“20 Feet From Stardom”–Stellar Performers

 

20 Feet from Stardom

In the wake of the passing of Aretha Franklin, Queen of Soul, 20 Feet from Stardom will resonate more than ever. The mainly female backup singers featured in 20 Feet From Stardom are all daughters of preachers, as was Aretha Franklin, who fine-tuned their extraordinary singing voices in the church choir while very, very young. Director Morgan Neville connects Gospel, Blues, and Soul to these roots of Rock and Roll.

You may not recognize the names or faces of Darlene Love, Lisa Fischer, and Merry Clayton, but you will surely recognize their unforgettable voices. Love has been elected to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Fischer still works as a backup singer, touring with Chris Botti, Sting and The Rolling Stones. However, the heart-stopping climax of the film belongs to Merry Clayton, as we are treated to her mind-blowing performance on the single “Gimme Shelter”. Hearing her raw voice blast out “Rape. Murder. It’s just a shot away” is gut-wrenching.

Twenty Feet from Stardom creates a visual and auditory record of these great soul singers and in the memory of Aretha Franklin, the time to watch this documentary is now. This film is groundbreaking, with the archival footage of performances we have heard but not witnessed. It is a joy to understand the sacrifices that creatives make for the love of their art, even if their dreams are not fulfilled. 20 Feet From Stardom is a documentary about a secret that needs to be told. And unfortunately,  the backup singer is rendered even less significant as music employs advanced recording and sound technology to emulate the gifted backup singer’s voice.

While we see personal frustration, regret, and betrayal we also witness a passion for music and a personal need to share their vocal gift with others. Most importantly perhaps, we understand the underappreciated gift their voices have brought to the music world.  Some of the stars truly recognize the valuable and indispensable contribution these backup singers gave to their success. Interviews with Bruce Springsteen, Bette Midler, Sting, Stevie Wonder, Lou Adler, Chris Botti, and Mick Jagger underscore the music-composing elements these virtuoso singers created . We also see Luther Vandross as a back-up singer to David Bowie and Sheryl Crow, who worked as Michael Jackson’s back-up/lead female. These are the examples of the back-ups who became well known later on. But 20 Feet from Stardom is focused upon those whose dreams did not come true.

My only criticism of 20 Feet from Stardom is structural. The first part of the film repeats the performances and sacrifices of the backup singer’s role. Each of the individual stories is very similar. So each singer’s personal story did not have to be told in such detail that it slows the film almost to a grinding halt.

But be patient. The poignant, fascinating sociological study of the cost of pursuing fame instead of excellence is eye-opening and well worth waiting for the personal reflection on the price of success. This would be a great evening’s watch along side Muscle Shoalssee my July 19, 2015 review  and Searching for Sugarman. Even the fictional Birdman ties into the main theme: neglecting the efforts of the team who supports and holds up the main attraction.

Note: Available to stream on Netflix.

 

The Tunnel–Seasons 2 and 3

 

The Tunnel Seasons 2 and 3 continue the tension from the first season, with a British and French detective partnership (Karl Roebuck and Elise Wasserman respectively) again working to solve a heinous series of crimes. (See my August 7, 2016 review of season 1: The Tunnel–Turf War or Building Bridges”.) Both season 2 and 3 seamlessly continue the tension, though by different writers and directors.

In Season 2 (“Sabotage”) the main plot is trying to figure out why a commercial airliner was hacked to override the autopilot, crashing in the ocean, killing everyone on board. The crash might be connected to other strange incidents including the abduction of the parents of a five-year-old girl while in the Chunnel.

The Tunnel Season 3

There are many plot twists  and subplots: connecting all the dots and understanding the motivation of each character, including the detective team. The narrative becomes quite convoluted. The sexual lives of Karl Roebuck (the excellent Stephen Dillane from “Game of Thrones) and Elise Wasserman (Fleur Delacour in “Harry Potter”) are revealed to be more complicated than in season 1. A sinister and mysterious mastermind, as well as a chemist who could rival the Nazi Mingele in his experiments, will keep the viewer on edge. No spoiler alerts here, but be prepared for nail-biting terror. Twisted ideologies, revenge, spies, terrorism, “marriage for sale”, sex trafficking, the vulnerability of love and loss, and the insidious nature of high-tech equipment in the hands of malevolent actors all make this second season of “The Tunnel” just as spellbinding as the previous season.

