The Hate U Give


Driving while black can be fatal in 21st century America.

(2018) Drama (20th Century FoxAmandla Stenberg, Regina Hall, Russell Hornsby, Anthony Mackie, Issa Rae, Common, Algee Smith, Sabrina Carpenter, K.J. Apa, Dominique Fishback, Lamar Johnson, TJ Wright, Megan Lawless, Rhonda Johnson Dents, Tony Vaughn, Marcia Wright, Al Mitchell, Karan Kendrick, Jevon Johnson, Mike Stoudt, Tye Claybrook Jr., Andrene Ward-Hammond. Directed by George Tillman Jr.

 

In the latter years of the 20-teens, it was fashionable for those of white privilege to say that race relations had markedly improved. After all, blacks can vote now, can’t they? They can use the same bathrooms as white people, can’t they? They’re not in chains anymore, are they?

The chains that African-Americans wear in the 21st century are much more subtle than iron but just as binding and just as evil. We can see those shackles so clearly in this adaptation of a best-selling young adult novel.

Starr Carter (Stenberg) is a bright, vivacious 16-year-old African-American girl who lives in Garden Heights, a predominantly black working-class neighborhood. Her father Maverick (Hornsby) is a former activist who had a bad run a few years ago and ended up doing jail time as a gang member for local gang leader King (Mackie). He currently owns a corner grocery market in the Heights; Starr’s mother (King), however, wants her babies to escape the Hood and to that end she has sent Starr, her brother Seven (Johnson) and younger sister Sekani (TJ Wright) to Williamson Prep, an upper-crust private school which is mostly white.

Starr exists in two different worlds which she is able to compartmentalize at first. However, while being driven home from a party by her childhood friend Khalil (Smith), they are pulled over by a white cop for no apparent reason. Although Starr begs Khalil to keep his hands on the dashboard and to obey every command given him by the obviously nervous patrolman, Khalil adopts a more confrontational attitude and when he reaches for a hairbrush inside the car, the panicked cop shoots him dead.

The shooting of another unarmed black youth puts the community into an uproar. Starr, the only eyewitness, is terrified if she comes forward to testify in front of the grand children that she and her family will be targeted by the police. Equally real is King’s desire that Starr not testify because it would come out that Khalil worked for King as a drug dealer. This is not information King is particularly eager to see go public.

Starr is caught in the center of a ticking time bomb. On the one hand, she wants to honor Khalil’s memory by standing up for him; on the other hand, she wants to protect her family. Doing the right thing never seemed so hard.

The movie captures the flavor of the African-American community in a way that makes it seem almost idyllic, from the ranks of the community to the warmth of family. It also doesn’t shy away from portraying the violence in the community; a party is interrupted by gunshots, and King in a particularly vicious move orders a store to be firebombed with children inside.

Still, the frustration of the black community is very palpable and very understandable from the very first scene, in which Maverick explains to his children how to survive an encounter with the police. This is not a talk white parents need to have with their kids but it is tragically all-too-common in African-American homes. The script makes no bones about the conditions that have created this situation.

The star here is Starr, or rather, Amandla Stenberg who is absolutely riveting. She gives Starr an inner strength that shows through even when she’s full of doubt. Starr has a playful side that Stenberg captures nicely, but also a vulnerable side. Starr is one of the most nuanced characters to come out of literature in the past decade, and she’s one of the most nuanced characters to come out of the movies as well, thanks largely to Stenberg. Hornsby also gets points for a strong performance as Maverick.

The movie stumbles a bit in its occasional strident tone; not that it’s unjustified, mind you, but it can be preachy in places. The ending is a little bit out there, and there are a few plot contrivances that felt a little forced. It also is a fairly long movie which might not sit well with its target audience. However, if you give this film a chance you will find it might just strike a powerful chord in you. That is, unless you’re one of those folks who think that African-Americans should be grateful for the strides they’ve made over the past sixty years. Then again, those folks are the least likely to want to see a movie like this.

