Without question, 2012 has been one of the best years in African American cinema. Between box office hits such as Think Like a Man, and critically-acclaimed independent dramas like Beasts of the Southern Wild and Middle of Nowhere, can you think of a time when a host of African American-driven films held such power in Hollywood? I surely cannot. Matthew A. Cherry’s The Last Fall is the latest contribution to this already fantastic year of minority on-screen representation. While his film isn’t on the level of the aforementioned films and many more that concentrate on the independent black voice in America, there’s a virtuous pursuit of truth in this independent sports drama that cannot be denied. The Last Fall may be poorly executed despite its profound story concept (an honest portrayal of a sports athlete who’s drowning in sorrow more than riches), but the commitment and effort put forth from Lance Gross as lead protagonist, overbearing as it often may be, is a step in the right direction for highlighting the emotional complexities of the African-American sports figure.
The Last Fall, developed loosely from Cherry’s own experiences as a struggling NFL player, centers on a 25-year old professional football player, Kyle Bishop, whose career hits a major standstill after the end of the sports season. His agent is unable to sign him on to any team during the off-season, thereby forcing Kyle into early retirement, his future career plans uncertain and possibly obsolete. After making what is assuredly the most embarrassing phone call to a parent, the ex-NFL player comes back to his hometown of Los Angeles, California and attempts to pave out a new path of stabilization, one that doesn’t come so easy following the fame of his contributions to America’s favorite pastime.
The first fifteen minutes of The Last Fall put you under a spell of frustration. The first night Bishop is home, he goes to a party hosted by his best friend and immediately shacks up with one of the female attendees. There’s already such a stigma around African-American athletes concerning their “untamed” sexual prowess, that I felt the scene was both unnecessary and unflattering. However, I soon realized that Cherry deconstructs these stereotyped situations by having his characters comment on them during intimate one-on-one conversations. Flipping the mirror around, you see how these famous players are appreciated more for their wealth and status than the person they truly are inside, hence why you get such deplorable reality shows like Basketball Wives. The Last Fall is so dialogue-heavy that it becomes a bit stifling, but in pockets of Cherry’s script, you semi-understand why scenes occur as they do. Cherry pushes stereotypes right into the forefront, only to have them crumble beneath you as the movie progresses and our characters unveil the facts of life buried beneath the tabloids and media spins. I just wish Cherry had positioned his arguments in a seamless manner instead of a studious, “let me tell you like it is” one – doing so would have allowed us to be entertained by The Last Fall’s story instead of simply plodding through it to derive meaning, which I did more often than not.
The sports drama jumps levels in quality when Nicole Beharie (Shame) enters the narrative. The former high school sweetheart of Bishop, Faith Davis returns back into Kyle’s life during his visit with a former elementary school teacher. Her son is a student in Mr. Edward’s classroom, and the film pauses for just a moment and leaves you wondering whether the boy is or is not the son of Kyle. The Last Fall doesn’t take long to put your questioning mind at ease, but kudos to Cherry for hinting at a Lifetime movie plot device and then going in an opposite direction. The chemistry between Nicole Beharie and Lance Gross isn’t on a Titanic scale, but it doesn’t need to be. The characters have history together, and the scenes they share — especially the beautifully orchestrated one where Kyle spills the truth of his failures to Faith whilst the two sit on a dock – are unquestionably the most heartfelt and real in the film. At first, I struggled to sympathize with Kyle and his newfound plight. After admitting to his friend that he burned through his NFL income, I thought: “Wow, you’re complaining of being broke but yet you spent that wealthy income on temporary pleasures and vices? I don’t feel sorry for you one iota.” Cherry shut me up soon thereafter with that dock scene I previously described, where one is educated on the true earnings – or lack thereof – of a free agent NFL player. Without spoiling what is indeed the most revealing moment in the film, I dare you not to feel an ounce of sympathy the next time someone, most likely the media, eviscerates a professional athlete as though their income is an impenetrable fortress that can protect them from such libel.
Nicole Beharie’s Faith isn’t provided enough meat to chew on in the film, and thus her character only evinces flashes of an independent African American woman coming out from under the grips of her deceitful and manipulative ex-husband. I’m happy that Beharie is a part of The Last Fall, but it’s hard not to feel as though she’s been brought a step down from her spectacular turn in Shame considering the lightweight material she’s provided with. The perfect leading role is on the horizon for Beharie, and I cannot wait to discover it.
What’s most problematic about The Last Fall is that it falls so in love with the messages it puts forth — cliché lines included amongst the lengthy reflective monologues – that it begins to lessen our fascination with the narrative midway through. I kid you not, for twenty minutes straight there is scene, after scene, after scene where Lance Gross is making these sorrowful speeches to whoever is listening, bleakness never-ending. I uncontrollably detach myself from caring after I’m being beaten over the head by non-stop woeful dialogue. Sometimes coming up to the surface for air is a good thing, especially given Cherry’s wordy script that rambles more than fascinates. Lance Gross is a trooper for never losing focus during such long-winded monologues that require him to streamline a consistent tone of melancholy. Kyle Bishop’s flaw as a character is that he is too open, wears his heart too much on his sleeve, leaving you completely overwhelmed by his flash flood of emotional outpouring. I think more is gained by subtlety and a dynamic range of emotions instead of “spilling your guts” so to speak. There’s nothing enigmatic or interesting about Bishop other than his heartbreaking story, and it’s a shame because Gross gives it all he has even though it threatens to be too much.
Where Cherry’s film rises to the occasion is during the last few scenes, specifically one involving a football drill. The camerawork and editing in this sequence are magnificent – the usage of close-ups and slow motion effects hone your focus on the sheer willpower and strength required to become a professional athlete. I myself am not a sports person, so to me football is football, and I couldn’t differentiate the abilities of my high school football team from those on a professional sports team. Watching The Last Fall’s explicit and raw scene of this brutal drill eradicated my ignorance entirely, and now I understand what makes an athlete truly professional.
In total, The Last Fall is more educational and informative than it is compelling. Lance Gross’ dedication to this role should be applauded, and Nicole Beharie flirts with brilliance despite not given much to do. Matthew A. Cherry’s greatest contribution – made possible by this film – is the knowledge that our naive world was never privy to before: The life of a professional athlete isn’t the fairytale it’s imagined to be. Especially for a young African American male, where it can seem as though no avenue fulfills the American Dream better than a career in athletics, The Last Fall serves up a chilling truth that may be difficult to absorb but is worth imbibing. That in itself offsets the film’s bumpy ride.
The Last Fall opens today, October 26th, exclusively at Rave 15 Cinemas Baldwin Hills, Crenshaw Plaza in Los Angeles, California. Be sure to check out this Official Selection of the SXSW Film Festival when it’s made available for your viewing pleasure.