Welcome to WeeklyWilson.com, where author/film critic Connie (Corcoran) Wilson avoids totally losing her marbles in semi-retirement by writing about film (see the Chicago Film Festival reviews and SXSW), politics and books----her own books and those of other people. You'll also find her diverging frequently to share humorous (or not-so-humorous) anecdotes and concerns. Try it! You'll like it!

Category: Movies Page 2 of 38

Connie has been reviewing film uninterruptedly since 1970 (47 years) and routinely covers the Chicago International Film Festival (14 years), SXSW, the Austin Film Festival, and others, sharing detailed looks in advance at upcoming entertainment. She has taught a class on film and is the author of the book “Training the Teacher As A Champion; From The Godfather to Apocalypse Now, published by the Merry Blacksmith Press of Rhode Island.

“Small Time:” Poignant Picture of How NOT to Parent

French/American female director Niav Conty made a short film called “Joy Ride” that won her the Best Director award at the Reno Tahoe Film Festival in 2017. The film featured “Small Time” star Audrey Grace Marshall riding on the back of Rick’s (Holter Graham’s) motorcycle. These characters soon expanded into the full-length second feature film “Small Time”from Conty, who wrote, directed, shot and edited this indie film set in Pennsylvania.

The film is worth seeing for the performance of young Audrey Grace Marshall, (“The Flight Attendant”) who was 7 when filming began. Over the 3 years the film took to make, Audrey grows into a beautiful, blonde 10-year-old. She is the second child actor whose debut performance I recently saw that gave the audience a polished-but-natural impressive onscreen performance. (The first was the 9-year-old star of “Belfast,” Jude Hill.)

The plot follows Emma (Audrey Grace Marshall) as she is more-or-less left to raise herself in rural Pennsylvania. Her mother, Jessie, (Jessie-Dominique Johnson), is a drug addict. Jessie overdoses and ends up comatose in the local hospital. There is a period of plot time when  the audience is left wondering, “What has happened to the child’s mother?”

It’s not quite clear, at first, either, who her biological father is. In time, we find out that it is Lonnie (Kevin Loreque) a veteran with severe PTSD.

Lonnie also has a Jesus-freak mother, Emma’s grandmother, Sadie, well-played by Maria Hasen in what appears to be her first role.

The film almost becomes a “What Not To Do In Raising A Child” manual:

  • Do not entrust a small, innocent child to a mother who regularly and routinely does drugs.
  • Do not let a friend of the mother have the very young child help her “cook” drugs.
  • Do not shuttle the child around to the point that we (the audience) are confused as to how she ended up in the living room of the Jesus freak Sadie, her son Lonnie, and Lonnie’s ne’er-do-well friends. (The fact that Lonnie was Emma’s father was unclear for quite a while.)
  • Do not take the child for a walk balanced on your shoulders while she is holding a gun that is sometimes pointed at your head.
  • Do not allow the child to fire the pistol at a bottle many yards away.
  • Do not expect the child to apologize for bopping a bully in the nose at school, when the other girl calls her mother “retarded” and her father “crazy.”
  • Do not have the minor child do drug exchanges in a local restaurant with a skeevy man, while said child is heavily made up.
  • Do not put the blonde child in excessive make-up not unlike that seen in children’s beauty pageants.
  • Do not offer a child under the age of 10 a beer.
  • Do not let the child tie up her best friend outside and leave him there for hours.
  • Do not let the child point a gun at her best friend’s head while he is tied up. For that matter, do not leave a gun under one of the pillows on the child’s bed nightly.
  • Do not let the child go on numerous drug deliveries with a drug dealer.
  • Do not let the child ride on the back of the drug dealer’s motorcycle.

It was at that last point that I said, “Watch. I’ll bet she isn’t wearing a helmet.”

Audrey Grace Marshall in “Small Time.”

Wonder of wonders! Emma WAS wearing a helmet! Hip hip hooray! She still doesn’t have a stable guardian situation, since the film opens with her Grandfather’s death. Apparently Gramps had inherited the task of being the responsible adult in her life.

After the funeral of her grandfather, Emma sits down next to a woman we don’t know and says, “Why are you here?”

The stranger says, “Well, he was my father.”

Now we are puzzled about what the relationship is between the strange woman at the funeral and Emma. Is this Emma’s biological mother? Did Grandpa have an older child and then father this much younger child? These are plot mysteries that we ultimately do figure out, but there had to be a better way to clue the audience in on plot points like, “Who is this woman at the funeral?” “What has happened to Jessie in the hospital? She is gone a long time from the plot and nobody seems to know or care.” “Why is there no agency responsible for checking in on poor Emma?”

The film makes good use of Camp Ballibay in Pennsylvania, producer John Jannone’s childhood home and of Towonda High School. Jannone is an important part of this film, producing, given a credit for the music; he even made it onto the list of caterers. Oren Moverman, who wrote “The Messenger” is also a producer for the film. The entire project reminded me a bit of “Shooting Heroin,” also filmed in Pennsylvania, with all of the director’s family hostessing the cast. (That was also a film about the opioid epidemic.)

This film is much more about a little girl named Emma who still loves life and believes in the Tooth Fairy, despite a series of extremely negative early childhood challenges to her normal development. She is a young actress that we may well see a lot of in the future.

“Small Time” is a noble effort and the performances are better than fine. My complaints are: (a) it’s too long at 1 hour and 44 minutes and (b) some of the plot points are difficult to figure out for extended periods.

For a first (or second?) feature film, however—an outgrowth of “Joy Ride”—it’s a noble effort by these two Brooklyn College instructors (Niav Conty and John J.A. Jannone).

It’s streaming now on virtual cinema and digital platforms.

Kenneth Branaugh and “Belfast” in Chicago for the 57th Chicago Interational Film Festival

Sir Kenneth Branagh came to Chicago for the Chicago International Film Festival and screened his semi-autobiographical film, “Belfast,” at the 92-year-old Music Box Theater on Thursday, October 21, 2021. He received a Lifetime Achievemet Award. The screening was preceded by the organist serenading the assembled audience with oldies like “You Ought to Be in Pictures” and “What Is This Thing Called Love?” The film to follow would be  touched by a similar sheen of sentimentality and shots of the fictional Branagh family at the movies felt quite sympatico with this opening. This one is going to be a big one at Oscar-time.

Following the showing of the film, Branagh thanked the organist for such a grand introduction. He praised Chicago for its “creativity, vitality and generosity,” and also thanked the audience, which had just viewed a highlights reel of Branagh’s many other films, movies which have yielded 5 Oscar nominations in a variety of categories. Said Branagh, “Thank you for watching that reel entitled ‘the history of my waistband.’”

Kenneth Branagh on October 21, 2021, with his Lifetime Achievement Award fro the Chicago International Film Festival.

