A United Kingdom – Racism is a multi-colored affliction, but love can conquer all

It’s unfortunate that this excellent film seems to be relegated chiefly to the art house circuit, but my wife and I have looked forward to viewing this film after hearing good things from a family member who had seen it on the West Coast.

As a good history geek, I did quite a bit of research about the true story of Seretse and Ruth Khama and their controversial interracial marriage that threatened to divide his centuries-old kingdom of Bechuanaland.  I’m happy to say that they stayed quite faithful to the general narrative of this story.  I often complain when “Hollywood” (I include international film studios when I throw that term around) “messes” with many historical narratives.  When you honestly portray the truth of these “based on a true story” historical events, why should there be a need to fictionalize them!

This telling of the Khama’s story is winsomly accurate in portraying their meeting at a jazz-themed dance when he was in London studying to become his country’s future king.  We see Ruth’s family struggling to accept a black suitor for Ruth’s heart, but also see the same racial objections from his family and countrymen.  They marry in spite of the objection of individuals and the governments of England, Bechuanaland, and South Africa.  The marriage is tied up with Cold War politics as many of the nations in southern Africa are also rich in uranium.  In the early years of the atomic arms race, the conflicts of the bi-polar post-war world was the chief determinant of foreign policy decisions.  The Khama’s heretical marriage is a threat to the rising Republic of South Africa, it’s new policy of apartheid, and it’s all-important large deposits of the atomic mineral for Britain’s new atomic weapons stockpile.

If I were still teaching today, I would use a film like this to handle some of these issues, but also explain more of why the Cold War was the main focus of global politics in the early 1950s.  Most younger audiences are taught almost nothing of the Cold War other than that Joe McCarthy was an evil liar and the US was overthrowing governments at will in a mindless reaction to Soviet and Chinese communism.  By and large, the British opposition to Prince Khama’s marriage was about how it complicated issues with the neighboring racist regimes in South Africa and it’s neighbors, but the shunning of his white English bride was more based on race and class.  While Ruth’s birthing of Seretse’s daughter began to break the ice with her husband’s people, it’s these Cold War issues that seem most likely to either break up their marriage or prevent Seretse from ruling his country.

It’s an epic tale of love, courage, perseverance, and eventually one of democratic processes and the triumph of capitalism.  I once had a student from Botswana (today’s anglicized name for the country) and she explained to me that her country is the one of the most well off of the sub-Saharan nations.  The last 45 minutes of the film weaves in the sub-plot of Botswana’s mineral wealth and how to make sure that his poor country benefits from it and avoids the corruption and crony capitalism that had left so many other African countries with a small rich upper class and no middle class.

This is the one part of the story that I wish the filmmakers had time for: Seretse’s capitalist transformation of his nation into a black African nation with a burgeoning middle class and control of it’s own rich natural resources.  For an old capitalist like me, that’s an important lesson about changing the thoughts of the region.  It’s President Khama’s rejection of socialism and cronyism that results in the vibrant economy of today’s Botswana.

But that would be another less romantic and inspiring film for another time.  Both David Oyelowo and Rosamund Pike give integrity and believability to their characters and seeing some photos of the Khamas during the credits support a sense that one has witnessed a fair portrayal of this unlikely couple.

Bring a few tissues and see this fine contribution to our modern culture.  You’ll feel like you have been witness to a story of two lives lived for purpose of blessing others.

Lion – a different take on an incredibly moving story

I passed on this film several times before my wife and I finally decided to take it in.  Let’s take a quick look at what the trailer promised:

An impoverished young boy in India named Saroo gets separated from his family and is eventually adopted by an upper class family in Australia, John and Sue Brierley.  In his early 20s, after a happy childhood and an education that puts him on the road to a lifetime of success, he gradually decides it’s important for him to locate his family in India and let them know he’s alive.

