Woman Around Town’s Editor Charlene Giannetti and writers for the website talk with the women and men making news in New York, Washington, D.C., and other cities around the world. Thanks to Ian Herman for his wonderful piano introduction.
With Martin Luther King Day upon us its only timely to consider our country’s notoriously turbulent history on racial issues and the bitter divisions that remain today. It’s a difficult topic one that many movie directors prefer to side step altogether and even fewer can do it justice. Here are five examples of films that successfully tackled race head on.
Malcolm X (1992) Spike Lee produced, directed, and co-wrote the screenplay and Denzel Washington starred in the title role, in this epic biopic about the famous African American activist. The film follows Malcolm’s troubled childhood raised by his mentally ill mother after his father’s murder, his conversion to the Nation of Islam while in prison, and his career as an incendiary activist which ended in his assassination. He would however, become an inspiration to millions; including Nelson Mandela. Angela Bassett (What’s Love Got to do With It?) plays Malcolm’s wife Betty Shabazz, Al Freeman Jr. (Finian’s Rainbow, Roots; The Next Generation) Malcolm’s tutor and teacher Elijah Muhammed, and Delroy Lindo (Get Shorty, The Cider House Rules) is a gangster known as West Indian Archie. Denzel was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actor and won the New York Film Critics Circle Award, and the movie’s garnered a fresh rating of over 90% at Rotten Tomatoes.
The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975 (2011) This award winning documentary directed by Goran Olsson chronicles the evolution of the Black Power movement through the late sixties to mid seventies as seen by Swedish Journalists and film-makers. Featuring found footage over thirty years old including appearances by Angela Davis, Huey Newton, Eldridge Cleaver, Bobby Seale, Stokely Carmichael, Lewis Farrakhan, Ingrid Dahlberg and more. Additional voiceovers and commentaries were provided by Erykah Badu and Amir Questlove who helped provide the musical score. Among the topics covered are the Black Panther Party, War on Drugs, and the anti-war movement.
Hidden Figures(2016) Theodore Melfi (St. Vincent) directed and co-wrote the screenplay adapted by the non-fiction book of the same name by Margot Lee Shetterley telling the too long unknown story of black, women, mathematicians who worked at NASA during the Space Race. Taraji Henson (Empire, Person of Interest, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button) is revelatory as the brilliant Katherine Goble Johnson. Octavia Spencer (The Help, Fruitvale Station) commands the screen as hyper competent Dorothy Vaughn and singer Janella Monae shines as sassy, ambitious Mary Jackson. They make a truly unforgettable trio on screen together and the cast is rounded out with memorable turns by Kirsten Dunst, Kevin Costner, and Mahershala Ali. The movie was a critical (over 90% fresh rating) and commercial success. Indeed it was the highest grossing Best Picture nominee that year.
I Am Not Your Negro (2016) Directed by Haitian filmmaker Raoul Peck, and narrated by Samuel L. Jackson, this Academy Award-nominated documentary is based on James Baldwin’s unfinished manuscript Remember This House. Baldwin died before he completing his memoir of his memories of such personal friends of his as Malcolm X, Medgar Evers, and Martin Luther King Jr., but Jackson and Peck give him a voice beyond the grave to create a biography the Wall Street Journal called ‘enthralling…a evocation of a passionate soul in a tumultuous era.’
Moonlight (2016) Barry Jenkins wrote and directed this ground breaking picture based on Tarell McCraney’s play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue. (Jenkins wisely abbreviated the title.) Presenting three stages, childhood, adolescence, and early adulthood in the life of Chiron, the neglected son of drug addicted Paula, as he navigates his sexuality and identity. It’s pivotal theme is black male identity and how that intersects with sexual identity. The film was universally acclaimed with a 98% fresh rating, was nominated for eight Academy Awards and won Best Supporting Actor for Mahershala Ali, Best Adapted Screenplay for Jenkins and McCraney, and Best Picture. It was the first film with an all black cast AND first LGBT film to win Best Picture.
Top photo from Bigstock: Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial in Washington, DC, as seen on April 16, 2016. This memorial is the first African American honored with a memorial on or near the National Mall.
