REVIEW: Boys State

How have you been feeling about politics lately? Fearful? Hopeful? Angry? Energetic? How many times in the last four years have you heard some version of, “America is more divided than it has ever been”? If this very common sentiment is true, and has been for a while, then perhaps the only way to fix it is to do something different. What do we do differently, though, and whose responsibility is it to be different? It’s all too easy to assume that the next generation will bring change, but if Apple’s new documentary Boys State is a signpost of what’s to come, we may want to create a little more urgency in the here and now.

Boys State Rob

Boys State, from filmmakers Amanda McBain and Jesse Moss, won the U.S. Documentary Grand Jury Prize at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival, and documents the 2018 Texas Boys State program. Every year in every state the American Legion runs a leadership development experience for male and female high school juniors. The goal of the program is to educate young people on civic engagement and often includes perks like college credit or valuable college scholarships. The film opens highlighting some of the program’s more infamous alumni like Bill Clinton, Dick Cheney, and Rush Limbaugh. Each young person is sponsored by their local Legion and are usually the sole representative of their high school. Following the leaders of the youth of our nation, what an incredible opportunity to see what they stand for and how they will engage in the political process! The issue is, once this week at the Texas state capitol begins to unfold, it’s not that different from what we see on our national political stage.

Maybe we’ve grown accustomed to seeing the survivors of the Parkland shooting standing behind podiums or Greta Thunberg addressing the world’s leaders, but the displays at this Boys State more resembles the worst comment threads on Facebook. Are abortion and gun control the most pressing concerns on the average 17-year-old conservative Texan? The answer, from the subjects themselves, is no, but it’s what they think they’re supposed to talk about. They may not even be able to tell you why, but they definitely think it will make them successful, popular, and, more importantly, elected. One young man even goes as far to admit that he believes the exact opposite of what he said in a debate because he knows it’s what people want to hear. They’re all getting ready to enter college or the workforce. Many probably do think often about the world they’re inheriting. Some of them probably have challenging family lives rife with relational and economic obstacles. Other’s minds are filled with dreams of tricked-out pickup trucks and queries as to who among them can do the most pushups. But you ask them to talk about politics and the only place their mind can go is the 2nd Amendment.

Boys State Group

In this environment it’s hard not to notice the outliers. In the documentary, it is a young man named Steven who enters the narrative in his Beto t-shirt telling stories of his conversion to the political sphere by Bernie Sanders. Later we find out that Steven helped stage the “March For Our Lives” march in Houston. It’s not his progressivism that makes Steven different, though. He also knows in order to win the coveted highest office of Boys State Governor, he must reach across the aisle. When asked the primary role of a politician, Steven answers “public service.” He says again and again in his speeches, and during his quest to get the signatures needed to be on the ticket, that governing means he represents everyone, not just those who agree with him. The film spends a lot of time watching Steven go conversation to conversation, handshake to handshake, lunch to lunch, asking the same question, “What do you care about?” He’s not interested in changing his convictions to win, he wants to build a representative government.

The doc might look upon Steven with a tinge of partiality, but what if all of the other boys acted this way? What might be different about the platforms they produce or the races they run? The policies and campaigns end up looking all too familiar, though. There are guys who jump to impeachment at the slightest whiff of disagreement while others attempt a full-blown Texas secession just to be cool (the previous year’s Boys State voted to succeed and made headlines). There’s mudslinging, social media smear campaigns, and petty or goofy congressional resolutions.

Boys State Rene

If we are expecting the next generation to be different, then one Steven in a sea of 1,100 future politicians aren’t great odds. We may need to take some responsibility for what this next generation is absorbing. Think about someone like John Lewis who did have the burden of change thrust upon his shoulders at a young age, but he clung to his elders (though many weren’t much older) for an example. Now how many young people will vote for the first time in 2020 because they learned of his legacy as the world eulogized him? Lewis is encouraging more Americans from the grave than many who currently hold office. “My friends, let us not forget that we are involved in a serious social revolution. By and large, American politics is dominated by politicians who build their careers on immoral compromises and ally themselves with open forms of political, economic, and social exploitation,” Lewis said in front of the crowd at the March on Washington in 1963. Boys State helps us see that we simply cannot wait to see what progress the next generation will bring or how they’ll be different. We have to be different right now or they never will be.

Ivan’s Top Ten 2019

Here we are at the beginning of a new year and at the beginning of a new decade. Before we enter the new ’20’s, let’s look back at the year that was in film. It was a year teaming with quality films but, also, a year that we spent some time visiting classics we hadn’t seen before. Most of these came from the often praised 1970’s watching movies like “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” and “The Last Picture Show.” After padding my Letterboxd stats (follow me at ivansmoore), I’m probably of the mindset that with new techniques and technology, more distribution possibilities, and a more diverse community of storytellers, movies of our time keep getting better and better!

With that being said, I’d love to offer you the ten best experiences I had watching movies in 2019. Critics agree that this was an exceptional year. So first let me give you a couple more freebies in the form of some honorable mentions. You really can’t go wrong digging into the deeply spiritual A Hidden Life and The Two Popes or raising your blood pressure with Uncut Gems and Waves. We may also be in a Shia-ssance with the former Disney star offering his heart with The Peanut Butter Falcon and Honey Boy. I’d also invite you to add the female written and directed Booksmart and Queen & Slim to your watch lists. But there were ten movies that really hit me this year and here they are.

10.) The Dead Don’t Die (R – dir. Jim Jarmusch)

I walked out of the theater in absolute disbelief. What in the world had I just watched? I came to learn that this was pretty typical fare for director Jim Jarmusch. The Dead Don’t Die is a dead-pan social comedy zombie movie starring living legend, Bill Murray, and Kylo Ren himself, Adam Driver. When I say dead pan I really want you to understand there is nearly no emotion in this movie. The world is falling apart in front of the characters’ eyes while they go through the motions of life and that’s precisely the point. If an emotionless Bill Murray sighing through a zombie breakout isn’t enough for you, the movie sports an extensive supporting cast like Danny Glover, Selena Gomez, Tilda Swinton, and one catchy tune by Sufjan Stevens. Sitting in my car in the parking lot after, I was so perplexed I knew I wanted to see it again and again.

The Dead Don't Die Ghouls GIF

9.) Rocketman (R – dir. Dexter Fletcher)

The award for most horribly marketed film of the year goes to Rocketman. Like many, I saw the ads for this Elton John biopic and felt the echoes of last year’s Bohemian Rhapsody. That movie was a straight forward, semi-boring snoozefest that relied solely on a trendy actor and the timeless music of Queen. Rocketman is a full-blown Elton John musical! It’s framed with Elton in a rehab group therapy session and deconstructs his life through whimsical, brightly colored, surreal musical numbers. As much as Rami Malek inhabited Freddie Mercury’s giant teeth, Taron Egerton tackled singing every song while cutting many a rug through some incredible set pieces. Rhapsody felt like a string of youtube videos of Queen performances, but Rocketman was Elton John taking us on a journey towards some of the most important revelations of his life.

