Bloodied, Benched, Booed, Blamed, Blackballed—A Case for Kaepernick

VU

Other than allegations, accusations, and even convictions for domestic violence involving players, there is only one controversy in the National Football League and one only: concussive and subconcussive hits in a widely watched game that was once about tackling and became, under the gaze of nearly everyone, about hitting the lights out of defenseless players, as if one were training for an assassination. Urban street assaults are more tame. While the league addressed this this summer with yet another deficient yet consequential adjustment by penalizing players for deliberate helmet-leading hits—like torpedoes launched from submarines—all while denying that the helmets themselves constitute much of the crisis­, NFL culture was more absorbed with other “controversies”: What precisely constituted a catch vis-a-vis an incompletion? Would the New York Giants reward talented but reckless wideout Odell Beckham Jr. with a lucrative multiyear contract? Who would win the Buffalo Bills three-way quarterback competition, with most minds favoring the rookie? Above all, one loomed larger: a certain protest performed during the playing of the national anthem before games that would spill into another season, a protest that should be no more “controversial” than one sitting down to eat a slice of apple pie at a diner in Minnesota if one were to really think about it, although that too was once deprived of our African-American citizens in certain states, cities, and jurisdictions.

No matter how dignified, reaction to the silent protests have spoken volumes, reaching the decibel level of the chief executive’s Twitter account. Many see the players’ protests as more upsetting, but our nation is uniquely constituted to protect the right of individuals to protest in a legally protected manner, if not to deprive the president from mouthing off and worse on a forum of social media addicts, close to half of whom likely do not even vote every four years for the elected office. In addition to negative perception, NFL fans were upset and offended, attendance and viewership was down—the league’s very existence seemed to hang in the balance by the conscionable actions of a small minority of African–American player-citizens who’d decided the latter had to become more prominent—the very people who necessarily are protected from censure by our beloved Founding Fathers, many of whom nonetheless were slaveholders. League officials, called to attention, reacted in typical tuneless and graceless fashion in May by instituting a policy for this season requiring its players to stand during the playing of the anthem or remain hidden out of sight in the showers, an initiative with the unanimous backing of the league’s owners that was soundly challenged by the NFL Players Association in July and is, as has recently been reported, likely to be shelved for the entire season. The league, acting on a declaration by the Miami Dolphins that its players would be subject to up to a four-game suspension for an anthem protest, had reached out  to the NFLPA and offered to trade $89 million in social justice program funding in return for the players’ anthem participation. It was a nice gesture, but came at a price, African Americans have seen and heard it all before, and the players’ reps decided their constituents wouldn’t pay up.

Native Sons/Athletes

As that proposal dies an ignominious death, another byproduct is a gathering storm: the grievance against the NFL and its 32 teams by the protest’s initiator and principle reactionary target, former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick. Playing in a Super Bowl? Priceless. Not towing the line as a professional African-American athlete in the United States of America? Mutiny bordering on treason. The mixed-race Milwaukee native is not the first to draw wrath for speaking out, or, in this case, taking a knee, or have his position and salary stripped away for doing so, but he is now the most prominent. African-American athletes, particularly those in the National Basketball Association, have been criticized for being silent in the wake of certain recent national crises, and this is one of the reasons why. Like their ancestors in slavery, experience instills it’s best to stay silent. Some finally did speak up—even if only on Twitter—or initiated actions or campaigns, or collectively rebranded their uniforms in support or in protest, last season. LeBron James, so well-known he’s practically representative of all African Americans, was condescendingly told by a Fox News hostess in February to “shut up and dribble” after making comments critical of the sitting president, something the notorious cable news channel did profusely every night Barack Obama was in office, at least once the honeymoon and respectful silence were over, and he became fair game. The hostess also chided James for leaving high school to become a professional athlete, quite telling for a “conservative” culture that puts self-made millionaires who did the same on a pedestal. Her comments said it all. James responded by posting an Instagram visual declaring, “I am more than an athlete,” an assertion that reminds one of striking 1960s Memphis African-American sanitation workers who held up white signs declaring “I am a Man” in bold black letters. Here, even sanitation workers are deserving of dignity, respect, and fair treatment, or so maintained Martin Luther King, Jr., whose nonviolent methods are completely lost here on nearly everyone perhaps but the protesting players, whose numbers are dwindling. Isn’t Kaepernick?

Reacting to the same infamous events, conditions, and perceived slights and injustices as the NBA athletes, although earlier, Kaepernick didn’t say anything, he just sat down. The University of Nevada graduate espoused his sentiments intelligently in interviews—yes, he did finish high school, with a 4.0 grade point average, no less—but the fundamental protest was on the field, with a mind toward full exposure. From the reaction, you’d think he’d marched out to midfield, unfurled an American flag, struck a match, and lit it afire. Perception was essentially the same. After two sensational seasons with the 49ers, including a 2013 Super Bowl appearance in just his first full season, the former second-round selection signed a 6-year contract with a total value of up to $126 million. The quarterback then lost his cape, following that with three mediocre seasons during which he’d, at times, lose his starting position and request to be traded. During the 2017 offseason, he declined a $16.9 million option from a contract he’d renegotiated down precisely in order to move on. If Kaepernick envisioned leading a team elsewhere, he likely overinflated his value, but he couldn’t have imagined going without an offer from anyone. His passing skills seemingly in regression, his bullet throws at times uncatchable, the former two-time Western Athletic Conference Offensive Player of the Year nonetheless still threw 14 touchdowns to just four interceptions in his final season, a superlative ratio in line with his career numbers that, combined with his skills on the ground, should have left an impression he could step in off the bench and contribute at any time. Nay said NFL owners, general managers, and head coaches, who otherwise aren’t shy about giving players with criminal and domestic violence charges on their resumes second and third chances, and who value ball control and experience in their quarterback backups. The 2018 recipient of the Amnesty International Ambassador of Conscience Award sits on the sidelines to this day. On August 30, an arbitrator ruled his collusion grievance could move forward to trial based on an abundance of documents and testimony from NFL and team officials. He may soon get the $16.9 million back, if not more, with damages in triplicate of the salary he’d have been expected to receive. Kaepernick also recently inked a high-profile multimillion-dollar endorsement deal with Nike that also includes an apparel line and contributions to his youth empowerment Know Your Rights Camp.

Eric Reid, a first-round draft choice of the 49ers and five-year starter who went to the Pro Bowl in 2013 and is pictured above to the left of Kaepernick taking a knee, has also filed an arbitration grievance alleging owners colluded to suppress his services this offseason, with the emphasis being that it was the chief executive’s—President Donald Trump’s, not NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell’s­—private conversations and public Twitter admonishments that were the capital cause. Reid had a tryout with the Cincinnati Bengals, but he returned home empty-handed after reportedly being noncommittal toward old-fashioned owner Mike Brown’s anthem protest query. Brown reportedly desired to implement his own clampdown on the protests for his team, and the egregious question would appear to be in complete violation of seemingly every federal or state prejudicial or discriminatory prospective employment inquiry in existence, and, if not, it should be. The outcry and league and team pressure and suppression have had a chilling effect. In the case of Kaepernick, the NFL seems to believe that if you cut off the head of the snake, the body will follow. Eric Reid wouldn’t comply, and he’s unemployed at the age of 26.

Privilege

Just as with so many events these days, the anthem protests are a teachable moment. Amid the adult hysteria, one wonders what the lesson is for our children. Other than those with likely no care nor sympathy for conditions in the African-American community, nor alarm at the flood of high-profile, exceedingly negligent and questionable law enforcement shootings of African Americans that gave rise to Kaepernick’s action, I know there are those who don’t mind the protests per se, but are upset they occur during the anthem. The nation has long been attempting to define African-American civil disobedience; from the Watts Uprising to The Black Panthers to Black Lives Matter, when, where, and how it might be appropriate, to which there has never really been an answer. Anything and everything always seems to be out of bounds. It wasn’t so long ago, when, in certain places, taking a seat in a classroom, toward the front of a bus, or at a lunch counter, or marching peacefully and with dignity across a bridge and a state line were considered so provocative and threatening that riots and violence ensued. America, and Americans, have long ago lost the privilege of telling African Americans what to do, where to do it and when, and how to go about doing it. One can sympathize with why so many find it intolerably offensive to not stand and honor the playing of the national anthem and the display of the American flag; it’s ingrained in all of us, no matter how horribly our nation conducts itself, domestically or abroad. Yet how many African Americans have to be shot up and left to die by negligent law enforcement officers before one begins to take a step back and open up one’s heart and mind to other possibilities and views?

Blowback/The Flag of Chicago

One wonders if the reaction might be different were former Arizona Cardinals safety and Iraq War and War in Afghanistan veteran Pat Tillman to materialize and initiate a national anthem protest? The U.S. Army Ranger himself was shot up and silenced in a supposed friendly fire incident in Khost Province that was covered up by the nation’s top brass. Tillman had turned down NFL stardom and millions to enlist in a surge of patriotic duty, and, like so many others similarly motivated, soon realized in the middle of the hot. arid desert terrain that he was  fighting for nothing, at best, and, at worse, a lie, The disparate commentary of two CBS NFL analysts at the time of Kaepernick’s initial protest in August 2016 detached along racial lines. Former Most Valuable Player and Walter Payton Man of the Year Boomer Esiason emphatically denounced Kaepernick’s action as “embarrassing” and “as disgraceful as any athlete has ever been.” He called Kaepernick “severely underinformed,” lectured the offender on the honorable, underappreciated, day-day-day heroism of the nation’s police forces, and recoiled at the idea that the halcyon playing fields of the NFL are a suitable venue for demonstrations of any kind, as if somehow immune from the likes of chronic traumatic encephalopathy and racial injustice. Former Pro Bowl linebacker and East Side Detroit native Bart Scott supported Kaepernick’s gesture and his right to do it, likening it to a heighted social awareness among African-American athletes, declared it’s “always the right time to fight for justice and to fight for what you believe in,” and that it was “mission accomplished” for the quarterback’s aim of inspiring a discussion.

Is this the discussion we’re supposed to be having? Reaction to the anthem protest is not only sending the wrong message to American children, but it’s a wasted potential for a dialogue on the issues it raises, as well as the right to do it. After a discussion with an ex-NFL aspirant and veteran, Kaepernick himself honed his initial sit down to a more dignified kneel to more appropriately show he had no intention of dishonoring American troops, but people just can’t get past the notion that he is. One wonders if, for some, if not many, this insistence is just a convenient way to continue to deflect the injustices that inspired it, as well as the belief that one can protest the actions of law enforcement and U.S. military and not be denounced as ungracious and subversive. This disjointed exigency is dramatically illustrated in Haitian filmmakerRaoul Peck’s stunning, must-see 2016 documentary I Am Not Your Negro, based on the writings of author, civil rights activist, and negro James Baldwin. In narrated excerpts and footage, Baldwin, whose singular voice is sorely missed and who would absolutely have a field day in these times if events didn’t lead him to nervous exhaustion and paralysis, emphatically asserts that the fabric of American democracy is forever riven by racial divide and discord, and that until white Americans come to terms with their deep-seated feelings toward African Americans, the nation itself is instigating its own demise. As if to confirm this, witness the powerful conclusion to Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman, a disruptive real-life contemporary cinematic montage of demonstrating white supremacists and counterprotestors absorbed in an infernal ballet of incited violence and confrontation with no end in sight. Just as with the graphic imaginative reblending of the American flag and the Flag of Chicago for Lee’s dynamic 2015 film, Chi-Raq, that adopts Aristophanes’ Lysistrata to depict the damning failure to confront epidemic lethal shootings among African-American youth in Chicago, a crisis candidate Trump himself promised to arrest, the film concludes with the operatic, graphic image of a screen-size American flag displayed upside down that lingers just long enough into provoking its audience to move beyond the shuddering horror and contemplate.

