“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

“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.

 

“Loving”–The Right to Choose

 

LOVING movie
LOVING movie

Loving, directed by Jeff Nichols (“Mud”), is based on Richard and Mildred Loving, the plaintiffs in the landmark 1967 U.S. Supreme Court case Loving v. Virginia invalidating state laws prohibiting interracial marriage. (The archaic term “miscegenation” was used in those days.) Much of the United States  had anti-miscegenation laws. It wasn’t until 1967 that the Supreme Court struck down those statutes.

Loving opens as a tender romance between Richard Loving a white construction worker and tinkerer in car mechanics (the relative newcomer Joel Edgerton, a Golden Globe nominee), and a shy black and American Indian woman named Mildred (Academy Award-nominated Ruth Negga who gives a startlingly nuanced performance). Loving starts out revealing that Richard and Mildred’s parents fear repercussions for their illicit love. Their fears were well founded. The Lovings were arrested, jailed and convicted.   Ordered to never set foot in Virginia again, Richard and Mildred are exiled from their families. But neither family ever abandons their exceptional support for Richard and Mildred.

There is nothing dangerous or subversive about their marriage. There is nothing radical. Yet  “God created separate races and placed them at separate points on the globe, thereby never intending for them to mix.” This was one legal argument asserted in 1958 by the Virginia state court resulting in Richard and Mildred Loving’s lives (and eventually that of their three children) becoming a living hell.

Given the legal ultimatum to separate or be exiled from Virginia, the Lovings first move to D.C. where there were no laws forbidding interracial marriage. But Mildred, now pregnant, misses the quiet country lifestyle as well as her parents and siblings. She wants her mother to be there for the birth of their first child. They sneak back into Virginia, and are arrested.

 

This very private, unassuming couple are about the least likely people to become the center of one of the most important Supreme Court cases in history. Such ordinariness magnifies the movie’s emotional impact. We’re invested in them as simple people who just want to be left alone to build their home and raise their family. Their lives would no longer be their own, transformed into sensationalistic magazine cover stories.

For five long years Mildred considers filing a lawsuit. Richard is reluctant and unconvinced, accepting the government’s exile as their fate. In contrast, this timid woman fights the injustice of their situation, forced to engage in extraordinary acts. Everyone else underestimates her tenacity, her belief in their love and respect for each other.

Inspired by the burgeoning civil rights movement, Mildred writes a letter to Attorney General Robert Kennedy who recommends the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) . Lawyer Bernard S. Cohen , an inexperienced young ACLU attorney (played by the surprisingly versatile Nick Kroll), sees the opportunity to overturn the ban against interracial marriage nationally. Cohen accepts the case under the guidance of constitutional law expert Phil Hirschkop.

After years of losses and appeals, the Lovings have their day in court and their hard-won victory.

Loving is not about star power. It is about great acting. The couple’s name underscores the morality of a marriage viewed as threatening to others, Shakespearean no less than “Romeo and Juliet”. Nonetheless, the couple’s family name serves as a form of shorthand and double-meaning for the heart of this moving and memorable film.

 The film’s noticeable weakness is in not supplying more legal and historical context for the Loving case. Loving is about hope, hope in the power of the individual –in this case, the least revolutionary type–to change the fabric of the nation.   Sometimes a revolution starts very quietly, not with a bang.

Note:   This is the 50th year anniversary of Loving v Virginia. A 1958 Gallup poll showed that 94 percent of white Americans disapproved of interracial marriage. Today 16% of white Americans disapprove.

Bernie Cohen, authored a 2007 the Huffington Post entry in support of same-sex marriage, citing Loving v. Virginia.