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The Disaster Artist shows truly bad cinema, like its opposite, is born of sincerity and vision

James Franco’s film tells the bewildering story of The Room, generally considered the world’s worst movie.

Civilisations gone by had their own ways of marking the passing of time and we have ours. You can always tell the year is coming to a close, for instance, when there is another Star Wars film on the horizon that isn’t being screened to critics until after the Christmas issue of the New Statesman has gone to print. (Stop by the website any time from 12 December to discover whether The Last Jedi is as good as Rogue One or a snooze like The Force Awakens.) Distributors know better than to release their prime product around a Star Wars movie, which is why this can be a good time for more eccentric fare. Two new releases, both concerning renegade directors whose enthusiasm outstrips their skill set, fit into that category.

The Disaster Artist is a straight-arrow biopic of a wayward talent: the actor-producer-director Tommy Wiseau, the nearest thing cinema has to a William McGonagall or Florence Foster Jenkins. He’s the man responsible for, or guilty of, The Room, which is generally considered the world’s worst movie, at least now that no one talks any more about Plan 9 from Outer Space, Frankenhooker or early-1990s Kenneth Branagh.

Truly bad cinema, like its opposite, is born of sincerity and vision. And Tommy is not short of those qualities, as proved by The Room, a high-intensity drama full of non-sequiturs, robotic acting and tonal shifts as smooth as handbrake turns. James Franco, who directs The Disaster Artist, plays him in all his dented glory: Pete Burns tresses, his disposition to the darker side of Richard III, one eye scrunched, the other squinting. Tommy sustained facial injuries in a mysterious car crash – indeed, everything about him is mysterious, from his birthplace to the provenance of the fortune that enabled him to fund The Room to the tune of $5m – and his vocal cords might have been involved in a pile-up too. Always either slurring or caterwauling, he gets by mostly without consonants. Subtitles would spoil the fun.

Tommy begins as a struggling actor, admired by his classmate Greg (Franco’s puppyish kid brother, Dave) but scorned by the industry. A casting director (Bob Odenkirk) remarks on his “malevolent presence”. A producer (played by Judd Apatow) tells him he’ll never make it: “Not in a million years.” Ever the optimist, Tommy ponders this for a second. “But after that?” he asks.

He comes close to throwing in the towel. “Maybe I don’t have what it takes,” he says, or rather: “Mayah dough hah wah i’ tay.” But then Greg suggests he should direct his own movie, and the film gets its eureka moment. Like other comedies about deluded directors (the fictional Bowfinger, the factual Ed Wood), The Disaster Artist has transparent affection for the all-hands-on-deck camaraderie that can redeem even the wobbliest production. The actor Carolyn (Jacki Weaver) is surprised to find that her character’s breast cancer diagnosis is mentioned in one scene and then never referred to again, but it’s clear why she’s happy in The Room: “Even the worst day on a movie set is better than the best day anywhere else.”

The cinematographer (Seth Rogen) isn’t so sure. “The best thing I can say about this is that no one will ever see it,” he gripes. Pop culture has proved him wrong. The Room still plays all over the world as a midnight-movie perennial complete with Rocky Horror-esque audience participation. It has even recouped its costs.

Whether The Disaster Artist will enjoy the same success is another matter. It’s entertaining, if framed and cut a touch manically. Franco the director doesn’t always give Franco the actor the space for his Peter Sellers-like performance to breathe, and some of the tastiest gags fail to land – Tommy building an alleyway set that’s identical in every detail to an actual alley not 20 metres away, or erecting a billboard in Hollywood advertising The Room, complete with “RSVP” and his home phone number.

Medium or wide shots and longer takes, in the style of Aki Kaurismäki or Roy Andersson, might have made the film a bone-dry delight. Franco imposes on the material a more middle-of-the-road sensibility instead. Whatever your feelings about The Room, Tommy would never have settled for that.

There’s another pleasantly deranged actor-producer-director in The Prince of Nothingwood, a documentary about Salim Shaheen, the jovial former military general who has made 110 films in Afghanistan in the past 30 years, undeterred by falling bombs and non-existent budgets. Needing fake blood for a battle, Shaheen slits a chicken’s throat. Disenchanted with his son’s camcorder photography, he persuades the documentary’s own cinematographer to shoot some scenes for his latest kitsch action spectacular with his far superior camera. Shaheen, a Dom DeLuise lookalike who grew up on Bollywood and infuses his work with the same madcap, mix-and-match spirit, is an unorthodox action star, bulging out of tight, patterned blazers and turtlenecks. His directing style could possibly be subtler. “Act better than that!” he bellows, mid-take.

