Movie Review – Fences

When I saw the trailer for this movie, I almost jumped out of my seat.  Denzel Washington has used his considerable talent and “pull” over the last few years to do projects that ask tough questions of his fellow humans.

I thought his turn in “The Equalizer” posed important thoughts about the consequences of one’s actions and how one must juggle what you “can” do with what you “should” do.  His character discovers that while he could take on “the bad guys”, perhaps the ramifications of his actions must be sufficiently pondered.   The impulse to wreak havoc can cause irreversible damage.

His alcoholic pilot in “Flight” forced the audience to make a tough call. Can a man who endangers hundreds of passengers by flying drunk be a hero?  Washington portrays a “high-functioning” drunk who overcomes his self-induced handicap enough to take quick-acting, and radically unthinkable, solutions to a hopeless crisis in mid-air.  I have watched that film several times just to read Denzel’s face and try to interpret his thoughts as he makes several critical ethical choices throughout the film.  The pilot’s ethical thought-processes veer, like a drunk, back and forth down a hallway of choices before his character faces a final resolution.  It’s a painful journey and ends with a mixed result that doesn’t fully satisfy.  And it shouldn’t…

Years ago, during my time working for a local school, I organized regular outings for the students to go see different live performances in St. Louis.  Every year, I sent at least one group of students to see a play at the Black Reparatory Theater.  Whenever they had an August Wilson play, I sent a group.  My wife, in the years before we got to know each other, joined one of those groups as a chaperone and saw “Fences” at the Black Rep.  It made quite an impact on her.  When we saw the movie trailer we both made a mental note to make “Fences” one of our date night movies.

The plot of the play is centered around Troy Maxson (Washington) and his wife Rose (Oscar Nominee Viola Davis).  Troy was Negro League baseball player in the 1930s who would probably have been a major league star if not for Jim Crow restrictions preventing blacks from playing in the major leagues.  Now Troy is a sanitation worker in his 50s raising a teenage son from his marriage to Rose and occasionally sharing some of his meager earnings with a jazz musician son from a previous relationship. 

This dialogue heavy film is a powerful portrayal of life on the edge.  While it’s about a black family in the 1950s, many of the conflicts that arise have deep roots in ambition, disappointment, and the frustration of lost chances during youth.  Obviously, these are human traits and challenges shared by all races. 

I look forward to watching this film again, more than once, if for no other reason that I missed parts of dialogue.  The film is rides the broad shoulders of Washington’s powerful acting and directing. Davis’ portrayal of the conflicts dealing with the “war” between her husband, his sons, and his commitment to Rose give Washington a worthy character to spar and court with.  Steven McKinley Henderson’s portrayal of Jim Bono, Troy’s friend who has been with him through trials and triumphs, is chummy when needed but also stands ready to give gentle and keen counsel to Troy when he seems destined to make another major life-altering mistake.

While sprinkled with some adult language and mature discussions, Fences is an important statement about the state of families and fidelities of all sorts that every family should watch, discuss, and dissect.   Wilson’s play won a well deserved Pulitzer Prize in 1987, and is part of his ten play series centered in his hometown of Pittsburgh. 

I don’t suppose anything can help a white-bread suburban-raised boy like me understand the black experience in America, but I think efforts like Fences can help us be more aware of the challenges that few other ethnic groups in the USA have had to face in the last four centuries of our existence in North America.  Run, do not walk, to see Fences.

When Virginia WASN’T for ALL lovers

A heartfelt tale of courage and love

When I saw the trailer in the theaters for this film, I was concerned about what direction the writer/director was going to take this true story of love, courage, and persistent principle.  As a long-time high school teacher of US Government, I have a reverence for the Constitution of the United States.  The times our federal government has violated individual civil rights has, with very few exceptions, been the times where our laws have either violated or ignored those rights.  More rights have been violated because of our ignorance of our founding protections than due to any other reason in history.

Americans should know their Constitution backward and forward.  It’s is the protection of all.  Holding our laws elected representatives accountable for adhering to those founding documents is the only way to protect people, property, and individual freedoms.  So often, my wife and I looked at each other and grieved during this film.  A simple knowledge of the rights of the individual, and the restrictions of the powers of government to infringe on those rights, would have prevented the horrible miscarriage of justice that these two lovely people sustained. 

