Review: Just Mercy

Knowing that a film is portraying real people and the situations they face immediately increases its impact for me. Just Mercy is based on a book by lawyer and social justice activist Bryan Stevenson, who, after graduating from Harvard Law School moved to Alabama to offer legal defense to those who could not afford representation and to those wrongly convicted.

One of his early cases involved Walter “Johnny D” McMillian, movingly portrayed by Jamie Foxx, who was on death row for a murder that he did not commit. Having just arrived in Alabama, Bryan Stevenson, played earnestly by Michael B. Jordan, delves into the case and finds ample evidence that shows Johnny D could not have murdered the 18-year-old young woman. It also quickly becomes apparent that race was a huge factor in McMillian’s conviction. The victim was white and McMillian is black.

It also quickly becomes apparent that Attorney Stevenson, who is also black, will encounter racial obstacles in his professional life and harassment by law enforcement officers and the legal establishment, but he continues to do all he can to seek justice for his clients, their families, and their community.

I have long been opposed to the death penalty. I remember writing an essay against it when I was still in grammar school. While my opposition centered around the moral belief that killing a person is wrong and the Constitutional grounds that the death penalty constitutes “cruel and unusual punishment,” this film illustrates some of the other reasons to oppose the death penalty, such as systemic racism in the legal system, incompetent defense attorneys, and lack of recognition and treatment of mental illness.  There is also the horrible possibility of executing an innocent person.

One of the most moving things about the film for me was the support that the men on death row gave one another. Even though they couldn’t often see each other because the walls between them were solid, they would shout to each other to exchange information and offer words of comfort. They would use the bars at the front of the cell and a metal cup to let another man know they are thinking about him.

The film is rated PG-13 and would be too emotionally difficult for children. There are sequences that I found emotionally difficult, especially the one execution that is shown. While the execution itself is not shown on screen, the lead-up to it is heartbreaking.

I always stay to watch the credits of films. Even if you usually do not, you will want to stay through the first part of the credits which gives updates on the people that we meet during the film. It is a final reminder that we are dealing with the lives of real people, what happened to them, and the implications of those events that continue into our present and future as a country.

A note from Joanne:  This is the fifth(!) film I have seen this month. I have never been to a theater so many times in a two week-period. Those of you who are new to Top of JC’s Mind should know that this is not usually a movie review blog. You just happened to catch me at a time when movies are swirling in my mind.
*****
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Review: Bombshell

As part of the mini-sabbatical I am taking, I decided to see three movies:  Little Women, Won’t You Be My Neighbor? and Bombshell.

One of these things is not like the others.

I don’t often go to R-rated movies. Usually, it is because they are too violent or scary and I am prone to nightmares. Bombshell, however, is R-rated due to language and sexual harassment, both real-life things with which I am acquainted.

Bombshell is based on the story of how Roger Ailes, then chairman and CEO of Fox News, was forced to step down after a lawsuit filed against him for sexual harassment by Gretchen Carlson, who had been a host on the network, unleashed similar claims from other women who worked with Ailes over a span of decades. Many of the characters portrayed in the movie are real people who worked at Fox News, although conversations and some other characters are fictionalized.

The movie employs archival clips of Fox News footage within the movie. It is stunning how much Nicole Kidman, as Gretchen Carlson, and Charlize Theron, as Megyn Kelly, sound like the women they portray. They also resemble them physically, but, as anyone familiar with Fox News knows, most of the women on-air at the network are young, blond, and wearing skirts, so that viewers can see their legs. Ailes’s emphasis on women’s looks was often the first shot in his sexual harassment campaign. It appears that he went on to use his control over these women’s careers as leverage to get them to engage with him sexually.

John Lithgow, who portrays Ailes, is transformed to look like him. As a woman watching the film, I was repulsed by his creepiness and his manipulative behavior. Lithgow makes the real threat Ailes posed to women unmistakeable, while also showing him to be perplexed about how his behavior was wrong. While the incidents in the film took place before the #MeToo movement became well-known, we have often seen this pattern when powerful men are forced to accept responsibility for their harassing behavior. They seem to feel that they are entitled to demand sexual favors from women and that these women are freely choosing to engage with them, rather than seeing how they are using their positions of power to manipulate women who are afraid of losing their careers. In the film, we see how Gretchen Carlson was demoted and, finally, fired from Fox News when she rejected Ailes’s advances.

