I Am Not Your Negro


James Baldwin listens intently.

(2016) Documentary (Magnolia) Samuel L. Jackson (narrator), James Baldwin, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Medgar Evers, Dick Cavett, Robert F. Kennedy, Joseph L. Mankiewicz, Barack Obama, John Wayne, Henry Belafonte, Marlon Brando, Charlton Heston, Bob Dylan, Ray Charles, Sidney Poitier, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Rodney King, Michele Obama. Directed by Raoul Peck

 

James Baldwin at one point says in this documentary “The story of America is the story of the Negro and it isn’t a pretty story.” For those who don’t know, James Baldwin was a gay African-American writer who during the Civil Rights era became a prominent and outspoken representative for civil rights. Articulate, intelligent and respected, his was a voice that was angry but one that invited dialogue. There isn’t much of that going on today.

In 1979 he author sent a letter to his literary agent Jay Acton outlining a proposal for a book project entitled Remember the House. In it he said that he wanted to examine the civil rights movement and America itself through the murders of three of his friends; Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King. When Baldwin passed away in 1987 he’d completed only 30 pages of manuscript.

Documentary director Peck wondered what that book might have turned out to be. Using Baldwin’s own words from the Acton letter as well as the manuscript itself (all of which is read by Samuel L. Jackson), he uses archival footage of Baldwin doing talk shows, delivering speeches and lecturing at universities to flesh out the written words.

Peck also uses footage of modern race-related issues like the events in Ferguson, Missouri, the Black Lives Matter movement and the murder of Trayvon Martin to reinforce that the more that things change, the more they stay the same. Baldwin was one of the most brilliant men of the 20th century and he spent a significant portion of his life in self-exile in France, much like leading African-American artists did to escape American racism. That gave him a certain amount of perspective, but he also clearly loved his country and almost inevitably when he felt he needed to lend his voice to what was happening, he would return home.

His observations are eerily timeless, speaking as much to modern audiences as to those of the 50s and 60s. At times it seems he could be talking about incidents that occurred just last week. He speaks in a cultured, urbane voice – something else we’ve lost as a society – and reminds us that once upon a time we had discourse in America, not just attempts to shout each other down. One wonders what he would have thought of the current President and of how social media has changed our country and how we receive information.

This documentary brilliantly weaves the archival and modern images with Baldwin’s words, not only reminding us that he was a great man (which he was) but also that we haven’t learned very much from him. The Oscar-nominated documentary really has a single flaw but it’s kind of a big one; it tends to flog the same points over and over again, but then again perhaps we need that since as mentioned a moment ago we really haven’t learned our lesson yet. Hopefully seeing this documentary might motivate some of you to read some of his books (I know I’m going to be checking out Amazon for at least one or two) but also to remind us that while we have made some progress, we still have a hell of a long way to go.

REASONS TO GO: Powerful and depressing, the film shows us how little we’ve progressed in half a century. Some truly remarkable archival material brings the Civil Rights era to life.
REASONS TO STAY: An element of flogging the same points over and over again does occur.
FAMILY VALUES: Some of the images are violent and disturbing; there is also some profanity including racial slurs, adult themes and brief nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The word “negro” is used 78 times in the film.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: AmazonVudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/20/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 98% positive reviews. Metacritic: 96/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Malcolm X
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: A Dog’s Purpose

Lee Daniels’ The Butler


Not everything in this film is Black and White - but a lot of it is.

Not everything in this film is Black and White – but a lot of it is.

(2013) Period Drama (Weinstein) Forest Whitaker, Oprah Winfrey, David Oyelowo, Cuba Gooding Jr., Terrence Howard, Lenny Kravitz, David Banner, Vanessa Redgrave, Alex Pettyfer, Mariah Carey, Clarence Williams III, Robin Williams, John Cusack, James Marsden, Minka Kelly, Liev Schreiber, Nelsan Ellis, Alan Rickman, Jane Fonda, Joe Chrest, Elijah Kelly, Adriane Lenox. Directed by Lee Daniels

The Civil Rights era was a turbulent time for this country as we were forced to look at a very ugly side of ourselves. That ugliness played out on television screens across the country as deeply held beliefs – generations in the making – erupted to the surface.

