Blindspotting

Posted on July 19, 2018 at 5:31 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: R for language throughout, some brutal violence, sexual references and drug use
Profanity: Very strong, crude, and racist language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking and drunkenness, drugs
Violence/ Scariness: Peril and violence including policeman shooting an unarmed man
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: July 20, 2018

Copyright 2018 Foley Walkers Studio
Copyright 2018 Lionsgate
More than ten years ago, longtime best friends Daveed Diggs (“black-ish,” “Wonder,” Tony-winner for “Hamilton”) and spoken word poet/academic Rafael Casal began working on “Blindspotting,” inspired by their experience growing up in the uneasily gentrifying Oakland, California area long before either became successful. It took about ten years before they got the financing, and when it premiered at Sundance it was immediately acclaimed as a remarkably assured first film with exceptional performances a gripping story, and a nuanced, sometimes poetic portrayal of issues of race, class, and friendship.

Collin (Diggs), who is black, has just three more days of his year-long probation, following a two-year sentence. As long as he meets every checkpoint and follows every rule for just three more days, he will be able to leave the closely supervised halfway house and regain his freedom.

This is a challenge. His best friend Miles (Casal), who is white, is completely loyal to Collin but also impulsive and naturally resistant to any kind of rules. Collin finds himself with Miles and another friend who are smoking weed and playing around with guns. If he is discovered, it would mean an immediate return to prison. And then it gets worse. Collin, already running late getting back to the halfway house, knowing that missing curfew is a probation violation, stops at a red light and sees something he shouldn’t — a white cop killing an unarmed black man. The cop spots him and tells him to go. Terrified of getting shot or going back to prison, he does.

Collin and Miles work as movers, which gives us a chance to see the gentrification of Oakland, from the ten dollar “green juice” drinks suddenly appearing in local stores to the artist (Wayne Knight) who shows them his pictures of the trees that once gave the city its name but have now been cut down for development. A character wears a t-shirt that says, “Kill a hippie; save your hood.” The feeling of displacement is personal as well. Collin’s mother has remarried and her new stepson has moved into his old bedroom.

In some respects, the community is generously diverse. Colin’s black mother is now married to an Asian man. Miles is devoted to his partner, who is black, and their son. But racial divides persist, and this film navigates them and addresses them with a deep understanding of the history and complexity. When the friends finally get into a fight that could divide them forever, it is in large part because even the closest of friendships, even those who feel like family cannot truly understand what it is like to be black unless they are black.

At one point, a character asks Miles and Collin to stand quietly and look deeply into each other’s eyes. As much as these two men share, it is rare for them to look at each other. When they speak, they are often both staring ahead. This movie, conceived a decade ago but somehow coming out at exactly the right time, asks us to look deeply at both of them, and thus at ourselves.

Parents should know that this movie includes peril and violence, very strong, crude, and racist language, drinking and drunkenness, drugs, and family conflict.

Family discussion: What are the pros and cons of gentrification? What should Collin have done when he saw the officer shoot an unarmed man?

If you like this, try: “Do the Right Thing” and “Sorry to Bother You”

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Boots Riley on “Sorry to Bother You”

Posted on July 6, 2018 at 2:00 pm

Boots Riley is a filmmaker who made a slight detour into music, where he found great success as lead singer for The Coup and Galactic, and in teaching a high school class called “Culture and Resistance: Persuasive Lyric Writing.” His provocative, wildly funny, and remarkably assured first film is Sorry to Bother You, starring LaKieth Stanfield as Cash Green, a telemarketer who achieves great sales numbers by using his “white voice” (provided by David Cross), and Tessa Thompson as his graphic and performance artist girlfriend, Detroit.

In an interview, Riley spoke about what he learned about communication when he was a telemarketer, and when his father asked him what voice he was using after he overheard a phone call with one of Riley’s friends, and why Armie Hammer’s family history played a part in his casting as the corporate CEO.

I have to begin by asking you about Detroit’s wild earrings, like the ones that say in big letters “MURDER MURDER MURDER KILL KILL KILL.” What do we learn about her as an artist from the way she puts herself together?

Copyright Annapurna Pictures 2018

Detroit is always looking for a way to make a statement, looking for a way to talk about the world. So she uses every wall she can find, every piece of her being to say something to the world. The are earrings are just a part that symbolizes that about her and the words on the earrings are all quotes from songs.

