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.

What to do about mobile tech?

Ok, I will start up front by pleading guilty on this.  I was driving down the street the other day.  The sun was out, the breeze was gentle, it was warm for an early December day in the Midwest.  It was truly an early winter climate “gift” for a nice pleasant walk down the sidewalks of suburban America.

What caught my eye was that almost every person, even those walking dogs, were busy scrolling their smartphones rather than taking in the beauty of the day.  Again, I plead guilty.  My family is happiest when I put away my phone to connect and enjoy our time together.  I’m a news junkie, and the last few months have been tough to resist the fascination of new events that a constant refresh brings to one’s thirst for the latest information.

There is no question that this is a huge problem.  And it’s been going on a while and is a broad and international issue.  When my brother and I took the girls to China in the late summer of 2013, I was amazed when I saw this scene ——>

buddhist monk scrolling his smartphone at X'ian temple
buddhist monk scrolling his smartphone at X’ian temple

This is a neophyte buddhist monk at a buddhist temple in X’ian…scrolling through his Xiomai smartphone.  Recently, during the presidential election, I saw this picture on one of the wire services of a visit Secretary Hillary Clinton made at an airport rally.  No one is looking directly at her!  SELFIE!!—->

img_1340I know my wife and family have taken all kinds of “interventions” with me, and I do see the problem. I understand the insular nature of living in your own bubble that comes with “smartphone” addiction.  We talk like we treasure connection with others, and certainly the internet has enabled many of us to connect with people or even maintain connections that defeat the distances between friends and family.

It brings me back to my history roots.  When Samuel Morse sent the first telegraph message from Washington DC to Baltimore he tapped, “What hath God wrought?”  Should we be asking, “what hath Jobs wrought?”   Am I overreacting? As usual, I’d love to get your thoughts in the comments section…

Keith