Controversy

“Embarrassing?” “Disgraceful?” That’s NFL fans exiting stadiums because of a handful of African-American players exercising their right to free expression, but who remain in their seats when a player is taken off the field semiconscious in a stretcher, or sidelined without awareness as to the precise nature of the consonants and vowels constituting his own name, after a particularly virulent, intentional hit by an opposing player. That’s Washington Redskins owner Dan Snyder, net worth into the billions, emphatically insisting his team’s nickname is not offensive in the least and absolutely refusing to change it, and the league and sports media continuing to promote the team and its official merchandise. That’s NFL teams and medical doctors routinely pushing prescription narcotics on injured players to keep them on the field in the short term, as if the sidelines and treatment rooms were a shooting gallery, exposing them to further injury and eclipsing their careers, health, and well-being in the long, covering it up and then denying it when they were sued over it. That’s the league dismissing medical research linking football to chronic traumatic encephalopathy, and then that it actually determines its debilitating premature conditions, much like the tobacco companies over lung cancer and emphysema, Toyota over sudden acceleration fatal car crashes, ExxonMobil over global warming, and those others unconvinced of the science of climate change even as their billowing smokestacks spew blackened smoke high into the atmosphere and the snows of Kilimanjaro begin to disappear before there very eyes. That’s not the Philadelphia Eagles blowing a 25-point lead to the New England Patriots in this year’s Super Bowl, but the league allowing a capital city that still hoists a state flag based on the initial national flag of the Confederacy to host the next. That’s millions of people gathered together consuming hot wings, nachos, pretzel twists, Pepsi, and Coca-Cola in an annual national rite around flatscreens giving off the effect of a performance of poetry in motion from a safe distance while on the ground in real life players at six foot two, 250, with 4.5 speed go at each other until the tissues in their brains supposedly protected by their helmets grow progressively black with neuropathological disease in between getting their kicks viewing cheeky multimillion-dollar advertising campaigns from multinational corporations that play shell games with offshore deposits to avoid paying U.S. taxes, lay off workers, export jobs to the Subcontinent and the Far East, pass on costs to consumers, compensate executive officers tens of millions of dollars annually success or  failure, while taking in excess profits into the billions of dollars annually that are distributed to shareholders already extant in the one percent.

NFL national anthem protest controversy? Nah, just some guys exercising their right to free expression in the hopes the rest of us might pay attention. In drafting the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, the slaveholding Founding Fathers, whose bones shudder at the prolific, gruesome horror of negligent law enforcement shootings of African Americans that would make the Redcoats, who looked down on us for our slaveholding practices, wince, made sure no vocal majority could ever take that away.

© 2018 John Tyler/24 Hours

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Dawn of the Children: “Sicario: Day of the Soldado”—A Feature Film Review

You want to talk about the children? Let’s talk about the children. Los Niños have been much on the minds of people on both sides of our southern border amid reports and images of children as young as five years old being held captive in open-air cages like rounded-up Muslim wedding party crashers at Guantanamo Bay. With all that’s been missing being the pitch-black hoods and orange jumpsuits, the outrage and outcry has exceeded even that of the image of the three-year-old Syrian boy who washed up on the southwestern shore of Turkey dead and face down in the damp sand that awakened a seemingly sleeping world to the plight of Syrian refugees who’d been besieged and uprooted for years. Images are worth a thousand words, if not a million. In timely fashion then, arrives Sicario: Day of the Soldado, act two of a cinematic trilogy that deals very much in migrant trafficking and apprehension along our only border that matters, though our chief executive is seemingly going a long way toward making aliens out of Canadians as well. Promoted as an ultraviolent dramatic actioner that plays like an advertisement for Soldier of Fortune with the ever present, incessant action of assault rifles replacing beach frolicking, scantily clan young women for inducement, the film, while being all that, at its heart is a touching saga of a lost child and the personal and physical odyssey she undergoes with her much older benefactor, played by the film’s costar, Benecio Del Toro. In pairing a troubled, vulnerable young girl with a hardened, older stranger in his element in a tense, violent situation in what is essentially a buddy flick, the film is a subgenre staple, recalling Denzel Washington and Dakota Fanning in Man on Fire and Jean Reno and a 13-year-old Natalie Portman in The Professional. That development surprised me, for sure, and it’s one that enhances the franchise to new heights. With Emily Blunt’s naïve, compromised FBI special agent now gone, whither the children? Besides the intersecting story of a teenage boy who works unassumingly at a food court in an indoor Houston shopping mall, the young ingénie at its center might as well be Little Red Riding Hood, who discovers too late that her own father is the Big Bad Wolf, even as Del Toro’s sicario seemingly stalks her at every step on her way. It’s their journey through the forest—here, the Mexican desert—upon which the film pivots, but unlike in the promos, the film’s heart is not the forest itself, but the characters lurking within.

That’s a credit to screenwriter Taylor Sheridan (Wind River, Hell or High Water), who is so confident in his franchise he had the temerity to tell Blunt her character’s arc had run its course and her A-list services would no longer be required. He has reason to be; his smart, assertive, fast-paced frame should, at this point, earn him another Oscar nod, though I wouldn’t necessarily be surprised if it didn’t, especially given its ultraviolent reputation. Sheridan doesn’t go out of his way to explain or justify anything, no longwinded expositional dialogue explaining how we got here, nor paragraph upon paragraph of introductory text; no, just a simple two-line textual introduction concluding, “This border is controlled by the Mexican cartels.”

That’s a declaration, by sensational omission, that clearly intends to remove us of any notion that it’s controlled by the U.S. Border Patrol or any other American agency, or that Americans are in any sort of control whatsoever, and what follows, from the U.S. border in Texas to a suicide bombing in Kansas City to a pirate interrogation in Somalia to a U.S. Naval command outpost in Djibouti to Colombia and back and across Mexico and back again, is just sublime, heart-pounding action that illustrates the point. It’s implicitly illustrated that the Latin American drug war and its ramifications are the culprit, enhanced by the alarming militarization of the Border Patrol—and its previously outgunned, lone desert sentries equipped with a rifle, binoculars, a water bottle, a packed lunch, and a pickup truck—and who are featured in one heavy-handed nighttime roundup early on. Night-vision goggles, first-person camera high-tech digital surveillance, crackling electronic communications, Sheridan brings it to the fore commando style, enhancing the implication that what was once Kunduz, Samarra, and Sadr City is now the land here just due south. Oppressive U.S. tactics, enhanced interrogation, global military engagement from seas to shining seas, the border war is a microcosm of the audacious blowback of trillion-dollar military imbroglios halfway across the scorched earth that now hit home like exploding glass, shrapnel, and screams in a blackened suburban grocery store, all the while our neglected but trod-upon southern neighbor becomes its own violent, essentially failed state a stone’s throw away. If any of us really knew, besides our own government, who must, how far the cartels have infiltrated into places like San Diego and Houston and what they’ve been up to there, you wouldn’t be amiss in wanting a wall too—the higher, the better—if its construction actually had any chance of succeeding; but that’s my point, not necessarily Sheridan’s, other than that, no, a wall probably wouldn’t.

To give human expression to this haunting debacle, more costly than the Titanic, but no less tragic, we have one of the great American civilian mercenary characters onscreen, Josh Brolin’s Matt Graver. No special-ops weekend wannabe, he’s lived the life with gusto, orchestrated myriad overseas operations, notched countless kills military and civilian, and been rebuked by brass behind closed doors more times than a wayward ward on his way from reform school to death row. Played with dexterous acumen by Brolin, he’s a brusque, burly American everyman with forearms the size of footballs, the kind of guy you’d find devouring hot dogs, peanuts, and beer with family at a ball game, assuming a wet suit at dawn alone on a deserted beach with a surfboard on a Sunday, or serenading colleagues with raunchy, robust tales at a pool table in a noisy, late-night bar. Though worn down by service and by being the fall guy for his unreliable superiors, you’ll never see him take a knee during the playing of the national anthem. Graver possesses the pleasant, protective demeanor of your next-door neighbor’s best friend’s father when you go over to visit, but at other times he appears vaguely uneasy, unpredictable, controlled, yet slightly unhinged, even dangerous; a coiled snake, run into him at the wrong time, and he might cut your head off, or at least threaten to.

Problem is, though certainly no 007, he has a license to kill, and he’s the principal’s willful, unmanageable favorite, so when the smoke clears in Kansas City, Graver’s summoned to the office of none other than the U.S. Secretary of Defense (excellently played by Matthew Modine), where he’s faced by a roomful of top brass and civilian advisers who have no idea what they’re doing but who may actually firmly believe that whatever it is, it’s in the best interests of the people they believe they’re serving. The wayward field agent informs the assembled coterie that it’s no longer cocaine, but migrants, that are the lifeblood of the cartels, and at $1,000 a pop, success or failure, who can argue with the math? Besides, it seems some Middle-Eastern terrorists have been snuck in in the bargain. From his seat alone on the couch, Graver’s entrusted to head up another clandestine operation, sidekick Steve Forsing (a mustachioed Jeffrey Donovan (Shot Caller, LBJ) in tow, and all hands are in for another lethal contest of cartel disruption. To fuel what end, only the captain of the doomed liner can envision, and Modine does an impeccable job projecting the kind of stony civilian resolve that only one who has never actually seen action will never know to be exposed as a mirage no matter how many times he stares into the mirror to convince himself otherwise from whence he strays from his executive recliner to the bar for another drink in his posh, imposing, air-conditioned office. The stratagem is so far off-books even for U.S. military-intelligence, Graver has to meet with a dubious international arms trafficker (Shea Whigham, Beirut, The Catcher Was a Spy) just to secure the requisite logistical implements. It’s as if the bar scene compresses Sheridan’s assertion that in pursuing monsters we’ve become them.

Amid this, we meet Isabela (terrific 16-year-old Cleveland, Ohio–native Isabela Moner (Transformers: The Last Night Knight, The House That Jack Built), the Trojan horse of the operation. A petulant private-school pupil who’s either incorrigible or sensitive and misunderstood, Isabel exhibits dawning mixed-martial arts talents on the playground and when summoned to the principal’s office defiantly asserts the girl had it coming for calling her “narco*&^%$,” and why must she be the one to administer justice when it was true. Isabel is not this principal’s pet, but the caravan of polished high-profile vehicles that take her to and fro the well-heeled grounds suggest the headmaster has no recourse to expel. This very caravan, the bratty 16 year old in tow, is the subject of a brazen daylight abduction that begins and culminates in carnage. You’ve seen the previews, perhaps; when a masked avenger emerges from one of the offending vehicles, takes off his mask to reveal himself, then shoots up an offscreen target with a fusillade of bullets with such expressive vehemence you’d think he’d just witnessed his own family being murdered, it’s none other than Del Toro’s Alejandro along for the ride. Critics have seized upon the scene as illustrative of …Soldado’s pointless, derivative violence, but the scene is actually telling character development. I’m not a fan of The Chicago Sun-Times’ Richard Roeper, but he has his fingers on the pulse of this franchise, and when he wrote of Del Toro in Sicario that such sudden explosiveness “will leave you shaken—and grateful to have seen such beautifully dark work,” one couldn’t have expressed it any better. Del Toro, too gifted an actor to be in the service of exploitation, will have more such moments, including an incredible Houdini act in the climax, and it’s his moody, laconic style, his preference to exchange dialogue for gesture and silence, that makes these outbursts more powerful, and the silences more meaningful. Nowhere was this better seen than in Alejandro’s stealth assassination of cartel kingpin Fausto Alarcón in his own hacienda in Sicario, probably the most Zen and satisfying such depiction I’ve seen since Forest Whitaker’s vengeful, climactic, home-invasion assault in Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai; here, it’s Del Toro’s moving exchange of sign language with a deaf, crushed campesino while on the run with Isabela.

