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

Looking for new shows to watch this summer?

For many of us summer means a change of pace, and a chance to relax and try new things. Our regular shows have wrapped for the season, or we’ve blown through our favorite re-watches for the 8th time, and we need something new to watch on those rainy days or when the temperatures get too hot for outdoor activities. Here are some TV shows currently available on streaming services that you might not have heard of but could find interesting. Nearly all of them are breaking new ground in representation and storytelling, so they are great additions to your current go-to’s. There’s something for everyone on this list!

Rutherford Falls – Peacock

This is a delightful and incisive comedy from Ed Helms and Michael Schur (The Office, Parks and Rec) about a historic town in NY state navigating its colonial and Native history. Not only is this a witty comedy, but it features the largest Native writers room in comedy history, and a Native showrunner and creator, Sierra Teller Ornelas. It’s funny, warm, and thought-provoking!

Content rating: PG for occasional mild sexual innuendo

High On the Hog: How African American Cuisine Transformed America – Netflix

Part cooking show, part African American historical legacy, this show is unique and powerful. Only 4 episodes, chef and food writer Stephen Satterfield explores the culinary roots of Black cooking from Africa to Texas. Part of what makes this show so special is the space it creates for Black people to talk to each other about legacy and identity and belonging. Each episode is full of historical excavation, pride, tenderness and mutuality. I’ve never seen anything quite like it, don’t miss it.

Home Before Dark – Apple+

Do you ever wish all these crime dramas could be mixed with precocious little girl energy? I didn’t know that’s what I needed until I started watching this show. Inspired by a real 9 year-old investigative journalist named Hilde Lysiak, the show creates a wonderful young lead similar to Hilde but with a fictional town and cold case that she has to solve. It’s a wholesome family drama about processing trauma and grief with a local mystery intertwined.

Content rating: G, the first episode contains verbal descriptions of the trans-Atlantic slave trade that will be painful for some

Content rating: PG there is no violence or descriptions of abuse, but the subject matter of a child abduction may be intense for young viewers

Hacks – HBO Max

If you don’t already love Jean Smart, you will after watching this show. Hacks is a thought-provoking comedy about what it means to be a female comedienne and what previous generations had to navigate to pave the way. This first season is still finding its way with working out a few of the characters, but it’s worth a watch!

Content rating: PG-13 for some sexual conversations, no nudity or sex depicted

The Underground Railroad – Amazon Prime

Director Barry Jenkins’ labor of love, this show is based on the novel of the same name. The novel explores the idea of what it would have been like if the underground railroad was a literal railroad underground. It is beautifully filmed and acted, with an intense but powerful portrayal of Black dignity in the face of oppression (a particular strength of Jenkins’ filmmaking). You will likely need to pace yourself and some may want to refrain from watching all together, but if you can handle the intensity of the subject matter, you’ll find a rich and compelling narrative.

Content rating: R for explicit racial violence

Girls5eva – Peacock

This one goes out to all the elder millennials who came up on girl groups and boy bands! Girls5eva is a hilarious and warm comedy about a washed-up girl group from the 2000s who are trying to reconnect with each other and make a comeback. The cast is fantastic, featuring Sarah Bareilles, Renee Elise Goldsberry (Hamilton), Busy Philipps, and other Broadway stars Paula Pell and Ashley Park. These women are so funny and the writing is smart and a snarky revisiting of pop culture in that era.

Content rating: PG for mild sexual innuendo

Shadow and Bone – Netflix

Sometimes you want an elaborate fantasy show but aren’t sure if it’s worth getting to know the lore and characters if the writing will just end up being bad. Shadow and Boneis a fun escape that’s worth the investment. The world is well-crafted, the characters are endearing, the special effects are good, the cast is talented and diverse, the season is well-paced, and we know we’re getting a season 2!

Content rating: PG-13 for some implied sexuality and mild violence. Likely appropriate for teenagers but check the parent’s guide first.

WandaVision – Disney+

A lot of people have been talking about this year’s spate of Marvel TV shows, and for good reason. But a lot of you have told me that you stopped watching WandaVision after the first couple episodes, so this is my apologetic for why you should revisit it. The format of the first several episodes is that of the classic TV sitcom, starting with the style of I Love Lucy and ending with the style of Modern Family. Some found this format confusing and boring, but what you need to know is that WandaVision is fundamentally a show about grief. It is about the desire to disassociate from a painful reality and immerse oneself in a fun and entertaining distraction. About the longing to return to one’s happiest moments shared with your loved one and try to stay there rather than move forward. The style of the first 7 episodes is very purposefully painting a picture of what Wanda is experiencing internally after the trauma of losing Vision, and how she is making sense of it. Don’t expect huge character reveals, there will be no appearances from Dr. Strange or Mephisto, this is a contained and powerful exploration of the grieving process. It features incredible performances from Olson, Bettany, and Hahn, and one of my new favorite quotes: “What is grief if not love persevering?” Give it another watch!

