Tag Archives: social issues

The American Meme

Has there ever been a film so tailor-made to make me feel smug and superior?

Our culture has devolved into phone-obsessed automatons, but some of us are not content to simply post and share memes – some of us want to star in them.

Bert Marcus’ documentary focuses on 4 such persons, intent on their 15 minutes of internet fame:

Paris Hilton (@parishilton) of course blazed the blue print for internet stardom, for “reality” stardom of any kind, really. But she parlayed her hit TV show persona into an empire that she rules from social media. Her fans are her kingdom and she lives for them. She relates more to her followers than she does to her own friends. Perhaps the line between the two has been permanently blurred for her.

Brittany Furlan (@brittanyfurlan) moved to LA to be an actress but as for many others, her auditions went nowhere. But she was intent on becoming famous at any cost, and Vince was a platform where 6-second videos could net millions of views if they were funny enough. So Brittany embarrassed herself for the camera and the people came to laugh and point. And rack up views.

mv5bmzrmztzkmtgtzgq2yy00zge4ltg5mtgtytk3mmy4ngq3mdvjxkeyxkfqcgdeqxvymty1njuwmja@._v1_sy1000_cr0,0,687,1000_al_Josh Ostrovsky, better known as @thefatjewish, is the king of displaying himself for the enjoyment of others. Often naked, nearly always disgusting, he became famous for stealing other people’s funny memes and making loads of money off them.

Kirill Bichutsky  (@slutwhisperer) took that one step further. He was an almost-legitimate photographer who recognized that he got way more attention by posting pictures of nearly-naked women with his infamous “champagne facials.”

With interviews with other internet-enabled celebrities like DJ Khaled, Emily Ratajkowski, Hailey Baldwin-Bieber, and Dane Cook, Marcus explores the dark corners of internet fame, and how quickly it is changing. When social media was young, you could go viral by stuffing as many of your friends as possible in a phone booth. Now you have to risk your life by eating Tide Pods. Which really makes you wonder why internet fame is so damn alluring that these stupid kids will go to such lengths. And yet, go anywhere. Anywhere. And try your best to spend 10 seconds without getting bumped by someone who insists on being ambulatory while staring solely at their phone. And I don’t mean to single out the young folk, because older folks are just as guilty. I love a documentary that can reflect our culture and make us think about it critically. Marcus doesn’t ask a lot of questions, he mostly just leaves the evidence there on the table, and it’s up to you to take the picture and post it.

 

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Aquaman

How do I even deal with the atrocity that is Aquaman? You probably know already that Aquaman is about a plot by the Atlanteans to attack the people who live on land, and so Aquaman has to become their king to save the world. But what you may not know is that this film is racist.

The only two black people in the movie are criminals (and also father and son). The black dad blows himself up when Aquaman (Jason Momoa) seemingly foils their attempt to steal a submarine from a bunch of white guys (Russians, as it happens).

Then that same submarine reappears to fool some of the Atlanteans into thinking that MV5BMzZjZTU2NjEtZTEzMC00YmRkLWIzZjUtMDczMWI4MDU4ODAxXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNTc5OTMwOTQ@._V1_the surface world is attacking them to obtain enough votes to attack the surface world. Turns out, one of the Atlantean human-shaped leaders had hired the black guys to steal the sub and fool another Atlantean human-shaped leader. Except then it also turns out that the leader who seemed to be fooled by the sub attack was actually aware it was fake news the whole time and went along with it anyway (and in case it is not clear, all the human shaped Atlanteans we see are white men, every last one, other than Aquaman’s love interest and Aquaman’s mom who are white women).

Then the surviving black guy is hired again by the Atlanteans to kill Aquaman and his love interest in Sicily, and the black guy is willing to go along with it because he blames Aquaman for his dad’s death. That plan fails, with the black guy apparently being killed by Aquaman, and also two non human CGI underwater leaders are either killed or maimed by the white underwater leaders who do not attempt any type of stolen submarine trickery on them at all.

So, to summarize the repeated, overt, MAGA-level racism (on the level of “Look at my African American over here!”):

1. The black son is called “Black Manta” so even when he wears a full suit of armor you can be sure that he’s not white.

2. No effort at all was put into fooling the two CGI leaders who weren’t on board with the plan to kill all humans. Again, those disposable leaders are the two that aren’t white men (and blond, blue eyed white men at that) – one is a merman voiced by a black guy and the other is a big brown CGI crab-man. So you might say the CGI leaders were less worthy of respect than the white ones or perhaps you’d say they came from “shithole” countries, if you were a racist.