The promise of public education today no longer is simply whether you can add a sum of numbers or quote from a popular book.  At the heart of our children’s knowledge base should be their understanding of what governments can and can’t do.  Add to that the things that government should and should NOT do. 

As I watched the agony of what the Lovings endured as a result of Virginia’s anti-miscegenation laws (16 states had them at the time, all in the south) I wanted to yell at the screen:  “This is why Congress passed the 14th Amendment!  Your marriage certificate should be honored due to Article IV of the Constitution!”  Their local attorney should have at least explained those arguments to them.  What the heck am I talking about?  Let me explain…

Early in the film, when Mildred discovers she is pregnant, Richard tells her he wants to marry her, but because of state law banning interracial marriage they had to drive to the District of Columbia in order to get married.  After they get back, Richard mounts the marriage certificate on the wall of their bedroom almost like a talisman to ward off the evil spirits of the authorities in Virginia.  I don’t want to give away the complete narrative of the story, but Article IV of the Constitution would have been my first challenge to the arrest of the Lovings in July of 1958.  The “Good Faith” clause of Article IV of the Constitution says, in part, “Full Faith and Credit shall be given in each State to the public Acts, Records, and judicial Proceedings of every other State. And the Congress may by general Laws prescribe the Manner in which such Acts, Records and Proceedings shall be proved, and the Effect thereof.”  Certainly a marriage certificate is a public record of such an act.

This means that the State of Virginia should have been required to honor their marriage certificate.  I used to explain to my US Government students that when the first state legalized same-sex marriage, that it meant that all states would have to recognize any marriage certificate from any other state.  I suppose it could be argued that since the District of Columbia was not an actual state, that Virginia was not required to honor it, but I would have been eager to be the attorney to attack that argument.

But the eventual successful challenge to the southern racial marriage laws came down to the ruling that they were a violation of the 14th Amendment.  The 14th was specifically crafted by the post-Civil War congress to deal with exactly this kind of law.   The south created local restrictions on the “freedmen” as they were called.  Certain professions were off-bounds, activities were proscribed, and included among these prohibited actions were interracial relationships, whether marital or simply carnal.  These local ordinances were known as the “black codes.”  When the Congress heard of these restrictions, they passed, and then ratified, the 14th Amendment to the Constitution in 1868, just three years after the war.  They felt so strongly about the importance of protecting such freedoms that each southern state being readmitted to the Union, after revoking it’s ordinance of secession, was also required to ratify the three “Civil War” amendments, including the 14th.  It reflected the federal government’s expectation that the “prodigal” former Confederate states would be prohibited from keeping their racist ordinances.  In fact, part of Chief Justice Warren’s opinion on the case, unanimously supported by the other justices, said “The Fourteenth Amendment requires that the freedom of choice to marry not be restricted by invidious racial discrimination. Under our Constitution, the freedom to marry, or not marry, a person of another race resides with the individual and cannot be infringed by the State.  The 14th Amendment should have protected all interracial couples from 1868 all.

But the fraudulent election of 1876 undid all those protections.  In order to win the Electoral College count for Republican Rutherford Hayes, the Republican Congress cut a deal with the devil and ended federal Reconstruction in the south, abandoning the freedmen to white ex-confederate control in exchange for the electoral college votes of a few southern states.  Books have been written on this subject that would more fully explain what I am trying to make clear.  The key point is that the North threw up it’s hands and gave up trying to “reform” the south’s racist roots.  Secession had been defeated and the southern states had rejoined the Union, but the north decided it was a fool’s errand to try to force the south to change it’s attitude about it’s black population.  It was 1877’s version of “failed nation building.”  So began almost a century of second-class citizenship for America’s southern blacks.  In order to keep order, and keep the “white race pure,” miscegenation laws were passed throughout the south.  Marital and sexual congress between the races were banned.

While school desegregation was at least moving, but at a glacial pace, as the result of the Brown vs. Board of Education decision in the 1950s, no state wanted to take any steps that would further confuse who was “white” and who was “colored” by further mixing the races through allowing relationships that might produce mixed-race offspring.