The film also portrays the culture at Fox News as one of misogyny. Many of the other men at the network are shown to be dismissive of women. Others, in the aftermath of Ailes’s departure, also are forced to resign due to covering up for Ailes or for their own harassment of women on their staffs.

Some of the women around Ailes come to his defense. Some, such as Ailes’s wife, don’t want to believe he is capable of such despicable behavior. Some may have been motivated by self-interest, not wanting to see their own careers derailed by opposing their powerful boss.

Because the women who worked at Fox News all had to sign non-disclosure agreements and binding arbitration, we may never know the full story of what happened to them. Gretchen Carlson was only able to file suit against Roger Ailes because a state law in New Jersey allowed her to sue Ailes personally, rather than having to sue Fox News, which was impossible due to the arbitration clause. She is currently fighting to be released from the non-disclosure agreement so that she can publicly tell the specifics of what happened to her.

There is an unknown number of women who had their lives and careers damaged by Roger Ailes. Bombshell tells part of that story, although other parts had to be fictionalized. Perhaps someday, the non-disclosure agreements will be overturned so that all these women can tell the truth about what they experienced.
*****
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Review(ish): A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood

I may have made a mistake in my quest to catch up on movies.

Because I admire Tom Hanks as an actor and Fred Rogers as a loving and generous soul, I wanted to see A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood. I had appreciated the 2018 documentary on Fred Rogers, Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, and wanted to see what more this fact-inspired fictional movie had to say. I knew that it was about a journalist who had written a piece about Fred Rogers, but little else, other than that Tom Hanks had been nominated for a Golden Globe as Best Supporting Actor rather than Best Actor.

I found the juxtaposition of the much darker story of the journalist, Lloyd, played by Matthew Rhys, with the gentle, caring, spiritual depth of Fred Rogers to be jarring. I also hadn’t known that the death of a parent is a major theme in the movie; while the situation in the film is very different from my own recent experience, that aspect of the story was still upsetting for me.

My reaction reminded me of my response to the film Julie & Julia, another film about an unlikely pair of protagonists in which I reacted positively to the elder and negatively to the younger. An aside: the link in the prior sentence is to a blog post I wrote in 2014 about my reaction to the film and blogging. Re-reading it just now was… an experience – and a chance to look back at a post from early in my blogging and poetry days and reflect on where I am now as opposed to where I thought I might be. At any rate, I think it still stands up as a decent piece of writing, so, if you have the time and are so inclined, check it out.

When my daughters were young, PBS was a mainstay in our house. I admit that I had a more enjoyable time watching Sesame Street with the girls than Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. I wasn’t a fan of the slow pacing and I was not at all a fan of the Neighborhood of Make-Believe. Every time someone said, “Correct, as usual.” to King Friday the XIII, I cringed. Over the years, I’ve learned to think about it more from the child’s viewpoint and understand that the show was built to give children the time and space to deal with their whole range of emotions. This was not readily apparent to me as a young parent.

There is one episode that has always stayed with me. Yo-Yo Ma was Mr. Rogers’ guest and was playing a movement of one of the Bach cello suites. Fred asked him if he played it differently after he had had children and Yo-Yo Ma said that he did play it differently after he became a parent, that the emotions underlying his interpretation were changed because of his children. As a musician myself, this resonated with me and has stayed with me over the (many intervening) years.

Some of the most emotionally resonant moments in A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood for me were ones where something Mr. Rogers was saying reminded me of my own family. For example, there is thread in the story about Mr. Rogers’ attachment to his puppets, like Daniel Tiger, even though they were getting worn. In an attempt to draw him out, Mr. Rogers asks Lloyd about his own childhood “special friend”, which turned out to be a stuffed toy called Old Rabbit.

