Whence America? Films reviewed: Paterson, Tell Them We Are Rising: The Story of Black Colleges and Universities
Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM.
The recent executive order known as the Muslim Ban has made the lives of hundreds of thousands of American citizens and residents uncertain. So uncertain that some refugee claimants are fleeing the Land of the Free, seeking sanctuary across the frozen border in Canada.
Whence America? Where is that country heading?
This week, I’m looking at two movies that give a more optimistic look at life in the United States. There’s a new documentary about Historically Black Colleges, and a quirky drama about the state of life in a post-industrial town.
Tell Them We Are Rising: The Story of Black Colleges and Universities
Dir: Stanley Nelson
Did you know that under slavery, it was actually illegal for African Americans to learn to read and write? And that even slave owners – who could beat, sexually assault or even murder their slaves with impunity — were legally forbidden from educating them? It was in the best interest of the Government and slave owner to keep black Americans ignorant, docile, and illiterate.
To counter this, after emancipation and the civil war, African Americans realized education was the most important way to rise up from slavery. The first colleges were opened based on the writings of scholars like Frederick Douglas. And like Douglas, the first students were born into slavery. Early education efforts were aimed at skilled trades or religion, but as the movement grew it shifted to academic subjects.
Two schools of thought emerged. Southerner Booker T. Washington believed in a business-oriented outlook, centred on entrepreneurship but was opposed to any protests or political action confronting the status quo. W.E.B. Du Bois took the opposite stance, and led the movement toward equal rights.
Many of the early colleges were run by whites, who imposed harsher disciplinary policies on black students students.
Fisk University harshly segregated the students by sex and forbade social interaction. This led to a protest and an organized walkout until the school President resigned.
By the 1930s and 40s, the teachers and administration positions were increasingly filled by blacks, many of whom had been educated at these same colleges and universities. The US was still strictly segregated under so-called separate but equal laws. So all the best and the brightest students flocked to these schools, becoming the new black middle class. Doctors, lawyers, teachers, preachers and judges all passed through these schools, including renowned Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall (Howard University Law School).
By the the 1950s and ’60s these schools also became a hotbed of black-led political movements. Civil rights actions — like sit-ins at segregated lunch counters — were spearheaded by students at black universities..
100 years after it was a crime for blacks to read or write, the Brown v Board of Education decision promised to end segregation in schools. But this had an unexpected negative impact on black colleges. With white universities now open to black students, there was a brain drain of top applicants to ivy league schools.
Today there are still over 100 black colleges and universities, some thriving, but others crumbling for lack of funds.
Tell Them We Are Rising: The Story of Black Colleges and Universities is the first documentary to tell the full history of this important but not-widely-known institution. It’s narrated by voiceovers and talking heads: historians and former students and professors from these schools. It’s beautifully illustrated with period photos and film clips touching all aspects of black college life, including educational, political movements and social: fraternities, and sororities, sports and music.
It’s by director Stanley Nelson who also made the excellent The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution.
Dir: Jim Jarmusch
Paterson (Adam Driver) is a bus driver who lives with his girlfriend, Laura, in a small house in Paterson, NJ. He lives a routine life. He carries a lunchpail to work each morning, and a notebook to write down any poems that might occur to him. He eats lunch in a tiny national park. After work he talks with Laura over dinner. And each night he walks his dog to a neighbourhood bar and stays for a drink or two, chewing the fat.
Laura (Golshifteh Farahani) is an artist who remembers her dreams. She covers everything around her in rough swaths of black and white. Clothes, chairs, curtains, cupcakes… their home is her canvas. Except for his basement where he goes to tinker with things and think. The two of them have a symbiotic relationship. he is the observer, passively taking in what he sees and hears around him. She is the dynamic one, planning their future, and launching business projects that may or may not succeed.
The town of Paterson serves as the third character in the movie. It’s the first city in North America designed as an industrial centre powered by a series of 18th century canals and mills. It has become an artistic hub for New Yorkers who can’t afford the high rents of that city. Jarmusch includes these brick factories and waterfalls in all his outdoor shots. What he doesn’t show is the parts of town with a large and vibrant middle eastern community there. Instead they’re represented by Laura, played by a Persian American actor. (Paterson is also the place where Trump falsely claimed Muslims were dancing on their rooftops during 9-11.) Maybe it’s because I’ve visited Paterson the town, but I was really tickled by this movie.
Paterson is a richly minimalist film that leaves you feeling good about the state of the world.
Paterson opens today in Toronto; check your local listings. And Tell Them We Are Rising: The Story of Black Colleges and Universities is playing on February 15th at the opening night of the Toronto Black Film Festival. Go to torontoblackfilm.com for more information.
This is Daniel Garber at the Movies, each Friday morning, on CIUT 89.5 FM and on my website, culturalmining.com
Motown Movies. Films reviewed: Brick Mansions, Super Duper Alice Cooper, Only Lovers Left Alive PLUS Hot Docs
Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM, looking at high-brow and low-brow movies, indie, cult, foreign, festival, documentary, genre and mainstream films, helping you see movies with good taste, movies that taste good, and how to tell the difference.
This week, I’m looking at three interesting movies with a connection to Motor City (Detroit). There’s a Hot Docs documentary about a stadium rocker; an art-house drama about a faded rocker; and an action flic about two guys caught between a rock and a hard place.
