‘Barry’ & me: Finding common ground between this critic and President Barack Obama

Barry Obama reads Ralph Ellison sociopolitical novel Invisible ManBarry Obama (Devon Terrell) reads Ralph Ellison’s 1952 socio-political novel ‘Invisible Man’ – not to be confused with H.G. Wells’ 1897 sci-fi novel ‘The Invisible Man.’

While thinking about Barry, Vikram Gandhi’s 1981-set film about a young Barack Obama as he arrived in New York City to attend Columbia University, I found myself thinking about me in 1981, as I arrived in New York City to attend Columbia University.

To be frank, I’ve been thinking about President Obama in juxtaposition to myself for years, ever since his keynote address at the 2004 Democratic National Convention. Like many Black folks that evening, I looked up the tall, handsome, well-spoken brotha from Chi-town. Tall and handsome notwithstanding, I found that I had a lot in common with the biracial son of a Kenyan scholar and an American white lady from Kansas. None of those things – but a lot.

An evening in 2004

That evening in 2004, with elegance and verve, Barry, long since Barack, stirred the democratic heart of our nation with talk of hope, change, and one America, built by people like him – literally, a little bit of everyone.

Every word from Obama’s mouth that evening lived in an idea or concept for the kind of world that I wanted for my countrymen, my family, and me. Beyond our politics, there was a deeper identification with the young senator from Illinois – a state in the American Midwest; the Midwest where I was from and knew quite well.

St. Louis, Missouri, my hometown, is much like Chicago with an inferiority complex. Much the same in every way – history and culture and ethnic divides – though St. Louis is less obnoxious regarding its achievements. The Cardinals didn’t need over 100 years to get to several World Series, let alone to win (a few). Still, the cities themselves are much the same.

Mixed genealogical histories adding up to ‘Black’

In 2004, all black Americans watching Barack Obama give that keynote address instantly understood that he was what we called “mixed” – and what white folks called “biracial.” I knew I wasn’t biracial in the terms by which we assess such things in America; terms that are strict and that over the years have often been written into law. However, I also knew that my genealogical history was no less mixed than Barack’s – or that of most black Americans, for that matter.

It’s understood by African Americans that part of our lineage generally runs to white folks. In my family, it accrues to Jewish and Irish bloodlines mostly; some Native American and, obviously, African. I also knew that in America all of that adds up to Black. Full stop.

Barry movie Devon Terrell young Barack Obama: The brotha who could be president‘Barry’ movie: Devon Terrell as a young Barack Obama: The ‘brotha’ who could be president.

Unable to fit into race-based identity politics

Here is the place where Barry and I part, at least according to director Vikram Gandhi and screenwriter Adam Mansbach. Barry was unclear about his place in the world of race-based identity politics. He wanted to claim all his bloodlines at once – or none at all – which left both him and most of his acquaintances confused about who or what he was in terms of race.

In the film, Barry Obama is played (quite well) by Devon Terrell, employing just of hint of the president’s very particular accent and halting speech pattern. At one point early on, Barry says to his roommate (laconically played by Boyhood actor Ellar Coltrane), “I don’t fit in anywhere.”

That’s not an original thought for a youth from any background, but Obama ’81 had a pretty good reason for thinking so. It would take some time for Barry to settle into the fact of his “blackness” by American standards – understandable given his specific upbringing, which was hardly typical for American Black folks of our generation.

As a young man Barry Obama hardly knew his Kenyan father or his siblings from his father’s other relationships. When he wasn’t living with his elderly white grandparents in Kansas, he spent time with his scholarly white mother in Hawaii or Indonesia, alongside his half-Indonesian half-sister from his mother’s second marriage.

It’s no surprise it took Barry a bit longer to sort through his understanding of how things work in America before landing on the only race he’d ever be: Black.

The ‘brotha’ who could be president

Black folks watching Barack Obama in 2004 knew then – no matter the mix – he was a brotha. By then, of course, he knew it too. Black folks in ’04 also knew that the brotha with the funny name could be president one day.

We understood it in the same way we understood that Jesse Jackson, for instance, was never going to be president of the United States. Ever. We understood it in the same way we understood Donald Trump could be elected president – even after Barack Obama was elected – twice.

Black folks understand these things about the nature of America – because we do. Admittedly, we weren’t sure Obama would survive being president, indeed we worried that he might not because we really do understand America.

Still, we always knew he could do it. And he did it – twice.

Personal indicators

But I digress. The things I have in common with our 44th president are in every way mundane. Indicators of absolutely nothing, either on a practical or a spiritual level. Nevertheless, they resonate, at least with me. After watching Barry they resonated all the more, but are no more meaningful in the larger world, except by way of offering me a window into the way the president interprets it. He sees it the way I do.

Indeed, over the past 7-plus years, I’ve often found myself listening to President Obama speak as I mouthed the very words that would come out of his mouth. Not because he’d said them before, as they were often novel, but because I actually knew what he thought about the subject at hand – because I knew what I thought about the subject at hand. Disappointing for my fans – such as you are – who opposed the president on most issues.

