Me Too: 2017 Film Award Favorites—Domestic/English Language—Prologue

Just when you were totally burnt on 2017 end-of-year film awards, here comes another. I typically time this annual rite to coincide with the Oscars—while also allowing myself time to catch up on all the late-season releases—of which I drastically diverge. This year, instead of being a preview, then, it’s more a post-view, or postmortem; no 11th hour here, we are beyond midnight, sweeping up the dark, deserted celluloid streets as if broken glass by a lone, resolute janitor. The year began slowly, with even foreign fare being atypically underwhelming, but the second half was strong, and I ended with solid top ten lists for both domestic (this time) and foreign (next time) releases.

In terms of the Oscars, this year was no different. Besides the typical snubs—no Will Smith #oscarssowhite uproar this time—the biggest shock IMO was Daniel Kaluuya’s ascension to the summit of acting accomplishment. The young man was, indeed, solid in Get Out and certainly has a promising career—he’s already distinguished himself this year in The Black Panther, a showcase of Black acting talent—but his presence among the likes of Daniel Day-Lewis—an actor in his own category—and Gary Oldman—was a blow to the senses. Not only did it come at the expense of a career-defining, precision performance by Liam Neeson in Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House, but the young Brit had to run through a gauntlet of individual accomplishment by many of the best actors we have today who were also in contention: Charlie Zunnan (The Lost City of Z), Brad Pitt (War Machine), Colin Farrell (The Beguiled), Jeremy Renner (Wind River), Hugh Bonneville (Viceroy’s House), Javier Bardem (mother!), Ryan Gosling (Blade Runner 2049), Kenneth Branagh (Murder On the Orient Express), Christian Bale (The Promise, Hostiles), and Tom Hanks (The Post), as well as fellow 28-year-old compatriot Nicholas Hoult (Rebel In the Rye). Now, what unites these fine actors besides prodigious talent is that, with the possible exception of Spaniard Bardem, they are all porcelain Eurocentric, in other words, passé. No, in a year in which Kathryn Bigelow’s Detroit was a disappointment and The Black Panther’s Chadwick Boseman appeared as a young Thurgood Marshall, it was the throwback satiric horror-thriller Get Out, in which writer-director-producer Jordan Peele largely updated Blaxploitation archetypes for a post-Obama nation awash in extrajudicial killings, the mass incarceration of Black peoples, Black voter suppression, and backlash against silent and dignified anthem protests, that captured audiences. Problem is, while the film was undeniably entertaining, well-acted, and wryly subversive, IMO it was not even the most rewarding among its genre, which I believe belonged to M. Night Shyamalan’s even more transformative Split that featured the flat-out most brilliant acting performance of the year by James McAvoy, who was nowhere to be seen come nomination time.

With Kaluyaa’s pick, the Academy achieved a 20% diversity rate among its nominations in the four acting categories in a year in which the profession become more alighted to issues of gender exploitation. That bested my paltry 15%, which was nonetheless better than our sitting president’s 6% in appointing federal judges, though that number is skewed by ideology—it’s difficult to find judges who will suppress people of color who are also persons of color, after all, though not impossible. But before you believe me forcibly retired like those old caucasian former Academy guys, my percentage could’ve improved had I not missed Denzel Washington as Roman J. Israel, Esq.; Crown Heights, which was in theatres for maybe a week or two; or not put off Mudbound for so long that it remains unseen—yes, you may have me stoned or drawn and quartered for that, please do. I did get in scene-stealing supporting actor Idris Elba, again dissed by the Academy, who asserted some of the most stirring monologues on justice or lack thereof in Molly’s Game since Tom Wilkinson in The Conspirator. I also tried to attend an October Beverly Hills special screening of Tariq Nasheed’s (Hidden Colors) 1804: the Hidden History of Haiti, only to be rebuffed by a phalanx of predominately Black theatregoers who had beat me to the punch by buying tickets in advance and who eyed me warily as I espied gaining admittance to the sold-out event. Who knew there’d be an audience?

Speaking of diversity and Molly’s Game, and in a year in which Tom Hanks was not nominated for his solid impersonation of old-school Washington Post newsman Ben Bradlee, the Academy appeared to mail it in on a few. The popular Octavia Spencer, bless her heart, who had been nominated twice—winning once— in the supporting actress category, was nominated again for the excellent The Shape of Water. The Montgomery, Alabama, native could’ve performed blindfolded in the role—she was not challenged at all—and I fear she’s too often being cast as the supportive, inspiring best friend. Bless the next filmmaker who casts her in a role she can get into fourth or fifth gear with in order to show off her true dramatic skills—and receive a truly deserved nomination with. Meanwhile, screenwriter Aaron Sorkin, who puts the “A” into the A-list, assumed the director’s chair in the rather disappointing Molly’s Game because he couldn’t find a director he was satisfied with to visually translate his work. Turns out, the screenplay was the problem the whole time; he was nominated nonetheless. Sorkin’s teaming with Jessica Chastain was so inspired following their turns in, and on, Miss Sloane and Steve Jobs, respectively, I hadn’t been anticipating at all that I would be let down. I had penciled in Chastain for a Performance of the Year award before I’d even sat down to view it. Would I give it to her—for a third consecutive year—with a star turn in the early The Zookeeper’s Wife?

My own nominations in the category were perhaps skewed because I missed Kate Blanchett assuming a number of different disguises in the very limited release, Manifesto, and Kate Winslet in Wonder Wheel, the first Woody Allen film I’ve missed theatrically since Everyone Says I Love You two decades ago. The wonderful Gal Gadot was so acclaimed she did everything but receive a nomination for Wonder Woman, but I preferred the kickass Charlize Theron in the creative spy-thriller Atomic Blonde and reserved a spot for her. While Wonder Woman was bogged down by a neverending climactic digital duel between the heroine and nemesis Sir Patrick (David Thewlis), so dark and atrocious it seemed to nullify all the uplifting female empowerment that came before it, Atomic Blonde featured some of the most breathless real-time fight sequences ever filmed and in which Theron excelled. Both films subverted genres by portraying heroines, but let’s not forget, Wonder Woman may not have been even the most rewarding film about the liberated character herself. That would belong to, IMO, Professor Marston & the Wonder Women, an interior drama portraying scandalous psychology professor William Marston’s (Luke Evans) impassioned efforts to bypass censors to get a slyly subversive comic-book creature into the homes of proper postwar Americans. In a year celebrating women, their contributions, slights, and their miseries, then, it was a seminaked pseudodominatrix from the fantastical mind of a depraved male psychologist who alit the spirits of women throughout.

Fine actress Saoirse Ronan was nominated in the lead actress category for the everpresent Lady Bird, but that celebrated film may not have even been the most rewarding among coming-of-age sagas nor even establishing the best performance by a more mature young actress inhabiting the role of a teenager experiencing troubles with her mother. That would belong, IMO, to In Search of Fellini and diminutive 30-year-old Canadian actress Ksenia Solo, a near dead ringer for Ronan. Due to its title, which rings like a B&W documentary narrated by the late Marcello Mastroianni, American audiences may’ve thought the domestic production was a foreign one, or that, like the heroine’s mother (Maria Bello) and aunt (Mary Lynn Rajskub), were turned off by the maestro’s music. This was not the case for Solo’s naïve Lucy, who rides Fellini’s muse through dirt and daydream all the way to Rome, where she discovers that the sweetest smile arrives only through darkness, disappointment, and despair. Her character’s magical journey in an equally magical film is seemingly a perfect metaphor for the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements and all they encompass, not to give away any spoilers or anything.

In a year in which opportunities for female filmmakers were again bemoaned, Lady Bird writer-director Greta Gerwig was anointed Queen of Hollywood, but what about British filmmaker Gurinder Chada, who turned her own grandmother’s stories of being present at the opulent official residence during the breakup of the Subcontinent into one of the year’s most underappreciated films, Viceroy’s House, and who has taken much vitriol for her interpretation? In a year in which former British PM Winston Churchill was central to at least three feature films, two of which received the Academy’s attention, either remotely or front and center—with Oldman winning an Oscar for portraying him front and center—IMO this was the one to see to get a more precise view of the fellow’s truer nature. Who do you think destroyed India, after all—Hindus, Sikhs, and Muslims?

Allison Janney took home the best supporting actress Oscar for her screeching turn as an abusive sports mother in the fine I, Tonya. While she was impressive, matching wits with a very good Margot Robbie, whose figure-skating skills were nearly as impressive as Theron’s sustained martial-arts bravado, I gauged the performance as too one-noted and over-the-top and ultimately excised her from my own nominations list. Would Leslie Manville, who would’ve owned Phantom Thread if she were not opposite Day-Lewis, with a sharply stern and less expressive performance I judged to be superior?

Oscar-caliber films are often thought to penetrate the time in which they are made. Several Best Picture nominees looked to the past to accomplish that, including Academy nominee The Post. The Steven Spielberg–helmed, John Williams–scored Oscar aspirant hit its target directly, but in a more sentimental way than Mark Felt, which was scrappier, grittier, tenser—in part due to its pulsing neonoir Daniel Pemberton (All the Money in the World, Molly’s Game) score—and, IMO, superior. …Felt actually picks up where The Post leaves off, from the Iraq-like suppression of compromising Vietnam War documents to presidential-level hijinks at Democratic National Committee headquarters, an event The Post actually alludes to as if hinting at a sequel. Both, however, are, of course, not-so-subtle digs at the current White House, which recalls the Nixon occupation in so many ways.

Another film dissed by the Academy was Hostiles. EW’s Chris Nashawaty, who’s no slouch, called it, “the best western since Unforgiven,” a quote that easily comes into one’s own mind after viewing it, though I would say Dead Man instead of Unforgiven. Unforgiven earned nine Oscar nominations, taking home four statuettes, including one for Best Picture, so what gives? Hostiles, based on a manuscript by Oscar-winning screenwriter Donald Stewart (Missing), also looked to the past, namely the Indian Wars of the late 19th century, and by performing open surgery on the very heart and soul of those troubling times it not only punctuates the western, but transforms the genre entirely, arriving somehow as a metaphor for our own troubled, divisive times. From genocide to reconciliation, it’s no wonder Nashawaty also described it as “brutal and beautiful.”

Those words can also describe another film that flirts with Best Picture qualities: Blade Runner 2049. The much-anticipated film didn’t actually disappoint, not in terms of casting, dialog, performances, scenarios, production design, visual effects, etc., but it was weighted down by a way-too-sentimental take on the aged character of Decker (Harrison Ford) that created tonal imbalance at a crucial time, though the film recovered via a nice extended shoreline fight sequence and a stunning, devastating finale. The film surprised me by sweeping through my awards list, and rising up the ranks of the top ten. Would it reach the top? Beauty is, after all, in the eye of the beholder, and this, in 2017, is what I beheld.

(This post continues below.)

© 2018 John Tyler/24 Hours


Me Too: 2017 Film Award Favorites—Domestic/English Language—Awards

Domestic/English Language Film Awards

(Winners in bold.) 

