From the first murky shots of a bayou night to its total surprise
ending, Strange Fruit carries us on a tide of suspense, with the added pleasure that fully developed characters that are black folks anchor this film’s center.
William Boyles is an up-and-coming New York City lawyer called back to his Louisiana home when his cousin, Kelvin, is viciously murdered in a
torture-lynching. Strange Fruit has a John Grisham novel’s flavor of unrepentant small-town Southern bigotry, corrupt law enforcement and a hideous crime that reveals everyone’s true character. The difference is that Strange Fruit‘s hero is not only African American, but he’s gay and the murder he’s trying to solve was a hate crime about same-sex love rather than false accusations of rape.
Writer/director Kyle Schickner has a sure hand that knows when to
tighten the tension, yet he never loses focus on creating people we inevitably care about. This is his third feature film (previously he made Full Frontal and A Rose By Any Other Name ) with his company, Fencesitter Films. Schikner spent the early 1990s writing and directing off-Braodway plays and is also known as a bisexual activist.
Kent Faulcon’s William is sophisticated, smart, and drop-dead handsome in his Armani suits. (You might have seen him in major roles in Solaris, American Beauty, Men in Black, Die Hard With A Vengence and other films or in recurring roles on TV’s Soul Food, NYPD Blue, Girlfriends, Charmed, and guest appearences eleswhere). He’s got confidence to burn but also communicates an undercurrent of loss that seeps out unexpectedly, in spite of his stoic armor. His hometown return ultimately becomes just as much about facing his family as it does about finding justice for his friend.
William’s cousin/sidekick, Duane, is played with crackling comic timing by David Raibon, a Houston cop turned standup comic and actor seen on BET’s Comic View and It’s Showtime at the Apollo, plus HBO’s Six Feet Under, and Just Shoot Me. Slipping effortlessly into drama, Raibon expresses Dwayne’s awkward balance between uncomfortableness about both his dead brother’s and Williams homosexuality and the fierce loyalty of “being blood”. Fan’s of FX’s The Shield know what he’s capable of in his role as Van Bro, the paralyzed ex-gang member.
Most known for playing Jenny on The Jeffersons, Berlinda Tolbert plays William’s Aunt Emma and Duane’s mother. Her range from outraged grief to a rock of tolernace for her dead son and William’s “difference” is the emotional core of the film. But, William’s 10-year absence from his hometown is a result of the reality that most of his family and friends couldn’t accept that one of the most popular young men they ever knew turned out to be a “punk”. Strange Fruit doesn’t flinch from facing homophobia whether by redneck cops or African Americans.
In a small but significant role, Harace Carpenter plays Buddy Bleu, an 60-something black man whose gay bar is “the only place we can be ourselves here”. He’s worth the price of admission.
Sam Jones is the quintessential Southern Sheriff, with deputies that match him in near caricature. But, William’s confident confrontations with these buffoons gives the satisfaction that equals Sidney Poiter’s in In The Heat of the Night and are sure to bring cheers. Christopher May plays a deputy that William went to high school with and makes the most of his longest scene to poignantly tell an everyday story that’s rarely told.
The music is beautifully used, with regular dollops of blues. Schickner’s Strange Fruit gets hold of you and doesn’t let go until its shocking end—a conclusion that deserves more time than it gets. For those who feel there is one acceptable bigotry—that is bias against against GLBT people—suspect that Schickner felt only a punch to the gut might open minds. Strange Fruitis solid entertainment for straight and gay audiences alike with marvelous performances by actors that Hollywood should be making more scripts for. Don’t miss it.
Strange Fruit, Sat. June 24, 7pm, Part of Queer Takes, June 21-24, Walker Art Center, 1750 Hennipen Ave,(next to the Sculpture garden) MInneapolis, $8/$6 Walker members 612/575-7600 www.walkerart.org.