The Tunnel Season 3

Season 3 (“Vengeance”) stands on its own from the previous seasons with again, a new director and writer. In the anti-refugee hysteria of our times, we see the desperation of a mother looking for the  child she gave up decades ago during the war in Croatia.   An escalating refugee crisis and the exiled souls who experienced unspeakable tragedy seek relief from a society which mostly has turned its back.

Playing on the “Pied Piper” who purportedly promised a better life for the children who followed, we see the two intrepid investigators try to make sense of grisly sexualized murders, cyberstalking, a plague of rats echoing the Pied Piper,  and a macabre medieval enactment of murder. There is a subplot of a past cold case that still haunts Elise, also involving a child: missing children, children found, abandoned, troubled, and redeemed overlay the subplots and involve deceit, corruption, and trauma.

All of the disparate strands of this drama come to a tightly woven, shocking climax in the final episode ending this phenomenal three-season thriller. Few hints of what is to come in the finale prepare the viewer for the resolution, part satisfactory and part disconnected.

Highly recommended! And worthy of a repeat viewing, because the plots are so difficult to follow at times.

 

Note: Available on Amazon Prime (first two seasons) and Netflix (all three).

 

 

Calibre–A Bullet Through the Heart


Calibre movie

This bloodpressure-raising thriller opens with two best buddies, Vaughn Carter (Jack Lowden) and Marcus Trenton (Martin McCann), deciding to go on a guys’ weekend hunting trip to a remote village in the Scottish Highlands. Nothing could prepare them…or us… for what happens. Calibre tests the friends’ relationship and their moral character as Vaughan has to deal with his future as a father (with his expectant wife almost due to deliver) and his drug-addled best friend Marcus.   In its best moments, Calibre is part “Deliverance” and part “Dogville”. It attacks your nerves, ratcheting up the tension and suspense.

The hunting trip is Marcus’s idea, a way to celebrate Vaughn’s “last few days of freedom” before fatherhood, but Marcus is also intent upon drinking, having sex with local women, and drugs. Vaughn, on the other hand, is inexperienced as a hunter and doesn’t join in Marcus’s rowdy night-time antics the night before they stalk deer. He does get hungover, however.

Calibre Netflix Original

The opening is a terrifying hook setting the stage for horror and violence the viewer knows is inevitable. The village locals, hopeless men sporting thick beards, thick accents, and even thicker sweaters, begrudgingly welcome the two buddies to their economically depressed town.

From there, Calibre becomes a study in guilt, fear, vengeance, and toxic masculinity. An increasingly hostile and suspicious community leader (Tony Curran) becomes the tribal judge for what comes next. Now, Vaughan and Marcus must scheme and plot at every turn, reassessing what their friendship and survival are suggesting.

The ending is twofold–one expected and one perhaps not so much,– making Calibre a white-knuckle, teeth-clenching film to watch.  Calibre touches on the “me-against-them” classic set-up but with a complex nuance in recognizing the problems of a village where their livelihood is now obsolete, development non-existent and the young are restless and desperate, holding on to their tribe for stability and belonging. This is not a straightforward “evil local-yokels menace innocent city slickers” story, even if Calibre plays at times with those stereotypes. All characters are flawed in this intricately complicated and menacing spellbinder!

Note: Available on Netflix streaming.

 

“Three Identical Strangers”–Triplets and Eugenics

Three Identical Strangers

Three Identical Strangers raises difficult questions about how a 1950’s and 60’s psychological study was never made public, even to this day. Much of the data and conclusions remain unclear. In this study by respected psychologist Peter Neubauer,  unsuspecting subjects were parents and their adopted sons who were systematically studied and tested. The abuse of power, lasting two decades in the name of science, is the underlying theme of Three Identical Strangers.

