The Long Shadow


It’s a long road we’ve been walking and a long road yet to walk.

(2017) Documentary (Passion River) Frances Causey, John Powell, Leon F. Litwack, La Tonya Lawson-Jones, Ian Harvey Lopez, Sally Holst, Jody Allen, Gerald Horne, Paul Kivel, Anne Conkling, Mike Church, Tim Duckenfield, John Adams, Nadine Stark Sims, Karen Alexander, Lorne Hammond, Richard Rothstein, Erica Tanks, Bill Blair, Maureen Gosling, Laura Willis, Judy Sims, Yolanda Wells.  Directed by Frances Causey and Maureen Gosling

 

Race relations remain a defining issue in the United States. From slavery down to Jim Crow and into the Black Lives Matter movement today, America has been formed going all the way back to its founding by white supremacy.

Filmmaker and journalist Frances Causey grew up in a privileged neighborhood in Wilmington, North Carolina to prosperous parents. She had little contact with African-Americans beyond those that worked for the family, but she had eyes that could see and she was fully aware that her black neighbors weren’t treated the same way; they lived in terrible poverty, were prevented from drinking at the same water fountains as she, and were looked down upon as inferior to the white privileged class. It bothered her then and continues to bother her now

She is directly descended from Virginia lawyer and founding father Edmund Pendleton, who essentially wrote the verbiage into the Constitution that institutionalized slavery in the South. Because there were far more slaves in the South and far fewer whites, Pendleton came up with the 3/5 of a person compromise that gave the South disproportionate power in the Federal government for nearly a century.

Causey goes on to discuss the economic benefits of slavery that powered the engine of the slave trade; how Wall Street was essentially created to facilitate it and how the legacy of slavery informs our policies and politics now 150 years after the end of th Civil War. African Americans may have been emancipated but they continue to be victims of inequality.

Throughout Causey interjects commentary about various aspects, such as what happened to those runaway slaves who fled to Canada, an enlightened plantation owner who gradually freed his slaves and the difference it made to their descendants today. We see her horrified reaction to the massacre in the Emmanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston by a white supremacist and we see her genuine affection for her former nanny and the grown up children of her caregiver.

Causey utilizes a goodly number of academics to give some context to history and some of them, particularly John Powell (an expert on the effects of slavery on American society), historian Jody Allen (somewhat incongruously interviewed on the serene campus of the College of William and Mary considering the subject) and historian Leon Litwack who won a Pulitzer Prize on the subject. However some of the other talking heads can be a bit dry. Again, those with a personal story to tell are far more effective than those coming from a strictly academic standpoint.

The film is at its best when Causey is looking through her highly personal connection to white privilege and racism. There is no doubt she is aiming her film for white audiences in an effort to make them understand a history most of them don’t know or don’t want to know. Most of the final two thirds is really a more broad view of the reverberations of racism and violence through American history. I thought the first third was much more successful; the story of her ancestry and her experience growing up in the deep south are far more personal and relatable than the academic exercise that followed. However, that doesn’t man that interesting questions aren’t raised. For example, slavery was abolished in the British empire in 1772. Could the southern founding fathers have chosen to leave British rule in order to continue slavery here and keep the economic engine of the South running?

The movie was filmed before the 2016 presidential election which makes it in many ways all the more timely but in dire need of a new chapter that brings it all together with the current expressions of white nationalism that has reared its ugly head since then. Even in the days when the film was about to be released there were instances of hate crimes (a white racist opening fire on African-Americans in a Louisville Kroger). The movie does make for a good history lesson but quite frankly much of this material is covered elsewhere, particularly in Ava DuVernay’s compelling Netflix documentary 13th.

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that slavery warped the soul of this nation and continues to. Just the extent of the damage that continues to be done is something even the most progressive of white liberals (myself included) fail to understand. It’s information that African-Americans know only all too well and if there ever is going to be real change and moving forward in this country, white people will have to not only understand it but own it as well.

REASONS TO GO: The archival photos and drawings are extremely effective.
REASONS TO STAY: The film begins by connecting Causey to the slavery issue on a personal level and then veers away from that into a standard PBS-like documentary.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some disturbing and occasionally graphic photos of brutalized slaves and lynchings.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  Causey worked as a journalist at CNN for 14 years; it was the events in Ferguson following the murder of Michael Brown that galvanized her to make this film.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/28/18: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: 13th
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Outlawed

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Boom Bust Boom


Terry Jones is bullish.

Terry Jones is bullish.

(2016) Documentary (Brainstorm) Terry Jones, John Cusack, Andy Haldane, Zvi Bodie, Robert J. Shiller, Steven Kinsella, Perry Mehrling, Dirk Bezemer, Wilhelm H. Buited, Paul Mason, John Cassidy, Steve Keen, James Galbraith, Randall Wray, Nathan Tankus, Daniel Kahneman, Laurie Santos, Lucy Prebble. Directed by Terry Jones, Bill Jones and Ben Timlett

It is a fact of life that our lives are deeply affected by forces largely out of our control. It is not an exaggeration to say that many of these forces are literally beyond our understanding; one of those things is economics. Economics make the world go round in a capitalist society; when the system is working properly, prosperity is shared. When it isn’t however…

Jones, who some may remember from the subversive Monty Python comedy team from the 70s, aims to make sense of why bad things happen to economies. Using interviews with economists and historians to explain why economies that are booming end up going bust eventually.