Devon Terrell Barry Obama future U.S. president as Columbia University studentDevon Terrell as Barry Obama: The future U.S. president as a Columbia University student in the early 1980s.

Barry the Optimist

Like Obama, I’m inclined to attempt to bring you around on the subject, to find common ground, because like both Barry and Barack, I too am an optimist. But then again, unlike Barry or Barack, I’m pretty sure it ultimately won’t work.

In truth, my optimism has waned over the years. For Barry, that optimism, backed up by a fearlessness regarding his own physical safety (partially driven by nicotine, as Barry smoked a lot), is what the film Barry is all about. My waning optimism notwithstanding, this too is something we have in common. (Although I never smoked. Well, not cigarettes.)

According to Barry, it was in the fall of 1981 that optimism was solidified in the young Barry Obama. It’s also definitely about the time it was forged in me. These were our foundational moments. The moments in life that establish all of us within ourselves.

They were for Barry the experiences that made him Barack, that made him The President, even before that evening in 2004. They didn’t have that exact effect on me, obviously. I’ve never been the president of anything, though I was a sergeant in the United States Air Force, which, believe it or not, requires a similar set of leadership skills. They are both forms of community organizing, only with the authority to make people do things. Something that, to my mind, good presidents (and sergeants) almost never need to do.

If you’re good at leading people, they follow because they’re with you – not because you give them an order. I never ordered anybody to do anything when I was in the military because I never needed to; I’d just ask and they’d do it. This was something that Barry came to understand in the early 1980s, too. I count it among the things we have in common.

1981

Indeed, in 1981, Barry Obama, as conceived by Gandhi and Mansbach, saw the world much like me. I claim the elder perspective as I’m one month older than the President. We were born in July and August of 1961, respectively. It’s just a coincidence. Not at all important or meaningful in any way.

Nevertheless, in 1981, Barry and me were at that forging age, 20 or 21, experiencing the moments that would make us us. I had been in the United States Air Force since 1979, the year both Barry and I graduated from high school. I went to basic training, he went off to college; our boyhoods ended, ready or not.

Barry was a young man on his own in the world when he headed to Columbia after having spent time at Occidental College in Pasadena. As it happens, I live in Pasadena and taught at Occidental College, though not in association with President Obama, in any way. It’s irrelevant, and means nothing to anyone – except me.

In the film, Barry arrives in New York City to attend Columbia University in August of 1981. As it happens, I was a young airman in New York City in the summer of 1981, attending Columbia while on temporary duty assignment from the 42nd Air Division, 97th Bombardment Division. Point is we both happened to be in New York City in the fall of 1981, studying at Columbia.

We did not meet. This is not important.

Sorting out the ‘why’

The city that both Barry and I were roaming around in 1981 was still wobbling from the bankruptcy of 1975. It was steeped in violence and racial unrest, among other problems, but it was also vibrant with punk and a burgeoning art form called rap that would shape America over the next three decades – and it shaped us a bit, too.

Barry was a young man already formed, yet still evolving – as was I. Already who we would become while still sorting out the “why” of everything. “Why,” in fact, was a central question of 1981 for many people including Barry and me.

In 1981, Barry Obama was in his pre-Michelle Robinson period. Their getting together is all captured in a different 2016 movie called Southside with You, which is also quite good. For my part, by then I’d already met and married my Michelle, so to speak. I’d been in love with her since we were kids and we got married in the summer of 1981 just before I was sent TDY to New York. As noted, that’s all a different movie. Barry and I also have this in common – we are both crazy in love with our one and only wives – and always will be.

Barack Obama movie Barry racial identity Devon Terrell Anya Taylor-JoyBarack Obama movie ‘Barry’ and racial identity: Devon Terrell as the young Obama and Anya Taylor-Joy as his girlfriend.

 life in 1981

In 1981, Barry was captivated by but cynical about politics. He argued Plato with the reasoning of Socrates and debated political philosophies with his fellow students on the Right and the Left, while defending the concerns of the minority from the tyranny of the majority under all circumstances. All the while having no idea how or if he would be able to make a difference in any of it.

In 1981, Barry already knew that, unlike most of his classmates and friends from the street, he would not be going for the money. One way or another, everybody in 1981 was going for the money. Some sold junk bonds, others cocaine – and often to each other. Either way, in the 1980s it was all about making a million dollars before you were twenty-five.

Barry knew that there had to be more to life than making money; he knew this from the perch of a poor person, one who could easily go for the money like everybody else and leave all his financial cares behind, forever. But like me, Barry was raised better than that. Score one for the scholarly white lady from Kansas.

White girls

In 1981, Barry was going for white girls. These were the ones he dated at the time. Really cute white girls who looked a lot like his mother – because sometimes Freud is right. Not one of the women Barry Obama actually dated is in Gandhi’s movie; instead, one character represents several of them.

