The Great Anti-Climax

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I do not believe in the saying that “all politics is local.” If that’s true, why are we always getting into wars in other countries? But during this election cycle I was very interested in California, which is my own locale.

As predicted, California elected as its next governor one Gavin Newsom, a wealthy former mayor of San Francisco and currently lieutenant governor of the state, who is about as smart as the average doorknob. This was a year in which handsome men were thought to have an enormous advantage; they seemed to remind people of John F. Kennedy, who when you think about it was handsome only when compared with Dwight D. Eisenhower. Newsom is handsome-for-a-politician, but that’s not why he won. He won because the Republican Party in this state dissolved about a decade ago, giving place to a fairly well-oiled Democracy run by the state employees’ unions. The surprise is that Newsom’s opponent, a small-government tax hawk named John Cox, received 41% of the vote and was considered a remote possibility to win. Cox was an excellent campaigner and got his votes by himself, with little help from a rumored “Republican Party.”

The same amount of help was rendered by that party to the biggest ballot initiative, Prop 6, which would have rolled back a large tax increase imposed in 2017 by the Democratic legislature, supposedly to “fix the roads.” When people list the core items that they expect to see in any state budget, roads usually rank first or second. But not in California. The money that should go for roads — even money granted by the voters in previous ballot propositions — goes instead for bike lanes, parks, and other “environmental” matters, and for astronomical employee salaries. (I don’t mean that the employees are astronomers; if they were, they might actually do some work. California is a place where people often have to wait seven hours to do their business at the DMV.) Before the latest tax increase, California already had the highest gas taxes in the nation; now they are higher. The new gas tax is one of the most regressive imaginable. It means that breadwinners have to pay the government about $400 a year, extra, or not be allowed to drive to work.

This was a year in which handsome men were thought to have an enormous advantage.

Prop 6 was designed to end this tax and not let it happen again. It was the brainchild, not of the Republican Party, but of a gay, hyper-energetic San Diego talk show host, Carl DeMaio, who is very good at pushing a cause. Pre-election surveys indicated, predictably, that two-thirds of voters were in favor of a proposition rolling back the gas tax. But Prop 6 went down, 45 to 55. Why? Because the Democratic secretary of state entitled and summarized it as an attack on road repair:

ELIMINATES CERTAIN ROAD REPAIR AND TRANSPORTATION FUNDING. REQUIRES CERTAIN FUEL TAXES AND VEHICLE FEES BE APPROVED BY THE ELECTORATE. INITIATIVE CONSTITUTIONAL AMENDMENT.

SUMMARY

Repeals a 2017 transportation law's taxes and fees designated for road repairs and public transportation. Fiscal Impact: Reduced ongoing revenues of $5.1 billion from state fuel and vehicle taxes that mainly would have paid for highway and road maintenance and repairs, as well as transit programs.

Note that telltale “as well as transit programs,” which clearly indicated, to anyone who read that far, that the money, as usual, would be spent on other things than fixin’ the roads. California voters didn’t read that far.

Yet while naïve voters were killing Prop 6, they were also killing Prop 10, which would have permitted and encouraged more than 500 local governments to impose rent control on the helpless population. They voted this one down by 62 to 38.

Large majorities on each side. Why? How? I don’t know. You tell me.

Note that telltale “as well as transit programs,” which clearly indicated, to anyone who read that far, that the money, as usual, would be spent on other things than fixin’ the roads.

Turning now to the nation at large: we’ll see whether there was a blue wave or a red wave when we see some kind of sophisticated, non-axe-grinding study of voters. We may wait a long time for that. In the meantime, we can say that if there was a blue wave, there was a red wave to meet it.

