Siskel Film Center’s upcoming slate of Black films
By Elaine Hegwood Bowen, M.S.J.
The Gene Siskel Film Center, conveniently located at 164 N. State St., is bringing back by popular demand two films that are great history lessons for moviegoers. “Miles Davis Birth of The Cool” and “Harriet” have been featured before, and “Recorder: The Marion Stokes Project” is a new offering that also looks at a historical figure, all screening at this intimate independent film center that not only features films that appeal to a unique audience but cinematic blockbusters, as well.
Following is a synopses of the films with convenient links that provide more information about ticket prices and screening times:
“Miles Davis Birth of The Cool” – December 20 through December 26
Jazz giant Miles Davis was one of the most colossal and complex figures of twentieth-century music, his personal demons and creative drive fueling a capacity for continual self-reinvention. No film could hope to encompass such a copious subject, but expert documentarian Stanley Nelson (“The Black Panthers”) does a remarkable job of giving shape to Davis’ prodigious life and career. His many musical evolutions are lucidly charted, from his bop beginnings through his game-changing excursions into lyrical cool, modal bop, fusion, and late-career pop.
Passages from his autobiography, voiced by Carl Lumbly in Davis’ distinctive rasp, take us through his battles with racism, substance abuse, and anger. Especially notable among the many interviews are revealing reminiscences from his great loves, French singer Juliette Greco and first wife Frances Taylor, both fated to become way stations in Davis’ eternally restless journey. I have reviewed this film, and it shows Davis in all his glory and doesn’t just concentrate on his substance abuse.
“Harriet” – January 3 through January 9
Harriet Tubman, one of the most heroic figures in American history, gets a long-overdue screen treatment in this stirring biopic of the young slave woman who escaped to Philadelphia and then returned time and again to lead other slaves to freedom. Director Kari Lemmons (“Eve’s Bayou”) said that she wanted to avoid both “slavery porn” and the “fuzzification” of African-American heroes.
As brought to life by the intense and edgy performance of Cynthia Erivo (Tony winner for “The Color Purple”), Harriet comes across as believably obstinate, impulsive, and passionately, even recklessly driven. Lemmons makes frequent use of gospel hymns and Harriet’s mystical visions to underscore the importance of music and spirituality in African-American life, while the effective use of Nina Simone’s “Sinnerman” and action-movie tropes (including shout-outs to “The Fugitive” and “Jaws”) give the film a more contemporary resonance.
“Recorder: The Marion Stokes Project” – January 10, 11 and 14
In the course of roughly thirty years, Marion Stokes, a Philadelphia African-American librarian, leftwing activist, and borderline hoarder, obsessively recorded more than 70,000 VHS tapes charting news events large and small, national and local, as seen on TV — from the Iran hostage crisis to Sandy Hook. This oddly compelling documentary pieces together the bizarre story of the creation of a vast and now historically priceless unfiltered archive of news events as they unfolded simultaneously on multiple channels of network television.
Was she an obsessive crank or a brilliant visionary? Filmmaker Matt Wolf delves into the life of a woman with a drive to ferret out truth in the public realm. Her second marriage to a wealthy like-minded man enabled her to pursue her passion day and night, even as it alienated families and turned them both into hermits.
Since 1972, the Gene Siskel Film Center of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago has presented cutting edge cinema to an annual audience of 85,000. The Film Center’s programming includes annual film festivals that celebrate diverse voices and international cultures, premieres of trailblazing work by today’s independent filmmakers, restorations and revivals of essential films from cinema history, and insightful, provocative discussions with filmmakers and media artists. The Film Center was renamed the Gene Siskel Film Center in 2000 after the late, nationally celebrated film critic Gene Siskel.
For general information about the Gene Siskel Film Center, visit www.siskelfilmcenter.org