My reasons for pausing on seeing this film were personal.  I had witnessed elements to this story first hand when I experienced my former wife, who had been adopted at age 6, reconnecting with her birth family when she was in her 40s.  While it was a great relief to her aunt (whose phone call to the police many years ago had made her a ward of the state by separating her from her alcoholic and abusive father), it was an emotional threat to her adopted family.  That adoptive family had hoped that years of love, care, and embracing her as their own, would help her “forget” her painful past.  When adopting a child at 6, that’s unlikely.  The protagonist in this story was five, so I was mostly concerned about how the Australian parents would react to the young man’s need to reconnect.

My other reason was the fact that I am now, while not legally but in reality, an adoptive parent myself.  My brother and his wife adopted two toddlers from China in the mid-2000s.  She died in 2013, he in 2015, and my wife and I are now the “parents” (legal guardians) for these two adolescent girls.  We love the girls and believe that we are building a safe harbor of love and guidance for them.  We have introduced them to our extended family over the last few years and some of our children and grandchildren are embracing them as their own.  But it’s hard to tell how to best help them feel a sense of security when we are about the same age as their parents were when they passed.  Every time we cough or sniffle, the youngest asks if we are ok!  I understand her concern, and work hard to convince them that they have a family that will love them for decades to come. 

When it was clear that “Lion” was an obvious choice for our next film, my wife and I were a bit reluctant to engage in whatever the filmmakers felt were the key elements of this story.  So how did we like it?

First, we wept through much of it.  We both resisted the opportunity to look or talk to each other during the film because we were both afraid we would lose it.  I think most readers know how the film ends up.  It’s really not a spoiler to say that it’s a generally satisfactory ending to the film (along with some real footage of the people portrayed).  OUR concern was for the adoptive family.  I don’t say that because, in essence, we ARE an adoptive family, but because the easy emotional route for this kind of story is to simply have the viewer feel good because the protagonist gets what he wants and we feel release for him as the aggrieved party.  In the end, especially in today’s easy gratification culture, that’s probably the simplest and most satisfying result.  But it’s also the most selfish;  because it ignores the impact on the adoptive family.

In “Lion”, it’s not all sweetness and light in Australia.  The family also adopts a second Indian boy with implied severe mental and emotional challenges.  The family has the same problems as children mature that any family has.  The biggest challenge for the family in “Lion” is that the Brierleys have begun their parenting, as my wife and I say, in the “middle of the movie.”  It takes time and many many persistent attempts at communication to delve into what is going on inside a young person’s thoughts.  They often don’t want you to see what is going on, and it’s difficult to see how to best help them develop into a happy independent mature person when you don’t have a lot of past experiences to go on.  You also begin with a big “emotional bank account” with them when you adopt.  It requires patience, firmness, persistence, and consistent standards with children that you “take on” when you adopt them as children with memories of their parents, younger experiences, and certain established expectations.

To his credit, Saroo is very aware of what the Brierleys have done to turn his life from disaster to great promise.  He is very protective of them and walks carefully, and quietly, along his path of investigating the few facts he can count on in order to locate his Indian family.  It’s a well-written, beautifully acted story that treats all families involved with love but also doesn’t close it’s eyes to the difficulties involved in addressing the complications for Saroo, the Brierley’s, and his adoptive brother.  There is also an Australian girlfriend who has to balance her love for Saroo with his troubled search for his Indian family and his attempts to deal with his troubled brother.

We are glad we saw “Lion.”  It’s not all sweetness and light, and there are many moments in the film where things could have ended very badly, and more often do in these situations, but the themes it covers, and the way it portrays them, are well worth the 5 hanky experience in the watching.

“The Founder” – Hollywood’s split personality over capitalism

After seeing the trailer for this film, I was, once again, uncertain that I would want to see it.  It was clear that the main protagonist was not going to be a terribly sympathetic character, so what would be my motivation?

I’m sensitive to how capitalists are portrayed in film, having been a history teacher and an investment advisor.  In American schools, today’s students are being told that capitalism is evil, that rich people don’t pay “their fair share” of taxes.  The history of America as taught in today’s classrooms is of a country that has become wealthy by raping the land, profiting from slavery, and taking advantage of poor uneducated immigrants.  It’s a tale of slave owners and rich “robber barons” who “stole” their way to the top of the wealth pyramid.  There are plenty of facts that can be used to support this and it is a main thrust of one of the more popular “alternative” history books today:  Howard Zinn’s “People’s History of the United States.”  But this is a “stacked” series of facts that fail to show how much capitalism has also blessed this nation, and by it’s success, this nation’s wealth has benefitted the world.