But remember: most congressional races in this country were decided on the yaller-dog principle: “Some people will vote for a yaller dog as long as he’s on the Democratic [or Republican] ticket.” That’s how New Jersey Democratic Senator Robert (“Bob”) Menendez got reelected, 53 to 42, despite his public repute as a crook and not a smart or likable one, either. And that’s how California House District 50 (eastern San Diego County) got decided. The Republican incumbent, Duncan Hunter, to whom nobody ever gave much credit for brains, is under federal indictment for using about $250,000 of campaign money for vacations, eating and drinking, “personal relationships,” and other fun, though basically penny-ante, stuff. His Democratic opponent was Ammar Campa-Najjar, age 29, another one of this year’s handsome young men. Until Hunter’s indictment, Campa-Najjar, a former Obama organizer and scion of a family of Palestinian enragés, was a purely sacrificial candidate for the Republican 50th. Hunter’s indictment united almost everyone in the county, Republican and Democrat, in scorning and deriding Hunter; it dried up his campaign money and unleashed a deluge of funds for Campa-Najjar, who is said to have spent ten times more money than Hunter. But it was all for nothing. Hunter’s district was safe Republican, and remained such. He was reelected 54 to 46.

Nationwide, a lot of electoral activity consisted simply of voters returning to their natural allegiance. Missouri, North Dakota, Indiana, Tennessee — these are Republican states, and it was strange that they should have Democratic senators to begin with, or (in the case of Tennessee) that they should consider having one now. In other states, where there were real contests, the vote could usually have gone either way; the outcome therefore didn’t mean much on the philosophical plane. I’m thinking of the Florida Senate and governor race, the Wisconsin governor race, the Arizona and Nevada Senate races, and even the Montana Senate race. I’m not thinking of the Texas race, where the Republican governor won overwhelmingly, while the Republican senator, Ted Cruz, won merely respectably. Cruz, who was up against another “handsome,” “Kennedyesque,” but also overbearing “young” man, is virtually the only politician in the country who is less likable than Hillary Clinton. His Democratic foe had so much out-of-state money that he couldn’t think of ways to spend it all. But Cruz won — because Texas is Texas and Robert (“Beto”) O’Rourke is not.

Most congressional races in this country were decided on the yaller-dog principle: “Some people will vote for a yaller dog as long as he’s on the Democratic [or Republican] ticket.”

In Massachusetts, voters went overwhelmingly for a politician even less likable than Cruz, Elizabeth Warren; they also went overwhelmingly for the Republican gubernatorial incumbent. Maryland also voted Democrat for almost everything except its governor. The expression “the bland leading the bland” may apply; remember that Mitt Romney is a former governor of the People’s Republic of Massachusetts as well as a former Republican nominee for president. Romney was born in Michigan, has lived mainly in California, was governor of Massachusetts, and has now been elected a senator from Utah — a remarkable career of disaffiliation. Anywhere he hangs his hat is home, for now.

I don’t know enough about the folkways of Massachusetts and Maryland to guess why they elect conservatives to the statehouse and liberals to other offices; maybe the conservatives and the liberals are both members of the Faux Party, and the electorate loves and cherishes them for that reason. I do know that there isn’t any basis for another piece of folk wisdom, just now being uttered ad nauseam — the idea that the American people split their tickets between parties because they want balanced and limited government. Chris Stirewalt, a person who masquerades for Fox News as a political analyst, said on election night that there is “a preference among Americans for divided government.” Stirewalt instanced the coming Democratic House and Republican Senate.

This is so fatuous, it’s hard to find words for it. The completely safe districts that elect 80% of Congress are not populated by people who vote for a Democratic congressman and a Republican senator in order to preserve balanced government. When it comes to Congress — and usually every other office — they vote a straight party line. We have divided government only because other people vote an opposing straight party line. There are exceptions, as in the Republicans elected to the governorships of Massachusetts and Maryland, but they are just that — exceptions. Californians did not vote for big government when they turned down Prop 6 and then vote for little government when they welcomed Prop 10 because they wanted to balance big and little government. They did it because they didn’t, wouldn’t, couldn’t read beyond the title of Prop 6 but for some unknown reason sensed that Prop 10 was a danger. We don’t have sheep and wolves because someone decides that sheep and wolves need to balance each other; we have sheep and wolves because sheep engender sheep and wolves engender wolves.

Mitt Romney was born in Michigan, has lived mainly in California, was governor of Massachusetts, and has now been elected a senator from Utah — a remarkable career of disaffiliation.