Detroit is much more political than Cash, but she has a job that is just as demeaning and corporatist as his job, standing on a street corner twirling a sign. He is out there selling and he’s out there selling; does that bother her at all?

One of the reasons that she maybe wasn’t all the way against what Cassius was doing or didn’t leave him right away is that she’s not of the mind that the way that we get rid of capitalism is somehow going out into the woods and creating some alternative system. She knows that whatever she’s doing is going to be part of that.

And what did you learn about selling when you were a telemarketer? What was your most effective pitch?

I’ve actually been doing sales sort of stuff forever. There’d always be these 17-year olds who were hired by some company or whatever and they’d go pick up kids like me in the neighborhood when we were around 11. You go knock on doors and sell newspapers. I learned through those sorts of jobs for the wrong reasons how to listen to people and to understand that people may be saying something that the words they’re using aren’t saying. That was for manipulative reasons that I learned that but then that carried over into my style of organizing which is not to be caught up on the linguistics of someone. It wasn’t so much about vocabulary and identifying words as it was about what is the thing that we’re trying to create.

So if you call and somebody says, “I haven’t got time for this?”

You figure out through that some clue of who they are. “I haven’t got time for this” sounds like somebody is really overwhelmed with things that are going on in their life and other things they don’t want to be doing. They’re not saying, “I got all this stuff that I really want to be doing.” They’re saying, “I don’t have time for this,” so you could play off of that.

I’m sold! Do all black people have a white voice they can use?

There are some people that don’t consciously know that they do and maybe don’t have jobs where they have to have that but definitely a lot do.

I guess everybody has to code switch some time in their life.

I know when I was growing up and getting to the age where I got on the phone with my friends, I remember getting off the phone one time and my father being like, “Who was that”? And I was like, “Oh that was Joey.” “No, who was that on the phone?” I said, “I told you it was Joey.” “No, who was that on the phone here because I didn’t recognize that voice at all.”

In the movie it’s all about performance. We’re all performing in some way even when you don’t do the switching thing it’s sometimes a reaction to who you think you are and all of these things that you will perform or not perform. It might not be switching but I think the more relevant thing is that it’s all a code because we’re made up of all of these influences and all of these ideas. It’s not saying that any of it is bad. I don’t think the goal is to try and figure out how to not do that.

One of the things that I think is important is that what it puts out there is because a lot of times blackness is codified. Like “it comes from this and this and this: and whiteness it ends up because of that being like this pure thing it’s just the thing that is and everything else is a reaction. Danny Glover’s character Langston says that “there are no real white voices.” What their white voices try to convey is the sense that everything’s okay and “I’ve got everything taken care of.” To the extent that that voice does exist, it’s in reaction to the idea the racist tropes of blackness and of people of color. Through all sorts of media and culture we get told that poverty is a fault of the impoverished and that through these bad choices but no one wants to talk about the fact that capitalism demands that there be poverty; it is necessitated. You can’t have full employment under capitalism otherwise everyone would be able to demand every wage they want. You have to have an army of unemployed workers and the only time it gets talked about openly is when the Wall Street Journal is worrying about the unemployment rate going down which causes wages to go up and stocks to plummet.

It would be great if there was an episode of one of those cop shows like CSI where they figure out that they’re not going to stop crime because crime comes from people needing to eat who are unemployed. As long as we have this system we’re going to have unemployed people who need to eat.

Copyright 2018 Annapurna Pictures

And as your wealthy CEO you have Armie Hammer, whose great-grandfather, Armand Hammer, was a famous CEO notorious for his disregard of shareholder interests.

I think it’s really great casting historically and also he’s a really great guy and a guy that people don’t understand how much acting he’s doing because it seems so natural.

He is remarkable in the film, and so is LaKeith Stanfield.

I don’t think this movie would have worked with another kind of actor. I got notes about him which were like, “He needs to be more active,” which means like the blockbuster style of action — “I’m confused now, look at my eyebrow,” that sort of thing. We did pre-preparation so we knew what his posture was going to be like at different points of the story and everything else was more about him feeling whatever it is he supposed to be feeling and not worrying about whether he’d look like he was feeling that.

The movie features a company called WorryFree that promises to give people everything they need — a job, a place to live, food, clothes — but it is clear to us in the audience it is a sort of prison.

