Posts from ‘Movie Reviews’


I have to admit I’m a sucker for historical documentaries. I have tried making them myself so I see and appreciate all the work that goes into them. That being said I want to recommend the three part PBS series “The Great War” to any who are interested. Full disclosure: I had a tiny contribution to it in helping them identify a photo I had also used in one of my documentaries, but that is not why I recommend it. There are several chilling comparisons to the present circumstances. On his best days Pres. Trump can’t hold a candle to Woodrow Wilson. Wilson was  smarter, more religious, and had a moral compass; things you can not say about DJT. There was a side to Wilson however, that was just as arrogant, thought he spoke for the people not only of the U.S. but of the world, and was just as authoritarian as Trump. This is not to mention that Wilson was an unapologetic stone cold racist.

World War I invented many of the things that threaten us today. The war itself unleashed the acceptance of civilian deaths, displacement, and the creation of refugees as  collateral damage in war. The “total” war pursued on both sides led to a staggering death toll in the millions. The documentary does not stint on the horrors of war as it demystifies the “heroism” of it. The war ended because the United States had been turned into a “war machine” (in an incredibly short 18 months) that had sent almost a million troops to Europe  by the war’s end, was sending 250,000 more troops per month and had an economy that was producing food, clothing arms and ammunition to support them indefinitely.

This swift transformation occurred because of the success of government curtailment of civil liberties, government propaganda fed to the media, media acceptance of its handcuffs, the equation of support for the war as “patriotism” by a large enough part of the population, and a repression of dissent unprecedented in American history. These are all things DJT has tried, is trying  will try to do or dreams of doing. German immigrants, American citizens of German descent, and German culture were all scapegoated to promote the war effort. Vigilantes attacked and coerced those it labeled “pro-German.” Today just substitute “Islamic” for German and the parallels become clear. The government passed the Espionage and Sedition Acts which made any public utterance of antiwar sentiment a crime. It did not hesitate to convict and imprison its loudest critics like socialist Eugene Debs and suffragist Alice Paul. The Patriot Act, the massive surveillance of the NSA, and a hysteria among even a limited section of the populace make such repression even more threatening today. A”Reichstag fire,” that is, an event which DJT can use to justify war, more curtailment of civil liberties, and more repression of dissent, will lead to a situation that makes Wilson’s repression look like child’s play. Whether this event is a war with North Korea, bombing of ISIS, destabilization of the Assad regime in Syria, or saber rattling with Iran, I cannot say. As Nazi leader Hermann Goering reportedly said, “The people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked and denounce the pacifists for lack patriotism and exposing the people to danger. It works the same way in any country.” It certainly worked that way in WW I and we have to be on the lookout for it with DJT.

It may or may not be true that those who ignore their history are doomed to repeat it. We may be doomed to repeat it anyway because of human nature. The history of the 20th century has been preserved in photographs and film. The PBS series uses them to great effect and I urge you to seek it out. It is a cautionary tale.


I just saw the 12 Years a Slave movie.  To get this out of the way first it is an excellent movie with top notch writing, acting, cinematography and directing. I have used the book in my classes at times and of all the slave narratives I have assigned it is the one that has elicited the most response.  There is something about the tale of once having been free and then becoming unjustly enslaved that amplifies the injustice, cruelty and inhumanity of slavery. Steve McQueen has done an excellent job of translating the essence of the book to the screen. The real question is whether we still need such reminders of the horrors of slavery in contemporary society? Do we still need a movie like this when most whites can say “I don’t own any slaves?”

To remove the suspense my short answer is “yes.” The slavery of African Americans was based on the idea of the subhuman bestiality of an entire race.  We can argue whether it was the white race or the black race, but the assumption that the other is not a human being worthy of the protections, practices, and civility accorded other human beings is the core of the slave system. Unfortunately that belief has outlived United States’ slavery which for the record was practiced for 300 years. This belief in black folks’ not-fully-human status has underlay the 100 years of “Jim Crow” and the continuing era of second class citizenship that has followed slavery. We can see it today in the bleating of Fox News and Tea party conservatives who try to rationalize it in non-racial terms. They say or pursue policies based on the idea that black folks are inherently violent, lazy, or less intelligent and need to be treated differently than white folks.  This is of course the same rationale that the slave-owners used even though they were disproven on a daily basis. It is this foundation belief that the movie attacks with incidents of Solomon demonstrating his intelligence even though he suffers for it, black workers who pick several times more cotton than white workers, and slaves who let their slaveholders live even when they could have murdered them in their sleep. Just as in slavery contemporary capitalist America could not function if African Americans, Latinos, immigrants, and women were truly the people the mythology used to keep white males in power says they are. If Trayvon Martin were indeed the model of the inherently violent black teenager that the defense says he was, he would have shot George Zimmerman on sight. If blacks lacked any work ethic as Newt Gingrich stated then why are almost 90% in the work force or looking for a job. If immigrants are just looking for free social benefits why have they had a long history of doing the worst jobs, raising themselves up and advancing in our society?