8.) A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood (PG – dir. Marielle Heller)

Do we really need a Mister Rogers movie? Like every kiddo my age growing up in Southwestern Pennsylvania watching our beloved mayor of make-believe hanging out with Lynn Swann and going to the crayon factory, I’m very protective of Fred. I was nervous about the documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor? but found it to be a delightful injection of common grace to everyone who saw it. Fred Rogers’ attitude and beliefs shined through as friends and family told his story alongside clips of the man himself. One of those friends was journalist Tom Junod. Beautiful Day is really his movie. Tom Hanks plays Fred in a supporting role. Junod wrote a now infamous profile of Mister Rogers for Esquire and it changed his life. He was known for cynical hit pieces and so came to Fred with a thirst for blood. Junod wasn’t ready for Fred’s hospitality or Joanne Rogers’ humility or Daniel Tiger’s hugs. We did need this movie and only Hanks could have done it. While you’re at it you can read Junod’s recent follow up where he talks about a life of being Fred’s friend.

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7.) Marriage Story (R – dir. Noah Baumbach)

Marriage Story hands down features the best acting performances of the year while, at the same time, being one of the least enjoyable to watch. Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver play Nicole and Charlie a couple working through a divorce. Watching the American divorce system on display and feeling Nicole and Charlie’s marriage crumble is heart shattering. Writer and director Noah Baumbach, who I usually find to be off-putting and pretentious, has probably crafted his masterpiece here drawn from his real life journey through divorce and his leads deliver his script like a decadent buffet. It’s salty, it’s sweet, and sometimes it’s just too much but I can’t stop eating.

6.) Avengers: Endgame (PG-13 – dir. Anthony & Joe Russo)

Remember when the first footage dropped from Captain America: Civil War? Marvel fans rejoiced because there on their screens was a staple of cross-over, event comics come to life. Two big lines of characters charging at each other ready for battle. The comic book “splash page” was on film like never before, and we all thought, “Wow, they did it.” Directors Joe and Anthony Russo had reached peak nerdom by giving us a dozen heroes running in an empty airport. Little. Did. We. Know. That was just an appetizer. Avengers: Endgame marks the end of a film endeavor we may never see duplicated. I recently did a rewatch and still felt every single tingle as the ultimate superhero movie built to its splash page. The score hit perfectly, the portals opened, and every bit of investment I’ve given as a fan of these heroes for most of my life paid off.

Read my extensive thoughts on Avengers: Endgame here!

5.) The Farewell (PG – dir. Lulu Wang)

Is there anything kind of funny or weird about your family? I’m going to go out on a limb and say there probably is. Then you are going to relate deeply to this personal story Lulu Wang gives us from her own life. In The Farewell, Awkwafina steps in to represent Wang as Billi whose family is dealing with the grim cancer diagnosis of her grandmother. The thing is, as her family explains, it is customary not to tell their elders of such a diagnosis. So they concoct a family gathering for everyone to subtly say their goodbyes. I spent most of the movie holding my breath hoping Billi doesn’t let the cat out of the bag but then it would explode out when the movie turned wildly funny and again when pressure brings Billi to tears. She’s struggling as her whole family silently suffers shuffling around their matriarch with smiley facades. What does it mean to carry your family’s burdens? We probably all do it whether we want to or not. With The Farewell, Wang shows us that our load doesn’t always have to be so heavy.

4.) Little Women (PG – dir. Greta Gerwig)

There is so much life in this fourth feature adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s iconic novel. Sure I like Wynona Ryder and Christian Bale, but wow! Greta Gerwig built such chemistry and warmth in her adaptation that I wanted to jump through the screen. I wanted to have breakfast with the March sisters. I wanted to join the club along with Laurie. Gerwig’s lead is a familiar face to fans of her 2017 effort, Lady Bird. Saoirse Ronan is a great Jo and she might not even be the best performance in the movie! Florence Pugh caps off a career year making audiences love Amy for once in the character’s history. I might not be familiar enough with all of the adaptations to declare that this is the greatest of all time (though I still might), but I can say this was definitely one of the top five directed movies of the year.

Little Women Dancing GIF

3.) The Last Black Man in San Francisco (R – dir. Joe Talbot)

Just going by the title, you might think that this is some post-apocalyptic sci-fi movie like The Omega Man or I Am Legend. Movies about men standing alone in the world dealing with all that they’ve lost. So in a way, it might be. Last Black Man is a whimsical retelling of life story of the film’s lead Jimmie Fails. He’s wrestling to maintain both his family’s history and the eclectic culture of one of America’s most colorful cities. Jimmie is on the cusp of losing something dear to him and he fights for it with such innocence and poetry that you can’t help but root for him. He’s our guide through his family’s narrative and the narrative of the city he knows and can barely recognize. As Jimmie brings us along, we go through the layers of his life with him. It is about gentrification, but it’s also about family, friendship, masculinity, and so much more. It’s about life, what we fear to lose, and what we must hold on to.

Read Heather’s full review of Last Black Man here!

2.) Jojo Rabbit (PG-13 – dir. Taika Waititi)

The task was simple. Make a movie about a boy in the Hitler Youth who has a comically zany imaginary friend version of Adolph that he confides in. Never mind, that sounds impossible. So impossible, in fact, that maybe only one filmmaker could do it, Taika Waititi. What the director brings to this story set on the tail end of World War II, is his unique humor and heartfelt dramatic sensibilities we’ve seen before in films like Hunt for the Wilderpeople and What We Do in the Shadows. He allows this context to be what it was. It’s ugly and scary. Jojo spews all the hate he’s been taught in his young life. But he is still young and so as you cringe there is still big hope and some big laughs. The movie is really about the tearing away of Jojo’s imaginary friend. How that happens is what makes Waititi one of the best filmmakers we have today.

Read my full review of Jojo Rabbit here!

1.) Parasite (R – dir. Bong Joon Ho)

I hesitate to say much about my number one movie of the year. I purposefully avoided reviews and trailers before watching. All I had heard was the buzz around the new film from the same filmmaker that brought us Snowpiercer, The Host, and Okja. So I went in blind and was so glad I did! The story is so interesting and thrilling. It kept me guessing throughout its runtime about where the story was going and even what genre the film falls into. It was the best experience I had in the theater this year. I’m hoping that is enough to get you to watch it but, for those who need a little more, I did a spoiler-free review you can read here that talks about the themes it shares with Downton Abbey.

