REVIEW: The Mitchells vs. The Machines

The Millennial and Gen Z generations do not trust you. That is what basically every poll conducted in the last five years has indicated. Forbes reports that the one of the most recent Deloitte Millennial Surveys indicated an over 20% drop in the trust these generations have in businesses and corporations. A recent Harvard Institute of Politics poll showed that the majority of the people in these generations are fearful about the future of our country. Barna found in 2019 that 82% of young adults say society is in a leadership crisis. Our next generations have lost trust with nearly every institution and system we have to offer and, yes, that includes the institution of family and, more specifically, our parents. Looking at these numbers it’s hard not to feel the weight of this trust gap between younger and older generations. That is what made Netflix’s The Mitchells vs. The Machines such a welcome comfort.

Mitchells is largely about what family looks like in our modern context, but central to this story is the strained relationship between Rick Mitchell, a well-meaning but old fashioned and stubborn father, and his daughter Katie who challenges nearly every expectation Rick has had for his children. It is difficult to really define when the rift between Rick and Katie begins or why it’s happening. There isn’t a big traumatic family experience that splits them or, as many of us have experienced, some kind of deeply rooted ideological difference that is causing division. They are simply operating with the values systems and expectations of their respective generations. They just don’t get each other. Somewhere they stopped operating on the same, Rihanna-fueled wavelength and they stopped trusting each other.

The Mitchells vs. The Machines GIF Family

Now, Katie is headed off to the college for the first time, but before she goes the tension between her and her dad bubbles all the way to the surface and pops. For this tight-knit, loving family, this feels like the apocalypse. Lucky for them, an actual apocalypse steps in and takes the Mitchells on an adventure that just might bridge the generational gap. While taking Katie to film school, the inevitable artificial intelligence uprising happens and the newest gadgets from a pseudo-Apple tech company starts capturing every human being on the planet to eradicate the human race. What a great time to bond as a family!

The Mitchells vs. The Machines comes to us from the producing team of Phil Lord and Chris Miller who have been changing the game in animation since their surprising hit The Lego Movie and their Academy Award winning Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. Both of those high-profile releases carried quite a bit of public skepticism going into them. Many thought The Lego Movie was going to be nothing more than an extended commercial for the brand. Sony’s film studio had been fumbling their big Marvel Comics property for years with a string of failed franchise-starting Spider-Man projects and were muddying the waters with an animated movie when it seemed like they were finally on track with a successful new Spidey in Tom Holland. Lord and Miller crushed those fears, though, and gave us two of the most compelling and heartfelt animated movies in recent memory. Mitchells is no different.

The Mitchells vs. The Machines GIF Katie

In terms of family entertainment, the big streamers haven’t exactly been churning out high-quality fare. They know parents will look for any brightly colored animated distraction to keep their child’s attention for any period of time. The Mitchells vs. The Machines is far from a mere distraction, though. It truly has something to say and shows that streamers can develop creative and thrilling animation on whatever budget is available. With Mitchells, there is the 3D animation we expect these days, but it’s used with thrilling expertise providing some really stunning sequences like a mall being torn apart by an army of Furbies. In, perhaps, an extension of the lessons learned on Spider-Verse, they combine that 3D animation with Katie’s 2D doodles over the entire story. It deepens her character and gives the movie a unique and fun visual style.

On top of the animation, Mitchells is just plain funny. Most of the jokes do hit especially since they are delivered by the likes of Maya Rudolph, Danny McBride, Olivia Coleman, Beck Bennett, Fred Armisen, and Eric Andre. In between the laughs, though, Mitchells really does do some thoughtful meaning making about that growing generational gap. Neither Katie nor Rick is let off the hook for not trusting the other. The film shows that they both have things to offer, and both have a lot to learn from the other. In that Barna study, one of the top reasons for our young adults seeing a leadership crisis in society is that the older generation aren’t actually allowing them to lead, and there are a lot of areas where our younger generations are ready to lead right now. At the same time, they need experience coupled with the guidance, support, resources, and consistency of our older generations.

It is true that our younger generations don’t trust their elders, but trust is a two-way street. The generational gap continues to grow when we fail to trust in our younger generations as well. Their total lack of loyalty in the systems and institutions we often cling to can feel apocalyptic. Like they just want to burn it all down, but what if we did trust that they are seeing something older generations haven’t. What if even a little bit of trust was extended? Wouldn’t younger generations be more likely to produce at least a little bit of trust in return. We may want to try it before the actual end of the world comes.

The Mitchells vs. The Machines is streaming now on Netflix.

The Mitchells vs. The Machines GIF Furby

REVIEW: In the Heights

Nina stands up from her old wooden bench in the middle of the park and presses against the chain link fence. She locks her fingers around the twisted metal and sighs, “Let me just listen to my block.” This is what Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda is inviting audiences into with his 2008 musical In the Heights, which has finally been released as a major motion picture (another one of those delayed 2020 releases). The musical centers around the Washington Heights neighborhood in Upper Manhattan where Miranda grew up and now most of us can return to theaters and listen to this vibrant and resilient block.

In the Heights Dance GIF

Miranda says that he began writing In the Heights because, as a Latino man, he didn’t feel seen on the stages he dreamed of working on. That is ultimately what Heights is about; dreams, what they’re made of, and the dreamers who dare to have them. “On these blocks, you can’t take two steps without bumping into someone’s big plans,” says Alejandro, a lawyer friend helping main character, Usnavi, accomplish one of his. As with many marginalized communities, though, dreams are sometimes easier dreamt than realized, and that is true of the leads in Heights.

Vanessa wants to open her own designer fashion boutique only to fall short on the impossibly high credit requirements needed to rent the space. Nina is incredibly gifted academically and has her family sacrificing everything so she can attend Stanford only to be met with debilitating isolation and constant microaggressions. Usnavi’s younger cousin Sonny can’t wait to contribute to the world, but actually is a Dreamer living in the Heights undocumented. Each character, and really the entire block, is on the string of a yo-yo bouncing back and forth between fighting for their dreams and then feeling their dignity stripped away pushing their dreams farther and farther into the future. Push and pull. Up and down.

In the Heights Nina and Benny GIF

There are times when you can see each character feel their inherent, human dignity. Vanessa wearing her power blazer and clutching her sketch book of designs as she finally has enough money saved for deposits on her rental space. Nina’s father, Kevin, with a goofy smile on his face seeing his college student daughter sitting across the lunch table. Then the yo-yo drops back down. It is hard to chase your dreams when you’ve lost your sense of dignity. That is why the great John Perkins would often say, “You don’t give people dignity. You affirm it!” That is exactly what community matriarch, Abuela Claudia, does for the young dreamers in her neighborhood.