Cecil Gains (Whitaker) grew up as a sharecropper’s son on a cotton farm in Georgia. When he was a young boy, he watched his father (Banner) murdered in front of his eyes by the overseer (Pettyfer) for objecting to the overseer raping his wife (Carey). Gains is taken in by the kindly mistress of the house (Redgrave) who teaches him how to be a house servant. With the specter of his father’s murder hanging over him, he decides to leave the employ and venture to Washington DC to find work as a domestic.

He is spotted at a Washington hotel by the Chief Engineer of the White House domestic staff and is given a job as a butler. This of course is a big deal for Cecil and his wife Gloria (Winfrey) who is a bit star-struck and assumes she’ll get a tour of his new place of employment. Cecil, however, is all about keeping his head down and serving those who sit in the Oval Office to the best of his ability. Along with fellow butlers James (Kravitz) and Carter (Gooding), he will serve seven Presidents over nearly 40 years, from Eisenhower (Williams) to Kennedy (Marsden) to LBJ (Schreiber) to Nixon (Cusack) to Reagan (Rickman) and Nancy Reagan (Fonda). He becomes a comforting presence, nearly invisible – the room feels empty when he’s in it.

At home, his wife is the President of his household and he rarely fades into the background there, raising his kids Louis (Oyelowo) and Charles (Kelly). Louis would go off to Fisk University in Tennessee despite his father’s vehement objections (he didn’t move his family away from the South just to see his son go right back into the lion’s den) and his mother’s desire to have him closer to home. There he becomes politicized and becomes a zealous member of the civil rights movement, enduring arrests and beatings. This becomes a wedge between him and Cecil, his father disapproving of his activities while for Louis’ part he is disdainful of his father’s profession, thinking him a subservient Uncle Tom to the white Master, a symbol for his people’s submission and oppression. Both men are wrong, but it will take a tragedy for them to even consider seeing the other’s point of view.

The movie is loosely (and I mean loosely) based on the life of Eugene Allen, who was an African-American butler in the White House from 1948-1996. While there were some similarities of events (for example, Nancy Reagan really did invite the real Eugene Allen to a State dinner but it was on the occasion of his retirement, not the cause of it as it is depicted here), there are a lot of liberties taken with his life story – for example, he had only one son, not two and that  son was not as involved in the Civil Rights movement as Charles is although to be fair, NOBODY was as involved in the movement as he was – Charles is depicted here as being a Freedom Rider, in the inner circle of Martin Luther King (and present at his assassination), a member of the Black Panther party and eventually an activist against Apartheid.

Daniels, who broke out a few years ago with Precious is one of a group of outstanding African-American directors who have begun to build some pretty impressive movies in the last few years. This is his most ambitious work and it has been rewarded with being a breakout hit,. I wouldn’t be surprised if this gets some award consideration, particularly for Winfrey who is absolutely outstanding here.

Yeah, there were times I realized I was watching OPRAH but that was mostly early on and as the movie continues, the audience becomes lost in her performance, watching her chain-smoke her way through the most growth of any character in the movie, showing some all-too-human frailties while maintaining her strength and dignity in the face of increasing loneliness, getting all dressed up and dancing alone to songs on TV variety shows while her husband works, another weekend night alone. It’s quite moving and indicative of how powerful an actress Winfrey is. Her talk show, television network and financial empire have kept her away from acting for the most part but had she continued after her stellar work in The Color Purple she might just have a couple of Oscars on her mantle by now.

While the actors playing the Presidents are eclectic choices for the roles, they at least do them capably and if they don’t necessarily capture the personality of the men they play, they at least capture the dignity and the strength of the office.

There is a bit of Forrest Gump here with Cecil and Louis being thrust into historical events – Cecil as an onlooker and Louis as a participant, further illustrating the gulf between the men. Whitaker is an Oscar winner and has a thankless role; Cecil’s whole existence revolves around him being invisible and it’s hard to make an invisible man interesting. In that sense, Winfrey and Oyelowo carry the movie. The latter turns in a performance that serves notice that he is a force to be reckoned with. I foresee some major roles coming his way.

