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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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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New Oscar Diversity Qualifications Announced

Posted on September 8, 2020 at 8:28 pm

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has announced new diversity requirements for films that want to be eligible for Oscar awards.

Oscar hopefuls will have to meet a new set of inclusive hiring standards in order to qualify for Best Picture, an effort the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences hopes will lead to greater diversity and representation both onscreen and behind the scenes.

It’s part of the Academy Awards’ ongoing response to criticism over its lingering lack of diverse nominees. The outcry became particularly intense five years ago when the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite forced a reckoning within the organization. Since that time, leadership of the Academy has tried to improve diversity within its voting body and encourage positive discussions within the industry, but this new set of guidelines is aimed at making it mandatory for contenders to be more inclusive of those who have traditionally been marginalized in Hollywood.

The policies will only become mandatory for the 96th Academy Awards in 2024, which will give would-be contenders three years to make sure they meet at least two of the four categories below that are designated A, B, C, and D.

STANDARD A: ON-SCREEN REPRESENTATION, THEMES AND NARRATIVES
To achieve Standard A, the film must meet one of the following criteria:

A1. Lead or significant supporting actors — At least one of the lead actors or significant supporting actors is from an underrepresented racial or ethnic group.

• Asian
• Hispanic/Latinx
• Black/African American
• Indigenous/Native American/Alaskan Native
• Middle Eastern/North African
• Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander
• Other underrepresented race or ethnicity

A2. General ensemble cast — At least 30% of all actors in secondary and more minor roles are from at least two of the following underrepresented groups:

• Women
• Racial or ethnic group
• LGBTQ+
• People with cognitive or physical disabilities, or who are deaf or hard of hearing

A3. Main storyline/subject matter — The main storyline(s), theme or narrative of the film is centered on an underrepresented group(s).

• Women
• Racial or ethnic group
• LGBTQ+
• People with cognitive or physical disabilities, or who are deaf or hard of hearing

STANDARD B: CREATIVE LEADERSHIP AND PROJECT TEAM
To achieve Standard B, the film must meet one of the criteria below:

B1. Creative leadership and department heads — At least two of the following creative leadership positions and department heads—Casting Director, Cinematographer, Composer, Costume Designer, Director, Editor, Hairstylist, Makeup Artist, Producer, Production Designer, Set Decorator, Sound, VFX Supervisor, Writer—are from the following underrepresented groups:

• Women
• Racial or ethnic group
• LGBTQ+
• People with cognitive or physical disabilities, or who are deaf or hard of hearing

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At least one of those positions must belong to the following underrepresented racial or ethnic group:

• Asian
• Hispanic/Latinx
• Black/African American
• Indigenous/Native American/Alaskan Native
• Middle Eastern/North African
• Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander
• Other underrepresented race or ethnicity

B2. Other key roles — At least six other crew/team and technical positions (excluding Production Assistants) are from an underrepresented racial or ethnic group. These positions include but are not limited to First AD, Gaffer, Script Supervisor, etc.

B3. Overall crew composition — At least 30% of the film’s crew is from the following underrepresented groups:

• Women
• Racial or ethnic group
• LGBTQ+
• People with cognitive or physical disabilities, or who are deaf or hard of hearing

STANDARD C: INDUSTRY ACCESS AND OPPORTUNITIES
To achieve Standard C, the film must meet both criteria below:

C1. Paid apprenticeship and internship opportunities — The film’s distribution or financing company has paid apprenticeships or internships that are from the following underrepresented groups and satisfy the criteria below:

• Women
• Racial or ethnic group
• LGBTQ+
• People with cognitive or physical disabilities, or who are deaf or hard of hearing

The major studios/distributors are required to have substantive, ongoing paid apprenticeships/internships inclusive of underrepresented groups (must also include racial or ethnic groups) in most of the following departments: production/development, physical production, post-production, music, VFX, acquisitions, business affairs, distribution, marketing and publicity.

