Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul

Posted on September 1, 2022 at 5:21 pm

B
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for language and some sexual content
Profanity: Very strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol
Violence/ Scariness: Tense emotional confrontations, some shoving
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: September 2, 2022

Copyright Focus 2022
“Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul” is a rare satire with some sympathy for its characters. We first see Trinitie Childs (co-producer Regina Hall) sitting in a pew, alone in a huge mega-church, talking to someone off-camera.It is instantly clear that Trinitie is used to performing for an audience, but that she is uncomfortable and not sure she wants to be filmed.

Trinitie’s husband is Pastor Lee-Curtis Childs (Sterling K. Brown) and we begin to understand that he and Trinitie, who has presided as First Lady at the church, have been wildly successful in building a congregation of 25,000, and richly rewarded in every sense of he word. We also begin to understand that there has been some very traumatic scandal. Lee-Curtis has brought in a documentary crew to film them as they try to come back from disgrace and return their church to its former glory.

This angle is wisely chosen because Lee-Curtis and Trinitie are essentially performers, even with each other. Lee-Curtis is certain that he can enlist the documentarian to be on his side and portray him as worthy of restoration to his previous position of prominence and respect. Trinitie is less sure of the filmmaker and less sure of Lee-Curtis’ ability to sustain the persona he thinks he can. She is even a little uncertain about herself. One of the most telling — and saddest — parts of the film is the way Trinitie tries to laugh when it is clear that she is anxious and scared. Why a laugh? She is trying to convey a lightness of spirit, the joy of being filled with the spirit, the sense that she is not ruffled, that Lee-Curtis’ transgressions are just jokes due to his own high spirits. She is exquisitely aware in every moment that they are not just preaching; they are or should be the best possible example of all that God can do for the followers.

We get a glimpse of what Lee-Curtiss and Trinitie might have been like in their early years with a young rival couple, both pastors, Shakura and Keon Sumpter (Nicole Beharie and Conphidance), their ambition and competitiveness not hidden behind their “praise the Lord” pieties. When both churches pick Easter Sunday for their big events, the Childs play a call on the Sumpters and, as with an encounter with a former church member in the mall, the result is a small masterpiece of simmering aggression bubbling up under a thin veneer of sweetness.

All of the performances are brilliantly conceived. Brown shows us a man whose entire life has been a performance. Lee-Curtis has deployed his natural magnetism to hide his true self from the world and to obtain the validation that he thinks will help him overcome his sense of shame. His near-frantic focus on surfaces is superbly realized by costume designer Lorraine Coppin, who created his designer looks. Hall gives another in a series of performances that show she can make any tone and genre work. The layers of emotion she shows us as Trinitie desperately tries to maintain an expression of confidence and joy in the spirit are heartbreaking. Near the end, as the script pushes too hard, she ends up in literal whiteface. The movie’s careful balance of satire while allowing for layered characters wobbles but even with the blankness painted over her features, we feel all of the suppressed anger and desperation she is experiencing. Her identity, her power, her reason for being is her position. Without that, who is she?

Beharie, who I called a breakthrough performer in 2009 gave what I picked as the top performance of 2020 in “Juneteenth,” continues to dazzle with her exquisitely precise work here as a pastor — not a First Lady — who understands the opportunity Lee-Curtis’ misbehavior has created. The scenes of the Childs and Sumpters are electric, the older couple seeing themselves in the younger and thus understanding exactly how much of a threat they are.

Writer/director Adamma Ebo, with her twin sister Adanne Ebo as producer, shows a strong vision and a gift for creating vivid, authentic characters. It is easy to make characters like these into caricatures, but she never lets them be less than fully human while never softening their flaws and failures. This is not a movie about a church scandal. It is a movie about people who struggle to find meaning and acceptance.

Parents should know that this film includes very strong language and sexual references, including predatory behavior and abuse.

Family discussion: What is it fair to expect from church leaders? How can people begin to atone for serious mistakes?