The prosecution of the Lovings in 1958 would have been seen by many in the south as a necessary legal stand to push back against the advance of racial strife and preserving the rights of states to decide issues that had always been state issues rather than questions for the federal government to get involved in.  Northerners saw federal troops protecting black students at Little Rock High School as enforcing equal rights for blacks against a recalcitrant racist south.  Southerners saw federal troops in Little Rock High as modern day military reconstruction occupation forces and federal interference with local ordinances that had kept “the peace” since the 1880s.  It’s easy to see who was wrong, but it’s important that today’s reader see how the “Rashomon” effect could be at play in the civil rights movement and conflicts of the 1950s and 1960s without excusing it.

As you read this blog, think on this…where did you go through middle school and high school?  If you learned your US History in the North or West, you learned very little about Reconstruction after the Civil War.  Heck, you were taught that the “Civil War” was all about slavery and the need for it’s elimination.

If you learned your US History in the south, there is a good chance you learned A LOT about Reconstruction after the Civil War.  You may have even been taught that it wasn’t a Civil War (this is a true statement.  Sometime, I’ll have to do a blog on this, but the “American Civil War” was not actually a civil war.)  Southerners were taught about “the War Between the States” or “The War of Northern Aggression.”  (I’m serious here.  I married into a southern family for several decades, and these are critical distinctions for them)  Most northerners are unaware that Reconstruction is a ridiculous misnomer.  Little was rebuilt as much as southerners saw it as an attempt of northerners to rebuild southern society in the image of the north.  Northern students, like me,  were told the war was over, the North won, the slaves were freed, and things got much better…until rich “robber barons” took advantage of poor immigrant laborers who created labor unions to fight back.

NOTHING is taught in most northern classrooms about the years of federal military rule in the south, the confiscation and redistribution of southern lands, the decades where ex-confederate soldiers and local officials were denied the right to run businesses, the right to much of their own  land, and even the right to vote.  The bitterness against the freedmen down south was as much about their collaboration with federal reconstruction as it was about pure racism.  Southerners are very aware of this history, northerners are woefully ignorant.

What does this have to do with the Lovings?  It certainly is NOT a rationalization excusing what happened to them, but it continues to be at the heart of so much conflict in this country:  local power versus federal authority.  It’s this question that pitted Alexander Hamilton’s Federalist party against Thomas Jefferson’s opposition, which became the Democratic-Republican party.  By the time Andrew Jackson renamed it the “Democrat” party, Jefferson’s party had become the party that opposed federal authority and enabled the earliest versions of “black codes” preventing slave education, evicting native tribes from their lands in the south to grow a booming cotton economy,  and restricting even those free blacks who had bought their freedom.

What Richard and Mildred Loving were able to do, with the assistance of Life Magazine and the growing influence of television news, was to humanize individual people.  To help Americans evolve their attitudes about “negroes” from racial stereotypes and see them as individual people.  The movie Loving makes us feel it is somehow inconceivable that it was ever considered “ok” to tell people who they could and couldn’t marry or have a relationship with (their case was an important precedent in the Oberkefell case that opened up same-sex marriage).  In the end, Loving may lead to a much more libertarian view by society that even the most well-intentioned societal legislation can be oppressive even if with the intention of doing good.  19th century southern society thought it was doing good by preserving the racial stratification that had served them well for centuries.(they believed it even kept things peaceful for black society.  They “knew their place”) 

It’s easy to see the injustice the Lovings endured today.  The film does a great service by giving us such a beautifully portrayed telling of their tale.  It forced me to ask an important question.  Are we seeing any other “acceptable” injustices being committed today all in the context of what we believe puts us on “the right side of history?”  Right side of history, indeed.

Moana – A Pixaresque experience or not?

Disney goes Polynesian
Disney goes Polynesian

This will be a shorter than usual review blog post.  Several days ago I took my youngest girl to see Moana.  Full disclosure – I own a few shares of Disney in my IRA.

I have long admired Disney’s films, several of my children/grandchildren have enjoyed them through the ages, and I love what the merger with Pixar has done to the animation field.  While Moana is not actually a Pixar film (Toy Story, Finding Nemo, Inside Out) but a Disney Animation film (Frozen, Tangled, Zootopia).  What both operations have in common is executive producer and head of Animation for Disney, John Lasseter. 