The presence of these ideas submerged, subconscious or fully acknowledged in our political debates is proof that we still need to be reminded where these ideas come from, how they have entered our collective conscious.  While I as other reviewers am given pause by yet another movie about black victimization, whipping or rape porn, and white folks doing black folks wrong, I do endorse this one.  It shocks and disgusts by showing that white neuroses, psychoses and relationship problems were played out on black bodies. The movie certainly subtly shows the toll slavery has on whites but that is not the major point.  Too many Hollywood movies assume a white male gaze leads to profitability and therefore concern themselves primarily with white protagonists. This one doesn’t. I saw it with a predominantly white and full audience. I hope others see it and recognize it as demonstrating where that path of the assumed inferiority of others can lead. More to the point I hope they see and recognize those ideas in contemporary political debates so they don’t fall for this ideology even when it is hidden in color blind language.


I have to admit that my expectations of a Hollywood movie actually doing a decent job explaining the United States’ racial history are pretty low.  In that sense Lee Daniels’ The Butler did not disappoint.  If I understand the movie correctly white people raped, murdered, kept African Americans ignorant and subservient just because they could.  Why? I have no idea.  Kenneth Tynan writing in the Los Angeles Times finds this one dimensional view of whites insulting but welcome to our world. Hollywood has a lot to do to even the scales of one-dimensionality that African Americans have suffered for a century. The movie tells us that black folks on their part had two strategies.  They could be bullied into accepting a life of house Negro, smile and wear the mask in order to eke out a living for sixty or more years. Or they could become heroic resistors fighting through sit-ins, freedom rides and demonstrations. I don’t know why one path was chosen over the other or whether there were alternatives, but I have learned through this movie that both paths were noble. Hollywood production values made the re-enactments of the sit-ins, demonstrations and freedom rides riveting although the actual pictures of those events actually had more power.  Although it moved too fast to actually comprehend, the history of the civil rights movement was on track until it reached the Black Panther Party. Mainstream accounts of black history have a hard time with black radicalism and this movie was no exception.

Perhaps these reminders that there was a reality to the civil rights movement beyond the sanitized versions now taught in schools will be helpful for generations that did not experience them even vicariously through television. At least some of the backlash against African Americans and the resurgence of racism comes from a rebellion against the nostalgia-fication and mainstreaming of the civil rights movement. The one note caricatures of white presidents and first ladies do not help as they speed by. It is interesting to note that the president who helped the “the help” most was Ronald Reagan although he admits he is on the wrong side of civil rights in most things. Otherwise, Eisenhower is confused and strains to comprehend, Kennedy eventually comes around until he is shot, Nixon is slimy, Carter is skipped over as a blip in history, and Nancy Reagan is a cold, manipulative bitch, all things we knew before. The least convincing part of the history is the butler’s conversion to a more activist role in his seventies over South Africa in the 1980’s(!?) All of a sudden he decides that the other path of resistance is the correct one and his son was a hero rather than the sullen, self righteous pain he had believed him (with good reason) to be.

The movie does better when it is depicting lower middle class black life.  They try to grab whatever happiness they can in the little spaces left to them but the role of house Negro creates strains on the butler’s marriage and family. Alcoholism, adultery and estrangement are the results although be assured that all is overcome by the end in good Hollywood fashion. The portrait of a loving, two parent family which sends one son off to college and the other off to the Army is a too rare moment in American film. The generational divide between an older generation that had learned to go along as a way of getting along and a younger generation of heroic resisters, is effectively incarnated as a family divide. The metaphor goes on about a decade too long but at least it shows that the civil rights movement was not a monolithic thing.

