Movie Review: Miss Juneteenth (2020)


Title: Miss Juneteenth
Release Date: June 19, 2020
Director: Channing Godfrey Peoples
Production Company: Sailor Bear | Ley Line Entertainment
Summary/Review:

By a wonderful coincidence, Miss Juneteenth came up on my watchlist just in time for me to post my review on Juneteenth.  The movie concerns Turquoise Jone (Nicole Beharie, previously in 42), a woman who won the Miss Juneteenth scholarship pageant in Fort Worth, Texas when she was 15, but now struggling to make ends meet as single mom and a waitress at a bar.  She registers her own daughter Kay (Alexis Chikaeze) for the Miss Juneteenth pageant, even though Kai is not enthusiastic and would rather join the dance team.  Turquoise maintains a tenuous relationship with Kai’s father Ronnie (Kendrick Sampson), although he’s irresponsible about supporting his daughter.

The plot is predictable in that it’s a story of a parent trying to live out their own dreams through their child.  But it’s a predictable story because it’s so true to life, and the film is filled with both heartache and sweetness.  Beharie is terrific in the lead role, and Chikaeze is promising young actor who I think can have a great career in film if she wants it.

Rating: ***

Book Review: Paradise by Toni Morrison


Author: Toni Morrison
Title: Paradise
Narrator: Toni Morrison
Publication Info: Random House Audio, 2017 [Originally published 1997]
Summary/Review:

When Paradise was released in 1997, it was the first new Toni Morrison novel since I had learned about her and started reading all of her books.  I got it early on and struggled with it and had to return it to the library after only reading a small part.  I checked it out again but enough time had passed that I had to start over again and I ended up still not being able to finish it.  To my shame, I’ve finally read all of Paradise.  It’s still a book I struggle with, featuring a lot of characters and overlapping plots.

The story takes place in Ruby, and all-Black town in Oklahoma where the prominent men of town take up arms against the women in an abandoned convent on the outskirts of town.  The men treat the convent as if it were a brothel or a coven corrupting the morals in town.  In fact, it is a safe place for women who are escaping abuse, exclusion, and personal tragedies, mainly brought on by the patriarchy of the town and discrimination against light-skin Black people The narrative interweaves the personal stories of women who lived and died at the convent with the history of the town.

As I’ve noted, I found this to be a complex book.  It is also violent and disturbing which makes it hard for me to read.  It’s nonetheless a poetic work with Morrison’s typical honesty and compassion toward her characters.  But it is not going to be a favorite of mine among her novels.

Rating: ***

Book Review: The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead


Author: Colson Whitehead
Title: The Nickel Boys
Publication Info: New York : Doubleday, [2019]
Other Books Read by the Same Author:

Summary/Review:

Set in the 1960s, with a framing story in the present day, The Nickel Boys tells the story of the boys held at the Nickel Academy reform school in Florida. The protagonist of the story is Elwood Curtis, a studious teenager who begins taking courses at a local college. He is unjustly arrested and prosecuted when he accepts a ride from an acquaintance in what turns out to be a stolen car.

Elwood, an optimistic child inspired by the Civil Rights Movement finds himself among hardened and more cynical inmates including a boy name Turner whom he befriends.  Much of the novel details the harsh conditions of the “school” where boys are sexually abused, face severe corporal punishment, and some simply disappear.  The segregated facility is also much harsher in its treatment of Black students.  As much as Elwood tries to keep his head down and make it through his sentence, his sense of justice brings him into conflict with the authorities.

In the present-day narrative, the graves of boys murdered at the Nickel Academy are uncovered a few years after the institution is closed.  Men who survived incarceration at Nickel come forward with stories of their abuse.  There’s a big twist in the story that I didn’t see coming and makes me want to reread the book because I’m sure it would change the meaning of a lot of the narrative.

The Nickel Academy is based on a real reform school in Florida, and Whitehead incorporates events described by survivors into his story.  The narrative is a grim tale and a microcosm of America’s sins of racial discrimination and the carceral state.

Recommended books:
Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston


Author: Zora Neale Hurston
Title: Their Eyes Were Watching God
Narrator: Ruby Dee
Publication Info: New York : HarperAudio, 2005. [originally published in 1937]
Other Books Read by the Same Author:

Summary/Review:

Their Eyes Were Watching God remains one of my favorite books of all time. I read it several times in the 1990s but hadn’t revisited it since.  To listen to the audiobook narrated by Ruby Dee is a treat.