Sonia Kronlund, a veteran of reporting in Afghanistan, believes he embodies “a sort of resistance” and her gently amused picture supports this view. Shaheen’s screenwriter wears shades indoors, though he’s no cool-cat rock-star type: his eyes were damaged when a rocket fell on the set in the middle of shooting. The fans are every bit as resilient. One man explains that he borrowed a television set to watch Shaheen’s film Qais the Tea-Seller, only the Taliban smashed the TV and flogged him. His solution? He went out and borrowed a second. Shaheen himself shows no sign of slowing down. In fact, he has an idea for a new action film featuring a villain who breeds goats to fight one another. I kid you not.

It takes a perverse kind of filmmaker to turn the pulpy, real-life story of “Hollywood poker princess” Molly Bloom into a tedious, self-satisfied slog but Aaron Sorkin, creator of The West Wing and now the writer-director of Molly’s Game, is that man. He pinches stylistic tricks from Casino to show how Molly (Jessica Chastain) went from Olympic skier under the harsh tutelage of her father (Kevin Costner) to organising multi-million-dollar poker games involving movie stars and Russian gangsters, before defying the Mafia, getting busted by the FBI and joining forces with a hotshot attorney (Idris Elba).

Few screenwriters are quite so in love with their own prose as Sorkin; on and on it goes, faster than the speed of screwball but with none of the wit. (“I was in a hole so deep I could go fracking,” is about as good as it gets.) Molly’s Game is his directing debut but he’s a dead loss, serving up more than two hours of interminable poker games, smart-alec voiceover and insufferable blowhards trying and failing to crack wise in a succession of anonymous rooms. The film would be improved no end by the Wiseau touch or the Shaheen sparkle. Fetch me a chicken!

“The Disaster Artist” (15) is out now. “The Prince of Nothingwood” (15) is released on 15 December and “Molly’s Game” (15) on 1 January 2018

Ryan Gilbey's films of 2017

Aquarius (18)
dir: Kleber Mendonça Filho

The indomitable Sônia Braga is a writer battling unscrupulous property developers in this stunningly rich Brazilian drama.

Elle (18)
dir: Paul Verhoeven

Isabelle Huppert turns a rape-revenge thriller into subversive, stimulating black comedy.

Daphne (15)
dir: Peter Mackie Burns

Funny, searching portrait of a feisty but troubled gal-about-town, played by Emily Beecham.

The Work (15)
dir: Jairus McLeary and Gethin Aldous

Group therapy involving prisoners and the public gets results in an acute documentary.

Personal Shopper (15)
dir: Olivier Assayas

Bizarre fashionista ghost story starring Kristen Stewart. Alienation by Chanel.

Call Me by Your Name (15)
dir: Luca Guadagnino

The “things-were-never-the-same-after-that-summer” genre will never be the same after this rapturous film.

Moonlight (15)
dir: Barry Jenkins

Sorry, La La Land. The Best Picture Oscar went to… this gay, African-American coming-of-age story.

Manchester by the Sea (15)
dir: Kenneth Lonergan

Casey Affleck plays a grieving janitor in a harrowing study of loss.

The Other Side of Hope (12A)
dir: Aki Kaurismäki

Finnish absurdist director delivers compassionate cinematic balm in trying times.

Colossal (15)
dir: Nacho Vigalondo

Anne Hathaway stars in a brilliant, high-risk mash-up of romcom and monster movie.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 07 December 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas special

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Othering, micro-aggressions and subtle prejudice: growing up black and British

Afua Hirsch’s memoir Brit(ish) adds a new chapter to the body of work on race in the UK

As every economic or political immigrant knows, the real enigma of arrival is to look in two directions. Immigrants gaze back at the homelands and family they have left behind; and they look anxiously at the customs, language and laws of the country they have adopted. Making sense of both can take a lifetime.

Afua Hirsch, the author of Brit(ish), who has worked at Sky News and the Guardian, was born in Norway to a British father and Ghanaian mother and grew up in prosperous Wimbledon, south-west London. She studied Philosophy, Politics and Economics at Oxford before graduating in law. Her experience of violent racism seems to be limited, but she writes of the cumulative toll of regular infractions while studying and working as a lawyer and journalist, described as acts of “othering”, “micro-aggressions” and “subtle prejudice”.

Of visiting a shop near her home, she writes: “The harshest lessons came in my late teens, visiting my best friend at work at a boutique in Wimbledon Village. The manager told her I could not come in. ‘It’s off-putting to the other customers,’ she said, ‘and the black girls are thieves. Tell her she’s not welcome.’” On another occasion, a man on the Underground threatened to beat Hirsch with his belt because “you people are out of control”. The incidents coincided with a growing curiosity about her mother’s homeland, which is common to many second-generation children. Hirsch first visited Accra with her mother in 1995: “I don’t think I had realised that there was a world in which black people could be in charge.” In the early 2000s, she worked for a development organisation and was based in Senegal for two years. A decade later, as recession and austerity gripped Europe, she returned to Accra as the Guardian’s West Africa correspondent.