“We had to assert our dignity in small ways,” Abuela tells Nina, “Little details that tell the world we are not invisible.” How do they do that in a neighborhood and a system that often feels like it’s holding them back? There is a palpable tension here between needing the community of the Heights to survive but looking at the sky and seeing a world far beyond the island that they’re on. Their grandparents, parents, and other family members left dire circumstances as outlined in the passionate ballad “Paciencia y Fe (Patience and Faith)” to bring them to this block, but many feel like the only way they’ll achieve their dreams is by leaving it.

How did Miranda find a way to affirm his dignity? Well it’s in the notes, the lyrics, and the moves of In the Heights. He felt like he was being ignored and so found a way to communicate his experiences so that others had to listen. There is so much life in the show itself, but then Warner Brothers combined Miranda’s vision with the direction of Jon M. Chu (Crazy Rich Asians). If you’re familiar with his previous film at all, In the Heights is like the visually stunning wedding scene in Crazy Rich Asians turned up even further.

Chu managed to make a movie musical that feels like a stage production while also feeling like you are in the middle of this neighborhood and the character’s lives. In a story about a place, the Heights really do come alive and act as a character in the film in so many ways. It will be hard for some to not compare Heights with legendary, groundbreaking productions like West Side Story. That film took home the Oscar for Best Cinematography in 1962, and rightfully so, but here we are now in 2021 and Chu and his team have redefined what we can do with the movie musical going forward. I will say now having seen it twice, once on the big screen and once streamed at home on HBO Max, Heights begs to be seen at the theater with an unreasonably big screen, booming speakers, and a sticky floor to tap your feet on. If you are ready to safely return to theaters where you are, then this would be a great movie to do it with.

In the Heights Lin-Manuel GIF

The success of In the Heights on Broadway no doubt paved the way for Miranda’s incredible success. Hamilton was next and then it was a line of Disney projects like Moana and Mary Poppins. It is safe to say that Miranda is a genius, he was a recipient of a MacArthur Genius Grant in 2015 after all, but is that what it takes for people to listen to your story? The real genius of Miranda’s work is that he has been able to create roles for himself while also shining a light on the stories of others who may feel the way he does. Who knows who might feel heard and seen in this story and what they’ll create?

In the Heights has the opportunity to place you exactly where the title says. In some ways it’s a fantasy, like most movies are, of a place where dreams come true. It’s also a reality of hardships unique to people of color and the communities that weather those hardships together. It is a great addition to the American song book if we are willing to lean in and listen.

In the Heights is currently in theaters as well as streaming on HBO Max.

REVIEW: Wolfwalkers

Director Tomm Moore knows the feeling of being otherized. “When I was a little kid, I was in a playground and I was playing with this little kid and his brother came over and asked if I was catholic or protestant and that’s how I found out I was catholic and how I found out that there was a problem with being one or the other.” Moore and his team have recently been nominated for their third Academy Award for Wolfwalkers, a delightful, animated feature steeped in Irish folklore and carrying themes that never seem to get less relevant. At its core, Wolfwalkers is about our connection to our past and to nature, but it is also a signpost for us all as we seek to tear down the many divisions in our society.

“I hate to say it, but I grew up in the 80’s and the tension going back to the English colonization was really present and I thought we moved past it but even today riots have started again. I feel like we need to talk about this,” says Moore as his film that premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in September of 2020, seems to be speaking even louder so many months later. Britain’s ongoing exit from the EU and the stress of a global pandemic have brought new unrest stemming from decades old divisions in Northern Ireland. Here comes Wolfwalkers, a story about a little English girl, Robyn, living in a British settlement in Ireland befriending a little Irish girl, Mebh, who lives in the woods and may have supernatural wolf powers.

Wolfwalkers

Robyn lives with her father in a puritan village that she very desperately wants to escape from. She would love nothing more than to run through the woods hunting with her father, but, in his misguided attempts to keep her safe, she is, instead, relegated to the palace kitchen. Naturally, Robyn follows her father anyway and winds up on an adventure alongside the wild-haired Mebh and her wolfpack. Mebh isn’t what Robyn is used to. At first, she’s even more off putting than the wolves. Once Robyn has a chance to see the world through Mebh’s eyes, though, her awareness, her sense of self, and their friendship begins to grow. Moore says of what he hopes to convey in the film, “I think about little girls that can see this story playing out and see that they have some say in their voice because it’s still a bit of challenge I think for young women to go against the grain of what society says.”

There just aren’t that many stories focused primarily on female friendship and empowerment, but what is so encouraging about Wolfwalkers, is that it allows Robyn and Mebh to make mistakes as they navigate a world that says they shouldn’t be friends. This is especially true as Robyn tries to bring her dad along on her journey of enlightenment only to find new pressure and stress to conform and stay safe. The process of reconciling divisions in our world is incredibly messy. We see that all around as it often feels like we are taking one step forward and five or six steps back. As we finally have a police officer on trial for the murder of George Floyd, a few blocks away history repeats itself. As history is achieved with America electing a female Vice-President, the capital is stormed with violence and insurrection. As Robyn tries to embrace her wild side and help Mebh out, she ends up reflecting her own oppression onto Mebh.

Wolfwalkers 2

It is a sophisticated film that makes these complicated themes very palatable for children. Afterall, it is when we’re young that we first start recognizing our differences. Just as Moore did on that playground as a kid, and as he describes when he first moved from Northern to Southern Ireland. “So when I came down I had to do a lot of adapting to try and fit in. I had to try and change my accent on purpose, play down how my parents would take me to mass every day, a lot of that stuff that wasn’t seen as ‘cool’ or ‘normal’ amongst kids in my school.” Moore and his filmmaking team hope to inspire our current younger generations to imagine something different. He says, “That’s who it’s for, really, that generation. Cause they’re the ones that have to deal with all the division that we have and maybe if they can see themselves in these characters, they can imagine a less divided way of relating to each other.”

The film also imagines a world where the safety of women is placed more firmly in their own hands, something that is rarely a given in our world plagued by continued oppression of and violence against women. Complete human flourishing is often hard to come by in our fallen world. Wolfwalkers allows us, through folklore and friendship, the opportunity to have a holy imagination and look towards something better. Can you envision a world where all women are allowed to run free into whatever adventure they choose without fear? Hopefully it won’t be long before that world is a lot less fictional and with only slightly fewer magical wolves.

