The Just and the Unjust

 | 

“Mob justice” isn’t justice at all.

If you remember the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, you remember Richard Jewell, the security guard who discovered a backpack with a pipe bomb hidden inside it under a bench in Centennial Park. First lauded as a hero, Jewell was then accused in the press of having planted the bomb himself in order to garner public attention. He was never charged, and Eric Robert Rudolph later pled guilty to the crime. But Jewell’s reputation was destroyed and his life forever changed by the overzealous reporting of journalists eager to get a jump on the story. It happened nearly 25 years ago, yet it’s as timely today as the most recent Internet shaming.

In Clint Eastwood’s excellent film about the case, Jewell (Paul Walter Hauser) is not a likeable guy. Pushy, fat, and a little slow, he’s too “law-and-order,” toso much in other people’s business, for most people to want to befriend. He has gone through a series of second-rate jobs, from supply clerk to police department washout to campus security guard. Each time he goes too far in his zeal to do his job, and each time he gets fired. He still lives with his mother (Kathy Bates) in a small Tupperware-filled apartment, where a large photograph of him in his now-defunct police uniform is prominently displayed on the living room wall.

Yes, Jewell is socially awkward. That doesn’t make him guilty.

Jewell’s reputation was destroyed and his life forever changed by the overzealous reporting of journalists eager to get a jump on the story.

But he “fits the profile,” and that’s all the press needs to skewer him. Newspaper journalist Kathy Scruggs (Olivia Wilde) is just as eager as Jewell to do her job well and garner the respect of her peers. Shortly after the bombing she prays in mock appeal, “Dear God, Please let us find this guy first. And please let him be fucking interesting!” Soon she is fucking lead FBI agent Tom Shaw (Jon Hamm) in exchange for the name of a suspect. Scruggs accuses Jewell of destroying people's lives just for the publicity, and ironically, that’s exactly what she does to Jewell. Once her story hits the wires, Jewell’s life explodes like the bomb he is suspected of setting. Wilde plays Scruggs brilliantly, from self-assured seductress using her sex to get a story to elated reporter celebrating her front-page scoop to contrite whistleblower realizing that she has blown the wrong whistle.

A great deal stands out in this fine movie, from the acting to the pacing to the injustice of the story. Particularly appalling are the dirty tricks Shaw uses to sidestep Jewell’s Miranda rights and his decision to remain silent. Hamm, known for his role as advertising executive Don Draper in AMC’s Mad Men, could not be better as a pleasantly manipulative bastard of an FBI agent. The interrogation reminds me of a former student I knew at Sing Sing — let’s call him JD — who was just 16 when he was nabbed by the police on his way to school and interrogated for more than ten hours about the murder of a classmate, without his mother’s knowledge or an attorney present. Why did they suspect him of the murder? Because some classmates, eager to share what they “knew” with the police, noted that JD was “socially awkward” and had been “really broken up” at the girl’s funeral. He was “the type” to do it, just as Jewell was “the type” to set a bomb just so he could enjoy the notoriety of discovering it.

In JD’s case, the cops lied to him, confused him, terrified him. They convinced him he was “not allowed” to see his mother or an attorney until he signed a confession. Then everything will be OK, they promised, shoving the confession toward him just as Shaw shoves the Miranda waiver toward Jewell. And on the strength of that signed confession, our JD was sentenced to life in prison. Sixteen years later, using DNA evidence that proved he did not commit the crime, the Innocence Project helped JD secure a release. But his life, like Richard Jewell’s, would never be the same. No one had believed in him when he was on the inside, not even his mother. He felt utterly alone.

Shortly after the bombing she prays in mock appeal, “Dear God, Please let us find this guy first. And please let him be fucking interesting!”

One person who does believe in Jewell is his attorney, Watson Bryant (Sam Rockwell). Bryant is a loose cannon who wears cargo shorts and short-sleeved shirts and doesn’t necessarily play well with others. A poster behind the desk in his office says, “I fear government more than I fear terrorism.” While his client is a superpatriot who believes in law and order, Bryant is a cautious American with a wise distrust of government. His girlfriend Nadya is a Soviet immigrant who wisecracks, “Where I come from, when the government says someone is guilty, that’s how you know they’re innocent.” Rockwell is completely comfortable in Bryant’s skin. You’ll like him.

The other person who believes completely in Jewell is his mother. In the early days after the bombing, Bobi Jewell glows with bashful pride as she watches her son being interviewed on “the TV.” Her son — a hero! Bates is known for playing strong, quirky, independent women, but the timid, unassuming Bobi Jewell is perhaps her strongest role of all. She is wearing yellow dishwashing gloves when the FBI arrive at their door. An eager smile adorns her face as she anticipates why they are here — a smile that fades into confused despair when she realizes that they have come to interrogate their suspect, not to interview her hero.

This is an important film, not only because it tells Jewell’s story, but also because it reveals the shenanigans of both law enforcement and the media as they stop at nothing — even the evidence — to get their man and their story.

I was surprised and pleased to see listed as producers of this film Leonardo diCaprio and Jonah Hill, who usually align with the radically liberal side of Hollywood rather than conservative directors such as Clint Eastwood. Perhaps some in Hollywood are finally getting it: there’s a reason many of us fear government — and the media — more than terrorism.

"Richard Jewell" reveals the shenanigans of both law enforcement and the media as they stop at nothing — even the evidence — to get their man and their story.

I couldn’t help but compare this storyline to the one playing in the theater across the hall, Bombshell, another biopic about scandal in the newsroom. In Richard Jewell, when we first meet reporter Kathy Scruggs at the Atlanta Journal Constitution she is contemplating a boob job. “Another year and we’ll all be competing for TV,” she announces to her colleagues in the newsroom. “What do you think — D cups?” She then offers to trade sex for information from FBI agent Tom Shaw, and runs the story without corroborating it.

In Bombshell the gender roles are reversed, with the man propositioning the women in exchange for jobs and promotions. It deals with the accusations of sexual harassment brought first by Gretchen Carlson (Nicole Kidman) and then by Megyn Kelly (Charlize Theron) against Fox CEO Roger Ailes (John Lithgow), charging that he had required sexual favors in exchange for promises of promotions within the company.

In the film version of this story, Kelly, who has been harassed ten years earlier, quietly seeks the corroboration of other women in order to demonstrate a pattern of misbehavior that would strengthen the case. Kayla Pospisil (Margot Robbie), Ailes’ current victim, chastises Kelly for not reporting it ten years earlier, telling her, “This wouldn’t have happened to me if you had said something then.” This is plausible. But Kayla, too, has been keeping quiet about the liaisons. She really wants the job. Such is the nature of workplace harassment — a woman is victimized if she acquiesces, and often loses her job if she doesn’t.

When the news about Carlson’s accusation breaks, Jeanine Pirro shifts into coverup mode, shouting, “We need everyone on Team Roger!”

As shocked and appalled as Hollywood actors and insiders pretended to be when Harvey Weinstein was arrested on sexual harassment charges, the stories that launched the “MeToo” movement did not occur all of a sudden, nor did they occur entirely in secret. The “casting couch” stretches back to the earliest days of Hollywood. Agents and even stage mothers often trained their starry-eyed starlets to “do whatever the director tells you to do” and then walked out the door to pretend they didn’t know what “whatever” might entail. Similarly, when Kayla tries to tell her friend Jess (Kate McKinnon) what Ailes has done, Jess tells her, “It’s better if you don’t tell me.” She knows, but she doesn’t want to know. Like the acting agent, she closes the door, and her eyes, on her way out.

So it isn’t too surprising that the female Fox News journalists, with the exception of dowdy Greta Van Susteren (Anne Ramsey), accept the role of glamour girl that “director” Roger Ailes imposes on them, donning their short formfitting dresses, their inch-long eyelashes, and their wavy hair extensions to deliver the news. And if protecting their jobs requires protecting their boss, they’ll do that too. When the news about Carlson’s accusation breaks, Jeanine Pirro (Alanna Ubach) shifts into coverup mode, shouting, “We need everyone on Team Roger!” The ensuing scene juxtaposes newscasters fielding telephone calls from other journalists, frantically denying that they’re told what to wear on camera, with these same women pulling on body-smoothing Spanx, leg-lengthening high heels, and breast-plumping falsies. But no, “I’ve never been told I can’t wear pants,” says Kimberly Guilfoyle (Bree Condon) as she smooths her tight skirt.

The biggest problem with Bombshell is that it’s hard to tell the blondes apart.

Bombshell is interesting in a prurient, voyeuristic way, but hardly as compelling or well made as Eastwood’s Richard Jewell. For one thing, the story is more recent and familiar; I didn’t feel that I learned anything new about the case. For another, the acting in Bombshell is more two-dimensional and cookie-cutter: Theron’s Megyn Kelly is hard and steely; Kidman’s Gretchen Carlson is feminine and perky; Robbie’s Kayla is wide-eyed and frightened. There isn’t much depth or range to their characters.

The biggest problem with Bombshell, though, is that it’s hard to tell the blondes apart. They all have the same hairstyles, the same makeup styles, the same body styles, and the same stiletto heels. Carlson addresses this sameness indirectly when she says bitterly, “You know why they dress soldiers alike? To remind them that they’re replaceable.”


Editor's Note: Review of "Richard Jewell," directed by Clint Eastwood. Warner Brothers, 131 minutes; and "Bombshell," directed by Jay Roach. Denver & Delilah Productions, 2019, 109 minutes.



Share This


A Mess of a Movie

 | 

Could there be a happier Christmas movie than Little Women, with its story of generosity, kindness, familial love, and individuality? And yet — do we really need another version of Louisa May Alcott’s masterpiece? It has been committed to film at least seven times, including versions starring Katharine Hepburn; June Allyson and Peter Lawford; Christian Bale and a slew of A-list women; and a sadly modernized mishmash just last year that grossed barely a million dollars. Nevertheless, here we are again, with yet another LW, this one purporting to bring Jo out of the shadows as a true feminist (as though Alcott hadn’t shone that light on Jo in her original telling, 150 years ago).

There is much for a libertarian to love about Alcott’s Little Women, including (some might say “despite”) its theme of voluntary sacrifice and charitable service. I happen to appreciate that Marmee teaches her girls to care for the poor from their own meager goods rather than expecting a government agency to do it (or worse, suggesting that the poor “got what they deserved”). Moreover, the wealthy landowner Mr. Lawrence (Chris Cooper) is kind and generous toward the March clan, rewarding their generosity toward others with generosity of his own. He may be rich, but he is not evil.