The novel depicts the journey of self-actualization of Janie Crawford, a Black woman in early 20th-century Florida.  It begins with Janie as young teenager, experiencing an awakening that is both sexual as well as tied to the natural world and the possibilities of youth. Janie’s grandmother, Nanny, who raised her in absence of her mother, is anxious that Janie will follow her mother’s path as unwed mother and marries Janie off to older farmer named Logan Killicks.

It is a loveless marriage and Killicks mainly wants Janie as labor for his farm. Janie runs off with the charismatic Joe Starks, an ambitious man planning to move to the all-Black town of Eatonville, where he sets himself up as mayor and prominent businessman upon arrival.  But Starks is very controlling and abusive of Janie, restricting even her social life. After Starks’ death, Janie meets the younger man Tea Cake, and at last finds love.  While Janie experiences joy and fulfillment sharing Tea Cake’s life as a migrant farmer, he also gives off some red flags of possessiveness and irresponsibility.

The novel is framed by Janie telling her life story to a friend, and it is through the experiences of these four relationships – Nanny, Killicks, Starks, and Tea Cake – that she is able to discover herself and control her own destiny.  Hurston’s novel draws on African-American folklore and the importance of being tied to nature in human life.  Published a generation before the Civil Rights and Women’s Liberation movements it was a book ahead of its time.  But it has rightly found its spot in the literary canon.

Recommended books:

  • The Color Purple by Alice Walker
  • Cane by Jean Toomer
  • Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf

Rating: *****

Classic Movie Review: Within Our Gates (1920)


Title: Within Our Gates
Release Date: January 12, 1920
Director: Oscar Micheaux
Production Company: Micheaux Book & Film Company
Summary/Review:

Within Our Gates is oldest surviving feature film by an African-American filmmaker and it was the second film made by prolific director/writer/producer Oscar Micheaux. It serves as sort of a response to D. W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation and more immediately, the white supremacist violence of the United States’ Red Summer of 1919. It turns the tables on racist depictions of Blacks people as “primitives” by depicting the real depravity of white America. It also depicts its Black protagonists as exemplars of the “New Negro” movement, assertive and self-confident about their having a significant role in American business and politics, and also intent on displaying Black people as upstanding members of society.

The film portrays the trials of Sylvia Landry (Evelyn Preer), a young woman who works at a school for Black children in the South and travels to the North to raise money for the school. On her travels she has her purse stolen and gets hit by a car while trying to save a child. On the upside she also meets the handsome Dr. Vivian (Charles D. Lucas) and the white philanthropist Mrs. Elena Warwick (Mrs. Evelyn), who eventually decides to donate $50,000 to the school. The final segment of the film features a flashback to Sylvia’s past and features brutal depictions of her family being lynched while a white man attempts to rape Sylvia.

While the movie pulls no punches on white racism, including a “Lillian Gish character” – Mrs. Geraldine Stratton (Bernice Ladd), a Southern woman who is a segregationist and anti-suffragist, it also doesn’t portray all Black people in a positive manner. Among the cast are Larry (Jack Chenault), who fails to woo Sylvia, and is a thief and a murderer. There also is a Black preacher who encourages his congregation to accept white supremacy in return for small donations from white people. Perhaps the most unsettling character is Efrem (E.G. Tatum), a servant who likes to spread gossip to gain favor with white people and falsely accuses Sylvia’s father (William Starks) of murdering a white man, inciting the mob that lynches her family.

The plot of the movie is disjointed, and like a lot of silent films it highly melodramatic. Also, the sociopolitical message is heavy-handed, but it probably had to be to get the point across in 1920. Despite this, I think Within Our Gates is a remarkable fictional document of the real issues of African-Americans in the early 20th century. I don’t think Hollywood would attempt to grapple with this issues for several more decades. This is definitely a movie that should be better known and viewed.

As an aside, I was happy that part of the film is set in Boston. Perhaps not surprisingly, this includes the scene where Sylvia is hit by a car.  I don’t believe it was filmed on location though, as it appears that most of the movie was filmed in Chicago.

Rating: ****

Book Review: Beloved by Toni Morrison


Author: Toni Morrison
Title: Beloved
Narrator: Toni Morrison
Publication Info: Penguin Random House Audio Publishing Group, 2006 [originally published 1987]
Other Books Read by the Same Author:

Summary/Review:

Toni Morrison’s fifth novel, Beloved, is probably her most famous and also the first of her works set in the 19th century and dealing with the effects of slavery.  Set in 1873 in Cincinnati, Ohio, it focuses on a freed woman named Sethe who shares a house with her youngest daughter, Denver.  Because the house is believed to be haunted by the ghost of Sethe’s first-born daughter, Sethe’s two sons left home early and Denver’s life is one of social isolation.

