Wrestling with Reality

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I’m well aware of the old adage, “Never let the facts get in the way of a good story,” so I approach films that proclaim themselves to be “based on a true story” with a healthy dose of skepticism. In the case of Foxcatcher, nominated this week for five Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, and Best Supporting Actor, a phrase used tongue-in-cheek by last year’s American Hustle is more a propros: “A part of this actually happened.”

Some of what we see in Foxcatcher is true: brothers Mark and David Schultz (played in the film by Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo) actually did both win gold medals for wrestling in the 1984 Olympics (in different weight divisions). David did find success as a coach and trainer post-Olympics, while Mark struggled financially (wrestlers aren’t the most marketable athletes for selling toothpaste and breakfast cereal, even when they have gold medals; as one character sniffs in the film, “Wrestling is so low”). Wealthy chemical heir John du Pont (played by Steve Carell) did fancy himself a wrestling coach and did build a state-of-the art wrestling facility on his farm called Foxcatcher. Both Schultz brothers did work as coaches and trainers for du Pont’s team, although never at the same time. From what I can discern, eyewitnesses say that the shocking ending of the film is quite accurate in terms of what happened, but not necessarily in terms of why it happened. New motives have been manufactured for this tale.

However, the middle of the film “doesn’t let the facts get in the way of a good story,” and the story is admittedly much more interesting with the two brothers working at Foxcatcher together, where they display a family dynamic — two brothers abandoned as toddlers by their father (also not true) — that resonates almost voyeuristically with viewers, especially as it is juxtaposed against the bizarre and painful filial dynamic between du Pont and his cold and haughty mother (Vanessa Redgrave) as portrayed — that is, fictionalized — in the film.

When Carell's du Pont smiles he reveals teeth and gums, reminiscent of a shark unhinging its jaw for a kill.

This story focuses on loneliness: the loneliness of gold medalist Mark Schultz as he gives talks to middle schoolers for 20 bucks a pop and eats ramen noodles for dinner because they are filling and can be purchased 10 for a dollar; the loneliness of John du Pont, who has everything money can buy — even friends and medals — but relates to his own mother from a distance; and the loneliness of a mother who cannot accept or appreciate her son and his choices. Mark is looking for a father figure, and du Pont is looking for someone to parent. They fall into these roles through a pathetic sense of desperation.

Only David seems to have a grasp on reality. Married to a smart and sassy wife (Sienna Miller) with two adorable children, he doesn’t need the money or the glory du Pont dangles in front of him. But he does need to protect his brother, and that’s what (in the film) lures him to Foxcatcher. The relationship between these two brothers is deep, intimate, and exclusive, and the two actors fall into their roles with a vulnerability seldom seen on screen between men. In an early scene they prepare for a training session in an elegant, graceful warmup dance. They nuzzle each other like animals testing each other’s strength. Neck-to-neck they press into each other’s shoulders, and then roll across to face each other from the other direction, hands on the other’s back or ribcage, becoming increasingly aggressive as they warm for the match.

Into this relationship comes John du Pont, trying to buy a team, a medal, and a sense of importance. Steve Carell, known for his bumbling comedic roles in TV’s The Office and such movies asGet Smart and Date Night, is about as unlikely a casting decision as one could imagine for the crazed, withdrawn du Pont. But director Bennett Miller could see beyond the comedic roles that have marked Carell’s career. “I think all comedians are dark,” Miller said after casting Carell, and indeed Carell plays du Pont with a reserved aggression that never breaks character. He peers down his large (prosthetic) nose with eyes that are distant and unreadable. When he smiles he reveals teeth and gums, reminiscent of a shark unhinging its jaw for a kill. The real Mark Schultz has said of the real du Pont, “Everything about him was weird, from the dyed red Ronald McDonald hair with layers of dandruff in the roots to his dark yellow teeth, caked with food.” Carell captures this benign yet dangerous person perfectly.

How could someone so disgusting, unlikeable, and antisocial secure a corner for himself as a trainer and a sponsor for USA Wrestling? If the film is to be believed (and remember, it’s “based on a true story”), you can buy just about anything in this world with money. Nonprofit organizations purport to put their cause first, but in reality, the buyer is always right — and in the nonprofit world, the buyer is the one donating the money. It’s not a happy system, but until wrestlers and artists and others who enjoy esoteric pursuits can find a way to sell their efforts directly to the consumers, it’s the only one we have.