In between, Moner isn’t afforded the same opportunities, regrettably. The triple-threat actress, singer, and dancer spends much of the film recoiling in horror and distress at what’s unfolding around Isabel, namely intense mayhem, all the more so because she’s the focus of it. It’s a live audition for a role as a scream queen, but, given her promise early in the film, Moner seems superior to it. Isabel is escorted across the desert at crooked angles amid all manor of violent exchange, as if she were a teenage Teresa in USA Network’s Queen of the South, with most of the disruption coming from the Mexican Federal Police, you know, the ones who are supposed to be clean now. Much of the Road Warrior­–like action, with its ubiquitous precision assault-rifle hostilities, seems to serve as a promo for the UN Programme of Action on Small Arms and Light Weapons—the true weapons of global mass destruction. The pressing border dash still leaves accomplished Polish cinematographer Dariusz Wolski (All the Money in the World, War Machine) moments to pan the sun-drenched desert, which stretches out in isolated desertion, as if invoking Alex Cox’s essential Highway Patrolman. Soon, the shadowed terrain belongs to Alejandro and Isabela alone, and while the identity of the priceless girl’s protectorate dawns on her, Sheridan is amiss in not serving Moner a few choice cuts of sirloin to dine upon before Isabela starts screaming again. It’s not just for logistics that the sicario is posing as Isabel’s father in this seemingly mythological passage. The duo’s path will be disrupted anew by the interconnecting storyline of the film’s other youth, Miguel (Elijah Rodriguez, the upcoming We Die Young), who’s recruited by an effusive coyote (David Castañeda, The Ascent, Love Sanchez) to join his cartel cousin, Gallo (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, Murder on the Orient Express, The Magnificent Seven), across the border under the premise of handfuls of cash in American dollars, no less.

Under the direction of Italian Stefano Sollima (Suburra, A.C.A.B.) in the absence of Denis Villeneuve, who had his hands full with Arrival and Blade Runner 2047, the film is dedicated to Jóhann Jóhannsson, who secured an Oscar nod for scoring Sicario and who perished of a drug overdose in February. Icelandic collaborator and cellist Hildur Guðnadóttir’s (Mary Magdalene, Journey’s End) jarring, ominous synth score should follow suit. I was surprised to see it’s Del Toro, not Brolin, who’s top-billed here, and that the Puerto Rican native slotted in just behind Blunt in the original. The franchise is precipitously moving toward Alejandro, not Graver, at its center. Rodriguez’s Miguel certainly looms on the horizon, but I can’t assume the same for Graver, whose shocking convulsion of indiscriminate wrath late in the game not only is one of the most gratuitous and excessive outbursts committed by an American mercenary in a domestic film, but it could find him obscured for the third installment.

You want to talk about the children? Let’s talk about the children. Unwelcome in Mexico, the Central American youth arriving here in increasing number aboard the freight train Death Express escaping the twin terrors of Mara Salvatrucha, a destabilizing transglobal street gang that originated when the children of migrants fleeing El Salvador’s U.S.–fueled civil war were intimidated by Mexican-American street gangs in the Pico-Union barrio of Los Angeles, deported for petty criminal activity, then brought their lessons along with them upon their return, and paramilitary police forces traditionally trained and equipped by the United States that target youth for extermination in garbage-riddled slums, are met here by vocal anti-immigrant Americans who believed in the right-wing Central American crackdown in the first place, because a dead left-wing peasant, teacher, union activist, or human-rights worker just south of the border was apparently better than a living one. Psychologists and children’s advocates have testified to the deep psychological trauma inflicted upon today’s lost migrant youth separated from their families so chaotically, as if upon entering a German WWII happy labor camp, they may never be reunited again, but what of the youth who are already citizens here confined in juvenile detention and forced upon the trails and campsites of parks and recreational areas as if upon a Trail of Tears who are treated just as poorly, and, quite often, much worse? The border will still be here, when we are gone, and for those who follow, it remains to be seen what they will find. One thing’s for sure, though, for the youth seeking asylum from poverty, gangs, and paramilitary, to migrant children separated from their families upon arrival and those subject to indefinite detention in a disreputable private prison awaiting a deferred decision from a strained, neglected system, to this nation’s own confined juvenile delinquents, to the Mexican cartel and upper-class private-school rich kids like Isabela looking through the glass at their lower income peers being abducted and violently tortured, murdered, and discarded in an essentially failed state in which law enforcement and politicians are completely complicit, to the transgressive youth of Mara Salvatrucha and all its transnational emulators themselves, all in all, they’re only just bricks in the wall.

(Go beyond the previews and promos: No exploitative thriller, per se, Sicario: Day of the Soldado continues in general theatrical release from Columbia Pictures.)

© 2018 John Tyler/24 Hours

Into “the Wilderness”: “King” Goes North—An HBO Documentary Film Review

The Southern from the Name

There’s a reason the Southern Christian Leadership Conference begins with the word “Southern,” and not “Northern,” or any other such directional designation. The reason appears obvious, but becomes further elucidated in the HBO documentary King in the Wilderness. Not only is perhaps the principal civil-rights organization of its time headquartered there, directing street actions throughout racially besieged Southern cities like Albany, St. Augustine, Birmingham, Selma, Montgomery, Grenada, and its own graveyard, Memphis, but most all of its principle members were from there as well, well-versed in its particular rhythms and virulent strains of racial prejudice. Several—Andrew Young, John Lewis, Jesse Jackson, as well as the likes of advisor and attorney Clarence Jones and celebrity activists Harry Belafonte and Joan Baez—appear here being interviewed. One can say, however ironically, that in the South the SCLC enjoyed home-field vantage, although like so many others of similar persuasion risked life, limb, and consciousness on a daily basis facing off among taunts, threats, beatings, lynchings, and other forms of verbal and physical abuse from police, sheriffs’ deputies, ordinary citizens, and armed and sometimes hooded vigilantes. Home-field vantage—while being the object of bullhorns, attack dogs, and water cannons? When the SCLC hit the road toward the industrial north, reluctantly following in the footsteps of its leader, the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., and in those of so many essentially expatriated, self-exiled African Americans before them searching for opportunities denied them, as you will see here, if you haven’t already, it was an entirely different story. It was a harrowing journey that sent its members deep into the eye of a menacing storm amid spectral visitations of their own mortality. For King, it was as if he were on 40-day, 40-night sojourn in the wilderness. If the ghastly street theatres in Alabama and Mississippi weren’t enough, one still wasn’t entirely prepared to set foot in Illinois.

Chicago—A Dream Become Nightmare

The stage was set by the terrifying street uprisings of Watts in the summer of 1965. While the impetus for the uncorked outrage was police brutality and oppression, the city of Los Angeles’s stunning and sanctioned discriminatory housing practices were not far behind. Those cloistered in the Deep South suddenly became exposed to the new urban realities of what was essentially racial apartheid: the Dream become nightmare amid a hornet’s nest of urban social ills. Where had he gone wrong? King pondered. The SCLC unfurled a new phase of its struggle by addressing three primary American maladies: racism, poverty, and militarism. If the first phase of the struggle was decency, the second would be equality. The SCLC secured an unheated flat without electricity in a Chicago West Side tenement amid a January winter of extreme cold. Images show King and company successfully hooking up a generator to the complex to the delight of residents; it reminds that some of the best inventors this nation has seen were African-American. The scene also illustrates the dual perception of the group’s, and its leader’s, actions: locals’ gleeful eruption at having the gang and the man in the hat in town and those detractors who saw them as showboats and outsiders. Huddled up in their new accommodations in blankets by flashlight, their residence was a microcosm of both. If the tenant occupation had theatrics written all over it, it also introduced the organization firsthand to the daily realities—and miseries—of the new urban American Negro: There’s not much more miserable than sitting in your dark flat without heat when outside it’s minus-16 degrees. If it wasn’t quite The Trail of Tears, the Great Migration appeared as a beeline from slavery to slum; I don’t think Grant would’ve been too proud, and Lincoln’s overcoat and top hat were smoldering in his grave.

The Chicago model itself plainly demonstrated, without any need for theory, that segregation led directly to poor housing which led to poor education which led to poor opportunity. Henry Louis Gates, Jr., in the pivotal third episode of his excellent 2016 PBS series, Black America Since MLK: And Still I Rise, identified housing segregation as the principal cause of past and contemporary African-American poverty and disenfranchisement, setting the episode there. That would, naturally, put racism and prejudice before it, as King, and any other logical thinker, would naturally have spelled it out. Segregation in housing opened a host of issues the SCLC wanted to concurrently address: community development, tenant rights, crime, systemic bias, quality of life. It wasn‘t going to be as clear-cut as facing down a Bull Connor or a George Wallace, as if in a showdown in the Wild West; in the North, things were more complicated.

The organization, of course, hit the streets, outside the storefronts of real-estate racketeers who were the field agents of prejudicial practices and in the neighborhoods of people who just couldn’t come to terms with the idea of living adjacent to an African-American family and whose racial and cultural intolerance directed citywide social policy. In the film, throngs of White citizens exhort protestors to go home in the most abusive and shameful language thought possible. King himself is struck in the head by a rock and sent down on a knee during a march out of Marquette Park. Without context, you’d think you were seeing classic B&W footage from the South, the only difference being the crowds were larger, and more ominous. For the SCLC and King, the strange fruit of the Great Migration would become a great awakening: by taking it right to them, it would wring out the worst from them. Just as with the demonstrative counterdemonstrations in the South that awoke a sleeping nation, the clamorous cabal of the city’s finest citizens displays no outward shyness toward news crews shooting audio/video, never mind their own children, who are more than happy to chime in with glee; just like that, the organization and its leader would provide the teaming situation a national platform. Mayor Daly is seen here having no fun, no fun at all, calling on the White House to have the head of the Negro excised and removed from the city’s limits. The Negro, meanwhile, in a scene sure to alight conspirators, is seen ducking into a telephone booth to report back to President Johnson on the city’s mood. As the year wears on, and sun and shadow lengthen, even African-American clergymen call on King to leave for fomenting trouble, an especially sharp dagger into the heart of the minister, and for a civil-rights group that was first and foremost an organizer of Christian religious affiliations and their adherents. The organization’s demands on city hall, precinct boards, real-estate boards, banks and savings and loans, and other businesses conclude in an agreement that satisfies King’s insistence on incremental solutions, but left he and his organization open again to criticism of leaving the door ajar. Nonetheless, the 1966–67 Chicago campaign would pave the way for major federal legislation in the form of the Fair Housing Act.