If you like this, try: “Elmer Gantry” and “The Eyes of Tammy Faye” and the documentaries “Say Amen Somebody,” “Marjoe” and “The Way Down” and the Henry Louis Gates miniseries “The Black Church”

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Miss Juneteenth

Posted on June 18, 2020 at 3:47 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Not rated
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drug references, alcoholism
Violence/ Scariness: Criminal activity
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: June 12, 2020

Copyright Vertical Entertainment 2020
Nichole Beharie is incandescent as a former beauty queen determined to create a different outcome for her daughter in “Miss Juneteenth,” inspired by the Texas holiday commemorating the date more than two years after the Emancipation Proclamation when word came through that slavery was no longer legal.

The Miss Juneteenth pageant is central to the Black community in the small Texas town near Fort Worth where Turquoise Jones (Beharie) works as a waitress and all-around staff in a tiny barbecue restaurant. The pageant participants are drilled on what it means to be “ladies,” and elegance, poise, graciousness, and deportment determine which girl will wear the tiara and win the scholarship. Great things are expected of the winners, and most of them have gone on to become women of achievement and contribution. “We are expecting greatness,” the head of the pageant explains in dulcet tones. They have strong ideas about what it means to be “successful young ladies” and it includes knowing the difference between a salad knife and a dinner knife. “One would surely not eat the main course with that.”

Turquoise takes her place at a pageant event in the seats reserved for former winners, who know how to use those dulcet tones and gracious words to make it clear they consider themselves superior and want her to know that. “How wonderful that you’re looking to replicate your success,” one murmurs. “It slipped my mind that you had a daughter old enough to compete,” says another one. It is never stated, but we understand that the reason Turquoise’s path toward greatness was sidetracked was her pregnancy with Kai (Alexis Chikaeze), now almost 15. Turquoise is determined that Kai will win the crown and go on to college with the scholarship money.

But teenagers have their own ideas about what success means. Kai checks her phone during the inspirational opening remarks about the pageant. She does not want to memorize the Maya Angelou poem her mother read as her talent when she competed. Turquoise gets little support from Kai’s father (Kendrick Sampson as Ronnie) and none from her own mother, who says, “You won that thing. What good did it do you?”

First-time feature writer/director Channing Godfrey Peoples creates an exceptionally evocative sense of place and community in this film. We really believe the deep and complicated history of this group of people. Beharie shows us that pushing Kai is as much about a second chance for herself as it is about Kai, and that she is bringing that same sense of determination that won her the crown to make it happen. Even the smallest parts are layered, sympathetically portrayed, and real, especially Sampson’s Ronnie and Lori Hayes as Turquoise’s mother. The issue of “success” defined as emulating upper-class white traditions and of the eternal struggle of parents to provide guidance to adolescents while allowing them to be themselves are explored with delicacy. The heart of the film in every way is Beharie, who makes Turquoise every bit the phenomenal woman her pageant poem describes.

Parents should know that this film has some strong language, family conflict, alcoholism, criminal activity, struggles with money, sexual references and non-explicit situations.

Family discussion: Why was the pageant so important to Turquoise? What did she learn about herself? About Kai?

If you like this, try: “Miss Firecracker” and “American Violet”

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42

Posted on April 11, 2013 at 12:08 pm

B+
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for thematic elements including language
Profanity: Racist epithets, crude and ugly insults, some additional strong language (s-words)
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking, smoking
Violence/ Scariness: Threats of violence, some scuffles, some injuries
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie, brief homophobic humor
Date Released to Theaters: April 12, 2013
Date Released to DVD: July 15, 2013
Amazon.com ASIN: B009NNM9OA

Jackie Robinson was the first black man to play major league baseball. His number, 42, is worn by every player once a year to commemorate his achievements as a baseball player and as a man.  This version of the story of the year the Brooklyn Dodgers broke the color barrier in baseball from writer/director Brian Helgeland is a little superficial, it still packs a lot of power, thanks to an evocative sense of its period and star-making performances by Chadwick Boseman as Robinson and Nichole Beharie as his wife.  If what we see is a small part of the courage and integrity of this extraordinary man in taking on the virulent racism of his era, it is still enough to make this movie deeply moving.