Parasite Jessica Song GIF

REVIEW: A Hidden Life

There is a lot of flashy, star-studded content about World War II out there. Rightfully so. It was an era when the world stood up together against a very obvious and treacherous evil. The conflict begs to be adapted again and again. Just this year, Jojo Rabbit approached the time period with humor and heart and Amazon Prime’s sci-fi series Man in the High Castle, that depicts how the world might have been different if the Axis Powers won, entered its final season. Over the years, audiences have followed Patton, banded with brothers, and saved Private Ryan through tons of explosive battles and even more explosive Tom Hanks performances. Now, into the catalog of World War II fare, comes the quiet and contemplative A Hidden Life.

A Hidden Life Church

Director Terrence Malik has been to WWII before with the fondly remembered The Thin Red Line, but this time he avoids the traditional trenched and barb-wired battlefield. That often-used setting is traded in for the Sound of Music-esque Austrian countryside. Malik adapted this story from the personal letters between farmers Franz and Fani Jägerstätter. He uses his signature style of frenetic edits and wide-angle lenses to pull the audience into this family’s quiet opposition to Hitler’s regime.

As the story winds tighter and tighter, Fani and Franz share these letters that are so rich with faith and love. Austria has never looked so lush with deep greens and bright blues, but soon it becomes a frigid, isolating prison. All I could think of were those infamous sweeping shots of Julie Andrews spinning while taking in fresh air and music from the hills. In A Hidden Life, Fani claws with her bare hands screaming her suffering into those same blades of grass as their village ostracizes her. Franz, eventually, finds himself behind actual bars locked away from any color at all. The world has left them both pale, cold, and empty. Yet they reach out to each other with warm, comforting blankets of scripture. This is where they find their freedom.

A Hidden Life Scenery GIF

In order to do what Franz and Fani did, you would have to have a foundational belief that nothing on this Earth can take away the freedom we have in Christ. They deeply loved each other, their life in the rolling hills, and their beautifully precocious daughters, but, once their consciences flare in the face of true evil, they have to put their hope in an eternal good. Friends, neighbors, family, priests and lawyers tell them that they could compromise a little and be set free. To that Franz replies that he’s already free.

Another frequent appeal to get Franz and Fani to give in is that no one will ever know the stance they took. What they are doing won’t change the course of the war or send the population of Austria into revolt. If Franz doesn’t give in he will die just as he lived, quietly. What an interesting question for today. What makes a protest worth it?

What comes to mind for you when you think about modern social activism? Much of our social activism is criticized today because so much of it takes place online. On the surface, it often feels like the ability to post online or, as many call it, to hide behind a keyboard, doesn’t cost the tweeter anything. If only we could ask journalist Jamal Khashoggi if posting his opinions came with a cost. Even though the face of modern day social activism is a tiny blue bird on our phones, there are so many people behind those birds screaming to be heard and often dying silently in the dark. But they continue to tweet. Why?

A Hidden Life Franz Arrest

Franz Jägerstätter (played beautifully and stoically by August Diehl in the film) couldn’t compromise. His beliefs planted him and his family firmly into the ground where he made his stand. Fani Jägerstätter (played with intense strength by Valerie Pachner) couldn’t ask her husband to pledge allegiance to evil even if it would bring him home. Even if their protest came with a cost, the cost of their very souls was greater and, they believed, the reward on the other side of righteous suffering, on this plane of existence or the next, was even greater still.

It had to be a challenge to tell the story of a family stoically making a stance. World War II has a lot of flashy stories to tell, but this is a very bleak and colorless one. Yet, Malik tells it in vibrant colors with a style that gives this small protest a grand scale. There isn’t a beach to be stormed or a rousing high note to be sung, but there is an incredible internal battle taking place not just on this farm in Austria but in the hearts of every person confronted with how to respond to true evil. Malik gives you time between the breaths of levity and punches of grief to ask that question of yourself. What is the cost of making a stand and what is the cost of not?

REVIEW: Minding the Gap

Death defying kickflips from concrete ledges. Balance bending rail grinds that will leave you breathless. One of this year’s films in the running for the Academy Award for Best Documentary is “Minding the Gap,” a film that should have also been nominated for its cinematography. The film is about the skateboarding community in Rockford, Illinois and features camera work that could have only been honed in alleyways, empty swimming pools, and public stairwells trying to capture the sickest tricks. The film is about the sport it depicts so well, but as it unfolds is about something else entirely, generational patterns of sin and hardship.

As filmmaker Bing Liu follows his skater friends around, he allows the story to develop naturally. Digging deeper into their lives he begins to recognize the broken homes and abusive families they come from. These dark commonalities give Liu the open door to shed light on the unusually high rates of domestic violence in the city of Rockford. Unfortunately, this is a trend continuing in Liu’s friends as they enter young adulthood.

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They have trouble keeping jobs, they drink excessively, and they abuse their significant others. Liu takes his evolving movie as an opportunity to unpack his own childhood with help from his mother. It’s heart-wrenching hearing his mother show deep remorse for the ways Liu was abused by his stepfather, while also documenting the disintegrating, unhealthy relationship of his friend Zack and the mother of Zack’s child. Two generations living out the same story.

This generational deja vu is something very human, and something God speaks into from the very beginning. In Genesis 20 we read,

“Now Abraham moved on from there into the region of the Negev and lived between Kadesh and Shur. For a while he stayed in Gerar, and there Abraham said of his wife Sarah, ‘She is my sister.’”

Now stop me if you’ve heard this before. As Genesis continues in chapter 26,

“So Isaac stayed in Gerar. When the men of that place asked him about his wife, he said, ‘She is my sister,’ because he was afraid to say, ‘She is my wife.’”

You’re not going crazy. Here are father and son, Abraham and Isaac, their hearts filled with fear and insecurity, lying an identical lie. They didn’t trust God and took the protection of their wives into their own hands. In both cases, the lie backfires and they nearly lose everything. In families, in institutions, and in the hearts of man we are prone to these generational patterns. We are stuck dragging the heavy chains of the past, slaves to the sins of our parents. They are thick chains, but they are not unbreakable.

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The book of Deuteronomy gives us a painful instruction manual. In chapter 12 we read, “Destroy completely all the places on the high mountains, on the hills and under every spreading tree, where the nations you are dispossessing worship their gods. Break down their altars, smash their sacred stones and burn their Asherah poles in the fire; cut down the idols of their gods and wipe out their names from those places. You must not worship the Lord your God in their way. But you are to seek the place the Lord your God will choose from among all your tribes to put his Name there for his dwelling.”

The prior inhabitants of God’s chosen land left patterns behind, almost grooves in the land leading to the worship of their gods. These verses are warning God’s people that if they’re not careful as they enter the land, they could easily click into the grooves of the past. The only way to prevent this is to tear it all down. Patterns are comfortable, they’re easy. Sometimes clicking into the routines of the past even feels good. The process of tearing it down is always the opposite. Changing the direction of a generation always comes with pain.

