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SXSW 2012 Review - Ya'Ke Smith's "Wolf" (What Spike Lee's "Red Hook Summer" Should Have Been)

Reviews
by Tambay A. Obenson
March 13, 2012 8:30 AM
45 Comments
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The cinematic punch in the gut I so desperately needed before leaving SXSW and Austin, TX tomorrow morning, Ya’ke Smith’s feature film directorial debut Wolf is an audacious, potent drama that will likely elicit extreme reactions from viewers when it’s eventually in general release – reactions that will undoubtedly lead to fiery discussion centered around the central themes the film tackles.

This is the film that Spike Lee’s Red Hook Summer should have been; and if Tyler Perry had the goods and the guts, his Christian-themed morality tales that seem to only exist on a really simplistic, even shallow level, will instead look and sound like Wolf; yes, you read all that correctly.

Those comparisons, as well as S&A’s profile of Wolf, should give you some idea of what the taboo topic is that’s the core focus of this film’s narrative.

Wolf stars Irma P. Hall, Mikala Gibson, Jordan Cooper, Shelton Jolivette, and Eugene Lee in a story about a family shaken to the core when they discover their son has been molested. As they struggle to deal with the betrayal, their son heads towards a total mental collapse because of his love for his abuser, while his abuser attempts to exorcise his own past demons.

Director Smith attacks the film's themes with an unflinching, non-exploitative honesty; it's raw, gritty, tragic, but also oddly beautiful material, thanks in part to cinematographer Yuta Yamaguchi's striking visual work here, director Smith's visual metaphors (especially how he chose to represent the ideas suggested by the film's title - as in, a wolf in sheep's clothing), and the vulnerability the actors, we could say, celebrate in their wonderful performances.

You will be engrossed within the film's first 45 minutes or so, as characters are introduced, and relationships are mostly established, and as director Smith withholds just enough information to keep you curious and a bit on edge, wondering where this particular journey will lead.

Throw in some simple yet clever sound design work, and the suspense is heightened even further. Throughout the film, there's this unsettling and unrelenting, though brilliant, low-pitched buzz is how I'd best describe it, that rises and falls, crescendo and decrescendo - sometimes instantly, others, gradually - that really works as a tension builder, but also, it's like a constant reminder, even when it's reduced to a near-silent hum, of something ominous lurking within the film's layers; something that could at any minute explode.

And that, in a nutshell, describes the film's central character, played convincingly by Jordan Cooper, who demonstrates a range of emotions here, though it's what I'd call a mostly internal performance, because the character actually doesn't speak very much, which only ratchets up anxiety over the unexpected; we just don't really know what this kid is going to do next. Clearly he's been severely psychologically injured by the many years of abuse he suffered, and thus what might seem to be irrationality on his part needs to be regarded within that specific context in order to make sense of any of it.

He's essentially the equivalent of a walking time bomb, and director Smith proposes that this kind of *threat,* if left uninhibited, will likely lead to the creation of other walking time bombs.

As if tackling the issue of child molestation by a man of the cloth on film wasn't already daring enough, director Smith reaches even further and does something that films of this nature mostly shun, and that is he actually humanizes the molester. The Bishop, as he's called, isn't some 1-dimensional cutout; he isn't kept at a distance from us, the audience; instead, we actually get to know him quite intimately, and eventually learn of what's at the root of his own illness. Some in the audience might even, dare I say, start to empathize with the Bishop, and, as I said, it's going to be one of those heavily debated movies whenever it's eventually released; and this, I think, is one of many reasons why.

Not that the film in any way suggest that the crime against humanity the Bishop commits is in any way to be condoned; the point is that the main characters in the film are all well-defined and rounded - including the one that most will immediately label as demon.

But this also serves to give the film some balance, if you will; it's not a sermon; it's not entirely biased or one-sided; I wouldn't reduce the film to a single sentence, calling it a critique of the church/religion - in this specific case, the "black church."

We could say it goes out of its way to present all sides of a single "argument," and that's something that makes it all the more interesting, given what that "argument" is. Essentially, you will be challenged after spending close to 2 hours with this close-knit group of characters who simply can't be reductively categorized as "good" or "bad"; there are shades here, and Smith doesn't make it easy for the viewer, which is a very good thing in my opinion. It just makes for a much more stimulating viewing experience - the punch in the gut I mentioned in the first sentence of this review.

