As we celebrate the birthday of Martin Luther King, every family should take time to talk about this great American leader and hero of the Civil Rights Movement. There are outstanding films and other resources for all ages.
New this week is “MLK/FBI” with newly released material about the government’s surveillance, of Dr. King, including informants and wiretaps.
I highly recommend the magnificent movie Boycott, starring Jeffrey Wright as Dr. King. And every family should study the history of the Montgomery bus boycott that changed the world.
The brilliant film Selma tells the story of the fight for voting rights.
The Long Walk Home, starring Whoopi Goldberg and Sissy Spacek, makes clear that the boycott was a reminder to black and white women of their rights and opportunities — and risk of change.
Citizen King is a PBS documentary with archival footage of Dr. King and his colleagues. Martin Luther King Jr. – I Have a Dream has his famous speech in full, still one of the most powerful moments in the history of oratory and one of the most meaningful moments in the history of freedom.
Rated PG-13 for thematic material, some language, disturbing images, and violence
Some strong language
Peril and violence, guns, references to war
A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters:
December 12, 2020
“News of the World,” based on the book by Paulette Jiles is filled with undeniable good intentions, but that does not always translate to the screen. Tom Hanks, who also produced the film, stars as Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd, a Civil War veteran who travels from town to town, charging crowds to read the aloud the news to crowds who otherwise would not know what was going on outside their community.
A young girl who was captured by Kiowa Indians needs to be taken to the only family she has, an aunt and uncle, but no one is available to get her there. The Captain agrees, even though the girl has forgotten anything about her earlier life and speaks only Kiowa.
So this is the story of a journey, with two very different people who will face many challenges and obstacles as they try to reach to their destination. That destination is not just a place. Both Captain and the girl, once known as Johanna (Helena Zengel) do not know whether any place will be home to them. As the Captain says, Johanna is a child who has lost her family twice. Her birth family was killed by the Kiowa and her Kiowa family was killed by the US Cavalry. And the Captain not only survived the unspeakable brutality of war; he was on the losing side, fighting for the Confederacy. So, two broken people may find that making a connection is, well, the way home.
“News of the World” touches on issues of history, identity, and reconciliation, a response to the classic western myth and movie. This is not about claiming and taming the land. It is about painfully won understandings. There are exciting confrontations along the way but the triumphs here are about relationships and honor. Like the classic westerns, the setting is magnificent, gorgeously photographed by Dariusz Wolski, and the peril is intense, especially a shoot-out when three ex-military come after the girl. The movie has bigger ambitions, but it is the moments between Hanks and Zengel that stand out.
Parents should know that this film includes peril and violence, including the threat of child rape. Characters are injured and killed and there are references to tragic offscreen losses including murder of parents and death of a spouse. Characters use some strong language and drink alcohol.
Family discussion: Why does the Captain become a news reader? How did Johanna change the Captain’s life?
If you like this, try: “True Grit,” “Silverado” and “The Searchers”
Animal abuse, sad deaths of humans and animals, fire
Date Released to Theaters:
November 27, 2020
The latest “Black Beauty” is the sixth film adaptation of the classic Victorian novel by Anna Sewell, told by a horse who goes from owner to owner, some kind, some cruel. This latest version, streaming on Disney+, updates and relocates the story, set in contemporary United States (but filmed in South Africa). And this time, the two main characters are female.
Kate Winslet provides the narration, and we first meet the black horse with a white star on her forehead living wild in “an endless golden meadow,” taught by her mother that “a mustang’s spirit can never be broken.” She promises to tell us the secret to this inner strength by the end of the story. It will be tested, though, as she is caught by cowboys, who sell the horses they capture to riders if they can be tamed and to be killed if they cannot. The black horse is about to be relegated to that second category as untamable. But a kind-hearted trainer says that she is just frightened and angry. “Wouldn’t you be if a UFO came down and stole you from your family?”
He is John Manly (“Game of Thrones'” Iain Glen), something of a horse whisperer, and a scout and trainer for a rescue ranch in New York. He buys the horse, but even his patience and gentleness do not make much progress and the owner of the ranch says the horse will have to go. But then John learns that his sister and brother-in-law have been killed in a car accident and he is now guardian for their teenaged daughter Jo (Makenzie Foy of “Intersteller”). She, too, is frightened and angry. “Now I have two girls who want nothing to do with me,” he sighs.
Those two girls, Jo and the horse, are too sad to develop a relationship with anyone. But they immediately recognize the sadness in each other. Jo, who has had no experience with horses, is able to calm the horse she names Beauty. And Beauty calms her, too.
