Monday, July 10, 2017

BRONX GOTHIC: Andrew Rossi & Okwui Okpokwasili's film attempts a blend of performance art and personal history

James Baldwin lived and wrote in hope that his country's white population would someday come to better understand -- intellectually, emotionally, experientially -- its black populace. His writings, both his fiction and non-fiction, were designed to that end and indeed helped many white readers make this enormous and difficult reach toward "the other." Performance artist Okwui Okpokwasili -- dancer, writer, actress, artist -- appears to have a similar goal, refined however to concentrate on the lives of black girls in a land of whites.

Documentary director Andrew Rossi (pictured at right, who earlier gave us Page One and The First Monday in May), along with Ms Okpokwasili, has now made a documentary film, BRONX GOTHIC, that tries to meld this titular performance piece with a view of its creator, her history and beliefs, along with a look at her family: parents, offspring and husband. The result is an uneasy mix that left TrustMovies alert but unsatisfied, wanting more of both the performance piece and a better, fuller, richer understanding of this woman (shown in the photos below) who made it.

Bronx Gothic -- this documentary, not the performance piece itself -- is my first experience at seeing any of Okpokwasili's work. Perhaps those more familiar with her and her oeuvre will better appreciate the film, but I found it often jarring and, even less forgivable, repetitive. Considering that we see only a few segments of the performance piece, I wonder why Mr. Rossi felt he should let us see and hear things we've already seen and heard once rather than something new and different from her theater piece?

Also, why offer up artsy camera-shots when what we really want is to be immersed in the experience of watching and listening to Okpokwasili, as the audience at the performance seems to be. A camera that mimicked the viewpoint of a single audience member might have done more to engage us than this unnecessary visual frou-frou.

As we learn bits and pieces of Okpokwasili's history, the woman herself begins to emerge, even if her theater piece does not, except in a much lesser way. Early on in the film she tells us that "We leave little girls vulnerable," and from the view we get of the audience watching, it certainly seems that some of these women -- some men, too -- identify or at least agree with this viewpoint.

Later, regarding how blacks are perceived, she explains that "The persona that you put up to protect yourself bleeds into the idea that you're some kind of threat." And finally, regarding how films, novels, television and the general culture keeps reminding us of a history white America would rather forget, she sums up the situation by noting that "The past is always what's happening right now."

Okpokwasili is an impressive presence: often stunningly beautiful, always intelligent and insistently communicative. So Bronx Gothic, overall, is not a wasted experience. But I do wonder if a simple rendering of the complete theater work itself, followed by an entirely separate documentary about its author, might not have been the wiser and more fulfilling route to take.

From Grasshopper Film and running 93 minutes, Bronx Gothic will open this coming Wednesday, July 12, in New York City at Film Forum, and on July 28 at Laemmle's Music Hall in Beverly Hills and the Wexner Film Center in Columbus, Ohio. To see all currently scheduled playdates,cities and theaters, click here and then scroll down and click on Where to Watch toward the bottom of your screen

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