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.
The Beguiled is visually beautiful. A large white Virginia mansion sits surrounded by majestic trees dripping with moss. The women who inhabit this home are outfitted in gowns that would put Scarlett O’Hara to shame. Each scene, shot in gauzy, low light is mesmerizing, giving the entire film a dreamlike quality. Yet that exceptional cinematography cannot save a film whose storyline is demeaning to women. That the director is Sofia Coppola and the cast predominantly women only adds to the disappointment.
“I think just the power between men and women, which we can all relate to, is at the heart of the story,” Coppola said on the CBS Morning Show, explaining why she decided to do a remake of the 1971 film which starred Clint Eastwood. The earlier version did poorly at the box office after being marketed as a “hothouse melodrama” – “One man…seven women…in a strange house!” That setup, a group of women competing for the attention and love of a man, never falls to draw an audience, one reason why ABC’s The Bachelor is now in its 21st (!) season. Still, whether during the Civil War or in current time, seeing women scratch and claw each other to win a man is unseemly.
Seven women, ranging in age from seven to 40, are holed up in the Farnsworth Seminary for Young Women, practicing their handwriting and studying French while trying to ignore the Civil War raging around them. The youngest girl, Amy (Oona Laurence) is gathering mushrooms in the forest when she happens upon a wounded Union soldier, Colonel McBurney (Colin Farrell). She helps him back to the mansion where he collapses. The school’s head, Miss Martha (Nicole Kidman), decides they should tend to his injuries before turning him into the Confederates. He’s placed on a bed in the music room which is kept locked. Miss Martha strips off his clothes and sponges away the dirt and blood on his body, her movements and facial expressions making it clear it’s been a long time since she’s seen a man. She also cleans out and stitches up the wound in his leg.
When he regains consciousness, McBurney tells the women he recently arrived in America from Ireland and, being short on cash, was paid to take another man’s place in the Union Army. Fighting for a cause he knew little about and didn’t believe in made it easy for him to desert when he was wounded. He wants the women to know that he’s not their enemy. (Eastwood’s character told the women he was a pacifist.) The women soon band together to protect McBurney from being turned in when Confederate soldiers stop in to check on Miss Martha and the others.
Colin Farrell and Kirsten Dunst
Although Miss Martha keeps telling McBurney he’s not a guest, he’s soon joining them at the table for dinner. The women dress for each occasion like they are dining with a prince. McBurney doesn’t disappoint, enjoying the food, particularly Amy’s mushrooms, and flirting with each woman. Although Miss Martha tries to keep things professional, there’s no doubt she’s attracted to him, too. But the major contenders are Edwina, the school’s second in command and teacher played by Kirsten Dunst, and Alicia, one of the older students played by Elle Fanning. McBurney plays one off against the other until his manipulations backfire with disastrous consequences.
Despite the fact that the film is set during the Civil War, Coppola made the curious decision to jettison one of the characters, a slave, Hallie, played in the original by Mae Mercer, which sparked some fascinating and heated exchanges with Eastwood’s McBurney. Hallie and the women (a cast headed by Geraldine Page and Elizabeth Hartman) dressed in work clothes, not ball gowns, and toiled in the fields in order to supply their food. In Coppola’s version, not only do we wonder where all the mansion’s food comes from (aside from Amy’s mushrooms), but also ponder who spends time washing and ironing all those dresses?
Coppola’s work was recognized with a best director’s award at Cannes, which certainly is a boost to women directors battling for equity in Hollywood. And the cast (which also includes Angourie Rice, Addison Riecke, and Emma Howard) delivers strong performances. Too bad the plot didn’t present women in a better light.
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