The Reverend and the Youth

In June 1966, King had retreated to the South upon hearing the grave news that James Meredith had been shot. Four years earlier, the native son had pushed for what would become the violent and difficult integration of the University if Mississippi via an assist from Medgar Evers’ state chapter of the NAACP and the tacit manipulation of the Kennedy White House toward enforcing the laws of the land, in this case Brown v Board of Education, decided a decade earlier. Meredith was on a one-man crusade for Black voting rights and against fear, which often went hand in hand, by marching the 220 miles from Memphis to Jackson, Mississippi; he didn’t make it far, being nearly fatally targeted by a White citizen on just the second day of his journey. The image here of the native Mississippian down on the ground is another shocking, sad, and pathetic testimony to White attitudes toward Black Americans a century after slavery. Some of the film’s most startling and satisfying footage arrives in a march in support of Meredith as King and dynamic Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee Chairman Stokely Carmichael are interviewed simultaneously by a journalist. It’s positively stunning to see the pair marching stride by stride beside one another espousing drastically diverging philosophies on the nature of civil disobedience in the most civil of all manners ever conceived, as the reporter, who walks between them, alternates questions, thrusting a microphone toward one, then the other. The scene is a testament to the reverence young Black leaders still held for King even as they publically and privately disparaged him and the decency and respect with which King held them and their views, in turn, even as he himself disagreed with their doctrines and creeds. One thing any viewer would have to take from this film is that the reverend is depicted here as an exceedingly courteous individual whose treatment of others—SCLC peers and staff, other civil-rights leaders, the media, seemingly everyone—is as much a trait to emulate as anything else he may’ve said or done, especially nowadays.

Carmichael gets a good deal of film time. The Trinidadian native’s emerging disillusionment with King’s nonviolent methods and his own embrace of more strident stances, including the removal of all non–Black Americans from the ranks of the SNCC, even though others arrived, and died, for its cause, is portrayed here as the focus of the larger fissure over the SCLC’s nonviolent tactics from other young activists. At this point, the future Kwame Ture stood for, and at the same time, in opposition to, everything King and the SCLC did. He was a Black man who, like King, dedicated his life to the decency, rights, and improvement of his peoples, but one who, at the same time, was shooting an arrow right through the heart of King’s Dream. Fellow Freedom Rider Lewis, who was supplanted by Carmichael as the SNCC’s chairman that very year, here attributes the leader’s shifting beliefs—he did, after all, strive to take the “Nonviolent” out of the SNCC—to youthful immaturity and outrage, something I would agree with, and yet for the young man who was verbally and physically denigrated, discredited, jailed, and incarcerated, who witnessed his peers being severely beaten right in front of him by police on multiple occasions, and who was even doused in a chemical gas attack by the Maryland National Guard in which he feared for his life and spent the night in a hospital unconscious, all for simply advocating for his own decency and those of his people, Carmichael could pretty much say or do anything he wanted.

This is the End/Our Other Brothers

If the brash young civil-rights leader could not move King, the admiral, from his seat atop the moving street flotillas Nonviolence and Colorblindness, he proved instrumental to the reverend finally coming out in public against the U.S. war in Vietnam. The SCLC had expressed its reserve that putting its leader’s powerful oratorical skills to the cause of the antiwar effort would not necessarily be so beneficial: Not only could it undermine the group’s focus and commitment on domestic issues afflicting Black Americans, it could also alienate its core supporters among the clergy and impact its ability to raise funds for its ambitious causes. The film itself is something of counterpoint to the depiction of King as a cautious force who held the movement back, not only in this instance, but also in relation to Chicago and Memphis, and in his engagement with young civil-rights leaders who were more jarring, if not necessarily more militant, as public perception goes. Following in the footsteps of his wife. Coretta, who spoke at crucial antiwar rallies in New York and Washington, D.C., as early as 1965—and is seen in footage here—once King arrived, it was with the force of a gavel, and it was as if he were never away. On April 15, 1967, he spoke along with Carmichael at the culmination of a mobilization march from Central Park to the United Nations in New York; he also spoke at a rally at the University of Minnesota-Saint Paul on the 27th. But it is King’s address at New York City’s Riverside Baptist Church earlier on the 4th that draws the film’s—and history’s—attention: an incendiary public reckoning that must stand as one of the most critical public addresses in the nation’s history. It is without much doubt, really, the one that got him murdered, that, and the imposing direction it propelled him toward, with a March on Washington he would go on to announce three months before he perished in the sun on the one-year anniversary of the disquisition. Militancy? The formidable orator went far beyond calling Americans home from the maddening campaign taking place in a dense jungle across the world. He directly challenged his nation’s moral character and democratic fiber, equated the Viet Cong and the Vietnamese people with American servicemen coming home in military issue body bags in droves, called for the self-determination of the Southeast Asian peninsula, and blasted the United States for neglecting the plight of Black Americans to fuel an engine of ravenous global conflict, chaos, and misery. It was a barely concealed critique of a merciless international capitalism that necessitates global militarism and an embrace of socialist ideals more attuned to a panArab or panAfrican nationalist anti-imperialist worldview, and it would be unheard of in today’s timid protest language even as conflict scours the globe. King’s views, alas, we’re hardly on the soft side. No matter, the SCLC was mostly correct in its assessment of the consequences of its leader’s new direction, and King would again be floored as the leaders of other assemblies turned away from him and the organization in outrage. It would be this very same Morningside Heights congregation from whose pulpit he invoked that “these too, are our brothers,” as if a disembodied voice anticipating its host’s own execution, that would offer the fiery minister a permanent home. King, who’d shared the reigns of Ebenezer Baptist Church in his hometown of Atlanta with the towering figure of his father—who makes his own presence felt here—is tempted, but the man had another calling that others of a more coarser spiritual outlook may have likened to a death wish.

A Dream in Flames/Resurrection City

That summer, as if on cue, major cities throughout the nation burned. In Atlanta, Baltimore, Birmingham, Boston, Buffalo, Chicago, Cincinnati, Detroit, Milwaukee, Minneapolis, New York, Newark, Tampa, and elsewhere, Black Americans took to the streets, protesting, rioting, and engaging in pitched battles with fully equipped uniformed police officers, in addition to poor, substandard housing, the principal instigators of their misery. As curfews dawned, and National Guard troops mobilized, King watched it all on television just like everyone else, an urban nightmare, for all to witness. Equal rights and nonviolence were in flames. King would later visit Milwaukee, where attempts to establish a fair housing ordinance were rejected by the powers that be, and vastly outnumbered and overwhelmed NAACP protesters were met by virulent abuse similar to that in Chicago, sniper fire, and the burning of the chapter’s headquarters. Buoyed by their courage and determination, for the SCLC, “Burn, baby, burn!” became “Build, baby, build!” and “Organize, baby, organize!”

King and the SCLC wanted to take the street-level outpouring of rage and despair to the steps of the nation’s capital in an enhanced mobilization that would further expand the struggle from civil rights to human, which were plainly hanging in shreds from the poplar trees. The multiracial movement, dubbed the Poor People’s Campaign, would wring from the explosion of urban violence a nonviolent disobedience campaign of primary, in your face “disruption” and “militancy,” in the words of the group’s leader. In the film, King and co. are seen visiting schools and such in small towns like Marks, Mississippi where poverty and hunger were seemingly pandemic. The reverend insisted intervention was required in the form of a government program because capitalism itself, he recognized, was an insufficient means to address the economic necessities of Black Americans and others left behind. That truth was a given, and King was unafraid to enunciate it, just as he and the SCLC were more than willing to spell out the conditions such a program should take, even as criticism against the ambitious agenda mounted from those all around them. It was another example of the SCLC adopting a program originated by others and assuming its reigns with its distinctive tactics, organizational abilities, ample resources, and all-star players. The mobilization was sought for maximum visibility; if antiwar protests had assumed the nation’s attention, the riots of ’67 reminded everyone what had become unrealized, and King was determined to carry that momentum into a dignified drive all the way to the nation’s capital, where conditions could be ignored no longer. He would not live to see its culmination; with a women’s march led by Coretta and a more focused Occupy-like tent encampment dubbed Resurrection City in May-June 1968, nor would the promised land yet arrive in its execution; there was yet another distraction to his conscience and compassion, and a packed suitcase and plane fare were again in order.

Memphis—From Garbage to Decency to Destiny

It was no wonder. In Memphis, recently unionized African-American sanitation workers employed by the city’s Public Works Department were engaged in a strident strike over miserable and unequal wages, treatment, and conditions, precipitated by the sudden departures of two workers who were crushed to death in dilapidated garbage trucks in a repeat of an equally fatal incident that had transpired four years previous. The SCLC was again against the departure of its leader amid another potential distraction, but the sustained street-level action by a determined set of spirited men with nothing to lose met the crucial criteria that a man of conscience could not disregard. Images here of striking workers holding protest signs reading “I Am A Man” are stunning, and go right to the bone and marrow of the struggle for African-American emancipation from urban plague. If an American city could not even treat its garbagemen with any amount of decency or respect whatsoever, what was the point in trying to achieve anything else? Insult upon injury, the 1,300 striking sanitation workers were routinely maltreated by the city’s police force upon their daily march through the heart of Memphis, as if having to apply for welfare and food stamps even while working a full workweek was not insult and injury enough. It defied the basis of human decency, never mind the rational for the creation of capitalism in the first place. The Memphis sanitation workers’ strike was a precursor to the struggle for housing, education, and freedom from police mistreatment and violence, another essential individual right high in the minds of the nation’s Founders, who were so sickened by the presence of the Redcoats patrolling the streets their protestations permeate throughout the Constitution. It was ground zero; King was there, largely against the wishes of his peers. The direct strike evolved into a larger effort by local African-American leaders under the Community on the Move for Equality banner, and King was on the front lines, speaking to a packed house of ministers, activists, and congregants at Mason Temple Church on March 18 and leading demonstrations, including a particularly damaging action gone awry seven days later that resulted in a 16-year-old boy being shot to death by police amid teargas and chaos that culminated in the beatings of demonstrators by members of the Tennessee Army National Guard as they lay upon the floor amid acrid smoke at Clayborn Temple. The youth’s open-casket funeral is also included here, as well as efforts of a local Black-owned and college newspaper to counterbalance the negative portrayals of the striking workers in the larger media by simply telling it like it was. King was determined to right the ship Nonviolence after the March 25 melee and returned to the city. Four days after his earthly demise, Coretta and the SCLC were part of a large, more peaceable demonstration, and a settlement finally arrived from sick, stubborn civic leaders 12 days later. Whether the city would stick to its terms was another question entirely, and history was not necessarily on the side of the garbagemen. That’s just the way it was, and always seemed to be.

