Tag Archives: Civil Rights Movement

13th: Birth of a Scheme


A documentary that uses the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, the one that abolished slavery, as a starting point for a discussion of how African-Americans are still subjected to racial injustice in the United States, may look on paper like a concern mainly for what conservatives would call ”bleeding-heart liberals”. But it does present an issue that has found bipartisan interest in recent years, zeroing in on the idea of mass incarceration, the term used to describe the rapid growth of the U.S. prison population over four decades. Conservatives have their small-government (and possibly religious) reasons to oppose mass incarceration. Still, I can’t imagine that those who went along with Trump in 2016 will agree with much here.

When the 13th Amendment freed thousands of slaves, and the Civil War had wrecked the Southern economy, those states needed to rebuild somehow. The despicable but ingenious idea of turning even the most minor of offenses into crimes punishable by forced labor meant that Southern authorities could make a huge number of recently ”freed” slaves go back to the fields in chains. Over the following decades, Jim Crow laws guaranteed that whites and blacks were kept apart. When the epic The Birth of a Nation premiered in 1915, it helped strengthen the Ku Klux Klan’s presence in the South. During the height of the civil rights movement in the 1960s, Richard Nixon won the White House thanks to the support of Southern Democrats, targeting issues like drugs and crime. The result was harsher sentencing and the prison population began to grow. Twenty years later, pressured by a string of losses to Republicans, Democrats under Bill Clinton jumped on the bandwagon with a crime bill that sent black men to prison in dramatically greater numbers.

A nice piece of paper
With help from activists, academics and politicians, the filmmakers reach the conclusion that the 13th Amendment is a nice piece of paper, but in reality white America has always come up with ways to keep the black man down. May seem too radical, but many interesting examples and facts are presented. The use of drugs has been unnecessarily harshly punished over the years, stacking prisons with non-white males since the use of drugs is widespread in poorer minority neighborhoods. American corporations have benefited from private prisons and the cheap minority labor they have provided. The film also addresses the absurd militarization of the police; fear-mongering has always been one of Republicans’ sharpest tools and DuVernay and her team spot a connection all the way back to how D.W. Griffith saw the black man in The Birth of a Nation. Conservatives would say that the film is too manipulative, but it’s easy to see how their predecessors continuously manipulated the system out of fear of anyone who isn’t white. Sometimes Democrats have (thoughtlessly) helped in that process. DuVernay, who last made the Martin Luther King drama Selma (2014), takes skillful advantage of historic footage and puts her interview subjects in prison-like milieus; bars and bricks dominate. 

One of the film’s most upsetting moments is footage from Donald Trump’s hate-filled rallies during his presidential campaign, where supporters attacked black activists. Racism can be subtle, but in 2016 nothing was subtle anymore and the film makes a very clear, unforgettably visual comparison with footage from days decades ago that we hoped were gone. Black lives have never mattered all that much.

13th 2016-U.S. 100 min. Color-B/W. Produced by Spencer Averick, Howard Barish, Ava DuVernay. Directed by Ava DuVernay. Screenplay: Spencer Averick, Ava DuVernay.

Trivia: Among those interviewed in the film are academics, politicians and media personalities like Van Jones, Cory Booker, Angela Davis, Newt Gingrich and Grover Norquist.

BAFTA: Best Documentary.

Last word: “It was important for me to make sure that we included people on both sides of the aisle, so to speak. I know what I think, but I’m interested in knowing what everyone thinks. Everyone who I asked to be in the documentary said yes, and they were included because I wanted to hear their side of the story. I was eager to sit down with them and pick their brains. I spoke with every subject for two hours, and the most intriguing parts of those conversations are in the film.” (DuVernay, Time)



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Hidden Figures


In 1961, while the Americans try to catch up with the Russians in the space race, three black women (Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monáe) make great strides at segregated NASA. Indie filmmaker Theodor Melfi, who made St. Vincent (2014), delivered something decidedly more mainstream and formulaic with this reality-based drama about women who deserve to be better known by the public for their achievements. A little drawn-out, but still compelling as it takes us to the drama behind putting Alan Shepard and then John Glenn safely in space. Smooth and crowd-pleasing, boosted by the performances of Henson and Spencer in particular.

2016-U.S. 127 min. Color. Widescreen. Produced by Peter Chernin, Donna Gigliotti, Theodore Melfi, Jenno Topping, Pharrell Williams. Directed by Theodore Melfi. Screenplay: Allison Schroeder, Theodore Melfi. Book: Margot Lee Shetterly. Cast: Taraji P. Henson (Katherine Goble), Octavia Spencer (Dorothy Vaughan), Janelle Monáe (Mary Jackson), Kevin Costner, Kirsten Dunst, Jim Parsons… Mahershala Ali.