Things change with the arrival of Paul D., a man who was enslaved on the same plantation with Sethe.  He begins a (somewhat awkward) sexual relationship with Sethe, encourages Denver to leave the house for social activities, and seemingly drives away the ghost haunting the house.  But things change again with the arrival of young woman named Beloved. Sethe believes she is the embodiment of her dead child because “BELOVED” was all she could afford to carve on her tombstone. Beloved affects all the residents of the household in different, negative ways.

Beloved is a ghost story, whether or not you believe that Beloved is actually a ghost, because it deals with the haunting trauma and pain of slavery.  The novel frequently flashes back to Sethe’s life on the Sweet Home plantation, her relationship with her husband Halle, and the abuse they suffered.  The book is a characters study of sorts as well, as several of the characters – both in the main timeline and in flashback – take turns reflecting on their life, relationships, and suffering.

Beloved has always been a challenging book for me to read.  But I also I believe it is purposefully unsettling to provoke thought on slavery and its painful legacy and generational trauma.

Rating: ****1/2

Book Review: Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison


Author: Toni Morrison
Title: Song of Solomon
Narrator: Toni Morrison
Publication Info: Random House Audio, 2009 [Originally published in 1977]
Other Books Read by Same Author:

Summary/Review:

Song of Solomon is a novel I read a couple of times in college and is my favorite of Toni Morrison’s many masterpieces.  I feel unqualified to write about it, since Morrison’s used of words, world building, characterization, and storytelling are so terrific they are to describe.

The novel tells the life story of Macon Dead III, known by the nickname “Milkman,” and his journey of self-discovery.  Milkman comes from a prosperous African American family in an unnamed Michigan city.  His father, Macon, owns lots of real estate, and his mother, Ruth, is the daughter of the city’s only African American doctor.

Milkman’s aunt Pilate lives on the other side of the tracks and is a bootlegger and something of a mysterious figure who was born without a navel. Despite Macon’s alienation from his sister, Milkman begins visiting Pilate and establishing more of a link with his family past.  He also begins a long-term sexual relationship with his cousin Hagar.  Milkman is also contrasted with his older, more world friend Guitar who is part of a secret organization of men who kill white people in retaliation for racial murders of blacks.

Milkman begins a southward journey, opposite of the Great Migration occurring at the same time the novel is set, ostensibly to follow the trail of some gold his father and Pilate once found. In reality, Milkman is finding connections to his past and his people. First, he visits the real town of Danville, Pennsylvania where his grandfather was murdered by white people and his father and Pilate had to flee for his safety. Then he continues to the fictional town of Shalimar, where Milkman pieces together his family history to enslaved Africans and Native Americans.

The ending of this book is both tragic and triumphant.  I was surprised that there were scenes in this book that stuck in my memory perfectly over 25 years.  Although there was also a lot of the book I’d forgotten. The novel remains one of my all time favorite books.

Favorite Passages:

“I wish I’d a knowed more people. I would of loved ‘em all. If I’d a knowed more, I would a loved more.”

Rating: *****

Book Review: Sula by Toni Morrison


Author: Toni Morrison
TitleSula
Narrator: Toni Morrison
Publication Info: Books on Tape, 2002 (originally published in 1973)
Other Books Read by the Same Author:

Summary/Review:

Morrison’s second novel is another one that I read on my own outside of college classes, and the one I remember the least.  The novel is set in the fictional town of Medallion, Ohio in the Black neighborhood jokingly known as The Bottom despite being on the hilltops adjacent to the white part of town in the valley.

The main plot of the novel focuses on the friendship of two girls, Nel and Sula, growing up in the 1920s.  Nel is from a stable family with rigid rules while Sula’s mother and grandmother are considered unconventional and loose.  Their close friendship turns on the accidental death of a child they were playing with, something they chose to keep secret.

As they grow up, they go in different directions with Nel settling into a conventional marriage while Sula goes away to college and is rumored to have many sexual affairs.  When Sula returns after a ten year absence, she is decried as the personification of evil, and unites against her, especially when Sula sleeps with Nel’s husband.  Nel and Sula do reconcile by the end of the novel.  A framing device set in the present day notes that The Bottom has ceased to exist and the hills have been gentrified for white peoples’ home.

