13th


Outside the windows conditions remain murky.

Outside the windows conditions remain murky.

(2016) Documentary (Netflix) Angela Davis, Cory Booker, Van Jones, Newt Gingrich, Grover Norquist, Ed Koch, Dolores Canales, Khalid Muhammad, Charles B. Rangel, Jelani Cobb, Kyung-Jee Kate Rhee, Nicholas Turner, James Kilgore, Bryan Stevenson, Kevin Gannon, Michael Hough, Ken Thompson, Marc Maurer, Michelle Alexander, Deborah Small, Marie Gottschalk. Directed by Ava DuVernay

 

The 13th Amendment was supposed to have abolished involuntary servitude (i.e. slavery) but it left a very deliberate loophole; convicted criminals could be sentenced to hard labor without remuneration. That has led to the exploitation of African-American males essentially since the Civil War ended.

Ava (Selma) DuVernay’s Netflix documentary is up for an Oscar for Best Documentary feature and it’s easy to see why. This serves as an important historical document on the history of racism right up to present day. Images from the D.W. Griffith master-race-piece Birth of a Nation are cheek by jowl with images of civil rights marchers being beaten and firehosed in the Sixties.

There are a lot of talking heads and oddly DuVernay identifies most but not all of them. Some of them are fairly well known – there’s no mistaking Rep. Charlie Rangel and former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich and those who watch Real Time with Bill Maher ought to recognize Grover Norquist but some of the speakers here aren’t as well known visually and some information on who is talking and why their opinion should matter would be welcome. I must say it was great seeing Angela Davis, who is currently a professor at UC Santa Cruz. She looks terrific and minus her trademark Afro she looks a lot different but the fire is certainly still there and the intelligence as well. She is one of the most engaging speakers in the film.

The movie shows how the prison system has moved from using convicts for hard labor, helping to rebuild the post Civil War south to the War on Drugs which filled prisons with largely African American males in for minor offenses to help Nixon and his appeal to hard line conservative “Law and Order” voters to today when prisons have been privatized and the despicable ALEC organization which includes several corporate incarceration facility entities among its members has written laws to help increase prison sentences and has led to a prison population that was just under 350,000 in 1970 to the 2.3 million prisoners the United States has behind bars today. As a percentage of our total population, we have more people in prison than almost any nation on Earth by sheer number of the incarcerated I believe we have the greatest number of prisoners of any nation. We’re number one!

The narrative sometimes gets strident and overly dramatic and I can understand the former but a little bit of restraint might have gotten the point across more effectively than the cinematic hysterics DuVernay sometimes indulges in. When you’re preaching to the converted, a little drama doesn’t make a difference but when you’re trying to win hearts and minds it can make things a little more difficult than it needs to be.

Still, even with all that this is a powerful and moving documentary that richly deserves the nomination that it received. I also found it impressive that DuVernay includes the conservative side of things as well which some left-leaning documentarians often fail to do. However, she never loses sight of the fact that she’s giving a voice to a segment of society that hasn’t traditionally had, or at least one that was being heard. If it is occasionally uncomfortable and strident it is forgivable. The point is that we are watching legal, institutionalized slavery going on under our very noses and unless we decide to do something about it as a people it will continue to go on for as long as the powers that be can get away with it.

REASONS TO GO: An important document on the history of racism. An impressive amount of conservative commentary is included. A voice is given to those who generally have to scream in order to be heard.
REASONS TO STAY: The film can be strident and occasionally veers into the overly dramatic. The graphic flashing of the word “criminal” every time the word is mentioned is irksome.
FAMILY VALUES:  There is a little bit of foul language and some disturbing images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  The title comes from the 13th Amendment which prohibits slavery – except in the case of convicted criminals.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/31/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 97% positive reviews. Metacritic: 90/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: I Am Not Your Negro
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Underworld: Blood Wars

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The Young Victoria


The Young Victoria

We are QUITE amused!!!

