Tag Archives: social issues

I Am Not Your Negro

In 1979, James Baldwin wrote a letter to his agent describing his next book, “Remember This House.” It was to be a revolutionary, personal account of the lives and assassinations of three of his close friends: Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. But when Baldwin died, he’d only managed about 30 completed pages of this manuscript. Filmmaker Raoul Peck delivers a stirring documentary as an ode to the book James Baldwin never finished, a work that enmeshes the civil rights work not only of these 3 great men, but that of Baldwin himself.

Samuel L. Jackson narrates some of the strongest and most poetic words – which will not surprise you if you’ve read Baldwin before. He had his finger on the pulse of America, his America, the oft-forgotten America, and he reported on his people with undeniable lyricism, beauty, and confidence.

The documentary expands on his thoughts with archival footage, which is used most effectively when bridging words he wrote 40 or 50 years ago to images of modern conditions and protest, which still apply. I Am Not Your Negro is about civil rights, but it’s also an expression of identity, of unrest, of passion, of hope. He wrote about his people because he saw beauty there, even in the struggle. He was buoyed by it, as much as they were by him. They shored each other up, and as these same issues continue to be fought for even today, it is no wonder we still turn to his words of wisdom and of utter poetry.

Murder To Mercy: The Cyntoia Brown Story

Netflix is crowded with documentaries just like this one: someone, often a person of colour, has been completely failed by the so-called justice system. And for every documentary made, there are hundreds? thousands? of unnamed prisoners going through the same thing. It’s hard not to burn out on these stories, and we feel so helpless to do anything about it.

Cyntoia Brown was failed many times before the justice system ever had its chance. Her mother Gina was just 16 when Cyntoia was born, already addicted to alcohol and crack. She struggled to raise her for a couple of years, but Gina was herself the victim of childhood molestation and rape, as was her mother before her. When Cyntoia was 2, she was given up for adoption, but she struggled to fit in, and her undiagnosed fetal alcohol poisoning made it impossible for her to thrive in settings that were hostile to her. By the time Cyntoia was 16, she was being pimped frequently by her “boyfriend” and one night, during an encounter that had her feeling particularly vulnerable, she shot the man who had picked her up, fearing and believing that he was about to do the same to her.

The justice system spent very little time deciding her fate: first, to be treated as an adult in court, despite her young age, and second, to sentence her to life in prison for a crime she committed as a scared child in an impossible situation. In 2004, when she was arrested and charged, the court called her a prostitute. Today, it would call her a child sex slave, the victim of human trafficking. But that does her very little good when she’s already been behind bars for 14 years.

But you know what? Some of director Daniel H. Birman’s footage went viral, prompting social media users to retweet #FreeCyntoiaBrown until someone finally paid attention. Her cause went up for review, and Brown pled for a second chance though most of us can see that she never really got her first. Her sentence was commuted and after 15 years in prison, she finally walked free. Now she spends her time advocating for prisoners in similar circumstances, but I think her story is particularly powerful in that it proves that actually we can make a difference. Hearing these stories and sharing these stories is how we begin to mend a broken system.

Queen & Slim

When I get pulled over by the cops, I don’t ever worry about getting shot.  And that’s not because I am polite or non-threatening or have no criminal record.  It’s because of the colour of my skin.  It is a privileged position to occupy and I didn’t earn it, I just have it.

Queen (Jodie Turner-Smith) and  Slim (Daniel Kaluuya) don’t have that same privilege, because their skin is darker than mine.  When they get pulled over driving home after their first date, the cop is immediately suspicious, belligerent and demanding.  Slim is ordered out of the car, required to pop his trunk, and when he asks the cop to hurry it along, has a gun pulled on him as he is told to get on the ground.  Worse, when Queen jumps out of the passenger side and slowly and louQueenandSlimdly announces she is going to record this confrontation with her cell phone, the cop shoots her.  Slim goes for the gun and in the ensuing struggle, the cop is accidentally killed, instantly turning Queen and Slim into two of America’s most wanted.

Could Queen and Slim have done things differently?  Sure they could have.  There probably was a scenario where their lives and the cop’s life went on as normal.  But this isn’t that story.  Queen & Slim is about the repercussions of the traffic stop gone wrong, and its greatest strength is making the chase relatable to someone who wouldn’t necessarily make better choices but by reason of his skin colour would likely face very different consequences for any mistakes he made (and probably no consequences at all).