Now you have many imitators of the Pixar/Disney CGI animation creations.  Dreamworks (Dragons, Trolls), Illuminations (Minions) and others pale in comparison to Pixar for one key reason:  story.  Look at the trio of Toy Story films, the family feelings in Finding Nemo.  For me, if I had to choose one example of how superior Pixar is in this field, it’s the married life montage in Up.  You may have mixed feelings about the overall film (Still one of my favorites) but this montage is emotionally powerful…and it’s just a fancier version of a cartoon!  How do you start the film with such a bittersweet theme…and then make it soar?  Great writing, that’s how! Pixar sketches characters that make us care and it takes the time to paint the depth of the characters.  Watch Wall-e interact with Eve when he first meets her.  Is there any better example of awkward teenage crushes but when he keeps wanting to hold her “hand?”

Back to Moana:  It’s not a Pixar, but it’s a good solid effort by Disney.  But Keith, you say, what different does it make whether it’s Pixar or Disney?  They own them both.

The difference is the writing.  As a teenager, I had a brother who was a communication arts major in college and he was focusing on the Looney Tunes animators of the Golden Era at Warner Brothers.  He would watch the cartoons with me and point out the difference between a Chuck Jones short and a Tex Avery short.  He could show the difference between a Robert McKimson effort, a crazy Bob Clampett piece, and a Ub Iwerks classic.  More than anything, he would show me all the “inside jokes” that laced a short written by Michael Maltese, Tedd Pierce (the two marooned men in this piece were animated by the artists as representations of Pierce and Maltese).

Today, I look for which Pixar writer is penning the latest effort.  I love a good Brad Bird (The Incredibles, Ratatouille), Pete Docter (Toy Story, Up, Monsters Inc., Inside Out) or Andrew Stanton (A Bug’s Life, Wall-E, Finding Nemo – also the voice of Crush)effort.  Most of the films above are collaborative efforts with other writers at Pixar.  We find that the Pixar films entertain and touch us because the writing treats us, regardless of age, like adults.  Tell me that you weren’t a puddle on the floor when Jessie tells her story in Toy Story 2 then you don’t have a pulse. Powerful stuff.

Again…BACK TO MOANA.  Moana is a good effort, but it is a Disney Animation picture NOT a Pixar film in the mode of the above examples.  Perhaps I have unfair expectations because of the best of the Pixar films.  Not every one is a classic.  I’m not a fan of the Cars series and could care less about the coming of Cars 3.  But most film studios would kill to connect with their audience the way so many Pixar flicks have.  There are few live action films that hit you the way the end of Toy Story 3 does…or when one hears the amazing Peter O’Toole, as Anton Ego, try to explain his experience at having enjoyed the greatest meal even…that was prepared by Remi the rat.  All of these moments work, not because of great CGI effects, but because the writers have created complex but appealing characters and the director has allowed the pace to make us believe that these characters exist and, most importantly, have feelings we can relate to.  Moana, alas, is not one of these classics.

Moana is more like Brave, Beauty and the Beast, or Frozen.  That doesn’t mean it’s bad.  The film has fun songs (Hamilton’s Lin-Manuel Miranda contributed) an adventuresome premise, and a winning character in Maui played with gusto by Dwayne (The Rock) Johnson.  A nice sprinkling of Polynesian culture and attitudes inhabits much of the effort, but we have seen the main plot many times before.  Overprotective and unhinged dad tries to prevent daughter/future successor from taking risky voyage to save their people.  This is why I cited Brave etc. as the examples from Disney animation.  Again, the film is fine.  My daughter had a good time.  I guess I was expecting more.

And to be honest, I am getting tired of the overbearing dad portrayals who in the end must suck it up and admit to the young brash reckless daughter that she was right.  Horsepucky.  More often than not, Dad will go to great lengths to rescue the daughter from her folly, often with nary a “I told you so.”  But then, that doesn’t fit in well with today’s youth culture narrative.

And THAT is why this review is in a blog about modern culture.  The Pixar films don’t make parenting harder, but I would dearly love to slap around the sassy Scottish archer who turned her mother into a bear, the snotty Scandinavian princess who got engaged on a whim, or the bunny who wanted to be a cop because that was “her dream” and darned near got killed several times and permanently scarring her parents.  (Marlin was right that Nemo should have listened to him.  Good thing Australian dentists make insecure aquariums)  The Disney “arrogant impulsive daughters know better than daddy” movies are made by men-boys whose daughters haven’t become teenagers yet.