This Little Women purports to bring Jo out of the shadows as a true feminist, as though Alcott hadn’t shone that light on Jo in her original telling, 150 years ago.

In addition, Marmee (Laura Dern) demonstrates prudence, resourcefulness, and self-reliance as the head of the household while her husband (Bob Odenkirk) is serving in the Union army during the Civil War.

A side note: director and screenwriter Greta Gerwig couldn’t resist a few digs at modern white privilege, so she inserts an exchange between two schoolchildren about the war. It goes like this:

School girl 1: “Father says we should let them keep their labor. It’s none of our business.”

School girl 2: “Everyone benefits from their economic system. Why should only the South be punished?”

In another exchange, borrowing liberally from Michelle Obama, Gerwig has Marmee say to a black woman caring for wounded soldiers alongside her: “I spent my whole life ashamed of my country.”

Black woman: “You should still be ashamed.”Alcott gave us a story of resilience, accountability, entrepreneurship, and market forces, regardless of gender.

Alcott gave us a story of resilience, accountability, entrepreneurship, and market forces, regardless of gender.

Me: Ugh! Such anachronisms. No one talked like this back then, least of all schoolchildren or black women chastising white women.

But back to the reasons a libertarian should like this story: Marmee teaches her girls at home, another aspect of the story that should appeal to libertarians. She allows them the freedom to develop their own interests and talents — no public schools deprive them of their time or assign them inane homework that saps their creativity. Beth (Eliza Scanlen) is an accomplished musician, Amy (Florence Pugh) a budding artist, Jo (Saoirse Ronan) a skilled writer, and Meg (Emma Watson) an aspiring actress who loves to wear pretty dresses, and attend pretty parties. She also wants to get married and have babies, and in my opinion that’s perfectly all right (though not in this film, where marriage equals misery). Aunt March (Meryl Streep) tells Jo, “No one makes their own way in this world, especially a woman — unless you marry well.” Yet Marmee and Jo are making their way quite nicely. Alcott gave us a story of resilience, accountability, entrepreneurship, and market forces, regardless of gender.

There is also much to love about this movie, despite its storytelling flaws, especially its light and airy musical score by Alexandre Desplat, its sumptuous outdoor settings, its period costumes, and its artistic cinematography. Gerwig often places her actors as though for a painting or a portrait, almost like a Mary Cassatt or Jack Vettriano painting. At times it can seem a bit schmaltzy, as when she frames a proposal scene with overhanging trees that resemble a Valentine heart. But I rather appreciate the effect, which echoes Alcott’s sometimes-schmaltzy Victorian language, whether that was Gerwig’s intent or not.

But is this a satisfying interpretation of Alcott’s work? Notwithstanding its rave reviews, I think not.

Worst of all, Gerwig presents the shocking climaxes first and then tells us the relationships among the characters later, defusing our emotional response.

Most unsatisfactory is the disjointed telling of the story, with its self-inflicted spoilers, clunky flashbacks, and complicated scene changes. The film begins at the end, with Amy in Europe as Aunt March’s companion — so the audience will not experience the unexpected heartbreak when Jo learns that Amy has been chosen to take her place on the wonderful journey. Laurie (Timothee Chalamet) is also in Europe, where Amy calls him a “vain, lazy, drunken sot.” And he is indeed a falling-down drunk at that point in this movie. This is the feminist version of LW, after all; I guess we can’t have our first impression of our leading man as the kind, generous, noble friend he has been to the March girls throughout their childhoods.

I happened to bring a visitor from Argentina to see the film with me. He had heard of the novel but had never read it or seen a film adaptation. He confessed that he could not follow the story — he knew there were flashbacks, but it was hard to tell which scenes were in which era, because Gerwig did not bother to provide visual markers — the hairstyles, settings and clothing were virtually the same in both the future and the past. Worst of all, Gerwig presents the shocking climaxes first and then tells us the relationships among the characters later, defusing our emotional response. We learn of Beth’s illness before we even know that she is a sister. We learn that Jo has rejected Laurie’s proposal before we have ever seen them together. We see Amy’s treachery in burning Jo’s manuscript before we see the tender love Jo has for her youngest sister, etc. Gerwig then quickly cuts to the past, where she provides brief glimpses of the relationships leading up to those moments.

My Argentinian friend was utterly lost. All he saw was a bunch of women bickering with one another. He didn’t even realize they were supposed to be teenagers because the actresses were all in their mid-20s. The only reason it worked for me at all is that I could tap into my remembered emotions from having read the book. Many young girls were in the audience with their mothers, presumably experiencing the story for the first time. I felt sorry for them. All they got out of it is that marriage is bad.

Uncontrolled laughter seems to be Hollywood’s go-to action nowadays for portraying joy; the more you laugh, the happier you must be.

Gerwig’s direction is clunky too. She chose to cast older actresses for the four sisters; then, to portray them in the flashbacks, she resorted to whiny petulance and temper tantrums to make them seem young. This does not work, especially for 12-year-old Amy, who is portrayed by the voluptuous Florence Pugh. Meanwhile, Timothee Chalamat as Laurie has a very boyish face and physique, and his head is so much smaller than Saoirse Ronan’s that they look almost freakish together.

The kind and noble Marmee is laughably portrayed as well. To demonstrate the joy and fun of the March household, Gerwig directed Dern to laugh uncontrollably much of the time, even at the simplest moments. (Uncontrolled laughter seems to be Hollywood’s go-to action nowadays for portraying joy; the more you laugh, the happier you must be.) Dern’s giggles create a caricature that feels more like a 1930s Mammy than the strong and gentle Marmee, which is unfortunate, because Dern is capable of so much more with so much less — a comforting touch, a beaming countenance, a disapproving glance could have been much more effective, as seen in her portrayal of the teacher in October Sky. She is allowed to display her full range only once — at the death of her beloved Beth. In most scenes she is a giggling goon.

Gerwig even failed with Meryl Streep, whose wooden performance as Aunt March made me long for the acerbic wit of Maggie Smith as the deliciously officious dowager in Downton Abbey. She delivers her lines with all the enthusiasm of a driver delivering a pizza. And if, as she and Jo claim, women had no rights to property in 19th-century America unless they acquired it themselves as single women, how is it that Aunt March inherited the family estate rather than her brother, the father of those little women? Now there’s a backstory I would love to explore!

My biggest disappointment is with Jo’s character. Not with Ronan’s portrayal — she’s fine. More than fine. But Gerwig, like Alcott, only skirted what I think is Jo’s true nature. Alcott hinted at Jo’s sexual orientation; Jo has a masculine name, while her love interest, Laurie, has a girl’s name. Jo usually plays the pirate and other masculine roles in the girls’ attic theatricals. And of course, Jo becomes the family breadwinner. I have long thought that Alcott planted these clues to hint that Jo is gay, in an era when hints were as far as a writer could go.

Gerwig claims to have created “a Little Women for the 21st century,” but in my opinion, she failed on all counts.

Gerwig almost gets there. In the movie, Laurie joins “a club for girls” when he is admitted to the March girls’ thespian society. Jo and Laurie often wear the same clothes, though not at the same time. When Jo rejects his proposal, she tells him, “I can’t love you as you want me to. I don’t know why. I can’t. I’ve tried it and I’ve failed.” And when Meg decides to marry, Jo pleads with her, “Don’t do it! Stay with me! You will be bored of him in two years — and we will be interesting forever!” She adds, “I would rather be a free spinster and paddle my own canoe.” Yes, I thought. This time they will have the courage to get it right. Jo will come out of the closet at last.

And yet, for all the preening about the oppression of marriage — despite Amy arguing with Laurie, “Don’t tell me marriage isn’t an economic proposition because it is! . . . If I marry, my money would belong to my husband and my children would be his property,” and Aunt March sighing, “Until [Amy] marries someone obscenely wealthy it is up to me to keep the family afloat” — the conflict and climax of the movie resides in Jo discovering that she loves Laurie after all. “Women have minds and they have souls as well as hearts and they have ambition,” she admits, “but I’m so lonely!” And so she writes Laurie the love letter telling him she wants to accept his proposal of marriage. (Of course, we’ve known since the first scene of the movie that Laurie and Amy are already loving it up over in Europe, so we don’t experience Jo’s devastation when she learns the truth.)

Gerwig gives in to marketing pressure, and ends her film with a traditional love story, just as Jo gives in to the same marketing pressure from her publisher, Mr. Dashwood (Tracy Letts), to marry off the protagonist of her novel, and Alcott succumbed to the same pressure to provide a husband for her alter ego, Jo. Alcott’s Mr. Bhaer is old enough to be Jo’s father. It’s a marriage of convenience, rather than romance, that was not unusual for women who wanted to hide their sexual orientation within a socially acceptable marriage. Gerwig betrayed Alcott, however, by making Jo gigglingly schoolgirlish as she runs after her Friedrich Bhaer, played by the devilishly handsome — and young! — Louis Garrel, to proclaim her love, while her sisters giggle joyfully in the carriage.

Gerwig claims to have created “a Little Women for the 21st century,” but in my opinion, she failed on all counts. She adds little that we don’t already know about women’s economic rights and capabilities; she utterly rejects marriage as a viable choice for rational and talented women; she then marries off her lesbian protagonist to the sexiest man in the movie. Good grief.

There was a smattering of applause at the screening I attended, probably led by die-hard ’70s-era feminists who cheer anything made for, by, and about women. But do the young girls in your life a favor: give them a copy of the book, and keep them away from this movie.

Little Women, directed by Greta Gerwig. Columbia Pictures, 2019, 135 minutes.




Share This


Highs and Lows

 | 

You probably remember the days when Christmas packages had to be mailed by December 10 if you wanted them to arrive for Christmas. Then private industry entered the delivery market and changed everything. This past month I watched in awe as deliveries from UPS, FedEx, Amazon Trucking, and yes, even the US Postal Service brought packages to my door within two days of my ordering them. I received half a dozen packages on Christmas Eve alone, including one that had been redirected from an incorrect address the day before.

This nearly didn’t happen. In the early days of FedEx, founder Fred Smith faced a serious cashflow problem. The company was millions of dollars in startup debt. Pilots were purchasing fuel with their personal credit cards. Employees were agreeing not to cash their paychecks, knowing they would bounce anyway. Desperate to stave off bankruptcy, Smith took the company’s last $5,000 to the Las Vegas blackjack tables. He returned in less than a week with $27,000 and used that money to secure additional funding. How could he take such a risk with the last of the company’s cash? He figured he would probably lose it all in bankruptcy court, so the real risk was in not doing anything.