Branagh shared that he had been thinking about making this particular film for half a century.  “It’s about something which happened to me when I was 9 years old.” Branagh revisited “the Troubles,” when Protestants and Catholics blew each other up over Catholic Ireland’s desire to leave the United Kingdom.

After a wide-screen aerial view of Belfast, shot by long-time cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos (“Thor”) in living color, the film reverts to black-and-white and the specific starting date flashes on the screen: August 15, 1969. Men had walked on the moon on July 20, 1969, roughly a month earlier.

Change and uncertainty were in the air and, for Branagh’s family, they would soon make the difficult decision to leave their family and friends behind and move to England. (One wag remarked that it was this move to England that allowed Branagh to lose the thick Northern Ireland accent. which American audiences will have trouble understanding. Some have said the film needs sub-titles, much to the amusement of the Irish.)

This was the day that violence came to Branagh’s Belfast neighborhood in Tiger’s Bay, County Antrim, Northern Ireland. It changed  the trajectory of young Kenneth/Buddy’s life forever.  Since it is Branagh’s own childhood memories we are seeing, it is appropriate that the film is shot from the point-of-view of young Buddy (the stand-in for Branagh), well-played by new-comer Jude Hill.

Branagh recalled, onstage, during the Q&A, how the onset of the pandemic, which also brought fear, chaos and uncertainty, seemed some sort of signal that it was time to make this film. Because the pandemic was raging worldwide, extensive time, effort and money was devoted to keeping the crew safe from the dreaded disease. The cast operated more-or-less in a bubble, by staying in the same hotel, which led to comraderie. He commented, also, on the building of sets based on Branagh’s remembrances of his childhood home, complete with barging into similar homes whose owners had volunteered to let the production crew measure each room so that it could be reproduced. (Branagh’s childhood street of row homes is gone.) As he said on Thursday, October 21st, at the 57th Chicago International Film Festival showing, “It was going to be too problematic in the time of Covid to shoot in the real world.”

The director also shared, “I could never have made this while my folks were alive.” He showed it first to his brother and sister (in real life, Branagh is one of three children), who approved. Memories of having to sign in and out of their row home in Tiger’s Bay and the way the street’s cobblestones had been ripped up to make into a barricade while he was having tea, leaving only sand in the previously paved street, added to the audience’s knowledge. (“I went in for tea, and when I came out, the street was just sand.”)

Some have complained that the couple portraying Branagh’s parents, Jamie Dornan (“Fifty Shades of Grey”) and Caitriona Balfe (“Outlander”), were too good-looking to be “real” parents, but, again, Branagh shared that, in the eyes of a nine-year-old boy, his parents were almost godlike figures. (The Denver International Film Festival is hosting star Jamie Dornan.)

Certainly the two stars have great onscreen chemistry and are extremely easy on the eyes. In one scene, Jamie Dornan sings—again. He’s been singing—and singing well—in other films of late, and, as he sings “Open Up Your Eyes” with flair, enjoy it.

The costume/make-up people, while working with the handsome actor and the beautiful leading lady, took them aside and showed them still shots of 60s “the look” envisioned for the duo.  There were many shots of a tousled-looking Brigitte Bardot and a young Marlon Brando. Again, the explanation from the director is that, in a child’s eyes, loving parents are quite handsome and larger-than-life.

ACTING:

(L to R) Caitriona Balfe as “Ma”, Jamie Dornan as “Pa”, Judi Dench as “Granny”, Jude Hill as “Buddy”, and Lewis McAskie as “Will” in director Kenneth Branagh’s BELFAST, a Focus Features release. Credit : Rob Youngson / Focus Features

The acting awards for this one will be rolling in for Dame Judi Dench, who has collaborated with Branagh over six times. She plays young Kenneth/Buddy’s Granny and her husband of half a century is portrayed by Cilian Hinds, who is equally good. The pair are definitely in line for nominations, and newcomer Jude Hill as the nine-year-old protagonist, carries the film on his slim shoulders quite effectively. He’s off to a great start.

There’s really not a false player in the entire cast. The charming blonde girl, Catherine, whom Buddy has a crush on is played well by Olive Tennant in a small part.

WRITING:

Branagh both wrote and directed this semi-autobiographical tale. If you can decipher the thick Irish accents, the screenplay contains both pathos and humor. The film won the Audience Award at the Toronto International Film Festival and the trailer highlights the young boy’s fear that, if he is forced to relocate, nobody will be able to understand him. As one line has it, “The Irish were born for leaving. Otherwise, the rest of the world would have no cops.” Among things mentioned specifically that an Irishman needs to be happy: “Guinness and sheet music for ‘Oh, Danny Boy.’”

There’s even a joke worked into the script (although a really old one), and the gentle back-and-forth ribbing of Cilian Hinds and Judi Dench is both touching and funny, portraying the elderly grandparents.

MUSIC:

(L to R) Mimi Plauche, Sir Kenneth Branaugh and Vivian Teng outside the Music Box Theater in Chicago at the 57th Chicago International Film Festival.

Van Morrison did the music: 8 old songs and 1 new one. Morrison grew up in Belfast. The 76-year-old musician is known for blending all styles of music. Among his compositions are the song “Gloria” (written when still a member of the group “Them”) and “Brown-Eyed Girl.” Some of the songs that Morrison selected for the film worked in the spot where they were inserted. Some did not. “My momma told me there’d be days like this,” coming on the heels of a tense discussion between the parents about whether or not to move away from Belfast seemed incongruous. Likewise, when his father is leaving on a bus (to go back to England for work), a jazzy tune plays. There is a frisking in the street and an up-beat song is playing in the background. One critic complained about the use of Dimitri Tiomkins’ theme from “High Noon” as shown on the television set, calling it “incessant.” On the other hand, using “Do Not Forsake Me, Oh My Darling” made a certain amount of sense in the context of the film’s friction between the parents over whether or not to move away from Belfast.

The use of western influences was mentioned by Branagh as both an homage to the cinema and as providing a moral framework for the young boy. As he explained, “Cinema was a place of escape for me. It was a ritualistic experience.” Branagh  mentioned other specific films he had thought of having the family attend together, beyond the actual use of “One Million B.C.” with Raquel Welch and “Chitty, Chitty, Bang Bang” (which causes Dame Judith to mutter upon hearing the name, ‘Oh, God! Now I’ve heard it all.’).

He said that “The Sound of Music,” “The Great Escape,” and “Yellow Submarine” were all in the running at one point, explaining that he wanted one of the sixties movies that had a big-screen Cinemascope feel. The family viewing the Dick Van Dyke classic about the flying car together and then leaning in as though they were really in a flying car was a bit hokey, but appealing in a saccharine fashion and a salute to late sixties state-of-the-art cinematic special effects. (Since Branagh had previously mentioned that each primary actor had contributed at least one extemporaneous line, I wondered if Dame Judith’s remark about “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang” was her contribution.)