Wolfwalkers is currently streaming on AppleTV+

“Promising Young Woman” Explained: SPOILER Review

What do Inglorious Basterds and The Blindside have in common? On the surface they would seem to be opposites but what connects them is how they make the audience feel at the end. Revenge fantasy exploitation films and overly simplistic heart-warmers both offer a sense of resolution and justice when the credits roll. The bad guys have been punished; the good guys won. The problem that caused the conflict has been solved. You the viewer can leave feeling like all is as it should be. Promising Young Woman is not this kind of film.

Because this is a spoiler review, I’m going to assume that if you are still reading right now then you have already seen the film so I’ll skip the recap. Perhaps the biggest reaction that has been coming from theaters and On Demand viewers is a wide polarity in how people feel about the ending. Some people hate the twist of Cassie being murdered and feel like it ruined the whole movie. It is an ending that leaves us feeling deeply unsettled and grieved. While it was not the ending I desired, I think the entire arc of the film is quite brilliant. Let me unpack some of the motifs and themes that director Emerald Fennell develops, and what her storytelling choices are meant to communicate.

Reversing the male gaze

From the opening shots of businessmen in khaki pants shimmying and gyrating on the dance floor, Fennell is signaling that a lot of movie tropes are about to be subverted. I immediately laughed out loud as the scene played out because it was such a satisfying parody of literally every music video club scene ever. Think about how many times you have seen women filmed in exactly the same manner, all butts and hips and crotches and thighs shot in slow motion close-up. The female body objectified and dismembered for the gratification of male viewers. PYW is a movie that turns an unwavering gaze squarely back onto men. Cassie torments men, not by physically terrorizing them, but simply by looking directly at their worst intentions and not looking away. From Cassie staring down the harassing construction workers, to confronting would-be assailants in the moments when they think they aren’t being monitored, to Ryan having to face his past attitudes and actions, the men freak out when their actions are exposed for what they truly are. The horror lies in having your true self revealed to you. It is incredibly telling how uncomfortable being watched makes the men in the movie and the men in the audience. It shows how much men are accustomed to being the watchers, not to being observed and seen. A huge point of the movie is to make men feel for a couple of hours the way women feel as we move through the world. The objects of unwanted attention, exposed, vulnerable, stressed.

Khakis and the “good guy” effect

I loved all of the set designs and costuming, there was so much wonderful attention to detail. Hopefully you specifically noticed the khaki pants motif and the casting choices. At some point all of the men are dressed in “normal guy” khaki pants and button-down shirts, appearing harmless and nice. All played by beloved male actors that we all think of with fondness and trust. Seth Cohen or Schmidtt or Dell or Bo Burnham could never do such terrible things. These are all men that we have been conditioned to believe the best of. As a result it is very hard to tell who the “bad” guys are and who the “nice” guys are. And that is because they don’t know either. They all think they are good guys. Studies show that when men are asked “Have you ever raped anyone?” they nearly all say no. But when questions are less direct, “Have you ever had sex with someone when they were drunk?” the answers start to change. No one wants to think they are the villain, and society has allowed so many other narratives to surround male toxicity. “We were just kids”, “Boys will be boys”, “She knew what this was.” PYW does a phenomenal job of showing how easy it is for men to spin narratives for each other so they can victimize others but continue feeling good about themselves. And women often get pulled into perpetuating these narratives with them. If we can blame the circumstances or the victim, then we feel good about ourselves as well. It makes us think something like that could never happen to us because we are better or smarter. So men are enabled in their predatory behavior and allowed to move on and achieve with their fragile psyches intact. While women are left trying to pick up the pieces in their wake, at times supporting and at times undermining each other.

Bo Burnham (left) stars as “Ryan“ and Carey Mulligan (right) stars as “Cassandra” in director Emerald Fennell’s PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN, a Focus Features release. Credit : Merie Weismiller Wallace / Focus Features

Woman as disposable

Cassie’s death is profoundly disturbing, but it illustrates the ways that our patriarchal society treats women as disposable. It did not matter that two intelligent and capable women dropped out of medical school as long as the men were able to continue pursuing their careers. Especially when women are poor or engaging in any kind of behavior that is seen as unbecoming, their lives and mental health are valued far less than their male counterparts. Women will always be penalized harshly for any perceived mistakes, while men will be given countless benefits of the doubt. As soon as the reputation and livelihood of the male characters was threatened, it was incredibly easy for them to sacrifice women to protect themselves. They could be confident that they would be chosen over the women. The behavior of Al and Joe is so horrifying because they clearly think they will get away with it. It takes an excruciatingly long time for Al to kill Cassie (I had to mute my TV after the first few seconds), plenty of time for him to realize what he is doing and stop. But he doesn’t stop because deep down he believes that his future is more important and worthy than hers, and he believes that others will agree. The same can be said for Ryan as he blatantly lies to the detective. He can blame Cassie’s mental health knowing that people are quick to believe women to be unstable and that his status as a pediatrician will protect him with credibility and sympathy. So those “good guys” found out who they were as soon as they risked losing their status. They did not hesitate to choose themselves no matter what it cost the women around them.

The problem with catharsis

I had no idea what would happen when Cassie walked into that cabin. I think most people were expecting a violent bloodbath and were getting ready to cheer the demise of all those bad guys. But instead, we are left feeling sad and scared and on edge. And I think that is exactly the point. No revenge fantasy exploitation movie is going to tear down the patriarchy. Which is why PYW may actually be the most brilliant revenge movie ever. The revenge isn’t enacted on the villains, it’s enacted on the audience. We don’t get to walk away and forget and move on with our lives. Especially for any viewers who have knowingly or unknowingly participated in the degradation of women, you walk away reevaluating every interaction you’ve had and wondering if you really are a good guy (or girl) after all. Now we are the best friend who must keep going and try to make the world a more just and equitable place. We are not released and resolved; we are reminded of how much work we have to do. I wish Cassie didn’t die. I wish violence against women was a thing of the past. But that’s not going to happen until we start seeing ourselves and each other with unflinching honesty. Until we gaze directly at the systems and narratives that got us here, and sacrifice that which shields toxicity rather than those who are harmed by it.

Heather’s Top Ten Movies of 2020

Maybe I shouldn’t admit this publicly, but we watched over 220 movies this year. Most of them were older ones I’d never seen because it was a weird year for new releases. A lot of titles got pushed back to 2021, some have been on streaming for months but were just small features without much hype, some are available on VOD but cost $19.99 to rent which feels hefty. So nearly all of my top ten picks are smaller movies that you may or may not have heard of yet, because that’s what came out in 2020.