Jo tries to keep Beauty, but when that is impossible she promises to find her and get her back. Beauty is sold to one owner after another, some kind, some cruel.
The theme of the film is empathy, and as Beauty tells her story is is clear she knows the difference between those who do not intend to inflict damage and those who do not care. Her travels take her from a wealthy family with a snobbish mother whose daughter is incapable of understanding the Robert Smith quote John shares with Jo: “There is no secret so close as that between a rider and his horse,” to a mountain rescuer and a New York horse-drawn carriage driver. And the end will make you cry.
The biggest problem is that the screenplay tells us what it has already shown us and then tells us again. We get the message from the performances and from David Procter’s beautiful cinematography, which surrounds the story in golden light and makes us feel the danger of treacherous mountain rapids. The love story between Jo and Beauty is told with sincerity and affection. There is not much new here, but the message of courage, kindness, and loyalty is always worthwhile.
Parents should know that while the bad behavior and cruel treatment is mostly off-camera, described rather than shown, both humans and horses are injured and there are sad deaths.
Family discussion: Why did Jo and Beauty understand each other so well? Why does Jo want to use the word “partner” instead of “break?”
If you like this, try: “The Black Stallion,” “National Velvet,” and “Emma’s Chance” as well as “A Dog’s Journey” and “A Dog’s Way Home”
Rated R for some violence, language throughout, and drug content
Constant very strong language
Alcohol and drug abuse, smoking
Domestic violence and family dysfunction
A theme of the movie is economic diversity
Date Released to Theaters:
November 13, 2020
“Hillbilly Elegy” had just one job: to give us a sympathetic and relatable portrait of people we might dismiss as “rednecks” and, well, hillbillies, without being superficial or condescending. It fails, with a portrait of one dysfunctional Ohio family with roots in the Kentucky hill country that never knows what story it is trying to tell. It is closer to an episode of Jerry Springer than it is to an insightful portrait of the obstacles to opportunity that prevent people, with rare exceptions like Vance, to keep from repeating the same mistakes. (For genuine and meticulously researched understanding, try White Trash by Nancy Isenberg.)
The film is based on the best-selling memoir/anthropological study by J.D. Vance. The timing contributed to its success because it was thought to explain to book-buying, educated, urban voters the perspective of those who supported the election of a failed businessman turned reality TV star in 2016, including policies that seemed to be contrary to their own interests. As we see in this movie, that is consistent with personal choices that are devastating to their own interests, and the interests of the next generations.
The movie arrives at a different time. The resentful rural voters are no longer as exotic or unknown, and they have less political power. Nevertheless, as Democratic voters are still being urged to have empathy for the other side, to the extent there is curiosity about these communities, this is not a movie that is going to provide any enlightenment. It is most telling that it spends much too much time on the blandest and least interesting of the characters, the one based on the author of the book. And so it becomes about his struggle to accept and forgive his family and their history instead of being about them, their lives, their challenges, their choices.
We go back and forth in time with Vance, from the idyllic summers with his Kentucky “hillbilly” relatives to his life with an intelligent but overwhelmed single mother (Amy Adams as Beverly), who makes one catastrophically bad choice after another, and with his tough grandmother Mamaw (Glenn Close), who left home, pregnant, at age 13 and scrabbled a life for herself and her family.
J.D. (Owen Asztalos as a young teenager) tells us the summers in Kentucky were his happiest times, but as we see him with his cousins, we may wonder why. He finds a turtle with a wounded shell and wants to heal it, while his cousins tell him to tear off the shell or throw the turtle. J.D. explains that the turtle’s ribcage is connected to the carapace, which leads them to beat him up, which leads to everyone piling on. It might be worth exploring why there is so much suspicion of knowledge and institutions, why members of this family are unable to consider that the institutions that provide opportunities for economic stability and advancement, as imperfect as they are, may be a more reliable path. That they do not think it within the range of possibilities is rooted in innumerable factors and failures well worth exploring or even portraying, but this movie never tries. All it has to say is that these people think family comes first when it comes to faking drug test results or lying to the police but not so much when it comes to providing guidance, support, consistency, or a good example.
The shifts in time are more distracting than revealing. J.D. (now played by an expressionless Gabriel Basso) is a student at Yale Law School, after serving in the Marines and attending Ohio State. He is interviewing for summer jobs at tony law firms, essential to get the money he needs to pay the tuition for his final year of school. But he feels at a disadvantage compared to his Ivy League classmates, who have social ease. He has to make an emergency call to his girlfriend (Frieda Pinto in the thankless role of beautiful, endlessly patient and understanding support system) to ask which fork to use. This is not only an unforgivable cliche; it gives us no reason to feel sympathetic. A Marine Yale Law student is more than able to look that up before a fancy dinner or just watch what the host does.