The point is I don’t think it’s illegal, I really would like someone to point out whether that company is illegal; if it’s not illegal it’s going to be done. And actually it’s a lot like how many places in other parts of the world that US companies contract out to work. The big thing in the movie is that it’s happening here in the US; that is the big difference.

Which is why those corporate folks are the puppet masters and we only get to vote on the puppets. We get to vote which one will be the puppet that might more resist the pulling of the strings but we know that they’re all still puppets. And so I think that my movie puts forward an idea and approach that has to do with trying to go directly to the puppeteers through withholding of labor and that we need movements.

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Hearts Beat Loud

Posted on June 7, 2018 at 5:12 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for some drug references and brief language
Profanity: Brief strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol, references to drug use, scenes in a bar
Violence/ Scariness: Family and economic struggles, absent parent
Diversity Issues: Divers characters
Date Released to Theaters: June 8, 2018

Copyright 2018 Gunpowder & Sky
Isn’t it nice that we get to go live in Brett Haley World every now and then? The gifted young writer-director of “I’ll See You in My Dreams” and “Hero” always gives us characters who might be flawed, who might not be where they expected or wanted or deserved to be, but who are marvelously human and endearing. His latest is “Hearts Beat Loud,” the story of a single dad with a failing business (vinyl records) and a bright, beautiful daughter about to leave for college. It is nothing less than high praise to say these are nice people. We love spending time with them. One reason is that Haley writes roles that great actors want to play, and he creates a space for them to do their best.

An early scene is not the usual father-daughter dispute. The daughter is Sam (Kiersey Clemons), a high school senior planning to be a doctor, and she wants to study to get ready for pre-med courses about the human heart. Her father, Frank Fisher (Nick Offerman), wants to entice her away from her studies for “a jam sesh.” She is not interested. He wants them to be a band and asks her to name it. “We are not a band,” she says. “We Are Not a Band” it becomes, a Schrodinger’s Cat of a name that is both true and not true. Frank impulsively uploads Sam’s song to Spotify. Some attention to the song makes Frank think that they — maybe she — could have the chance he always dreamed of.

Is Sam a kid who had to be the grown-up in the relationship because her father never got over his dream of music? Well, maybe a little bit, but In Haley’s films, nothing is ever simple or formulaic. Sam respects and loves her dad, and even shares his love for music. She understands why he wants her to play with him. They won’t have many opportunities to do things together when she leaves. It is the prospect of her leaving that makes strengthening that bond even more important, though they both understand that having lived away from home will change everything between them, even when she comes back. There is another reason Frank wants to spend more time with Sam in the place that means the most to him, though he may not recognize it consciously at first. He gets to a point, though, where he asks: “Is there a girl? Or a boy?”

It is a girl. Sam is in love with Rose (Sasha Lane), an endearingly sweet first love. The mutual support and respect between the two girls is beautifully portrayed.

Sam has a mother who needs more support (“I’ll See You in My Dreams” star Blythe Danner) and he has a landlady (Toni Collette) who is almost a member of the family. When he tells her he can no longer pay even the discounted rent she generously allows him, she does everything she can to find a way to keep him there because she cares about him and she knows he cares about the store. She knows he cares about her, too, but she is in a relationship. And Sam has a buddy, a pot-smoking bartender played by Ted Danson (nice to see him behind a bar again).

Every performance in the film is a quiet gem. Offerman, so good at comic bombast in “Parks and Rec”is even better in a role that is not heightened but natural and understated. Frank is holding in a lot of his feelings, partly because he does not want Sam to see him worry about the store, his mother, or getting on after she leaves. But Offerman lets us see all of that and more, and he never for a moment lets us think that Frank is or thinks of himself as a loser. Clemons is a real find, radiant and completely believable as the braniac future doctor, the smokin’ singer, and the girl on the brink of first-time teenage love. Danson and Collette settle into their roles with infinite grace. The music in the film is fine. The music of the film sings straight to the heart.

Parents should know that this movie has references to pot smoking, some drinking, non-explicit teen sex, references to loss, and brief strong language.

Family discussion: What would you name your band? Did Frank make the right decision? What will happen next?

If you like this, try: “Danny Collins” and “Janie Jones”

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Black Panther: The Accents, The Villain, The Women

Posted on February 25, 2018 at 2:20 pm

“Black Panther” is now more than a blockbuster, record-smashing superhero movie. It is a genuine cultural phenomenon, with thought-provoking and remarkably nuanced issues of identity, race, gender, and politics, and it has inspired some fascinating commentary.

