Category Archives: public affairs

“Potiche” is a French retro farce of sexual & workplace politics, which might remind you of “Nine to Five”

“Potiche” a French farce of sexual politics, set in the 1970s is an amusing, campy and retro story.   This story of a trophy wife (the translation of potiche) who takes her CEO husband’s place at the umbrella factory, which he claimed from the marriage.

This feels like a flipside telling of the 1980 workplace comedy movie, “Nine-to-Five.”  The look, feel is out-dated, but that retro view helps to make this basically smart, but also shallow story amuse us.

“Potiche” takes place when the U.S. was amid its feminist and labor revolutions, which were also marked by “women’s work” sections of the newspaper want ads.

Landmark Theatres’  shows this at the Edina Cinema for a week from April 29th.

There is une petite leçon beyond the campy and ironical comedy.  It’s worth seeing.

POM’s “The Greatest Movie Ever Sold” is an irreverent way to scratch at some truths

“The Greatest Movie Ever Sold” shows us the sausage making involved in product placement in movies.  As Morgan Spurlock peeled back the onion of Mickey D’s in 2004′s “Supersize Me,” this year’s documentary comedy shows us, and him, in the process of wooing companies to pay for his movie, and in-turn being cast in it as the lead and supporting characters or topics.   Along the way they are examples of how those companies or brands have changed movies.

In Mr. Spurlock’s routine, nearly inimitable style, “The Best Movie Ever Sold” starts with him just now considering how well his crazy idea will fly with the American Nasdaq-type brands, whose concern about brand management and protective public relations flirts with paranoia.

(courtesy Sony Classics)

Landmark Theatre’s Uptown Theater plays this for a week starting on April 29th.

A bunch of mid-level brands stakes their claims to Mr. Spurlock’s viewers: POM Wonderful, a healthy pomegranate drink, Sheets (a gas station & eatery), Ban, Mini-Cooper, Hyatt hotels, Jet Blue and Mane & Tail among mid-length list of others.  That last one beats it all; it’s a shampoo for the horse and human markets, both!  Wow.

It must’ve been awkward and embarrassing when Morgan asks the Ban Roll-on  folks what words or phrases describe or typify their product: the marketing execs were struck dumb!  Hmm, no need to wonder why they called their company a small, scrappy company that could.

This is an amusing, witty exposé of brand placement or brand integrated movies.  Mr. Spurlock includes a few ads within the movie, sweetening the pot for his highest paying sponsors.  That’s an irony for those viewers who resent the Generation-Y norm of seeing TV commercials slapped onto a 70-foot screen, before or among the trailers.

All Spurlock family, Morgan and son, praise to Jet Blue? (courtesy Sony Classics)

Mr. Spurlock’s bottom-line is one that often lays on the track between money and art.   The question of artistic independence is big for the filmmaker.  That question: how much to sell-out?  One of the many artistic and financial questions: how much artistic control does he cede to his sponsors; how much of a whore is he willing to become?

A score?  See it.  Enjoy it.  Consider the meat inside the loony package.

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Just asking, again: Why do we love to attack Islam, an ancient faith founded on peace?!

Sometimes a film critic finds himself so flummoxed by people who leap to judgment without considering facts that a comment feels necessary.

Rep. Peter King (R) NY, Chairman of Homeland Security Committee, opened hearings to examine “the radicalization of American Muslims.”  In other words connecting Islam with terrorism.  In the press he uses inflammatory talking points, which make scintillating headlines, but little sense to audiences who think critically and with open minds.

Rep. Keith Ellison testifies before the House Committee on Homeland Security

Why do we rely on rhetoric in lieu of facts when those facts don’t suit us or our hearts?  Consider Dan Patrick Moynihan’s thoughts on facts: “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.”  Well, by that reasonable standard, how many talking heads would have to straighten out their acts?

If you watch him in his circuit on the talk shows, his disinterest in subtlety, nuance or incisive thought makes it clear that he’s an egomaniac.  Context doesn’t really interest him.  Headlines do; the big, bold ones.

Why are readers and viewers suckers for incendiary and sensational clips, those quotes that’re so often left out of context?  Remember Shirley Sherrod at the USDA? That department rushed to judgment because of incomplete and highly prejudicial information.  Its chief was compelled to send Ms. Sherrod packing.  As Chris Rock would probably say, context is our friend!  After her statement was put back into context the President himself had to reach out to diffuse that shameful situation.

