Posted on October 13, 2022 at 5:18 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for thematic content involving racism, strong disturbing images and racial slurs
Profanity: Racist epithets
Date Released to Theaters: October 28, 2022
Date Released to DVD: January 16, 2023

Copyright 2022 Orion Pictures
In March of 2022, President Joe Biden signed the Emmett Till Antilynching Act, making lynching a federal hate crime. It only took 67 years.

It was in 1955 that a 14-year-old Black boy from Chicago named Emmett Till was murdered in Mississippi for allegedly whistling at a white woman. “Till” is his story, but it is more importantly the story of his mother, who responded to the greatest pain a parent can experience with determination to save other families from that kind of tragedy. I will give her the respect denied her by the white people of Mississippi and refer to Till’s mother, later known as Mamie Till-Mobley, as she was by the Black people who honored her during this period, Mrs. Bradley. She is played with infinite grace and dignity by Danielle Deadwyler in a performance that is one of the most thrilling of the year.

Emmett (Jalyn Hall) was a happy, friendly, high-spirited boy who was devoted to his single mother and thought the world was a safe place. We first see him with his mother at Chicago’s famous department store, Marshall Field’s, politely responding to a clerk who suggests that she shop in the basement, clearly a racist response. Mrs. Bradley tries to warn Emmett that things are different in the Jim Crow South, that he must be careful, ultra-respectful, and, if called upon, get down on his knees and beg forgiveness for any suspected slight. But Emmett is young and a bit of a show-off. His casual demeanor and his speaking to the 21-year-old white woman at the cash register was considered an insult. And so, Her husband and his friend banged on the door of Till’s relatives, took him from their home at gunpoint, and murdered him.

Mississippi wanted to bury him there, along with the story. But with the intervention of the NAACP, his body was returned to Chicago, so abused and mutilated that it was barely recognizable as human. The mortician urged her not to look and to close the casket at the funeral because, he says carefully, “He’s not in the right shape” to be seen. But Mrs. Bradley insisted that he must be seen, that what happened to him must be understood. The moments of her communion with her son’s body, the faces of those viewing him at the funeral, and Deadwyler’s description in court testimony of how she was able to identify him as her son are galvanizing. “He is in just the right shape. The world is going to see what they did to my boy,” she says. That legacy continues with this important, impactful film.

Parents should know that this movie is the true story of a brutal hate crime. The murder is sensitively handled, but we do see, as Mrs. Bradley would have wanted, his body and the reactions of the people who viewed the open casket. Characters smoke, drink and use racist language, including the n-word.

Family discussion: How does the experience of Emmett Till relate to the issues raised by Black Lives Matter today? What do we learn from her conversation with Preacher? Why did Mrs. Bradley’s decision to speak out make a difference?

If you like this, try: “The Murder of Emmett Till” from the PBS series “American Experience,” the “Eyes on the Prize” series, “For Us the Living,” about Medgar Evers, and “Ghosts of Mississippi,” about the lawyers who finally brought his murderers to justice. You can read about the 2022 decision not to charge the woman who wrongly accused Emmett Till here and contribute to the Emmett Till Legacy Foundation here.

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Family Movies for Black History Month

Posted on February 15, 2022 at 7:47 pm

Every family should observe Black History Month and movies like these are a good way to begin discussions and further study.

1. “Glory” The true story of the US Civil War’s first all-black volunteer company, fighting prejudices of their own Union army and battling the Confederates, with brilliant performances by Denzel Washington (who won an Oscar), Morgan Freeman, and Matthew Broderick as the white officer who truly believed all men were equal.

2. “Something the Lord Made” The obstacles to education and professional advancement kept Vivien Thomas (Mos Def) from medical school, but he was a pioneer in heart surgery.vivien thomas

3. “Roots” Writer Alex Haley told the story of his own family going back to the capture of one of his ancestors from Africa to be sold into slavery in this historic miniseries.

4. “Amistad” A slave rebellion led to an historic Supreme Court case that addressed fundamental notions of personhood and inalienable rights.

5. “With All Deliberate Speed” This documentary about the Brown v. Board of Education case that transformed American schools and culture has interviews with lawyer Thurgood Marshall (who later became the first black Supreme Court justice) and others involved in the case.