Neubauer himself died in 2008 and bequeathed over sixty boxes of interviews, film footage and other raw data to Yale University with the proviso that it be sealed until 2066. His purported goal was to gather empirical data on children with the same genetic background in order to analyze parenting styles (“authoritarian” versus “permissive”) and address the issue of nature vs. nurture. Due to controversies over ethics and public opinion, Neubauer never published his research and the data remains sealed.

The film starts in 1980 when three teenage boys accidentally discover they are triplets. Although they were intentionally placed with families of different socioeconomic classes, in different parts of New York State, the three nevertheless become aware of each other.

The focus in Three Identical Strangers is on parenting rather than genetics. While the study was the only triplet study at that time, which followed siblings from infancy, many twin studies had been conducted in Nazi Germany as well as in the United States.  The Neubauer researchers carefully controlled the assignment of infants to parents, withheld information about their biological parentage, and didn’t disclose that the children being adopted were part of triplets or twins, or had other non-identical siblings. Instead, the adoption agency told the families that their children were being followed for a study about child development. At a time when the zeitgeist is to explore one’s chromosomes through services such as 23andMe or family ancestry through organizations like Ancestry.com, Three Identical Strangers taps into our curiosity about DNA versus environmental predispositions.

The film needed to reveal much more backstory about the relationship between the three sets of parents, and the adopted boys. This omission truly weakens Three Identical Strangers and leaves us wondering: What makes siblings differ radically, even if they share identical DNA?   We also wonder what the ethical and legal standards were at that time. An historical perspective on how psychological studies have changed in the past half-century, as well as the legal rights of subjects, would have rounded out the film. Does Yale have any duty to unseal the study? Should researchers review the findings and share them?  This is worthy of renting, but not leaving the house for the theater.

La Mante–The Praying Mantis

La Mante

This  must-see French suspense thriller focuses on   an imprisoned female serial killer, recruited to help solve a string of copycat murders, but only if her son, Damien, now a policeman, works with her on the case.  The mother is nicknamed “La Mante”,  the praying mantis.

First, it may be helpful to understand the biological nature of the praying mantis: the female camouflages herself and often ambushes the males and eats them live.

The levels of tension just increase from the beginning till the end as the viewer watches the stalking and the violent killing. All victims in La Mante are men.  Is the serial killer a woman?

Mom–Jeanne Deber (the beautiful Carole Bouquet)–is serving a life term without parole for the brutal murders of eight men. We do not know the motivation for her heinous killings. She has been serving a prison sentence for twenty-five years as La Mante opens, and we flash back to her abandonment of her young ten-year-old son as the police drag her her sobbing little boy away. The viewer will understand the motivation and unhealed wounds Jeanne suffered by the final episode’s thrilling climax.

Damien, now a senior investigator in Paris, is ordered to investigate a series of killings nicknamed the “Copycat Mantis”. He is deeply wounded by the purported death of his mother (whom, at first, he does not know was the notorious “Mantis”). Desperate to help catch the killer and prevent future murders, Damien reluctantly agrees to be involved in the police investigation at great cost to his personal life and his relationship with his young and incredibly understanding wife.

The twists and turns in each of its six episodes never fail to be compelling. With echoes of “The Silence of the Lambs” and “Hannibal” this dark and very bloody thriller never holds back with even the most gruesome shots of corpses. La Mante is certainly not for the weak of heart; if your stomach isn’t the strongest, I’d recommend passing – or watching the more bloody sequences with one hand over your eyes. The suspense and performances at their core, however, make La Mante well worth every hard-to-watch scene. The clever red herrings and false starts at identifying the copycat mantis are tightly woven into the subplot of the mother-son relationship and the son’s own misgivings about ever becoming a parent. Very dark, troublesome, and pathological areas of human relationships are explored–sometimes venomous, toxic and unforgivable.

