Interracial love rules! Humanity sucks! Women usually get the shaft in Hollywood, so it's refreshing to see that both Angelina Jolie's In the Land of Blood and Honey and Todd Graff's Joyful Noise present their stories from the perspective of strong female characters.
In the Land of Blood and Honey, Jolie's debut as a narrative director -- she also wrote and shared in producing -- follows Ajla (Zana Marjanovic) as she struggles to survive the atrocities committed from 1992-1995 during the Bosnian war. She's Bosnian, but also a Muslim, and thus has been imprisoned along with thousands of other Muslim women in prison camps run by the Serbians, who are carrying out a program of "ethnic cleansing" (i.e. genocide).
Conditions are horrendous; the woman are raped and brutally beaten on a continuing basis by their Serbian captors, who take delight in gunning down Muslim civilians, including woman and children. Ajla is spared much of the physical torture suffered by her fellow prisoners because of her relationship with Danijel (Goran Kostic), a Serbian soldier who has been placed in charge of the camp.
Ajla and Danijel knew each other before the war, and were in the early stages of romance, but time has passed and circumstances, obviously, have changed dramatically. How will they each adapt? Is there any future for a relationship forged during such incredibly divisive times?
As the film gets underway, church choir director Bernard Sparrow (Kris Kristofferson) unexpectedly dies during a performance, leaving a vacancy that the church decides to fill with Vi Rose Hill (Queen Latifah), the longtime assistant director. G.G. (Dolly Parton), Bernard's widow, is none too pleased, since she coveted the position and is a longtime rival of Vi Rose.
The musical comedy Joyful Noise is set in the modern-day small town of Pacashau, Georgia (in the southern part of the United States), where the residents enjoy multi-racial peace and harmony, despite harsh economic conditions that have forced the closure of many local businesses.
Vi Rose is resistant to change, which frustrates her teenage daughter Olivia (Keke Palmer), who is a magnificent gospel singer with a burning desire to sing modern pop tunes. Trouble comes to town with the arrival of Randy (Jeremy Jordan), G.G.'s grandson, who's been kicked out by his mother. He's immediately attracted to Olivia and, what do you know, he too is a great vocalist with a burning desire to sing modern pop songs! How will they adapt to change? Is there any future for a relationship forged during such musically divisive times?
Joyful Noise is resolutely conservative, teaching respect for all authority figures, especially parents, and God, who is evidently OK with premarital sex for adults and profanity for all. It's very much a religiously-infused film, with characters stopping to pray on a regular basis and invoking God when making decisions and questioning their paths in life. As noted, sex is OK for consenting adults of legal age; the teens in the film must be satisfied with kissing in public.
The story functions as a framework for the musical numbers, which are divided among the main characters in very equitable fashion -- both Vi Rose and G.G. get to do solos, for example -- with the highlights intended to rouse audiences. The movie played very well to its target audience at an advance screening, but is unlikely to convert any non-believers (i.e. folks who are not religiously-inclined gospel / pop music lovers).
What stuck with me, however, was the interracial love on display without comment. Randy is Caucasian and Olivia is African-American, and no one in the small Southern town cares about their racial differences. When an African-American teen challenges Randy, it's not because of the color of his skin, but because his manhood has been called into question (he thinks). Neither does anyone make a big deal of the racial differences between at least two other couples; each has problems that have nothing to do with race.
Joyful Noise may be idealized -- I haven't traveled through rural Georgia in recent years -- but it stands in stark contrast to the religious differences that strand Bosnians and Serbs on opposite sides of a chain-link fence. Danijel's father, General Nebojsa (Rade Serbedzija) reminds his son that the Serbs have always persevered despite their own persecution, and says that they are acting in retaliation for what the Muslims have done.
In the quiet of a bedroom, though, nationalities can be set aside, and the sexual act can serve to bond two people together despite their religious differences. But then the morning light comes, and someone is naked and ordinary, and everything is as it was.
Women are raped and tortured, beaten into submission, by men with guns, and it makes anyone with common sense and decency despair for humanity. While it remains focused on the atrocities committed, In the Land of Blood and Honey is unflinching and infuriating; Jolie evokes emotions honestly, through brutal visual depictions of violence against women. The film treads onto less certain terrain when trying to reduce the war to a conflict between Ajla and Danijel; it's too much of a burden to place on characters to expect them to be effective stand-ins for two warring sides.
Still, In the Land of Blood and Honey is effective and retains a good deal of its power after the credits roll. Audiences may be roused, but it will not be with noise that is joyful.
In the Land of Blood and Honey is now playing in limited release in the U.S., and expands further on Fri. Jan. 13. Joyful Noise opens nationwide on Friday. Check local listings for theaters and showtimes.