Queen Latifah stars as legendary blues singer Bessie Smith in this HBO Films presentation, directed by acclaimed filmmaker Dee Rees from a screenplay by Dee Rees and Christopher Cleveland & Bettina Gilois. With a story by Dee Rees and Horton Foote, the film focuses on Smith’s transformation from a struggling young singer into “The Empress of the Blues,” who became one of the most successful recording artists of the 1920s and is an enduring icon today. BESSIE also stars Michael Kenneth Williams, Khandi Alexander, Mike Epps, Tika Sumpter, Tory Kittles, Oliver Platt, Bryan Greenberg, with Charles S. Dutton and Mo’Nique.
Queen Latifah and Dee Rees were at the Television Critics Association winter press tour, where they discussed the film.
Rees, who wrote and directed the film, commented that Bessie Smith is part of a long line of women of color who reached success as female artists in a world dominated by men. Starting with Ma Rainey (played in the film by Mo’Nique) and moving through singers like Billie Holiday, Nina Simone, and many others up to the present day, Bessie Smith represents women oppressed by the world around them, but triumphant in spite of it.
Queen Latifah said she was first offered the part when she was 22. She didn’t even know who Bessie Smith was at that time. She’s obviously learned since and will probably do a much better job playing her now than she would have at 22.
Here’s Bessie Smith, who was bisexual, singing the blues about a man.
As you can hear, Bessie Smith had a particular style, timber, and cadence to her singing. I hope Queen Latifah doesn’t try to match it exactly, but simply creates a sense of the truth of who she was as a woman.
Selma manages to take the microcosm of the marches in 1965 in Selma, Alabama to tell a sweeping saga that remains painfully relevant today. By focusing on this singular moment in a long battle, a vast epic is revealed.
Much that is in the news today shouts unfinished to the battle fought by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and his courageous supporters in Selma. For example, several members of the cast appeared on the red carpet for the opening of Selma wearing tee shirts emblazoned “I can’t breathe.”
David Oyelowo stars as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He managed to portray King as very human with doubts and fears and failings while painting a portrait of King as a brilliant organizer, an astute politician, a moving orator, and an inspired showman. It is a stunning performance giving us a very real man who managed to achieve greatness. It’s a portrait both intimate and historic.
The story alternates between quiet moments and horrific moments of violence. The two opening scenes are good examples of this contrast. There’s Annie Lee Cooper (Oprah Winfrey) attempting to register to vote in an act of quiet determination. Then there’s the church explosion that killed 4 young black girls as they scampered down the church stairs discussing their hairdos. Mixed with these types of gut wrenching scenes are strategy sessions and arguments between civil rights movement leaders and meetings between Dr. King and government leaders.
I was impressed by the careful way King picked Selma as the perfect place to stage a massive demonstration for voting rights after President Lyndon Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) refused to take action on the issue with the speed King needed.
There were actually 3 marches in the attempt to go from Selma to Montgomery. The first became known as “Bloody Sunday.” About 600 people arrived for a demonstration march on Sunday March 7, 1965. State troopers met the demonstrators at the edge of Selma on the Edmund Pettus Bridge and chased, clubbed, tear gassed, and terrorized the demonstrators into a retreat.
The Edmund Pettus Bridge, by the way, was named for a head of the KKK. It bears the same name today.
The Bloody Sunday demonstration was televised. Thousands of people flocked to Selma in support. The second march was much bigger because of the publicity. When this group walked across the bridge, the state troopers moved aside. King stood looking at the situation for a long moment. He knelt to pray. As one, the marchers behind him did the same. Finally he stood up and turned back. He was waiting for a legal ruling that would protect the marchers and he got it the next day.
The third attempt was the one that made it over the bridge and all the way to Montgomery, where Dr. King gave a speech on the steps of the capitol. Finally, President Johnson was forced to act to remove restrictions on voting such as poll taxes, literacy tests, and other impediments meant to keep black citizens from voting.
The horror was visceral: the bodies of dead children amid the concrete rubble of a bombed church, the thuds of clubs and the screams of pain and terror as white men on horses attacked fleeing black men and women on the bridge.