It was an also a phenomenal year for documentaries! I have a theory that the rise of reality television transformed documentary filmmaking. When I was a kid, docs were seen as pretentious snooze-fests about the migratory patterns of bees and whatnot. Things that most people could not access or find interesting. But the art form has developed by leaps and bounds, encompassing so many more topics and having far more intricate structures. No longer are they something you have to drag yourself through just so you can say you are informed, now they are engrossing and emotional and complex. So my list is heavier on documentaries than usual, but give them a chance. They might be some of the most moving content you’ll see this year.

10. Miss Juneteenth – I heard a lot about this movie during the summer when our country was talking about the holiday of Juneteenth, but we weren’t able to see it until December. This story is a much-needed makeover of the pageant genre. It follows some traditional tropes of a mother and daughter story where the mom won the pageant in the past and is pressuring her daughter to participate and win like she did. But the themes of Miss Juneteenth are far deeper and more nuanced. It is also a story about Black ownership and what it looks like to carve out something for yourself against the odds. It’s about the struggles and pressures that Black women face in trying to hold themselves and the people around them together. And it’s about generational failures and hopes and how we create and keep a legacy alive. The making of the film reflects these very themes with writer/director Channing Godfrey Peoples who was given opportunities by Ava DuVernay. DuVernay (Selma, When They See Us) created a wonderful show called Queen Sugar and used that platform to give other women entrances into the film/TV industry. Many new and talented creators received a leg-up from directing and writing with DuVernay and what she carved out for herself and others. Miss Juneteenth is the product of what can happen when Women of Color are given the opportunities and support they deserve. Available to rent on demand.

9. Feels Good Man – Everything about this documentary was a mystery to me before watching. In the early 2000s cartoonist/artist Matt Furie created a chill character named Pepe the Frog. Pepe lived a normal existence on MySpace for a while, then became a huge meme on the blogging site 4Chan. Still pretty harmless. Then Pepe morphed into a major symbol for the Alt-right and Trumpism and was registered as an official hate symbol by the Anti-Defamation League. How did that happen?? The doc unpacks this progression with terrific detail and insight, exploring online culture and how and why it intersected with Trumpism. It also follows Matt and the impact it had on him personally and professionally, and how Pepe finally reclaimed his froggy identity. Even if you aren’t very interested in politics, this is a fascinating look at how things take on a life of their own online and how the internet shapes our lived reality. Available to rent for a small fee on demand.

8. All In: The Fight for Democracy – Like many of us, I was obsessed with the election this year. There were a couple of particularly good documentaries that unpacked big themes and factors of our political moment. This doc follows Stacy Abrams’ activism in the fall-out of the voter suppression that took place surrounding the gubernatorial race in Georgia in 2018. It also provides a succinct and helpful overview of the general history of voter suppression in America, specifically of Black and Brown voters. Available on Prime.

7. Mangrove – I really liked The Trial of the Chicago 7 (Netflix) this year and for a while it was on my top ten list. Then I saw Mangrove. Part of Steve McQueen’s film anthology on Prime, Small Axe, each tells a story about the context of his childhood which was West Indian-British communities in London in the 1970s-1980s. A very unique and personal project, they’re all free-standing stories, the only thing that connects them is the general context. Mangrove follows a true-life courtroom drama surrounding Black-British protestors who are being unjustly prosecuted over their protest. This story eloquently unpacks what it feels like to know the system is against you and to feel helpless rage in the face of it. Letitia Wright turns in an incredibly good lead performance that I believe should garner her a Best Actress nomination and shows her range outside of Marvel. (Pro tip: Turn on the English subtitles as you watch. The actors are speaking English but with thick accents and use of slang that may be hard to follow for some viewers.)

6. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom – I was nervous to watch this because Viola Davis’s makeup is so extreme and the pressure of it being Chadwick Boseman’s final performance made me wonder if it could live up to all our high hopes. I need not have worried. Deftly steered by Tony award-winning Broadway director George C. Wolfe the film feels like a play but still comes alive in an authentic way on screen. Based on the play by August Wilson (author of Fences), the story follows real-life Blues singer Ma Rainey as she records a few hits, including “Black Bottom.” The setting is a Chicago recording studio where Ma and her all-Black band try to work with each other and navigate the relationship between them and the all-White management. It is a powerful exploration of the power dynamics involved in creating Black art, and the impact it has on Black artists when those power dynamics are heavily unequal. With both Davis and Boseman turning in wonderful performances, I hope this will get significant awards attention. Available to stream on Netflix.

5. Dick Johnson is Dead – No movie has affected me so emotionally this year as this documentary. On the surface it’s a quirky doc made by a daughter whose father is dying and the family is trying to get used to the idea of him being gone by filming dramatic and humorous staged deaths. But more broadly it’s about memory and loss and how to say goodbye. It is also just the most heartbreakingly beautiful portrait of a loving and emotionally present father who would do anything for the daughter he loves. If you have lost someone close to you then be warned that this could be extremely emotional to watch. But emotions aren’t always bad. Available on Netflix.

4. Driveways – We almost missed this one, a very indie and small but beautiful film about a mother and her socially anxious 9-year-old son who come to clean out her older sister’s home after she dies. The sister had lived next door to an elderly man living alone after his wife died, played with a kind authenticity by Brian Dennehy in his final performance before his death this year. The synopsis sounds heavy and perhaps boring, but the film has a wonderfully gentle and sweet quality that winsomely draws you in. And the 9-year-old, played heartrendingly by newcomer Lucas Jaye will have you rooting for him every step of the way. Available on demand for a small rental fee.

3. Minari – Maybe it’s because we now live 20 minutes from the border of Arkansas, but this film about a Korean immigrant family living in rural Arkansas in the 1980s was resonant. A quiet and empathic look at family dynamics and the costs of chasing a dream. Ivan wrote more about the film and the themes of manhood and fatherhood. Unfortunately, it’s not slated for wide release until February (we saw it at the Indie Memphis Film Festival at the drive-in) so keep an eye out for it in early 2021.

2. The Assistant – This is one that unfortunately got lost for most people during the summer. Streaming on Hulu and led by the wonderful Julia Garner, this is a subtle story of being a young woman trying to work in an exploitative environment. There are plenty of stories about women being harassed in the workplace, but this was the first I’ve seen about the female bystanders who are co-opted into the oppression by their presence in the organization, and who must wrestle with their role in changing or engaging in the system. Not all abuse is direct, some happens by leveraging and pressuring you to maintain “how things are.” Garner perfectly captures confusion, powerlessness, anger, and tense observation. This is a thorough exploration of the ripple effects of harassment and exploitation without needing to depict the abuse itself.

