BlacKkKlansman

Posted on August 9, 2018 at 5:24 pm

A-
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Not rated
Profanity: Very strong and racist language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol
Violence/ Scariness: Peril and violence
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie

Copyright 2018 Focus Features
Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) is undercover through most of “BlacKkKlansman,” and not just on the job, but in the job and outside of it, too. The real-life Stallworth was the first black police officer, and later the first black detective in Colorado Springs, back in the 1970’s and he really did go undercover to infiltrate the Klu Klux Klan — over the phone. Spike Lee’s film is based on Stallworth’s book tells how Stallworth saw a classified ad, called the Klan, and, with the help of a white partner who was “Stallworth” for the in-person meetings, ended up a member in good standing, having phone conversations with the head of the organization, Grand Wizard David Duke (Topher Grace). (All of this really happened.)

Stallworth also really went undercover at a lecture by black activist Stokely Charmichael, who had just changed his name to Kwame Ture, and who is played here by Corey Hawkins, conveying Ture’s magnetism and fiery brilliance and making an impression so strong in his brief scene that it resonates throughout the rest of the film. This rally is really the pivotal, as Washington shows us as close unguarded as Stallworth gets, which opens him up to pursuing Patrice (Laura Harrier), a pretty activist he meets there. But of course he has to stay undercover with her, too — personally, not professionally — because she has strong political feelings about working within the system in general and about the police in particular. (This character and their relationship are fictional.) Adam Driver, as Stallworth’s white partner, has his own double-undercover moments. He thinks it does not matter that he is Jewish, but as Stallworth tells him, he has skin in the game, too. Near the end of the film, Stallworth is undercover at least two levels when he is assigned to Duke’s security detail and must stand close to the man who does not know Stallworth is the man he spoke to in confidence over the phone.

Law enforcement might have been an unusual choice for a black man of that era, but in every other respect Stallworth seems born to be in law enforcement, happy to accept the offer, and clearly aware of the challenges he will face, from the superiors who assign him safe but boring jobs to racist comments from some of the other officers. Washington (a former pro football player and regular on “Ballers”) projects an easy physical confidence, nerves of steel, and a personal meticulousness, from his perfectly shaped Afro to his neatly ironed shirt and shined shoes. Lee, working with production designer Curt Beech, costume designer Marci Rodgers, and director of photography Chayse Irvin, bring a light touch to a 70’s vibe that owes as much to the movies and pop culture of the era as to what ordinary people and settings looked like. There’s a nice nod to 70’s movies as well in the graphics and sinuous, jazzy camerawork and the way the handsome, athletic Washington is lit like Shaft or Superfly.

There could be no better depiction of what Hannah Arendt called “the banality of evil” than the Klansmen and women in this film, who chat casually about hatred and terrorism the way other small groups of like-minded communities might talk about an upcoming bake sale. We can almost sympathize with a 1970’s wife who just wants a chance to do something important like the men do or the men who get a sense of fellowship in a shared interest. Topher Grace shows us Duke’s silky, ingratiating manner, and Lee shows us that complacent hatred may be the most insidious.

It may seem to some viewers that an opening montage of racist imagery, including D.W. Griffith’s “Birth of a Nation” and a scene of Alec Baldwin as a racist businessman are over the top, until we see the footage from 2017’s white supremacist rally Charlottesville one year before the release of this film. Lee is one of my favorite directors, but he sometimes has more ideas than story or characters in his films. Here, with Stallworth’s remarkable true and timely story, a star-making performance by Washington, whose resemblance to his double Oscar-winning father is more in his voice than his face, he has made one of his all-time best, most purely entertaining, and most important films.

Parents should know that this film includes depictions of terrorist activities with peril and violence and very strong and offensive language. Characters drink alcohol.

Family discussion: How did Ron and Patrice differ in their ideas about the best way to solve problems and make things better? What has changed and what has not since the 1970’s?

If you like this, try: the book by Ron Stallworth and Lee’s films “Inside Man,” “School Daze,” and “Chi-Raq”

Recommended reviews: Odie Henderson on rogerebert.com, Travis Hopson on Punch Drunk Critics

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Black Panther

Posted on February 15, 2018 at 6:38 pm

A-
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for prolonged sequences of action violence, and a brief rude gesture
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Extended comic book-style peril and violence, guns, fistfights, chases, explosions, characters injured and killed
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: February 16, 2018
Date Released to DVD: May 14, 2018
Copyright Marvel Studios 2018

Wakanda forever! And all hail writer/director Ryan Coogler, the Black Panther, the Dora Milaje, and everyone who helped to bring this next-level, majestic, and wildly entertaining superhero movie to life.

Quick primer for those unfamiliar with the Marvel Universe: Black Panther, the first major black comic book superhero, lives in a self-sufficient, almost completely hidden African country called Wakanda. An American CIA field agent describes it as a poor, undeveloped country: “textiles, shepherds, cool outfits.” That is how they want to be seen by the world. In reality, thanks to a meteor that landed there in prehistoric times, they are the world’s only source of a metal called vibranium, which is extremely powerful, and which has been the basis for the world’s most advanced technology. Because Wakanda is cut off from the rest of the continent by mountains and rainforests, they have never been colonized and had very little interaction with the rest of the world. When they did, it did not go well. King T’Chaka spoke to the UN in “Captain America: Civil War,” and was assassinated. After a brief scene set in the past, we begin the story when his son T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) is about to take over as king.

Much of the film takes place in Wakanda, gloriously imagined by production designer Hannah Beachler and costume designer Ruth Carter, reflecting extensive research into African design. It is worth seeing the film a second time just to revel in the wonderfully vibrant shapes and colors, and in the African landscape.

Copyright Marvel Studios 2018

Wakanda’s all-female military is called the Dora Milaje, led by General Okoye (Danai Gurira). She advises T’Challa about a mission outside of Wakanda, where he is going to rescue his one-time girlfriend, Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), a spy who has gone undercover and has been captured by warlords. “Don’t freeze,” Okoye tells T’Challa. “I never freeze,” he replies. But he does. That’s the effect Nakia has on him. At first, she is angry that he interrupted her mission. But then he tells her that he wants her there when he becomes king, and she is glad to agree.

When they return, we see him honor his mother (Angela Bassett, regal and steadfast) and get teased by his sister, the tech whiz Shuri (Letitia Wright). She is this movie’s version of James Bond’s Q, except that she does not just provide the cool gadgets; she invents them. Her motto seems to be what she tells her brother: “Just because something works does not mean it can’t be improved.” That comment, made as a gentle taunt to a brother who is not as comfortable with change as she is, is just one example of the way that this film is able to raise profound issues in a way that resonates but is never heavy-handed or distracting. And the way T’Challa responds to being teased like the admonition not to freeze, helps to humanize the brilliant, brave, handsome, wealthy, powerful superhero.

T’Challa wants to continue to keep Wakanda away from the troubles of the rest of the world. Nakia tells him that they are obligated to share what they have to help protect others. She says, “I can’t be happy here knowing there are people out there who have nothing.” Of course, they are both right, and this conflict is reflected throughout the film in a way that is remarkably nuanced and thoughtful, not just for a superhero movie but in any context.

As I have often said, superhero movies depend more on the villain than the hero, and this one has one of the all-time greats. Michael B. Jordan, who starred in Coogler’s two previous films, “Fruitvale Station” and “Creed,” is nothing less than mesmerizing here, playing a man who represents the “other” to T’Challa, but who is connected to him as well. The film touches lightly but with insight on the difference between being an African, raised in a country where everyone is black and unqualifiedly patriotic, if insular, and being an African-American, deeply conflicted about the relationship with “home,” but better able to understand the plight of others. It touches on other vital contemporary issues like refugees and radicalization and it is all completely organic to the story.

And it is a full-on superhero movie, with a wild chase through an Asian city some very cool stunts, and a huge climactic fight scene involving a massive battle and at least two different modes of transportation, not including the battle rhinos. Yes, I said battle rhinos. I know, right?

The supporting cast includes an outstanding Daniel Kaluuya (“Get Out”), a rare on-screen appearance by motion-capture master Andy Serkis with his Tolkien co-star Martin Freeman as a CIA agent, Forest Whitaker as a priest, Winston Duke as the leader of on of Wakanda’s five tribes, and “This is Us” star Sterling K. Brown as a guy you’re better off not knowing too much about until you see the movie, which I hope you do, more than once. You’ll want to be a part of Wakanda, too.

Parents should know that this film includes extensive comic book-style action violence with many characters injured and killed, guns, spears, hand-to-hand combat, chases, explosions, and some strong language.

Family discussion: If T’Challa and Erik had grown up in each other’s environments, how would they be different? How should Wakanda resolve the conflict between tradition and innovation? Is it true that it is hard for a good man to be a good king? Why?

If you like this, try: the Black Panther comics and the Avengers movies

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Marshall

Posted on October 12, 2017 at 5:25 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol, smoking
Violence/ Scariness: Allegations of rape and attempted murder, fights and beatings, gun
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: October 13, 2017
Date Released to DVD: January 8, 2018
Copyright 2017 Open Road

“It’s a real life Bigger Thomas,” says a character describing the new case assigned to a young lawyer named Thurgood Marshall (Chadwick Boseman). Bigger Thomas was the young black protagonist who could not escape the fundamental racism of American society in Richard Wright’s novel, Native Son, accused of rape and murder. In this real-life case, a black chauffeur named Joseph Spell (Sterling K. Brown of “This is Us”) was accused of rape and attempted murder of his employer, Eleanor Strubing (Kate Hudson), a wealthy Connecticut socialite. Marshall, then the entire legal staff of the NAACP, was going from town to town representing black defendants, many whom “confessed” after being beaten and starved, but, Marshall insists, only those who are innocent. They do not have time or resources to devote to those who did what they are accused of.

This case is unusual because it is in the North and because it is so high-profile. It has been a front page story in the newspapers and many white families are firing their domestic employees because they are so terrified.

Connecticut may not have the overt, explicit racism of the Jim Crow laws, but in some ways that makes fighting its version of bigotry more difficult. The judge (James Cromwell) refuses Marshall the normally automatic courtesy of allowing him to represent Spell in court without being a member of the state bar association. Instead, a local lawyer named Sam Friedman (Josh Gad) must argue the case, even though he has no experience in criminal trials and is very reluctant to get involved. “That must be difficult,” Marshall tells him wryly. “To have a reputation to think of.” Marshall may sit at the counsel’s table but may not address the judge or examine witnesses. He says that not being allowed to speak is the worst blow he has had as a lawyer, worse than having to enter the courthouse by the back door.

This is an absorbing drama on many levels, working purely as an “Anatomy of a Murder”-style courtroom mystery, as a historical depiction of the roots and mechanics of social change, and as the personal story of the two young lawyers facing enormous professional and personal challenges, developing a friendship, and becoming better at what they do.

The screenplay by father and son Michael and Joseph Koskoff is forthright in addressing the complicated ethics of preparing a defense for an individual client that many not always be consistent with the larger political imperatives. It also delicately if not always sucessfully skirts the complicated problem faced by contemporary films based on real-life events: if the white character teaches the black character, it’s condescending, but if the black character teaches the white character it’s “magical Negro.” In real life, Samuel Friedman was already active in civil rights cases before the Spell case, and he was slender and athletic. But for dramatic purposes, here he is played by Josh Gad and his character only takes insurance cases. We first see him winning for an insurance company on a technicality that leaves the disabled plaintiff without any damage payment. And Marshall’s character changes very little over the course of the film. He is sophisticated, tough, smart, and confident all the way through which is great as a tribute to one of the towering figures of the 20th century, but without some kind of character arc like the one given to Friedman, the risk is that he becomes a supporting character in the movie that has his name in the title. Fortunately Boseman is intensely charismatic and a gifted actor who is able to bring a great deal to the role, and he and Gad have a strong chemistry that benefits and is benefited by director Reginald Hudlin’s gift for understanding when comedy is needed to lessen the tension. Brown is also excellent in a role far removed from the high educated and successful characters on “This is Us” and “People v. O.J.” Indeed, the entire cast is outstanding, especially Hudson, Ahna O’Reilly as a juror, and Barrett Doss as Marshall’s host and friend.

