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.
There are princesses and monsters in The Shape of Water, a sumptuous, scary, and spellbinding new fairy tale film from Guillermo del Toro. It’s “Beauty and the Beast” for a time when happy endings can seem too few and far between, with political underpinnings that are almost uncomfortably relevant. And even though it’s built on a fairy tale frame, it is definitely not for children.
Fairy tales were not meant to be pretty. Women and children were victims in tales often filled with sexual angst and violence as a caution to anyone who might consider stepping out of line. They were populated by malevolent creatures, and the creeping horror could insinuate itself into a listener’s consciousness, revealed as a little voice of warning—or perhaps of conscience. It is no wonder then that del Toro, one of our generation’s most creatively dark storytellers, a crafter of elegant nightmares, could so brilliantly re-imagine a classic for our time.
Octavia Spencer and Sally Hawkins
The Shape of Water takes place in the sleepy emerald-colored world of Elisa Esposito, played with remarkable power and charm by Sally Hawkins. Elisa’s a mute nightshift janitor at a large government laboratory facility. She smiles mildly while her cleaning partner, Zelda (a reliably funny but put-upon Octavia Spencer), chatters at a constant clip about her frustration with her uncommunicative, unappreciative husband. Elisa’s silence is never a weight or a weakness. She says everything she needs with her expressiveness and a few signs. The same is true of her relationship with her neighbor and best friend Giles (Richard Jenkins), a gay man far enough past middle age to see what he has become who longs to return to the days of his youth.
The film is set in 1960s Baltimore—just a short drive from Washington, D.C. during the dark days of the Cold War, the capital of a nation on the eve of great change, from the Civil Rights Movement to the space race to naked hippies on Haight and Ashbury. The Shape of Water exists in a world in flux, the visuals intoxicating in their lushness but the content full of social tensions that we can look at through today’s lens to note how far we’ve come, and how far back we could slide if we’re not careful.
The film’s villain, Strickland, played with tingling menace by Michael Shannon, is the part that makes this movie so uncomfortably relevant. He’s a violent, racist, misogynist white man in the business of getting paid protecting the greedy interests of other rich and powerful white men. He’d be right at home in a certain Cabinet today. He’s confident in his superiority as a master of the universe, so much so that it’s difficult for him to admit when he’s been had.
Del Toro specializes in otherworldliness. He brings to life unique characters and ethereal, dreamlike places like no one else. Doug Jones, who has played a menagerie of del Toro’s incredible inventions, is the nameless being brought to the facility by Strickland and Dr. Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg), a man with secrets of his own. Like Hawkins, Jones is limited by lack of speaking, using his strong, graceful physicality to communicate.
This isn’t revolutionary cinema in terms of giving us something we’ve never seen before, but it is lovely and hopeful and done so well that it doesn’t even seem that fishy for a woman to fall in love with a creature who bares more than a passing resemblance to the Creature from the Black Lagoon. We’ve seen characters like these before—even played by the same actors—but we can see them in this light, in these. Their familiarity isn’t a curse, but a comfort. It makes it easy to relax and enjoy the story as it ebbs and flows.
The Shape of Water isn’t a film about celebrating outsiders, or even about underdogs triumphant. That’s all consequential. What it is, to a great extent, is an argument that even in this often cold and ugly world, where monsters are all around us, it is still possible to find beauty. We just have to open our hearts to it.
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