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A new breed of heroes emerges in ‘Underground’ doc

Documenting the fight for freedom in Nigeria

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A scene from ‘The Legend of the Underground.’ (Photo courtesy HBO)

We’re not complaining, but it’s a shame that the folks at HBO premiered “The Legend of the Underground” at the tail end of Pride month instead of the very beginning, because in many ways it is a documentary that exemplifies and cuts right to the tender heart of what Pride is truly all about.

Directed by Nneka Onuorah and Giselle Bailey, this is not another look at the familiar history of the LGBTQ equality movement. It doesn’t celebrate the cherished champions and landmark victories that have paved the way for the advances that have bettered the lives of queer people today. It barely even mentions Stonewall. Instead, it casts its gaze on a chapter of LGBTQ history that is being written in the present tense, providing a searing and timely look at the struggle against rampant LGBTQ discrimination taking place in Nigeria today, introducing us to a new roster of heroes of the here-and-now as it follows the stories of several bold young non-conformists who are fighting for the freedom to live life out loud.

If you don’t feel up to date on current affairs in Nigeria, it’s not a surprise. Though the sheer extremity of the state-sanctioned human rights abuses going on in places like Chechnya has drawn some attention in the U.S., most Americans – at least those not tightly connected or involved with the activist community – get very little exposure to the plight of LGBTQ people in other countries beyond the generalized understanding that there are a number of places where things are pretty grim. For the sake of context, “The Legend of the Underground” documents the efforts of several young Nigerians to push back against repressive legislation and culturally embedded homophobia in their country, where an anti-LGBTQ law known as the Same-Sex Marriage (Prohibition) Bill (SSMPA) has been used since 2013 as an excuse to harass, imprison, extort, and commit violence against anyone seen as not conforming to Nigerian societal and cultural norms around gender and sexuality.

Onuorah and Bailey center their movie around an incident that took place in August of 2018, in which 57 men who were attending a party in Lagos (Nigeria’s most populous city) were rounded up by police, arrested and forced in front of news cameras to be publicly humiliated by the arresting officers. One of them – who goes by the name James Brown – shocked the country by defying his captors and speaking out against the government while still in handcuffs; captured on camera, it was a lightning-in-a-bottle moment that went viral.

As the film follows the ongoing saga of the legal case against James and the others arrested and accused at the party, it also focuses on another man, Michael Ighodaro, who fled his community in Nigeria after having been attacked for his identity. Now living in New York City as part of a chosen family with other friends from the Nigerian diaspora, he works from the other side of the globe to advocate for the people and communities he left behind, while settling into a new life as an LGBTQ rights and HIV prevention advocate.

The stories of these two charismatic figures are interwoven throughout. James and his circle of friends grapple with the option to either search for a haven abroad, as Michael did, or to stay and fight a system that seeks to silence them; Michael himself contemplates undertaking the risky trip back to Nigeria to reconnect with the activist community there. Along the way, we meet an array of other non-conformists, all of them at risk of persecution from their government. While some prefer the tenuous safety of blending in, others, like James, have parlayed a social media following into a sort of underground celebrity status, ignoring the obvious risks and using their platform as an opportunity not just to amplify their own voices, but to spark a cultural debate that challenges the ideals of gender, conformity, and human rights in Nigeria.

What emerges is a portrait of a new generation that uses social media, underground radio, and any other resources at their disposal to fight for their rights of personal expression – and while there are plenty of hard-to-watch moments that remind us how much hate and bigotry still exist in the world, there are even more that inspire us with the bold creativity and resilience of these youthful heroes or catch us off guard with their infectious humor. And while some viewers might feel these young people more closely resemble a rag-tag band of resistance fighters in some futuristic dystopian adventure than the flag-and-picket-waving marchers in our traditional image of protest, there is something about them which, as the film goes on, seems more and more familiar.

Though “The Legend of the Underground” documents a new breed of activism, born of the digital age, it also reveals that the fierce spirit that drove the heroes of our past is not only alive and well, but thriving. Fed up with being ostracized, stigmatized, bullied and worse, the new generation is fighting back just like those who came before them. Instead of staging protest marches, they stage protest parties; instead of publishing zines, they post videos on YouTube or Instagram. It’s different, but breathtakingly the same. If someone had been able to turn a cell phone on Marsha P. Johnson at Stonewall, it’s not hard to imagine that she would have created a viral moment much like the one that put young James Brown at the center of a cultural revolution in 2018. Imagine how differently things might have gone, if that had been possible then.

