A CJ Walker Appreciation Post

When I was a preteen obsessed with mythology and magical children’s fiction, I learnt the word “hamartia” from the Percy Jackson novels. A hamartia, otherwise known as a fatal flaw, is that characteristic within a hero that might eventually turn into their downfall. The goddess Athena claimed that the kind of hamartia with good motives behind it is usually the most dangerous kind. Unfortunately for me, nobody I ever read had a hamartia bad enough for me to take them seriously. Take Percy Jackson’s, for instance. His hamartia is “excessive loyalty” which is apparently dangerous because he would supposedly give up the world to save somebody he really cares about. Imagine giving a character a total virtue and making that their most dangerous problem. I love Percy, but he and the likes of Ned Stark can get out of my face as far as flawed characters are concerned.

It seems to me that the older I grew, the more tired I got of sanitized, wholly likeable characters. Perhaps this had something to do with relatability—as I have never considered myself likeable or sanitized. Not even well-mannered, if I’m being honest. But I think my tiredness had far more to do with credibility than personal relatability. Thankfully, in Claudette Josephine Walker, the writers of See You Yesterday gave me a flawed character I could believe in.

Cover Image
Movie poster. Source: IMDB

See You Yesterday is a science-fiction movie that was released earlier this year, 2019. In some ways, it was classically allegiant to the genre, what with being a movie about time travel and all—but in other ways, it was not. The theme of the movie was Blackness, with a focus on the unjustified murders of Black folk by American police. That’s right, the enemy isn’t aliens this time, ha! One of the main characters was Caribbean (Guyanese to be precise), the setting was the Bronx, and there was a random Jamaican guy used as comic relief. It was very much a Netflix movie in that there seemed to be a focus on aesthetic appeal (the graphics in See You Yesterday were very pretty, and the actors beautiful), as well as an intricate, convoluted plot, and an evident lack of Hollywood, Disney/Marvel-grade resources.

Despite that last point, I found See You Yesterday enjoyable, so emotionally engaging that I had to pause a few times to gather myself, and compelling enough that I have watched  it twice and would gladly re-watch it again.

Although there’s probably quite a bit to be said about the political relevance of the movie, that is not what I want to talk about, because that’s not what made the greatest impression on me. And I’m not here to rate or review the movie either. I’m here to rant about how much I love the main character, CJ Walker, and explain why she is now my favorite movie character.

While CJ’s flaws are central to why I like her, the truth is that if she were not a holistic, sufficiently complex character, the flaws that I love so much would only be reasons to hate her. Character complexity is already difficult to incorporate into a coherent story, but to do so sufficiently in the space of a single movie? Remarkable. What an exciting bundle of contradictions CJ was, and this made her different from, and more appealing to me than all the most credible teenage characters I have ever watched in teen-centered motion pictures, including Sex Education and The Secret Life of the American Teenager.

The most obvious thing about CJ is that she is smart. I mean, if you’re sixteen years old and you can build a portable time machine, your intelligence should go without saying. Nevertheless, it was said—by her science teacher, near the beginning of the film. Aside that, she is such a quick and natural problem solver, able to allow her intelligence to persevere through emotions of frustration, anger, grief and sadness, and is never hampered by a situation that might seem to another either immensely grave or totally hopeless.

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CJ working. Source: IMDB

Other obvious things about CJ are her optimism, ambition and pride in herself and the people she loves. (“Yeah, that’s my brother, what now, punk?!” is one of my favorite CJ lines!) If I had started off with a description of CJ’s flaws, I imagine one would be hard pressed to believe a girl like that could be naturally good-natured. But throughout the movie, she has this unshakeable faith in the good that is to come—whether it’s her and her best friend Sebastian getting scholarships to any schools of their choice, her brother turning his life around, or her own ability to save anyone from the forces of chance and racist America if she really puts her mind to it. Her excitement in reaction to a successful experiment is unmatched! (“June 28th!”)

