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Awards Watch:  

12 Years a Slave is nominated for 9 Oscars and is the winner of the Golden Globe Award for Best Picture — Drama and the Critics Choice Award for Best Film. The film also tied with Gravity at the Producers Guild Awards for the top film prize. It has also won Best Film trophies from the American Film Institute and from numerous local critics associations around the country.

I normally hate to make Oscar predictions. It usually depresses me. By the time the predictions start proliferating, it’s a cold matter of analysis of the awards already given out by the guilds, BAFTA, Hollywood Foreign Press Association, and (to a certain extent) the critics’ associations, like predicting presidential nominees by counting poll numbers and delegates before the conventions. You wouldn’t even need to have seen the movies first, because it tends to be a simple numbers game. I don’t much like thinking along those lines; I’d rather keep my mind on what should win.

This year is different. I actually think that, rather miraculously, 12 Years a Slave is going to win the Oscar for Best Picture. This may be the one time in Oscar history when the film which so unquestionably deserves to win actually does win.

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Wed Jan 15, 2014 at 02:05 PM PST

Carrie (2013) vs Carrie (1976)

by Jennifer A Epps

When I heard that Kimberly Peirce was directing a new film version of the bullying horror flick Carrie, I thought it a safe bet that the bullying would go cyber (though Carrie herself would be out of the loop), that the gym teacher would have to eschew physical disciplining of the students, and that the high school might have more diversity. I predicted correctly, though none of these updates warranted remaking the movie. Peirce’s feminism, however, did suggest that she would steer Stephen King’s Cinderella story away from some of the most misogynistic excesses of Brian De Palma’s 1976 take on it, — and that was what seemed like a worthwhile endeavor.

The plight of misfit Carrie White and her coming-of-age has archetypal fairy tale resonance in De Palma’s prom-night movie, albeit complicated by De Palma’s typically icky ambivalence about women. (He would exhibit particularly nasty iconography against females in Body Double). The ‘wicked stepmother’ in this Cinderella tale is Carrie’s biological mother, but she feels just as threatened by the ingenue’s budding sexuality as the traditional matrons of these tales. Female peers (stepsisters in the Cinderella case, classmates in Carrie’s) also feel competitive with the heroine, and they do their best to undermine her; she feels she has no female network of support. Happily, a dashing and much-admired Prince Charming, normally out of range for this lowly, unsophisticated girl, discerns her merit; he sees past the cinders be-griming her features to her shining essence, as it were. These sorts of tropes, embraced for so long in fairy tales, began to be questioned and deplored by feminist critics in the 1970s – the same era that the novel and the movie emerged. In addition to transcending De Palma’s male-centric blinders, Peirce’s remake held the promise of re-examining the Cinderella archetypes behind it all with more psycho-social savvy.

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“The only message in it is all the holidays are about pressing pause in your life and getting together with the people that you love and appreciating them.”
                --Jimmy Hayward, writer-director of Free Birds

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Every so often, British filmmakers come out with some pretty daring statements about their government. In 1990, the politically-committed movie director Ken Loach made Hidden Agenda, a pessimistic conspiracy thriller which speculated not only that state forces had themselves committed acts of terror in Northern Ireland, but that conservative politicians knowingly colluded with such tactics so as to usher in Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and her iron fist. In 2010, joint British, French and German financing helped renegade auteur Roman Polanski  film English novelist Robert Harris’ book The Ghost Writer -- another pessimistic conspiracy thriller, but this one timed to trail P.M. Tony Blair’s exit from Downing Street with a fictitious story of a British P.M. under scrutiny for war crimes and entanglements with the U.S. and C.I.A.

Now the Brits are at it again, with a new pessimistic conspiracy thriller, Closed Circuit, and it should appeal to a much more diverse base than just BBC America fans. The subject of this savvy and contemporary courtroom/espionage mystery is quite different from the Cold War spy vs. spy machinations of the producers’ elegant Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy of 2011. It takes on nothing less than the modern national security state, and its findings are as bleak as the 1974 classic The Parallax View, or Oliver Stone’s JFK.

Though Closed Circuit is now playing in U.S. multiplexes thanks to the visionary boldness of Focus Features and Working Title films (a London subsidiary of Universal), it is not scheduled to open in the U.K. until Nov. 1st. Reaction there may be heated, since to British viewers, the vicious terror attack at the center of Closed Circuit’s made-up story – an invented, highly lethal incident at a busy open-air market across from a subway (aka “Tube”) station – will almost certainly evoke the notorious suicide bombings of July 7, 2005. The real-life coordinated terrorist attack of 7/7 rocked London with three nearly simultaneous explosions on the Tube and, soon after, another on a double-decker bus -- 52 people were killed and 700 injured. Two weeks later, an almost identical terrorist plot was attempted again on London’s public transport, though this time all the bombs failed to explode. Like 9/11 in the U.S., 7/7 provoked accusations and criticism in the U.K. and put the authorities, particularly Britain’s MI-5, on the defensive. Blair sure didn’t still the outrage by refusing to launch an inquiry --- his claim was that to do so would undermine support for the security services.

Surveillance, secrecy, and the appropriation of great powers in the name of national security began to be put in place in Britain post- 9/11, and civil libertarians over there began to object within the first few months. But 7/7 revealed even scarier ramifications. Among the disturbing practices were ‘shoot-to-kill’ policies like that in evidence in the incident on July 22nd of that year, when plain-clothes police tailed a Brazilian man, chased him into the Tube, tussled him to the ground, and shot him 7 times, point-blank, in the head. They believed the man, Jean Charles de Menezes, to be a terror suspect. He was, however, unarmed and completely innocent.

