Brown Paper Bag

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2019

Knuckle Sandwich Productions/Indie Rights

Written and Directed by Detdrich McClure

Produced by David Douglas/Kiarra Graves/Raymond James Herrera/LaCora Stephens/Detdrich McClure

Music by Jairo Duarte-Lopez/Michael Eremiasova

Cinematography by Adam Gan

Edited by Brian Uskokovich

When Patricia and I get together in the evenings to watch a movie I like to let her pick what we watch. Which usually gets her steamed because I’m supposed to be the movie expert. But I’m more likely to pick out a movie based on the actor and/or director, producer, screenwriter. Patricia operates on pure instinct. Which oftentimes results in us watching something unique that I would never have thought of watching. She’ll scroll through the movie on Amazon Prime or Netflix until something for whatever reason catches her eye and she’ll say; “Let’s watch that.”

So it’s a crap shoot. Sometimes we’ll end up watching a real stinker (“How It Ends”) and sometimes we’ll enjoy a really sweet and charming family comedy drama (“A Picture of You”). And then we end up watching something like BROWN PAPER BAG which is the sort of movie that black people are talking about when they say they want to see black movies they haven’t seen before but generally ignore. And it’s a shame. Because despite its obvious low budget, this story of a black actor turned detective in 1940s Hollywood has its heart and soul in the right place. It’s no “Farewell, My Lovely” or “Chinatown” or “Devil With A Blue Dress” but its a movie that does its best to invoke the spirit of those private eye classics. And as I’ve said in other reviews of independent films I’ve seen, I appreciate a movie where it’s obvious the cast and crew believed in what they were doing, the story they are telling and a lot of times, that transcends a low budget.

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Archie Glass (Rasheed Stephens) comes to Hollywood in 1942 with a heart full of hope and a head full of dreams. Despite the fact that the best roles a black actor can get at the studios is playing a maid, a porter, a butler or the comedic sidekick, Archie is convinced that things are the verge of changing and he wants to be there when they do. Archie does manage to get his foot in the door at Victory Studios. But due to a misunderstanding involving a little white girl and an apple, Archie is kicked off the lot and blacklisted.

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Archie comes up with a desperate plan to get back into the movies. Mona Lane (Amanda Holquin) the biggest star at Victory Studios has been kidnapped. Or has she? There’s a rumor that she actually ran off with her lover, a black musician named Tweet Jackson. But there’s a ransom demand. One that the head of Victor Studios, Mr. Wingate (Caesar James) has no intention of paying. But he wants his meal ticket back. So Archie strikes a bargain with Wingate; he’ll find Mona since he can go into black neighborhoods and ask questions Wingate’s thugs can’t go in and ask. In return, Wingate will lift the blacklist. And it’s not long before Archie is running into a series of dangerously shady characters who all have one strong piece of advice for him. Advice they back up with guns and violence: Stop Looking For Mona Lane. But in the best tradition of these types of hard boiled detective stories, the more Archie looks for Mona, the more he wants to find her to satisfy his own growing curiosity as to why nobody wants him to find her.

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Rasheed Stephens is in practically every scene in the movie and he carries it on his back with style. One of the best things about this movie is seeing how he loses his naivety as the doomed hunt for Mona Lane grows increasingly darker and more dangerous. Archie gradually has to adopt a new worldview and understanding of his place as a black man in this world he started out so eagerly wanting to be a part of. And by the end of the movie there’s the definite feeling of regret in the choices he made. Rasheed Stephens conveys all this extremely well. I also liked how Archie tries to use his acting skills to bullshit his way through his somewhat fumbling investigation. Which made me think that the choice of his last name of Glass was not random as everybody he questions can see right through him.

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Tiara Parker is a standout as Sandra, Archie’s cabaret singer girlfriend who has been in Hollywood longer than Archie. Long enough to know how things really work and smart enough to know that she’s got to let Archie find it out for himself, even if it jeopardizes their relationship. Rashawn E. Vaughn is also extremely good as the comedian Ennis Matthews who has pivotal information Archie needs to find Mona but ends up giving the novice detective an extraordinary life lesson as well.

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For a long time, I’ve been lamenting that nobody does Old School Private Eye anymore in movies. And then along comes a movie like BROWN PAPER BAG to restore my faith. Archie Glass is an interesting enough character that I definitely would like to see more of him as the notion of a black private eye in 1940s Hollywood is flat out terrific. Being made in 2019 the movie can address the racial issues of that era head on in a way movies back in the 1940s couldn’t and BROWN PAPER BAG does indeed address those issues and doesn’t pull punches. It’s as much an examination of how black actors and actresses were treated in Hollywood then as it is a hardboiled detective story. So be advised that there’s plenty of use of the “N” word but not in a gratuitous way. I highly recommend you give the movie a try. Just overlook the limitations of the low budget and I think you’ll enjoy it as much as we did.

93 Minutes

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