If there’s a criticism I have for the movie, it’s that it can be overly melodramatic. While there are those who say it trivializes the civil rights movement as an essential side show to the American Presidency and to Cecil’s family drama, I think the scenes depicting the lunch counter sit-in in Nashville and its ensuing violence to the police turning fire hoses and dogs on the marchers from Selma are powerful and moving.

Personally, I wouldn’t have minded the script sticking closer to the real Eugene Allen’s life – it must have been fascinating. Perhaps someday there is a documentary to be made of it, although I suspect it never will be – the butlers would tend to see a more private side of the President than perhaps they might be willing to show to posterity. However, this is indeed a solid movie, generally well-acted if a bit maudlin in places but the power of the history behind the histrionics more than makes up for it.

REASONS TO GO: A visceral reminder of the hardships undergone by African-Americans and civil rights activists in particular. Amazing performances all around.

REASONS TO STAY: Overly melodramatic. Based on a real person but very loosely which the film should at least mention.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is a goodly amount of violence and some images that are graphic. There’s also some sexuality and a fair amount of foul language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Producer Laura Ziskin’s last film before passing away of breast cancer.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/9/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 72% positive reviews. Metacritic: 66/100

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Mississippi Burning

FINAL RATING: 8/10

NEXT: True Legend

J. Edgar


J. Edgar

Armie Hammer and Leonardo di Caprio get a look at the critics who complained about their make-up.

(2011) Biographical Drama (Warner Brothers) Leonardo di Caprio, Armie Hammer, Naomi Watts, Judi Dench, Josh Lucas, Ken Howard, Geoff Pierson, Dermot Mulroney, Zach Grenier, Denis O’Hare, Damon Herriman, Stephen Root, Lea Thompson, Christopher Shyer. Directed by Clint Eastwood

Like the subject of yesterday’s documentary review, J. Edgar Hoover is a polarizing figure. There are those who believe he was the nation’s greatest lawman, a tremendous organizer and meticulous planner who built the Federal Bureau of Investigation from a powerless joke to perhaps the most elite law enforcement group in the world.

However, there are many who look at him as more of a cautionary tale, proof that absolute power corrupts absolutely. His confidential files on many prominent Americans destroyed lives and created a climate of fear that lasted for half a century. Eastwood, a prominent Libertarian, takes on a figure who remains enigmatic more than thirty years after his death, one whose private life was a source of great speculation but of which little is truly known.

Hoover (di Caprio) is embroiled in a feud with Martin Luther King, whom he considers to be a dangerous subversive. He also finds that his legacy is being tarnished and he feels that it is time to remind America just what an important part he played in keeping the country safe, deciding to dictate his memoirs to a parade of agents over the course of several years.

Starting with the Palmer Raids in 1919 when as a lawyer for the Department of Justice, he instituted a task force of Bureau of Investigation agents who would arrest anarchists after a series of bombs (including one at the home of then-Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer (Pierson) who eventually appointed Hoover to his post).

Hoover’s bureau is at first toothless; not allowed by law to make arrests or carry firearms, they function mainly in an advisory capacity and aren’t taken too seriously in the law enforcement community. Hoover recruits men he feels will be above reproach both morally and professionally, including Clyde Tolson (Hammer), a young man that Hoover fancies. However, homosexuality is completely taboo back then and if Hoover has feelings for Tolson, he must hide them well.

Not only from the bureau but from his mother (Dench) who tells him she would rather have a dead son than a live daffodil, referring  to the nickname of a gay acquaintance of the family who killed himself after being outted. Hoover lives with his overbearing mother even though he is the chief of an important bureau in Washington.

Once prohibition begins, the age of the gangster commences. Hoover turns his attention from anarchists and communists to gangsters who are not only running around lawless (and escaping justice by crossing state lines) but have captured the popular imagination. Hoover demands and gets legislation that allows his FBI officers broader powers, including the power to make arrests and carry firearms. When Hoover is criticized for not having personally arrested anyone, he stages arrests to make it look like he was the agent in charge when in reality he was just showing up for the press cameras after the dangerous work was done.

