Podcasts of the Week Ending February 6


Politically Re-Active :: Nikki Giovanni

An interview with the legendary poet Nikki Giovanni.  If you listen to only one podcast this week, make it this one

Hub History :: Literal Nazis

Before and during World War II, a group called the Christian Front operated in Boston and carried out anti-Semitic violence in the city.  While I’m not particularly surprised by this dark stain on Boston’s history, I nevertheless had never heard of these Nazis operating in the city..

Throughline :: What Happened After Civilization Collapsed

A history of the ancient Bronze Age and what caused those civilizations to collapse, and what we can learn from that today.

Running Tally of Podcast of the Week Awards for 2021

Book Review: Black Radical: The Life and Times of William Monroe Trotter by Kerri K. Greenidge


Author: Kerri K. Greenidge
Title: Black Radical: The Life and Times of William Monroe Trotter
Publication Info: Liveright (2019) 
Summary/Review:

William Monroe Trotter is remembered in Boston in the name of a public elementary school but his life, work, and legacy are otherwise look.  Kerri Greenidge’s biography is a great introduction to the life of the Boston Civil Rights leader and activist who was most active during the 1890s to the 1920s.

Trotter was born into a prosperous family, the son of a decorated Civil War veteran, and held the position of Recorder of Deeds in the Grover Cleveland administration. Trotter grew up in the Hyde Park, then a predominately white suburb of Boston, and studied at Harvard University where he became the first Black man awarded with a Phi Beta Kappa key.  Despite his elite background, Trotter as an activist would stand up for poorer and darker-skinned Blacks who were overlooked by other prominent Black leaders of the time. Much of his career was defined in opposition to Booker T. Washington’s accommodationist strategies and the influence of his Tuskegee Institute.

Trotter’s accomplishments include publishing The Guardian newspaper, which he set up to carry on the legacy of Boston abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison’s Liberator, which became one of the most influential Black newspapers in the early 20th century. Working with W.E.B. Dubois and others, Trotter participated in the Niagara Movement which lead to the establishment of the NAACP.  He did not think the NAACP was radical enough, though, and objected to the prominence of white people in the leadership, so instead ended up forming the National Equal Rights League (NERL) in 1908, which failed to gain the support and membership of its rival.

On political issues, Trotter was adamant that Black voters remain independent and not align themselves. In 1912, Woodrow Wilson won the Presidency with the help of Black voters who swung the vote of Massachusetts and other states. After inauguration, Wilson caved to Southern whites and segregated Federal offices.  Trotter lead protests against Wilson and had heated face-to-face meetings with the President which earned him a measure of fame in the Black community. Trotter also lead protests against the racist film The Birth of a Nation in 1915, which while they failed to stop the screenings of the movie, did energize the Boston Black activist community.

Trotter’s latter years saw him fall into a steep personal and financial decline.  Perhaps his fade from prominence contributed to why he was not well known after his death.  But Greenidge argues that Trotter was the link in radical Black activism for liberation between Frederick Douglass and Marcus Garvey, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King Jr.  I’m glad we have this biography to learn about this overlooked Black radical in Boston and American history.

Recommended books:

Rating: ****

Book Review: Entrepreneurs : the Boston business community, 1700-1850edited by Conrad Edick Wright and Katheryn P. Viens


Author: Conrad Edick Wright and Katheryn P. Viens, editors
Title: Entrepreneurs : the Boston business community, 1700-1850
Publication Info: Boston : Massachusetts Historical Society : Distributed by Northeastern University Press, 1997
Summary/Review:

This book is a collection of historical essays through the Massachusetts Historical Society about business in Boston in the 18th and 19th centuries.  I read this book with my co-workers as a way of understanding the people who created many of the materials held in our archival repository. The collection is hit or miss with some essays being really insightful and others being really boring.  Topics range from histories of women and Black people in business in Boston to the innovation of marine insurance, partnerships, and trusts in Boston.

Recommended books:

Rating: ***

Movie Review: The Out of Towners (1970)


Title: The Out of Towners 
Release Date: May 28, 1970
Director: Arthur Hiller
Production Company: Jalem Productions
Summary/Review:

I don’t know where I got the idea that The Out-of-Towners was a comedy classic, but I guess I figured the combination of Jack Lemmon and Neil Simon would be good for a few laughs.  It turns out the movie offers very few laughs indeed.  Lemmon plays George Kellerman, a businessman from Ohio who travels to New York City with his much put-upon wife Gwen (Sandy Dennis) in order to conduct an interview for a prestigious job. Naturally, every thing that can go wrong goes wrong including a delayed flight that is rerouted to Boston, a crowded train to New York, the inability to get a meal anywhere, losing their hotel room, being robbed, and then abducted, and even getting caught up in an anti-Cuban protest.