It is this atmosphere which seems to have been the genesis  for the Orwellian world of Closed Circuit, a compelling counter-narrative about lack of transparency and an antidote to the lowest-common-denominator exploitation of ‘the war on terror’ by far-right entertainment like 24. The detective drama Closed Circuit engages in the debate on a similar playing field, with a slick, entertaining, twisty thriller that follows several standard tropes of the genre and immerses in-demand romantic leads Eric Bana and Rebecca Hall into huge life-or-death stakes. But instead of identifying terrorist plots by enemies of the state as the only serious threat to democracy, Closed Circuit is a movie that would be on Edward Snowden’s side. MI-5, the British intelligence agency which handles counter-terrorism, becomes the devouring behemoth that the hero and heroine – a pair of defense attorneys – must flee. Unlike the way sister agency MI-6 has been presented in endless James Bond movies – with any ethical transgressions excused by their excellent judgment and patriotic motivations -- MI-5’s conduct in Closed Circuit is unambiguously wrong. The movie makes a convincing case that things in Britain may have already crossed the line into a combination of security surveillance and government secrecy, a combo so unhealthy the door is left wide open to abuse, cover-up, and the endangerment of the very citizenry these institutions are allegedly protecting.

Footage from security cameras is interspersed throughout the film, subtly reminding us of the eyes of Big Brother upon our protagonists, a Big Brother who is anonymous but seemingly omnipresent. As the tension mounts, the protagonists can’t seem to walk across a courtyard or into a lobby without some guard observing them on a monitor. The technique begins in the very first sequence, during the quiet before the storm at Borough Market; the shoppers and commuters passing through are seen via an array of monitors, the movie screen subdividing into smaller and smaller screens as the tension mounts. It’s an effective suspense-builder, but it also illustrates the movie’s themes. These Londoners go about their business unaware of being watched, yet they can barely make a move in private. The multiplicity of angles on the same event also hints that what we think we know might shift, that recording the ‘facts’ of a case may not in themselves bring the truth into focus.  And furthermore, the watching doesn’t bring safety. On the contrary, surveillance and vulnerability to attack actually merge visually in that opening.

Screenwriter Steven Knight and director John Crowley go about this project very cleverly. It is not about an actual historic incident, nor is a real Prime Minister named. It feels current, but no date is supplied. This frees the filmmakers to write a speculative scenario rather than be tied to a factual record – and it may help them avoid quarrels with those who might take offense at the movie’s point-of-view. Nor does  Knight’s script go into real-life examples of MI-5’s overreach. The British audience may remember numerous instances which came to light over the decades: MI5’s secret file on a Labour Party Member of Parliament, Harold Wilson, before he became Prime Minister; the file on another Labour MP, Jack Straw, before he was Home Secretary; the surveillance of Liberal Democrat MP Norman Baker, when he was an environmental activist; and as recently as 2006, the revelation that the MI-5 was at that very moment holding secret dossiers on 272,000 individual Brits as well as 53,000 files on British organizations. (Like its American cousins, the agency has a history of finding the left suspicious – it spied on trade unions, and a senior MI-5 officer even labeled the Archbishop of Canterbury a subversive because he campaigned against Thatcher’s devastating policies.) Knight doesn’t bring up the historical fact of the MI-5’s collusion in the 1989 death of Irish attorney Patrick Finucane, nor the 2006 report which found that state agencies had colluded widely with Loyalists during the Irish ‘Troubles’ – a report accepted by David Cameron, the current, Conservative party Prime Minister, when he made an official apology on behalf of the British government. Knight and Crowley are right to leave all this out, not just for the sake of dramatic economy, but because it gives viewers some responsibility: to do their own research to determine whether the MI-5’s behavior in the film is credible or not. It gives the film an after-life.

Though the fictitious characters who commit grievous wrongs in Closed Circuit are very highly placed, and though our protagonists must go up against an overarching, all-powerful system which extends its tentacles far and wide, the conspiracy at the story’s core is ultimately perpetrated by a few very bad apples. The film thus targets human nature as much, or even more, than it targets an institution. But in doing so, it allows viewers to infer that since an institution like Britain’s spy agency MI-5, featured so prominently in the film, is run by people whose human nature means they can be and often are fallible, corruptible, vain, and self-deluding, safeguards are very much needed -- that because of their flawed human nature, there is no rationale that justifies trusting them to operate in total darkness.

The title of Closed Circuit refers eloquently to both surveillance technology and the secrecy of a closed loop of a legislative, judiciary, and national security apparatus – a Star Chamber of mutually-supportive decision-makers who hold the power of life and death over everyone outside their circle. In the movie, darkly inscrutable Attorney General (Jim Broadbent) warns Martin (Eric Bana) off of digging too deeply, hinting at the un-scalable walls of the closed system when he describes “powers at play that neither you nor I nor the Prime Minister can control.”

At the very center of the story is the notion of secret evidence in post-9/11 prosecutions: the evidence against terrorists that is supposed to be so vital to the nation’s safety that neither the accused nor his personal defense attorney can see it; only a third party ‘special advocate’ can peruse it and decide. In the particular case that is presented, that security argument is clearly and unequivocally bogus, and the institutionalized secrecy merely a convenient way to cover up complicity, yet the deception is so effective we see it could easily bypass the checks and balances set up to prevent it.

Closed Circuit implies that the very act of keeping the security apparatus outside the bounds of accountability invites those inside the circle to view themselves differently, to believe that normal ethical standards do not apply to them. Claudia (Rebecca Hall) is able to identify an undercover MI-5 agent the moment she meets him, in fact, simply because his level of hubris gives him away. Power corrupts. And as we shall see later, absolute power corrupts absolutely.

