"I take orders from the Octoboss."

The Inkwell

April 22, 1994

When we first met director Matty Rich (in my summer of ’91 retrospective) he was the 19 year old who made STRAIGHT OUT OF BROOKLYN on $450K of credit card debt and donations, and won the Independent Spirit Award for Best First Feature over fellow nominees Wendell B. Harris Jr., Todd Haynes, Michael Tolkin and Richard Linklater. By 1992 he was name-dropped in Ice Cube’s “Who Got the Camera”,” in which Cube has a run-in with cops and says “I’m looking for John, Matty or Spike Lee.”

And in 1994, when he was still only 22, he made his big sophomore followup THE INKWELL, an $8 million movie distributed by Buena Vista Pictures. That’s a bigger budget than SHE’S GOTTA HAVE IT, SCHOOL DAZE or BOYZ N THE HOOD, but smaller than POETIC JUSTICE. John and Matty (considered gen-xers since they were born in 1968 and 1971) were the new younger guys coming in after the success of Spike Lee (who, like Robert Townsend and Mario Van Peebles, was born in 1957).

THE INKWELL is about a teenager and his parents from upstate New York spending two weeks with his “bougie aunt and uncle at their summer place” in Martha’s Vineyard. As in his debut, Rich focuses on the lives of young men, but also has some serious business about their parents going through things. And this time he has the added challenge that it’s a nostalgic period piece set in the summer of 1976, when he was only four years old. To me some of these kids wearing afros and doing old dance moves look like they’re trying to be funny rather than authentic, but I might be imagining it. There are definitely nice vintage outfits and interior design to look at. The soundtrack consists of seven B.T. Express songs, plus the R&B group Jade are seen in a dance club covering “Dancing Machine” and “Let’s Get It On” as “The New York Dream Machine.”

I have to say that the central character, 16-year-old Drew Tate, is kind of a weirdo. He’s played by Larenz Tate, and I assumed this had to be before MENACE II SOCIETY based on how young he seems but no, he’s just a chameleon. Drew’s a little awkward but you wouldn’t guess at first that he has a doll named Iago he talks to and calls “little buddy.” I guess I owe that kid from CHILD’S PLAY 3 an apology, getting on him about that. This one doesn’t talk back or kill anybody, luckily.

Drew’s dad Kenny (Joe Morton, THE BROTHER FROM ANOTHER PLANET) is worried about him because of the doll thing and his mom Brenda (Suzzanne Douglass, JASON’S LYRIC, HOW STELLA GOT HER GROOVE BACK) is worried about him because he’s sensitive. We later learn that the past incident everyone is tip-toeing around is that he accidentally set their garage on fire and almost burned down the house. Some worry not accidentally.

Brenda makes them take a trip to stay with her sister Francis (Vanessa Bell Calloway, COMING TO AMERICA, DEATH SPA, BEBE’S KIDS) and Francis’ husband Spencer (Glynn Turman, PENITENTIARY II, DEEP COVER). Brenda and Francis’s mom Evelyn (Mary Alice, the Oracle in THE MATRIX REVOLUTIONS) is also there, and is only friendly to Drew. He shares a bedroom with his older cousin Junior (Duane Martin, SCREAM 2), who brings him to parties and dances and tries to help him hook up with girls. Before that they all go check out the titular Inkwell – a beach that’s a popular hangout for the local Black community.

It’s an interesting place for a movie to explore, especially in the era of “hood movies,” and I’m glad so much of it can take place outdoors, because otherwise it might feel like a stage play. Screenwriters Trey Ellis (COSMIC SLOP) and Paris Qualles (Amen) bluntly establish Kenny and Spencer as political opposites, with Kenny being a Black Panther (beret and everything), and Spencer not just being conservative, but having a framed photo of Richard Nixon on his wall. Two years after he resigned! On the beach Kenny wears a dashiki and Spencer reads the Wall Street Journal. After drinks they get in a heated argument about Malcolm X, and Spencer yells “He was a common Harlem hoodlum, killed by common Harlem hoodlums!”

I don’t think this sort of contrivance is always bad (GET ON THE BUS comes to mind as a movie that’s heavy handed but compelling), but this stuff is very broad. It’s a real testament to Morton and Turman’s performances that it’s tolerable at all.

