Miss Juneteenth

Posted on June 18, 2020 at 3:47 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Not rated
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drug references, alcoholism
Violence/ Scariness: Criminal activity
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: June 12, 2020

Copyright Vertical Entertainment 2020
Nichole Beharie is incandescent as a former beauty queen determined to create a different outcome for her daughter in “Miss Juneteenth,” inspired by the Texas holiday commemorating the date more than two years after the Emancipation Proclamation when word came through that slavery was no longer legal.

The Miss Juneteenth pageant is central to the Black community in the small Texas town near Fort Worth where Turquoise Jones (Beharie) works as a waitress and all-around staff in a tiny barbecue restaurant. The pageant participants are drilled on what it means to be “ladies,” and elegance, poise, graciousness, and deportment determine which girl will wear the tiara and win the scholarship. Great things are expected of the winners, and most of them have gone on to become women of achievement and contribution. “We are expecting greatness,” the head of the pageant explains in dulcet tones. They have strong ideas about what it means to be “successful young ladies” and it includes knowing the difference between a salad knife and a dinner knife. “One would surely not eat the main course with that.”

Turquoise takes her place at a pageant event in the seats reserved for former winners, who know how to use those dulcet tones and gracious words to make it clear they consider themselves superior and want her to know that. “How wonderful that you’re looking to replicate your success,” one murmurs. “It slipped my mind that you had a daughter old enough to compete,” says another one. It is never stated, but we understand that the reason Turquoise’s path toward greatness was sidetracked was her pregnancy with Kai (Alexis Chikaeze), now almost 15. Turquoise is determined that Kai will win the crown and go on to college with the scholarship money.

But teenagers have their own ideas about what success means. Kai checks her phone during the inspirational opening remarks about the pageant. She does not want to memorize the Maya Angelou poem her mother read as her talent when she competed. Turquoise gets little support from Kai’s father (Kendrick Sampson as Ronnie) and none from her own mother, who says, “You won that thing. What good did it do you?”

First-time feature writer/director Channing Godfrey Peoples creates an exceptionally evocative sense of place and community in this film. We really believe the deep and complicated history of this group of people. Beharie shows us that pushing Kai is as much about a second chance for herself as it is about Kai, and that she is bringing that same sense of determination that won her the crown to make it happen. Even the smallest parts are layered, sympathetically portrayed, and real, especially Sampson’s Ronnie and Lori Hayes as Turquoise’s mother. The issue of “success” defined as emulating upper-class white traditions and of the eternal struggle of parents to provide guidance to adolescents while allowing them to be themselves are explored with delicacy. The heart of the film in every way is Beharie, who makes Turquoise every bit the phenomenal woman her pageant poem describes.

Parents should know that this film has some strong language, family conflict, alcoholism, criminal activity, struggles with money, sexual references and non-explicit situations.

Family discussion: Why was the pageant so important to Turquoise? What did she learn about herself? About Kai?

If you like this, try: “Miss Firecracker” and “American Violet”

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The Banker

Posted on April 2, 2020 at 9:51 am

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for some strong language including a sexual reference and racial epithets, and smoking throughout
Profanity: Some strong and racist language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking and smoking
Violence/ Scariness: Some peril
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: April 3, 2020

Copyright Apple 2020
“The Banker,” now available on Apple TV+, is three movies in one, all of them vivid, engaging, and compelling.

First, it’s a heist in plain sight movie, and all, or pretty much all, strictly legal. Two black men, Bernard Garrett (Anthony Mackie) and Joe Morris (Samuel L. Jackson) start a business in the pre-Civil Rights Act era when it was not only legal but the universal practice to keep people of color not just out of the neighborhoods where white people lived and worked but out of the places that make property ownership possible, the business that sell homes and office buildings and the people who provide the financing for those purchases.

Second, it is a “My Fair Lady”-style Cinderella makeover fairy tale movie, about taking someone who has the heart to be more than he is and teaching him the language, manners, and skills necessary to have credibility in the highest levels of society, or, in this case, business and finance. Garrett and Morris need a white man to pretend to be the president of their enterprise, so they recruit Matt Steiner (Nicholas Hoult), a genial construction worker, and teach him their version of “the rain in Spain stays mainly on the plain,” how to do (or pretend to do) complex valuation computations in seconds and how to play golf, so he can display the (apparently) effortless credibility needed to do big-money deals.

Third, it is a very personal underdog story of heroes to cheer for, two very different men, both played with exquisite precision, working together against near-insurmountable odds to overturn a virulently oppressive system.

Garrett has a head for numbers even as a young boy, where he listens in on the conversations of men of business as he shines their shoes. As a young man, he understands that the ability to own property is as critical to financial stability, social parity, and equal opportunity as the kind of political organizing that is getting started at the same time. Morris is already a savvy businessman with clubs and real estate holdings. Their personalities are very different — one a quiet, devoted family man, the other a good-time guy. But they both know how things work. They know how to make themselves invisible, pretending to be limo drivers or janitors to get access to the places of power while their front-man pretends to know what he’s doing. (One problem with the film is its failure to give Nia Long more of a role than the ever-supportive wife, though this ever-talented actress lends the character some dimension.)

