Short Films from Harvard Law Students Illuminate Issues of Justice — and Injustice

Posted on June 28, 2021 at 6:02 am

The law can be viewed as a menacing force to intimidate and coerce. But what happens when the law is challenged to right a wrong or create constructive change? Led by Harvard Law School Professor Martha Minow and producer Joseph Tovares, twelve Harvard Law students set out to explore that intersection in LEGAL LENS, premiering Monday, June 28 on WORLD Channel’s LOCAL, USA with additional, exclusive shorts on YouTube. Through five short films featuring captivating profiles and passionate characters, the series examines how laws and regulations can either disrupt lives or lead to positive shifts, depending on how they are interpreted or contested.

“I’ve often thought it may seem strange, but that the closest activity to law, and law practice, is documentary filmmaking, because in a similar, maybe surprising way, we have to deal with the actual reality. This is not fiction. And at the same time, no one would deny there’s a shaping, there’s a choice-making, there’s a set of selection decisions,” Minow says.

The similarities between studying law and creating documentary films may not be obvious, like Minow suggests, but consider the larger themes of both: Lawyers craft stories to win their cases; documentarians lead viewers through a focused narrative to bring attention to an issue.

But more than the industries’ parallels, it’s about the reach film has when compared to law, says Kenyan LL.M. student Zamzam Mohammed, who worked to shine a light on pregnancy discrimination in the workplace. She believes the medium can raise a new kind of awareness: “You can have a case in court, and only very few people would actually be able to understand what’s going on. But then when you have a film, anybody can watch a film on the subway, you can watch it when you’re cooking dinner. And so I think it’s something that helps people understand in a way that is clear for them,” she said.

David Benger, one of a team of students who focused on prison reform, found that documentary fit in seamlessly with his mission as a lawyer: to create broader awareness that, in turn, facilitates change. “I think we, as lawyers, try to convince people, not only that we’re right, but that people should care about what we have to say. And I think filmmaking is an extremely useful tool for helping people invest emotionally in real problems that other people have,” he said.

Starting the conversation, even if it seems like no substantial progress is being made, is half the battle, says LL.M. student Adam Posluns.

“Litigation doesn’t always have to be about big victories in court…Sometimes that change can happen just by initiating lawsuits, just by starting the litigation,” he said. “Because even if you don’t win, and sometimes you won’t win for various reasons…it can get other people to see that they can also litigate these issues. They don’t have to wait for their governments to come along.”

Law, these students agree, may seem straightforward on paper, but when film becomes an element, seeing the human stories behind those laws creates an expanded consciousness and adds a new angle to the purpose of law, offering insight that may otherwise be lost.

“Narrative storytelling, especially documentary storytelling, can help lawyers do their job better and remember that this is about people. I think the thing I hate the most is when people say, ‘Oh, let’s not focus on the facts. Let’s just focus on the law,’” said Elisabeth Mabus, J.D student from Jackson, Mississippi. “The facts are the people. And the facts are the people that the law impacts. And we cannot lose sight of that.”

The umbrella of human rights is what led Minow’s class to their underlying theme: home, and how the law can have such an effect on a person’s sense of it.

“Sometimes we forget the stories behind these legal cases, or don’t pay as much attention to stories behind these legal cases we read. We go straight to the legal issue. We go to the legal arguments, principles, but it’s a gentle reminder that behind every case there’s a human story…win or lose, there’s always that human story,” Daren Zhang, California J.D student, said.

Within these five films, the stories ultimately lead back to what makes a home, and how the idea of home, that basic and fundamental right, is challenged when human rights are threatened. According to Posluns, that was the driving force behind these stories. “I think people felt that human rights were being put on the back burner, that they’re being disregarded rather than championed…That human rights had become more bargaining chips in transactions rather than something to be fought for and to be championed around the world,” he said.

By looking at issues like climate change, immigration and gentrification through a legal lens, these future lawyers began to see their profession differently. By embarking on a mission to represent their characters (Lisa Newman, a working mother; Doris Landaverde, an 18-year Temporary Protected Status holder; Damali Vidot, an unassuming but confident community leader) justly and effectively, opinions on what practicing law means began to evolve.