The kidnapping of the son of Charles Lindbergh (Lucas) becomes a game changer. Hoover endures the ridicule of supercilious cops (Mulroney) and watches them bungle the investigation, refusing to use the modern investigative techniques that Hoover (to his credit) was instituting at the FBI. Of course, history records the fate of the Lindbergh baby but it was the FBI who arrested Bruno Hauptmann (Herriman) for the crime.

Eastwood makes clear that Hoover used the tragedy to further his own agenda, which in particular allowed the FBI to be in charge of a central repository of fingerprints . He also used it as publicity to establish the FBI as an organization to be admired; a series of comic books came out portraying Hoover as an action hero, taking down criminals himself (when in fact he did not).

It was about this time that Hoover began keeping private files on public figures, including Eleanor Roosevelt, which he used as potential sources of blackmail to get what he wanted but also to keep an eye on people he considered subversive. Those files would cover figures from politicians to Presidents, actors to musicians, writers to journalists and go well into the 1970s.

The movie deals with Hoover’s private life gingerly, including the rumors of cross-dressing and homosexuality, both of which are disputed to this day. Eastwood intimates that both were in the background but never really acted upon.

The movie is long (but then again it deals with a 50 year career in the public eye) and it drags a bit towards the end. Some critics have complained that Eastwood doesn’t give Hoover an excoriation for his abuses of power (which I think was unnecessary – there have been plenty of calling to accounts for Hoover to render another one unnecessary) and that the old age make-up used by Hammer and di Caprio were distracting (which I found untrue).

After a subpar effort with Hereafter Eastwood returns to form with a potential Oscar contender. Di Caprio delivers a powerful performance that has to be considered an early entry into the Best Actor race. He makes Hoover relatable and human in some ways, while enigmatic and unapproachable in others. He never demystifies Hoover but never makes him a demagogue either. He is a man with an agenda, one which mostly involved cementing his own power, authority and position. He was also a man who yearned for acceptance and admiration.

Hammer, who played the Winklevoss twins in The Social Network, is the glue that holds the movie together. He is the conscience of the king in many ways, and his Clyde witnesses some egregious violations of civil liberties and common decency but he is above all else loyal both to the bureau but more to the man.  It is at times heartbreaking to watch.

Less has been said about Naomi Watts as Helen Gandy, the woman who served as Hoover’s executive assistant and in most ways the keeper of his secrets. She was a formidable woman in her own right and according to the movie anyway, rejected a proposal of marriage from Hoover. Watts gives her that inner strength as well as making her easy on the eyes. It’s a very strong performance that may well get some Oscar consideration of its own, although I’m less sure of that it will personally.

Is this the definitive film biography of the former FBI director? It certainly is for now but I’m not 100% sure that there isn’t a better movie on his life out there to be made. For my money, this is a very good movie that works not only as a biography but a look at the trappings of power and how seductive they can be. It truly is a cautionary tale and one which I sadly suspect we haven’t learned from as a species yet.

REASONS TO GO: Oscar-caliber performances from di Caprio and Hammer. A return to form for Eastwood.

REASONS TO STAY: The bouncing around of timelines sometimes gets confusing.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some foul language here and there and some sexual themes.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Armie Hammer’s great-grandfather was oil tycoon Armand Hammer who was suspected by Hoover of having communist ties; Hoover was said to have had a confidential file on him.

HOME OR THEATER: This would probably look just as good at home as it would in the multiplex.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Creation (2009)

Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist and Rebel


Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist and Rebel

Sex in the early '60s: Hef and the Bunnies.

(2009) Documentary (Metaphor) Hugh Hefner, Bill Maher, Tony Bennett, George Lucas, Joan Baez, Jim Brown, James Caan, Jesse Jackson, Jenny McCarthy, Gene Simmons, Shannon Tweed, Pete Seeger, Mike Wallace, David Steinberg, Dick Cavett, Tony Curtis. Directed by Brigitte Berman

There have been many polarizing figures in the 20th century. Ronald Reagan, for example; conservatives look at him as a great president, one whose economic philosophy have shaped our economy for the past thirty years and have led us to unprecedented prosperity. Liberals look at him as the architect for our greed-dominated society and see his presidency as an American tragedy.