At the same time, the movie is about more than spying. (Without nearly as labyrinthine a plot as Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, it can manage it.) For one thing, Closed Circuit plays around with expectations and prejudices about its Middle Eastern characters, about what it means to be Westernized, about good guys and bad guys. This is sometimes achieved quite concisely: the accused terrorist’s teenage son Amir plays the all-American military videogame “Medal of Honor” with great devotion and skill. And the opening sequence captures on security cams a Muslim woman walking through Borough Market, the monitors zooming in on her suspiciously as soon as her ethnicity is recognized. Yet in a few moments she’ll be one of the victims. Knight and Crowley already have politically-left highlights on their filmography -- Knight penned the period drama about Britain’s abolition of slavery, Amazing Grace; Crowley directed the truthful, humanitarian, character study Boy A – so it may be consistent with long-held principles that they are scrupulous here in making sure they do not equate Muslims with terrorism, nor equate terrorism with Muslims. And after all, principles and ethics are part of this film’s subject.

Jurisprudence becomes another key focus the moment Claudia and Martin are assigned to the case of the man accused of terrorist conspiracy for the fictitious market bombing that kills 120 Londoners. The judge and legal team wear those ancient grey wigs and walk around in black robes under the impressive high ceilings of the Old Bailey -- solemnly observing centuries of rituals from the world of criminal law -- but it seems likely that the filmmakers  find the layers of custom and ceremony ironic.

Unlike cookie-cutter Hollywood fare where active protagonists can defeat fire-breathing villains through resourcefulness and perseverance, the stakes in Closed Circuit are too huge and the hydra too multi-headed for a simple fix. The protagonists are active, but even with their diligence and self-sacrifice, even with a news media following what is billed as “the trial of the century”, the film poses the serious question: is justice even possible in the system that’s been created to fight the ‘war on terror’? If the film holds out any hope, it seems to reside with the ordinary individual: the pre-pubescent kid who refuses to obey, the journalist (Julia Stiles) who doesn’t laugh when a woman at a party jokes that she’s happy to be “searched by a handsome policeman.” And especially with the movie’s central duo, the lovebird lawyers whose affair has compromised them but who still worry about legal ethics and protecting their undeserving client’s interests despite the overwhelming odds.


Two fiction films about domestic left-wing terrorist groups played in theaters this spring, and are interesting to consider together, since these indy thrillers approach similar themes. Robert Redford’s film The Company You Keep was released on DVD in mid-August. The East will be released on DVD next month, on Sept. 17th.

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In June of 1998, CNN/Time premiered a new joint venture, a weekly program called 'News Stand'. Their first segment had revelations about a 'Valley of Death' (as one of the veterans interviewed called it) during the Vietnam War. The news story of this 1970 U.S. military black operation known as Operation Tailwind aired nationally over two consecutive Sundays. It quoted members of the military who alleged that commandos from the U.S. Special Operations Group (SOG) had been dispatched to a village base camp in Laos with sarin gas, a toxic nerve agent that causes a painful death. (It's the same gas that was used by a Japanese religious cult in the 1995 terror attack in the Tokyo subway.)100 people in the Laotian village reportedly died as a result of Operation Tailwind. Moreover, the story purported that U.S. military defectors living in the village were the primary target.

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The action-thriller Olympus Has Fallen is now out on DVD, and just in time for the August exercises the U.S. and South Korea are conducting against North Korea. To clarify, Olympus Has Fallen is the besieged-White House flick that sold a lot of tickets this year. That it scored at the box office should be of grave concern to thinking people, for action pic director Antoine Fuqua has delivered the kind of movie whose main purpose seems to be to stir the country up to support war against the people it depicts as the enemy. It does for North Korea what 300 did for Iran. In other words, it's a propagandistic, bloodthirsty, button-pushing, racist, fascist, ultra-macho, oppressively violent, self-serving, and simplistic piece of patriotism porn.

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This important documentary was recently released on DVD as well as being shown on CNN, so I am re-publishing this review. The movie has helped a growing movement on behalf of killer whales and against SeaWorld -- which resulted in a concerted attempt to get the SeaWorld float out of this year's Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York City. The ouster was not successful, but there was traction gained.

The non-fiction feature Blackfish currently in theaters is in many ways a sterling example of summer counter-programming: a success at the Sundance Film Festival this past winter, it now provides a quiet voice of seriousness, an exposé on a serious subject, amidst the usual superheroes and monsters at the multiplex in the hot weather months. It begins, however, rather like a famous summer monster movie, with the mystery of a young woman’s gruesome, watery death, and like that blockbuster, proceeds to pile on clues of just how she died and how many others like her there might actually be. The template I’m referring to is the 1975 thriller Jaws, which together with Star Wars, launched the gargantuan juggernaut of costly, loud, franchise-heavy action pix which dominate the out-of-school season -- so there is a poetic irony in a documentary cousin emerging from the depths to challenge that paradigm. The irony pales in comparison to the tragedy, however;  the genesis  for the making of Blackfish was an actual death, that of 20-something Dawn Brancheau, an accomplished swimmer and trainer at SeaWorld Orlando, who was mauled and dismembered in 2010.

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George Zimmerman’s defense team more or less put Trayvon Martin on trial, so maybe the prosecution should have called Oscar Grant to testify. If it didn’t make a difference that Trayvon was dead, the fact that Oscar was dead shouldn’t have been an obstacle either – he might have been especially qualified, since both Oscar and Trayvon were black men gunned down in their prime by those supposedly watching out for public safety.

Fortunately, in the new film Fruitvale Station, Oscar Grant is essentially a character witness for Trayvon, and for scores of other young black men who’ve died at the hands of ‘law enforcement’. Oscar, only 22, was shot on New Year’s Eve, 2008, by a BART subway police officer in Northern California. The details of his demise are so extreme they seem like they’d have to be one-of-a-kind: Oscar, an unarmed black subway passenger who was not being violent when the officers decided to arrest him, was shot dead in the back while prone, face-down, on the Fruitvale station platform, in full view of a packed train of witnesses. The defense claimed by white BART cop Johannes Mehserle was that he mistook his gun for a taser. Consequently, he received a sentence of just 2 years – and served only 11 months.

