There’s been plenty of digital ink already spilled about Green Book being a White Savior Film. While I’ll also spill a bit of my own on the topic, there isn’t much I can add. For me – an average white dude who’s seen his fair share of movies – the most glaring fault about the picture, a dramedy dealing with race relations in the Jim Crow era, is the paint-by-numbers feeling of it all. This is a movie that strives to hit every standard beat in the uplifting “inspired by a true story” template. As an exercise in mediocrity that serves up something we’ve all seen dozens of times before, Green Book is an unparalleled success. It’s utterly predicable and is the kind of movie that would have felt fresh had it been made 20 or 30 years ago. Still, for all it’s flaws, Green Book isn’t entirely without its charms. In addition to a superb turn from actor Mahershala Ali, the movie does provide some inspiring moments and a message about race that plenty of people still haven’t absorbed.
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On the Basis of Sex stresses that its subject, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, is uncompromising and unmatched when it comes to the mastery of her chosen profession. The film is right to do so. In 1956, Ginsburg was one of just a few women admitted to Harvard Law School, and she graduated at the top of her class at Columbia after transferring there so her husband could take a job in New York City.
She later used a unique case – the focus of the film – to challenge the constitutionality of legal gender-based discrimination. She would eventually reach the pinnacle of American jurisprudence when she was confirmed to the United States Supreme Court. It’s disappointing, then, that the cinematic tribute to such a historically significant, dynamic figure like Ginsburg should be as middling as it is. On the Basis of Sex tries to cover too much ground in its first half, and the picture only really hits its stride in the last act. It’s a biopic that covers a vital individual in an unsatisfying, if entertaining, way.
Eric Garner. Tamir Rice. Sandra Bland. Philando Castile. Tanisha Anderson. These are just a few of the black people whom police officers have killed in the last few years. The list goes on and on. The birth of the Black Lives Matter movement and the Say Their Names campaign has focused attention on myriad issues surrounding state oppression in the black community. One aspect of the black experience in particular received intensive media attention a few years ago: The Talk. That’s the lecture many black parents give their children about what to do during an encounter with the police. Keep your hands visible at all times. No sudden movements. Remain polite and respectful. The goal of strategies like these that black parents impart during The Talk is to make sure their children walk away from interactions with the police alive.
The Hate U Give, a powerful film about race, justice, and so much more, starts with The Talk. It sets a serious and sober tone that director George Tillman, Jr. masterfully sustains as he adds wonderful touches of humor and humanity to a story of righteous anger and, ultimately, hope.
It’s a well-worn cliché that bad times make for good art. We’re at the front end of some undeniably rotten times, with a commander-in-chief who traffics in white supremacist language and policies, and a large segment of the population who feel more comfortable expressing bigotry because of him. Hate and ignorance are ascendant. It’s the coldest of comfort, but the first great piece of art in response to these bad times (at least as far as movies go) is here. It’s called BlacKkKlansman. It’s incendiary, powerful, hilarious, chilling. Master filmmaker Spike Lee called upon every skill he has as an artist to make this movie pulse in defiance of our current political and existential crisis. He also included his trademark sense of humor and his unique visual style and inventiveness. No other director could have made this movie. BlacKkKlansman is, and could only be, a Spike Lee joint.
The themes and social commentary of Blindspotting are both timely and important, but the movie’s overall effect is one of slightness. That slightness is mostly a function of the way co-screenwriters and stars Daveed Diggs and Rafael Casal chose to mix comedy and drama in their examination of gentrification, race relations, and toxic friendships. The result is uneven and too episodic, with comedic interludes that don’t quite fit alongside harrowing depictions of everything from lethal police misconduct to a young child getting his hands on a loaded gun. These moments, though, and many more like them, are incredibly powerful, and Diggs and Casal’s screenplay handle them with care and a great deal of emotional intelligence.
Kids these days, am I right? If they aren’t playing video games for countless hours or taking endless selfies, they’re making an 85-year-old Supreme Court justice the center of a wildly popular meme. That last one might not quite fit the stereotype, but it’s nevertheless true. Back in 2013, an NYU law student named Shana Knizhnik created a Tumblr page that celebrated Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg as the Notorious R.B.G. It’s a play on the name of classic hip-hop artist The Notorious B.I.G., and the meme transformed Ginsburg into a gangsta-style bad-ass on a tireless quest for justice and social equality.
Filmmakers Julie Cohen and Betsy West used the meme as an entry point for RBG, their documentary that covers the life of the towering – at least in terms of her professional achievements, if not her physical stature – Ginsburg.
If you suffer from the condition known as Superhero Fatigue Syndrome, as I often do, you might be hesitant to see the latest Marvel movie, Black Panther. There’s no reason to be hesitant. In fact, Black Panther works as an antidote to the feeling that you’ve grown tired of just about anything based on a comic book or that is incorporated into Marvel’s sprawling, at times unwieldy, Cinematic Universe. Black Panther might just be the best Marvel movie yet.
One of the front runners in the Best Picture Oscar race this year was La La Land. It’s a movie some people condemned due to a racially charged element: white appropriation of jazz music, a historically black art form. The white central figure sees himself as a savior of jazz music, while the film simultaneously sidelines any black characters, and sanitizes jazz of its deeply African-American origins and past. Defenders of the movie belittle this critique as making the film about racism when it’s simply a sweet love story. The backlash against the argument that La La Land is racially troubling speaks to a central theme in the magnificent documentary I Am Not Your Negro. When a society is structured around one race’s superiority to all others, everything is about race. To suggest otherwise is to be naïve or willfully ignorant. The way the film illustrates this and many other points is elegant, eloquent, and unflinching.
Hidden Figures is a great example of a fascinating story told in an uninspired way. The title of the film hints at how important the true-life subject matter is. It tells the tale of people who made critical contributions to the success of a defining moment in human history, but who went unrecognized because of their second-class status. They are finally getting the credit they deserve, but it’s a shame that the style doesn’t do the content justice. The movie indulges in every biopic cliché imaginable. The way it handles race issues of the early 1960s is similarly flawed. Missing are the nuanced shades of gray that made a movie like Selma so rich. Instead, Hidden Figures focuses on easy crowd pleasing moments that are cathartic, to be sure, but that lack the subtle nuance that would make them emotionally complex and satisfying. It’s A Beautiful Mind meets The Help, with all the problems of both.
“You start out in 1954 by saying ‘n---er, n---er, n---er.’ By 1968 you can’t say ‘n---er’ – that hurts you, backfires. So, you say stuff like, uh, ‘forced busing’, ‘states’ rights’, and all that stuff, and you’re getting so abstract. Now, you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is, blacks get hurt worse than whites.… ‘We want to cut this,’ is much more abstract than even the busing thing, uh, and a hell of a lot more abstract than “N---er, n---er.” – Lee Atwater
Lee Atwater was a Republican operative who worked in President Ronald Reagan’s administration. He stated the above quote in a 1981 interview with political scientist Alexander Lamis. The idea is that as openly racist attitudes and speech becomes less acceptable with civil rights advances, politicians and institutions wishing to uphold the white hegemony must find new, more acceptably racist ways to achieve that goal. The examination of that tactic is central to director Ava DuVernay’s powerful new documentary 13th, so named for the 13th Amendment to the United States Constitution. That’s the one officially ending slavery in America. Well, almost.