Dir: Camille Delamarre (Based on Luc Besson’s Banlieu 13)
Brick Mansions is the name of a derelict housing project in a future Detroit. The city has built a huge guarded wall around it. Why? High crime rates. The wall also blocks all the city services like schools, fire department or police. But thousands of people still live there. It’s ruled by a drug lord named Tremaine (RZA of Wu Tang fame) along with his odious henchmen, including a giant white bodyguard, a chubby lieutenant, and a sexy hit-woman in garters and fishnet stockings who carries a cat o’ nine tails.
The corrupt police are all paid off, so what happens in Brick Mansions stays in Brick Mansions. And just one man, Milo (David Belle), fights back. He steals Tremaine’s drugs and flushes them down the drain, to keep the block drug-free. So Tremaine kidnaps his girlfriend in retaliation. In his crusade to free her and bring Tremaine to justice, Milo kills a crooked cop.
Then a neutron bomb is detected inside Brick Mansions, all hell breaks loose. The Mayor calls Damien, their best undercover cop (the late, Fast and Furious’ Paul Walker’s last film) and teams him up with cop-killer Milo. Can the two of them work together, stop Tremaine, rescue his girlfriend, and save the city from nuclear annihilation? And can Detroit’s corruption-ridden government be trusted?
Forget the story for a minute – the plot is not important. This movie is really about parkour. Parkour is a sport involving jumping on and off buildings, platforms, swinging and sliding on wires, spinning around poles. Sort of an acrobatic martial art, where life is one big obstacle course. The star, David Belle, is one of that sport’s French founders, and he gets to show off his military cirque de soleil-ish prowess in scene after scene.
Brick Mansions is not meant as a great movie. It’s a “B movie”, a stoooopid movie, riddled with inconsistencies, with an ignorant take on issues like race. But I enjoyed it anyway, for the great action and fast-moving, choreographed fighting.
Super-Duper Alice Cooper: a Doc Opera
Dir: Reg Harkema
Alice Cooper was originally, the name of a group, not a man. Vince Furnier is born in Detroit, the son of a preacher man, whose family moves to Phoenix, Arizona for health reasons. By high school, he’s heavily into Salvador Dali and Beatlemania. He starts an insect-named band with his high school buddies (first the Earwigs, then the Spiders) and they start getting radio play while still teenagers. The thing is, they aren’t very good or special. Better at the spectacle than the music. They soon discover that, in LA, image is everything. They meet a girl group in Frank Zappa’s basement who help them with their makeup, cultivating a glam look. Soon enough, they’re wearing sequinned Ice-Capades jumpsuits, and appearing on stage with lots of props and animals. And using a Ouija board they channel a Victorian witch named Alice Cooper (or so they claim). And that becomes the name of the group.
Next, at a rock festival in Toronto, comes the infamous chicken incident (He says didn’t actually bite off the head; it was the audience’s fault). The rest is fame and super-stardom. Furnier gradually morphs into the ever-more-outrageous and self-destructive character, Alice. Their shows become more elaborate, even as Alice Cooper’s fame grows. Eventually the group collapses, Alice goes solo, and he crashes and burns in a bubbling cauldron of eye make-up, skeletons, groupies, drugs and alcohol. This movie is a lot of fun. It manages without a single talking head. Instead, the voices of rock stars, agents and producers narrate an oral history, illustrated by countless animated still photos, period film clips and concert tapes. Very creative, ingenious, fast-moving. And it’s all tied together with silent film footage of Dr Jeckyl and Mr Hyde, the two Alice Coopers. Vince, the straight-laced preacher’s son, and Alice, the outrageous performer, both in the same body. All of this punctuated with hits like Eighteen, Schools Out, and No More Mr Guy. It’s a intensely edited documentary. I’ve never been an Alice Cooper fan, but found it super-duper to watch.
Dir: Jim Jarmusch
Adam (Tom Hiddleston) is a reclusive rock musician who lives in a crumbling, bombed-out mansion in downtown Detroit. He lives a languorous existence, playing the lute, listening to vinyl, and mourning the loss of culture and refinement. His only visitor is Ian (Anton Yelchin) his dealer, who brings him the good stuff and keeps his fans at bay.
His long time, on-again, off-again lover Eve (Tilda Swinton) lives far away, in Algiers, where she hangs out with presumed-dead cultural icons like Christopher Marlowe. She’s equally listless, with the air of a pre-Raphaelite opium eater. But neither Adam nor Eve is addicted to drugs. It’s human blood they need – they’re vampires. But they don’t kill the “Zombies” anymore (that’s their word for muggles), they just drink plastic pouches of blood smuggled out of hospitals.
Life continues, but things are disrupted when Eve’s sexy sister suddenly shows up in Detroit. Ava (Mia Wasikowska) is noisy and selfish, and doesn’t stick to his moral guidelines. When she sees blood, she takes it, even if it’s still in a friend’s veins. Will Adam and Eve ever be reunited? Will their love last forever? And will this movie ever end?
I have mixed feelings about this film. It has incredible night photography of faded Algiers and post-apocalyptic Detroit. Just amazing. And I could listen to the soundtrack all day. But the story is weak and the movie too slow and long. Either you buy into the conceit — that vampires are a secret nation of underground Goth hipsters, addicted to blood, not heroin – or reject it. I rejected it. It felt like a never-ending Lady of the Camellias The whole faded rock-star/junkie as hero-vampire? Just die already. This movie would work better as a coffee table book with an accompanying music playlist.
Only Lovers Left Alive and Brick Mansions open today: check your local listings. And Super Duper Alice Cooper – along with many other fantastic documentaries are playing now at Hot Docs. Rush tickets at daytime screenings are free for students and seniors. Go to hotdocs.ca for more info.
This is Daniel Garber at the Movies, each Friday morning on CIUT 89.5 FM and on my website, culturalmining.com