But behind the specifics of Oscar Grant’s horrific tragedy lies the even greater horror and tragedy inherent in the fact that this kind of extra-judicial execution is commonplace. A recent study by the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement found that 136 unarmed blacks were shot dead last year by police, security guards, and self-appointed vigilantes. This adds up to an extra-judicial killing of an African-American every 28 hours.
The new film doesn’t address these facts, but it certainly stems from that kind of awareness.

The fiction feature Fruitvale Station, winner of big prizes at the Sundance and Cannes Festivals, requires a generous supply of Kleenex. Though its simple presentation is elegant and spare, it makes you weep not just for Oscar and his family, or for Trayvon and his, but for the state of America in general. Without preaching or heavy-handedness, with the utmost of subtlety, first-time writer-director Ryan Coogler shows convincingly that something is very wrong out there.

Though the genre is character study, this drama is named after the infamous subway station. It isn’t titled after Oscar, I suspect, because the socially-urgent point of this carefully researched docudrama is that Oscar didn’t die because of anything he did, but because he happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. And if you’re a young, poor, black man in America, it can be the wrong place and wrong time almost anywhere, almost anytime.

Coogler does use some of the actual cell phone camera footage of the incident as an opening prelude, but his focus in the film is on supplying the visuals that have been missing from our consciousness: how Oscar spent his last day alive. He shows us what Oscar valued, what he regretted, and what he hoped for, making sure we get to know Oscar intimately so we can truly mourn for him. The script, which Coogler wrote after perusing the cell phone footage, interviewing the family, and researching Oscar’s life and character, depicts Oscar as a loving young father and boyfriend, a considerate son who actually listens to his mom these days, and a likeable family man whose grandmother dotes on him.

Oscar, charismatically played with what seems like effortless naturalness by Michael B. Jordan, is a complex person here. He is often joyfully childlike, especially when playing with his 4-year old daughter Tatiana (played by Ariana Neal, a great find) yet he also falls into deep, serious introspection over the course of the day. He does seem to genuinely love his girlfriend Sophina, a feisty and very watchable Melonie Diaz, and he genuinely wants them to have a future together. Yet he also has a penchant to flirt, and he has been caught doing much more. Moreover, he has trouble showing up on time for work, and has lost his job because of it. When the movie starts, he is preparing to sell drugs again to pay the rent.

Fruitvale Station doesn’t hide Oscar’s prison record, in fact it brings it to the fore by turning it into a long flashback and by showing that Oscar’s mother Wanda (a towering Octavia Spencer) was at one point so upset by his repeat convictions -- apparently for dealing -- that she hardened her heart against him for a difficult period of time. Now, he is torn between the life he wants to lead and the life he has led, conflicted and confused but also very close to his siblings, elders, and nuclear family. Part of the message, of course, is that people don’t fall into either/or polarities, that just because a black man isn’t a genteel scion of accomplishment like Sidney Poitier in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, it doesn’t mean that he’s a vicious incorrigible criminal who threatens the social fabric.

The kind of characterization of Oscar which Coogler and Jordan assemble, with internal contradictions, has the most sterling of pedigrees: Shakespeare was fond of it too. It is also poignant. In the dramatic world of the film, Coogler proposes that this day was different long before the BART train back from San Francisco pulled into the station; Oscar seems to have made a tacit New Year’s resolution to straighten up and fly right. And this interpretation is apparently justified – a Slate article cites
statements by Oscar’s loved ones which support the idea that Oscar planned to reform. In filmic terms, it is also supreme irony. The structure of the film is such that Oscar deals with various personal problems over the course of the first two-thirds of the film but reconciles with his girlfriend, celebrates his mom’s birthday, and approaches 2009 – soberly – with hope for a better life. If you had never seen the headlines, you might be convinced there’s about to be a happy ending.

What Coogler has crafted is a strong counter-narrative to the one pushed by so many whites from Middle America, who seize on whatever flaws they can find in the biographies of black men like Oscar and Trayvon. Fruitvale Station is a much-needed rebuttal to the myth of the ‘super-predator’, a racist stereotype which, longtime social justice activist Tom Hayden makes plain in a recent article in The Nation stems from a national propaganda campaign that dates from the 1980s -- a tainting of certain Americans (in other words, people of color) as so dangerous and bad at their core that society is in an ‘us or them’ situation with them.

In order to continue to hold on to the racism that is so near and dear to them, Zimmerman supporters and, I suspect, Mehserle fans, yearned deeply to find a reason to justify murder. How upset they were at the slightest doubt, at the merest whisper that Trayvon might not be a murderous thug who had it coming. Coogler quietly dispenses with this element of Oscar’s story by staking out a clear position on what caused the fight that led to the police being called in: a white man who frequently tormented Oscar back in prison suddenly attacks him on the subway car. This is a significant part of the story Fruitvale Station tells: the only thing that Oscar does that leads to any trouble with the police on Dec. 31, 2008 is that he fights another subway passenger in self-defense.

Eye-witness reports from the crowded and jostled passengers who saw the fight before the train pulled into Fruitvale are contradictory. But according to several witnesses, there was indeed a fight between Oscar and a white man who’d been in prison with him. Coogler changes several names of supporting characters who do wrong in the film, but Slate identifies the alleged pugilist as David Horowitch. (For the record, he denies being in the fight.) The film shows him playing it cool on the train when the police start dragging off the young black men – thus illustrating how it never even occurred to the cops to look for a white guy.