A family is unraveled by a trusted figure's terrible betrayal, and as you'd expect, that duplicity leads them to question the principles of this particular pillar of the society they are a part of, and the institution he belongs to also starts to come undone, as a once quiet, seemingly peaceful community will never quite be what it thought it was before.

So even though central characters appear to have experienced some form of catharsis, and it's suggested in the end that justice will indeed be served, nobody really wins here (if only it were all just that simple), and the film's ending sequences (thinking again of director Smith's filmic interpretation of the film's title) put an exclamation mark on that point!

Congrats to Ya'ke Smith on an ambitious first feature effort. Let's hope it gets picked up; the discussions that will follow after others have seen it should be, if anything, searing, and I'm most certainly looking forward to that! :)

Watch the trailer if you haven't already:

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45 Comments

  • Sexyslim72 | April 17, 2012 9:24 AMReply

    This film is GREAT! A friend and I saw it this past Saturday...this is the type of film that will show people of all ages to speak up about sexual abuse, this happens every second in this world and I truly believe once the light is on the darkness will go away! Young kids need to see this so they will know that adult should not do these type of things to you! Ya'ke you are headed in the right direction, I'm so happy I read the newspaper and saw the showing for this I would've missed out on something great....Please see this film!

  • Cherish | March 14, 2012 10:54 AMReply

    This looks like a good film and I want to see it as well. But I also understand what SheBaby and Turner are saying as well. Look at that movie IN OUR NATURE starring Gabrielle Union. As story about an estranged father and son. Drama, sure, but no major pathology, at least what we glean from trailer. Why can't we make a movie like that, a predominantly black cast? Is it possible for Black filmmakers to make a drama without rape, pimps, prostitutes, pedophilia, strip clubs, and gun violence? There are SOME Black people who grew without these issues in their life. A good drama, about human conflict, personal relationship issues, without the extreme pathology. Black people go through stuff like that too, without hoes and gangstas involved. Or so I've heard...

  • CareyCarey | March 14, 2012 12:31 PM

    @ Cherish, you're being factious, right? I am sure you know the types of films you desire are being made, right? Extreme pathology; rape, pimps, prostitutes, pedophilia, strip clubs, and gun violence are not included in the majority of black cast films. I understand your concerns, however, the issue is bigger than what you have implied. Also, more importantly, I do not believe Zeus's statement is correct, which again speaks to larger issues.

  • Zeus | March 14, 2012 10:57 AM

    We could make a movie like that but the problem is nobody will come and see them if it were made.

  • Sharon Lisa Smith | March 13, 2012 11:34 PMReply

    Nice cant wait to see this film.

  • ShebaBaby | March 13, 2012 9:16 PMReply

    I'm tired. Wake me when black movies go back to being fun and romantic. All this darkness when there's so much light.

  • Turner | March 18, 2012 7:07 PM

    @Nadine... yes please forward that link!!!!! http://vimeo.com/35417133

  • Nadine | March 15, 2012 2:31 AM

    ...and S&A should post too not primarily based on the content but for technical reasons as well. Just sayin'

  • Nadine | March 15, 2012 2:20 AM

    ...I don't have the patience to wait on an answer... I'm forwarding! Sorry TURNER!

  • Nadine | March 15, 2012 2:09 AM

    @TURNER - May I forward your link to a friend to post on facebook or elsewhere (if you are still around)?

  • Turner | March 14, 2012 12:40 AM

    @careycarey Both are important for sure yet the one aimed towards young heads bopping without thinking is a gateway to the larger problem.

  • CareyCarey | March 13, 2012 10:20 PM

    Okay Turner, I watched the video and I completely understand. That's why I said to "put in your own words when appropriate". And the overall theme is... you gotta want it real bad. Now, since you've taken me there and we are thoroughly on a course of hi-jacking this post, I have one for you. Check this out and tell me what your 27 year old mind thinks about it. It's lighter than what you presented but I believe the message is more powerful: http://careycarey-carrymehome.blogspot.com/2011/02/is-it-really-black-history-month-or.html

  • Turner | March 13, 2012 9:56 PM

    @carey carey

    check it out:

    http://vimeo.com/35417133

  • Turner | March 13, 2012 9:52 PM

    Hey, FYI I may only be 27 but I'm wise enough not to party with that word...

