It was a great privilege to be asked to write the June spotlight for the Alliance of Women Film Journalists on Rita Coburn. An excerpt:
Writer/producer/director/novelist Rita Coburn’s acclaimed documentary Maya Angelou: And Still I Rise, co-directed with Bob Hercules, was released in 2016, but the film is ever timely in its importance and impact. In an ongoing outreach program, Coburn still travels with the film to schools and community centers, bringing to a wide range of audiences — especially impressionable youngsters — an understanding of the brilliant and inspiring Dr. Angelou, of her empowering story, of the importance of storytelling and of documentary film as the record of essential human history — especially the herstory that hasn’t been taught in schools….“All we have, in the long run, is our stories. It is of vital importance that stories be recorded before the people who lived them are no longer with us. Everyone should be documenting their elders on film or audio. Their stories tell us where we came from and who we are. For black women, people of color and all those who are marginalized, we have not been the writer’s of history. Documentaries and narrative work in our industry is a window to greater understanding of our culture. And, we should be front and center, through and through in telling those stories,” says Coburn.
“Until we have many points of view out in the media and the communications world we have a skewed picture of who we are as a people…. African American people didn’t write the history books. Even in other societies, women didn’t write the books so the stories aren’t there.”
Let’s talk more about the tone because both of your shows deal in death, but in a half-hour format where people are expecting to be able to laugh and breathe a bit more.
Feldman: The show, in its conversation about death, came from a very real and personal place for me. Maybe because I’m a comedy person, I can’t help but look at things that are incredibly dark and find the quirky, weird, funny details about them — or experiences you have through them. For me, the only parameter there was was that it had to be respectfully authentic. For example, there’s a grief counselor in the show and his matter-of-fact tone is based on a grief counselor that I had a conversation with when doing research for the show, who told me about this incredibly horrific thing that had happened in his family, but he said it like he was just taking his son to a baseball game. It was so dark that I was trying not to laugh, but I think that’s often how we deal with things that are uncomfortable: in that slightly sophomoric way of laughter. If it felt authentic and grounded in the experience the character was having, we could make a joke about it, but it could never be making fun of the person going through the thing — because this show is just as much for people going through things as it is a general audience.
Headland: Our death in the show is kind of a spiritual death. We talked about it as a character, basically. I guess what I thought was, in order for this premise to work, with that first car hit you have to really believe she’s dead. You don’t have to be scared out of your mind, but you have to know she didn’t imagine something. So we have to treat death extremely seriously there; it’s a little bit of the jump scare after she’s hit and going in close on her face and all of that stuff. And in Episode 2 is an opportunity to make death funny again. Now we need to kind of de-fang death for the series so every time she died it was less of a, “Oh no, she’s dying,” and more, “It’s part of my vocabulary now.” The real hard thing was to make death scary again, so by the time you came to the end of the story, you’d feel the stakes and that her dying would mean something — and that’s a big testament to the writers of Episodes 4, 5, 6 and 7 that they could move from something silly to her having internal deaths that can’t be explained.
We’ve been on this for so long, it’s pretty hard to attribute any specific ideas to any one person at this point. We had such an embarrassment of riches in that whole sequence. How do you make it not just a blur of people all the time? So, we found ways to sort of separate off certain units so you could focus. And Marvel fans, increasingly, with every movie, gotten these great female characters. Some people can call it pandering but it’s also like we have tons of shots of all men. Why not have a shot of all women and they’re so cool? It just seemed like “Let’s celebrate it!”
hese “Girl power!” moments are initially delightful but don’t hold up very well to scrutiny, not when we consider what else we know about these franchises. The Marvel Cinematic Universe took its sweet time giving us a female-focused story. The X-Men franchise has always been about McAvoy’s Charles and Michael Fassbender’s Erik/Magneto, and that’s fine because the actors are great as foils, but its female characters have always been shortchanged — so much so that even the Dark Phoenix storyline, one of the best from the comic books and the ’90s Saturday morning cartoon, lacks the necessary impact.