Played by Anya Taylor-Joy, she’s called Charlotte in the film; while she’s not given credit for enlightening the still evolving Barry Obama regarding his race, his politics, or even his name (it’s not clear she even knew his real name), she’s not played as irrelevant either. Neither she, nor the women she represents, are essential to Barry’s transformation into Barack, but they did influence him greatly, as girlfriends often do. They were not his Michelle, but they mattered.

Other characters in Barry are also composites of people the president knew during his time at Columbia. They are the result of the filmmakers’ interviews with people he dated and learned from, hung out with and even fought with, during his time in New York. They provide context both for the film’s subtle biographical tributes to the young Barry Obama, and for the more didactic political pitches of the man who would eventually become President Barack Obama. They are not props per se, but they do serve a similar purpose.

Thugs & basketball

When Barry wasn’t smoking and having sex with smart, artsy white girls, he studied hard, partied a little, and played basketball a lot, often with thugs who argued as much as they played ball in raucous neighborhood parks. He almost got himself shanked more than once while acting as the voice of reason, literally standing between angry young men ready to come to blows over a perceived slight during a basketball game.

He lived in an ethnically diverse, low-income community where he was tested by the guys on the block on a daily basis. He made friends – some lifelong – from whom he seeks counsel to this day. Minus the cigs and the artsy white girls, I was doing most of that too back in 1981.

‘Barry’ movie trailer with Devon Terrell and Anya Taylor-Joy.

‘The Only’

Among the other features of the president’s time in New York City that Barry highlights are his experiences being “the only.” The only black person in most of his classes. The only poor person in a room full of rich people. The only rational person in a room full of irrational people. The only student to be asked for an ID on a campus full of students with IDs – but who did not look like him.

I deeply identify with being “the only,” as do many others, in one context or another. Perhaps, you…

Indeed, by my measure, if one has never been “the only something” in their life, they likely didn’t vote for Barack Obama to become president of these United States. They probably wouldn’t have liked him much during his college days at Columbia. Nor would they care for this movie about his life in the early 1980s, or my thoughts about the film, particularly as related to me.

Of course those people probably would not be reading this long, overly personal essay on Barry and me, anyway.

But you have been, so you probably get him. And you probably get me.

‘Barry’ Obama & Me: Finding Common Ground with the Future U.S. President © 2004–2016 Alt Film Guide and/or author(s).

FilmWeek: ‘Fantastic Beasts,’ ‘Manchester by the Sea,’ ‘Red Turtle’ and more…

Larry Mantle and KPCC film critics Tim Cogshell, Andy Klein and Charles Solomon review this weekend’s new movie releases. It’s a big one for notable releases including the “Harry Potter” spinoff from J.K. Rowling, “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them;” a critically acclaimed drama with Oscar buzz, “Manchester by the Sea;” a significant animated feature from Studio Ghibli, “The Red Turtle;” plus what Rotten Tomatoes calls more than just another coming-of-age dramedy, “The Edge of Seventeen;” a very promising documentary about an eccentric farmer, “Peter and the Farm” and more! TGI-FilmWeek!
BRITAIN-ENTERTAINMENT-FILM-CINEMA-FANTASTIC BEASTS

BEN STANSALL/AFP/Getty Images

‘Loving’ inspires a DIY Film Festival of miscegenation films and shows you need to see…

by Tim Cogshell | Off-Ramp   

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You don’t need to wait for the local art house to put on a themed film festival. Tim Cogshell, film critic for KPCC’s Filmweek and Alt Film Guide, and who blogs at CinemaInMind, is producing a series of DIY Film Festivals for Off-Ramp listeners to throw in the comfort of their own homes.

WATCH HERE:

 

LISTEN HERE:  ‘Loving’ inspires a DIY Film Festival of miscegenation films and shows you need to see

This DIY film festival is about miscegenation. Don’t know or remember what it means? Good.

Miscegenation is sex or marriage between people of different races — usually whites and blacks. It was illegal in much of the U.S. until the 60s, and was also either taboo or forbidden in cinema. This DIY festival, including a documentary, a short silent film, and even a few TV episodes, is inspired by Jeff Nichols’ new film “Loving,” which is about the 1967 miscegenation case that changed the law and the movies.

1. “The Loving Story” 2011

“Loving” was inspired by the HBO documentary, “The Loving Story,” which is the first film of our festival. Mildred and Richard Loving were an interracial couple who married in 1958, despite Virginia’s anti-miscegenation laws.

 Richard and Mildred Loving in "The Loving Story," the 2011 documentary
Richard and Mildred Loving in “The Loving Story,” the 2011 documentaryTHE LOVING STORY

As good as the new narrative film is, the 2011 doc is better.

The Hays Code, the rules the movies were governed by, stated explicitly: “Miscegenation (sex-relationships between the white and black races) is forbidden.” When the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Lovings, the 1930 Hays Code was replaced by the Classification and Rating System Administration. But before that, miscegenation was still fodder for Hollywood.

2. “What Happened in the Tunnel” (1903)

The earliest film to take on miscegenation may have been Edwin S. Porter’s very short 1903 film “What Happened in the Tunnel.”  It was considered funny in 1903, but the film probably contributed to the earliest rules on the miscegenation.