In Sula, Morrison tells a story of a friendship between two Black women, something unusual in fiction up to that point. She creates two fully-developed, nuanced characters in Nel and Sula.  One chooses a conventional life and the other follows her own initiative but neither is judged as being the “good” or “bad” one, at least by the author.  The novel also shows the deleterious effects on a community living in segregation, and the internecine squabbles among Black people between “respectability” and embracing one’s own identity

Rating: ****

Podcasts of the Week Ending October 19


Dolly Parton’s America :: Sad Ass Songs

This is a new podcast about possibly America’s most beloved living person, Dolly Parton. The debut podcast focuses on issues ranging from murder ballads to feminism.

99% Invisible :: Unsure Footing

The story of how soccer changed the backpass rule leading immediately to an embarrassing period for goalkeepers, but ultimately to a more exciting game.

Hub History :: Race Over Party

The history of African American politics in Boston in the late 19th century.

This American Life :: We Come From Small Places

The immigrant experience explored through stories from the Labor Day Carnival and the West Indian American Day Parade in Brooklyn.


Running tally of 2019 Podcast of the Week appearances:

Book Review: Never Caught by Erica Armstrong Dunbar


Author: Erica Armstrong Dunbar
Title: Never caught : the Washingtons’ Relentless Pursuit of Their Runaway Slave, Ona Judge
Narrator: Robin Miles
Publication Info: [New York] : Simon & Schuster Audio, [2017]
Summary/Review:

Ona Judge was a woman born into slavery around 1773 at Mount Vernon plantation in Virginia.  Mount Vernon is, of course, famous as the home of George Washington, soon to be commander of the Continental Army and later the first President of the United States.  Ona would become lady’s maid to Martha’s Washington in her mid-teens, and in that role would travel with the Washington to the new United States’ capital in New York City, and then to Philadelphia when the capital shifted there in 1790.

Living in Philadelphia provided Judge with new opportunities, including free time while Mrs. Washington was entertaining, and even the opportunity to attend the theatre.  More importantly she became acquainted with Philadelphia’s growing free Black community and abolitionists. Judge’s legal status was in question due to Pennsylvania’s Gradual Abolition Act which provided that slaves brought into the state by new residents from out of state would be eligible for emancipation after six months.  It was an open question of whether this law applied to the President, but nevertheless, the Washingtons arranged to rotate their slave staff back to Mount Vernon every six months.

In 1796, Washington announced he would not run for reelection and Martha Washington informed judge she would be given as a wedding gift to her granddaughter Elizabeth Parke Custis Law.  Faced an uncertain future Judge made the decision to run away.  Abolitionists put Judge on a ship to Portsmouth, NH where she attempted to make a new life for herself as a free person.  Washington had a local customs officer, and later his nephew, attempt to capture Judge but in both cases the growing abolition sentiment meant that she couldn’t be captured without drawing unwanted publicity to Washington.

Washington freed many of his slaves in his will when he died in 1799.  Judge, however, was legally considered still a slave of Martha Washington, and even after Martha’s death in 1802, Judge’s ownership status reverted to the Custis estate.  Judge lived until 1848, enjoying her freedom, but always a fugitive.  Despite freedom, her life was still full of struggle.  She married a free black sailor, Jack Staines, in 1797, but he died in 1803, and Ona Judge Staines would also outlive her three children.

Ona Judge Staines’ story is drawn from interviews she gave to abolitionist newspapers in the 1840s.  But as with many stories of enslaved African Americans, Dunbar has to piece together the history from sources of the white masters, such as the papers of the Washingtons and runaway slave ads.  It’s a compelling narrative, and one that focuses on the often overlooked nature of 18th-century slavery (compared with the 19th-slavery), the emergence of abolitionism, and popular conception of someone like Washington who represents liberty to so many Americans, but held Ona Judge and many others in perpetual bondage.

Recommended books:

  • Uncommon Ground: Archaeology and Early African America, 1650-1800.
    by Leland Ferguson
  • The World They Made Together: Black and White Values in Eighteenth-Century Virginia by Mechal Sobel
  • North of Slavery: The Negro in the Free States, 1790-1860 by Leon F. Litwack
  • Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs
  • Barracoon: The Story of the Last “Black Cargo” by Zora Neale Hurston

Rating: ***1/2