Screenwriter Lena Waithe delivers a believable situation and sympathetic characters.  She also does well to detach the public portrayal of Queen and Slim from their actual personas.  They did not ask to be outlaws and they did not choose to become fugitives.  Those were the only choices they were left with after a cop accidentally got shot.  It helps immensely that we get to know Queen and Slim, ever so briefly, before their fateful confrontation with an overly aggressive cop.  We get to see how the chase is framed from the outside while also seeing that there are not two sides to this story, that the lazy media narrative framing these two as cop-killers is more than just wrong, it is dangerous.

Left unsaid, but hanging in the air to digest afterward, is the question of how many more times does this sort of thing have to happen in real life before our society stops arguing over whether there is a problem and starts working together to fix it.   The biggest strength of Queen & Slim is that Waithe doesn’t shy away at all from the underlying social issues but manages, above all else, to be a compelling love story about two people who just wanted a chance at a second date.

Just Mercy

As much as we may want to pretend otherwise, the justice system has two distinct tiers.  Those with money get an easier path than those without.  That disparity is never acceptable but is especially offensive in the criminal context, where poor people who find themselves in the system are likely to stay there whether or not they are guilty of the offences charged, because they lack the ability to pay for legal representation or to post bail.  Those disadvantages result in innocent poor people being locked up for extended periods of time, many of whom are on death row. justmercy

These effects are arguably a feature of the system rather than a bug, since these circumstances disproportionately affect black people in the southern United States (see Ava Duvernay’s 13th for more on that terrifying but logical conclusion).   Incidentally, the reason my criticisms are focused on the American justice system is simply because the U.S. is basically the only western civilization that still applies the death penalty.  

Walter “Johnny D” McMillan (Jamie Foxx) was one of those innocent poor black people waiting on death row in Alabama. Convicted of the murder of a woman he had never met, by a jury from which black people were excluded, based entirely on the false testimony of a convicted felon, Johnny D seems resigned to his fate. Which is understandable, as there is no point in hoping for merciful treatment from a justice system stacked against you. That changes when Bryan Stevenson (Michael B. Jordan), a young Harvard law school graduate arrives in Alabama to provide legal aid to the disadvantaged, takes up Johnny D’s case, and challenges the conviction despite constant opposition from the district attorney, the sheriff, and the legal system. Brie Larson is also in this movie, as Stevenson’s operations director, but it’s a bit role. Foxx and Jordan get most of the screen time and all the best scenes. The two of them are excellent and are worth the price of admission on their own.

Their performances helped me get through the depressing fact that this is a true story, and worse, a true story we have heard many times before. Just Mercy does a great job of shining a light on injustice but is also an entertaining courtroom battle in its own right, that more than holds its own against any fictional legal drama. I was particularly impressed that the drama was allowed to play out with a minimal amount of Hollywood glitz, so that the courtroom scenes were close to how they would have played out in real life. Clearly, the filmmakers believed the real story was compelling enough to stand on its own, and they were absolutely right.

TIFF19: Greed

Have we made Steve Coogan an honourary asshole yet?  He’s at his best playing someone despicable, and they don’t come more despicable than retail fashion billionaires, who’ve “earned” their fortunes by exploiting third-world workers and the “rules” of corporate governance.  Coogan’s character, Richard McCreadie, is not a real person but is clearly inspired by the owners of Zara and H&M, both of which are running the same scheme in the real world as McCreadie does onscreen.

Having come under some scrutiny for his business practices (though not as much as he deserves), McCreadie hopes to gain some more favourable press by throwing an extravagant 60th birthday party for himself, shelling out for numerous celebrities to attend, and building a plywood colosseum in which a rented lion and McCreadie’s aides will put on a spectacle worthy of Caesar.  It is all too real, this game of distraction that McCreadie plays, and having gladiator games as entertainment sets up a good parallel between the ancient Roman slaves who died in service of their emperor and the factory workers who are suffering in service of McCreadie’s business empire.

greed_0HEROGreed’s comedic and satirical elements work well, with Coogan ably and expertly leading the way.   I am sure Coogan could play this role in his sleep but he’s not phoning it in at any point.  He clearly relishes the chance to play this type of character and he delivers a wonderfully over-the-top take on a selfish billionaire (though really, is there any other kind?).

But outside of the scenes featuring Coogan, Greed seems to lose its way.  It felt like Greed was too ambitious. In addition to the party scenes, Greed also shows McCreadie’s early days, both in private school and as he first sets up his business, factory scenes that are filmed documentary-style at real locations featuring real workers,  and a large number of side stories involving McCreadie’s ex-wife (Isla Fisher), their three kids (Asa Butterfield among them), McCreadie’s biographer (David Mitchell), and one of McCreadie’s top staff (Sarah Solemani).  There’s just too much going on, and it seems impossible for one movie to combine so many disparate parts  into a cohesive whole.

