“Underground Railroad”–Tracking US History

Based upon the Pulitzer-winning novel by Colson Whitehead, Underground Railroad, is produced and directed by Barry Jenkins (“Moonlighting”). This gripping portrayal   is an allegorical account of slavery and the role it has played in American history from colonial times. 

The Underground Railroad, in the mid-1800s,  was actually a network of safe houses and routes from the southern US up into Canada– with other routes to Mexico (which had abolished slavery decades earlier).  The book and film re-imagine these escape routes and safe havens as an actual train running underground to assist runaway slaves in their escape from their plantation owners.

A young slave, Cora Randall (the astounding South African newcomer, Thuso Mbedu) suffers one heartbreaking loss after another–of her mother, beloved friends, and two lovers.  In an act of desperation, she tries to escape a Georgia plantation and discovers the Underground Railroad.

In spite of almost insurmountable obstacles and defeats, she triumphs– somewhat miraculously– first, over her slave owner, and then over a notorious and avaricious “slave catcher” with a demented, damaged soul (the excellent Joel Edgerton), and somewhat surprisingly, over a free-state town council. Cora is compelled to run for her life over and over again. 

Overlaid with magical realism evoking uncanny spiritual powers, the Black communities, depicted as Valentine Hill (echoing the Greenwood “Black Wall Street” in Tulsa, Oklahoma) have a strength, which their white neighbors fear, yet deny.

This is a must-see film. It is a history lesson for us all. Underground Railroad reveals, through imagery and drama,  why so many state governments try so hard to ban “critical race theory” from schools.  Perhaps the most disheartening conclusion from watching this masterpiece of visual storytelling, is that the behaviors of those in power back then are so recognizable today.

The viewer needs to have time to feel the raw and brutal emotional truths of those who are trapped and powerless, as well as those who are detached and power-drunk.  The outrage and resentment are brilliantly acted by the main characters to deepen the dramatic effect.

Central to the story is the examination of trust and resilience, dependency and the disingenuous guises of the powerful.  While the psychology of domination and subjugation are unforgettably rendered, the stunning genius and poetry of the cinematic art form need to be mentioned as well.  The cinematography is impeccable.  Watch the photographer’s use of light–some scenes yield extraordinary photographs as works of art.  The lighting is masterful and exceptional.

Criticism, on some of the major internet movie sites–of the darkness of  some scenes– misses the point.  Dark tones are intentional, underscoring the underbelly and darkness of US slavery.  Yet accompanying slivers of light reveal an ineffable quality of heroism and a tentative optimism.

Needless to say, this is not a movie to binge watch. It is too overwhelming.  But the feelings you have after watching each single episode are, in part, because of the quality of the  art.

The subject matter is immeasurably uncomfortable because of its closeness to all of us. It is a time for reckoning.  That in itself may feel menacing.

If you want to know about the burden of  America –without any tone of preaching or lecturing,– watch this masterpiece!

Availability:  Amazon Prime

“Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am”–Dissembling the American Dream





Toni Morrison (1931-2019), the 1993 Nobel Prize winner in Literature, was a complex artist who did not hold back from confronting the worst of human history. The documentary, Toni Morrison:  Pieces I Am, is a historical panorama of a slice of history dating from the 1930’s until the conclusion of the film in 2019.  Morrison emerges as a powerful, iconic, and formidable moral and intellectual force. The film gives us a retrospective of her groundbreaking novels which challenged the literary status quo,   rewarding the reader with imagining black lives on their own terms, devoid of the “white male gaze”.

Toni Morrison, born in Lorain, Ohio, a steel-town she remembers as being integrated, recalls experiencing segregation in the 1950’s only after she arrived in Washington, DC to attend Howard University. She published much later than most writers, but her college experience textured her writings.  She wrote from the vantage point of wounded women who had the strength and will to find often unexpected and hard-won redemption and triumph, not victimhood.  But her novels speak to people globally, to their traumas and their joys, in a language which is pure inspiration. Places and people– previously invisible or unnoticed– become powerful voices.

The documentary deftly reveals that Toni Morrison’s work is the essence of beautiful storytelling.  Despite the fact that her novels are about private pain as well as  collective trauma, both raw and searing, tender and compassionate, Toni Morrison is an electrifying and positive personality. Perhaps startling, — given the dark and sobering themes of her novels,– the viewer sees an ebullient, charismatic and theatrical mind of extraordinary talent:  both buoyant and vivacious.  Friends repeatedly describe her as a party-goer who loves clothes and is joyful in being herself and celebrating any occasion with friends. Many were invited to her Nobel Prize parties.  But she doesn’t tolerate fools easily, either.

First and foremost,  Morrison is a literary warrior reflecting the dark mirror of untold truths, things unsaid.   When asked by Dick Cavett on his nightly talk show if she dislikes being praised as a Black writer, she beams and answers that she is proud of being a Black woman writer but cringes at being asked that question by white interviewers.