Last word: “It’s changed my life in very, very dramatic ways. I don’t see myself ever doing a film that doesn’t represent the world today, in terms of the cast and in terms of the crew. I won’t touch anything that’s about four white guys with wigs. Ever.” (Melfi, Indiewire)



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Malcolm X: How Little Became Huge

At first, Norman Jewison was considered as director of a movie chronicling the life of Malcolm X. After all, he had done a great job on In the Heat of the Night (1967), a film that took on the racial conflicts of that period in America. Jewison was interested in the project, but there was a public outcry. Many felt that it was only appropriate to expect a black director to make the movie. Eventually, Jewison pulled out of the project. Spike Lee had been one of those objecting to Jewison and in the end he got the job. Ironically, he also faced a backlash, this time from people who suspected that Lee was too ”middle-class” to understand Malcolm X properly. Sensitive indeed. I have no idea if those people liked the movie in the end, but it is one of Lee’s finest.

Harlem, mid-1940s. Malcolm Little (Denzel Washington) is making a living as a small-time criminal, getting involved in drug dealing, gambling and pimping. After moving to Boston in 1945, Malcolm is arrested after a series of burglaries and sent to Charlestown State Prison to serve an eight-to-ten-year sentence. That’s where he’s introduced to the Nation of Islam, a religious and political group that teaches him to understand his value as an African-American man and to never rely on the white man who has done so much to hold him back. Malcolm immerses himself in the teachings of Islam and replaces his last name, that of his ancestors’ slave owner, with a simple X. When he gets out of prison, Malcolm becomes one of the Nation of Islam’s most powerful ministers, ultimately posing a threat to the group itself…

Anger and determination
Producer Marvin Worth obtained the rights to ”The Autobiography of Malcolm X”, which was written by the man himself and finished after his death in 1965 by Alex Haley. Worth, who had actually met Malcolm X when he was selling drugs in Harlem, was one of the people behind the Oscar-nominated 1972 documentary Malcolm X; so was Arnold Pearl, who worked with Lee on the script for this film. The director, who had shown so much passion in Do the Right Thing (1989), brought all of his anger, determination, sense of justice and visual flair to this ambitious film. Very long, but always worthwhile, it just draws you in with its vivid camerawork and all the period details; no wonder that Martin Scorsese called it the best movie of the year because this one seems to have borrowed a lot from his style. The film covers twenty years of Malcolm’s life, and locations vary greatly. A visit to Mecca where Malcolm X made his pilgrimage is beautifully captured and historically interesting; this was the first time an American film crew had been allowed to shoot there. Washington’s towering performance is another major asset. Perhaps we never truly get under the skin of this man; the sometimes frail relationship with his wife (Angela Bassett) who feared for his life falls in the shadow of the controversy surrounding Malcolm X. But the filmmakers bring greater understanding of the man’s political and religious philosophy. It’s all on display and for you to judge – some will view him only as a force for good, others will see the racism inherent in his beliefs that made it hard for him to achieve much as a member of the civil rights movement.

The film opens with footage of the Rodney King beating and ends with Nelson Mandela making an appearance. This was shortly after his release from prison and before he was elected South Africa’s first black president. Watching him repeat one of Malcolm X’s most memorable quotes is moving, powerful – and it’s obvious that those words of black self-reliance are still relevant.

Malcolm X 1992-U.S. 201 min. Color. Produced by Spike Lee, Marvin Worth. Directed by Spike Lee. Screenplay: Spike Lee, Arnold Pearl. Book: Alex Haley, Malcolm X (”The Autobiography of Malcolm X”). Cinematography: Ernest Dickerson. Music: Terence Blanchard. Costume Design: Ruth E. Carter. Cast: Denzel Washington (Malcolm X), Angela Bassett (Betty X), Albert Hall (Baines), Al Freeman, Jr. (Elijah Muhammad), Delroy Lindo, Spike Lee… Giancarlo Esposito, Christopher Plummer, Peter Boyle, Karen Allen, Ossie Davis.

Trivia: Bobby Seale and Al Sharpton appear in small roles. The scene where John F. Kennedy is assassinated was lifted from JFK (1991).

Berlin: Best Actor (Washington).

Last word: “[Washington] told his agent a year out that this was the only thing he wanted to work on. I love D, and I know he’s won for other roles. But, to me, this was his best work, Oscar or no Oscar. The thing about Denzel’s performance is that he’s playing four different people. Later in the film when Malcolm is converted to Islam … he’s not Detroit Red anymore.” (Lee, DVD Talk)



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What Happened, Miss Simone?


whathappenedmisssimoneThe Bobby Fischer Against the World (2011) director takes on another troubled celebrity and cultural phenomenon in this lauded documentary. Made in collaboration with Nina Simone’s family, the film celebrates the artist’s musical talents but doesn’t avoid her dark sides, including the abusive marriage, her bipolar disorder and how she treated her daughter Lisa. Among the interviews, Lisa’s testimony is particularly valuable. The film gives us an understanding of what drove Nina Simone, from how she was introduced to Bach as a child and how she went from being a concert pianist to an artist who went through a political awakening in the 1960s and eventually left the country for Europe. Well-made and compelling; we get close to Simone, or perhaps as close as we can. 

