Don’t Tell Me What I Can’t Do in #Harriet

There’s a great scene in Kasi Lemmon’s biopic of Harriet Tubman where our hero (Cynthia Erivo) decides to cross into freedom for the first time…alone…on foot…into a sun-drenched rolling field of wilderness. She pauses for a moment, and to the modern eye seems to be framing her hands to take a picture of the sunlight, but then you realize Harriet is reaching for it…to pull it in and wrap over her, like a shawl. Erivo’s eyes and facial expression, the simple framing of the scene, speak multitudes about what drove Tubman to do what she did against all odds, over and over again, leading slaves across the Underground Railroad into freedom. She wanted everyone to get a chance to touch that sunlight and wrap themselves in it…or die trying.

There are little specks of vibrant light like this poking through the otherwise straightforward film, giving us hints of the director who wowed us with her debut, Eve’s Bayou, all those years ago, and paint the lead character in heroic wonder. Harriet prays to God at a mythic-sized old tree, ponders a grasshopper on a blade of grass when awaking in a field, grabs at the sunlight. Her visions (historically accurate, as it is widely thought that a childhood head injury lead to recurring epileptic-like seizures which Tubman herself interpreted as visions from God) lay out her path and provide her with the fortitude to march on no matter what obstacles came her way. Many a fool was proven wrong after telling Harriet Tubman what she couldn’t…shouldn’t do.

The screenplay posits the film as a kind of historical superhero origin story while following the tropes of many slavery-era biopics. Some might wish for a little more visual bravura or deeper dives into complex internal character conflicts, but aren’t the facts of Harriet Tubman’s life amazing enough on their own? Sometimes the straight path is the right one to take, and Cynthia Erivo’s passionate performance is enough to carry the film even when the screenplay (which, of course, takes its own artistic license, especially with the fictional characters who were amalgamations of attitudes and people of the time) fails her.

Despite the trappings of sticking mostly to the classic mold, Harriet is a rousing but intimate epic, Lemmon’s best since Eve’s Bayou, and anchored by Cynthia Erivo’s bold portrayal of a real American hero. It’s an ever-timely reminder of the importance of taking action against evil rather than waiting idly by hoping for it to pass, and should sit comfortably as an enlightened piece of entertainment in high school history classes for years to come.

Written by D. H. Schleicher

For follow up, check out the Variety article on what drove Kasi Lemmons to direct Harriet.

#HistoricalFiction from Page to Screen

I’ve been on a big historical fiction kick lately. All three of the novels I’ve read recently in this genre jumped off the page and played like movie reels in my mind. There’s something about the genre (when done well) that naturally lends itself to adaptation for both big and small screens. In this golden era of “limited series” on TV and in streaming services, I couldn’t help but imagine how these novels would play.

Darktown by Thomas Mullen – This crime drama about the first African-American cops in Atlanta in the 1940s and the corruption and racism they had to battle would seem a perfect fit for TNT or FX. I could see it playing out similarly to the recent limited series from Patty Jenkins, I Am the Night. Heck, that series’ own Carl Franklin would be a fantastic choice to direct.

When It’s Over by Barbara Ridley – This tale of refugees from the Czech Republic and Germany fleeing to England during WWII would make a splendid PBS Masterpiece Theater series.

The War in Our Hearts by Eva Seyler – When I first read started reading this melodrama about Scots on the Western Front of France during WWI, it initially made me think about those searingly romantic mini-series of classic 1980’s TV (think The Thornbirds or North and South). But the novel ended on such an achingly poetic note that I couldn’t help but picture it as a cinematic moodpiece by Terence Davies.

What have you read lately that begs for a big or small screen adaptation?

Written by D. H. Schleicher

Coming Through Slaughter and the Evolution of Michael Ondaatje

Buddy Bolden

Above: the only picture of Buddy Bolden (top, second from the left)

Coming Through Slaughter, a piece of poetic historical fiction that attempts to channel the mysterious genius and insanity of jazz trumpeter Buddy Bolden, was Michael Ondaatje’s first novel (published in 1976) though one must use the term novel loosely. I had the pleasure of seeing Michael Ondaatje speak at the Free Library of Philadelphia this month, and he touched briefly on Coming Through Slaughter, and how it was a bridge between his earlier poetry and his later more refined (though still free flowing and organic) novels.

