Marching Forward


The Jones High Marching Tigers at the 1964 World’s Fair.

(2019) Documentary (University of Central Florida) James “Chief” Wilson, Del Kieffner, Carl Maultsby, Kay Kieffner Kimbrough, Jamaal Nicholas, Richard Fogelsong, Jamia Wilson, Joy Dickinson, Barbara Young, Nina Wilson Jones, Ben Brolemarkle, Virginia Wilson, Noel Wooley Weller, Karen Jones, Anthony Foster, Lyman Brodie, Barbara Kaye Burns, Lynn Kieffner Lockhart. Directed by Oswmer Louis, Lisa Mills and Robert Cassanello

High school is the time when the people we are as adults is influenced perhaps more than at any other time of our lives. The people who guide us (teachers, counselors, parents) are slowly displaced by our peers. The friendships we form in high school can be indelible, lasting the length of our lives even if we no longer have physical proximity.

Here in Orlando back in 1964, schools were segregated. Jones High School was one of the only high schools African-American students could attend. While race relations in Orlando were relatively mild, there was still plenty of things that needed to change – for example, members of the band recall demanding a nearby hamburger stand allow them to pay at the front window to get their burgers. Those demands resulted in a police action at band practice later that day.

Edgewater High School, by contrast, was lily white and fairly upper class. The students there were expected to become leaders of the community as well as of the state of Florida eventually. They had the best facilities available, the most modern amenities. Jones was lucky if they had enough books for everybody. The high school experience for students at these two Orlando high schools was night and day.

But both had one thing in common; marching bands that were among the best in the state. James “Chief” Wilson was the band leader at the time (and would continue to do so until he retired in the 1980s) at Jones and one of his closest friends was Del Kieffner, band leader at Edgewater. Both men took their jobs seriously of molding young people into a cohesive unit. Both men influenced their students who these days are of retirement age themselves, even now more than 50 years later. Both men are regarded fondly not only by the students who played in their bands but are revered by the institutions they served for so long and so well.

In 1964 the big news was the massive World’s Fair coming to New York City’s Flushing Meadow for a two-year run. On display would be the latest in manufacturing, tourism and amusements; the world was coming to New York and at the Florida pavilion it was determined that marching bands from high schools from around the state would be invited to play at the pavilion. The two best bands in the city were Edgewater and Jones; there was no doubt that Edgewater was going to go.

However, Jones didn’t have the kind of budget to send their kids to New York. Everything would have to be done through donations and through fund raisers. Many thought Jones was the best marching band in the State – they’d won several competitions to back their case. Many felt that Jones had to go. Among those was Del Kieffner. This set the stage for history.

According to his daughters, Kieffner was never really concerned about the history-making aspect of the Edgewater-Jones relationship; he only knew it was the right thing to do. Wilson however, also according to his daughters, was savvier about what it meant. It would illustrate that Orlando was a much more tolerant place than other like places in the South. It is not beyond the realm of chance that this attracted the attention of Walt Disney, who was even then scouting locations for an East Coast Disneyland at the time. Disney had a huge presence at the Fair with many what would become iconic attractions being tested there, including It’s a Small World, Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln and the Carousel of Progress. While there isn’t any documentation to corroborate this, it had to register that African-American tourists would be more welcome in Orlando than they would be in other cities.

The documentary is clearly a labor of love. It clearly shows the lifelong bonds of affection generated by being in band, as well as the influence the band leaders had on those kids – many of whom went on to become educators themselves. Unfortunately, there isn’t a lot of footage that exists of the band from that period other than some 16mm home movie footage so much of the film is made up of interviews with the people who were there and their descendants. Even though the film is a compact 61 minutes, the non-stop interviews can make it seem like a segment of 60 Minutes.

This is also a student project so many student hands can be felt during the making of this film, but surprisingly, it doesn’t feel like a student film at all. Many student documentaries tend to feel like the viewer is being led by the nose to a specific conclusion; this one allows the viewer to feel the sweep of history without feeling manipulated. Kudos have to go to the faculty members who guided the project and allowed the students to do their thing, but also keep the movie entertaining and informative.

There are some brief animated segments with fairly basic techniques but the animations do make a nice break from the interviews which the movie really needs. I do have to stress that in reading this review, you should be aware I saw it at a Florida Film Festival screening that was packed to the gills mainly with Jones and Edgewater students who were involved in the World’s Fair trip, or who had played in bands led by Wilson and Kieffner. It was a fairly enthusiastic environment and no doubt enhanced my enjoyment of the film. Most readers will be unlikely to be able to recreate that experience.