Slate goes behind the scenes in an interview with Beth McGuire, director of speech and dialects at Yale and dialect coach for the film.

Aisha Harris asks:

In general, even if you’re a classically trained performer, do you think there’s a greater jump from an American accent to an African accent than there would be from a British accent to an African accent?

I think so. It depends on the country, because if you’re doing Liberian, then American’s gonna help you. If you’re doing Rwanda, neither British or America’s gonna help you because it depends on who colonized the country. But if you’re doing Nigerian, then yes, definitely British is gonna help you. If you’re doing South African, you know, that’s a call, because you had the Dutch. Honestly, it depends on who the damn colonizer was.

Copyright Marvel/Disney 2018

I always say that the most important character in a superhero movie is the villain, and Michael B. Jordan’s Erik may be the best bad guy in the history of superhero movies. He isn’t some alien who wants to control the universe. He’s just an American guy who has experienced and witness a lot of injustice. As Ryan Coogler told me in an interview, at the beginning of the film he is more altruistic than the hero. But because of the losses he has suffered, he is a damaged person and his empathy does not extend beyond the people he identifies with.

In The Atlantic, Adam Serwer compares Killmonger to X-Men Antihero Magneto:

Killmonger’s stated purpose, to liberate black people all over the world, has sparked a lively discussion over whether he is a bad guy to begin with. What could be so bad about black liberation? “I fist-pumped in the silent, dark theater when he was laying out his plans,” writes Brooke Obie at Shadow and Act. “IT’S A GOOD IDEA!” That Coogler’s villain has even inspired this debate is a testament to how profound and complex the character is.

“In the end, all comes down to a contest between T’Challa and Killmonger that can only be read one way,” writes Christopher Lebron in a well-argued piece in Boston Review, “in a world marked by racism, a man of African nobility must fight his own blood relative whose goal is the global liberation of blacks.”

This is not actually what happens in the film. Killmonger’s goal is, in his eyes, the global liberation of black people. But that is not truly his goal, as Coogler makes clear in the text of the script and in Killmonger’s interactions with other characters. Like Magneto, another comic-book character who is a creation of historical trauma—the Holocaust instead of the Middle Passage—Killmonger’s goal is world domination. “The sun will never set on the Wakandan empire,” Killmonger declares, echoing an old saying about the British Empire, to drive the point home as clearly as possible. He sees no future beyond his own reign; he burns the magic herbs Wakandan monarchs use to gain their powers because he does not even intend to have an heir.

In The Root, Carolyn Hinds and Clarkisha Kent talk about the themes of duality in the film.

During the challenge ceremony, M’Baku chastises Shuri (because what he sees as a child who is in charge of all the tech in Wakanda and thereby the future of Wakanda) for showing disregard for traditions that T’Challa himself is taking part in. What I also appreciated about that scene was when T’Challa told M’Baku to yield, he did because he realized that his people still needed his leadership.

Now, what Ryan Coogler did so brilliantly with the challenge scene is that at the climax of the film, T’Challa and Killmonger are practically in the same situation, but instead of yielding Killmonger chooses death later on over instead of yielding to T’Challa. When he said that he’d rather be thrown into the sea instead of being in bondage, I felt like someone had punched me in the gut and started to cry because that imagery and history is so real to me that I didn’t pick up on his other reason. Over time, I came to realize that in his mind, Killmonger would rather be dead than owe T’Challa anything—including a life. He chose death over possibly being locked up for what he did.

The gender politics of the film are as thoughtful as the race politics. In the Washington Post, Shanon Lee writes:

From the start, the story avoids the sexist tropes we are accustomed to watching on film. The women’s sex appeal is obvious but secondary to their personality and skill. They are strategic opponents in battle, saving the life of Black Panther T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) several times over. Equally entrusted with guiding and protecting the nation, they do not need to be rescued, sustained or lauded by men.

When romances are revealed between Nakia and T’Challa, and Okoye and W’Kabi (Daniel Kaluuya), we get to see the dynamics of each relationship play out.

And Slate calls Black Panther more feminist than Wonder Woman. “Black Panther confidently performs the tricky balancing act of writing fully realized women characters into a traditionally male-centered narrative by wholeheartedly believing that they are integral to the storytelling.”