3. “Imitation of Life” (1934)

In the first “Imitation of Life,”  Fredi Washington plays Louise Beavers’ fair-skinned daughter who rejects her black heritage — and her mother — in favor of passing into the white world and landing a white husband. It barely made it past the censors, but today it’s in the National Film Registry, and Time called it one of “The 25 Most Important Films on Race.”

You might also want to check out Douglas Sirk’s 1959 “Imitation of Life,” which is still popular among African American women of a certain age.

4. “Pinky” (1949)

In “Pinky,” Jeanne Crain is a young woman who slips into passing as white almost by accident when she goes away to nursing school. She feels guilty, but yet so aware of what being white could mean to her life. Pinky doesn’t hate being black, she just wants what life being white could offer … including the white man who wants to marry her.

5. “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?” (1967)

Next on our list, Stanley Kramer’s “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” from 1967, in which a white girl falls in love with a black man, played by Sidney Poitier, and when the families meet for dinner, they hash it out earnestly. This film took a beating from the left and the right from the day it was released, as we saw in “The Butler,” when David Oyelowo’s young Black Panther disparages Sidney Poitier. It’s problematic for any number of reasons, but I defend its intention — fervently. Before the change in the movie code or the Loving decision, “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” faced down the nations’ bigots.

6. “Movin’ with Nancy” (1967)

After the Loving case, the notion of miscegenation in film and television evolved. Soon we saw the first kiss on American prime time network TV when Kirk and Uhura kissed in a 1968 episode of “Star Trek.” The suits from the network resisted the interracial kiss — but the tepid peck made it to air and is said to be the first such kiss on network TV.

Or maybe it wasn’t:

The December 1967 episode of “Movin’ with Nancy” features a kiss between Nancy Sinatra and Sammy Davis, Jr. more than a year before that “Star Trek” episode. The easy, friendly kiss comes at the very end of the photo session scene. A few years later,  in February of 1972, Sammy would go on plant the kiss that sealed the deal for anti-miscegenation attitudes in America once and for all.

Sammy Davis, Jr. kisses Carrol O'Connor on "All in the Family"
Sammy Davis, Jr. kisses Carrol O’Connor on “All in the Family”CBS

When Sammy kisses Archie Bunker, it was effectively the first kiss between a Protestant-white-male-bigot and a black-male-converted-Jew on American television.

It was on the cheek, and in many ways is reminiscent of that original kiss in Edwin S. Porter’s short silent film. Only this time it’s not racist and is actually funny. It left the nation a little stunned and ended the issue of miscegenation in American media — forever — although the state of Alabama would not repeal its miscegenation laws until the year 2000.

Tim is Critic At Large for Alt Film Guide (http://www.altfg.com/blog).  His reviews are archived at:  http://www.rottentomatoes.com/critic/tim-cogshell/

Review Don’t Breathe

By: 

Don't Breathe movie Dylan Minnette blind man Stephen Lang unlike Audrey HepburnStephen Lang and Dylan Minnette Don’t Breathe image: Screen Gems / Sony Pictures.

Horror filmmaker Fede Alvarez avoids the fate of the sophomore curse with his second feature film,Don’t Breathe, which establishes the director of the 2013 remake of the iconic Evil Dead as the real deal when it comes to genre films that keep audiences on the edge of their dampened theater seats.

At only 88 minutes, Don’t Breathe, co-written by Alvarez and Rodo Sayagues, is not only meticulously paced, but also remarkably clever in how it handles its characters and their motivations, and its audience and their expectations – titillating, but never quite letting either have exactly what they want.

But while laid out as a horror thriller, Don’t Breathe is really a love story. It’s about the things we do for love. It’s also about the choice between the wrong thing, a worse thing, and an evil thing.

A blighted and mostly abandoned contemporary Detroit Rock City is our setting. The wrong side of the city’s eight-mile divide. This is a great location because not only do the filmmakers get the tax credit that comes with shooting in such blighted neighborhoods these days, but they also get an authentic blighted neighborhood.

Our heroes are young thieves. They break into the homes of the well heeled using inside information provided by Alex (Dylan Minnette), who is mostly doing these crimes for love of Rocky (Jane Levy), even though she’s Money’s (Daniel Zovatto) girlfriend, and is more or less oblivious to Alex’s affections.

The chump with a crush is a classic and always effective setup.

This time the home they intend to invade is not a fancy mansion where the owners are away, but rather the single inhabited house in blocks of un-patrolled blight.

It’s the home of a blind Iraq War veteran whose only daughter was killed in as senseless drunk driving incident. And it’s said that the old blind veteran has nearly a million dollars in insurance money somewhere in that house.

Alex is weary of both the mark and the circumstances, while Money is a pig and a thief who will go in whether Alex helps or not. Besides, Money will take Rocky with him.

Rocky, for her part, is highly motivated to get the stash of cash for reasons that involve her mother, who is a pig; her mother’s boyfriend, who is also a pig; and a baby sister whom she needs to take away from the pigs.