The acting is solid with some nice touches among the black actors.  Forest Whitaker is earnest and long suffering as he is meant to be.  Oprah never makes us forget that she is Oprah but her character touches on sides of her (dancing, drunk and lecherous) we never see.  Terence Howard does a good job as an oily neighbor and the rest of the cast does what they are asked to do. Nelsan Ellis is wasted in a small cameo as Martin Luther King Jr. after he does so well as the flauntingly gay cook in True Blood. He does get to voice the movie’s main message that subservience is subversive and those who merely served also contributed to the movement.  It is hard to make a “hero” out of someone whose major role is to stand around “so that the room seems empty” when they are there. These butlers were often the only black people the presidents knew and on several occasions the movie wants us to believe the conceit that presidents changed their minds about civil rights because of the butler. If the film’s message was that black folks should remain subservient until white America’s conscience is awakened by African American noble suffering, I would be even more critical of it.  By the end however the butler eventually is convinced that heroic and active resistance is the way to go.  I hope this isn’t lost on those who see it.


I just came back from viewing the new movie Fruitvale Station and I thought I’d jot down a few thoughts while it’s fresh in my mind. First of all I saw it in the middle of the day at a small art house theater within a gigantic cineplex where it was tucked away in the back.  We probably didn’t have to leave a popcorn trail to find our way back, but I did anyway. There was only one other couple in the theater with us. In short it wasn’t the type of movie that Hollywood has rallied around and didn’t have much media push behind it. It is an excellent movie nonetheless.  Forest Whitaker and Octavia Spencer (black Academy Award nominees) are listed as producers and it was probably because of any clout they have that the film was made at all. You wish more black Hollywood insiders would find a way to have these small movies made.

The movie itself is the story of 22 year old Oscar Grant whose “murder” at the hands of the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) police set off protests in Oakland back in 2009. The first 75 minutes or so is spent establishing his life by tracing his last  day. To its credit the movie doesn’t whitewash the immaturity and bad decisions that Oscar continues to make.  However the movie also shows the acts of kindness towards strangers, his love for his daughter, his mother and his long suffering girlfriend, and his attempts to do better as well as the charm that makes him beloved among his friends. A chance meeting with a white fellow whose early life in some ways mirrors Oscar’s gives us a glimpse of how else it could have been. The movie humanizes and rounds out the black youth stereotypes that assail us and shows the obstacles he faces in living a better life. This could have been a heavy slog, but the movie is enlivened by scenes of family love and interaction as these people steal moments of happiness while enduring their circumstances.  The scenes of friends or family horseplay have an unexpected energy and shows the common decency that buoys their lives. The film demonstrates the humanity they share with others.  All this is juxtaposed against the intense final 15 minutes in which many of the strands of his life come together in a devastating way.

There are excellent performances by Michael B. Jordan (young “veteran” of the Wire and Friday Night Lights)  as Oscar, Melonie Diaz as his long suffering but loyal girlfriend, and especially Octavia Spencer as his mother. The director is a graduate of University of Southern California’s film school.  Although he has been bitten by the handheld camera disease, he does know where to place the camera and to draw Academy award worthy performances from his actors. It is not that I have sympathy for the devil here, but I wish there was more about the poor training, nervousness and racial profiling that led to BART police’s final actions. They were also victims as well as dispensers of  American racism but that seems to be beyond the movie’s scope.

All in all an excellent depiction of a slice of life rarely examined on the screen and a brilliant film.


I must admit that the thought of somebody learning their history from movies makes me despair for the future of the human race. Imagine learning about World War 2 (or even just about spelling) from “Inglorious Basterds,” about U.S. Reconstruction from “Birth of a Nation,” or the American revolution from Mel Gibson’s “The Patriot,” just to take American history.  When it comes to world history United States produced films are even worse.  I am sure that there are people who learn history that way and please excuse me but I am not talking to you. The simple truth is that movies, whatever their historical setting, are about contemporary concerns and not the historical one they portray. This is not necessarily a bad thing.  If history is (as the ancient Greek father of history Thucydides told us long ago) about teaching moral lessons, the cinematic use of history to teach contemporary “lessons” is not too far out of bounds. If historians want to call the filmmakers out for distorting history they are certainly doing a public service and being true to their profession. They are also being beside the point. Movies doubtless distort history but so does historians’ history. The historians are supposedly kept in check by their colleagues who not only fact check and revise history they subscribe to an orthodoxy of method as well as a code of ethics.  Yet the best selling histories on the New York Times list are written by Bill O’Reilly. To be fair Mr. O’Reilly doesn’t have the opportunity to teach in college classrooms but only a minority of people learn their history there. The majority of people learn history from ideologues like Mr. O’Reilly or popular culture including the movies. These usually get the history wrong intentionally or unintentionally, in the interests of simplifying it or making a point.

