With Patriots Day, What You See Is What You Get

With Patriots Day, What You See Is What You Get

Peter Berg’s new thing is directing movies about ordinary men (well…Mark Wahlberg, at least) caught in disaster. It’s a good look for him. He broke out in ’04 with Friday Night Lights, a movie that was every bit as rooted in realism and Steadicam as the TV show would be. There were some forays into science fiction with Hancock (2008) and Battleship (2012), which were less than successful. But now, with the triptych of Lone Survivor (2013), Deepwater Horizon (2016), and Patriots Day (2016), he seems to have found a niche.

I haven’t seen Deepwater Horizon yet, and I hear good things. But of his movies I have seen, Patriots Day is Berg’s best yet. Nuance still isn’t his strong point. But straightforward ness isn’t a sin, especially in the service of a story that needs no frills.

Fulfilling his destiny to play the most Bostonian man alive, Wahlberg headlines the film as a regular cop, recovering from a knee injury he accrued on the job. He is a part of the police contingent at the 2013 Boston Marathon, and he ends up being near the finish line when the bombs go off. This scene is harrowing, a masterpiece of disaster sequence editing. The preceding scenes are well-done as well, building the tension as we get to know several of the key players, including a couple who will both lose legs in the explosions, a security cop at a local university whose role is unclear at first, and the two brothers responsible for the bombs.

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What follows that initial scene of devastation is a fairly direct retelling of the ensuing manhunt for the Tsarnaev brothers (Tamerlan is played by Themo Melikidze, Dzokhar is played by Alex Wolff). There are two interesting scenes that hint at things beneath the surface of this mostly surface-level movie. One scene involves the Tsarnaevs in the car they steal from Dun Meng (Jimmy O. Yang) while they still have him held hostage inside. They end up talking about the 9/11 attacks, and the Tsarnaevs tell Meng it was an inside job, that the U.S. government orchestrated it to make Americans hate Muslims. It’s a fascinating scene and a sobering reminder of the role fake news and alternative facts play in radicalization. And that’s not just in Islam.

The other scene takes place at the warehouse where the FBI sets up the investigation’s headquarters. Tamerlan’s wife, Katherine Russell (Melissa Benoist), has been brought in for questioning, but someone from a different agency barges in and takes control of the interrogation. They send in a woman in a hijab (Khandi Alexander) who begins using Russell’s own faith against her and tells her candidly and threateningly that she has no rights. In a movie that lionizes law enforcement it’s a reminder that not everything is always above board.

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I was worried going into Patriots Day about how Berg would handle his depiction of the Tsarnaev brothers. He directed a movie in 2007 called The Kingdom in which Muslims were nameless, faceless villains, and the voracity with which the audience cheered at their deaths was uncomfortable. The Tsarnaev brothers are of course still shown as villains, rightly, but they’re also human beings with anxieties and disagreements and interests in pop culture. If you prefer your Muslim terrorists only as monsters, then you’re ignoring some basic things about human nature and helping to alienate an entire culture in your heart.

Patriots Day is similar to 2006’s United 93 in its celebration of American heroism and shaky camera action, though Patriots arguably leans a little too much on more unnecessary Hollywood conventions than United, such as Mark Wahlberg’s Tommy Saunders being present at too many key events. But like United 93, Patriots Day is effective without being exploitative, honoring the heroes and victims of the event with an honest, realistic portrayal.

Not Much Hidden About Hidden Figures

Not Much Hidden About Hidden Figures

There’s something to be said for movies that get the job done. No flashy camerawork, no dream sequences, little to no subtext. Not every movie needs to be Moonlight or La La Land. Sometimes you just need to see an untold story told well.

Hidden Figures does just that. Following three black women (Taraji P. Henson, Janelle Monáe, and Octavia Spencer) working for NASA in the 1960s, Hidden Figures does just about everything you would want from a period movie like this. We get a comprehensive view of the racism they faced both in the workplace and outside of it. The white people involved are not excused, but they do get opportunities to redeem themselves in the movie’s plot, which seems unrealistic. But clean period movies like this often lack nuance, and that’s okay. The story of these women overcoming the institutional and personal racism directed at them to achieve far more than anyone expected of them is enough. Nuance is for other movies.