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+

REVIEW: Hillbilly Elegy

Something happened during the 2016 election. As a country, we watched as droves of voters in rural, white, working class counties that often shone blue turned a deep red. How could this happen? Looking for a quick and satisfactory answer, many folks gravitated towards a singular work, J.D. Vance’s memoir, “Hillbilly Elegy.” Though the book does touch on the sociopolitical trends of white rural poor in America, it may not have been totally fair to pin the decoding of this turning of the political tide on Vance’s words. At the end of the day, “Hillbilly Elegy” is one man’s story. Eventually, people aware of the book realized it didn’t actually solve the riddles we were puzzled by in American society. The comfort found in the book post 2016 election quickly soured into anger that evils like white supremacy haven’t gone away.

It wasn’t Vance’s goal to completely confront America’s history of racism or deconstruct current patterns in the 24 hour news cycle. “Hillbilly Elegy” doesn’t actually wrestle with many of the broader issues present in America in 2016, 1776, or 2020. Vance planted a foot in his past and his context and tried to tell the world what he was seeing from his point of view. There are deeply destructive trends in white rural communities all over America and Vance was able to shed light on them by tapping into his personal experience. Still, the book carries the weight of that particular moment in history and it’s public perception suffers for it. So when Netflix dropped the trailer for the film adaptation directed by Ron Howard and starring Amy Adams and Glen Close, many feared that the story would continue to give people incomplete answers for centuries old questions. The problem with the film Hillbilly Elegy, isn’t the societal pressure placed on the source material, it’s that it’s not a good movie.

There have been some truly incredible films lately that have taken audiences, and awards voters, into the lives of America’s most marginalized and poverty stricken. The Florida Project is a great example because it takes the context of Disneyland and contrasts it with the many people struggling to survive outside the Magical Kingdom’s gates. Even a film like Moonlight has a lot in common with Elegy in terms of subject matter and non-linear storytelling. These movies were focused, subtle, and pulled you directly into the lives of their subjects. There is nothing subtle or focused about Elegy. There is an old moviemaking adage of “show don’t tell.” It dictates that filmmakers should rely on visual communication to get their story across instead of a device like voiceover or flashback. Hillbilly Elegy seems to subscribe to that philosophy, and then some. The film shows, tells, shows some more, shows a few more, and then tells you again.

The film enters Vance’s story through one specific moment during college paired with several key moments from his childhood. Most of it centers around how Vance’s people, his family and community, help each other out when life is throwing punches. The J.D. in the film then must wrestle with the tension of trying to help himself as well as trying not to help his mother to the point of enabling her addictions and behaviors. We catch up with adult J.D. after his military service in the Marines, after his undergraduate studies at Ohio State, and some time into his career at Yale Law School. He’s in the midst of interviewing for a very important internship when he gets a call from home. Life had thrown another punch. We then see flashbacks of traumatic events revolving around his mother’s destructive and abusive tendencies.

Throughout the drama J.D. also interacts with the greatest source of support in his life, his grandmother. Real life J.D. credits his grandmother for a lot of his success. It’s because of Mamaw that J.D. is able to pull his bootstraps all the way up and march towards Yale. Of course, this is shown in a Rocky-style montage of taking out the trash and studying really hard. See, says the film, anybody can just work hard and make it. Even Vance admits that that’s not the foundation of his story. He made it because he had someone to help him. Not everyone has that, but again, this movie is not interested in subtlety or complexity.

When I mentioned those punches that J.D. takes throughout the movie, that is another example of the film’s lack of much needed subtlety. Nearly every moment in the film is played as a haymaker making sure that idea that J.D. has a hard life is beaten into our minds. Yes, sometimes when life is very difficult it does feel like hits keep coming one after another, but life is often way more nuanced than that. There is a brief moment in flashback that shows J.D. making breakfast with his girlfriend. He asks for syrup in his accent and she gets on his case for the mispronunciation. It’s a moment of humanness and levity that gives us a break from the punches. Elegy needed more of that.

In The Florida Project, between scenes depicting drug abuse and hunger, the young protagonist, Moonee plays and escapes into her imagination. In Moonlight, Chiron finds himself in moments of love, joy, and happiness around the dinner table of a neighbor. If we don’t have these moments to humanize everyone in the story, then the characters come off as one-note and unlikeable. Elegy gives you almost no reason to like J.D.’s mother or even to like the place he grew up. It relegates some of the more complicated, but important, components like breaking cycles of generational poverty and abuse to footnotes as it yells through the screen that J.D. and his family are poor and hopeless.

There are moments where the movie hints that it could have been something greater. Stressed about finding a rehab facility for his mother, J.D. engages with some friends who all have a suggestion. They know the area facilities like they’re local restaurants. Each of them have had friends, family, or neighbors that have dealt with drug and alcohol abuse. I was expecting someone to stop and say, “Wow, I guess we’ve all had someone close to us enter rehab.” Thankfully, they didn’t. We were given a clear, but subtle picture of their lives. Finding a rehab facility is normal. There are people in these regions of America crying out to be seen, crying out for help. Help like J.D. found in his grandmother. She saw him and decided she would step in and give him a chance at a better life. In 2016, when Vance’s book was making its initial rounds, there was a moment where our eyes were on Appalachia, but I fear with this adaptation people may just want to look away.

Real life J.D. Vance

REVIEW: The Two Popes

Comedian John Mulaney hosted Saturday Night Live earlier this year and joked about the idea of his Jewish wife converting to Catholicism, “How would I even have that conversation? What, do you come home with a brochure, and you’re like, ‘Hey, honey, allow me to tell you about an exciting not-new organization. Don’t Google us!’”