That’s why HBO’s new offering, which is also available on HBO Max, is perhaps 2021’s most inspiring cinematic expression of Pride so far. By showing us a present that has so many echoes of our own past, it instills in us an unexpected feeling of hope for the future. There’s a feeling of inevitability about these non-conformists, evoked by the certainty that their dissenting voices are reaching the ears of millions of young people that will shape the world to come, but also by the unmistakable parallels we find with our history.

Yet this timely documentary is not here to simply inspire us with the promise of a better future – after all, that future is not here yet, and in the meantime, there are people like the ones captured on camera here who are facing dire risks every single day. “The Legend of the Underground” importunes us to help them in their fight, to spread the word and do whatever we can to cast a spotlight on the injustices and abuses of authoritarianism wherever it rears its ugly head. That, of course, is something else that’s at the core of Pride: the willingness to stand in solidarity with others who, like us, have had to fight for the freedom to be who they are.

As we are reminded by Michael in the film, “None of us are free until all of us are free.”

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Verhoeven returns with subversive tale of lesbian nun in ‘Benedetta’

Period drama delivers sex, violence, and horrors of the Black Death

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Daphne Patakia and Virginie Efira in ‘Benedetta.’ (Photo courtesy IFC Films)

There was a time when Paul Verhoeven was a big deal in Hollywood.

The Dutch filmmaker first attracted international attention during an early career in his homeland, with critically acclaimed movies like “Turkish Delight” and “Soldier of Orange,” which found an audience outside of the Netherlands and brought him greater opportunities in America, Once here, he adapted his style to fit a more commercial mold and forged a niche for himself with violent, action-packed sci-fi blockbusters, scoring major hits with “Robocop” and “Total Recall” before reaching a pinnacle with “Basic Instinct” – arguably still his most influential and iconic film.

Then came “Showgirls.” Although the Joe Eszterhas-scripted stripper drama is now revered as a “so-bad-it’s-great” cult classic, it was a box office bomb on its initial release, and its failure, coupled with the less-spectacular but equally definitive flopping of his next film, “Starship Troopers,” effectively put an end to his climb up the Hollywood ladder.

That was not, however, the end of his story. Verhoeven moved back to his native country (where he was hailed as a returning hero) and rebounded with the critically lauded “Black Book” before spending the next two decades developing and producing new projects with other filmmakers. In 2016, he assumed the director’s seat again, this time in France, and the resulting work (“Elle”) put him once more into the international spotlight.

Now, he’s back with another French film, and fans of his signature style – a blend of social satire, psycho-sexual themes, graphic violence, and near-exploitation-level erotic imagery that has prompted some commentators to label him as a provocateur – have every reason to be excited.

“Benedetta,” which receives its long-delayed (due to COVID) release in the U.S. on Dec. 3, is the real-life story of a Renaissance-era Italian nun (Virginie Efira), whose passionate devotion to her faith  – and especially to Jesus – sparks disturbing and dramatic visions. When young novice Bartolomea (Daphne Patakia) enters the convent and is assigned to her as a companion, it awakens a different kind of passion, and as their secret relationship escalates, so too do her miraculous episodes, which expand to include the physical manifestation of stigmata. Soon, despite the skepticism of the Mother Abbess (Charlotte Rampling), she finds herself heralded as a prophet by the other sisters and the local community, leading to controversy, investigation, and a power struggle that threatens the authority of the church itself.

Inspired by “Immodest Acts: The Life of a Lesbian Nun in Renaissance Italy,” Judith C. Brown’s biography of the real Sister Benedetta, Verhoeven’s latest work is perhaps his most quintessential to date. In his screenplay (co-written with “Elle” collaborator David Birke), the Dutch auteur – who is also a widely recognized, if controversial, religious scholar – gives free reign to his now-familiar obsessions, weaving them all together into a sumptuously realized period drama that delivers copious amounts of nudity and sex, bloody violence, and the horrors of the Black Death while exploring the phenomenon of faith itself. Is Benedetta a saint or a harlot? Is she chosen by God or mentally ill? Are her visions real or is she a fraud, cynically exploiting the beliefs of those around her in a bold-faced grab for power and glory? And if she’s lying, in the larger context of a world held firmly in the grip of a church that treats salvation as transactional and levies its presumed moral authority to unlimited financial and political gain, which is greater evil? Though the film strongly implies the answers lie somewhere between the “either/or” of absolutes, it shrewdly leaves the viewer to contemplate such questions for themselves.