All of this brings us to two current movies that purport to deal with race in the United States: Spielberg’s “Lincoln” and Tarantino’s “Django Unchained.” Both historians and African American scholars of the historical or other persuasions have weighed in on the merits or shortcomings of each of these movies. As an example one of my colleagues has done so ( and although he probably couldn’t go toe to toe with a film historian (or even Tarantino,) his nineteenth century African American history chops are excellent.  His take on these films is measured, well researched and interesting. I on the other hand am now retired and so I don’t have to be any of those things in my public writing. I can just write about my thoughts and  feelings after having seen both movies.

I would put “Lincoln” in the category of “my, wasn’t slavery hard on white people” as was Spielberg’s earlier movie about slavery “Amistad.” In fact his Schindler’s List was as much about a guilty accomplice to the Nazi atrocities as it was about the Jews or victims of those atrocities. Applying our principle of contemporaneous real themes, “Lincoln” was a message to elected officials to hold firm to principle while doing whatever it takes to get the job done. If that is change, publicly lying about your principles,  making political deals, buying votes etc, so be it. Are you listening President Obama? I must add that Spielberg is an accomplished film maker (so was D.W. Griffith the director of birth of a Nation) and “Lincoln” is a well made movie.  I was especially impressed by the art direction which made mid-nineteenth century Washington and surrounding areas look sufficiently raw and primitive. The acting by Daniel Day-Lewis was superb and the rest of the acting ensemble was adequate to good. Many have complained that it could have told us more about history by taking a wider swath both in time and by including more actors or having more for them to do. That’s a fair criticism but not my major objection to the movie.  The movie is built to appeal to the liberal white viewer and only has a role for blacks as noble victims in it.  By now Hollywood should be beyond this underestimation of its audience. The movie’s thrust therefore seems to me outdated.  Yes these are the people who vote for the Academy Awards and such, but they are not the real America that is coming into being. The movie and at least the audience I saw it with therefore skews old.

“Django Unchained” however doesn’t have that problem. Although it uses the form of the “spaghetti western” from the sixties and seventies it has just as much kinship with the first person shooter video games of the last few years.  The progression of the musical score from spaghetti western music to Tupac provides some evidence for this. Tarantino movies have a commonality (he’s really a one trick pony when it comes to themes):  righteous anger which explodes into violence e.g. Kill Bill, Inglorious Basterds. This is the contemporary theme in Django. Its naturalistic (not necessarily realistic)  portrayals of the atrocities inherent in slavery (when something gives absolute legal power over others for as long as slavery did, there are few atrocities that did not occur) make the violence which Django perpetrates completely righteous and justified. The cheers and the verbal approval given these acts of violence (oh and I must say that Django is very, very violent) by my audience, testify to the acceptance of this theme. Its climactic, over the top bloodbath was hard for an old fuddy duddy like myself to watch.

Critics have pointed to the violence in movies like Django and video games as a cause of the violence we see in America.  They blame the tragedies in Colorado and Connecticut on the glorification of violence in our popular culture.  I wonder whether the causal arrow actually  goes the other way.  These games and movies are popular because of the violence in some ways inherent in our culture. I would much rather see that violence expressed virtually in video games or subliminally in movies than acted out in elementary or other schools and theaters. How many real atrocities have been averted rather than caused because of these outlets. Tarantino is not as accomplished a film maker as Spielberg and the films show that.  I also must admit that there was more levity in Django than Lincoln which drowns in its own earnestness. At the same time there is a generational difference between the two directors, the audiences they aim at and consequently the movies they have produced. Tarantino’s movie is directed at the underdog while Spielberg’s is directed at those in power. Spielberg’s movie ignores black agency and Tarentino’s reduces it to a revenge fantasy. Neither tells the real story of slavery but each is in its own way a contemporary fable with a moral to make. Hollywood will probably never make a movie that tells the truth about slavery and its abolition.  That won’t be its goal and probably not its job.  It can however tell better moral fables than these. I just won’t hold my breath.