Should we be concerned more by our impatient demand for instant, but incomplete information, by our disinterest in reading any off-line news, or by how American students’ reading comprehension may be under par these days?  But how much would either of these help us to remember that Muslims, as with most of us, are just nice folks who want to live and love in peace?

Walter Cronkite supposedly said something about an under-informed citizenry: I really tried to do as much as possible with a 22-minute newscast, but people really need to read…

Just asking: why is it so very easy, comforting or convenient to name an overwhelmingly good people – how many of you have met Muslims, found them gracious and quick with a smile – as a nemesis?

As contemptable as the attacks on the Twin Towers were, on a Biblical scale, 10 years later, that’s not enough of a reason to presume that a whole people is an automatic enemy.  Really.

Biography of Pakistan’s “Bhutto” is a political action movie that grabs you

“Bhutto” is a three-level history of Pakistan, its culture, its people, with Ms. Benazir Bhutto’s accomplishments front-and-center.  She was Pakistan’s first female Prime Minister, but didn’t rise from nothing.  Her dad, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, himself a former Pakistani Prime Minister, had to come first.

Benazir Bhutto, fmr Pakistani Prime Minister (courtesy First Run Features)

He set his progressive, maybe radical, example in the home and office, and a precedent for his daughter Benazir Bhutto.  This story isn’t just hers, or theirs, but also the state’s.

“Bhutto” is a potent, exceptional feature-length political documentary, from Duane Baughman & Johnny O’Hara, about a family that broke with customs to make history.  Truly, it’s a political action movie!  While it’s not Jason Bourne, the dramatic and consequences are just as tense.  Pakistan is a zealous Muslim state that’s both troubled and troublesome; in part because of fundamentalists, and the military and their diverging goals.  Women were only noticed if that suited the men, as long as there was no trouble, no waves made.  Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto’s story is vital to the state’s broader one.  Before her, women were never expected – or wanted – to serve the people by leading them.

Landmark Theatre’s Lagoon Cinema will begin showing “Bhutto” on Jan 28th.

This political documentary film provides a concise primer on Pakistan’s and the Bhutto family’s dense, complex and compelling interwoven stories, which are both personal and political – powerful.  Now, politics and family are often a dramatic mix; consider America’s Kennedy’s, the Windsor’s (the Royal Family) of Great Britain or the Daley’s of Chicago.  Adding contentious questions of gender or religion, or both to that mix is incendiary. The grooming of a groundbreaking stateswoman is a great story for ambitious girls.

We get all of this in one fascinating, highly intelligent, even urbane film.  Some people might find “Bhutto” too complex, too dense and too deep.  It mixes a few major moving parts.  While it’s a political documentary, the incendiary topics make it a political action movie.   Either one of these stories, about either of the Prime Ministers Bhutto, father or daughter, of about the state, could be full-length history entertainment.  Outside of PBS’ POV series it’s hard to come up with another film, documentary or not that deals with pioneering women politicians.  Particularly in lands where women only known as wives and mothers, serving families, never nation states.

Ms. Bhutto’s story, while dramatic, walks beside her dad’s.  She is her father’s daughter.  The dad, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s, story was vital to show his Prime Minister daughter’s origins, how she grow with fewer fears than other women.  He broke with tradition and custom, after Benazir wore a burqa for the first time.  After his wife told him that their daughter had worn that, he considered what the custom meant to him and he told her that Benazir didn’t have to wear it.  That helped to break the mold of a traditional Pakistani woman.

If we were to score this: 4.5 from 5.

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Haley Barbour and his ilk: why is the Southern Conservative boot drawn to its own mouth?

Just stepping away from cinema for the moment to consider politics, Southern politics.  Its persona and its rhetoric.  Mostly, what do they mean and bode for the masses?  Just asking.

Why do certain Southern Conservative politicians suffer from their typically Republican tribe’s brand of occasional, persistent foot-in-mouth syndrome?  During the last few days, the “Wall Street Journal” and surely other news sources of-record have shown Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour’s blind, well-intended opinion about how bad the civil rights ear wasn’t in his memory and experience.  Opinion writers from the “Washington Post” to its web partner “The Root,” have pounced into the fray, eager to refresh or reboot Mr. Barbour’s memory.

Why are some Southern Conservatives so prone to these gaffes?  Fmr. Sen. Majority Leader Trent Lott’s was a proud, potent figure until he sounded off about how Strom Thurmond’s failure as a Dixiecrat “doomed” the U.S. to its current lot.  Rand Paul too reminded many Americans of the heart of the GOP’s credo and its shrillest voices, when he spoke of the Civil Rights Act’s myriad vices.  They were neither the first, nor the last to mistake their creed for that of the masses, either of their states or those United.

