film note: Blind Faith

Ernest Dickerson's lost near-masterpiece starring Charles Dutton is overdue for a restoration and re-distribution.

I went into this late 90s Showtime original movie cold. I’m not even sure what made me give it a try among the hundreds of films that catch my attention. It might have been my interest in seeing a feature film by Ernest Dickerson whose direction I’d admired in several TV series, including The Wire, The Walking Dead, Dexter, and most recently for HBO’s wonderful New-Orleans-set Treme.

Dickerson was also the cinematographer for several Spike Lee movies, notably Do The Right Thing and Malcolm X. So I knew he had chops. But I was blindsided by the emotional impact of this powerful film which is part courtroom-procedural and part family-melodrama.

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Set principally in the Bronx, c. 1957, the film details the trial of 18-year-old Charlie Williams, who at the beginning of the movie, under mysterious and vague circumstances that don’t become clear until much later, kills an Irish boy in a park near his home. His uncle John, a criminal lawyer, ends up defending him.

I was taken by surprise not only by the secrets revealed in the plot and what they say about social standards, racial tensions, black family dynamics and gender, but in the commitment to shooting and acting styles straight out of its period. There are parts of Blind Faith that reminded me of I Want To Live!, from 1958, and many of the chiaroscuro prison and police-station scenes are shot like noir. In fact, the film probably should have been in black and white.

Despite its power, the film has flaws, mostly in the performances. Only Charles Dutton, as Charles Williams, Charlie’s cop-father, has the chops and gravitas to put over his character, and the supporting cast is sometimes left blubbering or bawling or blustering unconvincingly.

Nevertheless, there are two harrowing back-to-back scenes that alone are worth watching the whole film for: When young Charlie finally confesses what really happened that night in the park, and when his father finally finds out. It’s hair-raising.

It’s a shame that this film isn’t available on DVD but you can find it on Amazon as a VHS tape.

Or watch it here in poor quality.

A lost near-masterpiece.

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