The book I read the most during my undergraduate career decades ago was Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.  In it Kuhn analyzed the difficulties of changing from one set of scientific (read ideological) accepted truisms to another. Scientists might howl at calling their systems of thought  “ideologies” (a word they associate with religion or other “false” systems of thought from which they want to differentiate themselves) but if it quacks like a duck treat it like a duck.  Kuhn believed that each scientific ideology whether that of Ptolemy that the sun revolved around the earth or Newtonian physics could resist failures because of built in “fail safes.” These fail safes explain away (or not) the inabilities of the ideological system to account for certain phenomena.  It might be something as simple as “God’s will” which was used to explain anomalies that don’t fit the system.  He hypothesized that it was only when these anomalies built up so that too much remained unexplainable, that a new “system” of explanation was considered and eventually adopted. Thus the Copernican revolution (the earth revolving around the sun) succeeded the Ptolemic or quantum physics followed Newtonian physics.

Kuhn’s book has been justly criticized over the years and I want to point out it does not consider the social context of ideological change enough either on the micro or macro levels.  How does an individual undergo ideological change?  How does an entire society change ideologies? I was reminded of these things while watching the new movie Moneyball about Oakland Athletics’ general manager Billy Beane. The movie and the book it is adapted from consider the latter of these two questions.  How does baseball “society” consider a new ideology based on sabermetric statistical analysis which flies in the face of accepted baseball “faith.” The baseball traditionalists who have their jobs, self-worth and view of the world conditioned by the old ideology are immediately threatened by any challenge to their system. Of course Beane is ridiculed and disparaged at first but as anyone who has read the book or followed baseball knows, eventually many of the principles he implemented are adopted by others once he demonstrates that they can be successful. That is the arc of the movie. For me the interesting thing is that the ideological change is driven not by the repeated failures of the old system as Kuhn would predict.  Indeed the old system fails only as often as it always has but still succeeds enough to be firmly in place.  This is not uncommon among ideologies; we still have Newtonian physics don’t we? The reason for Beane’s conversion and for the system’s acceptance is not system failure but fiscal constraints.  The “small market” teams cannot compete for the most “valued” players (they seem to always windup on the Yankees or lately the Boston Red Sox) so they are willing to at least try a new baseball “ideology.” The fact that Beane shows that a team can be competitive with this new strategy is quickly adopted by other team owners who see a chance to become profitable as well. The key ingredient for its widespread acceptance is that you can get lower paid employees and still be competitive.

As a parable of ideological change I cannot help comparing this to the current conservative political ideology. Since the “Reagan revolution” fiscal conservatism has been the dominant political ideology among both Democrats and Republicans albeit with differences between them. The liberal “traditionalists” have gone the way of the dinosaur as the recent passing of Charles Percy reminds us. Both Democrats and Republicans have vacillated on how deeply conservative and libertarian to be. Republican spending on items dear to their hearts coupled with an ideology of tax relief has driven the budget into the deficit they say they abhor.  Deregulation for business is offset by the extreme government snooping embodied in the Patriot Act that makes any true conservative turn white with fear,  red with anger or blue with frustration. The Tea Party wants to implement an even more stringently conservative ideology which calls for minimal government intrusion in the nation. My point is that none of these ideological revolutions from Reagan to the Tea Party are based on the failure of the old system. Furthermore there is no evidence that the new systems produce jobs, economic prosperity for the middle class, a better educational system, adequate health care for the masses or any other benefit for the majority of Americans. The best they produce is lower paid employees without health care as in Rick Perry’s Texas. As in Moneyball the only constant is more profitability for the “team owners,” those rich folks at the top of the system. Politics is different than baseball and that to succeed a plurality of voters must be convinced of your ideology rather than one Billy Beane. Over the last few years this has led to a Republican effort to restrict voting, a politics of fear, the injection of irrelevant so-called social issues into campaigns, and to a politics based on emotions rather than issues. As time has shown us this will benefit the team owners more than anyone else. Just look at the economic numbers about income gain and wealth distribution.

Billy Beane’s teams have never won a championship and the tax cut ideology will never produce the kind of society we say we want in this country.