Still, this is a well-made documentary about a moment that has been largely overlooked by history. In a turbulent era, it showed that there could be mutual respect and even friendship between black and white. A lot of myths were punctured. The film makes it easy to take a look back and feel part of that era without becoming strident. That’s a massive plus in and of itself.

Currently the filmmakers are looking to place the movie in film festivals and hosted screenings. If you are interested in hosting a screening or are a programmer in a film festival interested in booking the film, go to the film’s webpage by clicking on the photo above and contact the filmmakers directly.

REASONS TO SEE: The bond formed within marching bands is clearly illustrated. Chief Wilson is an unsung hero. The animation, while basic, is effective.
REASONS TO AVOID: A little bit heavy on the talking heads.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some adult themes regarding racism and segregation.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film began as a class project at the University of Central Florida; after class ended, the two faculty members (Mills and Cassanello) as well as several students worked to complete the film.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/23/19: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Marching Orders
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT:
Satan and Adam

Advertisements

The Rape of Recy Taylor


Portrait of a brave woman.

(2017) Drama (Augusta) Richard Corbitt, Alma Daniels, Recy Taylor, Crystal Feimster, James Johnson II, Danielle McGuire, Leamon Lee, James York, Larry Smith, Chris Money, Tommy Bernardi (voice), Tom Gibbs (voice), Jack Kyser, John L. Payne, Esther Cooper Jackson, Cynthia Erivo. Directed by Nancy Buirski

We like to think of America as a great shining beacon, a light of freedom and democracy for the entire world. However, it is no secret that America has its dark side as well, from its treatment of native peoples (some would say attempted genocide) to the advent of slavery. It is the latter that shapes our country perhaps most negatively, from ongoing displays of racism and thuggery to the demeaning of black culture and African-American achievements to the segregation of the black community and accompanying lack of educational and career opportunities that white children take for granted.

African-American women have in many ways borne the brunt of the post-bellum white American racism. In the days of King Cotton and plantations, white slave owners routinely used black women as sexual objects, sometimes allowing their teenage sons to pick out a particularly fetching slave to use to initiate them into sexual manhood, although this is scarcely the behavior of men. Then again, the white slave owning population didn’t see their black chattel as human; they were to be used as they saw fit and if that was brutal, well, it was a step up from the jungles, wasn’t it?

That attitude persisted well after the end of the Civil War (some would say it persists to this day). In 1944, a 24-year-old mother of a 9-month-old daughter and wife of a sharecropper named Recy Taylor was walking home from church when she was approached by six teenage white boys in a car who force her into the car at gunpoint. They drove her blindfolded into a remote part of the woods, raping her repeatedly over the course of three to four hours, causing so much internal damage that the young woman would never be able to bear children again. After the ordeal, the boys dropped her off at the side of the road with a stern warning to tell nobody.

In those days, it was not unusual for African-American women to be sexually assaulted by white men but it was extremely rare for those sorts of sexual assaults to go reported, particularly in places like Abbeville, Alabama where the assault took place. Nonetheless when Recy arrived home the first thing she did was report the incident, identifying as many of the attackers as she could.

Local sheriff Louis Corbitt (whose family owned Recy’s ancestors and after the 13th Amendment freed them, the ex-slaves took the Corbitt family name as their own) reluctantly took the statement but did nothing. The boys were questioned and released. Recy, who’d never had any trouble with the police – none in her family ever had – was falsely labeled a prostitute. With the help of the NAACP and their lead investigator Rosa Parks (yes, that Rosa Parks) Recy persisted in search of justice which in the Deep South was a rare thing for African-Americans to achieve. Despite two trips to the grand jury – made up of all white men – nobody was ever charged with the crime.

Documentary filmmaker Buirski was inspired by the book At the Dark End of the Street by Danielle McGuire (the author appears as an expert here) telling the tale of Taylor, who was a cause célèbre in the black press which widely reported the story around the country whereas it was largely ignored by the mainstream press which largely ignored crimes against African-Americans (and some would say it still does). The efforts of the black press largely forced the Alabama governor to conduct an investigation which would lead to a second grand jury and while the results remained the same, it had more to do with the color of the defendants and more so the color of the victim than with any semblance of law.