It seems that Trump did marginally better than most other presidents at limiting his midterm losses in Congress; he lost fewer House seats than the average, and he picked up at least one valuable Senate seat. But we can’t assume that “he” was the crucial factor. He had an effect, surely; he “energized” many voters for and against him. It’s my bet that the energized Democrats were going to show up and vote anyway, but many of the energized Republicans would have stayed home, had not Trump inspired them. Yet in some cases, “he” probably “won” races despite himself. Ron DeSantis, the Florida senatorial candidate whom Trump endorsed, probably had a harder time in the general election than his primary opponent would have had. DeSantis seems to have won the general election by only four-tenths of 1%. I doubt, however, that the (failed) Republican senatorial candidate in Montana would have gotten within three percentage points of his incumbent rival without Trump’s efforts.

But speaking of the Montana election, it came within perhaps 1000 votes of being swung by the finally unwilling candidacy of a big-L Libertarian, Rick Breckenridge, who got 2.8% of the vote despite having dropped out, late in the game, in favor of the Republican. The LP guy had been polling at about 4%, but when he left, many votes had already been cast. No one knows for sure, but I assume that LP votes in Montana come mainly out of the Republicans. Some Democrats in Montana assume that too, because they sent out mailers urging “true conservatives” to vote for Breckenridge instead of the Republican — tactics that led Breckenridge to endorse the Republican.

Contrary to constant press reports about the remarkable popularity of the Democratic incumbent, Jon Tester — “a rural Democrat who still connects with the people,” etc. — the Libertarian Party appears to have been responsible for electing him in both 2006 and 2012, years in which Tester’s margin of victory over his Republican opponent was .87 and 3.72%, respectively, and the LP candidate’s vote was 2.6 and 6.56. It is painful to ask this question, but is it the LP’s job to elect members of other parties?

When it comes to Congress — and usually every other office — most people vote a straight party line. We have divided government only because other people vote an opposing straight party line.

Donald Trump may be enjoying the prospect of the next two years. In the Senate, he has achieved a significantly more Trumpian majority — no more Flake, no more McCain (although Mitt Romney will be glad to obstruct any non-RINO programs). In the House, he has gone from a slim Republican majority, out of which he got nothing except the tax cut, to a slimmer Democratic majority. God’s gift to him is the Democrats’ custom of automatically awarding committee chairmanships by seniority, which means that most of the key positions will go to elderly and loquacious men and women elected from extremely safe districts — a recipe for disaster if the election of 2020 is nationalized, which it surely will be. Maxine Waters does not play well on the national stage. She plays a little bit better than Nancy Pelosi.

But certain it is that this election was God’s gift to people who write about politics and enjoy laughing at politicians. The cast is irresistible . . . Trump . . . Waters . . . Pelosi . . . Schiff . . Nadler . . . Warren . . . To paraphrase yet another old saw, “politics is a tragedy for those who think and a comedy for those who feel — that a lot of good jokes are coming.”




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We Survived Another Election

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A newspaper columnist in my hometown called the elections of 2018 about social justice and the soul of America. It was, some said, the most important election of our lifetimes.

So much for that. RealClearPolitics projected a Democratic gain in the House of Representatives of 25; Nate Silver said 35. As I write, the day after the election, the result looks to be in that range. The Democrats lost seats in the Senate, which the pollsters had also predicted.

Does that amount to a “blue wave”? Yeah, but more like a surfing wave than the tsunami for which the anti-Trumpers yearned. Consider that in 2010, two years into the reign of Obama, the Tea Party-driven Republicans conquered the House with a 63-seat gain. In 1994, two years into Clinton’s first term, Republicans took the House with a 54-seat gain. In 1966, two years into Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society, Republicans picked up 47 seats in the House, though they fell short of controlling it. In each of these first-term off-year elections, the “wave” party also took seats in the Senate.

Does that amount to a “blue wave”? Yeah, but more like a surfing wave than the tsunami for which the anti-Trumpers yearned.

So we’ll have a Democratic House and a Republican Senate. That’s not such a bad outcome. We had divided government in most of the Bill Clinton years, and they were better years than most. Congress passed welfare reform, ratified NAFTA, and decided to keep its hands off the Internet — all good.

Rand Paul, libertarians’ favorite Republican senator, was not on the ballot this year, but he would have won. A Republican won Tennessee’s other Senate seat. Justin Amash, libertarians’ favorite Republican congressman, was easily reelected in Michigan.