And so the joke has gone for many years now, especially since the early 2000’s due to the string of articles from The Boston Globe’s investigative journalism team. The Catholic church has a marred reputation that has been rooted in scandal and the unimaginable trauma of thousands of victims. Even more recently, a 2018 investigation conducted across the dioceses in Pennsylvania revealed 1,000 victims involving 300 priests in that state alone. There are big questions about the health and future of this global organization. Netflix and Oscar nominated director Fernando Meirelles are asking those questions in their new film, The Two Popes.

The Two Popes Anthony Hopkins

In the film, Meirelles and The Theory of Everything writer Anthony McCarten imagine several conversations between Pope Benedict XVI and, then, Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio who would go on to be Pope Francis. The conversations in the movie, that are shot with an almost documentary style, are based on some meetings that did take place between the two figureheads, but they are also based on a huge cultural turning point within the church.

The Vatican needed more than a change in leadership, though that did happen when Benedict renounced his position and Francis was elected. They needed more than a return to charity and service, though Francis has made it a focus. They also needed more than addressing issues like climate change and sexuality, though Francis has shown incredible compassion in those arenas. What the Catholic church needed was something far more powerful, repentance. The church needed to clean house at the top and clean house in their hearts. Confession is, ultimately, what Two Popes is about.

Two Popes Jonathan Pryce GIF

Whether they are protestant or catholic, church leaders are supposed to reflect Christ to those they serve. The Apostle Paul calls them “ambassadors” for Christ. The goal is that as someone meets you and experiences your love and service they are, in a way, meeting Jesus. How can you be anything but grieved, then, by the idea that, for thousands, Christ was an abuser? That grief is painted all over Jonathan Pryce’s face as he portrays Cardinal Bergoglio. The whole film is a delicate, nuanced dance between the two popes and Pryce’s dance partner is the legendary Sir Anthony Hopkins as Pope Benedict.

The two popes take jabs at each other’s stances on doctrine, tradition, and the direction of the church. Their conversations disturb the birds in the gardens of the Pope’s summer estate and echo against the painted walls of the Sistine Chapel. Hopkins’ Benedict snorts and scowls with guarded fear that Bergoglio desires to see the whole institution torn down. The Cardinal pleads and cries with desperate urgency that the culture Benedict has created is driving people out of the pews. They both are wrestling with being a part of something that has caused so much harm and become the butt of the world’s joke.

The Two Popes Jonathan Pryce

When the film shows you the global scale of the Catholic church or takes you into the mysterious election process, when you see the thousands of people gathered to stare at a chimney, it is easy to feel the authority the Pope has. Both Benedict and Bergoglio brought great authority into these conversations. They had served for decades. Benedict very much had his mind set on the past while Bergoglio had his feet planted and eyes focused on the future.

Jesus has the greatest authority in the universe. Being Christ-like takes authority, but they get absolutely nowhere by swinging their experience and knowledge back and forth. Being Christ-like also takes profound vulnerability. Jesus could heal the leper and make the blind man see but at the end of the day he hung on the cross exposed to the world. To end the stalemate in the film, that’s exactly where the two popes have to go, to the cross. The third act of the film is one of vulnerability and confession.

While watching the film, I found myself laughing at the joke. That’s all we can do with our pain sometimes, right? Laugh at it. Take away its power by making it a joke, and the pomp and the arrogance of this ancient tradition played right into the comedy. By the end, though, as these two men are baring their souls to one another, my eyes were on the cross and the reconciliation I’ve seen in my own life. I’m not sure if the world will ever forgive the Catholic church for their grave injustices, but I do know one way to find forgiveness is to ask for it.

REVIEW: See You Yesterday

What is it about time travel that brings storytellers back to the concept again and again? There have been countless movies, TV shows, comics, books, and songs inspired by it (Cher’s “If I Could Turn Back Time” anyone?). Perhaps the biggest movie ever made, Avengers: Endgame, revolves around going backwards through time. Yet, so much of what we know about time travel stems from one source, Marty McFly, Doc Brown, and their flying DeLorean. Paul Rudd’s Ant Man lays out the rules of time travel in Endgame warning that his Avengers teammates need to be careful they don’t talk to their past selves or bet on sporting events, all references to 1985’s Back to the Future.

That singular movie has shaped so much of what popular culture thinks about time travel and has inspired other contributions to the culture as well. Rick & Morty, a cartoon loosely inspired by Doc and Marty, has gathered an enthusiastic, albeit occasionally problematic, fan base. This year Nike debuted its third major attempt at recreating the sequel’s famous self-lacing sneakers. The Nike BB Adapt will even be seen in a Back to the Future II colorway this year! Don’t forget our recent obsession with “hoverboards” and geocache scooters that have us all feeling McFly on the sidewalks. What about time travel itself, though? Why are we so drawn to the ideas explored in Robert Zemeckis’s landmark film?