But just as soon as you recognize CJ’s virtues (or even sooner), you see her flaws. Particularly her hotheadedness, stupidity, and astonishing unawareness of self—in that order of prominence. CJ is an impulsive character who acts often without thinking too much first. Say one wrong sentence to her, and she’s ready to beat you up. She’ll have armed policemen in her face, and she’ll still clapback with unbridled sass. In all the chaos her temper causes, how does she defend herself? Thus: “I’m a little tired of people telling me how I should act.” Funnily enough, CJ’s older brother, Calvin, is almost as bad. While his anger is justified, his composure in front of policemen is nearly nonexistent. The fact that Calvin and CJ are almost as stubborn as each other has its terrible consequences—but it makes me love them all the more, because it’s all so real and so very me. As pop culture Twitter might put it, “I feel seen.”

Calvin
Calvin Walker. Source: IMDB

Speaking of consequences, one would think CJ had the presence of mind to recognize that some things happen because she has acted rashly, rather than viewing them all as mutually exclusive occurrences. Throw a slushy at your ex and bad things happen. How does CJ react? By throwing another slushy at her ex. Something worse happens, and not once does it seem to occur to CJ that it’s her fault. Once in the movie, CJ seriously says, without a hint of self-recognized irony, “Why are you so serious, Sebastian? Lighten up for once?” This coming from the girl who apparently wants to uppercut everyone in sight. How on earth is such a smart person so stupid and self-unaware? Simply because she is. As intelligent as she is, she’s still a sixteen-year-old hothead, and it shows. My God, it shows. At sixteen, I was vaguely smart—not quite a time machine-building genius—but quite as bad with balancing my intelligence with emotional control! CJ represents the perfect dichotomy of (my own) adolescence.

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CJ. Source: IMDB

And yet another thing that makes CJ a fantastically appealing character is how her flaws intertwine with her virtues. CJ is a lover. She’s a relentless lover, and she wouldn’t be so without her pigheadedness. Besides that, she’s a selfish lover. She would go to the moon and back for someone she loves, and if there are consequences for people she doesn’t love, well, that’s none of her business, is it? (“Who cares about stupid ass Jared?” –CJ) In a similar way as with her brother Calvin, CJ’s reckless form of loving makes her as much of a hero as not. It’s only a kind of recklessness—outside the character of Jesus Christ, maybe—that would make you sacrifice yourself without thinking too much, to save people you believe to be worth saving. For me, CJ and Calvin Walker represent the height of this recklessness. (A bonus is how much of a switch-up either character can make, snapping right from ready-to-punch-someone-in-the-face, to looking like the model kid. Seeing how adorably CJ behaves to Sebastian’s grandmother kills me every time.)

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CJ & Sebastian. Source: IMDB

A character is not an isolated being, and I think how the people in their lives see them is almost as important as the way the audience perceives them. Regarding CJ’s community, what I appreciate the most about CJ is that her flaws are obvious. They’re not secret blemishes that she only lets out in the privacy of her bedroom. CJ’s mother can say to her, quite plainly, “I never met anyone as stubborn as your daddy till I met you.” Calvin can say to CJ’s face that Sebastian is a much better friend than CJ. The fact that the people in her life can see her striking hamartia and continue to love her—well, that’s one of the most credible types of relationship I could hope to see in any work of fiction.

It’s funny that the reason I watched this movie at all was that my best friend recommended it to me a day or two after it came out, mainly because the main character reminded him of me. So I watched the movie, and at first I didn’t see it at all—possibly because I was so engrossed in the movie—and then after a bit of reflection and tears when the movie was done, I did!

There are many things to love (and criticize, I admit) about See You Yesterday, but my absolute favorite thing about it is Claudette Josephine Walker. I love her for how un-sanitized and classically unlovable she is as a main character. If CJ is overthrown as my favorite movie character anytime soon, I will be genuinely surprised!

-Akotowaa

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find them – a Review by Evans K. K. Offori (@kwami_kafui)

Akotowaa’s Note: As you can see from the title, I did not write this review. I haven’t even watched the movie and so can offer no opinion on anything EKKO says, so please, don’t @ me. LOL. Unfortunately, he’s one of those poor souls who does not have a blog and so I have offered him a part of my infinite space in the cyberworld to share this review he took the time to write. So, enjoy!