What concerns “Benedetta” more than any esoteric debate is a sly-yet-candid commentary on the various levels of societal hierarchy and the ways in which the flow of power perpetuates itself through their devotion to maintaining the status quo. As Benedetta’s perceived holiness carries her upward through the strata, from unwanted daughter of the merchant class to Mother Superior and beyond, more important than the veracity of her claims of divinity are the shifting and carefully calculated responses of those she encounters along the way. Fearing the loss of their own power, they ally and oppose themselves in whichever direction will help them maintain it. It’s a Machiavellian game of “keep-away” in which those at the top will not hesitate to use economic class, gender, sexuality, and – if all else fails – torture and execution as weapons to repress those they deem unworthy.

Inevitably, the above scenario provides plenty of fodder for Verhoeven’s movie to make points about religious hypocrisy, systemic oppression, and the way white heterosexual cisgender men keep the deck eternally stacked in their own favor – all of which invites us to recognize how little things have changed in the five centuries since Sister Benedetta’s time. That, too, is right in line with the director’s usual agenda.

Ultimately though, the signature touch that makes the movie unmistakably his is the way it revels in the lurid and sensational. Verhoeven delights in presenting imagery designed to shock us, and key elements of the film – from hyper-eroticized religious visions and explicit lesbian sex, to the prominent inclusion of a blasphemous wooden dildo as an important plot point – feel deliberately transgressive. This should be no surprise when one remembers that this is the director who brought us not only “Basic Instinct” and “Showgirls” but also “The Fourth Man,” a homoerotic psychological thriller from 1983 still capable of making audiences squirm uncomfortably today; and while all this titillation may trigger the most prudish of viewers, it makes “Benedetta” into a deliciously subversive, wild-and-wooly ride for the rest of us. More to the point, it underscores the film’s ultimate observation about the empowering nature of sexual liberation.

Helping Verhoeven make maximum impact with this obscure historical narrative is a cast that clearly relishes the material as much as he does. In the title role, the statuesque Efira successfully creates a compelling and charismatic figure while remaining an enigma, someone we can believe in equal measure might be sincere or corrupt and with whom we can empathize either way; likewise, Patakia exudes savvy and self-possession, transcending moral judgment as the object of her affection, and the two performers have a palpable chemistry, which is made all the more compelling by their thrillingly contemporary approach to the characters. Rounding out the triad of principal roles is Rampling, a cinematic icon who brings prestige and sophistication to the table in a masterful performance as the Abbess; more than just a grounding presence for her younger co-stars, she provides an important counterbalance with a subtle and layered performance as a woman who has devoted her life to a belief in which she has no faith, only to find herself overshadowed by a charlatan.

“Benedetta” is not exactly the kind of film that’s likely to put Verhoeven back on the Hollywood fast track – it’s far too radical in its underpinnings for that. Nevertheless, it’s a welcome return to form from a unique and flamboyant filmmaker we’ve missed for far too long, and his fans – along with anybody with a taste for provocative cinema – should consider it a must-see.

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‘Tick, tick… BOOM!’ explodes with the love of Broadway

A perfect film for fans of musical theater

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Andrew Garfield shines in ‘Tick, Tick… BOOM!’ (Photo courtesy of Netflix)

If you are a person who love musical theater – or if you know someone who does – then you know there is something about this particular art form that inspires a strong and driving passion in those who enjoy it, often to the point of obsession. For this reason, perhaps it’s no surprise that those who work in musical theater – the creators, performers, and all the other people who make it happen – are often the biggest musical theater lovers of all.