2015-U.S. 101 min. Color-B/W. Produced by Liz Garbus, Amy Hobby, Jayson Jackson, Justin Wilkes. Directed by Liz Garbus.

Trivia: Co-executive produced by Simone’s daughter Lisa.

Last word: “I certainly look for films that are going to tell stories that are not just historical or important in terms of their legacy, but are also meaningful in terms of our lives today. She was speaking a certain truth that still needs to be spoken today. And then, when we were editing the film and there were tanks rolling down the street to Ferguson, Missouri, we were cutting in the same images from the civil rights movement from decades before.” (Garbus, Decider)

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All the Way


All_The_WayShortly after swearing the oath in November 1963, President Lyndon B. Johnson (Bryan Cranston) begins the struggle to get the Civil Rights Act passed, trying to please both Dixiecrats and African-American voters. Recount and Game Change director Jay Roach was the right person to bring the successful play to television. In spite of a long running time, the filmmakers maintain a fairly high level of intensity, with focus firmly on Cranston’s mesmerizing performance as LBJ. Watching him threaten, cajole and manipulate everybody around him in order to get what he wants is great entertainment. Frank Langella is also terrific as ”Uncle Dick”, Johnson’s old mentor.

2016-U.S. Made for TV. 132 min. Color. Produced by Scott Ferguson. Directed by Jay Roach. Teleplay, Play: Robert Schenkkan. Cast: Bryan Cranston (Lyndon B. Johnson), Anthony Mackie (Martin Luther King, Jr.), Melissa Leo (Lady Bird Johnson), Frank Langella, Bradley Whitford, Stephen Root… Ray Wise.

Trivia: Co-executive produced by Cranston and Steven Spielberg.

Last word: “Fortunately, my own natural physical makeup is what every man searches for – beady eyes and thin lips. And that’s what I share with LBJ. It was about two hours and fifteen minutes every day to get into the makeup. Bill Corso, who designed and created the makeup, is a genius and a lovely man to work with. Also, we had lifts in my shoes and little pieces to pull my ears out a little bit.” (Cranston, Buzzy Mag)



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4 Little Girls: The Blast That Changed History


4littlegirlsWhen Condoleezza Rice was eight years old, on a September Sunday in 1963, she felt an explosion a few blocks away from her father’s church. The African-American 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama had just been bombed by white supremacists and the lives of four little girls were extinguished. Decades later, Rice would talk about how she never forgot that moment and that it robbed her of a childhood friend, Denise McNair. Rice grew up to become the U.S. Secretary of State. But four little girls never had a chance to make something out of their lives.

The film introduces us to the atmosphere in Birmingham at the time, explaining what it was like for a black person to grow up in the segregated South. Preventing blacks from voting was particularly important to the white men who ruled Alabama, because if blacks were allowed to vote freely things would change. And that was a threat to racists like Bull Connor, the Commissioner of Public Safety, and Governor George Wallace who once proclaimed “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever”. Ironically, as several in the film point out, the good that came out of the bombing was that it shocked the entire nation and no one could ignore the problem anymore. The next year, President Lyndon Johnson signed the landmark Civil Rights Act into law.

Passionate about civil rights
I’m writing this review a few days after director Spike Lee received an honorary Oscar and gave a speech that blasted Hollywood for being far too white at a time when audiences are becoming increasingly diverse. He’s passionate about civil rights and this documentary is one of his finest films. He considered making it already back in 1983 when he contacted Chris McNair, Denise’s father, but he wasn’t ready to talk about the murder of his daughter. Which is a good thing, because I guess that McNair needed another decade and Lee needed to get some filmmaking experience. He hits the right tone throughout this vivid documentary, painting a moving portrait of the victims with the help of their families who offer heartbreaking testimony, especially about what happened on that September Sunday. Lee doesn’t really spare us details, even going so far as to show us photos of the girls from the morgue, and letting us know that a piece of mortar had pierced one of the girls’ head. The purpose is not to sensationalize, but to make audiences realize the full impact of the evil that those men did that day. He also makes us understand why it mattered so much politically and has even interviewed Wallace himself, who comes across as a pathetic figure who insists that he’s not a racist, forcing some poor black guy who’s working for him to pose as his “best friend”. Various prominent figures add cultural and historical context, including Walter Cronkite, Ossie Davis, Coretta Scott King and Jesse Jackson. There’s even Bill Cosby in one scene, almost a startling distraction now, considering what we’ve learned about his past… One of the non-celebrities interviewed, Bill Baxley, who prosecuted the man who was eventually convicted of murder in this case, takes us through the trial in a riveting way.