Howie is constantly orchestrating a story. He owes everybody, renegotiates with everybody, constantly lies, constantly expects the next big gambling hit to fix everything.

Uncut Gems shows a different side of gambling — not the glitzy glamour of roulette wheels and craps tables and exciting payoffs but the dirty, violent, addictive side that entices with the promise not of wealth but of the euphoric adrenaline rush during the heady anticipation of winning. For Howie Ratner (Adam Sandler) the desire is all consuming. He has to have that high.

The film’s frenetic, unrelenting pace mirrors Howie’s frenetic, unrelenting mania. The camera follows him from room to room and scene to scene without so much as a pause to orient the audience. Howie is constantly orchestrating a story. He owes everybody, renegotiates with everybody, constantly lies, constantly expects the next big gambling hit to fix everything. The problem is, he doesn’t really want to fix everything, and he isn’t really after the money. Howie gets off on the risk and anticipation, the fear of losing it all and the release of fear when the game comes his way. Gambling is his cocaine. Winning is his euphoria. We don’t see any drug use in Uncut Gems, yet the movie is a story of freewheeling addiction — addiction to adrenaline.

Howie runs a jewelry store with an off-the-books, secondhand business in the back. As the movie opens he is working a deal to sell a 4,000-carat uncut black opal from Ethiopia through a Manhattan auction house. He expects to garner a million dollars on the deal. But he also has a short-term commitment with a loan shark that needs to be fixed today. (In fact, he has several such commitments.) So he uses the opal to solve several problems at once. He persuades Kevin Garnett (yes, the basketball star, playing himself) that the opal can give him good luck. Then, taking Garnett’s NBA ring as collateral in exchange for letting Garnett keep the opal overnight, Howie pawns the ring for cash; sends a photo of the cash to a loan shark, implying he is on his way to pay the loan; shakes off the heavies of another loan shark by giving them a fake Rolex; heads to his bookie, where he uses the money from Garnett’s ring to bet on Garnett and the Celtics, and finally gives way to the gambler’s euphoria as he watches the game — in which Garnett is in top form, because of his new talisman. All in a day’s work.

If he just so happens to end up in the trunk of his car, stripped naked and calling his wife to push the trunk-open button from the auditorium door during his daughter’s play, so be it.

But Howie doesn’t have time for the big hustle. Every plan has to be made on the fly. He’s entirely short-term oriented, because every moment could be his last. We feel his rising panic as he deals with big-time loan sharks and big-time enforcers who could kill or maim him at any moment. (Howie’s poorly capped teeth suggest an enforcer has taught him a lesson in the past, although how he lost his original teeth is never mentioned.) Like every compulsive gambler, he believes his plan will work and the next big win is as good as in his hands. Then he’ll pay everyone off and everything will be fine.

Like many gambling addicts, Howie is a family man. He was once the kind of guy who takes out the recycling on Wednesday night, recites the prayers at Passover, and attends his kid’s school play. And he still does all that. But he’s always distracted by his latest bet and yesterday’s collectors. If he just so happens to end up in the trunk of his car, stripped naked and calling his wife (Idina Menzel) to push the trunk-open button from the auditorium door during his daughter’s play, so be it. She doesn’t even ask him what happened.

Howie is desperate but not hopeless, and therein lies the key to his character. Hope drives him. In that sense he is the eternal optimist. He’ll do anything, pawn anything, and promise anything to get out of the current jam and into the euphoria of a big score. The more cons he has going and the greater the risk, the higher he gets. Desperation is foreplay for him, and watching a game on which he has a big bet is orgasmic. It isn’t even about the money. When he wins big, he needs sex. But not with his wife. He needs Julia (Julia Fox), the beautiful mistress living in his downtown apartment. No wonder both are called scoring.

After Daniel Day-Lewis saw the film, he called Sandler to congratulate him on his tour-de-force performance. Daniel Day-Lewis!

The camera work and musical score reflect Howie’s relentless determination. Usually dark and fast-paced, the music changes to a dreamy, jazzy arrangement whenever Howie is winning, to reflect his momentary euphoria. The lighting also brightens just a bit in those moments — not enough to be cheesy, but enough that you start to notice it after a while. The Safdie Brothers’ direction is controlled and masterful, even as Howie’s story is frenetically spinning out of control. This frenzy also spills into the audience, as the nearly two and a half hour film feels like 90 minutes. Kevin Garnett, too, is a revelation, delivering a believable performance that comes from deep within his soul, not sitting statically in front of his eyes, as happens with most sports figures who are called on to play themselves. His acting coach should have a separate listing in the credits.

Uncut Gems is a filmmaker’s film, and Sandler has come a long way from his silly Happy Gilmore, Billy Madison days. This isn’t his first foray away from comedy; he delivered excellent dramatic performances in Punch Drunk Love (2002) and Spanglish (2004). But Uncut Gems is his most impressive — gritty, manic, and unrelenting as it follows the life of a crazed gambler who just can’t get enough. After Daniel Day-Lewis saw it, he called Sandler to congratulate him on his tour-de-force performance. Daniel Day-Lewis!! I wouldn’t call it entertaining, and I’m not sure that you, dear reader, would enjoy it. But when funnyman Adam Sandler wins the Oscar for Best Actor, at least you’ll know why.


Editor's Note: Review of "Uncut Gems," directed by Benny and Josh Safdie. Elara Pictures, 2019, 135 minutes.



Share This


A Strange and Important Film

 | 

When I first saw a trailer for Jojo Rabbit, I had no interest in viewing it. Hitler Youth frolicking in the forest like Boy Scouts at a Jamboree? Adolf Hitler sidling up to our young protagonist with an ingratiating grin? No thank you. The Holocaust was serious business. So was Aryan expansion into all of Europe.

And yet, like a witness at a crash scene, I couldn’t avert my eyes. So there I was on a Tuesday night, ready to see if it was truly Springtime for Hitler in Hollywood. My discovery? Not exactly.

Johannes Betzler (Roman Griffin Davis) is a charming, lonely, 10-year-old, blue-eyed Aryan blond who can’t wait to join the Hitler Youth camp. He is excited to prove his love for Germany, but really he’s “just a 10-year-old kid who likes to collect swastikas and dress up in funny clothes,” as one character observes. Mostly he just wants to belong. The boys run around the forest hollering and laughing. But Johannes flinches and runs away when it’s time to play battle games. The other boys are older, stronger, and more aggressive. He doesn’t want to get hurt. He’s only ten, after all. Just a boy. We never lose sight of that in this film.

Hitler Youth frolicking in the forest like Boy Scouts at a Jamboree? Adolf Hitler sidling up to our young protagonist with an ingratiating grin? No thank you.

The camp is supervised by Captain Klenzendorf (Sam Rockwell), the one-eyed demoted lunatic who invites the boys collegially to “Call me Captain K” in one moment and then stirs them into a killing frenzy in the next. He tells them, “Today you become a man,” ironically echoing the purpose of a bar mitzvah in the religion they are taught to despise. When Captain K tells Johannes to wring a rabbit’s neck to prove his willingness to kill Jews, Johannes lets the bunny go and then runs away like a — well, like a frightened rabbit. Hence his hated nickname, Jojo Rabbit.

Here’s what you need to know about this film: The whole time the boys are chanting “Kill! Kill! Kill!” I wasn’t thinking about Lord of the Flies. (Well, maybe just a little bit.) I was mostly thinking about Looney Tunes’ Wagnerian “Kill the Wabbit! Kill the Wabbit!” scene with Bugs Bunny in Valkyrie getup.

And that’s the perverse magic of Jojo Rabbit. It’s insanely funny, utterly serious, and totally bizarre. It manipulates you the way Hitler manipulated the masses. And you go along, the way the masses went along with Hitler, because it’s just so compelling. In an early scene, the Beatles’ “Komm, gib mir deine Hand” plays while Jojo runs exuberantly to the youth camp and masses of screaming Germans present their upraised right hands to the Fuehrer in a thundering salute. Yes, they have come to give him their hands. The idolizing hysteria of the Germans mimics the mass hysteria of Beatlemania 25 years later. And hysteria it is. The message is clear: Hitlerism was fueled by hyperemotionalism and little else. Moreover, “Heil Hitlering” becomes a verb in this movie, being used 31 times in a single minute in one particularly satirical scene.

The captain tells them, “Today you become a man,” ironically echoing the purpose of a bar mitzvah in the religion they are taught to despise.

At home Jojo confesses his shame about the rabbit, his loneliness, and his general cowardice to his only friend, Adolf Hitler (director Taika Watiti). No, not the real Adolf, but Jojo’s imaginary friend who, like Calvin’s tiger Hobbes, gleefully stirs him up, urges him forward, and eventually gets him maimed by an overzealous toss of a practice grenade that happens to be loaded and armed. In the comic strip Calvin blames all of his misdeeds on Hobbes, when in reality his pranks and adventures are entirely his own idea. Similarly, Jojo uses his imaginary friendship with Adolf Hitler to gird up his loins and prove his commitment to Germany.

Many Germans would use the “Hitler made me do it” excuse after the war, when in reality they, too, had choices. Stephen Merchant, who plays a threatening but inept Gestapo agent Deertz, said that in preparing for the role he “imagined members of the Gestapo like his character as ‘quite petty bureaucrats’ who, prior to the war received little respect, and during the war let their power go to their heads.” This may have been true of many Germans who welcomed the opportunity to treat their Jewish neighbors with contempt, while blaming their hatred on allegiance to Hitler and the Fatherland. Yet other Germans resisted Nazism, and many of those gave their lives for freedom.

Jojo’s mother Rosie (Scarlett Johansson) doesn’t approve of the direction in which Germany is headed, nor does she approve of the Hitler Youth organization her son has joined. She is outspoken, feisty, and fashionable in a way that we don’t expect in 1940s Germany. (Director Waititi says that Berliners continued to be sociable and fashionable even during the war, and he wanted to portray that in his film with vibrant colors and bucolic scenery. Kind of like Americans during our wars in other nations.) She is a free-spirited mother who wants to make a difference, even if it means saving just one person. Nevertheless, these are perilous times. Children are being taught to report any examples of disloyalty to Germany or sympathy for Jews. Rosie adores little Jojo, and the scenes between mother and son are endearing and lovely. But she refrains from sharing too much of her philosophy with her son. The fear of snitching is real.

Similarly, Jojo uses his imaginary friendship with Adolf Hitler to gird up his loins and prove his commitment to Germany.

