MOONLIGHT (2016)

November 27, 2016

moonlight Greetings again from the darkness. It’s uncertain whether writer/director Barry Jenkins has developed the story from Tarell McCraney in order to highlight stereotypes, explain stereotypes, or both. The interpretation is up to the viewer, but what’s clear is that the film is one of the most sensitive portraits we’ve seen of growing up young, black, and sexually confused, while being mostly neglected by a drug-addicted mother.

Told in standard triptych structure, the film chronicles 3 stages in the life of a young male, with the chapters titled Little – Chiron – Black, for the names he is known by at each stage. As a 9 year old boy, “Little” (a nickname due to his small stature) is a wide-eyed near-mute who gets bullied and called names by the bigger boys. It’s at this stage where he is taken under the wing of local drug dealer Juan (Mahershala Ali), who offers a “safe place” to sleep and eat, with the bonus of swimming lessons accentuated by life lessons from Juan and his understanding girlfriend Teresa (Janelle Monea). It’s a poignant and painful moment when Little connects the dots between his mother (Naomie Harris) and Juan.

As a high school adolescent, Chiron is now a nervous, totally-withdrawn kid who simply doesn’t fit in – and doesn’t understand why. His high-crime Miami neighborhood is even more dangerous for him now as the schoolyard bullying is often accompanied by violent behavior. His surrogate father figure Juan is no longer in the picture, but Teresa is still there for him – always at the ready with a meal, clean sheets, and a spoonful of wisdom.

In the final chapter, we catch up with a hardened “Black” (another nickname) 10 years after high school followed by a stint in prison. He has moved from his Miami roots, and it’s at this stage where we fully understand the influence of a role model on a boy who has few. When he reconnects with childhood buddy Kevin, we see the shredded remnants of young “Little” still present in the older, experienced “Black”. This circle of life is understandable, while at the same time being nearly unbearable.

In addition to Mr. Ali and Ms. Monea (both who are excellent in the upcoming Hidden Figures), and the standout work of Ms. Harris, the six actors who play Chiron and Kevin through the years are fascinating to watch. Alex Hibbert perfectly captures the confused “Little”. Ashton Sanders plays the awkward, dreading-each-day Chiron; and Trevante Rhodes (former University of Texas athlete) plays the adult “Black” with a quiet uneasiness that resonates on screen. The 3 Kevin actors are Jaden Piner, Jharell Jerome, and Andre Holland (a standout as the adult Kevin).

Beautifully filmed in all three segments by cinematographer James Laxton, the film reiterates the importance of role models, especially in the life of those whose path seems pre-ordained by circumstance. The harsh realities of drug addiction, absentee parents, schoolyard bullying, and the almost inevitable stint behind bars are contrasted with a plate of fries, the chef’s special from an old friend, and the soothing effects of sand and sea. Encouraging our kids to be true to themselves is a lesson that can fall on deaf ears when surviving the moment is first and foremost. This incredibly sensitive film is likely either a necessary reminder or an eye-opening education … depending on your own situation.

watch the trailer:

 

 

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SELMA (2014)

January 7, 2015

 

selma Greetings again from the darkness. Historical dramatizations can be a tricky business, as delivering both truth and entertainment value is quite challenging. There is always an expert quick to point out any artistic license taken at the expense of historical accuracy. Of course, most movie lovers have come to accept that even the best-intentioned Hollywood looks at history will be at least as focused on selling tickets as educating the public. Because of this, the swirling controversies for this film are neither surprising nor overly distracting from its message.

March 7, 1965 is known as Bloody Sunday and marks one of the most despicable moments in U.S. history. It was also a turning point in the Civil Rights Movement and can be viewed as shrewd strategy from Martin Luther King, Jr. and his organization, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. The movie makes it clear that MLK had a full understanding that Selma, Alabama and it’s racist, redneck Sheriff Jim Clark provided the perfect opportunity for a violent reaction to King’s demonstrations and protests. It also makes it very clear that there was boundless ignorance, hatred and racism on the part of many southern whites.  If the subject matter is somehow not enough to grab your attention, the startling event that occurs 5 minutes in will surely leave you shaken.

The film does an outstanding job of focusing on two pieces of this most complex puzzle: 1. the boots on the ground – the grass roots movement of the people, and 2. the ongoing political debates occurring between MLK and LBJ, between LBJ and his staff, and between MLK and his lieutenants.

The Civil Rights Act had already been passed, so the efforts were in hopes of overcoming the obstacles faced by southern blacks who wished to vote. One of the film’s best scenes has activist Annie Lee Cooper (Oprah Winfrey) trying yet again to have her voter registration processed, but being rebuffed by a county clerk through an impossible Q&A session. These intimate moments are where the film excels: Coretta questioning MLK on his love for her, MLK speaking with grandfather of Jimmie Lee Jackson outside the morgue, and MLK turning down the proposal of US Attorney John Doar (Alessandro Nivola).

In an odd twist of casting, four of the leading characters are played by Brits: David Oyelowo as MLK, Tom Wilkinson as President Lyndon Johnson, Tim Roth as George Wallace and Carmen Ejogo as Coretta Scott King. All four are excellent, but it’s Mr. Roth as the racist-beyond-belief Alabama Governor Wallace that is the most slitheringly evil, while Mr. Oyelowo gives what can only be described as a towering performance of the man many of us know only from history books and news reels (and a January holiday).

