I saw Ana DuVarney’s film Selma last night. It is a powerful, wonderful depiction of an ugly era of American history and the heroes that fought against injustice. While Martin Luther King is central to the story, DuVarney includes a wide cast of characters that stretch from the historically famous to people with names long forgotten. She also shows King as an imperfect man who still deserves our deepest admiration. The violence depicted made me wince at points, but that is necessary to make us remember what injustice and cruelty African Americans suffered for generations – and still face too often. There is a great debate over Oscar snubs for the director and lead actor. I’ve seen several of the nominated films and agree with those who ask why this great film did not receive more recognition. Some critics charge that it is racism and point to Oscar evaluators who are predominantly white, old, and male. That may be true. But, as King showed us, good can often grow out of bad. Hopefully the controversy will motivated more people to see this film. I also hope that Selma will be shown in schools for generations to come. Ana DuVarney has given us history – complex and powerful.
Tomorrow is the day the nation honors Martin Luther King. It will be a great day to reflect on what has changed and what hasn’t
[On Sundays, this blog explores topics beyond the world of careers and jobs.]
A Story of Hope
I recently saw my favorite movie of the year, Nebraska. This film by director Alexander Payne has it all: a great story, compelling characters, and unforgettable scenery. In some ways it’s a very simple story: An old man named Woody Grant thinks he has won a million dollars through a magazine promotion. He and his son David travel to Nebraska to claim the winnings. David understands that his father has not won the money, but he wants him to have the dignity that comes with belief and freedom.
Nebraska is a very funny movie with serious implications. No character in this movie leads a happy life. Woody’s sons have dead end jobs in Billings, Montana. Their cousins have no opportunity in rural Nebraska. The older characters repeatedly ponder lost opportunities and lost loves. Woody, a man of few words, embodies all of these character in his dreams of winning a million dollars. Beyond a few minor purchases, he doesn’t have any real use for the money. He wants it because there is nothing else in his life.
On the emotional level, Payne contrasts love of people and love of money. Where Woody and his family care for each other and view their history in Nebraska as one of human connections, many of the people in the small town of Hawthorne, Nebraska, only see Woody as a potential ATM machine. His former business partner (brilliantly played by Stacy Keach) demands $10,000 as a repayment for loans made decades before. Other relatives ask for their share, only to be driven off by Woody’s wife who reminds them that her husband did far more for them than they did for him. His bumbling nephews steal his prize notification certificate, only to learn that their uncle’s dream is a joke.
Once Woody’s fantasy is revealed for what it is, the people who wanted his money begin to mock him. They have nothing in their lives, which makes their venom even more poisonous. In some way, this aspect of the film reflects a country that has given up on work and saving to put all of its hope into fantasies of risk and luck. Woody briefly became their hope, a winning lottery ticket. When that dream died, they attack with scorn built through years of hopelessness. Payne reflects this mood in scenes of a landscape that is both empty and hauntingly beautiful. He portrays the town of Hawthorne as if it were frozen in the 1970s.
Despite these dark moments and motifs, Nebraska is also a great reflection on love and hope. David is rock steady in supporting his father. He takes him on the journey to Nebraska despite the protests of his mother and older brother, two characters who are first portrayed as sour know-it-alls who want to put Woody in a home. However, as they encounter the people of Hawthorne, mother and son come to support Woody, which gives the film a richer emotional depth. I won’t describe the ending, but it fits in being both touching and plausible. While many critics have singled out Bruce Dern’s performance as Woody, which is fantastic, all of the actors capture their characters in a way that grips the audience, letting us share their dreams and nightmares. Nebraska takes us on a journey. At the end, we feel rewarded – as if we’d won the prize.
[“Sabbath” is this blog’s Sunday feature that looks beyond the world of jobs and careers.]
A Movie You Should See
Over the past few months, America has again wrestled with questions of race and justice as it debated the case of George Zimmerman and the killing of Trayvon Martin. The movie Fruitvale Station explores a similar situation. 22 year old Oscar Grant was killed by transit police in Oakland on January 1, 2009. Several people on the train captured the killing with cell phone cameras. Clearly, whatever Grant’s actions, he did not deserve to die.
Some might argue that Fruitvale Station gives too kind a portrait of Grant who spent time in jail and dealt drugs. I look at it differently. While the movies shows him doing those things, it also depicts him as a father, son, lover, and friend, a complex human being, not a cartoon cutout. In one scene, he helps a stranger in a store who doesn’t know what kind of fish to buy for a fish fry.
This incident might seem trivial, but it is very significant, especially given some of the fall out from the Zimmerman trial. Some conservatives have dredged up the myth of the dysfunctional black family as a way to buttress arguments in favor of Zimmerman’s “innocence.” In the film, Oscar calls his grandmother who tells the young woman how to make a fish fry. Later Oscar’s grandmother makes gumbo as part of a birthday celebration for her daughter, Oscar’s mother. Four generations share the food as part of a tradition and as an expression of love. There is nothing dysfunctional about this family.
Similarly Oscar and his girlfriend are portrayed as loving parents who are struggling members of the working class. Oscar has lost his job because he was late for work too often. His girlfriend works in the service industry. At one point, Oscar looks at a calendar and sees the words in red “Rent Due.” He arranges to sell pot, but then, remember his time in prison, dumps his bag in the ocean. He’s trying to change his life.
After Oscar gets in a fight on a train, transit police pull him and his friends onto a station platform. During a tense altercation with several officers, Oscar is shot by a young officer who overreacted. Several passengers filmed the incident as the police took Oscar’s friends away in handcuffs.
