More Than One Thing

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lastblackman1.0The Last Black Man in San Francisco is a quiet movie that is playing at only a handful of select theaters. Most critical reviews are focused on its treatment of San Francisco and the woes of long-time residents displaced by gentrification. But I took something else away from the film.

In a scene towards the end of the movie, the main character Jimmie Fails gets up to speak at a showing of his best friend’s improvisational play that has turned into a de facto memorial service for a neighbor recently shot dead. In describing his complicated relationship with the man, Kofi, Jimmie says, “Everybody is not just one thing.” That line stayed with me long after the movie ended.

Everybody is not just one thing. We tend to categorize people and judge them by superficial characteristics: looks, clothing, manner, speech. In Last Black Man, a group of young men in the neighborhood stand around swearing and insulting each other, pushing each other around, acting the tough guy. But when Kofi dies, the most belligerent of the group collapses into the arms of the very same man (Jimmie’s best friend) whom he has relentlessly mocked in the past.

In our increasingly polarized society, we need to remember that people are complex. Take Donald Trump, for instance. I myself have had very little good to say about our current president. And I don’t feel like he’s a good man. But I do not know Donald Trump personally. He may be a loving husband and father. He may be a good friend. His public persona is not the whole of Mr. Trump or of any of us. So it would behoove us to think carefully about labeling and name calling and ascribing hateful titles to people, something that, ironically, Mr. Trump does on a regular basis.

We should also hesitate to paint all members of a group with the same broad brush, whether they be Wall Street bankers or migrants at our border.

All of us are afflicted with the same infuriating, confusing, and glorious infirmity: the human condition. The Last Black Man in San Francisco portrays this reality beautifully. There are no clear villains or heroes in the movie. Instead, we get an up close portrait of a friendship and of the life of two young men navigating the new realities of their beloved city and trying to find their own place in it.

Let’s remember that we are all many things and afford each other the respect deserved by all human beings.

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Fact or Fiction?

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During Oscar season, I noticed that many of the nominated movies featured real people: pianist Don Shirley in Green Book, Ron Stallworth in BlacKkKlansman, author Lee Israel in Can You Ever Forgive Me?, and, of course, the late great Freddie Mercury in Bohemian Rhapsody. The film Vice told the story of the Bush years with uncanny performances by Christian Bale as Dick Cheney, Sam Rockwell as George W., and Amy Adams as Lynne Cheney. The Favourite, though a work of fiction, depicted Queen Anne, a real life historical figure. Even Roma was a thinly disguised autobiographical story of director Alfonso Cuaron’s childhood.

In the Trump era, truth is certainly stranger and more riveting than any fiction could be. Each news day features a revolving cast of characters in the White House, manic tweets from the president at all hours of the night, investigations, accusations, and counter accusations. Fox News has become little more than Trump’s mouthpiece, and suddenly fictional stories like Wag the Dog, Being There, and, most ominously, 1984 have become eerily prescient.

Yet the world of fiction still holds a fascinating allure. While the MPAA favored reality film in its Oscar nominations this year, superheroes and their villains dominated the box office. Such films as Venom, Aquaman, Deadpool 2, Ant Man and the Wasp – as well as the latest sequels in such franchises as Spiderman and The Avengers – all made tidy profits for the movie studios at a time when theater audiences have been dwindling. The smash hit Black Panther, the first black superhero movie, was even nominated for Best Picture along with numerous technical awards.

Our appetite for escapism will always co-exist with our interest in real life drama. And the intersection of the two is often the key to unlocking truths about the human condition. I’m thinking particularly of dystopian and science fiction. These genres take us into the future, but they are really making commentaries on the present. I recently read Joyce Carol Oates’ latest novel, The Hazards of Time Travel, which depicts an authoritarian North American state in 2039. The main character, who has the temerity to ask questions and think for herself, is sent back to 1959 Wisconsin for “re-education.” As I read the book, I couldn’t help thinking about the slogan “Make America Great Again.” The manipulation of truth, control over the media, and other horrors of Oates’ fictional future feel ominously close to American society today.

Fact or fiction? Either way, our interest in stories may be the key to saving civilization. As long as we are able to think and feel about the human condition, we will continue to question and challenge the status quo. In the legendary words of Abraham Lincoln, “you may fool all the people some of the time; you can even fool some of the people all the time: but you can’t fool all of the people all the time.”

As we venture into another presidential election cycle (God help us!), let’s hope Honest Abe was right.

 

Falling Star*

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* There are spoilers in this blog post.

It took me a while to get around to seeing the latest iteration of A Star Is Born. I’d seen two of the previous three versions and figured I knew the story backwards and forwards. And I was somewhat right. The Oscar-nominated fourth version doesn’t really break new ground except to give us some beautiful new ballads in the Lady Gaga oeuvre and to make us aware that actor Bradley Cooper has some musical chops.

But as Cooper, who directed, co-wrote, and starred in the film, says in a special features extra, there is something so timeless and powerful about this story of gaining and losing stardom, of love against the odds. In each of the four versions of A Star Is Born, a movie or music star falls in love with an unknown talent, whose star begins to rise as his begins to fall.