Somehow many Americans keep waiting to exhale, waiting for an era when this won’t be common, but might seem comical.

Usually the turbulent portions of the South’s heritage, which clash with a Norman Rockwell nostalgia, are omitted from political talking points in order to fit a storybook sort of provincial memory of barbaric tumult.  That fits here.

Mr. Barbour, as with anyone, must decide his positions on vital topics, events and talking points and stick with them.  Martin King, Jr once opined, “if you’ve never angered someone in your life, then you’ve never stood for anything.”  If bigotry is a pillar of your credo, then that’s who you are.  If you don’t want to be known for having that heart, then you face an internal gauntlet.

The late Sen. Daniel Moynihan said, “We are each entitled to our own opinions, but not our own facts.”  It would’ve been splendid had Gov. Barbour not trod that sometimes still swolen cultural and factual boundary.  Facts becomes casualties when you’re convinced that your memory does double-duty as confirmed fact.  It’s foolish to judge memories, except now when they’re mistaken in this incendiary way.

I hesitate to compare Mr. Barbour’s posture to hate speech, because it wasn’t, but he treads a slick slope.  It reminds me of when CBS News’ “60-minutes” ran a segment some years ago with representatives of the new Klan; the group yearned and strove to present a modern, palatable face for their organization, but Steve Kroft saw the sickening, shameful paraphernalia (Think stereotypical cartoons from the 1920s and 30s.) that the Klansman was hiding.

Many Yankees see meager differences between the White Citizens’ Councils and the Ku Klux Klan: they each extolled and exploited different tools of terror to keep their majority.  For the Councils it was economic, a subtle even prescient approach.  For the Klan it was brawn and bullets.

Why do the masses allow it?  …Choosing to believe that, while ignorant, or without clear or confirmed malice, the Conservative South’s loudmouths’ fangs hold no venom?  This is a perplexing and persistent question.

If the reality wasn’t a still simmering crisis, we might poise ourselves to laugh.  Maybe we should have a new comic duo: Barbour & Steele.

Remembering a Black peace maker, Ralph Bunche, at the movies

Dec 10, 2010 marks 60 years since Ralph J. Bunche, Ph.D. became the first person of color to earn the Nobel Prize for Peace.  He a mid-20th-Century icon, whom many – far too many – people have forgotten.  He earned the Nobel Prize for his work in 1950 as the UN mediator who brought about the armistice between Israel and Egypt, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon, all Arab neighbor countries.  In Bunche’s era, as much of an institutional insider as he was the “ultimate model Negro,” he was also seen as an “international Uncle Tom.  An enigma.”  Except for the last item, Mr. Bunche was Sidney Poitier’s diplomatic contemporary.

If you wonder about Black diplomat characters in movies, Secretaries of State Colin L. Powell and Condoleezza Rice, from Oliver Stone’s 2008 film “W,” might pop to mind.  But Ralph Bunche probably won’t.  Most Americans probably presume that the other two were the first renowned peace-makers of color.

Ralph J. Bunche, Ph.D.

Mr. Bunche has been described in many more ways: Mr. UN.  Diplomat.  Scholar.  Professional optimist.  Nobel Laureate. Enigma.  African-American.  Peacemaker.  That final duo is the most remarkable here:  He was the UN’s first black undersecretary-general, and the first black person to earn a Ph.D. in political science from Harvard.

The dearth of educated, cool-headed, urbane characters of color is a part of a chronic stereotypes that plagues North America’s culture, psyche and attitude: the black thug, or black buck.  He is malevolent, barely educated and a committed criminal, often epitomized by at least one character in myriad “keepin’ it real” type homeboy movies, which had a zenith in the 1990s.  The black diplomat’s image smashes that stereotype nicely, showing a non-violent, goal-oriented alternative to quashing conflicts.  We just rarely consider these characters or their stories.

There are well-known films about Anglo diplomats, even though we rarely see those stories that way:

  • Fernando Meirelles’ 2005 film “The Constant Gardener,” adapted from John LeCarré’s novel, about a mid-level Foreign Service officer who investigates and scrutinizes his wife’s suspicious death across real and political borders.
  • Robert Harmon’s 2004 made-for-HBO film “IKE: Countdown to D-Day” recounts Gen. Dwight Eisenhower’s diplomatic feat in orchestrating the joint force Invasion of Normandy, Operation Overlord.
  • Stephen Frears’ 2006 joint European production “The Queen,” portrays the delicate diplomacy between both Queen Elizabeth II and Prime Minister Tony Blair as they dealt with Princess Diana’s death in 1997.  It’s a compelling window into the taciturn world of the Royals.