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The blind vet whose home these thieves invade is played by veteran actor Stephen Lang, likely best known for his role as the rampaging Colonel Miles Quaritch in James Cameron‘s Avatar, hellbent on killing all things alien and blue in that movie and its three upcoming sequels.

The guy Lang plays in Don’t Breathe is kinda like Col. Quaritch – only blind and much angrier and hellbent on killing the bastards who have broken into his house.

Needless to say, things don’t go as planned. This is the hook of the movie: things don’t go as planned for anybody. Not for the three thieves, not for the angry blind vet, and definitely not for the audience watching it all – from the edge of their slightly dampened theater seat.

For co-writer and director Fede Alvarez, however, it all goes very well.

Don’t Breathe (2016). Dir.: Fede Alvarez. Scr.: Fede Alvarez. Rodo Sayagues.
Cast: Stephen Lang. Dylan Minnette. Daniel Zovatto. Jane Levy. Emma Bercovici. Franciska Töröcsik. Christian Zagia. Katia Bokor. Sergej Onopko. Olivia Gillies. Dayna Clark. Jimmie Chiappelli. Michael Haase.

DIY Film Fest: 5 movies with major, minor, or moot continuity errors…

by Tim Cogshell | Off-Ramp

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Film critic Tim Cogshell talks Oscars buzz at AirTalk’s FilmWeek at Grauman’s Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood on February 18, 2015.BILL YOUNGBLOOD/KPCC

Tim Cogshell is film critic for KPCC’s Off-Ramp and Filmweek, and for Alt Film Guide. He blogs at CinemaInMind.

Continuity errors in cinema are legend.  There are a some classic doozies, like the croissant Julia Roberts is chomping in “Pretty Woman” that becomes a pancake.

The errors come in a number of categories, from crew and equipment earnestly working to get the shot they are in, to props magically appearing and disappearing between cuts, to material or narrative anachronisms.

Sometimes they matter, sometimes they don’t — who cares if Rick’s trench coat is wet when he boards the train in Paris?! — and sometimes they make the movie.  Here’s a quick DIY Film Festival of films you might want to see for their dubious continuity – and you can judge for yourself if they break or make the movie.

1. Deep Purple burns Cameron Crowe’s “Almost Famous”

Deep Purple’s “Burn” figures prominently in the background of a scene from writer-director Cameron Crowe’s “Almost Famous,” set in 1973.

A precocious teen, Crowe was a writer for “Rolling Stone” in 1975. He spent time on the road with The Eagles, the band on which he based the fake iconic rock band, Stillwater, in “Almost Famous.” And he wrote the definitive cover story on The Eagles. But he got a lot of the music wrong in the movie. That Deep Purple album was released 1974. There are a few of those in “Almost Famous” – along with some T-shirts for tours that wouldn’t happen for another decade.  To fans of classic rock these errors ruin the movie, but most people don’t even notice them.

2. No Justice No Peace for Peebles’ “Posse”

Director Mario Van Peebles 1993 film “Posse” is set in 1898, but a crowd shouting “No justice, no peace” is straight out of 1992, along with the late great Nipsey Russell asking, “Can’t we all just get along?!”

These anachronisms were controversial at the time.  Some critics and audiences – out for a rooting-tooting cowboy movie – called it blunt political commentary that the broke suspension of disbelief … As if casting Big Daddy Kane and Tone Loc didn’t already do that.

3. A slice of American Pie in “Born on the 4th of July”

Don McLean’s “American Pie” is forever associated with Oliver Stone’s “Born of the 4th of July.” The song is played and heard by characters in the film several times … in scenes set 1969.  The problem? The album was released in 1971. Still – would any other song do? The of loss of an American ideal represented in Don McLean’s ode to Buddy Holly is a perfect metaphor for the American ideal lost by Ron Kovic. This movie and that song go together, continuity be damned.

4. YouTube in “The Hurt Locker?”

At one point in “The Hurt Locker,” specialist Owen Eldridge, played by Brian Geraghty, says “…. they’re going to put me on YouTube.” Nope. “Hurt Locker” is set in 2004 and YouTube did not launch until 2005, which the producers of this film, which came out in 2008, should have thought about in 2007. Or maybe not, because it won a bunch of Academy Awards in 2009.

5. Hair AND Wardrobe:  “TNT Jackson” and the magic panties

But my favorite continuity mistake of all time is in an early 70s Blaxploitation classic called “TNT Jackson.” It stars stars Jeannie Bell as a young black karate expert out to avenge her brother’s death on the mean streets of Hong Kong.

There are a number of badly staged karate fight sequences in the movie, and Jeanne kicks much fake karate ass in all of them. But this was an exploitation film after all, so one of those fight scenes takes place when the exciting TNT Jackson is wearing nothing but a pair of panties and a wicked afro. During this perfectly fabulous scene, TNT kills the lights to even her odds against her multiple attackers.