It is just after the end of WWII.  Black soliders returned home from fighting for freedom on behalf of a country that was still segregated, from the separate fighting divisions in the military to the “Whites Only” laws of the Jim Crow South.  Brooklyn Dodgers manager Branch Rickey (a cigar-chomping Harrison Ford, in full growl) decides it is time to integrate baseball.  He needs to find a player who is not only an athlete of unquestionable ability but someone who has the temperament to stay cool despite the constant attacks he will face from his own team, opposing teams, and the fans.  Rickey decides that Roy Campanella was too sweet and Satchel Paige was too old (both would follow Robinson into the major leagues).

Rickey picked Robinson.  He had the skill, he has played with white teammates in college, and he is tough.  He was courtmartialed  for refusing to go to the back of a military bus — and won.  Rickey asks Robinson, “Can you control your temper?” “You want a player that doesn’t have the guts to fight back.” “I want a player who has the guts not to fight back.”  Rickey knows that no matter what the provocation, any show of temper from Robinson will only give ammunition to the bigots.  What would be called “spirit” in a white player will be called something different coming from him.

It is solidly entertaining, delivering all of the expected notes, and if it seems heavy-handed to anyone old enough to remember a time before the Montgomery bus boycott and the passage of the Civil Rights Act, it is perhaps understandable that Hollywood does not take for granted that younger audience members remember there was once a time when segregation was not only legal; it was the law.  It harks back to the Sidney Poitier era of saintly black characters, which is understandable.  But it is a movie about tolerance that cannot resist a homophobic joke about teammates showering together, which is not.

Parents should know that this movie features frank portrayals of bigoted behavior including a stream of racist invective, with crude insults.  There are some sexual references, including adultery.  Characters drink and smoke, and there are some scuffles and injuries.

Family discussion:  Why was Jackie the best choice to be the first?  How did he challenge the beliefs of his teammates?   Read more about Jackie Robinson.

 

If you like this, try: “The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars & Motor Kings,” Ken Burns’ “Baseball” series, “Brian’s Song,” and “A League of Their Own”

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American Violet

Posted on October 13, 2009 at 8:00 am

Meet two extraordinary women — Dee Roberts, based on a real-life single mother who took on corrupt and racist law enforcement officials in Texas and Nicole Beharie, the woman who plays her, who makes one of the most thrilling feature film debuts in years.

Dee is a single mother who lives in the projects. She works as a waitress and cares for her four daughters with the help of her mother (Alfre Woodard), a hairdresser. Her community is constantly being caught up in violent law enforcement sweeps that result in widespread arrests of people too poor, uninformed, and desperate to go to court. The county and state get federal funds based on conviction rates so they push hard, often without any real evidence. And the people who have been arrested, all black and all poor, have no resources to defend themselves and settle for plea bargains, not realizing that the admission of guilt will cut off their welfare payments and right to vote.

An ACLU lawyer (Tim Blake Nelson) arrives in town willing to challenge the district attorney (Michael O’Keefe), but he needs local counsel and he needs a plaintiff — someone who has been abused by the process to file the lawsuit. Only Dee has the courage and passion for justice to challenge the established power in her city.

Thankfully, the film avoids the too-frequent failure of making the white characters the heroes of a civil rights story. In this case, it is in part due to a skillful screenplay by Bill Haney and to Beharie’s star power in a performance of extraordinary sensitivity and fire. She has a mesmerizing ability to convey the mingled emotions of fear and resolve while maintaining sweetness and dignity. Her interactions with the four real-life sisters who play her young daughters feels completely authentic and as she thinks through her choices we feel we can see her weigh every option. The story is a classic American triumph of the oppressed through the court system but Dee is more than a client and a figurehead; she is an essential strategist, coming up with a crucial change of plans at the case’s turning point, and a constant source of inspiration. “After what they done to me, they made it my business,” she tells her mother.

It hits a little heavily on the implications of the 2000 election but wisely puts the story in context so that it is clear that the problem is systemic and not the result of one official or one town. Even more wisely, it keeps the focus on Dee, who as portrayed by Beharie is truly mesmerizing.