In New Mexico, big-L Libertarian Gary Johnson came in third with 15% of the vote for a seat in the US Senate. He was not a spoiler; the Democrat had a majority and would have won had Johnson not been on the ballot. Johnson said it is his last campaign. Too bad. He’s a good man — but America has a two-party mind.

It's not such a bad outcome. We had divided government in most of the Bill Clinton years, and they were better years than most.

In Arizona, small-L libertarian Clint Bolick was up for a retention election for his nonpartisan seat on the Arizona Supreme Court. Bolick, who had been appointed to the court by the Republican governor, was targeted by the National Education Association — and he made it through easily.

As with most elections, some of the more interesting things were choices other than candidates, especially in the central and western states. Start with dope and guns. Voters in Michigan, which has had medical marijuana since 2008, passed Proposal 1, general legalization. Voters in North Dakota rejected a similar proposal. Medical marijuana won in Utah, the nation’s most conservative state, and also in Missouri, which had three versions of it on the ballot. Medical marijuana is not a big deal any more, at least outside the South.

Voters in my home state, Washington (which has had medical marijuana for 20 years), passed Initiative 1639, which raises the age for owning a gun to 21. The measure, said to be one of the toughest gun-control laws in the country, was pushed by urban progressives, and they had the votes to pass it.

Medical marijuana is not a big deal any more, at least outside the South.

Washington is a Democratic state with a split personality: it is the leftiest state with no income tax and no appetite for income taxes or any other new taxes. This year its voters nixed Initiative 1631, which would have slapped a hefty tax on gasoline refiners and handed the money — a lot of money — to a coterie of political appointees to spend on environmental good. Bill Gates was for it and Big Oil was against it. Well, the people sided with Big Oil.

Washington also considered Initiative 1634, to prohibit local government from adding new taxes on food. The left-leaning city of Seattle had recently slapped a tax on sugary drinks — a measure that was, of course, entirely for the public health. This went into effect in January, raising the price of a case of Gatorade at Costco from $15.99 to $26.33. Though I-1634 advertised itself as a barrier to taxes on food, everyone knew it was to stop any more raids on the consumers of Coca-Cola, Gatorade, and Red Bull. The propaganda for it was paid for by Big Soda, and Big Soda had a big victory.

Thank you, Big Soda. And Big Oil. Several of my friends voted for the food and gasoline taxes because it offended them deeply that corporate interests were trying to sway their votes. I admit that some of the propaganda was bad, but not so awful as to make me vote against my own interests.

Bill Gates was for it and Big Oil was against it. Well, the people sided with Big Oil.

Californians, I thought, had a better reason to vote for taxes: their roads. I recall a stretch of interstate near Livermore a couple of years ago with so many potholes it looked like something from the Syrian civil war. Since then California’s gas tax has been raised by 12 cents, an increase Proposition 6 would have canceled. And the people voted not to cancel it. Well, I won’t argue with them.

Several states had things on ballots that were offers of free stuff, or almost-free stuff, of a welfare-state nature. One was an expansion of Medicaid, the federal-state medical insurance for the poor. Basic Medicaid covers children, pregnant women, parents, and caretakers. Under Obamacare, states can opt to cover other adults under 65 if their incomes below 138% of the federal poverty level. Some 33 states had opted to do this, but as of this year’s election the rest — mostly “red” states — had not.

Raising the minimum wage has proved to be an irresistible offer in “red” states whose business-friendly leaders are loath to impose it.

The federal government will pay 90% of the cost of Medicaid expansion — the same percentage it paid states to build the interstate highways. It’s an irresistible offer, and Idaho (Proposition 2), Nebraska (Initiative 427), and Utah (Proposition 3) voted to accept it. In Montana, which had already decided to accept the federal money, Initiative 185 asked voters if they wanted to pay the state’s 10% share by increasing the cigarette tax by $2 a pack. That’s a different question, and as I write it looks as if their answer will be no.