But when you want to consider brown, black and beige diplomats in movies, there are slim pickin’s.  Still there are some…engrossing, even atypical choices.

The $64-million question, “why are peacemakers of color, formal or not, rarely movie characters?” is best posed and considered away from here, amongst friends, over a meal.  These portrayals don’t simply matter – they’re vital, so that those youngsters of color, who are curious and engaged by questions that cost them their cool points, or their street cred, can see worlds beyond their neighborhoods.

Let’s consider the few, which you can embrace:

Sir Richard Attenborough’s 1982 film “Gandhi” recounts Mohandas K. Gandhi’s extraordinarily and exceptionally patient toil toward India’s independence from Britain’s tyranny.  Never

mind, that an Anglo actor, Ben Kingsley portrayed Mr. Gandhi… (shaking head – with vigor)  He became more than a diplomat, transcending that over more than two generation’s time, to personify a cause.

Spike Lee’s 1992 film “Malcolm X” recounts Malcolm Little’s equally exceptional transformation: he grew from a Zoot suited hipster, through a period of self-education and ill-informed zeal for Elijah Mohammed’s version Islam, to someone, who after an epiphany in Mecca on a Hajj, commits to conventional Islam.  After this, he acted as a peace maker.  The film nearly omits this final phase.

Pete Travis’ 2009 British-made film “Endgame” tells a nail-biting story about the African National Congress’ [ANC] Minister of Information, Thabo Mbeki’s, negotiations for Nelson Mandela’s release and toward majority rule in South Africa.

Coming to terms with a South African black majority

As we consider commercial movies, we must visit a difference sort, the documentary, if we want to watch a film about this anniversary man: William Greeves’ 2001 documentary about him for PBS, “Ralph Bunche: An American Odyssey,” makes the “Uncle Tom” and enigma questions clear, but also shows why Mr. Bunche deserves to be revered.

“Gandhi” begins with a surprise, Gandhi’s assassination.  This convention biopic about this simple man who became much more than simply a man is difficult to compare to the others.  The film’s style is very different from, maybe older than, the others.   The scenes in “Gandhi” seem to cycle through sequences: he speaks, he then observes the masses’ response and he leads another protest and the government responds.  This with increasing tension and peril.

Few people probably consider Malcolm X a diplomat or peace-maker, either in Lee’s epic film, or because of pop culture.  With the movie it’s easier to explain: it had to move at a break-neck pace.  Investing a mere three hours on a person, who’s formidable and potent legacy was four decades in the making, entails agonizing cuts in order to make a film that people will go to.  The film has a “History vs Hollywood” moment, as in the History Channel’s program, because Mr. Lee omits the diplomatic outreach that Mr. X did in the wake of his pilgrimage, and while he was in the Middle East and North Africa.

His fiery, volatile rhetoric fell on conservative Anglos’ ears like merciless blows, while he was never connected with violence (Ossie Davis referred to this in his eulogy), his passion, wit and candor made him seem like he was.

The most potent peace making comes at the mid-point.  And it boasts shock and awe: after a member of the Nation of Islam is injured while in police custody, Malcolm leads a march from that police station to a Harlem hospital, where he patiently deals with the police.  An NYPD captain [Peter Boyle] confronts him about a mass – what the captain calls a mob – of black Muslims and an angry, raucous bunch behind them.  Theirs is a professional, but brusque confrontation.  After Malcolm dismisses his men, the captain declares, “that’s too much power for one man to have!”  Ironic.

While the last 45-mins of “Malcolm X” takes place during and after the Hajj, all the peace making that Lee’s break-neck pace gives us was a news conference.  He candidly answers questions about bringing charges against the United States to the United Nations.

Thabo Mbeki sits among the minority, asking that his people not be treated as one

The negotiations in “Endgame” between Mr. Mbeki [Chiwetel Ejiofor] and Prof. Willie Esterhuyse [William Hurt] were scenes of suspense without pyrotechnics, other than rhetoric.  But that rhetoric held two people’s rights, freedoms and sources of pride at stake, or maybe for political ransom.  In reality, while the film emphasized Mbeki and Esterhuyse’s coming-together, it also suggests that two other supporting personalities were at least as potent as they were: Willem de Klerk, Pres. de Klerk’s brother, and Michael Young.