We know from the beginning, opening on a Senate hearing with some harsh questioning, that powerful people are going to try to stop Garrett and Morris from taking some of their power. This movie, with MCU star-power portraying real-life superheroes, gives some of it back to them.

Parents should know that this film has some strong and racist language, some sexual references, scenes in clubs and bars, and some historical depictions of racism.

Family discussion: What did Morris and Garrett have in common? Who is most like them today? What should they have done about Steiner?

If you like this, try: “Hidden Figures” and “Self Made,” and read more about Bernard Garrett and Joe Morris.

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Hair Love

Posted on February 4, 2020 at 3:49 pm

Copyright Sony 2019

My choice for the best Animated Short Oscar is Hair Love.

There’s a great story about how this film got made in today’s Washington Post. The story behind the scenes deserves an award and maybe a movie of its own. An excerpt:

In 2017, Matthew A. Cherry created a Kickstarter campaign in the hopes of funding an animated short film about a young black father who learns how to do his daughter’s hair. Cherry had been thinking about the project, dubbed “Hair Love,” for several years but was inspired to make it happen after seeing a flood of Internet videos featuring black fathers gingerly tackling the unruly tresses of their daughters.

Three years later, Cherry has an Oscar nomination for his vision, which audiences first saw in theaters ahead of “The Angry Birds Movie 2.” In just under seven minutes, “Hair Love” follows Zuri, a 7-year-old with a lively mop of kinky curls, who wakes up on a special day and tries to do her hair with the help of a video made by her mother, a natural-hair vlogger (voiced by Issa Rae, the creator and star of HBO’s “Insecure”).

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Just Mercy

Posted on January 9, 2020 at 5:26 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for thematic content including some racial epithets
Profanity: Strong language including n-word and other racist terms
Alcohol/ Drugs: Social drinking, smoking
Violence/ Scariness: References to violent crimes, non-explicit depiction of an execution
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: January 10, 2020
Date Released to DVD: April 13, 2020
Copyright Warner Brothers 2019

The third 2019 awards season story based on a real-life lawyer stars producer Michael B. Jordan as Bryan Stevenson, the founder of the Legacy Museum (sometimes referred to as the Lynching Museum) and National Memorial for Peace and Justice. The movie shows him as a young graduate of Harvard Law School who moved to the small town where Harper Lee wrote To Kill a Mockingbird. Like Lee’s Atticus Finch, Stevenson defends those who were unfairly accused. He established the Equal Justice Initiative. The only other staff was a local woman named Eva Ansley (Brie Larson). Stevenson began helping men on death row at no cost.

The local community, especially law enforcement, did not like having old cases re-opened and weaknesses of evidence and exposed. The hostility and obstruction seemed insurmountable. But Stevenson was undaunted. Unlike most heroic lawyers in movies (and real life), this story does not have family members complaining that he is working too hard or a love interest who feels neglected. Stevenson does not lose his temper or feel like giving up. The great gift of this movie is what sometimes, if you are not watching carefully, may make it seem like its pilot light is turned down too low. This movie does have some rousing moments (and some sad ones) but it does not follow the usual courtroom underdog stories that make the intricacies of the judicial system follow the beats of a feel-good sports story.

Jordan is that rare performer who is a superb actor and a full-on movie star. After his electrifying appearance in “Black Panther,” he shows his range as a lawyer whose only superpowers are his integrity and his constant courtesy toward everyone he deals with. client, friend, and foe. The quiet power of the respect he shows to his clients is critical to gaining their trust and to restoring their sense of dignity in a system that has done its best to take it from them. And it is wisely given as much weight here as any revelation of evidence or legal right left out of the original proceedings.

Director and co-writer Destin Daniel Cretton also treats Stevenson’s clients with respect, with an outstanding performance by Jamie Foxx as Stevenson’s first significant client. It’s a quieter role than we have seen him in for a while, and his subtle work here is extraordinary, telling us the whole history of a man who has never been able to expect fairness for himself or his family. Rob Morgan plays another prisoner, performed with heartwrenching simplicity and delicacy to bring home to us what brought Stevenson to devote his life to this cause.

Parents should know that this movie concerns men on death row and abuses of the justice system. It includes some strong language, including racist epithets, and references to sexual assault and violent crime an a non-explicit depiction of an execution.

Family discussion: Why was it important for Stevenson to address his clients and their families as Mr. and Mrs.? What kept him from giving up?

If you like this, try: Bryan Stevenson’s book and TED Talk, and documentary

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100 Years of Black Film

Posted on January 2, 2020 at 12:00 pm

Copyright 2020 Soda Pop Graphics

This outstanding new history of black filmmakers is available for free! It includes everything from Hollywood classics (Hattie McDaniel and Sidney Poitier as the first black performers to win Oscars) to the unsung innovators like Oscar Micheaux, who responded to the racism of D.W. Griffith’s “The Birth of a Nation” with “Within Our Gates, the pioneers of the Blaxploitation era, and Barry Jenkins’ “Moonlight” winning the Best Picture Oscar. The #Oscarssowhite protests, Motown’s Berry Gordy’s films like “Lady Sings the Blues” and “The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars and Motor Kings,” and Tyler Perry establishing his own (wildly successful) studio. Highly recommended!

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