Because of this, “tick, tick… BOOM!” (the new film directed by Lin-Manuel “Hamilton” Miranda and written by Steven “Dear Evan Hansen” Levenson) might be the most perfect movie ever made for such fans. Adapted from an autobiographical “rock monologue” by Jonathan Larson, it follows the future “Rent” composer (Andrew Garfield) for a week in the early 1990s, when he was still an unknown young Broadway hopeful waiting tables in a New York diner. He’s on the cusp of turning 30, a milestone that weighs on his mind as he prepares for a showcase of a musical that he hasn’t quite finished – even though he’s been writing it for eight years. With limited time left to compose the show’s most crucial number, his race against the clock is complicated by major changes in his personal life; his lifelong best friend Michael (Robin de Jesús) has quit acting in favor of a five-figure career in advertising, and his girlfriend Susan (Alexandra Shipp) is moving away from the city to accept a teaching job and wants him to come with her. With reminders everywhere of the ongoing AIDS epidemic still raging in the community around him, and with his own youth ticking away, he is inevitably forced to wonder if it’s time to trade in his own Broadway dreams for a more secure future – before it’s too late.

As every musical theater fan knows, the young composer’s obsession with time (hence the title) is laced with bittersweet irony in the context of what eventually happened in his real life: the day before “Rent” opened on Broadway and became a smash hit that reshaped and expanded the boundaries of what musical theater could be, Larson died of an aortic aneurysm at the age of 35. He never lived to see the full fruition of all those years of hard work, and that tragic turn of events is precisely what makes “tick, tick… BOOM!” relevant and provides its considerable emotional power. In that light, it’s essentially a musical “memento mori,” a reminder that the clock eventually runs out for all of us.

That doesn’t mean, however, that it’s not also a celebration of life in the theater, and Miranda is probably better suited than anyone to make us see that side of the coin. Now unquestionably in the highest echelon of status as a Broadway icon, he came of age in the era of “Rent,” and he takes pains to make his depiction of Manhattan in the ‘90s as authentic as possible.

Capturing the era with touches like Keith Haring-inspired murals and the use of “Love Shack” as a party anthem, his movie keeps Larson’s story within the context of his time while drawing clear connections to our own. His reverence for Larson – whom he cites as a seminal inspiration for his own future work – manifests itself palpably throughout. Yet despite that (or perhaps because of it), so does an infectiously cheery tone. Yes, things get heavy; there are hardships and heartbreaks at every turn, because that’s what a life in the theater means. But at the same time, there’s just so much fun to be had. The camaraderie, the energy, and the joy of simply living in that world comes leaping off the screen (often thanks to the enthusiastic choreography of Ryan Heffington) with the kind of giddy, effortless ease that might almost make us jealous if it didn’t lift our spirits so much. No matter that the lead character spends most of the movie second-guessing his path; we never doubt for a moment that, for him, the rewards of following his passion outweigh the sacrifices a thousand times over.

That’s something Miranda also understands. His movie drives home the point that the joy of doing theater is its own reward, and he’s willing to prove it by turning up in a bit part just for the sake of being a part of the show. And he’s not the only one. The screen is littered with living legends; in one memorable sequence alone, a who’s-who of Broadway’s brightest stars – Chita Rivera, Bernadette Peters, Brian Stokes Mitchell, Andre DeShield, Bebe Neuwirth, Joel Grey, and at least a dozen more – serve as a high-profile backup chorus of extras for a song at the diner, but there are blink-and-you’ll-miss-them cameos in almost every scene. It almost feels like a gimmick, or an effort to turn the movie into a “spot the star” trivia game for hardcore fans – until you realize that these are the best and brightest people in their field, who have willingly chosen to show up and participate even though they did not have to. They are there purely for love, and you can see it in their faces.

Miranda scores big across the board as a director – this is his feature film directorial debut, which confirms the standing assumption the man can do anything. But “tick, tick… BOOM!” is a star turn for its leading player, and full credit must also go – and emphatically so – to Garfield, who surpasses expectations as Larson. The one-time “Spiderman” actor trained extensively to be able to master the demands of singing the role, and it shows; he comes off as a true musical theater trouper, worthy beyond doubt of sharing the screen with so many giants. Even better, he integrates that challenge into the whole of a flamboyantly joyful performance that makes Larson endearingly, compellingly three-dimensional. It’s a career-topping piece of work.