To stir up fear and hatred toward the Jews, outlandish stories are told in camp and at school. An ancestral Jew mated with a fish. Jews have horns, eat babies, and have animal bodies. They read minds and are attracted to ugly things. And they love money. Jojo has never met a Jew (as far as he knows) and believes the propaganda. Of course, Jews are none of these things. And that is a major point of this film — hatred and mistrust are taught by others who want us to hate and mistrust, not by personal experience. Jojo doesn’t realize this, however; he’s just a 10-year-old boy, trained to believe and obey his elders. When he discovers that his mother has been harboring a Jewish girl (Thomasin McKenzie) in his deceased sister’s closet, he faces the ultimate dilemma: should he report his mother to the Gestapo? For Germany?

And what about this Jewish girl? As time goes on, Jojo’s inner conflict deepens. He confesses to Adolf (who is feasting on unicorn head — I’m not kidding), “She doesn’t seem like a bad person to me.” And isn’t that the point? When we base our judgments on our own experience with people, we’ll discover that some are bad, some are good, some are friendly, some are boring. It has nothing to do with labels. But we’ll never learn the truth if we simply believe what others tell us to think about an entire group of people.

John F. Di Leo warned in a recent Facebook post, “This wasn't some ancient, barbaric country, in some uncivilized, undiscovered territory. It was Germany, in Europe, just 78 years ago. . . . It can happen anywhere, if government is allowed to get too powerful . . . and if politicians are empowered to demonize an innocent group.”

That is a major point of this film — hatred and mistrust are taught by others who want us to hate and mistrust, not by personal experience.

Jojo’s dilemma reminds one of Huck Finn, torn between helping Jim escape and worrying about how his own salvation will be affected for doing it. What courage it takes for Huck to say on his knees, before God, “Then I’ll go to hell if I have to . . . You can’t pray a lie. I found that out.” This young, virtually illiterate boy has too much integrity to ask for forgiveness for something he does not regret doing. He likes Jim. Loves him, in fact. And yet, in the end of the book, Huck and Tom still have Jim hidden away in a cage. Jojo does that too. The film abounds with literary references.

Jojo Rabbit is one of the most engaging films I have seen this year. Like Jack Benny’s To Be or Not to Be (1944), it’s delightfully funny yet deadly serious as it reveals the conflict between freedom of thought and the madness of crowds. I highly recommend it to anyone who cares about choice and accountability.


Editor's Note: Review of "Jojo Rabbit," directed by Taika Waititi. Fox Searchlight, 2019, 108 minutes.



Share This


Capitalist Car Clash

 | 

Early in James Mangold’s Ford v Ferrari, Henry Ford II (Tracy Letts) blusters onto the platform overlooking the assembly room floor, shuts down the machinery, and barks at his workers to stop what they’re doing. Business has not been good, and Deuce (as he is often called) is not happy. First he tells them about his grandfather “ruminating” as he walked home from his job at Edison Light, implying that the senior Henry Ford’s rumination led to the company that now employs them. “Go home and ruminate!” he growls. “If you come up with an idea, bring it to me. If not, stay home!” In essence, he creates the kind of competition that many companies use successfully today to keep their employees sharp and engaged. And it works.

One of those who ruminate is adman Lee Iacocca (Jon Bernthal), who would later guide the failing Chrysler Corporation out of bankruptcy (with generous “donations” from the bailout kings in the federal government). Using a slideshow reminiscent of Don Draper in “Mad Men,” Iacocca explains that the boomer generation isn’t excited about the bulbous cars of their parents; they want sex appeal in their cars. “James Bond does not drive a Ford, sir,” he tells his boss, while a slide of Sean Connery leaning against an Aston Martin lights up the screen. “We need to think like Ferrari.”

Ford has the edge in sales, but Ferrari has the edge in wins. In fact, Enzo Ferrari (Remo Girone) has nearly gone broke chasing perfection. Initially Ford sends Iacocca to Italy to buy out the Italian carmaker. But when Ferrari rejects the offer in favor of Fiat, telling Iacocca that Ford “builds ugly little cars in ugly little factories” and that Ford II is “fat,” Ford takes it personally and the race — both literally and figuratively — is on. He determines to enter a Ford in the 24-hour Le Mans race, with just 90 days in which to design, build, test, and redesign it.

“James Bond does not drive a Ford, sir,” Iacocca tells his boss, while a slide of Sean Connery leaning against an Aston Martin lights up the screen.

The man he turns to for the design is Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon), a former racecar driver from Texas with a Texas-sized smile and Texas-sized plans. He now sells fast, expensive sports cars to people who have more money than sense (in fact, he sells “Steve McQueen’s car” to three different buyers — how’s that for a used car salesman!). The man Shelby turns to for help designing and testing the car is free spirit Ken Miles (Christian Bale), a British auto mechanic and racer who has an instinct for motors and a passion for driving. Together they design the Ford GT40 that, according to the movie, became the only American-made car to win at Le Mans — and did it four times in a row.

Ford v Ferrari is a racing movie of course, and the action scenes, especially the 40 minutes devoted to the race at Le Mans, are spectacular. Mangold refused to use CGI, and instead rebuilt the famous 8.5 mile circuit using five different locations in order to recreate the surrounding topography as it looked in the mid-’60s. But more than a racing movie, this is a business movie that asks us to consider the relative importance of the corporation and the individual.

Leo Beebe (Josh Lucas) is the company man, insisting that loyalty to the team is more important than recognition of the individual player (although he is promoting himself in the process). Miles, on the other hand, is a loose cannon who feels a stronger connection with the machine than with the company or the people who work for it. He talks to the car, coaxes her, encourages her, knows when she’s driving hot and when she can give him even more. He wants to win, of course, but what he really wants is to feel completely in sync with the car, to drive the perfect lap. At one point his young son Peter (Noah Jupe) tells him, “You can’t make every lap perfect.” Miles replies, “But I can try.” For Ken Miles, it’s not about business or about money or about winning; it’s about the joy of driving.

More than a racing movie, this is a business movie that asks us to consider the relative importance of the corporation and the individual.

Ford Motor Company withdrew support for the film shortly before its release because, they said, it portrays Henry Ford II and Leo Beebe as coldhearted villains. I disagree. Yes, Ford is vulgar, hard-driving, and ambitious. He barks at his workers and cares little about their feelings. He even leaves the big race to enjoy a nice dinner and a warm bed while his employees race through the night, and he returns the next morning rested and refreshed for the big finish. But Ford isn’t an asshole, and he isn’t unethical.

In fact, he’s a lot like publisher Miranda Priestly (Meryl Streep) in The Devil Wears Prada (2006), another misunderstood villain. In one scene she disdainfully orders her production staff to tear down a completed fashion spread and start over, even though they have laid it out exactly the way Miranda demanded the day before. It doesn’t matter that they worked all night to finish it; it doesn’t matter that they are crushed by her dismissiveness. Once she sees the spread, she knows it isn’t right. Is she as nice and diplomatic as I am? No. Do people like her? No. But I’m not producing a monthly magazine earning hundreds of thousands in advertising in the cutthroat world of fashion. In business, “nice” is often a synonym for “I’ll settle for less.” Miranda won’t, and neither will Ford.

Ford II is vulgar, hard-driving, and ambitious. But he isn’t an asshole, and he isn’t unethical.

Some critics have complained about the overabundance of testosterone in Ford v Ferrari. Reviewer Hannah Elliott wrote that it “depicts a car guy generation best left dead and gone.” While acknowledging “it’s a beautifully shot film that will be enjoyable for modern car buyers and enthusiasts alike,” she nevertheless complained, “What I saw is a devastating picture of the lack of diversity that permeated the industry in the 1960s.” Really? It was devastating? Ugh. I get so tired of complaints about gender representation. Are we devastated that no men were wedding attendants in Kristin Wiig’s Bridesmaids? That no men got their hair done at Truvy’s salon in Steel Magnolias? That none of Katherine Heigl’s 27 Dresses were worn by a man? I think it’s great that Danica Patrick paved the way for women to become racecar drivers, if that’s what they want to do. But that’s a different movie waiting to be made.

Ford v Ferrari is a slice of history set in the 1960s, and an exciting slice at that. I don’t have to be a man to empathize with Ken Miles when he’s removed from the team for being too eccentric, or with his son Peter as he worries for his father’s safety, or with Carroll Shelby when he struggles to decide whether to go along with the boss or defend his driver. I don’t have to see a woman in the driver’s seat to feel a rush of adrenaline as the tires squeal and the gears mesh. I can identify quite nicely with the conflict and experiences of the men on the screen, even though I’m a woman. So just sit back and enjoy the movie. You’re in for a wild ride!


Editor's Note: Review of "Ford v Ferrari," directed by James Mangold. Twentieth Century Fox, 2019, 152 minutes.



Share This


A Modern Moses

 | 

“Very few men have ever known that men are free.” I thought of these simple words from Rose Wilder Lane’s Discovery of Freedom while watching Harriet, a terrific new film about the remarkable Harriet Tubman, who escaped from slavery and then returned to the South at least a dozen times to help friends, family, and others escape too. Later, as a scout for the Union Army, she guided troops in their assault on plantations along the Combahee River, where hundreds of slaves ran to the Union steamships and freedom. She is reportedly the first woman to have led an armed assault during the Civil War.

Not every enslaved person wanted to be rescued, however. In this film, after Harriet (Cynthia Erivo) risks being captured in order to bring her own sister, Rachel (Deborah Ayorinde) to safety in Philadelphia, Rachel refuses to go, saying, “I ain’t leaving my babies . . . can’t everybody run!” Tubman can’t understand such an attitude. Isn’t freedom worth everything? Tubman has been quoted as saying, “I freed a thousand slaves. I could have freed a thousand more if only they knew they were slaves.” Tubman and Lane both knew that great truth — it isn’t enough to be free; you have to know you are free.

This film is different from such recent films about slavery as Twelve Years a Slave (2013) and Birth of a Nation (2016), in that the physical horrors of slavery are alluded to but not dwelled upon here. We don’t see the whippings, the rapes, the sadistic torture. While those films are important in telling that part of the story of slavery, Harriet is about the inalienable right to freedom itself, regardless of how one is treated. A well-treated slave is still a slave. As a result, the characters are richer and more complex than they are in the more traditional “blacks are good, whites are bad” movies.

Tubman has been quoted as saying, “I freed a thousand slaves. I could have freed a thousand more if only they knew they were slaves.”