La Mante is another success in French cinema–especially well-focused on the mother-son relationship, or the possible murder of a relationship from lying to those we leave behind.   As in real life, the criminal mind is traced back to events and backstory in childhood. La Mante is an astonishing opening of ruptured wounds traced back over a quarter of a century ago. Astonishing, provocative and gasp-worthy. Warning: not for all tastes!

 

Note: Available to stream on Netflix.

 

“Man in an Orange Shirt”–Thwarted Love

 

Man in an Orange Shirt

Man in an Orange Shirt, commissioned by BBC to celebrate the 50th anniversary of partial decriminalization of homosexuality in 1967, depicts with a modicum of success two love stories spanning seventy years. The first between two gay men hiding their passion and the second involving a duplicitous marriage of one-sided passion. Scripted by novelist Patrick Gale and partly autobiographical, Man in an Orange Shirt revisits prejudice and its impact on all.

Spanning three generations in one family, –from wartime Great Britain to the present day,– Man in an Orange Shirt uncovers secret love letters, a mysterious painting, and deep unfulfilled desires on the part of all characters.

The gently wrenching story of repressed love follows a secret romance between two World War Two soldiers Michael (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) and Thomas (James McArdle), and the resulting, heartbreaking impact on Michael’s wife Flora (Joanna Vanderham of “Paradise”). Compounding the heartbreak is Vanessa Redgrave who plays the octogenarian Flora trying to reconcile with a gay grandson.

Flora is furious at her husband’s sexual betrayal, but also frightened for him since homosexuality is a criminal offense. She and Michael share a sibling-like affection for each other, even though Flora wants and expects more. All three–Flora, Michael, and Thomas–are casualties, trapped by fear of prison, fear of marital rejection and fear of being a social outcast. Abrupt truncation of the secretive lives of all three leave the viewer wondering how they muddled through the superficiality of their everyday existence.

Fast forward to present day, when homosexuality is no longer criminalized, but tragedy and hurt still arise. “Gay shame” resides in the breathing space between the beloved grandmother Flora (Redgrave) and her grandson Adam (Julien Morris). Decades removed from her younger self, Grandma Flora has spent the best part of her life pretending her marriage was solid.  In 2017 Adam admits he feels gay shame, even in the present climate of assumed equality and openness. Appearing to function in a gay world, Adam’s terror at intimacy and commitment is palpable, in spite of a seemingly privileged life with dating apps to staunch his boredom.

A Man in an Orange Shirt has some touching moments between Michael and Thomas, and particularly between Flora and Adam, but the pivotal conversation about Adam’s sexuality lacks emotional heft and authenticity. The scene should have resonated deeply for many who are close to their grandparents. Redgrave’s performance as a woman who never had her husband’s love turns too artificial and overwrought as she transforms into an understanding and accepting figure for Adam.

I was disappointed in this dual story of thwarted love. “Call Me By Your Name”, an Academy Award-nominated film for 2018, reflects rejecting love for the sake of social convention with more power, authenticity, and emotion.  In sharp contrast, A Man in an Orange Shirt, is inconsistent and therefore forgettable.

Note:  Available on PBS.com

“The Gift”–Nothing is Free

The Gift movie

The Gift is a 2015 American-Australian psychological thriller  written, co-produced, and directed by Joel Edgerton (Academy Award nominated for his role in “Loving”). This is his directorial debut, and it is a winner!

Darkly unnerving, The Gift first conveys a vibe of horror, but then the narrative moves in the direction of “Fatal Attraction”, with a deft maneuvering of plot, character, style, and tone. No blood or gore, but a heart-pounding series of scenes without a stewed rabbit.

The film stars Jason Bateman (of “Ozark” and “Arrested Development” fame) and Rebecca Hall (“The Town” and “Vicky Cristina Barcelona”) as an affluent couple intimidated by Gordo, a former high school classmate of Simon’s, played by Edgerton.

