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.
“Mank” is a big, breathtakingly ambitious, multii-layered story of Herman Mankiewicz, the man who wrote the original screenplay for what many people consider the greatest film ever made, “Citizen Kane.” This was a passion project for one of the most passionate and meticulous, film-loving directors in Hollywood, David Fincher, partly because the original script for this film was written by his late father, Jack, the sole credited screenwriter.
“Mank” is firmly rooted in its period, down to the black and white film with high ceilings and shadowy images, paying tribute to “Citizen Kane” and other films of that era, it is, like most films set in a different time, very much in conversation with and commentary on where we are today. So. the settings are re-created with exquisite precision and any old Hollywood cinephiles will be overjoyed to be able to visit the office of legendary producer Irving Thalberg (Ferdinand Kingsley) or sit in on a writers’ conference featuring the men who wrote films like Charles Lederer (the original “Oceans 11,” “His Girl Friday,” “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes,” played by Joseph Cross) and Ben Hecht (“Scarface,” “Gunga Din,” played by Jeff Harms. They will also get a kick out of the faux “cue marks,” the circles in the upper right-hand corners of the frame to let the theater projectionist know when it was time to get ready to change reels, long disappeared from movies in the digital era.
And then there is San Simeon, the unimaginably lavish Hearst castle built by the unimaginably wealthy William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance). He was the heir to a gold mining fortune and a political dynasty. He became the owner of the country’s largest media empire, which he used to push his political priorities. Is the commentary on today coming into focus?
Herman Mankiewicz was brilliant, sardonic, cynical, and a raging alcoholic and gambler. He ruefully notes that his wife is always referred to as ‘poor Sarah” (“Downton Abbey’s” Tuppence Middleton). He was a real-life version of those journalists in the wild wild West days of newspapers, as often portrayed by Clark Gable. He famously sent a telegram to Ben Hecht (in the movie version to Charles Lederer encouraging him to come to Hollywood: “Millions are to be grabbed out here and your only competition is idiots. Don’t let this get around.”
A brilliant trouble-maker of an enfant terrible from radio and theater named Orson Welles (Tom Burke) has been given free rein to make a movie, what he would later call “the The biggest electric train set any boy ever had.” He asks Mankiewicz, recovering from a leg injury, to write the script and puts him in a remote cabin with a secretary (Lily Collins as Rita Alexander) to keep him away from “distractions,” meaning booze and gambling.
Like “Citizen Kane,” the movie goes back and forth in time, the flashbacks illuminating the movie’s present, especially the inspiration for the title character, who would be played by the 25-year-old director himself. We see moments and characters and ideas sparking the ideas in the screenplay. And we see the painful and often self-destructive force of an intellect that is so deeply cynical only because at heart he is so deeply idealistic.
Mank’s warm friendship with Marion Davies (Amanda Seyfried) is at the heart of the movie. He can be honest with her because she is honest with him and because, unlike “poor Sarah,” he does not feel, at least in the earlier days of their relationship, that he is letting her down. Davies was the long-time romantic partner of Hearst, who was married to someone else. He ordered his newspapers to write about her frequently, leading to the joke that every story about a Hollywood event had the line “And Marion Davies looked lovely.” (Because of the Susan Alexander character in “Citizen Kane,” the second wife Kane insisted on promoting as an opera singer with disastrous results, people often think Davies was untalented, but she was a lovely light comedienne with a charming presence on screen.)
Because of Davies, Mankiewicz is often a guest at San Simeon and has a cordial relationship with Hearst, until Hearst’s opposition to the progressive California gubernatorial candidate Upton Sinclair (cannily played by Science Guy Bill Nye) and the movie studios’ anti-Sinclair propaganda “news” films lead to intolerable behavior in social gatherings — and to the corrupt, lonely former idealist Charles Foster Kane.
It is pure pleasure to see a film that respects the audience enough to take on big issues with complexity, humanity, and wit, every careful detail and layered performance providing much to think about and many questions about our own time and how it will be seen eighty years from now, if we are lucky enough to have filmmakers of this quality.
Parents should know that this movie includes strong language, alcoholism and other addictive behavior, some sexual references, and references to the Holocaust.
Family discussion: Who is most like William Randolph Hearst today? Most like Upton Sinclair? Why did Mank change his mind about wanting credit for the movie? Was he fair to Marion Davies?
Director Julie Taymor has created a welcome remix of the standard movie biopic with “The GLorias.” It is spacious at nearly 2 1/2 hours and with four different actresses playing feminist icon Gloria Steinem (with the real Gloria herself appearing briefly at the end). At times Gloria is literally in conversation with herself, a lyrical depiction of the way we reflect on our past and our future.
