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
Revolution vs Devolution. Movies Reviewed: Zoolander 2, The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution
Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM.
February is Toronto’s Black History Month, because Canada has a history all its own, both good and bad. There’s the black Empire Loyalists and the Underground Railroad. But there was also slavery in Canada, and the demolition of Africville in Halifax, and the rioting at Sir George Williams University in Montreal. So this weekend is a good time to catch up on some of this history at the Black Film Festival in Toronto.
This week, I’m looking at a documentary about 50 years of revolution by an African American party, and a comedy about 15 years of devolution by male models at parties.
Dir: Ben Stiller
Derek Zoolander (Ben Stiller) is a vapid former supermodel who lives in a log cabin in the Alps of northern New Jersey. His wife is dead and his son, Derek Jr, has been taken away by social services. Zoolander has been a hermit (or “hermit crab” as he says) since 2001. His former best friend and supermodel Hansel (Owen Wilson) lives in a tent in the middle of a vast desert near Palm Springs. He has non-stop orgies – involving sumo wrestlers, babushkas and goats — relieved only by intermittent yoga sessions. The two men hate each other’s guts. But they find themselves together again in Rome relaunching their respective careers.
Together with former swimsuit model Valentina (Penelope Cruz), now part of Interpol’s fashion police, they join forces to fight an evil cabal of supervillains who have infiltrated the fashion industry. Why? Because the bad guys, including Mugatu (Will Farrell), want to get their hands on the fountain of youth guarded by the Chosen One. He is a direct descendent of an unbroken line of vapid male supermodels dating back to the Garden of Eden. (Apparently there was an Adam and Steve). But who is the Chosen One and how can they save him?
I like comedies, they just have to be funny. This one’s not. it has a few very hilarious moments, but a stand-up comic with only one laugh for every 20 jokes would be booed off the stage. It’s also weirdly outdated. I can accept that Zoolander and Hansel have hidden away for 15 years, but why is the rest of the movie in a time warp, too? It’s filled with Calvin Klein perfume ads from the 1990s, titans of the fashion avant garde like Tommy Hilfiger, “hipsters” wearing dreadlocks, and Al Qaeda as the most dangerous terrorists. Even the plot is a take-off of a Dan Brown novel. Everything in the movie just seems so old. There’s no satire, and very little humour. The funniest moments come from the tickle of recognition that accompanies the countless celebrities — Bieber, Kardashian, Sarandon, Sutherland — who make cameo appearances. But it’s not enough to rescue this dud.
The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution
Dir: Stanley Nelson
It’s 1966. The US is fighting in Vietnam and anti-war protests are springing up around the world. The civil rights movement is in full swing in the southern states. But in northern cities, in places like Oakland California, the police are still arresting, frisking and beating black men with impunity. So two young leaders, Bobby Seale and Huey Newton, found a black nationalist movement there to counter police brutality and racial oppression and to express black pride and solidarity. And if attacked by the police, they vowed to fight back by any means necessary (in the words of Malcolm X). They named it the Black Panther Party. Members cut a mean profile: natural hairstyles, shades, black leather jackets, and military-style black berets. And, most shocking of all, they carried long guns — in the name of the Second Amendment and the Right to Bear Arms — with leather straps of bullets across their chests. They were later joined by Eldridge Cleaver whose book Soul on Ice, written in prison, captured the nation’s mood.
Lyndon B Johnson, the president, and FBI chief J Edgar Hoover were shocked. They considered a black nationalist movement the biggest danger of them all — bigger than communism. They swung into action using the notorious COINTELPRO — counter-intelligence program — to infiltrate and spy on the group. They sent letters and ohone calls to women saying their husbands were cheating on them. The police were called into action to break up meetings and arrest its members. Dozens were arrested on trumped-up charges, and many killed in raids across the country. Some are still in prison to this day. At an infamous Chicago trial, the judge actually had Bobby Seale chained to a chair, bound and gagged, in the courtroom, making him the perfect symbol of state oppression. Eldridge Cleaver fled to Algeria. Later many of the top members changed their beliefs, leaving the party divided among warring factions.
This is a fascinating history of the movement, with tons of still photos, archival footage, and new interviews with members that tell you lots you’ve probably never heard of. Did you know they started a successful school breakfast program? And published a newspaper that was their main source of income? Their standard image is of armed black men, but the majority of rank-and-file members were actually women, fighting for women’s rights within the party. The film doesn’t go deeply into the more controversial aspects of The Black Panthers. Some thought it undermined the non-violent civil rights movement. Or that it was big on image, weak on politics. But whatever your point of view, the Panthers made a huge mark on American history beginning 50 years ago, and this film explains it all.
Zoolander 2 opens today in Toronto; check your local listings. The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution is playing on Saturday at 11:00 AM at the Carlton Cinema as part of Toronto’s Black Film Festival. Go to torontoblackfilm.com for more info. And the Next Wave Film Festival is on all weekend long for 14-18 year-olds who love movies. Check out tiff.net for details — especially its great closing film Sing Street.
This is Daniel Garber at the Movies, each Friday morning, on CIUT 89.5 FM and on my website, culturalmining.com.