The hate filled words of men like Gov. George Wallace (Tim Roth) and Sheriff Jim Clark (Stan Houston) were as terrifying as the scenes of chaos and attack. They are the same words we hear today. They are a reminder that for each victory like this one in 1965, there are still white men fighting to deny certain Americans their civil rights.
The music chosen as background in certain scenes was completely apt. The lyrics told the story as the story was being told.
The cast of the film was very large. There are many real people in this story whose names we know: Coretta Scott King, Andrew Young, Ralph Abernathy, J. Edgar Hoover, John Lewis, Malcolm X. Many other characters whose names are not so famous were also in the story. All were played by actors whose faces I’m sure you recognize. I’m not going to list all the actors in these parts, but I do want to acknowledge those excellent performances.
The film was written by Paul Webb and directed by Ava DuVernay. Cinematography was by Bradford Young. All 3 deserve Oscar nominations, as does the film for Best Picture.
The AARP Bulletin ran an interesting story with Laura Hillenbrand talking about her book Unbroken and her relationship with World War II hero Louis Zamperini.
The book is being made into a movie, directed by Angelina Jolie.
I thought this quote from Laura Hillenbrand from the AARP Bulletin article was worth repeating here.
“I wanted to tell the story of the Pacific war through the eyes of one man. He said, ‘Go to it!’ ”
It was a huge responsibility to have Zamperini and his fellow POWs share their stories, Hillenbrand says. “You have to do justice to someone’s most searing memory.” Often she spoke with men who had never described their ordeal. “They would weep on the phone,” she says.
Unbroken has given solace to families of veterans returned from the Pacific. Hillenbrand recalls that “I started getting thousands of letters and emails from family members who would all say the same thing: ‘I never understood my father or my husband or my grandfather, what he went through, why he was in so much pain, why he drank.’ People were able to find forgiveness, and that is terribly moving to me.”
There is much more interesting material in the article as well as a link to a radio interview with Hillenbrand.
Helicopter Mom looks hilarious. The film stars Nia Vardalos, Jason Dolley, Mark Boone Junior and Skyler Samuels. It was written by Duke Tran and directed by Salome Breziner.
Here’s the description of Helicopter Mom.
Oh, how far we’ve come from the dark days of rampant homophobia. But teenager Lloyd Cooper (Jason Dolley) may think society—or at least his mother—has progressed a bit too far on this topic. Lloyd’s mom Maggie (a hilarious Nia Vardalos) says she would not only accept a gay son, she actively encourages it, as it would be “really cool” to have one. In fact, Maggie becomes so convinced that Lloyd himself is gay that she “outs” him to his entire high school. Like any good “helicopter mom,” who hovers over every aspect of her children’s lives, Maggie takes control of Lloyd’s social life, setting Lloyd up on dates with boys whom she has approved and filing for a gay student college scholarship. There’s just one wrench in her grand plans: Lloyd doesn’t even know whether he’s gay or not. But the mother is willing to accept her son for who he is—or at least who she thinks he is.
It looks like Helicopter Mom is hitting all the festivals right now. I’ll let you know if I see any news about where it might be seen or streamed later. The web site looks fairly up to date and has a funny behind the scenes video. It mentions where the film is currently to be seen as well.
It’s a true story about an amazing, admirable man.
It’s directed by Angelina Jolie.
The film stars Jack O’Connell, Domhnall Gleeson and Garrett Hedlund in the story of Louis Zamperini. Louis Zamperini was an Olympic runner who served in the Air Force in World War II. He ended up in a Japanese prisoner of war camp. His endurance under horrifying conditions, and his ultimate survival are both testaments to the human spirit.
This is a new trailer for Unbroken.
There is another trailer for the film, which was released during the Olympics. Louis Zamperini himself can be seen in that trailer. He died in July of 2014 at the age of 97 and never got to see the film.
Unbroken is scheduled to release on Christmas day. If you like to get out to a movie on Christmas Day, there are many tempting choices. (Two I’ve already mentioned are Big Eyes and Annie.) Unbroken will make you believe in the power of never giving up.