REASONS TO SEE: Stenberg shows real strength in her performance. Captures the positives of African-American culture; the sense of community and family, for example.
REASONS TO AVOID: Sometimes grows overly strident in its message (although that is somewhat understandable).
FAMILY VALUES: This is definitely adult, thematically speaking. There is also quite a bit of profanity, some violence and drug references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Screenwriter Audrey Wells died of cancer the day before the film was released, 13 days before the national wide release.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, HBO Go, Microsoft, Movies Anywhere, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/19/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 97% positive reviews: Metacritic: 81/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Monsters and Men
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
The Sisters Brothers

Out of Omaha


Twin sons of different others.

(2018) Documentary (DreamvilleDarcell Trotter, Darell “Rell” Trotter, Wayne Brown, Barbara Robinson, Yono Jones, Eric Lofton, Anthony Beasley, Dr. Jef Johnston, Dazmi Casterjon, Yvonne Beasley, Kenneth Scott, Christopher Trotter, Anthony Kellogg, Aubrey Caballero, Shay Murph-Bookhardt, Keiara Ritchie.  Directed by Clay Tweel

 

After the formation of the Black Lives Matter movement, many on the right – some well-meaning, I grant you – responded back that “All Lives Matter.”

They’re missing the point.

African-Americans in this country have been marginalized ever since being delivered here in chains. They may no longer be the property of plantation owners but they are marginalized by poverty, by a lack of opportunity and an excess of suspicion. They are put into ghettos where crime and despair run rampant and even should they manage to get an education and become pillars of the community, they can expect to be pulled over with regularity by the police or have neighbors call the cops when they are working in the garage of their own home.

No matter the size of the city, the racial divide is palpable. Omaha, Nebraska isn’t exactly a megalopolis but it is a good-sized Midwestern city that prides itself on its heartland values. Those values seem to end at the border of North Omaha, the poverty-stricken African-American community which is plagued by gang violence and drugs. Into this world twin brothers Darcell and Darell Trotter were born.

Omaha has one of the highest per-capita murder rates in the country, largely thanks to the violence in North “O.” It also has a high concentration of millionaires living in lovely split-level homes surrounded by beautifully manicured lawns. The Trotter twins knew nothing of that other Omaha. Their reality was the gangs and drugs of the north side.

Documentary filmmaker Clay Tweel, who has been responsible for films such as Gleason and Make Believe, spent seven years off and on filming the twins as they try to escape the poverty and hopelessness of their environment. Primarily focusing on Darcell’s story, the film watches him leave the gang life which consumed his brother Rell and the drug addiction which trapped his father Shane, taking advantage of a program called Avenue Scholars which allowed him to attend the University of Nebraska Omaha in pursuit of a music production degree with an eye on becoming a hip-hop producer and entrepreneur.

However, he is fated to be in the wrong place at the wrong time when he attends a party in which a violent robbery takes place. Despite the fact that he left at the first sign of trouble, he is identified as one of those involved and his face is plastered all over a Crimestoppers segment on the local news. When Darcell, whose loyalty to his friends was forged as a gang member where it was drilled into him that you never give up your friends, refuses to name the other people involved, he is sent to jail, a scared 19-year-old kid in a scary place. Eventually the charges are dropped but the damage is done.

He moves in with his brother and their father in Grand Island, Nebraska, 150 miles away. With an African-American population that makes up just 2% of the total population, they are looked upon with some suspicion but both of them work hard and start to make something of themselves. Their father, hooked on heroin, abandons them, leaving them with nowhere to live. Aubrey Caballero, the mom of their friend Ricky, takes the two boys in.

The boys are accused of sexual assault which once again puts them on the front page of the local news but their accuser recants and admits that she made up her story. Their exoneration gets absolutely no coverage at all – go ahead and Google Darcell’s name and see what comes up – which leaves them with a blight on their record. Nevertheless, they both continue to work hard and when Darcell fathers a young daughter, he finds reservoirs of strength he never knew he had.

