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.
This planet doesn’t belong to us. Ancient species owned this earth long before mankind.
Kong: Skull Island directed by Jordan Vogt-Roberts (hitherto best known for indie hit The Kings Of Summer) is from the producers of Godzilla and fans of the latter will recognize the ominous phrase “Project Monarch.” The prevailing philosophy of both films is that humans are insignificant little insects compared to the massive, ancient, nearly god-like creatures of legend who haunt our nightmares. This is as it should be; what’s the point of a monster movie where humans can contain the monsters by being ‘alpha’? (I’m looking at you Jurassic World.) The primal appeal of monster films lies in the fact that we cannot control nature and it is folly to try.
What I didn’t expect was that Skull Island besides being a great, example of B-movie monster making, would also owe so much to stories about man’s inner darkness. The intro takes place in 1944 just as WWII is starting to wind up with a battle on the beach between a Japanese pilot and American one, which ends when everyone’s favorite giant ape crashes the party. Kong is animated by Toby Kebbell of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes who plays a great secondary character in the film as well.
Flash forward nearly 30 years to 1973, in the last days of the Vietnam war, an expedition is authorized to explore Skull Island primarily so the Russian’s won’t get there first. Geo-politics in this movie are as much a character as the subterranean lizard abominations are. A number of the visuals of Vietnam era choppers exploding napalm seem right out of Apocalypse Now. Our main hero, former RAF pilot turned mercenary tracker (Tom Hiddleston) is named Conrad in a clear homage to Joseph Conrad author of Heart of Darkness. The Colonel Kurtz figure here is Colonel Packard (Samuel L. Jackson) a veteran soldier embittered by the notion that the U.S. is ‘abandoning’ the fight in Vietnam. He blames the media and war photographers like Mason Weaver (Brie Larson of Room) for the loss of public support. Packard craves a new battle and new enemy and he finds one in Kong.
John Goodman and Corey Hawkins (Photo credit: Church Zlotnick)
We also get a ton of other great supporting characters as well, from John Goodman’s scientist obsessed with proving monsters are real, to John C. Reilly as the WWII crash-landed American pilot trapped on the island for thirty years, to Corey Hawkins as Yale-educated geologist whose work is crucial to Project Monarch, and many, many more. It’s not that Skull Island skimps on the action or set pieces; far from it! But they spend a remarkable amount of time establishing their characters personalities and dramas, which makes their fates far more engrossing on screen. Rest assured this is a monster movie with heart, and it is worth sticking around to see the after-credits stinger.
There have been a lot of films about Tarzan and his adventures in the jungle, dating all the way back to the 1910s. We’ve always been fascinated with stories of humans in a simpler, more instinctual setting (see The Jungle Book as an example), and our relationship to gorillas, apes and other animals works as a study of the human psyche and adaptability. The Legend of Tarzan is unfortunately less about any of the aforementioned and more about the thrill, minus any of the depth. It’s not as bad as one would think, but it is disappointing.
In 1884, King Leopold of Belgium has taken over the Congo, plundering the African country for its vast riches. Dr. Williams (Samuel L. Jackson) suspects that the king, now overextended and in debt, is using slave workers to cut his costs. Enter typical bad guy, Leon Rom (Christoph Waltz), sent on a mission by the king to strike an accord with Chief Mbonga (Djimon Hounsou) that will allow for the mining of diamonds. There’s just one thing Rom has to do before Mbonga agrees: bring back to the Congo the chief’s mortal enemy, Tarzan.
Easier said than done. Tarzan (Alexander Skarsgård), has reclaimed his heritage and birth name – John Clayton III – and for the past eight years has been living a civilized life in England with his wife, Jane, (Margot Robbie). While John doesn’t fall for Rom’s trap to lure him back, Dr. Williams puts forth a more convincing argument – to investigate what’s happening with King Leopold and his unjust mining expeditions. And so ensues the adventure that will find Tarzan returning to his original home to seek justice.
The film tries to manage so much that it mishandles most of the story lines, culminating in underdeveloped plots and characters. Flashing back to Tarzan’s time with the gorillas doesn’t have much effect. Director David Yates attempts to bring Tarzan into the 21st century, setting him up to be a hero who confronts real-world events. The story becomes less about Tarzan and his struggles to find a place in society after his upbringing in the jungle, which would have been far more interesting to watch. Instead, it becomes the usual hero/villain story and one that’s underwhelming at best.
Christoph Waltz’s character is frankly a bit on the dull side. Waltz can sell anything, but over time his characters, all of which are villainous to some capacity, have begun to blend together. The film makes a show of painting him as a dangerous man, but in order to retain a PG-13 rating, he’s never shown to be lethal. (Surely his obsession with Jane could have crossed into more disturbing territory.)
Although I love Samuel L. Jackson on any given day, his role here seems misplaced, and for a while, it’s as if Yates wanted to turn The Legend of Tarzan into a duo adventure, with Jackson working as comic relief and Skarsgård being the serious one who doesn’t seem as into the partnership. Robbie spends three-fourths of the movie being a damsel in distress. The film would have fared better if it had allowed Robbie and Skarsgård to appropriately partner up for the jungle adventure.
The adventure aspect of the film is fun, with the jungle action sequences full of exhilarating moments. The darker tone to the film is meant to portray the seriousness of the plot, asking us to take the film more seriously than is called for. Ultimately, The Legend of Tarzan is adventurous and has some moments of intensity, but it simply tries to be too much at once. Tarzan as a savior doesn’t really work in the way that Yates probably envisioned and the combination of villainous politics and jungle adventure strikes a strange chord. In trying to make Tarzan more of a hero, it took away from all of the more humanistic struggles the film could have explored instead.
The Legend of Tarzan opens nationwide July 1, 2016.