There are a few good moments. I particularly like when Gwen and George celebrate finding half-a-box of Cracker Jack to eat for breakfast. The topical references – sanitation and transit strikes, Cuban hijackings – make it a good time capsule for 1970. The movie was also filmed on location in a lot of places in New York and Boston, so I really enjoyed seeing what places looked like 50 years ago.

The main problem with this movie is that George and Gwen aren’t very likable.  Lemmon and Dennis are so talented that I was never totally able to hate them, but I also wasn’t really on their side.  The running gag with George creating an Arya Stark-like list of people he is going to sue is just one of the many things that are plain not funny.  My sense is the New Yorker Neil Simon created his stereotypes of what an awful pair of out-of-towners from the midwest are like without considering that the protagonists are someone you should actually want to root for.  This movie, like the latter-day comedy Quick Change, falls into the “New York is Awful” genre, but I couldn’t help thinking that at the end of the movie when George and Gwen decide to (spoiler) stay in Ohio, that it is New York City that dodged a bullet.

Rating: **

Podcasts of the Two Weeks Ending August 15


I subscribe to too many podcasts while simultaneously having less time to listen to them. Forgive the interlude as I catch you up on two weeks of podcasts.

Brattle Film Podcast :: Behind the Scenes on Boston Movies

The Brattle Theatre in Cambridge had a great series on Boston Movies and all four podcasts are worth listening to, but I particularly liked this final podcast where they interview on-set dresser Adam Roffman about the behind-the-scenes production of movies in Boston and how they’ve changed over time.

Fresh Air :: Jeffrey Toobin On The ‘Tragedy’ Of The Mueller Report

How the Democrats were out-maneuvered by the Trump administration allowing him to get away with obstruction of justice.

Radiolab :: Uncounted

An episode on voting rights focuses on the District of Columbia’s non-voting delegate to Congress and the movement to lower the voting age to 16.

This American Life :: Nice White Parents

A public middle school in Brooklyn with a predominately non-white student body deals with an unexpected influx of white students and the effects that of white parents involvement in the school operations.  This is the first episode of Chana Joffe-Walt’s series called Nice White Parents that is both fascinating in its exploration of the changes at one school over time and cringe-inducing by the careless and clueless behavior of white parents (and the school districts who cater to their interests).  I particularly like that Joffe-Walt asks tough questions and doesn’t let people get away without answering them.

Have You Heard :: Pandemics Pods: Parents, Privilege, Power, and Politics

Speaking of Nice White Parents, you may have heard of the latest trend of “pandemic pods” where parents pool together funds to hire a teacher or tutor to educate a small group of students at home instead of returning to school during the Covid-19 pandemic. This podcast explains the devastating effects this latest form of “white flight” will have and how it opens the doors to the worst offerings of disaster capitalists.

99% Invisible :: Policing the Open Road

A century ago, the rise of the automobile as a predominant form of transportation led to an increase of policing to enforce road rules. The changes lead to a vast increase in ordinary peoples’ interaction with the police, increased police power and professionalization, and even the loss of Constitutional protections against unreasonable search and seizures.

Throughline :: Reframing History: The Litter Myth

In the 1950s, industry leaders organized to create Keep America Beautiful that produced public service announcements against littering. The seemingly benign ads had the effect of transferring responsibility for the environment from industries that made disposable single-use packaging to the personal responsibility of consumers. This conflict in how to deal with environmental issues persists to this day, and corporations still rely on “greenwashing” to make them look environmentally responsible.

Code Switch :: Kamala, Joe, And The Fissures In The Base

If you listen to pundits, and the Democrats 2020 presidential candidate, you might come to believe that Black Americans are a monolithic voting bloc.  This myth is dispelled in Code Switch where the diversity of opinions and conflicts even within Black families over politics are strong.

