The Mocha Column

By Chaya and Deni

MOVIE/TV/BOOK REVIEWS

JUDAS AND THE BLACK MESSIAH

Writers Shaka King (who also directed) and Will Berson have delivered a biopic about Fred Hampton, Chairman of the Illinois Black Panther Party (BPP) who was assassinated by the Chicago PD and FBI in 1969. It’s hard to review this film, trying to separate the film from the times many of us lived through, remembering reports of Fred Hampton’s murder and angry street protests. COINTELPRO, the FBI’s insidious COunter INtelligence PROgram was dedicated to eradicating Black leadership and the BPP in particular, along with women’s liberation groups, the anti-Vietnam War movement, AIM (American Indian Movement), The Young Lords Organization (a predominantly Puerto Rican revolutionary group that started in Chicago), the Communist Party USA, environmental and animal rights’ groups. COINTELPRO started in 1956 to “increase factionalism, cause disruption, and win defections” inside the Communist Party USA but COINTELPRO wasn’t made public until a 1971 burglary of the FBI office in Media, PA by leftist activists. The film has powerful performances by Daniel Kaluuya as Chairman Fred, LaKeith Stanfield as William O’Neal, the car thief persuaded to work as an FBI informant infiltrating the BPP, and Dominique Fishback as Deborah Johnson, Black Power activist and Fred Hampton’s romantic partner. The film’s performances and politics about the BPP program and Fred’s revolutionary anti-capitalist coalition-building were powerful. The film had somewhat episodic storytelling but more problematic was the framing of the story through the lens of the informant. As Roxana Hadadi said in Polygon: “. . . Judas and the Black Messiah fumbles by assuming that the only way to humanize Fred Hampton is to focus on the man who helped kill him . . . .” In a fascinating Pitchfork article Jessica Kariisa, writing critically about the film’s music, said “The soundtrack … exploits Hampton’s image to peddle liberation-lite Billboard hits. Radical politics is not within the purview of Hollywood, and the film made that abundantly clear by focusing more on the story of the informant than that of Fred Hampton ….” In an interview, writer/director King said, “On the side of O’Neal, [we wanted] to humanize him as well so that viewers of the film could leave the movie wondering, ‘Is there any of that in me?’” Always an interesting question but maybe not the one for this particular film. But the film is definitely a must see if you can.

THE LETTER ROOM

This excellent short film, written and directed by Elvira Lind, focuses on prison guard Richard, beautifully played by Oscar Isaac (Star Wars, Inside Llewyn Davis) who was also an executive producer. Richard is somewhat friendly with the other guards and often talks with prisoners, but his sweet dog seems to be his only companion outside of work. One day he’s promoted to the prison’s “letter room,” where he scans and distributes incoming prisoner correspondence. Being privy to highly personal letters puts him in a different relationship to some of the prisoners. With his own agenda of trying to be helpful, Richard oversteps boundaries with mixed results. When Richard meets with the girlfriend of one of the prisoners, she questions why he’s working within the prison system if he cares about the prisoners. The film also provides a brief look into the workings of the prison industrial complex. With excellent overall acting and direction, it’s currently on the short list for Live Action Short Film for the 2021 Oscars.

We saw it online as a fundraiser for Legal Services for Prisoners with Children (LSPC), which included 2 excellent panels. One panel featured Dorsey Nunn, Executive Director of LSPC and the first formerly incarcerated director of a public-interest law office in California who helped pass Ban the Box laws at local, state and federal levels. The panel also had some of the actors and the filmmaker. The second panel had Hamdiya Cooks-Abdullah, a former federal prisoner and now LSPC Administrative Director, and Sandra Johnson, formerly incarcerated and now Root & Rebound In-Prison Coordinator. Check the internet for watch options.