We see the economic panic of plantation owners facing bankruptcy from the loss of their escaped slaves, the quiet aid and personal risk of white abolitionists on the Underground Railroad, treacherous black trackers who earn money by helping to bring runaways back to the south, and the contrast in education and experience between blacks in the city and blacks on the plantation. When a freeborn black woman named Marie (Janelle Monae) tells Harriet she needs a bath after she arrives in Philadelphia (and offers her own tub for the purpose), Harriet responds with dignity, “You’re freeborn. You’ve never known the stink of fear.”

As Tubman returns repeatedly to lead slaves to freedom, angry plantation owners offer a reward for the “thief” they call “Moses,” ironically equating themselves with the Egyptian taskmasters in the Old Testament to whom God demanded, through Moses, “Let me people go.” The allusion is developed in numerous ways, and in one particular scene Harriet motivates her skeptical followers by walking directly into the waters of the river she feels compelled to cross while men pursue them on horseback (though not with chariots.)

One reason for Tubman’s ability to avoid capture was that everyone assumed this “Moses” was a black man or a white abolitionist in blackface. It never occurred to them that their nemesis was an illiterate woman standing just five feet tall who suffered from seizures due to a head injury: she was hit with a metal weight when she was a young teen. These seizures lead her to have “visions” that guide her away from danger and toward safer paths as she conducts her little groups to freedom. She is described by one grateful character as “a woman touched by God.” This suggestion that Tubman was a visionary guided by God has caused many reviewers to pan the movie — not because they disagree with the accuracy of the scenes (Tubman often described the experiences she had during her seizures as “visions from God”) but because these reviewers simply don’t like the idea of God having anything to do with her success.

Angry plantation owners offer a reward for the “thief” they call “Moses,” ironically equating themselves with the Egyptian taskmasters in the Old Testament.

Nevertheless, Tubman believed it, and the scenes are handled well. We see her premonitions as fuzzy, monochromatic scenes that come into sharpness gradually over the course of the movie. God doesn’t speak to her directly, but she sees images that eventually make sense to her. For that reason, it could just as easily be interpreted as her own mind making logical sense of multiple details she has observed. Harriet might have been illiterate, but she was not unintelligent. She could read the sky and was a skilled tracker. To communicate with other slaves without attracting the attention of white overseers, she often sings, her rich contralto hiding her overt message in the covert melody of a folk spiritual. These melodies are haunting and sad, especially when she sings a farewell to her mother in the fields as she prepares to run away for the first time. The moment is heartbreaking yet empowering, and the music is exactly right. Her rendition of “Wade in the Water” is even better.

Tubman interacts with many important abolitionists as she travels in the North; there are cameo appearances by Frederick Douglass (Tory Kittles) in his trademark lopsided Afro, and John Brown (Nigel Reed). Senator William Seward (uncredited) invites Tubman into his home and praises her work. And black journalist William Still (Leslie Odom Jr.), who carefully records the details of every passenger on the Underground Railroad in order to help family members reunite in the north, becomes a close friend and supporter. It is largely because of Still’s meticulous recordkeeping that we have a reasonably accurate and uninflated account of Tubman’s work. Without him, the numbers she is thought to have rescued might lie in the hundreds rather than a “mere” 70.

Harriet is well worth seeing, as a piece of history and as a piece of filmmaking. It is a fair story, even if it isn’t an entirely factual story, (as no biographical film ever is) and will probably be shown in schoolrooms for many years to come. The story is suspenseful without being gruesome, and the acting is strong without being overbearing. The side story involving the fictionalized black tracker Walter (Henry Hunter Hall) is especially good in that it fits both the biblical allusion and the film’s theme of choice and accountability. The cinematography provides a rich setting for both the escape scenes and the town scenes, and the music contributes evocatively to the tension and the message. Most of all, it is a film that celebrates the inalienable right — no, responsibility   to “live free or die.” As Rose Wilder Lane might say, “Don’t ever forget that you are free.”


Editor's Note: Review of "Harriet," directed by Kasi Lemmons. Martin Chase Productions, 2019, 125 minutes.



Share This


The Last Cargo

 | 

The launch last month of “The 1619 Project” by The New York Times unleashed a barrage of partisan volleys and countervolleys consisting mostly of debatable claims, finger-pointing, and innuendo. It’s predictable for the polarized times we live in. Some of the Democratic presidential candidates are calling for reparations for the nation’s original sin of slavery (were the 360,000 Union deaths not enough?); and we’ve elected a president whom many consider racist — an accusation resorted to glibly, promiscuously, and with a keyword so broadly defined and overused it’s become as meaningless as the word “love.”

The NYT presents the project as an appropriate bookend to the 400th anniversary of the first slave ship, the White Lion, to arrive at the continental US, at Jamestown. But perhaps a more apt bookend might be the arrival of the last slave ship, the schooner Clotilda, in 1859 (or 1860, according to some sources), 240 years after the White Lion docked at Point Comfort in Virginia.

It’s taken quite a while for the Clotilda’s story to air.

Although the transatlantic slave trade had begun in the early 1500s with destinations to the Caribbean and Brazil, the 20-odd Angolans aboard the White Lion — taken against their will — were classified as indentured servants, some of whom later acquired their freedom, as per that definition. Children of those Africans who did end up as slaves were born free — according to the laws of that time.

It’s taken quite a while for the Clotilda’s story to air. Zora Neale Hurston (1891–1960), whose four grandparents had all been slaves, interviewed Cudjo Kossola Lewis, the second-to-last survivor of the Clotilda, in 1927. She’d trained as an anthropologist under the tutelage of Franz Boas, considered the “Father of American Anthropology,” and this was her first serious project.

Boas had introduced and firmly established the concept of cultural relativity as an investigative axiom: “a person's beliefs, values, and practices should be understood based on that person's own culture, rather than be judged against the criteria of another.” As a field tool, the concept allowed Hurston to present Kossola’s narrative more objectively, through his eyes. She’d attended Howard, Barnard, and Columbia with classmates Ruth Benedict and Margaret Mead (who got a bit creatively carried away with the cultural relativity bit in the South Pacific).

Hurston’s transcription of Kossola’s dialect is inconsistent, slaloming between her efforts at accurate transcription and reversion to more conventional English when the task became overwhelming.

Barracoon: The Story of the Last “Black Cargo,” the book that resulted from Hurston’s interviews with Kossola, remained unpublished until May 2018. Back in 1931, Viking Press rejected it. They would only accept the manuscript if Hurston rewrote Kossola’s vernacular into standard English. They had a point (though not the one I want to make right here). Hurston’s transcription of Kossola’s dialect is inconsistent, slaloming between her efforts at accurate transcription (which she thought essential) and reversion to more conventional English when the task became overwhelming. Additionally, according to novelist Alice Walker’s foreword in the book, “There was concern among ‘black intellectuals and political leaders’ that the book laid uncomfortably bare Africans’ involvement in the slave trade.”

And that’s not the only inconvenient truth buried in Barracoon. Hurston, a black female anthropologist, was an independent thinker. She opposed school integration and programs that guaranteed blacks a right to work. In 1955 she claimed that "adequate Negro schools" already existed. (See John M. Eriksen, Brevard County, Florida: A Short History to 1955, chapter 13; and "Negro Writer Opposes Court Ruling,” Titusville Star Advocate, September 30, 1955, p. 2.) And she was a Republican during the New Deal.

Although John McWhorter, a linguist and Associate Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia, has called Hurston "America's favorite black conservative," she’s been more properly characterized as a libertarian by David and Linda Beito ("Isabel Paterson, Rose Wilder Lane, and Zora Neale Hurston on War, Race, the State, and Liberty," Independent Review 12, Spring 2008) She was no social conservative and, in foreign policy, was a noninterventionist. And then there are the controversial watermelons.

Although John McWhorter has called Hurston "America's favorite black conservative," she’s been more properly characterized as a libertarian.

Kossola lived life to his own rhythms, tending his gardens and active in his church. To ingratiate herself with him and unlock a volubility concealed behind an apparent reticence, Hurston would bring peaches, hams, and watermelons as gifts. Once they shared an entire iced watermelon, gnawed down to the rind, taking up all their allotted interview time but unlocking a trust and warmth that sealed a lasting friendship. Whether the association of watermelons and blacks’ taste for them already existed is a question best left to pop historians. But Alice Walker in her foreword to Barracoon again picks up a racial trope, “Imagine how many generations of black people would never admit to eating watermelon!”

* * *

Kossola, an Isha Yoruba, was captured in a slave raid by the army of King Glélé of Dahomey (in present-day Benin), which consisted of about 7,000 male and 5,000 female warriors — the renowned Dahomey Amazons. He was 19 and engaged to be married. His village was stormed by the Amazons, all belted with the dangling heads of opponents killed in battle. Kossola reported that they were the equal of any man. The old and infirm were decapitated on the spot (so much for the nurturing nature of the gentler sex). Meanwhile, the male Dahomey warriors were stationed at the gate posts to ambush and capture the fleeing villagers, Kossola among them.

After about four weeks in transit, three spent in a barracoon — a holding cell for newly-captured slaves — the captives were treated to a big feast by their captors: “the people of Dahomey come bring us lot of grub for us to eatee ’cause dey say we goin’ leave dere. We eatee de big feast,” recalled Kossola.

Captain William Foster, owner, builder, and skipper of the Clotilda — which was anchored outside the surf zone (the port of Whydah lacking any docking facilities) — purchased 130 of the captives. He chose equal numbers of males and females. Although offered, he “preemptorily” [sic] forbade their branding. Each captive cost $50 to $60 on the coast but could be sold in Alabama for about $800 apiece (nearly $23,000 in today’s money).

His village was stormed by the Amazons, all belted with the dangling heads of opponents killed in battle.

Foster’s fellow investors in this slaving venture consisted of the brothers Jim, Tim, and Burns Meaher from Maine. The Captain carried $9,000 in gold. The Clotilda was manned by a crew of 12 (all Yankees), including him. Although the importation of slaves had been illegal since 1808, the Meahers, who owned a mill and shipyard, built swift vessels for blockade running and “filibustering expeditions.” At the time, smuggling slaves from Cuba was common practice.

Transporting and loading the captives into the Clotilda through the heavy Atlantic surf required the services of skilled men of the Kroo tribe, men, an ethnic group of independent operators who specialized in negotiating breakers with sleek surf boats. Their skills as mariners were so expert that the Royal Navy enlisted many of them from 1820 to as late as 1924. But Kroo canoes had limited capacities. Kossola, naked and terrified, thought he’d breathed his last. He was the last captive loaded onto the Clotilda.

After 116 of the slaves had been brought on board, Foster became aware of possible treachery involving Dahomans planning to recapture the cargo and holding him hostage. He immediately gave orders to abandon the cargo not already on board “and to sail away with all speed.”