Molly’s Game, the newest from screenwriter Aaron Sorkin—and also his directorial debut—is full of colorful characters and fast moving, predictably clever dialogue. It’s also so entertainingly laid out that it’s almost possible to forgive the absolutely terrible people who populate the story for the lives they ruined and the amount of needless suffering that came from it all. It also hints at a glamorous world where the incredibly wealthy can win and lose amounts of money in a single night that most won’t see in a lifetime. And because of its glamour—a word first used to mean magical enchantment to make things appear better than they are—it’s easy to wish to be a part of that world. And that was Molly’s first problem.
Based on the book by the eponymous Bloom, the true story of her own undoing, Molly’s Game is also a complicated legal dramedy about her legal defense after an arrest by the FBI. Bloom ran a continuing series of poker games, first hosted by her terrible Hollywood employer in a thinly veiled “Cobra Lounge.” These games were incredibly exclusive thanks to the incredibly famous people who attended, including Hollywood celebrities, business moguls, and politicians. When she falls out with her employer, she opens her own games. What follows is a meteoric rise to the top of a multi-million-dollar secret industry and all the infamous pitfalls that come with that kind of quick success.
Kevin Costner and Jessica Chastain
Bloom built her “multi-million dollar empire with her wits” and, through Sorkin’s lens, her something-that-rhymes-with wits. (His male gaze is…overt.) Jessica Chastain, who has shown herself many times over to be a phenomenal actress, does not disappoint. If there’s any complain about her performance it would be the same as so many of Sorkin’s characters; they’re so logical and put-together that they rarely show the kind of emotion you might expect in moments of extreme duress.
This is a story about very bad and very damaged people and the myriad ways they inflict harm on themselves and others. But because it’s also an Aaron Sorkin picture, it’s about the delivery of snappy rat-a-tat dialogue, clever quips, and enough giggles to make you walk away feeling like you’ve just seen something bordering on uplifting. It isn’t, but it feels like it.
To speak of Sorkin’s directorial style, he seems to have borrowed a few recognizable tricks from the likes of Guy Ritchie and Steven Soderburgh, but they have proven effective and are used with good humor. A moment sits less agreeably is the one big emotional scene between Chastain with Kevin Costner as Molly’s father. The scene is shown with Costner always just a bit more in focus than Chastain, no matter who’s positioned more dominantly in the frame or who’s speaking. If there are two of them, he’s just a little more emphasized. This doesn’t make a huge difference in the story; it’s just something that isn’t a complete surprise for those who are familiar with Sorkin’s treatment of female characters in the past.
Idris Elba and Jessica Chastain
The supporting cast is solid, with Idris Elba again the voice of justice and ethical behavior, his accent inconsistent but everything else about him very likable. Chris O’Dowd and Brian D’Arcy James play hilarious repeat gamblers who have more significance than Molly realizes. Michael Cera plays a straight-up sociopath, which is an interesting and surprisingly unnerving departure for him, and there was an audible frisson in the theater when Joe Keery, fresh from Stranger Things, appears.
Overall, this is a tight, entertaining film. There are some generally honorable people who make huge mistakes, and deeply dishonorable people who like to watch others drown in those mistakes. As the story unfolds on two timelines—the flashbacks and the legal defense—a picture emerges of a woman who beats the odds time and again among the morally corrupt while maintaining some semblance of her own true moral compass.
She didn’t intend to hurt anyone she hurt, and because she experiences pain beyond what she could have foreseen with as little exposure to the criminal underbelly as she had, she goes out of her way to prevent anyone else from undue suffering. She’s a good woman in a bad man’s world. In that much at least she’s relatable. Molly’s Game is a fascinating story. It’s invigorating, thrilling and at times shocking. If you’re going to gamble on a good time, you could do a lot worse this holiday season.
Every time we get a chance to get ahead they move the finish line. Every time.
Hidden Figures, directed and co-authored by Theodore Melfi (St. Vincent) about a team of African American women who helped do the mathematical work on NASA’s early space missions in 1961, is not only a really fun movie, but feels like a truly vital one as well.
Based on a true story, Hidden Figures was adapted from the best-selling book by Margot Lee Shetterly. Katherine Goble (Taraji Henson of Person of Interest and Empire), Dorothy Vaughn (Octavia Spencer of The Help, and Fruitvale Station), and Mary Jackson (recording artist and big screen newcomer Janelle Monae), were three ‘human computers’ and some of the best minds at NASA. They also all happen to be women of color which relegates them to second class status and segregated bathrooms. (A running theme, is that Katherine, after being assigned to the main task force, has to keep running all the way across the NASA compound to use the colored women’s restroom several times a day.) Besides such indignities and unequal treatment they’re also faced with the fact that the incoming IBM computer station threatens to make their jobs obsolete. At the same time Goble, Vaughn, and Jackson help make history by sending John Glenn into orbit, they were also crossing lines pertaining to race and gender as well. While the story of the former was well publicized, the story of the latter has been unknown until now.