As a former US History teacher, I was a great believer in informing students of the various aspects of our history, warts and all.  But, where I differ from the “it’s all our fault” version of US history, is that this nation has repeatedly involved itself in great waves of reform throughout our first 300 years(I include the decades leading to independence).  When talking about the colonization of the continent by English settlers (because it is as English colonies that true American government, culture, law, and language was formed.  We she should ask ourselves what was the incentive was for those settlers to leave their life in England and strike out for the uncertainty of the New World?   The average life-span was significantly shorter in the Americas than if they had stayed in the Mother Country.  In other words, why did they risk it?  The most common reason, for almost ALL Europeans who would emigrate to the New World (to this day) remains the promise of individual achievement through CAPITALISM.

As an advocate of capitalism, I am painfully aware of Hollywood’s schizophrenia toward the subject.  As popular as it is to portray almost every villain ever used in films as motivated by money (or the power money will give), it’s curious that I don’t see anyone in Hollywood advocating GIVING AWAY TICKETS FOR THEIR MOVIES.   (Michael “Capitalism: a love story” Moore, I’m looking at YOU, big boy).  All the Bond villains, most super hero villains, even Star Lord from Guardians of the Galaxy, are all about money.

Now we have Ray Kroc, modern “founder” of McDonalds as the driven “capitalist” who will stop at nothing to fulfill his dream.  After failing to succeed as a salesman for milk shake machines, he spots two guys at a hamburger stand in California who have hit on a system that will revolutionize the drive-in concept to our familiar “fast food” modern American world.  He’s part salesman, part con-man, part visionary, and all-American capitalist.

I don’t want to give away too much of the plot.  For the most part, director John Lee Hancock (The Blind Side) stays fairly faithful to the actual narrative of this true story.  Writer Robert Siegel gives Kroc’s character plenty of juicy cutthroat lines on his way to the top like “If I saw a competitor drowning, I’d shove a hose down his throat.” Michael Keaton inhabits the character of Kroc so well, I forgot who was portraying the entrepreneur.  What is it about the ability of men who get their start in comedy and then show great talent in serious drama?  The list is long:  Keaton, Hanks, Nicholson…

Perhaps I’m overly sensitive being the son of a longtime corporate executive.  I saw people like my father portrayed as heartless souls who were all about winning, success, and money.  While my dad succeeded in all of those ways, I never met a man who was more honest and when he passed many years ago, everyone who worked with him described him as a man of towering integrity.

I think “The Founder” is worthy of being shown and discussed in an class on economics and entrepreneurialism, even if simply as a point for debating the good, bad, and ugly parts of capitalism.  But I do still believe that portrayals like this are a bit hypocritical coming from Hollywood.  If you want to know what I am talking about, go rent/stream/whatever both “The Player” and “S.O.B.” if you want to see how Hollywood, when talking about capitalism, speaks with forked tongue.

Masterpiece’s “Victoria” – taking on the lessons of power, responsibility, and duty

It seems that there is a hunger for television series regarding British royalty at the moment.  We have seen a series on Netflix covering the early portion of the reign of Elizabeth II, a series on PBS about Henry VIII’s wives, and now comes the ITV-produced series “Victoria”  on PBS. Season one (season two begins production next month) covers her accession to the throne upon the death of her uncle, William IV, at age 18.  We conclude season one with the birth of her first of nine children she will bear, many of whom will be married into the royal lines of some of the most powerful countries of 19th century Europe.

The series focuses on a combination of personal relationships, political skirmishes, and the growth of the monarch in her understanding of her role under the British Constitution.  Most Americans will probably find it more entertaining because of the frequent emphasis of romantic entanglements (mostly staff and nobility), personal drama, and the inevitable projection of modern day values on Victorian Era morals, ethics, and interpersonal relationships.  Understandably, the writers take great care to point out the inequities of gender expectations in 19th century England in spite of the fact that the country’s monarch is a female.