This week, TIME Magazine published a lengthy, compelling article on what happened after the murder of nine people in an African-American church in Charleston earlier this year. 50 years have passed since the bombing in Birmingham, but white supremacists are still active. The burning of several churches in Birmingham in the 1990s is also included in the movie, as Lee highlights that timeless aspect. Progress runs slow.

4 Little Girls 1997-U.S. 102 min. Color. Produced by Spike Lee, Sam Pollard. Directed by Spike Lee. Editing: Sam Pollard. Music: Terence Blanchard.

Last word: “We were in this public library in Alabama, and we asked to see the morgue photos, not knowing that they had them. When the clerk called the photos out, we were startled and taken aback. You can imagine what 20 sticks of dynamite can do. But when you see the results, it literally brings tears to your eyes. I have to be honest with you, I was not 100% sure whether I should include those shots. The postmortem photographs. But I decided if we didn’t linger on them, it would be tasteful. They reinforce the horror and the crime that was committed when those sticks of dynamite went off in the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church and killed the four little girls.” (Lee, Indiewire)

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suffragetteOne day in 1912, East End laundress Maud Watts (Carey Mulligan) accidentally finds herself in a suffragette riot and becomes drawn into an increasingly more violent struggle for women’s rights. After portraying a Conservative icon in The Iron Lady (2011), writer Abi Morgan took on the suffragette movement and showed the consequences of its leader Emmeline Pankhurst’s call for civil disobedience. The movement’s use of violence has been heavily debated, but the script doesn’t reach any intellectual depths. It does however touch our hearts and the depiction of working-class conditions and how women were treated is infuriating. Very engaging, with strong performances by Mulligan and Helena Bonham Carter.

2015-Britain. 106 min. Color. Widescreen. Produced by Alison Owen, Faye Ward. Directed by Sarah Gavron. Screenplay: Abi Morgan. Cast: Carey Mulligan (Maud Watts), Helena Bonham Carter (Edith Ellyn), Meryl Streep (Emmeline Pankhurst), Natalie Press, Anne-Marie Duff, Romola Garai… Brendan Gleeson, Ben Whishaw.

Trivia: Bonham Carter is the great-granddaughter of one of the Prime Ministers mentioned in the film, H.H. Asquith.

Last word: “I often found myself saying, ‘Can I bring in a bit of [Pankhurst]? But ultimately, even [the Mrs. Pankhurst role] became slimmer in the film, because my desire was to focus on those women who had not had a voice. Sarah and I both felt it was more important to make a film which would be accessible to women globally. So as we looked at this incredibly charismatic leader, who created this structure and was the vocal advocate for the movement, it became more important to give Maud balance.” (Morgan, The Mary Sue)

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10 Hollywood Icons and Their Political Awakening

A few days ago, I finished Steven J. Ross’s book “Hollywood Left and Right: How Movie Stars Shaped American Politics”, where the writer has profiled the political careers of ten liberal and conservative Hollywood figures. He chose his subjects well, because they differ a lot from each other. Some of them were movement politicians, meaning they preferred to work in favor of various causes rather than try to get elected to an office; others did just that. Some of them gave up their careers for the cause they believed in, others either used their movie careers to advance a political agenda, or waited until their star had diminished until they got into politics.

Since the book is dealing with a visual medium, it’s fun to check out these ten stars and their political engagements with the help of clips.

Charlie Chaplin – In The Great Dictator (1940), perhaps the greatest star in the history of cinema delivers a fiery speech (playing a man who impersonates a Hitler clone) that echoed the political sentiments of the actor, one that spoke out against Hitler and in favor of democracy. What his later critics would seize upon was Chaplin’s call to “do away with national barriers”, which was ridiculously enough labeled as Communist propaganda. As in the case of Warren Beatty decades later, Chaplin’s womanizing was also used as a weapon against him.

Louis B. Mayer – The MGM boss became one of Hollywood’s most powerful figures and the man who brought the Republican Party to Hollywood, helping the GOP establish a base there and often serving as a mentor to young stars who became conservatives under his guidance. The clip shows the staunch right-winger testifying against Communism before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1947.

Edward G. Robinson – The case of Robinson is tragic, much like that of Chaplin, two huge movie stars whose careers were destroyed by men who profited from keeping a “red scare” alive no matter what. The clip above shows Robinson in Confessions of a Nazi Spy (1939), one of the first films to deal with the threat of Nazi Germany, but Robinson’s fight against authoritarianism was eventually twisted by his enemies into being pro-Communist, leading to devastating HUAC hearings.

George Murphy – Perhaps the least known of the ten Hollywood icons Ross selected, Murphy became famous in the 1930s, often playing the good, decent guy in musicals. After the decline of his career, Murphy (originally a liberal Democrat, but swayed by Mayer and his associates) turned to electoral politics and was elected U.S. Senator in 1964 as a smiling, affable conservative. During his first campaign Murphy benefited from TV networks showing his old movies where he danced with Shirley Temple, which his critics foolishly thought might make him look silly. In fact, those movies only reinforced his charisma. In the clip above, we see him serve as a representative of President Richard Nixon in 1970.