Editor's Note: Review of "Foxcatcher," directed by Bennett Miller. Annapurna Pictures, 2014, 129 minutes.



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Swearing In

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They Shoot Cartoonists, Don’t They?

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On the morning of January 7, following the terrorist attack on the Paris office of the satirical journal Charlie Hebdo, CNN was continuously occupied with discussions of the event by various purported experts. On the screen below the talking heads appeared these words: “Is Paris shooting an attack on free speech?”

I believe the answer to that question may just possibly be Yes.

Invading a newspaper office and slaughtering the people who work there, in response to its satires of your religious heroes, does appear, at least on the surface, to be an attack on free speech. Even President Obama, who has been reluctant to say anything that could possibly be considered critical of Islamists, and whose administration tried mightily to blame the Benghazi disaster on an idiot whose so-called movie had supposedly hurt Islamic feelings, immediately stood up and said that what happened in Paris was “an attack on free speech.”

Now, what are the greatest dangers to free speech in the world today?

One is political Islam, in most of its forms. A prominent CNN commentator, a twit named Bobby Ghosh, took care to emphasize the idea that “everyone across the Muslim world agrees that this [the terrorist attack] is not an appropriate response” to critiques of Muhammed and his faith. This idiotic remark went unchallenged by the network’s other twits. But while some Muslim governments have criticized the Paris terrorists, their objection boils down to an attempt to exclude interlopers from their own campaign against freedom. What would have happened to the staff of Charlie Hebdo if they had performed even one satire of Islam within the territory of an Islamic state? They would have been lucky, very lucky, to escape with their lives. There is one successful secular state in the Islamic world, and that is Turkey; and the Turkish government just granted its first permission since 1923 for a Christian church to be built in its domain.

But don’t just blame the Muslims. Western European cultures have never quite gotten the point about the right to free speech. For centuries England has been noted for government pre-censorship of the press and for weird libel laws that allow anyone with hurt feelings to take the nearest free speaker to court. England is the place where the star of an American TV crime show (Telly Savalas) successfully sued a paper for saying that his singing was no good. The other Western European countries have a panoply of hate-speech laws that allow people to be sent to jail simply for what they say or write.

And don’t just blame the Europeans. How long, O Lord, has political correctness been surging in America? It probably started in the 1960s, when leftists sold the idea that it was vicious persecution to call someone a Communist simply because he was a Communist. Senator McCarthy is dead, but anti-McCarthyism still has long teeth. Then came the idea that no one’s feelings should be hurt, and that anyone represented by a pressure group got to decide what is meant by “hurt.” Almost everyone knows, regrets, and laughs at political correctness — but it grows upon us daily. Even the New York cops, a tough bunch if ever there was one, now complain that Mayor De Blasio (admittedly a complete jackass) didn’t simply endanger their lives but went so far as to hurt their feelings.

Don’t just blame the Muslims. Western European cultures have never quite gotten the point about the right to free speech.

We can’t do much about religious fanatics in other lands, but we can do something to clarify our own attitudes. The next time somebody talks about how he’s in favor of “responsible free speech” or “protected free speech” or “speech that is free in the political arena” — all of which means that free speech is not a right but just something you may be allowed if you have a good purpose and don’t “hurt” other people — repeat what Isabel Paterson said: “When we say free speech, we mean free speech, even if you don't know what we mean.”




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There Is No Such Thing as an Innocuous Tax

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On July 17, Eric Garner was accosted by police on the streets of Staten Island, suspected of selling cigarettes on which no tax had been paid. Garner complained, the police tried to arrest him, they got him in a chokehold, and he died as a result. His death has become an issue because he was black.

Do people really need charges of racism before they see how vicious the state can be — how vicious it routinely is — when it enforces its laws?




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Missouri, Compromised

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American political rhetoric is often like American politicians themselves: bland, oblivious, tone-deaf, and inimical to the cause of liberty. Whenever they say stupid things, we mock them for it, and justly so. But there’s another type of political rhetoric less entertaining but often far more harmful: the plain speech of the authority figure refusing to do anything which might in any way challenge the structure of which he is part. This is what we saw last night (Nov. 24) when St. Louis County prosecutor Robert McCulloch announced to the press that the grand jury convened by his office had decided there was no probable cause to pursue charges against police officer Darren Wilson for the fatal shooting of teenager Michael Brown.

