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The International Writers Magazine

Everyday People
Directed by Jim McKay
Dan Schnieder

In 2004 HBO Films decided to try their hand at the polemical subject of race in New York. Usually, this results in ill wrought PC material like Spike Lee's 1989 fantasy, Do The Right Thing. Instead, they crafted an improvisational workshop concoction called Everyday People, about the closing of a fictive Jewish deli and restaurant called Raskin's in the heart of Brooklyn.

And, the truth is, it's not a bad film. Is it great? No. Is it in a league with such classic New York films as Manhattan or My Dinner With Andre? No. But it is Do The Right Thing admixed with last year's Oscar winner, Crash; except that it's better written. Yes, it is a film filled with vignettes, and some don't work, but about three quarters of them work well enough for me to recommend the film.

Part of the reason is that the film is sans stars. There are no recognizable names nor faces, so the characters 'feel' real. Their speech patterns and body movements are real, and the whole thing plays out more as a working class slice of life- for the film is set over the course of a single Friday, than a film about race. It was written and directed by Jim McKay (Girl's Town, Our Song), and it shows that he has potential for still greater fare. The film that it reminded me of was a 1990s Harvey Keitel film called Smoke, where the Keitel character snaps photos of the same Brooklyn street corner for years, at the same time of day, and the resultant 'movie' gives a time lapse feel of a changing world. Well, compress that concept into a day, in many places about a restaurant, and that's what this film is.

There are no main characters, just an ensemble, and how they deal with the impending closing of the diner. The film ends with many things still up in the air, after the son of the diner's owner, named Ira Raskin (Jordan Gelber), decides not to close the place, refuses the big bucks from a developer named Ron - whose clients include Banana Republic and the Hard Rock Café, and then regrets that decision. The 'ending' is really just life as usual. Ira is shown as a man with heart, but insecurities and biases.

There is a black waitress/poetaster, Erin (Sydnee Stewart) who dreams of living off earnings on a Def Jam poetry slam tour- yet her 'poetry' is sub-Maya Angelou greeting card level. Her beau is a scumbag and her mom a corporate harpy. Her mom (Iris Little-Thomas) works with Ron, who alternates as a good and bad guy. He's a good guy when he encounters a black con artist named Akbar (Reg E. Cathey), who tries to sell him on refried Marcus Garvey schtick, and denigrates him by calling him Kunta Kinte- the lead character in Alex Haley's Roots. Akbar then racially abuses a white counter girl at the deli when he wrongly counts the change he received back. Later, Akbar is mocked by some young street thugs who, still later in the film, cold cock Ron, who is headed back to Raskin's to try to convince Ira to sell, again, after he abused the man for refusing to sell, when he was in corporate bad guy mode. He ends up in a terrific conversation with an older black lady (Verna O. Hobson) with a blue drink who actually comes on to him, but not before chiding him over wanting to close Raskin's, and telling him how important a place like the restaurant is. Hers is the film's tag line. She tells Ron, 'You can't wash out all the color and keep the flavor' of a neighborhood. This is a bit of mythologizing that goes on about the urban neighborhood's demise, similar to small town America's hagiographizing, but it works well in the context the woman utters it.

Then there are bald Sol (Stephen Axelrod), a dishwasher who was a doctor turned junky turned convict- who internalizes his rage until he quits in disgust and returns to his support group, and Victor (Victor Pagan)- a waiter who worries over supporting his three children. Another arc follows Samel (Billoah Greene), a young black waiter off to Howard University. His best scene comes when an older white man named John (Jack O'Connell) tries to make conversation with him over a crossword puzzle. He is initially hostile, but comes to see the old man as real, when parts of their life histories are exchanged. John laments that 'We all want to better than our fathers.' He is also lusted after by the counter girl abused by Akbar. Her name is Joleen (Bridget Barkan). She is a mediocre looking white girl who lusts for black guys, and has- of course, a mixed race child out of wedlock. With news of Raskin's closing, she is looking into working as a stripper. That she's not pretty enough is manifest, but hers is probably the performance with the most range. Not far behind, however, is the performance of Stephen Henderson, as the restaurant's long time maitre d', Arthur. He's a man in flux who shows range in small scenes- on the telephone, in a bathroom, and in walking past a smashed bottle of ketchup.

While the camera work is very ordinary, mostly with a handheld camera, there is an intriguing film score by Marc Anthony Thompson, a.k.a. Chocolate Genius, a singer songwriter who plays a singer songwriter named Marc, who performs at the restaurant that night. The DVD has only two extras- a short script to screen featurette, The Process, and a full length audio commentary by McKay and executive producer Nelson George. It is not as fellatric as the usual DVD commentaries from Hollywood, but there is little of import to be gleaned, that the small featurette does not already tell you. However, there are some tidbits, and a few explanations of how scenes changed through improve, so it's worth a listen.

My only lament over Everyday People is that the scenes that do not work, which get a little too speechy and preachy, seem to have come, from McKay's own admission, the improv process. Any artist has to have a real vision of their art. Without it, it gets ungainly and formless, which mars parts of this film. A better screenwriter could have tightened this film up into something excellent, perhaps even great, rather than merely being good. Nonetheless, when it is good, the film is quite good, and much better than Do The Right Thing or Crash. Sometimes, especially when you just want to relax and watch a 'little' movie- one sans graphic sex and/or violence, that's more than enough.
© Dan Schneider Feb 2007

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