Film of the Year

Rebel In the Rye

In Search of Fellini

Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House

The Shape of Water


Filmmaker of the Year (Writer-Director)

James Gray (The Lost City of Z)

Darren Aronofsky (mother!)

Guillermo del Toro (The Shape of Water)

Scott Cooper (Hostiles)

Paul Thomas Anderson (Phantom Thread) 

Stand-Alone Director of the Year

Denis Villeneuve (Blade Runner 2049) 

Best Screenplay

Nancy Cartwright, Peter Kjenaas (In Search of Fellini)

Hampton Fincher, Michael Green* (Blade Runner 2049)

(*based on characters by Philip K. Dick)

Yorgos Lanthimos, Efthymis Filippou (The Killing of a Sacred Deer)

Guillermo del Toro, Vanessa Taylor (The Shape of Water)

Liz Hannah, Josh Singer (The Post)

Best Adapted Screenplay

Angela Workman (The Zookeeper’s Wife)

James Gray (The Lost City of Z)

Danny Strong (Rebel In the Rye)

Peter Landesman (Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House)

Scott Cooper (Hostiles) 

Daniel Day-Lewis Male Performance of the Year Award

Daniel Day-Lewis (Phantom Thread) 

Male Performance of the Year—The Others

James McAvoy (Split)

Charlie Zunnan (The Lost City of Z)

Liam Neeson (Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House)

Ryan Gosling (Blade Runner 2049)

Christian Bale (Hostiles) 

Female Performance of the Year

Jessica Chastain (The Zookeeper’s Wife)

Charlize Theron (Atomic Blonde)

Ksenia Solo (In Search of Fellini)

Rosamund Pike (Hostiles)

Meryl Streep (The Post)

William Powell—Myrna Loy Onscreen Chemistry Award

Tom Hanks—Meryl Streep (The Post)

Male Supporting Performance 

Michael Fassbender (Song to Song)

Graham Greene (Wind River)

Benny Safdie (Good Time)

Willem Dafoe (The Florida Project)

Idris Elba (Molly’s Game)

Female Supporting Performance 

Sienna Miller (The Lost City of Z)

Huma Kureshi (Viceroy’s House)

Sarah Pauley (Rebel In the Rye/The Post)

Michelle Pfeiffer (mother!/Murder On the Orient Express)

Lesley Manville (Phantom Thread) 

Best Cinematography

Darius Khondji (The Lost City of Z)

Ben Richardson (Wind River)

Roger Deakens (Blade Runner 2049)

Dan Laustsen (The Shape of Water)

Masanobu Takayanagi (Hostiles)

Production Design

Phillip Messina (mother!)

Dennis Gasner (Blade Runner 2049)

Jim Clay (Murder On the Orient Express)

Paul Austerberry (The Shape of Water)

Mark Tildesley (Phantom Thread)

Costume Design 

Stacey Battatt (The Beguiled)

Cindy Evans (Atomic Blonde)

Donna Maloney (Professor Marston & the Wonder Women)

Luis Sequeira (The Shape of Water)

Mark Bridges (Phantom Thread)

Best Music

Tyler Bates (Atomic Blonde)

David Campbell (In Search of Fellini)

Daniel Pemberton (Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House)

Benjamin Wallfisch, Hans Zimmer (Blade Runner 2049)

Max Richter (Hostiles)

Best Original Song

99 Luftballons—Composed by Joern Fahrenkrog-Petersen & Carlo Karges, performed by Kaleida (Atomic Blonde)

Breakthrough Actor

Ross Lynch (My Friend Dahmer) 

Breakthrough Actress

Jessica Sula (Split/The Lovers)

Best Ensemble

Song to Song

Viceroy’s House

Blade Runner 2049

Murder On the Orient Express

The Post

Special Citations for Creative Filmmaking

Jordan Peele (Get Out)

Joachim Rønning, Espen Sandberg (Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales)

David Leitsch (Atomic Blonde)

Benny & Josh Safdie (Good Time)

Special Citation for Filmmaking Merit (Writer-Director-Producer)

M. Night Shyamalan (Split)

Repertory Screening of the Year

Maurice (1987) 30th Anniversary 4K Restoration (Landmark Nuart, West Los Angeles, June 2-8)

Runner Up: Heat and Dust (1983) 4K Restoration (Laemmle Royal, West Los Angeles, September 1-14

Charles Chaplin Award (RIP) 

Harvey W

James Toback

Kevin Spacey

Brett Ratner

Louis C.K.

Bryan Singer

Top Ten Domestic/English Language Films of the Year (in order)

Hostiles; Blade Runner 2049; Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House; In Search of Fellini; The Shape of Water; Rebel In the Rye; The Lost City of Z; The Post; Phantom Thread; Viceroy’s House

© 2018 John Tyler/24 Hours

Out of the Lights

I 24 Hours

From the architectural wonders to the synthetic cities, from New York to Paris to Venice, from Coney Island to the Eiffel Tower to the Venice Canals, from Flamingo to Tropicana to the Strip, it has never seemed a more suitable time for this desert city to go to sleep. From the blue-lit clubs to the purple lounges to the sun-kissed cabanas, from the candelabra to the glittering stars to the spraying fountains, from the 1800 Silver Tequila to the peach schnapps to the Fernet-Branca, if only for 24 hours. But the city that never sleeps, never does.

A microcosm of America, to be sure, at the most opportune time. Dim-lit bars, discarded adult invitations, refuse-strewn pavements. Shooting and hunting conventions, combat arms expositions, discount firearm and ammunition bazaars. Indoor shooting ranges.

The sustained fusillade that swept the southern Strip last Sunday evening defied some of the justification that those advocates of unbridled access to M&P-style armaments and ammunitions to the typical American citizen under some recent hallowed interpretation of the Second Amendment of our Constitution, one being that the perpetrator presently appears to be just such a person—a lone aficionado of the art and science of the civilian soldier of fortune—and not some deranged kid with braces and a pock-marked face with bangs to his nose who’d narrowly been saved from a stay at a mental hospital by a protective mother and had subsequently fallen off his meds under her delinquent supervision. No, this shooting was straight out of the arms-enthusiast playbook: some 23 armaments onsite and another 24 or so strewn across two locations and purchased across four states, with 33 coming in the last 12 months; some 14 semi-automatic rifles onsite had legitimate rapid-trigger stock modifications to the tune of hundreds of rounds per minute; .308-caliber conventional rifles; .223-caliber AR-15s; an AK-47; high-capacity magazines; magnification scopes; EOTech holographic sights; forward hand grips; surveillance cameras. A weekend warrior’s wet dream, the arsenal made the mobilized Las Vegas PD look like the Boy Scouts. An officer was hunched a ground floor below the assassin’s 32nd floor for nine minutes before another identified his room on the floor above; nobody moved until tactical units arrived 24 minutes later, and it was another 33 minutes before the door to the room was blown open.

Although we’ve moved disarmingly forward from the mass-produced prime-and-load Springfield Flintlock in use when the amendment was conceived to sanction well-constituted state militias, it’s never a good time to talk gun and purchase restrictions or an assault-weapons and high-capacity magazine ban; we’re told especially not now, so we won’t. Besides, James Brady is dead, buried, and forgotten. Suffice is to say we live under a federal government that is currently much more interested in boasting about search and rescue operations and pointing to the virtues of our first responders than in forestalling the actual events from occurring themselves. We’re just here, then, for a little show and tell. After all, it was all legally procured.

II Show / Tell

At Daniel Defense, I “satisfied my taste” for a DD custom-built M4 rifle—four of which were found in the shooter’s hotel room—by using its custom web “virtual” tool to build an AR-style rifle with the components I was “most passionate about.” I thought maybe there’d be a statement from Mr. Daniel, the armorer himself, about the tragic barrage greeting visitors on his homepage, but no, just a selection of sleek, expensive semiautomatic riles and quality components for sale for connoisseurs like myself. Oh well, I chose a black finish with the DD Tornado furniture color instead of the popular mil-spec+brown, a cost-effective Geissele SSA 2-stage trigger, a 5.56 NATO mid-length gas system for softer felt recoil, a lightweight-profile midlength 1.7 twist standard military 14.5” CHF barrel, a Gemtech carbon-cutting flash hider with pinned extender, a 5.56 complete bolt carrier group, an aluminum 12.0 SLiM rail for “incredible” weight savings, a streamlined A1.5 fixed rear sight, a textured Tornado vertical grip for a full positive handle, and an Aimpoint micro mount with absolute cowitness. I’ll have the precision gunsmithed and engraved M4 shipped from DD’s state-of-the-art Black Creek, Georgia, facility within seven days to my FFL dealer due south of the Strip—although Discount Firearms+Ammo is an awesome shop!—instead of to my California one to avoid the magazine restrictions, and my 2017 federal tax return can more than take care of the $2035.80 price, which includes federal tax + $19.95 shipping. In fact, my return can cover another I covet.

As an addition to my FN America FN 15 16” 5.56 NATO matte-black M4 Collector Carbine with 30 Rd. capacity and pistol grip—similar to three also discovered in room 135—I’m looking at the Sig Sauer—another elite brand favored by the shooter—SIG516 5.56 NATO with “unmatched” reliability and function and adjustable gas valve for “adverse conditions.” I’m going to pick one up at Henderson Defense Industries Lock N Load Tactical due south of McCarron International just beyond the I-215. It’ll be worth the taxi ride down because I’m going to save $190 at Lock N Load’s $1604.62 base price. Add in a few ProMag 30-round high-capacity clips for the desert and a few Ruger 5-round detachables for Cali and that’ll just about do it. I’ve already spent my state return on my auto insurance, but who drives in Vegas?


III Vive La Vie

After taking the ramp underneath the Coney Island Roller Coaster and down past the Statue of Liberty, I like to start the morning with a stroll through the damp boulevards of New York New York, then across the walkway toward the MGM Grand and down the Boulevard under the Montgolfier Balloon and into the neoclassical Beau-Arts façade to a seat at Le Café ile St. Louis for a Parisian breakfast—just love the lucid open-air ambiance there!—then a stopover at one of the pretty deserted midmorning tables for Blackjack and then Five-Card Draw—no Three-Card Poker for me! From there, I’ll walk out under the massive frame of the Eiffel Tower and cross the Boulevard high toward Flamingo Road then into the Bellagio’s glitzy glass enchantment, past Gucci, Louis Vuitton, Prada, Dior, Tiffany & Co, Chanel, and Georgio Armani, just past the Boulevard Shops to the Bellagio Gallery of Fine Art, then just next door to Café Gelato. Quitting the glass enchantment, gelato in hand, I’ll then step inside a taxi—no Uber for me!—for a midafternoon excursion up the Strip and across I-15 to MGV, where I’ll warm up with a Glock 17 9x19mm, Colt M4 Commando, and H & K MP5 submachine gun in the Urban Assault Experience, adding in an FN Herstal 5.56 M249 Light Machine Gun just like our guys in Afghanistan; then, after really getting the blood moving and laughing at the afterthought of the gelato, I won’t resist assuming a KRISS Vector from one of the girls and tear up a target or two—can’t get enough of that cool asymmetrical recoil—Damn! Shaken, stirred, euphoric, I’m in line for a short ride back down toward Flamingo to Rio, where the shade in the ornate carport is always welcome. Then, it’s into the lobby, past the chill modern ambiance of iBar Ultra Lounge and into the booming, smoky Masquerade Village, past the bar and up the high-speed glass Tower Elevator with its vertiginous view of the backside of the west-side Strip to the 51st floor for a rooftop cocktail or two, a Giant Tiger Prawns appetizer, and some conversation at Voodoo after cleaning myself up a bit.

