Issue 229 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published April 1999 Copyright Socialist Review



Glorious technicolour

Dir:Gary Ross

A lot of waffle?

At the start of Pleasantville, present day US high school students are told that they won't get a job, if they do it will be on a low income, they have a greater risk of contracting HIV, and they face the threat of global warming. Is it any wonder that David, the main character, facing the breakup of his family, wants to, in the words of the film, 'flash back to kinder, gentler times'? He is obsessed by Pleasantville, a 1950s sitcom where a happy family live out their lives in a perfect town of the same name. He is mocked by his sister Jen, a streetwise teenager who is far more interested in sex and having fun. It seems that David's wish for a less hectic life comes true when he and Jen are transported by a mysterious television repairman into the television set showing reruns of the show. When David and Jen arrive in Pleasantville they find themselves as the characters of the two teenagers in the show's lead family, Bud and Mary-Sue. At once they notice that things are strange. None of the books have any words in them, the fire brigade has no fires to put out, and everyone is convinced that there is no world outside Pleasantville. Strangest of all, everything is in black and white. People live out their lives in an unchanging pattern.
The whole of Pleasantville is turned upside down when David and Jen arrive. Jen helps the teenagers discover sex, which they never previously knew existed. They find out about painting and reading from David. People and things start to change to colour (the visual effects in the film that do this are amazing) as they change from the stultifying existence they have been brought up in. Fires start, which the fire brigade have no idea how to deal with, and it finally rains in Pleasantville, where there has never been a rainy day. The women in particular discover a life outside their homes which they've never seen before, and everyone starts to realise there is a world outside Pleasantville.
Of course, there are people who are unhappy with this new found liberation. The mayor calls a town meeting where he proposes separating the 'pleasant' from the 'unpleasant', by closing the library and the lane where the teenagers go to have sex, and stopping the 'coloureds' from going into shops (which has obvious parallels with real struggles for change that took place in the US). He unleashes a wave of hatred and repression, but those who have changed don't want to return to the old days, and fight back against the new laws.
Pleasantville is a hugely funny film which has a serious message--that the fights for liberation since the 1950s have made people's lives better and shouldn't be rolled back. The film is a slap in the face to all those who hark back to the 'good old days', and shows that they weren't that good after all, while at the same time seeing that real liberation isn't just about sexual liberation for individuals--it's about fulfilment in every aspect of people's lives. Jen finds a life outside the emptiness of sex and partying that she had in 1990s America. Pleasantville shows that people, and even whole societies, change when they have a vision of something better.
Phil Whaite

Taking the rap

Dir: Marc Levin

Slam is a refreshing piece of cinema that explores life from the perspective of a poor black ghetto in New York. The film revolves around the use of urban poetry and its importance to the people who live in the ghetto. The mixture of hip hop rhyme meets poetic lyric is the basis for communication, escapism, education and entertainment. What makes this film so embracing is the way Ray Joshua, the main character in the film, is depicted. He's in a desperate search to 'find himself' and make sense of the crazy world that wishes to stereotype and pigeonhole him as one of society's deviants because he is young, black and working class.
Finding himself unemployable, Ray spends his days penning lyrics. He explains to one of his friends, who jokes he could be the next Ice Cube, that his rapping is for himself and not for the 'mainstream money grabbing America' who could not tolerate what he would have to say, let alone endorse his music.
Ray comes face to face with the police. We witness how on a particular day, while buying weed from his friend, a shooting happens, and consequently Ray's friend gets shot and almost dies. The police detain Ray and end up stitching him up for the shooting. We see how he uses rapping to avoid conflict between jail gangs and to express the anger he feels for being wrongly accused and sentenced.
A heartwarming scene is when Ray is in his lock-up cell and a prisoner in the next cell starts rapping and 'beat boxing'. Ray joins in and they rap about the 'new age slavery for the black man', and how nothing will change until the system changes altogether.
Ray finds refuge in the weekly prison self help scheme run by a young black woman, Lauren Bell whose brother died in jail. Lauren raps too, and fully appreciates the beauty and talent of poetic rap. Through the limited resources, Lauren brings expression and hope into the lives of the prisoners. She comes in contact with Ray, and after completing his jail time they keep in contact. Their relationship blooms, but only before they go through their fair share of ups and downs!
The film recognises that class and wealth are key issues in the exploitation and inequality faced in society but it fails to connect how class divisions perpetuate racism. Otherwise this is a well produced and very enlightening film.
Sandra Tite

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