“Official Secrets”–Blowing in the Wind

Based upon the  true story of British Intelligence whistle-blower Katharine Gun (played by Keira Knightley) immediately before the planned 2003 Iraq invasion, Official Secrets exposes a joint US-UK illegal extortion plan [under President George W. Bush and Prime Minister Tony Blair).  Both governments colluded against members of the UN Security Council in order to obtain their votes for invasion.  Gun, a minor functionary and translator of highly confidential documents, leaks a top secret NSA memo  that  proposes blackmailing smaller, less powerful Security Council members. Official Secrets is a case study of the heroic whistle-blower who is willing to stand up for her values, regardless of the consequences. In the case of Katherine Gun, she naively did not expect the closing of ranks and the harm to her personal life. Nevertheless she was a heroine who deserves to be recognized for her truth-telling, at great emotional and physical cost.

Also at great personal and professional risk, journalist Martin Bright (Ralph Fiennes) publishes the leaked document in The Observer. The story made headlines around the world. Members of the Security Council were outraged and any chance of a UN resolution in favor of war collapsed. But within days, Bush declared he no longer needed UN backing.  The US  invaded anyway, with Colin Powell presenting his views supporting the invasion and weapons of mass destruction.  

The Official Secrets Act is then invoked, with treason and sedition charges brought against both Katherine Gun and Martin Bright. Their legal battles expose the highest levels of government in both London and Washington.  Katherine is put on trial in 2003.

The soul of the film is the ethical question of whether state employees act for the people or for the government, echoing Watergate.   At its core, Official Secrets is a portrait of  a courageous individual who believes an illegal war is about to be declared.  Her moral compass does not allow her to remain silent.  With impeccable timing, Official Secrets demonstrates how coverups can impact the course of history.

Note: When Secretary of State Colin Powell learned that the information he was given for his presentation to the United Nations was false, he resigned. 

Availability: Netflix DVD

“Self-Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam CJ Walker”–First Female Millionaire in US

This mini-series was inspired by a  biography written by Madam CJ Walker’s great-great-granddaughter, A’Lelia Bundles (“On Her Own Ground: The Life and Times of Madam C.J. Walker”).  This Netflix four-episode mini-series highlights the extraordinary, –almost unbelievable– life of Sarah Breedlove (1867 –1919), an African American entrepreneur, philanthropist, and political and social activist. Sara Breedlove–soon to prefer the brand name Madam CJ Walker– is the first female self-made millionaire in America (regardless of ethnicity) in the Guinness Book of World Records. 

Self-Made is a little-known and highly unlikely story of the black hair care pioneer during turn-of-the-century America, who created thousands of jobs and became a neighbor of John Rockefeller in upstate New York.

Academy Award winner Octavia Spencer plays Madam CJ Walker, during the worst of the Jim Crow era.   No bank loans, no white retail store support, and competition and sexism among the Black male business community presented almost insurmountable obstacles to Madam CJ Walker’s dreams and ambitions.  Walker’s story is one of extraordinary grit, cunning and marketing ingenuity, and absolute determination against post-slavery racial and gender oppression.

Self-Made opens at the beginning of the 20th Century, sandwiched twenty years after the Civil War and a half-century before the Civil Rights movement.  An indigent African American laundry woman widowed by her first husband, who left her a single mother of a two-year old daughter Lelia, and abused by her second husband, Sarah Breedlove yearns for a path out of her desperate circumstances. 

During the early 1900s most homes lacked plumbing and electricity. Environmental pollution, lice, and bacteria also threatened one’s health.  Bathing was a luxury and women were going bald.  As the laundry woman for a beauty-products business woman, Addie Malone (the luminous Carmen Ejogo of “Your Honor”), Sarah is rejected when she proposes being Addie’s business partner. The reason?  Her appearance: 

 “Even in your Sunday best you still look like you just stepped off the plantation,” Addie –brutal and arrogant—insultingly dismisses her.   

The complicated relationship between Black hair and white ideals of beauty soon become a central theme of Self-Made.  Addie represents a lighter skinned, long-hair type which some Black women wanted to emulate.  Sarah– soon to label her products Madam CJ Walker–understood that hair was not a benign topic for Black women but a potent measure of a Black woman’s worth.  And she wanted to create another ideal of beauty that appreciated and acknowledged Black women on their own terms, not ones imputed on them.  At first, she gratefully receives validation from her husband, CJ Walker (Blair Underwood), for his admiration of her physical appearance.