Along with Toni Morrison, Michael Ondaatje is probably my favorite living novelist. Coming Through Slaughter shares some stylistic and thematic traits with Morrison’s 1992 masterpiece Jazz (one of my favorite novels of all time). Both attempt to lyrically copy the cadence and spirit of the music in written form, but while Morrison’s work features many voices riffing on each other, Ondaatje’s is a singular voice that goes on a solo performance into madness. Morrison’s novel is slinkier, like forgotten notes from a dozen songs cat-pawing through a moonlit room whispering their spooky secrets. Ondaatje’s type of jazz is more gritty, virulent, like an unending trumpet blast ear-worming into the sweatiest, dirtiest, darkest spaces. Continue reading

Spying on Whales Reveals the Greatest Survival Story Ever Told

I’ve been on a science reading kick lately, following up last year’s reading of Sy Montgomery’s The Soul of an Octopus (a fascinating psychological study of octopi and the people who love them) with Nick Pyenson’s enthralling Spying on Whales. Pyenson weaves a fascinating adventure tale, as he globe-hops from archaeological digs in South America to whaling stations in the arctic, in his insatiable quest to track the past, present, and future of the largest animals ever to inhabit the earth.

Clearly blessed with the spirit of an adventurer and a natural-born storyteller, Pyenson is able to revel in the scientific details without losing the lay reader. His personal thoughts on the matters are often poignant, sometimes puzzling. As a new father, I was heartbroken by his personal anecdote of his young son writing him a “I miss you” letter while he was on a mission thousands of miles away. I can’t ever imagine that kind of lengthy separation. But later in the book, he walks with his son on a beach, and his son discovers a fossil that turns out to be of a previously unknown species of whale, and the fossil gets classified under the boy’s name, providing a kind of longer view outlook on the impact of his life’s work on his family. What a memory for a child to have! What type of legacy is Pyenson leaving in his both his professional field and at home? What types of adventurers will his children become?

The center piece of the book is the vivid depiction of a sprawling archaeological dig in the Atacama Desert of Chile poetically called Cerro Ballena, where excavation of a new highway has uncovered layers upon layers of complete whale skeletons – a historic find that not even Indiana Jones could’ve imagined. In a race against time and human expansion, our fearless scientists must salvage as many fossils as they can. These chapters unfold in thrilling fashion while perfectly blending in colorful side-characters, political intrigue, science, and adventure. Continue reading

Sympathy for Queen Anne in The Favourite

Emma Stone in the film THE FAVOURITE. Photo by Yorgos Lanthimos. © 2018 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation All Rights Reserved

Well, that was interesting…

In many ways, The Favourite (detailing the competition between a Duchess and a would-be “Lady” to be Queen Anne of England’s right-hand woman in the early 1700’s), is the best kind of historical drama.  It made my wife and I want to google and research the facts of the matter as soon as it was over, and indeed all the key players were based on actual people, but liberties were taken with timelines and how they related to each other for dramatic effect.  The film is also blessed with amazing lighting (giving Barry Lyndon a run for its money when it comes to candle-lit naturalism, especially in the breathtaking nighttime palatial scenes), exquisite costumes (a work of art in their own right), transporting sets, and award worthy acting.

But, it’s also a Yorgos Lanthimos film, the man who directed one of my most loathed films of recent memory, The Killing of a Sacred Deer.  So there is a tone of satire, moments of gleefully wicked farce, and well, just plain weird moments.

There are duck races, debauched feasts, and one of the best royal ball dancing sequences I’ve ever seen that’s so offhand in its anachronistic absurdity one can’t help but think, “Wait…What? I kinda liked that!”  Though the Queen apparently hated the funky moves. Continue reading

I Love You to the Moon and Back in First Man

There’s something sad at the core of Damien Chazelle’s historical hero epic, First Man, and it’s not just star Ryan Gosling’s dreamy pale blue eyes that look up longingly at the moon or the melancholy tones of Justin Hurwitz’s musical motifs punctuating the film’s sorrowful and soulful meditative moments.  The film is constructed like a visual and aural tone poem, swinging from moments of breathless action and wonder to lyrical interludes of domestic intimacy, all shadowed by tragedy.

The opening moments where we are smack dab in the thick of a test flight thrusting Neil Armstong above the earth’s atmosphere are among the most thrilling I’ve felt since Dunkirk, all sound and fury and rattling nuts and bolts and creaking ship hulls.  But when not relishing in the “in the moment” nitty-gritty details of how we got to the moon, the filmmakers take a huge gamble by positing (with some poetic license) that the primary motive behind Neil Armstrong’s push to the be the first man on the moon was perhaps grief – namely finding a way to process the death of his two-year old daughter, but also the grief over the astronauts who lost their lives in earlier failed missions. It worked for this viewer (and new dad) but it makes for a surprisingly somber tale colored with a psychological complexity I was not expecting.

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The Lurid Humanism of BlacKkKlansman and Sharp Objects

Spike Lee uses D. W. Griffin’s incendiary Birth of a Nation in quasi-meta fashion in his masterful comeback film about racists getting their comeuppance, the wildly entertaining yet sobering BlacKkKlansman.  If the former film was “history written by lightning,” then the latter might be “satire written by thunder.”  But while Lee and his screenwriters are thunderous in their political leanings, the filmmakers are most effective in delivery of the message because of how taut, understated and meticulous they are in the weaving of their storytelling craft.