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For Liu and his friends it involves bringing the generational patterns into the light with his film. Zack will see this film and come face to face with some of his worst moments. Liu sat behind his camera and watched tears stream down his mother’s face. Even as an outsider, it is heartbreaking to watch, but that feeling of lament is the feeling of chains of the past being broken. What you hear in the film isn’t just plastic wheels filled with ball bearings hitting pavement, it’s the sound of shackles falling off. It’s the sound of future generations being freed. “Minding the Gap” is about skateboarding in Rockford, Illinois, but it’s also about hope.

REVIEW: Shazam!

Lex Luthor stands before his arch nemesis, the fully human/fully Kryptonian savior of the masses, Superman. A showdown of fists awaits Superman over in Gotham City, but not before he must sit through Luthor’s attempt at an intro to philosophy class. Luthor contemplates how Superman could possibly be so powerful but also without corruption. Several decades prior, Wonder Woman enters a similar discussion. The god of war, Ares, is trying to convince her that war and suffering aren’t products of his evil scheming but are the natural yield of the depraved hearts of humanity. The DC Comics film and television world, dubbed the DC Extended Universe or DCEU, has been doing a delicate dance to the tunes of power, morality, and depravity for years and that dance continues in their latest effort, Shazam!.

Shazam Flossing GIF

Those philosophy exercises have left the DC fan base pretty mixed and has added more pressure on a franchise constantly trying to catch up to Marvel and their Avengers. Starting with Wonder Woman and then, a largely reshot, Justice League, DC has been trying to lighten things up. The result was Aquaman, a mindless, CGI adventure more on par with the recent Fast & Furious films than the engaging, blockbuster comic book movies always topping the charts. While it was fun, DC’s resident fish wrangler may have been an over correction. Shazam!, though, could be their new sweet spot.

If Batman v Superman was their exploration of God’s sovereignty, and Wonder Woman is their white paper on total depravity, Shazam! is DC’s doctrine of grace. The movie is about one ancient wizard’s quest to find a human who is pure of heart. Once this champion is tracked down, the wizard, Shazam, can pass on his incredible powers equipping this human to battle back against the seven deadly sins, actual embodied representations of greed, envy, and the like. All Shazam has to do is find the perfect human. Should be easy right? It is not. Turns out the perfect human doesn’t exist.

Shazam Powers GIF

Time’s running out for Shazam so he’s forced to settle for Billy Batson, an almost 15-yeard-old foster kid preoccupied with running away from group homes on a quest of his own to find his mother. Now this pre-teen that has a hard time avoiding police custody is imbued with the power of six Roman gods to become the new Shazam! The movie is about confronting Billy’s imperfections, healing from his wounds, opening his heart to forces outside himself, and finding something all the Roman gods in the world can’t provide. Shazam! is an interesting look at the nature of man, it’s a heartfelt story about wounded and broken people, and it is also hilarious!

Sure Shazam! evokes all the Hanks-ian charm of Big, a kid trapped in an adult body navigating the often absurd world of increased responsibility, but it just works. This is partly due to Zachary Levi (NBC’s Chuck) playing the child-like hero. They also fill out Billy’s foster home with cast mates that challenge the adolescent rosters of Stranger Things and It.  Now that might be an easy, crowd pleasing formula, but just try not buying in to the smile of This is Us’s Faithe Herman or the teddy bear wiles of The Walking Dead’s Cooper Andrews. Shazam! is impossible to resist.

Shazam Transform GIF

DC still has a long way to go in building trust with its fan base as well as average movie going audiences. Unfortunately, the news out of the DCEU doesn’t exactly instill confidence. There’s reportedly going to be several different Joker stories (one that’s already in production), a Suicide Squad sequel/reboot, a separate Harley Quinn movie, another Batman reboot, and maybe a Green Lantern Corps movie with the studio saying they’re scrapping the idea of a shared universe moving more towards isolated stories. Not to mention there’s also an entire league of heroes in developmental purgatory like Cyborg and The Flash. There is hope, though. Aquaman was fun, there is a new Wonder Woman movie next year, and Shazam! does take place in the interconnected Justice League universe. If DC wants to continue to build towards another team up movie, Shazam! could be the spark they need or it could be a bolt of lightning in otherwise dark and stormy sky. Either way, go enjoy DC’s new boy wonder!

REVIEW: Avengers: Endgame (Non-Spoiler)

C.S. Lewis is often quoted in A Grief Observed, “…pain insists upon being attended to. God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our consciences, but shouts in our pains. It is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.” The last time fans of the Marvel Cinematic Universe checked in with “Earth’s Mightiest Heroes,” The Avengers, they had taken the ultimate blow. In 2018’s Avengers: Infinity War, their foe, Thanos, snapped his fingers turning half of the entire universe’s population to dust. Everyone on every planet in every galaxy lost someone.

 

Thanos Snap

 

If the Marvel franchise were reminiscent of the action/sports movies of the 1980’s, our remaining heroes (comprised mostly of the original 6 from 2012’s The Avengers) would engage in an exhilarating training montage, find Thanos, and punch him in the face even harder than ever before! So perhaps the biggest surprise in the much-anticipated Avengers: Endgame, is that the villain in about two thirds of the movie isn’t one you can punch at all. It’s grief.

 

In Infinity War, the Iron Man that started it all, Tony Stark, was forced to hold a teenaged Peter Parker, his budding mentee and pseudo-son, in his arms as he faded away. Black Widow, who had finally allowed a group of people to become her family, had to watch it all come crumbling down. The Mighty Thor worked tirelessly to forge a weapon to defeat Thanos only to come up torturously short instead getting a front row seat to the finger snap that caused the genocide. Captain America has always been a little different. He is all too familiar with the cost of war. What we walk into with this movie is an exploration of grief from many different angles.

 

Captain America Crying

 

Black Widow throws herself into her work, trying her best to keep a grasp on what was. Cap dives into helping others process their grief harking back of his visits to veteran support groups in Captain America: Winter Soldier. Thor, having had losses building up across several movies, had all of his hope for a brighter future riding on him being able to take out Thanos. He is coming completely unglued from the Avengers team, from his responsibilities as king, and his own health. Meanwhile, Stark, the team’s futurist, has embraced the present to build something new. Anyone who has felt a loss will likely relate to one of our heroes’ forms of coping. Grief works itself out in so many different ways, and there’s really no perfect script to handle it. 

 

Naturally, in the world of comics, the bad guys never triumph for long and evil is rarely afforded the final word. In the midst of their grief, a tiny light of hope comes along as the film launches into another wild Avengers adventure. Much like in Infinity War, we get to see new combinations of characters interacting and many memorable moments being created. Endgame is a gigantic movie with a runtime to match. Clocking in at a little over three hours, hardcore fans will be settled in for every second, but it will challenge the patience of fans on the peripheral. Hopefully, casual fans can hang in there, though, because the climax is nothing short of cinematic history unfolding. The final battle of this film redefines epic. 

