Shadows (1959)

Considering the legacy it leaves behind—by "it" I refer to the movie and the director—"Shadows" does indeed cast a long one. The film can be seen now as a template for independent film making and often finds its way onto "best of the undiscovered" lists. A movie ahead of its time in terms of the power given to its characters to define themselves and by the message it portrays, "Shadows" is still remarkably relevant today; but perhaps not that enjoyable.
More jazzy than Scorsese, director John Cassavetes shocked critics and some audiences when "Shadows" premiered as his debut work. Sadly, Cassavetes never was a box-office smash hit, but his movie brought in a great deal of critical acclaim and are still considered to be American masterpieces.
"Shadows" fits this perfectly; but somehow we don't feel the film bleed like Cassavetes' others do.
The movie surrounds a family living in New York. Ben (Ben Carruthers) is a failing singer, whose pride may cometh before his fall. When he deems something inappropriate for an artist to do (such as introduce the next act), he will fight for his point of view and often will lose jobs and money because of it. Also, his talent is slowly going out of style as the Beat-Era kids want more fast-tempo, less crooning pieces and Ben is unable to keep up.
His kid brother Tony (Anthony Ray) is not that much better off. Tony spends his nights with his pals trying to pick up "broads" and getting drunk, sometimes starting fights. Tony is a jazz musician who plays the trumpet, but we never see him play during the movie.
Then there's Lelia (Lelia Goldoni) who is a little high in her seat, but lovable nonetheless. She likes men with intellect, men who seize the opportunity, and men who allow her to be herself. It is only when she is pressured into situations that her fierce anger or deep sadness will erupt. She will not be confined.
But then, there's the color problem. All parts of the minority, Ben suffers the greatest because he is the darkest among his siblings. Perhaps he's trying to prove a point to white America about stereotypes they indulge in; but the film is never explicit enough to say this. He has a short temper, regardless.
Tony does not even seem bothered by race, it does not really factor into his day-to-day routines. One scene allows us to notice him picking up a white girl and flirting with her. It is shot so matter-of-factly that we cannot question its authenticity.
Lelia is the one who suffers the most from race because she looks the whitest. The moment that one of her lovers discovers that her brothers are black, the romance is halted and cannot continue. Lelia is left trying to assemble some sort of dignity from a world that wants her to be two different things: completely white or completely black.
But what is it to "be black"? Maybe that's what Cassavetes wants to ask without asking it. It's very important to note that "racism" is not mentioned in the movie, nor is race itself. We see it in the actions of the characters on the tips of the tongues, but it never gets spoken.
Cassavetes gives this family the ability to define themselves and they don't. This isn't a movie steeped in racial ideas like "Do the Right Thing" is; but it does not disappear from the screen.
The ideas aren't crystallized enough for a commentary and the characters aren't likable enough for "Shadows" to function as a drama. Instead, it balances between the two and we can see how far Cassavetes progressed in his story-telling.
"Shadows" isn't bad, but it really isn't that great either. A powerful debut for the time period to be sure, but its jazz goes a little flat with the years...simply by the horrors of a film aging.

Score: ★★½

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