From Rio, I’ll take a shuttle over to Harrah’s, then walk down the Boulevard past Madame Tussauds and into the sun-drenched vista of the Venetian, past the placid pools and the Gondalas and into the casino to check out the cocktail waitresses—absolutely the very best outfits in town! Then it’s out and across the pedestrian bridge to Treasure Island as the shadows deepen and the sun finally disappears behind the immense folding structure of the hotel above, into Sirens’ Cove before the fronds, through the casino to the tram to the adjacent Mirage, where it’s then through the domed, leafy atrium and an immediate right—nice to not have to walk through a casino to get somewhere!—for a quiet dinner of General Tso’s Chicken or Mongolian Beef and an imported beer at FIN. From there, it’s back on the tram to TI for the 9:30 showing of Mystère—I can never see it enough and anyway still prefer it to the new stuff, which make me a little uncomfortable. Waiting for the show to start, sitting on an aisle, I’ll seemingly still feel the vibration of the Kriss Special V in my hands. Afterward, after exchanging knowing glances with a brunet perhaps with a small coterie of girlfriends, I’ll step into the Mystère Store to see if they have anything from Dead Men Tell No Tales—I’ve seen it twice—then, with a short Decaf Americano from the adjacent Starbucks in hand, I’ll meet the cool night air inspired by the breathtaking acrobatics and artistic aspirations once again. I will actually have been thinking about a cab—even an Uber or a Lyft!—somewhat stiff and worn from the day’s endeavors, but now a moonlit stroll back up the Boulevard will be definitely in order. Strewn now with discarded invitations, promotions, discounts, and detritus, I’ll make my way past the frolicking Fountains once again, with the ghastly spectre of the lit Bellagio and Caesar’s Palace against the blackened sky. I’ll make it to the walkway on Soleil’s wings, then into the hotel, up an elevator, and down the quietly eerie and deserted, seemingly endless, hallway to the room. Inside, after sitting on the bed for a bit and then brushing my teeth, I’ll likely pass out to some soft-core on one of the adult channels, because, you know, it’s Vegas and all that, and I don’t stay out all night, though it’ll be CNN when I awake the following morning.

If I didn’t happen to see ya, you know, maybe tomorrow, down past the Flamingo in The Linq Promenade in line at Gordon Ramsey Fish & Chips. I should be over there at about four or so. Join me for a Biscoff Shake or just an imported or craft beer. Until then, Vive la vie!





© 2017 John Tyler/24 Hours

The Harder They Come: Reflections on FX’s Snowfall

(These are my accumulated episodic notes on FX’s completed summer series Snowfall. If you haven’t seen, I originally tried to stick to general impressions, but spoilers are definitely, increasingly, extant, culminating in the outright dangerous. Snowfall was my favorite show of the summer, followed by USA’s Shooter and Queen of the South and SyFy’s Killjoys and grindhouse mash-up Blood Drive.)

“Like the Earth, she cools down until she hardens.

Thus creation is born.”

— Swim (RZA), Snowfall, Episode 7, “Cracking”

I CIA Connection: Unknown / II Whose Street?

I watched two episodes—the Pilot, “Make Them Birds Fly”—this morning of executive producer John Singleton’s—along with co-creators Eric Amadio and Dave Andron (Justified)—FX series Snowfall about the cocaine explosion in South Los Angeles in the early 1980s. So far, the CIA connection, Logan Miller (Eric Mitro, Or Die Trying webseries) is not well known. He overdosed during a sex party in the pilot episode but left a stack of bricks behind at a modernist Hollywood Hills retreat with views. His partner is a Contra rep, Alejandro Usteves (Juan Javier Cardenas), who explains to the new CIA liaison, Teddy McDonald (Carter Hudson)—a disgraced agent who persuades his handler, James Ballard (Swindon, England’s Nic Bishop, Covert Affairs, Body of Proof) to continue the operation under a shroud of plausible deniability with a promise of an illicit weapons field day for the counterrevolutionaries—that the Contras are assembled but starving and in poor shape. Alejandro complains that the Americans are always inconsistent and have abandoned them. He is using a Latino supply connection—crime family kids Pedro Nava (Lisbon native Filipe Valle Costa) and Lucia Villanueva (Emily Rios, From Dusk ‘Til Dawn: The Series, True Detective, The Bridge) and fallen Lucha libre wrestler turned strongman Gustavo “El Oso” Zapata (Madrid native Sergio-Peris Mencheta)—as well as an eccentric playboy Israeli, Avi Drexler (the acclaimed Alon Aboutball, Legends, Low Winter Sun) who may be ex-intelligence. A decent and intelligent African-American youth, Franklin Saint (London native Damson Idris, Megan Leavey, City of Tiny Lights) seizes an opportunity to cash in with Avi to sell in his neighborhood, but so far gets the cash from his second and third bricks stolen from his ever-present backpack along with his newly acquired motorbike during an ambush outside an underground Black club run by an overlord madame, Claudia Crane (veteran character actress Judith Scott), he distributes to. It’s interesting, well acted, and somewhat addicting.

III Wall Street to Main / Another Gear

In episode 3 of Snowfall, “Slow Hand,” Franklin’s wide-eyed and freewheeling entrepreneurial skills are put to the test by the realities of urban street life. These, after all, are not so much different than those in the capital boardrooms with the glass windows and scenic, panoramic views over the years, decades, and into the present day, in which the enforcement of territorial monopolies runs counter to the inalienable rights of capital competition and can be enforced by the most raw and infantile personal maldevelopment—not just speaking of the current American president and monopoly capitalist—and savage violence. In business, whether in the capital exchanges or in the street, weakness is just not tolerated and can be a sure bellwether of pending losses and financial doom. The episode pivots on Franklin’s character development, and not just on the lesson of whether one must swim with sharks in order to keep from being eaten.

His “softness,” along with childhood best friend Leon’s (Isaiah John), is characterized by street-gang enforcer Karvel (Sheaun McKinney, Vice Principals, upcoming NBC series Great News) as of the “soft-serve ice-cream ass…” variety, but Franklin is not just being adverse to having to enforce violence to sustain his threatened enterprise, but because of practicality. The throttle goes into another gear on his reaction to Karvel’s astonishing assault on Saint’s rival Lenny (Craig Tate, Aquarius, Ravenswood, 12 Years a Slave). When Franklin peers in the door as Lenny lay beaten on his bed tied and striped on his stomach, the gaze he receives back is not one of defiance, but something like reconciliation. Franklin’s single-minded anger at Lenny and determination to avenge him for jumping, beating, and robbing him morphs into empathy, as Franklin perhaps sees himself in Lenny’ gaze, with the understanding that Lenny is just like him: a burgeoning entrepreneur whose territory—and livelihood—he unknowingly trampled upon. Franklin realizes he is not in this alone, but that there are competitors around him who may share his like-minded dreamz of self-betterment. The story arc has nowhere to go but to see at what cost he is willing to go to sustain them, and just how much he and others around him may suffer from it.

IV Poetics

Darkness intensifies in Snowfall episode 4, “Trauma.” The foreboding opening title sequence, with a spotlight perceptively illuminating the silver bejewel-encrusted 3D main title, reminiscent of David Lynch’s Inland Empire in both style and effect, becomes impactful. It’s also just one of the portentous symbolic manifestations of Greek and Shakespearean tragedy that is suddenly transparent and imbued in this episode, nevermind actual action and complication. That escalation moves on Franklin’s and Leon’s kidnapping and botched execution of Karvel in the unforgiving terrain of the Mojave, always a reliable film and television trope. Franklin’s consuming obsession in reclaiming his now twice-stolen money is betrayed by the stark whiteness of his determined eyes as he aims a gun at Karvel. If Karvel’s half-buried-alive body epitomizes Saint’s humanist hesitation as his general approach, his friend’s finishing Karvel off to loud, off-screen effect at sundown shows we are firmly within the grip of Aristotle’s Poetics.

As the episode shifts to a shady Contra camp inside Honduras, when Teddy announces to Alejandro they’re not prepared to fly the Central American cocaine into Hawthorne Municipal Airport, a sprawling airfield that intersects Crenshaw Boulevard off the 105 Freeway to LAX, it definitively brings home the CIA/Contra/South Los Angeles connection, so long considered an urban legend even after Gary Webb’s definitive series in the San Jose Mercury News. When the CIA point man, whose omnipresent Kansas City Royals baseball cap betrays his eccentric, fish-out-of-water character, becomes a sort of father figure to an impetuous young contra boy, Popeye (Marcel Ruiz, upcoming Netflix reboot One Day at a Time), the personal really hits home for the private and professional misfit when he unintentionally outs the boy as an FSLN plant and the boy’s swift retribution at the hands of matter-of-fact camp forewoman Elena (Zabryna Guevara, The Get Down, Gotham) brings back memories of the loss of his own son. Popeye’s outing also confirms the legitimacy of the FSLN that the adventurous young boy is actually on the right side. Emmy-winning Jeff Russo’s (Fargo, Bull, The Night Of) loud bass & drum and eerie keyboards bring home the episode’s theme, as does Avi’s colorful description that body disposal is a professional prerequisite, so what do we make of Saint’s surprise response, “I’m out”?

V Dark Side of the Moon

Snowfall episode 5, “Seven-Four,” is all about the state of the nation as defined on its birthday. It’s not so pretty: A Latin crime family enjoys a luxury indoor/outdoor house party, an African-American block party is interrupted by police, and the CIA’s reckless and hapless attempts to subvert sovereign democracy are cast in stark tragicomic relief. The episode opens rather stunningly with Teddy ranting and raving to himself and an unconscious Alejandro, slumped in the cockpit of the pair’s four-seat, single-engine plane, stranded amid the burning expanse of the Mexican desert running out of water with 75 kilos of cocaine from Peru. The scene is a stage for Hudson’s bravura acting, and demonstrates the show’s admirable dependence on several relatively unknown and inexperienced actors, who all, nonetheless, decidedly come through. In case we’re not aware of the theme of the episode, Teddy even shows off his history skills in a monologue on casualties at Lexington and Concord.