The concepts are certainly interesting; basically Jones and his fellow filmmakers are arguing that the tendency for good economic times to breed a kind of euphoria that leads to bad decision making, an onset of greed and an eventual “bubble bursting” which takes the economy down. A lot of the concepts here have been argued by now-deceased economists like John Kenneth Galbraith (who like the other deceased thinkers are portrayed here by puppets and voiced by voice-over actors) and present-day ones like Haldane, Kinsella and Bodie.

But unlike most of the financial documentaries we’ve seen in the last couple of years, the finger-pointing that goes on (and there is some, to be honest) is tempered by an optimism that things can change. However our entire institutional mindset has to change, beginning with how we educate our up and coming economists. We see some interviews with college students studying for economic degrees who know little of the history of economic crises, from the Dutch Tulip crisis of the 17th century to the Great Depression of 1929 to even the most recent recession.

Those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it, which makes not teaching it more of a crime. And in some ways, this entire documentary – only an hour and 15 minutes long – feels a bit like a teaching aid at an advanced high school teaching economics for students who might want to be economists someday. The puppets and animations that accompany the fairly dry talking head interviews are at least entertaining if at times simplistic.

However, there aren’t enough of them to really elevate this and the interviews can be a bit sleep-inducing, although there are a few charismatic sorts here including activist-actor Cusack who has some pretty strong opinions on the 2008 subprime bubble collapse. There’s also some fascinating information not only about the various bubbles but how they are part of human nature as anthropologist Laurie Santos shows an experiment in which monkeys on an island off of Miami were made to have a capitalist-like society with “monkey money” exchanged for the things they need and how they made horrible decisions based on manipulation by the scientists.

I find stuff like this fascinating; Da Queen, who works in the financial sector, is not normally very enthusiastic about these sorts of documentaries – it’s too much like being at work, she tells me – but she liked this one even more than I did, which should tell you something. I did find the interviews to be occasionally sleep-inducing, but that doesn’t mean that Jones and cohorts don’t explain the subject well, nor that the information isn’t good and necessary.

Not everyone will get into this, but this is useful information in understanding how the economy works. And we all should have at least a basic understanding of it, particularly if we intend to do any investing. If we’re going to make the right decisions with our money, we should understand how the system can work against us – or for us. Education is the first step in making things better; movies like this one provide it.

REASONS TO GO: The puppetry and some of the animation is fun. Some very interesting historical information.
REASONS TO STAY: A very dry topic indeed. A whole lot of talking heads.
FAMILY VALUES: Some adult themes and topics.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Directors Terry and Bill Jones are father and son, respectively.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: VOD, iTunes, Amazon, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/10/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Capitalism: A Love Story
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: The Automatic Hate

In Time


In Time

The future is a hell of a party.

(2011) Science Fiction (20th Century Fox) Justin Timberlake, Amanda Seyfried, Cillian Murphy, Vincent Kartheiser, Alex Pettyfer Johnny Galecki, Olivia Wilde, Nick Lashaway, Collins Pennie, Rachel Roberts, Matt Bomer, Yaya DaCosta. Directed by Andrew Niccol

Time is money they say and in some ways it’s literally true. When we are employed, we are not only being paid for our skills but for our time. A good percentage of us receive our wages paid by the hour and our work lives are measured in how many hours we work so when you buy a gallon of milk at the grocery store, the money you pay for it is symbolic of the time you worked. That gallon of milk represents twenty minutes of work you put in to make the money you paid for it.

In the future, there is no pretense about it anymore. Cash is a thing of the past and the only thing that matters is time. An hourly wage is literally that. We’ve been genetically engineered to stop aging at age 25; after that, we’re given a year of additional life and in order to extend it beyond our 26th birthday we need to work to add hours and days to our lifespan. We can even see how much time we have left by a digital countdown clock in neon green that is imprinted on our forearms. When it reaches zero, our time on this earth is done.

Like most people in the ghetto that is called Dayton (not Ohio – it looks a lot like Los Angeles), Will Salas (Timberlake) lives day to day, waking up each morning with less than 24 hours to live. He lives with his mother (Wilde) who’s in the same boat but for whatever reason she seems unable to hold onto time – time management is a necessity in this future. She is working a double shift and won’t be back for more than a day; Will goes out to a bar with his best friend and drinking buddy Borel (Galecki) and encounters Henry Hamilton, a millionaire with more than a century on his arm who seems out to kill himself.

