From Minneapolis to Mali

A Soldier's Story
Based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning A Soldier's Play, this taut 1984 whodunit takes place during World War II on and around a Louisiana army base, where an investigation into a black sergeant's murder reveals a deep streak of internalized racism in the ranks. The film brims with breakthrough performances (by David Alan Grier, Robert Townsend, and Denzel Washington, all of whom acted in the stage version), but it never becomes a showcase for tear-streaked sermonizing. Instead, as a black officer (a stiff but magnetic Howard E. Rollins, Jr.) is sent to solve the mystery, his interviews with the sergeant's men give the film a flashback structure that allows the issues to be carefully turned this way and that. Director Norman Jewison (In the Heat of the Night) and screenwriter Charles Fuller (adapting his play) rarely stray from the topic, and yet they pack the film with humorous insights and plenty of atmosphere, helped along by Herbie Hancock's bubbling blues soundtrack. If the movie falls short of classic status, it may be because the dead man, played as a pathetic monster by Adolph Caesar, is a bit too easy to hate. His self-loathing lacks a sense of tragedy--and, therefore, so does the film. (Peter S. Scholtes) Parkway Theatre, Monday at 7:30 p.m.

Friends
Writer-director Elaine Proctor's 1993 film, which depicts the complicated relationship between three young women sharing a Johannesburg house during the late '80s, emphasizes not the good times nor the satisfaction associated with close friendships, but what godawful messes they can be. The film is a bit of a muddle itself--some scenes employ images so indistinct and dialogue so muffled that it's difficult to tell what's going on. With a little viewer patience, however, the essentials do emerge: Sophie (Kerry Fox), an upper-middle-class white librarian who has joined an underground anti-apartheid group, kills two people by planting a bomb in an airport. The resulting fallout tests her bonds with Thoko (Dambisa Kente), a black schoolteacher; and Annika (Michele Burgers), an Afrikaner archaeologist. There's impressive acting throughout, and Proctor does a fine job of conveying the chaotic atmosphere of South Africa in the late stages of apartheid. Still, Friends retains enough narrative rough edges that it ultimately comes off as more of a work in progress than a fully realized endeavor. In that respect, it's like a lot of friendships. (John Pribek) Parkway Theatre, Monday at 9:30 p.m.

Guimba: The Tyrant
Malian director Cheick Oumar Sissoko has firsthand experience with the whims of modern-day despots. The filmmaker opposed the brutal regime of Moussa Traore at his own peril, and in 1995 the government of Alpha Oumar Konare refused to support this, his award-winning political satire. The title character (Issa Traore) is a cold-blooded chief who rules his village with random violence and black magic. Guimba's son Janguine (Lamine Diallo) is a reprehensible lout who makes up for his small stature by lusting after big-bottomed women and half-heartedly mimicking his father's evil ways. It's when Janguine rejects his arranged marriage to the slender Kani (Mouneissa Maiga) in favor of her zaftig mother Meya (Helene Diarra) that Guimba's façade begins to crumble. Watching Guimba, it's easy to become overwhelmed by the whirlwind storyline and barrage of characters, so it's best simply to surrender to the film's exhilarating sense of disorientation. In particular, Sambou the Griot (Habib Dembele) fuels the slapstick hilarity with a lively narrative patter in Bambara and Peul dialects while the virtual explosion of colorful costumes provides an ongoing visual spectacle. (Caroline Palmer) Parkway Theatre, Tuesday at 7:30 p.m.; and Galtier 4 Theaters, Sunday, September 27 at 9 p.m.

Utu
"We all find our sympathies confused," explains an earnest white lieutenant (Kelly Johnson) in the midst of New Zealand's late-19th-century race war. Perhaps he speaks on behalf of director Geoff Murphy as much as for Utu's subjects: Maori rebels and British colonizers engaged in a bitter struggle to defend land and family. Whether you find Murphy's and the combatants' divided loyalties frustrating or refreshingly complex (a conundrum akin to the one in John Sayles's recent Men With Guns) depends on your political bent, of course. Also open to debate in this longer "director's cut" of the 1983 film: Does Murphy traffic in frontier-epic stereotypes (e.g., cunning, sexy rebel woman beds earnest white soldier) or subvert them (e.g., the homoerotic moment between a vigilante settler and a prissy British colonel)? Are his portrayals of Maori revolutionaries--who read Macbeth, speak French, and play chess in addition to waging war--sensitive or offensive? And what on earth compelled the New Zealand director to make Young Guns II and Under Siege 2 after Utu? Et tu, Murphy? (Leslie Dunlap) Parkway Theatre, Tuesday at 9 p.m.

Detention
Although its goal isn't to entertain so much as educate, this hour-long portrait of five detention-bound high school students could be described as an inner-city Breakfast Club. Here you've got the jock, the "ho," the African nationalist, the poet, and the rebel, all of whom enter detention feeling cynical, emotionally wounded, and generally lost. But with the help of a no-nonsense teacher (who can shoot hoops better than the jock and dispense more street knowledge than the rebel), the students emerge with a new respect for themselves and each other. Totally lacking in subtlety, levity, or humor, the film nevertheless reveals the degree of writer-director LaMont Wharton's passion. In fact, Detention expresses such palpable concern for its subjects that its sentiment may be better suited to the classroom than the art house. (Mark Bazer) Oak Street Cinema, Wednesday, September 23 at 7:30 p.m.

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