Kevin Patumwat, a J.D student from Bangkok, Thailand, shared how the project underscored the role of ineffective lawyering: “I think this project really drove home the importance of how lawyers need to be able to use the knowledge, use the resources they have, and really more effectively advocate for the people who they’re advocating for.”

“Ultimately when you care about an issue and you want to tell a story about an issue, there’s a great deal of value in having many different tools in your toolbox for how to tell that story and how to make people care and that this may not be a part of their direct lived experience, but it’s something they should care about,” Benger echoed.

By shifting the gaze of litigation onto honest, human stories, LEGAL LENS offers a glimpse into how there is still room for change in the way law is interpreted and enacted.

“In a lot of our national conversations, I think we focus so much on the things that divide us. We forget often how much we have in common. And we forget to see all the things that unite us,” Boston, Massachusetts J.D student Tianhao He said. “Even though the films in this series all touch on different issue areas with different characters in different parts of life, I think we do see these universal themes. These universal themes of yearning for belonging, of the struggle and also the joys of building home in America.”

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Courtroom Documentary

Summer of Soul (…Or When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)

Posted on June 24, 2021 at 8:00 am

A-
Lowest Recommended Age: 4th - 6th Grade
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for brief drug material, some disturbing images, and smoking
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Brief drug material
Violence/ Scariness: Archival images of violence
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: June 25, 2021

Copyright 2021 Hulu
It felt like the United States had never been more angry and divided. Protests over the treatment of Black Americans erupted into riots. Not last year; this was just over half a century ago, in 1969. The same summer that an outdoor music festival near Woodstock New York became a cultural icon in part because everything went wrong and in part because it was the subject of an Oscar-winning documentary, there was a festival in Harlem of equal star power and impact on the community. But it was all but forgotten because unlike Woodstock, pretty much everything went right, because it was spread out over the whole summer, because the concert footage was hidden away in a basement for five decades, and because the performers and the audience were Black.

And now Questlove, whose expansive knowledge of music is is reflected in his work with The Roots on the Tonight Show and his book Music is History has combined the archival footage with contemporary interviews in directing (as Ahmir-Khalib Thompson) “Summer of Soul,” which deserves to be every bit the cultural touchstone of the other big concert of the year.

There’s even some overlap. Sly and the Family Stone, whose “I Want to Take You Higher” is a highlight of “Woodstock,” is every bit as incendiary in this film as well, though one participant jokes that Sly was so unreliable that you could not be sure he was coming on stage even after his name was announced. The sheer variety is pure joy and every performance is thrilling, from the Edwin Hawkins Singers to Mahalia Jackson to Hugh Masekela and Nina Simone, blues legend B.B. King to supper club legend Abbey Lincoln. David Ruffin of The Temptations shows up as a solo singer. A 19-year-old Stevie Wonder! Gladys Knight and the Pips! The just-breaking-through Fifth Dimension performs in bright yellow shirts with orange fringed vests. They talk about how their pop sound made audiences think they were white and when some discovered that they were not, accused them of being “not Black enough.” Sweetly, they say it meant the world to them to be welcomed by the audience in Harlem.

Questlove/Thompson skillfully blends the archival footage to blend the recollections of those who were there with historical context and contemporary perspective. I would happily watch an entire documentary about the host and promoter, night club singer Tony Lawrence, and learn more about how it all came together. Most moving are the comments about how much it meant to the community, especially the people who were there as performers and audience members. The pure joy that radiates from the venue, those on stage and those who were listening, some grilling chicken, some hanging from the trees to get a better view, is like a jolt of optimism and a powerful reminder of the power of music to bring people together.

Parents should know there is some historical footage with violent images and a drug reference, along with some strong language and smoking.

Family discussion: Which was your favorite performance and why? Could an event like this free concert series happen today?