CINEMATOGRAPHY:

Kenneth Branaugh on the Red Carpet at the Music Box Theater on Thursday, October 21, 2021, at the 57th Chicago International Film Festival.

The film uses bursts of color interspersed  within the largely black-and-white film. The opening aerial shots are gorgeous and the color is meant to shock. As Branagh explained it, the color is evocative of creativity.

He said, “It represents the energy to dream. If you could dream, maybe you could dream yourself out of this nightmare.”

The film opens in theaters on November 12, 2021, and is bound to appear on many “Best of the Year” awards lists. Initially, it can only be seen in theaters.

“Passing” Brings Rebecca Hall to the 57th Chicago International Film Festival

Rebecca Hall screened her directorial debut, “Passing,” on October 20, 2021, in Chicago and was presented with an Artistic Achievement Award by the Chicago International Film Festival. It was the second award she has received in Chicago—the first being a Silver Hugo for her lead in the biographical picture “Christine” in 2016.

“Passing” stars Ruth Negga (“Loving”) as Clare and Tessa Thompson (“Creed”) as Irene, with a small role for Alexander Skarsgaard (“Big Little Lies) as Clare’s white racist husband. Andre Holland plays Brian, Irene’s husband, and Bill Camp has a supporting role as Hugh Wentworth, a successful white novelist. The film is an adaptation of Nella Larson’s 1929 novella about a Black woman passing for white.

Rebecca, who is now 39, had been thinking about adapting “Passing” for the screen since she was 25. She has a personal reason for feeling connected to the theme, with a mother who is part African American and was born in Detroit. Maria Ewing, Rebecca’s mom, a Metropolitan opera star, had a Dutch mother and a father, Norman Ewing, who was American Indian, Scottish and African American.

There have been other films about passing for white. “Pinky” earned Jeanne Crain an Oscar nomination in 1949 and “Imitation of Life” in 1959 also dealt with the theme.  The stars seemed to have aligned in 2021 for a timely film on the topic, and Rebecca was the perfect choice to direct it.

As Rebecca said, “I spent 13 years being in awe of that book. I’m still in awe of that book.” She described it as “a tiny book that holds worlds.” She told “Deadline” magazine in 2018, “I came across the novel  at a time when I was trying to reckon creatively with some of my personal family history, and the mystery surrounding my bi-racial grandfather on my American mother’s side. In part, making this film is an exploration of that history, to which I’ve never really had access.”

During the Q&A that followed the screening of the film, Rebecca shared that the script “sat in a drawer for 6 years” while others told her, “You’ll never get this made, and if you do, it won’t be commercial.” The 98-minute film is set to stream on Netflix on November 10th.

It is definitely a thinking man’s (or woman’s) film. As the director described the themes that the book contains, it is about: 1) The many ways we protect lies. (2) Categorization, especially in regards to racism (3) Repressed homosexuality (4) Adultery (5) Marital discord. I read the book, which is a slim novella, and found the ending ambiguous. The ending of the movie is similarly ambiguous and the adaptation is very faithful to the original source material.

Rebecca Hall, interviewed by Reggie Ponder, on the Red Carpet at the AMC Theater in Chicago on October 20, 2021 at the 57th Chicago International Film Festival.

I was impressed with the way that Rebecca managed to re-create 1920s New York City fairly inexpensively. As the film opens, we see only the feet of the characters walking on the city streets and the occasional period car passing. Rather than having to re-create 1920 New York City on a larger, more expensive scale, she had the women whose shoes and feet we are following enter a store. The set costs then decline appreciably. Rebecca shared with the audience that the Drayton Hotel of the film was really a tribute to Chicago’s Drake Hotel.

Hall uses some potent symbolism in her film. You will notice various characters, including Irene’s husband, Brian (Andre Holland), staring at a crack in the ceiling. They often are lying on the bed looking up at the crack that represents the fissures in the foundation of Irene’s life that Clare has introduced. Of Irene, who has the more traditional marriage to an African American doctor and has two sons, Rebecca said, “She’s barely holding it together, and her life is a prison.”

Clare is the catalyst for everything that happens in the film. When Irene and Clare meet by accident in the heat of summer, Clare shares with Irene that “I’m not like you one bit. I’d do anything. Hurt anybody. Throw anything away. Anything. I’m not safe.”

As Irene ponders this truth about Clare’s personality, the script—which is very faithful to the book—says, “I’m beginning to think that no one is ever completely happy, free or safe.” The screenplay adds, “We’re all of us passing for something.”

After accidentally breaking an heirloom teapot, Irene also muses that “I only had to break it, and I was free of it forever.” This may help explain the denouement. Or not, because the book and the movie are equally ambiguous when the final credits roll.

Weather is used in a Shakespearian fashion throughout the novella and the film. It is beastly hot when the film commences, but snow is on the ground at the film’s climax with some interesting aerial shots from Cinematographer Eduard Grau.

(L to R) MimiPlauche, Rebecca Hall, and Vivian Teng with Rebecca’s Artistic Achievement Award on October 20, 2021.

Rebecca uses black-and-white to tell this story and the 4/3 ratio that, she says, is better for faces in close-up. She shared that her cast was pre-determined and that the only auditions that were held were for the housekeeper, Zulena (Ashley Ware Jenkins), and for the parts of Irene’s sons ( Ethan Barrett as Junior and Justin Davis Graham as Ted).

The music throughout is by Devonte Hynes, who has 16 composing credits, including “In Treatment.” The light, tripping musical score also features Ethiopian pianist nun Tsegue-Maryam Guebrou.

More than one person has commented on  the casting of Ruth Negga as the light-skinned Clare, saying she is not as likely to fit this profile. She is “passing,” after all, and the comments were along the lines of, “This looks good, but weren’t Rashida Jones/Meghan Markle (etc.) available?”

For me, you just have to believe that there is no one who could play the part of Clare any better than the Ethiopian-born Ruth Negga of “Loving.” Hall shared that Ruth was originally being considered for the role of Irene, but that the Academy Award-nominated actress felt that she totally understood Clare’s motives; she was intent on playing that part.

Eduard Grau (“The Gift,” “The Way Back”) handles the cinematography with assurance. The film was a solid accomplishment from a first-time director. Hall has been acting since 1992. With her family background, including a father who founded the Royal Shakespeare Company and 5 half-siblings, all of whom are involved in the arts—often as directors—this is a logical next step for her. It is an impressive debut film.

 

 

“The Conductor” About 1st Female Conductor Screens at Denver International Film Festival

The Conductor (2021)The biggest lesson from “The Conductor,” now screening at the Denver International Film Festival, (but also a selection at the Austin Documentary Film Festival), is “Don’t tell me I can’t do something.” The individual being told she can’t be a conductor, because she’s female, was Marin Alsop, now conductor of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, the Sao Paulo Symphony Orchestra, and a trailblazer for other female directors.

