Changing the World Brick by Brick in Loving

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In Caroline County Virginia in 1958, an oridinary white man (Joel Edgerton) shows an ordinary black woman (Ruth Negga) the plot of farmland upon which he wishes to build them a house and then asks for her hand in marriage. It all seems so sweet and pedestrian and normal. He drag races cars when not building houses while she preps family meals and squeals with her sister over her coming nuptials. But it was anything but normal…in fact, their relationship was against the law in their own home state where both their families had lived and died alongside each other for years. After stealing away to Washington D. C. to get married, the couple are arrested in their bedroom upon returning to their peaceful Virginia homestead where the state refuses to leave them in peace.

Writer/director Jeff Nichols, who has become the premier chronicler of the American South for his cinematic generation, crafts a script that highlights the quiet, simple dignity of Richard and Mildred Loving while showing the casually insidious everyday acceptance of institutionalized racism. “You should’ve known better,” the law tells Richard. There’s no physical violence against the couple, but a threat of being torn apart emotionally hangs over them like a pall. Yet there are no histrionics over the Lovings’ predicament, no highfalutin ideals to which they subscribe, only a sense of what is decent and true. They love each other. It’s that simple. And they deserve to build a home and family just as much as anyone else. Both Edgerton and Negga transmit the feelings left unsaid through the nuances of their body language and facial expressions…both of them delivering master classes in subtlety and repressed emotions that come pouring out of their eyes. Always dignified…never wanting the spotlight. Continue reading

Sending a Scout to the Dark Tower in Go Set a Watchman

Go Set a Watchman Book Cover

Ever wonder what happened to Jean Louise Finch aka Scout when she grew up?  Well wonder no more.  It’s rare to witness a literary phenomenon, but Harper Lee’s long wondered about sequel to her iconic classic, To Kill a Mockingbird, is one such “once in a life-time” event.  In Go Set a Watchman, Scout is a young woman living in New York who comes home to the fictional Maycomb County, Alabama and witnesses nothing short of the shattering of her idol and father, Atticus Finch, when she catches him, along with her wanna-be fiancé, Henry, at an unseemly town hall meeting full of racist rhetoric.

“Oh dear me, yes. The novel must tell a story.” – page 188

By now the story behind the story has almost over-taken the novel.  Originally written before To Kill a Mockingbird, but returned to Lee by the publisher requesting she flesh out the childhood flashbacks of her protagonist and make something of that instead, Go Set a Watchman is both a prequel and a sequel (or a prequel sequel if you will).  When you read those flashback scenes, it’s easy to see why the publisher was more tickled by those, and perhaps the tone of the rest of the novel was too volatile at the time.  Lee has quite the gift for gab, and in her dialogue, which is both colorful and occasionally pedantic (Scout’s voice is clearly a vehicle for some impassioned politic views) she has crafted a book that is almost all talk.  Her dialogue perfectly captures place, time and feelings…it’s as if she has transported us back to the Deep South in the 1950’s at the dawn of the Civil Rights Movement that would define a generation (a nifty almost post-modern trick as when she wrote this – this was now). Continue reading

Going Back to the Bridge in Selma

Selma

Like two of the other most ballyhooed films from 2014 (Boyhood and Birdman), Selma is a really good film that has been a bit oversold.  I suppose if one is going to overrate a film, it might as well be one as noble as this, but in the slightly paraphrased words of my girlfriend, “I just wish they would’ve gotten the facts straight and given this girl a little more gospel.”  There’s something curiously missing from Ava DuVernay’s intelligently directed and reverent biopic of our nation’s most celebrated reverend and Civil Rights leader, Martin Luther King Jr., despite many convenient current parallels reminding informed viewers there is still so much work to be done.  That missing piece is the call to action.

Standing tall in the film are DuVernay’s depiction of the most harrowing events (from the bombing of the four little girls in the church and the violent police suppression of the first attempt to march across the bridge out of Selma towards Montgomery, to the quieter but equally disturbing moments showing the casually institutionalized hate-fueled suppression of the right to vote in court houses across the Deep South) and, naturally, David Oyelowo’s commanding performance as MLK.

DuVernay, taking a cue from Spielberg’s Lincoln, does a commendable job showing the slow tension-building behind-the-scenes process of what it takes to organize a meaningful march against injustice and how that can be used as a tool to raise public sentiment for the passing of legislation (in this case, the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965).  The tenants of nonviolent protest are on glorious display here, showing how powerfully effective yet dangerous it can be, as it coaxes the irrational radicals out into the open light of day where those watching on the sidelines are suddenly spurred to stand up because they are left with no other option once violence erupts against the peaceful marchers.

Sadly, Paul Webb’s uneven screenplay betrays both DuVernay’s skills and Oyelowo’s passionate portrayal as the writer plays loose with some key facts and insists on fitting King into the archetypal mold of a leader riddled with self-doubt.  Continue reading

Home is Where the Heart is in 42

42

The true significance of the number 42 has nothing to do with The Shining or The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.  Everyone knows the story of Jackie Robinson, right?

Well, maybe not.  And maybe as a long-time baseball fan (not just of the game, but of the history and of its impact on American society) I took that for granted.  As the first African-American to play in the major leagues, Jackie Robinson put a dent in segregation in 1947 (and wore the number 42) long before Jim Crow laws were dismantled and the Civil Rights movement caught on years later.  Thanks to Brian Helgeland’s handsomely mounted and wholesome-as-Ma’s-meatloaf biopic, 42, younger generations will now have an entertaining and educational film to watch in history classes for decades to come.

Robinson is played with heart and panache by newcomer Chadwick Boseman while Nicole Beharie makes a nice splash as his devoted and strong-willed wife, Rachel.  Their love story forms the backstop of the story while Harrison Ford relishes in a playful scenery chewing turn as the moral trailblazing GM of the Brooklyn Dodgers, Branch Rickey. Continue reading