  • CareyCarey | March 13, 2012 9:34 PM

    @ SHEBABABY & TURNER, the love has to be in your soul, and seek an ye shall find. Hey, do you 2 like rap music? Well, I prefer old school R & B but I do enjoy some rap artist. Anyway, the following speaks to what I am saying about finding the light, fun and romanticism in movies. You gotta want it. So, put in your own words when appropriate. 2PAC- How do you want it: ---> How do you want it? How does it feel? Comin up as a nigga in the cash game
    livin in the fast lane; I'm for real. How do you want it? How do you feel? Love the way you activate your hips and push your ass out, got a nigga wantin it so bad I'm bout to pass out. Wanna dig you, and I can't even lie about it! Baby... I'm-for-real. I'm gonna find you!

  • Turner | March 13, 2012 9:19 PM

    AMEN!

  • noel | March 13, 2012 7:18 PMReply

    Tambay sure knows who to give a review :)

  • Donella | March 13, 2012 7:05 PMReply

    Now that's a thorough review. Thanks, Tambay.

  • eliz | March 13, 2012 6:28 PMReply

    Great review... I'm hoping to catch this on Friday afternoon at the fest.

  • Anthony | March 13, 2012 6:02 PMReply

    Pretty damn good review, Tambay. I haven't seen the film but what you have brought to the table, I know what I may expect to see. I'm not necessarily interested in the subject matter but I'm familiar with Ya'Ke Smith and the brotha does good work. I'm excited to see his debut.

  • CareyCarey | March 13, 2012 2:44 PMReply

    Precious? RAW, GRITTY, TRAGIC! WOW! As Tambay said, this film will undoubtedly elicit extreme reactions from viewers when it’s eventually in general release – reactions that will undoubtedly lead to fiery discussion centered around the central themes the film tackles. Now, given the reactions to the film "Precious", are the lines of division already in position? 2 questions: What differentiates this film from PRECIOUS, and as Sergio frequently asks, Does Anyone Really Want to See Another Film On The Black Church and The Abuse of Black Children (and why?). Hey, I'm just asking the questions that I asked myself. Would I pay to see this? My answer is a resounding NO! And I loved Precious.

  • Tahir Jetter | August 22, 2012 7:56 PM

    Maybe you should actually attempt to see this movie before presuming that you know what the hell it's about.

  • CareyCarey | March 13, 2012 8:47 PM

    Okay, Nadine, I feel you. However (the big however :-) we (I) can break down Mo'NIque's character to show that she was not as one dimensional as you're implying. But yes, you are correct, much of my opinion is based on the scene you mentioned (you are good... my little yang :-). But again, there were other scenes that gave us insight into the woman Mo'nique eventually played on the screen. You know... who were her role models and what was her vision of love, and why. Also, there was money issues, greed issues and the ever present usurper issues. We can go on about this but in short, aside from Mo Nique's character, there were other marvelous performances and thought provoking issues in Precious which propells me to champion that movie over many of our less talk about features. But in the end, the begging question remains, will those who thought/defined Precious as ghetto porn, say the same about Wolf? And again, why not? The premise of Wolf is basically the same as Precious, soooo....

  • Nadine | March 13, 2012 8:17 PM

    ...jumping on real quickly... Mo'Nique (who played the aggressor) is who I am referring to in the case of Precious... not Mariah or Paula Patton's characters (don't get me started) and there were a number of abusers (sexual and otherwise) in Antoine Fisher (who happened to be women). The focus is less on their being women and more on the fact that their characters were no deeper than their "sins". Are you saying Mo'Nique's moment with Mariah Carey was a major development in her character. Her monologue? I'm simply saying that based on the review, "The Bishop, as he's called, isn't some 1-dimensional cutout; he isn't kept at a distance from us, the audience; instead, we actually get to know him quite intimately, and eventually learn of what's at the root of his own illness. Some in the audience might even, dare I say, start to empathize with the Bishop, and, as I said, it's going to be one of those heavily debated movies whenever it's eventually released; and this, I think, is one of many reasons why." - Tambay, my thoughts on your question on "What differentiates this film from PRECIOUS, and as Sergio frequently asks, Does Anyone Really Want to See Another Film On The Black Church and The Abuse of Black Children (and why?)." - you, is this possible lack of dimensionality in the abusers in Precious and Antoine Fisher in comparison to "Wolf". I just don't think after watching either "Precious" or "Antoine Fisher" that a reviewer would have come to similar conclusions.