Black Angel’s Wings/The Mask

In the early evening of April 4, when the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. strolled out onto the second-floor balcony of the Lorraine Motel outside the King-Abernathy Suite, he might as well have been walking toward the sharp blade of the guillotine, or the tight coils of the hangman’s noose; it was as if he just had to put his head right in. Buoyed by a rousing oration the night before that he was not even supposed to deliver, the minister with the calling of the spirit seemed poised to spread his angel’s wings to their full maturity. He was prepared, and committed, to carry the organization he led, the SCLC, and the entire nation along with them, to new heights. From civil rights to human, from dignity to global peace, and back again, from the Quakers to Mahatma Gandhi to Henry David Thoreau, to the theologically inspired social justice that was his calling, he was present and accounted for. To say that his oration at Mason Temple Church that eve was prophetic is to say the sun will rise and set tomorrow in Atlanta. Death Wish? He exorcised those ghosts, even engaging in an extended, ebullient pillow fight with some of his SCLC peers in their room just hours earlier, but the highs and lows are never far away, are they? The storm that had driven down a hard rain upon Mason Temple’s brick exterior could not completely be swept away. An angel of death remained perched on the cross above the structure’s facade, waiting patiently as the preacher had prophesized, the storm clouds had departed, and a new day had dawned, then swept in for the kill. A single cartridge from a Remington thirty aught six had absolutely nothing to do with it; the bomb threat that had delayed his flight in from Atlanta was a ruse.

King had been imbued by death—not to mention life—for some time. Following in the footsteps of an overwhelming African-American preacher, he’d been born into it. What’s particularly striking about this film is the haunted look on King’s face in the footage. In seemingly every frame, except for a discomfiting interlude with his children over breakfast that seems to reinforce his reputation as a man who’d been steppin’ out on his own family in more ways than one, King both exudes the profound solemnity of what he’s trying to accomplish while at the same appearing to be engulfed by the experience. Approaching every lectern, and every pulpit, before every crowd, and every congregation, he’s a man who looks like a racecar driver who can’t escape the feeling he’s about to embark on his final ride as he prepares to descend into the cockpit; straightforward, he appears as a deer in the headlights. This is so ever present, it’s captured almost incidentally, in the look of his face, the presence of his body, and the sound of the voice, in the physiological toll the public and private life the idolized and most despised pastor had chosen for himself. An exception would be his pensive and relaxed approach to media interviews, in which he can be seen rallying his thoughts and delivering them with such composed command that to say his communication skills were off the charts would be to say Billie Holiday could deliver on a jazz standard. He enjoyed the media, he enjoyed the banter, and the back and forth, and he enjoyed debating with those who disagreed. But when the weight of the world was upon his shoulders, it remained coiled within his weighty frame, drenched his dignified, chiseled face, and pervaded the dramatic arch of his brow. The images are persistently repeated in a handful of vintage stills of him at a photography exhibit featuring himself and Robert Kennedy at the San Francisco Art Exchange entitled MLK & RFK: Two Great Americans: a serene, vaguely haunted gaze, infused with an awareness of death and his own part to play in it, thrown back upon the world as if as a death mask, his eyes black and glistening as of the sheen of a raven’s, exalted, divine mystery reflected back into the cold, stark reality of his surroundings in defiance.

Meet John Lewis/A Dream Deferred

Directed by executive producer Peter Kunhardt and written by Chris Chuang, who also collaborated for HBO Documentary Films on Becoming Warren Buffet and Jim: The James Foley Story, about the freelance American conflict journalist who was beheaded by Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, King In the Wilderness, is a good film, but not a great one, and that’s disappointing, especially coming on the heels of Raoul Peck’s mesmerizing, must-see cinematic tribute to James Baldwin with the sanitized name, I Am Not Your Negro. After all, anything about the man should reach to that level. It’s what he demanded, even if it wasn’t always possible to achieve. Critics have been more impressed by the film—which I witnessed theatrically in very limited release at the Laemmle Pasadena just before its April 2 HBO premiere in time for a half-century national death vigil two days later—than myself, especially given the gravitas of its subject. Kenneth Turan of the Los Angeles Times wrote the film conveys a “powerful emotional charge”; Owen Gleiberman of Variety called it “searing”; Andreas Hale of The Root described …Wilderness as “an eloquent and eye-opening portrayal [that] feels more timely than ever.” Part of the problem may be that much of the footage has previously been seen, and realized more powerfully, though I’ve noted exceptions above. The film’s most rewarding gift are the contemporary interviews that provide insight into King by those closest to him, and the subjects’ colorful reminisces and opinions about their former colleague who they held in such high regard; Belafonte in particular is always a delight.

The presence of Lewis, the subject of a 30-minute 2017 PBS documentary entitled John Lewis—Get in the Way that was rebroadcast in February, who was summoned by the sound of that voice on the radio amid the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955 at the age of 15 as if from a muse, creates additional gravity. The SNCC and SCLC alum who was at the forefront of the student sit-in and Freedom Ride campaigns, who had been arrested 24 times by the time he was 23 years old, mistreated and beaten on numerous occasions, received a fractured skull during the Blood Sunday Selma to Montgomery march from an Alabama State Trooper, was rendered unconscious in a Montgomery Greyhound station after being besieged by civilians during a Freedom Ride, all for having the audacity to declare his life was worth just as much as a White man’s by being a participant in the nonviolent struggle for equal rights and desegregation, was also called a N— along with other Black Congressional Caucus colleagues—one of whom was spat upon—by unhinged Tea Party enthusiasts angrily protesting the Affordable Care Act more than a half-century later in March 2010. From Albany to St. Augustine to Birmingham to Selma to Montgomery to Grenada to Chicago to Memphis, from Los Angeles to Atlanta to Baltimore to Boston to Buffalo to Cincinnati to Detroit to Milwaukee to Minneapolis to New York City to Newark to Tampa to Washington D.C., when the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. looked across the plain from that exalted plateau, it strains belief that what he was envisioning were these United States. From the en masse purging of African–American citizens from eligible voting rolls, as if they were convicts or dead, to color-shaded redistricting, to those African–American men and women being shot unprovoked by police and sheriff’s officers and left for dead, it certainly gives one pause to doubt. But that too is a sickness, isn’t it? I have no doubt that, whether presiding or patiently listening amid a civil-rights meeting, a church recruitment drive, a tête-à-tête in the White House, or negotiating terms in a plain anterior chamber with no air conditioning with those sick White brothers who’d left their threatening Halloween costumes in their closets at home and were running cities and towns, the man who was always the smartest man in the room, on that, would most certainly submit.

(King in the Wilderness is available on HBO GO and HBO Now.)

(MLK & RFK: Two Great Americans continues at the San Francisco Art Exchange through June 30 and can be viewed at sfae.com.)

(Special thanks to The Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute at Stanford University—kinginstitute@stanford.edu.)

© 2018 John Tyler/24 Hours

Deep Down Murky Depths: “Chappaquiddick”—A Feature Film Review

The nation’s obsession with the Kennedys continues and continues to be amplified in the mirrored funhouse of films and television: feature films, television movies, miniseries, news programs, documentaries. I thought we’d finally hit a wall with Reelz’s 2011 airing of the The Kennedys miniseries that featured a star-turn by Katie Holmes as Jacqueline among its many delights. No. There was outsider Pablo Larraín’s horrific, avante-garde 2016 take on Jackie starring Natalie Portman from a brilliant, gruesome script by Noah Oppenheim that tore apart the heart and soul of America. Then Saffron Burrows appeared as Jackie Unveiled in a one-woman show earlier this year at the Wallis Annenberg Center of the Performing Arts. Rob Lowe even showed up as John in a 2013 National Geographic television movie, Killing Kennedy, based on the book of celebrity academia. The compulsion is twofold, of course, at least: several of its principals died prematurely, and in intolerable ways, cutting short the natural order of fame, which grows tiresome, until it rises to infamy; and, two, the association of royalty surrounding the reign of John and Jacqueline. Yet, another name comes to mind: Princess Diana, of Wales. We’ve been hit by nothing but a run of virtual royalty since Ronald and Nancy came to town, with one propping up the other as if he were going mad with syphilis. Who are these Bushes, Clintons, and Obamas, but our own royal families? Look at the attention thrown to the kids. Look at the address they preside at: our own Buckingham Palace, not 10 Downing Street. Even many of our Founding Fathers, who swore off monarchy for the freewheeling principles of the Enlightenment, were landholders presiding over vast estates and slaves. Perhaps President Obama’s most newsworthy event since his exile from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, even as its current tenant tears down much of what he tried to build, as if a spoiled child running amok with an axe chopping down trees in the forest outside his father’s estate, was an unveiling of his official portrait, along with the former First Lady’s. It’s as if we were in Florence at the turn of the 16th century. The current resident, who looks and behaves something like Henry VIII if he’d shaved every morning and lived another 15 years, brought his entire family with him; it’s as if the royal family has its own political reality show. Queen Mum just perished.

Where does that leave the little prince, Edward, who never made it to the throne like his second eldest brother, or wasn’t destined to, like his next? The “fat one,” as his character throws in the face of his father’s in Chappaquiddick. If so much of the lustre centered around them, this here is his moment to shine, isn’t it? In fact, Jack and Bobby aren’t even around; it’s the summer of 1969; everything is about to come to an end, if it hasn’t already. Edward (Jason Clarke, Winchester, Mudbound) is hosting a casual annual soirée off Martha’s Vineyard, and he strolls over to the beach to confirm the attendance of Boiler Room Girls Mary Jo Kopechne (Kate Mara, My Days of Mercy, Meagan Leavey) and her companion, Rachel (Olivia Thirlby, Between Us, the upcoming Damascus Cover). The 28-year-old Kopechne, a former key Bobby Kennedy campaign strategist, is damaged from her former boss’s assassination, which to her seems to have occurred just yesterday and maybe a lifetime ago at the same time, and doesn’t think she’ll be able to muster a return to D.C. for Ted from her exile in locales like Denver and Jersey City. She will attend the party, however. Too bad for her.

After botching the turn with a lead in the regatta that day, which seems to foreshadow a glitch in his instincts, the host greets those assembled at the Chappaquiddick beach house with a welcoming assurance as to their inclusion in the Kennedy clan, most especially those lovely young Boiler Room Girls. The Kennedys are, after all, the only show in town, even if ticket sales are down, and while attendance is sparse, everyone seems to be there but Annette Funicello. The scene plays as if Ted were a British viceroy expressing similar sentiment to the Indian royal court and support staff. Later in the evening, a taciturn Edward retreats to a couch in a living room, pondering some deeply vexing puzzle, as if he were Usher thinking upon the ghastly, mortifying reappearance of his sister. He’s rescued by the modest Mary Jo, who appears ready to let go her wings, and the two go for a nighttime drive in Ted’s Oldsmobile, with the senator offering to drive. Intoxicated and with a rush of speed, like a frat boy trying to show off to a first college date, or a sailor on leave, Kennedy sends the Olds full bore on an unpaved back road, making a dashing beeline toward a rickety bridge crossing a placid waterway. The angle of the entry isn’t close, Mary Jo protests to no avail, as if Janet Leigh in a Hitchcock film, and the rest, as they say, is water under the… uh… history.

From there, the film goes into coverup mode. Kennedy enlists the help of slighted cousin and family lawyer Joseph Gargan (comedic actor Ed Helms, Father Figures, I Do…Until I Don’t), whom he calls “Joey,” and casual, informal Massachesetts AG Paul Markham (Jim Gaffigan, Chuck, Staten Island Summer). The duo rush over to the bridge, disrobe, and dive in, to no avail; vehicles tend not to react to exit nor entry when submerged in a body of water. They implore Ted to report the accident—I’m not sure why they didn’t just do it themselves as Kennedy was vaguely not himself and anyway couldn’t be trusted to do so—but the senator instead retires to a bath of his own, apparently unaware of the cruel irony. The next morning, he takes over the office of Edgartown Police Chief Dominick Arena (John Flore, Patriot’s Day, Bleed for This), shuttering the blinds. It is here where Kennedy will, lo, shield himself from the preening eyes of the law, not to mention local townsfolk and news media. Chief Arena appears not too happily handcuffed, but delivers on a laughably negotiated plea agreement whose terms were initiated by Gargan that is extremely disrespectful toward the term “slap on the wrist”—it’s more like a kneel and a kiss, subsequent to a blessing.