I spent last week at a conference in Ghost Ranch, NM. The conference, called Wisdom Sharing, featured Alice Walker, Gloria Steinem and Dr. Chung Hyun Kyung. The marvelous moderator, shown on the left above, was Dr. Melanie Harris.
The location is stunning in its beauty and spirit. The women who were the star attractions were brilliant – powerful speakers, activists for women’s rights, funny, and centered in a forceful but calm wisdom. It was one of the best weeks of my life. My photos are on Flickr.
In addition to the many talks, wisdom circles, and other activities, we watched 3 documentary films. (Trailers for the 3 films are below.)
The first evening was the film Jesus and Buddha which features Dr. Chung Hyun Kyung who is a lay theologian of the Presbyterian Church of Korea, and is also an Associate Professor of Ecumenical Theology at Union Theological Seminary in the U.S. Plus, she’s a Buddhist. Or as she put it, it was both predestination and karma that brought her to Ghost Ranch and her friendship with the other extraordinary speakers.
The film for the next evening was Beauty in Truth, a documentary about the life of Alice Walker. The film was written and directed by Pratibha Parmar, who was also present at the conference. That’s her below, listening to one of the speakers. (I reviewed Beauty in Truth earlier this year.) Parmar worked with Alice Walker on the book Warrior Marks: Female Genital Mutilation and the Sexual Blinding of Women and the ensuing 1993 film Warrior Marks.
Beauty in Truth and Miss Representation are both available from various streaming sources and are available for screenings in schools or gatherings. PBS broadcast Beauty in Truth and keeps it available. You can get DVD’s of Jesus and Buddha from Old Dog Documentaries.
Transparent was fascinating and compelling. I watched it all the first weekend it was out on Amazon Prime. It’s a coming out story for the character brilliantly played by Jeffrey Tambor.
I’ll try to review it without giving away too many surprises that can’t be gleaned from simply watching the trailer. The review has some mild spoilers.
Late in life, Mort decides to come out and live full time as a woman – Maura. Season 1 was about coming out. If there are hormones or other options in Maura’s future, that will come later. It’s more than Maura’s coming out story. It’s a story about the repercussions for everyone around the transgendered person, particularly the children and the ex-spouse.
Tambor plays Maura with great dignity and sadness. There is occasional joy, but also considerable pain. I’ve seen Tambor in many parts where he is ridiculous, but here he is quiet, vulnerable and stately.
Judith Light as the ex-wife, Shelly, is absolutely outstanding. In my opinion, it’s the best role she’s ever had in many years as an actor, and she doesn’t waste a second of it. She’s wonderful in the part.
Each of the children has their own particular anguish to deal with in addition to the big news from dad. The 3 children of Mort and Shelley are Sarah (Amy Landecker), Ali (Gaby Hoffmann) and Josh (Jay Duplass). Maura comes out to each child in a different way, and each of them deals with it in a different way. There’s a lot of gender stuff in this story, and not all from Maura.
Sarah leaves her husband Len (Rob Huebel). She takes up with a former lover named Tammy, who is played with verve and charisma by Melora Hardin. Melora Hardin is so good in this part I’m making up a new rule: Melora Hardin should play only butchy parts from now on! As the season progresses, Sarah wobbles a bit between Tammy and Len and the negotiations between her kids and Tammy’s kids. One of Tammy’s ex step children enters the story late in the season and may turn out to be significant in Josh’s life. That isn’t the only child who may turn out to be important in Josh’s life.
Josh screws just about anything that moves but not for particularly good reasons. He has sexual issues going back to his early teens that still haunt him. Toward the end of season 1 he meets and falls for a rabbi, played by Kathryn Hahn, but this romance is confused by Josh’s past. Here’s wishing Josh and the Rabbi some good luck for season 2!
Ali is the flake. Rootless, jobless, confused, frequently high, self-centered and perhaps the most loyal and loving of the bunch. She’s clueless about who she is or what she should do with her life, but she’s trying really hard to get it figured out. She might have an undiagnosed mental illness. Carrie Brownstein plays Syd, Ali’s best friend.
