Sunday, June 23, 2013

Could an hour be spent any better than at Christine Turner's HOMEGOINGS? Nope.

The film is only 57 minutes long, but my god, how much worthwhile thought and genuine emotion is produced here! HOMEGOINGS -- a documentary about a couple of funeral homes (one in Harlem, the other in Branchville, South Carolina), the man who started them, his family and the clients he serves -- is one whopper of an experience: the kind of film you finish shaking your head (and maybe a few tears away) in wonderment, thinking, "Who'd have imagined this?"  Initially, you might think you've stepped into something like a black version of Bernie, Richard Linklater's marvelous movie about a famous funeral director in Texas. But, no, this is a quiet little documentary, and an amazingly good one, too.

As directed by filmmaker Christine Turner, shown at left, the film offers our current, multicolored citizenry (especially those who tend, as so many of us do, to avoid ruminating on the eventuality of our oncoming death) the chance to experience a side of black culture that we seldom see. Sure, the funeral procession that climaxes Imitation of Life still moves us and speaks volumes, but here we see that -- and so much more.

In telling the story of Isaiah Owens (above, shown plying his trade) -- a South Carolina boy who was, as he explains, "just born to do what I'm doin'," which is, of course, arranging for the funerals of his peers and preparing their bodies for a final showing -- Ms Turner, Mr. Owens, and his family and friends manage quite a feat: They demystify death to a surprising degree, helping turn it into something not so dreaded nor fearsome -- even as they give the ol' grim reaper his due respect.

From almost the beginning -- as we hear a simply terrific and funny eulogy and know the service is going to prove, as one of the mourners explains it, "a sad good time" -- we're laughing along with the rest of the assembled crowd, and then suddenly find ourselves quite moved. The movie keeps working this kind of sly magic. Owens' own father was a sharecropper, so we also learn a little history of how those people paid for funerals back in the day.

Ms Turner never pushes this, but her film also gives us a sense of the injustice of racism as experienced over decades. "For blacks," one person notes, "death brings us justice." (How many whites do you imagine think of their life in this way?) We also get a strong sense of how the current economy is effecting the funeral business. A big funeral is very expensive, as we learn early in the film, when a woman nicknamed "Red" plans her own with the help of Mr. Owens. By the time she's done, the bill has totaled almost $10,000.  In the past few years, however, funeral services are happening less often. People still die, of course, but direct cremation is a cheaper option, followed by a memorial service -- if it can be afforded at all.

Toward the end of the documentary, we hear from a young man about the death of his grandmother, how amazingly caring his grandfather was as his wife entered a rest home, and what followed after her death. This small, short section is one of the more moving I can recall -- about long-term love, commitment and loss. Isaiah's mother, already in her mid 90s when the film was made, thinks back to her son's early days (when he was giving the local animals funeral services) and tells us, "I don't know where he got it from. He was a mess, but that was his calling."

Isaiah himself is clearly aware of what it means to be constantly in the presence of death, and what this does to you. As he puts it, "I'm always at my funeral." Homegoings, from Peralta Pictures, opens a week-long theatrical run tomorrow -- Monday, June 24 -- at the Maysles Cinema, as part of its Documentary in Bloom series. It will also have it television broadcast premiere the same day via PBS' POV documentary series.

Note: Homegoings will be available for digital rental via 
Vimeo on Demand beginning Feb. 18, 2014, 
and is available for pre-order now at

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