Lucia insists on bringing Gustavo to Pedro’s father Ramiro’s (veteran Honduran-born dramatic television presence José Zúñiga, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.) holiday cocktail gathering, and the lowly former luchador must prove his trust and loyalty in an understated tête-à-tête out by the horse stables. Franklin informs his mother, Cissy (terrific Birmingham-born Jamaican television veteran Michael Hyatt, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, Ray Donovan, True Detective), he’s quit his job as a liquor store clerk and promises her he’ll help take care of their needs, in addition to the income from her contentious position evicting low-income tenants. Franklin’s Uncle, Jerome (Bronx-born rising star Amin Joseph, Baywatch, Sister Code) and plucky Aunt Louie (Angela Lewis) decide to go forth with their annual Fourth of July front-yard BBQ, but like so many assertions of African-American independence, it nearly ends in tragedy. As the smell of marijuana wafts densely in the air and day turns to night, Jerome sets the roof afire with a misjudged fireworks launch by light of the moon and the boisterous perimeter is penetrated by two officers emerging from a squad car. Franklin mouths off and is put in a severe chokehold. Needless to say, for Saint, the liquor store can wait and it’s back to the cocaine. That’s the promise he made.

VI Prophesy

As the title suggests, in Snowfall episode 6, “A Long Time Coming,” Franklin Saint, or Youngblood as he’s called on two separate occasions by two different people, gets schooled in the recent history of the street. Claudia, Jerome, and Jerome’s old friend, Knees (special-guest star Bokeem Woodbine, Underground, Fargo) all provide crucial lessons and cautionary tales that evoke prophecy, especially on turning to cocaine for personal profit. A colorful meeting with Knees in his warehouse office is particularly contextual: The Korean soap seller lays down a crucial history of African-American street life from the 1950s forward to the “crazy kids nowadays,” but Franklin is barely intrigued. He’s much more interested in the locus of the Mexican-American street gang where he may unload the two kilos from Avi rejected by Claudia, who assumed only one, because as the madame repeats, she’s “a purveyor of entertainment, not a drug dealer.” If Franklin is somewhat tone deaf to the wisdom of the previous generation, at least he’s not a total fool, as Leon and third musketeer Kevin’s (Malcolm Mays, Rebel) brusque immaturity is given a graphic tongue-lashing by Claudia, and the duo later prove too sophomoric to equitably partner in Franklin’s disciplined routine. By the time Saint reunites with Cissy, it’s apparent this fine supporting African-American cast is typically emblematic.

The lessons hit home in reality in two separate ways that illustrate just how precious individual life is on a typical African-American urban street: Lenny’s scoping out of Franklin’s home from his car, gun in hand, with less resolute associate Ray Ray (Markice Moore, Shots Fired, Rectify) as the musketeers walk home in broad daylight, and Saint’s harrowing escape—with the aid of Gustavo, who’s there under similar purport—from the racist machismo of the Latino street gang whose neighborhood he penetrates for his own profit. Selling in the upscale White neighborhoods of the Valley would be easiest, but as Jerome counseled, that’s the surest ticket to prison, but how ‘bout to an early grave? After some more deft acting from Hudson, the episode concludes on the posting of a missing persons flyer on a utility pole that has grave consequences for Alejandro and the entire operation: Seems a young woman, Victoria (Justine Lupe, Mr. Mercedes, Madam Secretary), is taking a keen interest in one of the girls who “disappeared” the night of the former CIA liaison’s sex party, all to the tune of the Temptations’ essential “Smiling Faces Sometimes.” The episode also manifests the depth of Snowfall’s three parallel storylines.

VII The Base / All of It

Snowfall episode 7, “Cracking,” is a stunning depiction of the stark origins of rock cocaine on the West Coast. After again stringing along Cissy, this time over the broken window of her car upon his narrow escape from the previous episode, Franklin and the other musketeers take a drive to Oakland in Kevin’s rickety car to pursue a distribution opportunity with Kevin’s cousin, Devon. The trio arrive at an underground club where the party’s going all nite, and a nervous, fish-out-water Franklin—so (in)conspicuous with his serious demeanor and ubiquitous strapped-on backpack, departs toward his own much more adventurous all-nighter. Walking down a deserted alley, alone, with two kilos stashed away upon him, Franklin runs into a shabby building that he realizes is the former Black Panther Party headquarters his now homeless, outsider father took him to as a young boy. Down a dilapidated hallway and into a decrepit room, he finds a wrecked flower child (Abby Miller, The Sinner, Aquarius) who looks like she’s permanently strayed from her English studies at UC Berkeley. After much mutual flirting, she takes Saint to her street dealer who, in turn, accepts a big pile of cash to take Franklin, intoxicated by witnessing the girl’s cheap, quick high and the dealer’s returning customers, to “meet the Wizard.” Turns out the Wizard is named Swim (Brooklyn-born special-guest star RZA, Mr. Right, Gang Related) who, with his clandestine lab and maestro mixologist Angel (Anthony Rutowicz), is to Oakland’s drug underground what Lewis and Clark were to the Pacific Northwest. If Franklin didn’t necessarily appreciate the brief history of South Los Angeles African-American men from episode six, he is positively wide-eyed in hearing Swim’s take on what in Peru is called “la base,” the ultrapotent, when treated, bottom-barrel paste residue left over from the manufacture of cocaine, and how his scientists came upon freeing the base from the powder with ether like ice from the snow. There is more than one way to get high, and Franklin’s gaze at the process is so crystalline that by the time he reunites with his friends at sunrise with a large clear plastic bag of large rocks instead of the two packed kilos of powder his pupils have turned to dollar signs like crosses in the devil’s.

VIII Like Dow Jones / Creatures in the Morning Sun

I would moralize here about Franklin Saint’s clear-eyed decision to procure and distribute such a devastating street drug at the expense of the people in his own neighborhood and only to the benefit of himself and his mother, who would clearly disapprove—otherwise why would he be hiding it from her?—but I’m not Immanuel Kant or Søren Kierkegaard, so I won’t. Such discourse is probably best left to the individual. Franklin certainly believes so; if he chooses to win, and others to lose, it is what it is, and in life, there are always winners, and always losers. Perhaps capitalism is the most appropriate economic—and moral—philosophy for us, after all.

Needless to say, in Snowfall episode 8, “Baby Teeth,” Saint and associates have the people reeled in. Franklin again becomes intoxicated himself, though in a different way, upon Kevin‘s euphoria after pleading to try out the new high himself: “We gonna make bank!” Like all great entrepreneurs before him who have dropped out of school to pursue their dream in business, Franklin creates a new market for the perfect product, establishes the right price point, declines to extend credit to his avid new customers, and watches the magic of street econ 101 come to fruition. It’s all actualized by posting Leon and Kevin at Martin Luther King Jr. Park in the morning sun, hooking those curious unemployed folks looking for a new high with free samples, and reeling them in the next day when they come back for more at $10 a bag; hook, line, sinker. J.P. Morgan, Ray Kroc, Steve Jobs and the Republican Party could be so proud, but establishing a new business always comes with consequences: Leon the Peon and Stingy Saint get into a struggle over the value of the means of production, and in the aftermath, tragedy strikes at Franklin’s front door. As Leon lies gasping and bleeding away, Franklin scrambles to ditch his backpack in the closet of his next-door neighbor’s, Melody’s (Reign Edwards, The Bold and the Beautiful) bedroom, before the authorities, whom he alerted, arrive. They do, the screen fades to black and credits roll to the sounds of the sirens, open and closing vehicle doors, and dispatch radios. Breathless.

IX Apart

Snowfall episode 9, “Story of a Scar,” is a masterwork in dramatic episodic television that, from the writing to the directing to the ensemble acting, should be shown in every film and television school. From one dramatic interior scene to the next, it was the most impressive hour I saw on television this summer, and if its writers—co-executive producer Leonard Chang (Justified, Awake) and Jerome Hairston (Game of Silence, Deception) don’t receive an Emmy nod for it—and they won’t—it’s a serious slight. From Franklin with Cissy, to Teddy with Alejandro, to Gustavo with Lucia, to Franklin with Melody, to Cissy with Aunt Louie, to Franklin with Leon, to Franklin with Claudia, to Gustavo and Latin street-gang padrone Stomper (Tony Sancho, Hulu’s East Los High), to Franklin with Louie, to Saint with Ray Ray in a diner à la Moonlight, it’s just one tour-de-force scene after another.

The episode occurs in the aftermath of losses sustained in all three storylines—Leon’s harrowing front-doorstep shooting, the Sandinistas’ immobilizing attack on the Contra base across the Honduran border, and Gustavo’s personal and operational ouster from Ramiro’s crime family. It begins—and ends—symbolically, with the extended shadow of Franklin’s footsteps as he walks dejectedly to Melody’s at night and the passing of Lucia’s serene and philosophic father, Mauricio (Salvadorean Carlos Linares), a foreboding event that presages the potential explosiveness to come. With the entrance to Melody’s home barred, the prodigal son decides to return home for a crucial face-to-face with Cissy, incredulous at the ease with which Franklin is able “to look me in the eye and lie your ass off.” After just a partial coming clean, Franklin states simply he “had to step up and get something going.” The next day he walks Melody home from the vocational center she attends but only to reveal his more pressing agenda is to retrieve his backpack, which earns him a quick boot and a scolding with words that could be emblematic of the entire series, “I thought you actually cared about me, but you can’t see anything else besides what’s in that &^%^&#$ bag.”

The episode’s acute dialogue continues across the street at Jerome’s, when Cissy steps over for another disintegrating confrontation with Louie over responsibility for Franklin’s dawning delinquency. Louie deflects and directs, telling Mrs. Saint, regretful that she allowed her son to drop out of school and “throw away all the advantages I gave him,” that it’s her “who should be thinkin’ real hard about her own choices.” “Look at what Franklin sees—you, kissing to some crack-ass slumlord.” Cissy responds with several saucy one-ups. “You better watch your *&^$(^% mouth. I will not stand by and watch you try to drag my son into that gutter your stank ass come from. You hear me?” Needless to say, Louie’s conciliatory offer of coffee will once again not come close to being realized. “I am goddamn sick and tired of your condescending, hypocritical, siddity ass bullshit. Yeah, get the *(%$ up out of my house, you Stepin Fetchit *&%(#.

Franklin’s visit to a rehabilitating Leon finds the subordinate contemplating Godfather-style vengeance as he lay stretched out on the couch with a bandaged knee. “You gotta let *^$&^# know right here, right now, that we official, ’cause if you don’t, *&^%$#*&^$#*@ are always gonna be comin’ at us.”