TIME’s Arica L. Coleman writes about the real-life inspiration for “Black Panther’s” women warriors.

In the film, the fictional Dora Milaje — “adored ones,” an all-female military group that protects the King and the fictional nation of Wakanda — are perhaps the most obvious example of female strength. The Dora Milaje were introduced in Black Panther comic by Christopher Priest, who took over as lead writer of the series in 1998; since the series’ relaunch in 2016, they’ve become much more central to the plot. (The title character, who was Marvel’s first African-American superhero, was created in 1966.) In their initial appearance, Priest’s narrator describes the female bodyguards as “Deadly Amazonian high school karate chicks,” who were also the King’s “wives-in training.” While many have speculated about the inspiration behind these warriors, it is clear that one of their main antecedents was the famous all-female African military corps of Dahomey, West Africa (now The Republic of Benin), whom the French dubbed “Dahomey Amazons” after female warriors in Greek mythology.

Those who want to understand the history of the character will enjoy these comments from one of the leading writers on race and politics, Ta-Nehisi Coates, who has written Black Panther comics:

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Black Panther: Behind the Scenes

Posted on February 20, 2018 at 8:25 pm

I was lucky enough to be able to interview “Black Panther” co-writer/director Ryan Coogler for rogerebert.com.

The movie places an African and an African-American in opposition. “I’m an African-American male born in the 1980’s in Oakland,” he said, “and there’s a dynamic between being African and African-American that’s very interesting.” This is a key element he explored in the film, with African characters from the fictional country of Wakanda, which has never been colonized or even had any trade relationships with western countries, and African-American characters, who reflect the stress of living in a country still confronting racial divides.

“The question for me is what does it mean to be African? It’s a question I’ve been asking myself since I first knew I was black, since my parents sat me down and said, ‘You’re black and that’s what this means. You’ve got to navigate the world in a certain way.’ That’s the conversation every person has had to have because of the way the world works. If you don’t have that understanding you could be in a situation that costs you your life,” as Coogler’s first film, the fact-based “Fruitvale Station,” showed. “Nobody who was telling me what being African means had ever been there. My parents had never been, my grandmother had never been.” So it was essential for him to spend time in Africa, researching the cultures that Wakanda would represent.

“The African culture the world knows best is the African-American culture,” he said, citing the worldwide dominance of hip-hop. But working on the film and spending time in Africa helped him realize that the African culture he thought was erased by bringing Africans to the United States as slaves was much more intact than he thought. “I grew up thinking the African culture had been taken away from us, that it was lost. But the truth is, we didn’t. We hung onto it.”

And as the mother of a costume designer, I was especially excited to speak to Ruth Carter, whose costumes play such an essential role in the film. She talked about the African inspirations for the traditional tribal attire of the Wakandans, and the way African patterns are even reflected in the iconic superhero suit.

Actual African fabric as we know it is Dutch and Dutch-inspired and brought to Africa. Africa liked it and adopted it so all of their African fabrics come from Holland or from China. Wakanda was never colonized, so I didn’t want to use them. Every time I started to use the African fabrics I felt like it was not this movie so I created my own fabrics, based on the sacred geometry of African art. Usually it’s a checkerboard or it’s pyramid shapes or it’s striations of horizontal and vertical strikings so I use that and we created prints. Lupita’s green dress in the casino is one print that we created based on the Nigerian kente cloth. We just extracted the line work and we printed the fabric the same way we printed T’Challa’s superhero suit.

Once I get the illustration of the super suit I can’t change it; I can’t give him a Shaft coat, all of a sudden. I have to stay within those confines because they have already been working with merchandisers and all kinds of other people. The one thing that I did do which was my contribution was the Okavango pattern, a triangle shape.

That fabric is completely made up. The triangle is definitely a big part of African artistry. It’s a mystery within the African culture what that triangle shape actually means and everybody has their own theory. So the panther suit was printed with that triangle shape all over it so that when you’re looking at it, it’s this superhero suit that has this Wakandan language traveling through it; veining throughout it, and you also see an Okavango pattern and which makes it feel like he’s in the place of Wakanda, he’s in Africa and he’s an African king and gives it texture.

Vanity Fair posted a scene analysis with Coogler explaining what was going on in one of the film’s striking action sequences.

More commentary about this brilliant, groundbreaking new film coming soon.

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