Kossola, naked and terrified, thought he’d breathed his last. He was the last captive loaded on board.

The Clotilda got away, but the next day was chased by an English cruiser on the lookout for slavers. Foster escaped by pressing sail. The slaves down in the hold were in cramped conditions (although they had much more space — five feet of headroom — than many slaves in previous Middle Passage transports) After being kept below decks for 12 days, mainly because of real or false alarms, they were brought on deck so they might limber up. The captain ordered the crew to help them walk and exercise. For the rest of the passage, except for the twentieth day, when another British cruiser was spotted, and near the end, on the approach to Mobile, they spent most of their time on deck — 116 slaves to 12 crew. Only two died. The crossing took 70 days.

According to Hurston, the Clotilda arrived in Mobile Bay under cover of darkness in August 1859 (other sources say July 9, 1860). Fear of discovery and prosecution, and the fact that blacks illegally brought in could not be enslaved, made their sale problematic. In fact, Foster and the Meahers were later tried in federal court in Mobile, though not convicted, for lack of evidence: the Clotilda and its manifest had been burned and sunk, the black captives well hidden. Other sources say they were found guilty and charged heavy fines, which were never paid. The outbreak of the Civil War prevented further pursuit of the case.

Forty-eight of the slaves were secretly sold. The remaining 60 (according to one of the discrepant sources) were divvied up among the principals: James Meaher took 32 (16 couples), Burns Meaher took ten, Tim Meaher eight, and Captain Foster ten. Kossola went to Jim Meaher, where he acquired the name Cudjo Lewis. “Cudjo” was a name given by the Akan people of Ghana to children born on a Monday, while “Lewis” is probably a corruption of Kossola’s father’s name, Oluale, which Meaher had difficulty pronouncing.

The Clotilda was chased by an English cruiser on the lookout for slavers. Foster escaped by pressing sail.

Cudjo reported that they were not immediately put to work; first they were trained by American slaves, who ridiculed the Africans for their ignorance and “savage” ways. He became a stevedore loading wood for Jim Meaher’s cargo boats on the Mobile to Montgomery run. He was worked hard, but praised his master for taking good care of his slaves:

Cap’n Jim, he a good man. He not lak his brother, Cap’n Tim. He doan want his folks knock and beat all de time. He see my shoes gittee ragedy, you know, and he say, ‘Cudjo, if dat de best shoes you got, I gittee you some mo’!’ Now das right. I no tellee lies.

“Cap’n” Tim’s brother Burns was also cruel, but it seemed to have its limits. Cudjo reported that their slaves worked the brothers’ plantation fields:

Dey got overseer wid de whip. One man try whippee one my country women and dey all jump on him and takee de whip ‘way from him and lashee him wid it. He doan never try whip African women no mo’.

This astonishing account of slave resistance without repercussions is reminiscent of a similar incident reported by Frederick Douglass in his autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave.

* * *

Douglass was a proud, headstrong man. Like my brother John, who was drafted for the Korean War — and looking forward to proudly serving his country, only to be discharged for being “temperamentally unsuited to taking orders” — Douglass was not cut out for servitude, though instead of “proudly serving his master,” he just complied with performing his duties . . . as long as he was treated with respect.

As a boy, Douglass had not only been treated well, he’d been taught to read and write. But he ended up with a master with “quite a number of differences” with him. During the nine months he spent with Master Thomas, “he had given me a number of severe whippings, all to no good purpose.” So Thomas decided to send Douglass to Edward Covey, a man who, for a price, specialized in breaking recalcitrant slaves.

After a series of particularly brutal beatings, Douglass decided — to his own surprise — to fight back.

Covey set about the task with alacrity, putting Douglass to brutal work in the fields: “During the first six months, scarce a week passed without his whipping me.” He was treated so brutally that he admitted that at one point “Mr. Covey succeeded in breaking me.” But this was not to be permanent.

After a series of particularly brutal beatings, Douglass decided — to his own surprise — to fight back . . . come what may. During a two-hour tussle, Douglass “drew blood” and got, by far, the better of the encounter. Covey retreated. “The whole six months afterward, he never laid the weight of his finger upon me in anger. This battle with Mr. Covey was the turning point in my career as a slave.” From then on, civility — or what passes for civility in a master-slave relationship — was the order of the day. Douglass performed his duties; Covey let him be.

Douglass’ analysis of the event demonstrates the intelligence and wisdom of this young man. Covey could only go so far. Slaves were extremely valuable property: to render one unfit for service was financial suicide — not to mention that Douglass wasn’t his slave (or that Douglass had seriously beaten Covey).

Mr. Covey enjoyed the most unbounded reputation for being a first rate . . . negro-breaker. It was of considerable importance to him. That reputation was at stake; and had he sent me — a boy about sixteen years old — to the public whipping post, his reputation would have been lost; so, to save his reputation, he suffered me to go unpunished . . . I was nothing before; I was a MAN NOW.

The incident was so pivotal to his life that Douglass filled 11 pages of his first book on it, and 32 in the subsequent autobiography. In contrast (and I digress here somewhat), David W. Blight in his Pulitzer Prize-winning biography, Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom, gives it only two pages and ignores Douglass’ analysis and insights.

Slaves were extremely valuable property: to render one unfit for service was financial suicide.

I suspect an ideological bias, such as surfaces in his introduction:

[Douglass was] a proponent of classic nineteenth-century political liberalism . . . he strongly believed in self-reliance . . . but fundamentally was not a self-made man.

Let’s take a closer look at these assertions. Inserting “nineteenth-century” between “classic” and “liberalism” implies, to these libertarian sensibilities, that classic liberalism was an outdated, even discarded philosophy. But nothing could be further from the truth. Classic liberalism is alive and thriving today. And to say that Frederick Douglass, the epitome of a self-made man, was not a self-made man is to contradict all the evidence contained in Blight’s flawed tome. In at least a dozen instances in the book — instances of Douglass solving problems, escaping bondage, rising to the occasion, creating opportunities, helping others — Blight is unambiguously forced to aver that Douglass was in fact a “self-made man,” using those exact same words (p. xv).

Inserting “nineteenth-century” between “classic” and “liberalism” implies that classic liberalism was an outdated, even discarded philosophy. But nothing could be further from the truth.

Douglass’ examination of Mr. Covey’s behavior is a classic liberal analysis of conduct based on economic self-interest, a perspective that Blight either refuses to acknowledge or completely ignores. It does not fit his worldview, and he refuses to give it air time — in spite of the fact that Douglass’ analysis of the event was a formative experience in his life.

Blight reveals his biases more artlessly whenever he mentions Republicans — never mind that, for abolitionists, Republicans were the only game in town. About the 2013 unveiling of a statue of Douglass in Washington DC, Blight’s introduction condescendingly observes:

Congressional Republicans walked around proudly sporting large buttons that read FREDERICK DOUGLASS WAS A REPUBLICAN. Douglass descendants present, as well as some of us scholars with, shall we say, different training and research, smiled and endured.

Yes . . . that was in 2013. But Blight can’t help projecting modern biases into the past, through subtle wording and innuendo throughout the book, especially when Douglass becomes active in Republican Party politics. This is but one reason why the book was a chore to get through. Blight is no Ron Chernow or Robert Caro.

* * *

But back to Cudjo Kossola Lewis. The Africans were unaware of the start of the Civil War, but when the Union blockade and the surrounding fighting made food scarce, “Cap’n Jim Meaher send word he doan want us to starve, you unnerstand me, so he tell us to kill hogs. He say de hogs dey his and we his, and he doan wantee no dead folks.”

On April 12, 1865, only three days after Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, but five or six (some sources say four) years of Cudjo’s life as a slave in America, Union soldiers told him he was free. The Africans celebrated by making drums and beating them “lak in de Affica soil.” Their first inclination was to return to Africa: “dey [the Meahers and Foster] ought take us back home.”

When they discovered the cost of such an improbable venture, they nonetheless worked hard and saved their money. But finally deciding that going back to Africa was unrealistic, they deputized Cudjo to approach the Meahers for land to settle on. Tim, the meaner of the Meahers, jumped to his feet and responded, “Fool, do you think I goin’ give you property on top of property? I tookee good keer my slaves in slavery and derefo’ I doan owe dem nothing? You doan belong to me now, why must I give you my lan’?

Union soldiers told him he was free. Cudjo and the other Africans celebrated by making drums and beating them “lak in de Affica soil.”

Notwithstanding Tim’s rebuff, James, the kinder and gentler Meaher, might have helped finalize the deal. The Africans bought Meaher land three miles north of Mobile at Magazine Point, establishing a settlement they called Africatown — but now known as Plateau — in 1866 (the date Hurston provides, but according to Sylviane A. Diuf, in the Encyclopedia of Alabama, Cudjo bought two acres on September 30, 1872 for $100 — or about $2,000 today).

Cudjo became a naturalized American citizen, married, had six children, and became sexton of his church. In 1902, while driving his buggy over train tracks, he was hit by a train and injured. A sympathetic white lady who saw the accident ensured he was well taken care of and told him he had a case against the railroad. Cudjo knew nothing about American law. The lady hooked him up with a lawyer who took on contingency his case against the Louisville and Nashville Railroad. Cudjo won and was awarded $650.

But he never collected. Cudjo reported that after the verdict, a yellow fever epidemic hit Mobile. The lawyer and his family headed north to safety, but on the way the lawyer died. Yet another source (Encyclopedia of Alabama) says that the verdict was overturned on appeal.

Cudjo Kossola Lewis died on July 17, 1935.

* * *

In these times of “fake news,” the publication of Barracoon — finally — should be a breath of fresh air. I say this notwithstanding the fact that while writing this review I discovered so many discrepancies in the account that I’m left wondering how to account for them: a year’s difference in the arrival of the Clotilda in Mobile; the number of years Cudjo spent in bondage; the resolution of Cudjo’s lawsuit; Hurston’s purported plagiarism from earlier sources; and other, more minor controversies. They seem to be endemic to the genre.

Whatever the causes of the discrepancies in Kossola’s story, at least they don’t seem to be rooted in ideological manipulation — a shortcoming that has bedeviled American slave narratives since at least the times of William Lloyd Garrison. Antebellum abolitionists resorted to widespread hyperbole concerning the horrors of slavery in order to convince an ill-informed and often indifferent public.

While writing this review I discovered so many discrepancies in the account that I’m left wondering how to account for them.