Director Bernadette Wegenstein quotes Alsop, the first woman to become the conductor of a major American city’s orchestra, as co-parent with spouse Kristen Jurkscheit of their child, “I want my son to be his own person.” She related years of being told no, including showing a copy of a March 27, 1980 rejection letter from Julliard signed by registrar Mary H. Smith. Indeed, at one point, Alsop said she had to either quit Julliard or quit music.

The child of two musicians who grew up in a two-bedroom apartment at Broadway and West 107th Street in New York City, says that she “had to be an adult from the age of three.” Her parents had to travel frequently for their musical gigs and she was an only child.

Marin’s attendance at a Leonard Bernstein Youth Concert when she was nine years old set her off on a quest. “I want to be that. I want to be a conductor,” said Marin after the concert. Her Julliard violin instructor, however, said, “Girls can’t do that.”

Marin described her father as being visibly upset when Marin’s teacher made that remark. He went out and bought her multiple batons and presented them to her in an ornamental box. Leonard Bernstein also came around, as time went by, and became one of her biggest supporters.  Another big supporter was Tomio Taki, a Japanese businessman who helped her to form the Concordia Orchestra with $5,000 donations from 10 of his wealthy friends and who remains supportive.

Marin says that, to her, “can’t is “the worst 4-letter word ever invented.”

MUSIC

One of the best things about the documentary, beyond wonderful cinematography by Shana Hagan of a variety of cities, including the Lucerne Music Festival, are the symphonies providing the soundtrack. Supervising sound recordist is Dwayne Dell (with a lot of assistance). Mahler. Shostakovich’s Symphony #5. Aron Copland’s Symphony #3. Bernstein directing. Marin’s “String Fever” group, profiled by Allison Fields of News 4 in New York City. The music is as breathtaking as the cinematography, and both are wonderful.

THEMES

Obviously, the big theme is to never take “no” for an answer. Marin never did. As she said, “I’d like to turn every struggle into an opportunity.” She always felt that “Conducting is the only thing in life I want to do.” She rails against the institutions that, she said, have this philosophy:  “There’s something about breaking a young person’s spirit and building them back in the image they have for you.” Not for Marin, whose success has led to other female conductors at other major orchestras. She says:  “I needed individuality.” She repeats that, “You never want to tell them they can’t do something, especially someone who clearly has a passion for it.” Even the New York Philharmonic had to rewrite some of its “rules” about conductor hires and we meet Sylvia Cadaff, who worked as Leonard Bernstein’s secretary for years.

Marin suggests that, “The Old Boys’ network has been there for centuries. We need to form the Old Girls’ network and be there for one another.” While I nodded my head in agreement with this thought, and am happy to report that Marin Alsop has actually taken constructive steps toward this goal, founding a scholarship for female conductors, I wondered what Hillary Clinton and/or Vice President Kamala Harris might say about female support for them in their posts.

Van Jones Documentary “The First Step” About Prison Reform Screens at Denver Film Festival

When I saw that Kartemquin films was involved in the Van Jones documentary “The First Step,” now showing at the Denver Film Festival (and 23 other festivals), I was optimistic. It’s a 90-minute film directed by Brandon Kramer, with cinematography by Emily Topper and music by Joshua Abrams. If it’s backed by Kartemquin, it’s usually good. The topic of “The First Step:” prison reform.

Here’s what the “New York Times” said about Kartemquin: “There are few film production companies in the United States as admirable as Kartemquin Films, the nonprofit documentary house founded in Chicago in 1966 that was subsequently responsible for such outstanding, illuminating works as “Hoop Dreams” (1994) and “Abacus: Small Enough to Jail” (2016).

“All the Queen’s Horses” (2017) about Rita Crundwell’s embezzlement of $53 million in Dixon, Illinois–the largest case of municipal fraud in U.S. history—was another outstanding Kartemquin documentary.

As a Chicago-based journalist, aware that Chicago-based Kartemquin’s films have received 4 Academy Award nominations, won 6 Emmys, and collected three Peabody Awards, I was enthusiastic about this story of Van Jones’ attempts to help successfully shepherd a bill for criminal justice/prison reform through Congress.

There are some exchanges between subjects in the documentary that stay with you, as when Jones’ assistant, Louis Reed, who spent 14 years in prison, is dismissed rather abruptly by a former prosecutor (clip above). We hear a different ex-convict, addressing post-prison life and jobs, say, “Nobody don’t see past McDonald’s for us.”

The original prison reform bill was weak. As initially proposed, the bill had only three proposals. Two of them were so seemingly non-controversial that it’s difficult to believe a crusade was necessary to secure them.

One change proposed that prisoners should be housed in facilities within 500 miles of their hometowns. The other change would ban female prisoners from being shackled while giving birth. These don’t seem like very controversial proposals. but both former Attorney General Jeff Sessions and junior Republican Senator from Arkansas Tom Cotton actively opposed the bill with vigor. Kim Kardashian gets screentime advocating for the bill, so there’s that.

Van Jones’ tactic is to begin a campaign to forge an alliance with Jared Kushner to gain passage for the prison reform bill.

Van Jones and Louis Reed in “The First Step” documentary.

Others on the Jones team have misgivings about trying to work with Donald J. Trump during his time as president through Kushner or anyone else (one member of Jones’ team flat-out refuses to go to the White House for a meeting).

To some, meeting Trump on his home turf is a dangerous and poorly thought-out tactic, since the opposition can frame the meeting any way they want. Van’s meeting with Jared Kushner was a bit like 88-year-old Senator Chuck Grassley (R, IA) appearing onstage recently with Donald Trump and gleefully accepting Trump’s endorsement. These actions legitimize Trump, perhaps the least progressive president in  American history.

I heard Van Jones speak in Austin in 2017. “Just do something,” he said. He also said, “Own your need for acknowledgment and maintain visibility,” adding “I was never afraid to be in front of a camera or speak into a microphone – I’ve got something to say.”

This is true. Jones has had something to say for a long time—things with which I generally agree. However, barely mentioning the nay-sayers who brought Jones down (chief among them, Glen Beck) in the documentary seems like a major omission.

Van Jones’ affiliation with a 1990s anti-war group called Standing Together to Organize a Revolutionary Movement exposed him to accusations that he associated with Communists. When he is shown arriving at CPAC, one of the audience members shouts out, asking him if he is “still a Communist.” Jones’ hasty departure from office during the Obama administration, where he was a special advisor to Obama on green energy, is totally ignored.

Former Democratic National Committee Chairman and presidential candidate Howard Dean on “Fox News Sunday” called Van Jones’ abrupt resignation from his post in the Obama administration a “loss for the country.” “This guy is a Yale-educated lawyer, he is a best-selling authority about his specialty. I think he was brought down. It is too bad. Washington is a tough place that way,” said Dean.