  • CareyCarey | March 13, 2012 7:01 PM

    @ Nadine (below), I'm glad you came back and qualified your comment. I mean, I didn't understand how you could make that comparision. Nevertheless, I have to somewhat disagree with this statement--->"the fact that the molester was not one-dimensional and examined is a major difference between, let's say, this movie, Wolf, and Precious or Antoine Fisher where all the aggressors/women were just evil beasts". Nadine, that's not true on so many levels. My short reply: There were/is too many female characters in Precious to throw "that" blanket over all of them. In fact, MOST of the women in Precious would not fit your description. Furthermore (again based on the clip) I saw characters justifying, rationalizing and somewhat condoning "evil" behavior, so I am not so quick to draw distinct differences in this film (Wolf) and Precious. More importantly (still only going by the clip) there was a load of subplots and back-stories in Precious, that I didn't see in Wolf. But again, to be fair, Tambay did say the movie (Wolf) did a great job of developing the characters. And I don't remember much about Antoine Fisher? I guess I am questioning if the overall story can be "one dimensional", if that makes sense? You know, a Wolf in sheeps clothing abuses child... drama in the middle... subtle sex scenes... oh my god... who did it and why... preaching... anger anger anger... revenge... repentance/or not... tears... cover-up... ALL related to the central topic of sexual abuse of a black child.

  • Nadine | March 13, 2012 4:27 PM

    I'm basing my thoughts on the review... I HAVE NOT SEEN THIS MOVIE.

  • Nadine | March 13, 2012 4:26 PM

    Ha! @Andrea & CC... too funny... Hopefully that thread will "slow its roll"... glad I didn't jump in (was too busy on the Dark Tide thread). I'm not going to get deep into this film, I should be editing right now, but from the reviewers statements, the fact that the molester was not one-dimensional and examined is a major difference between, let's say, this movie, Wolf, and Precious or Antoine Fisher where all the aggressors/women were just evil beasts.

  • Andrea Shaw | March 13, 2012 3:57 PM

    @CAREYCAREY Blow it out your ASS!

  • CareyCarey | March 13, 2012 3:56 PM

    Maybe I should explain my above comment. Watching movies is one of my biggest passions. To that point, I am a film viewer not a film student. It's possible this film is a magnificant piece of film artistry, but I have to question my motives for watching it and what I am going to receive from viewing it... the good, the bad and the "I don't know". Well, tonight I am planning on watching Anna Lucasta (1958) with Eartha Kitt and Sammy Davis, Jr. I know what I will receive from that classic. I've never seen it, but I know what I am looking for. I can safely assume the acting will be on par and the subject matter is something I can engraciate. After viewing the 2 minute clip for Wolf, I can't say the same. Don't get me wrong, the acting seems to be "ok" (somewhat melodramatic) and the trailer was very informative (excellent overview) but the storyline is not something I desire to put my arms around. What emotions and feeling might they envoke in me? That's the questions I have to ask myself. What experience will I be left with... good, bad, joy, disdain, excitement, inspiration, hope, laughter, compassion, fear or DAMN!, what now?

  • Ivory Jeff Clinton | March 13, 2012 2:19 PMReply

    Whoa, Eugene Lee, Basil from The Women of Brewster Place as the preacher! Remember him?

  • Turner | March 13, 2012 2:10 PMReply

    Why is it that any Black drama of quality seems to have a gay or sexual deviate theme? Notice I said "or". Certainly there is plenty of other drama out there to explore. Please!

  • Turner | March 14, 2012 8:37 AM

    @Logic Thank you! You said what I've been trying to exactly! These bleak films have their place but how bout a charming whimsical film like Amelie with black folks for balance? Aint we got whimsey?

  • Logic | March 14, 2012 4:30 AM

    I know what you mean. Every year there's a film made that depicts black folks as uniquely fractured/dysfunctional. And every year these movies get the most buzz. Black audiences seem content to see themselves on-screen while white audiences are content to feel as if they've experienced some new and authentic truth about the exotic other. It sucks.

  • Turner | March 14, 2012 1:15 AM

    @Logic -hmm... As you stated: There are plenty of well-adjusted, gay black folks out there... Exactly! What I'm bored with is the tragic, bleak and dreary way a lot of their stories are told. Ok? It seems if one likes TP dreck, then everything is groovy but lately if you want to see a serious dramatic film with black folks who aren't being sexually abused, made pregnant by their own father, have a downs syndrome child, be morbidly obese, have AIDS, raped by your minister who you fall in love with???... your s*%t out of luck.

  • Logic | March 13, 2012 10:27 PM

    I take issue with the implication that 'quality' black film has is somehow awash with gay themes. What films are you referring to? Because I'll tell you right now, good black films with gay themes are few and far between. If anything, the theme hasn't been explored enough. I will say that depiction of (black) gayness, in and of itself, as a wellspring of drama/suffering can be tiresome when one considers that there are plenty of well-adjusted, gay black folks out there - for whom sexuality is not a major issue or source of conflict - and basically zero films reflecting that reality.