(2009) Biographical Drama (Apparition) Emily Blunt, Rupert Friend, Paul Bettany, Miranda Richardson, Jim Broadbent, Thomas Kretschmann, Mark Strong, Julian Glover. Directed by Jean-Marc Vallee

Most Americans have a picture in their head about Queen Victoria of England (if they even know who she is at all) of a dour old matronly sort dressed entirely in black with a perpetually sour expression, exclaiming “We are not amused!” in a posh accent. The woman who would be the longest-reigning queen in English history was obviously much more than that; she was also, at one time, a young woman.

As the movie begins, King William (Broadbent) nears the end of his reign. He is childless, so the daughter of his late brother, the Duke of Kent is his heir. Victoria (Blunt) lives in isolation with her mother (Richardson) and her mom’s lover, Sir John Conroy (Strong). Both of them very much want a regency with Sir John taking control of the throne, but Victoria is having none of it. In a show of the backbone that would define her reign, she refuses to sign papers handing over her authority and rights to her mother. It will not be the last time she will be underestimated.

Sir John isn’t the only one with designs on the crown. King Leopold of Belgium (Kretschmann) is eager to marry off his son, Prince Albert (Friend) to the young girl, so he coaches his son on Victoria’s likes and dislikes. She finds him out and when she confronts him with it, he owns up. This impresses her.

Good thing too, because she needs all the friends she can get. The Prime Minister Lord Melbourne (Bettany) appears on the surface to be Victoria’s ally but he’s been playing the political game for so long that he can’t be trusted. Everybody at court wants some measure of power, and it is up to her to sort through it. It isn’t always easy, but with Albert at her side, she has an ally and confidant that she can at last truly count on.

This is an impressive-looking film much of it filmed at the actual locations the events took place at (with the notable exception of Buckingham Palace). The costumes are sumptuous (the film won an Oscar for it) and the movie appears to be meticulously researched. As such, it’s candy for the eyes.

It’s also candy for the soul as Blunt gives a terrific performance as the young queen. Ever since her acclaimed work in The Devil Wears Prada Blunt has been looking for that one role that can show she can carry a film on her back, and this more than does the trick – she is every inch the Queen and yet just as vulnerable as the rest of us. While she didn’t get a nomination, this was certainly Oscar-worthy work.

The movie lets us down in that it drags quite a bit through all the turns and twists of court politics. Sometimes it gets hard to tell one lord from the other duke and what their agenda is, but consider this is essentially a condensed version of what really happened. Imagine trying to keep track of it if you were Victoria herself.

The love story between Victoria and Albert are at the heart of the movie and it is important that the relationship seem realistic. Fortunately, the chemistry between Blunt and Friend is genuine, and the relationship works; it’s easy to see why Victoria adored him so, and why she mourned his untimely death for her entire life.

While this isn’t perfect, it is nonetheless quite satisfactory both as history lesson and as entertainment. While there are some factual fudging, there isn’t nearly as much as is usual for a Hollywood production and that’s reason to give thanks right there.

WHY RENT THIS: Very informative on the life of one of the most influential figures of the English monarchy. Blunt does a tremendous job in the title role, and the production is authentic-looking and lush.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The movie is slow-moving at times and keeping some of the palace intrigue straight is a bit tiring.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a little bit of violence, some semi-chaste sexuality and a few bad words. While this will bore most of the little ones, it is certainly fit for nearly all audiences.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: One of Victoria’s ladies-in-waiting is played by Princess Beatrice of York, the great-great-great-great granddaughter of Victoria. Her mother, Sarah Ferguson, is one of the film’s producers.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There’s a featurette on “The Real Queen Victoria” featuring excerpts from her diary as well as the actors giving their perceptions – occasionally inaccurate ones – on Her Majesty. There is also a featurette on the Oscar-winning work of Costume Designer Sandy Powell.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $27.4M on a production budget of $35M; the movie was a flop.

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

TOMORROW: Post Grad