Movie Review: Hollywood Shuffle (1987)


Title: Hollywood Shuffle
Release Date: March 20, 1987
Director: Robert Townsend
Production Company: Conquering Unicorn
Summary/Review:

Hollywood Shuffle is a comedy that satirizes the institutional racism of the motion picture industry that limits roles for Black actors to gang members, servants, and enslaved people.  Robert Townsend directed and stars in the film and co-wrote the script with Keenen Ivory Wayans.  I remember at the time that Townsend was considered part of a much-publicized “trend” of Black directors making a mark in movies along with Matty Rich, John Singleton, and, of course, Spike Lee.  Townsend plays Bobby, an aspiring actor who gets a role in a stereotypical gang-related movie and has to choose between potentially advancing his career or standing up for more positive representation of the Black community.

The rather earnest main plot is punctuated by Bobby’s daydreams that play out as skits.  The style is very similar to Wayan’s sketch comedy show In Living Color, which debuted a few years later.  While the topics are still sadly relevant, some of the gags feel dated now,and the message of the film is by jokes based on homophobic and misogynist stereotypes. The sketches can run a bit long too.  But overall Townsend has his heart in the right place and this is a movie that needed to be seen in 1987, so I’m glad it became a hit.

Rating: ***

Movie Review: BlacKkKlansman (2018)


Title: BlacKkKlansman
Release Date: August 10, 2018
Director: Spike Lee
Production Company: Blumhouse Productions | Monkeypaw Productions | QC Entertainment | 40 Acres and a Mule Filmworks | Legendary Entertainment |
Perfect World Pictures
Summary/Review:

Inspired by actual historic events, or as the opening titles state “some fo’ real, fo’ real shit,” BlacKkKlansman is the story of Ron Stallworth (John David Washington), the first Black police officer in Colorado Springs.  Assigned to the intelligence division, Stallworth spots an ad for a local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan and calls for more information, using a white voice just like in Sorry to Bother You. Stallworth also accidentally uses his real name so a fellow detective, Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver), ends up meeting with the Klan members using Stallworth’s name. Flip is a composite character and in the film he’s made an unobservant Jewish man to raise the stakes of his interactions with the bigots.

Meanwhile, Stallworth continues his investigation by phone, eventually beginning a series of conversations with the KKK’s national director, David Duke (Topher Grace).  Concurrently with the investigation, Stallworth begins a relationship with Patrice Dumas (Laura Harrier), a Black liberation activist from Colorado College (Patrice is also invented for the film).  He meets her at at a rally where Kwame Ture (brought to life in an excellent short appearance by Corey Hawkins) is the speaker. Michael Buscemi, Harry Belafonte, and Alec Baldwin also appear in small but memorable parts.

The movie is based on absurd events and some of the wildest details are true to life.  The characters seem to be aware of the absurdity, especially late in the film when the essentially dunk on David Duke. Some of the changes are odd, like moving the events to the early 70s when they took place in the late 70s.  But as is typical for Spike Lee films, there is great attention to period details especially the fashions and music.

The movie talks about complex issues in interesting, if not subtle ways.  For example, Ron’s earnest but perhaps naive hopes of being able to change things from the inside are contrasted to Patrice’s more revolutionary approach. Lee also uses excerpts from Gone With the Wind and The Birth of a Nation to critique how popular entertainment reinforces white supremacist mythology.  Finally, the film also incorporates footage from the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia as a chilling epilogue to a mostly comical look at the past.

Rating: ***1/2

Movie Review: Da 5 Bloods (2020)


Title: Da 5 Bloods
Release Date: June 12, 2020
Director: Spike Lee
Production Company: 40 Acres and a Mule Filmworks | Rahway Road | Lloyd Levin/Beatriz Levin Production
Summary/Review:

Four African American veterans reunite in Vietnam in order to recover the remains of their inspirational squad leader Stormin’ Norman (played in flashback scenes by Chadwick Boseman, whose death in real life adds gravitas to the character who never lived to see old age).  Their ulterior motive is to also recover a cache of gold bars they hid almost 50 years earlier.  Spike Lee intercuts the narrative with documentary footage of the various injustices of the war in Vietnam and violence against Civil Rights and anti-war activists in the 60s & 70s.  The movie is kind of a bizarre combination of Apocalypse Now, The Treasure of Sierra Madre, and The Black Power Mixtape. And Lee has some fun by making some very obvious allusions to older films.

The main cast is made up of veteran actors, some who’ve worked with Lee before, but none of them superstars.  It’s good to see them all get a chance to demonstrate their acting chops.  Delroy Lindo plays Paul, who suffers from severe PSTD which contributes to his anger and paranoia, as well as contrariness such as supporting Trump.  Otis (Clarke Peters) is a calmer presence who also uses the trip to Vietnam to reunite with a Vietnamese girlfriend, Tiên (Lê Y Lan).  Eddie (Norm Lewis) is a successful owner of car dealerships and likes to show off his wealth, but is also the most adamant about using the gold for Norman’s vision of supporting Black Liberation. Melvin (Isaih Whitlock Jr.) is the rock of the group who tries to hold the Bloods together when things get strained. Paul’s estranged son David (Jonathan Majors), is the uninvited guest on the expedition adding additional tension to the movie.

