“They sacrificed GEORGIA to save her soul” says the poster art for GEORGIA GEORGIA, a rare Maya Angelou-scripted racial drama finally out on DVD from Scorpion Releasing.
Black singer Georgia Martin (Diana Sands, A RAISIN IN THE SUN) is the most popular American singer in Europe. Arriving in Stockholm with her matronly companion Abigail Anderson (Minnie Gentry, THE BROTHER FROM ANOTHER PLANET) and her agent Herbert (Roger Furman), she surprises the foreign press in her lack of concern or awareness political and racial issues in the United States (she asks the interviewers to restrict their questions to “music, singing, love, and romance” as anything else bores her). In between performances, she finds times to fall in love with white American photojournalist Michael Winters (THE A TEAM’s Dirk Benedict), but Abigail would rather see her with Bobo (Terry Whitmore, Peter Watkins’ THE GLADIATORS), one of a handful of African-American Vietnam deserters in Stockholm who want Georgia to draw media attention to their plight (lack of work and access to medical and psychiatric care). Although frivolous and carefree on the outside, Georgia is really a neurotic wreck with an extremely fragmented sense of self; yet Michael seems to accept Georgia as she is (although he seems to be more capable of hiding his own deep neuroses behind his camera). When Bobo – who has had Georgia tailed around the city – tells Abigail that Georgia and Michael have been seen together, the older woman vehemently objects to what she sees as a betrayal of their entire race.
The New York Times described the film as being about “a black woman with white fever” but the interracial love story is more like the tipping point. Georgia isn’t a very involving protagonist for the first half of the film; her internal conflicts are signified onscreen more by the sparring of Abigail (who tells Bobo that Georgia has nearly “kicked the habit” of being black and that she tries to keep her on it) and Herbert (who regards Georgia as royalty and everyone else, black or white, as “little people”). “Black women have never been known to turn their backs on the responsibilities, not in history,” Abigail says when Georgia orders her to find something else to do while she is trying to work, but the old woman has firm ideas on what Georgia’s responsibilities are, including helping Bobo and the other defectors (especially after witnessing how direly in need one of them is of psychological help). When Georgia makes utters such trailer-ready lines like “Why do they wanna make me superhuman? Why can’t I be just plain Georgia?” or “I’m a woman, not black, not famous, not beholden to a living, just a woman!” one could interpret that as reflecting a side of Angelou in an earlier time still trying to find herself outside of the expectations others have of her as a famous black personage. When Herbert suggests Georgia sing a blues number to please the audience, she replies “Why don’t I just blacken my face and call myself Mammy” which greatly offends Abigail, who thinks of herself as a kind of motherly figure but not in the derogatory sense (Georgia tells Herbert that she keeps Abigail around as a reminder of what she escaped). Suggesting that the chilling finale is racially-motivated would almost seem like a justification, when it might be more appropriate to describe it as the tragic results of hate (one person dies, but all of the principal characters are destroyed even if we only see the direct results on two of them in the last scene).
Broadway actress Sands, who died of cancer in 1973 at age 39 a few days into the shoot of CLAUDINE (she was replaced by Diahann Carroll), has several fine moments in a never fully cohesive performance (understandable given the character’s almost schizophrenically changeable moods). Benedict – who gets an “and introducing” credit here – is underserved by a script that fails to balance out his side of the relationship (according to both director and actor in the disc’s commentary track, at least six of his scenes were cut out of the final producer-supervised edit). We are not given anything on Michael’s immediate background – including how he came to be in Stockholm – and what we are shown of him outside of his scenes with Georgia seem like unfinished trims of sequences (attending a park concert, visiting a nightclub, pacing around his apartment). We don’t know if he is a deserter too, but we know he saw combat and he is somehow psychologically or physically damaged (early in the film, Bobo jokes to his buddies that Michael’s experiences have rendered him impotent). Commentary moderator Steven Ryfle points out that Cinerama Releasing’s early press materials for the film made no mention of Sands’ character, only referencing a Vietnam Vet who falls in love in Stockholm (Ryfle also reveals that Cinerama was uncomfortable with the interracial aspect and wanted Michael’s character rewritten as a black man). GEORGIA GEORGIA was Gentry’s first film, but she had begun her acting career on the stage in the thirties with the Karamu Theater (an African-American theater company in Cleveland). Her performance here is unsubtle but ultimately unnerving. Furman began his career in the forties with the American Negro Theater (GEORGIA GEORGIA was one of only two films he in which he appeared). The gay characterization of Herbert is refreshingly free of "queeny" or self-loathing clichés of the period, and the script doesn’t reduce the complexity of his character to sexual frustration. Whitmore, a real-life GI who deserted Vietnam after being injured in a fire-fight, penned the book MEMPHIS-NAM-SWEDEN about his experiences, although I’m not sure how helpful the final cut may have been to his cause. Diana Kjaer – star of Mac Ahlberg’s FANNY HILL and Vernon P. Becker’s DAGMAR’S HOT PANTS – plays a local girl whose dalliance with Michael goes nowhere.