The latest version of Star is particularly good at depicting the ruthlessness of the entertainment world, which deprives a person of privacy and is pitiless when that star fumbles. In a chilling scene towards the end of the movie, Ally’s manager tells her addict husband Jack, “We’re not friends,” and goes on to chastise him for jeopardizing Ally’s career and to assure him she’d be better off without him, indirectly impelling Jack to take his own life.

The film also shows that the business side of artistic creation can sometimes be damaging to the art. Jack becomes disgusted with the pop star package Ally has become, with dyed hair and backup dancers and inane songs about sexiness. Although his hurtful criticism is tinged with envy and fueled by alcohol, he does have a point. The Ally he fell in love with, musically and personally, seems compromised by the demands of fame.

Artists often pay a high price for their gifts. Many of our greatest painters, musicians, composers, and writers have been tormented by mental illness or substance addiction. They have often lost any semblance of a family life as they became consumed by both their artistic visions and their demons. Perhaps those demons are what compelled them to become artists in the first place.

In any event, A Star Is Born shows us the high price of stardom, the loneliness of artistic minds, and the choices we make for love. While I’m not sure we needed yet another version of this timeless story, I did enjoy the soulful journey taken by these two characters as portrayed by Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper.

And I’m still haunted by the lines of the song Ally and Jack sing together:

When the sun goes down
And the band won’t play
I’ll always remember us this way

 

The Soundtrack of Our Lives

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The other day I heard “Shallow,” a Grammy-award winning song from the movie A Star Is Born. I must confess to having been underwhelmed. Maybe that’s because I haven’t yet seen the film and thus have no context for appreciating the song.

It has often been true for me that the associations I make with a particular song affect how much I enjoy it. For example, I had always found John Lennon’s “Imagine” to be a bit of a dirge. Then I heard it played at the very end of the excellent, devastating Cambodian war film The Killing Fields. As the hero walks across a field to the safety of a Red Cross refugee camp, Lennon’s words took on new poignance for me: “Imagine there’s no country. … Nothing to kill or die for. … Imagine all the people living life in peace.”

A similar example is the 80s song “Don’t You (Forget About Me)” by Simple Minds. Like many tunes of that time period, it sounded to me as if the lead singer were under water. But when the song closed out the popular John Hughes film The Breakfast Club, it felt more like an anthem for the youth of America.

In that era, MTV was extremely influential in the wedding of the visual with the auditory. The station began as a platform for music videos with VJs instead of DJs introducing and commenting on the current hits. Many actresses and models got their breaks after being featured in these popular videos. And once you’d seen the music video, it was impossible not to think of the images when you heard the song on the radio.

Many songs bring back memories that make them more special than they might otherwise have been to us. I will never forget cruising around aimlessly with my high school friends as “The Boys Are Back in Town” blared from the car stereo. Similarly, songs like “Fly Like an Eagle,” “Evil Woman,” and anything by Boston take me back to my freshman year in college when I was just learning to be on my own. The song “Brick House” always conjures a smile as I picture myself with my good friend Barb out on the dance floor showing off our moves. And I will always be grateful to the Eagles for picking me up with the song “Already Gone” as I was coming to terms with a romantic breakup.

Moving forward musically in time, I have found a satellite radio station called PopRocks that brings me back to the early 2000s when my kids were just starting to get into popular music. One day back then I was driving my daughter and a couple of her friends somewhere when the Eminem song “Without Me” came on the radio. To my total surprise, the girls started belting out all the words to Slim Shady’s popular rap song. I knew then that the days of Disney-themed pop were behind us.

Music will always offer a backdrop to the times of our lives, good and bad. Our associations based on movies, television, and our own life experiences form a powerful connection to particular songs and even sometimes entire albums. I’ll have to give “Shallow” another shot after I see the movie from which it originates. It just may become one of my favorites.

 

 

Why Representation Matters

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I finally had the chance to see the blockbuster hit Crazy Rich Asians. I had been so excited about the film ever since learning that Kevin Kwan’s fabulous satire was being made into a movie.

I’m happy to say that the movie version of Crazy Rich Asians was as delightful as I’d hoped. I took my Chinese-born daughter with me, and her reactions after seeing the film highlighted for me why this movie with an all-Asian cast is so important. First of all, she found it gratifying to see so many Asian characters and actors in a movie. More surprising, though, was her comment that she’d like to visit her homeland of China some day.

This was a first for my very American daughter. As much as I’ve tried to interest her in Chinese culture over the years, she has always just wanted to be a regular American girl. She has even complained at times about her Asian middle name. Any time I’ve mentioned a heritage trip back to Anhui Province in China, where she was born, my suggestion has been met with indifference.

Such is the power of representation in popular culture. The characters in Crazy Rich Asians are not stereotypes or relics from a far too distant past. They are rich, modern, fashionable, and subject to the same foibles and machinations as the characters in a Jane Austen novel. At the same time, their Asian languages, customs, and sensibilities are important parts of their characters. In other words, Crazy Rich Asians is not just a version of Dynasty with an Asian cast.

