February 8th, 2011


Movies POC

In the past couple of years I've been reading a lot of literature either by or about people of color, both in the US and around the world. In August we signed up for Netflix and since then I've also watched quite a few shows or movies like that. I thought I would do a quick review of what I've watched between then and now that I think are worth watching for anyone interested in issues of racism and globalism.

Note: Any film that uses foul language, including "nigger", or includes violence, I watch with headphones so the baby doesn't hear that stuff at this age.

Avatar: The Last Airbender (animated series)
Ostensibly for kids, this was an excellent program, full of lessons about self-discipline, courage, diversity in abilities and culture, and coming together to promote peace and life. I watched it while nursing during the first couple of weeks after we brought Rosalind home from the hospital and I appreciated the soundtrack as much as the rest of it. We would just put it on and relax, once or twice a day.

A relatively light, enjoyable movie about an American who is sent to India to train to train a call center to which all of his office's jobs have been outsourced, including his. He learns a great deal about both India and himself.

I actually watched most of this on the plan back from England but due to a technical glitch didn't see the last 7 minutes until this fall. A challenging movie to watch due to the abuse some people heap on others, it's also got tender moments of joy and sincere love, of mentor to student, of mother to baby, and of a solid and struggling young woman, at long last, for herself.

Harlem Nights
Directed by Eddie Murphy, this film is described as an action comedy, but it also has some serious tones regarding the challenges of blacks trying to do business in a corrupt 1920s Harlem. I was surprised by how much respect I felt for the performance of Richard Pryor, especially; he can be more subtle than I remembered. The movie as a whole is not that successful - it feels more like a series of vignettes than a smooth-flowing film, but I was not sorry I took the time to watch it.

Noting that the boxer character was supposedly based partly on Jack Johnson...

Unforgivable Blackness
This excellent documentary covers the life and career of the man who, in 1908, became the first black heavyweight champion of the world, and then on July 4, 1910, beat the white former heavyweight champion James J. Jeffries in "the fight of the century" in Reno, Nevada. There were race riots across the country (in some cases as whites tried to quell black celebrations) and much white anger at this proud, strong, rich black man who liked to dress well, drive fancy cars (fast), and dated and married white "sporting women" - sometimes more than one at a time. Jack Johnson was convicted two years later of violating the Mann Act (by "transporting women across state lines for immoral purposes"), despite the fact that a) the act was intended to oppose what was essentially a slave trade in women, not to charge individuals for traveling with willing companions, as was the case with Johnson, and b) the Mann Act was passed *after* the activities for which Johnson was arrested. He fled the country for some time but eventually came back and served the year and a day that he had been sentenced so he could resume living in the US. Efforts to get him a posthumous presidential pardon have so far been unsuccessful.

(As an aside I would note that writer/artist Trevor Von Eeden, who has worked on several superhero comics (Batman, Black Canary, Black Lightning, Green Arrow) produced a comics series about Johnson, The Original Johnson, in 2009. I invited him to Renovation, but unfortunately he's unable to attend.)

Another documentary, this one un-narrated, it shows scenes and moments of the first two years of life for four babies, born in Japan, Namibia, Mongolia and America. Though the settings can be very different, the commonalities between the babies are unmistakable. I found myself wishing they had chosen a fourth country that was more different, since baby-raising in Tokyo and San Francisco is very similar, but in any case, it is a sweet, enjoyable film.

La Bamba
Born Ricardo Valenzuela Reyes, Ritchie Valens had played and recorded an amazing amount of top-notch music before he died at 17 in the plane crash that also killed Buddy Holly. The film is rather romanticized but points to some of the challenges Ritchie no doubt faced as a youth, partly due to his being part Mexican, and how his family both helped and hindered his efforts to make it big.

Cry Freedom
This movie, which I quoted yesterday, was more about the experience of white editor (and writer) Donald Woods and his family than about Black Nationalist Steve Biko, but their stories dovetail and Woods was eventually banned, as Biko was, for his support of the fight for black rights in South Africa. Banned, in this sense, doesn't mean "sent away" - it actually meant they could not leave the country but, within the country, were not allowed to be in the presence of more than one person at a time or to speak to the public. Terrific performances by Kevin Kline, Denzel Washington, and Penelope Wilton. (I actually found the film by browsing Wilton's titles after being impressed with her on Dr. Who.)