See You Yesterday Title GIF

In the Netflix movie, See You Yesterday, a delightful cameo states, “If time travel were possible, it would be the greatest ethical and philosophical conundrum of the modern age.” This character, whom I’ll keep a surprise, goes on to ask, “If you had that kind of power, what would you do? What would you change?” There lies the magic of this classic sci-fi scenario. Time travel offers audiences the opportunity to dream about what could be, and the continued allure of Back to the Future may be in just how simple the film makes it look to change everything. Marty pinpoints all of his family’s troubles down to one moment from his parents’ past and it causes a butterfly effect that improves life for every McFly. It’s that easy. Marty wakes up at the end of the film and his parents are more in love than ever, his siblings are more professionally successful, Marty gets the girl and the cool car he could never afford, and, in general his family is more affluent. What if it was more complex than that? What if the issues holding you back reached farther and deeper than one specific moment?

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See You Yesterday follows teenage prodigies CJ and Sebastian, students at a New York science-focused high school. They are so brilliant that years before Tony Stark could, they’ve figured out time travel! In their first successful test, CJ inadvertently causes a ripple that leads to tragedy. In the wake of her mistake, someone attempts to comfort CJ by saying that we all wish we had the power to go back and change things. CJ and Sebastian have that power and are launched into a race against time to fix everything! It doesn’t take very long before CJ realizes she isn’t in Back to the Future, and that changing the world isn’t as simple as Doc and Marty have led us to believe.

Here is where See You Yesterday shines. Writer/director Stefon Bristol uses time travel to explore the systems in our world that simply cannot be undone in one move. There are times when the film is incredibly frustrating. CJ is trying to accomplish something no one has ever done before. There’s no rule book and the pressure to fix things is an incredible burden. Again and again and again it becomes clear that her past mistakes, the culture she lives in, the prejudices around her, and so much more are working against her. Every step forward feels like forty steps backs. One can infer, this is precisely the point.

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For many people in America, even with the advent of time travel technology, they can only dream of something resembling Marty McFly’s life at the beginning of Back to the Future. They own their own home? They have working vehicles to begin with? They only have one relative that’s incarcerated? Life can be a lot worse, and for large portions of our population, it is. Where would you even begin to fix it? Would helping Bill Clinton draft a better crime bill help? Perhaps pre-empting cocaine flow into America in 1980’s would alleviate some problems? Would stopping the assassinations of the 1960’s fix it? Would going further back and stopping discriminatory housing practices post abolition do anything? Maybe we’d have to go back further and try to stop the Transatlantic Slave Trade? Or perhaps even further and give some pause to colonizers like Columbus? Or even further and stop Cain from striking Abel?

The reality is that CJ going back in time to fix her worst day won’t change things like it did for Marty McFly. The deeper this young, powerful black woman digs into the obstacles in her way the more they multiply. Her power, though, isn’t solely in her unique intelligence. CJ’s power is that in the face of these obstacles, she can still dream about a better world where other young women will have it easier than she did and people in her neighborhood and in her family stop dying too young. This is a power stories like See You Yesterday gives to our next generations. Providing platforms for storytellers from different backgrounds to play with these sci-fi concepts creates space for our young people to dream and those dreams might actually change the future.

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REVIEW: The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind (Netflix)

What were you doing at 13? Many of us, our bodies entrenched in the chaos of puberty, were professional eye rollers. Discovering rebellion for the first time, we’d roll our eyes at the authority of our parents shirking off any kind of wisdom, instruction, or discipline they’d impart. These optical protests weren’t restricted to the home, of course, because school was also “such like a total drag, am I right?” At 13, we are taking significant leaps towards adulthood and recognizing our unique agency in the world and we often use it to act like we don’t care about anything. So we roll our eyes telling our parents and teachers to, “ugh, get a life.” Meanwhile, William Kamkwamba, at 13, was saving lives.

This is the story of Chiwetel Ejiofor’s based-on-true-events directorial debut headed to Netflix this week, The Boy who Harnessed the Wind. In the 2000’s, crushed by the growing global financial crisis and feeling the very real effects of a climate in chaos, Malawi was experiencing life-threatening circumstances. The harvest that the local economy rested on was dangerously light. Unregulated grain prices were causing hunger and violence. Every aspect of life was being torn apart. Land that belonged to families for generations was being sold off for pennies. Schools were shutting down. Families were being forced apart.

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All of a sudden, more so than ever before, insurmountable dollar signs were associated with every human need. It was the kind of tragic reality that made Kamkwamba and his family question their worth every day. In the film, Kamkwamba’s father, played by Ejiofor, is tortured by the decisions of how to use the family’s resources. Every move feels like a gamble, even investing in his children’s education. In their village, if you excelled in school it was a way out. So why would he spend money only to break up his family and lose his best help around the farm?

So education becomes a threat to their family, to tradition, and to their resources. Kamkwamba, however, saw great value in education and, despite what he saw around him, knew that his village, his family’s land, and his family itself were worth more than anyone thought. He had to keep learning. Without money for tuition, he had to sneak into school and his local library. In the film, there’s a scene after Kamkwamba gets caught and a teacher coming to his defense says that he’s not sneaking into the school, he’s sneaking out of the fields. It was in that library where he got the idea that would save his family and his village.