Tate plays Drew as a wide-eyed, smiley-faced space cadet without much self awareness. Come to think of it he reminds me of R.J. in NO RETREAT NO SURRENDER. I was wondering if maybe he was supposed to be gay until the part where he looked out the window and saw Lauren Kelly (Jada Pinkett with hair down past her shoulders!) dancing on the beach.

Later he approaches her at a dance and on the beach and gets dissed both times. Partly because he calls her “the operatic ballerina.” But when she uses him to try to make her ex jealous she warms up to him, laughs at his jokes, genuinely likes his company. He upsets her by saying lobster is too expensive for dinner, but wins her back by catching one and cooking it over a fire on the beach.

He also meets an adult woman named Heather Lee (Adrienne-Joi Johnson, SCHOOL DAZE, HOUSE PARTY, DOUBLE TROUBLE) when she somehow trips over an Igloo cooler during a tennis match and he runs over to help her up. They keep running into each other, she talks to him as that nice kid in the neighborhood, and when her husband Harold (Morris Chestnut, UNDER SIEGE 2: DARK TERRITORY, HALF PAST DEAD) forgets to pick her up Drew gives her a ride home on a tandem bicycle.

Drew is not a fan of Harold, because he’s seen him out with other women. When he can’t bring himself to tell Heather he takes justice into his own hands in a more HOME ALONE sort of way, devising a contraption that traps Harold in his car and sets off fireworks while he comically screams for help.

It took me a bit to realize this was supposed to be kind of a comedy, and that Tate’s somewhat Urkel-y performance was meant to be funny. That would explain the part where he goes to see the Afrocentric psychiatrist Dr. Wade (Phyllis Yvonne Stickney, JUNGLE FEVER, MALCOLM X, DIE HARD WITH A VENGEANCE, POUND OF FLESH) and her collection of cuckoo clocks goes off, calling him “cuckoo.” Maybe that should’ve occurred to her before. Another painful comedy sequence is when the boys try to peep on a nude beach and freak out because they see a fat lady.

I think it leans more drama though, and it’s supposed to be about The Summer When Drew Became A Man. As the poster says, “It was the summer when they finally found out what life was all about,” and as Wikipedia currently puts it, “The movie comes to an end on the Fourth of July, when the Bicentennial fireworks end up symbolizing not just America’s 200th birthday but Drew finally having sex with Heather.”

Yep, that’s right. Heather, a nice thirtyish married woman who halfway through the movie asks Drew, “You’re Francis’s nephew, right? Brenda’s little boy?,” later decides to make sweet love to him on the beach. The context is that she’s just kicked her husband out for cheating and Drew has just seen Lauren about to have sex with her ex. Heather thanks him for the firework prank, kisses him, kisses him longer, takes a long admiring and thoughtful look at him, then leads him by the hand to her preferred mating grounds. Jesus christ, lady! It’s not even a “cut to next day” type situation, there’s a whole caressing and undressing sequence first. The movie definitely plays it like she’s a reasonable person and it’s romantic if you only do it once. I know Rich didn’t write it, but it’s hard to imagine that making it into a movie outside of  this rare situation where the director was closer to the kid’s age than the adult’s.

Having more money and more access to professionals, Rich was able to make a huge technical leap from STRAIGHT OUT OF BROOKLYN. The camera moves well, there are some nice looking shots, some beach community summer atmosphere. The cinematographer is John L. Demps Jr., who got his start on Jama Fanaka’s STREET WARS and was fresh off of Rusty Cundieff’s FEAR OF A BLACK HAT. The score by Terence Blanchard, who had already done JUNGLE FEVER and MALCOLM X for Spike Lee, definitely adds some weight to the proceedings.

But I don’t like it very much. I don’t even have to make an issue out of the MAY DECEMBER climax, it just doesn’t work for me tonally – no laugh out loud jokes at all, but more than enough mugging to derail the attempt at a sensitive portrait of a family trying to understand each other.