At the New York Times, Amanda Hess wites about women bosses on screen. It is telling that the current release “Late Night,” written by and co-starring Mindy Kaling, with Emma Thompson as a longtime talk show host with declining ratings who is often tyrannical in her dealings with the staff. It is, in its way, aspirational, as there are no women late night talk show hosts.
The culture is creeping with tales of seasoned female bosses torturing their young assistants and cynical mentors undermining their idealistic mentees. The women who opened doors are shown slamming them closed.
These are anxious projections. There are arguably more powerful women on screen than there are in real life. A woman has not commanded the desk of a major-network late night show since Joan Rivers got booted from Fox in 1987. Three women have become the president of the fake United States on “Veep” alone. The powerful women of fiction are born of both hope and fear, of how women will ultimately seize power and how they’ll wield it.
Mean girl female bosses have been frequent nemeses on screen, from the evil queen in “Snow White,” evil stepmother in “Cinderella” (who treats her stepdaughter more as a servant than a family member), evil fairy in “Sleeping Beauty,” evil octopus-creature in “The Little Mermaid,” and the woman selected by at least one source as the worst villain in the history of movies, Cruella de Vil in “101 Dalmatians,” who wants a coat made out of puppy fur. Then there’s Meryl Streep’s Miranda Priestly in “The Devil Wears Prada,” Regina Hall in “Little,” Melissa McCarthy in “The Boss,” and Olivia Pope in “Scandal,” Wilhelmina in “Ugly Betty” and the ruthless and unapologetically self-centered Selina Meyer in “Veep.” The others may be mean on behalf of high standards and professional achievements. Selina has no actual policy goals other than benefiting her own career to the detriment of those she feels threatened by or judged by.
Hess is perceptive about the dynamic between the older generation women who perhaps had to be ruthless to move forward and the younger women in the story who tend to be more of an afterthought, just a sketched-in figure to give the anti-heroine someone to play off of.
It is probably not a coincidence that the role of the powerful woman tends to be deliciously complex while that of the up-and-comer is comparatively thin. The bad boss, whether in business or politics, is jumping with social tensions. Executives and senators are curious avatars for feminism, after all: Feminism is a movement bent toward equality, while power necessarily accrues to a select few. Often, powerful women are upheld as agents of feminist change when all they have changed are their own circumstances. Efforts to insist that such power “trickles down” are not incredibly convincing; millions of women are left competing for droplets.
No one is expecting these films to achieve parity or solve problems. But it is unquestionably a step forward that they have brought us further in this discussion, with so many new examples to ponder.
I well remember crying in the first surprisingly heartbreaking — and wordless — moments of Pixar’s “Up.” Here director Pete Docter, now co-head of Pixar, talks about creating that scene and how it evolved from the original idea. Rotten Tomatoes is celebrating its 21st anniversary by paying tribute to 21 unforgettable moments in the last 21 years. This is certainly one of them and I can’t wait to see what’s next.
Guillermo del Toro on “Roma” — One Amigo Pays Tribute to Another
Posted on January 24, 2019 at 9:02 pm
They are called “The Three Amigos” — three Mexican directors who have risen to the top ranks in Hollywood and world cinema, all Oscar winners, Guillermo del Toro for “The Shape of Water,” Alejandro G. Iñárritu two years in a row for “Birdman” and “The Revenant,” and “Roma” director Alfonso Cuarón for “Gravity.” He’s now the front-runner for up to four Oscars this year for “Roma.”
I love what del Toro wrote on Twitter about “Roma.”
10 personal musings about ROMA.
1) The opening shot suggests that earth (the shit-infested ground) and heaven (the plane) are irreconcilably far even if they are joined -momentarily- and revealed, by water (the reflection). All truths in ROMA are revealed by water.
2) These planes of existence, like the separation within classes in the household cannot be broached. The moments the family comes “closer” are fleeting… “She saved our lives” is promptly followed by “Can you make me a banana shake?”
3) In my view, Cleo’s “silence” is used as a tool for her dramatic arch- that leads to her most intimate pain being revealed, by water – again- after the Ocean rescue: “I didn’t want her to be born” Cleo surpasses and holds her emotions in silence until they finally pour out
4) One key moment, precisely crafted is Cuaron’s choice to have Cleo’s water break just as the violence explodes and her boyfriend breaks into the store holding both a gun and a “Love Is…” T shirt. The baby will be stillborn.