Raising the minimum wage has proved to be an irresistible offer in “red” states whose business-friendly leaders are loath to impose it. For example, Arkansas has an $8.50 state minimum because of a ballot measure passed in 2014. Voters there were offered Issue 5 to raise the minimum to $9.25 in 2019, $10 in 2020 and $11 in 2021. Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson was against it, as was the state chamber of commerce. And the conservative voters of Arkansas approved it overwhelmingly. In Missouri, where voters just flipped a Senate seat to the Republicans, they raised the state minimum wage from $7.85 to $8.60 in 2019, $9.45 in 2020, $10.30 in 2021, $11.15 in 2022, and $12 in 2023, indexing it thereafter to the Consumer Price Index for urban workers.

Occasionally some electorates do reject freebies. In California, Proposition 10 was a measure to allow local governments to impose rent controls on private housing. And it failed. The people of California voted it down.

Why, I don’t know. Maybe they understood the economics. Maybe it’s just that more homeowners vote than renters.

So much for the election of 2018. The Republic survived.




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Three Smart, Suspenseful Movies

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The leaves are settling, the goblins are gone, and you have a bowlful of leftover candy that you convinced yourself you would need for all the trick-or-treaters. Why not sneak those treats into a movie theater and enjoy an evening of intense suspense? I’ve reviewed three gripping new films that will send shivers down your spine. All three contain characters who face demons — of the psychological kind. All three examine the concept of choice and accountability, and all three offer unusual definitions of freedom.

Drew Goddard and Jason Blum are the new masters of suspense, lifting the genre above the slasher model of the ’80s and ’90s and the bloodfests of Quentin Tarantino to return to the psychological suspense dramas that were made in the ’50s and ’60s. Their films are characterized by sophisticated scripts, top quality cinematography and music, and lavish, almost garish, set dressing. After writing and directing 2012’s remarkable The Cabin in the Woods (see our review), Goddard explained, “The horror genre gets you in touch with our primal instincts as a people more than any other genre I can think of. It gives you this chance to sort of reflect on who we are and look at the sort of uglier side that we don't always look at, and have fun with that very thing. . . . It lends itself well to a sort of freedom.” His latest film, Bad Times at the El Royale, is an ensemble piece that does just that, taking us on a dark and stormy night to a hotel as eerie and secretive as Hitchcock’s Bates Motel.

The suspense is delicious, and the changing perspectives don’t just throw us off balance gratuitously; in some ways they recalibrate us.

The movie begins almost like a stage play; the scene, an oversized hotel room with an unnaturally wide expanse of floorspace in the middle where actors could mingle and emote, fills the screen and is as wide as a stage. A bed sits far stage right and a desk far stage left, with a small couch under the window next to the foot of the bed. A man enters, backlit through the hotel room door. He crosses stage right to the window and looks outside uneasily, then crosses downstage left to deposit his bag and crosses back to the window, where he closes the curtains furtively and finally turns on the light so he can get to work. The motions feel staged and unrealistic. That is their purpose. Nothing is going to be realistic in this movie.

Scene 2 occurs ten years later at the same hotel, circa 1968 (assuming that a particular news item on a black and white TV is meant to be a live broadcast). Several characters are gathering in the once-glamorous lobby of the rundown El Royale Hotel to check in for the night; we assume that at least one of them is related to the action in the opening scene. Laramie Sullivan (Jon Hamm), who introduces himself as a vacuum cleaner salesman on a junket, displays stereotypically sleazy gaucherie, especially toward Darlene (Cynthia Ervio) a young black woman carrying a bundle of bedrolls. By contrast, Father Daniel Flynn (Jeff Bridges) treats Darlene with genteel manners that may or may not be sincere, offering to carry her luggage to her room for her. The fourth guest (Dakota Johnson) is cool, glamorous, and haughtily aloof to them all as she selects a room far from the rest of the guests.

The El Royale is loosely based on the old Cal-Neva Hotel in Lake Tahoe, whose claim to fame (besides having once been owned by Frank Sinatra) was that the state line ran directly through the lobby. “Would you prefer the warmth and sunshine of the West, or the hope and opportunity of the East?” Miles Miller (Lewis Pullman), the El Royale’s desk clerk, asks expansively as customers arrive. “California rooms are a dollar extra,” he adds matter-of-factly. Well, of course.

Yes, a National Geographic documentary is the scariest movie I have seen in ages.