I would say some of the best parts of the movie are when Kenny finally starts to connect with his son, and when Spencer and Kenny become comfortable joking with each other. I like that part not for any sort of “can’t we all get along” political message, but just the human experience of being able to parley temporarily because it’s a vacation or because you’re family and you can at least for this moment set disagreements aside and have a laugh together. There’s also a nice moment early in the movie when they’re on the beach together, and Spencer is thinking and hesitating and then gets out, “So, he’s, uh… okay, isn’t he?,” showing genuine concern for Drew after the traumatic fire incident, but Brenda and Kenny take it as an insult. On almost any other topic Uncle Spencer is the bigger asshole, but he’s actually showing here that he cares and they’re being petty.

THE INKWELL was poorly reviewed by critics of the time and barely made more than its production budget in theaters. That may be why Rich hasn’t released a third film (he did recently shoot something called BIRTH OF THE BLACK UNDERWORLD). But I think by playing on B.E.T. all the time, and with the benefit of having such a different setting than most Black films of the era, THE INKWELL has earned some affection over time. Essence did a big piece on it for its 20th anniversary, and here’s Blackfilmandtv.com interviewing Rich recently for the 30th.


APPENDIX/TRIVIA: Directors born in 1965, making them the oldest Gen-Xers: Ben Stiller, Jonathan Glazer, Lana Wachowski, Doug Liman, Michael Bay, Antoine Fuqua, Sam Mendes, Bryan Singer, Rob Zombie, Paul W.S. Anderson, Alex Winter, D.J. Caruso, Tomas Alfredson, Tom Tykwer, Lynn Shelton, Alex de la Iglesia, Roger Avary, Jonas Akerlund, Stephen Gaghan, Shin-ichiro Watanabe, Dito Montiel, Boaz Yakin, Paul Weitz, Gary Fleder.

Directors born in 1980, making them the youngest Gen-Xers: Ti West, Wes Ball, David Lowery, Brandon Cronenberg, Lesley Headland

So Matty Rich is kind of in the middle of those two age groups.

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13 Responses to “The Inkwell”

  1. Holy shit that logo! Slow clap, chef’s kiss, like and retweet!

  2. Fred – the 1994 logo? If so I’m glad you like it. That was a last minute creation after weeks of failing to come up with a title for the series and multiple failed attempts at different logos. I really thought I could pull off a FLINTSTONES version but the letters looked like cancerous flesh instead of carved stone.

  3. It’s the SPEED logo, right?

  4. Yes, I think that’s why Franchise Fred approves. This summer was the beginning of the long and fruitful SPEED franchise.

  5. Make sure you remember how to make the cancerous flesh letters if you ever do a Cronenberg retrospective.

  6. Dreadguacamole

    May 1st, 2024 at 1:51 pm

    I think anyone who tries to do a Cronenberg retrospective automatically develops sphincters all over their body that sporadically spit out goo-covered cancerous flesh letters.

  7. All hail the new flash font!

  8. *flesh

    Goddamn you, spellcheck.

  9. ya know in retrospect it’s kinda weird we haven’t gotten a speed reboot or legacy sequel or whatever. Like you think the Keanu-renisance and the general nostalgia obbsessed movie landscape would have made that absolutely a thing by now.

  10. Franchise Fred

    May 1st, 2024 at 11:15 pm

    Now I want to see the Flintstones attempt even if it was aborted.

    There is a world where there was a Speed trilogy all by Graham Yost and starring Keanu. Further proof that we are in the darkest timeline.

  11. Coming in 2025 to Netflix: THE SPEED, in which Keanu reprises his role as Jack Traven. A copycat killer who idolizes Hopper’s character, thanks to him gaining lots of exposure in a million true crime docs, kidnaps Annie (Academy Award winner Sandra Bullock) and puts her on another bomb bus. Alan Ruck returns as that one guy from part 1, now the head of the traffic department.

    In all seriousness, I can imagine Keanu being in “I only do the things that I wanna do” mode, is the reason why there wasn’t a sequel with him yet and the punchline status of the Keanu-less SPEED 2 probably prevented anybody from making another one without him. Depending on how successful ROAD HOUSE was, I can sense a remake though.

  12. Franchise Fred

    May 3rd, 2024 at 12:11 am

    Post John Wick Keanu has said he’d do Speed 3 publicly. How Fox didn’t put a writer on that immediately…

  13. Then I can only guess that whatever they pitched to Keanu for a part 3 so far didn’t make him sign a contract yet, because there is really no other explanation.

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