1.The Sound of Metal – Available on Prime, this is a story of a musician who suddenly loses his hearing. Featuring an Oscar-worthy performance by Riz Ahmed, this movie immerses you in what this experience would be like. The sound design is incredibly creative without being dominant and weaves between the world of sound and hearing loss. This story also does a wonderful job of elevating and honoring the deaf community. It depicts the struggle and identity crisis that would accompany such an abrupt loss but does so in a way that highlights the dignity and autonomy of those who are deaf. It is emotional, powerful, compassionate, and informed.

Honorable Mention Documentaries

Athlete A – An incredibly important and well-told doc about USA Gymnastics and the abuses of Larry Nassar. This is essential viewing for anyone who has or works with kids. It is survivor-focused and uncovers his abuse without retraumatizing the viewers. You will be horrified by the system that protected him but inspired by the many women who stood against him to tell the truth together. Available on Netflix.

John Lewis: Good Trouble – We lost some greats this year, and John Lewis tops that list. He was a remarkable man who started out as a teenager but took every opportunity in front of him to advocate for justice and act in the hope that things could be better than they were. He became a giant through consistent acts of faith and bravery and was constantly motivated by his belief in God and the support of the community of faith. This will inspire you with everything that he accomplished and challenge you to see where you can follow his example. Now available on HBOMax.

The Painter and the Thief – A crazy and powerful story about the transforming power of compassion and love and choosing to see someone at their best even when they are at their worst. It has a very poignant and raw exploration of addiction that’s ultimately hopeful but emotional so be aware. See Ivan’s list for more info, available to stream on Hulu.

Boy’s State – At times scary and at times inspiring, this doc follows teenage boys in Texas as they create their own form of government. Ivan wrote about this here, and I also recommend it. Available on Apple+

Ivan’s Top Ten Movies of 2020

The year that was 2020 didn’t offer us much. In fact, many would say, that it did more than its fair share of taking. However, what happens when you put two cinephiles in quarantine and lockdown for an extended period of time? Well, you watch a bunch of movies. This year offered us the chance to watch older movies we hadn’t seen before and, of course, watch an unprecedented number of new movies. Yes, there were a lot of new movies this year even if we had to circumvent the theaters to watch them. I can’t wait to get back in the cinemas in 2021, but the pandemic did give films that normally wouldn’t have had an extensive theatrical run a better chance to shine and shine they did. Get ready to add some entries to your queues because here are the top ten films that I enjoyed in 2020.

10. Tenet

There was a very brief window between lockdowns when I was able to don a mask and sit in a massive IMAX theater and watch Christopher Nolan’s Tenet. It blew my mind. Unfortunately, I did just re-watch it at home and it was not the same. It’s no surprise that Nolan loves IMAX and formats his films for that experience, but it is a shame that many won’t ever get to enjoy the richness of those brief couple of hours I got. John David Washington added another amazing performance to his burgeoning resume, and Robert Pattinson was an absolute delight. Nolan always makes you work a little bit to follow his movies, but Tenet was a spectacle I am grateful I got to see in all its glory. There were even large portions of the film where the characters were wearing masks, so it felt like I was in the movie.

Tenet is currently available wherever you rent movies on demand such as Vudu, Apple, or your device’s media store.

9. Sh*%house

If I were to read the synopsis or describe what takes place in this movie, you’d probably never believe it was any good. On paper, this sounds like any other sort of college party movie, but Cooper Raiff’s filmmaking debut is way more Before Sunrise than it is Animal House. Sh*%house is somewhat of a selfish entry on this list because I am a white male who went to college, and so, in many ways, this film was made for me, but Raiff captures something here that is a little transcendent of the subject matter. He is able to really show what those early years in college can be like. He also creates a character whose sensitivity and emotions are on display which really takes this movie away from the red solo cups and out from under the black lights into something refreshing and different.

Sh*%house is currently available wherever you rent movies on demand such as Vudu, Apple, or your device’s media store.

8. The Truth

Hirokazu Koreeda made big waves with his 2018 film, Shoplifters, about a Japanese family of small-time crooks. Naturally, his next film would be about an aging French actress and her relationship with her daughter. That is what we get with The Truth. This is a very intimate, and often funny, drama about myths and narratives that form in any family. Uncovering the truth in a family’s history can be really painful especially when it’s been hidden or protected over decades and decades. Juliette Binoche and Catherine Deneuve absolutely soar as the mother and daughter dueling over what is true, how they have been hurt, and how they can keep existing as a family. They are both the heroes of their own story and there aren’t easy paths to the truth or to healing. It might be worth diving into and pondering the story you’ve created around your own family.

The Truth is currently available wherever you rent movies on demand such as Vudu, Apple, or your device’s media store.

7. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom would have gotten my stream from the very start. Another August Wilson adaptation with Viola Davis. A 1, a 2, and you know what to do! Just hit play! Then the unthinkable happened. You see, this movie also features a career best performance from Chadwick Boseman. It would have been such a joy to watch Boseman’s star continue to rise as he worked the awards circuit and watched another role of his become iconic. As Levee, Boseman dances across August Wilson’s words with charm, confidence, pain, and desperation. If you haven’t yet processed the loss of this incredible person and talent, that’s ok. But when you’re ready, seeing him do his thing one last time could be somewhat cathartic.

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is currently streaming on Netflix.

6. Mangrove

Like I said before, there wasn’t a lot of abundance in 2020. However, director Steve McQueen popped off this year. He didn’t just give us another shiny entry into his already glimmering catalogue, he gave us five! Amazon is categorizing his anthology as a series, but Small Axe is actually 5 films depicting stories of West Indian immigrants in England in the late 70’s to early 80’s. Each one offers a unique story, but the best of these to me is the courtroom drama, Mangrove, about the trial of “The Mangrove Nine.” Black Panther’s Letitia Wright has never been better in the role of activist Altheia Jones. This is definitely more proof to the positives of the streaming revolution. No movie studio is going to fund five movies like this, but especially now that there is such a demand for content, more stories like this get to be told.

The Small Axe anthology is currently streaming on Amazon Prime.

5. The Painter and The Thief

What if someone was able to truly see you? I’m not saying that picture you chose as your profile picture but to see you at your very worst. Does that thought scare you? If you had to paint that picture would it be an attractive one? The Painter and The Thief absolutely floored me. It documents the real-life friendship of painter Barbora Kysilkova and the man who stole her paintings, Karl Bertil-Nordland. Kysilkova meets Bertil-Nordland at his absolute worst. He is struggling with his addiction and on his way to prison for the theft that he barely remembers. At the trial, she asks him why he stole the paintings, and his response is because they were beautiful. The next question is what takes these two on an unimaginable journey of forgiveness and the beauty of art. Kysilkova asks if he would meet with her so she can paint him. Sometimes we all need someone who can see us as we truly are and still see our inherent value. It is in those long sessions of sitting in occasional conversation, but mostly silence, that a bond forms that changes them both. It is such a clear picture of restoration that I won’t be able to shake.