6. “Malcolm X” Denzel Washington is mesmerizing in this story of the incendiary leader and his journey from complacency to activism to understanding.

7. “Eyes on the Prize” This PBS documentary covers the Civil Rights movement from the murder of Emmett Till to the march in Selma.  There is also an excellent sequel. Many feature films cover this history including “Selma” and “Boycott.”

8. “The Rosa Parks Story” Angela Bassett stars as the Civil Rights activist whose refusal to give up her seat on the bus electrified the nation.

9. “The Loving Story” The name of this history-making couple was really Loving.  Their inter-racial marriage led the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn the laws against miscegenation in 1967. “Loving” is the superb feature film based on their story.

10. “A Great Day in Harlem” This documentary tells the story of photographer Art Kane’s 1958 iconic photograph of all of the great jazz musicians of the era.

great-day in harlem

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Malcom Lee on Updating The Best Man

Posted on April 11, 2021 at 1:58 pm

Copyright Universal 1999

I was lucky enough to join a small group of journalists for an interview with Lee about the original film and the updates. He told us that it was the sixth script he wrote while he was still living in his parents’ basement, and the thought that if this one did not sell, he might give up.

He said that Jeff Friday and Nicole Friday of the American Black Film Festival, the founders wanted to honor him and the cast for the 20th anniversary of its release, but because of the pandemic it was postponed and they got IMDb to televise it. “I asked the cast if they wanted to do it and they kind of all jumped at the chance to do so because the film was wildly respected, loved and beloved. We got together. It was a really good fun time. Lot of laughs. A lot of stories exchanged. Things I didn’t know. Things that they didn’t know. There’s a lot of great energy when we get together. I think it’s a testament to how the actors feel about the movie and about each other.” And we can look forward to another update on Peacock: “The Best Man: Final Chapters

Lee said he never planned that it would become a franchise.

My inspiration and impetus for writing “The Best Man” was the fact that I wasn’t seeing myself represented on screen. The people that I knew, Black American educated middle class aspirational people in movies and television to that point were very unrecognizable to me. Super stiff, clipped English, and devoid of cultural specificity. I said, “I love reunion movies. I love college movies.” College movies rather. I remember seeing “Waiting to Exhale,” which is four very distinct black women and they were all these unremarkable archetypal black men portrayed and I was like, “I want four Black men.” This is fully different and it will all be college friends and have different philosophies and what not and that was the kind of the impetus behind it. The fact that people really took to the movie is great and there was talk of a sequel back then but I didn’t want to be a one trick pony. I didn’t want to just tell one kind of story. I said, “If I’m going to revisit these characters,” which I was interested in doing but I want to do it like maybe 10 years later when the characters have a chance to live some life, and I had a chance to live some life and so that we could tell a fuller story. Not just be like, “What different story are we going to tell now that we just told a year ago.” A lot of time when they make sequels it’s a money grab. It’s like, “Oh. How do I what I did? How do I capture that magic again?”

One core element of the original film was a character’s writing a novel that exposed some of his friend’s secrets, so it was inevitable to ask Lee whether he based the characters on people he knew and how they responded.

It is funny too because the friends that thought they were those characters. I was like, “Well you were not exactly the person I was thinking of.” What’s great about it is that I took pieces from a lot of different people. I knew what I wanted for each of these characters and who I wanted them to be but nobody was a specific individual. They were just pieces of people.

We asked him about casting.

I think when we go to the movies there’s an aspirational aspect, a heightened reality, a little bit of an escapism as well, but also a place where we can say, “Oh like that I can relate.” People love seeing people get married. People love seeing beautiful people get married. And we had such a tremendous response in the acting community to the script. A lot of black actors weren’t getting that opportunity to play full people. Here was an opportunity for eight of them to play these roles. Not just to be the sidekick or the best friend or the one that’s packing the funny jokes or the sassy one or whatever. It was an opportunity for them to play real people and so the response was tremendous.
They were all very excited to take this on.

There was a real joy and opportunity for them to showcase themselves. They trusted the script. They trusted me. I wasn’t just like, “All right. Let’s read the lines.” We worked rehearsal for two weeks. Really let them dive into character and backstory and subtext. I think that was what they were all really excited about and all wanted it to be great. It was even more so for “Best Man Holiday” because the energy in Hollywood was in a weird place at that time where they weren’t really putting much stock into African American-cast movies.

