The United States vs. Billie Holiday

Posted on February 25, 2021 at 5:03 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Not rated
Profanity: Very strong language, n-word
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol and drug abuse and addiction
Violence/ Scariness: Some peril and violence including domestic violence
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: February 26, 2021

Copyright 2020 Lee Daniels Entertainment
Andra Day’s performance as Billie Holiday is never less than dazzling, one of those breakthrough moments that divide our lives as audience into before and after. The vulnerability, the courage, the utter commitment of her acting here, her first role, is simply stunning.

And nothing less could do for the portrayal of one of the most formidable performers of the 20th century. This movie could not work unless we saw what the audiences of the 40s and 50s saw, a singer who could break your heart and make you grateful for it.

In “Lady Sings the Blues,” one diva played another, with Diana Ross also outstanding in a traditionally-structured biopic, from childhood through her career, her struggles with drugs and alcohol, and abusive relationships. A recent documentary, “Billie,” used archival materials assembled in the 1970s by a biographer who died before she could complete the project. It has valuable insights from people who knew Holiday and saw her perform.

This movie, from Lee Daniels, is different because its focus is on just one part of Holiday’s life. Like “Judas and the Black Messiah,” this is the story of betrayal, and a conflicted source who cared about the person he was informing on.

Billie Holiday attracted the attention of J. Edgar Hoover because of a song. It was “Strange Fruit,” written by Abel Meeropol, first published in 1937 as a poem called “Bitter Fruit.” He later added music. The “stronge fruit” hanging in the trees in the song’s lyrics are the dead bodies of Black people who have been lynched, murdered by a racist mob. “Blood on the leaves and blood at the root/Black bodies swingin’ in the Southern breeze/Strange fruit hangin’ from the poplar trees.”

Holiday’s 1939 performance of the song is now a recognized classic and is included in the National Recording Registry, which “highlights the richness of the nation’s audio legacy.” But in 1939 lynching was considered so acceptable by government and media and culture they actually sold postcards showing bodies hanging. This was 15 years before the murder of Emmitt Till, a Black teenager from the North, led to calls for reform. And as of this writing, Congress has still been unable to pass an anti-lynching bill. So, telling the truth about lynching in a song was considered dangerous, and Hoover wanted to stop her.

One of the first Black FBI agents (“Moonlight’s” Trevante Rhodes as Jimmy Fletcher) is assigned to her case. The pressure he is under is almost as crushing as the pressure on Holiday. He has the all-but-impossible task of proving himself to skeptical and often racist colleagues. And he cannot help siding with what Holiday is doing and being mesmerized by her as well.

The storyline is murky at times. It is also soapy and melodramatic, but face it, Holiday’s life was as soapy and melodramatic as her songs. Through it all Day manages to be as magnetic as the formidable woman and powerful entertainer she is portraying. At any given moment, Day has to be precise about where Holiday is on her various journeys in and out of addiction to various substances, including the men in her life, and she makes it work every time. She shows us Holiday’s toughness and her vulnerability. And, with the help of glorious costumes from Paolo Nieddu (the hats!), she owns the screen. She owns her story.

Parents should know that this movie includes alcohol and drug abuse, nudity and sexual situations, domestic abuse, and very strong language.

Family discussion: Should the government get involved in artists’ songs, movies, plays, books, or tweets? What could Jimmy have done differently?

If you like this, try: “Lady Sings the Blues,” “Billie,” and “Judas and the Black Messiah”

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Judas and the Black Messiah

Posted on February 11, 2021 at 5:22 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for violence and pervasive language.
Profanity: Very strong language including n-word
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking, drugs
Violence/ Scariness: Peril and violence, characters injured and killed
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: February 12, 2021

Copyright Participant Media 2021
“Know their names,” Black Lives Matter tells us. The ones we know now we know because of technology. We saw George Floyd telling the cop who had his knee on Floyd’s neck that he could not breathe. iPhones and social media have brought these tragedies into our homes and made it impossible for us to look away.

None of that was around in 1969, when young Black activists named Fred Hampton and Mark Clark were killed by the Chicago police. Hampton was Chairman of the Illinois Black Panthers and Deputy Chairman of the national organization. At age 19 he was identified by the FBI as a radical threat. At age 21, he was killed in his apartment when the police raided it before dawn. Police fired over 100 shots. The Black Panthers fired one.

There were no iPhones to record what happened that night. This movie begins to give Fred Hampton and Mark Clark the visibility they could not get in 1969.