The Painter and The Thief is currently streaming on Hulu.

4. First Cow

I’m not sure a movie made me hungrier this year than First Cow. Director Kelly Reichardt tells a slow, quiet story of two men who are drawn together by a very significant arrival in their pioneer community in Oregon. That arrival, of course, is the territory’s first cow. There is a genuine calm to this movie that was very welcome this year. Normally, when I’m watching movies and tv set in this time period I’m distracted by how muddy and ugly everything is, but this was a beautiful film in both theme and aesthetics. One word of warning, though, this movie features scenes of delicious looking donut fritters covered in honey.

First Cow is currently available wherever you rent movies on demand such as Vudu, Apple, or your device’s media store.

3. The Assistant

The Assistant is an incredibly timely film in its subject matter but also in featuring a young actress that is becoming a megastar in Julia Garner. Very few actors could bring to the table what she does in this super subtle movie. In the film, Garner plays the assistant to a Harvey Weinstein type. She does such a brilliant job conveying what is happening in this young woman under the surface. She has to because she is in a position where she can be penalized greatly if the wrong word, emotion, or facial expression breaks through. The tension is crushing. Sadly, I would imagine that many women won’t have to make great leaps to understand what Garner’s character is feeling, but her performance and the film as a whole invite everyone else into this experience.

The Assistant is currently streaming on Hulu.

2. Minari

I am cheating somewhat with this one because Minari won’t be broadly available for some time. Our local film festival offered an opportunity to screen this new film starring The Walking Dead actor Steven Yeun at our drive-inn and we jumped at the chance. The film is about a Korean family attempting to assimilate into the American south in the 80’s. After exiting The Walking Dead with a bashed in head, Yeun has been making some fantastic choices to follow up his television success. Burning was one of the best films of the last few years and featured a powerhouse performance by the artist formerly known as Glen. Yeun isn’t the whole story here, though he delivers another great showing. This is a family drama, and every character brings a lot of depth to their Arkansasan agrarian life. This is another film that has a calmness to it in the midst of its tension and humor. There is an authenticity here brought in from writer/director Lee Isaac Chung’s own life story, and I am thankful for it. If you want to know more, I did write a full review here!

Look for Minari to be available sometime in early 2021.

1. Sound of Metal

I’m more of a pop music kind of guy. In fact, the music in the beginning of Sound of Metal confuses me more than anything. It’s chaotic, loud, and impossible to ignore. It turns out, though, that this music is actually holding together the mind of Ruben, the film’s lead played masterfully by Riz Ahmed. There are moments early on when it seems, externally, that Ruben has it all together, but once this heavy metal drummer suddenly loses his hearing, the internal metal music of his mind comes pounding to the outside. It isn’t just that he won’t be able to drum, it’s that this music was allowing him to direct the chaos of his mind. From a technical standpoint this movie features some amazing cinematography and wildly clever sound design, but it is the performances that pull you in. In those poorly lit clubs filled with the screeching guitars and vocals, I wanted to pull away from the screen, but the way this story is told kept drawing me closer and closer. Most of us have been stripped of some form of physical or emotional safety net this year, and Sound of Metal brings us into that very situation when things are dire and we’re prone to scramble or forced into bad situations just to try and survive. That reality is reflected in this film, but, by the end, I believe Ruben is going to keep on living and you should to.  

Sound of Metal is currently streaming on Amazon Prime.

Wonder Woman 1984: Train wreck or Triumph?

“Life is good…but it could be better!”

We often hear directors say that the location of their film is a character in the story, for WW84 that can be said of the backdrop of the 1980s. At first, we could be tempted to think that setting the sequel in the 80s is just a fun excuse for great outfits and nostalgia for the dying shopping mall. But director Patty Jenkins deserves more credit than that. The 1980s was a time of booming prosperity, big hair, big guitar solos, big promises. Promises from politicians, scheming businessmen, televangelists, and fitness instructors that our dreams could come true if we just followed them. If we gave them our vote, our money, more money…all our desires could be fulfilled. And then what happened? The cynicism and moodiness of the 90s. A social bursting bubble when we realized not all that glitters is gold. WW84 sets out to explore the promises of the things we believed, and the cost of their deception.

The film opens with young Diana (a delightful Lilly Aspell reprising her role) learning an important lesson back home in Themyscira. That cutting corners and taking shortcuts is appealing in the moment, but you’re only deceiving yourself and others with that approach. There is no honor or achievement without the truth. This shapes a huge part of Diana’s character and future trajectory. Wonder Woman is very much defined by a love for honor and truth, most obviously expressed by her wielding the Lasso of Truth.

As we catch up with Diana in 1984 America, her origin continues to shape her career. She frequently saves the day as Wonder Woman, but moves in public as Diana Prince, senior anthropologist specializing in Mediterranean civilizations at the Smithsonian. Not only is she using her superpowers to serve others, she is also using her extensive knowledge of ancient Greek mythology and culture to serve academia. This is who Diana fundamentally is, a woman who utilizes her talents and abilities to pursue truth in the world.

Spoiler Warning

This is where things start to get dicey. Diana and her colleague Minerva (played wonderfully by Kristen Wiig) come across a strange artifact. From the beginning, the artifact is giving us clues about its nature. It is a stone that appears to be valuable but is actually cheap and common, frequently used for counterfeits. It is mounted on a gold ring inscribed with Latin, indicating that it is a “Dreamstone” and that those who hold it will be granted a wish. But the glittering Dreamstone holds a dark secret. Eventually Diana realizes that it was created by the Greek god Dolos, a god of deception and treachery. The promise of the granted wish is actually a trick. The bearer will indeed receive what they desire, but it will cost them that which is most precious. In the attempt to take shortcuts to attain our desires, we lose much more than we receive. Diana unknowingly wishes for the love of her life, Steve Trevor, to return to her. He does, but it begins to impact Diana’s powers. And Steve isn’t truly restored to her, it is only his soul that is inhabiting the body of another man. A counterfeit for the real thing. It is a deceit that posits itself as a loving reunion but is costing Diana her ability to help others and costing the anonymous man the life he was leading.

The stone falls into the hands of Maxwell Lord, a pondsy-scheme-would-be oil baron determined to use the stone to give himself the status and power and acceptance that he has always craved. The movie shines with Pedro Pascal in this role, he creates a character that is layered with arrogance, desperation, insecurity and sadness. He wishes to become the stone itself, transforming him into a granter of wishes and stealer of worth. As he tricks more and more people to make selfish and thoughtless wishes, the world around them descends into chaos. People make wishes based on self-interest and what they believe will make them happy and secure but the ripple effects damage everyone else. The stone takes far more than it gives, making those in its power believe they have it all.