In their stark, stealth warehouse where they previously had been painstakingly taking the serial numbers off an arsenal of automatic weapons, Alejandro informs Teddy of the necessity of a new Colombian connection since Peru was dismantled. Ramiro, Lucia, and Pedro arrive later to confirm the logistics of acquisition and distribution. In Gustavo’s tense but eventually agreeable confrontation with Stomper, he seems to be playing both sides, but when the padrone takes him to show off a clandestine cache of automatics in a chest, there appears little room for sentimentality. Teddy, whom Hudson continues to play with effective, taciturn eccentricity, walks into another crisis when Victoria shows him photos of Alejandro, the “Latin Freddie Mercury,” at a niteclub conversing with her sister Kristen’s (Taylor Kowald) companion, Jess (Catherine Chen), who also later “disappeared” the night of Logan Miller’s sex soirée. During a scene with the lovely Scott involving Claudia and her new prize possession, Shayla, Franklin arranges a sit-down with Ray Ray. “And get this sad brother some Henney, Goddamn!” the bossy proprietor pleads to her bartender. “That’s how it’s going down? You a snitch, &^%$*($#@*%$?” Ray Ray lashes out at Franklin at the meet. “If you’re looking for some type of truce, you’re in the wrong place.” “No, no, no, no. No truce. We gonna talk business. Because that’s what it’s about, right? Money?” If Saint’s new “business” involves invoking Kant and Kierkegaard for moral clarity, at least we know he’s the Barack Obama of shot-callers—gracious, peaceable, and quietly efficient.

X Rise / Godfather

Given the sustained excellence of episode 9, the show comes back to earth in Snowfall episode 10, “The Rubicon,” but the season finale, directed by Singleton, then deepens, building to a crescendo that includes a good handful of downright breathless scenes and a cathartic cinematic climax so well-played by Idris that he almost deserves an Emmy for the scene alone. The episode soon finds Jerome counting stacks of bills on his living-room table as of he were a banker; there’s plenty more of that to come. Once quit reluctant to join the snow campaign even while steering his nephew away, he’s now in for 25 percent. Franklin comes home to discover Cissy is jobless after confronting her boss about a lost promotion on the Westside. Franklin says not to worry and hands her a roll of bills, which the mother rejects. When he leaves, he silently leaves the cash for her on the table. As in episode 9, a visit to Leon sees John deliver another fine performance, imploring Saint that when he “pulls that trigger, I want you to think about taking care of your people,” and not blink.

When Gustavo visits Stomper at the gang ‘s home—which appears to be in Highland Park or vicinity where The Avenues were ascendant—Peris-Mencheta again proves there’s no actor better at looking another in the eye without blinking however tense the situation or however much his character is compromised. We already know that Rios photographs extremely well on close-up, and here she again asserts that she could be the talented ensemble’s best actress. Bitter at her perceived secondhand status as a woman that intensifies with her uncle’s plans to bring on someone else to do the family’s books, Lucia joins Gustavo in a gritty post-sex scene of mutinous plotting that’s right out of The Godfather. In a beautiful parting scene with her visiting mother, Mariela (Bronx-born Saundra Santiago, Gang Related, One Life to Live, Gina on the original Miami Vice), who advises her to return to Mexico at Mauricio’s hacienda funeral, the matron relates it was not her second sex but her father’s fears that the impetuous young girl “could tear up our family” that kept her rise up the jerarquía familiar at bay, words that soon become prophetic.

A devastated Teddy, wrung dry by the crimson events after coming upon Alejandro in the process of dispatching a lifeless Victoria in her bathtub, is cheered by James in a bar. The intelligence bureaucrat reports from DC that the director (then William Casey) and the president (Ronald Reagan) are both “extremely pleased,” citing the southerly flow of dollars and supplies and the resurgent Contras. While a tacit acknowledgment that the affair was known at the highest levels early on, Ballard also refers to Teddy’s past actions in Tehran for a second time, to which the incredulous field op replies, “I could’ve prevented Tehran. I could’ve. I should’ve pulled my agent out. I knew he was in trouble, and nobody would listen.” James’ assertion that “sometimes shit just goes wrong in our business” is perhaps the understatement not only of the series, but of the century.

In an earlier heartbreaking telephone scene with estranged wife Jules (the powerful Peta Sergeant, The Originals, Once Upon a Time in Wonderland), Hudson shows to just what levels he’s managed to make his most vexing character sympathetic, and he’ll need all of that dexterity in a risky meeting with Alejandro’s uneasy Cali connection in a hotel presidential suite. The besieged agent promises to provide intelligence and keep law enforcement and border security at bay in return for pure product at insanely low prices. When domestic cartel rep Diego (Wade Allain-Marcus, Insecure) asks him whom he represents, Teddy’s answer is simple, “the U.S. government.” In an earlier contentious meeting at Avi’s with Franklin, Jerome, and Kevin, the uncle insists Franklin go straight to the “crazy ass Jew’s” direct source. “Can’t just sit outside his house and wait,” Franklin replies. “Be arrested in five minutes in this neighborhood.” Later, we briefly see Franklin’s White ex-college roommate, Rob (Taylor Kowalski, The Detour, Homeland), espy Teddy coming from Avi’s on a stakeout, another portent that the three storylines will soon be completely meshed.

Nothing, however, can really prepare us for the scene that unfolds on a hilly oil field—looks like Signal Hill—when Leon’s direction comes to fruition, albeit with an insane twist. Franklin and Jerome meet Ray Ray, who’s brought a rock-cocaine deranged Lenny in the trunk of their car. The sudden transformation in Idris’s crazed eyes and authoritative construction as Franklin commands a reluctant Ray Ray to do the job for him is sensational, a countenance that seems to turn to sorrow until he kneels over Lenny and spits out the terse epitaph, “For Leon, &*^%$#*^%#@.” It’s a Scarface moment, the devastating nighttime execution signaling the sudden rise of a kid with a backpack to neighborhood kingpin, reinforced on Jerome’s front porch the next day when Franklin pays off an ice cream truck driver (veteran character actor Damon Standifer, Becker) with a large bill to distribute treats to the coinless children. The message is clear with Franklin, Jerome, Louie, Kevin, and Leon sitting idly in the shade, the reigns of production in hand, chillin’ to the tune of what I believe is Bobby Womack’s version of “California Dreamin’.” Yet, it remains to be seen whether Franklin is neighborhood savior or destroyer; you already may know that when Saint and associates are finished, sunny day or not, there may be no need to get to L.A.

(Snowfall is available on FXNOW, Amazon Video, and iTunes. The series returns to FX in 2018.)

(Special thanks to Springfield! Springfield!—UK—television and movie script database!)

© 2017 John Tyler/24 Hours

Blindsided: In the Case of the NFL versus Michael Jerome Oher—A Happy Ending in Sight?

(Like a predawn invasion of the Middle East or a heavyweight championship boxing match, another NFL season is upon us. Some of the strongest and fastest men in the land, many apparently on HGH, will be hurtling themselves at each other on the nation’s most perilous playing fields as if shot from canons, most wearing “protective” helmets with polycarbonate shells that actually enhance brain injury. (Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith was wearing a new, more absorbent and spacious model developed by innovative Seattle company VICIS on opening night that is being selectively introduced.) Gone are the games of Twenty Questions: Will Dallas Cowboys’ rookie quarterback sensation Dak Prescott, who sent oft-injured Tony Romo into early retirement and the broadcast booth, suffer a sophomore slump? What really caused those multiple bruises on the neck, arms, legs, and body of his equally sensational teammate Ezekiel Elliott’s ex-girlfriend Tiffany Thompson—bumping into tables as a waitress or the football player himself? Why is Afro-American ex-San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, he of the silent and dignified Anthem protest, not in a NFL uniform, other than that he mistakenly opted out of his contract? Just how good is preternaturally young Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll’s defense in Seattle? Will the beleaguered body of Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback “Big” Ben Roethlisberger—once credibly accused of forcing himself upon an intoxicated female college student in a niteclub bathroom while his off-duty law enforcement bodyguards stood watch—hold up long enough to take his team back to the Super Bowl yet again? How will frequently battered and recently concussed Buffalo Bills quarterback Tyrod Taylor fare now that his wide receivers have disappeared from the team? Will Jehovah level the City of Angels in 2020 for luring and hosting not one, but two franchises in an eventual multibillion dollar hi-tech luxury stadium to ash and dust? Were any of them answered? But for the bruises, do any of them matter? This is what does.)

“I can speak for a lot of the guys that play the game, we live and breathe and this is what we’re so passionate about. Literally if I had a perfect place to die, I would die on the field.” — New York Jets rookie safety Jamal Adams, at a fan forum July 31, on a question about CTE

I Blindsided

Perhaps Sandra Bullock wasn’t aware—or was she? Was Bronx native Quinton Aron, who played him? Was anyone? When the Carolina Panthers announced it was releasing former Baltimore Ravens offensive tackle Michael Oher—the subject of the hugely popular, Oscar-nominated 2009 film The Blind Side that starred the dyed-blonde, raven-tressed, iconic actress as the hulking football player’s real-life rescuer, counselor, and confidant—in July because he had failed a physical, it merited but a small, single paragraph on the back page of a typical major metropolitan newspapers’ sports section. In the official record, the announcement in fine print was terse, like the posting of a handicap for a horse race: Transactions: Pro Football: Carolina—Terminated the contract of offensive tackle Michael Oher. With that, the team was released of any further financial or moral entanglement or complication, like an ER surgeon who’d just pronounced a gunshot victim dead on arrival in a besieged urban hospital as he washed the blood off his hands. Terminated: If Bullock had ever been part of the Hollywood Golden Age studio system, would her contract with, say, Paramount or Warner Brothers, also have been “terminated” when they realized, perhaps, she was no longer a bankable sex symbol because she’s gone past her prime? Was Oher past his prime, the day he was terminated? He was 31, a veteran, but in NFL years, he could’ve been headed for the twilight for sure, so much the easier to excise him like a malignant contusion to be deposited into the Monday morning medical waste bin. The 6-4, 300 lb.+ former Super Bowl champion with the Ravens who’d led the Panthers to the promised land in 2015 protecting the blind side of MVP quarterback Cam Newton as if he were his own grandmother, if he ever knew her, sustained a concussion three weeks into last season after being rewarded with a contract extension for three years and $21.6 million—with $9.5 mil guaranteed—through the 2018 season. He didn’t return, and was still on the NFL’s concussion protocol that prevented him from practicing or playing in games when he was terminated nearly ten months later. At the time of the former Ole Miss All-American’s season-ending concussion last September, Panthers head coach Ron Rivera said, “We just want to see the young man get healthy.”

Who knows what they think of the young man now? In the NFL, used-up players are tossed aside like pairs of old shoes—you may think about them now and then, I don’t know, but it’s only uselessly sentimental. Then general manager Dave Gettleman, who signed Oher to two deals totaling $28.6 million within 16 months of each other, himself was terminated by the organization just three days before the young man was: a news item entitled “Panthers Part Ways With Gettleman” consisted of eight paragraphs in the Los Angeles Times, which shows just where priorities are, even to those who give lip service to the besieged league’s concussion crisis, which, like those crises in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen, seems to reach boiling-point levels each and every day. No, Gettleman wasn’t in the league’s concussion protocol, but he won’t be terminating anyone anytime soon, either.