Self-defense is the million-dollar concept right now, because Zimmerman’s attorneys and cheering section have twisted things to try to make us believe Trayvon had no right of self-defense. Yet the negation of that right tends to be a red flag which reveals the underlying imbalance of power. Ask Iraqis whether they had a right of self-defense when the U.S. attacked them; ask Gazans where theirs was under Israel’s bombardment. Coogler’s film lets us see that Oscar at least ought to have had the right of self-defense.

That crucial prison flashback mid-way through the film is extremely helpful in this area, especially when you think about it afterward. It helps us to realize what Oscar must have gone through while in prison -- he appears beaten up, and refuses to answer his mother’s questions about it. When the Horowitch character threatens him in jail (which happens in plain view with guards watching) Oscar responds as if his very survival is at stake. This preps us to understand Oscar’s instantaneous transformation when the same guy reappears much later and lunges at him – how Oscar switches in one breath from holiday relaxation to fierce defense mode.

And earlier in the film, Coogler had included another exchange that also is part of the portrait of Oscar vis-a-vis aggression. So different from media sound bites regarding the Zimmerman trial, this scene illustrates what the concept of de-escalation and ‘retreat’ might really mean. When his former boss tells him he won’t give him his job back, Oscar is humiliated and desperate and reacts with an angry, ominous threat. The store manager happens to be Latino, and that moment could easily have become a racially-charged clash or power struggle. But the manager actually likes Oscar, continues to employ his brother, and, probably most important of all, understands where Oscar is coming from. He knows he’s just upset. So he doesn’t bite. The whole situation is defused, and Oscar calms down.

By contrast, Coogler clearly shows the BART police brutalizing Oscar and his friends from the moment they arrive. The cops seem to be trying to escalate the situation -- perhaps in part to create a cause for arrest. Indeed, Slate attests, witness statements from the subway passengers who watched the BART police’s detention of Oscar and his friends affirm that police were hostile and physically abusive to the young black men. There are also witnesses who’ve testified that Oscar was co-operating with police as they started to arrest him.

Mehserle’s excuse as to how he came to shoot Oscar is not even mentioned in Fruitvale Station until the postscript right before the credits – Coogler doesn’t dignify Mehserle’s explanation with his attention, and leaves the exact thought process in Mehserle’s head up to us to figure out. The depiction of the cacophony on the station platform is from the victim’s point-of-view, which pushes the entire audience to imagine themselves on the receiving end of racial profiling and police brutality in a system where Driving While Black can be suspicious behavior. Coogler takes it one level further, by showing the trauma of Riding the Subway While Black. Sadly, when he began this project he may not have known there would soon be a national case where a 17-year old found guilty of Walking While Black would be retroactively given the death penalty. The film, by examining one specific case and one specific life so vividly, sets a paradigm with which to view many such cases and lives – following in the footsteps of the Italian neo-realists, who knew that observing the small was a door to the enormous. Indeed, Coogler considers Vittorio de Sica’s The Bicycle Thief one of his influences.

The astute Fruitvale Station is deceptively staid, employing the episodic, random-observations approach that Charles Burnett, renowned filmmaking pioneer from Watts and a 1960’s UCLA film school grad, employed to profound effect in his cinema vérité-style, classic dramatic feature Killer of Sheep. At the same time, Coogler’s film holds a passionately-beating heart beneath its cool exterior. This incredible combination would be an impressive achievement from a seasoned pro, but Coogler just earned his filmmaking MFA from USC in 2011. And unlike so many, many film school grads, he’s actually able to resist showing off camera pyrotechnics and fancy edits in his first feature. Instead, he very wisely just lets the actors act. He recognizes that he has a terrific cast, isn’t afraid of them like some directors are, and together they work magic.

Fruitvale Station deserves to have the kind of impact Gus van Sant’s Milk did five years ago. That film about the openly gay San Francisco politician Harvey Milk and his 1978 assassination was honored with eight Academy Award nominations and trophies for Best Actor and Best Original Screenplay. Not only were these plaudits well-deserved artistically, but they were cultural signs of progress for gay rights, and helped, simultaneously, to further advance the cause.

It’s worth remembering that Milk’s assassin Dan White used a “Twinkie defense” successfully in court – claiming he ate too many Twinkies, and that the sugar threw off his judgment. In the Oscar Grant case, it was the “Taser defense”. The bizarreness of such explanations did not prove to be a deficit, and that seems almost certainly to be because these killers had fan clubs, in the general public and in the courtroom, who were searching for any semblance of an excuse to let them get away with it. Milk’s murder was emblematic of a sickness within the culture – rabid homophobia – which was part of what made the story so important to revisit. Likewise, Oscar Grant’s death and the multitude of tragic stories like his happening in Sanford, Florida and all over America are potent symbols of rampant racism, and it’s of great import to the current spirit of activism opposing it that Coogler has made such a fine film affirming the rights of Oscar and his peers.

Fruitvale Station has the high quality, originality, topicality, fresh faces, and support of the awards-savvy Weinstein Brothers to make it a strong contender for a bunch of Academy Awards for its acting, writing, and directing (the media will love the cute headlines about Oscars for Oscar). It also stands a good chance of being embraced as an inspiration and an organizing tool by a burgeoning movement – there have been street demonstrations every day since the Zimmerman verdict came out, with protesters often marching miles and miles, and some leaders are calling for a  “new civil rights movement” in the face of the demonization of Trayvon, the rash of Stand Your Ground laws, the gutting of the Voting Rights Act, the craze of voter I.D. requirements, New York’s unconstitutional “stop-and-frisk” policy, and California prisons’ human rights violations. Certainly the film would be an excellent consciousness-raiser for people of all races, and a great conversation-starter.