Jones, for his part, said he never believed in the so-called “Truther” movement, issued an apology for his past remarks, and said, in a statement, that his involvement with 9/11 conspiracy theories “does not reflect my views now or ever.”

I believe those Van Jones sentiments. But, just as the wisdom of some of Van Jones’ past statements or affiliations are questioned, when the documentary covers his big bright idea of lobbying the White House by befriending Jared Kushner, you have to ask, “Is that really a good idea?” A line that resonated was: “What does it mean when the President of the United States is divisive?” (A national topic that we’ve been wrestling with through two impeachments and a failed coup d’etat.)

Apparently I was not alone in my lack of enthusiasm for Jared Kushner as a conduit to convincing then-President Trump to support a bill on prison reform. Kushner’s father spent time in prison so maybe he’ll be an enlightened proponent for prison reform, went the thinking. (Of course, Kushner still has Saudi, Arabia’s MSB on speed dial; MSB  sanctioned killing and cutting up a Washington Post reporter, Jamal Khashoggi).

The Van Jones friendship with Kushner did not fly with everyone on the Van Jones team.

“The First Step:” West Virginia meets Los Angeles.

The most impressive part of the documentary depicts a program that Jones originated to bring South Los Angeles residents together with West Virginia natives, including the Sheriff of Welch, West Virginia, a community of 50,000 that shrank to 18,000. Welch ranked first or second in deaths from opioids nationwide.

Each group tours the other’s hometown area, including Skid Row in L.A.  There is a feeling that growing mutual awareness could change attitudes. The supportive community approach of West Virginia towards addiction is praised. A member of the Los Angeles group is heard saying, “How do we replicate this in L.A.?”

As for me, I began to wonder what Van Jones’ main causes are. He has three best-selling books on Amazon. I’m having trouble pinning down his primary concerns. Green energy and prison reform seem to be just a small slice of Jones’ town. In this respect, he reminded me of the Reverend Al Sharpton or Jesse Jackson, who always seem to show up at any Black/white imbroglio.

While there are some good nuggets of information about Van Jones, the man, I would have liked more personal information about the ex-wife who shows up briefly onscreen and/or the small children that appear to be his. I enjoyed the shot of Van Jones in dreadlocks while in college at Yale. The trip home to visit his twin sister is great. The failure to give us more information on Van Jones, pre-2021, made the random shouted remark about “still being a Communist” without enough context to decode it unless you are a news junkie, as I am.

The shift from green jobs to prison reform: when and why did that become the new Van Jones frontier? What is next on the Van Jones “to do” list? Is it “any old cause in a storm?” Why not just run for office, if he is devoted to societal change?

There’s much to admire in the documentary. The cinematography and music are good. Van Jones is an attractive and charismatic subject, but he is only peripheral to the theme of trying to help pass a bill advocating prison reform, when I, for one, wanted to know much more about the idealistic emissary at the heart of the campaign. The documentary was 90 minutes long and, like many documentaries, seemed to drag at key points, but there’s certainly something for everyone in that 90 minutes.

I’ll be waiting for the one that focuses on Van Jones, the candidate.

“Broadcast Signal Intrusion” Is Noir Chicago at 57th Chicago International Film Festival

Harry Shum, Jr. who appeared in “Crazy Rich Asians” and “Glee,” appears as James in the 57th Chicago International Film Festival offering “Broadcast Signal Intrusion.” Billed as a blend of “Blow-Up” and 70s paranoid cinema, the film is directed by Jacob Gentry and the cinematography is expertly handled by Scott Thiele. The film premiered at SXSW 2021 and was released October 22nd.

In this film noir offering, James (Harry Shum, Jr.)  is a video archivist. He is also a grieving husband whose wife was either murdered or simply disappeared. James investigates the intrusion into broadcasts in Chicago that occurred, first, on November 22, 1987, with two later episodes where a broadcast to the general public was interrupted by a strange masked figure who appears to be roaring. The appearances of the masked figure are creepy, throwing this mystery into the horror category.

James, who works as a video archivist with analog films and cameras in a one-man shop, becomes obsessed with the episodes of video piracy. His relationship with his employer is strange. They never see each other face-to-face, but notes are left for James, the employee, concerning his duties. He is eventually fired by memo. Or, as he mutters upon reading the message, “Fired by a fucking haiku.”

James’ wife disappeared or died (not sure which). The date of her demise is tattooed on James’ wrist. For reasons that escape me, James comes to the conclusion that the various dates of the broadcast signal intrusions are related to the disappearance/death of his wife, and he sets out to see if his theory is correct. For roughly half the length of the one hour and forty-four minute film, James is assisted by Kelly Mack, who shows up in a bar and offers her assistance, but only after insisting that James down numerous drinks in exchange for information that she can provide relevant to his search.

The screenplay was written by Phil Drinkwater and Tim Goodall, but it’s not really the sketchy plot that deserves praise; it’s the moody setting of the entire film and the way the actors, including Shum, Mack, Michael B. Woods and Anthony E. Cabral pull off this Illinois project.

Using Chicago’s skyline and alleyways and moody, gloomy lighting, our inscrutable hero’s investigation takes him to a storage unit in Peoria, to the Tower Inn and Suites, to LaGrange, with shots of the city skyline and trains and references to a post office box in Joliet. This is definitely a slice of Chicago, Illinois movie.

The set decorating and noirish mood are Top-Notch. The sound is also good, including “Make the world go away” in one scene, and the cinematography and lighting are stellar.  But the plot, when it finally resolves in its entirety, is not up to the standard of all the excellent acting, moody vibe, and great cinematography that has gone before.

When the film finally reveals its denouement, as the script put it, “Some threads aren’t worth picking at.”

While James is investigating whatever connection there may have been between the 3 instances of broadcast signal intrusion and the disappearance of his wife, he is warned, “Never attribute conspiracy to what is more appropriately termed coincidence.” I’d add, never accept great moody lighting and sound and excellent acting as a satisfactory substitute for a coherent plot that hangs together when revealed.

It’s available on Prime Video.

“Citizen Ashe” Is Well-Done Sam Pollard Documentary at Chicago International Film Festival

Arthur Ashe, from the documentary “Citizen Ashe” at the 57th Chicago International Film Festival.

Sam Pollard, who directed “MLK/FBI” and “Sammy Davis, Jr.: I’ve Gotta’ Be Me,” has teamed with Rex Miller— listed as both the Director and Cinematographer—to produce an informative 96-minute documentary entitled “Citizen Ashe.”

The film traces Arthur Ashe’s career as the first and best Black male tennis player. Ashe was the first Black man to win the U.S. Open, the Australian Open, and Wimbledon. Along the way, talking heads including John McEnroe, Billie Jean King, Ashe’s younger brother Johnny, and various luminaries of the sports world talk about this amazing athlete who was born In 1943 and died of AIDS-related pneumonia at the age of 49 in 1993. Ashe’s widow, Jeannie Moutoussamy-Ashe was Executive Producer for the film. The entertaining, thoughtful documentary testifies to Ashe’s spoken goal: “I want to be the Jackie Robinson of tennis.”