3. The Atlanteans are really concerned with following certain rules, namely ones that prohibit going to war against us without four votes, while those same Atlanteans have no problem doing awful things to get those four votes, like killing the CGI underwater leaders who won’t vote the way you want in order to install a new leader who will. Which suggests a set of niceties for white guys that don’t apply to non-whites. Or that the nonwhites were asking for it by looking scary and not giving into what the white guys wanted. Po-tay-to, po-tah-to.

4. If the Atlanteans hadn’t bothered to steal the sub for fooling reasons, we wouldn’t have needed the black humans to steal anything. But then we’d have missed an opportunity to perpetuate the stereotype that black men are criminals.

Does it matter at all that the racist Atlanteans are the bad guys and they lose in the end? I don’t think it does. This movie is so dumb generally that it is not capable of coherent social commentary, and incoherent social commentary is worse than not saying anything. Further, if the film had wanted to make a point about the dangers of a racist political leader, it needed to make the racism a rallying point for Aquaman and those opposing that leader. In other words, for this movie to be on the right side of prejudice (i.e., against it), the racist Atlanteans needed to lose because of their racism. The non-racists needed to object to the racists’ offensive conduct and resist for that reason, but that never happens in Aquaman.  Instead, Jason Momoa’s character seems to buy into the same stereotypes as the Atlanteans when he leaves the black dad to die because the black guys killed some of the all-white sub crew.

Admittedly, Aquaman later says he learned a lesson from that experience but his application of that lesson is to provide mercy to the all-white Atlanteans. Which means Aquaman does not actually learn the RIGHT lesson, so neither does the audience.  As a result, the harmful stereotypes in Aquaman are perpetuated and normalized, and that’s very, very bad anytime but particularly bad in a film that is targeted at white males.

There’s so many other problems here but I won’t get into them because trafficking in stereotypes is the real issue here. Aquaman is intolerant and intolerable and you should avoid giving DC one more dime for this hugely problematic film.

Green Book

Tony Lip was a tough guy bouncer at the Copa, Copacabannnna, the hottest spot north of Havana. But in the fall of 1962, the Copacabana closed for renovations, and Tony Lip was temporarily out of work with a wife and two kids to feed at home. Some wise guys seem to imply they might have some “work” for him, but he avoids that by taking work with Dr. Don Shirley, a world-class piano player embarking on a tour of the Southern United States. Tony isn’t thrilled that Dr. Shirley is a black man – he’s not too fond of them generally, but the money is too good to turn down, even if it takes him away from his family in the two months before Christmas.

Tony (Viggo Mortensen) and Dr. Shirley (Mahershala Ali) are an odd couple on a road trip. Tony’s crude and crass and unrefined; he’s rarely left the neighbourhood where he grew up. Dr. Shirley is a gentleman in every respect. He’s cultured and educated. His MV5BZDE1N2U2MGUtM2JiNi00OTMzLTk2MjAtMmM0ZmQyNGZhNjg0XkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNjUwNzk3NDc@._V1_SX1777_CR0,0,1777,882_AL_manners are as impeccable as his dress. But when Tony boasts that he’s “blacker” than Shirley, who doesn’t know Aretha Franklin or fried chicken, he’s only showing what a narrow understanding of race he has, because when Shirley is repeatedly subjected to racist indignities and abuses, Tony is shocked while Shirley is not. The “Green Book” to which the title refers is an actual motorist’s handbook, which, for $1.25 teaches people how to navigate segregation and not get lynched while traveling down south. I feel that I might have sold a Red Book for $1.50 that simply said: don’t go. But Dr. Shirley’s going on purpose, knowing it will be hard, but feeling a responsibility to do his part in challenging the system. And white people play their part, paying to enjoy\appropriate his culture while refusing to dine with him in the same room.

It’s a tough subject matter that director Peter Farrelly makes palatable with humour and a gentle approach. Mostly, though, he relies on the magnificent chemistry between Mortensen and Ali, who are both wonderful. Ali has the bearing to makes Shirley’s multiple doctorates feel plausible, and the physicality to make his piano-playing feel real (it’s not, but it’s the best we’ve seen on screen thanks to Kris Bowers, his incredibly talented double). Together, Ali and Mortensen are magic, their scenes positively crackling. And when Dr. Shirley plays, there’s so much energy, the music wells up inside you.