Speaking of blessings, Edward assures his damaged but still demanding father, Joseph Sr. (who else but Bruce Dern), that he has the situation under control, though the presidency may, alas, be out of reach. A clearly dissatisfied Joe Sr., who receives his son like a deranged Pope a disappointing sinner, wheelchair bound and seemingly catatonic, snarls. Ted alights the following day to a pack of handlers assembled nonchalantly around the living room, led by loud and decisive Robert McNamara (Clancy Brown, Supercon, Thor: Ragnorak), fresh off his devastating and disingenuous handling of the Vietnam imbroglio. Nonetheless, the assertive World Bank president who occupies the room like a redwood can be trusted to pilot this Titanic as well, though he’s open to the ideas of others, just not the younger Kennedy’s. “We start with the truth, at least our version of it,” the senator declares to the cabal, whatever that means. He turns on my pal Joey after sleeping on Gargan’s impassioned insistence that “it is not about opportunity, but integrity.” Instead, the negligent senator puts his own reckoning in the hands of dependable personal speechwriter Ted Sorenson (Taylor Nichols, 40 Nights, Bestseller) before a prime-time address to the nation that’s more about him than the nation, though with the Kennedys, the two were often intertwined.

The outrage from afar is muted; this is, after all, a pretty muted film. Perhaps it’s intentional that we don’t see much of the nation, but the nation as it’s refracted through Martha’s Vineyard, a graveyard of U.S. democracy. It’s a slow, downcast film, with tense atmospherics and a good dose of haunting music from Garth Stevenson (10,000 Saints, Tracks); it’s probably not for everyone. If the film is Edward’s, in large part, it’s Clarke’s. Beginning with a terrific provincial New England accent, the Australian, who’s used to playing big, really tones it down; it’s as if he’s performing underwater, something that can be said about the entire film, as presented by director John Curran (Tracks, Stone, The Painted Veil). Clarke—who I first noticed as the boisterous detective opposite Jennifer Beals on the nice, short-lived FOX drama The Chicago Code before Dick Wolf took hold of the city for his personal use—is particularly effective portraying his character’s perceived inert, emotional distance and isolation. The film suggests a romantic interest between Kennedy and Mary Jo, but Clarke plays it so close to the vest you barely notice, but for when he gets his hands on the wheel of the Oldsmobile. Here, Clarke’s Kennedy is not just the baby brother, a kid behind an adult façade, but there’s something unnatural in his restrained social interaction, something that might be traced to being born into privilege. Even when exhorting the goons in the personal crisis campaign, it’s as if he’s behind a sheet of translucent plastic. The film, written by first-team screenwriting duo Taylor Allen and Andrew Logan based on the Massachusetts inquest, implies Kennedy had Kopechne’s memory with him ceaselessly. One imagines her haunting him over many a late night in his empty, half-dark senate office over a drink or two; Poe wrote stories about less. If she did, we have no way of knowing. The senator kept it too close to the breast; the film’s psychological take on the man’s reserved exterior implies why.

In one pivotal scene, a room full of Kennedys joins the rest of the nation in gathering around a television set to cheer on Apollo 11’s steps on the moon just six days after Chappaquiddick and Kopechne’s earthly demise; Ted looks on at that moment with a glazed, glassy look, as if the nation’s glory is reflected in the eyes of his own downfall. It’s as if, for him, the American dream died right then and there. Once Richard Nixon swept by Hubert Humphrey six months after Bobby was shot to death and seven after Martin Luther King, Jr. into the White House and then by George McGovern four years later, it was as if the dream died for all of us, driven off a broken-down bridge into the deep down murky depths below. Only the monarch, and his ghastly chauffeur behind the wheel, and the monarchy, survived.

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(Caution: Bridge approaching! Chappaquiddick continues in general theatrical release from Entertainment Studios.)

UPDATE: The Kennedy chronicles continue: Bobby Kennedy for President, Netflix’s four-episode documentary series, premieres this Friday.

© 2018 John Tyler/24 Hours

Our Man In “Beirut”—A Feature Film Review

Beyond the Marvel Studios and DC Films superhero and raunchy animation and comedic franchise film universe that appears to be more constructed and comforting to adults than children, liberal Hollywood still finds time to slot in genre dramatic films that seem more inspired by conscience and adventure than financial gain. Thank goodness. Certainly, box-office ambition didn’t inspire independent production house Radar Pictures to deliver Beirut to multiplexes where audiences are too distracted or honed in on seeing the latest and the greatest; I’m sure as well popular former TV mad man Jon Hamm was cast to star for his dramatic abilities, not so much for his box–office mojo, and that would go for costar Rosamund Pike, who’s established herself as one of the premier actresses currently working, as well. But here we have it, another in a fairly long line of genre films featuring independent, no-nonsense agents and adventurous journalists mixing it up in foreign lands often uprooted by civil strife settling scores when their bosses and/or representative bureaucracies are too corrupt, self-interested, incompetent, or all three, to do it themselves. Hamm steps in for the likes of Audie Murphy, Alec Guinness, Jean-Louis Trintignant, Jack Lemmon, Mel Gibson, Sam Waterston, Richard Woods, and Pierce Brosnan; Beirut for Saigon, Havana, Athens, Santiago, Jakarta, Phnom Penh, San Salvador, and Panama City. Things are going to hell, everywhere, and all the time, and somebody’s go to do it.

The engaging, well-cast Hamm proves himself to be well up to the task, as do Academy Award–nominated screenwriter Tony Gilroy (Michael Clayton) and director Brad Anderson (Transsiberian). Anderson is more attuned to the horror genre (Stonehearst Asylum; Vanishing on 7th Street; the gritty, memorable Session 9) as well as the excellent industrial nightmare The Machinist. He went rather mainstream with the Halle Berry starring The Call, but nothing could anticipate his utter mastery of the political thriller genre here; for sure, you wouldn’t be surprised if you were told this had been made by a younger Ridley Scott. This is, however, not Gilroy’s first rodeo in the genre, and that could’ve helped guide the director’s unseen hand. In addition to …Clayton, Gilroy’s penned State of Play, Proof of Life, and the Bourne franchise. Beirut could be a text in a genre seminar: it’s fluid with tough-talking genre dialogue and matter-of-fact metaphoric language; romantic allusion; determined, shifty characters with intense countenances; reckless action and merciless explosions; and destabilizing plot twists. There is an absolutely terrific cryptic interrogation scene involving Hamm’s character and a former colleague. The film offers nothing new, nothing new at all; nor does it seek to.

That does not mean the genre doesn’t have any pitfalls; most do. There may be a tendency in these films, however well-intentioned, to exploit the foreign locales in which the action is occurring, places and peoples that have likely already seen a fair degree of exploitation. Beirut is not an exception; in fact, it tips its hand early on, in the prologue, in compromised U.S. diplomat Mason Skiles (Hamm) welcoming narration. The capital city is, of course, a mess, with entrenched, centuries-old rivalries contributing to age-old anxieties and dangerous uncertainties that are intensified with the entry and emergence of the PLO and the landless Palestinians. It’s the early 1970s, and it’s not a place the sitting American president would want people streaming over the border from. While there is the typical depiction of local flavor, it’s not always of the best the city has to offer, and there is little mention of the city’s prolific artistic and cultural contributions either in front of or right along with the conditions that afflict most all urban centers, war-torn or not. Indeed, by the time our man returns a decade later to give a lecture on mediation at the American University, hmm-hmm, after a hasty retreat subsequent to personal tragedy, the place has succumbed to full-blown civil war.

The visiting lecturer doesn’t have to look to far witness the descent of a cradle of civilization at the hand of its agents from Israel, whom the film authoritatively asserts wears the pants not only in the region, but vis-à-vis the United States and its liaisons as well; Syria; and parties within. The city lies in ruins, rubble and detritus lie where buildings once stood, people are tense and on edge, and a Green Line separates Muslims and Christians. At one point, Mason takes Embassy attaché Ms. Crowder (Pike) on a diverting tour of the opulent former residence he shared with his Lebanese wife, Nadia (radiant French actress Leïla Bekhti, Leila, A Prophet), and their adopted son, Karim (French actor Idir Chender, Carbone), only to see it in complete ruin. It’s a metaphor for his own life, of course. The former Embassy point man turned labor negotiator turned downwardly mobile self-employed alcoholic has a reckoning; seems he’s also in town to conduct a crucial mediation of his own. Soon, personal danger mixes with personal trepidation; it’s fight or flight, and we’ll come to see just how good a man our man really is. Hamm and Pike are surrounded by a seasoned ensemble cabal that seems particularly suited to this kind of heart-pounding, gut-wrenching cinematic endeavor: Mark Pelligrino (The Trials of Cate McCall) as Mason’s longtime coconspirator and best friend, Cal; a toupeed Dean Norris (Death Wish, The Book of Henry) and an excellent Shea Whigham (Kong: Skull Island, Term Life) as untrustworthy field agents Gaines and Ruzak; Larry Pine (Freak Show, Buried Child) as the all-knowing U.S. ambassador; brilliant Londoner Jonny Coyne (Monster, Nightcrawler) as Mason’s personal handler; and prolific Israeli actor Alon Aboutboul (Harmonia, London Has Fallen) as a critical Mossad station chief.

The film’s final image is of an American flag flying against a setting sun shot from the roof of the U.S. embassy. At first, I was stunned, taking it for a closing propaganda device, believing an executive producer or someone must’ve been on a two-way radio with the White House. Soon enough, it dawned on me that was not the case at all—the filmmakers’ intent—not necessarily the two-way communications. The events that inspired this film, and like films before it, are still being visited upon us. Despite a heavy U.S. executive and military communications and logistics blackout that substitutes terse statements, deception, and daily disinformation, these events are still being reported by adventurous journalists and published in media all around us, all the time. They become stories to be told, winding up in books, in films, and ever more frequently, on television. If they weren’t, people wouldn’t need to write, create, or produce them, and we wouldn’t need to read nor see them. If there is a direct correlation between the setting sun of U.S. foreign intervention—especially in this besieged region—and the rise of the comic-book superhero and raunchy cartoon and comedic franchises that citizens are eager or drawn to engage in, whether they’re aware of it or not, films like Beirut are striving to achieve some sort of balance. There will always be an individual, with or without a sidekick and a love interest, compelled to make a difference, and, most likely, filmmakers like Tony Gilroy and Radar Pictures to interpret their story. They’ll just be thankful Chinua Achebe isn’t around to deconstruct it.

(The sun is setting, somewhere. Beirut continues in general theatrical release from Bleecker Street.)

