Pages vs. the Silver Screen – 2018 Edition

BlacKkKlansman

BlacKkKlansmanThe real-life Ron Stallworth infiltrated the KKK in the late 70s, but in his movie, director Spike Lee resets the action earlier in the decade and makes some other changes for a stunning result. Every thoughtful American should see this riveting film (trailer), which ping-pongs between comedy and tragedy, passing repeatedly through high drama and providing first-rate acting from a fine cast, start to finish.

The comedy part comes from the ability of Colorado Springs’s first black police officer, Stallworth (played by John David Washington), to convince a local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan and even former KKK Grand Wizard David Duke (Topher Grace) that he’s actually a hate-filled white racist. The tragedy comes from considering that the racial issues that divided the country in the 1970s remain painfully relevant today. In a grim coincidence, I saw this film on August 12, the one-year anniversary of Charlottesville’s deadly white supremacist rally.

Stallworth built his unlikely relationships by phone, but when his physical presence was needed, his white colleague Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) stood in. Spike Lee could have made a predictable film out of this basic material, but he works it, proving nuance and impact. He intercuts footage of a KKK initiation ceremony with scenes from a black student organization’s meeting with an aging civil rights figure (Harry Belafonte). Two speeches received with wild enthusiasm by totally different audiences bookend the story: a compelling stemwinder early in the film by Corey Hawkins as Kwame Ture, the name adopted by former Black Panther leader Stokely Carmichael, and, near the end of the film, a speech by David Duke carefully designed to mask his underlying meaning and make it more palatable to mainstream.

Self-awareness, loyalty, respect, humanity—these values are all on view, as are their opposites.

Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 97%; audiences 77%.

Leave No Trace

Leave No Trace Based on Peter Rock’s 2009 novel My Abandonment, this film, directed by Debra Granik, raises a lot of questions it doesn’t answer (trailer). It was inspired by the true episode, which you can read about on Rock’s website, that in its conclusion is more unsettling than the film.

For four years, Vietnam Veteran Will (played by Ben Foster) has lived with his adolescent daughter Tom (Thomasin McKenzie) in Portland’s 5200-acre Forest Park, their camouflaged encampment further hidden by waist-high vegetation. Will apparently suffers from PTSD, and selling the drugs the VA gives him is one way the pair makes money. They visit the city for groceries and other supplies, though most of their time is spent in the rain forest.

Eventually, they are discovered. Unexpectedly, the authorities make a heroic effort to find a living arrangement that Will can tolerate. Helicopters spook him. Crowds spook him. Many things. For Tom’s benefit, he struggles to adapt to a more regularized life. The love between them is palpable, but will it be enough?

Foster gives a strong performance; McKenzie has received considerable praise, though the scanty dialog doesn’t give her much to work with, and she hits just a few emotional notes. You can count the times she smiles on one hand.

Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 100%; audiences 86%.

The Book – Film Smackdown

Quite a few other movies this year are based on well-regarded books, as noted in this Literary Hub article. Which works better? Based on Book Marks ratings for books and Rotten Tomatoes for films, here’s the score:

  • Both darn good: Annihilation, Crazy Rich Asians, We the Animals, Lean on Pete, Sharp Objects, The Wife, The Looming Tower (I’m watching it on Hulu now)
  • Books markedly better than the movie: Red Sparrow, The Yellow Birds, Ready Player One, On Chesil Beach, Dietland
  • Movies markedly better than the book: Uh-oh.
  • Still to come in 2018: Bel Canto (read the book years ago; looking forward to the film and Ken Watanabe!)

Hidden Figures

Hidden Figures

Octavia Hudson, Taraji P. Henson, & Janelle Monáe

It would be hard not to like this inspiring Ted Melfi movie (trailer) based on the true story of three women—three black women—overcoming early 1960s gender and racial stereotypes to make it in the super-white-male environment of NASA, just as Americans are struggling into space.

Katherine Johnson (played by Taraji P. Henson), Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe), and Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) were powerful role models for their, or any, age. Despite being relegated to the pool of “colored computers,” as the black female mathematicians were called, and despite their superb skills being barely recognized, they showed astonishing levels of patience and tenacity, as the story tells it.

At times, the movie feels like a deserved exercise in myth-making. Families are supportive, kids are perfect, home life is smooth. These women are almost too good. Their lives had to be more complicated than that. But those aspects of their stories are secondary to their achievements in the workplace, and that’s where the movie focuses.

With the recent passing of John Glenn (reportedly every bit as open and truly nice as on screen here), the early days of U.S. space program have disappeared into history. Today’s Americans either weren’t born yet or may have forgotten the fear that gripped the nation when Russia orbited the first satellite, when rocket after rocket blew up on the Cape Kennedy launch pad. When  our education system, at least temporarily, geared up for greater student achievement in math and science.

The pressure on NASA to succeed was enormous, and this is the environment in which these women worked and excelled. Despite their significant contributions five decades ago, something essential about the message has been lost. Between 1973 and 2012, 22,172 white men received PhDs in physics, as did only 66 black women.

I liked this movie; I think the subject is great, and the broader recognition well deserved and too long delayed. The three women play their roles beautifully, as individuals, not symbols. While the subject was new and surprising, the film stakes no new emotional territory. More disappointing, fifty years on, the movie’s “feel-good” moment is quickly trumped by awareness of our society’s persistent racism and gender inequity. Perhaps the fact that this movie has been a top box office draw several weeks running, will help, but I’ve seen that movie before. See it for yourself, feel good, and then ask yourself, what next?

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 92%; audiences 94%.