I know I know…”you kids get offa my lawn.”  Let me have it in the comment section.  🙂

“Arrival” and it’s deeper questions

I was excited to see this film for several reasons.  I have heard great things about Denis Villeneuve (his films have not, to date, made my “must see” list) and I have long had an interest in “alien visitors.”  In a note of disclosure, I have been active, in the past, in the Mutual UFO Network, and my interest in UFOs goes back to the mid-1960s as a child when I first read Frank Edwards’ “Flying Saucers-Serious Business.”  I have had the privilege of talking to the son of the USAF officer who first reported the crash at Roswell in 1947 (he says his dad let him hold some of the recovered material.  I may have to cover this issue in a future blog post), so I always love me a good “little green men” movie.

This film covers ground of a much more serious and deep thinking level than something as charitable as ET or menacing as “Independence Day.”  While the attempts to communicate and determine the intentions of the visitors in “Arrival” make up much of the film’s narrative, screenwriter Eric Heisserer’s interpretation of Ted Chiang’s short story, “The Story of your LIfe,” there is much more at stake than the usual “are they a threat or here to help” story.  That is the concern of governments and nations, but not of our team of professionals brought in to divine the “threat level” of the twelve ships who have placed themselves around the globe.

Villeneuve allows the viewer to ponder the daunting task before the scientists, mathematicians, etc.  But the focus of the film is chiefly on the contributions of the linguist on the team.  From the film’s first moments, we jump into her life very personally.  As a former teacher, I saw how she was using her work in her classroom to staunch the pain of personal loss that we see in the opening minutes of the film.  At the risk of muddying the narrative, the filmmakers draw us into the story with the feeling that we know more about the main character, played with subtlety and depth by Amy Adams, than anyone else on the planet. 

I’m going to be careful that I don’t tell too much of the story, it’s that good, because film enthusiasts will be talking about this one for a long time to come.  There are refreshing new twists in the world of the “heptopods” (7 legs) that add a unique dynamic to the “arrival” of the visitors.  The interior of the ship is a rough-hewn hollow corridor that provides gravity on all sides.  This sounds like a fun twist…until you look down and feel you should be falling.  Gravity helps us see which was is “up”; but what if ALL ways are “up?”  It’s quite disorienting to the investigation. 

Adams’ character ends up driving much of the progress the team makes in discerning the intentions of the visitors because without language you can’t have a “meeting of the minds.”  It’s the last 30 minutes of the film that make it all begin to come together, although some will walk out confused they way I did exiting “2001” in 1969 and wondering what the last 30 minutes of the light show and orbiting fetus was all about.

Arrival doesn’t hit you over the head with a “message” other than ask you to question some assumptions we make about reality as humans.  Besides challenging “up,” gravity, and “intelligence,” the most important questions to be answered relate to TIME.  Again, I don’t want to throw around spoilers, but we often speak in generalizations about our concepts of time in a post-Einsteinian world, but put those assumptions in the context of a personal journey and you get a story like the one told in “Arrival.”

Go see this film with someone you love to have deep conversations with and give yourself time after the movie to go somewhere quiet where you and your fellow traveler can bounce ideas off each other pressing the assumptions of the movie in different possible directions.  You shouldn’t be looking for a right answer, but you should be contemplating important concepts.  As you discuss time, be sure to include the language Adams’ Dr. Banks decodes, and how the “figures” tell us something of how the visitors perceive time.

The idea of time as humans conceive it has been of great interest to me throughout my life, but particularly since reading recent accounts of Near-Death Experiences by authors like Neurosurgeon Dr. Eben Alexander and Hong Kong businesswoman Anita Moorjani.  Moorjani’s work in particular addresses how time is very different when experienced on a spiritual basis as opposed to the narrative way that humans are comfortable.  Both books are quick reads with big questions.  Take the time to read them soon.  “Arrival” takes advantage of the option of being a narrative, with flashbacks, and a very unusual wrap-up to finish the film. 