Half a century ago, Hirsch would have been described as a “returnee”; in 2012, the changing nature of global wealth and identity saw the brief rise of a more assertive term, “Afropolitan”.

But Ghana failed to provide Hirsch with an enduring sense of arrival. “For someone like me, Britishness contains the threat of exclusion,” she writes. “An exclusion only made more sinister by discovering – after so many years of searching – that there is nowhere else to go.” Like Filipinos returning home after decades in the Arabian Gulf, Hirsch felt like a privileged outsider who ostensibly viewed a poor country from the safety of a guarded community.

This section of Brit(ish) provides some of the memoir’s most valuable insights. It also could have benefited from more detail; I would have liked to have learned if, like expat Indians who have returned to Mumbai or Bangalore over the last 20 years, Hirsch considered immersing herself in Ghana’s roaring economy by opening a business. She is currently collaborating on a clothing line inspired by Ghanaian culture.

In the end, personal safety prompted an abrupt withdrawal from Accra. Hirsch and her partner returned to the UK after they were attacked on a beach on the outskirts of the Ghanaian capital. In the harrowing incident, her earrings were ripped from her earlobes and her ring was stolen. The attack also marked an introduction to an under-resourced and inept justice system. On the day of the first court appearance of the assailants, Hirsch’s partner was asked to pick them up and drive them to the hearing.

The most interesting segments of the book aren’t those that dwell on racial theory; Hirsch has yet to coalesce her views on her British and Ghanaian heritage into a unified argument. That usually takes most writers a lifetime. Brit(ish) has more in common with memoirs by other immigrants and their children whose search for education and prosperity transitions to a longer quest for identity. ER Braithwaite, the author of To Sir, With Love, wrote about what it felt like to be a second-class citizen in the UK, despite decades of service to the education sector:

In spite of my years of residence in Britain, any service I might render the community in times of war or peace, any contribution I might make or wish to make, or any feeling of identity I might entertain towards Britain and the British, I – like all other coloured persons in Britain – am considered an “immigrant”.

Hirsch’s book is also less sure about how other immigrant groups view their British experience. For instance, she cites the return of present-day South Asians to the subcontinent as being partly due to racism, but a departing diaspora, resettling in India and Pakistan for reasons such as accumulated wealth or community, has been a fixture of British life since the 1950s. A more interesting detour would have seen an exploration of British Muslims, often wrongly charged with disloyalty to the UK by commentators such as Trevor Phillips, who selectively pick out the most extreme views on integration and religion.

Instead, the memoir offers clearer ideas on how the UK could do more to acknowledge its role in the slave trade and colonialism. In the book’s most searing sections, Hirsch rightly suggests there is more to be achieved in correcting Britain’s memorials to empire – those permanent exhibitions in museums, statues and plaques that fail to acknowledge the sins of colonialism.

For instance, for 300 years, every British monarch gave direct or indirect support to the transatlantic slave trade until it was abolished in 1833. Of the 12 million slaves abducted from Africa, 40 per cent were transported on British ships. We are told slavery was outlawed on humanitarian grounds in a campaign fought by abolitionists. In reality, an overproduction of sugar crops led to reduced profits.

In Capitalism and Slavery, published in 1944, Eric Williams, the first prime minister of Trinidad and Tobago, described the idea that slavery was abolished because of an appeal to humanitarian principles as “one of the greatest propaganda movements of all time”.

Hirsch argues these old ideas continue to hinder diversity. In 2013, only 23 students of black British African heritage were given paces to study at Oxford University. In 2016, one third of all people stopped by the police in England and Wales under “stop and search” laws were from ethnic minority backgrounds. Hirsch also highlights the worrying uptick in violence after the Brexit vote in June 2016. In the four months after the referendum, there was a 41 per cent increase in racially and religiously motivated crimes.

British public life is full of the talented children of Ghanaians who have written about racism and the push for acceptance, including rappers such as Tinchy Stryder, Dizzee Rascal and Sway. Just as Peter Fryer’s groundbreaking book, Staying Power: the History of Black People in Britain, did in 1984, Afua Hirsch’s memoir adds a new chapter to the body of work on race in the UK. As she writes, an island nation that has benefited from centuries of immigration should reframe the question it asks some of its citizens: “I can’t be British, can I, if British people keep asking me where I’m from?” 

Burhan Wazir is an editor at WikiTribune and former head of opinion at Al Jazeera. Afua Hirsch will appear at Cambridge Literary Festival, in association with the New Statesman, on Sunday 15th April.

Brit(ish): on Race, Identity and Belonging
Afua Hirsch
Jonathan Cape, 384pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 15 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The polite extremist