Blowback was inevitable in the context of her meteoric rise in popularity.  The New York Times declared Morrison too talented to “remain a recorder of black provincial life” in its review of her book, Sula.  The mid-1980s furor that followed resulted in a petition signed by prominent Black authors urging that Morrison be given a major literary prize. In 1993 it was in Europe that her magnificent work was first awarded  the highest honor any author can receive:  the Nobel Prize in Literature.

But we also see a private, delightful writer who has the heft and electrical charge of a powerhouse to be reckoned with. Her prose is intricately woven with intelligence, wit, unpredictability, toughness and fearlessness.  And so is the woman–who challenged the inflection and fantasy of the American dream in every sentence she spoke publicly and in every line she wrote.  Moving photographs–some of her family threaded together with  19th-century engravings  and contemporary art by Kerry James Marshall, Jacob Lawrence, and Romare Bearden among others–contribute to the memorable beauty of Toni Morrison and the world she has created.

I watched this and was transfixed. The wisdom of Ms. Morrison is eternal…it touches us all.

Availability:   Hulu, Amazon Prime, Netflix.

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“Belgravia”– Downton Abbey REDUX

Belgravia,  based on “Downton Abbey” creator Julian Fellowes’ 2016 novel of the same name,  opens two days before the Battle of Waterloo at an aristocratic ball.  Two London families—the Earl (Tom Wilkinson) and Countess of Brockenhurst (Harriet Walter) and the up-and-coming merchants, Anne (Tamsin Greig) and Philip Trenchard (Philip Glenister), are uncomfortable in their brief interactions.  There are insurmountable  class differences and  if that were not enough, the romance between the Brockenhursts’ son and the Trenchards’ daughter fuels the discomfort.  Over the course of twenty-five years, a long-buried secret unravels and threatens to ruin both families.  The shadows of that ball  demand a reckoning. 

 Belgravia soon becomes a suburban residence for the affluent, developed by the Trenchards’ company, as one of the first housing developments of its kind.   Betrayal, class warfare, subterfuge between family members, and secret love affairs proceed at a rapid pace as underhanded tactics and greed dominate the plot. 

Laced with intrigue, Belgravia is darker and meaner than “Downton Abbey”.  Characters have darker places in their souls, if they have one at all.  Some family members surprise with their character development and shift in moral compass.

Tamsin Greig and Harriet Walter as the two mothers are at turns, haunting and devious . The veneer of gentility radiates in public places, disguising cozy manners wrapped around a hard core.  Both actresses have a remarkable ability to make the viewer share their innermost private feelings.

A thoroughly engaging soap opera/melodrama, Belgravia is certain to be a crowd-pleaser for fans of historical drama and is an engaging follow-up to “Downton Abbey”.

Note: Available on Amazon Prime (Epix) and on Netflix as a DVD.

“Humans”–“Dark Mirror” Meets “Ex Machina”

The Amazon Prime sci-fi series, Humans (three seasons), takes place in the not- too-distant future where the affluent purchase “synths”, artificially intelligent human-looking robots that can perform a multitude of tasks from housecleaning, surveillance, and sex-toy services.  A suburban  family buys Anita (the exquisitely beautiful Gemma Chan of “Crazy Rich Asians”) to help with the burdens of a professional couple. The father, Joe (Tom Goodman-Hill), is a manager in a factory  who is replaced by synths.   His wife, Laura (Katherine Parkinson of Pirate Radio and Doc Martin), a human rights attorney and activist, responds viscerally  to living with Anita.  The three children become very attached, as Anita learns to know them better than their parents.

A computer scientist, Dr. George Millican (William Hurt), helped develop the earlier synth models and has become emotionally attached to an obsolete prototype named Odi. As George’s memory fails, Odi has become the archive of the younger George’s past, especially regarding his beloved, now deceased wife. George finds his humanity and his dignity in the circuitry of Odi.

Reference is made to “Asimov blocks”, the Isaac Asimov first law of robotics: do no harm to humans.  But Humans is, first and foremost, dystopian.   Dark and brooding, Humans raises more questions than it answers about the interaction between humans and the computerized world of artificial intelligence.  A subtext exists also.  How do humans react to what or who is different?  Is discrimination based on appearance inevitable?  Are they empathetic?  Merely suspicious?  Violent? A range of  responses are given.  And, how does the employer treat those who serve?  Does the employer lack empathy for  employees as if they are  less human?  How do employees feel about their treatment by the boss?  And most importantly, what does “human” even mean? 

Season 3 mines deeper into the sociopolitical dimensions of technology without diluting the potency of well-drawn characters.  Great writing and acting avoid preaching on human morality. Instead, Humans  is at times warm and funny, frightening and disturbing, in developing  a powerful set of  characters who ask the viewer what it means to claim you are human.

Needless to say, this series is binge-worthy even for those who are not sci-fi fans.

Availability:  Amazon Prime (UK Version)