Transparent was created, written, produced, and sometimes directed by Jill Soloway. Soloway has a trans parent and the story has been brewing in her for years. That’s her in the photo at the top during an interview with Jeffrey Tambor.
Soloway’s other credits include Six Feet Under and United States of Tara.
Most of the issues in the series revolve around gender identity and sexual orientation, or both at once. I mentioned that a lot of the story was about the kids’ reactions to dad switching gender roles, but there are moments showing what Maura goes through. For instance, Maura, Ali and Sarah go shopping. Where does Maura go to pee without causing a riot?
There are issues with getting the right gendered pronoun, questions about what you call your dad when dad is a woman or when Uncle Mort is now – what – Uncle Maura?
Maura and friend Marcy (Bradley Whitford) have some wonderful scenes in flashbacks to the 80s when they identified as cross dressers. Marcy thinks he’s a man who likes dressing up like a woman. But Maura doesn’t feel like a man and she doesn’t know what to do about it when cross-dressing is as close as she can come to what feels real. The flashbacks add understanding to what Mort had to endure to finally decide to become Maura to the entire world.
Jeffrey Tambor is not a Trans Actor
Before the series came out, there was a considerable amount of criticism because Jeffrey Tambor is not a trans actor. There were, in fact, 12 speaking parts for trans actors in the series. Among them, Alexandra Billings plays Davina, one of Maura’s closest friends in the trans community and the trans support group Maura attends.
Soloway has been quoted as saying that she always had Tambor in mind for the part because he reminds her of her father. Her father came out as transgender several years ago, just as Maura struggles to do in the series.
After seeing all of season 1, I think the criticism over the choice of Tambor will fade away. So much of the story is flashbacks to times when Tambor is seen as Mort. Even as the story begins, Mort is still there, struggling to explain to his 3 adult children that he is actually she.
The world knows so little about being trans, and I know very little about being trans — I just know what it’s like to be the child of a trans person. But there’s so little trans representation [and] so few trans people who are creating content, so we really depend on the trans community to help us get it right.
If you have Amazon Prime you should definitely watch this series. It’s listed as a comedy and has comic moments, but it’s also about real and powerful issues that are much on the national consciousness now. Every performance is masterful, the writing is brilliant. As a bonus, the music choices for every episode were perfect. This show needs a soundtrack album. Watch it if you can.
I just discovered this short video, which I think is relevant to the review and adds to it.
Margarita, starring Nicola Correia Damude as the Mexican nanny Margarita, is the Canadian version of A Day Without a Mexican. In the same way that all of California comes to a screeching halt without Mexicans doing the actual business of making life work in A Day Without a Mexican, so Margarita makes life work for everyone around her. Only when she’s threatened with deportation, do the people around her notice how valuable she is.
The Orphan Black episode “Ipsa Scientia Potestas Est” begins in Rachel’s bloody apartment. Daniel’s body litters the floor, Helena’s signature art drawn in blood decorates the walls. Dr. Leakie (Matt Frewer) thinks Rachel (Tatiana Maslany) should take a kinder, gentler approach to the situation. She thinks not.
Paul (Dylan Bruce) will replace Daniel as Rachel’s monitor. Paul is the universal monitor: he’s monitored Beth, Sarah, and now Rachel.
Sarah takes her super-hugger of a twin sister to Felix’s (Jordan Gavaris) place. Helena needs to get out of her bloody wedding dress and clean up. Sarah tells Helena to behave and calls her Meathead. Helena objects with, “Don’t call me this,” but the nickname seems to symbolize the developing bond and affection between them.
Felix wants nothing to do with babysitting Helena – he has a hot date with the morgue boy – and delivers Helena to Detective Bell (Kevin Hanchard) for safekeeping.
Delphine (Evelyne Brochu) learns there is a new stem cell line, compatible with Cosima, that could help her. They go to Dr. Leekie’s office in search of it and he finds them there. Turns out that Leekie is willing to defy Rachel’s directive to shut down the help for Cosima by giving her an injection of the stem cells. He also tells Cosima that the clone’s original genome was destroyed in a fire 20 years ago. We heard about this fire before in relation to Project LEDA.