 

Avengers Endgame

 

Yet pain insists on being attended to, and for those who have been following this franchise for the last 11 years across 22 films, there is going to be pain associated with Endgame. It very much is the end of the Marvel Cinematic Universe as we know it. Of course, the film sets up plenty to be explored in the future with Disney’s streaming service already promising limited series starring some of our favorites, but until Comic Con or D-23 (Disney’s annual convention) later this year there are no current plans announced for a Phase 4. 

 

This is the end and it feels like it, but what an end it is! Endgameis filled to the brim with threads and references built across the entire franchise. For those who have spent the last year rewatching all the films, studying every frame, quoting every quip, there is a lot of pay off and closure. For casual fans of the franchise who have been empowered by Scarlett Johansson, endeared to Chris Evans, charmed by Robert Downey Jr., or infatuated with Chris Hemsworth, there are plenty of laughs and thrills. It has been an incredible ride, and Endgame is a fantastic finale, but don’t be thrown off if you feel a little grief after saying goodbye to such a history making franchise.

Heather’s Top Ten 2018

Last month we had friends visiting from Australia. They know we love movies and as we were talking about what we had seen recently, one of them asked “What story do you think movies were telling this year?” That’s a terrific question. Several recurring themes emerged from the cinematic landscape of 2018. It was certainly a year of representation. Stories with strong female characters abounded, as did a wide array of cultural narratives (nearly always intersecting). It was a year that explored the ways we relate to each other. In our current social/political landscape America is still wrestling with what it means to understand one another, to make space for one another. The movies that made my top ten all help us take steps towards each other as we attempt to tell a unified story.

10. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (PG)

I do not like kids’ movies. I am rarely motivated to see an animated film. But the new animated Spider-Man is one for which I’ll make an exception. Following a young teen named Miles Morales (voiced wonderfully by Shameik Moore) who is bitten by a radioactive spider and develops super powers, the movie draws on classic comic book tropes while giving a fresh spin to Spider-Man. Miles witnesses a villain open an inter-dimensional portal which inadvertently draws in Spider-People from several different dimensions. They must work together to stop the villain and return each of them home. The movie boasts stunning animation, creative use of comic source material, a great voice cast, wonderful themes of representation (see Ivan’s review), and one of the best post-credit scenes ever. This will be a favorite for huge fans and moderate fans alike.

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018)

9. If Beale Street Could Talk (R)

It isn’t often that you can leave a movie about depressing social realities and feel exhilarated. Only director Barry Jenkins can accomplish such a feat. As I unpack in my full review, Jenkins has a dizzying ability to film painful topics with warmth and beauty. His unique directing style imbues the characters with dignity and tenderness even as we watch them experience terrible injustice. Beale Street helps us see the intricacy of life, that beauty and love can co-exist with powerlessness and inequality. Life is complex, and so is this film.

Barry Jenkins

Director Barry Jenkins filming If Beale Street Could Talk (2018).

8. A Quiet Place (PG-13)

Thanks to last year’s fantastic Get Out, we are seeing a surge in thoughtful horror films. This year’s A Quiet Place is a heart wrenching view of parenting and family. Set in a world of invading creatures where “If they hear you, They hunt you”, a young family must maintain absolute silence to survive. It quite literally begs the question, “How can you bring a child into this world?” Featuring real-life spouses/parents John Krasinski and Emily Blunt (with a particularly powerful performance), the film explores the fears parents feel around keeping their children safe in a hostile world. Check out my full review here.

John Krasinski

John Krasinski in A Quiet Place (2018).

7. The Hate U Give (PG-13)

Lead actress Amandla Stenberg had an impossible task. She had to carry a film adapted from a beloved YA novel that spanned the entire emotional spectrum, contained multiple dramatic monologues, and she had to not make it cheesy. And she knocked it out of the park. The story follows a black high school girl who lives in a black neighborhood and attends a predominantly white prep school, and is present when a black male friend is shot by a police officer. She must navigate codeswitching and the racial dynamics at her school, process her own trauma, manage the reactions of her surrounding community, and decide how to participate in the national conversation around police violence. Buoyed by a wonderful cast, The Hate U Give depicts so many important topics that young people of color have to deal with every day and gives voice to their experience of the world. See Ivan’s review.

6. Bad Times at the El Royale (R)

Sometimes the best movies are the ones you just walked into knowing nothing about. Bad Times falls into that category for me. Set in the late 1960s in a hotel that straddles the California/Nevada line, the story follows a cast of seemingly unrelated characters who are brought to the El Royale by a variety of interests. Written and directed by Drew Goddard, creator of Daredevil, the film unpacks deep themes of guilt, intervention, faith, and redemption. Featuring an incredible film debut from Broadway actress Cynthia Erivo, (Tony Award winner for her lead in The Color Purple) and the best performance to date from Jeff Bridges, Bad Times sails into my top ten. For other spiritual themes of the film, check out Alissa Wilkinson’s great review.

Jon Hamm

Jon Hamm in Bad Times at the El Royale (2018).

5. Vox Lux (R)

I’m guessing the popularity of A Star Is Born this fall overshadowed the more poignant new release Vox Lux, but you do not want to miss this one. Starring Natalie Portman with original music from Sia, this is a story about a pop star that tells a much bigger story. Propelled to early fame as a result of living through a school shooting, Celeste (Portman) wrestles with fame, trauma, addiction, and terrorism. Maybe it’s because I clearly remember the Columbine shooting, 9/11, and VH1’s old series Behind the Music, but Vox Lux spoke to my experience of coming of age in America. The film is an exploration and an indictment of our cultural tendency towards distraction and avoidance through entertainment and substances. It is a snapshot of the first wave of millennials, the things that shaped us, and the the ways we attempt to cope.

4. Roma (R)

My pick for Best Director this year, Alfonso Cuarón pays homage to his childhood housekeeper/nanny in his latest film. Raised in affluence in Mexico City in the 1970s, Cuarón was at the time unaware of the classism and racism in which he was unknowingly participating. Roma is dedicated to this woman who was part of his family and yet was never equal due to her different race/class. Roma is the name of the neighborhood where Cuarón grew up and the film follows the experience of an upper-middle class family and their indigenous maid. It beautifully details the sometimes obvious sometimes subtle classism the young housekeeper endures and the way her experience of the world differs from that of her employers. With stunning cinematography and a striking performance from first-time actress Yalitza Aparicio, Roma tells an important story that will captivate you.

Yalitza Aparicio

Yalitza Aparicio in Roma (2018).