Life in Kamkwamba’s village was wholly dictated by the harvest, so much so that the film itself is framed by the seasons of planting. This is not unique to Malawi. In the Old Testament, much of the lives of God’s chosen people are controlled by the harvest. Even their calendar of festivals is framed by seasons of sowing, seasons of growing, seasons of harvesting, and seasons of hunger waiting for the rains to come. This rhythm of life put into perspective man’s reliance on God to provide.

Deuteronomy 16 describes the festival that ends their harvest calendar, “For seven days celebrate the festival to the Lord your God at the place the Lord will choose. For the Lord your God will bless you in all your harvest and in all the work of your hands, and your joy will be complete.” With the harvest complete, the joy of God’s people was also complete. A fruitful harvest showed them that God was with them. So imagine how Kamkwamba’s village felt when the harvest dried up.

Thankfully William Kamkwamba was at an age when he was discovering his agency and self-worth. His optimism kept him searching for ways he could bring flourishing to the world around him. Where everyone else saw nothing but dry lands, he saw potential. Thus began a journey that led him to the TED stage and, eventually, across the graduation stage at Dartmouth College. His father thought education was the enemy of his family, but Kamkwamba’s time in that library restored his family and his village to their God given glory.

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The Boy who Harnessed the Wind is a movie about the importance of education, it’s a movie about family, it’s a movie about God’s ability to provide beyond our imagination, but it is also a movie about the growing influence we have on God’s good creation. Learning more about how the rest of the world economy depends on the health of America’s economy should make us consider more deeply our democratic responsibilities. Seeing a story about people whose lives are so impacted by the weather should make us think more about how we impact the weather.

William Kamkwamba sought to be a blessing to the world around him. His pursuit of knowledge saved lives. Ejiofor showed incredible talent in telling this story. It is exciting to continue to see Netflix give filmmakers the opportunity to make films you may not see otherwise. In his TED Talk, Kamkwamba suggests that there are young people out there that may one day watch his story and be inspired to change the world and believe in themselves. Now, on one of the most popular streaming services in the world, maybe his story will stop the eyes of 13-year-olds from rolling and instead looking for ways they’ll make the future better.

 

Heather’s Top Ten Films of 2017

This has been a strange year for movies. Normally I have a very difficult time narrowing a list down to what I consider the best ten of the year, but in 2017 it has been a challenge to fill a list of ten. In my perception so many films lacked heart and focus. Movies like “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri” and even “The Shape of Water” felt flat or preachy or simply lacked resonance. For me there was a deficit of beauty, and stories that captivated. Perhaps it reflects our cultural moment in 2017 that we are all struggling to find meaning and honesty. We are still struggling to open our hearts to one another. That may have influenced the stories we told this year and the way we reacted to them. Here are the movies that stayed with me and caused me to think, feel, and connect to the human experience.

Honorable mention: These did not make the final cut but were well crafted stories that could be worth your time.

Molly’s Game – Written and directed by Aaron Sorkin, Molly’s Game is terrific. Sorkin is known for snappy dialogue which Jessica Chastain and Idris Alba deliver perfectly. Based on the true story of a young woman who creates a high-stakes poker empire, you do not want to miss this superbly written, wonderfully acted film.

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The Square – This is a Swedish film so the European style may feel strange to some, but it is a thoughtful exploration of the way humans relate to each other. It is quirky and uncomfortable at times, but makes beautiful use of motifs and symbols. If you are looking for a movie to give you plenty to process later, give this one a try.

Ingrid Goes West – This was a small movie which came out over the summer that focuses on Instagram culture and how we curate ourselves to others. It highlights the tendency to collect experiences in order to present a meaningful life. What is special about this take on social media is that it explores how we use the platform rather than categorically condemning it. The ending is controversial, but I find myself frequently returning to the themes in the story.

The Big Sick – The ideas in this story will feel familiar to audiences of Aziz Ansari’s Netflix show “Master of None”, but it is a warm and funny true story. It is acted beautifully with Ray Romano and Holly Hunter turning in particularly poignant performances.

Top Ten:

  1. The Beguiled – Director Sophia Coppola’s most recent film, a clever remake of a 1970s “exploitation” film of the same name and based on a novel. The original film was heavily sexualized, focusing on the male lead Clint Eastwood. The novel was also authored by a man, and the story follows an inter-generational group of women living in a girl’s school during the Civil War when all the men were away. One injured soldier wanders to their home and they take him in to tend his wounds. What I love about this story is the way Coppola reclaims the emphasis of the film to turn the focus onto the dynamics of women relating to one another during an extraordinary time period. Make sure you watch the special features for the film, Coppola’s vision for the story is beautiful as are her relationships with her cast.

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  1. Coco – Pixar’s major film for the holidays is a charming and heartfelt story about family, legacy and forgiveness. The animation is stunning, the music is catchy, and the narrative is well developed and sweet. A great choice for the whole family!

 

  1. Baby Driver – The remarkable aspect of this film is the incredibly creative and precise use of the soundtrack. The story follows a young getaway car driver nicknamed Baby who suffers from constant tinnitus. To balance out the ringing in his ears, he has a collection of iPods with carefully selected playlists so he has music for every situation throughout his day. The soundtrack to the film is the music Baby is listening to, which is intricately choreographed with each movement and sound in the movie. Writer/director Edgar Wright gave the screenplay to the cast on iPads so they could listen to the corresponding music which would punctuate each scene as they read. The story is fairly simple but the use of sound editing makes it a feat of filmmaking that will you bring you back for multiple viewings.

