' ' Cinema Romantico: When It Rains

Tuesday, June 30, 2020

When It Rains

The lickety-split but richly lyrical “When It Rains” opens with a Christmas tree being hurled up and over a brick wall and into an alley, discarded, out with the old, in with the new. But director Charles Burnett forgoes honoring that idiom, bringing it to life just to disprove it. No, it might well be New Year’s Day in Los Angeles, but for a young mother who has been stranded outside her apartment until she pays rent, it’s just the first of the month, again. Leaving her child sitting on the steps in their courtyard, she hurries from her home in Watts to Leimert Park in search of a Griot (Ayukoo Babu), described by StoryCorps as “a position of honor in West African tradition…a storyteller…who hands down family and community history from one generation to the next.” Indeed, as the mother wanders through a small jazz festival, we hear the Griot in voiceover, telling the story of “When It Rains” before he’s even joined it, connecting her plight to Black music. “We live with contradictions,” he says. “How do you mix jazz and blues together? Part is darkness; the other half faces the sunlight.” If her rent situation is, for the moment, the blues, this jazz festival intrinsically suggests the opposite, and as she crosses through a pedestrian overpass, the way Burnett frames the shot, looking up, makes it seem like a portal from one side to the other, into the light.

The Griot, a Good Samaritan, agrees to help rustle up the rent, going around the neighborhood asking different people if they can spare a few bucks to help a woman in need. Burnett might have rendered this as akin to The Dardenne Brothers’ “Two Days, One Night”, each encounter escalating the drama until it reaches a pressure point, tacking the other way instead by dialing the pressure back. As others more versed than me in the ways of blues and jazz have noted, each encounter the Griot has, some successful and some not, is like a little solo, extending the musical allegory, taking us off the narrative’s main path to see something else instead, whether it’s the mother’s ex-husband, who has graduated from being a Black Panther to wearing a suit, waxing a car and mumbling, like this transformation to the humdrum of the day-to-day has rendered him mute, or a friend whose young son sits in the front yard making armpit noises, oblivious to the looming human drama.

In fact, The Griot does not even make the rent money as an obscure jazz record that just happens into his hands proves the unlikely elixir, a comical diffusing of the tension but also illustrative of a larger point. Music is almost always running concurrently in the background, sometimes obscuring dialogue, the music as much the dialogue as the actual dialogue, truly communicating in song, brought home with the closing sequence, an extended solo by a trumpet player, washing everything away. Until February 1st.

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