|Elimu Nelson (left) and Shanola Hampton|
in a tense scene from "Things Never Said"
CodeBlack Entertainment is the first independent, vertically-integrated, African-American-owned, film studio. It's independent because it's not controlled or gets the majority of its funding from the "Big Six," which are Sony Pictures, Warner Bros., Walt Disney, Universal, 20th Century Fox and Paramount. It's vertically-integrated because it handles film production, distribution and marketing all by itself. It was founded by Jeff Clanagan nearly ten years ago. Lionsgate, which is the most commercially successful, independent film and television company, partnered with CodeBlack to extend its reach among the black and urban community.
Things Never Said is the most recent film distributed by CodeBlack. It is the brain-child of writer-director Charles Murray. It is in fact Murray's feature debut. Prior to this, Murray was mainly a TV writer and producer for numerous, police-procedural shows, such as Third Watch on NBC, Criminal Minds on CBS and Castle on ABC. This film is very far removed from those worlds. It's more of a personal and intimate expression of love and love loss.
It stars Shanola Hampton who plays Kalindra Stepney who works at a café and nightclub in Los Angeles. The clubs host poets and spoken word artists. Kalindra is herself an aspiring poet and spoken word artist. She has the opportunity to go to New York City and perform at the Nuyorican, which is one of the most famous venues for aspiring poets.
Elimu Nelson co-stars as Ronnie Stepney, Kalindra's husband who works as a gas station attendant. Looking at him, he's a tall, handsome, well-built man who you might assume was some kind of athlete. Truth is he was, but an injury cut short his basketball career and now he struggles with money as well as with a short temper. He even tells Kalindra that he doesn't want her to go to New York. For one, he doesn't think they can afford it and for two, he has issues with her being away from him.
Omari Hardwick co-stars as Curtis Jackson. He's an aspiring poet too. He's not really aspiring. He certainly has experience and a passion for it, but there is a wall that he's put up that is blocking or has stopped him from continuing a pursuit of it. It stems from an incident in his past that he's reluctant to put out there initially. He meets and falls for Kalindra after visiting his older brother Will, played by Michael Beach, who is a bartender at Kalindra's favorite spot.
On the surface, Murray depicts the gravitational pull that brings Kalindra and Curtis together, while simultaneously tearing Kalindra and Ronnie apart. It's a heart-wrenching back-and-forth that is perhaps the best love triangle involving African-Americans or any ethnicity that has come along in a while, certainly since the last film featuring Omari Hardwick, which was Ava DuVernay's Middle of Nowhere (2012).
There are several powerful undercurrents, which are driven by the love and use of poetry. It reminded me of Love Jones (1997). Except, it's not simply about the miscommunications, misunderstandings and jealousies between couples. Things Never Said tackles the issue of domestic abuse and how for women they often can't or don't get to speak what's in their hearts. Without histrionics or too much showboating, Murray conveys that message, and speaking of movies with Omari Hardwick, this film is what For Colored Girls tried to be.
It even has a great turn by Charlayne Woodard who plays Kalindra's equally-abused but highly religious mother. Woodard accomplishes in more subtle ways what Whoopi Goldberg hit in For Colored Girls.
There are great supporting performances from Michael Beach, as the concerned and overly protective brother, and Tamala Jones, as Kalindra's bubbly, best friend Daphne, who Murray took from his TV shows, Third Watch and Castle respectively. Dorian Missick who plays Daphne's husband Steve only has two scenes but does such a good job that he's still very much memorable.
Murray shoots and directs this film with such warmth and passion. It helps that Hampton, Nelson and Hardwick are three of the sexiest people on Earth. Yet, Murray's cinematography is in itself sexy. A dance in blue light is a clear example. The way he frames and edits Hampton and Hardwick as they deliver their poems is intimate and involving as well.
A lot of that poetry delivery has to do with their performances. Hardwick is a poet and spoken word artist in real-life, so he's a natural. Hampton, however, is so raw and genuine that she is just a knockout, regardless of never having done it before. The first evidence of Hampton's power comes in a wordless montage, which Murray affectionately refers to as the Pixar Up montage, but the penultimate scene has such heartbreak, anger, love and a whole range of emotion that it's a shock to me that the NAACP Image Awards or even the Spirit Awards didn't recognize her.
Five Stars out of Five.
Rated R for pervasive language and some sexual content.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 51 mins.