It’s inspiring to see a time of social change reflected in one relationship, how we really can make a difference on an individual level. It’s unsettling to watch the worst racism unfold and understand that 2018 is not exactly beyond this stuff – in fact, we may need this reminder now more than ever. However, there are some problems that I have with the movie. Namely, that the story is Tony’s to tell. That he’s a hero because he consented to drive a black man, while the black man who has a litany of actual accomplishments is quite literally relegated to the back seat, a supporting character in what should have been his film.  Why are we still telling black stories through white eyes? Why is racism only safe to talk about when it’s a white experience? Why do I know how Tony launders his underwear but know so little about Dr. Shirley, a highly educated genius musician who has traveled the world but whose only meaningful relationships come from hired help? Dr. Shirley learned to play piano from his mother, whom we know nothing about. His only living relative is an estranged brother, whom we know nothing about. Dr. Shirley had to be above reproach at all times, constantly turning the other cheek even after he’d run out of cheeks; he had to be perfect just to exist in white spaces, just to be invited into them, briefly, under strict, inhumane conditions, on white people’s terms, and then to leave again as soon as they stopped having use for him, and to smile and pretend to be grateful about the whole thing. This is a white person’s black movie, the kind of movie white people can feel superior watching because they manage to be less racist than Alabamans in 1962. Pat ourselves on the back! Meanwhile, this is the white guy’s story, written by a white guy, directed by another white guy, with Oscar buzz somehow reserved for the white actor who dropped the n-word at a screening for the film. This is the kind of Best Picture nod meant to appease diversity problems, but it’s more about white comfort than black experience. Movies like Sorry To Bother You, Blindspotting, Blackkklansman, and even Black Panther, are better movies with more to say, and they’re told with black voices, which is why they’re more easily overlooked. But fuck white comfort. This shit should make us uncomfortable. If you’re talking about racism and worried about hurting white people’s feelings, you’re doing it wrong, and it’s time to stop.

Nona

Nona is a young mortician in Honduras. She lives alone: her father was gunned down on his way home from buying a bag of chips, her brother was stabbed to death during a home invasion, and her mother has fled to the U.S., too poor to pay for her daughter’s passage over to join her.

So you might say Nona is ripe for escape when she meets Hecho, a bad boy on a Vespa. He’s a traveler, a laid-back, rootless guy as evidenced by his ubiquitous nona2bowler hat. They have a fun, flirty road trip, ambling toward their destination, taking their time, getting to know each other. And we’re treated to these beautiful countrysides and colourful images that make us feel like we’re on vacation with them. Nona is fleeing a very hard and dangerous life, but once she’s on the road, it’s clear she feels free. She’s a different person.

Until they near the border, and it turns out that Hecho traffics in humans, and this whole transaction has not been what Nona thought. Yeah. It’s a bit of a blow. The last third of the film takes an abrupt turn, as I’m sure it feels to Nona, who clearly doesn’t see it coming. Is she that naive, and is Hecho that villainous?

The shift is harsh, I’m not gonna lie. But how can I complain when a woman goes from romance to brothel in about ten seconds flat? You’re going to have to watch this one for yourself, if only to commiserate.

Letter From Masanjia

A woman is rooting through her garage, looking for Halloween decor she can repurpose for her daughter’s 5th birthday, which falls around the holiday. She retrieves a styrofoam grave marker that says RIP, purchased at Kmart 2 years prior but not yet used. Out of the box falls a note, a plea really, begging the recipient to turn it in to a human rights organization. The note details the abuses suffered by the man who made the decorative headstone; it is signed by a prisoner from China’s most notorious forced labour camp – Masanjia.

The woman is understandable freaked out but she complies with the note’s directive – she contacts Human Rights Watch but they are unresponsive. She goes to Kmart with it but they ballsily deny using labour camps, which are illegal. So she goes to her state newspaper, The Oregonian, and it publishes an investigative piece, and basically the story blows up from there – even reaching so far as China, where the people have to bypass a firewall in order to read western news. a man named Sun Yi is surprised to read the story and recognize his note.

Sun Yi had been released from the camp 2 years earlier, but is still haunted by the torture he suffered there. This documentary explores Sun Yi’s experience, the common labour camp experience. Director Leon Lee interviews prison guards, civil rights lawyers, and Sun Yi’s wife. Sun Yi suffered corporeally while in the prison, but his wife and their family faced raids, discrimination, and harassment on the outside.

Sun Yi is not a criminal. He’s a practitioner of falun gong, those slow exercise paired with moral philosophy that espouses tenants of truthfulness, compassion, and tolerance – the mind body improved together. China’s communist party felt threatened by the sheer number of falun gong followers, and began persecuting them systematically. Since 1999, Sun Yi had been arrested, detained, or abducted 12 times. Pressure increased around the time of the Olympics (circa 2008) and Sun Yi was ultimately sentenced to two and a half years for being in the possession of printer paper, suggesting he’d printed materials about his beliefs.

To really understand the torture and the suffering of this labour camp, you simply must watch. Sun Yi is a wonderful subject but his stories are tough. His experiences are horrific. But this isn’t just about one man’s harrowing time. It’s about the effectiveness/ineffectiveness of news stories going viral; about paying attention to where and how things are made; about the China’s long arm and continued human rights abuses. Letter From Masanjia is the best kind of eye-opener, unsettling to its core.