  • CareyCarey | March 13, 2012 9:41 PM

    Hey Turner, ya gotta pay to play. Nothing comes to a sleeper but a dream. If it's worth having, it's worth the time looking for it. Think about that one somebody that was the twinkle in your eye. I bet she wasn't an easy catch? But scrounge around!? We need to talk :-)

  • Turner | March 13, 2012 9:12 PM

    Ok I see I've still not articulated my thoughts here. Yes I scrounge around and look for good films too, my complaint is I have to do just that!

  • CareyCarey | March 13, 2012 9:03 PM

    Yes Turner, you're being the Devil's Advocate, but don't listen to that devil :-). For one, you're wrong or mis-informed about this---> "I'm saying is if I don't want to see a film about these topics then all that's left is TP etc. Have we painted ourselves in a corner?" ~ Turner. Well, you may have painted yourself in a corner but as a vicious film viewer, I have no problem finding films that satisfy my soul (and I am very critical of most films. I don't take crap lightly) and I watch hundreds a year. A short answer to your concerns is "movies are a natural extention of our every day lives". It's human nature to engratiate confusion, mayhem, mess and controvery, if only through the lives and stories of others. There's no conspiracy, it's what the human's heart thirsts for. And consequently, the movie business is unfortunately a money business. Yep, it's supply and demand. You know, money talks and everything else is just "talk".

  • Turner | March 13, 2012 8:09 PM

    @CareyCarey...I'm playing devil's advocate...but if the movies that have these themes were done by white filmmakers about black folks.... big noise on this blog for sure! MF said below that one could choose what they want to see, what I'm saying is if I don't want to see a film about these topics then all that's left is TP etc. Have we painted ourselves in a corner? If one possessed a conspiracy mindset, it would be easy to say that the powers that be have something to do with our limited choices. Or are these themes done again and again because of the attention shock value brings to a project a la Spike's failed hail mary in Red Hook Summer?

  • CareyCarey | March 13, 2012 7:21 PM

    @ Turner, I understand what you're saying and it's safe to assume others do as well. And to be honest, you have something there. I might even say you've opened Pandora's Box. ***checking my dried up and slowed down brain cells*** Anyway, I certainly have to give some thought to your suggestion that "black dramatic theme" films do not (as a whole) receive "critical acclaim" without [gay or sexual deviate theme]. Huuuuuum, I could add to that "at the very least" a black dramatic film will have an undesirable character (someone no one would want to emulate) will be one of the central characters- if said film(s) desire critical acclaim. Huuuuuuuuummmmm?

  • Turner | March 13, 2012 6:41 PM

    What I mean is that it's rare these days to see a Black dramatic film attain critical acclaim without this component, not that they shouldn't be made.

  • CareyCarey | March 13, 2012 6:33 PM

    Excellent points, MF (below). Concise, well written, easy to follow, fair and understandable. I particularly liked the part in which you said "i also think that it is your choice not to go see it (as i no longer go see holocaust or gangster movies) and go see something else that suits your individual tastes". YES! That speaks to the whole vicious cycles of debates on what films a person "should see" and why. And, it ALSO speaks to another discussion that has been front and center on S & A. That is RESPONSIBILITY... TO WHOM/TO WHAT/WHO/WHEN/WHY?

  • mf | March 13, 2012 4:39 PM

    meant to write: "that is inherently dramatic and interesting to watch...."

  • mf | March 13, 2012 4:37 PM

    i think a possible answer to your question is that usually art tackles the 'taboo' subjects because they are the unspoken unseen motives simmering underneath what is visible on the surface. that is inherently dramatic and interesting (even if one doesn't necessarily like it). on another level, we (individually & collectively as black people, and also culturally in western society) are trying to work something out and these films/stories do a service of allowing us to examine at a distance what may what still be too difficult to tackle head-on in real life... to my mind, i would welcome MORE stories like this, from all angles... maybe then the shame & stigma of whatever we are grappling with can be loosened and we can then deal with the issue itself. i feel film and memories perform this service, while also remaining well done, entertaining and in terms of movies, cinematic. of course, i also think that it is your choice not to go see it (as i no longer go see holocaust or gangster movies) and go see something else that suits your individual tastes.

  • Nadine | March 13, 2012 2:17 PM

    I think I know what you're trying to say.

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