There is a lot going on this movie, so much it feels like it’s bursting out of the film’s 2-1/2 hour length.  It’s impossible for this movie to do justice to so many threads ranging from PTSD to landmine clearance to Black Lives Matter.  The movie is also more brutally violent than I expected and ends up a bummer despite the oddly-victorious tone Lee takes in the finale.  Although it’s a sprawling mess, the Da 5 Bloods still works, something I credit to the great cast. Despite this being a long movie, I still wish I could spend more time with these characters.

Rating: ****

Movie Review: One Night in Miami… (2020)


Title: One Night in Miami…
Release Date: December 25, 2020
Director: Regina King
Production Company: ABKCO | Snoot Entertainment | Germano Studios | Hit Factory | Capital Studios
Summary/Review:

On February 25, 1964, four of the most famous Black American of the 1960s met in Miami following a heavyweight title bout: Cassius Clay (Eli Goree), who had just won the heavyweight title and would later be known as Muhammad Ali, Nation of Islam minister Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir), singer/songwriter Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom, Jr.), and football star Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge). The meeting really occurred, and this film depicts what they might have talked about.

Each of the characters is struggling with something. Malcolm X is planning to leave the Nation of Islam and start his organization (and hoping to bring Cassius with him), Clay is planning to publicly announce his conversion to Islam but also doesn’t seem ready to put drinking and philandering behind him, Cooke is still smarting over bombing in front of an all-white audience at the Copacabana, and Brown is considering leaving the NFL to star in movies.  The main conflict of the film is between Malcolm X and Cooke, over whether Cooke is pandering to white audiences (Malcom’s view) or establishing economic independence for Black artists (Cooke’s view).

The movie is great in showing these four men who are larger than life in their public personas having moments of intimacy and vulnerability.  There’s also some great humor.  Who knew that Malcolm X’s idea of a party involved eating vanilla ice cream? All four of the actors are phenomenal in their roles and should’ve shared a Best Actor award.

The film is based on a play of the same name by Kemp Powers, and Regina King’s direction of the film retains a lot of theatricality which I think works to the films advantage. Kemp also plays around with the timeline in the script and in his screenplay adaptation, so it can be a bit frustrating if you know history to hear the characters referring to things that hadn’t happened yet and ignoring things that did.  But it’s important to understand that Kemp is using these real life characters in a fictionalized account to depict different aspects of being Black in America.

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

Movie Review: Blindspotting (2018)


Title: Blindspotting
Release Date: July 20, 2018
Director: Carlos López Estrada
Production Company: Summit Entertainment | Codeblack Films | Snoot Entertainment
Summary/Review:

Real life lifelong friends Daveed Diggs (of Hamilton and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt fame) and Rafael Casal wrote and star in this film about gentrification and police violence in Oakland.  Diggs plays Collin Hoskins on the last three days of probation after being convicted for assault . Casal plays his volatile friend Miles Turner who does things like purchase a gun illegally, smokes weed, and picks fist fights that seem destined to get Collin to violate the terms of his probation.  Collin and Miles work together at a moving company and spend much of their social time together as well with Mile’s wife Ashley (Jasmine Cephas Jones) and their adorable child Sean.

The movie starts off as a goofy comedy as Collin tries to avoid getting ensnared by Miles’ clueless misbehavior and they both make fun of the white hipsters taking over Oakland.  Things begin to shift to a more serious drama after Collin witnesses a cop murder a Black man by shooting him in the back.   This is one of those movies where the sequence of events happening close together with a lot of coincidences is extremely unlikely.  But you have to set aside plot machinations to focus on the acting performances and the underlying social message of the film. Particularly well done is that while Collin and Miles have had similar life experiences, nevertheless, the experience for Collin as a Black man is different from what Miles has as a white man, something the latter has to learn.

Rating: ***1/2

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: The Constant Rabbit by Jasper Fforde


Author: Jasper Fforde
Title: The Constant Rabbit
Publication Info: Viking (2020)
Other Books Read By the Same Author:

Summary/Review:

I’ve been a fan of Jasper Fforde’s works for many years and there are some things I’ve come to expect. 1) Elements of the fantastical in an otherwise ordinary world and 2) the characters in the story live under autocratic world in a dystopia.  The fantastical element of this book is that an unexplained event caused rabbits to take on human forms. The dystopia is that the British government has fallen under control of rightwing extremists who use fear to discriminate against the anthropomorphized rabbits. The dystopia is in effect the Britain of UKIP and Brexit (or the United States of Tea Party and Trump) and the metaphor isn’t even slightly nuanced.

The story is told from the perspective of Peter Knox, a human who is especially skilled in distinguish among rabbits and thus works as a Spotter for a draconian government organization Rabbit Compliance Taskforce.  Knox represents the the liberal person who is sympathetic to the cause of the oppressed but doesn’t want to get involved. In the novel, a rabbit family moves in next door to Knox including Constance, a rabbit Knox was acquainted with in college to whom he maintains an attraction. Over the course of the novel Knox is drawn into the rabbit resistance at the same time the government advances its plan to suppress the rabbits once and for all.

