The virtual Sundance Film Festival edition that ended last weekend had a particularly strong lineup of work by and about African Americans. Those movies won’t be trickling out into general public accessibility for several weeks or (more typically) months, however, and Black History Month is here right now.
Fortunately there are immediate options, including the Balboa’s single-date revivals of 1967’s ultimate Liberal Hollywood case-pleading exercise Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (Thurs/3 as a tribute to the recently deceased Sidney Poitier), and on Fri/11 its ultimate rebuke, Melvin Van Peebles’ in-ya-face Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song.
Those movies came out in the immediate aftermath of the Civil Rights Movement, when divisive national wounds were still raw but real change seemed possible, even inevitable. But as ACLU Trone Center for Justice & Equality director Jeffery Robinson puts it in Who We Are: A Chronicle of Racism in America, that moment represented a tipping point at which further progress was stalled, then actively rolled back the Nixon White House, the “War on Drugs,” and other factors. Such that in many respects the US now seems more bitterly segregated than it has since the Jim Crow era, which many conservatives appear hellbent on returning us to.
This documentary by Emily and Sarah Kunstler (daughters of Chicago Seven lawyer William) basically illustrates the lecture Robinson has been taking on the road for some time, fleshing out his live presentation with archival footage, interviews, and visits to historical sites. His thesis is simply that you cannot tell our nation’s story without revealing how deeply embedded racism has been in its policies, laws and economics from the very beginning—unless, of course, you deliberately omit those parts of the official record. Which is precisely what happened over much of our history, and which is getting a particularly hard push (against the supposed threat of “Critical Race Theory”) at present.
Robinson is a personable, humorous speaker who takes pains to present his arguments in ways everyone can understand, dismantling talking points (such as “Slavery had nothing to do with the Civil War,” an ever-increasingly-popular absurdity) with a cool head. As he notes, it doesn’t have to be one or the other: The United States can be both “one of the greatest countries on Earth” and one of the most racist. He marches us though the decades to see how slaves were a dehumanized resource on which entire, still-extant industries and financial institutions were built.
When post-Civil War Reconstruction began to dismantle that power structure, states (not just in the South) introduced “sneaky” laws to keep Black people in virtual servitude. “Too much” African American prosperity resulted in massacres and mayhem like the 1921 Tulsa “riots,” whose perpetrators were never tried, let alone arrested—just like every other white vigilante mob protected by police and courts.
“Redlining” continued to keep Black families out of “good” neighborhoods long after schools were finally forced to desegregate. The assumption of criminal intent remains wildly skewed in racial terms, giving rise to BLM and a prison industrial complex that only grows more engorged each year on Black lives which apparently don’t matter. (Robinson points an accusing finger for this straight at President Clinton’s 1994 Crime Bill.)
Who We Are is more explanatory than accusatory, however, making the point that these are elemental truths we avoid at our collective peril—though that certainly doesn’t stop people from doing just that. The two-hour film could be a bit more concise, with a little too much digression into Robinson’s own personal formative experiences in the last half hour. But it’s still a fine, accessible overview and discussion spur, providing for American race-relations understanding something similar to what An Inconvenient Truth did for climate change issues.
Who We Are opens Fri/4 in Bay Area theaters including the Embarcadero and Metreon in SF, Berkeley’s Elmwood, the Smith Rafael in San Rafael, and more, joined by further locations later in the month.
Of related interest is Udi Aloni and Ayanna Stafford-Morris’ Why Is We Americans, which plays the Roxie Sun/6 (more info here) and is available for streaming via the Rafael Film Center as of Mon/7 (more info here). This documentary examines several decades of multigenerational African American art-making and activism in the family whose late patriarch was Amiri Baraka aka LeRoi Jones. Best known as a playwright, he worked in many idioms. His wife and their progeny made an equally wide-ranging impact as artists and/or activists. Featuring appearances by Lauryn Hill, Maya Angelou, Cory Booker, and others, the film emphasizes the family’s role in the politics of their native Newark, as well as the triumphs, controversies and tragedies scattered through their collective history. The directors and Danny Glover will appear for an in-person Q&A after the Roxie screening.