Born in Richmond, Virginia to a mother (Mattie) who died at age 27 from heart-related disorders  when Arthur was only 6, it is worth noting that Ashe was the documented descendant of a West African woman brought to America in 1735 aboard the slave ship Daddington and subsequently owned by North Carolina Governor Samuel Ashe.

Growing up in the segregated South, Ashe was fortunate that his father was in charge of a Richmond, Virginia sports complex, Brookfield Park. The park included basketball courts, a pool, 3 baseball diamonds and 4 tennis courts. Ashe started playing tennis on the courts there at the age of 7 and was ultimately noticed and given instruction by a local physician, Dr. Johnson, a tennis enthusiast who had built a tennis court in his own back yard and had coached Althea Gibson.

Still, Black players were denied participation in many tournaments and could not use the indoor courts in Richmond, so Ashe relocated to St. Louis’ Sumner High School at the invitation of 62-year-old teacher Richard Hudlin to complete his high school education. While there, with Ashe on the team, Sumner High won the United States Interscholastic Tennis Tournament.

Ashe was offered a scholarship to the University of California in Los Angeles in 1963 and headed off to Los Angeles, while also involved with ROTC that would lead to 2 years in the Army to help him with college expenses (he was assigned to West Point and put in charge of their tennis program).

In 1963 Ashe was named the #1 player in the world and was #3 in 1965. His entire life changed with the much more accepting nature of racial interaction in California. Other athletes were beginning to speak out against racism, with moments like the raised fists of John Carlos and Tommy Smith at the 1968 Summer Olympics.

Ashe found himself torn between his own impulses, learned at his father’s knee, [“Don’t do anything that will hurt yourself later.”] and his sympathy for the Black athletes who were demonstrating and standing up for their rights. As Ashe said, “If you were a moderate, it was the same thing as being an Uncle Tom.”   In an interview, Ashe acknowledges that, “Being the only one, I’m a drawing card, whether I like it or not.”

As a “drawing card,” other Black athletes were pressuring the tennis star to join them in protests against unequal treatment. He responded to calls to boycott the Olympics by saying, “That’s not my way.” But he allowed that hanging back from joining the movement caused him to feel that “I didn’t like myself very much.”

As the documentary puts it, “There was a new breed of Black athlete.”  Arthur, as a child, had been taught to return every ball within two inches of the line and never argue with an umpire’s decision, so protest of a strident sort was not his upbringing.

In these years, the country seemed to be coming apart with the assassination of JFK, RFK, and MLK. Fifty thousand National Guard troops were quelling riots in the streets of U.S. cities. Robert F. Kennedy’s assassination hit Arthur particularly hard, as he had been with RFK on the campaign trail in June of 1968, just the day before he was assassinated at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles.

South Africa’s policy of apartheid also became a cause that Ashe invested in, with a sincere admiration and a growing friendship with Nelson Mandela arising from Mandela’s 27-year imprisonment for the cause of equal rights.

Just as President Barack Obama modeled on Mandela, so, too, did Arthur Ashe. It was, he said, a great honor and privilege to get to meet Mandela and to become a personal friend.

Ashe is quoted as saying that he wanted to rebut the commonly held misconception that athletes were “all brawn, no brains.” He did that with his masterfully planned victory over Jimmy Connors in the 1975 Wimbledon Finals. Ashe countered Connors’ technique of serving the ball by hitting it on the rise by taking the pace off the ball. He gave Connors only soft junk shots (dinks, drop shots and lobs) to deal with.  Ashe won the match and the title at the age of 32.

He would retire four years later with 818 wins, 260 losses, 51 titles and $1,584,909 in tournament winnings, plus wins for the U.S. Davis Cup team three years running, in 1968, 1969 and 1970. Ashe coached the Davis Cup team from 1981 to 1985. He had to contend with  obnoxious personalities who were the polar opposite of his own, like John McEnroe.

We see McEnroe acting like a jerk in old footage and commenting on Ashe’s supervision of him on the Rider Cup teams. (McEnroe consistently played on Rider Cup teams for 12 years, while Jimmy Connors refused to do so and even lodged a lawsuit against Ashe at one point over their differing opinions on what the Davis Cup play meant to the nation).

Arthur Ashe’s widow, Jeanne, ends the film sharing Arthur’s words: “We both want to distress the comfortable and comfort the distressed.” Commenting on how losing a kind soul like Arthur Ashe illustrates what a treasure he was during life, Jeanne talked about their adopted daughter Camera, who lost her dad at the age of 7, just as Arthur, himself, had lost his own mother to heart disease when he was only 6.

Arthur Ashe’s funeral attracted 6,000 mourners. Then- Governor Douglas Wilder allowed his body to lay in state at the Governor’s Mansion in Richmond, where an additional 5,000 mourners paid their respects. Andrew Young, who had married Ashe in 1977, buried him after a service held at the Arthur Ashe Athletic Center on February 10, 1993. Ashe was buried next to his mother, Mattie.

The action shots of Ashe and tennis contemporaries in action were well-chosen. His demeanor in all recorded interviews or appearances illustrate how a champion should behave A clip is included in the documentary that shows Obama saying that the two athletes that he most emulated and admired were Muhammad Ali and Arthur Ashe. It’s a great way to learn about this fabled athlete.

 

 

“The Beta Test” Amuses at 57th Chicago International Film Festival

Writer/Director/Actor Jim Cummings in “The Beta Test” at the 57th Chicago International Film Festival.

“The Beta Test” is both a slick satire and a confusing and muddled thriller. Writer/director/actor Jim Cummings  (“Thunder Road,” “The Wolf of Snow Hollow”) plays the lead, Jordan, and he makes Christian Bale’s slick Patrick Bateman of “American Psycho” seem chill. In a film that has great snarky dialogue, this line describing Jordan Hines stood out: “I’m someone who just cannot give a shit.”

Jordan and best buddy P.J. (co-star and co-director P.J. McCabe) portray Hollywood agents, and that says it all. Insincere. Phoney. Self-serving. Dishonest. All apply. The two do a great job laying out their concerns about a time in Hollywood when agents may be a dying breed and the career template is shifting under their feet like the San Andreas Fault. (“You are a dying social network, and everyone can’t wait for it to fall apart.”)

Lots of references to the WGA (Writers Guild Association), which has been locked in a contentious series of negotiations and lawsuits regarding how agents give writers the short end of the stick, so to speak, when representing conflicting parties for studio “packages.” The recent strike that was averted may be a win for Hollywood writers. It is worth noting that 7,000w WGA members fired their agents in a show of support for their legal side’s negotiating efforts. This is obviously something that Jim Cummings and P.J. McCabe know well, and I looked forward to what was to have been the in-person appearance of J.P. at the Chicago International Film Festival, but we got a piece of film and an apology for his absence, so no questions about that plot thread. Will the average movie fan know or care about “packaging” and the WGA?