The movie is enormously powerful in the sense that you get a first-hand look at what young African-American men are facing; how their opportunities are restricted by poverty and racial profiling, and yet both of the twins aspire to something better for themselves, the comforts of life that those who grew up in comfortable suburban lives take for granted. Tweel is non-judgmental about the choices the brothers make (and they aren’t always wise ones), not making excuses for their poor choices but neither blaming them for them. In many ways they are conditioned to see the world through a sheen in which the only escape from the hopelessness is through drugs and crime. Tweel has come a long way as a filmmaker over the years and this might just be his best film yet.

This is very much a cinema verité experience as the camera follows the boys and watches their story unfold. There are a few interviews, such as with Wayne Brown, a man who with his wife Niki managed to get out of North Omaha and become respected professionals but still had to put up with police officers pulling them over every few days while driving to work. Mostly, though, this is the story of two boys who grow up to be men but never lose their hope for something better despite everything thrown their way. While the movie ends on a hopeful note – the twin brothers are preparing to open up their own appliance store in Grand Island – it may not be an earth-shattering triumph but considering the journey they took to get there, it is as inspiring a story as any epic tale.

REASONS TO SEE: Tweel is growing as a filmmaker. Unvarnished cinema verité.
REASONS TO AVOID: There is nothing really game-changing here.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a shitload of profanity, some drug use and descriptions of violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film was executive produced by rising hip-hop star J. Cole.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Starz, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/1/19: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Princess of the Row
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
The Game Changers

Killing Jesus (Matar a Jesús)


The gun lobby corrupts yet another innocent youth.

(2017) Crime (Latido/64A Films) Natasha Jaramillo, Giovanny Rodriguez, Camilo Escobar, Carmenza Cossio, Juan Pablo Trujillo, José David Medina, Juan Camilo Cardenas, Jhorvin Ospina. Directed by Laura Mora Ortega

Revenge is one of those things that tend to take on their own lives apart from those who are out to achieve it. They shape lives, become obsessions and often cost more to the one taking revenge than on the one they are getting revenge from.

Paula (Jaramillo) is a college student majoring in photography. She spends most of her time hanging out with her friends, attending meetings of activist groups that are mainly all talk, and smoking way too much dope. Her father Jose Maria (Escobar) is where she gets her social activism from although he is wary; Medellin in Columbia is a rough place to live with violence around every corner. Still, he loves his daughter fiercely and from time to time gives her a lift home from school. That proves to be fatal as when opening the gate to his driveway while Paula is bending down in the front seat to make sure her camera bag has everything in it, a young man on a motorcycle guns down her father. Paula gets a glimpse of the killer’s face although he doesn’t see her.

The police prove to be unsurprisingly ineffective and corrupt, causing a great deal of frustration for Paula and her brother Santiago (Trujillo). Paula grows withdrawn, sullen while Santiago grows fearful for his sister who continues to go out with friends, although she is basically ignored. One evening, she catches the face of her father’s murderer in a nightclub and strikes up a conversation with him. His name is Jesus (Rodriguez) and even though he is drunk, he is clearly attracted to her.

Paula decides to take justice in her own hands, partnering with her dope dealer Gato (Cardenas) to buy herself a gun in order to do unto Jesus what he had done unto her father. However, that proves to be no easy task; stranger yet, she is beginning to see Jesus as a human being who in many ways is as much a victim of the violence and corruption in Medellin as her father was. In a somewhat surreal scene, he even teaches her how to shoot. Will she be able to complete her plan of revenge or will killing Jesus be too much for her?

This had the potential for being a very powerful movie on the nature of violence and how it pervades Colombian culture but Mora chose not to go that route. It also had the potential for being another crappy revenge thriller, but she chose not to go that route either. Rather, she chose to focus in on the relationship between Paula and Jesus and how it changed her…and how she changed Jesus. The thing that Paula expected the least is what happens – she starts to actually sympathize with Jesus but that pain of loss is still deep down and waiting for the opportunity to explode.