My mind immediately flashed to a story of childhood toys that take on larger meaning. When my daughter E and her spouse L had to spend major amounts of time on different continents while doing research or while waiting for the visa process to finally complete, they would exchange their favorite stuffed toys. E’s cow “Kuh” and L’s duck “Pineapple” made quite a few transoceanic flights and are now ensconced in London permanently with E, L, and their daughter ABC. To show you the extent to which Kuh and Pineapple were connected to E and L’s love story, here is the wedding cake topper that a friend made for them:
Beth and Larry's caketopper

Back to the movie. When the journalist Lloyd finishes his piece, his spouse reads it, saying that it is brilliant but not really about Mr. Rogers. I feel the same way about this blogpost, which is why I said in the title that it is “review(ish)”. Fred Rogers’ greatest gift was caring about each person he met on a deep level, meeting them where they were and helping them connect with and express their own feelings. It is all to the good that this film, the documentary, the vast archives of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, and the non-profit organization he founded, re-named Fred Rogers Productions after his death, which now produces Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood, serve as continuing reminders to accept ourselves and care for others.

Mr. Rogers often said or sang, “I like you just the way you are.” That message to me is part of the call, expressed in Christianity and held by those of many other spiritual paths, to “love your neighbor as yourself.” Fred Rogers was an ordained Presbyterian minister who taught by his example. I appreciate those who are carrying his message in the present and into the future.

The world needs to hear that message now more than ever.
*****
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Review: Little Women

As part of my “sabbatical”, I decided to see some movies that I have been wanting to see. The one I most wanted to see was Little Women, so I started there.

This is the best film adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s book that I have ever seen. Director/screenwriter Greta Gerwig made some interesting choices. She begins the film with scenes that happen much later in the story of the March sisters, then moves back seven years to show us what had led to these opening scenes. The moving back and forth in time continues throughout the film, but without the onscreen warning of the first switch. Having read the book several times as a child and having seen numerous adaptations over the years, I could easily follow the timeline switches, but they could momentarily confuse those new to the story.

The cast was superb. I especially enjoyed Saoirse Ronan’s nuanced portrayal of Jo and Florence Pugh’s spirited portrayal of Amy, who is ages 13-20 in the film.

I especially enjoyed the settings. Most of the action in Alcott’s book takes place in Concord, Massachusetts in the 1860s and 70s. I grew up in the still-rural northwestern part of the state and the outdoor scenes with woods and fields reminded me of home. The architecture was also very appropriate to New England in that era. I made a point to watch for shooting location in the credits and was thrilled to see that it had been filmed in Massachusetts. No wonder the trees looked familiar!

At 2 hours 15 minutes, it is a relatively long movie by current standards, but it did not feel long because there is so much happening. I congratulate Greta Gerwig on her excellent sense of storytelling and pacing. It is a beautiful film which I hope many people will see, in theaters and in other formats, for years to come. It is a timeless classic.
*****
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Blowout by Rachel Maddow

One of the most impressive parts of Rachel Maddow’s book Blowout is the end. No, not the index, but the twenty pages of “Notes on Sources.” I had often found myself thinking as I read the text, “How could she possibly know this level of detail?” but I know that Rachel Maddow and her staff are very dedicated to research and accuracy, so I didn’t doubt the veracity of the stories she was relating. I was pleased to see the “Notes on Sources” because she lists the books, papers, interviews, news stories, videos, magazines, etc. that she had used to find the facts, giving readers a chance to learn more and showing that she and her staff had, indeed, been diligent in their research.

The full title of the book is Blowout: Corrupted Democracy, Rogue State Russia, and the Richest, Most Destructive Industry on Earth. That industry is, of course, the oil and gas industry.

Because of my many years in the anti-fracking and climate justice movements, I was familiar with the broad outlines of much of the oil and gas industry story. I appreciated the abundance of details on topics such as Oklahoma, the depths to which it rises or falls on fossil fuel dollars, earthquakes and induced seismicity, and the rise of Oklahoma City, including its entance into the world of big-league sports. I knew that Russia used its fossil fuel exports as a cudgel and that Putin and his oligarchs ran roughshod over whomever stood in their way, but hadn’t realized all the factors involved, including the immensity of the impact of US sanctions that stopped Rex Tillerson’s ExxonMobil from assisting Russian Arctic drilling and spearheaded Russian interference in the 2016 US presidential election.