Again, we see family in hospital as surgeons try to save Oscar’s life. His mother, played by Octavia Spencer, leads prayers and pushes his friends to look beyond their anger. We see in this scene how much Oscar was loved, how his life had value that goes beyond a college degree or rap sheet. As almost everyone attending this movie will know before buying a ticket, Oscar dies. The film ends with scenes from a protest in 2013 that show Oscar’s daughter Tatiana outside Fruitvale Station. We are left with her loss and pain.
The man Oscar fought on the train was a white ex-con he had also battled in prison. When the transit cops entered the train, they only took off Oscar and his friends. Most of the officers, including the one who shot Oscar, were white. Justice seems more selective than blind. Similarly, in the Zimmerman case, much was made of how Trayvon Martin dressed, the words his friend used on the stand, and other criminal actions in the area that were attributed to African Americans. The details of the case are under dispute. However, this is certain. Trayvon Martin died at the age of 17, five years younger than Oscar Grant. Neither young man deserved to die, whatever reason the justice system gave for excusing the men who killed them. (Zimmerman, of course, was found not guilty. The officer who shot Grant only served 11 months on a two year sentence.)
I strongly recommend Fruitvale Station as a beautifully told tragic story. We are introduced to a young man and get to see the world through his mind and feel through his heart for 90 minutes. Fruitvale Station is great art because it challenges us to change not just how we think, but also how we feel. If this country ever rises above its racial conflicts, we will need to engage in this kind of exercise of understanding that takes us beyond simplicity and stereotype, prejudice and fear.
I never met Roger Ebert, but he’s always been a part of my life. From PBS movie reviews in the 1970s to his writing in the Chicago Sun-Times, Ebert talked about movies in language that a normal person could understand. While he was brilliant, he never talked down to his readers. Instead, he was one of us, the person sitting next to us, a fan of movies.
Roger Ebert died today after a long bout with cancer. I’m assuming his death was unexpected because his friend the columnist Neil Steinberg wrote a great piece entitled: “Roger Ebert is not Going Away” in today’s paper. Ebert announced yesterday that his cancer had returned and that he would be reviewing fewer films. He described his decision as a “leave of presence.” Responding to Ebert’s words, “I am not going away,” Steinberg wrote: “This is certainly true. He couldn’t, even if he never wrote another word. He is lodged in the culture he swayed, in the minds of readers across the world, and in the hearts of his friends at the Sun-Times.” I’d add the hearts of his viewers and readers of several decades.
A person like Roger Ebert does leave us at death – his presence remains as long as we live.
[“Sabbath” is this blog’s Sunday feature that explore topics outside of the job world.]
Politics and the Oscars
There are three films nominated for this year’s Academy Award for Best Picture that fascinate me: Lincoln, Zero Dark Thirty, and Argo. All tell stories that the public knows: the 13th Amendment was passed, Bin Laden was killed, and the hostages were released. Even so, these films spin narratives that keep the audience engaged. We are taken into worlds that make us feel what the characters are feeling, which is one hallmark of great art.
I’ve met some people who found Lincoln too slow, too detailed. For me, the film was rich in its context and narrative. I’ve read several books about Lincoln, but none of them gave me the same feeling for the man and his struggles. Spielberg depicts Lincoln as the folksy wise man that every school child knows. However, he also shows the president as the pragmatic politician who will make deals to achieve his end. We see a human Lincoln who has to navigate a mess democratic system during a civil war. I believe that this film will be as influential as any biography of its subject.
Zero Dark Thirty holds the audience with its narrative, but, for me, its content and ethics are problematic. This film centers on one character Maya who resembles Ahab in her pursuit of Osama Bin Laden. She holds to her pursuit of Bin Laden even when her superiors tell her to move on. As we all know, the mission was successful. My problem with the movie, as it is for other viewers, is that torture is a “tool” used by agents to obtain information. It’s not pro-torture, but the depiction of “advanced interrogation” is problematic. Viewers are left to wonder if the ends don’t justify the means, a darker pragmatism than that practiced by Lincoln. I do believe that the CIA and other law enforcement agencies mean to keep us safe. In fulfilling this mission, their methods must never go beyond the law if we are truly to be better than those who threaten our country.
I just saw Argo last night, and, of the three films, it is the most suspenseful and best made, which is a high order. For my money (all two cents of it), it is the best film I have seen this year. Ben Affleck has taken a little known, forgotten story of the hostage crisis and brought it to life in a way that keeps viewers on the edge of their seats while challenging us to think. We see how Americans came to be trapped in the American Embassy in Tehran. Six escaped to the Canadian Embassy. Tony Mendez, a CIA agent, devises a scheme to sneak them out by creating a fake film called Argo and having the six Americans be his team for site selection. While the film shows the brutality and zealotry of revolutionary Iran, it also calls out the U.S. and the CIA for their role in installing the equally brutal Shah. It also shows Mendez as a moral man who won’t follow an order to leave the six behind. I found this film much more realistic and impressive in this regard than Zero Dark Thirty.
While these three films all have some relevance to our current political reality, they are also movies, stories that can be shaped by a writer and refined by great directors. Real politics – as Lincoln’s story demonstrates – is much messier. The press and members of Congress would frequently challenge Lincoln to state his policy. He would respond: “My policy is to have no policy.” He understood that simple answers don’t work in a complex world. At the same time, he knew how and when to be strong and make bold decisions. Would a great leader like Lincoln be able to manage today’s world of political divisions, sensational (and simplistic) media, and a disengaged citizenry? I don’t think so. Until things in Washington sort themselves out, we will need more good movies.