If you like this, try: “Woodstock,” “What Happened, Miss Simone?” the “1971” series about the music of that transitional moment, and another recently restored concert film from archival footage, “Amazing Grace,” with Aretha Franklin

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F9

Posted on June 22, 2021 at 8:47 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for language, action, sequences of violence
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Beer
Violence/ Scariness: Extended peril ad violence, shooting, explosions, martial arts, many people killed or injured
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: June 25, 2021
Date Released to DVD: September 21, 2021

Copyright 2021 Universal
Let’s be real about F9. If we can use a word like “real” to describe a series of films that parted ways with reality at least six or seven movies ago. But, knowing that, if you’re still here and I’m still here, we’ve pretty much agreed that’s okay and so the usual information potential ticket-buyers look for in a movie review is not really relevant. So, we can do what this movie does, and cut to the chase.

Here’s what you need to know. Director Justin Lin and his co-producer/star Vin Diesel know why we’re here; we want to see some crazy action scenes with characters we know so well that when Dom says once again that he doesn’t have friends; he has family, we almost feel that we’re part of the family now, too. So, “F9” delivers what the fans want, which is more and wilder action, and a bit more family, too. In fact, this time we get some backstory, with teenage brother and sister Dom (Diesel) and Mia (Jordana Brewster) and their dad, race car driver Jack Toretto (JD Pardo). It turns out there’s another brother, too, Jakob (Finn Cole). And we get to see how a tragedy on the racecourse leads to the brothers going in different directions. Jakob comes back into the story as John Cena.

If you’re a casual fan, all you need to know is that this movie has a lot of fun, if highly improbable, action scenes, including Vin Diesel as a passenger in a crazy car chase through London with none other than Dame Helen Mirren at the wheel. If you’re really into the series, you’ll want to know that many other favorite characters return, some more surprisingly than others. Also, if you’re really into the series you already know that the third movie in the series is the eighth in the chronology (also the first directed by Lin). That movie ended with another tragic exploding car death, of a mentor named Han (Sung Kang). But if we’ve learned one thing from this series, it is that sometimes people you think were either dead or bad turn out to be neither.

Two scenes I particularly loved will be the best litmus test for your decision on whether to buy a ticket (and if you do, please make it the Dolby experience). We’ve all seen fights before. We’ve seen fights where our two guys take on six bad guys. We’ve probably seen fights in the back of a big moving van, but here’s where the “Fast and Furious” franchise says to themselves, “How can we make things even more interesting?” And at some point someone says, “Let’s have the fight take place when the van is being (a) being chased by more bad guys, (b) being driven by someone who has never driven before, and (c) carrying the world’s most powerful electro-magnet, which is being turned on and off, sometimes on purpose and sometimes not. Wow.

The other scene has Roman, the comic relief character played by the almost-impossibly handsome Tyrese, says something that does not quite break the fourth wall between the characters and the audience but bends it a little. He mentions the un-mentionable — somehow no matter how many of the most lethal weapons ever conceived are shooting and exploding all around them, no matter how outnumbered they are, no matter how many impossible jumps they attempt to make in vehicles, somehow they all walk away without a scratch. Could it be, he wonders, that they’re not human? The real-life answer is that they’re not; they’re fictional characters. His conjecture is, maybe, that they could be un-killable? The real-life answer to that one is yes, as long as people keep buying tickets to the sequels.

In another scene, a character says, “If this was a movie, this would be when….” just to remind us that they know we know.

They can’t make the title any shorter. What’s the next one going to be called, just F? Will there be another “Hobbs & Shaw?” A spin-off about Dom’s early days? If they feature Helen Mirren and a Pontiac Fiero shot into space or whatever even crazier stuff they can dream up, I’m in.

NOTE: Stay for the mid-credits sequence for another familiar face.

Parents should know that this film includes constant action and peril including teenagers witnessing the death of a parent in a fiery crash and endless shoot-outs and chases, one through a minefield. Characters use strong language and drink beer. Bad guys plot world domination.

Family discussion: When does someone deserve a second chance? Should Letty have called Mia?