Her daughter, Lelia (Tiffany Haddish), is both a source of disappointment and later of joy as she recognizes the sacrifices her mother has made for her family and for her business.  While other products for Black hair (largely manufactured by white businesses) were on the market, Walker’s products emphasized health and natural ingredients, not the lye and harmful chemicals often found in Black hair products.  She sold her homemade products directly to Black women, using a personal approach that won her loyal customers. She went on to employ a fleet of saleswomen to sell her products whom she called “beauty culturalists.” [This method of “direct sales” was later copied–most notably by Fuller Brush and Avon.]

Walker proved to be a marketing magician, promoting a better lifestyle for Black women, bolstering them with pride for advancement and higher pay: “Wonderful hair leads to wonderful opportunities.”

In one scene, Madam CJ Walker pleads with a rather officious Booker T. Washington to help her secure a business loan from wealthy Black businessmen in the community, but he admonishes her that Black women should know their place. Undeterred, Sarah appeals to Washington’s wife and taps into a whole community of wealthy, highly educated, but disgruntled women.  In sharp contrast, W.E.B. DuBois warmly welcomes her business acumen.

The performances knock it out of the park.  Octavia Spencer is made for this role: smart and contained, a no-nonsense entrepreneur who won’t take “No” for an answer.

The major flaw in Self-Made–and not to be ignored–is the somewhat cringeworthy cinematic device of fantasy sequences with dancers or boxers to indicate the mean-spirited and unrelenting rivalry between Walker and Addie.    Such visual clutter is a distraction from an otherwise forceful script. The soundtrack is also, at times, jarring and out of tone or theme with the scenes. 

A highly inspirational mini-series of almost miraculous feats by Madam CJ Walker.  Should be on everyone’s watch list!

Availability:  Netflix streaming

Note:  Lelia Walker, who succeeded as president of her mother’s company, was dubbed “The Joy Goddess of Harlem’s 1920s” by Langston Hughes because of the crucial role she played in creating a

Manhattan salon, The Dark Tower.  This salon contributed to the arts scene of one of the most fertile periods in American literature and the arts, especially forging a safehaven for gay artists during the Harlem Renaissance. 

Note:   The self-made millionaire used her fortune to fund scholarships for women at the Tuskegee Institute and donated significant funds to orphanages, the NAACP, the Black YMCA and other charities.

“Red Dot”(2021)– Laser Focused

Trying to put more excitement into their marriage, Nadja and David, a young doctor and engineer, decide to go on a camping trip in a remote forest in Sweden, fantasizing that it will be romantic, gazing at the Northern Lights with their adorable dog.  The impending “excitement” is not exactly what they bargained for, however.  Stalked by an unseen enemy, they become the targets of a hellish nightmare.  Red Dot is an intense psychological thriller.

In a reversal of gender roles, frequently seen in Nordic Noir, Nadja is not in need of saving. A very competent and efficient physician, she is the one usually fixing and encouraging her partner, an engineer who thinks he has all the answers, not to give up as they are hunted down. 

But the real reason behind their status as prey emerges from a dark secret from their past they thought they had left behind.  With very little foreshadowing, the viewer is left a little short-changed, despite the heavy impact of multiple plot twists and the inescapable message that there are consequences for your actions, even if it takes years to come to fruition.

Red Dot delivers.   There are thrills you expect and those you don’t.   A mixture of poor choices and mistakes on the part of the couple makes for a disturbing story about moral ambiguity and recklessness, a lack of empathy and community, a smug sense of entitlement, and callous anonymity.  How swiftly and soundlessly life can deliver unwanted realities.

This Nordic Noir thriller could be compared with the Liam Neeson’s star turn in ‘The Grey”, and Timothy Olyphant in “A Perfect Getaway”, and the British thriller “Calibre” (reviewed August 5, 2018).    Highly watchable and heart-pounding!

Availability:  Netflix streaming

“Palmer” (2021)–Second Chances

In this little sleeper of a movie, Eddie Palmer (Justin Timberlake) is released from prison after serving twelve years for attempted murder in a robbery gone wrong.  With nowhere to live but at his beloved grandmother’s (June Squibb of Nebraska), Palmer soon is forced to reexamine his life and,  in the process of learning to accept his past, finds ways of expressing his feelings.  A bullied young non-binary child, Sam  (Ryder Allen), lives with his drug addicted mother, Shelly (Juno Temple),  in a trailer on the grandmother’s property.  Soon they enter Palmer’s life in a major, life-transforming way.