Hugh Hefner gets the same sort of reception. The publisher of Playboy magazine is responsible for the popularization of the centerfold. To the minds of the radical feminists, he has led to the objectification of women and is indirectly or directly responsible for the rape and abuse of women by men who have bought in to his philosophy. To conservatives, he is an immoral man, dedicated to the destruction of American society and the corruption of American morality.

Most people see the swinging lifestyle; the pajamas, the pipe, the smile and the 20-something women cavorting at the Shangri La-esque Playboy mansion. They see an octogenarian with seven girlfriends young enough to be his great-great granddaughters and yes, there is an element of the ridiculous to it. Overkill at the very least.

But there is more to Hef than meets the eye, and those who have followed his career will know that. Hef has been a crusader for First Amendment rights through his magazine, supporting the legal defense of those rights (often with cash donations) and during the Blacklisting era, printing pieces by Dalton Trumbo and other writers who could get no work elsewhere.

He has also been a champion for civil rights. His Playboy clubs and “Playboy After Dark” television show gave exposure to African-American performers who might never have gotten an audience. Sammy Davis Jr., Dizzy Gillespie and Dick Gregory all regularly worked in Hefner’s establishments. He supported Martin Luther King’s agenda both editorially and with contributions to his cause.

And he has also defended women’s reproductive rights as well as their civil rights as well. He has supported the “Equal Pay for Equal Work” theory as well as nurturing the careers of women into executive positions at his own company. He works tirelessly for the environment as well as for the preservation of jazz, an art form he’s passionate about.

Berman was given unprecedented access to the magazine’s archives and to Hefner’s own personal collection of letters and documents; she also was able to get her hands on footage from Hefner’s television shows which are some of the most fascinating moments of the film.

Hefner is often simply thought of as a pornographer and a fairly mild one at that; his pictorials tend to be much more artistic and less hardcore than those of, say, Larry Flynt or Bob Guccione. In some ways, he’s rather archaic – Playboy is essentially less of a factor in publishing the pictures of naked women than the Internet is. His legacy, however is far more complicated.

Hef didn’t invent sex but he brought it out of the recesses of puritanical dogma. He didn’t make it okay for women to like sex, but he supported the concept and helped popularize it. He didn’t objectify women – that’s been around far longer than Playboy – but he did help develop what the male ideal was for women physically (can we all say big boobs?) and make being a centerfold an aspiration for many women.

There is nothing wrong with sex. There is nothing wrong with being sexual. Pleasure doesn’t have to be a dirty word. But sex goes arm in arm with responsibility and Hef knew that. He used the prurient interest in his magazine to fund his social causes and there is some irony in that.

Tarring Hefner with the brush of a pornographer misses the point of what he’s done, and is rather simplistic and naive. I don’t always agree with his lifestyle and I wonder why he has rarely gone for women closer to his own age – I also wonder if there is too much emphasis on sex in his philosophy. Sex is, after all, only a part of life and while it is an important part, it’s not the most important part.

But that’s once again not all there is to Hefner. He has championed causes that have needed a champion, and has stood up for things that were unpopular back in the day. Most importantly, he has helped usher in a change of American values and hopefully, not all of it has to do with sex. Some of it has to do with compassion and the dignity of all people. Hugh Hefner may not be a hero to most, but in all honesty he deserves to be and this movie captures that largely unremarked upon aspect of him.

WHY RENT THIS: A fascinating look inside the legend. Some great footage from the old “Playboy After Dark” television show. 

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Doesn’t really challenge much. Presents Hef as a bit of a saint.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some nudity (of the Playboy centerfold variety) and a bit of sexual content as you might imagine.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Berman’s previous documentary was about big band leader Artie Shaw.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $10,000 on an unreported production budget; I suspect the movie was unprofitable.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: J.Edgar

The Help


The Help

Viola Davis is tired of Emma Stone asking what it's like to be nominated for an Oscar.

