Saturday, July 18, 2015

NIGHTINGALE: a new HBO movie starring David Oyelowo that's worth pondering

NIGHTINGALE too often bored me silly while I was in the midst of watching it. Soon after I finished however, it had me thinking seriously and darkly about the lives of Blacks here in America. Specifically those of Black men who are gay -- and what the closeted life they must lead, thanks far too often to their family and their Church, does to their sense of self-worth and their ability to gain autonomy.

Now, I should say that this movie -- made for HBO, directed by Elliott Lester (shown at left), written by newcomer Frederick Mensch and starring that crack actor David Oyelowo (above and below: recall his performances in the under-rated The Paperboy, the over-rated Selma and now Nightingale to understand just how versatile and charismatic he is) -- never once mentions the word "gay." It is possible, in fact, that the film's lead character cannot even admit to himself that there is anything homosexual going on here. What is going on proves both the strength and weakness of the film.

Mr. Oyelowo plays a fellow named Peter Snowden, a war vet (of perhaps the first Gulf War) who, when the movie begins, appears to be losing his grip on reality and has done something maybe rather bad to his invalid mother. As things progress, his grip weakens and loosens until he's pretty much the complete whack job we imagined at the beginning.

This arc is nothing new -- movies have been giving it to us ad infinitum for decades, from Repulsion backward and onwards. And this sort of thing is pure, irresis-tible catnip for actors, the kind of role that almost guarantees a nomination, if not an award. (Oyelowo will no doubt receive one or both at next year's Emmys.)

The problem is, the movie and its story grow more and more tiresome, as we wait for the other shoe (or in this case, pink slipper) to drop. Further, because this is virtually a one-man-show (like Locke, but nowhere near as inventive or well-done), there is just about nothing to watch here except the star, who gives it all he's got and then some -- as these roles do require.

Via many, many phone calls and the constant need to talk to himself (and the camera by which he is recording all this), we learn Peter's history and so can piece together his fracturing personality. He's got the hots for his best friend from the military, who is now married and clearly uninterested in -- even perhaps frightened about -- pursuing whatever relationship the pair once shared (if indeed they shared much of anything).

Because most everything that is going to happen is clear from scene one or two, the movie has nowhere to go. What makes it more interesting (after the fact) and very relevant is what we learn about Peter's history: how his mother rejected this "friend" of his, how religion played the most important part in her life, and how, together, all this conspired to produce a very sick young man.

None of the above is baldly stated, but all of it is there, embedded into the screenplay and performance. And this gives Nightingale added weight as thoughtful drama, even if the actual journey can be more than a tad tiring. Black Lives Matter, as the new saying goes -- even the gay ones -- which is something too much of the Black community has not yet learned.

You can see Nightingale via HBO now, and eventually, I'm sure, on DVD and a number of other digital venues, as well.

No comments: