Interview: Father Leahy on “Benedict Men”

Posted on September 30, 2020 at 11:45 am

copyright quibi 2020
Athletic competition is endlessly fascinating, not just because of the talent and skill but because no one becomes a champion without character and values: determination, courage, and the kind of teamwork that requires respect and responsibility. And because we love stories about underdogs who never give up and come from behind. Basketball superstar Steph Curry understands that, and so he is the producer of a superb new documentary series on Quibi called “Benedict Men,” the story of a small Catholic high school in New Jersey run by Bendictine monks, most of the students Black and from families struggling financially, with a basketball team that is consistently the state champion.

I spoke to Father Edwin Leahy about the school, the basketball program, and the documentary.

What defines the Benedictines? What makes them different from the Jesuits and other Catholic orders that run schools?

The Jesuits were created by St. Ignatius to be at the disposal of the holy father, the pope, to go wherever they needed to be in the world to evangelize. We on the other hand are the oldest order in the church because St. Benedict existed/lived in 480 or 530 more or less 540. The fundamental difference is that we take a vow of stability so we are vowed to a place. We have other vows as well but that is the distinguishing mark, that we don’t get moved around. We live in the same place for our lives until they carry us out of the church as they say in Spanish in pajamas of wood, in a box. We’re here to stay and that’s our great strength, it’s also our great weakness because if we don’t get vocations to come to our house there’s a problem because there’s no place else you transfer people in from.

So you’ve been at St. Benedicts for a long time.

I went to school here as a high school boy. My father wanted me to go to an all-boys school so I applied here. I got rejected and my father was not to be put off, he talked to the pastor of our church and the pastor interceded and I got in provisionally. The joke turned out to be some of the people who rejected me wound up working for me.

When I got here I loved it; I could take you to the place in the building where I stood the first and second day I was here. I was a 13-year-old at the time and I knew I was home; I have no idea why but I knew I was home and I belonged here and here we are fifty something years later.

I entered the monastery community here in 1965, professed vows in ‘66, took solemn vows in ‘69, was ordained a priest in ‘72. I’ve been living here in Newark at the abbey at St. Benedict’s Prep since 1969.

The school closed in 1972 after 104 years because of racism and we lost 14 men from our monastery; they went to another place and we were stuck with trying to live a community life with no common work. So, we decided we would try to do something in education which is what we had always done and what the city desperately needed. I was dumb enough to say I would try to do it in 1972 and I’ve been doing it ever since. For 48 years I’ve been doing this and loving it.

Copyright QUIBI 2020

We learn in the film that your school motto is “What hurts my brother hurts me.” How does that apply in the competitive world of sports?

It applies in every level of our operations here. It is the ability to understand the other’s struggle and the other’s sufferings. It’s hard to create community and it’s hard to create teams if you can’t understand each other’s reality and each other’s sufferings.

You see in the series it gets rough at the end because of difficulties in giving up “what I want” for “what we need.” That’s the nature of community because if you live in community you’ve got to give up what you want for what the community needs; not easy to do and none of us can do it consistently.

We have a tendency that we do it and then we slip, then we do it; that’s basically our life. Our Father Albert describes the life in the monastery this way. When people ask him what do monks do, he says, “We fall down and we get up, we fall down and we get up; we fall down and we get up,” and that’s life basically. So, the hope is there are more of us on our feet than there are on the ground at a given time, and then we can help people up. That’s it. That’s the secret and that’s what we try to do in this place in school all the time. That’s what you have to do on a team. If you can’t do that it’s hard to be a success.

I was surprised to see how many decisions at the school are made by the students. You give them a lot of leeway and a lot of power.

Our job here as adults is to prevent them from making decisions that will either physically hurt them or long-term hurt them. We’re not going to let kids make decisions because they can’t see 10 or 15 years from now that are going to damage them. So anything short of that, they decide it.

Remember, this place has to be re-created every year. In a company the CEO usually has the job for several years but here the CEO changes every year because there’s a senior year group leader who runs the place and he graduates and leaves. Well it’s early in the year one year and they decided that kids had worked really, really hard and they were going to have only half a day at school and at 12:30 they were going to be over. But we go from kindergarten to grade 12.

They tell me this and I said, “That’s a bad idea,” and they said “No, no, no we’re going to do it, we want to do it, we think it’s a good idea.” I said “I think you’re making a bad mistake, here’s why. First of all, you can’t let the little kids out without parents’ permission.” They said, “They’re going to stay all day.” “Oh, okay so that’s fair the little kids are going to go all day with the older kids having a half day; how is that fair?” “Well, we’ll figure out another way to do something for them.”

So, I said, “If something goes wrong when the middle school kids get out, who’s going to explain it to the parents?” I thought I got them to back off but they sent an email saying that school was going to be over at 12:30. I had about 15 minutes to pull this thing back. They pulled it off. They got in touch with faculty members and called the whole thing off and then we found another day down the road when we could give them the whole day off and not half a day and inform parents and all that but it took hours of discussion.
If they’re going to make it without adult advice they had damn well better be right because no parent is going to go after the 18 year old senior group leader; they’re going to come after me.

The rule is: do not do for kids what kids can do for themselves. So, here’s another example. 152 years we’re an all-boys school, last year two Catholic schools announced they were closing. One was a girl’s academy, the other was a co-ed school.

The girls unbeknownst to me came over here and they had a meeting in the boardroom and they decided that they were going to have a girls division here at St. Benedicts. I’m standing at dismissal time outside my office, outside the trophy room which is where everybody walks by; it’s like Times Square, everybody goes by there to go out the door. So, I’m standing there and one of the leaders, one of the guys, comes out and he says, “You got to come to this meeting.” I said, “What meeting?” “Oh there’s a meeting in the boardroom.” “What are you talking about? I don’t know anything about a meeting.” “Just come in.”

They grabbed me the arm and dragged me into the meeting, I sit down and it becomes obvious to me in about two seconds that the meeting is just about over. I wasn’t being called in to participate in any decisions; I was being called in to be told what was going to happen and that I had to have girls division. I said, “We can’t have a girls division. (1) we’ve never had girls and (2) we don’t have any space.” “Well, let’s figure it out.” I put every roadblock up in the world that I could think of and nothing; they ignored me, none, zero, none of them worked. I couldn’t stop them and to make a long story short, we now have a girl’s division here; created completely by the girls and our guys. I had very little to do with it; it’s amazing.

It’s been a great blessing to have the girls here. It was all created by the kids; they did the whole thing.

What do you want people to learn from watching this series?

I want them to better understand the struggles and the suffering of not just basketball players (these kids happen to be basketball players) but the struggles and sufferings of our brothers and sisters of color in urban America. To have to put all your energy, your effort, as a 16 or 17-year-old as our student C.J. Wilcher said, “to try to help my family,” is not right; it’s just not right.

To have people living in poverty and some living in misery in the midst of the first world is a disgrace to the country. So, I hope people get a sense of the sufferings of kids and the anxiety that some have to live with. Even some parents fall into this. They begin to treat their kids as assets instead of like their children and that’s a disaster. There are a million people in the world that could be their kid’s basketball coach or could be his agent, but there is only one person in the world that can be his mother and only one person in the world that

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The Glorias

Posted on September 29, 2020 at 3:13 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated R for R brief lewd Images and some language
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Social drinking
Violence/ Scariness: Mental illness, family issues, sad death,
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: September 30, 2020

Copyright 2020 The Glorias
Director Julie Taymor has created a welcome remix of the standard movie biopic with “The GLorias.” It is spacious at nearly 2 1/2 hours and with four different actresses playing feminist icon Gloria Steinem (with the real Gloria herself appearing briefly at the end). At times Gloria is literally in conversation with herself, a lyrical depiction of the way we reflect on our past and our future.

Like the opening scene, these conversations occur on a bus, a literal and metaphoric representation of the experience of a woman who titled her memoir A Life on the Road. At one point in the film she admits she has spent no more than eight days at a time in her New York apartment, which she hesitates to refer to as her home. Her friends joke about staging an intervention just to get her to furnish it. This goes back to the beginning. There’s a reason she entitled her memoir, the inspiration for this film, My Life on the Road. She says in the book and slightly adapted for the movie, “When people ask me why I still have hope and energy after all these years, I always say: Because I travel. Taking to the road—by which I mean letting the road take you—changed who I thought I was. The road is messy in the way that real life is messy. It leads us out of denial and into reality, out of theory and into practice, out of caution and into action, out of statistics and into stories—in short, out of our heads and into our hearts.”

Taymor brings her remarkable visual style to the film. The scenes on the bus are gray-scale, with flickers of color outside the windows. In a breathtaking moment near the end, the interior of the bus is flooded with color, illuminating the immensely moving commitment to equality and opportunity that continues today. The four actresses portraying Steinem all have a quiet power rooted in empathy and integrity. Alicia Vikander plays her as a young women, told in her first interview for a job in journalism that only men write for the publication; women do research. She gets the editor to let her write, but when she asks to write a profile of the mayor of NY, he suggests she write about his wife. She goes undercover as a Playboy bunny waitress in the Playboy Club, but her expose (which did lead to the end of the practice of requiring the women to have gynecological exams in order to work there) made her colleagues think of her as a bunny, not an investigative journalist.