One of the most appealing aspects of the film is a thread running through it which suggests that things really don’t have to be this way. Oscar charms a young white woman he spots at a meat counter by calling up his grandma to give her a recipe; one of Oscar’s longtime drug customers is a friendly Asian tough guy (which may be a conscious counterweight to the historical animosity between blacks and Koreans evident in the 1992 L.A. uprising); an immigrant shopkeeper kindly unlocks his store after hours to the youths’ girlfriends; and Oscar and a white father-to-be meet for the first time on the street in San Francisco and end up bonding briefly over women, love, and how having your own family can change your life. Even more powerfully, on the train, the New Year’s Eve revelers jammed in together start dancing to the music someone has brought. They are strangers, they are different races and even different sexual orientations, but they celebrate the coming of another year in a fleeting moment where the most obvious thing about them is their common humanity.

By shining a warm but very clear light on a life snatched away too soon, on a community so often overlooked or misrepresented, Coogler has demonstrated how rare it is for movies to actually be about real people and about the real, important things going on in America. Fruitvale Station shames Hollywood by setting a good example.


Some other recent cases of police killing unarmed people of color:

Alesia Thomas

-- the LAPD physically abused this 35-year old black woman last year while arresting her for sending her children to a police station; she died in their custody and they have refused to release video of the incident

Kenneth Chamberlain

--this 68-year old African-American heart patient was shot dead in 2011 inside his own home in White Plains, N.Y. when the police responded to an automatic medical alarm

Manuel Diaz

--this 25-year-old Latino was shot from behind while fleeing police in Anaheim, CA. One shot hit him in the buttocks and he fell; while down he was shot in the head.

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Thu Jun 13, 2013 at 11:29 AM PDT

Star Trek and the War on Terror

by Jennifer A Epps

Star Trek Into Darkness is, among other things, a much more incisive film about the Navy SEAL mission to get Osama bin Laden "dead or alive" (minus the "or alive") than last fall's Oscar nominee Zero Dark Thirty was. Of course, unlike Kathryn Bigelow's docudrama, J.J. Abrams' sci-fi fantasy doesn't come right out and state explicitly that it's about the war on Afghanistan, CIA black sites, or the assassination of public enemy #1. But if top-level science fiction of the past has taught us anything, it's that setting a story in the future or some other kind of alternate universe is often a very powerful way to talk about our own society and about monumental issues. And it's well-known that this was an enduring strength of creator Gene Roddenberry's first Star Trek TV series in the 60's -- a show which Roddenberry, who his longtime personal assistant claims was a humanist,  labeled later in his career as his "statement to the world".

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Charles Darwin turned 204 this year, but his birthday didn'€™t make as big of a splash as Abe Lincoln'€™s (both were born February 12, 1809) because Darwin didn'€™t have a giant Hollywood epic movie playing in theatres. But those who champion what Darwin revealed, or who care about great apes and their intelligence, might want to look into the DVDs of several movies from recent years in honor of Earth Week.

All four great apes suffer when confined in captivity (over 3000 great apes are held in captivity in the U.S.); at the same time, they are disappearing from the wild due to poaching and habitat loss. Things are pretty serious for all of our great ape cousins, but it is our closest relatives, the chimpanzees, who have arguably had it the worst because in addition to other evils, they have been subjected to brutal experimentation in labs, abused by the entertainment industry, exploited by the pet trade, and even been sacrificed in space.

Fortunately, after many decades of struggle by their advocates, things are starting to look up for the chimpanzee, or Pan Troglodyte. At least it seems so judging by their gains in federal policy and public support, and the enlightened ways they have been depicted in several notable recent movies – an indicator of an improvement in how filmmakers think we see apes.

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The spirited antebellum western Django Unchained is nominated for five Oscars including Best Picture, and it could win for Quentin Tarantino’s screenplay and for Christoph Waltz’s supporting performance as bounty-hunter Dr. King Schultz. (It has won in these categories at the Golden Globes and at the BAFTAs.) Indeed, the script is clever and compelling, with moments that induce giddy delight – like the fact that a notorious, lethal plantation is ironically named “Candieland”, and like the way Django makes known that “the ‘d’ is silent” in his name. These are interwoven with scenes of gripping, slowly-mounting tension. Also, it is true that Waltz is endlessly enjoyable as a wryly articulate, understated assassin. Though not nominated, Jamie Foxx also adds a great deal to the film’s strengths, being undeniably charismatic as the proud, sharp-shooting titular slave who turns the tables on his oppressors, while Leonardo DiCaprio steps outside his normal range of positive role models and portrays cruel, wrathful plantation owner Calvin Candie with surprising gusto. And in a classic, inspired bit of Tarantino casting, Don Johnson puts in a cameo as a genteel, paternalistic slave-owner (whose minions carry out the brutal side of slave-owning while he dresses in white).

There is much that the movie does very well. Most importantly, the fact that Django single-handedly takes on the apparatus of slavery feels thrillingly subversive. Django’s resourcefulness, strength, and sense of dignity are immensely appealing. Though there has been much controversy over Tarantino’s prolific use of the n-word (110 times during the movie, it is reported) the iconography of a heroic, brooding Django who simmers with moral outrage until the time is right to boil over is ultimately much stronger than the word is. We are all encouraged to identify with the iconic, brave Django, to want to be like him, to leave the theater thinking “I am Django” -- to paraphrase the famous “I am Spartacus” line in Dalton Trumbo’s 1960 slave revolt epic.

But as political philosophy, Django Unchained is the opposite of Spartacus. Tarantino is fully committed to the Western movie trope of the stoic lone gunfighter. His hero, like the Western archetype, faces down a horde of villains, dispenses justice, and then, ever self-sufficient, rides off into the picturesque sunset. In this case, he takes his beloved (Kerry Washington), but it is still likely that they are going to live on the edge of society. For one thing, Django’s going to have to go into hiding after all he has done.

Though Tarantino shows plenty of horrors in the system of slavery, making it clear that power over other human beings was maintained by savage violence, he celebrates the rugged individualist principles of the Western genre above all; when Django and his lady ride off together, it doesn’t seem to matter to them that, in the larger world, that system is still in place and slaves all over the South are still suffering.