The supporting cast is vast and talented, and because the story spends so much time on the individuals, many of these spend little time on screen. In addition to Andrew Young (Andre Holland), Reverend Hosea Williams (Wendell Pierce), J Edgar Hoover (Dylan Baker), and Lee C White (Giovanni Ribisi), we also see activist Diana Nash (Tessa Thompson), CT Vivian (Corey Reynolds), John Lewis (Stephen James), and Judge Johnson (Martin Sheen). The most bizarre moment has Malcolm X (Nigel Thatch) in a quasi-Mr Rogers depiction as he discussed his new found approach with Coretta.

The original King speeches are owned by another studio so those delivered here by Oyelowo have been re-written and revised, yet the words and Oyelowo’s powerful oratory deliver the message loud and clear. While it can be argued that the film delivers only one point of view (the FBI was no friend to the movement), it can just as easily be argued that previous films have done the same thing – only from the “other” perspective (Mississippi Burning, Ghosts of Mississippi).

In what can be viewed as the first serious movie on Martin Luther King, director Ava DuVernay announces her presence with authority. She will have no need to return to her career as a movie publicist, and we will be watching to see what type of projects appeal to her after this. In a brilliant move, the story focuses on a period of just a few months in 1965, rather than tackling the MLK legacy. She presents him as a man with strengths, flaws, doubts, and determination. It’s clear why so many followed him, and it’s all the more painful to know that so many resisted.

watch the trailer:

 


42 (2013)

April 13, 2013

42a Greetings again from the darkness. After some soul searching, I have decided to turn off the critical side of my brain and concentrate on what is good about this movie. As a baseball and movie fanatic, a bit of trepidation creeps in when the two worlds collide. However, this isn’t really a baseball movie, though the story focuses on what may be the most critical turning point in baseball history. In fact, this turning point was much bigger than the American Pasttime … it was also a key step in the early stages of the Civil Rights Movement. The movie is a reminder of how different things could have been with the wrong man rather than the right one … Jackie Robinson.

Writer/Director Brian Helgeland (s/p for L.A. Confidential and Mystic River) takes a look at what occurred in 1945-47, when Brooklyn Dodgers President and GM Branch Rickey (played by Harrison Ford) made the business decision to integrate 42cbaseball. We see his selection process … Roy Campanella “too nice”, Satchel Paige “too old”. He settles on Jackie Robinson after their infamous 3 hour meeting where Rickey confronts Robinson with his need for a black player “with the guts NOT to fight back”.

Chadwick Boseman portrays Jackie Robinson as a man thoroughly in love with his wife Rachel (played by Nicole Beharie), and one who says he just wants to “be a ballplayer”, while at the same time taking pride in his world-changing role. We see his evolution from his stint as shortstop for the Kansas City Monarchs of Negro Leagues to his time with the Dodgers’ AAA minor league team in Montreal and finally to his introduction to the Major Leagues in 1947. Boseman 42eflashes the charisma and athletic ability to pull off the role … there are times he looks identical to the young Jackie.

This is an earnest and sincere movie that removes the complexities of the times and the main characters. Much of it is portrayed as good guys versus bad guys. The good guys are really good and the bad guys are really bad. Alan Tudyk has the unenviable task of portraying Philadelphia Phillies manager Ben Chapman, who famously unleashed an in-game verbal assault of vile racism on Robinson. Mr. Rickey credited Chapman’s public small-mindedness as the single biggest factor in unifying the Dodger team around Robinson. The other famous moment given time in the movie is when 42bbeloved shortstop Pee Wee Reese (Lucas Black) put his arm around Robinson, shushing the hostile Cincinnati fans. Of course as a baseball fan, I enjoyed the all too brief antics of Brooklyn manager Leo Durocher (Christopher Meloni) whose place in the Robinson story would have been much more profound had he not succumbed to the weakness of the flesh (so to speak).

Other supporting roles include John C McGinley, who is spot on as the Hall of Fame announcer Red Barber, Derek Phillips as an unusually quiet Bobby Bragan, Jesse Luken as Hall of Famer Eddie Stanky, Andre Holland as Wendell Smith (the Pittsburgh Courier reporter assigned to follow Robinson), Peter Mackenzie as Commissioner Happy Chandler and young Dusan Brown as a 10 year old boy who would grow up to be major leaguer Ed Charles.  Some comic relief is provided by 42dHamish Linklater as pitcher Ralph Branca (one of the first who welcomed Robinson to the clubhouse, and who would go down in baseball history as the pitcher who surrendered the 1951 “shot heard round the world” by Bobby Thomson).

Filmmaker Helgeland provides a tale of morality and social change, and provides a glimpse at the character and strength required by those involved. The story has much more to do with demonstrating how the times began to change than it does with how Jackie Robinson, an unpolished ballplayer but superior athlete, transformed himself into a perennial all-star and league MVP. And that’s as it should be. As Rickey stated, acceptance will only occur if the world is convinced Robinson is a fine gentleman and a great baseball player. That burden must have weighed heavily at times, but it’s very clear that Robinson was the right man at the right time.

**NOTE: the time frame for this story is limited to Robinson’s historic, barrier-crashing major league debut, but it should be noted that Robinson won the Rookie of the Year Award in 1947, the MVP in 1949, played in 6 all-star games and World Series in his 10 year career,and was a first ballot Hall of Famer in 1962.  Prior to his baseball career, he was a four sport letterman at UCLA and also served in the US Army.  Robinson died in 1972 from a heart condition and complications from diabetes. His wife is still active and still running the foundation that provides scholarships for youngsters.  Quite an amazing lady.

Here is a photo of the real Jackie Robinson and Branch Rickey:

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