In a YouTube video Mr. Ejiofor describes, a minute into it, how the director, Mr. Meirelles, chose to exploit the political thriller genre in order to grab viewers to what might otherwise be a piece about talking heads.  This is a quiet and cerebral experience that demands viewers’ patience.

Even though there are three titles and three exceptional films that show brown and beige men as peace makers, the most recent one, and closest to feature-length, is also tells the most direct engrossing story of peace making work.  “Endgame” is that.  Far fewer people will sit down for a three-hour film experience.  Patience is a quickly evaporating trait.  But a political thriller that lets viewers peer through an oft-guarded window can win viewers.

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Was “Philadelphia” the last, best film on HIV/AIDS?

December 1st is World AIDS Awareness Day and, incidentally on the day after the Department of Defense released the “Don’t ask, Don’t tell” report.  Let’s consider HIV/AIDS on film, and how those movies help to calm people, and how they help rid us of futile, troublesome myths and misinformation.

AIDS is rarely an amusing topic of conversation: unless you know or love someone who has suffered or survived it, you rarely know many details – accurate ones anyway.  One of the first national TV news stories about the disease was on NBC in 1983.   Many people pick up their information from mass entertainment – TV and the movies, no matter the platform.  Several movies, from both Hollywood and independent realms, touch on the disease.  Some of those concentrate on it, and are good.  A few: great, indelible.

Awaiting an era of hope in their world...

There is “Longtime Companion,” from 1989, which portrays the beginning of the “gay cancer,” or “gay plague,” and the many discoveries and terrors that the New York’s homosexual and its broader communities would have to confront; “And the Band Played On,” from 1991 and made for HBO, which portrays broader battles – the medical and political – which politicians and activists waged in pursuit of a cure and compassion; and “Philadelphia,” from 1993, which addressed the battles over those rights, which the afflicted.

If you ask Jerry L. Hughes, the founder of the Twin Cities-based Hughes Foundation, for his opinion, he’ll say, “The only film that comes to mind,” which accurately reflects the disease and part of the life, “is ‘Philadelphia.’”  And, released in 1993 – just in time for Christmas (a ballsy choice), that’s outdated. Hughes’ foundation’s mission: “working to build a lifeline to individuals and families affected by HIV/AIDS in the India, Namibia Panama and United States.”  Continuing about the movie: “It emphasized a spirit of fear more than one of hope.  What we need more of is a spirit of hope.  That you can live a long, healthy life if you are detected early.”

  • The U.S. HIV/AIDS epidemic began in 1981 and continues to disproportionately affect minorities, men who have sex with men of all races, women and youth.
  • More than 1 million people in the U.S. currently are living with HIV/AIDS.
  • 21 percent of those infected with HIV are unaware of their infection.
  • more details…

With so much blindness of all sorts about the truths of the disease, and those who can and do live healthy lives, it’s morose that few movies tell a story that balances the disease’s trials and toils, while extolling on hope and health.  In Hughes’ opinion, “There’s nothing out there that really paints a positive story.”  Instead,  “Make a good, glamorous, hip movie.”  One that shows everyday folks, whom you wouldn’t guess have HIV/AIDS, and for whom, aside from their pill cocktails, it might often be incidental.

Some scenes from the the best known films leave us comfortable and better informed:  In “Philadelphia,” Andrew Beckett [Tom Hanks] freaks Joe Miller [Denzel Washington] out…by merely shaking his hand.  Miller doesn’t know how to respond to his first contact with a man with AIDS/HIV.  As well-educated as he is (and as many of our friends are eager to believe they are) he bee-lines himself to his family doctor…just to be sure, and comfortable, to gather his breath and feelings.

And later, during his defense of Andrew, he confronts the taboo, the stigma and dogmas by assaulting his own witness with a litany of gay epithets in order to…  That’s the judge’s question.  Mr. Miller’s candid, pragmatic response is indelible:

In “And the Band Played On,” Dr. Don Francis [Matthew Modine] – who, while a vital name in the fight for a cure, is anonymous in pop culture – confront’s a political panel fraught with complex political, medical, legal and religious agendas which contradict one another.  Dr. Francis’ overriding concern: The Golden Rule.  He steals the scene at 3:27.

How many dead hemophiliacs do you need!?  How many people have to die for it to be cost-efficient for you people to do something about it…?!  Give us a number, so we won’t annoy you again..!!