II Summer Eclipse

If you saw The Blind Side you know, as depicted, Oher was a nice, respectful, soft-spoken young man, a big cub to Bullock’s mama bear. You might not recognize him now, even as himself, I’m not sure. At times, crisis arrives with a glimpse of trouble: In April, much like Captain Kalanick himself, Oher got into it with an Uber driver while riding with friends to a restaurant in the wee hours, ultimately asserting himself by pushing the offending driver to the ground outside of the vehicle and giving him a kick as if trying out a new calling as a punter; he had to be restrained by his posse. Oher, under suspicion of alcohol use, was booked and cited for misdemeanor assault. His case has been continued to October. A life unraveling? It doesn’t take much. Behavioral signs are an initial symptom of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a diagnosis that can only be confirmed on a laboratory slide in the morgue.

Two weeks before Oher’s termination, the aforementioned Times published a piece by sports enterprise reporter Nathan Fenno that was riveting, essential summer reading. Fenno chronicled the stunning fall of a talented, disciplined young football player from Los Angeles into the depths of darkness, depravity, and despair; for those aware of many of the abnormal mental manifestations like depression, social withdrawal, mood instability, mental illness, and substance abuse, it has CTE written all over it, and it most disturbingly cost a loving football mother her life.

Fenno wrote about De’von Hall, a football protégé who had a close relationship with his mother, Alecia Benson. He possessed the requisite physical skills to excel, but also “a killer instinct,” as an uncle described, and a passion for hitting opposing players within a game that encourages such frightful behavior and a fan base that appreciates it. Hall went from distinguished Cleveland High School in the Valley to Utah State, where an ex-teammate described his abilities on the playing field as a linebacker as “freakish.” By his senior season, subsequent to multiple hits throughout his young playing career (my words), his head coach noticed his mental acuity beginning to fade, and Hall went undrafted by the NFL. He was signed by the Minnesota Vikings that spring but released by the start of the 2009 season for perceived immaturity. He then signed with the Indianapolis Colts, played in four ruthless games as a safety, making three tackles in a two-point win against the Ravens, and was cut in late winter two weeks before the team’s postseason run to the Super Bowl led by league MVP and poster boy pitchman Peyton Manning. He landed with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers where his physical abilities remained eclipsed by perceived mental deficiencies: Always a young man who kept to himself, his self-isolation reached uncomfortable levels that vexed coaches and teammates who routinely discovered Hall alone in the darkened clubhouse behind a door staring at a wall. He told an ex-college roommate he was profusely smoking marijuana and told a mysterious story about hitting his head in an auto accident and having to be restrained and pharmaceutically subdued. The Bucs dispatched him the following summer before the 2010 season but apparently made no attempt to get him behavioral help. Why would they? It was the NFL. Another bizarre vehicular encounter was actually confirmed as Hall was driving home through New Mexico in September and was apprehended for erratic driving that resulted in an aggravated assault with a deadly weapon charge that eventually was pled down to a misdemeanor. The next summer, two weeks after acting queerly at his grandfather’s funeral, his once-promising NFL career came to a swift and ignominious end at the hands of the Panthers themselves: they added soiled clothing to the list of grievances.

According to Fenno, his post-NFL career involved incoherent speech, distant voices, laughter when mirth wasn’t called for, and emphatically discharged disturbing music lyrics. Then the inevitable fragmented Facebook posts arrived, as if from someone consigned to a mental health facility. Benson was losing the battle for her son, who denied having any issues whatsoever. He took to living in a park, smoked used cigarette butts, and wandered up and down the street. One day he was hit by a bus after straying from the sidewalk. Anyone familiar with South Los Angeles knows people like him, crisscrossing the intersections barefoot like the dazed, disembodied souls of former slaves. He took to black garbage bags and shopping carts. This April, at the culmination of a heated exchange over personal hygiene, Hall stomped Benson, his own mother, to death, as she lie on the floor of her home in an affluent African-American community adjacent to View Park. He did to her bruised, battered face as encephalopathic lesions upon the tissues of the brain, then walked away into the night, where he was apprehended.

This summer, Hall’s legal proceedings came to a halt upon a mental evaluation order for competency to stand trial; his defense attorney doesn’t believe he can. Fenno reported some of his family aren’t sure he’s even aware Benson is deceased. They point to a head trauma Hall experienced as a Colt that seemed to change his subsequent behavior. Ex-teammates at Utah State believe he became a drug addict after a party in Miami during his stint with the Bucs in which he smoked a laced marijuana cigarette: perhaps cocaine or heroin, they surmised. At the time the article was published in early July, Hall resided at the notorious Twin Towers Correctional Facility in downtown Los Angeles. [Update: In an exchange with the writer, Fenno, who admits to being haunted by the story every day and hopes to write a follow-up, said Hall’s next scheduled proceeding will be in two weeks and that the accused murderer, with his acute mental issues, remains in Twin Terrors.] For anyone aware of conditions at that teeming facility, they know it is the external equivalent to the 29 year old’s broken, battered brain. For those mothers who have pulled their boy(s) out of youth football leagues, the unparalleled story must possess a discomfiting affirmation; for those who haven’t, it must be a most expressive cautionary tale.

III Sunset Clause

For anyone who knows the trajectory of a life subsequent to the NFL, one shouldn’t be so surprised, and some aren’t waiting around to find out. Amid the eye-opening exodus of players retiring early over the past two summers, more have followed suit this offseason, although the threatened flood has slowed to a leaky faucet. It may be death through a thousand cuts to the NFL’s reputation, which the league has attempted to uphold with all the tenacity and obfuscation of the Tobacco industry: Their lung cancer and emphysema is now the NFL’s CTE. Wheels are spinning on Madison Avenue, hot Campbell’s soup bowls are a’readyin’, and league reps sound like former ExxonMobil officials denouncing climate change. In late July, researchers at Boston University published a journal article that stated that of 111 donated brains of deceased former NFL players it studied, 110 bore the signature scars of CTE and that, of those, 95 bore it extensively. It was not surprising news, not at all, and not just because many of the donors were known to have exhibited behavioral issues associated with CTE up to and including suicide. Los Angeles Times health and science reporter Melissa Healy, who covered the article, drafted a beautiful turn of phrase when she wrote about how the eyebrow-raising findings might affect agents and followers alike of “a sport that, at its highest levels, has been a showcase for violent hits.”

The same day the article was published, diminutive wide receiver Andrew Hawkins, who lost the second half of the 2015 season to a concussion—that’s eight weeks, announced he was running to the hills before even playing a down for the Super Bowl champion New England Patriots after six seasons in the state of Ohio for the Cincinnati Bengals and rival Cleveland Browns; he also said he would donate his brain to the Boston-based Concussion Legacy Foundation. Hawkins, who complained that his body wasn’t suitably responding to training, had an out: ESPN reported he received a master’s in the Ivy League with a perfect GPA this offseason and is moving on to a doctoral in business and econ. Riddled with injuries and exits at the position, quarterback Tom Brady—who was involved in his own concussion scandal this offseason when the league investigated his Patriots—notorious for bending and breaking NFL rules and hiding injuries—for possibly covering up a concussion he’d sustained last season based on media claims made by his concerned wife, Gisele Bündchen, whom he admitted is profusely begging him to retire—could probably use him. Instead, Hawkins announced on Twitter he’ll be within the protective walls of a studio on Sundays doing a show for ESPN Radio.

Perhaps proving that 31, Hawkins’ age, is the new 41, 22-year-old Su’a Cravens, projected starting strong safety of Washington, left the team two weeks ago and is moving toward early retirement after a series of injuries, believe fretful teammates, whom, according to ESPN, he walked out on with the farewell, “Peace Out”! “Cravens leaves ‘Skins stunned, future in doubt,” the Los Angeles Times headline screamed. (Stubborn Washington majority owner Dan Snyder still insists on calling the team by the overtly racist moniker R—, as if it’s just another plague upon the league to be buried.) The 2nd-round pick from USC tore a meniscus three plays into the exhibition season and missed three games at the end of last season with a biceps bruise after earlier missing two after suffering a concussion that he claimed altered his vision. Cravens was criticized for allegedly not taking his rehab from the biceps injury seriously enough and was reportedly nervous about coming back from the knee injury. It’s also been reported ownership talked him out of retirement and otherwise placed him on the colorfully named exempt/left squad list that essential gives him a 30-day time out to think about his options. Many, including his head coach, teammates, and observers, are likening his walkout to “personal issues,” but it seems there’s only one issue going on to me: injuries. Whether the mercurial young man with the Hawaiian heritage who once had to be talked out of leaving ‘SC after a new coach changed his position returns or not, precedent has already been set by the twentysomething players who have preceded him out into the pasture the last two seasons. [Update: Cravens’ 30 days and 30 nights are up; he is ineligible to play this season. “We sincerely hope Su’a uses this time away from the club to reflect upon whether or not he’d like to resume his career in the National Football League in 2018,” Washington stated. “The last time I talked to him was when he informed me that he was leaving,” head coach Jay Gruden said.]

Some players can deal with injuries, others can’t. It’s the league’s culture that glosses over them and makes them routine. After all, there are touchdowns to be scored, and billions to be made. Some players value other aspects of life more than football. The Boston University study found that the more one plays the more pronounced CTE becomes. In addition to four in high school and three at Mississippi, Oher played seven complete seasons plus the concussion-shortened one last year in the NFL, putting him right at the 15-year mean of the study. His dismissal from the Panther’s roster may be a blessing in disguise; it may also have come too late.

IV The Blind Side

The Carolina Panthers’ odds to make the Super Bowl after week one stand at a respectable 25-1, up from a preseason 28-1, on There is no over/under, as far as I’m aware, on how many injuries, concussions, or missed games quarterback Cameron Jerell Newton will sustain; if there was, I imagine, bets would be placed. After all, it’s a lively wager: Newton, who had to be consoled by his head coach after a disappointing performance in the team‘s opening 23-3 win over the San Francisco 49ers, got rattled and hummed to much fanfare last season. In short, he took a ’lickin, and at 6-5, 245 lbs., largely kept on tickin’. In March, he had surgery to repair a partially torn rotator cuff in a shoulder that may be only mildly less marginalized than Roethlisberger’s, who’s injured his four times and has seven seasons on him; it’s a lingering issue from late last season and he is still questionable to play Sunday because of it. The former Heisman Trophy winner and 2011 first overall NFL draft pick sustained a concussion earlier in the season the week after Oher left the field, apparently for good, with his and missed the following week’s game. Two years prior, after ankle reconstruction surgery in the spring, the controversial former Auburn star, whose father was involved in a pay-to-play scandal with a Mississippi State booster, missed games after suffering a hairline fracture of a vertebra and, separately, two fractures in his back from an auto collision. Even without the concussion and the hits to the head, pain is Cameron’s game, and the engaging young man is seemingly heading for a difficult retirement. He’s an athletic quarterback who sustains damage while trespassing outside the pocket, but even when’s he’s in there, he’s vulnerable. After all, Michael Oher won’t be there to protect his blind side. Then again, who will?