The mini-major or independent studios/distributors must have a minimum of two apprentices/interns from the above underrepresented groups (at least one from an underrepresented racial or ethnic group) in at least one of the following departments: production/development, physical production, post-production, music, VFX, acquisitions, business affairs, distribution, marketing and publicity.

C2. Training opportunities and skills development (crew) — The film’s production, distribution and/or financing company offers training and/or work opportunities for below-the-line skill development to people from the following underrepresented groups:

• Women
• Racial or ethnic group
• LGBTQ+
• People with cognitive or physical disabilities, or who are deaf or hard of hearing

STANDARD D: AUDIENCE DEVELOPMENT
To achieve Standard D, the film must meet the criterion below:

D1. Representation in marketing, publicity, and distribution

The studio and/or film company has multiple in-house senior executives from among the following underrepresented groups (must include individuals from underrepresented racial or ethnic groups) on their marketing, publicity, and/or distribution teams.

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Mark Harris on What He Learned from Re-Watching Old Cop Shows

Posted on September 8, 2020 at 12:01 pm

One of my favorite cultural critics, Mark Harris, has an uncharacteristically personal take on the cop shows he watched, some as a way to connect to his father, when he was growing up, from “Adam-12” to “The Mod Squad” to “Kojak.” He talks about his own experience and perspective as well as what, looking at them now, he sees about the way law enforcement has been portrayed in the media and how it has shaped our ideas.  It’s one of the most illuminating pieces of cultural criticism of the year.

And then, at night, the TV would go on and I would be transfixed by the cops I saw there, the men who seized a piece of my consciousness when it was at its most impressionable, captured my imagination, and made me believe in their effectiveness….I needed a better connection to my father than I had, and the one I found was Adam-12, a series that was, in a way, designed with almost insidious perfection as My First Police Show — a smooth transition from kids’ TV into the grown-up world. For one thing, it was only 30 minutes; for another, that half-hour was usually divided among two or three bite-size, easy-to-follow, often amazingly uneventful stories of two white cops on the beat in Los Angeles (a city as exotic as Mars to a child who had never been west of New Jersey)….

In an era when all TV shows have age-suitability ratings and content guides, the vigor with which adult cop shows of the 1970s were marketed to children seems shocking. But in fact, immense energy was invested in embedding those series in the collective consciousness of children. Dell published 15-cent Mod Squad comic books, and Topps sold Mod Squad chewing gum. You could get a wheel of Hawaii Five-0 Viewmaster slides and click through color pictures of unsmiling, black-suited Steve McGarrett arresting Honolulu’s miscreants, or buy Milton Bradley board games based on Columbo, Starsky & Hutch, or Kojak (“Be a part of thrilling police action on the city streets”), which allowed young players to use informants to track down a suspect hiding in a building. I coveted the Adam-12 lunchbox, which had an illustration of Malloy and Reed helping a little boy on one side and on the other the two of them crouching with their pistols drawn, ready to fire on an unseen suspect. The images were two halves of the same coin.

The Mod Squad was largely goodhearted, but in a way that made clear that the parameters of what constitutes a good heart were defined entirely by its white writers and producers. If the show were on now, it would be in sympathy with the Black Lives Matter protests, but it would single out those who lit fires and threw bricks as people who don’t truly believe that Black lives matter, and it would definitely not endorse defunding the police, because without the police, who would be able to explain all of this to the young people? Cops knew everything, could solve everything, could protect everyone … if you would just let them do their work.

Not all cops” was the baseline ethic of shows like Kojak; they would occasionally critique a policeman, but not policing. These series were “knowing,” they were savvy, and their cynicism seemed to spread in all directions at once. The vibe was, We’re not gonna pretend that some criminals aren’t Black, and we’re not gonna pretend that some cops aren’t racist, and most of all, we’re not gonna pretend that this is a nice place to live or that anything about it can be fixed.

Highly recommended.

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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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