There are a lot of talking heads here, including the surviving members of Taylor’s family – mainly her younger brother and sister Richard Corbitt and Alma Daniels – and a variety of experts. While I’m not a fan of interview overuse, I have to admit that Crystal Feimster, an academic from Yale whose expertise on the history of the Civil Rights movement is put to good use here, is impressive. Articulate to the point of eloquence, she clearly and intelligently brings the plight of black women of that era to bold life. She rightly assigns them credit for being a driving force in the Civil Rights movement, connecting the dots from Recy Taylor to Rosa Parks to Martin Luther King. Whenever Feimster is on camera, my ears would always perk up because I knew she would have something insightful to say.

But this isn’t all just talking heads. Buirski deftly weaves in rare archival footage, family films and “race films” – movies made by black filmmakers for black audiences going back to the silent era until the mid-50s. They have gone largely ignored except for all but the most dedicated film buffs and academics so seeing some clips from these films was doubly thrilling for this critic, both from a historic standpoint and from a cinematic standpoint. The first image we see, in fact, was from a race film – a terrified black woman running down a country road, clearly in fear for her life. Although it was uncommon to discuss rape or portray it onscreen in those days, race films depicted it as a part of life because for black women, it was just that.

The state of Alabama would go on to issue an official apology for its handling of her case some 70 years after the fact but the movie doesn’t necessarily have an all-positive message; family members of the rapists still view the acts of their siblings as the actions of boys just acting like boys; things just got a little bit out of control, that’s all. It is disturbing that even now, approaching three quarters of a century later, there is no ownership of these heinous actions and no accepting of blame. One wonders if it would be any different for them if the victim had been white.

This is a movie that should be shown in every high school in America, not only because it graphically illustrates the ugly aspects of racism but also of sexism as well. All of the perpetrators of this crime were high school age. They regarded African-Americans as sub-human and women, particularly black women, as objects meant to be used to satisfy their carnal desires. We continue to live in a rape culture now; the real consequences of that  culture are excellently documented here. Adding to the tone is a brilliant pairing of Dinah Washington’s jagged “This Bitter Earth” with the elegiac strings of Max Richter’s On the Nature of Daylight.

It should also be said that the film’s title should warn those who are sensitive or prone to being triggered; while the description of Recy’s attack (and an attempted sexual assault on another woman) aren’t graphic, they may bring some painful and unwanted memories to the foreground. Be cautious in that regard.

Given the events at Charlottesville this past summer or the ongoing demonization of Black Lives Matter and of those protesting police brutality against African-Americans, there is little doubt that race relations in the Land of the Free still have a long, painful way to go. What I find most depressing is that while we may console ourselves that “these things happened 70 years ago, things are different now” I have my doubts that if a 24-year-old African-American wife and mother walking home from church in 2017 were to be raped by five white men that the outcome would be any different.

REASONS TO GO: The archival and “race film” footage is fascinating. Feimster is an eloquent and intelligent speaker. The film is powerful and moving. Here you’ll find a very specific and damning account of racism.
REASONS TO STAY: There are an awful lot of talking heads here. Although not graphic, the depictions of rape and attempted rape may be disturbing to survivors.
FAMILY VALUES: The movie contains descriptions of sexual assault and racially-motivated violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Buirski is the founder of the prestigious Full Frame Documentary Film Festival.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/2/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: 13th
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT:
Columbus

Hidden Figures


When all else fails - dance!

When all else fails – dance!

(2016) Biographical Drama (20th Century Fox) Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monáe, Kevin Costner, Kirsten Dunst, Jim Parsons, Mahershala Ali, Aldis Hodge, Glen Powell, Kimberly Quinn, Olek Krupa, Kurt Krause, Ken Strunk, Lidya Jewett, Donna Biscoe, Ariana Neal, Sanlyya Sidney, Zani Jones Mbayise. Directed by Theodore Melfi

 

Here in the United States we are justifiably proud of our space program. NASA has done some mind-blowing things when you consider our humble beginnings in the Space Race. Back in 1962, it wasn’t certain that we would succeed at all.

Katherine Johnson (Henson) is a math prodigy employed by NASA’s Virginia facility. So are her friends Mary Jackson (Monáe), an engineer, and Dorothy Vaughan (Spencer) who is the de facto supervisor of the computer division – the group of mostly African American women who crunch numbers at the facility. The Space Race is in full bloom and even though NASA has gotten Alan Shepherd into space, they haven’t yet achieved orbit with an astronaut which is also something that the Soviet Union hasn’t been able to do either. John Glenn (Powell) is the candidate for the orbital mission, but the mathematics don’t exist yet to safely get Glenn into orbit and back to Earth again. Time is ticking as NASA has some intense political pressure on them to deliver.