We had to ask about “Space Jam: A New Legacy.”

I think it’s probably the coolest movie that I have ever done. I really like the movie. I like and care about the characters. I think it’s fun. I think it’s funny. There’s a lot to like about it.

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Malcolm and Marie

Posted on February 4, 2021 at 5:14 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for pervasive language and sexual content
Profanity: Very strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol
Violence/ Scariness: Struggles, arguments
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: February 5, 2021

Copyright Netflix 2021
When I interviewed John David Washington about “BlackKklansman,” he told me his dream was a film of “The Taming of the Shrew.” His new film, “Malcolm and Marie” could be an audition for that project and based on the results, someone should cast him and his co-star Zendaya right this minute and start filming it tomorrow.

There’s a lot wrong or maybe it is more accurate to say missing in “Malcolm and Marie,” but given the way it was made, it is remarkable how much is right and it is never less than watchable thanks to the palpable magnetism and chemistry of its two stars, who make up the entire cast. This was a pandemic project, made by writer/director Sam Levinson, as he and Zendaya were on hiatus from their “Euphoria” series due to COVID-19 restrictions. So, this film preserves the classical unities of time and space and action, not as a tribute to Aristotle’s Poetics but as a way to keep everyone safe. The cast and crew quarantined together and the entire film takes place in real time during one late evening in one beautiful beach house. It is filmed in gorgeous black and white by Marcell Rév. And it has a script that could have used a couple more drafts.

Malcolm (Washington) and Marie (Zendaya) come home from a big, glittery event in very different moods, so different that they do not at first notice what is happening with each other. Malcolm is proud, happy, relieved, and excited. He pours himself a drink, cranks up the music, starts to dance, and asks Marie to make some mac and cheese.

Marie boils the water and cuts the butter, but she is quiet, reflective, possibly seething underneath.

Malcolm is an up-and-coming film director and they have just come from the premiere of his latest, the story of a young woman struggling with drug addiction. The premiere was a triumph, the kind that may have moved him from up-and-coming to arrived. Following the screening, he was complimented by everyone, even “the white lady critic from the LA Times.” He is delighted with the reaction, but it stings that her compliment compared him to directors like Spike Lee and Barry Jenkins, all Black filmmakers, and not to, say, William Wyler, a white director from the 1940s and 50s. Marie is feeling left out, partly for reasons we will discover, but initially because in his speech at the reception, he thanked a lot of people, including the star of the film, but did not thank her. He apologized in the car on the way home, but it still bothers her.

The rest of the film is up and down and back and forth as they argue, make up, argue, make up, argue, and possibly make up again. There are elements of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” as their arguments strip away the boundaries enduring couples are careful to protect, but in this case there is no bewildered, meek, and tipsy other couple to perform for; there is just us. Washington and Zendaya are never less than utterly present, utterly vulnerable, and utterly in control of the constantly shifting moods, challenging and matching each other in every beat as characters and as performers. It is a wonder to watch.

And it is impossible not to be sympathetic to the movie’s failures because they are the faults of daring too much, when too many movies fail for the opposite reason. “Malcolm and Marie” tries to bring a lot into the world of these two people in two hours, with issues of race and culture and the relationship of the critic to the artist and who gets credit for what and when and probably also what art is for in the first place. A lot a lot a lot, all from two people talking. It is unlikely that it would have been made this way without the restrictions of a pandemic, including the claustrophobia of the entire crew quarantining together. What other conditions could create this work? How else could we explore these issues in this way? Think of other movies about two people talking. “My Dinner with Andre” was constructed, with everyone going home after a day of shooting, and “Before Sunrise” and “Columbus” had whole cities to explore.

“Malcolm and Marie” may end up as a footnote in what are sure to be long and rich careers for the filmmakers. But it is well worth seeing as an example of what can be done when it seems like nothing is possible, indeed what can be inspired by a moment that seems stuck. I came away hoping the characters go on together and looking forward to whatever Washington and Zendaya do next.

Parents should know that this movie includes very strong language, explicit sexual references and situations, tense confrontations, and discussions of drug addiction.

Family questions: Do your sympathies shift back and forth over the course of the movie? When? Why?

If you like this, try: “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” and “My Dinner with Andre” as well as other films from Washington and Zendaya and the works of William Wyler

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