Tarantino really has no interest in the collective action that forms the backbone of the slave revolt in the sword-and-sandal epic Spartacus. None of the slaves in Django are inspired by the titular character to throw off their own chains. (An astonished chain-gang at the beginning of Django does decide to gain freedom by killing the slave-trader transporting them, but it is white Dr. Schultz who gives them that option.) Instead, pampered house slaves continue business as usual even after their master is gone; when they do eventually flee, it is because Django forces them to – and they look just as foolish running in their layers of petticoats as the landed gentry would. The slave women of Candieland are almost all depicted as courtesans – they dislike seeing male slaves murdered in front of them, but like gangsters’ molls, they accept it with an averted glance. Even the talented Washington is in the movie just to motivate Django with her beauty and fragility; her dialogue consists almost entirely of shrieking and crying over her abuses by whites. Though she is described as willful, we never get to see her will in action. She just waits passively and admiringly while Django wages his “unconventional and asymmetrical warfare” alone.

Understandably, Django cares more about his wife than he does about other slaves. His romantic quest to rescue her provides an urgent throughline to the movie, and is overtly likened to the German legend of Siegfried and Brunhild. But this mission also brings out  a kind of selfishness in Django. His first use of his new freedom is to strike back against wicked plantation overseers who are whipping a young female slave, but Schultz warns him that his wrath isn’t strategic. If he’s going to save his Brunhild, he has to play it cool and make sure he doesn’t cause trouble, no matter what he sees done to his brethren in front of him. In essence: to get what he wants for himself and his wife, Django has to betray his race. (It is worth noting that Schultz the reserved diplomat isn’t constrained by the same caution. When he explodes in moral indignation, Django and Broomhilda are on the threshold of freedom, and he recklessly destroys their chances.)

Spike Lee took issue with Django Unchained sight unseen because he didn’t think Tarantino could present slavery with sufficient gravitas. In my opinion, the fact that Tarantino tackled such a serious subject actually ought to be applauded, since it shows some personal growth, but it’s true that all that Tarantino panache and effervescence really ends up just in the service of entertainment, of mere diversion. And this is not too much of a surprise considering who made the film.

It was during Pulp Fiction that I began to suspect that Tarantino was not going to be the kind of director he seemed to be in Reservoir Dogs. When hit men John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson were talking and a loose gesture with a pistol accidentally killed their back-seat passenger – and the audience guffawed – it occurred to me that Tarantino might not be interested in using his gifts, which are obviously prodigious, for a very serious purpose. And I realized that I couldn’t relate to the way he found movie violence so supremely amusing. Little did I know how high the body count would climb as his career went on.

The complexity and intensity of the bond between the Harvey Keitel and Tim Roth characters in Reservoir Dogs had been deeply moving – at the time, it seemed like Tarantino was going to make movies about human beings. It’s true that Pulp Fiction also had some of those strong relationships between characters – its assets weren’t only its boldness, wit, sense of fun, and structural ingenuity. By Kill Bill, however, he seemed to lose interest in genuine characters and in the human condition. He seemed more intrigued by aerodynamics (of bullets, swords, etc.) than by psychodynamics.

And so he ends up with Django Unchained, a film about an enduring American shame – and a film that frequently lacks insight. The bounty-hunter subplot aligns the picture early on with the Western genre; conveniently hooks Dr. Schultz up with Django; and provides a slave, who would otherwise have no marksmanship opportunities, with the training he needs to become an avenger. It also lets Tarantino have scenes of violence in the pre-plantation half of the movie without alienating audience sympathy from Schultz. This erudite German calmly announces himself as “an officer of the court” and assures us and whoever on-screen will listen that the people he kills deserve to die because it has been so decreed. Schultz comes across as a good guy, an enlightened free-thinker – he abhors slavery, he is willing to share Django’s quest to liberate Broomhilda from bondage, and he knows that novelist Alexandre Dumas’ grandmother was an Afro-Caribbean slave. But he also seems to have absolute trust in law and order, far beyond his appreciation of the money he collects from bounties. The movie doesn’t contradict this faith, either; while being trained as a sniper, Django dispatches, from a great distance, a farmer peacefully sowing his fields -- because he is a ‘wanted man’. It looks not unlike a drone strike, but neither Django nor Schultz have any misgivings about whether the ‘intelligence’ on him is accurate.

This is odd, since Tarantino otherwise shows the society to be fundamentally corrupt and unjust. Not only did the society consider some human beings property, it was also rife with many other examples of oppression -- unmentioned in the film -- such as a centuries-long genocide against Native Americans; the disenfranchisement of women, slaves, and wage laborers; and a system that abused the workforce while it bucked up the railroad and mining companies. It is unlikely that those laws which Schultz prosecutes with such reasonableness and deadly aim were only used to target legitimate criminals like stagecoach robbers. Considering how much of the process was conducted behind closed doors – and how unequal the criminal justice system is even now, when it operates in relative sunlight – one can assume those ‘dead or alive’ warrants were issued, at least occasionally, in order to entrench the existing power structure. But credulity in the bounty-hunter’s legitimacy helps mark the film as a Western. The fact that the genre may have really been propaganda for the U.S.’ westward expansion, for the overpowering of those people who stood in the way (such as Native Americans and Mexicans) and the subjugation of the wilderness, doesn’t seem to bother Tarantino. He loves movies so much, he is tickled by them in such a pure, fan-like way, that it would actually be hard to imagine him coming from a more critical theoretical perspective.

