The Inkwell (Kino Lorber, R)

M atty Rich’s first film, Straight Out of Brooklyn, may have been messy, but it was an interesting mess that left an impression on viewers. It was also a critical and financial success, winning a special jury prize at Sundance and earning back about 6 times its production costs. So there was great anticipation for his second film, The Inkwell, with the additional promise that this new film would explore a milieu seldom seem in mainstream films—that of the black bourgeoisie. Unfortunately The Inkwell, while it does have points of interest, was not nearly so successful, and Rich has not directed a feature since (he currently works in the videogame industry).

It’s 1976 and 16-year-old Drew (Larenz Tate) and his family have been invited to spend two weeks with his mother’s sister and her family in their vacation home near “The Inkwell,” a beach on Martha’s Vineyard frequented by African Americans since at least the 19thcentury. Drew is an odd young man who ponders the big questions, doesn’t have any friends, and spends a lot of time talking to a doll which he takes for rides on a tandem bicycle; he also may have set a fire in the family garage. Drew’s father Kenny (Joe Morton) is a former black panther who still likes to sport a beret and sunglasses, while his mother Brenda (Suzzanne Douglass) suffers from the lack of development granted many screen mothers—she’s attractive, sweet, and supportive, and that’s all the screenplay grants to her.

The house-sharing situation provides the occasion for maximum conflict, because Brenda’s sister Francis (Vanessa Bell Calloway) and her husband Spencer (Glynn Turman) are political conservatives who like to flaunt their wealth (Spencer may have watched too much Gilligan’s Island, since he seems to be modeling himself on  Thurston Howell III). This set-up could have been exploited for either comedy or drama, but what results in The Inkwell is neither amusing nor insightful, and is frequently tedious. Drew also spends time with a remarkably available therapist who doesn’t mind working for free on her vacation, and has the kind of encounters with the opposite sex that usually happen in this type of film. Unfortunately, it all feels forced, and the inconsistent tone makes it difficult to care about any of the characters, while at the same time making the sexism that this film shares with many male-centered coming-of-age even less bearable than usual.

Filmmaking is a complex process and it’s often impossible to know who is behind the choices made in a particular film. That goes double when things go badly, because success has a thousand fathers, as the saying goes, while failure is an orphan. The Inkwell has some serious problems in terms of character and tone—the former are largely stereotypes, while the latter relies far too much on broad silliness that seldom is funny—but it’s hard to know who to blame. Screenwriter Trey Ellis claims Rich was the wrong person for the job, and that Rich demanded changes that altered the tone of his script. Whatever the reason, The Inkwellfeels like a film out of sync with itself, as well as a missed opportunity to explore an aspect of black life that seldom makes it to the big screen. | Sarah Boslaugh

The Inkwell is distributed on Blu-ray by Kino Lorber. The disc includes an audio commentary by director Matty Rich and trailers for this and five additional movies.

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