Lost in the Movies: Ill-Gotten Gains

Ill-Gotten Gains

A bizarre concoction of offbeat nineties independent cinema, with one foot in Hollywood fringe filmmaking, the other much further afield (geographically and formally), Ill-Gotten Gains plays like a mash-up of Amistad and Eraserhead. The first comparison, to the 1997 Steven Spielberg film, is not incidental; not only does this film depict a slave revolt on an old wooden ship (according to one of the few online commentators, the same artifact as used in Amistad although I can't confirm), it does so in a period when the slave trade to the U.S. was supposed to be illegal. In Amistad's case this is the early 1840s, when the illegally captured men could still be legally sold in the United States (as long as their origin point was obscured), in Ill-Gotten Gains' case the late 1860s, when not just the trade but slavery itself was illegal almost everywhere except Brazil. But the comparison runs more deeply still: Amistad and Ill-Gotten Gains were released the same year, the same month if IMDb is to be believed, and most strangely of all they both happened to cast Djimon Honsou as a proud, much-abused leader of the revolt. The Eraserhead connection is more diffuse; I'm admittedly using that film as more of a shorthand to allude to the film's rich shadow-laden, chiaroscuroed black-and-white aesthetic and depiction of eerie magic rituals in which props like a spoon and slab of wood come to uncanny life (one shot of the shamanic Barc, played by Mario Gardner, digging into the floor of the ship to unearth some mystical dirt particularly calls to mind David Lynch's 1977 debut). The totem of this aspect of Ill-Gotten Gains is a woodsprite who appears to live within the framework of the ship; depicted as a stop-motion/claymation plank with a tribal mask-like angry face, she is voiced by Eartha Kitt.

This was the element which most inspired me to seek the film out, after I stumbled across a trailer on an old DVD of the Julie Dash-directed Rosa Parks TV movie. Available for free streaming on Tubi - following a 2021 restoration - I was able to plunge right into the experience with little knowledge about what I was watching. I still have almost no context; information on this film is almost impossible to come by despite the trailer featuring pull-quotes from The Village Voice and other publications. The credits reveal a production partly rooted in a Cameroon location shoot but also linked up to various L.A. area services including some shooting in Long Beach of all places (presumably the Californian city, although there are at least a dozen Long Beaches out there). The director Joel Ben Marsden is mostly known for his work with NASA, including a historic HD live-streaming service (he also directed a documentary about this film's "peculiar relationship with ... Amistad" which unfortunately doesn't seem to be readily available except on the Ill-Gotten Gains DVD). The cinematography, probably the film's most striking element, is by Ben Kufrin whose filmography consists largely of low-budget thrillers and Playboy documentaries. How this entire project came together would be a fascinating deep dive but one that will have to wait for another day given the paucity of backstory. As for the film itself...is it good, bad, something else? Honestly, I'm not entirely sure how to answer that question.

Ill-Gotten Gains is certainly interesting, with some vivid setpieces and striking images - like the shaman's spoon transforming into a little man who crawls through the cracks of the shipboards - which are arguably worth the entire runtime themselves. There are some less successful visual conceits too; the entire end sequence with a bleary filter and overexposure attempting to emulate a fog at sea is chaotic in a manner that feels more sloppy and desperate than effectively evocative. By and large, though, the texture of the picture is a success - it's the storytelling and dialogue that more often feels messy and only intermittently effective. Characters - particularly the white slave traders - speak in nineties slang, with modern curses proliferating and phrases like "I'm cool" or "Wassup!!!" - the latter offered by the most abusive of the ship's crew members, Skinner (Clabe Hartley),  followed by the n-word with a decidedly soft "a" though he offers plenty of hard "r"s too. When British sailors, the only people who seem to exist in the nineteenth century vernacular, capture the slavers they declare, "In Britain, we call this tampering with evidence and gross misconduct!" and the captain (Tom Taglang) responds, "In the States, we say suck my dick." The mechanics of the slave deals are vague, with a tribal leader named "Mac" or "McKee for some reason (actor uncredited), offering several wives in exchange - the coda in which the beleagured wives (Akosua Busia, Jamillah Nicole, Claudia Robinson) finally get their revenge on him feels slightly tacked-on and a bit too theatrically staged.

Overall it's clear that Marsden is going for an Apocalypse Now or Aguirre, the Wrath of God-type gonzo experience (the narrative unfolds not on the high seas but along the African coast, for one long stretch docking inside a river bend with the canvas covering the ship's deck and the jungle's ferns draped all around). To its credit, while it lacks those film's concentrated power, their sense of unhinged madness crystallizing into a masterpiece, Ill-Gotten Gains does capture some of their unhinged sensibilities with its environmental effects, spiritual undertones, and motley ensemble of depraved marauders and adventurers making up the ship's crew. As in Apocalypse Now but with the races reversed, some of these figures are themselves members of a subjugated group enlisted in an effort to exploit those lower in the hierarchy than them; in Apocalypse Now these are black soldiers nervously firing at Vietnamese civilians, in Ill-Gotten Gains they are Cooper (Peter Navy Tuaiasosopo) and the cabin boy (Glen E. Beaudin), men from a Pacific island background. Cooper even performs a puppet show (hauntingly interrupted by the cries of a woman being raped by Skinner in the hold below) which bluntly explicates this cycle of abuse, one figure bashing another one ("because you're here!") until the victim suggests, "Let's go somewhere where we can beat someone smaller than me and someone weaker than me. ... Let's go to Africa!"

Although radically different in many features, this film reminded me of The Amazing Grace, a Nigerian revisionist history of the slave trade which I reviewed almost a decade ago - particularly given the idiosyncratically modern speech patterns (more so in this case) and fascination with how the white characters rationalize their power over, hostility toward, and attraction to their victims (more so in that case, although the monsters we meet in Ill-Gotten Gains are very human ones). In The Amazing Grace, however, director Jeta Amata is equally intrigued by the African and European characters, casting his wife in a charismatic performance as a woman whom future abolitionist/songwriter John Newton falls in love with. Marsden tends to dwell on the depraved villainy of the crew at the expense of the slaves, whom we sympathize with but who do not get the opportunity to chew scenery quite as vividly (with the exception of the shaman, who is more of an iconographic presence than a down-to-earth one). The three female characters do have more opportunity than the men to flesh out their personalities: different generations of wives, they find themselves bound together to outsmart their new captors. Of the others, Nassor (Reg E. Cathay), a practical older man determined to find a way out, and Pop (De'aundre Bonds), a despairing younger man resigned to live in some form of hunted captivity forever, emerge as the most well-rounded.

Pop's protest when Nassor tries to free him - "Ain't nowhere to run to" - is among the most grim observations in this film, even if its revolt ultimately succeeds (even Pop, who stays behind, is rescued by the British). Like Amistad, which balances out its idealized portrait of an America striving to be better with a clear-eyed acknowledgement of an Africa ravaged by centuries of conquest and exploitation (Honsou's character returns to find his entire family vanished into the maw of what he escaped), Ill-Gotten Gains recognizes that slavery and the slave trade are only tips of a brutal spear. Setting the film after abolition only emphasizes this quality: this is a horror movie in which the supernatural spirits, unnerving as they are, are among the least disturbing elements onscreen.

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