Most of the cast is non-professional which sometimes works out and sometimes doesn’t. Jaramillo is not adept at handling emotional scenes; when she cries for her father it doesn’t feel authentic at all. She’s pretty enough and she says her lines with conviction but she has a hard time getting across the emotional side of her character. Rodriguez on the other hand is a sizzling presence who captures your attention whenever he’s onscreen. Yes he’s a thug with a fatalistic view towards life; he’s fully aware that his life expectancy isn’t very long and yet he has the arrogance of machismo guiding his actions. He also is loving towards his family and towards the girl whom he is developing deep feelings for and might he persuaded to let in where nobody is allowed. The performance has an undercurrent of vulnerability that makes the charismatic thug on the surface all the more memorable and while his brooding thug is no Brando, there is enough there to believe he could become a big star.

There are a few instances of shaky cam abuse and from time to time Paula does things that defy rationality – the dumb teen syndrome which allows certain types of horror films to exist. This does feel like a very personal film to Mora (see Trivia below) and sometimes it can be a bit raw. Having not been to Medellin I can’t say if it accurately captures the reality of street life there but it feels authentic to a non-expert like myself.

The movie has a lot going for it – particularly the social and psychological aspects – although it doesn’t always fulfill its own promise. Still, Mora is a young director and she’ll only get better and this is good enough to recommend provisionally and certainly good enough to warrant keeping an eye out for future projects from the director as well as Rodriguez. If you want to catch them right now, you can order tickets here.

REASONS TO GO: The progression of Paula’s perceptual change is fascinating to watch.
REASONS TO STAY: Jaramillo isn’t always convincing from an emotional standpoint.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a lot of drug use (mainly marijuana smoking), plenty of violence (some of which is graphic) and more than a little profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Laura Mora Ortega based some of the events in the film on her own life; her father, also a teacher, was gunned down by a hitman in front of her. She later met the man who murdered her father although not in the way depicted in the film.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/12/18: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Sleeping With the Enemy
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Lucky

Dredd


Dredd

The last thing lawbreakers in Mega City One will ever see.

(2012) Science Fiction (Lionsgate) Karl Urban, Olivia Thirlby, Lena Headey, Wood Harris, Warrick Grier, Domhnall Gleeson, Rakie Ayola, Joe Vaz, Scott Sparrow, Nicole Bailey, Langley Kirkwood, Edwin Perry, Karl Thaning, Michele Levin, Luke Tyler, Junior Singo. Directed by Pete Travis

 

As far as dystopian futures go, few have captured one so bleak as the long-running British comic book Judge Dredd. In its 35 year publishing history it has managed to come up with a rich smorgasbord of characters and a well-developed backstory that acts not only as hardcore action sci-fi comic but also as pointed social commentary as well. It was brought to the screen in 1995 with Sylvester Stallone in the lead role; the movie tanked and alienated not only fans of the source material (which it desecrated to be honest) but general movie audiences as well.

The new film is much closer to the tone and look of the comic, which is good news. In the future of Judge Dredd (Urban), most of the planet is an irradiated wasteland with people living in gigantic cities. Mega City One, population 800 million, is the Northeastern Seaboard of the United States, basically from Boston to Washington DC. Gigantic skyscrapers, called “Blocks” act as multi-use facilities (apartments with shopping, restaurants, movie theaters and other entertainment) on steroids.

With that many people in such an enclosed space, the streets are near-anarchy. Crime is rampant and the Department of Justice can only investigate about 6% of it. Doing that are the Judges – a combination of motorcycle cop, detective, prosecutor, judge, jury and executioner. Judges mete justice on the spot, ranging from imprisonment in iso-cubes to death. In order to do the latter, they have guns coded to their DNA that fire an astonishing array of firepower from normal bullets to stun grenades to incendiary missiles.

Dredd is asked by the Chief Judge (Ayola) to take out rookie Judge Anderson (Thirlby) whose proximity to the radioactive wasteland rendered her psychic – the most powerful one the Department of Justice has ever encountered. Dredd will be responsible for her evaluation, either failing her and washing her out of the program or passing her into the ranks of the Judges. He’s not too keen on doing it – her test scores didn’t make the cut and in the eyes of Dredd (which see things entirely in black and white) a fail is a fail.