Palmer is a macho character, the badass who reflexively expressed himself with his fists in his pre-prison past.  Yet, Sam–who is bullied repeatedly for his love of princesses, tiaras, and dolls–sits down with Palmer and expresses his joy at being who he is. Both Sam and Palmer are allowed to be painfully vulnerable in these scenes.  Full, absolute, acceptance is the overriding theme and heart of Palmer. There’s no denying who you are and no reason to try to change.

Palmer is a poignant, unexpected winner.  It is  very difficult to develop the character of a little boy who just doesn’t happen to conform to normative male traits.  Sam has personal dreams that don’t meet others’ expectations and he wants to be fine with that.  The quiet, understated performance by Justin Timberlake as the tight-lipped small-town miscreant– to whom no one wants to give a second chance to–is his  finest yet. And the angel-faced Ryder Allen is  cast so perfectly  that this viewer forgot, at times, that he was acting.  Check this one out!

Note:  Compare Palmer to Peanut Butter Falcon starring Shia LaBoeuf, on a similar theme.  Both are good films  but I would choose Palmer  if you have only time or interest in watching one portrayal of a millennial lost soul and his friendship with a young boy.

Availability:  Apple TV+

“Ammonite”–Two Women Shedding Their Shell

This highly original biopic of a little-known woman scientist highlights the obscurity in which women of renown nevertheless hid in plain sight.   Ammonite, set in the coastal village of Lyme Regis, in 1840s England, chronicles the intense relationship between the acclaimed but overlooked fossil hunter and paleontologist Mary Anning (Kate Winslet) and a young affluent woman, Charlotte Murchison (Saoirse Ronan).  Their friendship transforms both of their lives.

Charlotte Murchison visits Mary Anning’s fossil shop with her dilettante husband, Roderick (James McArdle), who wishes to observe Mary discovering the fossils that have made her well-known at the British Museum yet paradoxically unknown.  Charlotte is supposed to convalesce by the sea while her husband seeks Mary’s know-how and ostensibly hopes to elevate his reputation without attribution to Mary’s tutelage.

Ammonite film

Living a solitary and deeply lonely existence with her mother Molly (Gemma Jones), who plays with nine ceramic figurines symbolizing the deceased children, Mary is not interested at all in Roderick’s offer to pay generously for a “tour” of her fossil sites.  Reluctantly, at her mother’s urging, she obliges his request.

Mary silently and coldly witnesses how Roderick treats his wife more roughly than he would the delicate care required for revealing the beauty of a fossil.  As a talented paleontologist who discovers what lies beneath the surface, Mary has little use for either of them.

Disenchanted with his beautiful young wife “who used to shine and dazzle”, Roderick abandons her while he continues his explorations abroad.  In the interim, we see Anning slowly uncover the intrinsic beauty of Charlotte.

The grey of Ammonite’s cinematography, underscoring the depressing and cold isolation of both Mary and Charlotte, is sharply contrasted to the color in the scenes of their friendship and intimacy.   Both actors’ faces convey the inner conflict and almost unbearable loneliness in one exquisitely graceful scene after the next. Nothing is  forced or manufactured and both Winslet and Ronan are evenly matched, seasoned performers whose intelligent decisions never misfire.  Both characters, at times, seem to be screaming for help from the bottom of a well.  Viewers first see the two women detached and wounded, their icy cold veneers slowly warming and cracking, revealing buried vulnerability needing to be excavated.

There’s so much grace and nuance in these two actors’ performance with remarkably little dialogue and no narration.  Individual, wordless moments that express both an understated delight and the devastating knowledge that it may not last are superimposed upon an extraordinarily palpable chemistry between Ronan and Winslet.

Highly recommended, especially for fans of historical drama, biopics, and women’s history.

Note:  Anning was a genuine legend in her own time.  Her fossil shop is now the Lyme Regis Museum.  For an interesting article on the historical accuracy of her life and the film’s interpretation of her friendship with Murchison, see the March 20, 2019 article in The Guardian https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/mar/20/mary-anning-lesbian-palaeontologist-women-film