Her two great loves, writing and dancing, were both forms of communication without having to speak, a therapist tells her. But if the media would not allow her to write about the women’s movement (“What movement?” her editor asks), she would have to become its voice. Julianne Moore takes over as the older Steinem, and the film gracefully exemplifies one of the movement’s most-repeated slogans, “The personal is political,” as it weaves together key moments and characters on and off stage. Bette Midler and Lorraine Toussaint have just the right snap as Bella Abzug and Flo Kennedy. And Vikander and Moore bring great warmth to the role of a woman whose strengths were quieter.

The film achieves what is most likely Steinem’s greatest hope; it is both inspirational and reassuring in illuminating a path forward to a more just and inclusive world, and a powerful reminder that the most important ingredient for achieving it is to listen.

Parents should know that this film includes a brief crude caricature, brief graphic images and some strong language. There is a sad death and a character struggles with mental illness.

Family discussion: Why did someone call Gloria Steinem a “celestial bartender?” How was she influenced by her parents? Why did she decide to leave journalism? What has been her most significant influence?

If you like this, try: The documentaries Dolores, Gloria: In Her Own Words, “RBG,” “Sisters of ’77,” about the National Women’s Conference, and “Mrs. America,” about the backlash to the women’s movement. And read the biographies of Wilma Mankiller, Bella Abzug, and some of the other characters in the film

THE GLORIAS is available for purchase on Digital and Streaming exclusively on Prime Video starting September 30th.

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Misbehaviour

Posted on September 24, 2020 at 5:52 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Profanity: Some mild language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Scuffles
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: September 25, 2020

Copyright Pathe 2020
Let’s start with a little context. In 1970, when “Misbehaviour” takes place, my high school hosted two events, a father-son dinner with a presentation by our Congressman, later Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, and a mother-daughter dinner with a presentation by a representative from a cosmetic company with an update on the latest looks and products for sale. No one raised any objections. This was at the very beginning of what was being called the women’s liberation movement. Two years before, protesters staged an event near the Miss America pageant (the urban legend is that they burned bras, but in reality they threw bras, girdles, false eyelashes, and other symbols into a garbage can). “Misbehaviour” (note British spelling) is the story of a 1970 protest, endearingly mild by today’s standards, at the London-based Miss World competition.

Miss World is the oldest televised international beauty pageant, founded by TV host Eric Morley (Rhys Ifans) and first broadcast in 1959. So it began just as the tumult of the 1960’s was about to happen, and an all-white beauty pageant with a master of ceremonies making jokes like “I care about women’s feelings; I like feeling women” was very shortly going to be something of a target for protests from the increasingly vocal protesters about racial and gender equality. That collision is already the subject of a documentary, “Miss World 1970: Beauty Queens and Bedlam,” and it is now a feature film, with Keira Knightley as a single mother working on a history degree, Jessie Buckley as an activist, and Gugu Mbatha-Raw as a contestant. Also: Greg Kinnear as Bob Hope, the man who made the joke about feeling women.

Production designer Cristina Casali evocatively creates the earth-toned era of the early 1970’s and writers Rebecca Frayn and Gaby Chiappe bring a nuanced and empathetic approach to the story and the real-life characters, heartwarmingly glimpsed with updates over the final credits. Knightley plays Sally Alexander, who explains to a clearly disapproving admissions committee in the film’s opening scenes that she is divorced and has a child but promises that if she is admitted she will be able to keep up with her classes. She believes in women’s rights but her view is to achieve equality by getting “a seat at the table.” Jo Robinson (Buckley) is a radical who spray-paints protest slogans and lives in a commune. She wants more than a seat at the table; she wants to knock it over and stomp it to smithereens.

Change is already underway at the pageant. The threat of protests over yet another white contestant from South Africa, still operating under apartheid, leads Morley to insist on two candidates. So Miss South Africa is the white contestant, and there is a black contestant with the title Miss Africa South. There is another Black contestant as well, Miss Ghana (Mbatha-Raw).

And there is Bob Hope, who accepts the emcee job as he flirts with his new teen-aged secretary, breaking a promise to his wife, Dolores (another exquisitely delicate performance by Lesley Manville). He does more than joke about feeling women, and the last time he hosted the show, he brought the winner back to LA with him.

Sally becomes less moderate as her advisor tells her that her proposal to study women is too “niche” and she sees her young daughter prance around in imitation of the beauty queens. And so she and Jo come up with a plan to disrupt the pageant.

Director Philippa Lowthorpe skillfully balances all of the different stories and themes. In one (apparently fictional) meeting between Sally and the winner of the competition, we see that the images that bothered Sally when her daughter was imitating them could be seen by some young girls in marginalized communities as opening up opportunities for them to think of themselves as beautiful and powerful. On the other hand, this was a competition where the measurements of each contestant were announced as she walked across the stage and they were all lined up in bathing suits and turned around so the audience at home and in the theater could closely examine their rear views. And their rears.