(2011) Period Drama (DreamWorks/Disney) Emma Stone, Viola Davis, Bryce Dallas Howard, Octavia Spencer, Jessica Chastain, Ahna O’Reilly, Allison Janney, Sissy Spacek, Cicely Tyson, Mike Vogel, Anna Camp, Brian Kerwin, Mary Steenburgen, David Oyelowo, Aunjanue Ellis, Nelsan Ellis. Directed by Tate Taylor

Often those who work as domestic servants are relegated to being background characters, even in real life. They clean the houses of their employers, cook their food and even raise their children, but their stories are rarely told. That’s especially true of the African-American domestics of Jackson, Mississippi in the early 1960s as America stood on the cusp of the civil rights movement.

Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan (Stone) has just returned home after graduating from Ole Miss with her head stuffed with the dreams of being a writer. Her mother Charlotte (Janney) has different dreams for her daughter; mainly of getting married, something Skeeter isn’t eager to do. Her friends mostly already have and can’t figure out why on earth a good looking girl like Skeeter remains unhitched.

Skeeter is surprised that her longtime nanny and maid Constantine (Tyson) is gone. According to her parents, Constantine has gone to Chicago to be with her family there but Skeeter senses that there is something she’s not being told. She holds her tongue however, considering her mother is battling cancer. Skeeter is also far too busy starting a new job as the columnist for the (fictional) Jackson Journal dispensing housecleaning tips.

Her friend Hilly Holbrook (Howard) has become something of a community leader, head of the local Junior League and writer and proponent of a bill that specifies that the hired help in Jackson homes must have separate toilet facilities. This doesn’t sit well with her maid Millie (Spencer), who doesn’t appreciate being sent out in a hurricane to use an outdoor commode. When she pretends to use the family restroom, she is shown the door much to the chagrin of Hilly’s mom (Spacek) who was Millie’s actual employer.

Millie is the best cook in Jackson so it won’t take her long to get another position, this time with Celia Foote (Chastain), a wrong-side-of-the-tracks blonde who is married to an ex-boyfriend of Hilly’s and has thus earned social shunning. Celia knows nothing of cleaning house or cooking, and she desperately needs someone who can train her in both, or at least convince her husband Johnny (Vogel) that she knows something.

Also in Skeeter’s circle is Elizabeth Leefolt (O’Reilly) whose young daughter Mae is being raised by Aibileen (Davis), who has raised seventeen white babies while her own son died recently. She keeps her grief to herself, pouring herself into taking care of the family she works for. She notices that Elizabeth doesn’t really interact with her daughter much, rarely picking her up and Mae has become as a result way more attached to Aibileen.

Skeeter is aware of Aibileen’s reputation as a housekeeper and asks Elizabeth permission to talk to Aibileen so she can get help writing her column. Elizabeth is reluctant and puts a stop to the conversations after a single session but Skeeter becomes fascinated by Aibileen and has the brilliant idea to write the stories of the domestics of Jackson and make a book out of them. Her publishing contact in New York (Steenburgen) agrees but is skeptical that given the climate in Jackson that Skeeter will see much co-operation.

It initially appears that the publisher is right when Aibileen refuses Skeeter but after a particularly impassioned sermon by the local pastor (Oyelowo) inspires Aibileen to change her mind. Aibileen also recruits her friend Millie and soon Skeeter is getting some pretty subversive stuff, things that are going to shake up Jackson to the core.

This is based by the 2009 bestselling novel by Kathryn Stockett whose childhood friend Taylor adapted the work for the screen and directed. Taylor does a fair job with it, framing the story in the turbulent times; we see clips of Medgar Evers (and see the devastating effects of his murder on the community) as well as JFK and Martin Luther King. The archival footage dos help set the time and place.

It is the acting that is the real reason to see this movie. Davis in particular becomes the center of the movie and Stone, who is the erstwhile lead, seems to realize that and generously allows Davis to shine at her own expense. That turns out to be a good move for the film; Davis carries it. Her quiet dignity and expressive eyes are at the center of the movie. For my money, it’s an Oscar-caliber performance and I sure hope the Academy remembers her work come nomination time.