DRIVEWAYS (released in 2020 on video-on-demand)

Driveways tells the story of a woman Kathy (Hong Chau) and her young son Cody (Lucas Jaye) who travel to her late sister’s house to sell it. The film is about human connection across barriers told in a low-key but compelling way. An unlikely bond develops between Cody and the next-door neighbor Del, an older man (Brian Dennehy), who it turns out has an adult lesbian daughter. The anti-Asian racism experienced by Kathy and Cody is presented in a strong and nuanced way. Director Andrew Ahn chose this story for his second film because he “didn’t want to talk about being gay and Korean-American anymore” (his first film). The writers originally created Kathy and Cody as white characters, but Ahn thought to emphasize them as ‘other’ it was better to make them Asian American. Dennehy died just before the film was released. Good bye Brian Dennehy, and thanks. We look forward to more work from Ahn. See it if you can.

MANK 

This film is based on the true story of who wrote the screenplay for Citizen Kane, Orson Welles/Herman J. Mankiewicz. Chaya didn’t like it (once again, too many men). Deni liked it ok and found some of the political history and cinematography interesting. From an Iowa City high school newspaper review: “The biggest problem with “Mank” is that the film is boring…isn’t compelling at all, and if you’re not aware of the history behind the film it’s even more boring.” Ok, then.

DAVID MAKES MAN (tv series HBO and OWN)

David (Akili McDowell), a Black 14 year old, goes back and forth between his 2 different worlds. One world is the public-housing apartment he lives in with his mother and younger brother, where survival is hard. The other world is the magnet school for academic achievers, where most of the students are white and wealthy. The show uses some innovative techniques that blur fantasy and reality, and sometimes when David is conflicted we get to hear all of the thoughts that overwhelm him. The cast and writing are excellent, including trans character Mx Elijah. Showrunner Dee Harris-Lawrence takes an “unapologetically Black … not having to explain ourselves” approach. Almost everything in David’s life is hard, and the show doesn’t pretend otherwise. Executive producer Michael B. Jordan (Fruitvale Station, Black Panther) found similarities between his own childhood and that of series creator Tarell Alvin McCraney (openly-gay Oscar-winning screenwriter of “Moonlight”). Jordan said, “We thought it was important to show other kids that have similar experiences or live in a similar situation that you can take the stereotypical disadvantages that you grew up with and turn them into strengths.” The series does this with a wide range of characters and experiences. Season 2 will take place 15 years later. See it if you can.

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I MAY DESTROY YOU (review by Deni) (tv series HBO)

This is a stunning and shattering British series created by Michaela Coel who is showrunner, director, star, and writer. Based on her own life, it’s the story of Arabella, a twitter writer with a following, who gets drugged and sexually assaulted one night, and then tries to piece her life back together. Arabella’s stream of consciousness writing/speaking as she flashes back and examines what happened, her nuanced and powerful acting, the relationships and support of her friends (including exceptional performances by best friend Terry (Weruche Opiagay) and close gay friend Kwame (Paapa Essiedu) combine to make this a series to watch if you can. The content ranges wide as it addresses racism, homophobia, sexism, within a context of self-examination. From a Vulture profile of Coel, she says: “The show is calling for introspection …. We know how to look out,” she continues, referring to a culture that often encourages us to point fingers and cast aspersions. “We’ve been doing that. Don’t forget: Also look in.” There’s no blaming the survivor here but there’s constant reflection and analysis of how things happen and what one can do in the face of trauma. Despite its excellence it was snubbed by the Golden Globes. 

EUPHORIA (review by Deni)

Zendaya’s riveting Emmy-winning performance in this HBO high school angst series as drug addicted Rue and her relationship with trans girlfriend Jules was hypnotic for me (Deni) in the wee hours of mid-pandemic tv watching. In a great IndieWire 2019 review, Ben Travers says “Euphoria hasn’t heard a sad story it can’t make worse…viewers shouldn’t expect to enjoy the series. …” But in some twisted way, I did. Then I even tried to watch the pandemic-produced film Malcom and Marie (with Zendaya and John David Washington, son of Denzel), which was so awful I turned it off. I am waiting for Season 2 of Euphoria.

