Out of the Celluloid Closet

Our Picks from Frameline: Mars One and BLACK AS U R

In the last chapter of Carceral Capitalism, author Jackie Wang provides an anecdote about how the consistently clear skies of Chile forced a problem for the Allende dictatorship. Increasingly paranoid, the regime forbade the teaching of astronomy for fear that escaped prisoners might use such knowledge to escape. While perhaps a circumstantial similarity, Gabriel Martin’s Mars One begins with a similar juxtaposition. Adolescent Deivinho is introduced by his love and fascination with the stars, while his sister Eunice sits in her college class learning about Brazil’s incarceration rate being third highest in the world and beginning to rise even more with the election of Jair Bolsonaro.

Mars One is an immensely political film, but it takes a moment to get there. Instead, the film is primarily a social drama following the lives of a lower-middle-class Black family through a slow and steady descent. Wellington, the father, works as a pool cleaner for a luxury apartment complex, and Tércia, the mother of the family, works as a housecleaner. Following a bad encounter with a prank show, tragedies start happening around Tércia and she becomes convinced that she is cursed. Meanwhile, Deivinho struggles to reconcile his love of astronomy with the pressure Wellington puts on him to be a soccer star, and Eunice tries to come out to her family.

What Mars One does best is show the political in the everyday. For instance, one of Wellington’s co-workers mentions that the rich could not function without their labor. One gets the impression that the film also exists as a kind of time capsule, capturing the day-to-day lives of a ‘typical’ Brazilian family. There is little to no soundtrack, and music is only used at important moments. The film employs a subtle use of hyper-normalisation, the idea that everyone knows everything is falling apart but refuses to even acknowledge it. 

Fascism thrives through numbing the ability of people to reach out and help each other.

The poisonous entropy which plagues Tércia is never named, but comes to represent the destabilization that fascism brings before its arrival in full. Fascism thrives through numbing the ability of people to reach out and help each other. It’s vital that the incident which propels the plot into action is a prank show deliberately taking advantage of people not helping each other, and blurring reality for the sake of entertainment. It demands that we focus on ourselves rather than listen to those around us. Making it to the stars—as Deivinho dreams—requires us to work together, rather than tear each other apart.

Mars One is a tale about the slow decay of a family, and the struggles they face as individuals and as a union. It’s a masterpiece of subtle and intelligent cinema that demands patience and empathy to fully grasp its meaning.

Part current events and part history, BLACK AS U R follows playwright Micheal Rice, spurred on the crisis of contemporary American politics, to understand the roots of homophobia within the Black community and begin the work of rectifying the harm done to Black queer people. The film is particularly interested in issues of power, patriarchy, and religion as the primary explanations for homophobic attitudes. While Rice sets out to explore why members of the Black community reject queer people writ large, his focus steadily hones in on trans youth and Black trans women in particular. By devoting such a long period of the film’s runtime to talking with these women, they are given enough space to talk about their own experiences on their own terms without being expected to provide concrete answers about the totality of the Black queer experience. 

This strategy is deliberate, and no doubt meant to invoke the same strategies of the civil rights movements by forcing the audience to reckon with the violence they have either allowed and actively participated in. However, there are many points where using footage of hate crimes committed against Black trans women becomes gratuitous and difficult to watch.

However, BLACK AS U R was not made with me as the audience in mind. As the film progresses, it becomes clear that Rice intends the film as a way to call out Black elders for abandoning their queer children when they are most in need of support, especially following the reckoning spurred on by the Black Lives Matter movement. 

There are limitations to documentaries made with the specific intention of educating a certain group about the issues facing another. Rice is able to do justice for his subjects because he chooses to willingly step back and let them talk. He’s still unable to explore every avenuem simply because the scope of queer Black culture is far too broad to cover in a brisk hour and a half. Likewise, it goes over material and concepts that most queer people will already be familiar with. Nevertheless, the film covers such material in a wholly empathetic manner which allows the film to transcend the stuffy academic tone that many social issue documentaries fall into.

BLACK AS U R is firstly an introduction to intersectional queer theory and secondly a glowing portrait of the strength and perseverance of Black Trans youth in the face of direct and indirect violence.

Mars One premieres at Frameline on June 24th. 

BLACK AS U R premiered at Frameline on June 19th. 

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