“Judas and the Black Messiah” is the second film in less than a year to show us Fred Hampton. In “The Trial of the Chicago 7” he is played by Kelvin Harrison, Jr., sitting behind Bobby Seale. This film, as the title suggests, is less about Hampton’s vision or activities than the story of William O’Neal, who was hired by the FBI to infiltrate the Black Panthers, and the conflicts he faced in betraying the trust of people he grew to respect.

The men are played by two of the most electrifying performers of our time, Daniel Kaluuya as Hampton and LaKieth Stanfield as O’Neal, though both are substantially older than the real-life characters. Kaluuya (“Get Out,” “The Black Panther”) is a British actor who has the daunting challenge of playing a 1960s Chicagoan known for being a mesmerizing speaker. As a Chicagoan, I can certify his accent as remarkably authentic. And as an audience member I can testify to the magnetism he brings to the role, whether he is addressing a crowd of admiring students, a group of hostile competitors, or Panther members who need guidance. His Hampton understands the power of listening, and of speaking quietly. He knows how to tie what he wants them to do to recognizing the pain of the people he is talking to, and recognizing, too, how much they need to be shown a bigger, brighter version of what is possible and of the power they have to get there. And when it’s time to fire them up, he knows how to preach.

He is even better one on one. In one of the movie’s most powerful scenes, he sits at the kitchen table of a woman (a beautiful performance by Alysia Joy Powell) whose son has been killed. He gently, compassionately listens to her talk about how in her mind he is always seven years old, how he is more than what got him in trouble. In another highlight, he meets with the hostile members of a group called The Crowns that sees the Black Panthers as competition. The FBI has circulated a forged flier supposedly created by the Black Panthers that insults the Crowns. Hampton does not argue. He does not get defensive. He just reflects back to the Crowns the power they have and asks them to think of what they can accomplish together. His scenes with the activist and poet who became the mother of his child, played with tenderness, grace, and dignity by Dominique Fishback, are also beautifully done. He quotes Che Guevara to her, “Words are beautiful but action is supreme.” She responds, “You were using words, so maybe choose them more carefully. And just so you know, you are a poet.”

“I don’t need no mic,” he tells the students. He wants to speak to them intimately, conversation, not oratory. But he uses strong words when he needs to. “That’s the difference between revolution and the candy-coated facade of reform,” he tells them. “Reform is just the masters teaching the slaves to be better slaves.” He says his job is to “heighten the contradictions” because oppressed people cannot always see the shackles.

Hampton often speaks quietly, but some of his rhetoric is incendiary. He speaks of getting AK-47s and bandoliers. He quotes Che Guevara and Mao Tse-Tung. But his programs start with free breakfasts for hungry children and his plans are for a clinic and a school.

Stanfield (“The Photograph,” “Short Term 12”) as O’Neal shows us the anguish of a man caught between the FBI agent who alternately cajoles and threatens him. O’Neal was a teenager when he was arrested for impersonating an officer and stealing cars. Agent Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons) invites him to his apartment, buys him a car, and takes him to high-end restaurants. O’Neal says he saw Mitchell as a role model. But he sees himself as an activist, even years later when he was interviewed for the PBS series “Eyes on the Prize.” We see Stanfield re-enacting that interview at the beginning of the film and the footage of the real O’Neal at the end.

The conflict of compromise undercover operatives struggle with has been portrayed in other stories and films, from Kurt Vonnegut’s Mother Night to Johnny Depp and Al Pacino in Donnie Brasco. Writer/director Shaka King (writing with Will Berson from the original screenplay by Keith and Kenny Lucas) finds sympathy for just about everyone except for J. Edgar Hoover (played by Martin Sheen and a lot of make-up) and the Chicago cops. Even Mitchell, who manipulates O’Neal, shows some disgust at Hoover’s trying to goad him by asking how he would feel if his 8-month-old daughter some day brought home a Black boyfriend.

But O’Neal’s story is less interesting than the story of Hampton himself, what he read, who he was inspired by, and how he inspired others. The script is muddled and confusing in places. But the stirring story and the exceptional performances, and the score from Craig Harris and Mark Isham make this a powerful, important film, well worth seeing and learning from.

Parents should know that this film deals frankly with issues of racism, resistance, betrayal, and police brutality. Characters use strong language. There are sexual references and there is a non-explicit sexual situation. Violence includes guns and characters are injured and killed.

