Wednesday, February 28, 2018
Thursday, November 02, 2017
Friday, July 21, 2017
Friday, June 02, 2017
The second section shows us Chiron at the age of around 16. We learn that Juan is dead, but not why or how. Once again, Chiron is isolated and lonely. He is bullied by other boys in his high school who call him names. Only one boy, Kevin, seems interested in being his friend. It's with this boy that he has his first sexual experience. A few days later, one of the school bullies forces Kevin to beat Chiron up.
Friday, August 05, 2016
Monday, March 28, 2016
Tuesday, January 27, 2015
Selma (2014; dir. Ava DuVernay) features as main characters people who actually lived and who in some cases are still alive. I lived through and paid much attention to the Civil Rights movements and its leaders. I know the faces of M. L. King, Ralph David Abernathy, Andrew Young, Hosea Williams, John Lewis, and others. It was jarring in this film to see these figures played by actors who at best only slightly resembled them. I often struggled to identify them. This was a distraction, but not something the film could help. Eventually I recognized that the actor in overalls was Hosea Williams and that the man with thick-rimmed glasses played Abernathy. David Oyelowo’s work as King is excellent, and especially in the speeches he made he became a convincing simulacrum of the original.
Selma powerfully depicts the events leading up to and surrounding the march on Selma. It’s clear, I think, that one of the purposes of the film is to remind viewers of the sacrifices and risks made by the many participants in the movement, and to pay tribute to its leaders. The movie presents them as heroes, and that is what they were. But it also portrays them as human beings.
The film’s intelligence is reflected both in the three-dimensional portrayals of King and his wife Coretta and in how it shows King and others in the movement strategically planning the Selma march in order to bring the greatest amount of national attention. King is shown both as determined and hesitant, and when during the second march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge he pauses and then turns back, he receives much criticism from his supporters. This moment of apparent retreat is never fully explained. We hear various people attempt to understand it. King himself tries to explain it as the result of his concern for the people who might be injured if the gathered police decide to attack. Most importantly this moment contributes to the humanity and mystery of King as he is portrayed in the film. He is rightly regarded as a man of moral vision—we see this aspect clearly--but the film also shows him also as a politician and a strategist. It also shows him as a husband and father. A short scene in the film alludes to his affairs with women, and to the unhappiness this caused in his marriage to Coretta. It shows as well his anxieties over the welfare of his family, especially given how his leadership in the movement made him a target for violence.
Several scenes show the brutal abuse of Civil Rights protestors by white Southerners. The central scene is in the first march on the Pettus bridge, where police and gathered white crowds viciously attached the marchers. John Lewis’ skull was cracked. We see several murders and are told about others. It was painful to watch these scenes and tempting to view them as exaggerations. However, newsreel footage, photographs, and numerous reports from bystanders and participants make clear that these portrayals of violence and hate are accurate.
Malcolm X briefly appears in the film. He played a small role in the events surrounding the Selma march, and his inclusion was probably a gratuitous acknowledgement of a man who was King’s leading critic among African Americans during the early years of the 1960s, and whose activism represented an alternative approach to the nonviolent tactics of King’s strategy for working towards civil rights.
There are historical inaccuracies in the film. Many of them may be minor, but the portrayal of Lyndon Baines Johnson is a significant misrepresentation. Johnson was responsible for pushing both the Civil Rights bill and the Voting Rights act of 1965 through Congress. He was not an opponent of voting rights. At worst he and King differed over the timing of the bill. By the time of the events the film portrays, Johnson had already called for a voting rights bill to be drafted. Recordings and transcripts of public and private conversations and comments make clear his support for the voting rights bill. Selma makes out Johnson to be the opponent who must be convinced by the Selma march of the bill’s necessity. In fact, Johnson needed no convincing. Another issue is the omission of the 1964 Freedom Summer project, including the murders in Mississippi of three civil right workers. Those events together with the efforts of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party delegation to be seated at the 1964 Democratic Convention did as much as the Selma March to galvanize support for the voting rights act and to bring about its passage.
Although these are serious flaws, especially given the focus on a crucial moment in the Civil Rights movement, they do not ruin the film, which is a dramatic, inspiring, and moving tribute to King and other leaders of the movement.
