by Chaya and Deni
SORRY TO BOTHER YOU
This is the first movie made by Oakland musician and activist Boots Riley, known for his political hip hop and rap. As the film’s writer and director, Riley packed it with fantastically creative ideas and political themes, all wrapped up in a package of comedy, satire, searing realism (not to mention surrealism), and a touch of syfy/fantasy. Set in Oakland, the main characters are Cassius “Cash” Green (Lakeith Stanfield, star of Get Out), a 20-ish Black man working as a telemarketer, and his girlfriend Detroit (Tessa Thompson), a performance artist. Cassius can’t succeed at work until Danny Glover’s character helps him find his white telephone voice and things really start to change for him. The city of Oakland also stars in numerous shooting locations that show off the vibrant character of Boots Riley’s home town. The film deals with race, class/economic mobility, union organizing, and gentrification. The excellent cast does a great job with the acting, and it’s always great to see Danny Glover. Unfortunately, Riley didn’t do as well as hoped with female characters, especially the lead female character Detroit, who was increasingly sexualized and willing to forgive and forget her boyfriend’s selling out awfully fast. We can’t remember any queer characters in the film. Seriously? We hoped that Boots Riley’s vision would be more inclusive. But there is a lot of content that is interesting, clever and worthwhile, so see it if you can.
EIGHTH GRADE (review by Deni)
This film by Bo Burnham attempts to be a tender and insightful look at early adolescence. But despite Elsie Fisher’s excellent acting as main character Kayla and a few authentically moving scenes, the film was often clichéd and shallow. Kayla and her hopefulness/angst were placed in school and social scenes where characters were moved around to make “deep” points but the points were often teeth-grindingly annoying. And what was with her sensitive, concerned father (her only parent) repeatedly showing up at her bedroom door in his boxer shorts?! A little creepy. I hope Elsie Fisher gets the better movie she deserves.
Director Carlos Lopez Estrada and screenwriters/actors Daveed Diggs and Rafael Casal have created an extraordinary and powerful movie. Diggs and Casal are old friends and worked on this script for about 10 years. As the writers and actors, their strong personal connection deepens the written dialogue and relationships in the film itself. Filmed in Oakland, and focusing on disparity and displacement, the film depicts and analyzes racism, gentrification, and police violence with superb writing, acting and cinematography. The characters’ lives (Colin played by Diggs and Miles played by Casal) are authentically portrayed within the contradictions, dangers, and struggles they face. The scene in which Diggs is witness to an act of police violence carries with it the horror and shock of the event, and how it reverberates in his life. Amazingly, the film manages to weave humor into this mix as well. The scene about the “n” word and how it’s used between them (Colin is Black and Miles is his white best friend) cuts to the bone. The plot carries an element of tension throughout: will Colin make it through his final three days of probation on the outside? This is a must-see film, hope you can.
Spike Lee’s newest film is problematic on many levels. It’s based on Ron Stallworth, a Black cop in 1970s Colorado Springs investigating the KKK. Real-life Stallworth says the film’s intent was to “show that the racism exhibited in America 40 years ago is unfortunately still alive.” But Boots Riley (activist rapper/filmmaker) criticizes Lee’s film, saying the message that comes through is that the police are primarily friends and comrades in the fight against US racism, rather than supporters and perpetrators of it.
Riley also claims that Stallworth’s primary police work was in COINTELPRO, the FBI program that targeted radical organizations to smear, discredit, and spread discord among groups. In the movie, Stallworth goes undercover at a Black Panther rally but it’s not shown as the horror that was COINTELPRO.
Much license was taken in going from book to movie. Stallworth (John David Washington) has a “good white cop partner” Flip (Adam Driver) who’s Jewish in the film but not in real life, leading to some nauseating statements by Flip about passing and rethinking his “heritage.” The film invented Ron’s love interest Patrice (Laura Harrier). Though a radical leader of a Black Student Union, she’s often shown as naive and cutesy, and Ron mansplains to her how dangerous the Klan can be and why not all cops are bad. A review by Alissa Wilkinson offers another criticism: “If the movie aims to make complacent white people feel uncomfortable about their role in the current American turmoil, it fails spectacularly.” Footage of the 2017 white supremacist protests in Charlottesville, VA that were added at the end tries to drive home the point about how bad things still are. But it can’t erase the problems of the film itself. Boots Riley also said that Spike Lee, a long-time critic of the NYPD, was paid $200K by the NYPD “to support a new policing program aimed at improving police relations with minority communities.” Spike Lee’s work can be strong and provocative, but not this time.
