Tag Archives: Mamoudou Athie

Historical Precedent

The Burial

by George Wolf

Point of order: early on, The Burial understands your objections about many courtroom dramas.

“Sounds like a nap waitin’ to happen!”

Rest easy. Director/co-writer Maggie Betts and an electric ensemble take inspiration from a true “David v Goliath” court case, and give it a new shine that boasts humor, humanity, style, and a vital sense of history.

Back in the mid-1990s, Jeremiah O’Keefe’s (Tommy Lee Jones) small chain of Mississippi-based funeral homes was deep in debt. His longtime lawyer Mike Alred (Alan Ruck) brokered a partial buyout with Vancouver “death care” giant Loewen Corp, but as the months dragged on, rookie lawyer Hal Dockins (Mamoudou Athie, Black Box and Jurassic World Dominion) smelled something foul.

Ray Loewen (Bill Camp) was just waiting for O’Keefe’s small business to bleed out, until Jeremiah had no choice but to sell it all at a bargain basement price.

So, Mike files a lawsuit with hopes for an 8-million-dollar settlement, while Hal hatches a plan to get flamboyant Florida lawyer and parttime preacher Willie Gary (Jamie Foxx) to join the O’Keefe team. Gary hadn’t lost a personal injury case in years and had a private plane (“Wings of Justice!”), but he didn’t do contract law. Hal sells him on the case’s potential (Athie excels in this scene, completely selling us on the film’s pivot), and Gary comes on board, not only refusing to settle but upping the damage amount…to 100 million dollars.

“Boom! That’s what I’m talkin’ about!”

Gary views litigation as warfare (“Jean Clade Van Damme-like shit!” – legkick!), but Loewen has the formidable Mame Downes (a terrific Jurnee Smollett) on their side, and she’s a young legal phenom who’s earned the nickname “Python.”

Their smiley banter reminds you that the standard course here would be a secret romance outside the courtroom. But it is not lost on these two lawyers that they are African Americans representing old white men in the deep South, and the film is able mine this issue with grace and subtlety.

This is a perfect vehicle for the Oscar-winning Foxx, and his magnetic performance reaffirms the depth of his talent. The spot-on impressions and oversized characterizations aren’t hiding an ability to find nuance. Foxx makes sure we see the heart under Gary’s flashy exterior, and it’s hard to take your eyes off of him.

Jones, more tender than usual, is equally suited to play Jeremiah, a man committed to providing for his large family (13 kids, 24 grandchildren) after he is gone.

There isn’t a weak spot in the cast, as Betts (Novitiate) keeps things humming with a pace that’s rarely derailed by any legal minutiae. The opening statements alone, edited to become a rapid-fire debate between counsels, serve notice that there will be no time for napping.

And if a “cheer for the little guy” moral is all that The Burial offered, it would be a worthwhile crowd-pleaser. But there is more to that title than just a reference to the funeral business.

From the amusing meeting between an admittedly “little bit prejudiced” Mike and the all-Black legal team he must work with, to some hushed and stirring moments beside an old slave cemetery, Betts slyly addresses the question of why it always has to be about race.

Because it’s always about race, and power, and oppression, no matter who is trying to bury that piece of America’s past. It’s a lesson that’s part of our present, as well, and The Burial builds an entertaining bridge between a decades-old court case and a never-ending struggle.

Memory Motel

Black Box

by George Wolf

Nolan (Mamoudou Athie) needs Post-It Notes to get through the day. A car crash took his wife and his memory, and the colorful little squares give Nolan useful info while his young daughter Ava (Amanda Christine) is often forced to assume a parental role.

But there is some hope…of the experimental kind.

Dr. Lillian Brooks (Phylicia Rashad) thinks she can help Nolan regain his memory and reclaim his life through her “black box” therapy. Worn like a high-tech VR headset, it allows the patient to wander through their own subconscious, re-living past experiences until they manifest in the conscious world.

Wow, that’s amazing! What could go wrong?

Director and co-writer Emmanuel Osei-Kuffour anchors his feature debut with some recognizable inspirations, crafting another sci-fi ode to identity that flirts with horror tropes while struggling to find a unique voice.

Athie (The Get Down, Underwater) carries the load here with admirable range. The Nolan we come to know early on is not one found in his own subconscious. And as Nolan comes to fear that he is not the man he thought he was, Athie deftly balances the dual roles fighting for control.

And memories aren’t the only area full of mystery. Nolan’s friend Gary (Tosin Morohunfola), a Dr. himself, follows some suspicions to uncover disturbing information about the night of his buddy’s tragic car accident.

The note-posting and body-writing may totally recall Memento, but Black Box also swims in waters populated by iconic J-horror visuals and a touch of Get Out‘s “sunken place.”

The wonders of technology can hide a dark, malevolent side, and we can lose ourselves believing we are always in control.

It’s not a new idea, and Black Box doesn’t blaze any new trails revisiting it. But it is committed to the viability of the journey, and finds its greatest success in engagement rather than surprise.

Tale of Two Spitters

Patti Cake$

by George Wolf

Glamorous dreams in a hardscrabble town. Local rappers “spitting” in free-style battles, gunning for the neighborhood respect they that can’t get at home or work. A rousing hip-hop anthem showcasing star making talent.

Sure, Patti Cake$ often smells what 8 Mile was cooking, but writer/director Geremy Jasper’s feature debut is loaded with enough exuberant sincerity and earnest button-pushing to succeed on more levels than it probably should.

And since somebody mentioned star making, just try to turn your eyes away from Danielle Macdonald’s lead performance as Patti Dombrowski, a twenty-something bartender in New Jersey who stares across the river and dreams of NYC stardom.

While the kids still call her “Dumbo,” Patti calls herself “Killa P,” rapping her original rhymes with constant support from her pharmacist friend Jheri (Siddharth Dhananjay) and no support from her drunky mom Barb (Inside Amy Schumer’s Bridget Everett).

But when scary new musician friend “Antichrist” (Mamoudou Athie, The Get Down‘s Grandmaster Flash) turns out to be pretty handy with the beat boxes and recording equipment, a homemade CD just might punch Patti’s ticket out of Jersey poverty.

Macdonald, a television vet plenty worthy of this move to features, keeps the entire film grounded in authenticity, which is good, because this entire film needs some grounding in authenticity.

While contrived events and manipulative strings may be pulled around her, Patti’s daily struggles never feel false. The ways she deals with drunks at her bar, a potential new boss at a job interview, or the failing health or her grandmother (Cathy Moriarty, nice to see despite being too young for the role) are filled with a mix of exhausted resignation and cautious optimism well known to countless Americans just trying to get ahead.

Jasper throws in enough stylish dream sequences and weirdly awkward close ups to expose both his inexperience and potential. What Patti Cake$ lacks in originality is made up in creative spirit, because like Patti, Jasper is a talent dreaming big.

With Macdonald as a perfect muse, he’s making sure his own homemade CD has too much fairy tale pixie dust to ignore, with a final track too proudly shameless to resist.