 For various opinions see Elizabeth Drew, “’Selma’ vs. History,” The New York Review of Books, Jan. 8, 2015, http://www.nybooks.com/blogs/nyrblog/2015/jan/08/selma-vs-history/; Ann Hornaday, “Film fact-checking is here to stay,” The Washington Post, Jan. 3, 2015, http://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/style/film-fact-checking-is-here-to-stay-so-lets-agree-on-some-new-rules/2015/01/02/9698f87c-92a6-11e4-ba53-a477d66580ed_story.html; Amy Davidson, “Why ‘Selma’ is More than Fair to L.B.J.,” The New Yorker, Jan. 22, 2015, http://www.newyorker.com/news/amy-davidson/selma-fair-l-b-j; Bill Moyer, “Bill Moyers on LBJ and ‘Selma,’” http://billmoyers.com/2015/01/15/bill-moyers-selma-lbj/; Dee Lockett, “How Accurate is Selma?,” Slate, Dec. 24, 2014, http://www.slate.com/blogs/browbeat/2014/12/24/selma_fact_vs_fiction_how_true_ava_duvernay_s_new_movie_is_to_the_1965_marches.html
Friday, January 23, 2015
The rollicking bluegrass music that accompanies parts of the film, especially the opening scenes, doesn’t seem appropriate to the content.
Tuesday, December 30, 2014
The Butler (2013; dir. Lee Daniels) begins in perilous fashion. A young black boy working with his family in a cotton field in 1927 watches his mother led to a nearby shack for sex with the son of the plantation owner. Afterwards, when the white man emerges from the shack, the boy’s father confronts him and is shot dead. The plantation mistress walks into the field, orders the boy to stop crying, and tells him that she is going to take him into her house and train him to be a “house nigger.”
I use the term "perilous" because the opening scene suggested I was about to watch a nightmarish melodrama of extremes lacking subtlety or intelligence, a film that compels us to view the players purely in terms of victims and victimizers, of clearly marked boundaries of good and evil. Not so. Although slavery was long over in 1927, many black Southerners still worked under conditions approaching slavery, especially black farm workers and sharecroppers. The possibility of violence by white Southerners against blacks was ever present. But scenes as extreme as the one that opens this film were rare. As bad as conditions were for many Southern blacks in 1927, few young black boys witnessed crimes against their parents so heinous as these. The Butler is a more balanced and nuanced film than its opening scene suggests.
The Butler is loosely based on the life of a man who served as butler for seven presidents in the White House. It chronicles the fictional life of Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker), the man who the young boy in the cotton field became. After the plantation mistress teaches him how to serve, he finds a job in a nearby town and later in a posh Washington, D. C., hotel. Ultimately he begins work in the White House as one of several butlers during the Eisenhower administration. In the background, as one president succeeds another, history takes place. The events of the Civil Rights movement serve as markers that carry us from the cotton field to the White House in a literal sense: in the final scene Cecil prepares to meet the first black president of the United States. The Butler is a history of the nation during the Civil Rights movement, with its murders and demonstrations and achievements, and of the political disagreements and struggles in the black community during these decades. Cecil observes these events from his post in the White House, while his son, Louis, participates in them. Cecil fears for his son’s safety and disagrees with the activism of the civil rights movement, while his son doesn’t understand his father’s passive, conservative attitudes.
The Butler shares similarities with Forrest Gump, which follows the life of a young Southerner as history unfolds around him. Forrest Gump is more a pageant sort of play than this film, which, by dramatizing contrasting views of the struggle of African Americans for equality, offers a more analytical view of events as they occur. It employs a series of contrasting scenes that show Cecil Gaines at work in the White House, serving the white politicians who run the country, against scenes of his son Louis, who takes an increasingly activist role in the Civil Rights movement. (A younger son is killed in Viet Nam). At times the film seems to favor the son’s extremism. Increasingly, however, it focuses on the butler Cecil. Its attitude becomes clear in a scene where Martin Luther King is talking to a group of student activists, one of whom is Louis, who is ashamed of his father’s role as a butler to white men. When King learns that Louis’s father is a butler, he comments on the importance of people like Cecil, who serve with quiet dignity, gradually changing by their example the attitudes of white Americans towards American blacks. The Butler endorses both points of view, but when Louis faces the prospect of deeper involvement with the Black Panthers as they move to adopt violent tactics, he backs away. Later we learn he has earned a graduate degree and entered politics. Paralleling the film’s exploration of two different ways in which African Americans were involved in the civil rights struggle is the story of the father and son estranged from one another and ultimately reconciled.