Family discussion: What should we learn about leaders like Fred Hampton when we study American history? Why did the FBI consider him such a significant threat? How should the government treat activists like Hampton?

If you like this, try: the documentaries “The Murder of Fred Hampton,” “The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution,” and “Nationtime.”

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The Trial of the Chicago 7

Posted on October 15, 2020 at 3:40 pm

A-
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated R for drug use, bloody images, language throughout, and some violence
Profanity: Constant very strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drugs, alcohol
Violence/ Scariness: Historical violence including riots, references to Vietnam War
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: October 16, 2020
Copyright Netflix 2020

They say that history doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes. And that is how “The Trial of the Chicago 7,” based on events that occurred in 1968-69 and in development as a film more more than a decade, seems to have been made for exactly this moment of the fall of 2020. In an interview, Aaron Sorkin, first brought it to write the script by Steven Spielberg in 2006, said that he did not change a word. But he acknowledged that the world moved much closer to the issues in the film, based on the anti-Vietnam War demonstrations at the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago that led to riots, with then-mayor Richard J. Daley telling the police to “shoot to kill” and calling in the National Guard.

A year later, eight of the leaders of the protest were indicted for conspiracy and incitement to riot. The seven white defendants were represented by the activist lawyer William Kuntsler and Constitutional law expert Leonard Weinglass. The sole Black defendant, Bobby Seale, who was only in Chicago for four hours during the convention, was represented by civil rights attorney Charles Garry, who was in the hospital. Seale asked for a delay until his lawyer could be there, and the autocratic judge, Julius Hoffman (Frank Langella), clearly and vocally affronted by the protesters and their disrespect for authority, refused. Kunstler and Weinglass offered to represent him until Garry recovered, but he refused. Later, his case was separated from the others, which is why it is still known as the Chicago 7 trial.

The opening of the film is a master class on how to introduce a large group of central characters. The leaders of each group talk about their hopes and plans for the convention. Lyndon Johnson, whose decision not to run for re-election was in part due to increasing national opposition led to the nomination of his Vice President, Hubert Humphrey, as the Democratic candidate. Many people thought there was no real difference between Humphrey and Johnson and between Humphrey and the Republican candidate, Richard Nixon. This was the era of the “generation gap” as the baby boomers came of age wanting to see major changes in the treatment of what were still referred to as minorities, poor people, and women. But the different groups had very different ideas about how to be effective. Sorkin very effectively showcases the arguments for incremental vs. drastic change, for working within the system to replacing it with a better system.

Langella captures the frustration of a man who believes in the rules that got him where he is and fears that they all collapsing, with him all that stands between order and anarchy. Redmayne is perfect as the thoughtful, studious, thoroughly decent Hayden, and Cohen accomplishes the difficult balancing act of not turning the other Hoffman (the judge seems to take it very personally that they share a name) into the cartoon he sometimes seems to wish to be. Yahya Abdul-Mateen II gives Seale enormous courage and dignity and rising star Kelvin Harrison, Junior continues to impress with his performance as Chicago Black Panther leader Fred Hampton (whose murder is the subject of another rhymes with history 2020 movie, Judas and the Black Messiah). Also exceptional are Mark Rylance as Kuntsler (perhaps more thoughtful and even subdued than the real-life attorney) and Michael Keaton in two scenes as former Attorney General Ramsey Clark.

Sorkin continues to be the best there is with elevating the dialogue just enough that we can almost imagine real people might be that intelligent and articulate and, well, decent. In any year, this film would be outstanding. But as it arrives on what Sorkin called “a collision course with history,” it is both a cautionary tale and a guiding light out of the darkness.

Parents should know that this film includes constant very strong language, some drug use and alcohol, and historical peril and violence, including riots and references to the Vietnam War.

Family discussion: Which of the defendants best represents your view of tactics and communication strategies? What parallels do you see between this trial and the issues people are concerned about today? What are the most significant achievements from the 1968 protests?

If you like this, try: the animated documentary about the trial, “Chicago 10: Speak Your Peace,” Haskell Wexler’s “Medium Cool,” a fictional story filmed at the 1968 Democratic convention, with real scenes of the protest.

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The Glorias

Posted on September 29, 2020 at 3:13 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated R for R brief lewd Images and some language
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Social drinking
Violence/ Scariness: Mental illness, family issues, sad death,
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: September 30, 2020

Copyright 2020 The Glorias
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.

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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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