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Octavia Spencer gives the best performance of the three, but that’s really just because her character was written with the most range. She has to bite her tongue in the face of white ignorance more than the other two, and we see more of Spencer taking initiative behind the scenes. Henson has the most emotional scenes, one in which she loses control in front of her white coworkers and chastises them for how they’ve treated her, and one in which she is proposed to by a good man (Mahershala Ali). She nails both of them. Monáe, who, like Ali, is having a breakout year, is sassy and quietly strong, which nicely complements her maternal performance in Moonlight.

My personal preferences have me disappointed in retrospect that Hidden Figures was a little too well tied up at the end. Surely these women didn’t live happily ever after. But I can appreciate the beauty of a pure, Hollywood movie starring three black women that hits all the expected emotional moments. It’s enjoyable in a way that more artsy movies cannot be. If I want nuance, I’ll go watch Moonlight again. If I want pure entertainment, I’ll put on Hidden Figures.

The Classics: 25th Hour (2002)

The Classics: 25th Hour (2002)

The phrase “Trump’s America” seems to be in vogue among thinkpiece writers right now, and that couldn’t bother me more. It implies that just because Mr. Trump won the election and is our president, that the country is now his. So writers are finding tiny reflections of him everywhere in the culture or telling you how to survive or how to have a conversation “in Trump’s America”. It’s a pithy phrase, and an annoying one. So allow me to use it in one post and one post only.

While re-watching 25th Hour for my series on the classic movies from 2002, I came upon one of the movie’s famous scenes and thought instantly, “This is Trump’s America.” If you’re not familiar with 25th Hour (and you’re probably not- it made only $13 million), the movie follows Monty Brogan (Edward Norton) on his last day of freedom before he goes to prison for drug charges. It’s directed by Spike Lee, and it’s a beautiful movie about New York and America hurtling toward an uncertain future.

Monty is having lunch with his father (Brian Cox), who owns a bar, to confirm that he will drive Monty to the prison the next day. At one point, he goes to the bathroom, and while there, he has this exchange with himself in the mirror. Heads up: lots of f-words here, and probably some offensive things said about other races. That’s the point.

So I watched that scene, and immediately thought, “This is Trump’s America.” And it really felt true, at first. Monty is angry, and he turns his anger on everybody in the city, reducing people to their tribes or their surface-level labels. He lashes out at his friends for their faults and their flaws. He curses his girlfriend for simply being suspicious.

But don’t let anyone tell you that this xenophobia and irrational anger is “Trump’s America”. Instead, look to the last 15 seconds, when Monty turns the “f*ck you” onto himself. In that moment, he takes responsibility for what he did, instead of turning the blame onto everyone else. He finally directs his anger at the one person that deserves it.

I hope that you don’t place your hope in America. There are greater things, eternal things. But we can hope things for America. I hope that America emulates those last 15 seconds and takes responsibility for the ways that it has screwed up. And I hope President Trump finds out that is his America.

The Classics: Buena Vista Social Club (1997) by Buena Vista Social Club

The Classics: Buena Vista Social Club (1997) by Buena Vista Social Club

Albums this rich with meaning should not be this easy to listen to. Buena Vista Social Club, a genre-defying record from Cuba released 20 years ago, is old-fashioned and beautiful. It is also, for many, the only picture they have of Cuban music and culture, which many saw as problematic. Buena Vista presented an image of free-wheeling, roaring-twenties, cha-cha clubs, with big-band, mambo jazz groups leading their parishioners in dances celebrating their culture. The album (and the corresponding Wim Wenders documentary) basically ignored 40 years of history.

But the album’s presentation at the time should not detract from the transcendent joy underneath the surface of every song. And while the way foreigners may have distorted Cuban history with how the album was marketed, this was the first time many of these musicians were heard outside of the Cuba. For much of Cuba’s tortured history, artists were oppressed and suppressed like the rest of the country’s people. Buena Vista took older, classic Cuban musicians (like Ibrahim Ferrer and Omar Portuondo) and combined them with the talents of younger, hustling artists. The result is an image, frozen in amber, of Cuba breaking free.