While this highly dramatic scene grabs us, and Mr. Hughes agrees, it also bugs him.  “So many of the films focus on the bad: focus on the suffering, focus on the symptoms.  And the reality is that, if they’re treated early, get HIV and AIDS therapy, early on, you can live a long, normal, and healthy life. …It’s not a death sentence anymore,” he said.   Don’t forget the trial and toil, but also the regular life that they lead when caught early.

One obstacle in illustrating progress: few films with central HIV positive characters are in the mass entertainment.  It’s hard to identify a theatrical film from the 2000s.  There’ve been no new AIDS/HIV-oriented films since “Philadelphia,” at least none that were as well-publicized as it.

Hughes is hungry for a reality TV program that melds the format of MTV’s “Real World” and NBC’s “The Apprentice,” where “twelve people, from different religious groups, different races, half of whom are HIV positive,” the other half are not; neither they, nor the audience know who is and who isn’t.   The program’s will show a day in the life, with a weekly celebrity challenge.  That’s the “been-there, done that” side of the program.  “Through the relationships in the house,” Hughes said, “I’d like to see someone who’s Muslim get into a fight with blonde-haired, blue-eyes white girl from the Midwest who does have HIV.  Talk about how HIV is in India…  He also wants to see “someone who’s HIV-positive falls in love with someone who’s not.  You show the world the fears the world the fear that comes about – those of the disease, and of romantic rejection.

AIDS/HIV is rarely an easy, free conversation starter.  Maybe that’s why we await good movies about it.   …And what a wait..!  Is that insipid realm, reality TV, the best option out there to see calm, accurate images of an HIV-positive life?  Movies sure aren’t a be-all, end-all.

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Just asking: why extol Indian-American politicians who are “all-American?”

I’m just asking…about a topic disparate from movies.

…About the celebrated assent of South-Asian American politicians and political actors in the U.S.

When on October 27th National Public Radio’s “Morning Edition” aired a piece, “South-Asian Americans Discover Political Clout,” about this grand success, they celebrated just how “all-American” Bobby Gindal, Nicky Haley and other hyphenated American politicians of color are.  When I heard the commentary by Sandip Roy, I noticed that it held at its core the splendor that it is to be all-American.  He praised just how often South-Asian Americans show that they fit in with almost anyone – they’ve assimilated themselves.  Particularly Indian-Americans.

That’s when my ears pricked up.  It reminded me of CBS News’ 60-Minutes recent profile of Mr. Gindal.

His disinterest and disconnection to his Indian heritage was made explicit.  What about politicians of color having and proudly walking with a strong sense of identity?  (I should be able to point to a beacon different from President Barack Obama)  I just begged myself for an answer that I didn’t have: “why are they celebrating this…’all-American’?!”

The problem: that euphemism “all-American” has been a well-known code of bias for more than two generations – just ask a progressive-thinking HR person.  Job ads routinely used to declare a company’s desire for someone all-American; that connotes someone who is either Anglo (or white for y’all who insist on describing folks by their color), or is easily assimilable, if not both.

Depending on just how provincial or conservative a workplace is, and whether it was nestled in a metropolis or far from one, the amount of brown, black and beige folks included could be slim.  It might also omit very talented and ambitious – seemingly “less-American” – folks.

This subtle, scary attitude harkens to a line from Elizabeth St. Philip’s  splendid short documentary, The Colour of Beauty, about the want, in America, for models of color.  It harkens specifically to what a New York-based agent who said: the folks with whom he strives to book his models want “a white girl painted black.”  In other words, no features of “an other.”

That the best known South-Asian American politicians’ lack a strong sense of ethnic identity puts me off.  Readers won’t like this: “all-American” smacks of the world that Michelle Obama knew before she blurted out “for the first time in my adult lifetime I’m really proud of my country.”  I sympathized with, and in several ways, rejoiced in her enthusiastic candor.

I’m peculiar.  I know very well (too well) how very hung up America’s majority is on sticking with those people who resemble them.  Most Americans remain xenophobes, rarely challenging themselves to approach those other people whom they don’t understand or are barely familar with.

Nothing against the rise of our South-Asian brethren, but oughtn’t we prefer that those who walk with a strong sense of ethnic heritage over those whose only remarkable difference from their Anglo opponents is their pigment?

So, do many people think that having easily assimilable people of color will help our society?  Having them within the mix is fine, but I worry about youngsters of color who revere public figures who resemble them, but who only do so skin deep.  This, without being able to talk to those youngsters about a minority’s dual consciousnesses, or about many nuances of their backgrounds.  I’d be a terrible politician: I prefer candor (Well, tactful candor.)