(Blindsided: Business Insider, CBS Sports, CNN, Dallas Observer, ESPN, Los Angeles Times, NFL, New York Daily News, The Boston Globe, The Charlotte Observer, The Guardian, The New York Times, The Washington Post, VegasInsider, Wikipedia)

(Nathan Fenno’s feature on De’von Hall:

© 2017 John Tyler/24 Hours

The Words, This Time: James Baldwin: Nobody’s “…Negro”—A Home Video Preview

(This is a much delayed review and commentary on Raoul Peck’s I Am Not Your Negro, nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature and released to Blu-ray, DVD, and Digital Download—including Amazon Video—May 2 by Magnolia Home Entertainment.)

“There is not another writer who expresses with such poignancy and abrasiveness the dark realities of the racial ferment in North and South.” — Time, May 17, 1963

What does an effeminate writer with a cartoonish face; a wide, effusive, queer grin; crooked, gaped teeth; and a habit of crossing his legs and dangling a cigarette holder in his right hand like a dandy when he speaks have to do with recent outrage over the flagrant and most foul police shootings of primarily young African-American men? As Haitian filmmaker and international citizen Raoul Peck sees it, quite a bit. It may or may not seem as if the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. and his Birmingham followers were just released from jail Saturday, and not necessarily on April 20, 1963, but one thing’s for sure, the more things change, the more they stay the same—a fitting turn of phrase when it comes to the African-American experience. I’m not sure if James Arthur Baldwin would believe that the redemptive election of the nation’s first African-American president ultimately represented progress or a step back, but had the Harlem native son clawed his way through the muddy depths of racial provocation, strife, and social ill still plaguing his people to the surface of his grave to awaken to this, I’m also not sure if he might rather just cover himself back up with dirt and go back to sleep. Peck doesn’t believe so, and not just because Baldwin’s dreams be so disturbed; it was just this sort of contemporaneous riot—then, the dignified demeanor of Dorothy Counts walking—schoolbooks in hand—through a gauntlet of abusive White citizens to attend class at a newly integrated high school in Charlotte; today, the moving responses, ripostes, and vigils of the wives, sisters, girlfriends, etc. of the victims of those shootings—that brought Baldwin out of his Parisian exile. Besides that, Peck was not even a young man when he discovered the American’s writings that form the basis of …Negro so penetrated to the bone the essence of the “negro problem” they ventured on prophecy. If Baldwin’s bones do rattle at the forcefully lethal expression of malice and ill will toward his brothers (and sisters) under color of authority, he might hardly blink an eye at the rest; after all, his testimonies ultimately predicted it.

If the film is based, then, on Baldwin’s written and oral expression, including Notes of a Native Son, The Fire Next Time, No Name in the Street and other essays, magazine and newspaper articles, including an April, 1978 piece in The New York Times entitled, “The News from All the Northern Cities Is, to Understate It, Grim; the State of the Union Is Catastrophic,” a few things still need to be clarified. NO, James Baldwin did not “write” this film, as the odd and misleading opening credit states, as if we were about to witness a posthumous realisation of an August Wilson piece, which was strange enough. It’s a homage, for sure, but make no mistake about it, Raoul Peck (Sometimes in April, Lumumba) crafted this film. Second, the film’s title is a watering down of Baldwin’s initial, actual “N—“ expression that today still might carry the same shock as it did then when Baldwin was trying to wake folks up, though in today’s pop-culture-influenced parlance, it’s used in ways that I can assure you Baldwin would write an entire tome on the psychological complexities at work. …Negro is divided into segments with titles such as “Paying Your Dues” and “Witness,” but it was primary inspired by an unfinished book-length testimony Baldwin was intending to write about his contemporaries King, Medgar Evers, and Malcolm X entitled Remember This House. You may or may not be too surprised to see who comes out best—besides the unassailable Evers, it’s King. While Baldwin joined the chorus in denouncing the southern Christian’s “early” departure from Birmingham—after a resolution with city leaders but before a particularly virulent put-down of “rioting” by police and National Guardsmen—and asserted that Malcolm X “corroborates [African-American} reality” when he speaks, this is particularly acute when Peck includes an excerpt from a television interview conducted by Kenneth B. Clark in which he makes ugly and juvenile assertions about “ignorant Black preachers” and “Uncle Toms,” to which King gives a calm, cool, and collected rebuttal. While this was Malcolm X about at his worst—and Baldwin believed that toward the end the two had not only come closer to respecting one another but were essentially espousing the same things—it’s this same calm, cool, penetrating intellect and deep reservoir of knowledge and wisdom of King’s that Peck draws from Baldwin in the film.

While that “unconditional” voice, as the filmmaker puts it in his dedication, the one that became to be known as the voice of the Civil Rights Movement, is sometimes typewritten across a black screen in white typography, it’s more often given dramatic resonance by Samuel L. Jackson’s deep cadences, rich pauses, and emphatic precision. His profound and moving narration is not only one of the highlights of Jackson’s career, but one of the most devastating and authentic I’ve heard committed to narrative voiceover. No, this is not the nauseating commercial spokesman pushing the benefits of Capital One’s cash-back credit-card rewards program over those of Chase and the others, not to worry. Besides that, Peck captures Baldwin, whose oratorical eloquence was honed during a teenage stint replicating his abusive stepfather’s calling as a junior minister at a Pentecostal assembly in Washington Heights, at some particularly entertaining and illuminating events: a Harvard forum in 1963; a University of Cambridge debate in 1965 in which he receives an effusive standing ovation from a packed audience of White students; and an appearance on The Dick Cavett Show that not only captures the chain-smoking writer in fine form as he respectfully reproves Yale philosophy professor Paul Weiss, but the classic facial expressions and uncomfortable glances at the audience of the host, who encapsulates Baldwin’s take on the current status of the American negro by saying, “At once better and still hopeless.” Witticisms and deep, incisive comments abound from the subject throughout. One can’t help but think that for today’s generation who may lack tolerance and even respect for Civil Rights-era and other veteran African-American leadership—and who declined to even vote for Hillary Clinton despite all that was at stake—Baldwin would immediately fill a void and command respect. That may or may not be why Peck thought the time was right for this.

Baldwin arrived at this preeminent place perhaps because of his status as an outsider. His escape to France as a young man in 1948—even with nothing but $40 and the clothes on my back on the Paris streets “nothing worse could happen to me” than already had in America, Jackson narrates—practically guaranteed that. When he returned as a “witness” to the troubles in 1957—some of the most satisfying footage is seeing a wide-eyed, wonderstruck Baldwin riding shotgun in a car as he tours the Chicago streets nodding his head this way and that to get views from every window—and though he toured the South in 1963 in support of the Congress of Racial Equality, he formally turned away from the principle organized movements—the Muslim Brotherhood, King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, the Black Panther Party, and the NAACP, which he believed exhibited class elitism. The sometimes emotionally brittle writer took pride in his poor Harlem street boy days—“My school was the streets of New York City”—and rejected organized religion. Besides, as Jackson also narrates, “I was never in town long enough to commit myself to the movement. My motive was to write about it.”

Here, I couldn’t help but be reminded of similarities not only to Afro-Caribbean writer Franz Fanon, who woke up left-wing European intellectuals with his stark depictions of the effects of colonialism and who died in December, 1961, at the age of 36, but French writer Jean Genet, who was rescued from a lifelong prison sentence by French intelligentsia led by the likes of Jean Cocteau and Jean-Paul Sartre who were most impressed with his penmanship. A ward of the state before his first birthday, the national treasure turned to a life of crime, homosexuality, visionary writing, and, after being pardoned, a life of international activism à la Sartre. But Genet never felt comfortable with his comparatively bourgeoise peers—his The Thief’s Journal is one of the darkest and most extremely lived autobiographical pieces I can imagine—and remained an outsider of the literary establishment and any other. Baldwin actually toured America with Genet in support of the Panthers, George Jackson, and Angela Davis during the time of the Soledad Brothers Defense in 1971. Genet’s provocative caricature on race and class, The Blacks, arrived off-Broadway in 1961 with a cast including James Earl Jones; Louis Gossett, Jr.; Cicely Tyson; and Maya Angelou as the White Queen. The long-running sensation “inspired” A Raison in the Sun playwright Lorraine Hansberry to write Les Blancs as a more dignified Pan-African response to themes of colonialism—an adaptation by Rogue Machine at the MET Theatre in Los Angeles is actually currently running through July 31.

Hansberry appears in …Negro not only as a close confident of Baldwin’s who also died young—just 40 days before Malcolm X at the age of 34 from pancreatic cancer—but because of her demonstrative role in a surreal encounter with Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy in May, 1963, subsequent to the Birmingham “Riots.” Baldwin recounts how Hansberry defiantly walked out of the meeting with other civil-rights leaders after delivering a particularly stinging summation of the president’s younger brother’s out-of-touch views of negroes in the struggle. The contingent had been hoping to persuade the administration, “the good white people on the hill,” as Baldwin referred to Washington, to provide federal support for African Americans who were enduring the threats, harassment, and violence of integration and peaceful protest, but they left empty-handed, with Baldwin feeling that the future Democratic presidential candidate was completely out of touch with Black Americans. No, despite some of his and his brother’s intervention on behalf of integration, the man whose own assassination five years later would close like a guillotine any hope of a liberal 1960s political movement segueing into the next decade does not come off well here at all. As if to illustrate that insularity that so bedeviled the East Coast prep royalty, Kennedy reportedly referred to Baldwin as “Martin Luther Queen.” Among the AG’s dangerous dalliance with closeted FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover was to put Baldwin in his crosshairs, with much of it being plainly discernable muckraking focused on the writer’s alleged homosexuality, in which the writer pretty much wore the “alleged” on his sleeve. Peck graphically reveals some of the organization’s conclusions among the astounding number of pages—some 1,887—it compiled on Baldwin, far more than many others at the time, ultimately portraying the morally questionable citizen as a “dangerous individual,” a threat not only to national security but to the very democracy itself, a distinction Genet most certainly would‘ve been proud of if it were even true. The official dossier, perhaps an unparalleled waste of time and energy, echoes Baldwin’s opinion expressed in the film that White society held a “laughably pathetic” view of Malcolm X “were it not so dangerously wicked.”