But this issue is nothing compared to Candie’s right-hand man Stephen, a shuffling, obsequious ‘Uncle Tom’ played by Samuel L. Jackson, and a character criticized by many in the blogosphere as an offensive stereotype. I’m not sure that ‘stereotype’ is the right word, however, since Stephen is far from servile underneath his bent-over posture; he in fact turns out to be a power-hungry manipulator who relishes sitting in Candie’s armchair, calmly warming brandy in a glass for himself while he reveals to Candie what he has discovered about Django. He’s not one-dimensional, he’s actually deceptive; he’s a collaborator or colluder who loves to be on the winning side. Moreover, as the story proceeds, he becomes more and more eager to inflict pain on the powerless. His obsession seems to be to beat down anyone who dares raise their head.

Tarantino never asks why Stephen is like this. Is he so molded by his enmeshed relationship with his owner that he has developed a kind of Stockholm Syndrome emotional dependency? It’s hard to believe that, no matter how emotional he seems over Candie, since we’ve already seen him swiftly and slyly change tones. Is he so circumscribed in his own life that he has become an unthinking rule-enforcer? Again, there’s a sadistic gleam in his eye which belies this; he doesn’t seem panicked by Django’s liberated attitude, but merely full of hate. Is Stephen so proud and committed to doing his job well that he’ll vigilantly protect Candie from all blows, even threats which emanate from his own people? (A precedent for a character like that exists in Alec Guinness’ British colonel, a prisoner-of-war who loses perspective in The Bridge on the River Kwai.) But if he were delusional that way, you’d think that he’d whole-heartedly embrace the decisions of his Mr. and Mrs., not be disappointed when they interfere with his agenda of black-on-black violence.

Fundamentally, Tarantino doesn’t care what makes the head house slave tick. Stephen shows up because a villain is needed in Act 3 and he needs to be worse than the villains who came before; Django needs to go from the frying pain into the fire. Maybe there’s racism behind the portrait of Stephen (it’s worrying that the character’s name has some similarities to a famous black buffoon of early 1930’s films, the persona of ‘Stepin Fetchit’) or maybe Stephen is just  a plot contrivance. It’s hard to know, because Django isn’t really about slavery or racism, it’s about Tarantino’s one abiding subject: movies.

He has certainly made no secret of his adoration of the blaxploitation genre. Since he’s such an expert on it, however, one would think he might be more concerned about the arguments that were made at the time against the blaxploitation tidal wave. 50 movies in the genre came out between 1971, when the success of the legitimately revolutionary Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song inspired Hollywood to cash in with a slew of imitations, and the fad’s end in 1975 – and this glut of cheap and quickly made flicks aimed at black audiences led the NAACP, National Urban League, and Southern Christian Leadership Conference to join forces in protest. When Junius Griffin, the head of the Hollywood NAACP, coined the term ‘black exploitation’ in a 1973 article, he called it a “form of cultural genocide.” He lamented the black community’s children being “exposed to a steady diet of so-called black movies that glorify black males as pimps, dope pushers, gangsters and super males with vast physical powers but no cognitive skills.” Perhaps in part because these movies operated outside the mainstream, however, Tarantino the former video store clerk has long been fascinated with them, as if he has discovered a secret. He differs from some other directors – like Peter Bogdonavich and the French New Wave filmmakers who started out by writing for Cahiers du Cinéma – artists who embraced what they regarded as old cinematic treasures too, because he is really not a theorist. He doesn’t seem particularly adept at evaluating what the flicks he loves actually mean, or how they fit into a social context; he just gets excited about them. If he were not a director, perhaps he would be a film programmer. In fact, when Django Unchained screened at the repertory cinema he owns in L.A., the New Beverly, it was preceded by an assemblage of trailers for 1970s exploitation movies which he had hand-selected to show the audience some of his influences for the film.

If Tarantino actually was more of a theorist, perhaps he would pay more attention to the fact that for much of the film, Django has to squelch his impulses and allow other slaves to be horrifically murdered in front of him. Though these and similar moments do highlight the barbarism of slavery, at the end of Tarantino’s Grand Guignol opus, the code seems to be: successful revenge cancels out suffering experienced by victims. One can’t help wondering if the violent atrocities against slaves that are included in the film do really exist to condemn the brutality of the culture, or if they serve mainly as strong motivators for the climactic, massively bloody revenge sequence that may be Tarantino’s real aim.

As a paradigm of how to overcome oppression, Django happens to give the worst possible advice, and in an age where our real world is beset by a great many senseless shootings, some of it clearly influenced by on-screen mayhem, one wishes Tarantino had more awareness of what he’s doing. Django runs the danger of encouraging people like Chris Dorner – who, incidentally, saw the film -- to believe that a) murder is justified as a response to injustice; b) it is not self-destructive to try to fight on its own terms a historically violent and richly well-equipped power structure; and c) it is nobler to go out in an attention-getting blaze of glory than to actually do painstaking and largely invisible work on the grassroots level.

Django only speaks to whites; he is never seen forming relationships with other slaves (he barely even has one with Broomhilda, despite all the self-conscious romanticism). He may be a rebel, but he’s no revolutionary -- he doesn’t bond with others who are oppressed. Though a film about a slave rising up would seem on its face like a left-wing enterprise, Django could just as easily be seen to perpetuate the right-wing mantra that has spread so widely in America: that we are each on our own, that it’s only individual action that is a source of pride, that none of us should identify with any particular caste but should see ourselves as having gotten to where we are purely on our own merits.

Tarantino is in an unusual position because even if all he really wants to do is make movies celebrating B-movies, he is too creative a director and too captivating a writer to operate in counter-culture obscurity. He is instead very much a part of the mainstream – everyone knows his name, more so than they know the names of filmmakers of blandly formulaic fare – and what he puts out there is going to get analyzed. Whether he likes it or not, his films become part of the national conversation. Even if he is constantly signaling that it’s ‘just a movie’, he’s going to fall under fire, sometimes, precisely because he has made ‘just a movie.’

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