Yes, I know, you’re thinking, How can one overstate the evils of slavery? It’s like exaggerating the fires of hell. I don’t know about you, but accuracy works best to convince me about anything. When people resort to lies, or just don’t check their facts well enough, I lose trust, no matter how well-intentioned the narrative may be.

The altering of facts continues to this day. The movie 12 Years a Slave, based on the book by the same title (and reviewed in these pages by Jo Ann Skousen, “A Slave Narrative, and More,” November 10, 2013), contains at least four falsifications, all of which are ideologically based. As Jo Ann points one out:

Some of the vignettes simply don’t ring true, as when the lecherous and sadistic slave owner, Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender) whips Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o) almost to death because she has spoken back to him. Patsey is his most productive slave. She picks twice as much cotton every day as any of the men do. She is a valuable, unblemished piece of property, even if he doesn’t acknowledge her humanity. It does not make sense that he would destroy such a valuable capital good in a fit of pique.

The movie depicts William Ford (played by Benedict Cumberbatch), the slave owner, in quite another light than Northup, the slave (played by Chiwetel Ejiofor), described him in his book: “There never was a more kind, noble, candid, Christian man than William Ford.”

Only the well-off could afford to own slaves before the war, and they weren’t likely to burn $23,000 for fun.

Falsifications like the one Skousen points out are particularly egregious. Not only do they go against basic economic theory but they paint human nature in the worst light possible.

This out of The Atlantic:

In the film version, shortly after Northup is kidnapped, he is on a ship bound south. A sailor enters the hold and is about to rape one of the slave women when a male slave intervenes. The sailor unhesitatingly stabs and kills him. This seems unlikely on its face — slaves are valuable, and the sailor is not the owner. And, sure enough, the scene is not in the book. A slave did die on the trip south, but from smallpox, rather than from stabbing.

But the worst one, which I haven’t seen referenced, was a passage in the book where Northup is sent on an errand that requires crossing a gator-infested bayou. Along the way, he encounters an alligator, and sweats bullets. In the movie the scene is changed. Instead of an alligator, he encounters two rednecks whooping it up hanging a black.

Please!

The heydays of lynching blacks were after the Civil War, not the 1840s, when slaves were worth about $23,000, average, in today’s money. And though crackers were the foot soldiers of the Ku Klux Klan during and after Reconstruction, only the well-off could afford to own slaves before the war, and they weren’t likely to burn $23,000 for fun.

Barracoon discloses some inconvenient truths, and in doing so, to my mind, enhances the credibility of the horrors of slavery by revealing not just its inhumanity but the glimpses of humanity that at times appeared. Caricatures and satire only succeed with the ignorant and the convinced.

In the movie the scene is changed. Instead of an alligator, he encounters two rednecks whooping it up hanging a black.

And instances of behavior that tempers the conventional narrative of slave societies run through many slave biographies. Besides Douglass’ and Northup’s (dictated, despite Northup’s literacy, to David Wilson), check out The Life of Olaudah Equiano, Prince Among Slaves; Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl; The History of Mary Prince; and The Barber of Natchez (a free black in 1830s Mississippi).

Perhaps it’s our knowledge of the Holocaust that makes some of us project its atrocities back onto our slavery era. I don’t know. But for now, let’s keep the two separate and not make too many generalizations about universal human behavior. Truth is the best antidote to propaganda, however well-intentioned.


Editor's Note: Review of “Barracoon: The Story of the Last ‘Black Cargo,’” by Zora Neale Hurston. Amistad, 2018, 171 pages.



Share This


Joker: Nothing But Scary PR?

 | 

In 1960 Alfred Hitchcock created a trailer for Psycho unlike any other. Instead of editing together a composite of actual scenes from the movie, he took audiences on a six-minute tour of the Bates Motel and mansion, telling them where certain murders would take place — including the famous “ba-a-a-athroom” — without revealing who would be killed, or by whom. He also warned audiences that they would not be admitted to the theater after the film had begun, a revolutionary concept in an era when it was common to enter a theater whenever you happened to arrive and then stay through until it had looped back to your personal starting point — when you would get up and leave, often uttering the phrase, “This is where I came in.” Some theaters took Hitch’s kitschy trailer one step further, assuring audiences that medical personnel would be on the premises to treat the fainthearted.

I was reminded of this innovative marketing plan during the week before Joker opened, when somber-faced newscasters offered advice to those who planned to see it: “Look around for people who might be in the theater alone”; “Have a plan if the theater is attacked”; and “Always know where two exits are located.” Despite their somber faces I had to wonder — what’s their motive here? Was it just helpful advice? Or was there more? Did I detect a tinge of hope that a big news story was on the horizon, a shooting of hurricane proportions? Or was the hype part of the marketing scheme, focused more on helping the advertisers than the viewers? Certainly I sensed a bit of hypocrisy from an industry that calls for gun control in its political posturing while producing films full of violence.

It’s the sympathetic victimization of the Joker that troubles most fans and many critics, yet it’s what makes the character so fascinating.

The news hype led me to wonder whether I should risk the copycats and wannabes who might be goaded into taking a gun into a packed theater. Did I feel lucky? Well did I, punk? I also expected a film full of torture and gore, based on the warnings, which made me wary. In addition, fans carped about the audacity of creating a sympathetic backstory for Batman’s most famous nemesis, a psychologically twisted character steeped in pure evil. Meanwhile, the New York Times wondered in its review what all the fuss was about. I decide to find out for myself.

It’s a terrific movie, and would be so whether or not it was a backstory for a Batman character; the Batman references that weave in and out of the story are surprising and satisfying but not necessary. The movie could stand on its own as a film tracing the dark psychological journey of a man struggling to find happiness and acceptance while dealing with psychiatric issues stemming from a tortured childhood. It’s the sympathetic victimization of the Joker that troubles most fans and many critics, yet it’s what makes the character so fascinating. In his journal the Joker writes, “The worst part about having a mental illness is that people expect you to behave as if you don’t.” That’s probably true, and most of us are guilty of having had that expectation.

The film is set in 1970s Manhattan — er, I mean Gotham — when Times Square was home to derelicts, gangs, and XXX peepshows. A Guiliani-esque voice excoriating the filth and promising to clean it up is heard on the radio as the film opens. Little does he know the filth that is building up in one of his citizens.

When it does happen, the onscreen violence is shockingly quick and bloody, but not gruesome.

Before becoming the Joker, Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) is a wannabe comedian who works as a clown-for-hire, writes potential jokes in the journal his psychiatrist has prescribed as therapy, and lives with his mother, Penny Fleck (Frances Conroy) — dotes on her, really. He washes her hair while she’s taking a bath, smiles when she tells him to “put on a happy face,” and crawls into bed with her to watch “The Murray Franklin Show” –a program starring Robert De Niro and based not-so-loosely on “The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson.” The distinctive Ed McMahon chuckle of Murray’s sidekick on the couch is a subtle contrast to Arthur’s uncontrollable stress-induced laughter, a malady akin to Tourette’s Syndrome. In a later scene he curls up beside his mother’s pillow à la “A Rose for Emily” (a scene also alluded to in the Psycho trailer). Something is not quite right in the Fleck home. The Psycho connection I noted before seeing the movie turns out to be fairly apt, and not just for the marketing scheme. A bit of Marnie enters into this story as well.

Less bloody than any Tarantino flick, Joker has a way of creating suspense that is more akin to Hitchcock than to a slasher or gangster film. In fact, much of the killing takes place off screen, leaving the viewer to wonder what actually happened in an eerie, “surely he didn’t . . . ?” kind of hopefulness. The soundtrack, heavy on deep bass bowing and street percussion, and the lighting, full of flickering shadows, is also reminiscent of Hitchcock’s style. When it does happen, the onscreen violence is shockingly quick and bloody, but not gruesome. Very crazy, and very effective.

What makes this film work is its star. Joaquin Phoenix reaches deep into the quirks and self-deceptions of a man both victimized and victimizer, a man who laughs because he’s crying. He deliberately avoided portraying the symptoms of any single disability because he didn’t want audiences to smugly diagnose the Joker and thus think they understand him. Phoenix said in an interview, “I was never certain what was motivating him. I have my own opinion. I think I know what it is for me. But I wouldn't want to impose on anyone who hasn't seen the movie." This makes his character utterly unpredictable and devastatingly dangerous.

Artie’s killing sprees are often followed by an oddly erotic celebratory dance made more macabre by Phoenix’s 52-pound weight loss to prepare for the role. Phoenix said of his extreme dieting, “What I didn't anticipate was this feeling of kind of fluidity that I felt physically. I felt like I could move my body in ways that I hadn't been able to before. And I think that really lent itself to some of the physical movement that started to emerge as an important part of the character." That fluidity of motion extends to a fluidity of character, moving between pathos and demonic psychosis.

Should we empathize with a school shooter, if we discover that he had a tortured youth? Does victimhood give the criminal a pass?

So what is Joker’s own backstory? I won’t reveal too much, but I will say that a couple of moments made me gasp with surprise. Like many kids with tortured backgrounds, Artie is isolated, lonely, and frustrated. He’s picked on, bullied, beaten, and laughed at. His dream of becoming a standup comedian is thwarted by his handicap of uncontrollable laughter that worsens with the adrenaline that comes from facing an audience.

Moreover, his therapist is pretty useless. She provides pills when he asks for them and recommends he keep a journal. She asks him questions, but seems not to listen to the answers. He wants help, but he isn’t getting much of it. And what little he is getting comes to an end when funding is cut by the mayor (yes, we can blame the government for creating the Joker). This too feels like a warning about the dangers lurking in school hallways today, where troubled kids are allowed to fester without help until they erupt with a cascade of gunfire. Zazie Beetz, who plays Artie’s love interest, rejected the idea of the Joker as a sympathetic character but told an interviewer, “It’s kind of an empathy toward isolation, and an empathy towards what is our duty as a society to address people who slip through the cracks in a way. There is a lot of culture of that right now. So is it empathy for that or just an observation on personalities who struggle?”

Good question. Should we empathize with a school shooter, if we discover that he had a tortured youth? Does victimhood give the criminal a pass? We are definitely made to feel sorry for Artie, and thus to understand his motivation for killing, even as we are horrified by what he does. For that matter, is it fair to see Bruce Wayne as a hero and Artie Fleck as a villain, when both are driven by a desire for justice and revenge? This is where Arthur Fleck departs from Batman’s Joker. Joker is amoral, detached, cold, and brilliant. Arthur is all emotion, his tormented laughter coming from a place of deep personal pain. The Joker is heartless; Artie is all heart. The result is a fascinating case study of a psycho.