Anyone who identifies as a Potter fan would have been extremely excited to hear J.K. Rowling was back to penning something concerning the Potterverse that was going to make it to the screens again. I especially couldn’t wait. I used to have the little guide Rowling actually published on Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, and was overwhelmingly captivated by the imagination in those pages. And with what seemed like a billion good reviews swimming on Twitter alone, I knew I had to go see it soon. What pushed me to actually see it when I did though, was a review on The Film Stage website, which wasn’t as glowing, and questioned Yates’ directorial abilities and Rowling’s plot. I got only one-third of the way through that review and closed that tab. Annoying idiots (I of course used a proper expletive that I felt their right-to-be-held honest opinion merited, but I’m trying to be polite here). Nothing was supposed to ruin this for me. I hate these critics sometimes (ironic isn’t it?). So I had to see it immediately. And this is what I thought:

Fantastic Beasts was … nice. I definitely did not leave the cinema feeling I’d wasted my money or anything, because it was enjoyable, in a general kind of way. As I said to a friend, there was nothing really bad about the movie. But, and here is where I was a bit let down, there was nothing exceptionally good/brilliant about it too. And that was a shame for me.

It was quite slow to build in any meaningful direction, and trust me, I’m one for a slow build. I love those. Green Mile and Interstellar are in my top 5 film experiences of all time, and they have some very slow build-ups. The difference to me is while these slow build-ups were happening, you felt they were going somewhere significant; it was, at the very least, mildly apparent, or at least felt in some way. This ‘significant point’ would either be subtly implanted in your psyche, or expressly stated and then built up slowly. In this though, for the longest time it really was just about catching the creatures that had escaped from Newt Scamander’s case. Errrrr, yeah… can I have something more to carry me along? I’m kinda staring at my phone now, and that’s always a bad sign. Yes, there’s an unknown dangerous force causing havoc in the city, and I can tell the link that is being attempted to be established between this danger and Mr. Scamander’s arrival in New York and the subsequent escape of some of his creatures, but it really could have been more intriguingly contextualised. It does get to the goal (or point of significance as I like to call it) eventually, but I’ve seen more effectively done, even slower build-ups.

What really personally disappointed me was the plot itself, seeing as I believe Rowling to have developed and pulled off the biggest plot structure and twist in contemporary literary history, and have therefore crowned her the biggest narratologist of our time (I may be exaggerating but I will brook no opposition to this nonetheless! Yes, that’s how much of a Rowling fan I am). She can do no wrong in my eyes, and this is always unfair, because the bar then is always set unnaturally high for your heroes. But I tried to be objective. Once again, there’s nothing particularly wrong with the plot, no truly gaping holes, and there are things that will obviously make sense in the later films (this film is really just exposition)… but, the strength of the story isn’t quite up there… I simply expected more substance, and Rowling is master of substance no matter how seemingly inconsequential. In the time that whatever it was was happening, no matter how far away from the major climax, Rowling always managed to make moments feel some type of weighty. Not as much in this film.

That being said, it is a 5-film franchise series, and J.K. Rowling is stretching the story to cover 5 full-length movies, when the initial plan was to do just 1. It later became a trilogy, and now there are 5. Ugh. What’s that even called? A quintology? And this doesn’t seem to be so much a studio decision (though they’ll be more than pleased) as it is Rowling simply writing her imagination away into a 5-film series. This is all well and good, I’m a big supporter of going where the art takes you, but on the evidence of what I saw, I think that may not have been the best move for what could have been an epic film (remember I’m looking at the film more as a stand-alone experience, less as a piece of a bigger puzzle). It wasn’t allowed to get into its own, and if it wasn’t 1 of 5, when the original intention for some time was for there to be just 1, maaaybe… well one can’t really tell. It is only the first one of course, so we live to see. I certainly hope everything turns out as epic (yes, I love that word, never mind its time has passed) in the long run, as I first felt about this whole something.