It turns out he’s lived more than a century and has become disillusioned and bored; he wants to die. He has attracted the unfortunate attention of Fortis (Pettyfer), a gangster who leads a gang called the Minutemen who essentially rob people of their time. Fortis wants Hamilton’s but Will intervenes and hides Hamilton in a warehouse. Hamilton tells Will that there is plenty of time for everyone, but the rich are hoarding it so that they can live forever. The two men wax philosophic before falling asleep.

When Will wakes up, Hamilton is gone and Will has more than a century on his arm. He looks out the window to see Hamilton sitting on the edge of a bridge. Will tries to run out and save him but Hamilton’s clock zeroes out and he falls to his death. Security cameras catch Will on the scene and the police force, known as the Timekeepers, are alerted. Timekeeper Raymond Leon (Murphy) is assigned the case and the general perception is that Will stole Hamilton’s time and murdered him.

In the meantime, Will’s mom is getting ready to return home on the bus only to find out that they raised the fare and she doesn’t have enough to return home. She has about an hour left of life to her and a two hour walk so she runs. She tries to get people to help her, give her an extra 15 minutes of life (people are able to transfer time from one another by holding their wrists together) but nobody will help. Will, realizing that she’s not on the bus, takes off at a dead run; she sees him as her time is counting down and they run towards each other but it’s all for naught; she dies in his arms.

Determined to face down the injustice that is ruling the lives of the poor, the now-wealthy Will travels to the wealthy part of town (this costs quite a bit of money to cross from one “time zone” to another) which is called New Greenwich. This is where the wealthy live in spectacular luxury. There are also casinos where you can literally bet your life. Will plays poker with one of the richest men on Earth, Philippe Weis (Kartheiser) and wins a millennium. This catches the eye of Philippe’s daughter Sylvia (Seyfried) who invites Will to a party that evening.

At the party, Raymond catches up with Will and arrests him, taking all but 24 hours from his wrist. However, Will escapes by using Sylvia as a hostage. He manages to make it back into Dayton where he and Sylvia are both robbed of most of their time by Fortis; it would have been all but the Minutemen are scared off by the approaching Timekeepers. Will and Sylvia escape into the anonymity of the slums.

There Will demands a thousand year ransom from Philippe for the return of his daughter. However, Philippe refuses to pay it. Sylvia, incensed, tells Will where to find lots of time. They begin robbing banks, where people can get loans of time. The two take the time but distribute it to the poor. They go on a crime spree which threatens the balance of things; the rich retaliate by raising prices exorbitantly. Will’s Robin Hood crusade looks to be derailed but there might be one way yet to thwart the rich.

That this is an allegory of modern economics seems to be a slam dunk; substitute “dollars” for “time” and you have what is essentially a commentary on the widening gap between the haves and the have-nots. There really isn’t anything subtle here although I wonder if there is a connection between the Minutemen – taking from the poor, and the Tea Party who have been accused of doing the same thing. There is a bit of a Revolutionary War theme going here don’t you think?

Timberlake has shown a good deal of potential in going from boy band idol to serious actor. He gets one step closer with this role. It is mainly upon him to carry the movie and he proves to have strong shoulders .Will has got essentially a good heart that he keeps hidden because he’s smart enough to know that it can get you killed in an environment such as this one. Timberlake plays him very minimally, allowing audiences to read between the lines of his performance. Maybe I’m reading too much into it but for my money this is his best performance to date. He’s not quite ready for the kind of stardom of, say, a Brad Pitt or a Matt Damon but he’s getting there.

Seyfried spends the film in a Louise Brooks-like wig that contributes to the overall retro look of the film. In a sense it makes her timeless. Seyfried has at times been impressive in her short career but I would have liked to see a little more fire from her here; something tells me that she was directed to be more subtle with her emotions.

Speaking of the look of the film, it’s an odd mix between high tech (the arm digital display) and retro (the vehicles are mostly chassis from the 60s and 70s souped up a little). Although the movie is set in the near future, there are characters in it who are a century old. One wonders if there was some reverse genetic engineering done for people who were alive when the breakthrough was made. Certainly the wealthy would have been the ones to receive such treatment.

There are some good action sequences here and a nice car chase, but this is more a movie about ideas than action. As such, it isn’t going to get a lot of love from the fanboys who like their sci-fi with phasers set to kill. I get the sense that the design of the future world wasn’t terribly well thought out and budget limitations probably kept them from making the world look too futuristic but this is a well written movie that makes it’s point rather firmly. I suspect Herman Cain might not like this movie much which might be all the reason you need to go and see it.

REASONS TO GO: An intriguing premise with lots of modern day allegories about class distinctions. Timberlake’s best performance to date.

REASONS TO STAY: Lacks imagination when designing the future.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a bit of violence, some sexuality (with a little bit of partial nudity thrown in for good measure) and a teensy bit of bad language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although Olivia Wilde plays Justin Timberlake’s mother in the film, she’s actually younger than he is in real life.

HOME OR THEATER: Some of the chase scenes are going to look a lot better on the big screen.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Dinner for Schmucks