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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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