© 2018 John Tyler/24 Hours

“Acrimony”: Thy Name Is Tears—A Feature Film Review

While it’s Taraji Henson’s scorned face staring back at you, Medusa-like, in the poster for the latest all-American, melodramatic thriller in which she stars, make no mistake about it, it’s the writer-director-producer’s unseen hand that’s all over it, and the film, Acrimony, is his, and his alone. That doesn’t mean the engaged, dynamic Henson, who’s already distinguished herself this year as Proud Mary, doesn’t make her presence known, but from the filmmaker’s responsive screenplay, to his fluid, assured direction, to his astute handling of another nice, primarily African-American cast, it’s a master class, and despite it’s rotten score by the arbitrators at the popular cinema site, it’s genre filmmaking that rises to the level of, uh-hum, greatness, dare I say.

For sure, Acrimony bears all the trademarks of Tyler Perry’s dramatic kit—flashy production values; beautiful people with their beautiful faces and beautiful bodies; overdramatized hijinks; romantic liaisons and disgraceful betrayals; playful dialogue and social innuendo—but the more outrageous and exaggerated effects he is known to employ are, uh-hum, toned down, or so well-established and stylishly conveyed they resemble Polanski and Hitchcock, I dare say. Indeed, if another filmmaker had made this film 60 years ago with, say, Bette Davis or Joan Crawford, critics and audiences might’ve been enthralled. Frank Capra could’ve appreciated its tables-turning plot subversion; John Huston its beautiful, startling, red-tinged climax; Hitch himself its tense, stylish obsession. For better or worse, I imagine, this could be the filmmaker’s Vertigo. It’s essentially the consummate work in the Tyler Perry dramatic canon, a consummation of his career so far, sans Madea.

It could also be a submission in his own Dekalog. Like Kieslowski’s take on classical moral and ethical dilemmas played out in modern Eastern-European scenes of conflict and drenching turmoil, Perry’s romantic dramas have always seemed biblical in inspiration and nature; in fact, they wear scripture on their sleeves, and the former church-going youth’s latest is no different. The film is divided into chapters, I suppose, introduced by garish words like “Acrimony” and “Torment” with their definitions and synonyms that flash across the screen like signposts signaling the psychological progression of the affected protagonist. Indeed, the story is framed by Henson’s Melinda’s initial court-ordered therapy visit in which she appears in such flagrant and bellicose self-delusion she comes across like an alternately lucid and deranged character straight out of Poe; it only becomes more tragic from there. The framing device too casually takes us to Melinda’s formative years, and what ensues is so nicely portrayed we can forgive Perry a casual moment or two.

Stubborn, struggling college student Melinda (Ajiona Alexus, 13 Reasons Why, Bad Girl) rather abruptly meets gifted fellow student and Nina Simone–aficionado Robert (Antonio Madison, The Tailor’s Apprentice), who offers to help her with, what else, a paper. Their portentous meeting is one for the stars; Melinda soon realizes the engaging young man with the dark skin she’s been resisting is the love of her life, much to the dismay of her bossy sister, Brenda (Bresha Webb, Meet the Blacks, Ride Along 2). Here, Perry delivers some of the film’s most thoughtful moments in scenes of the young couple’s romantic tenderness. The screenwriter displays a nuance for the language and conventions of young people, pointing to what could be a most satisfying film that strays from his typical preoccupation with thirty and fortysomethings. The radiant Alexus, in particular, proves so serenely engaging that it is disappointing to leave this place; she certainly seems to have a promising career ahead of her, including playing Gabrielle Union’s daughter in the upcoming Breaking In. Perry does a nice job interweaving Henson’s biting narration with the flashback scenes, which are often in tonal contrast. The young lovers with the star-crossed dreams soon embrace calamity; the narrator’s lamentations become more acidic, and what ensues is flat-out Greek tragedy. The framework of the in-your-throat plot—three young sisters lose the matriarch of a matriarchy then watch as their inheritance and family home progressively dissolve on a pipe dream—which the director reckons with onscreen textural elements—could’ve been written by Lorraine Hansbury. The setting is Pittsburgh; one wonders how much August Wilson was on the filmmaker’s mind as well.

Perry has assembled quite a sterling production team at his vast Atlanta studio complex. There are too many names to mention for this one, but Paul Wonsek’s sleek production design, Richard Vialet’s fluid cinematography, and Kim Coleman (Almost Christmas, Chi-Raq) and Rhayvinn Drummer’s (The Single Moms Club) casting certainly stand out. Among their finds were prolific television acting costar Lyriq Bent (Love Jacked, Pay the Ghost) as the adult Robert, the nice Chrystle Stewart as Robert’s pivotal former college flame Diana, and Ptosha Storey as the adult Brenda. The soundtrack from Christopher Lennertz is a tour de force of the genre, and features a number of original songs, including several by Simone as well as a new interpretation performed by Grammy-nominated R&B singer-songwriter Andra Day. If you’re not generally a fan of the much-admired, and much-maligned, filmmaker’s canon, this one is not likely to change your mind, but who knows? If you do happen to see it, don’t let the confused, embarrassed audience hysterics affect you, just let yourself go. Acrimony is a beautifully done work by a primary American filmmaker who’s struck silver just by doing what he loves to do best.

(Polanski, Hitchcock, Capra, Huston, Kieslowski, Poe, Aristotle, Lorraine Hansbury, August Wilson, Tyler Perry… hmm. Call me crazy, or you be the judge, if you haven’t already… Acrimony continues in general theatrical release from Lionsgate.)

© 2018 John Tyler/24 Hours

Is It Me? 2017 Film Award Favorites—International/Foreign Language—Prologue

The year got off to a slow start even in the international scene, though things erupted with a bang! so to speak, with the release of Olivier Assayas’ Personal Shopper in early March. I’m speaking of the blackout ending, of course, perhaps the most satisfying moment of the year. The film is a reunion of the stylish French filmmaker—who tied for Best Director at Cannes in 2016 for it—and Kristen Stewart, following Clouds of Sils Maria, and, as such, marks the difficulties in delineating what precisely is a foreign-international or English-language production. I put Assayas’ film in the former category because, although just one of several international filmmakers who’s reached out to American and English-speaking stars, he’s so indelibly linked to the French film industry and …Shopper was, typically for him, internationally financed. Though marred somewhat by a lurid melodramatic murder subplot that reminds one of his international intrigue thrillers from the previous decade, Demonlover and Boarding Gate, who can resist a good ghost story, especially one involving twin siblings? Bang!

Speaking of …Sils Maria, Juliette Binoche arrived the following month alongside personal fave Fabrice Luchini in the deliberately outrageous Ma Loute—drably renamed Slack Bay here—from another film stylist, Bruno Dumont. The colorful, absurdist hijinks along the scenic seashore barely mask an unsavory undercurrent to the disgusting, dissolute display by the one percent, and sure enough, the stark subversion of class distinction and privilege breaks through but never totally obscures the fun, which includes satiric scenes of classic cinematic eroticism involving the young lower-class lovers (Brandon Lavieville, Raph). Dumont does a nice job mixing and juxtaposing the all-star and totally unproven cast to great effect, also getting great mileage with the always popular satire of the French police throughout. Cahiers du cinéma named the film the fifth best of the year, which, lo, is right where I have it.

In addition to The Zookeeper’s Wife, the Holocaust remains the cinematic gift that keeps on giving. Celebrated Israeli filmmaker Avi Nesher brought together two excellent young actresses, Joy Rieger and Nelly Tagar, to play modern sisters literally slapped from complacency into looking into their father’s (Doran Tavory, the steely invasive Israel defense minister in Lemon Tree) murky past in Past Life. This is a genre favorite, and you just know what they’ll find—or do you? Arriving in November and blowing most all of the competition away, Hungarian filmmaker Ferenc Török’s beautifully done 1945 summons an astonishing, in-your-face act of redemption as if from a predawn séance through the solemn and dignified arrival of two Jewish outsiders (Iván Angelusz, Marcell Nagy) into a small, postwar, Russian-occupied Hungarian village of self-interested, eccentric conspirators. Shot in B&W with slow tracking shots and odd angles and like a 1940s Henri-Georges Clouzot French noir or a midcentury western, every gesture and movement in this expertly crafted piece of expressionism counts. Drenched in irony and symbolism, the film comes full circle with the strangers exit with billowing smoke from the locomotive evoking scenes of the final journey from a nation that under Germany in years just previous took the lead in outsourcing its peoples to Auschwitz.

More a post–WWI romance than an examination of the origins of the next European conflagration, another intruder’s (an excellent Pierre Niney, A Perfect Man, Yves Saint Laurent) murky identity nonetheless plays a large part in his acceptance or no at the hands of a German couple and their daughter (Paula Beer) grieving their lost son and brother and more amid rising nationalist tension in François Ozon’s period mood piece Frantz. German director Oliver Hirschbiegel (Downfall, Das Experiment) has dedicated much of his feature film professional career wrestling with his country’s notorious past and arrived with another such depiction, 13 Minutes, involving the compelling reenactment of a nearly successful assassination on the Fürher early on by an inspired musician-turned resistance fighter (Christian Friedell, Amour FouThe White Ribbon) unnerved by his country’s takeover by a wave of Nazism, intolerance, and industrial militarism. Hirschbiegel takes a typically direct and professional approach to the daring November 1939 event, which, after all, if successful, could’ve prevented the deaths of some 55 million people, including some 6 million European Jews, reminding one that if all is fatalism, there is still much left to chaos and chance. Still, there are moments of idyll in the plot’s progression, and in Georg Elser’s sometimes unhinged derangement one is reminded of Sean Penn’s Samuel Bicke in the underappreciated 2004 film The Assassination of Richard Nixon. Nixon may not have been quite as prolific as Adolf Hitler, but he and war-crimes cohort Heinz Alfred Kissinger did pave the way for the torture and disappearance of more than 40,000 Chileans under Augusto Pinochet and in what the Vietnamese call the American War, estimates of 1965-74 deaths—Nixon assumed the presidency in ‘68—range from University of Massachusetts Amherst professor emeritus Guenter Lewy’s prescaled 1.35 million to The BMJ’s 1.7 million—with The BMJ’s 3.1 million to 3.4 to more than 4 million from the Socialist Republic itself for the entire affair. Too bad, really, but, as you know, heroism is not always defined by success. Just look at the movies.

One would like to think such holocausts—hydrogen cyanide–saturated labor camp showers and the suffusive aerial strafing of an entire nation with napalm—were over, or that these people didn’t die all in vain. Besides Past Life, another Israeli film, Foxtrot, arrived here late that I was fortunate to see presented by its director, Samuel Maoz (Lebanon), at AFI Fest in Hollywood in November. Sweeping several Awards of the Israeli Film Academy—including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actor—winner of the Silver Lion Grand Jury Prize at Venice, and the National Board of Review’s Best Foreign Language Film, the avant-garde, often absurdist, Kubrickesque antiwar film contains perhaps the most indelible image of the year: that of an occupied car being completely buried under, and bulldozed over, the land adjacent to an Israeli checkpoint. A war veteran—who isn’t in Israel?—Moaz presents a repressed architect, husband, and father (Lior Ashkenazi, Norman, Yitzhak Rabin in 7 Days in Entebbe) crumbling under the weight of his responsibilities amid the aftereffects of a tragedy involving his son (Yonaton Shiray, A Tale of Love and Darkness), whose checkpoint posting with his peers accounts for the Kubrickesque. American armchair conservatives, none of whom appeared to be in attendance amid the modest faithful at the afternoon screening, may be surprised—or maybe they just don’t care—at the toll the Palestinian occupation is taking on the psyches of those wearing, and who have worn, the boots on the ground. All this, and the film didn’t even make my top ten.