Anyone tuning in could be forgiven for thinking that McCulloch was actually speaking for the defense. For more than 20 minutes, he laid out what he saw as the facts of the case, careful to promote the account he found believable—Wilson’s, of course—and to dismiss any others that conflicted with it, all prefaced by an attack on the “24-hour news cycle” that inconveniently demanded facts about a case where very few were made available to anyone outside the secret grand jury proceedings.

In theory, it’s the prosecutor’s job to convene such grand juries so that probable cause might be found, and the case proceed to trial. As Ben Casselman notes, the grand jury is a slam dunk for prosecutors — it is extremely rare for grand juries to refuse to find any reason not to go to trial, except in cases involving police shootings. So how then, in more than 20 years as prosecutor, has McCulloch never managed to successfully recommend charges against a single police officer? It’s not for lack of opportunity.

Anyone tuning in could be forgiven for thinking that McCulloch was actually speaking for the defense.

Potentially, it could have something to do with McCulloch’s father, mother, brother, uncle, and cousin all working for the St. Louis Police Department. Imagine if a case involving a company came before a judge whose entire family worked for that company: if the judge did not recuse himself, it would be grounds for his removal from the bench. Consider also that McCulloch is the present president of The BackStoppers, an organization that funds families of police officers killed or wounded in the line of duty. Of itself, this could be noble work—but McCulloch has been charged by the voters of St. Louis County with pursuing justice, and that means avoiding conflicts of interest or the appearance of partiality. Given his family history, his record of performance on the job, his daily work alongside officers, even his statement that he became a prosecutor because, having lost a leg to cancer as a child, he couldn’t become a cop—one can understand why there were questions raised about his sincerity in presenting this case to the grand jury. And it can definitely help explain why to many, including at least one former prosecutor, it looked like McCulloch had no interest in bringing a case at all.

But instead of recusing himself, McCulloch stayed on, up to the point of calling an inexplicably late press conference to mug for the cameras and urge for “calm” while the Ferguson PD rolled out all the military surplus gear they’ve acquired over the past decade: a troop carrier, sound cannons, riot armor, automatic rifles, and a seemingly endless supply of flashbang grenades and tear gas. (In more typically vapid rhetorical territory, President Obama took center stage soon after to say absolutely nothing whatsoever of substance, while scenes of gassed protestors played alongside him.)

One can entertain reasonable doubts about what happened in the meeting between Wilson and Brown. One could even believe, after considering the evidence as the grand jury supposedly did (in proceedings that cannot be disclosed, by a vote that they are legally obligated to conceal), that Officer Wilson was justified in shooting Michael Brown at least six times. But I struggle to imagine any circumstance under which one could find it appropriate that Robert McCulloch was wielding that authority and giving that speech last night. Because he was, we got the rare spectacle of an American public figure neither leaning on clichés nor bumbling his lines. No: he communicated, at length, exactly what he meant to say.



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The Film You’ve Been Hearing About

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Normally I go to a movie theater with a pen in my hand and a notebook in my lap. Yes, it requires me to break away from the universe created on the screen, but it’s a small price to pay on behalf of my readers. Ten minutes into Gone Girl, however, I put both away and settled back for the ride. Don’t even bother to fasten your seat belt — you’ll want to feel every twist and turn.

It’s a beautiful sunny morning when Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck) arrives at The Bar with a board game under his arm and begins bantering with the barmaid Margo (Carrie Coon), who turns out to be his twin sister. Soon Nick’s phone rings. It’s his neighbor, and he rushes home. His cat is outside. The door is ajar. The glass coffee table is upturned and shattered. There’s a speck of blood on the range hood. And Amy, his wife — his girl — is gone.