Some elements of The Butler are predictable, and it can be overly simplistic and sentimental, but its encompassing view of the civil rights years seeks to reconcile points of view that were once at extreme odds. Its efforts at conciliation extend beyond the African American community. Most of the major white American figures in the film appear to struggle with their own attitudes towards race. Ronald Reagan, well played by Alan Rickman, overturns policies supported by the movement but he also worries that he is on the wrong side of the struggle. Only Nixon comes across as a one-sided caricature.
Friday, August 15, 2014
12 Years a Slave (2013, dir. Steve McQueen) takes place mostly in Louisiana. We see numerous scenes of open fields, of swamplands, of trees hanging down with Spanish moss. The sounds of droning insects and piping frogs are almost ever-present. These sounds and the lush vegetation suggest an environment of remote isolation. The beauty of this film—the beautiful setting, the artful cinematography and filmmaking—contrasts with the dark reality it portrays. At times I wonder whether slavery (like the Holocaust) is something film should try to represent. Is it possible that personal testimonials, scholarly histories, lists of the dead, better tell us the story than someone’s attempt to represent and interpret it, to use it as the stuff of art when in fact the reality is so horrible that the risk of misrepresentation overrides the benefits of representing it accurately, if such is even possible.
Solomon Northrup’s narrative 12 Years a Slave, published in the year of his rescue, 1853, strikes me as unsettling for several reasons. Its account of how a man can be kidnapped out of his life into slavery is disturbing enough. The years of enslavement he endures are recounted in painful detail. Solomon on several points pauses his narrative to explain the process of growing cotton and of sugar cane, so that his story has the impact of both a personal tale as well as a more objective account. Solomon never fully comes to identity with his fellow slaves, and it’s clear that his education, his former status as a free man, in his mind places him in a status superior to that of other slaves. He is more than willing to serve loyally the slave owners who treat him well, like Ford, and even at times seems to sympathize with them. At times I sense two voices in the narrative, that of Solomon and of David Wilson, who assisted him in the writing of the account. The film offers an effective adaptation of the narrative, focusing entirely on Solomon’s situation. It drops the accounts of cotton farming and instead integrates those details into the plot of the film. Many of the events of the narrative find their way into the film. It thankfully omits the legal proceedings following Solomon’s rescue, and it significantly abbreviates the process by which he is reunited with his family. The narrative tells and explains Northrup’s tale, while the film dramatizes it.
In an odd way, 12 Years a Slave reminded me of I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932; dir. Mervyn Leroy). Both focus on a man suddenly and unexpectedly torn from his comfortable environment and plunged into a hostile atmosphere of confinement, imprisonment. Both focus on that confining environment—prison life, slavery—but even more on the plight of the lonely and isolated individual unfairly and unjustly ripped out of his life. As there as with the character James Allen in Fugitive, there’s an existential quality to the plight of Solomon Northrup, who clings to his identity even as in order to survive he must pretend to be someone else. I found myself as focused on that aspect of the film as on the issue of slavery, which at times seemed almost incidental to his situation. To imagine the possibility of what Solomon Northrop suffers, the loss of his freedom, of his family and friends, for twelve years, is nigh impossible. Other connections come to mind as well—Alexander Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo (1842) in particular, along with Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables (1862).
As he tries to preserve his identity, Northrup at first resists being lumped in with the other slaves he works and lives with. Gradually the common situation they share makes its mark on him and though he never gives up on being Solomon Northrup he ultimately accepts his kinship with them. When they sing over the grave of John, an old man who dies while picking cotton near the end of the film, Solomon joins in singing with them. This moment signifies his acceptance of his unity with them, of his identity as a slave.
I do not know whether this film gives an “accurate” or “representative” account of slavery. I can say about it what I said in another post about Mandingo: that I have no doubt that everything it portrays was true of slavery. 12 Years suggests a natural comparison with Mandingo. Yet the tawdry and sensationalistic melodrama of that inferior film is absent in Twelve Years. The most telling contrast comes in the relationship of Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender) with the slave girl Patsy (Lupita Nyong'o). This is a relationship of force and rape, abuse and abasement, while in Mandingo we are asked to believe that the relationship between slave master Hammond and his “bed wench” Ellen is consensual and mutually loving. Despite the attention it pays to the slaves on the Hammond plantation, Mandingo is primarily about the white slave owners. 12 Years is about the slaves--and one slave in particular. It doesn’t romanticize or sentimentalize slavery, nor does it, with one exception, make slavery worse than it was. What it does achieve, on occasion, is its portrayal of the practice of slavery as a form of everyday normalcy. We may think of slavery in terms of endless brutality and abuse. But mostly what it must have been was a sustained and unremarkable succession of days, normal days, in the lives of both the enslaved and their enslavers. The film evokes this normalcy through scenes in which slaves go about carrying out the tasks of their typical routines—picking cotton or chopping sugar cane, chopping and carrying wood, cooking, washing—routines that characterized the span of their lives. Each day they carry their bags of cotton to be weighed. Those who do not pick more than 200 pounds are whipped—the film portrays the whippings mainly in the background. There is nothing unusual about them--they are part of the daily routine—not punishment but instead what the owners regard as an appropriate way to train their slaves to increase the productivity of their cotton picking work.