When someone like my Chinese daughter can see herself represented in popular culture, whether in movies, television, books or music, it enhances her self-esteem and widens her expectations for herself. And for whites, minority representation helps tear down stereotypes and encourages us to see people of other races and ethnicities as individuals, not members of a monolithic group.

Years ago when my son was about 4, he asked me, “Mommy, can boys be doctors?” Score one for feminism, I laughingly thought to myself. But the question also gave me pause. In his young life, my son had never met a male doctor, so he wasn’t sure if it was a role that was open to him. I can only imagine how demoralizing it must be never to encounter professionals, actors, or even fictional characters that look like you.

The phenomenal success of Crazy Rich Asians is so much more than just a coup for author Kevin Kwan and director Jon M. Chu. It is a sign, I hope, that we are hungry for stories about all kinds of people from all walks of life in all parts of this great big, beautiful world of ours.

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies

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I’ve been tricked into reading two books about zombies.

Mind you, I’m not a fan of The Walking Dead. I’ve never even seen the classic George Romero movie Night of the Living Dead, which opened 50 years ago to widespread thrills and chills. Let’s just say that brain dead human flesh eaters are not my thing.

But not long ago, I read a review about a dystopian novel with an intriguing opening. It depicted a young girl describing a typical day in her life, which comprised being awakened in her prison cell, strapped to a wheelchair at gunpoint, and wheeled down a corridor with other wheelchair-bound children for their day at school. “Don’t worry,” she tells her military guards. “I won’t bite.”

The Girl With All the Gifts by M.R. Carey is about a virus that has decimated the planet by turning people into brain-dead “hungries.” But the children in the opening sequence are hungries with a difference: Their brains seem to be functioning perfectly well. Scientists speculate that these kids could be the key to unlocking a cure.

What I love about Carey’s novel is the inner conflict of various characters as they try to figure out what it means to be human in a scary and uncertain world. In his related novel The Boy on the Bridge, Carey continues to pursue this theme along with ideas about military authority and military decisions – and the movement toward autocracy in desperate times.

Reading these novels in Trump’s America gives them heightened resonance. As many in our country find scapegoats in illegal immigrants, questions arise about how to handle an influx of desperate Latinos fleeing poverty and violence. Children are being separated from their parents at the border. President Trump characterizes these people as “animals,” somehow not quite human. Like zombies?

As Matt Thompson of NPR states in his article “Why Black Heroes Make Zombie Stories More Interesting,” “The true horror in any zombie story worth its salt is what other people do when faced with the zombie threat. Zombies are merely relentless; humans can be sadistic.” (“Code Switch: Race and Identity Remixed,” NPR online, Oct. 1, 2013)

So I may have been “tricked” into reading about zombies, but M.R. Carey’s thoughtful, suspenseful dystopian nightmare made it worth my while.

The Greatest Charlatan

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I’ve been mystified by the success of the 2017 musical The Greatest Showman, a movie based on the life of P.T. Barnum of Barnum & Bailey’s Circus fame. How does someone make a “feel good” musical about a man who preyed upon people’s basest instincts to make money?

P.T. Barnum literally rented an elderly black slave and peddled the fiction that she was George Washington’s nursemaid. He exploited people of other races, such as the famous Siamese twins Chang and Eng. People came to see his freak show of humans with physical characteristics outside the mainstream of society. (smithsonianmag.com, Dec. 22, 2017) All of this is whitewashed by rousing musical numbers and anthems, ironically, of tolerance for people’s differences (Academy-award nominated song “This Is Me”).

I guess the popularity of The Greatest Showman shouldn’t surprise me. After all, we live in an America that elected Donald Trump. Like Barnum, Trump exploited people’s prejudices and fears to win votes. He peddled the fiction that he was a man of great business acumen despite numerous business failures and the exploitation of many who worked for him.

Both Barnum’s and Trump’s greatest gifts have been for self-promotion. Barnum even titled his autobiography The Life of P.T. Barnum, Written By Himself. Similarly, Trump travels around the country like a religious tent revivalist, whipping up crowds and congratulating himself for his greatness and popularity. Trump is fond of phrases such as “we have the best …” and “like no one’s ever seen.”

Donald Trump has created his own three-ring circus to dazzle, obfuscate, and distract the media and the American people from his lies and the backroom dealings that keep coming to light through the Mueller investigation. He has managed to convince Republican legislators and conservative media pundits that the true chicanery lies elsewhere, with the Hillary Clinton campaign, the Justice Department, and American intelligence services. Unlike the offensive but entertaining smoke and mirrors of P.T. Barnum, Trump’s con artistry is bent on destroying American institutions.

Americans who so want to invest their hopes and dreams in a man like Trump are the perfect audience for a sugarcoated movie about a man who conned and exploited his way to fame and fortune, a man who was wiling to abuse both humans and animals to make a buck.

As historian Daniel Boorstin puts it, “Contrary to popular belief,” as Boorstin wrote, “Barnum’s great discovery was not how easy it was to deceive the public, but rather, how much the public enjoyed being deceived.” (smithsonianmag.com, Dec. 22, 2017)

If anything explains the ascendancy of Donald Trump, that does.