Ronald Reagan – Reagan and Murphy had similar careers to the degree that Ross even lets them share a chapter in his book. Just like Murphy, Reagan often played decent guys, started out as a Democrat and got involved in union work. When his career in movies was over, he also turned to electoral politics and he knew just as well as Murphy how to use his screen persona, and well-chosen soundbites, to win over voters. In the clip above, then-former California Governor Reagan is a guest at The Tonight Show in 1975.

Harry Belafonte – Belafonte was on the verge of becoming maybe the greatest African-American movie star of his times when he chose to devote his life to the civil-rights struggle, essentially giving up that part of his career. He still became a highly sought-after singer and used those talents as his way of collecting money for the cause. In no way was he just a hanger-on; he was one of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s closest friends and collaborators. In the 1967 interview above, he talks about racism and the Vietnam War.

Jane Fonda – In the clip above, the actress answers questions about her campaign against the Vietnam War in 1972. Fonda is still a controversial figure because of her years in movement politics. We don’t really have to care about certain veterans’ hatred of her; she has apologized several times for letting herself be used as a tool of propaganda during a visit to North Vietnam earlier that year. What’s more problematic is that her efforts in favor of the antiwar movement damaged it at times because of ignorance and poor judgment. Over the years, however, she has turned into an admirable feminist icon.

Charlton Heston – He started out as yet another liberal who slowly became a conservative, even though he had walked with civil-rights leaders in the 1960s against racism. Years later, however, Heston cared more about other issues, such as protecting the rights of gun-owners against imaginary threats to the Second Amendment. He resisted attempts to get into politics, but allowed himself to be elected president of the National Rifle Association. Every time he raised a weapon and hissed “from my cold dead hands”, the gun nuts he presided over went wild.

Warren Beatty – The liberal equivalent to Heston worked just as hard to get his preferred candidates elected, even harder in fact as Beatty got personally involved in presidential campaigns on an unprecedented level (Gary Hart’s two runs). But just like Heston, Beatty realized that he didn’t care for the challenges of actually governing something. Like Jane Fonda, Beatty had the capacity (and status) to work his politics directly into movies. The most obvious example is Bulworth (1998) where he plays a Democratic senator who finds his inner liberal.

Arnold Schwarzenegger – The kid who grew up in Austria, learned how to hate Socialism and dreamed of becoming a bodybuilder, a movie star and a politician in the United States, would never settle for mere movement politics though. Schwarzenegger’s career is truly remarkable, and as a modern movie star he learned how to turn the entertainment media to his advantage in order to win the governorship of California. The Governator got himself elected twice, partly because of weak Democratic opponents, but also because he understood how to fine-tune his message, as in the 2003 ad above.

Steven Ross’s book is an entertaining read, mostly because of the recap of these stars’ political endeavors and how he describes the difference between them. The final chapter tries to sum it up, but there isn’t much point, besides emphasizing the obvious: It’s good when citizens get involved.

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What Made My Blood Boil Over the Week

You know it’s primary season when Republicans look even more reprehensible than usual. This is the time when they need to appeal to their debased base. Two events this week made me roll my eyes so bad I almost hurt myself.

The first concerned retired neurosurgeon and presidential candidate Ben Carson. Known for his anti-gay stance, Tea Party credentials and stupefyingly ignorant statements, Carson made everything worse this week by doubling down on his earlier inflammatory remarks. When interviewed for a Fox News profile, Carson said he was irritated at how gay rights have become part of the civil rights movement. He said the following:

I didn’t remember any times when there were signs up that says, you know, ‘everybody else here and gay people have to drink at this fountain.’

It’s another bone-headed, offensive statement from a person who’ve specialized in them. Carson should know that during the times when blacks and whites were segregated, at least blacks were recognized. Gays didn’t even have that right – they had to be closeted, because the option would be severe discrimination, hospitalization or getting killed by the rednecks whose votes Carson is courting now.

Carson doesn’t believe that gays are being discriminated. Christians are the victims instead. That will appeal to the base, no doubt, even though Christians in America are discriminated by exactly no one. Carson is an embarrassment to Republicans, as pointed out by conservative commentator S.E. Cupps on CNN earlier this week after polls show the doctor falling. There truly is a Republican clown car, and Carson is currently the driver. Check out the clip above.

The other thing this week that has just amazed me is how Senator Lindsey Graham’s personal life has become an issue, most likely for conservatives who will never trust you unless you get properly married. The man is single and has always been, even though he says in a recent interview with Katie Couric (above) that he came close to marrying once. There’s been some discussion as to how the functions of a First Lady is meant to be performed during a Graham presidency. Apparently, this is now a genuine issue, debated with a straight face, as if it matters beyond the glamor that a first lady might bring to the presidency. Then there was Graham’s colleague, Senator Mark Kirk, who tried to be funny and referred to the South Carolina senator as a “bro without a ho”. Apparently, Kirk never left his frat house. In the clip above, Graham virtually apologizes for his offensive GOP pal.