The film balances the personal, the political, and the professional lives of its heroes and is frank about the opportunism — and the opportunity — of their choices. It places it in the context of its time, as Friedman’s family in Eastern Europe is captured by the Nazis and white thugs attack both lawyers. It makes its case as effectively as Friedman and Marshall make theirs — that courage and persistence bring change and that there are good people out there who will work, with all of our help, to make it happen.

Parent should know that this story concerns a real-life trial for rape and attempted murder with sexual references and situations, themes of racism including beatings and police brutality, some strong language, domestic violence, and some strong and racist language.

Family discussion: Why did Marshall represent only innocent clients? Did Spell have a fair trial? What has improved since that time? What has not?

If you like this, try: “Separate But Equal” and “Mr. Civil Rights: Thurgood Marshall and the NAACP”

NOTE: Read my interview with Boseman and director Reginald Hudlin at rogerebert.com

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White Actors in Asian Roles — Not Just Ghost in the Shell

Posted on April 9, 2017 at 12:39 pm

Copyright DreamWorks 2017
Copyright DreamWorks 2017
The casting of Scarlett Johansson in “Ghost in the Shell” is just the most recent “whitewashing” that has created controversy and played at least a contributing factor to the poor results at the box office. Audiences have understandably objected to having white actors play Asian characters. It might be different if it ever worked the other way, if actors of color were cast in roles written for white actors. But with so few explicitly Asian characters in movies and so few Asian actors being cast in lead roles, it is especially troubling. To make matters much worse (SPOILER ALERT) the cybernetic characters played by Johansson and white actor Michael Carmen Pitt are both supposed to be Japanese humans who now have white-featured robot “shells” or bodies.

This is just one of many examples in current and past productions. Asian characters have been played by white actors for decades, including Katharine Hepburn, John Wayne, Marlon Brando, Alec Guinness, Peter Sellers, Warner Oland, Peter Lorre, and Mickey Rooney. More recently, Cameron Crowe was sharply criticized for casting Emma Stone in “Aloha” as a woman with some native Hawaiian heritage.

In the LA Times, Jen Yamato and Justin Chang wrote about this issue:

Chang: We seem to have fallen into a dispiritingly familiar pattern where Hollywood-goes-East blockbusters are concerned, and it usually starts with the announcement of some fresh casting outrage: Tilda Swinton enlisting as a Celtic version of a Tibetan mystic in Marvel’s “Doctor Strange,” or Matt Damon being called in for white-hero duty on “The Great Wall” (a China-U.S. co-production, incidentally).

From there, the woker-than-thou factions of the press and public react with unsurprising anger. The marketing campaign becomes a passive-aggressive exercise in damage control. The movie is released, and the casting is duly dubbed either the worst thing ever or a complete non-issue. And neither reaction, I think, really gets at the more complicated truth of the matter….I liked Johansson in “Ghost in the Shell,” just as I liked Swinton in “Doctor Strange.” And I was perfectly fine with Damon in “The Great Wall,” in which he’s not really a white savior at all, and is in fact amusingly upstaged by director Zhang Yimou’s make-China-great-again production design.

As she demonstrated in “Lucy” and the masterful “Under the Skin,” Johansson can be a mesmerizing screen presence, with the kind of otherworldly aura that naturally lends itself to science fiction. All of which is to say: It’s possible to admire a performance while still acknowledging the ways in which it’s — to use a word I loathe, but sometimes there’s no alternative — problematic.