In this office, most of that pressure falls on Jim Harrison (Costner) and his engineers, led by Paul Stafford (Parsons) and things aren’t going well. After some spectacular failures, Harrison needs someone to double check the math of the engineers and the prim and proper supervisor (Dunst) of the computer pool taps Vaughan to suggest someone and she in turn suggests Johnson.

She couldn’t have chosen better. Johnson is a legitimate genius, perhaps more so than the white male engineers and as she begins to clean up their efforts, she shows Harrison that she might be the one to invent a new form of mathematics that will get Glenn into orbit and home again without burning him to a cinder, or sending his spacecraft into a trajectory that takes it beyond where he can get home again.

At the time IBM was building its first supercomputers and installing one in Virginia had turned out to be a much more daunting task than they had at first envisioned. Vaughan, realizing that this computer will put her and the women of the computing division out of a job, learns programming on her own and helps get the system up and running. In the meantime, Jackson – ably assisting chief engineer Karl Zielinski (Krupa) needs to take classes to get her degree so she can progress further. Unfortunately, the only night courses she can take are being taught at a segregated high school which she can’t legally attend.

There are all sorts of petty humiliations associated with the segregation culture of its time; Johnson is forced to take long breaks to scurry the mile and a half to the nearest colored bathroom since she can’t use the whites only bathroom in her own building. She also is not allowed to drink from the same coffeepot as the others. The pressure of the job is keeping her away from her children and her new husband, a dashing Army officer (Ali) much longer than she would like. Will she crack under all this pressure?

One of the things that has irritated some critics about the film is that much of the segregation sequences are essentially manufactured. The bathroom incidents, for example happened to Jackson, not Johnson and while Vaughan became an essential computer programmer for NASA, her role in getting the computer installed was overstated here. However, keep in mind that this is a movie based on the experiences of actual people – it’s not a history lesson per se and is meant to be entertainment.

And as entertainment the film succeeds, largely on the back of the performances of its leads. Spencer has become in short order one of America’s finest actresses bar none; I can’t remember a recent film in which she’s given a subpar performance or failed to elevate. Here she is absolutely mesmerizing whenever she’s on screen; the power of her personality almost overwhelms the others.

Henson has a much more mousy character to portray but she makes her human and vulnerable rather than so smart we cannot relate to her. She is that, but she’s also got a ton of humanity as well – she gets frustrated with her situation but she has a lot of confidence that the future will be a better one. Henson has also climbed to the top echelon of actresses working and while Spencer has gotten more award acclaim, I don’t doubt that Henson is headed in that direction as well as she gets more leading roles on the big screen and the small.

Costner is a reliable performer who is transitioning into a bit of a character actor as well as a leading man still. He knows how to play grouchy with a heart of gold about as well as anybody and Harrison is all of that. Of course, this being a Hollywood production, there are elements of “decent white guy helping the cause of African-American freedom.” It’s a bit condescending but I suppose, forgivable; after all, there were plenty of decent white guys (and gals) who not only supported the civil rights movement but also fought on the front lines of it. Still, Melfi at least has the good sense to make sure the focus is on the trio of ladies where it should be.

The good thing about Hidden Figures is that it educates us about people who have been lost to history but shouldn’t have been and that is invaluable. Nearly as invaluable is that the movie leaves us with a good feeling as we exit the theater (or turn off our home video device when the time comes) and in times like these, it’s certainly about as important.

REASONS TO GO: Fine performances from all three of the ladies include an Oscar-nominated one by Spencer. It’s a really uplifting film – literally.
REASONS TO STAY: Strays quite a bit from the actual history of these extraordinary women.
FAMILY VALUES: A little bit of mild profanity and some adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The house that was used as Dorothy Vaughan’s house has historical significance; the residence, in Atlanta, is where civil rights leaders Ralph Abernathy and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. first met.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/9/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 92% positive reviews. Metacritic: 74/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Right Stuff
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Split

The Beatles: Eight Days a Week – The Touring Years


The Fab Four in their glory years.

The Fab Four in their glory years.

(2016) Musical Documentary (Abramorama) Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, George Harrison, John Lennon, Whoopi Goldberg, Richard Lester, George Martin, Elvis Costello, Larry Kane, Eddie Izzard, Sigourney Weaver, Neil Aspinall, Richard Curtis, Brian Epstein, Kitty Oliver, Howard Goodall, Jon Savage, Debbie Gendler. Directed by Ron Howard

 

It is safe to say that the Beatles are one of the pop culture touchstones of the 20th century. Their influence on music and the world in general is incalculable. It has been half a century since the Fab Four played a live show and generations have been born since, some not even knowing who they are but regardless feeling the effects of their contribution on popular music.