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Based on a true story Courtroom Crime

Breakthrough Perfomer: Nicole Beharie

Posted on April 16, 2009 at 12:00 pm

“American Violet” is based on the true story of a woman who helped to expose corrupt and racist law enforcement in her Texas community with the help of the ACLU and local counsel. Dee, the lead role, is played by newcomer Nicole Beharie in a stunning performance mingling strength and vulnerability. Dee is afraid but never loses her dignity or her moral center. Be sure to check out Beliefnet’s exclusive clip to get a glimpse. Beharie is simply dazzling in this film and I look forward to seeing whatever she does next. I was thrilled to get a chance to interview her and found her every bit as engaging in person as she is on screen.
I was very relieved to find that this movie was not another in a long series that make the white person the hero in a story about black people. Although the lawyers are important, Dee really is the heart of the film. A lot of that comes from the vitality of your performance.
Thank you! But a lot of that comes from the script and their not wanting to do that. And some comes from the woman herself. Dee was very vocal up to the last deposition and suggested they use the African-American lawyer to depose the sheriff. It was a godsend that the attorneys showed up, but even before the lawyers showed up, Dee was active and outspoken.
Dee had to make some very tough choices under a lot of pressure. Could you have been as brave and persistent as she was?
I don’t know! Some days I say yes, some days no way. I like to believe that I could, seeing how much she sacrificed and how much it meant to her. It has made me think about what you do for the things you care about and what you ignore. Too often people do not do anything. They say, “They know what they’re doing” or “That’s the system.”
One thing that really impressed me was how many emotions you were able to convey at once — in some scenes you had to be scared and brave, worried and determined all at the same time. What do you to to prepare for a scene like the deposition or the one where your want to keep your daughters from their father and his girlfriend?
You take it all as personally as you possibly can, try to connect to it personally. What I thought of in the scene with my children’s father in that moment was fear for my children, a little bit of guilt in having them in this predicament, but once he busted those doors, its not about me — its about those two girls.
american_violet_009.jpg
What is your background?
I went to arts high school in Greenville, South Carolina, a public school for the arts and humanities. I fell in love with the notion of doing theater then. My director asked me to apply to drama school and gave me the 100 dollars for the Julliard application. I was accepted and studied there.
One thing that is so endearing about Dee is that with all of the stress and difficulty of her life, she still takes the time for some very serious hair. How do you act under all that?
Yes, Dee did give attention to her hair! I give a lot of credit to Charles Gregory Ross, who designed the hair and had it all laid out so I did not have to sit for hours. The most difficult thing was the bun with the freeze curls, all pinned and manipulated, and really heavy! Alfre Woodard had to deal with it to. She had a different look in every scene.
Your interaction with the girls who play your daughters feels very real and natural, even in the intense scenes. How did you work with them to make that happen?
I got a lot of my perspective from watching my mother raise the four of us. And when I first got to the set, before anything else happened, I got to work with the four real-life sisters who played my daughters. They had their own shorthand and hierarchy. They don’t know my name to this day. My name is Dee to them so it was natural for them to interact with me that way. And we involved them in the movie. All the artwork that is supposed to be from Dee’s children, so they got to see their own pictures hanging in Dee’s home.
Did you ever meet the woman known as Dee in the movie? What did you try to take from her in your performance?
I met her once I got to the set, but by then I had watched hours of footage. I paid attention to the way she looked out of the corner of her eye, to rhythmic things, to her pitch.
Are their particular performances that inspired you to want to go into acting?
“Miss Evers Boys” with Alfre, which made working with her so exciting for me, believe it or not “Ghostbusters,” “The Sound of Music,” “The Wiz.” I love Michel Gondry and really enjoyed his films, “Be Kind Rewind” and “The Science of Sleep.”
What’s next for you?
I did pilot for CBS, a medical show, and I play a social worker. And I have an Annenberg grant to develop my own material. I’m working on a theater program in South Africa.
And what makes you laugh?
My sister and my nephew make me laugh. He’s 12! My grandmother, too — my family will have me on the floor. They’re the only people who know what my goofy capabilities are.
Coming soon: an interview with “American Violet” screenwriter Bill Haney.

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