Protest in Art on the Art of Protest

Protest in Art on the Art of Protest

There is one scene in Congressman John Lewis’s March trilogy of graphic novels that encapsulates in just a few panels the heights of which he and his team (coauthor Andrew Aydin, and letterer and illustrator Nate Powell) are capable. It’s at the beginning of Book 3, the scene set with a pair of short heels clicking down a church hallway, marked by a tiny “clik clik clik” across the page’s panels. The woman who belongs to the heels busts into a bathroom, marked by a bigger “BOOM” within the panel’s frames. The girls are framed in black as they are caught in the act of skipping Sunday school and told to hurry along. The woman clik clik cliks away to her Sunday school class, where she opens the door with a “creaak”. She reports to the mother of one of the girls in a whisper over the teacher reading Jesus’s admonition to love one’s enemies. And then another “BOOM”, this one enormous, breaks through frames and word bubbles, even disrupting the art at the end of the page.

March’s creators are doing nothing new by breaking the medium’s conventions to make an emotional impact, nor are they innovating in the format with their use of onomatopoeia and font size to transport the reader to the story’s setting. But rare is the marriage of all of a page’s elements so devastating. The depicted1963 bombing of a Birmingham church is infamous in civil rights history, and I knew what was coming as I read it. Yet when I reached the sequence’s end, at the image of a child’s shoe in the hand of an adult, I was in tears.

This one scene in March is heart-wrenching and masterful, but March is brilliant through and through and not just in its set pieces. Those set pieces provide the emotional structure of the series, but it’s the smaller scenes that solidify the series’ themes. The trilogy is an easy read, but it is not simply a chronicle of all the civil rights movement’s big moments. Rather, Lewis and his team spend much of this memoir detailing the many strategies and disagreements of the movement’s organizers. The line that Lewis and Aydin draw from the decisions he and his compatriots made to the decisions lawmakers made are a powerful argument that protest works.

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There are similar scenes of strategizing in Selma, Ava DuVernay’s 2014 movie about the march from Selma, Alabama, to the state’s capitol, Montgomery. The Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) chose Selma specifically because their very presence there was likely to incite police brutality. We watch this play out on screen multiple times: black people lining up outside a courthouse to vote getting pushed to the ground, black people marching across a public bridge being chased like animals by cops on horseback while tear gas rains down, white people getting beaten to a pulp for associating with the black protesters, black people getting shot by cops without provocation.

Dr. King and his compatriots spend time in Selma discussing how best to implement their plan, and we see plenty of conflict between them regarding the timing of the protests, who should even be allowed to participate, and even what exactly to protest first. The protests’ leaders spend an entire scene arguing what injustice is most urgent to address, and none of them agree. After all, should they start by protesting the courts refusing to register black people to vote unless they can name all of Alabama’s county judges, the voucher system that requires prospective voters to find someone already registered to vouch for them, or the businesses that will fire or not hire black people who are bold enough to register?

We have a lot of movies about fighting racism written from a white perspective, designed in full to encourage empathy and action in white people. These movies are noble in intent if usually misguided in their execution, downplaying the role of black people in their own emancipation. Selma is that rare movie that is told by black people and is about black people working for black people. The making of Selma was not burdened by anybody’s white guilt, and therefore is far more clear-eyed about where the injustices are.

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Selma is also historical. Much was made of DuVernay’s incomplete portrayal of President Johnson. But little was made of the movie’s re-creation of the band of people around Dr. King or of DuVernay’s painstaking attention to the details of the protests and the resulting brutality. These things happened, and we’ve never seen the like of them onscreen before. Selma is a powerful argument that protest is a moral necessity.

March and Selma together present a picture of a black culture that figured out how to fight injustice on its own. This was in direct opposition to a white world that pretends to be for justice but is too often a willing accomplice in injustice’s crimes. The graphic novel and the movie are companions. They complement each other in their historical details and in how effective they are in arousing righteous anger and heartbreak.