3. Won’t You Be My Neighbor (PG-13)

I dare you to see this movie and not be moved to tears. In a time where nearly all of our heroes have fallen to scandal and hidden toxicity, we were in desperate need of a hero who genuinely was good and kind. Look no further than Fred Rogers. This documentary brings to life Fred’s deep conviction that all people are endowed with dignity and value and we should all know that to be true. Driven by his Christian faith and a belief that everyone is made in the image of God, Fred wanted children to know they have an important role to play in the world. Helping us cope with deep emotions and tragic current events (from the JFK assassination to the Challenger explosion), Fred and Daniel Tiger were there to guide us. If you need to renew your hope in what our society can be, go spend some time in the Neighborhood.

Fred Rogers

Fred Rogers in Won’t You Be My Neighbor? (2018).

2. Eighth Grade (R)

“Hey guys! Today I’m going to be talking about…” In a shocking turn of unlikely creative sourcing, a 28 year old male comedian (Bo Burnham) made a beautiful movie about the experience of being a young girl. Having himself come of age as a teen YouTube sensation, he was able to empathize with the anxieties, insecurities, pressures and veneers that make up what it’s like to be an 8th grade girl in our modern times. Led remarkably by newcomer Elsie Fisher, the movie is sympathetic and awkward and insightful. It brings to life the vulnerability of being young, the ways it is difficult to connect with both friends and parents. It is not just about being an 8th grade girl, it helps all of us understand what it means to be young in an age of technology and connectivity.

Eighth Grade

Elsie Fisher in Eighth Grade (2018).

1. Black Panther (PG-13)

I saw this movie four times in theaters. I’ll say it one more time for the people in the back, director Ryan Coogler changed the game with Black Panther. It redefines what a superhero movie can be. Who would have thought that a comic book movie could explore the experience of the African diaspora? So far beyond simply blowing things up and high speed chases, Coogler used the platform of Marvel to ask deep questions about identity, belonging, and the future of a global society. A master at taking source material and adapting it in a way that honors the original content while giving it countless new layers of meaning (Creed is another prime example of his abilities in this area) Black Panther stays true to the comics while helping all of us process our place in the world. With terrific performances, a stunning variety of female characters (see my full review here), this is the most enjoyable and most important film of 2018.

Black Panther

Letitia Wright and Chadwick Boseman in Black Panther (2018).

Check out Ivan’s Top Ten here!

Ivan’s Top Ten 2018

This was a stacked year at the cinema! I’m not sure what’s to blame, but this has been my most challenging Top Ten list to date. There were a gaggle of really enjoyable big budget blockbusters like Avengers: Infinity War and the cultural milestone Black Panther. The family friendly genre was spoiled with the richness of Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse and Paddington 2. That’s right, the Paddington sequel came out early this year and it was phenomenal! Documentaries made things difficult as well with the baffling Three Identical Strangers and the dizzying Free Solo proving reality is, truly, stranger than fiction.

More and more people were able to see themselves on screen in 2018. So much of what studios thought they knew about box office projections were defied nearly every week at the cinemas. The legacy of this year in film will hopefully be one that motivates producers to take more risks and tell more stories that surprise, provoke, and represent everyone. Here are those stories that moved me the most.

10. Leave No Trace (PG)

It’s hard to say why Debra Granik’s Leave No Trace was incredible. This is probably because a lot of the meaning and power behind the film were found in what the characters had a hard time saying. Granik doesn’t give you much in the way exposition in this story about a military veteran who chooses to live off the grid with his adolescent daughter, but so much is said in Ben Foster’s stoic and tormented performance. You know he loves his daughter more than anything. You know he’d do anything for her. But you also know that whatever scenes from his past are playing over and over behind his eyes, whatever trauma is boiling under his skin, whatever it is that he’s trying to escape…are driving him into isolation. It’s a subtle, heartbreaking picture of life after war, and one worth paying attention to.

Leave No Trace

Thomasin McKenzie and Ben Foster in Leave No Trace (2018).

9. First Man (PG-13)

First Man, an account of Neil Armstrong’s journey to the moon, is lightyears ahead of Damien Chazelle’s mundane and pretentious La La Land. Chazelle brings you into the rickety cockpit of the early space program while showing you that in order to reach the stars, you may have to detach from everything else. Ryan Gosling isn’t singing and dancing as the famous astronaut, quite the opposite actually. He perfectly exemplifies the stoicism of masculinity in mid-century America and the emotionless tenacity involved in taking this dangerous mission. Chazelle was the perfect director to ask these questions about what it takes to achieve such heights, a similar theme explored in his excellent film Whiplash. Helping guide the audience and her family through this mission is Claire Foy’s Janet Armstrong, Neil’s wife. Next time you find yourself staring at the moon at night, this movie may leave you thinking about Janet and so many others that were left behind here on Earth by men reaching for greatness.

Read Heather’s review of First Man here.

8. If Beale Street Could Talk (R)

One of the dictionary definitions of a “prophet” is, “one gifted with more than ordinary spiritual and moral insight.” I think James Baldwin was a prophet. His words paired with the directing of Barry Jenkins, the Oscar-winning filmmaker behind Moonlight, brings more than ordinary insight of life on Beale Street. A block of text begins the film explaining that the concept of Beale Street, is a street where communities of color form through systematic injustices. In this film adaptation of Baldwin’s novel, viewers get to see the beauty of such communities painted, through the camera lens, on the back drop of the oppression they experience on a daily basis. In the story of Tish and Fonny’s love, Baldwin and Jenkins highlight inequality in criminal justice, housing, religion, employment, education, and so much more. Too often ugly stories are told under a light that makes the subjects look ugly, but Beale Street tells the story of beautiful people who are victims of ugliness. The film tells a story that feels hopeless, but Jenkins tells truth without surrendering any beauty.

Read Heather’s review of Beale Street here.

7. Vox Lux (R)

At this point, it’s possible that Natalie Portman has an automatic entry on my Top Ten list whenever she has a movie coming out. In Vox Lux, she is riveting! The film tells the story of a mass shooting survivor turned pop music star. There is a moment in the film when Portman’s character Celeste wonders how she, as a mega celebrity who seemingly achieves more fame when she does harm than when she produces new art, compares herself to terrorists. This feels like a film for our times and one that Portman brings so much to. The monsters of fame and trauma have made Celeste a dangerous person to those around her, but when her wireless microphone is on, when there’s glitter adhered to her eyebrows, and when she is hitting every step of her choreography even those most hurt by her are caught up in her trance and you may be too. Vox Lux carries an R rating and viewers could use a heads up that the depiction of the mass shooting that opens the film is terrifying and graphic, but the film asks if that is a fitting mirror to our everyday reality?

Vox Lux

Natalie Portman in Vox Lux (2018).