I enjoyed this initial series most when it was laying the foundation for the rise of the modern British Empire and giving hints at the forward-looking attitudes of the Queen and her husband, Prince Consort Albert.  Whether it is science, technology, or the “social contract” between the public and their government, the writers take care to emphasize the political progress, defeat for populism, and the occasional cluelessness of the privileged class to the survival mode of the average citizen.

The Queen’s husband, Prince Albert, becomes Victoria’s eyes, ears, and a voice of conscience reporting on the plight of her most common subjects.  Chief writer and creator Daisy Goodwin wants us to recognize that it took an outsider, a minor German prince, to see the disconnect between the Queen’s government and the squalor of the London realities portrayed in Charles Dickens’ novels. 

As teacher of government, it’s also noticeable that the main decision makers are still only men of great wealth and title.  It will take the catastrophic world conflicts of the early 20th century, and the corresponding loss of empire, to bring the Parliament under control of the middle class.  The result will be the end of the Victorian attitudes and privileges and the rise of the modern welfare state for the working classes.  It will be fascinating to see if that aspect of the story of Victoria’s 73-year reign will be portrayed assuming the series produces enough episodes to cover her entire adult life.

This all brings to mind the question of why we are so fascinated by these stories of royalty.  There is no question that this kind of period drama is more popular in England than here in her former colonies, but the success of filmed portrayals of several Jane Austen novels, and the “Downton Abbey” mania, says something about us as a people.  Perhaps we have a desire to see wealthy and famous people wrestle with the same personal problems that everyday peasants do.  I think there is a longing for the day when people behaved with more civility and tact.  We may be faced with a world that is full of crudity and salaciousness, but that doesn’t mean we prefer our lives to be dominant in our entertainment.

While it doesn’t have quite the power, majesty, and deep exploration of moral issues plumbed in Netflix’s “The Crown”, Victoria is another pleasant dive into the world of English royalty while we wait for season two of “The Crown.”  I am also interested in another British series covering the War of the Roses called “The Hollow Crown” on PBS.  Besides, one can never get enough Benedict Cumberbatch.  Especially if they are only going to give us three episodes of “Sherlock” per year.

Modern Mozart – Mike Oldfield’s latest reminds us of the uplifting power of music

As an 18-year-old college sophomore at a small midwestern college, I had to search far and wide to find the kind of eclectic British progressive music that I craved.  I had been early amongst my peers in appreciating bands like Jethro Tull, Yes, Genesis, and Emerson, Lake and Palmer.  My brother and I had an informal competition to find the best new music, and then we would enjoy introducing each other to our new discovery.  But I was not prepared for what I came across while working for my college FM radio station in 1973.

The album cover displayed an ocean shore with a bow-tie twisted silver tube and the simple words “Mike Oldfield-Tubular Bells.”  I had read about this 20 year-old musical prodigy who had created 40 minutes of instrumentals, and that he had played the 20+ instruments himself.  Today’s technology would have made this practice fairly common with an average laptop and commonly available software.  Released as the initial effort of young entrepreneur Richard Branson’s Virgin Records label, Tubular Bells made Oldfield famous and wealthy, but also put great pressure on the young musician to produce a successful follow-up.  It’s millions of copies sold worldwide produced the seed money that launched Branson’s massively successful business empire capped by his recent sale of his Virgin America Airlines to Alaska Air for $4 billion.