The movie 13th deserves recognition beside those two. DuVernay’s new Netflix documentary is different in form and function from March and Selma, but it is their cousin in theme. 13th draws a line through history from slavery to today’s mass incarceration, finding guilty the phrase written into the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery, “except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted…” The documentary makes a compelling argument, using historical archive footage and a bipartisan conglomeration of talking heads, that the prison system functions as today’s slavery, imprisoning black people at a far greater rate than other races to the profit of politicians, lobbyists, and businessmen alike.

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The line DuVernay draws is unambiguously straight. She squarely places the blame on rich white people who want to stay rich and get richer. I can understand the skepticism I occasionally hear in the face of overwhelming evidence that racism still exists, because nice white people often aren’t around overt racism in their daily lives and feel threatened and blamed when macro views like 13th’s find that white people are often the villains. But we have too many examples throughout history that powerful people do anything to keep their power. Is it really that hard to believe that governments and institutions would embrace racist policies to achieve this?

There’s a scene in 13th that unapologetically places President Donald Trump in this context. Over a montage of racist acts by Trump supporters against protesters and similar images from America’s Jim Crow past (including beatings, lynchings, and verbal abuse), DuVernay plays many of Trump’s statements against other races. The effect is eerie, finding the connection between the language the president uses and racist violence. It isn’t a big jump to make, and it is a heartbreaking that we still need the act of protesting.

Selma, March, and 13th aren’t telling us anything new, though a lot of what I learned from them was new to me. If we were once convinced that we lived in a “post-race” world, these three works of art are a harsh reminder that the “post-race” world never existed. When I hear people decry protesters or question the legitimacy of protests, I want to grab them and shake them and show them one of these pieces of culture. We need March to remember that protest is effective. We need Selma to remember that protest is a deeply moral act. And we need 13th to remember that protest is still necessary after all.

Moonlight Is Something More

Moonlight Is Something More

Moonlight is at once exactly the movie you expect and something more. The trailer sets up a coming-of-age story about a young man discovering his identity and his sexuality while growing up in the ghettos of Miami. I didn’t say the young man is black, because it’s worth pointing out this characteristic on its own. It’s worth noting that every character in the movie is black, and yet none of them ever talk about being black, which is how you know this isn’t a Hollywood movie. It’s worth observing that the man who wrote and directed this movie, along with much of its crew, is black, yet they have made a movie in which blackness is not a condition of uniqueness that needs to be examined, but the norm.

Anyway, Moonlight is exactly the movie you expect, because it is indeed a coming-of-age story about a young black man, Chiron, in the ghetto of Miami. We meet him as a boy, played by Alex Hibbert. We watch him befriend a drug dealer named Juan (Mahershala Ali). We watch him get bullied by the other boys at school, one of whom, Kevin, tries to be his friend. We watch him discover that his mother (Naomie Harris) does drugs.

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We meet Chiron (Ashton Sanders) in the next act in high school. He’s still bullied, and his mother’s addiction to crack has worsened. Juan is out of the picture, though he still gets help from Juan’s girlfriend, Teresa (Janelle Monáe), when his mom kicks him out of the house for a night. He has his first sexual experience. Chiron is still friends with Kevin, but he may be his only friend, and Kevin is involved in an incident that leads to Chiron having to leave Miami.

The last act follows Chiron (Trevante Rhodes) about a decade later in his adult life. He’s hardened at this point, and buff, far from the skinny kid we saw in the second act. He lives in Atlanta now, but gets a call from Kevin looking to catch up. Much of this act is a conversation between the two of them in a diner back in Miami.

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It’s hard to convey in writing what Moonlight does to you while you’re watching it. I’m hardly qualified to discuss the movie’s sociological implications, but I can point out that movies like this, that focus on the lives of black people without reducing them to their race, are few and far between. I live in a white, privileged world, so much of this movie is very foreign to me.