That isn’t to say that the rest of the cast isn’t impressive as well. Stone takes Skeeter and gives her sass and character. At times the character is written as kind of the “white person saving the black person” cliche, but Stone elevates it above stock character status. Speaking of sass, Spencer just about defines the term in her portrayal of Minnie who comes off as very spunky but there are moments when she reveals her inner pain, suffering in an abusive relationship and unsure of herself.

Howard has the juiciest role here, that of the hysterical racist Hilly. Howard has had some decent performances in a variety of movies, but this might be her finest. She captures the pettiness and vitriol of the part and her expression when Millie’s “terrible awful” is revealed is priceless.

Veterans Steenburgen, Janney and Spacek lend further credibility to the film which is well acted from top to bottom. There are moments of genuine comedy (the terrible awful) as well as some heartstring tuggers (when Aibileen reveals to Skeeter what happened to her son). Mostly, you get a sense of the attitudes towards African-Americans of the era. We’ve come a long way since then, but we still have a very long way to go (as evidenced in the treatment of our President and the continued use of racial profiling). The Help isn’t the best movie of the year but it is on a very, very short list.

REASONS TO GO: Terrific performances and compelling source material. Drama, comedy, pathos; this movie has something for everybody.

REASONS TO STAY: Can be emotionally manipulative in places.

FAMILY VALUES: The thematic material is on the mature side; younger kids may not understand the historical context but for teens who might be learning about the civil rights movement this makes for some fine viewing.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The book the movie is based on was rejected 60 times before finally being published, a testament to persistence by author Kathryn Stockett.

HOME OR THEATER: As studio films go this one’s pretty intimate but the shared experience factor tends to make me lean towards theater for this one.

FINAL RATING: 9/10

TOMORROW: GasLand

The Secret Life of Bees


Queen Latifah points out that life's stings can often hide sweet things.

Queen Latifah points out that life's stings can often hide sweet things.

(Fox Searchlight) Queen Latifah, Dakota Fanning, Jennifer Hudson, Alicia Keys, Sophie Okonedo, Paul Bettany, Nate Parker, Tristan Wilds. Directed by Gina Prince-Blythwood

Circumstances can often lead us to feel powerless in a world that seeks to put us down. It takes courage and a strong belief in ones self and the rightness of our path to make it through sometimes.

Lily Owens (Fanning) has had to live with a terrible burden. As a four-year-old, she was the witness to a terrible fight between her father T-Ray (Bettany) and her mother (Hilarie Burton), who had just returned after walking out on the both of them. During the course of the fight, she accidentally shot and killed her mother. Since then, her father has treated her as a burden, more of a possession than a person. When Lily transgresses, he forces her to kneel on powdered grits poured on a concrete floor (try it sometime and see how long you last – Lily was often forced to kneel for hours until her knees were raw and bloody). When he notices her at all, it is for her failings and not for anything that she might accomplish. She is a non-entity, a constant reminder for all he has lost.

Lily’s only real friend is her nanny Rosaleen (Hudson). A snuff-chewing tough gal who dreams of better days when LBJ signs the Civil Rights Act (the movie is set in 1964 South Carolina), she stands up to a trio of racist rednecks when she and Lily walk into town so that Rosaleen can register to vote. For her efforts, she is savagely beaten. The hysterical Lily calls the police who respond by arresting Rosaleen, perhaps for assaulting the lead redneck’s boot with her face. While the movie rarely lets us forget that we are in the pre-Civil Rights Deep South, this is the most vivid rendering of the African American experience of the time and place.

Disgusted that her father refused to stand up for Rosaleen and tired of his abuse, Lily decides to run away with her. She cleverly breaks her friend out of the hospital jail ward, which Rosaleen goes along with – only to discover that Lily really doesn’t have a plan beyond that. Actually, Lily is headed for Tiburon, South Carolina. She found a picture of a black Virgin Mary with the name of the town amongst her mother’s effects and decides to head over there to find out more about her mother. T-Ray had told her, in a fit of cruelty that her mother had come back the day of the fatal argument not to fetch her daughter but to pick up her things.