Simon (Bateman) and Robyn (Hall) are a forty-something married couple whose life is going mostly as planned, except for the unfulfilled desire to have a baby. When a chance encounter with Gordo happens in a furniture store, their world devolves into a harrowing tailspin. Simon doesn’t remember Gordo at first, leading the viewer to believe a con may be going on. But after a series of devised encounters and mysterious gifts, Simon begins to remember high school with Gordo. A horrifying secret from the past is uncovered after more than 20 years. As Simon’s wife, Robyn, becomes aware of the relationship between Simon and Gordo, she begins to wonder if she really knows her husband. Simon hopes that bygones will be bygones. But Gordo retorts: “You’re done with the past but the past is not done with you.”

Hitchcockian in its buildup to Simon’s past sins, The Gift raises the question: Is it possible to lay ghosts to rest? This is the territory of karma: what impact one’s actions and words have on another may be obliterated from memory by the agent but not by the recipient. The Gift is both eerie and terrifying, speculating about just what happened in Simon and Gordo’s past. This film is a slow burner, but the theme and writing are superbly executed.

The ambiguity in morals of Simon and Gordo keep shifting the viewer’s loyalties as we see past events from both perspectives. Every plot twist and turn is virtually unpredictable and psychologically compelling. Is it really viable to say winners keep on winning because they deserve it and losers keep on losing because they deserve that too? Everyone –Simon, Robyn, and Gordo–is different from who they seem to be in the opening scenes, and even minor characters are surprising. The Gift should be seen!

 

Note: Available to stream on Netflix.

 

An Inspector Calls–Nothing Will Ever Be the Same


An Inspector CallsThe BBC mystery An Inspector Calls (2015),  based upon the 1947 J.B. Priestley play by the same name, is a morality tale for our time. Set in 1912 Arthur Birling, a wealthy self-made industrialist, has hopes of a knighthood and implicit social elevation through the engagement of his daughter to an aristocrat. Inspector Goole (the superlative David Thewlis) brusquely arrives, , announcing he is there to investigate the suicide of a young woman named Eva Smith. At first the Birling family claims not to know anything about her but Inspector Goole begins revealing that they do.

As the Inspector interviews each family member, the investigation progresses, unfolding secrets and lies. The family’s past actions are brutally exposed. Inspector Goole lays bare the family members’ lack of awareness of the impact their callous behavior has had on Eva Smith. “We don’t live alone upon this earth. We are responsible for each other,” the Inspector admonishes.

In one-to-one interrogations with the husband, wife, daughter, fiance, and son, Inspector Goole dissects the family’s hypocrisy, self-delusion, and cowardice. Arthur’s wife (the extraordinary Miranda Richardson) thinks the worst fate is a loss in social standing, unconcerned with the death of Eva Smith. Their daughter is also complicit. The fiance has unclean hands as well. The mother and son combine to finally push Eva over the edge. In addressing each of the family’s self-absorbed, self-protecting attitudes and behavior, Inspector Goole addresses how deeply damaging their actions are and what constitutes human decency.

An Inspector Calls is perhaps most provocative for its sharp rebuke of the family-centered, but highly insular and exclusionary views of Arthur and his wife, who believe individuals should protect themselves and their families at all cost, regardless of consequences to others. One may never know how actions may affect another, perhaps even throughout another’s lifetime, and so one must be aware and be kind. No actions are without consequences.

The plot is simply superb, tightly woven, and relentless in ratcheting the tension higher and higher. The lessons ring as true today as they did in 1912. David Thewlis performance is so understated that the effect is even more spellbinding.

An Inspector Calls is a clarion blast, warning human beings to care for those beyond their own inner circle, demonstrating a more inclusive attitude and empathy for those with less good fortune. The play is about identity and tribe–nothing will ever be the same.

Note: Available on Amazon Prime.