I’ll never support Graham’s conservative policies. But the very notion that the White House should have a “singles need not apply” sign makes my blood boil. 

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Mississippi Burning: Death by Cop


mississippiburningThere are many heinous cases that must have compelled federal authorities to finally back comprehensive civil-rights legislation that specifically targeted the South. One of the worst is the disappearance of three civil-rights workers, two white and one black, in Mississippi in 1964 who were later found murdered. Local authorities wouldn’t do much about the case, but as the FBI soon learned that was because they were in on it – the murders were planned and executed by men belonging to the local Ku Klux Klan, sheriff’s office and another police department. Heavily debated at the time of its release, this film stays close to the facts, but is far from a documentary.

In 1964, FBI agents Rupert Anderson and Alan Ward (Gene Hackman, Willem Dafoe) arrive in Jessup County, Mississippi to find out what happened to three civil-rights workers gone missing. They immediately face a sheriff’s office that is either outright hostile or completely uninterested in the case. Anderson and Ward differ on many issues, including how to approach this case. The former is older, was born in the South and knows how and when to talk to the locals without offending them; the latter is a young, by-the-book Washington type who expects answers without understanding the consequences of asking people at the wrong time or wrong place. After a while, Anderson finds one person who might provide the key to the case – the woman (Frances McDormand) who happens to be married to one of the sheriff’s deputies (Brad Dourif)…

Redneck cops are good villains
Complaints about how the script differs from the facts are irrelevant. But writer Chis Gerolmo does deserve some criticism for his heavy-handed portrayal of the Mississippi town. Throughout the film, we see those responsible for the murders (including the sheriff and the mayor) act like completely one-dimensional racist thugs. There is little effort on Gerolmo’s behalf to try to understand why the toxic ideology represented by these vile men was so widely supported in the South. These days when we see movies about World War II Nazis, attempts are often made to explain how so many could fall for that political brand, but movies about racism in the South in the 1960s and earlier rarely delve deeply into trying to learn more about that mindset. It’s a shame, especially when the filmmakers are as ambitious as in this case, but redneck cops sure make for good villains – and everything else in the movie is dynamite. As the agents keep investigating, and tension builds in the community, Trevor Jones’s electronic music score helps us sit on the edge of our seats. There’s also tremendous emotion in the way the African-American locals are portrayed; the film was accused of making them look inactive and in need of being rescued by the white man, but some of the film’s most stirring moments are dominated by them. Hackman and Dafoe are also very enjoyable as the odd-couple agents and McDormand terrific as the wife who should have left town a long time ago, but refuses to call any other place home.

Director Alan Parker shows a genuine interest in the Mississippi locations where he shot the film – there’s this feeling throughout, symbolized by Hackman, that it wouldn’t be such an awful place if only you got rid of the racist pigs in charge of the police, courts and state government. Easy peasy, right? A lot has changed since 1964, but as I’m writing this review America is once again debating endemic police violence against blacks. It’s clear that there’s still work to be done.

Mississippi Burning 1988-U.S. 125 min. Color. Produced by Robert F. Colesberry, Frederick Zollo. Directed by Alan Parker. Screenplay: Chris Gerolmo. Cinematography: Peter Biziou. Music: Trevor Jones. Editing: Gerry Hambling. Cast: Gene Hackman (Rupert Anderson), Willem Dafoe (Alan Ward), Frances McDormand (Mrs. Pell), Brad Dourif, R. Lee Ermey, Gailard Sartain… Stephen Tobolowsky, Michael Rooker.

Trivia: The real-life murder story was also filmed as a TV movie, Murder in Mississippi (1990). According to Tobolowsky, some of the extras were actual Klan members.

Oscar: Best Cinematography. BAFTA: Best Cinematography, Editing, Sound. Berlin: Best Actor (Hackman).

Quote: “Have you any idea what it’s like to live with all this? People look at us and only see bigots and racists. Hatred isn’t something you’re born with. It gets taught. At school, they said segregation what’s said in the Bible… Genesis 9, verse 27. At 7 years of age, you get told it enough times, you believe it. You believe the hatred. You live it… you breathe it. You marry it.” (McDormand to Hackman)

Last word: “Chris Gerolmo had written two drafts of the script before I became involved and we began working together on a new draft closer to the film I wanted to make. This was a less than fruitful exercise as Chris and I, locked away in an Orion office in Century City, didn’t really gel as a writing team. For a week or so we ploughed through his original script which I was very keen to rework and tear apart, influenced by the actual story, the political milieu and the piles of research we had uncovered. In particular, Chris also didn’t take to my robust criticisms of his dialogue and, indeed, began to write down every rude remark I made on a yellow legal pad – eventually complaining about me to the powers that be. Zollo flew in from New York and when I arrived first thing in the morning for the day’s work, the two of them were already in the offce waiting for me. Zollo said that I had been ‘rather rude’ to Chris, and so maybe it would be better that I should leave the project. Not entirely surprised by their ultimatum, I suggested that maybe the two of them should leave the project instead.” (Parker, AlanParker.com)