This theme is an insightful exploration of the 1980s, the deceptions that we believed and what it cost us. It is also a powerful exploration of spiritual idolatry. As Christians, we believe that to worship anything other than God is to worship idols. To place our trust in something that promises us security and fulfillment. Wealth, achievement, relationships, acceptance, substances, political power. Things that glitter and make us feel on top of the world, but which erode us from the inside out.

15 The idols of the nations are silver and gold,

    made by human hands.

16 They have mouths, but cannot speak,

    eyes, but cannot see.

17 They have ears, but cannot hear,

    nor is there breath in their mouths.

18 Those who make them will be like them,

    and so will all who trust in them. – Psalm 135:15-18 (NIV)

As the psalmist says, we become like that which we trust. If we place our trust in things that are lifeless and empty, that is what we will become. But the Deceiver never stops with us. The real cost of idolatry is on the people around us. Those who love us, those who follow our influence, those under our care are the ones who suffer most. As Andy Crouch says in his excellent book Playing God, “idols ultimately claim our children.” It is the vulnerable in our lives and in our society that pay the highest price.

Maxwell Lord almost sacrificed his child in the pursuit of his own desires. It is only when Diana renounces her wish and walks away from the false shadow of Steve that she can see the truth about her situation and invite others into seeing the truth behind the glitter. The truth is hard, and costly, and humbling, but never so costly as living as a prisoner to lies.

This was true in the 1980s and continues to be more resonant then ever in 2020. Leveraging lies in order to attain and retain power have been rampant. Spinning false and dangerous narratives about the pandemic and about the outcome of the election have been driven by selfish desires for power. It is the vulnerable in society who have paid for this deceit. The next generation of young Christians are the ones who will be left to pick up the pieces of a Church in ruins. The children are the ones being most damaged. The truth is rarely comfortable, it is certainly rarely easy, but in the truth lies freedom. Freedom cannot be found in power plays, in shortcuts, in counterfeits of how we wish things were. It is only when we face and accept the truth for what it is and put others before ourselves that we can find genuine flourishing.

REVIEW: News of the World

What does your current relationship with the news media look like? According to Gallup, most Americans don’t trust the mass media. Odds are, even if you do it’s not completely. Not only is trust an issue, but as we enter digital spaces it becomes easier and easier to build echo chambers. Essentially, echo chambers are “situations in which beliefs are amplified or reinforced by communication and repetition inside a closed system and insulated from rebuttal.” This concept has gained momentum as researchers have explored our relationship to social media and mass media, but, functionally, echo chambers have existed for much longer than Twitter. If that is news to you, then Tom Hanks and director Paul Greengrass have something to share with you, their new movie, News of the World.

Based on a 2016 Western novel by Paulette Jiles, NOTW follows Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd (Hanks) who, in a post-Civil War Texas, makes his living travelling town to town reading the news to anyone whose got a dime and wants to hear it. What Capt. Kidd is really offering these isolated Texas towns is an opportunity to step outside their echo chamber. Imagine what communities in the American South were like in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War, or even before. Without news from the outside world, there would be a lot of opportunity to stew in the defeat and regret of the battles and continue to hold on to the narratives that brought the country to war in the first place.

Alongside Capt. Kidd, is Johanna, a young girl that was kidnapped and raised by the Kiowa tribe after her family was slaughtered. Kidd becomes responsible for transporting her across Texas to her extended family. Along the way he must learn to communicate with Johanna, who only speaks Kiowa and mostly thinks Kidd is kidnapping her again. As Kidd is offering the news from town to town, Johanna is offering him an opportunity for a second chance at life. The Captain got his rank from fighting for the confederacy in the war and that role left scars on his body, heart, and mind. Johanna’s presence challenges Kidd to reckon with his past and the current state of the world complete with folks hanging on to the confederacy and intense fear of indigenous people.

The Reconstruction Era is a fascinating backdrop that probably should be explored more in film. I wonder what echoes of that time still ring in present day America. It is in the exploration of that time period that this movie shines. There are moments when you can see the impact that the art of story has on a community. The simple act of reporting the news can build bridges to life beyond what the people can see in front of their faces. Perhaps my favorite sequence in the movie involves Kidd sharing with a struggling community the story of a mine accident in Pennsylvania. You can see him trying to bring these two very fractured parts of the country to some common ground and it changes people.

Greengrass is most known, and most commonly touted, for directing the heart-pounding action of the Bourne franchise. If you are expecting Hanks to take down his foes with some martial arts and a rolled-up copy of the “Houston Chronicle” you’re going to be disappointed. NOTW is a much slower, more methodical kind of action. Afterall, Kidd’s character in the book is 71 and Hanks plays him as someone who has more than a little bit of hitch in his giddy up. Did you know that Tom Hanks can act? Well, he can and is classic Hanks here. He’s warm and folksy with some of both Captain Phillips and Woody under his cowboy hat. Still, the film overall is telling a very complex story and may have benefitted from more focus on either the power of the news or the redemption of Capt. Kidd. It struggled to encapsulate both.

I can’t imagine this is going to be the flick that will keep the kids’ attention through the holiday, but the movie could act as that hardback history book we all bought our dads one Christmas or another. In the world of a thousand streaming services, maybe Hanks is creating a lane as the king of the dad movie. Our bright, white Air-Monarch-wearing public will probably find a lot to like in this old school Western, but for others it is interesting to contemplate how we absorb our news. Mass media might not be the answer, but echo chambers aren’t either. We have to keep building bridges and sharing our stories. That is ultimately the power that news and technology offers us, pictures into the lives and experiences of others. We have the ability to reach out across miles and miles of space and time to learn, care, and grow. If we don’t, then I’ve got some bad news for you, not a lot about our current world will ever change.

News of the World releases in select theaters on Christmas Day.

REVIEW: Soul

The number 42. That is the answer author Douglas Adams gives to the ultimate question of life, the universe, and everything. What is the meaning of life? It’s a big question given a very simple answer in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Would that it were so simple. Though many have tried over the eons, this question continues to baffle generation after generation. Now our up-and-coming millennials and Gen Z have an answer all their own, work. Barna Research Group found that among the top priorities of our next generations “Finishing my education” and “Starting  a career” topped the list. We are guiding our young people to assign their worth and value to the search for their purpose, passions, and work. What are they meant to do with their lives? What if their chosen path doesn’t provide for them and their families? What if they get into their career and hate it? No wonder anxiety about the future is also on the rise in these generations. It’s these massive questions of life, the universe, and everything that Disney and Pixar try to tackle in their new film, Soul.