Their first call takes them to a low-income block where unemployment is at 96%. Three bodies have plummeted to the ground-floor atrium with predictably messy results. Dredd notices that one of the corpses has signs that he was on slo-mo – a drug that slows down the perception of time to 1% of normal – which to him means that this was not suicide but homicide. They make a raid on an apartment where the stuff is distributed and capture Kay (Harris), a high-end dealer with the intention of bringing him in for questioning.

The tower is actually run by a gang, the Ma-Ma Clan, so-named for their founder Ma-Ma (Headey), an ex-prostitute with a wicked scar on her face. She is solely responsible for the supply of slo-mo for the entire city and while she would have been fine with the Judges killing Kay in a raid (a price of doing business in Ma-Ma’s eyes), she is not fine with Kay giving up details on her operation that will bring the Judges down on her like the apocalypse. So she locks down the building and gives her gang orders to shoot to kill. Now Dredd and Anderson are trapped in a gauntlet where trigger-happy gunmen lurk around every corner and help is not within reach.

Writer Alex Garland has concocted a story that remain true to the action elements of the comic books, it is a little light on the social satire. Dredd in the comic books is a humorless ultra-violent appendage of a fascist society who has no life beyond that of his calling; we rarely see him off-duty and we never see his face (think of it as all Batman and no Bruce Wayne). There is speculation among fans that he sleeps with his helmet on.

Urban captures this perfectly. While we only see the bottom third of his face, his twisted expressions are always grim, his movements deliberate and nearly robotic and his posture arrogant. His belief in the Law is absolute and unyielding; if the sentences are harsh he doesn’t argue with it. Whatever Dredd’s opinions are of his world he keeps to himself; he is the Arm of the Law and the Hammer of Justice. That’s all he really needs.

Anderson has more of a conscience. Having grown up in a low-income block, she feels more empathy for the people who live there. Dredd’s concern throughout the film is that she isn’t tough or ruthless enough to make the hard choices. Thirlby often looks out of place in a Judge’s uniform, being smaller than most of the other Judges in the film, but she pulls off the attitude nicely with a heaping helping of self-doubt.; Anderson herself isn’t sure she’s in the right job. She’s less about the law and more about justice.

The visual of Mega City One is a bit of a mixed bag for me. It looks like a modern 21st century city for the most part with internal combustion engine cars that look not unlike the sedans, coupes and mini-vans of 2012 – while customizing the vehicles a little might have been more expensive, it would have made the visuals more believable. It’s hard to believe that the vehicles of a society 100 years from now would have changed so little in the intervening period.

The slo-mo effects are great however. There is a beauty to them which is a nice juxtaposition to the bleak city and block we see throughout. You can almost understand why the junkies would much rather see the world through slo-mo than the reality of it.

It’s a brutal world but then again a world that crowded would have to be. Still, locking up Dredd and Anderson in an impregnable fortress reminded me of the hit Indonesian action film from earlier this year The Raid: Redemption. While that film had amazing martial arts battles interspersed with the gun fights, there is little beyond using different kinds of weapons here in an endless series of shoot-em-ups once the blast doors close. In that sense, the filmmakers painted themselves into a corner a little bit. Still, the visuals are good, the action is solid and as mindless entertainment the movie succeeds nicely. The audience hasn’t been there for Dredd sadly but hopefully some who gave the movie a miss will reconsider. It’s solid, satisfying entertainment.

REASONS TO GO: Closer to the comic book than the Stallone version. Satisfying visually. Urban and Thirlby make a good team.

REASONS TO STAY: Can be somewhat more brutal than American audiences are used to.

FAMILY VALUES: The violence is pretty intense – people fall from great heights and get shot up pretty good. There’s also plenty of foul language, drug use and just a bit of sexuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Karl Urban’s face is always obscured by the helmet; we never see anything other than his mouth, jaw and chin.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/30/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 76% positive reviews. Metacritic: 59/100. The movie is getting mixed reviews but leaning towards the positive..

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Raid: Redemption

CLINT EASTWOOD LOVERS: Urban based his vocal interpretation on Clint Eastwood, which is fitting since the character of Judge Dredd was based on Eastwood’s character in the TV show “Rawhide” – in the comic book Dredd even lives on Rowdy Yates block in reference to the character!

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: Robot & Frank