BlacKkKlansman is a procedural undercover cop jawn about Colorado Springs detective Ron Stallworth (John David Washington in a “star is born” type performance and a chip off the old block of his dad Denzel) who infiltrates the local chapter of the KKK (almost on a lark, in prank-phone call style) in the 1970’s.  When the KKK agrees to meet him in person for the purpose of initiation, he convinces his sergeant to let him use his Jewish partner Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver, shockingly good) to pose as the eager new racist recruit.  Thus we end up with Jewish cop pretending to be a black cop pretending to be a white supremacist…and getting away with it…and stopping a terrorist bombing to boot.  It would all be ludicrous if it wasn’t true (though apparently some of the details of the actual case are played with loosely here for the purpose of entertainment and message delivery).  There’s a lot more going on in the film, and it’s tonally played to expert effect flipping between a satirical comedy of manners and a cop thriller about the worst kind of criminals.

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Is The Death of Stalin Funny?

Seriously.  Is the Death of Stalin funny?  Not the actual event of Joseph Stalin’s historical death (no death, not even that of a mass-murdering dictator is funny…right?) but the movie, The Death of Stalin…is it funny?  I’m asking for a friend.

Can a film that ends with a central character being shot dead, and his body then burned, being placed literally into the ash heap of history, be funny?

Ladies and gentlemen…Mr. Steve Buscemi…as Nickita Khrushchev!  He’s brilliant, as per usual.  Buscemi deftly goes from neurotic joke-man to cold-blooded power-grabber (oh, that’s so Buscemi).  But is the performance…funny?  I mean, yes…it is (as is Jeffrey Tambor as an air-headed and feckless Georgy Malekov)…but funny how?  Funny how it looks?  How it sounds…Steve Buscemi…as Khrushchev?  Funny ha-ha?

Armando Iannucci (of In the Loop and Veep fame) has become the modern master of the politic satire (usually aimed at current events), but here is a historical period-piece.  What’s his end-game?  A correlation to Putin’s Russia?  Trump’s America?  Any cult of personality that innately leads to gas-lighting the public and internal chaos?  Is this a cautionary tale? Continue reading

Going to Paris in the Present Tense

Mark Helprin’s Paris in the Present Tense opens with a magical passage dreamily describing that feeling of flying, sitting in a plane and taking-off, the world a string of lights slowly falling and fading away beneath you.  It’s a magnificent episode.  So much of the mood he sets was exactly what I felt on a flight ascent from Toronto to Philadelphia many years ago, and I had always wished I had the nerve to capture it properly in words.  Alas, Helprin captured it better than I ever could have…and wisely changed the setting to Paris, to boot!

The novel was a gift from my wife this past holiday season, and the greatest gift the novel gave to me was its ability to bring back memories of our trip to France in September of 2015 just a month before we were married.

Helprin’s swooning and expansive tale of an elderly cellist facing down the demons of his past and the fate of his legacy is dense, dense stuff.  Helprin’s vivid, thick, sometimes blustery, sometimes flowery descriptions of people, places, food, wine, and emotions are intermittently wondrous, evocative, illuminating, frustrating, and too often clichéd.  Oh, yes, anyone who has been there gets it…Paris is undeniably Hemingway’s Moveable FeastContinue reading

To Serve the Governed not the Governors in The Post

Could it be more a more timely moment than now for Hollywood to remind the public (and Washington) of the purpose of the free press?

The first hour of The Post is a rather hum-drum by the numbers affair about the lead up to the publication of the Pentagon Papers, first by the New York Times (who instantly get sued by the Nixon administration) and then by the Washington Post.  But hey, it’s Steven Spielberg directing…and Meryl Streep as the “I can’t believe I got into this mess but by golly am I gonna make something of myself by leading with my gut here!” owner of the titular Post…and Tom Hanks as chief editor Ben Bradlee (previously featured in All The President’s Men, to which this film cannily sets itself up as a prequel in the final moments)…and just look at all those TV stars in supporting roles (Carrie Coon!  Bob Odenkirk!  His comedy pal David Cross!  Bradley Whitford!).  So what the heck, the humming looks and sounds great, even if it’s all a bit dry.

But then, thanks to Spielberg’s midstream change of pacing (and the work of excellent editors), and John Williams’ score that hums like that of a great thriller, all of a sudden this little bit of “history we already knew” plays like a cracker-jack suspense flick as reporters feverishly try to meet the printing deadline working out of Bradlee’s drawing-room, and lawyers and whatnot weigh in on the implications of publishing the top-secret stuff. Continue reading