Saturday, September 22, 2012

Urbanworld FF: Won't Back Down

The Urbanworld Film Festival is a showcase for filmmakers and actors of color, presented at the AMC 34th Street in New York City. For more information on the festival and to see the full 2012 schedule of films, visit the website.

Co-stars Rosie Perez & Lance Reddick
Appropos of nothing: I remember how surprised I was earlier this year at the Oscars, seeing Viola Davis appear baring her natural afro. Surprised a lot of people too. Whether or not actors in general and black actresses in particular wear wigs is not something most people tend to think about - I never did - but from now on, whenever I see her in a movie, I probably will... and to be honest, I kinda wish she were able to go au natural more often. But that's a discussion for another time.

If it weren't for Urbanworld, I probably would've passed on seeing Won't Back Down (of course they use the Tom Petty song in the closing credits). I saw the trailer prior to this week, and to me it looked like one more inspirational "true" story that Hollywood loves to make every so often. The depressingly generic and unimaginative title certainly didn't help. 

Lance Reddick, with his wife
I didn't doubt the film's quality, but the trailer made it perfectly clear what kind of movie this was gonna be, as well as how it would end. Maybe Gene Siskel was right about not watching trailers.

Anyway, it turned out to be exactly as I expected, but I gotta admit, I was entertained by it, and that was due to the outstanding work of the film's stars, Viola Davis and Maggie Gyllenhaal. The latter plays a single Pittsburgh mom with a dyslexic daughter, trying to find a better school for her than the one's she's in, until she learns about a way to organize parents and teachers together into forging a better school system, even though it means defying the powerful teachers' union. Davis plays the first teacher Gyllenhaal recruits for the cause, one with a learning disabled child of her own, as well as a terrible secret.

Co-star Dante Brown
It's absolutely an important story. Won't Back Down goes into how the Pittsburgh school program proved inadequate to the cause of helping children like those of Gyllenhaal and Davis, through negligence or bureaucracy or both, and how the union is a vital force for providing security for its members. There are no villains in this story, just opposing points of view, and I appreciate that director Daniel Barnz went to such lengths to make this clear. 

Still, the film does follow all the familiar Hollywood beats - romantic subplot, darkest hour, rally from an unexpected source, final confrontation - and the outcome is never in any real doubt. It's a formula that doesn't provide much in the way of surprises.

That said, however, Gyllenhaal and Davis make it watchable. I never really gave Gyllenhaal much thought beyond being Jake's sister, but she was powerful in a great role that let her shine. As for Davis, she had me from the start, but she also has a crucial late scene with her son that sold me on the entire film. She didn't oversell it - god knows she could have - but it was one more reminder of why her work is so admired by her peers. (If only it was admired enough to have given her that Oscar...)

Being Mary Jane
Dar He: The Lynching of Emmett Till

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