Two recent independent films from first-time directors have made the case for women being heard, figuratively and literally. In Lake Bell’s comedy “In a World. . . ,” a woman tries to break into the male-dominated voice-over profession. And in Charles Murray’s melodrama “Things Never Said,” the opening-night feature in this year’s Roxbury International Film Festival, a frustrated wife tries to define herself through her poetry. Though coming from different genres and different social settings, both films make a powerful statement about the plight of women held back by sexist tyranny.
For Kalindra Stepney (Shanola Hampton), though living on the edge financially in Los Angeles, the situation at first glance doesn’t seem all that oppressive. True, her husband, Ronnie (played with affable menace by Milton native Elimu Nelson), a former high school basketball star now working at a gas station, doesn’t seem all that happy with the way his life has turned out. But he’s affectionate and even supportive of Kalindra’s participation in poetry readings. However, when the subject of her going to New York for a month to develop her talent comes up, his face changes. He’s not pleased with the idea, and this isn’t a guy you want to get angry.
More troubling details emerge about their relationship with a flashback montage that shows glimpses of their high school romance, her pregnancy, their wedding, an apparent miscarriage — and culminating with Ronnie slamming his wife against a wall. He’s a batterer who once put her in the hospital, and it’s hard to understand why a savvy, independent-minded woman like Kalindra puts up with it. But, if nothing else, Murray’s film illuminates the insidious dynamics of domestic violence. Ronnie’s a brute, but he’s also a self-pitying charmer adept at manipulation.
And what are Kalindra’s options? She certainly doesn’t have much in the way of positive role models. Her mother (Charlayne Woodard, who is as joyless and unforgiving as the Bible-thumper played by Sharon Stone in “Lovelace”) expresses pride in staying married for 30 years to a wife-beater. And Kalindra’s otherwise hip friend Daphne (Tamala Jones) casts a blind eye at the shabby shenanigans of her boyfriend. Besides, Kalindra has her poetry, and those exultant moments at the microphone when she’s in charge and can unleash the rage and torment within.
That’s where films like this can get into trouble; characters who are supposedly brilliant poets or artists lose credibility once their work, as concocted by the filmmaker, turns out to be terrible. And, in fact, Kalindra’s first performance, an angry rant against white racism, doesn’t impress. But she’s a work in progress, and her subsequent efforts improve dramatically, especially as rendered by Hampton, who achieves a shattering intensity. So when Curtis Jackson (Omari Hardwick), her handsome, brooding, not-so-secret admirer, tells her she’s brilliant, it doesn’t seem like a come-on — though it has that effect. And as their attraction heats up, so does the threat of a violent resolution.
The film has its awkward moments. It succumbs in spots to glibness and kitsch — especially in the bedroom — and Murray takes the story at least one subplot too far. But in a year when black filmmaking has surged with Oscar-touted films such as “The Butler” and the upcoming “12 Years a Slave,” Murray’s “Things Never Said” has a quiet eloquence of its own.Peter Keough can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.