Experience it on the big screen…and be ready for deep conversations for days afterwards.  Cheers.

Thoughts on – “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them”

fantastic-beasts-and-where-to-find-themLet’s start with the obvious:  This is NOT a Harry Potter film.  Yes, it is about the world of wizardry (Think of it as alums of Hogwarts and other schools of magic) but we are mostly talking about a world of adults with professionals, officials and governing authorities, not students, professors, and institutes of magical learning.

Ms. Rowling has once again shown why her stories generally have a broad audience who enjoy her insatiable appetite for complicated characters and surprising story lines.  Her greatest success is creating persons that we care about.  Unlike the Marvel Universe, these are not one-dimensional cartoon characters but complex personalities with difficult ethical and moral decisions to be made within the strictures of world they inhabit.

I’ll just give a quick sketch of the plot since most of what appeals to the “culture viewpoint analyst” is more in the choices that the players must make throughout the film.  It’s 1926 and a Roaring 20’s version of The Dark Lord is loose in the magical world.  Separate from that story line, a young British wizard, a graduate of Hogwarts, has ventured to New York City to add a few New World magical beasts to his wizard’s suitcase.

We get magicians in a different country within a fashionable 20th century time period.  We also see how the USA might have approached the conflict between the magical world and the “muggles”(“no-majs” in the USA) in Jazz Era New York.  Rowling’s vision has a female African-American president of the Magical Congress of the United States.   The congress is a smaller and more intimate circle of practitioners of magical arts than the bureaucratic ministry portrayed in the UK realm of the Potter series.

Let’s examine the contribution to modern culture of this episode in Rowling’s ongoing world of wizards and magical creatures.  What are the key themes of the students, professors, and even the villains in the world of Hogwarts, Dumbledore, Ron, Hermione, Harry, Snape, et. al.?  If you haven’t seen/read the series (what planet have you been on?) spoilers lie ahead.  Let’s look at what is championed and valued?  Kindness, selfless behavior, teamwork (quiddich), family (Harry’s parents are themes throughout along with “extended family like Sirius Black, Dumbledore, etc)  Harry’s willingness in the final chapter to give his life for Hogwarts and his friends and to take down evil is a repeated theme throughout.  And in the end, his actions that save bad boy Malfoy, his last minute changing perception of Snape, and his decision to “return” after his otherworldly conversation with Dumbledore, after his suicide-destruction of the self-horcrux, are to be emulated and pondered.

And here it is SO important for parents to watch/read the series with their children and examine what is going on with Harry and his cohorts.  What is their motivation?  What is the risk, and why do they accept the risk and move forward with their plans.  The commonality of a shared cultural motif like the Harry Potter series is a great opportunity to dive deeper into the moral and ethical choices in a world when young people are being bombarded with selfishness and lures of material gratification over higher ideals and actions.

In “Fantastic Beasts”, we see the main characters answering a higher calling, an action to seek a proper restitution of good over a belief in the omnipotence of evil.  David Yates, director of the last few Potter movies, takes the time to let his characters reveal their unique abilities and characteristics is ways that show their “powers” as part of what makes them special, not just comic book assets arrayed against dark magic.

With films like Rowling’s magical world, Marvel’s Doctor Strange, and the ongoing super power comic book heroes and villains trend, displaying a public thirst for a world that is superior to the laws of matter, perhaps mankind seeks a more spiritual aspect to reality.  It’s not popular to believe in “God” in the millennial generation.  Popular thought about God today is, unfortunately, tied to concepts of modern organized religion, and modern religion is associated with corruption, greed, power, and secret societies (see The DaVinci Code and it’s sequels and imitators).  At the same time, there has been an attempt to portray the time of Jesus in film (Young Messiah, Risen) to allow new generations to judge the subject of the Gospels by his life and works, and perhaps, to demystify the life of the Messiah.  Perhaps more grist for a future post there…

I’m not equating the two worlds, but I am suggesting that mankind constantly seeks a better motivation for what one achieves during our time on earth.  It’s part of our core reason for existence to expect our efforts to be a legacy for good.  Is the world of Hogwarts, superheroes, and biblical heroes (as portrayed on film today) reflecting a desire to rise to our true nature of good deeds and selflessness?