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Issue Date:  March 3, 2006

Navigating promises

'Three Burials' and 'Something New' examine relationships between race and class


-- CNS/Sony Pictures Classics

Tommy Lee Jones stars in a scene from the movie "The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada."

The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada is Tommy Lee Jones’ first film as director but seems like the work of a seasoned professional. At the 2005 Cannes film festival it won the best screenplay award for Guillermo Arriaga, and Mr. Jones himself got the best actor prize. His powerful performance seems effortless, deep feelings conveyed through eye contact and facial expression rather than words. A cowboy movie that transcends the genre, both in plot and heart, it will certainly be on my 10 best list for 2006.

“Three Burials” centers on the long trip from Texas to Mexico made by Pete Perkins (Mr. Jones), a ranch foreman, in order to fulfill a promise to his cowboy friend, Melquiades Estrada (Julio Cesar Cedillo), to bury him in his native village. Though he has been in Texas for five years, Estrada has no working papers; when he is shot by trigger-happy border patrolman Mike Norton (Barry Pepper), he is buried in an unmarked grave. Pete kidnaps Mike, forces him to dig up the body and takes him along under duress to help on the journey.

The bond established earlier between Pete and Estrada is underlined by the Latin flavor of Marco Beltrami’s music. Our sympathies are fully engaged when we hear the thuggish local chief of police refer contemptuously to undocumented workers. Quick, perceptive character sketches of Lou Ann (January Jones), Mike’s bored, blonde wife yearning for malls to shop in, and Rachel (Melissa Leo), a shrewd, married waitress at a local diner whom Pete sees regularly, fill out the barren life of the small Texas town.

The journey to Mexico has some of the flavor of Latin magical realism. It’s an education in fear for the handcuffed Mike, whom we have seen spending much of his time at work reading Hustler. While Pete and Mike are hotly pursued by angry patrolmen, cinematographer Chris Menges manages to celebrate the splendor of stone canyons, sand dunes and blazing sunflowers, helping us see why Melquiades Estrada wanted to be buried in this land. As Pete continues to care lovingly for his friend’s grotesquely deteriorating body, the lonely flight is punctuated with a few stops. One is with a lone old blind man who makes them say grace before their meal together, then begs them to kill him. Pete refuses. A little later, when Mike is bitten by a rattlesnake, the wound is cauterized by the young woman he had struck viciously when he turned her back at the border.

With its explicit violence, crude language and casual acceptance of sexuality, this is no movie for children. It nevertheless combines deep integrity and quirky humor. Mr. Jones’ quiet strength grows as the journey progresses, ultimately communicating some of its dignity to his unwilling captive. Early in the film a border guard, noting that three Mexicans escaped at a crossing, comments sardonically, “Well, somebody’s got to pick the strawberries.” “Three Burials” is no one-dimensional political tract about immigration, however; its journey contains the redemptive message of commitment to others -- and to the land itself.

Something New is a likable if predictable romantic comedy that reverses the situation of “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.” Instead of Sidney Poitier upsetting Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy by arriving as their daughter’s intended, here the McQueen family is startled to see their daughter Kenya (Sanaa Latham) bring Brian Kelly (Simon Baker), a handsome white landscape architect, to an all-black party. The new film emphasizes issues of class, with her doctor father Edmond (Earl Billings) and her mother Joyce (Alfre Woodard) hoping Kenya will find someone who matches her position as an executive in a Los Angeles accounting firm.

Kenya’s full-throttle pursuit of a partnership in the firm has left her after-hours time rather empty, and her superficial women friends urge her to get busy by not waiting for her IBM (ideal black man). “Let go and let flow,” they suggest. She is uncomfortable, however, to meet blond, blue-eyed Brian at Starbucks as the blind date arranged by one of her white coworkers. When she later discovers that Brian is a highly recommended landscape designer, she hires him to redo the wildly overgrown garden behind her newly bought home.

Perhaps as an aftereffect of childhood asthma, Kenya won’t let his golden retriever in the house when he shows up, and is hysterical later when a spider drops on her head in the community garden. She’s also embarrassed by Brian’s nonexecutive clothes, but he overcomes her resistance with a combination of relaxed charm and professionalism -- her garden is being transformed. Soon they are doing some convincing nuzzling, and he is even seen painting Kenya’s toenails and encouraging her to have a beauty parlor remove some artificial hair extensions so he can see her real curls.

Disapproval of Brian as a serious boyfriend is general in Kenya’s circle, her brother Nelson (Donald Faison) dismissing him as “the help.” Nelson himself goes through a succession of glamorous girlfriends while telling his sister he’ll locate an IBM for her. But first-time director Sanaa Hamri wisely keeps the emphasis on the central couple’s bumpy growth in attachment to each other, occasionally reminding us of Kenya’s test at the office as she handles a new client who is uncomfortable dealing with a black woman.

“Something New” includes the conventional complications of the genre, with Kenya suddenly calling a halt to her relations with Brian, and even dating a successful -- but rather dull -- black professional (Blair Underwood). Fortunately, she’s sufficiently upset at seeing Brian with a pretty young (white) woman that she rushes off to the ladies room to think things out. Even more entertaining, her father goes in after her, explaining to a startled woman patron that he’s a doctor, he’s seen it all, and this is his daughter. He encourages Kenya to follow her instincts.

The ending combines Kenya’s choice of “adventure” over security and status and her being made a partner in her firm for advising the management not to acquire the client she’s been dealing with during the story. It’s easy to dismiss the film as artificial, but its principals are so genuinely attractive we enjoy seeing them together. “Something New” may fail to explain why more white men are not pursuing the many stunning unmarried black women in their midst, but it’s the best romantic comedy in some time and illuminates a slice of bourgeois black life rarely presented in movies.

Joseph Cunneen is the regular NCR movie critic. His e-mail is

National Catholic Reporter, March 3, 2006

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