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William Kunstler “Disturbs our Universe”

On June 22nd William M. Kunstler’s story, Disturbing the Universe, will be the slam-bang audacious start of the independent film series POV’s 23rd season.  Sixteen years after his death his daughters, Sarah and Emily, made this documentary to show us his legacy, a snap shot of his life story, and the lessons born from them.

Mr. Kunstler’s friends and family say that you either love him as a radical lawyer or desired him dead as a national heretic and traitor to the “original intent” of America’s founding fathers.  That binary “range of opinion” comes from the troubling positions and clients that he took on during his increasingly public career and life.

During the 1960s and 70s he attacked housing discrimination, defended the Chicago 8, strove to help to negotiate the hostage situation in New York’s Attica Correctional Facility, and he claimed the Natives’ cause when they occupied their own land at Wounded Knee, S.D.  He became an icon, a litigious icon for the era’s liberal righteousness.

If these historical marks are hazy, maybe you “know” Mr. Kunstler just from the movies.  He played a judge for a moment in Spike Lee’s film, Malcolm X, from 1992.  After attaining a certain degree of public exposure Mr. Kunstler turned a corner; He defended alleged and brazen terrorists and murderers.  Neither moderation, nor subtlety seems to fit beside his name in any phrase.

As a documentary, Disturbing the Universe is like a love letter both to the daughters’ father and to those whom he still inspires. That specialness comes from the film’s intimate, poetic, and memoir-like tone.  Sarah and Emily employ excerpts from home movies, playful Q&As with their dad, and other recordings that children will make when they’re bored and curious enough; these elements are as incisive as they are innocent.  Those elements distinguish the film from typical documentaries that rely on archival footage and standard source interviews.

Dad and daughters

The film opens by introducing Kunstler’s daughters from what was his second marriage.  But they in-turn introduce the disturber of the universe himself in his high profile hey day.  After that they slow the pace by telling us that his life and career began meekly, as with most extraordinary and unreasonable individuals.

Here is a film about a flamboyant and brilliant bombast who strove to bend the laws to his and a generation’s will. Disturbing the Universe poses questions.  Then we feel like we have to respond, asking other questions.  This film demands that you think.

The daughters Kunstler use the story of David and Goliath as a consistent narrative motif, and as a personal analogue for their dad.  Disturbing the Universe lifts that motif into being a subplot of a sort.  It asks many questions in doing so; those questions are slippery and rarely comfortable: What is justice?  How reasonable or wholesome should the pursuit of it be?  To what extent may you question the government, more specifically its wisdom or agenda without being a threat?  That’s intense, off-putting stuff.  So were Mr. Kunstler, and his work, and the zeal that he invested in it.

Mr. Kunstler during the Chicago 8 trial

The man had contradictions that glared at us.  The pleasure he took in having a high profile seemed to trump, or even usurp, his rowdy insurgent zeal.  That’s ironic, but it’s also all too common.  What happens when “the fix” you get from public love and media exposure beguiles you more intensely and far more often than the satisfaction that righteous clients and causes give you?  I’ll borrow the title of George Stephanopoulos’ political memoir as I call Mr. Kunstler “All Too Human.”  Those contradictions and that lack of congruence are some of the major reasons why he polarized some individuals.  Those also confused the heck out of his daughters and other people who held him dearly.  Mr. Kunstler had a few versions of himself, disparate parts of his persona.  We all do.  But since he was public, extremely public, so were these.

The colossal questions that he and his legacy raise are fascinating,  They also belong in a lecture or a seminar.  The more interesting and probably illusive answers come in response to this question: what was it like for his no-longer-little girls to ask “Why is daddy fighting for a terrorist?”  How confusing is it to start off seeing your dad as a defender of a child’s known universe and then see apparently villainous clients?  The kind of client whom no amount of Herculian rhetoric jousting could convince you they deserved his counsel.

There is a reason why some people saw William M. Kunstler as having disturbed the universe.  I don’t know whose story should interest us more, the dad’s or either of his daughter’s?

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Looking at documentaries nearly 90 yrs after “Nanook of the North”

On June 11, 1922 the “father of documentary film,” Robert J. Flaherty, made his most significant work, “Nanook of the North.”  This film is reputed to be the pinnacle of his documentary career as “Citizen Kane” is routinely deemed the pinnacle of Orson Welles’.

Nanook of the North 1922

So roughly 90 years later, I figure that it’s good to ask two questions:

  • How many people watch documentaries?
  • Which recently released ones, by or about people of color, are worth watching?