 

 

 

“The Look of Silence”–Beyond Words to Forgive

The Look of Silence movie

This film (2015) is a companion piece and powerful account of the 1960’s genocide in Indonesia, a follow-up to Joshua Oppenheimer’s debut and Oscar-nominated documentary “The Act of Killing” (2012). Less horrific but more emotionally compelling, “The Look of Silence” is a haunting revisiting of the killing fields of Indonesia and the US’s role in the carnage. (The US purportedly promised gifts to those who rid the country of “communist resisters”.)   More than a million people were slaughtered.

An Indonesian eyeglass salesman named Adi Runkun is investigating the brutal murder of his brother back in 1965 during the dictatorship’s purge of “communists”.   While selling eyeglasses and giving eye exams, Adi discovers the men responsible for the murder. As a metaphor perhaps for “seeing”, the eyeglasses that Adi provides to  the murderers still prevent them from comprehending the enormous suffering and ruin that they have inflicted on millions of survivors half a century after.

The scenes are startling and unforgettable, filming family members who have to live in the village alongside the murderers of Adi’s brother and the brutalization of his father. In between investigating the background of the killing fields (=holocaust), Adi and his mother are shown bathing his fragile emaciated father, who was also a victim of the holocaust. “The Look of Silence” is brilliant in focusing on one family’s pain and suffering fifty years later, still reeling from the unthinkable loss, with the killers still in power and exhibiting no regret or remorse.

At times government officials even boast as they revisit the killing fields. Adi forgives them, but the viewer will not be able to forget! “The Look of Silence” is a documentary not to be missed about government’s inhumanity in the name of fighting communism. It is not easy to watch.

Note: Rated PG-13 but definitely NOT for that age group!  Available on Netflix as a DVD.

 

 

“In Secret”–Family Casualties

In Secret movie

In Secret depicts the desperate life of an orphaned girl as she becomes a  sexually repressed young woman. This 2013 American erotic thriller (previously titled Thérèse), is based on Émile Zola’s  classic novel,  Thérèse Raquin.  

In 1860s Paris, Thérèse Raquin (Elizabeth Olsen) is trapped in a loveless and sexless marriage to her sickly cousin, Camille (Tom Felton who played Draco Malfoy in the “Harry Potter” series). Thérèse is forced by her domineering aunt, Madame Raquin (the extraordinary Jessica Lange), to accept his marriage proposal, which essentially binding her to becoming a full-time caretaker. She spends her days languishing behind the counter of her aunt’s small shop until she meets her husband’s alluring artist friend Laurent LeClaire (Oscar Isaac). whose sexual charms she finds irresistible. Later Madame Raquin is incapacitated by a stroke and Thérèse’s caregiving role expands. The psychological tension rivals Dostoevski’s Crime and Punishment. Who understands one’s motives? Although it’s not easy to empathize with any of the characters, we can follow their flawed neurotic devolution into a dark and frightening world of unforeseen consequences.

In this captivating drama the lines are brilliantly blurred between hero and villain, lover and traitor. The viewer will quickly discover that there are no characters to cheer: one moment there is empathy and the next, repugnance.   The ensemble cast depicts these multi-dimensional characters fraught with mental aberrations almost effortlessly and with brutal honesty, capturing the devastating effects of attempting to achieve freedom and happiness no matter what the cost.

So cleverly ambiguous is the moral ground constructed by Zola that a powerful, intense, shocking human tale of lust, revenge and tragedy unfolds.  In Secret is a sleeper of a movie not to be missed!

 

Note: Available on DVD from Netflix.

RBG–Truth to Power

 

RBG the movie
RBG movie poster

Regardless of your political tastes, the documentary RBG offers an insightful peek into the life and work of a lifelong advocate for equal rights for women and minorities.

As one of three female Supreme Court justices serving on the nine-judge bench, Ruth Bader Ginsburg has become a cultural icon and something of a “fan-girl” sensation. We are entertained by the T-shirts and costumes depicting RBG as a superhero. Early in her career as counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union, Ginsburg argued more than 300 gender discrimination cases, including six in front of the SCOTUS, five of which she won.