6. Won’t You Be My Neighbor? (PG-13)

Outside of Heinz Field over on the North Side of Pittsburgh, a big statue of Mr. Rogers overlooks the three rivers. It sits, sculpted with a signature sweater and tennis shoes, with on leg crossed watching with a smile on his face. This is, similarly, how he has supervised over much of my childhood. From doing ballet with Steelers great Lynn Swann to visits to the crayon factory to heartfelt reminders that I am loved and my feelings matter, Fred Rogers’s influence on me is immeasurable. With this year’s best documentary, I realized just how many others have been and continue to be influenced by Fred. The equation was this; a Presbyterian minister, primitive puppets, cheap sets, and a public access feed. All of this added up to magic and it all came from one man caring in a different way. This movie left me in my theater seat dreaming of all the people who have cared deeply about me and hoping that others have felt that way about me caring for them. Fred’s influence continues.

Fred Rogers Statue Pittsburgh

Fred Rogers statue overlooking Pittsburgh.

5. Eighth Grade (R)

I am not a middle school girl. Neither is 28-year-old stand-up comedian, Bo Burnham, but he has created such an authentic picture of today’s youth culture that anyone can relate to it. There are many seasons in life where humans will stop and wonder who they are. Post-college, mid-life, end-of-life, and others are all ages when our identity is worth evaluating, but is there a more tumultuous time than the first? We hit middle school and, all of a sudden, it’s a mad dash for acceptance, affirmation, and our own individual truth. Today’s kiddos are going through this pubescent tumult live on Instagram. Burnham researched hours and hours of YouTube vlogs to capture the vulnerability portrayed by actual middle schooler Elise Fisher. The product is a movie that will take you back to every acne break out and broken heart of your youth. Thanks a lot, Bo.

Bo Burnham

Bo Burnham, writer and director of Eighth Grade (2018).

4. Bad Times at the El Royale (R)

I want you to watch Netflix’s Daredevil creator Drew Goddard’s twisty-turny thriller, and to best do that you should have as little information as possible. What I will tell you is that it features two of my absolute favorite acting performances of the year. Cynthia Erivo brilliantly leads this wild ride and Jeff Bridges is only getting better as time goes on. Bad Times wrestles with morality, spirituality, and forgiveness so be ready to wrestle along with it. Nearly every scene in the movie changes what you think is happening and how you feel about each character. What never changes is how I feel about the movie. It’s a really good time.

Bad Times at the El Royale

Cynthia Erivo in Bad Times at the El Royale (2018).

3. A Quiet Place (PG-13)

Parenting is absolutely terrifying to me. The idea that I would have responsibility for the well-being of something as uncontrollable as another human being, one with very little inhibition or wisdom, is a nightmare. This is a nightmare The Office’s John Krasinski brings to terrifying life in A Quiet Place. There’s no room for error for Krasinski’s Lee who, along with his real-life wife Emily Blunt’s Evelyn, attempt to navigate their children through a word with unspeakable danger. The kids in the film are so authentic. Even in a world of monsters, they are kids with all their selfishness and wild tantrums kids have. A Quiet Place forces you to scream not only at the monsters but at these kids that just won’t sit still! The world Krasinski builds is immersive and doesn’t let you escape until the very last frame. It’s impossible to sit back, relax, and watch this one, but that makes it such a thrill.

Read Heather’s review of A Quiet Place here.

2. Crazy Rich Asians (PG-13)

Just when everyone thought Marvel’s Black Panther was going to be the only financial surprise at the box office this year, Crazy Rich Asians came in breathing new life into a genre many thought was gone forever to a world of mediocrity. Romantic Comedies have always been one of my guilty pleasures, but Crazy Rich Asians defies the category. I’ll admit I’m as guilty as the studios when it came to my expectations for the movie. I hoped to laugh, I hoped to have a cross-cultural experience, but, I never expected to be so deeply moved. I had heard an interview with the film’s director, Jon M. Chu, before seeing the movie that added context. He spoke about his complicated relationship with the Coldplay song “Yellow,” how he wrote a letter to Coldplay talking about his experience as an Asian-American for whom the color was often used to belittle, and how important is was to include the song in his film. For Chu, this film was about capturing a story not often told. It was about showing others the beauty of his culture, and the minute that song played in the film, I started crying. This wasn’t just a romantic comedy, this was a movie with incredible characters and a meaningful story tied richly into their culture and tradition. It was one of many statements made this year that there are stories to be told outside of the majority culture and movie-goers responded making it the second highest grossing non-franchise movie of the year.

Crazy Rich Asians

Crazy Rich Asians (2018)

1. Roma (R)

Netflix has a record of changing the way we experience content. It seems every week there’s a new streaming service, and competition has never been more intense to create the next great work. Well sit down, Prime Video. Get out of the way, Hulu. Who even invited you, Crackle? Netflix has offered us this year’s best film, Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma. This black and white, subtitled movie is autobiographical for the Gravity director. It tells the story of a maid, like the one who cared for him as a child, living and working in an affluent town in Mexico. The town of Roma basically runs through the hard work of indigenous Mexican women, and Cuaron drops the audience into her life, into her language, and into the politically volatile world of 1970’s Mexico. It was so surprising, and emotional. Cuaron cast a first-time actress, Yalitza Aparicio, to bring his lead, Cleo, to life. She fills Cuaron’s long, expansive frames with such beauty and authenticity. Much like Cuaron’s Children of Men, he rolls the camera and allows scenes to develop and evolve with very few cuts or movements. This is very much his love letter to Mexico and the woman who inspired Cleo and the film, Cuaron’s own live-in maid, Libo. This is a letter very much worth reading and the great thing is that anyone borrowing somebody’s Netflix password has access to it.

Roma

Yalitza Aparicio in Roma (2018).

Check out Heather’s Top Ten here!

Manhood & “Creed 2”

The story of Creed II, the follow up to 2015’s revitalization of the Rocky franchise, really begins in 1985 when Sylvester Stallone’s iconic character, Rocky, met perhaps his most infamous foe, Ivan Drago, played with stoic intensity by Dolph Lundgren. The seeds that have become the Creed franchise were all planted in this fourth installment in Rocky’s story.

It’s in that movie that Adonis Creed’s (Michel B. Jordan) father, Apollo (Carl Weathers) was killed by the mad Russian in the middle of the ring after Rocky fails to throw in the towel and stop the fight. When Apollo fell to the mat for the final time, the conflict of Adonis’s life began to take shape. Apollo didn’t want Rocky to throw in the towel. He was done fighting, and fighting was all he had. This tragedy launched Rocky towards a fight with Drago, a fight that would leave Drago to a life of disgrace and bitterness. And this tragedy left Adonis not just fatherless, but also without any of the answers his father was lacking about life.

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Creed II (2018)

In 2015’s Creed, Adonis had to wrestle with his identity as a Creed and as a fighter. What did it truly mean to be Apollo’s son? It’s a question he was asking from the beginning when Mary Anne, Apollo’s wife, told him who he was. It’s a question he asks every time he steps in the ring. By the end of that initial story, Adonis dons his father’s trademark trunks adorned with the Creed name, as well as his mother’s, Johnson. Through that first film, Rocky taught him how to fight, how to embrace who he is. Creed II, however, gives Adonis even deeper questions to answer.