TIFF18: The Hate U Give

It’s a sad sign of the times that police shooting an unarmed black man seem to be one of the unofficial themes of TIFF’s 2018 program much like tennis was last year.

Starr Carter (a sensational Amandla Stenberg) lives in a poor black neighbourhood but goes to school in an affluent white part of town. Starr Version Two- the censored version of herself that her friends see- can’t quote hip hop lyrics like her white friends do all the time because “when they do it, they sound cool. When I do it, I sound ghetto”. Moments after reconnecting with a black childhood friend at a party in her neighbourhood, the two are pulled over by a white police officer which quickly and tragically ends with her friend getting shot and killed.

Not only does Starr now have a lot of grief and trauma to work through. Her once compartmentalized life has suddenly gotten a lot more complicated as she- the only witness to the shotting- starts getting pulled in every direction. Everyone, from the kids at school to the local gang leader (Anthony Mackie) to Starr’s cop uncle (Common), has an opinion that they’re not shy to share and some are all too happy to resort to threats and even violence.

Whereas Reinaldo Marcus Green’s excellent Monsters and Men was a thoughtful and nuanced indie, The Hate U Give works a lot harder at being accessible to a more mainstream audience. Our introduction to Starr’s life and the world around here is often funny and Starr and her family are immediately easy to like and root for. The soundtrack doesn’t hurt one bit either. Things are obviously a lot less fun once shots are fired and Starr’s friend is killed but The Hate U Give is still the kind of movie that seeks to entertain while it makes us think and feel.

The Hate U Give hooked me much quicker than Monsters and Men did. Monsters and Men needs time to sink in. It doesn’t aim for big dramatic scenes and speeches like The Hate U Give does. The Hate U Give pays a bit of a price for its more mainstream approach. Because it always feels like a movie albeit an extremely effective one. Some parts seem a little too contrived while others are a little over-simplified.

There’s a place for both movies. Monsters and Men was a great conversation starter is a mostly satisfying and cathartic emotional experience. It’s just that I fell in love with this movie over the first half or so and somewhere along the way I lost some enthusiasm for it.

TIFF18: Monsters and Men

In any other universe I’d just shake my head and keep walking if someone came up to me and said:

I think it’s embarrassing for the country to allow protesters, you don’t even know which side the protesters were on. But to allow someone to stand up and scream from the top of their lungs and nobody does anything about it is frankly — I think it’s an embarrassment.

But here’s the thing. It wasn’t just anyone who said that exact thing last week – it was the President of the United States of America. The supposed leader of the free world wants to silence people with whom he doesn’t agree. The worst part is that it’s not a bit surprising. In fact, it’s a common theme of this President’s as he preaches to his base and ignores the other three-quarters of the people in his country.

Included in that other 75% are a lot of people who don’t have many opportunities to be heard. The size and reach of one’s pulpit is, in large part, determined by her means and her inherent characteristics. For women, minorities and the poor, it’s hard to be heard at all as you’re all drowned out by white (male) noise. You need a bigger platform. A noisy one, a newsworthy one. Like, for example, a protest. Or, a thoughtful, well-acted conversation piece at a major film festival.

monstersandmen_HEROMonsters and Men is that conversation piece. Moreover, it is one of the finest cinematic conversation pieces I have ever seen. What makes it stand out from the rest is that it tries so very hard to stay impartial (and succeeds), to the point that a black cop at a dinner party (BlacKkKlansman‘s John David Washington) jumps to the defense of a white cop who recently shot an unarmed black man (in which Washington puts forward some interesting points). Which is not to say Washington’s character is right, because I don’t think he was, and I’m not sure he genuinely even felt that way in the movie (he is well aware of the systemic racism inherent in the justice system, there is never any doubt of that, and he has no love for the officer who pulled the trigger). But his views don’t even matter all that much. What matters most is that he tried to have a conversation about it and that’s what matters.

Societally, we don’t talk much anymore, and being real, really real, we rarely ever talked to anyone who didn’t look like us or dress like us or pray like us. In the “good old days”, you could get away with that type of isolation and insularism. That doesn’t work anymore. We have to talk and figure out how to live together. That’s a new thing and a harder thing. Let’s not pretend otherwise. Previous generations had it easier, but that doesn’t mean they had it better.

This film is part of the conversation. Protests are also part of it. But the biggest part? Listening. There is a reason Monsters and Men was made. There is a reason it is not the only film at TIFF18 about an unarmed black man being shot by police (The Hate U Give is also here). We have a problem here. We have a lot of problems, actually, but black men getting shot by cops is a particularly big one. There is no easy solution to that problem (or a lot of others) but there are answers out there. Let’s talk with each other and, more importantly, let’s listen to each other so we can figure this out.