5) In every sense, ROMA is a Fresco, a Mural, not a portrait. Not only the way it is lensed but the way it “scrolls” with long lateral dollies. The audio visual information (context, social unrest, factions & politics / morals of the time) exists within the frame to be read.
6) It seems to me that the fact that Cuaron and Eugenio Caballero BUILT several blocks (!) of Mexico City in a giant backlot (sidewalk, lampposts, stores, asphalted streets, etc) is not well-known. This is a titanic achievement.
7) The Class stratas are represented in the film not only in the family but within the family and the land-owning relatives and even between Fermin and Cleo- when he insults her in the practice field.
8) ROMA cyphers much of its filmic storytelling through image and sound. When viewed in a theatre, it has one of the most dynamic surround mixes. Subtle but precise.
9) Everything is cyclical. That’s why Pepe remembers past lives in which he has belonged to different classes, different professions. Things come and go- life, solidarity, love. In our loneliness we can only embrace oh, so briefly by the sea.
10) The final image rhymes perfectly with the opening. Once again, earth and heaven. Only Cleo can transit between both. Like she demonstrates in the Zovek scene, only she has grace. We open the film looking down, we close looking up- but the sky, the plane, is always far away.
And the great ending of Gravity… The studio was pressuring Alfonso to “show” helicopters in the sky, coming to rescue Sandra Bullock’s character. He said “no”. Emerging from the water was the triumph, touching the earth-standing…
The studio then said: “Ok what about hearing the helicopters?” Alfonso, once more, said “no”. The studio then suggested adding a radio giving her coordinates, promising help. Alfonso said “no”. Once more an ending made of Air, land and water.
Interviews About My #1 Film of 2018, If Beale Street Could Talk
Posted on January 7, 2019 at 8:00 am
I had the great pleasure of speaking to two of the people behind my favorite film of the year, “If Beale Street Could Talk,” breakout star Kiki Layne and writer/director Barry Jenkins, who adapted the film from the James Baldwin novel.
The love in that family is just so, so powerful. We see the beauty of having those people to lean into and having those people around that are nurturing you and nurturing your growth. Tish has some growing up to do. Her family encourages that but it’s not all, “You’ve got to get over this.” It wasn’t that type of energy. It’s just like, “Hey, this is a situation that you’re in but really we’re all in it together,” and I think that was the beauty of the family dynamic in this film.
Another one of my favorite scenes is the one where they’re in the loft with the young landlord after so many rejections. It is so delicate and charming.
The character was in the book but it’s one of the few places in the translation that I’ll say I felt it didn’t go just far enough for me and so as I was walking around the space I just had this thought in my head like, “How in the hell could you possibly see a way to turn this into a home?” Then I realized, “Oh, but what says love and faith more than a lover saying, ‘I promise I can do this’ and you say ‘Okay, yes I believe you,’” So that’s when we added this whole thing of how we’re going to make this into a home and then him showing where he’s going to put all these things and then I was like, “Oh, it feels kind of cute let’s just go all the way with this pantomiming with the fridge,” and when we did it, there was something so lovely about watching Dave Franco and Stephan James perform this kind of joke in a certain way which was rooted in love and faith that when we got to the roof it also seemed like, “Okay, and now these characters feel connected. How can we take it one step further?”
This idea of mothers in the film is so important. Tish has a mother and she is pregnant, Fonny has a mother, Victoria Rogers, the woman who’s been sexually assaulted, she’s pregnant. She’s not showing but she’s pregnant. It’s all this idea of mothers. I thought, “Oh, here is something that I can see uniting these characters,” and that’s when we gave Dave Franco the line, “I’m just my mother’s son.” Sometimes it’s that idea that makes the difference between us and them; not black and white but people who have been loved and the people who haven’t.
This was adapted with I think much respect and deference to Mr. Baldwin, but that was one of the places where I’m really proud of how I was able to fuse my voice and his.