GEORGIA GEORGA was one of three productions by Irish-American Quentin Kelly and African-American Jack Jordan, whose company aimed to produce prestige black films. They had previously enlisted African-American directors Bill Gunn to script and helm the arty vampire film GANJA & HESS and Michael Schultz (SEARGEANT PEPPER’S LONELY HEARTS CLUB BAND and THE LAST DRAGON) to direct HONEYBABY, HONEYBABY, which also featured Sands along with Calvin Lockhart (THE BEAST MUST DIE). For GEORGIA GEORGIA, they commissioned writer/composer/dancer/actress/lecturer Maya Angelou to write a screenplay. Angelou had studied cinematography in Sweden – so she was familiar with the setting – but had little to do hands-on with the film’s production, which was helmed by Swedish film critic Stig Bjorkman (although Bjorkman mentions in the commentary that Angelou was on location and clashed with him on his preference for improvisation). He had only directed on feature prior to GEORGIA GEORGIA, and of the six subsequent films he directed between 1972 and 1985, only THE WHITE WALL (with Bergman actress Harriet Andersson) seems to be the only other one that had any sort of US distribution. Bjorkman’s later efforts have been documentaries on filmmakers, including TRANCEFORMER on Lars Van Trier (featured in its entirety on Criterion’s DVD of THE ELEMENT OF CRIME), I AM CURIOUS, FILM on Vigot Sjoman, and …BUT FILM IS MY MISTRESS on Ingmar Bergman. He has also written the Faber & Faber books on Woody Allen and Lars Van Trier, as well as a Michelangelo Antonioni book for Cahiers du Cinema.
GEORGIA GEORGIA was originally released on VHS in the states by Prism Entertainment (whose catalog included a range of Cinerama Releasing product) with box art that emphasized Benedict’s presence (as the star of BATTLESTAR GALLACTICA). Opening with a Cinerama Releasing logo, Scorpion’s single-layer, progressive, anamorphic widescreen (1.78:1) transfer of GEORGIA GEORGIA is attractive though appropriately soft and grainy for Swedish Super 16mm low budget seventies production (cinematographer Rune Ericson – developer of the format – is credited as technical consultant). Some scratches and dings are apparent, but the bulk of the presentation is very clean. Colors are somewhat muted, but that is more by design than the condition of the element (Sands’ red outfits – and her fingernails – really pop in every shot, and the red-gelled nightclub scenes seem otherworldly in contrast with the bright exteriors and the stark whiteness of Georgia’s hotel suite). The film was photographed by Greek cinematographer Andreas Bellis who shot a number of Scandinavian exploitation films including I, A WOMAN PART II, THE SECOND COMING OF EVA, and THRILLER (he would also star in Bo Arne Vibenius’ hardcore BREAKING POINT). From the eighties onward, Bellis would become Nico Mastorakis’ DP of choice. Some long shots look like they would be better framed at the 1.66:1 aspect ratio, but the film would have been matted further to 1.85:1 for US theatrical projection. The Dolby Digital mono track is also in clean, although the most of the music seems rather recessed into the mix; that is, until Georgia performs “I Can Call Down Rain” and the music takes on a bolder presence (the same can be said for the end titles rendition of “This Little Light of Mine” which makes it even more disturbing in context).
Director Stig Bjorkman and actor Dirk Benedict appear on a commentary track, moderated by film critic Steven Ryfle. Benedict and Bjorkman point out missing scenes and footage present that Bjorkman left out of his final cut. Bjorkman was more interested in the love story, and wanted to balance both sides with some background for Benedict’s character. The producers (and Angelou) wanted to emphasize the political angle and integrated every scrap of related footage back into the film, which was re-edited by Hugh Robertson – credited as “editorial consultant” – the first African American editor nominated for an Oscar (original editor Sten-Göran Camitz is listed in the end credits). Benedict feels that his character was underwritten and that the political angle was over-emphasized for a film about an apolitical black woman abruptly falling in love with a white guy in Stockholm. A well-researched Ryfle keeps the discussion flowing with questions that focus more on the film’s themes than shooting anecdotes (although Benedict and Bjorkman are scandalously candid about their working relationship with Sands). A behind the scenes photo gallery is also included, which is all the more interesting because the stills provided by actor Benedict. The only trailer that Scorpion could find for the film was a Spanish or Mexican trailer (2:37) – titled PRISIONERA DE SU DESTINO – with English dialogue subtitled in Spanish and Spanish narration and onscreen text. No other Scorpion Releasing trailers are included. (Eric Cotenas)
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