Undoubtedly, Greed’s failure in that regard is due to Michael Winterbottom having too much to say about the increasing divide between the rich and the poor, and it’s hard to fault him for being so ambitious.  But I have to think Greed would have been more effective, both in delivering its important message and in delivering its comedy, if it had taken a more focused approach and left a few side stories (including the story featuring McCreadie’s younger self) on the cutting room floor.

TIFF19: The Personal History of David Copperfield

Dev Patel is David Copperfield – it’s an inspired bit of casting that’s instantly a perfect fit. In fact, the whole film is so overwhelmingly cast to perfection it’s almost embarrassing.

I worried about this film because though director Armando Iannucci’s previous film, The Death of Stalin, was extremely well-received by critics, it was not my the-personal-history-of-david-copperfieldcuppa, not by a long shot. As an introduction to this film’s premiere at TIFF, Iannucci informed/assured us the two films could not be more different. And while I’m not sure that’s true, I was relieved and elighted to find myself really enjoying it.

I hope it’s obvious that this movie is inspired by Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield, though TIFF Artistic Director & Co-Head Cameron Bailey rightly called it an “audacious” interpretation, and it is that. Iannucci was struck by how timeless the themes of love and friendship were, so though the film is undoubtedly a period piece, Iannucci reminds us that for the characters, it’s present day.

As for myself, I was most struck by how convincingly Copperfield is portrayed as a budding writer. Even as a child he’s wildly observant, with a knack for accents and a fondness for “collecting” lovely turns of phrase. The way this movie explores and plays with language is unlike anything I’ve seen onscreen. It was setting off fireworks in the verbal parts of my brain. And there are plenty of visual treats too – beautiful costumes, dingy apartments, bustling markets, whimsical seaside abodes, and blooming gardens teeming with donkeys.

Sean did not feel so positively about the film – though he liked it, he also found it boring and meandering. Well, he said slow. I thought meandering sounded better.

The Personal History of David Copperfield is a funny, perceptive, and inventive twist on an old favourite. I can’t help but think Dickens would approve.

American Factory

As the trade war between the US and China escalates, American Factory arrives on Netflix and shows why this war is one that China is likely to win.  The US is at a severe disadvantage in this war that it started, because the American Dream now belongs more to China than to the endangered American middle class, and because idyllic post-war America was built in large part on cheap imports from China and now the pendulum is swinging the other way.

American Factory is the first Netflix film from the Obamas’ production studio, and its release is perfectly timed.  China and the US continue to threaten each other higher and higher tariffs, announcing another round of increases to take effect american-factory-1this fall. Of course, these threats are not really to the countries themselves; they are threats to consumers, who will inevitably bear all these increases in the form of higher priced goods.

While American Factory isn’t really about tariffs, the tariffs are still an important part of the story. That’s because the tariffs were instigated by the US in order to bring manufacturing back to the American heartland, which has been decimated by the loss of factory jobs as more and more of those jobs elsewhere to take advantage of cheaper labour and lower safety standards.

One of those shuttered factories is a former GM plant in Dayton, Ohio. Its closure in 2008 put thousands out of work, but in 2015 Fuyao Glass America, a Chinese-backed company, reopened the plant and brought hope back to Dayton. However, we quickly see that the reality is not quite as rosy as the fantasy, because the workers have taken a 30% pay cut, safety standards are not enforced, and management uses every dirty trick in the book to prevent the workers from unionizing.

Chinese workers are brought in to show the Americans how to operate the plant, and managers from the US are trained in China to help them better motivate the workers. American Factory captures the remarkable contrast between the workers’ attitudes in the two nations, and the attitudes of the nations as a whole. The Chinese are willing to work harder for less, sacrificing their bodies and family lives for the benefit of the company. The Americans, on the other hand, feel entitled to earn more money than their Chinese counterparts without making any of the same sacrifices.

Something has to give there.  In both the Fuyao factory and in the larger trade war, the Americans can’t possibly get everything they want but are oblivious to that reality.  Working-class Americans seem not to have realized that their consumer-centric society only exists because of other countries’ cheap labour, and that unskilled labourers will never again be “middle class”. If these American factory workers want to achieve their desired standard of living, they need to acquire marketable skills. Labour is no longer marketable on its own, and China and the rest of the world are eager to live the American Dream. China and the rest of the world also clearly want to realize that dream so much more than the Americans do, so in any head-to-head battle the Americans are going to lose out. The only question is whether the Americans will realize that before it’s too late.

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.

 

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.