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Selma: Battle on a Bridge


selmaWhen Ava DuVernay was hired to direct this movie, which would become an explosive breakthrough for her after a few independent films, she focused on Martin Luther King’s speeches. She didn’t have the right to use them in Selma because the King estate had licensed the copyright to DreamWorks and Warner for a not yet produced film by Steven Spielberg. DuVernay decided to write new speeches for “her” King that would come as close to the real thing as possible, in content and style. She took that challenge seriously, and David Oyelowo’s deliverance of them provides some of the film’s most powerful moments.

In 1964, civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. (Oyelowo) accepts the Nobel Peace Prize and President Lyndon B. Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) signs the landmark Civil Rights Act. But the struggle for the discrimination and violence to end for African-Americans is far from over. They are still being murdered by white supremacists in the South when King visits Johnson in the White House and tells him that legal action is needed on the right to register as a voter. Even though King tries to make the President understand how instrumental that right is in the actual process of crushing Southern racism, Johnson tells him that he needs to focus on other issues at the moment. Disappointed but undeterred, King and his followers set their sights on the small city of Selma as an appropriate venue for a showdown with the white authorities…

Vivid, exciting and heartbreaking
The least successful part of this film may be the depiction of the King marriage, challenged by the civil-rights leader’s dangerous commitment to the cause and his infidelities. There are times when DuVernay hits narrative bumps and events fly by a little too fast. We don’t really feel like we learn much about the relationship between the Kings at all. Still, this is on the whole a triumph. DuVernay reduced Johnson’s part in the original script and focused on those brave men and women who made the now iconic march from Selma to Montgomery, defying the violent response from Alabama state troopers. The film is vivid, exciting and heartbreaking, with a majestic, defining performance by Oyelowo as King and many fine supporting efforts, including from Brits Wilkinson and Tim Roth as two Southern political legends on different sides of the struggle, and Oprah Winfrey as Annie Lee Cooper, the former nurse who had the pleasure of punching the vile sheriff Jim Clark during a demonstration. The film wasn’t properly recognized at the Oscars, but many scenes are very effectively staged by cinematographer Bradford Young, such as King’s mesmerizing speeches, the horrors of the Edmund Pettus Bridge clashes (the whip emerging from a cloud of tear gas!), and a scene where King and Johnson talk underneath a portrait of George Washington, founding father and slave owner.

Johnson scholars considered the portrait of the President as reluctant to do what was necessary unfair. Indeed, the civil-rights legislation wouldn’t have happened without him. But DuVernay made a creative decision that works very well for the film – and it isn’t a documentary. She doesn’t have to report all the facts. DuVernay didn’t want to make a “white savior” film. That’s what Spielberg did with Schindler’s List (1993) – but in that case the Oskar Schindler story was too good to ignore. It’s never about recreating history in the “correct” way. It’s always about finding the dramatically most interesting angle. If everything else, including historical relevance, comes together as beautifully as in Selma or Schindler’s List, you should be grateful.

Selma 2014-U.S. 128 min. Color. Widescreen. Produced by Christian Colson, Dede Gardner, Jeremy Kleiner, Oprah Winfrey. Directed by Ava DuVernay. Screenplay: Paul Webb. Cinematography: Bradford Young. Song: “Glory” (Common, John Legend). Cast: David Oyelowo (Martin Luther King, Jr.),  Tom Wilkinson (Lyndon B. Johnson), Carmen Ejogo (Coretta Scott King), Andre Holland, Tessa Thompson, Giovanni Ribisi… Common, Cuba Gooding, Jr., Dylan Baker, Tim Roth, Oprah Winfrey, Martin Sheen.

Trivia: Co-executive produced by Brad Pitt. At one point, Lee Daniels was set to direct with Hugh Jackman, Robert De Niro and Liam Neeson in the cast.

Oscar: Best Original Song. Golden Globe: Best Original Song.

Last word: “I wanted to try to make everyone as human as possible. That trap that I see so many non-black filmmakers do with black characters, where everything is surface and stereotypical… I didn’t want to be the black filmmaker that does that with the white characters. Tim [Roth] has talked about every actor has to love the character that they’re playing in some way, and in the time that we’re talking about, there’s not a lot to love in [George] Wallace if you believe in justice and dignity. But he found a videotape or an article of his son talking about him, and so he was able to tap into the father doing what he thought was right.” (DuVernay, Rolling Stone)

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Why the Oscars Need to Catch Up With the Golden Globes

Every year produces a barrage of hostile reactions to the Oscar nominees. And the history of the Oscars itself has numerous examples of outrages. Take the year of 1952, for instance, when Singing’ in the RainThe Quiet Man and High Noon premiered, but The Greatest Show on Earth was selected as Best Picture. Everyone of you can name many other years when similar injustices occurred. But this year the reactions seemed more hostile. It’s one thing that The Lego Movie was not nominated for Best Animated Feature; I’m sure that we as well as the makers of that film (who were two of many that contributed with funny tweets about this upset) can live with it. I can also live with Lana Del Rey not being nominated for Best Original Song, even though I love her title track from Big Eyes.