LEAVE NO TRACE
Director Debra Granik makes offbeat indie dramas that tell authentic stories in a highly compelling way. We loved Granik’s 2010 feature film Winter’s Bone, which was Jennifer Lawrence’s breakthrough movie. Leave No Trace is similarly stunning, with themes of connection, family and personal growth. Granik was co-screenwriter. Ben Foster plays Will, an Army veteran coping with PTSD, and Thomasin McKenzie, his daughter, Tom. Will has created a secluded life for them in a forest preserve outside Portland, OR. Everything about them feels genuine, from their close relationship and way of communicating to the way Will has taught Tom how to use tools (rehearsal for filming included wilderness survival training). But external conflict comes to their way of life, and change inevitably follows. The acting and writing were excellent, as was the cinematography of the lush, beautiful forest. We expect that big opportunities will come for Thomasin McKenzie, whose mother and grandmother are actors in her native New Zealand. We highly recommend it.
THE HATE U GIVE We’re looking forward to seeing this film, based on the tremendously moving, sharply political young adult novel by Angie Thomas, opening October 5. It’s the story of a Black high school woman and the impact of police violence on her, her family, and her communities, and how the Black Lives Matter movement affected her development as an activist. The lead role of Starr is played by Amandla Stenberg (Rue from The Hunger Games) and Issa Rae plays an activist. The cast also includes Regina Hall and Common. We have high hopes that the film will equal the power of the book.
AMERICA IS NOT THE HEART by ELAINE CASTILLO (guest review by Cole)
The book’s title appears to constitute a sardonic remark on America is in the Heart, a landmark work in Filipino-American literature. Although Carlos Bulosan’s book chronicles the challenges facing an immigrant, a certain innocence and optimism shines through. Those qualities are considerably more muted in Castillo’s novel as she successfully tackles issues of class, gender, sexuality and imperialism in a non-didactic fashion. Her characters are well-rounded; we neither find flawless saints nor sinners unworthy of redemption.
The prologue describes the wide class gap between the protagonist’s Uncle Pol and Aunt Paz — he, solidly upper class; she, an impoverished young women who struggled to obtain a nursing degree. Paz ruminated that “[c]hoosing to marry him will mean having to prove yourself to invisible judges, all the time, for the rest of your life . . . .”
The reader learns that the protagonist – perhaps playfully named Hero – has also deviated from the expectations of her own upper class background by way of leaving medical school and joining the New People’s Army. The author avoids the pitfall of overly romanticizing armed struggle but manages to capture in a pithy fashion the essence of the NPA — its internal ideological divisions, the manner in which it promoted revolution by providing material support to the rural poor and the remarkable courage of its members.
Hero is released 2 years after her arrest as a NPA partisan. Disowned by her parents, she makes her way to Milpitas with the intent to continue living with her uncle and aunt once her tourist visa has expired. Somehow she must create a new life for herself. I was particularly moved by Hero’s trepidation at the prospect of making new friends outside of the structure of a political movement — can we not imagine ourselves in the same predicament? I was also amused by her wiseass internal dialogue in response to the awkward and unsatisfying nature of an initial sexual encounter with someone who’s more than just a party hit up — no violins playing in the background that time.
The book is definitely about politics, but it’s also about the potholed road of love. Love can be absent; love can be betrayed; love can be hella scary but worth the risk. What are you waiting for? Read this book!
BITS AND PIECES
THE MOCHA COLUMN’S SPORTS ROUNDUP (SERIOUSLY? US?)
#1 At the end of July, the NFL and the Players Association agreed to a temporary halt of the League’s new policy requiring players to stand during the national anthem, so they can come to a mutual resolution of the issue (Oops! The NFL had ‘neglected’ to discuss the policy with the Players Association. The Players Association filed a grievance against the policy).