Documentaries seem to be some of the least respected and loved films.  Unless critics or viewers have raved about a film, and then it has been carried by word of mouth, it seems to be left to sink or swim in the media market place.  The trailers and previews for documentaries seem to be very few and far between.  One well-established and well-known Minneapolis producer, Craig Rice, an African-American, corrects us about the idea of an abyss for documentaries.

They’re “more popular now than they ever were before” Rice said.  He said that, whatever fans of popular films might assume, documentaries are out there.  “And they’re making money.” When asked about people of color, particularly African-Americans’ interest, he said, “I don’t think we watch documentary films!  It’s always about popular films.”

The ones that are worth watching, like those that I’ll recommend, have as much drama, or action, or whatever you want in a movie experience, as the films at the cineplexes.

I’ll recommend three films:

Ken Burns’ “Unforgivable Blackness,” from 2004, is about a brazen iconoclast.  He is Jack Johnson, an African-American.  He was a boxer competing with Anglo (white) foes, in the 1910s when that was neither typical, nor safe.  Anglo men were expected to win and retain the heavy weight title well before the opposite was assumed.  He was such a force of personality that he couldn’t have been ignored in this century and certainly not 100 years ago at the start of the 20th.

He preferred and openly romanced Anglo women.  So 100 years ago, nearly 50 years before the criminal courts made miscegenation legal, he ignored the colorline and lived.

The Film:

“Unforgivable Blackness” is an exceptional film.  It is a compelling story about a 20th century character, Jack Johnson, who seems barely known and rarely discussed in mainstream media.  But he was larger than life.  His bravura preceded, and may have rivaled, that of Mohammed Ali.  At the time, boxing was one vital pillar of Anglo (white) American manhood.  By wanting to compete, as an equal, with Anglo fighters, Mr. Johnson showed his desire to knock that pillar down.  White manhood was at stake.

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Marshall Curry’s “Street Fight,” from 2005, is about a brawling political contest in Newark, New Jersey.  It was that year’s Academy Award nominee for best documentary feature.  This was a mayoral contest between two strong-willed African-American men from disparate backgrounds and who carry themselves with very different swaggers.  There was the 32 year incumbent, Sharpe James, and the Rhodes scholar upstart, Cory Booker.  They are from disparate generations and each one fights to keep and maybe lift the beleaguered city of Newark, New Jersey out of its economic and criminal justice abyss.

The Film:

The film shows those unorthodox and guerilla campaign tactics which Mr. Sharpe’s team used to keep to his mayoral power within his clutches.  He used his official power to have city employees do his crony work, while Mr. Booker strove to run a professional and civil campaign.  With the way that Mr. Booker seems to have chafed against the voters, they seem to have sided with the corruption they know and understood, Mr. James, in lieu of taking a chance with a different smooth talker who might just be an updated Mr. James.  “The Washington Post” called it the best political documentary since “The War Room,” which was a chronicle of James Carville’s and George Stephanopoulos’ work with the 1992 Clinton presidential campaign.

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Gail Dolgin and Vicente Franco’s “Daughter from Danang,” from 2002, is a gut-wrenching story about two women’s reunion: a trans “racial” Vietnamese and American daughter, Heidi Bob, (born Mai thi Hiep) and her Vietnamese birth mother.  It was that year’s Academy Award nominee for best documentary feature.   Ms. Bob, now in her 30s, hadn’t seen her mother since she was taken away at seven years-old.

Their story is complicated by the context and questions of the United States’ Vietnam-era foreign policy.  So, this is the dual narrative of these women’s intertwined stories and an even-handed criticism of that slim portion of American foreign policy.

The film:

“Daughter” opens with the story of how Ms. Bob, a trans “racial” adoptee, was “evacuated” you might say from Vietnam.  This broaches a phalanx of rich, mixed, and probably bittersweet emotions on the parts of the Vietnamese and North American families.  They each want to believe that they are acting for virtue; for the children’s, their families’, and even their respective nations’ sakes.

One stunner.  An irony is that she is one of many adoptees who were relocated to the United States as supposed orphans when they were not; their families were often assured and trusted that the U.S. would reunite them with their children…at some point.

This film opens viewers’ eyes and minds to a little discussed chapter of post-Vietnam war history and the story of trans “racial” adoptees.  As “Daughter” shows it is as simple and as complex as that.

It reminds me of a fiction film: Oliver Stone’s “Heaven and Earth,” from 1993.  It is the third in his defacto Vietnam trilogy.  In its essence it’s a very complex story, with composite characters, about making a life and recreating oneself in a new, foreign, and at times forbidding reality.

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