If movie one was asking what did it mean to be Apollo’s son and a fighter, the sequel is asking what does it mean to be a father and a man? Rocky IV happened in the middle of a decade that was, in many ways, defined by toxic masculinity. The everyman with the heart of a champion from the Academy Award winning Rocky, was replaced by a greased up, steroidal version. This was true of some of Stallone’s most well-known roles. John Rambo went from an intense critique of our treatment of Vietnam veterans to one giant muscle with a machine gun. Look to other popular culture from the 80’s and you’ll be drowning in a testosterone tsunami. Raunchy teen comedies were a dime a dozen, and Hulk Hogan was flexing his way into a household name.

This was an environment where Apollo Creed thrived. He could prove his manhood with every foe punched into oblivion, but when we meet him in Rocky and Rocky II, he’s already a star in decline. How then can he prove his manhood? Based on Adonis’s age, Apollo’s extramarital tryst that conceived him had to have taken place in close proximity to his death by Drago’s glove. Still he stepped into the ring with the Russian. Sex couldn’t make Apollo a man. He lost to Rocky. He was outmatched by Drago. Boxing could no longer make Apollo a man. So, he threw in the towel on life. Apollo’s inability to find a manhood that was more than muscle gave Adonis a life without a father.

Rocky 4 Staredown

Rocky and Ivan Drago before their iconic fight in “Rocky IV” (1985).

In Creed II, we find that Ivan Drago similarly suffered to discover meaning beyond boxing. His loss to Rocky knocked him down further than we saw in Rocky IV, and because of that his son, Viktor, grew up with a bitter boxing coach rather than a father. Viktor is nothing more than a tool Ivan will use to restore his own manhood, to redeem his loss to Rocky. To truly win by the end of Creed II, Adonis needs to break this cycle of toxic masculinity. He has to find something beyond all the drills, the fights, and the bright lights of fame. He can’t avoid being a Creed, but he has to avoid being Apollo.

Not every punch Creed II throws lands. It’s not as ground breaking as its predecessor, but in the stories of this next generation of men there is something really special. If viewers can go along with Adonis (and Viktor) on this journey and reflect on what it is that could make him successful in the end, perhaps we can all learn from the mistakes of the past. The sweaty machine gun masculinity of the 80’s was a steroid-fueled façade. If men are going to fight the good fight of life, it involves humility, partnership with women, and profound selflessness. For Adonis, this is a painful lesson, but one that takes him beyond his father’s legacy.

If Beale Street Could Talk: The Difference Good Lighting Can Make

“It demands great spiritual resilience not to hate the hater whose foot is on your neck, and an even greater miracle of perception and charity not to teach your child to hate.”

James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time

A friend recently asked me for a book recommendation, and without hesitating I replied, “The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin. It is one of the most important books of the 20th century.” I would strongly urge any American to read it, or anyone who is interested in understanding the history of race in America. James Baldwin brought a crucial voice to American society in the middle of the 20th century, one that is being carried on by many black American artists today. One of these rising artists is filmmaker Barry Jenkins. He hasn’t even turned 40 and already directed the 2016’s Oscar winner for Best Picture, Moonlight. His next film, If Beale Street Could Talk, is an adaptation of a James Baldwin novel by the same name.

Beale street book

Set in Harlem in the early 1970s, it is the story of a young black couple who are hoping to marry and start a life together when the young man is falsely accused of a crime and imprisoned. The creativity and insight of both storytellers results in a powerful combined narrative of love, injustice, powerlessness and resilience. The character’s lives are fraught as they try to pursue hope for a bright future while hitting constant roadblocks of inequality. From housing discrimination to racial profiling, the cards feel continually stacked against them. It is a story of families striving to protect their children to build a better life for them in the face of social degradation. It is a story of resourcefulness in the absence of access to resources, a story of beauty and hope intermixed with fear and disappointment. Beale Street progresses with a slow burn, but the gradual saga it weaves is finely tuned.

Jenkins

Jenkins has a distinct and moving style of filmmaking. He has a unique ability as a storyteller to depict harsh realities with an aura of warmth and beauty. Rather than bleak lighting for bleak themes, Jenkins’ subjects exude vibrant colors. Both Beale Street and Moonlight are visually stunning, mesmerizing in the beauty of their cinematography. He uses long straight-on shots of the characters, endowing them with dignity and a sense of wonder. As you watch them move through their worlds you feel that it is an honor to see them in their fullness, that you are catching a glimpse of something rare and profound. Even when they are suffering or treated with cruelty by others, Jenkins’ camera imputes a constant tenderness that cannot be taken away. I recently heard a comment from someone in the film industry that you need people of color making films because actors with different skin tones have different lighting needs. On a technical level, it can be challenging to make all actors look equally good on screen. Jenkins’ skill in this area is unsurpassed. The actors in his films all look radiant, a testament to what can happen when structural changes are made to bring out the best everyone has to offer.

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What Jenkins accomplishes on screen speaks to a bigger call to our American society. A major theme of Beale Street is the creativity that the black community has been forced to cultivate in the absence of opportunity. Deprived of social equality, parents and individuals have to find alternate ways to put food on the table and to try to protect the next generation from harm. This is an exhausting and limiting way to live. Baldwin raises an important question in The Fire Next Time:

“The Negro can precipitate this abdication because white Americans have never, in all their long history, been able to look on him as a man like themselves. This point need not be labored; it is proved over and over again by the Negro’s continuing position here, and his indescribable struggle to defeat the stratagems that white Americans have used, and use, to deny him his humanity. America could have used in other ways the energy that both groups have expended in this conflict. America, of all the Western nations, has been best placed to prove the uselessness and the obsolescence of the concept of color. But it has not.”

What would America look like if racial inequality had not been consuming our energy and creativity for centuries? What could we have achieved by now if we allowed all our citizens to contribute the best of what they have to offer? What else could we have innovated by working together rather than keeping many groups silent and powerless? Segregation and inequality not only damages marginalized groups, it robs all of society. The characters in Beale Street wanted to create and contribute to the flourishing of society. Their contributions were dramatically limited by systemic inequality. Jenkins grew up with incredible environmental challenges and yet has managed to offer art that is lovely and compelling. The call for equality is so much more than a social crusade. It is a call to unlock the God-given potential that lies within our whole country. To seek the flourishing of the marginalized is to seek the flourishing of us all. If we have come this far with a very broken system, imagine how much farther we could go with a system that works for everyone.

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Content advisory: Beale Street contains some language and two scenes of sexuality, one including nudity. The scenes are filmed with tenderness and care and compliment the story, but viewer discretion is advised.