Like the opening scene, these conversations occur on a bus, a literal and metaphoric representation of the experience of a woman who titled her memoir A Life on the Road. At one point in the film she admits she has spent no more than eight days at a time in her New York apartment, which she hesitates to refer to as her home. Her friends joke about staging an intervention just to get her to furnish it. This goes back to the beginning. There’s a reason she entitled her memoir, the inspiration for this film, My Life on the Road. She says in the book and slightly adapted for the movie, “When people ask me why I still have hope and energy after all these years, I always say: Because I travel. Taking to the road—by which I mean letting the road take you—changed who I thought I was. The road is messy in the way that real life is messy. It leads us out of denial and into reality, out of theory and into practice, out of caution and into action, out of statistics and into stories—in short, out of our heads and into our hearts.”
Taymor brings her remarkable visual style to the film. The scenes on the bus are gray-scale, with flickers of color outside the windows. In a breathtaking moment near the end, the interior of the bus is flooded with color, illuminating the immensely moving commitment to equality and opportunity that continues today. The four actresses portraying Steinem all have a quiet power rooted in empathy and integrity. Alicia Vikander plays her as a young women, told in her first interview for a job in journalism that only men write for the publication; women do research. She gets the editor to let her write, but when she asks to write a profile of the mayor of NY, he suggests she write about his wife. She goes undercover as a Playboy bunny waitress in the Playboy Club, but her expose (which did lead to the end of the practice of requiring the women to have gynecological exams in order to work there) made her colleagues think of her as a bunny, not an investigative journalist.
Her two great loves, writing and dancing, were both forms of communication without having to speak, a therapist tells her. But if the media would not allow her to write about the women’s movement (“What movement?” her editor asks), she would have to become its voice. Julianne Moore takes over as the older Steinem, and the film gracefully exemplifies one of the movement’s most-repeated slogans, “The personal is political,” as it weaves together key moments and characters on and off stage. Bette Midler and Lorraine Toussaint have just the right snap as Bella Abzug and Flo Kennedy. And Vikander and Moore bring great warmth to the role of a woman whose strengths were quieter.
The film achieves what is most likely Steinem’s greatest hope; it is both inspirational and reassuring in illuminating a path forward to a more just and inclusive world, and a powerful reminder that the most important ingredient for achieving it is to listen.
Parents should know that this film includes a brief crude caricature, brief graphic images and some strong language. There is a sad death and a character struggles with mental illness.
Family discussion: Why did someone call Gloria Steinem a “celestial bartender?” How was she influenced by her parents? Why did she decide to leave journalism? What has been her most significant influence?
If you like this, try: The documentaries Dolores, Gloria: In Her Own Words, “RBG,” “Sisters of ’77,” about the National Women’s Conference, and “Mrs. America,” about the backlash to the women’s movement. And read the biographies of Wilma Mankiller, Bella Abzug, and some of the other characters in the film
THE GLORIAS is available for purchase on Digital and Streaming exclusively on Prime Video starting September 30th.
References and some archival footage of illness and disability
A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters:
September 23, 2020
I wonder what kind of case study Oliver Sacks could write about himself. The author of many books about neurological issues including The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat would make a fascinating subject for clinical assessment himself. It was that book that really transformed my thinking about the highly individualized ways we perceive and process information. While he wrote about extreme cases, from the man with brain damage who lived in an eternal present, with no capacity to create new memories to the post-encephalitic “locked-in” patients portrayed in the movie “Awakenings” and Temple Grandin, who has written so eloquently herself about her autism.
Oliver Sacks has, by any measure, an unusual brain. He has face-blindedness, for example, the inability to recognize even the faces of people he knows very well. And he has an exceptionally unusual combination of the kind of deep humanity that often accompanies empathy that can make it difficult to maintain observational objectivity. But what makes him unusual is that he also has the objectivity to be an exceptional clinician. The post-encephalitic patients had sad for years without any effort to help them before Sacks, who was coming for research, not clinical practice, came up with the idea of treating them with new medication that was being used to help people with Parkinson’s. He has, one commenter tells us, “the moral audacity to think something is alive in there.”
Very significantly, we learn in this film, Sacks revitalized the concept of the medical case study, which was considered outdated in a world driven by data. The case study is like a little novel. It is about the person, not the symptoms. Early in the film, Sacks tells us that he is equally a writer and a doctor, and we can see how each plays a part in his understanding of his patients. He says the primary diagnostic question is, “How are you?” He saw the symptoms as a reflection of cognition and perception, not just a reflection of brain damage or dysfunction. And framing the patient’s experience as a story is in itself therapeutic, making the case for sympathy and imagination. “His attention would release people.” They would be “storied back into the world.”
