Families Play Bigger Roles Onscreen

Among Asian and African-American filmmakers, the way that households interact is a topic of growing interest

ONE of the brighter signs at this year's Cannes International Film Festival was a strong indication that family issues are being actively explored by moviemakers around the world. This is a particularly welcome development during the United Nations International Year of the Family, given cinema's importance as an influential medium with a global reach.

The interest in films about families holds true not only in the major cinematic centers of North America and Western Europe, but also in places not readily associated with commercial moviemaking. One is India, which produced Shaji N. Karun's quiet ``Swaham,'' about the difficulties of single parenthood. Another is Southeast Asia, which provided the inspiration for Cambodian-born director Rithy Panh's picturesque ``People of the Ricefield,'' about a family of nine living in delicate balance with the forces of nature that sustain their existence.

Within the United States, both Hollywood studios and independent producers are keeping families in mind. Examples seen at Cannes ranged from ``Picture Bride,'' a Hawaiian filmmaker's look at mail-order marriage in the World War I era, to ``Clean, Shaven,'' a New York director's corrosive study of a mentally disturbed man's search for his estranged young daughter. There was also much praise for the bittersweet ``Eat Drink Man Woman,'' made in Taiwan by Manhattan-based filmmaker Ang Lee, who also focused on parents and children in ``The Wedding Banquet,'' his previous film.

One of the most exciting trends represented at Cannes was a continuing wave of sensitive movies about African-American families. Cannes had no monopoly on these, of course: Spike Lee's endearing ``Crooklyn'' bypassed the festival, opening directly in US theaters. But few American pictures generated more interest at the filmfest than the spunky ``I Like It Like That'' and the provocative ``Fresh,'' both by promising new directors and both expected on local screens soon.

Film treatment of African-American families has gone through many ups and downs over the past three decades. Family issues received hardly a nod during the period of violent ``blaxploitation'' pictures that captured large audiences in the late 1960s and early '70s.

But a more recent wave of black-oriented filmmaking has evolved a different set of priorities. Family matters take on increasing importance in Mr. Lee's influential ``Do the Right Thing'' and ``Jungle Fever,'' and they're the center of interest in Charles Burnett's insightful ``To Sleep With Anger,'' a 1990 drama featuring Danny Glover as a somewhat sinister acquaintance who barges into a middle-class household that's troubled by generation-gap pressures.

Lee's current ``Crooklyn'' also places family issues in the spotlight, focusing on a little girl's adventures as she grows up in a crowded New York home burdened with financial and emotional problems. Written by Lee with his sister and brother, Joie and Cinque Lee, the movie has been faulted by some reviewers for having a shapeless and wandering structure.

More perceptive critics have praised it, however, for having the boldness to seem meandering while actually reflecting the unpredictable, improvisational quality that typifies coming-of-age experiences in the real world. Seen in this light, ``Crooklyn'' stands with ``To Sleep With Anger'' as one of the most touching and illuminating studies of black family life yet produced.

The new movie ``I Like It Like That,'' introduced at Cannes by Columbia Pictures, marks Hollywood's first major-studio film to be directed by an African-American woman.

Its plot centers on a half-black, half-Latino woman struggling to raise three children in a poor Bronx neighborhood, with on-and-off help from a loving but irresponsible husband who lands in jail after a looting spree.

Some of the movie's interests - sexual tensions, gambling misadventures, and career-building in the music business - stray far outside the boundaries of home and family. Yet family remains the bedrock of the story, which is ultimately about the heroine's determination to keep her household intact and healthy despite the worst trials and temptations the urban world can throw at her.

In an interview at Cannes, director Darnell Martin told me her own inspiration to become an artist grew from watching her mother cope with severe employment and financial problems while successfully holding her family together. ``I felt a lot of rage when I saw my mother suffering the indignities that poverty puts on people,'' the filmmaker says, acknowledging a strong autobiographical element in the story.

``That anger probably comes out in the film. But there's also a lot of hope, because if you hold on and don't give up, someone always comes to save you by doing something you never could have expected,'' she says.

The most compelling black-oriented movie unveiled at Cannes - and potentially the most controversial as it opens in US theaters this week - is ``Fresh,'' written and directed by Boaz Yakin, a new white filmmaker. The story doesn't focus directly on family issues as it follows the experiences of young Michael, an African-American boy who's already on his way to money, power, and respect in the New York drug-dealing world.

Still, the film takes care to depict a handful of family members and other concerned people whose presence might steer Michael toward a more decent path. They include a dedicated aunt who provides a home for Michael and his cousins; a hard-working teacher who tries to maintain decorum in her schoolroom; a drug-dependent sister whose desperate life gives Michael a glimmering sense of family responsibility; and most important, an eccentric yet affectionate father who teaches him chessboard strategies in the local park.

Thinking like a chess player is what helps Michael resolve the deadly dilemmas brought on by his illegal activities - and in director Yakin's most daring move, the film allows each moviegoer to decide whether the conclusion of the story represents a tragic checkmate or a triumphant new beginning for its young protagonist.

``Fresh'' deals with family issues in a roundabout and sometimes enigmatic way, but this makes its penetrating realism all the more vivid and immediate. A stimulating counterpoint to the more upbeat visions presented by ``Crooklyn'' and ``I Like It Like That,'' this audacious movie carries film exploration of African-American life to newly stimulating heights.

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