INVISIBLE HEROES: AFRICAN AMERICANS IN THE SPANISH CIVIL WAR (review by Cole)

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Presented online by the Abraham Lincoln Brigade Archives, this subtitled Spanish documentary, directed by Jordi Torrent and Alfonso Domingo, describes the participation of African Americans in the Spanish Civil War’s anti-fascist forces. The filmmakers characterize the Italian invasion of Ethiopia as a prelude to World War II that raised African Americans’ consciousness as to the advent of fascism. James Yates serves as a central spokesperson; he recounts his migration to Chicago to escape Mississippi’s racism and subsequent discovery that Chicago was only a marginal improvement in that regard. Yates became active in the labor movement, joined the Communist Party and volunteered for the Abraham Lincoln Brigade. Historic footage including information about Salaria Kea O’Reilly, the only African American nurse working in the ALB, along with interviews with Yates, other Black veterans and historians demonstrates the horrific carnage wrought by Franco’s forces. Although the anti-fascists were courageous and determined, the weaponry Germany and Italy supplied to the loyalists resulted in a supremely uneven match. Black veterans recount the joy and amazement they experienced at the Spaniards’ warm welcome, the impact of serving in interracial units commanded by African Americans and their resulting vision as to how an equalitarian society might appear. Many remained politically active upon their return to the United States; not surprisingly, their brigade membership subjected them to McCarthyism. On the brighter side, some were able to return to Spain after Franco’s death to enjoy Spaniards’ appreciation for their role in the anti-fascist struggle. If I could use one word to describe this film, I’d choose touching. An online search will reveal a number of viewing opportunities; trust me, it’ll be worth it.

A LONG PETAL OF THE SEA by Isabel Allende (book review by Cole)

The author’s latest work narrates the tale of an anti-fascist family that escapes Spain at the last stage of the civil war. With the sponsorship of poet Pablo Neruda, the family manages to obtain refuge in Chile where, several decades later, they find themselves once again subjected to a reactionary assault. Discussion of the politics of the Spanish Civil War is fairly minimal; the author instead focuses on the destruction of the Allende regime and the accompanying reign of terror. One hopes the novel may serve to educate the readers — and particularly those of the younger generation — as to yet another instance of American intervention that successfully undermined a progressive movement. The novel draws parallels between Spain and Chile in an innovative fashion; I, for one, had never considered the similarities. While the characters might be described as somewhat privileged, they are also intelligent, resilient, and generally quite likeable. The author challenges the invisibility of the elderly by recounting the later years of one of the principal characters.

Allende no longer employs the magic surrealism style that made, to my way of thinking, The House of the Spirits a masterpiece of world literature — as well as hella funny. That said, she has produced an imminently readable work grounded in a leftist historical perspective. That’s saying a lot. 

BITS AND PIECES

DRONE ON

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) announced in late December 2020 they will allow operators to fly small drones over people and at night (with flashing lights that can be seen for 3 miles), which will doubtless lead the way to more intrusive and commercial use of drones. The Mocha Column has learned that to enable remote identification by law enforcement, all drones will be required to wear collars. Wall Street greeted this news with an uptick in valuation of companies that produce pet collars, and a commission was immediately formed to work on designs that would flatter most drones. Amazon founder Jeff Bezos was mixed about the news: “Jeez even I haven’t been able to live up to my prediction that drones would be delivering packages to consumers by now,” Bezos whined. “The appearance of drones will be even more important including stereotyping by color and other features, such as toys and clothes for girls to be delivered by pink drones and for boys by blue drones. Of course marketing to trans people will become highly profitable, so we’ll have to look into those designs, too” said a discouraged Bezos, worrying about the impact on his 193 billion dollar net worth.

RACISM IN THE BRITISH ROYAL FAMILY??? 

Now there’s a shocker. Imagine, racism at the highest echelons of an empire built on colonialism and exploitation. The recent Oprah interview with Meghan and Harry and the media frenzy surrounding it exposed some of the institutionalized Palace racism. But the Mocha Column has learned that “the actual worst incidences haven’t come out.” Yet. The chickens will come home to roost—and we don’t mean the rescue chickens adopted by Meghan and Harry.

WOOF WOOF WOOF WOOF WOOF WOOF WOOF WOOF WOOF WOOF WOOF WOOF WOOF

Author: lagai

LAGAI-Queer Insurrection is one of the oldest radical queer liberation groups in the U.S. We publish UltraViolet, a more or less bimonthly newspaper, which is mailed free of charge to over 1500 people, including over 800 prisoners. Our website is www.lagai.org.

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