Gone Girl is a “whodunit” in the tradition of the best classic murder mysteries but with a modern twist that keeps the audience guessing all the way to the end. Not only do we not know who done it; we don’t even know the answer to “done what?” Amy (Rosamund Pike) is gone, and someone has mopped up a pile of her blood from the kitchen floor. But without a body, homicide detective Rhonda Boney (Kim Dickens) can’t make an arrest. Meanwhile, there’s a boatload of possible suspects in the vicinity, including Nick’s mentally unstable father (Leonard Kelly-Young), Amy’s overachieving parents (Rand Elliot and Lisa Banes), Amy’s spurned former boyfriends (Neil Patrick Harris and Boyd Holbrook), the neighbor down the street who claims to be Amy’s best friend (Casey Wilson), and even Nick’s oh-so-close twin, Margo.

Someone says, “Smile,” and you do. And Greta Van Susteren takes it upon herself to broadcast that photo and give it an entire backstory.

Dark, good-looking, and lantern-jawed, Ben Affleck was obviously cast for his striking resemblance to Scott Peterson, who was tried in the media (and then in court) for the murder of his pregnant wife, Laci, after she went missing on Christmas Eve, 2002. In both the movie and the Peterson case, a wandering pet alerted neighbors that something was amiss. In both, the husband was alone on the water when his wife went missing. In both, the parents of the missing woman supported their son-in-law (until the girlfriend showed up). And in both, the cable news networks made it their lead story every night.

In many ways this story is an indictment of the “trial by media” that has become a regular staple in the daily diet of the news. Simply put, sensationalism sells. “We all know” that JonBenét Ramsey was killed by her father. Unless it was her uptight mother. Or her creepy stepbrother. (Choose a team.) Ed Smart was a prime media suspect in the disappearance of his daughter, Elizabeth, until she was found, alive, nine months later. (To his credit, Sean Hannity came to believe Smart’s story and gave him plenty of competing air time.) Casey Anthony was acquitted of the murder of her little girl, but “everyone knows” she did it; we reviewed the evidence night after night on cable, even before her trial began. Amanda Knox, a college student studying in Italy, was convicted of the murder of her roommate, Meredith Kercher, in part because she was seen kissing her boyfriend and sitting on his lap while waiting to be interviewed by the local police. She just didn’t look distraught enough. And “we all know” what that means.

But we also know what a camera can do in the blink of a lens. Someone snaps a candid photo from across the room while you are in the middle of saying a word or while you are squinting into the sun, and you look angry or sullen or goofy. Someone stands next to you for a photo or a selfie, and you automatically smile, no matter what you are feeling inside. You see a friend across the room, and you smile as you wave hello, even if the occasion is as somber as a funeral or a trial. It’s automatic, even when you’re upset. Someone says, “Smile,” and you do. You just do. And Greta Van Susteren takes it upon herself to broadcast that photo and give it an entire backstory.

The beauty of Gone Girl is that you just don’t know which of the snapshots to believe, or what is going to happen next. It’s a thrill ride of epic proportions, and I’m not going to spoil it for you by saying another word.

Unfasten your seatbelt. It’s going to be a gloriously bumpy ride.


Editor's Note: Review of "Gone Girl," directed by David Fincher. Regency Enterprise-Pacific Standard, 2014, 149 minutes.



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Post-Traumatic Story Disorder

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The latest of our nation’s mass-media-broadcast shootings took place yesterday (April 2) at Fort Hood, where a gunman—according to reports, one Ivan Lopez—murdered 3 and wounded 16 before killing himself.

Given the ghoulishness of the 24-hour-cycle press, it’s unsurprising that their first, hopeful question was whether this was a terrorist attack. Given their stupidity, it’s also unsurprising that, once they found out poor Lopez was just some guy possibly suffering from PTSD following a stint in Iraq, they reached precisely the wrong conclusion: that this wasn’t about terrorism after all.

You idiots. Of course it’s about terrorism. It’s all about our government’s stupid, belligerent, macho response to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, knocking over countries with little or no connection to those attacks, in the mistaken belief that we could run those countries better than they were already being run. It’s all about how Congress and the military have removed hundred of billions of dollars from the American economy in order to build and maintain palatial outposts of Empire, only to strand our people there at the first sign of trouble. It’s all about how we continued to recruit unfledged and underemployed men and women and dispatch them into conditions that favored the advancement of sadists and psychopaths, places where anyone of normal disposition would end up damaged in mind, if not also in body.