Beatlemania is something we’re not likely to see again; the emotional effect that the Beatles had on their female fans was something that the world hadn’t seen prior to that (except maybe for Elvis) and not really since; girls would scream nearly non-stop in their presence and faint from the emotional outpouring. It was a phenomenon that had to be experienced to be believed and even just having seen it as I did on this documentary it still doesn’t carry the impact it must have to be in that presence.

Their popularity can’t be underestimated either. They are the only band to hold the top five position on the Billboard singles chart in the same week and given how the music industry is today that is extremely unlikely to ever happen again. They ushered in the British invasion and paved the way for bands like the Rolling Stones and the Who, among others.

The Beatles had a very limited shelf life; essentially they were only making a global impact for seven years before going their separate ways. They only toured for four of those years, and after giving up touring only played together publicly just once – on the rooftop of their Apple Records office in London, which the film appropriately closes with.

Still their touring years were some of their most productive and it was a grueling schedule. They made two movies during those years on top of the grueling tour schedules that would take them to 25 cities in 30 days. It was certainly a different era; their concerts generally lasted about 30 minutes long, including encores. They were the first band to play in stadium-sized venues and often their amplifiers went through the stadium sound system. The screaming of their female fans would be so loud that the band couldn’t hear themselves play; drummer Ringo Starr kept the beat by watching his bandmates sway at the microphone so that he’d know where they were in the song.

Director Ron Howard, an Oscar winner in his own right, has compiled archival interviews as well as contemporary ones with the surviving Beatles (Starr and McCartney) and with celebrities like Whoopi Goldberg and Sigourney Weaver, both of whom were at the historic 1966 Shea Stadium concert in New York City – Goldberg recalls not thinking of the band in terms of black or white but just as “guys” who gave her a feeling of empowerment that helped her determine her course in life. New Wave legend Elvis Costello remembers not liking the Rubber Soul album because it didn’t sound anything like their previous music, only appreciating what it represented years after the fact. Some of the best insights though come from Larry Kane, a Miami-based reporter who accompanied the band on two of their tours and filed regular reports from the front lines of Beatlemania. His take on the phenomenon is fascinating to say the least.

There is also home movies that the Beatles themselves took, backstage and rehearsal studio audio that shows us how some of their classic songs evolved. And of course plenty of concert footage; we never get a sense at how accomplished musicians they were (and Starr and Harrison were both much underrated in that regard) but we get more of a sense of the power they had over their audience. That power was considerable, too; the band was literally under siege from the press, their fans and their record label for that entire period. Starr remembers not getting a moment to relax for three years and the toll it took, but nearly everyone who was there comments on how unified the band was and how they looked after each other like brothers. That was a far cry from how they ended up, acrimonious and sniping at one another through the press.

I will admit that this is a bit of a puff piece. There isn’t a lot here that is negative and maybe it wasn’t Howard’s intention to look at the band objectively. We do get a sense of their impish sense of humor as well as their resolve; when they found out that the venue in Jacksonville they were going to play at was segregated, they refused to play unless it was full integrated. Manager Brian Epstein had that written into all of their performing contracts from that point forward. They were one of the first performers in history to make that a standard clause in their contract.

Their last concert other than the one-off Apple rooftop concert was at Candlestick Park in San Francisco. The band was tired and frustrated; Harrison had been expressing dissatisfaction with the live shows and now all of them were picking up on it. They were taken out of their last concert in an armored car with no seats in the back. As the car drove recklessly out of the park the band were jostled about in the back and that was the final straw; they chose as a group to stop touring, even though that was their primary source of income. Canny Brian Epstein, their manager, formed a corporation with him and his four charges as co-chairs; it was the first of its kind and would set the stage for other artist-owned production companies in the performing arts. They would get more control over their career than any entertainer before them.

I will admit to having been a fan of the Beatles since childhood; my parents listened to their music and they were my favorite group from day one. This is a film tailor-made for fans like me and if you love the Beatles, this is pretty much required viewing. It gives you a bit of an insight as to the pressures they were under, their lives on the road and how it drew them closer together. It’s no coincidence that the band began to fracture only after they stopped touring. Still, this is a reminder of a much simpler era, when something like this could happen. We will never see the like of the Beatles again.