The opening scene of a gratuitously violent murder gets our attention, but is only tangentially related to the rest of the plot.

Jordan Hine (Jim Cummings) is about to be married to Caroline (Virginia Newcomb), whose only task in life seems to be to plan her upcoming wedding. The fact that the two real-life buddies (P.J. McCabe and Jim Cummings), dreamed up this slick confection without much concern for getting a more realistic woman’s point-of-view is illustrated by Caroline’s part. (Made me glad that Daniel Craig insisted they bring Phoebe Waller-Bridge in to help write “No Time to Die.”)

Jordan receives a mysterious purple envelope with an invitation to a no-strings-attached last sexual fling in a fancy downtown hotel. Given his moral failings, he gives in to temptation.

Later, there will be hell to pay for this act of infidelity. And it seems that he’s not the only one.

The plot begins to become unwieldy and to unravel, as sex, blackmail, algorithms, and the Internet become increasingly involved.

Is all this clear? No? You can watch it for yourself soon to enjoy the witty banter at the outset and the clever performance of Jim Cummings as the protagonist.

“The Beta Test” opens November 5th.

“Babi Yar” Is Riveting Documentary at 57th Chicago International Film Festival

“Babi Yar. Context” (Wikimedia)

Director Sergei Loznitsa (“State Funeral,” “Donbass,” “Maidan”) has compiled a staggering amount of vintage 80-year-old footage of World War II action in Kiev and Lemberg (Lvov)in this documentary. It is 1941; the opening scene is of black smoke billowing over the countryside while firing on a bridge continues. War planes soar overhead.

The 1941 film is black-and-white, although there are a few color pieces of vintage film. Throughout, one is struck by the devastation being wrought.  There are tanks on the roads. Broadcasts from Moscow. Multiple explosions rock Kiev.

Said Director Sergei Loznitsa, “Some of the footage I work with has been buried in the archives for decades – nobody has ever seen it, not even historians specializing in the Holocaust in the USSR.  One such episode is the explosions of Kreschatik in September, 1941.  Kiev’s central street was mined with remote-controlled explosives by the NKVD (Soviet Secret Service) before the Red army had retreated from Kiev.  The detonations of the explosives were carried out a few days after the Germans took the city. There were civilian casualties and thousands were left homeless.”

Ominously, there is footage of a large group of men, seated peacefully on the ground. Explosions planted by the Soviet secret police, the NKVD, occur everywhere in Kiev. The Nazis decide to eliminate the city’s Jews, driven by the Judeo-Bolshevik conspiracy falsehood at the heart of Nazi ideology. It is the first attempt to wipe out the entire Jewish population of a large city: extermination by bullet.

The men seated peacefully on the ground are being counted off and loaded into a truck. At one point, one of the Nazi soldiers doing the counting says to another, “What are we going to do with them?”

What they did do with them was cold-blooded execution, killing 33,771 (although estimates up to 100,000 are mentioned by those interviewed). The Germans rounded up the Jews via official posted announcements  (they were told to bring their valuables and food and warm clothing)  and gather on the edges of a ravine in Northwest Kiev  known as Babi Yar (“Grandmother’s ravine”) and then the Germans and some Ukrainian soldiers who had gone over to the Nazi side systematically executed men, women and children.

If you were a curious resident of the town who wandered out to see what was going on, that might be your death sentence, as the public notices to show up were made in such a way that none imagined the barbarity of the actions to take place. “Man’s inhumanity to man” is the phrase that reoccurs, again and again.  Flash forward to the horrible photos of genocide against the people of Syria on “Sixty Minutes” not long ago.

But the Director has a much grimmer take on what happened at Babi Yar. From Director Sergei Loznitsa:   “I study dehumanization, the loss of humanity by a human being…There was a regime change and, prior to that, a short period of chaos, of lawlessness. It is during this moment when the true nature of a human is revealed.  Without control and pressure from the authorities, in an atmosphere of chaos, it seems that anything is allowed, any action can go unpunished.

I have every reason to believe that back in September 1941, many residents of Kiev had suspected that Jews were going to be killed and not “relocated to the South.” But no one protested.  I study dehumanization, the loss of humanity by a human being. This is why it is necessary to reflect upon this whole situation. It is necessary to think about it.

No doubt there were the righteous among them—those who hid the Jews in their houses, who helped them survive.  But they were few and far between. This is what scares me. Certain individuals committed heroic acts and risked their lives by helping the Jews, while thousands of others remained indifferent to their fate, preoccupied with their own ‘housing issues’ and dividing the remaining Jewish property.

Neighbors reported on neighbors, concierges acted as informants. They used the same lists of residents that they had previously supplied the NKVD with, to report the Jews to the Germans.  After the massacre, a few remaining invalids and elderly Jews in the Podol district of Kiev, who were too frail to walk to Babi Yar, were hunted by the local residents, dragged out of their apartments and stoned to death.  The locals did it, not the Germans.  I saw the archive documents describing these atrocities with my own eyes.”

The film has shots of corpses, many bodies obviously exposed to the elements for a long period of time. There are also shots of men carrying dead, bloody bodies out of a prison where the people had been interrogated (and then shot). There are scenes of thousands of men and women digging along the river as though happy to help. These people did not know what awaited them. They were told to bring food and warm clothes and any valuables, to prevent them from suspecting mass extermination. Some did fear the worst and over 100,000 fled the city.

There is documentation of Nazi troops setting fire to homes, watching the thatched roofs burn.  We see both the occupation of Lemberg (Lvov) on June 21, 1941, and, near film’s end, on November 6, 1943, the Soviets taking back Kiev.

Babi Yar” Stalin image being removed upon Nazi occupation of Kiev.

“Hitler, the Liberator” banners are torn down when the town is re-taken. Early in the film, Stalin’s larger-than-life banner is removed to be replaced with one that says, “Long live the leader of the German people, Adolf Hitler.” One mass murderer gives way to another. And so it seems to go, worldwide, from time immemorial.

This compilation of film is truly remarkable. Finding the historical film must have been a colossal task. Jonas Zagorskas and Likas Zapearakas worked on film restoration. The quality of this 80-year-old film, some of it shot by Nazi soldiers with their own personal cameras, is amazing. The Germans were always given high marks for keeping extensive records of the atrocities they committed (which made it easier for judgment at Nuremberg.)

At the end of this series of  historic film clips, there are trials and testimony. Hans Isenmann, an SS soldier, describes how the Germans methodically divided the killing squads into 6 men to guard and 6 men to shoot, and then armed them with a machine gun, 2 submachine guns and rifles and had them shoot people for 3 days in Babi Yar. Isenmann was a shooter and personally killed 120 people while positioned 70 to 90 meters from the edge of the pit.