I was less familiar with the expressions of the “resource curse” in other parts of the world, such as Equatorial Guinea. These stories illustrate how the proceeds of the oil and gas industry flow to the already powerful leaders of government and industry and not to the general populations of the countries, who often remain mired in poverty and ecological devastation.

While I brought a considerable amount of personal background/geekery to my reading, the book is equally as enjoyable and informative for those who know little of the industry. Maddow’s writing is clear and compelling. Much of the book reads like literature, with compelling, recurring characters, rich details, and unexpected plot twists. That the stories are all true heightens their impact.

That we are continuing to deal with the repercussions of the events in this book makes reading it that much more important.
*****
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Reading Michelle Obama’s memoir

Since she became a public figure during the first presidential campaign of her husband, I have felt an affinity with Michelle Robinson Obama. While on the surface it would seem that an African-American woman from the South Side of Chicago couldn’t have much in common with a European-American from a tiny New England town, there are a number of similarities. We are close in age, having been born in the last few years of the Baby Boom. I have long felt that we youngest of the Boomers, who were young adults during the Reagan recession when unemployment was high and mortgage rates even higher, are fundamentally different from the elder members of our cohort. Michelle and I are both mothers of two daughters and women who have been blessed with a close and long relationship with our own mothers. We have close women friends and mentors. We are both community-minded, and also recognize the importance of educational opportunity for ourselves and others. We each have a long, loving, and intact marriage. And we are both women of our time, which means we have experienced sexism and the challenge of tending to both our private and public lives.

Becoming, Michelle Obama’s memoir published late last year, reinforces my sense of her on all these points. She writes honestly and beautifully; I was especially impressed with the way she wrote about her feelings about what was happening and not just the events themselves. She also frequently gives context of what happens either before or later with a particular place or event, such as the changes over time in her South Side neighborhood.

I particularly enjoyed reading about Michelle’s childhood, teen, and college years, as the stories from that time before she was a public figure were mostly new to me. I also appreciated knowing how she felt about many events and causes during the campaigns and her eight years in the White House, as well as her take on the current president.

What was most enlightening to me was hearing how being a black female impacted her life at every stage and added to the pressure to excel and to be an exemplary person at all times. As the first African-American first family, it seemed that every move the Obamas made was scrutinized. I admire that Michelle and her mom, who was also in residence at the White House, were able to protect First Daughters Malia and Sasha from most of the intrusiveness of the press corps so that they could grow up (mostly) out of the public eye.

Many people share my admiration for Michelle Obama and her accomplishments. Her book tour includes venues that seat thousands of people and her book has sold over three million copies, making it the bestseller of 2018.

She can definitely add best-selling author to her already impressive resume.

Incredibles 2

B and I finally carved out time to see Incredibles 2, the long-awaited sequel to one of our favorite Pixar movies. I’ll try not to have spoilers in this piece, although, with world-wide box office receipts around a billion dollars, there are probably not many people left to spoil.

Like all Pixar features, Incredible 2 is preceded by a short; Bao, written and directed by Domee Shi, is the first Pixar short to be directed by a woman. It covers decades of family life in a few short minutes in a rich, culturally significant context. I would not have imagined an animated dumpling could be so adorable!

Incredibles 2, like the original film, is also built around family life. Superheroes with special powers still have to deal with adolescent angst, homework help, division of paid and unpaid work, and child care and rearing. Because we have had grandbaby ABC living with us for most of her almost fourteen months, I particularly enjoyed the scenes with Incredible baby Jack-Jack, who is still very much a baby in his behavior, movements, and reactions, superpowered or not.

I also appreciated the themes of the use/misuse of media and celebrity. Although the script must have been written years ago, these issues are especially salient right now.

As always, I recommend staying for the credits. While there is no bonus scene, there is a great medley of superhero theme songs. I especially enjoyed Elastigirl’s.