It’s a significant decision, because choice and chance are important themes in this film, where nothing is as it seems and choosing wisely can be a matter of life and death. Who are the good guys? Who are the bad guys? Whom should we trust? What deep secrets are kept at the El Royale, and can the truth set them free? The plot backtracks and restarts numerous times as it is retold through the perspective of the various characters, insisting that our perspectives change too.

Occasional allusions to events that took place in the ’60s become important later in the film. The vintage clothing, automobiles, music, and mid-century furnishings also contribute to the rich Hitchcockean atmosphere. The women are stylish, the men are masculine, the young desk clerk is troubled, and Goddard even kills off a key character just a third of the way into the story, à la Hitch’s main character in Psycho. The suspense is delicious, and the changing perspectives don’t just throw us off balance gratuitously; in some ways they recalibrate us. Horror might not be your genre, but this film is just about perfect.

Another film in which being off balance can lead to instant death is Free Solo, a National Geographic documentary about Alex Honnold’s breathtaking attempt, last year, to become the first person to solo climb the 3,000-foot granite face of El Capitan in Yosemite. Yes, a NatGeo doc is the scariest movie I have seen in ages. My heart was pounding and I had to look away from the screen several times as Alex fought to balance on a tiny toehold here, a half-inch protrusion there, making his way up the nearly perpendicular giant — without a rope or parachute. One slip, and he would be dead. In terms of Goddard’s definition of the horror genre, Free Solo reveals the psychological need to “get . . . in touch with . . . primal instincts, . . . [offers a] chance to sort of reflect on who we are . . . and have fun with that very thing. . . . It lends itself well to a sort of freedom.”

What in the world would possess someone to pursue a sport in which one false move can plunge an athlete to his death?

Alex Honnold is, by his own admission, an odd duck. Raised by an emotionally distant father and a mother for whom no accomplishment was ever enough, he notes that he had to teach himself how to hug when he was in college after noticing that hugging was something other people did. He never heard the words “I love you” from his parents. He earns “about as much as a moderately successful dentist,” through sponsorships, books, and speaking engagements, yet he lives in his car, a minivan that he modified to include a small stove, a refrigerator, and a platform bed. He eats his car-cooked meals from the skillet with a spatula.

This background is offered as a kind of psychological answer to the obvious question: What in the world would possess someone to pursue a sport in which one false move can plunge an athlete to his death? Alex is possessed by personal demons that only seem to leave him when he is enjoying the freedom of the climb. As head cinematographer and co-director Jimmy Chin observes, “You have to be perfect in this sport. It’s like being in the Olympics where you either win the gold medal, or you die.” Dozens of extreme climbers have indeed fallen to their deaths, adding to the suspense of Alex’s pursuit.

In order to successfully ascend the mountain without a rope, soloists must practice repeatedly with ropes and a belaying partner until they know every inch, every crook, every cranny of the face. As Alex trains for the climb, he slips off the face and dangles over the canyon floor — a lot. This adds to our suspense as he finally starts the main adventure. Chin wisely decided to widen the angle of the documentary and include the filmmakers as part of the story, and we see how carefully they, too, prepare to document the feat. They must select the best vantage points along the way, roping into the face with their heavy cameras while remaining out of sight and making sure they don’t interfere, physically or psychologically. Jimmy’s greatest fear isn’t not getting the shot; it’s causing a distraction that might lead to his friend’s death.

The cameramen become our vicarious eyes and hearts. One repeatedly sets his camera and then turns his back to the cliff, unable to watch what might be his friend’s death. I found myself looking away too, willing him to get to the top and end the agony of watching him glide impossibly up the sheer expanse of the mountain.

Despite the agony of suspense, the film is breathtakingly beautiful. The camera work is exquisite, capturing the magnificence of the mountain. It’s matched by the grandeur of the music and the precise choreography of the climb. Alex knows exactly what he is doing; he has memorized all 3,000 feet of the granite precipice. It’s the scariest and most awe-inspiring film I have seen in ages. The look of joy on Alex’s face as he turns to the camera after a particularly grueling section says it all. To quote Drew Goddard again, this kind of horror “lends itself to a sort of freedom” that few of us will ever know.

One crewman repeatedly sets his camera and then turns his back to the cliff, unable to watch what might be his friend’s death.