Historian Stephanie Trouillard found this testimony about the procedures the victims faced: “People were asked to take their most treasured possessions with them, then at a particular spot they had to give away their proof of identity, then at another point they had to give away the possessions they brought, and finally there was a place at which they had to undress.”

The most riveting trial testimony comes from two women.  One woman, with her son, made the mistake of going out to the ravine just to see what was going on. The woman and her son were told to line up and she was a witness as they shot her son. Then, she fainted. When she came to, she “played dead” from 9 o’clock until 5 p.m. Then, she got up and went home.

Dina Pronicheva, another witness, tells an even more harrowing story of witnessing the murder of naked victims, who were lined up single file. She jumped into the pit and hid amongst the dead, whom she describes as making hiccupping and moaning sounds in their death throes.

Two Nazi soldiers, noticing that she didn’t seem to have any visible blood (she was not shot) stand on her arms with their nailed boots, yet she didn’t cry out. Then, they began to bury her alive.

That is when she decided it would be better to be shot than to be buried alive. As the soil began to suffocate her, she moved her arm and dug herself out.  She could see flashlights (“torches” in her testimony) from above.

Dina crawled up the wall of the ravine, which was very difficult, and heard the voice of a boy of 14 behind her—a young boy who, like herself, fell into the pit uninjured when his grandfather was shot.  They crawled across a large meadow and hid, as the sun was rising, and now she testifies to these atrocities.

It is film like this that must be preserved against the Alex Jones’ of “false news” who sometimes say the Holocaust never happened. Historian Boris Czerny, a specialist in Jewish history in Eastern Europe tells us: “Nearly 1.5 million Ukrainian Jews were murdered between 1941 and 1944. Almost 80 percent of them were shot dead. Executions continued at Babi Yar long after September 1941. The Nazis killed nearly 100,000 people there until Soviet forces liberated Kyiv in November 1943 – not only Jews but also Ukrainian opponents of the occupation, Poles, Roma people, the mentally ill and prisoners of war.”

The synopsis accurately described “Babi Yar. Context” as a masterfully crafted study of a human catastrophe that stands out in WWII history for its barbarism. The documentary is immersive, captivating and deeply distressing.

Bearing witness to past tragedies is the first step if we’re ever going to avoid them. The knowledge of history is the best defense if we’re ever to see the world today in a true light.

The film is intended for the long-overdue Babyn Yar Holocaust Memorial Center. When complete, it will speak against such atrocities forever.

“Babi Yar. Context” won the Silver Hugo at the 57th Chicago International Film Festival in the International Documentary category announced Friday, October 22, 2021. It is 2 fascinating hours long.

 

 

World Premiere of “Punch 9 for Harold Washington” at CIFF

Mayor Harold Washington in PUNCH 9 FOR HAROLD WASHINGTON, photo credit Marc PoKempner. (Chicago International Film Festival).

The Chicago International Film Festival is concluding tomorrow night, Sunday, October 24th, with a screening of Will Smith’s new film “King Richard” at the Music Box Theater.

There are plenty of Chicago references in  documentaries screening at the festival, one of which, “Punch 9 for Harold Washington” had its World Premiere during the festival.

Joe Winston directed and produced the documentary “Push 9 for Harold Washington,” which took viewers on a stroll down Memory Lane, with an in-depth look at the first African American Mayor of Chicago, Harold Washington, describing how he prevailed in replacing Jane Byrne in that seat.

For me, seeing a very young Barack Obama in the background of one shot, watching Washington intently, spoke volumes about the impact this man and this election had on the trajectory of national politics. There is also a quick clip of Obama giving credit where credit is due, to Harold Washington, the eloquent candidate who stood up and said, “We’re not anti-anything. It’s our turn.” At another point, Washington says, “We are right. We are ready.”

Mayor Richard Daley, “the Boss,” reigned from 1955 to 1975. There is not a person who follows politics that doesn’t know about the Democratic National Convention fiasco in Chicago in 1968. Local cinematographer Haskell Wexler even made “Medium Cool” in the streets of our rioting city.

Things weren’t a whole lot quieter after Mayor Daley died on 12/20/1976. Jane Byrne would rise to power, and, in a city where 87% of the housing occupants are Black, she would appoint three white people to the housing board. Mayor Byrne moved into Cabrini Green housing projects in a ploy to woo back the defecting Black voters who helped install her in office and now felt she had not kept her promises, but that was a stunt that didn’t work.

On November 10, 1982, after much wheedling and convincing from the community, Harold Washington announced that he was running for Mayor. Before he made the announcement, he laid down conditions for his run, which included the Black community’s need to register 50,000 new voters and to build up a $100,000 war chest. As he said during a speech: “We have 670,000 Black registered voters. We need 450,000 to elect.”

Everyone seemed to climb on the Harold Washington bandwagon. He was inclusive in inviting Hispanic voters to join him in his fight. Everyone from Coretta Scott King to Rosa Parks and every celebrity in-between turned out to support Washington. Even the Michigan Boulevard Women’s Association (i.e., the prostitutes who worked Michigan Avenue) contributed.

During the campaign, blatant racism emerged. The candidate the Republicans selected was Bernard Epton and the race got dirty fast. As Washington, himself, said, “It’s tough being a black man in the land of the free and the home of the brave.” Even Vice-President Walter Mondale, who came to town to attend church alongside Washington, was stoned by an angry mob as the duo approached the doors. The Republican candidate’s son, Jeff Epton, tearfully asks of the camera, “What have you done, Dad?, bemoaning the racial epithets and outright hostility that Harold Washington’s candidacy evoked. Valerie Jarrett, former Obama aide,  points out that this undercurrent of racial animosity still exists and emerged on the national scene pre and post-Obama’s terms. This film, in the light of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter movement, is very timely and very prescient.

Things didn’t get any better when Washington attempted to rule over the City Council, leading to what were dubbed “the Council Wars.” Chicago was dubbed Beirut on the Lake. Challenged by the son of Richard Daley and former Mayor Jane Byrne, Washington would win the Democratic primary by 80,000 votes, racking up 36.7% of the vote to Byrne’s 33% and leaving the later Mayor Daley (Jr.) in third place.

It’s a well-done, exciting, upbeat documentary, with commentary from David Axelrod, Rahm Emmanuel, Jesse Jackson and brief appearances by many national and international figures, all of whom were watching what unfolded in the Windy City.

The death of Harold Washington November 25, 1987, from a massive coronary was a very sad day for the participants interviewed for this documentary. The musical selections near the end, “Been holdin’ on too long to let go” and “Some things take a lifetime” underscore the poignancy of this look at Chicago politics of the past, and of the future, as Mayor Lori Lightfoot speaks on April 2, 2019, as the first Black female mayor of Chicago. She encourages all of the city’s youth to set their sights high, because they, too, could grow up to be Mayor of Chicago.

 

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