For US listeners, Oldfield was plucked out of obscurity when director William Friedkin used the opening piano solo notes as the “Theme from The Exorcist” which earned the composer a Grammy award in 1975.  Oldfield’s subsequent works remained popular in Europe, but never really caught on in the USA. His third album, Ommadawn  was categorized by some as “world music” due to an extended section at the end of part one being dominated by a mesmerizing pace of ensemble African drumming.  Oldfield’s melody-centered long-form instrumentals were considered passe’ when punk rock came on the scene in the 1980s.  Sales were disappointing and even Branson began to lose faith in his prize stallion.  With the exception of the popular hit “Moonlight Shadow” in 1983, the 80s became increasingly more about hit music videos.  The MTV Generation’s short attention span was a daunting audience for the long form rock musicians of the 60s and 70s.  The 1990’s brought two sequels, Tubular Bells II and III, but they appealed mainly to older fans who had embraced his original opus and newer fans didn’t seem inclined to devote the time to “listen” to music like the previous generation.

This past Friday, Oldfield released his 26th album, an attempt to recapture lightning in a bottle.  This new work, Return to Ommadawn, owes it’s musical heritage to many of his works of the 70s and 80s.  But Oldfield is now creating his music with a maturity of a man who has developed an exquisite sense of proper balance. His newest effort displays the confidence and experience of an accomplished musician who knows how to get the music exactly as he imagines it with today’s digital recording and mixing technologies.

The modern serious composer has a daunting challenge. How does the his work get heard in a world of pop, hip-hop, and dance music?  Oldfield’s offerings go straight to the heart, not just the feet and hips.  His creations hearken from a time when people listened to the soft shades and voices that combine like fine food with delicate spices and sauces.  There is no “hit song” or “Love theme from <worthless teen movie>.”  The more one puts the album through it’s paces, the more the listener marvels that one individual has so many shiny polished gems to share.  Return to Ommadawn is rich with the varying aural atmospheres that graced his past compositions but with the maturity of four decades has come a leaner,  pacing. 

I remember discovering new artists and musical works by listening to late night FM stations.  In high school, I would set my stereo system on a timer and fall asleep as the midnight radio personality would play both sides of the Every Good Boy Deserves Favour by the Moody Blues, Tommy by The Who, Thick as a Brick by Jethro Tull, or Nursery Cryme by Genesis.  I remember hearing Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon in a record store and paying three times the face value to a young employee for a pre-released promotional copy off their turntable.  Is there an opportunity for new music to be introduced in a society with the focus and constant distraction of the social media world of today?  Is there any hope that an artist like Oldfield can get a fair hearing?  I believe this is very important to the improvement of modern culture.

The popular music scene has always been dominated by “fast-food” music and today’s “rip and share” piracy has made it very hard for any but the most widely distributed artists to find an audience, let alone make a living.  Oldfield ceased public performances after his sole symphonic composition, Music of the Spheres, was performed in Bilbao, Spain in 2008.  Living in the Bahamas, it seemed his live performance days were over until he received an email that film director Danny Boyle wanted to talk to him.  Boyle was going to produce the opening ceremonies for the 2012 London Olympics. Their ensuing conversations resulted in Oldfield performing a medley of his pieces in a tribute to the British National Health system.  Oldfield enjoyed playing a medley from parts of Tubular Bells I and III and the public response was gratifying.  Inspired by the experience to try recording again, he penned a series of songs and enlisted The Struts singer Luke Spiller to provide the vocals. Man on the Rocks was received with modest, but encouraging European success.  Return to Ommadawn is a return to his long form roots and before it was released he was already well along in working on Tubular Bells IV. 

It’s time for a new generation of young music lovers to discover the joy of heart-expanding music that inspires and uplifts.  In the effort to replace the darkness and cynicism of our doubts about the direction of our species, we must first endeavor to purge the mind of hatred and dark passions.  Inspiring music lifts man’s thoughts out of an animalistic nature to something more selfless and limitless.  Music can be used to expand our attempts to bring a more civilized aura of kindness to this universe.  It can effect our thinking in a way that allows each listener to find his own path with the inspiration that an accomplished and creative musician can produce.  Mike Oldfield’s Return to Ommadawn is exhibit A.

If you are reading this post and are curious about this work, please go purchase it.  We waste so much money in silly ways without a thought.  File-sharing discourages creativity and impoverishes the artists who push the boundaries of modern music.  For the cost of a couple of large Starbucks lattes we can help them keep the flow of innovation going!