Jurnee Smollett-Bell

REVIEW: Birds of Prey: And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn (2020)

After splitting up from the Joker, Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) is pulled into the hunt for street thief Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco) by crime boss Roman Sionis (Ewan McGregor) where she crosses paths with club singer Dinah Lance (Jurnee Smollett-Bell), assassin Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) and Detective Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez).

First of all, the rather long title of Birds of Prey: And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn is misleading. This film really should be called Harley Quinn and the Birds of Prey because it’s Harley’s movie first, and a Birds of Prey introduction second. So, adjust your expectations over who is more likely to get the most screen time here.

On to the film itself. Birds of Prey is a lot of fun. It does take a while to find its groove and that’s down to the multiple flashbacks that often grind the flow of the film to a halt, especially towards the beginning when you just want to follow these characters who all seem so interesting. Birds of Prey is a story told from Harley Quinn’s point of view, she narrates the story and interrupts herself now and then when she realises she’s skipped a bit. The narrative is often as chaotic and fractured as Harley’s mind which is equal parts interesting and jarring.

The start of Birds of Prey is more of a character study of Harley. She and the Joker have broken up and she’s struggling to get over him and find her who she is when she’s not tied to him. With all the gangsters, criminals and cops out to get her now she’s no longer under the Joker’s protection, Harley must think quick on her feet. It turns out that Harley isn’t as defenceless and as in need of protection as a lot of people think, of if she does need or want help, it’s not going to be from the men who seek to control her. Margot Robbie’s Harley has so many layers and insecurities and strengths and it’s refreshing to see a character like her work through the pain of a breakup and find an inner resolve.

The five main female characters cross each other’s paths in different combinations throughout the film which is great as you get to see different aspects of their personality depending on who they’re with. But it’s in the final act when they finally all come together to take down the bad guys that the film really clicks. It’s an absolute joy to watch them all fight side by side, have banter in between punches and generally compliment and encourage each other at any chance they get.

The fight choreography is brilliant as each character’s fighting style suits their character and no woman fights the same. Harley’s incorporates gymnastic elements, Huntress’s is clean and precise after so many years relentlessly training, while Renee’s is more like a bruiser, throwing punches and is far from elegant. The fight sequences are also fun and innovative with the soundtrack (which is full of absolute tunes) complimenting the action on screen.

While there’s a lot of bad guys for the leading ladies to overcome, the main threat to them all is Roma Sionis. He is volatile, menacing and dramatic. He’s the sort of character you never quite know what he’s going to do next and McGregor gives a great performance. Sionis’ right hand man is Victor Zsasz (Chris Messina) and their relationship comes across as queer coded and there’s often shifts in power dynamics between the two of them which is as fascinating as it is unnerving.

Birds of Prey is a bit shaky at times, but the characters and the action pull everything together. It’s a bright, psychedelic fairground of a film with paint bombs and glitter and it suits these characters perfectly. 4/5.

REVIEW: The Great Debaters (2007)

At the Wiley College Texas in 1935 Professor Melvin Tolson (Denzel Washington) who inspired his students and with the school’s debate team, went on to challenge Harvard in the national championship.

The Great Debaters is one of those inspiring films that though the characters go through their trials ultimately there’s hope for a better tomorrow. It’s the brilliant yet politically radical Tolson that helps his students finds their voices and put together their arguments. He’s the leading force for this team but, through his guidance, each member of the debate team finds their own way.

Set against the backdrop of racial segregation, Jim Crow laws and prejudice, The Great Debaters show how a small group of young people were given confidence in their abilities and fight to make themselves heard. The fact this debate team not only beat every team from African American colleges, but also went on to go toe to toe with white-only colleges is commendable and how the characters grapple with that pressure is clear to see.

The debate team consists of Hamilton Burgess (Jermaine Williams) Samantha Booke (Jurnee Smollett-Bell), Henry Lowe (Nate Parker) and James Farmer Jr. (Denzel Whitaker). All the young actors give great performances, but a special mention goes to Denzel Whitaker who plays a young man who at fourteen is at least five years younger than his fellow debaters and it’s through his eyes we see a lot of the film.

Forest Whitaker plays James’ father, a minister and teacher, and their relationship is sometimes fraught but it’s also one of respect. Farmer Sr. and Tolson have conflicting ideas about things like unionising and what they should teach their students, and it’s interesting to see how two educated and progressive men can have conflicting ideologies but still be open to a healthy debate on them.

The Great Debaters is the second film Denzel Washington directed and it proves him to be talented behind the camera as he allows emotional moments to linger and trusts his actor’s performances in the close ups of their faces. The scenes of the different debates leave you enthralled as you watch these young people argue their side with passion. There are a lot of great lines that come from the debates but one that sticks on is: “No, the time for justice, the time for freedom, and the time for equality is always, is always right now!”

The Great Debaters is based on a true story and it does follow a lot of the typical story beats one might have, but that makes it no less enjoyable or uplifting. It is full of great, rousing speeches from Denzel Washington and it never shies away from the harsh realities so many people faced in the 1930s. 4/5.