Walking and hitch hiking, the two eventually make it to Tiburon. At a local restaurant, Lily spies bottles of honey with the same label as the picture in her mother’s things. Turns out that the honey is made locally, “best in South Carolina” the proprietor of the diner crows. He directs the two to a large pink house on the edge of town. It is inhabited by August Boatwright (Latifah), a strong, big-hearted woman and her sisters June (Keys), who is very bright but cold, and May (Okanedo), who feels things so keenly that she is liable to burst into tears at the slightest provocation.

Worried that she’ll be returned home if she tells the Boatwright sisters the truth (and certainly June seems disposed to doing that anyway), she feeds them a line that she is in transit to visit her grandmother who has been hospitalized. They don’t have enough money for a train ticket to Virginia, and no local hotel will take a black woman. Over June’s objections and to May’s delight (she is immediately taken by Rosaleen), August allows the two to stay in her honey house, the separate building where the honey is made. In return, Rosaleen and Lily will work off their expenses.

Lily, already fascinated by bees, is in absolute heaven with the Boatwrights. She takes to the work…well, like a bee to honey. In return, August and her sisters teach her something about strength, character and love. When Lily brings the outside world into the special environment engineered by the Boatwrights, it threatens to tear everything apart for all of the women. They will need each other to get through the tribulations – and tragedy – that await them, and Lily will learn something about herself and who she truly is.

Based on the best-selling novel by Sue Monk Kidd, the film version could easily have sunk to a maudlin Lifetime movie-of-the-week level. Instead, the strong cast (including, surprisingly, Keys, best-known as a singer) elevates the material from treacle to comfort food. There are some questions that aren’t really answered here – for example, why would a town that refuses to let their African-American residents sit on the main floor of the movie theater or serve them in the diner allow a black woman to own a business on a substantial plot of land close to the town? It was rare enough for a woman to own her own business in 1964, let alone a black woman in South Carolina.

Latifah is becoming the kind of actress who fills up a screen with her personality. The warmth radiates from August on the screen and fills the viewer with it. She’s almost a fairy godmother in many ways, untouched by failing or foible. She must endure tragedy, however and her grief is palpable when it occurs, but she takes a character with almost no flaws and makes her human.

Okonedo is also a marvelous actress and her child-like May whose surface joy often ripples with the pain of having a beloved twin sister die. I’m not sure I can put a finger on it, but I noticed that whenever May was on-screen my focus tended to shift to her. Keys is also marvelous – in many ways, her portrayal of the cold, emotionless June was the most layered here. Bettany takes the most thankless role and brings some humanity to it, making the cruel and abusive T-Ray at least understandable. Fanning is transitioning from child actress to young actress; time will tell if she is successful but judging from her work here success is possible.

The beautiful cinematography brings to light an idyllic South, full of the golden light of late summer. This is a place of fantasy, of cool ponds to dip one’s feet and bees buzzing around in the twilight. It is a place that is comforting, one we pull around ourselves like a warm blanket and feel safe. That feeling of warm, safe security is what stands out about the movie. The Pink House is not only a place you’d like to visit, you’ll almost certainly want to stay a spell.

I know that the movie is a bit manipulative and I don’t care. I don’t mind being manipulated when it’s being done this skillfully. I also know that the movie is a bit unrealistic, but then again it’s a movie, not a documentary. You know things are going to end up well – in a place like the Pink House, they can’t help but do. Call it cliché if you want to, but for my part, I found the characters of The Secret Life of Bees fascinating and I wanted to spend as much time with them as I could. As far as I’m concerned, that makes for a successful movie.

WHY RENT THIS: The movie engenders a feeling of warm, safe security that the fine performances of the lead actresses are largely responsible for. Nice cinematography contributes to the idyllic atmosphere, and you wind up longing to spend more time in this world.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Not the most realistic depiction of the Civil Rights-era South, although there are a couple of moments that are genuinely frightening.

FAMILY VALUES: Some violence and language but largely suitable for most teens.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Novel author Sue Monk Kidd based the character of Rosaleen on her own nanny, who was also fond of chewing snuff.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: An interview with the author on the movie’s Pink House set, and an extended director’s cut in addition to the theatrical release.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Earth