J.D. gets an emergency call. His mother is in the hospital. She overdosed. On heroin.
He drives all night to get to Ohio. And we see incidents from the past as Bev struggles with drug abuse (once asking J.D. to pee into a cup to use for her drug test, another time impulsively marrying her supervisor and moving J.D. into his house, getting fired from her nursing job for taking a patient’s medication. If we learn anything it is that having an adult who is committed to keeping a child on the straight and narrow makes a difference. But why there was only one in this child’s life, why his sister seemed to do okay without going to live with Mamaw, and why Mamaw was able to learn from mistakes is all glossed over.
Even Amy Adams and Glenn Close are unable to make this work. They yell at each other with colorful countrified expletives (Close actually has to say at one point, “Kiss my ruby red asshole!”) sounding more like the caricatures on “Mama’s Family” than human beings with vulnerabilities and intimate connections. As we see home movies of the real characters over the credits, our only conclusion is that the filmmakers spent more time getting the outside right than the inside. The members of this community deserve better from the haves in our society, but they deserve better from this movie, too.
Parents should know that this movie includes extensive family dysfunction, substance abuse, and domestic abuse as well as constant strong language. Family members and teenagers use drugs. Domestic violence includes punching, dangerous driving, negligence, and setting a husband on fire.
Family discussion: Why was J.D. able to make a different life for himself? Should he have stayed with his mother when Mamaw wanted to take him? When he left for the interview?
If you like this, try: “White Oleander” and White Trash
Extended comedy/fantasy peril, children and witches transformed into animals, sad death of parents in auto accident
Diversity issues of the era briefly referred to
Date Released to Theaters:
October 22, 2020
The witches are back. First there was the the 1963 book by Roald Dahl (author of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, James and the Giant Peach, the BFG, Matilda, and some creepy stories for grown-ups, too). Then there was the 1990 movie, starring Angelica Huston (and making a significant change to the ending). And now, CGI fantasy-master Robert Zemeckis (“Forrest Gump,” “Back to the Future”) gives us his version, starring two Oscar-winners and co-written with Kenya Barris of “Black-ish” and “Girls Trip.”
“Witches are as real as a rock in your shoe…They’re here and they live amongst us,” the narrator immediately identifiable as Chris Rock tells us. And “witches hate children. They get the same pleasure from squishing a child as you get from ice cream with butterscotch sauce and a cherry on top.”
Then we go back in time to 1968. The setting of the book and the first movie has been moved from Norway and England to a Black community in Alabama. Jahzir Bruno plays the unnamed boy whose parents are killed in an automobile accident in the first few minutes. His grandmother (Octavia Spencer) comes to get him. He’ll be living with her, in the house where his mother grew up. He describes her as “quick to give you a spanking if you deserved it or a hug if you need it.” She comforts him. And when he has a scary encounter with a gloved woman in a hat who offers him candy, she starts to tell him what she knows about witches.
She had her own encounter with a witch as a child, when one turned her best friend into a chicken. And so, to keep him safe, she takes him to a grand hotel. Unfortunately, it turns out the hotel is also hosting a convention of witches, led by the Grand High Witch (Anne Hathaway, relishing the opportunity to vamp up a storm).
One element of the story that has not aged well is the way it dwells on the physical deformities of the witches, bald, with scabby scalps, huge, gaping mouths, claw hands, and no toes. Even though the witches are not human, the association of disabilities with evil is less palatable than it once was. (Anne Hathaway has apologized for the insensitivity of this portrayal.)
Zemeckis sometimes gets so caught up in the visual effects that he overlooks the story, but here the visuals are almost entirely in service of the story, especially after the boy is turned into a mouse (which, adorably, he quite likes) and we get to see things from his angle. Dahl’s story provides a strong foundation, and Spencer, who could easily have phoned in a role like this, gives it her substantial all. I’d still give the 1990 version the edge, but it is good to see the original ending restored and this is a worthy Halloween treat.
Parents should know that this film has fantasy peril and violence and some disturbing images. A child’s parents are killed in a car accident. Children are turned into mice. Witches have physical deformities including huge, scary, gaping mouths. There is some schoolyard language and there are understated references to racism of the era.
Family discussion: Why did the boy like being a mouse? What was the scariest moment in the movie? Why do the witches do what the Grand High Witch tells them?
If you like this, try: the 1990 film with Angelica Huston and the book by Roald Dahl, as well as the movies based on his other books, including “Matilda,” “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory,” “James and the Giant Peach,” and “The BFG”