Americans are likely to wonder what might happen in the US if protesters used water pistols. But in England, where even police don’t carry guns, the response is as low-key as the protest. That leaves breathing space for us to consider all of the experiences that went into the protest and what it represented to the women involved, including, in a lovely moment, Dolores Hope.

Oh, and, ten years later, Miss World rebranded itself as “Beauty with a Purpose.”

Parents should know that the subjects of this movie include racism and sexism. There is some mild language and sexist humor, and there are some scuffles during the protest.

Family discussion: Do you watch beauty pageants? How have they changed over the years?

If you like this, try: “Pride,” the true story of gay activists who supported the miner’s strike in Thatcher-era Britain and “Made in Dagenham,” the true story of women striking for equal pay in 1968

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Oliver Sacks: His Own Life

Posted on September 22, 2020 at 5:52 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Not rated
Profanity: Some mild language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking and drugs
Violence/ Scariness: References and some archival footage of illness and disability
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: September 23, 2020

Copyright Zeitgeist 2020
I wonder what kind of case study Oliver Sacks could write about himself. The author of many books about neurological issues including The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat would make a fascinating subject for clinical assessment himself. It was that book that really transformed my thinking about the highly individualized ways we perceive and process information. While he wrote about extreme cases, from the man with brain damage who lived in an eternal present, with no capacity to create new memories to the post-encephalitic “locked-in” patients portrayed in the movie “Awakenings” and Temple Grandin, who has written so eloquently herself about her autism.

Oliver Sacks has, by any measure, an unusual brain. He has face-blindedness, for example, the inability to recognize even the faces of people he knows very well. And he has an exceptionally unusual combination of the kind of deep humanity that often accompanies empathy that can make it difficult to maintain observational objectivity. But what makes him unusual is that he also has the objectivity to be an exceptional clinician. The post-encephalitic patients had sad for years without any effort to help them before Sacks, who was coming for research, not clinical practice, came up with the idea of treating them with new medication that was being used to help people with Parkinson’s. He has, one commenter tells us, “the moral audacity to think something is alive in there.”

Very significantly, we learn in this film, Sacks revitalized the concept of the medical case study, which was considered outdated in a world driven by data. The case study is like a little novel. It is about the person, not the symptoms. Early in the film, Sacks tells us that he is equally a writer and a doctor, and we can see how each plays a part in his understanding of his patients. He says the primary diagnostic question is, “How are you?” He saw the symptoms as a reflection of cognition and perception, not just a reflection of brain damage or dysfunction. And framing the patient’s experience as a story is in itself therapeutic, making the case for sympathy and imagination. “His attention would release people.” They would be “storied back into the world.”

Sacks, who sees the patients with such wholeness and compassion, is compartmentalized himself. There is not only the writer/doctor split. His middle name is Wolf, and he sees himself as both Oliver and wolf, a yin/yang brain/body divide. He has been criticized for being an observer rather than a theorist, but as Grandin points out, without observation there is nothing to theorize about. Many people had the chance to observe the post-encephalitic patients, but Sacks observed something in them no one else did, and that observation included possibility of change.

In one of his books, Sacks wrote about a patient who could “hear” words spoken but not the inflections that reveal context and emotion, so very concrete and literal, and one who was the opposite, unable to comprehend language but acutely sensitive to tone and expression, who was thus in some ways better at discerning meaning. Sacks’ own superior observational skills were in part made possible by the deficits that eliminated distracting data.

Sacks relies on the support of others in his own life, outsourcing many tasks and even emotions and relationships. He has been in psychoanalysis for half a century. He took a lot of risks and abused drugs in his 20s. He gets help from his editor and close friend on some of life’s mundane details. After a one-night-stand on his 40th birthday, he did not have sex again for 25 years, and it was not until his 60’s that he had a close, intimate romantic relationship. And. we learn, early on in the film, he has been told he has only months left to live. With the same clinical distance he showed toward his own medical issues in A Leg to Stand On, he observes himself as a patient as he creates for us “a master class in how to die.” But it is also a master class in how to live, as he says, how to live with what can’t be changed and frame it as a story to give it meaning.

Parents should know that this movie includes frank discussion of drug abuse and sex as well as depictions including archival footage of people who have serious medical challenges. There is also a reference to Sacks’ own recovery from a serious accident.

Family discussion: How did Sacks’ experience as a child affect his decisions in his career? How did being a writer and a doctor help him be better at both?

If you like this, try: “Awakenings” and Sacks’ books

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