 

  1. The Last Jedi – You do not have to be a Star Wars fan to enjoy this movie (although it probably helps). There are many things to appreciate about this installment. The cinematography is breathtaking, the characters are wonderful, the story is developed well. What struck me most is the theme of generational hand-off. How does the older generation work through their past failures and habits and empower the next generation to take their places? How does the younger generation step up to wisely channel our energy? These are important questions for the Church that Star Wars could help us think about.

 

  1. Ladybird – This is a great coming of age story that embraces and also transcends the genre. Director/writer Greta Gerwig lends an insightful take to not only depict youth but also parenthood and place. Ladybird beautifully explores adolescent ambivalence between trying to distance oneself from roots and what has shaped us, and desperately wanting to feel connected to those same things. With a wonderful lead performance by Saoirse Ronan and terrific supporting roles, this was a stand-out.

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  1. Wonder Woman – This movie produced one of the most emotional connections I had with a film this year. I think for me and for countless women in the US and around the world, Wonder Woman met a need we did not know we had. She is a female super hero in the truest sense. She is strong and capable and compassionate and determined. Her power is not in acting like a man, but in channeling the best of femininity. There is a specific scene in the middle of the film when Diana runs towards a fight, without hesitation and without fear. I still feel proud and empowered every time I think of this scene and what it means to see a woman act with courage and advocacy. The third act of the movie is a little clumsy, but otherwise it is a rare gift in the super hero genre.

 

  1. Silence – Based on the Japanese novel of the same name, this adaptation was ten years in the making for Martin Scorsese. It was released in early January 2017 which is why I am counting it in this year’s contention. The book is a haunting story of Portuguese Jesuit priests who were missionaries to Japan in the 1500s. The plot deals with faith, culture, doubt, martyrdom, and the question of where is God in human suffering. It is also a rare movie that portrays white characters entering a foreign culture in a way that honors and elevates the Japanese characters, treating them as equals with meaningful dialogue and autonomy. The runtime is long and the content is intense, but the story raises questions that are worthy of your wrestling.

 

  1. Mudbound – Ivan wrote a full review so mine will be brief. What I appreciated about this film is that it told a story not often highlighted. It follows two WWII GIs, one white, one African-American, coming back to the Mississippi Delta and readjusting to a Jim Crow South. The US tends to ignore our racial history between 1865-1965 so this is a story that very much needs to be told.

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  1. Detroit – This summer offering was met with some controversy, perhaps because director Kathryn Bigelow’s approach was misunderstood. As a director who has previously told stories that follow war and torture, she lends a fascinating take to US race relations. Her style brings a fresh lens to how we might view the policing of communities of color. It is very intense to watch, but that is the point. Check out my full review for synopsis and thematic analysis.

 

  1. Get Out – I typically avoid horror films and have mixed feelings about the genre, but writer/director Jordan Peele blew me away with his February release. He harnessed the best of what horror can be, turning a magnifying glass onto daily realities to reveal the underlying atrocities. The narrative is a horror film about racism, cultural appropriation, and turns many classic tropes on their heads to bring the audience face to face with our prejudices. It is wildly creative and I think a brilliant work. The violence is relatively minor for the genre, so even if you dislike horror as I do, consider giving it a watch.

 

Viewer content guide: Please note that some of my selections are rated R and/or contain adult content. In my opinion the value of the overall story is worth the potentially offensive content, but use your own discretion and look up ratings before viewing.

 

“Last Chance U” and You

Football season has begun. In today’s world, this means the season of talking about concussions, hearing about the horrors of domestic violence, your sports news crawl spelling out the newest round of DUI arrests, and debating the National Anthem. Has any professional sport come under more fire in past few years than football? In the midst of the controversy, comes another entry in the Netflix docuseries, “Last Chance U.” For some, football is life. Football is identity. Football is hope. As we debate football’s place in society, “Last Chance” has a great deal to say.

The show tells the story of East Mississippi Community College and their reputation for being the landing spot of college football’s most troubled top prospects. EMCC gives players with promise a chance to get their academic and criminal records in line in order to earn offers from the country’s most prestigious football powerhouses. Every man on the roster is missing a key that would unlock a position with the likes of Auburn or Ole Miss. After all, this is the place where brand new Denver Bronco, Chad Kelly, went to junior college.

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Wrapped in this premise are the stories of these young men. This is their last chance. If it were me, given a last chance, I would approach it with military precision. EMCC not only offers them a football team complete with the eyes of recruiters, but academic counseling to make sure they are eligible for those Division 1 scholarship offers when they come. Watching these young men, though, might send you searching for a tackling dummy to hit. They skip class, they sleep through coach’s meetings, they verbally assault professors, and as their counsellor, their biggest champion and cheerleader, is giving them advice, they nod to her blankly as music blares through their headphones. So many of these student athletes are playing fast and loose with their last chance.

Thankfully the series doesn’t show these seemingly disrespectful behaviors in a vacuum. Rather, the show gives the time to hear these young men out. As each episode plays, the pieces of their puzzle come together perfectly into a picture that is hard to reconcile. So much of their lives have been a series of confusing and painful contradictions.