Sacks, who sees the patients with such wholeness and compassion, is compartmentalized himself. There is not only the writer/doctor split. His middle name is Wolf, and he sees himself as both Oliver and wolf, a yin/yang brain/body divide. He has been criticized for being an observer rather than a theorist, but as Grandin points out, without observation there is nothing to theorize about. Many people had the chance to observe the post-encephalitic patients, but Sacks observed something in them no one else did, and that observation included possibility of change.
In one of his books, Sacks wrote about a patient who could “hear” words spoken but not the inflections that reveal context and emotion, so very concrete and literal, and one who was the opposite, unable to comprehend language but acutely sensitive to tone and expression, who was thus in some ways better at discerning meaning. Sacks’ own superior observational skills were in part made possible by the deficits that eliminated distracting data.
Sacks relies on the support of others in his own life, outsourcing many tasks and even emotions and relationships. He has been in psychoanalysis for half a century. He took a lot of risks and abused drugs in his 20s. He gets help from his editor and close friend on some of life’s mundane details. After a one-night-stand on his 40th birthday, he did not have sex again for 25 years, and it was not until his 60’s that he had a close, intimate romantic relationship. And. we learn, early on in the film, he has been told he has only months left to live. With the same clinical distance he showed toward his own medical issues in A Leg to Stand On, he observes himself as a patient as he creates for us “a master class in how to die.” But it is also a master class in how to live, as he says, how to live with what can’t be changed and frame it as a story to give it meaning.
Parents should know that this movie includes frank discussion of drug abuse and sex as well as depictions including archival footage of people who have serious medical challenges. There is also a reference to Sacks’ own recovery from a serious accident.
Family discussion: How did Sacks’ experience as a child affect his decisions in his career? How did being a writer and a doctor help him be better at both?
If you like this, try: “Awakenings” and Sacks’ books
Rated PG-13 for thematic elements, disturbing images, brief nudity and a scene of sensuality
Mild language and sexual references
WWI battle scenes,
Date Released to Theaters:
July 24, 2020
Biopics, even the most sincere, even about the most fascinating real-life characters, even made by directors who are willing to break with the traditional structure, still two things are true. First, the only thing that really matters is the lead performance. Second, there is really no way to get around the basic structure that all lives follow and all biopics follow except those like “Jobs” that focus one or just a few incidents. We see crucial early experiences that either reveal the subject’s special talent or some life-forming experience or both. We see struggle. We see people who foolishly do not believe our subject can succeed. We see our subject succeed.There’s usually a setback or special mid-point challenge. And then we see how it ends.
Marie Curie certainly had a fascinating life and Rosamund Pike gives her considerable best. She is never less than mesmerizing. I particularly enjoyed watching her in the first half of the movie, as we see her struggling to be taken seriously as a scientist when she knows she is better than the men who look down at her because she is a woman, because she is Polish, and because she is not shy about letting them know she is better than they are. It’s almost a proto-“Big Bang Theory,” the way that the same determination, single-mindedness, unstoppable curiosity, and relentless quest for truth that makes her a scientist is what makes it difficult for her to get along with anyone well enough to get her the resources she needs to do her experiments.
And that is when she meets Pierre Curie. He tells her he has read her work and it is brilliant. She tells him she has read his and it is very good. He offers her a space in his lab. Her insight and his ideas about how to prove her theories like two covalent bonds or a double helix. A lot happens very fast as the brilliance of her discoveries is evident when she just 32 when her paper on radium was published. But the movie stops for a dinner party so that Marie can explain her research to a non-scientist friend, and to us.
It then hurtles along, trying to cram in every crisis faced by Marie, from continued gender discrimination to being accused of adultery after Pierre’s death, when her letters to her married lover were made public by his wife. Most interesting, and worth an entire movie of its own, is her service during WWI, when she developed portable X-ray machines that saved thousands of lives and prevented needless surgery. Like the man for whom the most important scientific award in the world is named, Alfred Nobel, Marie Curie’s great achievement was responsible for incalculable benefits (we see an early cancer patient treated with radiation) and unthinkable tragedy (we see a Hiroshima resident looking up to see the Enola Gay, and the ravages of Chernobyl. This makes things a bit muddled, but Pike’s stirring performance makes us believe we get a sense of Marie Curie’s fierce intelligence and even may make us wonder about what discoveries we can make.
Parents should know that this film includes WWI battle scenes and characters who have been wounded, characters who are ill and dying and references to deaths of family members, brief rear nudity, non-explicit sexual situation, and references to adultery.
Family discussion: What do we learn from Marie’s reaction to the death of her mother? Why does this film include glimpses of events long after Marie’s death? What can we do to make sure that what we learn about and invent is used to benefit humankind and not for wars and violence?
If you like this, try: the glow-in-the-dark graphic novel the film is based on and another film about scientists and inventors, The Current War.