The rest of the principal cast – a refreshingly inclusive ensemble that reminds us that Larson was instrumental in making Broadway a much more diverse place – are equally fine. De Jesús gets a long-deserved chance to shine as Michael, and Shipp brings a quiet calm to the easily-could-have-been-overshadowed Susan that makes her the perfect balance to Garfield’s high-octane energy.

Joshua Henry and Vanessa Hudgens contribute much more than their stellar vocal talents to their pair of roles as Larson friends and collaborators, and there are delicious supporting turns by Judith Light and Bradley Whitford – who gives an affectionately amusing and dead-on accurate screen impersonation of Broadway legend-of-legends Stephen Sondheim, one of Larson’s (and Miranda’s) biggest influences and inspirations, who accordingly looms large in the story despite his relatively short amount of screen time.

It should be obvious by now that “tick, tick… BOOM!” is a delight for people who love musical theater. But what if you’re not one of those people? The good news is that there is so much to enjoy here, so much real enjoyment, so much talent, so much hard work on display that nobody will have any reason to be bored.

Even people who DON’T love musical theater.

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Holiday movie and TV preview

Lesbian romance, ‘Rent’ adaptation, and Lady Gaga make the season bright

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Philemon Chambers and Michael Urie in ‘Single All the Way.’ (Photo courtesy of Netflix )

It wasn’t all that long ago – barely one or two Decembers ago, really – that the holiday lineup of movies and TV shows offered very little in the way of LGBTQ inclusion. It may have been the time of year to don our gay apparel, but the closest thing to gay representation we were likely to get on our screens was an elven dentist and a few misfit toys. 

This year, however, is a different story. The seasonal entertainment landscape of 2021 brings with it the usual crop of mainstream (read: straight) crowd-pleasers with queer appeal (Lady Gaga as scheming real-life social-climber and Gucci murderer Patrizia Reggiani? Yes, please!), but it also comes bearing a much heftier-than-usual bag of gifts in the form of actual queer content, with actual queer characters and stories, and with some of our favorite stars. Not all of them are holiday stories, of course, but that doesn’t mean they don’t all make the season brighter – and the Blade is here to help you sort through the bounty with our annual Holiday Preview, a roundup of titles our readers will want to check out. The list is below:

tick, tick…BOOM! (Netflix and in theaters 11/ 19): Perfect for Broadway lovers, this is the hotly anticipated film adaptation of the posthumously produced autobiographical musical by Jonathan Larson, who revolutionized musical theater as the creator of “Rent” but died suddenly of an aortic dissection at 35 before he could see it grow to a global phenomenon. The film follows the young theater composer – played by Andrew Garfield – as he struggles to write what he hopes will be the next great American musical while waiting tables in a NYC diner, dealing with pressures in his personal life, and watching the artistic community around him be ravaged by the ongoing AIDS crisis. Fittingly enough, this hotly anticipated film about a Broadway giant is the feature directorial debut of another Broadway giant – none other than “Hamilton” and “In the Heights” creator Lin-Manuel Miranda, himself. Written by Tony-winner Steven Levenson (“Dear Evan Hansen”), it also stars Alexandra Shipp, Robin de Jesús, Joshua Henry, Mj Rodriguez, Bradley Whitford, Tariq Trotter (aka Black Thought of The Roots), Judith Light, and Vanessa Hudgens. 

House of Gucci (In theaters 11/24): As mentioned above, this tale of true crime and high fashion stars LGBTQ ally Lady Gaga, and it’s already been called “disappointing” by the real-life Gucci family – so you know it’s going to be juicy. Inspired by the shocking true story of Patrizia Reggiani (Gaga), whose marriage into the family behind the Italian fashion house takes center stage as the film chronicles three decades of love, betrayal, decadence, revenge, and ultimately murder. Directed by multiple Oscar-nominee Ridley Scott, this sure-fire award season contender also stars Adam Driver, Jeremy Irons, Salma Hayek, Al Pacino, Reeve Carney, and an unrecognizable Jared Leto as Paolo Gucci.