TNT JACKSON (1974)

When the lights come back on, the intrepid Ms. Jackson is wearing different panties. They were brown. Now they’re white. The lights go out and come back on again. And the panties change again. You can’t help but notice … because she’s only wearing the panties and the wicked afro. This is a perfectly crazy continuity mistake. And I wouldn’t change it for anything in the world.

Tim is Critic At Large for Alt Film Guide (http://www.altfg.com/blog).  His reviews are archived at:  http://www.rottentomatoes.com/critic/tim-cogshell/

DIY Film Fest: The last slavery movies you ever need to see

by Tim Cogshell | Off-Ramp 

Listen here: The last slavery movies you ever need to see – really.

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GLORY

Tim Cogshell, film critic for KPCC’s Filmweek and Alt Film Guide, has joined Off-Ramp’s team of commentators. Cogshell blogs at CinemaInMind, and in this commentary, Tim uses the N-word in context.

Here’s what Snoop Dogg said about the remake of Roots:

“I don’t understand America. They just want to keep showing the abuse that we took hundreds and hundreds of years ago. But guess what, we’re taking the same abuse.”

He said some more stuff too, but that’s what we could broadcast.

On this thing, I’m with Snoop. I’ve had my fill of slave, maid, butler and chauffeur movies, thank you. Yet recently Snoop and I have endured “The Help,” “The Butler,” “Django Unchained,” “12 Years a Slave,” the re-conception of “Roots” and “The Free State of Jones,” and the eagerly awaited Nat Turner saga — with its appropriated title “Birth of a Nation” — is on the horizon.

I have all kinds of issues with movies about slavery in America, but I’m a professional film critic rather than a hip-hop maestro, so as part of my series of DIY film series you can do at home, here  are several exceptional films about slavery in America that will get you up to speed on the subject, and get the subject out of my life — and Snoop’s — forever.

1. “A Woman Called Moses”

A 1978  television miniseries you can find online, “A Woman Called Moses” is the story of Harriet Tubman, the escaped slave who helped organize and conduct the Underground Railroad — and who will soon appear on the $20 bill. Sometimes irony is exquisite.

The film stars the great Cicely Tyson, who had the distinction of playing most notable black women in the ’60s, ’70s, ’80s and ’90s — no matter their age, complexion or actual nationality — from a teenage Kizzy in the original “Roots” to a 100-year-old Miss Jane Pittman in “The Biography Miss Jane Pittman.”

2. “Glory”

I applaud “Glory,” from 1989, because the title applies mostly to a bunch of black men. It’s ostensibly a movie about a young white colonel and his command of the first all African-American volunteer company in the Union Army. Smartly, director Edward Zwick knew the movie had to actually be about these black men at war to set their people free. So that’s the movie he made, and by doing so he gave us Denzel Washington in his first Oscar-winning performance, a young Andre Braugher, and Morgan Freeman all on screen together. That’s almost as good as Chadwick Boseman, Anthony Mackie and Don Cheadle kicking pretty good ass in “Captain America: Civil War.” Even though they are not all on the same side and technically the movie is still about the white guys.

3. “Beloved”

A lot of people don’t get this movie. They’re missing it. Adapted from Toni Morrison’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, this 1998 Oprah Winfrey vehicle is deeply affecting and wonderfully acted by its whole cast, which includes Danny Glover in that period-correct Frederick Douglass hairdo. It’s the story of a former slave who drifts in and out of brutal memories of her life as a slave, while haunted by the present spirit of the child she killed to keep it from slavery. As a journey into the psychological effects of slavery on a woman, it is unrivaled.

4. “Brother Future”

“Brother Future” is a 1991 TV movie that  asks: “What would I do had I lived during slavery?”

The answer is almost universal: “Lead my people to freedom!” Phil Lewis plays a young brotha from 1991 Detroit sent back in time to the American south in 1820 to do just  that.

5. The “Nigger Charley” series

The last  movies I’ll mention in our DIY slavery film festival are “The Legend of Nigger Charley,” “The Soul of Nigger Charley” and “Boss Nigger” — hard R’s, down the line.  Released in 1972, 1973 and 1975, the titles were controversial back then, too. The N-word was replaced by the word “Black” for broadcast purposes in the first two films, and the third film was often called Boss Charley, or just Boss. Which is a shame because it misses the point of these very pointed post-civil-rights era blaxploitation films. Films that star Fred “The Hammer” Williamson as a brotha who by the end of the series is buying the freedom of black folks like Oscar Schindler, and slapping the snot out of every white man who looks at him funny.

OK, those are all of the movies about America’s peculiar institution you will ever need to see. Choose amongst them to build a DIY Slave Movie Film Festival of your own, and you’ll never have to see another movie about slavery in America, ever, and neither will I, or Snoop.

On Fan Films: EXILE – EP 1 (A STAR WARS FAN FILM)

Review: Exile – Ep 1 (A Star Wars Fan Film)

By: Tim Cogshell

 

Fans films, frankly, are not something that I generally review, or for that matter, often think about. I’m savvy to fan fiction in all its forms; literary, graphic novels, there are even people who do fan films using nothing but Legos – which is fascinating – but it’s the use of the Legos that’s the point of those projects, rather than the films themselves – generally. Then there are fan films that are purely about the source material – the thing the fan is – most deeply – a fan of.  Such that they create an element of that beloved film themselves, complete with all the accoutrements of the source material.