The classroom doesn’t make sense. Now in college they are being told to work hard academically after years of schools giving them grades to keep them on the field. Meetings don’t make sense. They’re being told to listen and change when they’re athletic skills have always kept them out of trouble. They’re being told to sit there when, in their minds, they know all these professors and counsellors want is the use of their bodies. Society doesn’t make sense. They are so close to being like their heroes who appear bullet proof from racial oppression protected by fame and money, but they’re not there yet. They are still very much subjected to a world that often makes them feel like they can’t win, a society that makes them question if it wasn’t for football would they have any worth at all?

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The only place that does makes sense, the only small piece of sanctuary they’ve found, is that level patch of grass where they get to be heroes and saints. The football field has clear rules and clear systems of penalty and reward. If they do their job between whistles, they will succeed. This isn’t always the case off the field. On the field their enemy is easy to see. However, they can’t sack inequality. They can’t put a spin move on racism. At this point in their academic careers, no number of reps seems to help them understand algebra. Coaches scream in the locker room for harder hits. It takes a level of violence to play the game, but those same coaches then call them thugs when they use that violence to protect each other and lack compassion when that violence spills into the players’ lives. The game of life doesn’t make sense, football does. So that is where their hope, effort, and identity goes, everything else has become a waste of time.

I still believe football has a place in this world. I was never blessed with the stamina of a soccer player or the speed and agility of the best baseball players. The Lord did give me the size and strength to play football and the sport gave me a lot in return. When coached well, football can actually teach you discipline, resilience, teamwork, and how to manage your emotions for good. Coming from Steelers country, I also know how football can unite communities in powerful ways. For many of the Lions of EMCC, these helpful, good aspects of the game have been lost through lives lived in a world that tells them they’re winners in a system that has ill-equipped them to win.

In season one, this is most apparent in running back DJ Law. He feels inadequate in the classroom so he’s constantly falling behind and skipping class. The penalties of failing and missing class are outlined clearly at the beginning of the show and he has surpassed them all. Cut to the head coach saying they do everything they can to help players succeed only to roll that back admitting they don’t do everything. They do everything to win, so Law remains on the field. There are resources all around him to help him work through his academic challenges, but why go through that when all that really matters is football. Researching Law’s story after the show only provides more tragic evidence. He had an offer to play for a good school but got injured. Without football, his grades fell even further and now he’s no longer in school.

Towards the end of season two there is another heartbreaking example. Standout Isaiah Wright struggles through the season with several painful situations. Throughout his life, he’s been rewarded for what his body can do, but when he is injured and trying to take care of his body he’s penalized and yelled at. On top of this, Wright is dealing with a deeply sad life situation that I won’t spoil and has no idea how to handle his emotions. All of this amounts to incredible emotional and mental confusion. This confusion carries over onto the field. In one game, he fails to catch a punt that results in giving his team terrible position on the field and gets yelled at. Next time he tries hard to catch the punt but does so giving the team even worse position, and he gets yelled at. Even though anyone who has ever returned a punt knows when and when not to catch the ball, Wright, unable to reconcile everything that’s happened to him, can’t make these decisions and can’t handle the failure that results. He melts down. He loses his best scholarship offers and settles for a Division II school. Again, researching him after the show reveals he spent less than a year at his new school and has since dropped out with no prospect of returning elsewhere.

Last Chance U

Anyone working with young people would benefit from watching “Last Chance U.” Questions of identity constantly plague our next generation. Football, like anything else vying for our identities, can cause terrible damage if it is all a person has. “Last Chance” tells the story of young men who have had limited choices in where to place their identity. What could have happened if Law or Wright were given something else to motivate them? What if they could use sports for their intended purpose and not place the entirety of their hope in them?

Thankfully, season two also tells this story through linebacker Dakota Allen. Allen arrived at EMCC after nearly being charged with armed robbery. He lost his spot on Texas Tech’s football team and was labeled a menace to society. Episode 4 opens with Allen being baptized at the home of one of his coaches. After football was taken away, Allen needed something else to place his identity in and the advice he heard most often was to pray. This led to a deep belief in Jesus Christ. The episode in punctuated by Allen in church listening to his pastor exclaim the unending grace and mercy Jesus provides. As tears stream down Allen’s face, it’s obvious he knows what it means to have a another chance. I’ll let you see for yourself how his story plays out on the show, but I will tell you it was fun watching him playing on national TV as the season opened this year.

The title of the show is accurate. Football offers a finite number of chances and often takes more than it gives. If football is all that makes sense in the world, if it becomes the center of identity, then one bad hit or bad play will bring that world and identity down. With care, football can offer an avenue to express God-given gifts and achieve building blocks for life-long success. This can only happen if a young person is given the chance to place their identity into something that offers the infinite. In a world that is often unforgiving, the Gospel gives chance after chance after chance to be forgiven.

Combatting White Supremacy with Narratives Not Our Own

The vast majority of white people wouldn’t identify as white supremacists. The vast majority of whites think white supremacy is ugly and unacceptable. It is also true that a significant portion of the white community does not have close relationships with people of color. Additionally, it can be easy for white Americans to see minority-generated art (such as movies and TV) and assume it is made for a minority audience and is not for them.  But when we have few friends of color, and seek out little or no stories that are about people who don’t look like us, we are allowing our stories to be supremely white.