Some additional openings this weekend:
While Don’t Look Up got the pop-culture buzz for being the 2021 movie that seemed to best reflect everyone’s anxieties, my last nerve was more insidiously worked by Michel Franco’s New Order, which barely got any notice when released in the US last spring. At home in Mexico, however, it had been a source of heated controversy, decried on nearly all sides for purported negative stereotyping of poor people… and rich people. But its portrait of bloody class warfare breaking out at last struck me as a credible illustration of where escalating economic inequality and miscellaneous corruption might be leading us all, playing like a more realistic take on concepts prodded to more genre-hyperbolic ends in the Purge series.
It’s something of a disappointment, then, that after that incendiary provocation Franco returns with a drama whose intriguing ideas lead to a sort of quiet dead end. Neil (Tim Roth) and Alice (Charlotte Gainsbourg) are European siblings on a luxury-resort vacation in Mexico with her two young-adult children when a family emergency arises. Everyone must fly immediately to London, but at the airport Neil realizes he left his passport behind… or so he says. Rather than taking the next flight, however, he invents long-distance excuses, takes a more downscale hotel room in Acapulco, picks up a buxom bodega proprietress (Iazua Larios) for company, and just… drifts.
Is this a midlife crisis? Does he have a history of flaking out? By the time we realize he and Alice are sitting atop a colossal fortune, other things have happened, pulling Sundown into the realm of violent criminal intrigue. Still-later events have a reductive impact, making it seem our earlier suspicions were just red herrings, and that Neil has a rather simple agenda after all.
The director and Roth also worked together on another ambiguous character study, 2015’s Chronic, where the actor played a slightly shifty home nursing attendant. I wasn’t entirely sure what the point was then, and I’m really not sure here. Franco touches on some of New Order’s politically charged motifs but then seems reluctant to take them anywhere. The result is a film that is accomplished, yet feels like an unfinished short story: A good premise, nicely detailed, that ought to arrive at some more substantial narrative, emotional, or thematic endpoint after nearly 90 minutes. Sundown opens Fri/4 at Bay Area theaters including the Embarcadero, Kabuki, Embarcadero, Shattuck and Aquarius.
The rudderlessness exhibited by a central fictive figure in Sundown is worlds away from the constructive focus shown by a real-life protagonist in Bernadette Wegenstein’s documentary. At age 9, violin student Marin Alsop (the daughter of two professional musicians) saw Leonard Bernstein conduct. His particular effort at connecting with and educating youth audiences made her want to become a conductor. Yet virtually every authority she approached with that goal in mind gave her a dismissive “Girls can’t do that” response, until she re-encountered Bernstein a full quarter-century later. He became her mentor, and she in turn became mentor to innumerable younger aspirants in the classical music world.
Alsop is now 65, world-renowned, with a resume including prestigious posts from Vienna to Sao Paolo. When she was appointed music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, she became the first woman to head a major ensemble of that sort in the US, and nearly in the world. That’s the good news. The bad news: This was only 15 years ago. And even then, her selection was mired in thinly-veiled misogynist controversy.
While mostly about the subject’s more inspirational career achievements and spearheadings of community-outreach programs, The Conductor cannot bypass some flabbergasting intel on the degree of resistance she encountered up to that point. In 1984, despairing that anyone would ever give her a chance at the baton, she went as far as founding an orchestra (the 50-piece Concordia) to provide herself with that opportunity.
When she speaks now of the need to build an “old girls’ network” to help women like herself in the classical field, one marvels that we’ve gotten this far into the 21st century—and still there are professions where the “glass ceiling” is more like titanium. The film opens Fri/4 at SF’s Opera Plaza Cinemas.