#2 In October 2017, Colin Kaepernick filed a complaint alleging that his failure to get a contract was due to an agreement among team owners and the NFL, which violated the collective bargaining agreement. At the end of August an arbitrator, stating that Kap’s lawyers had produced enough evidence for his collusion case to go to a full hearing, denied the NFL’s request to dismiss Kap’s complaint.
#3 Ah, the nuances of capitalism. Nike decided it was worth taking some heat by starring Kap in its latest ad campaign. In the Nike ad, Kap says “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything.” How does that apply to Nike’s labor practices? Nike is still paying poverty wages and abusing workers in its sweatshops around the world, and this ad campaign is boosting its profits and image.
#4 Art imitates life. Kenya Barris, creator, writer and producer of ABC’s Black-ish, made a deal with ABC (owned by Disney) to end his production contract early, and signed with Netflix. The rift between Barris and ABC grew when ABC failed to approve an episode of Black-ish whose plot focused on athletes taking a knee during the national anthem.
SPACE, THE FINAL FRONTIER In the March issue we reported that NASA hired astrobiologist Lisa Pratt as Planetary Protection Officer “to promote the responsible exploration of the solar system.” Now, NASA and the National Science and Technology Council (part of the US government), want to increase its protection of the planet from asteroids. Every single dinosaur that we interviewed felt this is a tad late. One of the goals is to develop technologies for future deflection such as a gravity tractor near-earth object (huh?), and a kinetic impactor mission campaign (huh?). The kinetic impactor mission campaign would be a spacecraft that can function as a kinetic impactor, or deliver a nuclear explosive device. But, NASA specifies, not to worry—the spacecraft wouldn’t actually have a nuclear device, just the systems necessary to carry and safely employ one, and a mass simulator with appropriate interfaces. We feel so reassured! And, just a reminder, we couldn’t make this stuff up even if we wanted to.
US SPACE FORCE VS ALIENS We can only imagine how exciting it might be to fight wars in space by serving in the new branch of the military proposed by the predator-in-chief—the US Space Force! Perhaps one of the first recruits could be Bettina Rodriguez-Aguilera, a Republican US House of Reps candidate from Florida. Rodriguez-Aguilera, a former city councilmember of a Miami suburb, says that she was abducted by space aliens when she was 7 years old, and has been in touch with the aliens telepathically after the abduction. She says the extraterrestrials were blond (ok…). She was endorsed in the race by the Miami Herald, which was impressed with her “boots-on-the-ground ideas and experience.” She was defeated in the primary election, but it sounds like she’s a shoe-in, oops we mean a boot-in, for a command position in the proposed Space Force.
SHOUT OUT! The Mocha Column would like to give a shout out to Vanessa in Missouri–thanks for your letter!–and to all the other lesbians inside. We’d love to hear from more of you.
FAREWELL TO ARETHA by Chaya
Aretha wrote the soundtrack to my life. I was 19 when RESPECT was released in 1967 and we danced to it, sang it and lived it. Aretha was a peerless singer, pianist and songwriter, but her range also included activism in civil rights, women’s rights, American Indian rights, and more. When Angela Davis was arrested in 1970, Aretha said, “Angela Davis must go free… Black people will be free. I’ve been locked up (for disturbing the peace in Detroit) and I know you got to disturb the peace when you can’t get no peace. Jail is hell to be in. I’m going to see her free if there is any justice in our courts, not because I believe in communism, but because she’s a Black woman and she wants freedom for Black people.” With so many fabulous songs, it’s hard to pick some favorites, but here goes. RESPECT, Chain of Fools, Rock Steady, Spirit in the Dark and I Knew You Were Waiting (with George Michaels) were great to dance to. Ain’t No Way, Oh Me Oh My, A Brand New Me and Didn’t I Blow Your Mind were fantastic ballads. Of course many had political meanings: RESPECT, Sisters are Doin’ It For Themselves (with Annie Lennox), To Be Young, Gifted and Black and Chain of Fools. Aretha brought her heart, her soul, and her extraordinary talent to everything she did, and the world is a better place for it.
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