Paul’s first job as Rachel’s new monitor is to take the gun that Daniel used to kill the cop at Cal’s house and put Felix’s fingerprints all over it. He manages to do that by interrupting Felix’s love fest. Paul calls Sarah and says Rachel wants them all – Sarah, Helena, and Kira – or Felix goes down for murder. Rachel isn’t asking for Felix, which shoots down my budding theory that he might be a clone, too.
At Art Bell’s apartment, Helena is silent. She watches fish while Art asks questions about Maggie Chen and the Prolethians. Finally he feeds her, which loosens her up and she begins to talk. Interestingly, she asks as many questions as she answers, and her questions are intelligent ones. Also, she does love the powdered donuts.
Helena mimes poking the eyes out of one of her early tormentors. From art works we’ve seen of Helena’s where the eyes were X-ed out of a nun, I’m guessing her tormentor was a nun. She mentions a locker and the Swan Man who played God. Then she uses the lid off a sardine can to open her handcuffs and leaves Art cuffed to the wall. She goes to a storage unit (locker) where she has a motorcycle.
Cal (Michiel Huisman) and Kira (Skyler Wexler) are still playing house in the camper. Cal is being a great dad, Kira is being quick-witted and showing signs of ESP. Cal’s hiding a gun and carrying a fake ID. He assures Sarah when she calls that they are close enough to come get her whenever she’s ready.
At the Prolethian compound, Gracie’s (Zoé De Grand Maison) mouth was sutured shut as punishment for Helena’s escape. Henrik (Peter Outerbridge) and her mother Bonnie (Kristin Booth) tell her that, “She can rot,” if she refuses to talk about what happened. If they don’t find Helena, Gracie will carry the egg currently reproducing itself in a Petri dish.
Sarah and Art are in pursuit of Helena. Helena helped out by leaving some GPS coordinates at Art Bell’s. They find the locker and learn that Ethan Duncan is still alive. On the back of a recent photo of him is says “Swan Man.” Helena has taken off with a sniper rifle.
Guess what Paul’s second job as Rachel’s new monitor is? Sex slave.
Helena sets up the rifle in a apartment across from Rachel’s. As she takes aim and prepares to eliminate the problem that is Rachel, we see Rachel and Paul have sex. It’s weird sex. Rachel demands complete control. She orchestrates Paul’s every move and slaps him when he thinks for himself. Rachel demonstrates a kind of ruthless eagerness that is creepy and disturbing. She’s extremely turned on, but it’s the power and control that excite her, not the actual sex.
Helena, watching, says, “Pretty, dirty, sexy Rachel – like my mother.” Is there some woman somewhere that Helena once called mother?
Art and Sarah arrive and want Helena to put the gun down.
Helena wants Sarah to look at what Rachel is doing, at the “unfaithful” Paul. Sarah begs her not to shoot. She explains that Felix will be in trouble if Rachel dies. Sarah walks in front of the rifle and says she doesn’t care about Paul.
Sarah uses tears and some clever talk to convince Helena that they are family now, that they need to care for each other, and that Felix is part of that family. Finally Helena puts down the gun.
Helena and Sarah join hands. They walk out of the room with arms around each other. Sarah calls Helena Meathead again, and Helena responds, “Don’t call me this.” In the car, Helena tells Sarah that they need to go to Cold River, the place of screams.
Sarah meets Dr. Leekie in a bar. She demands Felix in return for Ethan Duncan, who is still alive. Leekie mentions that Cosima is sick – news to Sarah. When Sarah leaves, we realize Paul followed Leekie there. It’s really hard to tell where the real loyalties are with Paul and Leekie. They are ciphers, willing to double-cross anyone, but we aren’t sure why.
This episode was written by Tony Elliott, who is responsible for much of the writing in season 2. It was directed by Helen Shaver. She shared quite a bit about the experience on her Twitter account. Tatiana seemed to enjoy having her as a director.