Our third film is horrifying in that it isn’t fantasy — it’s fiction, yes, but it’s based on true-life experiences of gang life, drug culture, and trigger-happy police officers. The Hate U Give, based on the bestselling novel of the same name by Angie Thomas, tells the story of a family determined to escape by staying put. They reside in a rundown, longstanding black neighborhood, but they send their children to a private school where they have a better chance of getting a good education and, let’s face it, living to adulthood without being sent to prison. Passing by the public high school, the main character, Starr Carter (Amandla Stenberg) tells us in voiceover narration, “That’s where you go to get jumped, high, pregnant, or killed.” “Get educated” isn’t on the list. And that’s one of the horrors presented by this film.

Starr must learn to navigate two worlds as she moves between her mostly white school and her mostly black neighborhood. Her school friends play at being cool by listening to rap music, dancing with a cool R&B vibe, and using black slang. But because she is truly black, Starr studiously avoids the vernacular of her black world. She fits in by not joining in. Meanwhile, at home she hangs out with her childhood friends (those who are still alive) while trying to remain safely aloof from the fights and drama that break out between them. She has a complicated relationship with many of the neighborhood kids; “Kenya’s mama had Seven with my daddy, but she’s no relation to me,” she explains to someone at a party.

When a fight breaks out at the party, Starr’s childhood friend and somehow-relation, Khalil (Algee Smith), grabs her hand and drives her to safety — almost. When he is pulled over by a cop (for the egregious crime of changing lanes without signaling) Starr quickly puts both hands on the dashboard as her daddy (Russell Hornsby) has taught his family to do, and frantically urges Khalil to do the same. But Khalil isn’t about to be submissive; with the swagger that comes from knowing you’ve done no wrong, he challenges the police officer. As the confrontation escalates, Khalil is shot and killed. Even though you know it’s going to happen, the moment is shocking, brutal, horrifying.

The public high school is “where you go to get jumped, high, pregnant, or killed.” “Get educated” isn’t on the list.

What follows is a fair and complex assessment of all the things that have led to this moment. Starr’s uncle Carlos (Common), a black police officer, explains to Starr that cops have to make split-second decisions based on what they see and what they expect. He tells her that he probably would have ordered Khalil out of the car too, in order to keep an eye on him while running his license. Starr listens but then asks, “Would you have told a white business man in a Mercedes to get out of the car?” “Probably not,” he admits.

The message is clear: like Alex Honnold in Free Solo, those who challenge the granite face of the law need to respect the power of the opponent, even when they have a right to be where they are. Keep your hands where they belong and focus on potential risks. The foe doesn’t care who you are, what you’re doing, or how innocent you might be; it has all the power, and foolish grandstanding can result in instant death.

Meanwhile, the police try to smear Khalil by painting him as a common drug dealer. “Good riddance,” is the message, even if he wasn’t doing anything wrong at the moment he was shot. They want Starr to testify against the local drug lord, King (Anthony Mackie), who controls the neighborhood and oversees the violent turf wars (and happens to be her half-brother Seven’s father). While protestors chanting “What do we want? Justice!” at City Hall are being pummeled by tear gas, King is tossing fire bombs at local black businesses that are standing up to his authority. This message is clear too: the problems in the ’hood aren’t black and white, in the racial or the metaphorical sense.

The foe doesn’t care who you are, what you’re doing, or how innocent you might be; it has all the power, and foolish grandstanding can result in instant death.

According to rap artist Tupac Shakur, “Thuglife” is an anagram for “The Hate U Give Little Infants Fucks Everything.” One of the common threads in these three films is that children who are traumatized or neglected often grow up to commit traumatic or traumatizing acts. The Hate U Give offers much to think about as we figure out how to solve the problems in our urban neighborhoods, beginning with the public school system that acts as a racial boundary and the drug laws that act as a direct pathway to easy money followed by death or prison. That is true horror, in ways beyond anything we ever see on Halloween.

Bad Times at the El Royale, directed by Drew Goddard. Twentieth Century Fox, 2018, 141 minutes.

Free Solo, directed by Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi. National Geographic, 2018, 100 minutes.

The Hate U Give directed by George Tillman Jr. Fox 2000 Pictures, 2018, 133 minutes.




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