Neither did Loveless, another celebrated film from Russian director Andrey Zvyaginstev (Leviathan), a solid, creative effort artistically shot by cinematographer Mikhail Krichman and well-acted by principals Aleksey Rozin, Maryana Spivak, and Matvey Novikov, who’s gone early but gets in a few appropriately surly and sullen scenes. The film shines a light on the frightful circumstances of Russian runaways and deliciously skewers the aspiring bourgeoisie, who appear to have lost themselves in their smartphones—who hasn’t?—with Spivak’s Zhenya’s shockingly brusque attitude toward her on-the-outs husband and neglected son tempered by self-centered selfies and such, as if when she looks upon the glass of her phone it is as if she were Narcissus looking into a gleaming pool. Karl Marx would certainly be spinning in his grave upon a viewing—who knew an opiate of the masses would be so cool and sensational?—but then again, they’ve been used by the voiceless from Iran to Egypt to recent protests by American schoolchildren to light the fires of revolution.

Standout actress Bérénice Bejo is equally severe—how could she be otherwise?—in After Love, a French-Belgian production you probably didn’t see but perhaps may’ve liked to. I saw the film at AFI Fest the previous November. It was in Santa Monica for a week in August, a cruel inequity for a more vibrant depiction of a deeply estranged couple with children present that recalls the power of Kramer vs. Kramer. It’s certainly one of the best of its kind in the subgenre since, and one I think Americans would appreciate. After Love flows with the rhythms of life so typical of French films; it becomes a study in domestic repair when the estranged couple must endure the finality of their uncomfortable relations together due to the husband’s (terrific French triple-threat Cédric Khan) ill fortune. Bejo’s luminous forbidding gaze softens a bit—the witch of all domestic witches, and yet who wouldn’t want to be under her spell?—and as if the drama wasn’t enough, the couple’s warmer moments with their children deliver a reward that the lost Russians of Loveless just can’t.

Speaking of Russia, and its former occupation of Hungary, two films arrived that took place in adjacent former satellite states Czechoslovakia and Poland; one was, IMO, the international film of the year. In Jan Hrebejk’s (Divided We Fall) The Teacher, which takes place in Czechoslovakia in the early 1980s pre–Velvet Revolution, the petty favoritism and manipulative, unscrupulous self-interest of “Comrade Teacher” Mária Drazdechová (a nice Zuzana Mauréry) serve as a glass reflection of the punitive, corrupt socialist state at large. The story is framed by an administrative meeting called to give semideluded, played-upon parents a voice in the teacher’s potential transfer, as if she were an abusive priest, once the jig is up: the return of favors for the children of parents who reward her and scoldings and downwardly adjusted grades for those whose don’t. The meeting plays out like a heated episode of season one of HBO’s Big Little Lies; though the emergence of an abusive father (sleeping giant Martin Havelka, who needs to be discovered by Aki Kaurismäki) of a delinquent son (Oliver Oswald) into her romantic sphere is surprising. The film, despite its sometimes intense exchanges, plays in a light, ironic sheen overall, and while mediocrity is indeed rewarded in such totalitarian societies—nevermind the organized bullying of noncompliant actors—it’s been known to in democracies as well.

The film is a jewel to Los Angeles Times critic Kenneth Turan, and it’s one Polish avant-garde constructivist artist Wladystaw Stremiński might’ve appreciated as well. Stremiński is the subject of the iconic Andrej Wajda’s (Walesa, Tatarak, Katyn) stirring, invigorating swan song, Afterimage, which depicts a similar society post–­WWII in more drastic and desperate tones. The film begins with a pastoral scene of Stremiński (the drastically underappreciated Boguslaw Linda—his only recognition outside Poland for the film was a fifth-place Best Actor finish at the Seattle International Film Festival—in a performance for a lifetime) and his loyal, dedicated art students that might not have been out of place in The Sound of Music and ends in utter horror. Stremiński’s penetrating and popular lectures on vision theory at the State Higher School of the Visual Arts in Lodz are just beginning to stir the free-thinking youth when Minister of Culture and Art Wlodzimierz Sokorski (Szymon Bobrowski) stomps in to put a damper on them. Stremiński’s objections to demands that the visual arts school service communist ideology eventually cost him his teaching position; his party papers soon follow, exiling him from virtually everything, to the point where he cant even purchase paints at the party-owned co-op. The proud artist, whose own works are purged from the modern and contemporary Museum of Art in Lodz and his person erased from history, advises his concerned, outraged students that the “wind of history” will soon pass, but he miscalculates the storm that’s enveloping him. His plight is in part self-inflicted, and not just because he dared take a stand, which can mean personal ruin in just about any society at any time. A multiple amputee who lives on a steady diet of work, cigarettes, and the absence of sunlight, he rejects his estranged daughter’s (Bronislawa Zamachowska) entreaties to assist, and otherwise treats the runaway a little shabbily. For the consumed painter, it’s indeed pride before the fall; after fighting for food stamps, he soon rejects those as well. Wajda lets the audience decide for themselves about the man, whose quiet, dignified reserve and relaxed, assured cadence and demeanor can’t bear the weight of history. Whatever you decide, his devastating descent seems tailor-made for anti-communist Americans, though it, and the film itself, a gripping tearjerker, is one for the ages. The Academy missed a final chance to honor Wajda, who won an Honorary Oscar for five decades of extraordinary film direction in 2000—his first film, A Generation, about Polish youth coming of age during the German socialist occupation, came out in 1955. He perished at 90 just a month prior to Afterimage’s premier at the Toronto International Film Festival. You couldn’t write a more perfect script, but I understand A Fantastic Woman was all the rage, and old white European men are passé.

Speaking of Russia and film, it’s hard not to get around Andrei Tarkovsky these days. Criterion is in the midst of remastering his work for both theatrical and home-video release, and the May limited release—I saw it the Laemmle Royal in West Los Angeles—of Stalker, his absolutely mesmerizing 1979 dystopian sci-fi masterwork, was, IMO, the film event of the year. The new 2K digital restoration further crystallizes its entrancing aural and visual delights: an industrial symphony of dripping water on pans, creaking wood floors, broken glass, positively transfixing extended slow-pan close-ups of cast-aside religious relics and iconography submerged under shimmering water. Masterful scene setup and shots, sound design, atmospherics—it’s arthouse cinema to the nth degree. The terra firma sci-fi—ruined cars, strewn streets, poisoned water, industrial decay, a woman’s (Alisa Freyndlikh) breakdown, its hopeless, radioactive apocalypse a premonition of Chernobyl—evoke Lars von Trier’s early The Element of Crime, which would come five years later. The Stalker (Alexsandr Kaydanovskiy) at the center lives life on the edge, toiling for himself and his family, a distressed common soul with a wolf-like connection to a stray dog he’ll adopt, a proletarian model to the loquacious idleness of Pisatel, the writer (Anatolly Solonitsyn), and the Professor (Nikolay Grinko) waist-deep in the mud of their own absurdity. The film is quite dialogue-drenched in the metaphysical and existential, with its hopeless search for meaning amid ruin, and Pisatel can be a real turnoff, but its rewards are too stunning to ignore. If the climax collapses into utter uselessness, as if into a black hole, the finale is riveting, its final image a searing indictment not only of the bourgeoise intelligentsia, but of the military and bureaucracy of a government of a stifling society devoid of spirituality and mysticism that thoughtlessly leaves its children and next generations to suffer the oppressive consequences. It dawned on me what a loss it is to lose Tarkovsky at such a relatively young age—he was 54 when he perished in exile from lung cancer, likely attributable to damage he sustained filming Stalkerin a poisoned industrial setting on a drawn-out shoot. If critics fawned over Loveless, it just can’t touch a film like Stalker, and this is the legacy we miss.

I typically don’t fret with animated films when doing a top ten—I don’t see many anyway and they’re not truly feature films, but two absolutely phenomenal such films arrived from foreign shores that just could not be ignored. Loving Vincent, from writer-directors Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman, who should receive free lifetime memberships to the Louvre, is an innovative creative gift to fans of Vincent van Gogh—who are basically all of us. Animation is achieved, appropriately enough, through painterly effect—painted frame after painted frame after painted frame in the artist’s swirling, effusive, color-burst late-period style suffused over the actors’ scenes and into the backgrounds. If that’s not enough, the well-researched screenplay is a much-appreciated examination of the artist’s final days in Auvers, dramatically depicting one of the most unbearably wretched sagas in the annals of art history, which has seen many. If it isn’t bad enough we lost Tarkovsky too early, losing van Gogh in his prime, especially in this sordid fashion, is deeply depressing. Of course. back then, the Impressionism star whose more renowned paintings fetch nine figures was a nobody, really, an outcast of not only the Parisian art scene but of humanity itself, and this film is an ode to a sympathetic man who deserved better. The pathetically ordinary, but still extra…, plot commences when a postmaster’s (Chris O’Dowd, The Cloverfield Paradox, Molly’s Game) son, Armand Roulin (a nice Douglas Booth, The Dirt, Mary Shelley) reluctantly agrees to deliver a dead letter from Vincent to brother Theo, only to find himself sucked into the artist’s confounding demise himself to the point of attachment. The animation features an excellent supportive cast of English actors, including Eleanor Tomlinson (Colette, Poldark) as hotel proprietress Adeline Ravoux, personal fave Jerome Flynn (Game of Thrones, Ripper Street) as Dr. Gachet, and Helen McCrory (Their FinestPenny Dreadful) as Gachet’s bitter housekeeper Louise Chevalier; it-girl Saoirse Ronan also appears as Gachet’s unsympathetic daughter, Marguerite. It’s a colorful case Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot would’ve enjoyed, and you should too. The Breadwinner, meanwhile, from Irish animation filmmaker Nora Twomey (Song of the Sea, The Secret of Kells) is a true animation, and one of the most artistically aspirational films you’ll see. Written by writer-director Anita Doran (The End of Silence) from the children’s book by Canadian author/activist Deborah Ellis, the screenplay is a paean to the Afghan storytelling tradition, with 11-year-old heroine Parvana (Saraa Chaudry) not only rising up to rescue her Taliban-abducted father (Ali Badshah) from under the cloak of oppression, but also undergoing a mythical journey of her own. The film itself is a dynamic expression of Afghan culture, and the film’s audio-visual artistry a nice recompense for a people who have endured and experienced too much. It too has an excellent cast, from veteran television guest-star Laara Sadiq as Parvana’s mother, Fatana; Shaista Latif as her sister, Soraya; Kawa Ada as market benefactor/protector Razaq; Soma Chhaya as co-conspirator Shauzia; and Noorin Gulamgaus as Taliban bad-boy Idrees. Considering this country and culture has inextricably been linked to our own for the past three decades or so, with our military presence there going well into its second, this is a film every American should see, and take their children to see; the least we can do for this besieged nation is to see a 95-minute cartoon celebrating its culture and people. I unfortunately missed an afternoon family outing to see Coco, but it must have been something else to beat these two films to an Animated Feature Film Academy Award. After all, beauty is in the eye of the beholder and this, in 2017, is what I beheld.

(This post continues below with my 2017 international/foreign language film award favorites.)

© 2018 John Tyler/24 Hours