When the networks say it’s not about “terrorism,” what they mean was the shooter wasn’t Muslim, or they can’t connect him to any extremist groups at home or abroad—more’s the pity for them, deprived of their latest bogeyman, their newest Tsarnaev or Nidal Hasan. Lopez, if it is him, is just some schmuck they can’t fit into a preexisting narrative; at least, not one they’re willing to broadcast. But the story’s clear enough to anyone who doesn't purposefully blind themselves to it.



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Think Twice

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Prisoners is an aptly named film filled with characters who are all imprisoned in one way or another. The central story involves the search for two little girls, Anna (Erin Gerisamovich) and Joy (Kyla Drew Simmons), who have gone missing on Thanksgiving Day as their families celebrate together. The prime suspect is Alex Jones (Paul Dano), a mentally deficient young man whose camper was seen parked in the girls' neighborhood earlier that day. Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) is the lone-wolf police detective who is determined to find the girls.

Subtle hints suggest that Loki is a prisoner of some childhood trauma. He blinks a little too deeply and a little too long, especially when he is stressed. He works alone and is normally calm, determined, and controlled, but he bristles at his captain's authoritarian attitude and is prone to sudden violent outbursts when he is frustrated. Loki has numerous small tattoos on his fingers and hands, the kind that appear to be self-applied. While investigating the disappearance of the girls, he interviews known sex offenders and hints that he knows the pain of their victims. And he wears on his pinky a small silver ring with the Freemason symbol on it, suggesting metaphorically that he has built a wall around himself. Even his name, Loki, suggests that he is a flawed god.

Even more determined to find the girls is Anna's father, Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman). Dover is drawn initially as a stereotypical right-wing Bible-thumping survivalist. He "prays for the best but prepares for the worst." He has a basement full of survival supplies, sings the Star Spangled Banner in the shower, and recites the Lord's Prayer as he is teaching his son to shoot his first deer. His truck radio is set to a Christian station and a cross hangs from his rear view mirror. But he swears a blue streak and he has a sadistic side that comes from somewhere deep inside his past. He is so certain of Alex's guilt that when the police let Alex go for lack of evidence, he grabs the young man and holds him hostage in an abandoned building where he resolves to beat the truth out of him. For days.

Well, what would you do? the film seems to ask. Wouldn't you break every law, risk every punishment, to rescue your sweet little child? Echoing last year's Zero Dark Thirty, in which torture was used to uncover terror plots, he tells Joy's parents, "We hurt him until he talks. Or they're gonna die."

The scenes of torture are not easy to watch. The rest of the film is. Full of suspense but not of gore, the plot is superbly written and tensely developed. The film is as much about the many prisoners of their past as it is about finding the missing young girls. It exists in the closed universe that is essential for this kind of thriller, and also essential for the central metaphor of prisoners; the characters can hide behind their emotional walls, but they can't escape their setting. There are no good guys or bad guys in this film, just prisoners who do good things and bad things as they try to escape their own private hells.

Prisoners is the kind of film that keeps the viewer engaged long after the credits have rolled and the lights have come up. So much is left unsaid and unexplained about the characters and what makes them tick, yet the clues are all there. Director Denis Villeneuve trusts his audience to figure it out, even if it takes a day or two to exit the maze. It's not the kind of film for lone-wolf reviewers like me, so take someone with you so you can talk about it later. The complexity of the characters will keep you guessing what has happened and what will happen next, even after you learn who done it.


Editor's Note: Review of "Prisoners," directed by Denis Villeneuve. Alcon Entertainment, 2013, 153 minutes. (Use the bathroom before you go in — you won't want to miss a minute!)



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Why Is Arms Control for Civilians Only?

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In the early morning hours of New Year's Day, 2009, Oscar Grant III was killed by an overzealous transit cop in Oakland’s Fruitvale BART Station. He was 22 years old, the father of a four-year-old daughter. Grant and his friends were returning from watching the New Year's Eve fireworks when an altercation started among the revelers on the train. The fight had already ended before the cops arrived, but they still wanted to assert their thuggish authority. Grant was lying face down on the platform when he was shot. Several bystanders caught the arrest and shooting on their cellphones, and these grainy images of the actual event are seen at the beginning of "Fruitvale Station," which tells the story of Oscar Grant's final day of life.