The inspiring story of the 85-year-old Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a diminutive and shy but formidable  judicial powerhouse, begins with her upbringing in Brooklyn, the daughter of Russian Jewish parents. Personal interviews with Ginsburg’s childhood friends, family members, colleagues and young millennial fans reveal her impact on US law, as well as her contribution to social change.

 

RBG can’t contain its love for this remarkable legal mind. And rather surprisingly, this documentary is a valentine not only to RBG but also to her supremely proud and supportive husband, Martin–and their love story is very moving and poignant. Meeting at Harvard Law School, the young couple married and carried each other through school, sickness, and parenthood from 1956 until his death in 2010. (Martin was considered one of the top tax attorneys in the country and an endowed chair at Georgetown Law School bears his name.)

RBG the movie

After her husband’s death RBG has taken on even a more courageous, energetic stand in the Supreme Court and was given the moniker Notorious RBG after the rapper Notorious B.I.G. for her feisty style of resistance. Author and activist Gloria Steinem at one point describes Ginsburg as the “closest thing to a superhero I know.”

What ultimately emerges in RBG is a touching portrait of a brilliant Supreme Court justice– described as shy and retiring but with “a quiet magnetism”– a work horse and a master legal strategist in the tiniest and most unassuming of figures. A force of nature, RBG is a glorious homage of truth to power today.

 

Note:  For a charming portrait of the quirky little-known aspects of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, see Jeffrey Toobin’s March 2018 article, “Heavyweight”.

 

Seven Seconds–Black Lives Matter?

 

Seven Seconds Netflix Original Series

The Netflix Original  series Seven Seconds (premiered February 23) is about race, corrupt police and unequal justice. In the opening scene a hit-and-run of an African-American teenager by a white Jersey City rookie cop (Beau Knapp) is covered up by three other members of the police force.

The story is harrowing and complicated, with several subplots that are not resolved. But the seminal theme is clear: does a hit-and-run crime against a young black fifteen-year-old go unpunished, no matter what the evidence or the commitment of the prosecutor?

In ten episodes, Seven Seconds gives us an unflinching portrayal of a mother’s grief over her son, the brutal streets he had to survive in, and the demands of her religion. The opening scene and a number of subsequent ones display the ragged splashes of blood in the snow, the only remaining trace of the teenage bicyclist.

There are two main characters, both black women.   Prosecutor KJ Harper (Clare-Hope Ashitey) is sexually promiscuous and given to drunken stupors and self-doubt. Although from a privileged family, KJ uses none of her family’s status to enhance hers in the city’s power structure. Blunt and emotional, floundering in her personal life and in the courtroom, we see her undercut her own case. Nonetheless, KJ perseveres pursuing the hit-and-run case together with a cop, “Fish” (Michael Mosley), recently transferred from another precinct.

The other main character is the teenage victim’s mother, Latrice Butler (the extraordinary Regina King). She is determined to have justice be served based upon the love she has as a mother. She fights to win the affirmation that her son had existed, a human being not accorded the validation he deserved.

These two characters are the pas-de-deux of the story, the dynamic dance and driving force between what they hope for and what will happen. Veena Sud, the show’s creator (also showrunner for the award-winning The Killing), tackles the anti-hero as female, deeply-flawed, and often unappealing. KJ and Latrice are characters not often associated with film and television. At once unsympathetic but so vulnerable and damaged, both KJ and Latrice reveal how they must maneuver as black women in a white and often dangerous world and remain determined to have their voices heard, no matter what, no matter how painful.

Challenging stereotypes not only of race but also of gender, sexual identity, religion, and military service, Seven Seconds does not so much answer questions as raise them.  This mini-series is Netflix at its best: courageous, intelligent, and beautifully written. There are subplot holes, but the drama nonetheless is riveting and some of the writing is exceptional. Watching it is like reading a good novel, with commitment and depth: binge-viewing with few interruptions makes Seven Seconds even more powerful.

 

Note: Although Seven Seconds has been critically acclaimed and binge-viewed by its fans, Netflix announced this week that Seven Seconds will not be renewed for a second season. Why? This is a travesty!