Larry Mantle and KPCC film critics Claudia Puig and Tim Cogshell review this weekend’s new movie releases including: the fantastical legend of “Kong: Skull Island” starring Tom Hiddleston, Samuel L. Jackson and Brie Larson; Julia Ducournau’s cannibalistic-thriller “Raw;” “Personal Shopper” starring Kristen Stewart in the underground fashion world of Paris; and more.
KPCC’s FilmWeek critics and host Larry Mantle plus an audience of 1,000 gathered at the historic Theatre at Ace Hotel in Downtown Los Angeles to discuss and debate the contenders for this year’s major Oscar categories. There were vigorous deliberations over “Moonlight” and “La La Land” in the Best Picture categories and almost no agreement on the Best Documentary Feature.
Who are you favoring for this year’s Academy Awards?
Justin Chang, film critic for KPCC and the Los Angeles Times
Barry 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 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.
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.
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.
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’ 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.
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.
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.
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!
BY CALLING A FILM A BLACK FILM, DOES THAT CONFINE IT?
You know, it depends. If we say ‘French film,’ we understand that we’re probably talking about a film that is in the French language, but we’re probably also talking about a film that references French culture. I could say ‘a French film,’ and it might be made by an Algerian or a Moroccan, and it will be in the French language but it will very much not be about the French culture.
I think that what we have to do is to allow the notion of black film to evolve just like we have every other genre of film: German film, Japanese film, all those films can carry those monikers, but they’re all just films. They’re all cinema.
WHAT IF THE MOVIE HAS NOTHING TO DO WITH THE BLACK EXPERIENCE? SAY A BLACK FILMMAKER IS HIRED TO DIRECT A FILM ABOUT UNICORNS AND RAINBOWS?
Then you’re going to have yourself a film about unicorns and rainbows that is a black film. It’s gonna be a black film about unicorns and rainbows. And by the way, if it were a woman directing that film, then it would be a film about unicorns and rainbows that’s very female.
SO THE IDENTITY WILL ALWAYS BE THERE. MOONLIGHT DIRECTOR BARRY JENKINS WAS ASKED WHETHER HE SAW HIMSELF AS A BLACK FILMMAKER OR JUST A FILMMAKER. HIS RESPONSE WAS THAT THERE’S NO TIME WHEN BLACK CEASES TO BE A DEFINING CHARACTERISTIC.
This is absolutely true. It’s true of us. Me, I’m a film critic, but I’m unequivocally a black film critic. My thoughts about film are filtered through my blackness because I’m black all day, every day.
ARE WE GOING TO START CLASSIFYING MOVIES DIFFERENTLY GOING FORWARD OR WILL THEY ALWAYS GO BACK TO THOSE LABELS?
You know, I think that they will always sort of go back to those same categories. What we need to expand is our understanding of what those categories mean. ‘Black film’ don’t necessarily mean Tyler Perry and Kevin Hart and “Boys in the Hood.” It can also mean Daughters of the Dust, wonderful Julie Dash’s movie. “Killer of Sheep,” by Charles Burnett. It might even mean a film that stars a white kid doing things in a white neighborhood that some black guy thought of.
Press the blue play button above to hear the full interview.
(Questions and answers have been edited for brevity and clarity.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
Larry Mantle and KPCC film critics Andy Klein and Tim Cogshell review this week’s new movie releases including: the dramatic portrayal of the 2010 man-made disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, “Deepwater Horizon,” plus the new Tim Burton fantasy, “Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children;” an action funny starring the biggest names in comedy these days including Kristen Wiig, Leslie Jones, and Zach Galifianakis; and more.
Larry Mantle and KPCC film critics Lael Loewenstein, Tim Cogshell, and Charles Solomon review this week’s new movie releases including Disney’s “Pete’s Dragon” that blends animation with live-action; another summer raunchy comedy, but animated, called “Sausage Party;” Meryl Streep as a laughable opera singer in “Florence Foster Jenkins,” and more.