The film is a lot like Gabriel Garcia Márquez's Chronicle of a Death Foretold in that we know from the beginning that Oscar (Michael B. Jordan) is going to be shot, just as we know from the first sentence of Chronicle that this is the day when Santiago Nasar is going to be killed. Nevertheless, both stories are taut and suspenseful because they focus on the "who" and the "why" of the stories rather than the end result. Fruitvale Station is a moving character study of the young man, and of the socioeconomic conditions that influenced his life and death. It is an important film for today, when stories appear of a 95-year-old man who refused medical attention being killed by cops with a beanbag round propelled from a shotgun, and an 18-year-old skateboarder being killed by another taser-happy cop after spraypainting an abandoned building. What ever happened to due process?

Oscar is presented as a generous-hearted young man, the kind who notices others and goes out of his way to help them in simple ways — he's that guy who will reach something from the top shelf of the grocery store for a stranger, or pick up something you need on the way home from work and not let you pay him back. He likes being a nice guy.

But we see a darker side to Oscar, too. He wears a mask of easygoing generosity, but behind that mask he is worried, and he is lying. He has lost his job at the grocery store, and he doesn't want anyone in his family to know it because he doesn't want to disappoint them. He has already disappointed them enough; we soon discover that he has done time in prison for various offenses, including drug dealing. The sad fact is that 40% of black males aged 18–26 are unemployed today, and a large proportion will spend time in prison. When they get out, their chance of finding employment drops even more. Dealing drugs is the fastest and surest way to make some quick cash. But it's also the fastest and surest way of ending up back in prison. Oscar doesn't want to go back.

Without the cellphone record, Oscar's death would likely have been reported as just one more former felon "shot while resisting arrest."

The conflict between the good man Oscar seems innately to be and the outlaw he is struggling to leave behind makes this film much more than a diatribe against police brutality. One of the most powerful moments in the film occurs when Oscar suddenly dons his "prison mask" during a visit with his mother (Octavia Spencer). Another inmate challenges him in the visiting room, and Oscar immediately becomes vicious and challenging in return. In the next moment he is a little boy again, desperate for his mother's understanding and affection. He is like the small dog who bares his teeth and growls menacingly when a larger dog enters his territory. It is a defensive stance, intentionally aggressive and defiant in order to avoid an escalation to physical violence. We see that mask once more during the film, and both times it is a stunning piece of acting.

There are many heroes in this film, but Oscar is not one of them. The film honors his memory, but he is a victim — a victim of poor education, of cultural poverty, and ultimately of random circumstances that put him on that train car in that station at that moment with a scared young cop who didn't know his taser from his service revolver. The true heroes are the ordinary citizens who pulled out their cellphones and began filming the event, even as cops yelled at them to put the phones down. Without that record, Oscar's death would likely have been reported as just one more former felon "shot while resisting arrest." Good riddance. And his friends who were on the platform with him would likely have ended up in jail instead of being released hastily when the police realized they were in deep trouble.

As the late Andrew Breitbart maintained, we have become a militia of journalists, armed with our cellphone cameras and ready at a moment's notice to protect the strangers around us by documenting many kinds of abuse.

Recently when I was picking my son up at the airport, I dutifully circled the terminal at least half a dozen times while waiting for him to arrive. Finally he called to say that he had his luggage and was ready to be picked up. As I pulled to the curb, however, the airport cop yelled at me, "Move along! This area is only for active loading!" I pointed toward my son and opened my door to get out. "Stay in your car and move along!" he yelled again. I pointed again at my son. "I could have you arrested,” he threatened.

"For what?" I demanded. "For picking up my son who is standing right there?"

The cop's arm twitched backward toward his holster. Seriously. For an alleged parking offense. (Maybe that's where he kept his citation pad . . .) At that point the officer noticed that my daughter was filming the whole event on her cellphone. And suddenly his whole demeanor changed. "I'm sorry Ma'am," he said. "It's been a long day. I'm at the end of a double shift." Smile, copper. You're on candid camera.

