer the same fate, Tyrone finds a new father figure in the slumlord Winston, a ruthless proponent of black capitalism. And he finds a lover in Annie Qudith Scott), a social worker who acts as his social conscience, but whose main role in the film is to allow for the inclusion of a languorous sex scene. The drama’s conflict, meanwhile, hinges on Tyrone’s cavalier cousin, Reuben (David Smith), a Rastafarian soothsayer, musician and gambler who has fallen into Winston’s debt but acts blithely oblivious to the danger he faces.

The story, which follows a fairly predictable course, gets didactic around the edges. Winston’s character is a walking treatise on the the merits of social Darwinism. Tyrone, in putting the screws to a white wannabe with a Jamaican accent, says, “What you white boys think? That people’s cultures are just some kind of shopping mall you can go in an’ take whatever you want?” And Reuben serves as the film’s editorial voice, with such lines as, “Brothers never stick together, never have, never will, and that’s the trouble.”

Despite the script’s contrivances, however, Soul Survivor has an uncontrived emotion at its heart. Williams, who acts with rare honesty and poise, displays the charisma of a true star. As Reuben, flamboyantly riffing on Jamaican patois, Smith strikes a crafty balance between Shakespearean fool and Rastafarian sage. And in the role of Busha, Winston’s drug-dazed enforcer, Clark Johnson makes a compelling thug, even though the character is not as complex as the one he plays in Rude.

Whatever their respective merits, Rude and Soul Survivor have taken Canadian filmmaking into new terrain, and launched some promising careers. Stephen Williams is preparing to direct a sequel to the Jamaican cult classic The Harder They Come (1973) with its original star, singer Jimmy Cliff. And his ultimate ambition is to direct his brother in a movie about the life of their hero, reggae superstar Bob Marley. Virgo, meanwhile, is currently working on three film scripts, but he says that ideally, “I would love to do a David Lean movie—sunset, a quiet desert, then all of a sudden 50,000 Africans come over a dune.” He laughs. “Then, of course, you would have to find a desert and 50,000 Africans.” Yet another challenge for the new Canadian cinema.

BRIAN D. JOHNSON