In an extended scene, Tibeats, who works as a carpenter for Ford, tries to whip Solomon, who resists and beats Tibeats in turn. Tibeats flees and returns with two men who commence to hang Solomon, with the full intention of killing him. Ford’s overseer intervenes, chases off the three men, and leaves Solomon suspended from a tree branch, his feet just touching the ground. As he struggles to keep his balance and avoid choking to death, other slaves carry on their work around him, seemingly ignoring him. Eventually one slave woman brings him water. The mistress of the house looks on from the porch, as does the overseer. The other slaves can do nothing for fear of their own lives. They cannot interfere with the punishment of a slave who has transgressed and attacked a white man. The film lingers for an excruciating duration on the images of Solomon attempting to retain his foothold. Throughout this scene there is no music at all. The sound of the insects—cicadas, June bugs-- familiar to anyone who has lived in the summers of the Deep South, drone on and on, in this atmosphere of deadening normalcy and pain. Only Mr. Ford has the right to save him, and eventually he arrives and cuts the rope with which Solomon is suspended.
(On occasion whippings become a form of personal revenge and punishment—one in a scene involving Solomon, and another when Patsy has run off to a nearby plantation to bring back a bar of soap. The whipping she receives from Epps is the most brutal in the film.)
12 Years has its share of depraved and brutal white people, but it also portrays a number of highly civilized white characters who deal with slaves as a normal part of their existence. In an early scene, the slave trader Freeman (Paul Giamatti) shows plantation owner Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), a Baptist minister, a group of slaves that he is thinking of buying. Freeman seems a likeable man. He is calm and affable in his manner, speaking candidly of the attributes of various slaves on sale, comporting himself as would an insurance or car salesman in the process of trying to make a sale. There is nothing remarkable or depraved about his behavior, other than the fact that he is selling human beings. When Ford decides to buy Solomon and Eliza, who is the mother of two small children, she begs him to buy her children as well. He decides to purchase the daughter, but Freeman refuses to sell, explaining that in a few years her beauty will make her a valuable property. When Ford brings the two new slaves home, his wife asks why Eliza is weeping and unhappy. Ford explains that she has been separated from her children. Mistress Ford nods sadly as if to signify that this is an unfortunate but inescapable result of a slave sale. She reassures Eliza that soon she will forget about her children. In many ways Ford treats his slaves well, preaches to them every Sunday. He recognizes Solomon’s talents and rewards his good work. In the film, Ford seems the ideal slave master. Solomon Northrop’s narrative Twelve Years a Slave praises him highly. At the same time, in neither the narrative nor the film does Ford question the institution of slavery itself. He accepts it as part of the reality of his world, as a necessary practice.
Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender) is the obverse of Ford. He is close to being a psychopath, both in how he treats his slaves as well as in how he treats his wife. He spends much of his time drinking, threatening the slaves, molesting Patsy, insulting his wife. It is difficult to think that he is truly representative of the normal slave owner. It’s difficult to imagine that he could have been productive as a plantation owner, as a farmer of cotton and other crops, because he apparently spends little time tending to these activities. If most plantation owners had been like Epps, the plantation economy would have faltered early in its history. Yet what the film makes clear through his character (this is true as well of the Hammond family in Mandingo, and of Calvin Candie in Django Unchained, and of Duncan Bedford in So Red the Rose) is that however kind or cruel plantation owners might have been in their treatment of their slaves, they exercised virtually complete control over their lives. They were able, within the broad limits of what Southern law and social custom would allow, to do whatever they liked with the slaves. I have to confess that as much as I know about slavery, from books I’ve read and films I’ve seen, 12 Years left me scratching my head in astonishment. We did this? This is our history? From this vantage point early in the 21st century, 150 years since Emancipation, it’s almost impossible to imagine. Therein lies much of the value of this film.