Yamato: It’s one thing for a film or television show (see Marvel’s “Iron Fist” and Netflix’s upcoming Americanized “Death Note”) to be problematic. It’s more insulting for filmmakers — and the stars whose white faces are plastered on posters and billboards in front of exotic Asian scenery — to ignore the damage their failures have wrought. That is both irresponsible and cowardly….But whether you call it yellowface, white saviorhood, race-bending, erasure — it’s all whitewashing if a story rooted in Asian origins or an Asian setting defaults to a white normative reality. The filmmakers behind these properties, nearly all white men, are forcing white preference and white privilege into the spotlight and blaming it on a system that necessitates bankable white stars. The more these movies bomb while others like “Get Out” flourish, the more these excuses get exponentially more tedious.

And in the Hollywood Reporter, four Japanese actresses gave their thoughts. They spoke about some cultural dissonance or outright mistakes they think would have been handled correctly if the filmmakers were Japanese. Some of their comments:

Keiko Agena: It was harder to watch than I thought it was gonna be. To get emotionally invested, you have to really care that she needs to find out who she is. But when she finally meets her mom, my gut felt so weird in that moment.

Atsuko Okatsuka: ScarJo was probably lost. “OK, hold on. So I’m a Japanese woman. I used to be? Wait, I am. I talk to my boss in English even though he speaks to me in Japanese?”…It’s not even about seeing me on the screen as a performer. It’s a bigger concern. It’s 2017 and I don’t know why these representation issues are still happening. It’s overwhelming. This means so much to our community but is so on the side, still, for a lot of people.

Even if Hollywood does better on this (and on casting trans and disabled actors in roles reflecting their experience and understanding), we still have the problem of the past. An Asian friend recently wrote to a movie theater about their showing of the beloved Audrey Hepburn classic, “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.” Hepburn’s impeccable elegance cannot make up for the outrageously offensive portrayal of her Japanese neighbor, played by Mickey Rooney.

The theater manager’s thoughtful response:

I can say that this is a constant issue of programming a repertory theater. Showing anything from classic Hollywood is generally at the very least problematic, and in many cases, such as “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” an example of a horrible history of filmmaking. While this is not a plea to justify our decision to book this film, I hope you can understand that we do not condone every element of all of the films that we show and when booking classic film this issue is unavoidable. This film is playing as a part of a ‘music in film’ series; they will be performing a song from this film later in the month. I do hope the rest of our programming, specifically the new indie and modern repertory titles, reflect our commitment to diversity, progressivism, and positive depictions.

After a further exchange, the manager said they would provide some context.

On the evening of the screening, I will be present to introduce the film and to discuss Rooney’s performance in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” in order to shed light on these issues in classic Hollywood cinema and to let the audience know that both institutions are opposed to such portrayals. We will also be distributing a handout that discusses Rooney’s character and the history of racial stereotypes in Hollywood films.

That is the best we can do for movies of the past — to raise the issue and insist that it be addressed. We can do a lot better with movies of the future, to make sure that the history of racial stereotypes in Hollywood films is coming to an end.

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The Mindy Project: Imagine Mindy as a White Male

Posted on March 15, 2017 at 3:42 pm

Mindy Kaling’s “The Mindy Project” has a sharp season ender as Mindy, applying for a job, gets to see how her life would be different if she were white and male.  The white male version of Mindy is played by “Veronica Mars” bro Ryan Hansen, and as the white male version of herself, Mindy learns (as Eddie Murphy did in his famous SNL sketch) that in a job interview, no one asks a man about balancing work and home responsibilities.  New York Magazine’s Vulture column notes:

When you’re privileged, “Your life is so carefree, you start wondering why other people don’t just help themselves. Because you think life is just as easy for everyone else.” But Mindy misses being interesting and different, so she wishes to go back to being an Indian woman. Plus, she gets to bond with Dr. Lee over fettuccine at the hospital. A perfect little lesson in privilege and allyship, wrapped in a sweet, sitcom form.

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