But writer-director Barry Jenkins’s camera takes its time with these characters, forcing you to see them clearly. There are a lot of close-ups, removing any barriers between you and them. We see several scenes from directly behind a character, sliding us into their perspective. This is a slow movie, but any faster and you wouldn’t know these people, you wouldn’t see them.

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Moonlight is something more than the movie you expect. We’ve seen most of these characters in other movies, but in Moonlight they are no longer tropes or stereotypes. Nor are they the opposite of their tropes, meant to surprise you with how progressively they’ve been written. Mahershala Ali doesn’t play Juan as a “drug dealer- but with a heart of gold!” He’s a person with complicated feelings about what he does, trapped in a world both of his making and not of his making. Chiron’s three actors don’t play him as “a young black man- but gay!” Chiron’s sexuality matters as he struggles to figure out who he is, but the movie is deft at making the point that his identity is bigger than that.

This is a must-see movie because it will be up for Oscars, yes, but I find myself wanting to tell people they should see it, that they have to see it, even if they don’t care about movies or awards or the red carpet. My Bible Belt, Oklahoma world often rejects people like Chiron, both for his blackness and his homosexuality. And if we don’t reject him, we pigeonhole him, we have low expectations for him, we forget about him, or maybe we feel sorry for him. What Moonlight does so well, is that it asks these actors not to be black or gay, but to be human. And when a movie presents actual people to us rather than characters, it’s a must-see.

(h/t One Perfect Shot for the gif)

I Liked La La Land (I’m So, So Sorry)

I Liked La La Land (I’m So, So Sorry)

I have an apology to make, in several parts, from the deepest reaches of my heart. I hope you’ll hear me out and forgive me for my sins.

First, I want to apologize for enjoying La La Land. I am sorry that I liked it. I saw the raves and foolishly thought that I was supposed to like it, when I should have known that a backlash would soon follow. I never should have allowed myself to have emotions, and if I was going to have emotions, I definitely shouldn’t have let a musical about love and dreaming stir them up. Musicals are only worth praising when they are dour and cynical- I know this. Inspiring musical numbers, epic dance scenes, a moving score…I will never again allow these things to work their way into my heart.

And how could I have let people like Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone convince me their performances were among the best of the year? Everyone knows being a charismatic, likeable movie star is the easiest thing to do in the world- that’s why there are so many movie stars right now. I embraced them, it was wrong, and I’ve learned from my mistakes.

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Secondly, I want to apologize for wasting my attention on a movie that stars only white people. There are a lot of people of color populating the movie in supporting roles and as extras, but I forgot that they don’t matter. I allowed myself to be tricked into thinking that a movie with white stars and a diverse supporting cast could also contribute to the progressive cause. What was I thinking?

I’ve broken the cardinal rule of awards season, which (as you well know) is that you can only love one movie and one movie only. I’ve used up all my love on La La Land, and now have no love to give movies like Moonlight or Hidden Figures. When I watch those movies, I’ll have to suppress my appreciation for their diverse casts and storylines, because I decided to like the movie with white people instead. Oh that the awards season rules were different! But I’m a rule follower, so it’s too late for me.

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Thirdly, I want to apologize for even writing about La La Land at all. I can’t believe I spent almost an hour focusing my attention on a mainstream blockbuster when there are indie movies that nobody is talking about out there, because those are the only movies worth talking about. I need to remember (I’m always forgetting, always) that art isn’t worth talking about unless it is completed rejected by the populace.

And gee, I should have realized that La La Land wouldn’t merit attention, since it’s the most unoriginal thing in theaters right now. You’d think I’d be tired of movie musicals written directly for the screen featuring absurdist dance numbers and original music, since Enchanted was released just 10 years ago. If Hollywood produces another one in 2027, you can bet I’ll be sure to ignore the hell out of it.

In conclusion, I’m sorry I thought La La Land was the best movie I’ve seen from 2016 so far. In the future, I will be sure to keep my emotions in check, to only watch movies that aren’t about white people, and to only watch movies made for less than $1,000. I want to do right by you, my loyal reader, so I will make every effort to like only the movies that please everyone. Please forgive me.