If you like this, try: the other films in the series, especially “Tokyo Drift” and “Hobbs & Shaw.”

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For Father’s Day: Great Movie Dads

Posted on June 18, 2021 at 8:00 am

Reminder: My ebook about 50 great movie fathers is available free this weekend. Some of my favorites:

Boyz n the Hood: Furious Styles

Laurence Fishburne plays a devoted father who wants his son to know about the challenges he will face.

To Kill a Mockingbird: Atticus Finch

Gregory Peck plays a lawyer who teaches his daughter about empathy.

Father of the Bride: Stanley Banks

Spencer Tracy plays the devoted but befuddled father who is emotionally and financially overwhelmed by his daughter’s wedding. (See also the remake with Steve Martin.)

Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles: Gou-ichi Takata

Ken Takakura plays an estranged father who pays tribute to his son by trying to complete his film.

Finding Nemo: Marlin

Albert Brooks provides the voice for the fish who swims through the ocean to find his son.

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Fatherhood

Posted on June 17, 2021 at 5:32 pm

B
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for some strong language and suggestive material
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Social drinking
Violence/ Scariness: Sad death of a parent
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: June 18, 2021

Copyright Netflix 2021
Matt Logelin became a father and a widower at the same time. His wife died suddenly after their daughter was born and he told the story of his life as a single dad in a book called Two Kisses for Maddy: A Memoir of Loss & Love. And now his story has been adapted into a film, with Kevin Hart as Matt, the sometimes terrified, often-befuddled, frequently exhausted, and always devoted father of an adorable little girl.

Anyone who has ever raised a child or seen a movie has a pretty good idea of where this is going. See the reference to terror, befuddlement, exhaustion, and devotion above, which every parent knows well, along with the daunting challenges of many, many diapers, installing a car seat, and trimming an infant’s fingernails. Matt also has to face the well-meaning strangers who ask, “And where is her mother?” And the most daunting challenge of all: “You just have to do what’s best for her for the rest of her life.”

Like all parents do, he makes mistakes. Probably not too bad that he has Maddy play poker with his friends. On the other hand, letting her watch an animated series because he figures all cartoons are safe is not a good idea. “If you could have had one parent,” he sighs, “I wish it could have been your mom.” And while Maddy adores her dad, sometimes she wishes for more. “Other people have more people,” she says.

Kevin Hart gives a sincere and heartfelt performance as Matt, who gives his baby Maddy two kisses every night, one from him and one from her mother. He is clear that Maddy is is number one priority and that he will not allow her well-meaning grandmothers to take over just because they do not think he can take care of her.

But he can. Yes, he has a lot to learn. He shows up at an otherwise all-female “parent” support group because he cannot get Maddy to stop crying. And then there is the issue of her hair. He talks his boss into letting him bring her to the office. And he backs her up when she wants to wear pants instead of the skirt of her parochial school uniform.

Matt has two close friends who provide some encouragement, played by Lil Rel Howrey and Anthony Carrigan, who might as well be named Comic and Relief. Hart, who usually has that role, is not an actor of wide range, but his distinctive delivery works well here, especially with the irresistibly charming Melody Hurd as the school-age Maddy. Almost as irresistible is DeWanda Wise as a charming animator who provides the possibility of some adult companionship for Matt, a prospect that is appealing and scary.

The fact that everyone who has ever had or even spent serious time with a child can predict the touchstones in the film is not necessarily a bad thing. These events are touchstones because they are universal. Matt does not struggle with them because he is a man bu because he is Matt, and because these are things every parent finds difficult, the heartwarming depiction of in this film will be touching because it is familiar and resonant.

Parents should know that this film deals with the very sad death of a mother and the struggles of a single father. The film includes potty humor, some sexual references and non-explicit situations, a child being injured, family conflicts, and some strong language.

Family discussion: What was Matt’s most difficult moment? Who gave him the best advice and support?

If you like this, try: “Three Men and a Baby” and the Bryce Dallas Howard documentary “Dads”

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