When we aren’t regularly seeing stories about people in different walks of life, we unconsciously think that everyone’s story is like ours. We become confused and sometimes angry about the way others react, or we say thoughtless things that we don’t realize are insensitive and insulting. The more we immerse ourselves in a variety of stories, the more readily we can empathize with people of color and think more effectively about our own actions and perceptions. Especially for people who are limited by geography and do not live in diverse parts of the country, seeking out the stories of others is a very simple way to broaden your understanding. If you were upset by the events in Charlottesville and want to fight semblances of white supremacy in yourself, here are some suggestions for movies and TV that you can watch in the coming months to help make your narrative less white:

Television 

Queen Sugar

I think this is hands-down one of the best shows on TV right now, and a lot of us haven’t heard of it. In its second season, Queen Sugar airs on OWN and is produced by Ava DuVernay (director of “Selma” and the upcoming “A Wrinkle in Time”). It’s a contemporary story set in New Orleans about three siblings and their extended family, and their struggle to maintain the family sugar cane farm. The storylines and characters are very complex and the show does a fantastic job of addressing social issues in ways that nearly always feel natural and relatable. The first season is streaming on Hulu, the current season is available for purchase on OWN’s website (or on demand).

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Black-ish

A sit-com on ABC, this show is funny and at times exaggerated  while also addressing issues of race and socio-economics in poignant ways. It’s about a successful black family in the suburbs navigating the differences between how the parents grew up (in a poor neighborhood and a hippy commune) and how to raise their children to understand race in America in light of their current affluence. I appreciate that the show depicts a wide range of modern black experience in humorous and heartfelt ways.

Luke Cage

This is a recent addition to the Marvel universe on Netflix. Luke is a super hero whose super power is being super strong and bullet-proof (an intentional play on the vulnerability of black men who live under constant threats of violence). The show is set in Harlem where the community is being pulled in many different directions between crime and renewal. Luke is caught in the middle as he tries to protect his neighborhood against violence and corruption. The show is quite gritty and has some adult content, so check the viewer warnings and decide if it’s right for you.

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This Is Us

This show was wildly popular so many may have already watched it. It’s a show that has a blended cast and talks about issues of race very thoughtfully. The cast is phenomenal and the writing is great. The family is predominantly white so for audiences who are unfamiliar with diverse narratives, it is a good entry point into more diverse entertainment. Use this show to start paying attention to how black characters are portrayed, how many scenes/lines they have compared to the white characters, whether they are portrayed as equals or as weaker/inferior, etc. The first season is streaming on Netflix.

Movies

Hidden Figures

This movie does a wonderful job of striking a balance between gritty realism and inspiration. Based on real people and true events, the film tells the story of black women working at NASA during the space race. It’s informative, it’s very engaging, and it’s appropriate for young audiences as well as adults.

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Creed

I’m a life-long “Rocky” fan, and director Ryan Coogler does a terrific job of breathing new life into this franchise. Actor Michael B. Jordan plays the son of Rocky’s rival and friend, Apollo Creed. The film has strong black characters and explores powerful themes of family and hope. One of my favorites in a long time!

Get Out

This is a technically a horror film so it’s not for everyone, but I normally can’t do scary movies and I was fine. The genre of horror at its best is meant to focus on a social issue and magnify it through the lens of fear. (The majority of horror films fail to do this, so don’t hear this as a blanket endorsement for all horror.) Writer/director Jordan Peale creates an extremely clever exploration of the appropriation of black culture and black bodies. He reverses the typical trope of the black side character being the first to get killed off, and forces the audience to confront our perception of black men as aggressors. If you can hang in there for a few scenes of violence and some suspense, it will be worth it. Check out Ivan’s full review here.

Fruitvale Station

Ryan Coogler’s directorial debut, this film was ahead of its time in discussing police violence. Based on the true story of a young man, Oscar Grant, in San Francisco killed by subway security in 2008. The film tells his story and the events of his final day. It is sobering subject matter and simply shows Oscar as human. An early role for Michael B. Jordan, this is a helpful choice for exploring the topic of the relationship between the black community and police.

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Please think about trying some of these suggestions, and please know that this is only scratching the surface. My hope for you is not that you will watch a handful of these options and then feel that you know all black people. I hope that this will spark on-going interest to learn more and to also seek out personal relationships with people who don’t look like you. This is one simple step out of many that we can all take to move towards being a more hospitable and unified country.

Note: I’ve enjoyed a few comedies, “Ugly Betty” and “Jane the Virgin”, which are Hispanic-centered. This is an area of American entertainment that needs to keep growing. Unfortunately there are very few options for Asian American media. “Man in the High Castle” on Amazon has one of the largest Asian casts out there, but it is also sci-fi and is therefore limited in its exploration of current cultural issues. “Master of None” (Netflix) from comedian Aziz Ansari is a brilliant look at first-generation children of immigrants as well as broader racial/social trends. (The show will be fairly edgy for many viewers which is why I am not widely recommending it.) As audiences our money and viewership matters and we can join with others in asking for more stories and representation than is currently being produced. Keep paying attention to how different people are portrayed and put your support behind art that is complex and equitable.