On the heels of the reboot of the Star Wars series (again), a plethora of fan films have blossomed and I’ve got one here that I found particularly interesting for a few reasons. It’s good, for one, and for two and three, its features some very capable black actors – who are not British. Which – is kind of a thing.

In anycase, for Exile – EP 1, the on-going Star Wars saga is the source of the fandom, and the universe in which these capable filmmakers have set their unique SW narrative. Set after the Clone Wars, with references to classic figures (including Obi-Wan), Exile is the 15 minute and 50 second story of an Empire plot to turn young Jedi’s to the to the dark side of the Force.  An “Inquisitor” called Quinlan Vos (Sal Perales), has been dispatched to engage those Jedi particularly sensitive to the dark side, and bring them over.  One such Jedi Padawan is Makal Lori (Noel Braham).  Makal attempts to marshal forces and repel the Empire’s plan, but when he faces the Inquisitor (alongside his Master, Boemana Tora), his heart may betray his deepest desires, which may be darker than even he knows.

Exile – EP 1 opens with a bracing action sequence. Imperial soldiers and someone who looks like Boba Fett track Makal thru a dark forest. Laser blasts zip all round as the Jedi deflects and evades before landing deft light-saber strokes on his pursuers. Then the scene gets even darker.  Maybe a little too dark for the PG-13 viewers the Star Wars films are usually directed at, but that’s a matter of taste and parental guidance, especially since anybody can just click on the link above – and watch the whole movie anyway.

Which I recommend.

Exile – EP 1 is very well done. I won’t pretend to be an expert on Star Wars iconography, but I know movies and everything in this one is awash in production value. The style and scale of the Star Wars universe space ships zipping across the sky, the costumes and props and performances – all detailed and well done. The dialogue is a little on-the-nose for my tasted, but so was George Lucas’ in the original film so this may be a true fan’s deliberate choice.  To my mind  Lawrence Kasdan wrote the only really good Star Wars movie dialogue, including the Empire Strikes Back and much of the recent reboot.

Exile – EP 1 is an action driven, darkly hued take on one battle in the Star Wars universe of films.  It’s a fan film with heart and filmmaking chops – and I must admit – I’m impressed by both.

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Directed by Pokey Spears and Noel Braham. Written by Noel Braham.  Starring Noel Braham, Georginna Savoye, Sal Perales, Pokey Spears.

Produced by Mario Contini, Georginna Savoye. Director of Photography Mario Contini. Edited by Ryan Stevens Harris. Visual Effects Supervisor Bryan Gonzales. Sound Design Michael Kao. Costume Design by Elizabeth Rage. Music by Ryan Leach.

Review: Captain America: Civil War

By: Tim Cogshell

civil war 2

Image courtesy of the Disney Company – 2016

April 21, ’16, 9:53 a.m. – I was sitting down to watch an early screening of Captain America: Civil War on the Disney Studios lot in Burbank, California. I received a text inquiring if I’d heard the news. As a number of noted critics and studio types filed in – all immersed in their devices, we confirmed the news for each other – Prince was dead.

One noted critic, whose name I will not mention because she may not want you to know she cusses like a sailor, posed the question aloud, “How the fuck are we supposed to pay attention to this now!?” It was a goddamn good question. I said in response, voice cracking, “No shit, I’m all fucked up!” As it happens, I cuss like a sailor, too. They started the movie.

Over the next two hours and twenty-seven minutes, the film’s full runtime through the end credits, Captain America: Civil War made me forget that Prince had died. It’s that entertaining – that good a piece of summer distraction, which is exactly what it’s supposed to be. And let’s not forget that it’s a film fresh on the heels of the Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice fiasco; oddly, one whose narrative is virtually the same as that of the Marvel film.

Both Civil War and Dawn of Justice are about opposing camps of superheroes facing off – for one reason or another – in a battle to the death until a greater threat reveals itself. Batman v Superman was directed – which is to say “stylized” – by Zack Snyder; it’s exactly that, a Zack Snyder film. Which is to say, bloated, bombastic, self-consciously serious, philosophically juvenile, and downright silly.

Captain America: Civil War is directed by Joe and Anthony Russo, the brothers behind Captain America: The Winter Soldier and who will helm the upcoming Avengers: Infinity War – Part I and Avengers: Infinity War – Part II. The key difference between Batman v Superman and Civil War is that the brothers Russo are not stylizers, but rather storytelling filmmakers whose work is varied in both format and tone.

From cult films like Welcome to Collinwood (2002), You, Me and Dupree (2006), and even culty-er TV shows like Arrested Development and Community, the Russos are journeyman filmmakers with no personal agenda in their efforts other than to make a really entertaining movie. That makes sense – and it’s good.