In 1839, Slaves stolen from their homes in Africa rebelled and took over the spanish ship La Amistad. When it landed in the Americas, the young Spanish queen, two spanish sailors who are all that's left of the crew, and the American soldiers who found the ship at sea all claimed rights to its "cargo" of slaves. An unlikely property lawyer and some abolitionists team up to argue that the Africans were enslaved illegally and, as such, are not property but should be free to return home. This case went to the US supreme court and was eventually argued by none other than former president John Quincy Adams, played in the film by Anthony Hopkins. Hopkins earned an oscar nomination with the role, but my favorite performance was by Djimon Hounsou, who plays Sengbe Pieh (later known as Joseph Cinqué), the leading defendant among the West Africans. Hounsou won an Image award from the NAACP and was nominated for a golden globe award for the part.

The case was a precedent for a number of later US laws and part of the lead-up to the American civil war.

The film has many sad parts, including when a mother dies giving birth on a slave ship, and a woman I took to be her sister later quietly slips overboard with the baby while the crew is distracted whipping another slave. It's an understated yet stunning illustration of the hopelessness and horror of their situation. As the mother of a baby myself I can only wonder if I might have made a similar decision rather than watch the baby starve to death without its mother. I hope someday we will completely eradicate slavery from the world.

American Violet
Also based on true events, this is about a young single mother of four in Texas who becomes the lead plaintiff in a suit against her local DA and police for drug raids in which she and a host of other black people were arrested and charged with felony-level drug distribution on the testimony of a single witness who later testified he produced that list while himself under pressure from the DA's office and in custody. With help from the ACLU, they accuse the DA's office of having a racist basis for the raid. Nicole Beharie does a terrific job as the lead.

This film notes that some 90-95 % of legal cases in the US are resolved through plea bargaining and never brought before a jury, and illustrates the conditions under which those charged can be unduly pressured to accept a plea bargain even if they are innocent of charges. It led me to wonder how many people in this country, especially blacks, cannot vote due to a felony conviction.

Undercover Brother
A very silly movie, yet the main character's stereotypical 'undercover' character of Anton Jackson helped inform my understanding of some of the problematic aspects of the black scientist character in "Better off Ted", which I've recently been watching.

Though the title character is the name of a dog, this is not really a "boy and his dog" movie. It's a film about a sharecropping family who've hit lean times. The father steals some ham hocks to feed his hungry children, and is arrested for it and taken away to do hard labor for two years. His hunting dog, sounder, chases the sheriff's wagon as it leaves and is shot with a shotgun for his troubles. The father kicks the gun at the last minute so it's not a direct hit, but the dog disappears for a while before returning to be treated by the oldest son, David Lee, and eventually accompanies the boy on a hike to try to find his father's work camp, after his wife and children have brought in the crop by themselves. After the boy is chased off from a work camp with a damaging blow to his hand for good measure, he comes across a school and connects with a teacher. She treats his wound, is impressed with his intelligence, and invites him back to live with her and study in the Fall. Despite the challenges they face, his family is determined to see him get an education and get a chance for a better life.

This is an old movie, so the pace is much slower than what modern viewers are used to, but it has some strong moments. I almost stopped watching it a few times for boredom, wondering where the story was going, but I'm glad I didn't. I might check out the book it was based on, also named Sounder, which won the Newbury in its day.

The Color of Freedom
Again a film about the impact on a white man of interacting with one of the leaders of the black consciousness movement In south Africa, this is about the man who guarded Nelson Mandela and was the censor officer for Mandela and his cohort while they were in prison. James Gregory had grown up on a farm and played with the black "kafir" boys around him, at which time he learned their language, Xhosa. He denies he is a "kafir lover" when whites call him that, but his childhood experience has left him viewing blacks as human beings and he finds himself becoming friends with Mandela and greatly bothered by the injustices enacted by the government for which he works, including the misrepresentation of Mandela and the ANC. I found myself wishing to know more about Mandela's experience than this "white man's tears" story, but it was a pretty good movie overall.