Mangrove (2020) Written by Steve McQueen & Alastair Siddons Directed by Steve McQueen
The summer of 2020 was a season marked by the continued spread of COVID-19 and a massive civil unrest movement that came out of a reaction to the state-sanctioned murders of a growing number of Black people in America. What followed in major cities across the country were all-out police riots with hordes of uniformed officers revealing what brutal thugs they indeed were. The media narrative pushed was that there were riots, but in hundreds of videos released across social media, anyone could see that these attacks from police were made on peaceful demonstrators who were being very direct about their thought on law enforcement in America. Steve McQueen reminds us that this is not merely an American phenomenon or even something specific to our point in history. Police and the justice system are inherently racist, and they cannot be engaged in good faith.
Borat Subsequent Moviefilm (2020) Written by Peter Baynham, Sacha Baron Cohen, Jena Friedman, Anthony Hines, Lee Kern, Dan Mazer, Erica Rivinoja, Dan Swimer, and Nina Pedrad Directed by Jason Woliner
My experience was seeing the first Borat film was one of those never able to forget things. I was living in Bellingham, Washington at the time, and a group of friends went to the theater on opening night, so the place was packed. We were all familiar with Da Ali G Show and Borat, but we had no idea what we were in store for with this movie. The sometimes subtle other times explosively over the top manner in which Sacha Baron Cohen skewered American culture was unlike anything I’d see in a movie theater before. I would expect it from indie movies but not from a studio picture. Of course, we couldn’t stop quoting the picture for hours after we left the theater, and eventually, because of cultural overuse, I sort of began to dislike the movie. Having revisited Borat since I think it is a seminal work of satire, one of the most brutal takedowns of the United States at the time.
A Face in the Crowd (1957) Written by Budd Schulberg Directed by Elia Kazan
Southern folksy charm is one of those things I see visitors to the American Southeast remark upon often. The city of Nashville likes to boast that it’s the largest small town in the country, and I have to admit, if you are walking down the street, you will have strangers saying, “Hello” and waving. But this friendliness can also be a sinister mask, obscuring ulterior motives and manipulations. When this manner is adopted by someone in the media with less than divine intentions, it can be downright corrosive to society. All that is warm, genial, and welcoming is not good for your health.
This Fourth of July seems more shallow than past iterations of the holiday. We are in the midst of a viral pandemic and civil unrest that has ripped the mask off centuries long systemic oppression. These are not super patriotic times in my opinion, particular as I look around and see my fellow Americans unwilling to undertake the most minor inconvenience in order to treat their neighbors with dignity & love. This is not a list about how great America is, I eschew the Exceptionalism myth. These are movies that speak to the shrouded dark heart of a flawed experiment called the United States.
How Long Til’ Black Future Month: Stories by N.K. Jemisin
This is a beautiful melange of fantasy & science fiction told from a black perspective. Some stories feel like a red hot bullet right between the eyes in our current context. There’s a story about the spirit of a city becoming aware she not merely a human walking its street with the idea that these city spirits travel and awaken their kin across the world over time. We’re presented with a Jim Crow-era story of a black witch and her children encountering a demonic fey-like entity posing as a beautiful blonde white woman. There are stories of secret agents from an alternate universe Haiti sneaking through New Orleans to take out a white cabal. You get the transformational narrative of a young chef introduced to alien ingredients and becoming a sorceress who can create food that radically affects her customers. The most resonant for me was the opening story, “The Ones Who Stay and Fight,” where a beautiful utopia is described, a place where all prejudices are gone, and humanity lives in beautiful harmony and follows a path that parallels and reflect our own. You can read that story, and you most certainly should here.
Nixon (1995) Written by Stephen J. Rivele, Christopher Wilkinson, and Oliver Stone Directed by Oliver Stone
I’m never sure how I feel about Oliver Stone, and he seems to be a polarizing filmmaker for many people. His particular style of storytelling grates on me, and I think he slips into maudlin melodrama and absurdity way too quickly. There seems to be a lack of cleverness or subtlety in his work. I believe early pictures like Platoon and Born on the Fourth of July are okay. I have never really been able to get my head around Natural Born Killers. His George W. Bush film was a complete disappointment for me. I think JFK is probably his best work because the paranoid conspiracy focus matches Stone’s manner of directing best. Then we come to Nixon, his three hour plus presidential epic.
It’s not just important to support Black Lives, but you also need to engage in and promote Black Art. Here are some books I absolutely love that are written by Black authors. I hope you find something here to pick up and read. These are not just books by Black writers but also some of the best books period I’ve ever read.
Network (1976) Written by Paddy Chayefsky Directed by Sidney Lumet
Network is a masterpiece. This is true both in the sheer craft of Paddy Chayefsky’s dialogue and structure, but especially for how the themes are blended so perfectly in the narrative. One of my biggest complaints about the film has nothing to do with what we see on screen but with the audience’s popular interpretation. Most people know Network for the famous “I’m Mad As Hell” speech, which leads me to the belief they shut the film off right as the second act starts. The statement has to be viewed in the context of the entire movie and how the words of Howard Beale are used and twisted by institutions in power.
The Hospital (1971) Written by Paddy Chayefsky Directed by Arthur Hiller
The Hospital exists as a prelude to the masterpiece that was to come from Chayefsky’s pen. There are seeds of ideas here that are profoundly challenging. The film bores an ice core of the effect of modernism on American society circa the 1960s, never giving an excuse to wrong takes but laying out the psyche of a white privileged class that doesn’t know how to function in a new world. We also see a society that refuses to adapt and change to the demands of marginalized classes and does nothing to try and symphonize the cacophony of voices. The establishment would rather throw their hands up and complain then reconfigure the structural rot that runs through everything.
The Americanization of Emily (1964) Written by Paddy Chayefsky Directed by Arthur Hiller
You didn’t see a lot of films in the wake of World War II that called military action into question. You would see a slew of anti-war films twenty-odd years out from Vietnam. But on the twentieth anniversary of D-Day, it was a pretty bold move to put out a movie about the lead up to that event, which questioned the leadership of the U.S. military and spoke to how soldiers’ bodies are so often used as props for state-sanctioned propaganda. This material had to be couched inside a romantic comedy-drama, and the subversiveness is hidden deeper in the narrative after we’ve been given a seemingly light set-up.