That’s what they have done with Captain America: Civil War. It’s good enough to make me forget that Prince had died – even if only for 2 hours and 27 minutes.

Submission to authority? Tony Stark vs. Steve Rogers

Civil War opens with an action sequence. A combination of Avengers that includes the Capt. (Chris Evans), Falcon (Anthony Mackie), and Natasha (Scarlett Johansson), among others, but notably not the Hulk, who is not in this movie. The mission goes badly, thus increasing pressure on the Avengers to come under some sort of authority. On the heels of events in New York, Washington, D.C., and the fictional land of Sokovia, nations have come to wonder if these superheroes are worth all the mayhem their protection provides.

Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) is shaken by an encounter with the mother of a young man who was killed during one of his heroics in a scene similar to one in Batman v Superman – but done better here. Long story short, Tony wants to submit to an authority that the league of nations has endorsed. Captain America does not. Avengers align.

Meanwhile, a darker plan unfolds, none of which will be revealed here.

Fanboys hate spoilers, but I wonder if the irony in the framing of Civil War will go unnoticed by the superhero movie fans who will make this movie a worldwide box office hit. I wonder if they will get that billionaire Tony Stark, an Ayn Rand archetype of a self-made man, would not be inclined to have his individual authority usurped; while Captain America, a soldier, by default a member of and subject to the authority of government, would never refuse what is effectively a direct order from his superiors, the elected officials of the American government. Which is the point of being a Captain – a dutiful soldier.

I wonder.

In any case, Civil War, though technically a Captain America sequel, is really a Marvel Universe sequel that uses this clash of heroes to introduce new characters, including Chadwick Boseman as T’Challa (a.k.a. the Black Panther), king of the fictional land Wakanda; and to reintroduce Spider-Man (Tom Holland), along with a new take on Aunt May, who is played by the age appropriate and incredibly hot Marisa Tomei. Yep, Aunt May is hot.

In addition to a few other characters, who round out the fight on both sides. Yet in the end it all comes down to a showdown between Tony and Steve, and let’s face it, they never liked each other anyway.

The fact that Captain America: Civil War is this good is surprising. There have been several of these films of late and their relative entertainment value has been hit-and-miss for all but the most staunch Comic-Con-type fans. Guardians of the Galaxy and Deadpool were good, the previously mentioned Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, Avengers: Age of Ultron, and a couple of those Iron Man films I could have done without.

I don’t need any more Thor films, either. Not to mention any number of Marvel and DC TV series, from Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.,Agent Carter, Jessica Jones, and Daredevil to Gotham, The Flash, and Supergirl – each vying for their own galaxy in the Marvel and DC universes.

So, chances are that for me to consider Captain America: Civil War a good movie – good enough to make me forget Prince had just died – it must be pretty good indeed.

Review: Captain America: Civil War (2016).
Dir.: Joe and Anthony Russo.
Scr.: Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely. From the comic book by Mark Millar, and characters created by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby.
Cast: Chris Evans. Robert Downey Jr. Tom Holland. Scarlett Johansson. Sebastian Stan. Jeremy Renner. Daniel Brühl. Chadwick Boseman. Paul Rudd. Marisa Tomei. Anthony Mackie.Elizabeth Olsen. Don Cheadle. Paul Bettany. Emily VanCamp. Frank Grillo. William Hurt. Martin Freeman. John Slattery. Hope Davis. Alfre Woodard.

‘Miles Ahead’ Review: Cheadle Turns Miles Davis’ Life into Freeform Jazz

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Reviews | By Tim Cogshell on March 31, 2016 @ 3:44 pm

Miles Ahead” is the title of Miles Davis’ 1957 collaboration with pianist Gil Evans. The album is brilliant; the movie of the same name is not, but it’s very good, brightly conceived not as a cradle-to-grave bio-pic but rather a musical chart of Davis’ life. Director-star Don Cheadle has created motifs and moments in the key of Miles Davis, suggesting to the audience what this or that moment in the life of the man who defined cool might have been like. And like all good jazz, you can enjoy it without always knowing where it’s going….

See more at: http://www.thewrap.com/miles-ahead-review-don-cheadle-miles-davis/

 

Tim is Critic At Large for Alt Film Guide (http://www.altfg.com/blog). Twenty years of his reviews are archived at:  http://www.rottentomatoes.com/critic/tim-cogshell/

FilmWeek: ‘God’s Not Dead 2,’ ‘Everybody Wants Some!’ and more

FilmWeek: ‘God’s Not Dead 2,’ ‘Everybody Wants Some!’ and more

Larry Mantle and KPCC film critics Tim Cogshell, Andy Klein and Charles Solomon review this week’s new movie releases including “God’s Not Dead 2,” “Everybody Wants Some!!,” “Miles Ahead” and more.

Listen here: FilmWeek: ‘God’s Not Dead 2,’ ‘Everybody Wants Some!’ and more

 

Tim is Critic At Large for Alt Film Guide (http://www.altfg.com/blog). Twenty years of his reviews are archived at:  http://www.rottentomatoes.com/critic/tim-cogshell/