Katherine G. Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), stands out amid her team of fellow mathematicians that helped send into orbit John Glenn.
It’s an expertly written and directed movie. Melfi may have been something of an unknown before, but based on this we can expect good things from him in the future as well. The casting is uniformly excellent. Kevin Costner as composite character Al Harrison plays the gruff, well meaning supervisor to a tee. Kirsten Dunst’s icy persona works in her favor for a change in the role of Vivian Mitchell, the white female supervisor who, while not an open emblem of bigotry, represents a subtler more insidious form of prejudice – indifference to obvious injustice. Janelle Monae is dynamic and sexy onscreen and Octavia Spencer as born leader and programming genius Dorothy Vaughn well deserves her Oscar nomination. However, it’s notable that Taraji P. Henson as lead character Katherine Goble nee Johnson is the movie’s heart and soul and notably was not nominated despite a performance that practically screams for Academy recognition. No offense to Meryl Streep, but Taraji’s work this year was clearly more deserving and this seems, like so much of the movie itself, to be another instance of a black woman not getting her due.
Photo Credit: Hopper Stone courtesy of 20th Century Fox
Father’s Day is coming up, and besides the obligatory gifts of ties, coffee mugs, and socks consider watching one of the following movies with dear old dad.
To Kill a Mockingbird (1962) The film adaption of Harper Lee’s Pulitzer Prize winning work starring Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch and Mary Badham as his daughter Scout in what is possibly the most adorable father-daughter pairing ever on screen. It also features Robert Duvall in a legendary turn as Boo Radley. To Kill a Mockingbird deals with fatherhood, race, prejudice, the limits of the legal system, and more. It won three Academy Awards including Best Actor for Peck, was nominated for eight more including Best Picture and is nearly universally considered one of the best films of all time.
Paper Moon(1973) This American comedy-drama directed by Peter Bogdanovich (The Last Picture Show) starred real life father-daughter pair Ryan and Tatum O’Neal as Moze and Addie. Moze is a shady grafter who takes on the nine year old Addie (who may or may not be his biological daughter) as his mascot/sidekick/protégé on a madcap road trip through plains country during the Great Depression. Filmed in black and white it was nominated for several Academy Awards including Best Adapted Screenplay and Tatum O’Neal won for Best Supporting Actress making her the youngest performer to ever win an competitive Oscar.
Field of Dreams (1989) Phil Alden wrote and directed this fantasy drama starring Kevin Costner as novice farmer Ray who becomes convinced that he’s supposed to turn his corn fields into a baseball diamond. The movies ostensible focus is on letting Shoeless Joe Jackson (among others) play ball again but the not so hidden underlying theme is Ray repairing his relationship with his own now deceased father. Co-starring Amy Madigan, Burt Lancaster, James Earl Jones, and Ray Liotta, Field of Dreams was nominated for three Academy Awards and “If You Build It, He Will Come,” is now part of the cultural lexicon.
Finding Nemo (2003) The Pixar Blockbuster about how Marlin (Al Brooks) the clownfish sets off on a voyage through Australia’s Great Barrier Reef to find his lost son Nemo encountering Dory (Ellen Degeneres) a regal blue-tang who suffers from short term memory loss, sharks trying to kick the fish eating habit, and surfer dude turtles was an instant classic that won the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature, and was nominated in three other categories including Best Original Screenplay. It also inspired a long-gestating sequel Finding Dory that opened on June 17, 2016.
The Descendants (2011) Alexander Payne (Sideways, Nebraska) directed this film adaption of the novel by the same name. George Clooney stars as land baron Matt King whose wife Elizabeth is in a coma and then learns from his elder daughter Alex (Shailene Woodley in her breakout role) that Elizabeth had an affair. Matt’s emotional journey is momentous and important decisions are made but the movie’s ultimate focus is on Matt’s struggle to form a stronger bond with his daughters. The Descendants won an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay as well as two Golden Globe Awards including Best Picture-Drama and Best Actor-Drama for Clooney.