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.

What our culture needs:  the return of the manned space program

I was struck by something that I read in the news yesterday that had been one of those questions that kind of runs quickly through your consciousness and then heads off without leaving a forwarding address.  What happened to all the men who walked on the moon?

I’ve been going through a lot of films referencing the manned missions of the 60s and early 70s.  This was before I took my girls to the recent hit movie “Hidden Figures” (my cultural review of which you can read here…or just scroll down a little!)  My eldest girl is a freshman in high school and is very accomplished academically.  She thinks she would like to be one of the people in the control room at Houston’s Manned Spaceflight Center or guiding a roving vehicle around Mars at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena.

I grew up wanting to be an astronaut.  I was in elementary and middle school through the go-go days of Mercury, Gemini, ( I entered that contest) and the early Apollo missions.  I loved reliving some of those feelings when Tom Hanks followed up his starring role in “Apollo 13” with his first big HBO mini-series “From the Earth to the Moon.”  I have been showing those episodes with our eager teenager and explaining a lot of the cultural background to those days.  We went from the excitement of Kennedy’s challenge to go to the moon, to the cynicism of government deception in the Vietnam era, and finally explaining why the Apollo program was cut three missions short. The money being spent was confronted by the coinciding costs of the war and the funding needs of LBJ’s massive Great Society initiatives.

As I was watching these programs with this budding space scientist, and remembering the mood of the country as we witnessed these achievements, I realized that it’s been a long time since Neil Armstrong had taken that “giant leap for mankind.”  We have sent some great unmanned probes to all of the major planets in our solar system and have seen some great discoveries as a result.  But where is man in all of this?  How many Americans know that we don’t even have a way to get people into orbit anymore.  The space shuttle, a relic of 1970s technology, is permanently retired.  Our astronauts must hitch a ride on Russian rockets to get to the international space station.  That should be embarrassing to this great nation; is it?

I recognize that the expense is massive, but then so is anything that is being attempted that is new.  I have watched Amazon stock soar by several times past it’s original stock price from the late 1990s and they have rarely been able to report a profit.  That’s not a criticism, but it’s an indication of something.  Innovation doesn’t have to be immediately profitable in order to be a worthwhile venture.  The earth-changing innovations that resulted from the coordinated national endeavor to put men on the moon had many “spinoff” results that have changed our world. 

Technological progress was accelerated by the need for miniaturization and spurred production and advancements of integrated circuitry, fiber optics, GPS tracking, telecommunications, and new materials that could handle the hostile environment of deep space and the stresses of leaving earth’s atmosphere.  I’m not saying these inventions wouldn’t have happened anyway, but the need to solve problems with a deadline over your head (landing a man on the moon before 1970) led to a adrenaline-fueled drive to achieve the goal of a martyred president AND be the first to do it in competition with our hegemonic rival, the Soviet Union.

Yesterday morning, I booted up my Macbook Pro and was hit with a notification that made me stop, remember, and become sad.  The last man to walk on the moon, Eugene Cernan, commander of Apollo 17, passed on at age 82.  He lifted his foot off the surface in December of 1972.  I was midway through my freshman year in college.  President Nixon had ordered a bombing of North Vietnam that would finally bring a peace agreement with North Vietnam.  This year will mark 45 years since men last walked on the moon.  How can that be?  The Chinese are already talking about sending a team of their own in 2025.  Now that we know there is plentiful amounts of water ice residing in craters at the poles providing precious water and oxygen for future lunar colonies, isn’t it about time we go back?

I’ve been disappointed that it’s been such a long time since we have had leadership, in either the Congress or the White House, that sees the value in continued space exploration, whether it’s for commercial or scientific use.  It’s part of what makes man unique:  he has always been motivated by a desire to seek the answers to the big questions of the universe around him.  I have been energized by the efforts of Elon Musk’s Space X and Jeff Bezo’s Blue Origin.  Perhaps it’s not government’s job to organize these kinds of visionary expeditions anymore.  But  a unifying national scientific goal is where leadership, with a very visible bully pulpit, can get some momentum behind this kind of effort and make the case that the development of manned space flight is beneficial to our society.

I’m not saying that this should be only America.  On the contrary, one of the most remarkable and visionary space exploration efforts in the last decade or so was the European Space Agency’s Rosetta probe which not only used several planetary fly-bys to gain the speed necessary for it’s mission to explore a few asteroids, but also the vision and precision to land it’s Philae lander on a comet.  Extraordinary!  This became a cross-cultural event when the ESA asked famous soundtrack composer Vangelis (Chariots of Fire, Bladerunner) to compose a theme to promote the mission.  Vangelis became so enthusiastic that he composed a whole album of songs to represent different tasks of the mission.  Enjoy the ESA promo film, with a few comments from the composer, at this link.

Let’s begin to raise our sights a little.  Our world should be about more than Candy Crush, Skype, and driverless cars.  Let’s go back to the moon.  Let’s set goals for missions to Mars.  As remarkable as they are as entertainment, let’s not just throw our money at Passengers, The Martian, and Interstellar.  Let’s agree to fund the kind of scientific development that will fuel these efforts.  They will have lasting economic and cultural benefits as well.  Leadership is key, but public support is necessary to turn this dream into reality.