Decoder Ring :: Mystery of the Mullet

The mullet hairstyle, short in front and long in back, is worn by a diversity of people ranging from macho men in rural communities to lesbian women, from hockey players to heavy metal heads. But the Oxford English Dictionary traces the use of the term “mullet” only to 1994, surprisingly late for a hairstyle identified with the 1980s.  Willa Paskin investigates this linguistic mystery.  Personally, I never heard the term mullet until the late 1990s and had heard them called short-longs prior to mullet gaining popularity.


RUNNING TALLY OF PODCAST OF THE WEEK APPEARANCES

Podcasts of the Week Ending July 18


Afropop Worldwide :: Africa and the Blues

In this podcast, we learn about how African music is more than just “the roots” and the ties between Africa and American blues traditions.

Brattle Film Podcast :: Boston on Film, Part 1

Boston is the setting for many movies, and the crime movie – also known as the Three Decker Movie or Boston No-r – is one of the most common genres.  Here’s a discussion of some of the best.

Decoder Ring :: The Karen

The history of how an archetype of the entitled, middle-class white women became known as The Karen.

The Last Archive :: Tomorrowland

The final episode of the series on “Who Killed Truth” travels from time capsules to Disneyland to Mark Zuckerberg’s dorm room to find answers.

Twenty Thousand Hertz :: Hamilton Remix

A breakdown of the remarkable sound design that goes into the stage production of Hamilton: An American Musical.

What Next :: The First Federal Execution in 17 Years

The United States takes another step into a neo-fascist state by resuming capital punishment at the federal level.

   :: Sweden Screwed Up

While we may be focused on how the United States totally bungled the response to the COVID-19 pandemic, we can learn from Sweden of a complete different way to mess things up.

 

 


Movie Review: Birth of a Movement (2017)


TitleBirth of a Movement
Release Date: February 6, 2017
Director: Susan Gray and Bestor Cram
Production Company: Northern Light Productions
Summary/Review:

This documentary is about William Monroe Trotter, a civil rights leader and newspaper editor in Boston in the early 20th century.  Raised in a well-to-do family and Harvard educated, Trotter advocated for more radical civil rights activism than his peers such as Booker T. Washington.  He participated in founding the NAACP, but ultimately did not find it radical enough.

The documentary is also about D.W. Griffith, the groundbreaking filmmaker, who made the first Hollywood blockbuster in 1915.  Released 50 years after the end of the Civil War and based on a novel  called The Clansman, the film was eventually re-titled Birth of Nation. The movie depicts the Civil War through a sympathetic portrayal of the insurgent Southerners.  The post-war Reconstruction is depicted as a time when bestial, sexually-aggressive Black men (portrayed by white actors in blackface) ran rampant until the Ku Klux Klan restores order.

The movie gained widespread acclaim and opposition as Griffith opened it in cities across the country, and even held the first ever film screening in the White House for President Woodrow Wilson.  Knowing that Boston had a history of supporting abolition and Black civil rights, Griffith targeted the city for an opening knowing that success there would lead to widespread distribution of the film.  Trotter organized massive protests against the film’s opening at Tremont Theatre across from Boston Common.  While the protests failed to stop the screening, Trotter’s protests did invigorate a new direction for Black civil rights activism.

Rating: ****

Album Review: Unlovely by The Ballroom Thieves


Album: Unlovely
Artist: The Ballroom Thieves 
Release Date: February 12, 2020
Label: Nettwerk Records
Favorite Tracks:

  • Unlovely
  • Tenebrist
  • Homme Run
  • Begin Again
  • Pendulum

Thoughts:

I first learned of Boston-based trio The Ballroom Thieves a few years ago when they were the standout performers at a festival I attended.  Their new album speaks to our times with lyrics that address personal relationship and social movements, and often both at the same time.  The band is described as folk rock and Americana, but I don’t think those genres quite capture the infectious pop sound of the songs that also draw upon classic rock, soul, and even a touch of metal.

Calin “Callie” Peters (vocals, cello, bass), Martin Earley (vocals, guitar), and Devin Mauch (vocals, percussion) are all excellent instrumentalists and the recording captures their performances as well as their tight harmonies.  I tend to get lost in music at the expense of the lyrics, but I was drawn into the chorus of my favorite track “Tenebrist” which is both inspirational and sarcastic:

We all muddy the water
To make it seem less shallow
And if our grief grows like a shadow
In the morning that’s alright
We need the dark to know the light

The music hides anger, frustration, and exhaustion with our political present in the lyrics, so it’s worth a deep listen.

Rating: ****

This performance from WGBH leads off with “Tenebrist” and some older tracks.

