cannes 2019

At Cannes, Unsympathetic White Protagonists Are Ruining Their Black Friends’ Lives

Amber Havard in Bull and Leyna Bloom in Port Authority.
Amber Havard in Bull and Leyna Bloom in Port Authority. Photo: Courtesy of Festival de Cannes

As glamorous Hollywood productions stuffed full of A-Listers have all but disappeared from the Croisette, a new flavor of U.S.-set film has struck Cannes’s fancy. They’re naturalistic, semi-improvised depictions of life on the margins, portraits of makeshift communities filled largely with unknowns or nonactors. Think American Honey and The Florida Project, both of which debuted to raves at Cannes before ending up among the most critically acclaimed films of their respective years. In those revered footsteps walk two American films competing in this year’s Un Certain Regard program: Port Authority, a love letter to New York’s kiki ballroom scene; and Bull, a portrait of life amid Texas’s black bull-riding community. Beyond their numerous stylistic similarities, the films also turn out to share a specific point of view: They’re both told from the perspective of an unsympathetic white outsider who wades into the black subculture, then ruins it.

Like American Honey’s Andrea Arnold, Port Authority director Danielle Lessovitz has a background in documentary, and she brings a similar stripped-down quality to the story of Paul (Fionn Whitehead of Dunkirk, doing only marginally more talking here), a young drifter from Pittsburgh who arrives at the titular bus station with no food, no money, and nowhere to go. He’s soon taken under the wing of Lee (McCaul Lombardi), an Artful Dodger type who gets him a room at a men’s shelter downtown and something close to a job: On behalf of unseen landlords, they go uptown to intimidate tenants, sometimes pretending to be ICE agents, other times just taking stuff. They’re the shock troops of gentrification, and Harlem is their front line.

That would be its own kind of movie, but one night, Paul stumbles into a kiki party, and is immediately entranced, partly by the scene, and partly by Wye (Leyna Bloom) — “Like the question?” “Like the letter” — a femme queen who’s the star of her House. It’s in these sequences, both the late-night ballroom competitions, and the relaxed, behind-the-scenes hangout sessions, that the movie truly comes alive: Under Lessovitz’s gaze, the kiki world is warmer and more humane than straight partying (represented here by malt liquor and dubstep) and in Bloom she’s found a magnetic star. Kiki’s outsized voguing, Wye explains, is about “taking back all the space that the world doesn’t give me,” and she all but steals the movie from away Paul and company. The film dives headfirst into Wye’s world: how competitions work, the way Houses are structured, their most sacred rules, and their intra-group conflicts. (Should a queen perform in the event she wants to perform, or the one where she stands the best chance of winning, thus pulling in crucial cash that will help the House survive?) Along the way, there’s also a discussion about the intricacies of New York City rent law, which no New York movie would be complete without.

It’s almost a cliche at this point to look at a film like Port Authority and ask why they made the boring white guy the lead, but that hasn’t stopped the critics I’ve spoken to from wondering about it anyway. The filmmakers have clearly done their reading about how to handle Wye’s identity, but there’s still a notable charisma disparity between the central couple: Wye is serving hair, body, face all over the place; Paul is the fuckup boyfriend people go viral for Tweeting about. He’s bad news from the jump, but Wye sticks with him for so long because … well, because he’s the main character of the movie.

Despite this, the kiki scenes of Port Authority are so strong that most people I’ve talked to still come out positive. Viewers have been slightly less kind to Bull. An expansion of a short that won director Annie Silverstein a prize at the 2014 festival, the film follows Kris (Amber Havard), a sullen teen in rural Texas who slowly bonds with a middle-aged black bullfighter named Abe (Rob Morgan) after she breaks into his house and trashes it for a party. It’s an unexpectedly timely film for the era of the Yee-Haw Agenda, but maybe don’t expect anything so joyous as “Old Town Road.” One critic I spoke to bemoaned the film’s dutiful ticking of every element of the poverty-porn checklist: the mom in prison, the sleazy Oxy dealer, the protective pitbull, the main character who hardly speaks a word.

And yet, the scenes in the bullring have their own frenzied energy. Abe is nursing an injury that ended his bull-riding career; now he’s one of the pros who distracts the bucking bovine so fallen riders can sneak off to safety. Silverstein follows him through every level of the sport: first the major competitions, which take place in big-city stadiums, then, as his fortunes fall, the smaller, blacker events that feel more like family cookouts. Kris tags along to these, and it’s the warmth and community she feels there that spurs her to take her own first steps into the sport. (It helps that in Bull, too, the white-kid parties are incredibly depressing.) But, as in Port Authority, it’s hard not to notice how one-sided Kris and Abe’s relationship turns out to be. He’s thankfully not a saint, but he at least gives her an entry into an exciting new world; she responds by messing up his life at almost every turn. Near the end of the film, Kris does something to Abe that’s pretty hard to forgive, but the break you’d assume might be in store never comes.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with depicting this kind of uneven dynamic. Dee Rees’s Mudbound (which also featured Morgan) was rightly lauded for its handling of an interracial friendship that could never find an equitable footing. But in both Port Authority and Bull, the vibe feels slightly off, like there’s a mental block stopping these directors from making their more interesting black characters the leads. In their press notes, both filmmakers have mentioned their intense interest in the worlds of kiki and black bull-riding, and the years of research that went into depicting them correctly. In Lessovitz’s case, she says the choice to tell the story through a white interloper was a gesture of respect, a way to set up proper boundaries. Maybe so, but centering such unlikeable white characters can’t help but also feel a bit like the filmmakers’ penance for making a movie about a space that’s not their own.

At Cannes, Unlikable White Protagonists Ruin Everything