What I love about Fforde’s novels is that when he creates an alternate universe he always dives in deep into the detail about how the universe works.  The universe of anthropomorphic rabbits is no exception.  Fforde does a great job creating the culture and everyday life of the rabbit world that seems true to their species and their magical transformation. I particularly like a scene late in the novel when a rabbit lawyer is able to find loopholes in case against Knox in order to have the charges dropped.

This may not be my favorite Fforde novel but it is still a very good one. And if heavy-handed analogies to current events are not your thing, be warned that this book is full of them. But I believe it still works as an effective commentary and satire.

Favorite Passages:

Somebody once said that the library is actually the dominant life form on the planet. Humans simply exist as the reproductive means to achieve more libraries.

‘I fully appreciate what you’re saying, Peter,’ he said, which was Mallett shorthand for ‘I would utterly reject what you’re saying if I were listening, which I’m not’, ‘and all I want to do is raise awareness,’ which was, again, Mr Mallett’s shorthand for ‘I think I’ll stir up a whole heap of trouble and hope that in the ensuing scrum I’ll get what I want but not be held accountable for it’. He went on: ‘We must remain utterly vigilant at all times, and I’ll be honest, Peter, I didn’t have you pegged as a friend to rabbits.’

‘And don’t say you’re not personally responsible,’ continued Mr Ffoxe, ‘because you are. Your tacit support of the status quo is proof of your complicity, your shrugging indifference a favourable vote in support of keeping things exactly as they are. I’m not the murderer, Knox, you are – you and all your pathetic little naked primate cousins with their silly hairstyles and gangly limbs and overdeveloped sense of entitlement and self-serving delusion.’

While most humans are wired to be reasonably decent, a few are wired to be utter shits – and they do tend to tip the balance.’

‘Perhaps that’s what satire does – not change things wholesale but nudge the collective consciousness in a direction that favours justice and equality.

The bears in Oregon generally kept to themselves, but had recently been given Second Amendment rights, so were legally allowed to shoot hunters in self-defence – and did so quite frequently, much to the annoyance of hunters, who considered it ‘manifestly unfair’ because the bears, now suitably armed, were actually better hunters than they were.

The way we see it, London is just one massive money-laundering scheme attached to an impressive public transport system and a few museums, of which even the most honest has more stolen goods than a lock-up garage in Worcester rented by a guy I know called Chalky.’

‘Humans have a very clear idea about how to behave, and on many occasions actually do. But it’s sometimes disheartening that correct action is drowned out by endless chitter-chatter, designed not to find a way forward but to justify petty jealousies and illogically held prejudices. If you’re going to talk, try to make it relevant, useful and progressive rather than simply distracting and time-wasting nonsense, intended only to justify the untenable and postpone the real dialogue that needs to happen.’

Rating: ***1/2

Podcasts of the Week Ending October 24


Code Switch :: Is Trump Really That Racist?

Trump says the quiet part out loud, but a panel of experts evaluates US Presidents over the past 50 years and finds that many of them enabled racism through policy and laws.

Planet Money :: Frame Canada

A whistleblower exposes the propaganda campaign he created to (succesfully) make Americans believe that medical care in Canada is inferior to that of the United States.

The Thirty20Eight :: Disney Princess Non-Princesses & Non-Princess Princesses

What is a Disney Princess and who makes the cut? A surprisingly fascinating discussion of a cultural phenomenon.

Twenty Thousand Hertz :: Dies Irae

From medieval chants to symphonic compositions to the soundtracks of blockbuster films, a pattern of four notes has served to represent death.

What Next :: First Timers: Out of Prison and Finally Able to Vote

Incarceration strips American citizens of their right to vote, sometimes even after they are released. This podcast focuses on one formerly incarcerated person who will be participating in voting for the first time this year.

RUNNING TALLY OF PODCAST OF THE WEEK APPEARANCES

Book Review: Caste by Isabel Wilkerson


Author: Isabel Wilkerson
Title: Caste : The Origins of our Discontents
Narrator: Robin Wiles
Publication Info: Random House (Audio), 2020
Summary/Review:

The author of the remarkable work on the history of the Great Migration, The Warmth of Other Suns, returns with a book about systems of caste.  Wilkerson focuses on three of the most deeply entrenched caste systems in world history: India’s millennia-old system, the subjugation of Jews in Nazi Germany, and the continued inequality of Blacks in the United States that persists even after dismantling slavery and Jim Crow segregation.

Through the lens of caste, which Wilkerson says trumps both class and race, we can understand how inequality persists and what can be done to dismantle it. Wilkerson works through eight pillars of caste and richly illustrates it with examples from history and current events.  Wilkerson also frequently draws upon examples from her own experience as a professional Black woman being treated as an inferior.  The book is eye-opening and sobering, and it is one that I believe should be on everyone’s must-read list.

Recommended books:

Rating: ****1/2