Yet, Baldwin’s outsider status was cured and sealed much earlier in a way that he himself felt was similarly wicked, and Peck spends a good deal of the film on this, which came as a surprise. As a middle-school student Baldwin not only came under the influence of Countee Cullen, but his math teacher, Orilla Miller, took the promising young student under her wing, introducing him to the city’s art and culture but also, significantly, its cinema. His first film was the seemingly innocuous Dance, Fools, Dance starring Joan Crawford; images of her dancing wildly on a stage in B&W play while Jackson narrates Baldwin’s impressions from The Devil Finds Work. Classic Hollywood can at times appear very innocuous, especially with talented stars around, but if the treatment of women isn’t appalling enough, the fact that most everyone in them is White to noticeable exception can leave one not used to White society feeling left out, to put it mildly, not to mention an impressionable young boy of a different skin. Things get more literal with patently questionable cowboys and Indians fare like John Ford’s The Stagecoach; the boy’s childhood with the stars now includes John Wayne and Gary Cooper cleansing the prairie with wild, wanton rampages on horseback and stagecoach, guns a’blazin’. The psychological effects of racism are realized; faced with thrilling depictions of national genocide, the boy sees that “my countrymen were my enemies,” and with a choice between good guys and bad, “the Indians were you.” In Wayne and company, “immaturity is a virtue,” creating “a legend out of a massacre.” Gunplay seems to be all the sensation, unless you’re a Black Panther. Baldwin then takes on what he perceives to be Hollywood’s misuse of Sidney Poitier to fit White expectations. Amid scenes of The Defiant Ones, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, and In the Heat of the Night, Baldwin muses that Black audiences must either be howling with unintended laughter or hugely disappointed. By the time Jackson relates the writer’s reminisces of a thwarted interracial relationship with a White girl in which the couple are forced to clandestinely date, a missed opportunity at love that also haunted King, the young man’s already halfway to Paris.

On it goes, a deeper journey into darkness as the film progresses; it’s not quite Conrad’s Heart of Darkness or Apocalypse Now!, but it may as well be. Images of B&W civil-rights actions, police brutality, Baldwin, King, Evers, and Malcolm X flash to contemporary scenes of Ferguson, incendiary protests, and further police intimidation. Peck does an excellent job compiling text, stills, and video; still, segueing to the contemporary scenes may require the audience take a leap of faith, no matter how convincing they may seem. Upon a latter, second viewing, I realized the filmmaker had gone to the well too often with scenes of Classic Hollywood bucolic Americana contrasted with racial unrest and aggressive, out-of-control policing. Assisted by editor Alexandra Strauss and animation and graphics designer Michel Blustein, it’s agit-prop filmmaking, to be sure, but one that strives to remain truthful. A concluding chapter emerges, “Purity,” a title with evocations of a final solution.

For Baldwin, there is no separation between the destiny of the American nation and that of African Americans, those “unique” peoples from whose bright eyes “a light seems to go everywhere,” as Jackson narrates. The very fabric of the democracy depends on a permanent uplift and unification, a nation born from slave auctions and carried on through cheap labor, a democracy that has not yet even begun. “The story of the negro is America’s story. It is not a pretty story.” A good writer typically has a nice degree of amateur psychology in his or her bag of tricks, and Baldwin is certainly no exception. In analyzing the impetus for carrying forward a race-based system far beyond the blossoms of slavery, the trenchant social observer asserts a similar perspective to King’s “sick white brothers” diagnosis of the psychological pathology behind it. Through the genocide of the native peoples and the inculcation of a system that “repudiates my existence” and remains entrenched in deep economic poverty, White Americans have completely abrogated their “moral authority”; “it’s a “formula for a kingdom’s demise.” Baldwin believes the way out is for Americans to start taking responsibility because “we need each other.” He offers the spark for a new beginning: “The future of the country depends on white people figuring out why you needed to have a n— in the first place.”

One of my biggest takes from …Negro is the Dick Cavett excerpt. I can’t get beyond contrasting that show with today’s ebullient late-night figures the likes of Jimmy Fallon and their absolutely useless shenanigans, celebrity adorations, and trifling interviews, while Tavis Smiley can barely string together 20 minutes of content in exile on PBS with hardly enough funding to stay afloat. It may seem a curious take, but it actually goes right to the heart of Baldwin’s essential beliefs. Amid wild scenes from The Jerry Springer Show, Gene Gene the Dancing Machine on The Gong Show, and staged game-show giveaways on Let’s Make a Deal and The Price Is Right, Jackson asserts Baldwin’s critique of an “immature… narrow-minded” nation in which “the empty lives we live” are reflected in “the empty, tame, bland images on television” through which “we fail to recognize who we are.” Far from being just commercial decadence, the broadcast entertainment confirms a deep psychological denial and moral surrender, an inability of White Americans “to come to terms with themselves and the race problem.” “To look around America today is to see radical insights into white complacence,” Jackson intones. Peck wonders what’s changed; so do I. About all he doesn’t include are the reassurances of Fox News Channel hosts and commentators that yet another senseless shooting was not the dreadful confirmation of a prejudiced, out-of-control police force but the unacceptable and unfortunate actions of a suddenly lifeless Black man, or countering to a guest with barely concealed indignation, “What, me worry? The problem is your racial consciousness…” let alone the network’s inflammatory coverage of the Ferguson unrest that I had the misfortune of catching on a plane one night.

Toward the end of 1987, the body of James Arthur Baldwin perished in his home in the medieval commune of Saint-Paul-de-Vence in the French Riviera from stomach cancer and was returned to the state of New York to be buried in a cemetery plot, yet his words are still there, all around us. Just turn on the television, or open your web browser, if you prefer, look, and listen, then you tell me.

© 2017 John Tyler/24 Hours

The Order of Identity: Split—A Home Video Preview

If the purpose of going to the cinema is just to enjoy oneself, let alone be completely stunned—slammed against your seat, like all of the mostly “urban” youths I saw this with in the sanctuary city of all sanctuary cities in the renegade state of California, then Split, M. Night Shyamalan’s latest exhibit in his career renaissance, is certainly going to be one of the films of the year. It is that alone for the simply monstrous performance by James McAvoy, the talented and expressive Scottish actor who made his breakthrough here upstaging Forest Whitaker’s Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland, and who’s gone on to digital Hollywood serial exposure and fame. In a consummate performance that would earn him an Oscar nomination for sheer audacity and brilliant execution if horror-thrillers were given any consideration, McAvoy twists and contorts all of that facial expressiveness and beyond to the requirements of playing a handful of the multiple personalities of one Kevin, the host of a “horde” of characters who come to fruition under the methodological term now known as Dissociative Identity Disorder, or DID.

Among these colorful players, who materialize much to the amazement of the three girls—mean girl Claire (Haley Lu Richardson, The Edge of Seventeen); second-fiddle beauty Marcia (Jessica Sula); and deeply isolated, nearly mute social outcast Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy, Morgan, Barry)—who are precipitously abducted from a shopping center parking lot in a brazen daylight action very early on, within the stark industrial confines of a makeshift home that was not properly zoned by the city, are Dennis, the brazen, bespectacled, big-brother kidnapper who’s gained the upper hand on Kevin himself; Miss Patricia, a matronly, upper-crust caregiver dressed like a new-age Scottish bagpipe player whose exceptional breeding barely masks a sinister Dickensian inner channel; and Hedwig, a young adult with the mental and behavioral capacity of an adolescent who flirts with the distressed girls and fancies petty and more actual rebellions against Dennis and the Misses so long as he can get away with them. A fourth, the OCD fashion designer and primary interloper Barry, tries to warn Kevin’s psychiatrist, the nearly professionally exiled Dr. Fletcher (a perfectly cast Betty Buckley), of the startling goings-on, but is beating to the punch by Dennis, whose tête-à-tête with the caring, concerned, but implicitly intuitive therapist is worth the price of admission alone. D. can barely keep the lid on the basis of all the uproar—the imminent materialization of a new character known as The Beast, whose depiction in Hedwig’s childlike drawings is ominously, monstrously inhuman.

The late realization of the setting of Kevin’s twisted domicile tips Shyamalan’s hand to the latter of the nature versus nurture debate, and allusions to The Beast’s proclivity for flesh betrays cannibalism for a more animalistic hunger; hence, the girls abduction as “unpure” sacrificial lambs. It’s Nietzsche and Dostoevsky run amok. The true basis for Kevin’s diagnosis, of course, is extreme childhood trauma—could it be anything else?—trauma that is also mirrored in Casey—whose backstory is intercut in some inspired editing by Luke Ciarrocchi, who also edited Shyamalan’s previous, The Visit, and who cut his teeth as an assistant on the director’s The Happening—which allows her to instinctively alight to and even empathize with Kevin’s motivations, as if she had seen the X-Files episode, Unruhe, and was following Agent Scully’s rational lament, “For truly to pursue monsters, we must understand them…” (Taylor-Joy and the other young actresses are all excellent.)

Monsters? One of the original in the Western canon is Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, a multilayered metaphor for all sorts of personal, social, and political demons at the monstrous time, and certainly evoked here with the emergence of The Beast, a necessitated, perhaps, materialization of all sorts of similar forces hence, like neofascist and neocommunist uprisings from Germany—foreshadowed cinematically in brilliant recent films by Michael Haneke (The White Ribbon) and Brady Corbet (The Childhood of a Leader)—to North Korea to Cambodia to Cuba, not to mention the turbulent formation and realized nuclear ambitions of Pakistan, carved out of the writer-director-producer’s own native land. Shyamalan’s smart script must be aware of this; before making Split, he had just formulated much of Fox’s rather excellent dystopian sci-fi social satire, Wayward Pines.

Still, Shyamalan has childlike tendencies himself, and here, he’s like a kid in a candy store. The departure for Split is certainly the schizophrenic horror genre and a more tasteful modification of the more recent torture-horror films—Claire’s white sweater is dispensed with early, under a pretext, of course, and the distressed Richardson spends much of the film in undergarments. Detractors may point to a few liberal and derivative indulgences toward the end as material evidence of a misfire, but what would otherwise exasperate myself in a lesser film are merely a few pardonable missteps here. Indeed, Split nearly rises to the level of a Halloween, one of the more excellent of the schizophrenic offerings, especially in Buckley’s exceeding performance, which evokes Donald Pleasence’s Dr. Loomis. Her heartbreaking reaction in her office to the realization that Dennis has, in fact, overcome Barry, the brief interlocution of Kevin himself in a pivotal moment, and the empathetic flashbacks to Kevin’s and Casey’s childhoods all contribute to this being no mere horror knockoff or exploitation flick.

As we just saw Monday night on A&E’s Bates Motel, when Freddie Highmore’s Norman Bates is condemned with having the same dreadful condition, which presupposes madness, he replies quite calmly and directly, though with a hint of preparatory schoolboy agitation, that all of us, after all, have multiple personalities, depending upon the social situation and particular player(s) involved. In the hands of Shyamalan’s gritty and penetrating script, Split is a transformative piece that calls into question the nature of identity itself, not only for the abnormally developed, but for all of us who may believe we are normal, and whose close adherence to a civilized routine has pronounced us definitely as anything but. All good cinema is transformative, altering your reality and view of yourself and the world around you, and Split certainly qualifies, not that anyone will leave a viewing inquiring too closely, ‘less they go mad. It’s a bit of a dilemma, one’s unexamined mind, and nowadays, in these modern-primitive times, it may be best to just leave it alone. After all, Freud already did that, and his findings were none too comforting.

(Be completely stunned—be slammed against your living room seat; Split is now available with extras, including an alternate ending and deleted scenes, on Blu-ray, DVD, and Digital Download from Universal Studios Home Entertainment!)

© 2017 John Tyler/24 Hours