The Humans (Showtime and in theaters 11/24): Another import from the Broadway stage, this seasonally appropriate adaptation of Stephen Karam’s Tony-winning drama centers on a dysfunctional NYC family as they help their youngest daughter Brigid (Beanie Feldstein) move into her new apartment with her boyfriend (Steven Yuen) on Thanksgiving Day. This sets the scene for a relatable – if occasionally uncomfortable – holiday dinner in which personal issues become fodder for discussion and family conflicts start rearing their ugly heads. More than just another cutting domestic drama for the holidays, this one goes deep to offer a slice-of-life observational commentary on the state of family life in America today. Amy Schumer co-stars as Brigid’s older lesbian sister Aimee, and Jayne Houdyshell reprises her acclaimed Broadway performance as the girls’ mother, in an ensemble cast that also features Richard Jenkins and June Squibb. Playwright Karam not only wrote the adaptation himself, but also directed, making his debut behind the camera and ensuring that this one is sure to be a must-see for fans of theater and film alike.

Saved by the Bell, Season 2 (Peacock TV 11/24): Peacock’s reboot of the classic ‘90s sitcom returns for a second round, and besides the obvious appeal in the camp and nostalgia departments, it also features a trans leading character portrayed by a trans actress. Populating the halls of Bayside High is a cast that includes Elizabeth Berkley Lauren, Mario Lopez, John Michael Higgins, Haskiri Velazquez, Mitchell Hoog, Josie Totah, Alycia Pascual-Peña, Belmont Cameli, Dexter Darden, Mark-Paul Gosselaar, Tiffani Thiessen, and Lark Voorhies (Lisa Turtle).

Single All the Way (Netflix 12/2): Yet another Tony-winner (Michael Mayer) directs this promising entry to the Holiday roster, Netflix’s first-ever gay-themed Yuletide romance starring Michael Urie (“Ugly Betty,” Broadway’s “Torch Song”) as a gay man who asks his best friend (Philemon Chambers) to pose as his boyfriend at his family’s Christmas dinner to avoid being questioned about his perpetually single status. Unbeknownst to him, his mom (Kathy Najimi) has already planned to set him up with her handsome personal trainer (Luke MacFarlane) – which obviously means that festive hijinks are sure to follow. This slice of seasonal sweetness also features Barry Bostwick (“The Rocky Horror Picture Show”) and Jennifer Robinson, and capping it off is the incomparable Jennifer Coolidge, rounding out her “White Lotus” year with what will undoubtedly be another mesmerizingly dotty performance in a supporting role.

Michael Urie and Jennifer Coolidge in ‘Single All the Way.’ (Photo courtesy of Netflix )

The Bitch Who Stole Christmas (VH1 12/2): In the “why didn’t they do this sooner?” category is this holiday special from Emmy-winning TV icon and “Drag Race” legend RuPaul, who takes the screen as “a workaholic big-city fashion journalist” who (according to the show’s official description) goes on assignment to “a Christmas-obsessed small town” and “finds herself in the middle of cut-throat housewives, a high-stakes ‘Winter Ball’ competition, and a sinister plot that could destroy Christmas fore-evah!” Joining Mama Ru onscreen will be 20 “Drag Race” winners and a host of other celebrities. We’re there.

With Love (Amazon Prime 12/17): From Gloria Calderón Kellett, the critically acclaimed showrunner of the queer-inclusive reboot of “One Day at a Time,” comes Amazon Prime Video’s first holiday miniseries, complete with a heavily inclusive LGBTQ cast and queer storylines that feature a gay couple (played by Mark Indelicato and Vincent Rodriguez III) and one of the first transgender love stories ever to be found in a holiday rom-com. The series consists of five hour-long episodes tracking the Diaz family as they search for love and purpose across five different holidays during the year. Also starring are Emeraude Toubia, Desmond Chiam, Rome Flynn, Isis King, Todd Grinnell, Constance Marie, and Benito Martinez.

Under the Christmas Tree (Lifetime 12/19): Lifetime’s first-ever lesbian romance begins when “Christmas tree whisperer” Charlie Freemont (Tattiawna Jones) finds the perfect tree for the governor’s holiday celebration – in the backyard of marketing whiz Alma Beltran (Elise Bauman). The two women spar, naturally, but it’s not long before – with a little help from the tree and “some Christmas fairy dust” from the town’s resident pastry chef (Ricki Lake) – the romantic sparks begin to fly.

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