The Paste Studio performance includes “Homme Run,” “Love is Easy,” and “Pendulum.”

 

Classic Movie Review: The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1973)


Title: The Friends of Eddie Coyle
Release Date: June 26, 1973
Director: Peter Yates
Production Company: Paramount Pictures
Summary/Review:

Long before The Departed and several adaptations of Denis Lehane novels made the Boston Crime Movie a cliche, there was The Friends of Eddie Coyle. Unlike most of the movies that I watched for this classic movie project this is not one that’s considered one of the great movies of all time, but I put it on my list because it’s considered one of the great Boston movies of all time.  Having watched it, I think it deserves much wider recognition because it is a powerful, well-acted, well-paced, and well-scripted film.

Unlike more recent Boston Crime Movies, The Friends of Eddie Coyle emphasizes the mundanity of life in the mob.  Doing mob work is work and for Eddie Coyle (Robert Mitchum) it is  – literally and figuratively – a dead end job.  Sorry for the spoiler, but it’s clear from the beginning that Eddie is not much longer for this world, although you do pull for him to some how get out his situation.

Eddie’s job is to get guns for a gang of bank robbers who need fresh weapons for each heist.  He buys them from gun runner Jackie Brown (Steven Keats).  Coyle is also facing a prison sentence for getting caught in New Hampshire with a truck full of stolen liquor and refusing to squeal on who he was working for, the bartender/mob boss Dillon (Peter Boyle).  He asks ATF agent Dave Foley (Richard Jordan) for help with a recommendation to the judge, but Foley expects him to turn informer in return.

At first the movie seems disjointed, with scenes of Eddie, Jackie, Dillon, and Dave going about their business intercut with bank robberies.  But it all comes together brilliantly in the end. As I noted above, this movie emphasizes the mundane, everyday aspects of organized crime.  There’s no glamour here, and there’s actually only a handful of scenes of violence.  But the movie does offer terrific acting, especially Mitchum, who pretty much lives in his role as Eddie.

For Boston lovers, there are a lot of great location shots including familiar spots like City Hall Plaza and the old Boston Garden, where Eddie waxes poetically over Bobby Orr in the most Boston scene ever caught on film.  There are also scenes shot in a no longer extant Back Bay bar that is a platonic ideal of the men’s bars that no longer exist.  And although I can’t confirm, I’m almost certain there’s a scene in the late, lamented Doyle’s Cafe.  Much of the film is set in the suburbs at places like Houghton’s Pond and shopping centers with parking lots filled with big cars and flashy signs.

Bostonian or not, this is a film worth watching.

Rating: ****1/2

Classic Movie Review: The Thomas Crown Affair (1968)


Title: The Thomas Crown Affair
Release Date: June 19, 1968
Director: Norman Jewison
Production Company: The Mirisch Corporation | Simkoe | Solar Productions
Summary/Review:

The Thomas Crown Affair is probably less regarded as a classic film than as a classic Boston film, and is discussed in Ryan Walsh’s book on Boston in 1968, Astral Weeks.  And like at least 90% of movies set in Boston, it is a crime movie, but instead of mobbed-up guys from Southie, the criminal is a bored millionaire from Beacon Hill.  The movie starts out great with Thomas Crown (Steve McQueen) organizing a bank heist of five men who don’t meet until the robbery begins and who never see his face.  The film uses extensive split screens to depict the action, which reminds me of a 1970s historic site visitors center introductory movie, but it does add a flair to the action occurring simultaneously.

After the successful heist, the bank brings in the Vicki Anderson (Faye Dunaway). Initially, Anderson and Crown play a flirty game of cat and mouse.  But the movie fizzles out about halfway through.  We’re supposed to believe that they actually fall in love, on their many trips to ride a dune buggy around Crane Beach, but the romance is not convincing at all. Anderson’s belief that their love will make Crown confess seems especially pathetic.

I’ve never liked Dunaway as an actor, but in this case, I think both leads were miscast.  They needed something like a Cary Grant/Grace Kelly level of talent, but they weren’t up to the task.  I did like seeing all of the on-location scenery shot in 1968 Boston (and the one scene where Dulles Airport is made to appear as if it’s in Boston).  Mt. Vernon Street on Beacon Hill, seen in a scene where Crown douchely crashes a detectives car into a tree, looks virtually the same 50 years ago as it does today.

Rating: **