REASONS TO GO: Definitely will send you on a trip down memory lane. Amazing footage and amazing music throughout the film. There are some insights into Beatlemania that you may not have had otherwise.
REASONS TO STAY: It is something of a puff piece.
FAMILY VALUES: There are a few drug references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The digital remastering of the songs for the soundtrack was engineered by Giles Martin, son of the legendary George Martin who produced the Beatles.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Hulu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/19/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 96% positive reviews. Metacritic: 72/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Last Waltz
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: Meat

Life (1999)


 

Life

Martin Lawrence and Eddie Murphy ponder the meaning of Life.

(1999) Comedy (Universal) Eddie Murphy, Martin Lawrence, Obba Babatunde, Nick Cassavetes, Anthony Anderson, Barry Shabaka Henley, Brent Jennings, Bernie Mac, Miguel A. Nunez Jr., Michael “Bear” Taliferro, Guy Torry, Ned Beatty, Bokeem Woodbine, Lisa Nicole Carson, Noah Emmerich, Clarence Williams III, R. Lee Ermey, Heavy D, Sanaa Lathan. Directed by Ted Demme

 

Once upon a time in America, life in prison meant precisely that. There was no early parole, no time off for good behavior. If you were sentenced to life, you could pretty much count on dying a prisoner in some godforsaken camp, farm or prison.

Rayford Gibson (Murphy) is a small-time crook in Prohibition-era New York trying to get out of debt to a Harlem mobster (James). He sets up a scheme of driving some Mississippi moonshine to the mobster’s speakeasy in New York. He ropes in as his driver Claude Banks (Lawrence), a bank teller (a bank teller named Banks? haw haw!) who has also fallen afoul of the mobster because of an unpaid gambling debt.

Gibson’s weak nature gets the better of him and after receiving the liquor shipment, he decides to do some gambling in a rural club. He gets cheated by a local card sharp (Williams) who later mouths off to the town sheriff, who murders him. Banks and Gibson have the misfortune of discovering the body, and being seen with it. They get, you guessed it, life in prison.

The two, initially antagonistic to one another, are forced to rely upon each other in the brutal work camp to which they are sentenced. Time passes and they dream of the freedom it seems will be denied them for a crime of which they aren’t guilty. Prison changes them – but will it be for the better?

There are a lot of poignant moments in Life and with Murphy and Lawrence, even more funny ones. There is social commentary in the form of how black men are treated in the South, but it isn’t strongly told or terribly compelling. Other movies explore that subject in greater depth and with greater insight.

The problem with “Life” is that the filmmakers aren’t sure whether they wanted to make a comedy, an examination of prison life in the Deep South of, say, 50 years ago, or a political/social commentary on the shaft given African Americans. They decide to do all these things, and in fact their reach exceeds their grasp.

Rick Baker does a great job of aging the two actors for their 60 year stint in prison and both actors have made a career of doing old age well; in fact, the make-up got an Oscar nomination that year. The various eras portrayed in the film are captured pretty nicely, and despite the fairly large cast the pace moves along at a good clip.

Some of the best African-American comics and comic actors in the country show up in the film, including the late Bernie Mac in a small role at the beginning of his career. The acting certainly isn’t the problem here. No, I think that the big problem is that this is kind of a Song of the South fantasy that glosses over the big issues – these guys are in prison for a crime they didn’t commit, after all – and goes for more of a sweet feeling that simply doesn’t mesh.

Life really doesn’t give you any new insights into anything. It’s mainly an excuse to pair two of the brightest comic minds at the time in America. Watching the two at work individually is fascinating, but Lawrence and Murphy don’t generate enough chemistry to hold any interest as a team, which is why they never teamed up in a movie again. Still, these two remain some of the best comedians of the past 20 years and seeing both of them together in the same film has some attraction right there.

WHY RENT THIS: Any opportunity to see Murphy and Lawrence is worth taking. Excellent supporting cast.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Ignores the larger issues. The chemistry between Murphy and Lawrence isn’t quite as good as I would have liked.

FAMILY MATTERS: There is some violence as well as plenty of salty language.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Rick James’ limp as Spanky was genuine, as he’d just had hip replacement surgery.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: There are some outtakes in which Lawrence and Murphy try to crack each other up – and in all honesty, some of these are funnier than what you’ll find in the movie.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $73.3M on a $75M production budget (estimated). The movie was a financial failure.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Shawshank Redemption

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: The Dark Knight Rises

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