Pixar Soul GIF

Soul centers around jazz musician and middle school music teacher, Joe Gardner, brought to life by Jamie Foxx. Joe is stuck in a cycle of chasing gigs around New York in a quest to be a professional musician. He’s been at the gig game for a while but is so laser focused on his passion that he even balks at the chance for a stable career at his middle school. Just when Joe thinks he has found his big break, a tragedy sends him into the soul realm where he faces the great beyond. In soul world, he discovers how human’s souls are crafted with their personality traits and passions. That’s when he meets 22 (not to be confused with 42) who is an unfinished soul in need of mentoring and just might be Joe’s ticket back to the real world.

In 22, voiced by the iconic Tina Fey, we get to explore all of the things that create our identities as people. Identity, aren’t we all on a never-ending quest to find ours? We so desperately want somebody, anybody, to tell us who we are and what we’re supposed to do. How many Buzz Feed quizzes can you take? We’re all a little of each Harry Potter character, aren’t we? How many different numbers on the Ennegram scale are you going to say, “That sounds like me”? These are complicated questions, but Pixar is used to diving into these deeper questions about how we work. Soul will undoubtedly receive many comparisons to Inside Out, and, much like Taylor Swift’s Folklore and Evermore, they really could be sister projects. Where Inside Out was looking deep into human emotion and the role our emotions play, Soul is looking at humanity itself and the role we all play in society. Its looking at what does it actually mean to live. It is fascinating the way the film asks you to decipher the fine line between passion and vocation and between pursuing your dreams and stalling out.

Pixar Soul GIF 2

Many have tried to define such ambiguous terms like purpose and passion. Maybe you have a definition that works well for you. I often come back to Andy Crouch’s article on “The Three Callings.” Crouch focuses a lot on what it means to be an image bearer of God. The concept of the image of God as outlined in the very beginning of scripture and threaded throughout, is that if you are human, you have been made in God’s image. What’s so beautiful about that is that we are all so different yet somehow encompass this form together. That means God cares about the things that you care about! God cares about art, math, video games, music, engineering, fashion, microbiology, quantum physics, basket weaving, professional ping pong, etc. What’s so fun about Soul is that it invites you to examine the activities, the people, and the work that sparks your passion.

Pixar Soul GIF 3

Rarely has asking some of these bigger life questions been so much fun or looked so beautiful. Pixar, once again, pushes the boundaries on animation as they blend three-dimensional and two-dimensional art as well as mixing the abstract with that grounded in reality. You wouldn’t be wrong to expect other familiar Pixar traits as well such as cross-generational humor. Yes, they say the word “butt” to make the kids chuckle but there’s also a very classy “pizza rat” reference and a pointed jab at all of you megalomaniacs out there. Don’t be fooled by Soul skipping theaters and heading straight to streaming on Disney+ without Mulan’s premium fee. Disney is giving its subscribers a gift with this one. Our next generations need to watch and learn that there is grace in finding and pursuing their passions. They need to see what it looks like to pursue life outside of the work that defines them. It was as if they decided to animate Morgan Freeman’s famous line from The Shawshank Redemption, “Get busy livin’ or get busy dying,” and I am absolutely here for it.

REVIEW: Burden

“There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear…,” John writes in the first of his pastoral letters. This letter, in fact, has a lot to say about love. It continues, “Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.” Thankfully, John doesn’t stop there because while it’s nice to know that God is love, how does this love play out among us humans? He goes on to explain that that love is best expressed unconditionally and sacrificially pointing towards the example of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross. Love is costly. You may think, then, that such a costly act would be reserved for those closest to you, but The Bible leans further in to the unconditional.

Gospel authors like Luke recount the words of Jesus writing, “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.” These are passages that would prove challenging to Rev. David Kennedy of New Beginning Missionary Baptist Church in Laurens, South Carolina. Rev. Kennedy and his congregants and fellow black citizens of Laurens are confronted daily with their enemy. This is an enemy fueled by fear and expressive in its hate. This is an enemy that lynched Rev. Kennedy’s uncle. Laurens is a town that has been defined by white supremacy. Its name comes from a well-known 18th Century slave trader, and it is home to the infamous Redneck Shop, a monument to the town’s shared history with the KKK. The shop itself is housed in what was formerly a segregated movie theater.

Burden Forest Whitaker

Rev. Kennedy entered into the tension of his town armed with passages like those in John’s letters and the war he waged, with weapons of unconditional, sacrificial love, are the subject of the film, Burden, starring Academy Award winner Forest Whitaker as the reverend. One of the main battlefields in Laurens, wasn’t in the street in front of the shop where many tense protests were held, but it took place in the heart and mind of a young man named Michael Burden played in the film by Garrett Hedlund. Burden fits the mold of many young men that have been indoctrinated by a white supremacist worldview.

In his local chapter of the Klan he found easy access to housing, work, resources, and drugs. The closest thing to love he had experienced came from the owner of the Redneck Shop. Burden rose to the rank of Grand Dragon, and, in a sign of respect, was given the deed to the shop. This was around the time Burden met his wife, Judith, who was also involved with the Klan but had already begun questioning their practices and worldview. This lead Burden away from the Klan and to the doorstep of Rev. Kennedy where he’d find an opportunity for love to be redefined.

Burden Garrett Hedlund Usher

The true story of Rev. Kennedy, Michael Burden, and the Redneck Shop is impossibly complex, and the film version makes it slightly more idyllic in order to tell a more concise story. Burden tells a beautiful story of pain turned to healing, of hate turned to love, and of hopelessness turned to redemption. Hopefully, the film does inspire people to practice perfect love in the face of fear. Hopefully, like another recent film, Skin, we begin to see a prevailing narrative that people’s hearts can change and that leaving white supremacy behind is possible. To truly appreciate the complexity of this story, though, it’s worth digging into the ongoing true story.

Rev David Kennedy

The real life Rev. Kennedy in front of the Redneck Shop.

Rev. Kennedy is still battling to remove the Klan’s presence from his town. Burden is now separated from his wife and re-associated with some of his former Klan family. White supremacy has an overwhelming hold on people and systems that are in our lives every day. The work of dismantling such a pervasive system is exhausting but made easier if we are motivated by a higher power. The initial success of Rev. Kennedy’s sacrificial love showcased in the film is a testament to what is possible if we heed Jesus’ words, but as the fight against white supremacy continues in the hearts of men, the streets of Laurens, and all over our country, its worth acknowledging that love is often a burden that gets a little lighter because Christ first loved us.

“This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.” – 1 John 4:9-11