Editor's Note: Review of "Joker," directed by Todd Phillips. Warner Brothers, 2019, 122 minutes.



Share This


After-Death Experience

 | 

Judy Garland appeared in 40 movies, earned a Juvenile Academy Award, two additional Oscar nominations, a Golden Globe, a Special Tony Award, and was the first woman to win a Grammy for Album of the Year. She was the youngest entertainer and first woman to receive the Cecil B. DeMille Award for lifetime achievement in the film industry — when she was just 39 years old. She was such a professional that, during her heyday, she could deliver dialogue, lyrics, and choreography in just one take. She starred regularly opposite Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire, and, of course, Mickey Rooney. She is remembered as one of the greatest entertainers of the 20th century; in fact, the American Film Institute lists her eighth among the greatest female stars of the Golden Age of cinema. Camille Paglia wrote in 1998 that Garland “makes our current crop of pop stars look lightweight and evanescent.” James Mason, her costar in A Star is Born, said in his eulogy at her funeral, “Judy’s great gift was that she could wring tears out of hearts of rock.”

None of this illustrious career appears in Judy, the new film based loosely on Peter Quilter’s play “End of the Rainbow” and even more loosely on Garland’s life. Just as the producers of Iron Lady chose to focus on the sad end of Margaret Thatcher’s life after dementia had set in, director Rupert Goold focuses on the humiliating end of Garland’s career. Moreover, Judy takes more liberties than a drunken sailor in playing fast and loose with the facts. Events are combined and reordered, characters are condensed or eliminated, and her final husband, Michael Deans (Finn Wittrock), leaves her several months before her death, when in fact they had been married only three months when she died, and he was the one who found her that day.

James Mason, her costar in A Star is Born, said in his eulogy at her funeral, “Judy’s great gift was that she could wring tears out of hearts of rock.”

The result is more an artistic impression of Garland than a documentary of the end of her life. It’s far from accurate, and far from complete. Liza Minnelli posted on her Facebook page that she has never met Renee Zellweger, who plays Garland, and that she did not sanction the film.

Nevertheless, it is a terrific movie that finds its theme and its purpose in the end, and Zellweger is surprisingly good in the role, from her sideswept haircut to her sideways smile to her fragile insecurities. Occasionally she even achieves that searching depth of Garland’s luminous brown eyes. And her voice is good — not Garland good, but good enough that I searched the credits to see who had dubbed her voice. (Zellweger actually did her own singing, after a year of training.)

The picture opens with Garland hawking her young children Lorna and Joe Luft onstage, much as her own mother had hawked her as a child actress. She is penniless, homeless (thanks to the IRS), fragile, and humiliated. Desperate to earn enough money to buy a home where she can maintain custody of her children, she accepts a contract to perform in London, where her insecurity about her voice often leads to disaster. Slugging down pills with booze, she staggers to the microphone, performs (sometimes well, sometimes not so well), and staggers back off. As she pops pills or eschews food or experiences insecurity, the scene flashes back to the young Judy (Darci Shaw) filming The Wizard of Oz, with Louis B. Mayer (Richard Cordery) browbeating her and groping her, and with her mother Ethel Gumm (Natasha Powell) urging her to swallow amphetamines “to take the edge off” her appetite, followed by barbiturates to help her sleep. And Judy complies, because that’s her job. We get it: once she became Judy Garland, little Frances Gumm never had a chance at happiness. According to the movie, the booze and pills were not her fault.

What they do next is a hint of the life that Judy will later have, living on as an icon of gay culture.

Jessie Buckley is terrific as Rosalyn Wilder, the stoic, inventive, and eventually sympathetic young theater publicist assigned to make sure Judy is happy, sober, dressed, and ready for each performance. Rufus Sewell is heartless but pragmatic as ex-husband Syd Luft, bent on providing a stable home for their children, even if it means breaking Judy’s heart and spirit. And while Zellweger doesn’t quite channel Garland (as though anyone could) she delivers a fine performance that could well garner an Oscar nod come January. Kudos as well to the set and costume designers for providing well-coordinated splashes of color throughout the film, a deliberate reminder perhaps that Garland was known as the queen of Technicolor (or perhaps just a happy serendipity).

Garland died of an overdose in 1969, unaware of the remarkable life after death that awaited her. Despite the sadness and tragedy of her final years, the film ends on a hopeful, almost joyful note, hinting at her rebirth. Two fans befriend her at the stage door one night and invite her to their flat for supper. They’re gay, and one of them has spent six months in jail for it. Little is spoken, but Judy expresses her empathy and support with gesture and song as they sing together at the piano. It is very intimate, and very touching. The two men are in the audience again at her final concert when her voice falters while she sings “Rainbow.” What they do next is a hint of the life that she will later have, living on as an icon of gay culture. The unity is simply astonishing, and brought many in the movie audience to tears. If establishing this future connection was Goold’s intent in making the movie, he succeeded admirably.

On a recent cruise I joined the nightly standing-room throng to hear Perry, the ship’s wonderfully irrepressible, sequin-clad piano lounge singer. His between-song patter was delightful and often began with an exaggerated, “Who here doesn’t remember 1947 when Judy . . .” or “Who here doesn’t think Judy should have played the role of . . .” or “Who here doesn’t listen daily to Judy’s double album . . .” etc. If, as Abe says in Simon Stephens and Nick Payne’s “Sea Wall / A Life,” we live until the last person utters our name, Judy will never die.


Editor's Note: Review of "Judy," directed by Rupert Goold. BBC Films, 2019, 118 minutes.



Share This


Divulged and Then Forgotten

 | 

You remember the Katharine Gun story, right? The British “Ed Snowden” who leaked a damning National Security Administration email that urged wiretaps and extortion in order to influence the UN vote in favor of invading Iraq, back in 2003? And you remember the British “Neil Sheehan,” Martin Bright, who got hold of the document and published it on the front page of the Observer in early March of that year? Surely Gun went to prison and Bright won a Pulitzer, right? Together they prevented the war in Iraq? No? You don’t remember?

Well, that’s because only the first half of the above scenario actually happened. Gun did leak the document, and the Observer did run Bright’s story on its front page, on March 2, 2003. All hell should have broken loose, and support for the war, already shaky in some quarters, should have ended. Nevertheless, three weeks later George Bush began the Shock and Awe bombing of Iraq. The article, though itself shocking and awful, had little effect, for reasons that are made clear in the movie Official Secrets (and would spoil the experience for you if I revealed them here.)

Full disclosure: I wasn’t entirely against the war when it started. I was living in New York when the Towers were hit. I listened as emergency vehicles screamed their way down Broadway that day. Comforted my daughter when she woke up with nightmares that week. Had nightmares myself when the Metro North trains chugging by at night entered my dreams as thundering military planes. Later, I feared the weapons of mass destruction whose existence Colin Powell confirmed to the UN in calm, measured, insistent tones. Yes, as much as I hate war, I was manipulated by the hype, the news, and my fears. And by that gaping hole in downtown Manhattan, that looked like an abscessed cavity among the skyscrapers as I flew into LaGuardia a month after the attack. But mostly by those weapons of mass destruction.

All hell should have broken loose, and support for the war, already shaky in some quarters, should have ended.

I say this as a reminder that public opinion mattered immensely in the runup to the war. Bush did not want to be seen as the aggressor but as the moral defender. Therefore, he needed the support and approval of the media, the world at large, and the UN in particular. The leaked document could have influenced all three. Indeed, the editorial board of the Observer had supported the war, until its members were convinced that the document was real and they decided to publish the article.

Official Secrets tells this story skillfully, suspensefully, and with reasonable accuracy; Gun was a consultant on the film and spent many hours with director and writer Gavin Hood to help him understand the motivation for what she did, and her experience after she was caught. But as in all films, the story is streamlined and enhanced for dramatic effect. In particular, Gun is married to a Turkish Muslim, Yasar Gun (Adam Bakri), which casts some underexplored suspicion on her motivation. Moreover, whenever a film is based on a true story, the filmmaker has to package it for presentation in a two-hour block with a rising conflict and satisfactory resolution. That requires streamlining events and enhancing or creating certain characters to make it work. But Official Secrets feels like an honest presentation, whether or not it is entirely factual.

Two character lines drive the film: that of the whistleblower Kat Gun (Keira Knightley) — do I dare say she pulls the trigger on the NSA? — and that of the reporters Martin Bright (Matt Smith) and Peter Beaumont (Matthew Goode), who investigate and write the story. All face the same dilemma: how to reveal confidential information without facing jail time.

Yes, as much as I hate war, I was manipulated by the hype, the news, and my fears.

As a low-level translator for the British Government Communications Headquarters, Gun is basically hired to spy, eavesdropping on private conversations and alerting her supervisor if something seems “suspicious.” She is bound by the Official Secrets Act of 1989 not to reveal or even talk about anything she sees or hears or experiences at work. (This becomes particularly onerous when she tries to communicate with her lawyer.) But when reminded that she works for the British government, she counters, “I work for the British people.” Good stuff.

Bright and Beaumont are mostly concerned with authenticity: Is the document real? Can they confirm its source without revealing their own sources? Their efforts to verify create a more suspenseful and compelling storyline than Gun’s relationship with her husband and her fears about their personal risks. To me it’s the best part of the film. Ralph Fiennes as her principled attorney also provides some fine libertarian talking points.

When reminded that she works for the British government, Gun counters, “I work for the British people.”

Both of these topics — spying and ethical journalism — are highly relevant today. My inbox is full of speech-chilling articles about Apple and Google using Siri and Alexa to listen in on private conversations, and even more chilling articles about the draconian “social credit” system arising in China. And as I write this review, the New York Times is trying to justify its decision to run a front-page story dredging up a sexual abuse allegation against Justice Brett Kavanaugh and “accidentally” leaving out a sentence indicating that the presumed victim says that she doesn’t remember the incident. In a particularly dramatic scene, a similar “accident” happens in Official Secrets.

Moreover, the “quick” war in Iraq quickly expanded to Afghanistan and other countries in the Middle East, dragging on for 18 years with no end in sight. Over 5000 US troops have been killed and tens of thousands have been injured. And American good will around the world is at an all-time low.

We really showed them, didn’t we?


Editor's Note: Review of "Official Secrets," directed by Gavin Hood. Entertainment One, 2019, 112 minutes.



Share This
Syndicate content

© Copyright 2020 Liberty Foundation. All rights reserved.



Opinions expressed in Liberty are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the Liberty Foundation.

All letters to the editor are assumed to be for publication unless otherwise indicated.