The Film Evaluation
by Johnie H. Scott, Assistant Professor
Pan African Studies Department - California State University, Northridge

Writing an evaluation, whether it be of a film, book, play, sporting event or other endeavor, calls for certain basic requirements to be met by the writer. These are requirements expected by the reading audience and, without them being addressed in the proper fashion, the evaluation will invariably fail to meet expectations. The requirements, in fact, are the sort of expectations that we all have when going over the appraisal of an event given to us by a witness -- it speaks to the general theme(s), provides a basic summary or description, identifies key characters and elements, gives a basic analysis, and concludes with a commentary on the effectiveness (or lack of the same) of the work in question, or the author(s) of the work.

Our concern here is with how to prepare an evaluation within a given space of no more than 500 words. While the focus is on films, the criteria mentioned here apply as well to those other items listed in the opening sentence. As with any scholarly or professional work, the first consideration has to be with general format, otherwise referred to as appearance. One wants to always provide a cover page that gives the title of the work under review, the byline of the author writing the review, the course and section for which the paper was prepared, the particular writing assignment, and the date of submission. Keep in mind that the best work is always typewritten and you want to observe the conventions associated with this sort of preparation. Make certain if you are using a typewriter that you have a clean ribbon, one that does not smudge the paper or print so lightly as to be unreadable. Preferably, you want to use black ribbon with 12-point type although, more and more, people are switching to 10-point typefaces (preferably sans serif -- JHS).

One of the best methods to use in the opening paragraph of the evaluation is the Reporter's Formula: Who, what, when, where, why and how. At the same time, the writing is always to be done using the present tense with the active voice. Imagine that the review is of the film Ethnic Notions:

Ethnic Notions, the highly-praised documentary produced in 1986 by the late African American filmmaker Marlon Riggs, provides viewers with an in-depth look at the origins and effects of racial stereotypes in the United States by drawing upon historical records, animation, interviews with leading scholars, artists and academicians from across the nation, and clips from such controversial films as D.W. Griffith's Birth of a Nation with the respected, award-winning actress Esther Rolle serving as the narrator for this 58-minute film.

From this opening, notice that the film under evaluation, Ethnic Notions, is boldfaced. The same is true for a second film mentioned, Birth of a Nation. The use of boldface is standard practice, particularly for those using PCs (You should note that with some publications, it is the practice to italicize the titles of films and books rather than use boldface -- JHS). By mentioning the title of the film, we have answered the "What" portion of the Reporter's formula. In giving the name of Marlon Riggs, we have answered the question of "Who" and gone a step further by identifying him as the filmmaker responsible for Ethnic Notions. By specifying that Riggs is African American, a further delineation has been made and the notation that he recently passed adds additional weight to the opening lines. We are aware of the filmmaker's ethnic identity and status (which is why you will read evaluations that speak of "the French filmmaker," or "the Polish filmmaker," or "the Senegalese filmmaker"). This opening, however, does more than name a film and its maker.

The opening paragraph answers the "Why" -- in this case, Ethnic Notions gives us "an in-depth look at the origins and effects of racial stereotypes in the United States." It tells us "how" this is accomplished: "by drawing upon historical records, animation, interviews with leading scholars, artists and academicians, and clips from controversial films..." From reading the opening paragraph, we know this is a "58-minute film" with "...the respected, award-winning actress Esther Rolle serving as the narrator..." We also know "when," 1986, the film was made. Notice, finally, that all of this has been accomplished with a single sentence.

Let us look at the review of the film Clockers (ne: LA Weekly style) which appears in the September 15-21, 1995 issue of LA Weekly written by Monohla Dargis as an example of how one might approach evaluating a feature film:

"Let's be clear, because everyone will not be. With Clockers , Spike Lee has made an extraordinary film, the greatest of the writer-director's decadelong, difficult, messy, intractable and thoroughly willful career. Let's be clear, because people are going to hate this movie; some already do. The film is based on the best-selling novel by Richard Price, who co-wrote the screenplay with Lee. The title is street for drug dealer, which in this particular case means Strike (Mekhi Phifer), a 19-year-old Brooklyn man-child who believes himself king of his own dope-and-money mad hill, but in actual truth is fast descending into a hell he's helped to create."

From the onset, Dargis has taken charge by letting us, the reading audience, know her purpose: to " clear, because everyone will not be." Dargis then goes on to identify the "what," in this case Clockers , referred to as "an extraordinary film," and then goes on to put this into perspective by referring directly to filmmaker Lee's "...decadelong, difficult, messy, intractable and thoroughly willful career." We are given background as Dargis informs us that the film "is based on the best-selling novel by Richard Price, who co-wrote the screenplay with Lee." This is valuable information, and it reveals Dargis' concern for the readership. We are given the meaning for the term Clockers : "...street for drug dealer..." At this point, Dargis does something every good reviewer, evaluator or critic does by identifying not only the name(s) of the major characters, but those playing the roles. We learn that Strike is played by Mekhi Phifer, and is "a 19-year-old Brooklyn descending into a hell he's helped to create."

What are the lessons for you from this opening by Dargis? First, you want to take a stand, identify the work, let us know who is responsible for it coming into being, telling us who has been cast into the featured role(s) and give us a basic theme for the work under review. You want to identify with your readership, clarify the ambiguous and leave nothing to be taken for granted. Do the groundwork for the evaluating that is to come -- no matter if it is favorable or very negative. Make certain that you get the names right -- and that means taking the time to find out the correct spelling, particularly if you are writing for public consumption. Last but certainly not least, develop the issues and concerns you have. Be complete, thorough, concise.

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