The Oscars were heavily criticized this year for not being inclusive and diverse enough. Recently, Academy president Cheryl Boone Isaacs countered that in Vulture with the following statement:

The good news is that the wealth of talent is there, and it’s being discussed, and it’s helpful so much for talent — whether in front of the camera or behind the camera — to have this recognition, to have this period of time where there is a lot of publicity, a lot of chitter-chatter.

It’s a weird thing to say. Not that it isn’t true, but it really has nothing to do with the lack of diversity that people are talking about. Of course, there’s a lot of talent in Hollywood, but people of color (and a certain other gender than male) are rarely recognized or rewarded in the dream factory, and it became particularly painful this year in the case of Selma. A universally cherished film (apart from some historical complaints), which is rightfully recognized in the Best Picture category…. but weirdly enough not in the expected Director, Original Screenplay and Actor categories. In fact, the only other category Selma appeared in was Best Original Song.

This discussion is not new, it appears every year. And every year we read about what the Academy looks like – they are over 90 per cent white, three quarters male and the median age is 63. It would be one thing if they made an effort to recognize the work of their female, black and Latino colleagues, but they simply don’t. The discussion within the Hollywood community is vibrant though. Last year saw an excellent essay by Chris Rock in The Hollywood Reporter, providing awkward example after awkward example of how this is a “white industry”. Last August, the University of Southern California presented a study on diversity in Hollywood that gave us a few depressing facts (as reported by CNN):

From 2007 to 2013 the percentage of African Americans in speaking roles grew only from 13 percent to 14.1. Other minority groups didn’t fare much better: Hispanics rose from 3.3 percent to 4.9, Asians from 3.4 to 4.4. while those categorized as ‘other’ (which would include Native Americans) remained steady at 2.5 percent over the six-year period. Researchers also found that ‘Hispanic females (37.3%) were more likely to be featured in popular films than were white females(29.6%) or Asian females (32%)’. But according to the study, when featured, Hispanic females were also more likely to be shown either partially or totally nude on screen than any other race.

And then there is Jessica Chastain who gave a touching speech at the Critics’ Choice Awards on the same day that the Oscar nominees were announced and the backlash began. 

Earlier today I saw To Be Takei (2014), a documentary that pointed out a fact about George Takei that I wasn’t really aware of – the actor served as inspiration to countless Asian-Americans when he appeared on Star Trek, simply because there were no other role models like that at the time. These things matter. As a white male, I hate to point out the obvious to a black woman like Cheryl Boone Isaacs… but leadership matters too. And her knee-jerk defense of the Academy, which is evidently out of touch with America, is not helping Hollywood become more diverse. As it stands now, the small but eclectic group of Hollywood Foreign Press Association voters are more interesting than the Academy. Is this something Cheryl Boone Isaacs is pleased with?

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Free Angela and All Political Prisoners



freeangelaThis documentary, which can be seen as an equally compelling companion piece to The Black Power Mixtape 1967–1975 (2011), focuses on Angela Davis, the university professor who was fired from the UCLA in 1969 for being a Communist and who became engaged in the Black Panther cause, eventually ending up on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted List. She became a fugitive, but the government’s case was flawed from the start. In the film, Davis (now an influential scholar and author) guides us through her journey and the tumultuous times when she was labeled a “terrorist” by President Nixon, leading up to the moment when an all-white jury delivered a not-guilty verdict. Other key voices from the era contribute as well, and the film is richly illustrated with archive footage showing Angela’s cultural impact.

2013-U.S.-France. 102 min. Color/B-W. Produced by Carole Lambert, Shola Lynch, Carine Ruszniewski, Sidra Smith. Written and directed by Shola Lynch.

Trivia: Co-executive produced by Will Smith, Jada Pinkett Smith and Jay-Z.

Last word: “The hardest part for this project actually was raising the money, but then there were other things. Because it took so long to raise the money, there were other things we ended up having access to. Because it took over two years to get access to the FBI files. The process is just really slow. Then once we got the files, it took time to be able to comb through them. So what happens when you have a longer arc of time to work is that more stuff surfaces, more information surfaces. In a way I feel like an archaeologist. Because, you run out of money, but at a certain point, the film has to be done. With the film then, out in the world, I hope more information surfaces, more lost artifacts that are part of the story, and people will come forward. We pressed as hard as we could in the time that we had.” (Lynch, Indiewire)

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