Another thing to remember about the screenplay, is that this is Rowling’s first foray into screenwriting proper, and I have a feeling had this been a novel, I would probably have no qualms with the story whatsoever. A big draw of the HP book series for me, aside the undisputed plot brilliance, was how the story was told, and there was a masterfulness to her writing that none of the Potter films could adequately convey onto the screen. In a novel, I just feel like she would have been able to pull off this same story in a more delightfully exciting, more significant manner. Screenwriting and novel-writing are two quite unique crafts, and I think it will take some time for Rowling to begin thinking as technically as a screenwriter would. Yes, she had help with the tone and the technicalities, which Warner Bros. have admitted were a bit of a challenge for her, but once she masters these for herself, I really do believe the screenplays will be much, much better.

Also, in a novel a writer really is, in film terms, writer, director, actor, cinematographer, VFX supervisor etc. all rolled in one. In a film, the screenplay has to be interpreted by the director and a whole team. The magic of Rowling will not always flow seamlessly through. All this is me just trying to find an excuse for my hero, although they may all well be legit. Bottom line though, the story wasn’t as strong and as well-threaded as I’d hoped.

The poorest aspect of the film for me is the characterization. If you’ll draw the movie out for so long, let us at least get to really know the characters, and feel them a bit more. That connection is so essential, especially for a film like this. That left a lot to be desired. I don’t feel part of Scamander’s quest in the next films, nor do I feel sufficiently enough in love with the creatures and the concept of what he’s doing with them. Goldstein wasn’t given/did not develop as much of a character to endear me to her, her sister was comme çi comme ça…it was all just very okay, and that’s just my problem with the movie. Everything was really just very okay, nothing more. I developed no emotional connection to any of the characters, and that was unsettling for someone like me.

There was also no outstanding acting performance, and this from a bunch of pretty talented actors. Dan Folger, who plays muggle (or as it’s said in wizarding America, No-Maj. Errr, no comment on this errr…interesting name choice 🙊) Jacob Kowalski had a few flashes here and there, and offered a breath of comedic fresh air in very measured doses, but really there was no outstanding performance. Not that there needed to be, if the script didn’t require it (don’t get me wrong, Redmayne did a uhmmm, well a solid job lol, and really is one of the most talented actors of our generation, though his performance here did remind me a me a teeny bit of the early part of his portrayal of Hawking). But in a film of a lot of okays, something should stand out for goodness’ (obviously didn’t say that in my head, but, politesse and all) sake.

Director David Yates, as much as I’d hate to criticize him, though he brought us some of the best Potter movies, probably could have done a more solid job with telling the already very stretched, drawn out story through a much more delightful, much more gripping picture. Again, there’s nothing particularly off about the directing, but some key moments could have been offered more weight. There was also a pause too many after characters made utterances, making dialogue not as free-flowing as it could have been. The visuals were generally good, almost impressive in some areas, but not mind-blowing at places you’d have felt they could have been, culminating in a slightly underwhelming end which by the way, could have been so much more emotional, and less corny… Ugh, maybe I’m still mad at Yates for the underwhelming ending to Deathly Hallows Part 2, I dunno. As for Grindelwald’s brief appearance… Talk about not setting a key moment up to create anticipation for the next instalment. It was all very tame, to say the least. And if you’re hoping to be enchanted by the little treats that made the wizarding world so exciting in the Potter movies, you won’t find that here so much. Maybe wait for the sequels.

As a film, which is part of a series and will continue to build, Fantastic Beasts pretty much works out nicely, but as a cinematic experience, it did leave a bit (won’t say a lot) to be desired. Cinema is about the experience. You’re hit by crazy visuals like Dr.Strange, or crazy stunts and action sequences like Fast & Furious or the Avengers, or intense emotion like Interstellar or The Fault In Our Stars, or the brilliance of an actor’s performance like Redmayne in The Theory of Everything, or a delightful thrusting (some people will have a field day here) into some fantasy world of awe, or a combination of some or all of these, among many others. Fantastic Beasts did not provide a memorable enough cinema experience, and for me that was unfortunate.

On the bright side though, I really don’t think it’s going to go anywhere but up from now. They’ve begun with the least heavy part of the plot I’ll assume, so there can only be better, weightier things to come, that will demand more from the director, and more from Rowling. I trust it will also get more endearing, we should (this is a huge hope) feel and connect with the characters a little more as we go along, and we should see more of the intricacies of the enchanted world we fell in love with. We should. I truly hope so. But I will say again, it was… nice.