The film is NR (not rated) because of pervasive ethnic street language that would have garnered an X (filmmakers will opt for NR to avoid the deadly X rating) but for the fact that the language is realistic and appropriate to the cultural environment. Frankly, I'm amazed that the word "nigger" blaring from the hip-hop songs on Oscar's radio would be considered worse than the gore and nudity that earns an R rating, but hey — I don't let the Hollywood police tell me what to watch anyway.

Fruitvale Station won both the Drama Grand Prize and the Audience Award at Sundance this year. It is a powerful film, well worth seeing.


Editor's Note: Review of "Fruitvale Station," directed by Ryan Coogler. The Weinstein Company, 2013, 85 minutes.



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The Zimmerman Verdict

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The trial of the decade (so far) has ended and George Zimmerman is a free man. What are the important points we should take from this?

First, it’s clear that the system worked. Zimmerman received a fair trial. A jury of his peers found him innocent based on the law and the evidence presented at trial. Obviously, Zimmerman was foolish to ignore police advice and continue following poor Trayvon Martin. But he committed no crime in doing so. His actions provoked the confrontation that ended in Martin’s death, but again, under Florida law he was justified in shooting Martin in self-defense. The jury believed that Zimmerman feared for his life, and that’s enough in Florida to justify taking a life, even if the killer instigated the events that led up to the killing.

This trial was not a repeat of the first Rodney King trial, in which a jury consisting of ten whites, one Hispanic, and one Asian was almost certainly blinded by a conscious or unconscious fear of blacks. Nor was it OJ all over again, with a panel practicing jury nullification in support of the defendant. It did, however, resemble the OJ case in that the prosecution was quite inept. The prosecutors were ineffective in all phases of the trial, possibly because they had a weak case to begin with. The defense on the other hand hardly put a foot wrong, aside from the unfortunate knock-knock joke in its opening statement. The authorities also overcharged the case — there was never any prospect of finding Zimmerman guilty of second-degree murder. (Overcharging, by the way, is a tactic used by prosecutors all over the country as a means to get defendants to plead instead of going to trial. As such, it represents a major perversion of our justice system.)

We all should have the absolute right to defend our homes and families from aggression. But public spaces are a different matter.

We can be thankful that the verdict did not lead to major violence. The small-scale thuggery seen in Oakland and L.A. does not compare to the barbarism displayed in South Central L.A. after the King verdict. President Obama, who seems increasingly irrelevant both at home and abroad, performed a useful service by urging calm. On the other hand, the lack of a video in the Zimmerman case may have had as much to do with the absence of major violence as the measured words of America’s mixed-race chief executive.

Millions of people, both black and white, are deeply dissatisfied with the verdict. Many are urging the Justice Department to bring a civil rights case against Zimmerman. Such a case would be very hard if not impossible to prove. This analyst believes Attorney General Holder will decide not to bring a civil rights case against Zimmerman, for the simple reason that it would probably fall apart in court, embarrassing both the Justice Department and the president. That the Attorney General is an African-American probably makes it easier to resist the temptation to file federal charges against Zimmerman. An administration in which all the key players are white might very well feel compelled to do so.

Holder, like the president, has been a moderating voice in the wake of the verdict. This has been his finest hour — or rather, his first fine hour after four-plus years in office. In a recent speech he questioned the concept of Stand Your Ground laws, maintaining that people have a duty to retreat if they can safely do so — but adding the important qualifier, when outside their home. There needs to be a serious debate nationally about the concept of Stand Your Ground. In Vermont, where I live, the law says I should retreat even if a criminal comes onto my property or enters my home. This, to me, is crazy. The idea that I must flee from my home rather than subdue or kill someone coming onto my property with criminal intent repels me. But then Vermont is a crazy place.

In my view we all should have the absolute right to defend our homes and families from aggression. But public spaces are a different matter. It’s true that Zimmerman’s defense team never invoked Florida’s Stand Your Ground law. Nevertheless, that law hung like a storm cloud over the proceedings. The principle of stand your ground as applied to public spaces has led, in this case, to the death of a young man who was simply returning from a trip to the store. A cop wannabe decides to follow a teenage boy (whom he may or may not have racially profiled) despite police advice to desist, and thereby provokes a fight that leads to his shooting the kid to death. Despite these circumstances, the wannabe is innocent in the eyes of the law. The kid is dead; the wannabe walks. Surely in this case the law is an ass.




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