Review: ‘Sidney,’ starring Sidney Poitier

September 23, 2022

by Carla Hay

Sidney Poitier in “Sidney” (Photo courtesy of Apple TV+)

“Sidney”

Directed by Reginald Hudlin

Culture Representation: The documentary film “Sidney” features a predominantly African American group of people (with some white people and one person of Middle Eastern heritage), including actor/filmmaker/humanitarian Sidney Poitier, from the entertainment industry and from Poitier’s family, who all discuss Poitier’s life and legacy.

Culture Clash: Poitier, who broke many racial barriers in his long and esteemed career, experienced poverty in his childhood, racism from white people, and accusations of being a “sellout” from some members of the African American community.

Culture Audience: “Sidney” will appeal mainly to people who are fans of Poitier and real stories of people who became icons after experiencing many hardships.

Sidney Poitier in “Sidney” (Photo courtesy of Apple TV+)

The admirable documentary “Sidney” follows a very traditional format, but in telling the story of the extraordinary Sidney Poitier, it’s no ordinary biography. Poitier’s participation gives this documentary a heartfelt resonance that’s unparalleled. It’s the last major sit-down interview that he did before he died. He passed away at the age of 94, on January 6, 2022.

Directed by Reginald Hudlin, “Sidney” is a documentary that includes the participation and perspectives of several members of Poitier’s family, including all six of his daughters and the two women who were his wives. Some journalists and historians weigh in with their opinions, but the documentary is mostly a star-studded movie of entertainers who were influenced or affected by Poitier in some way. “Sidney” had its world premiere at the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival.

One of the celebrity talking heads in the documentary is Oprah Winfrey, who is one of the producers of “Sidney.” She talks openly about how important Poitier was to her as a mentor during her own rise to fame as a TV talk show host and later as the owner of a media empire. Toward the end of the film, Winfrey begins crying when she says how much she misses Poitier. It’s a moment where viewers will have a hard time not getting tearful too.

Most people watching “Sidney” will already know something about Poitier before seeing this movie. His 2000 memoir “The Measure of a Man: A Spiritual Autobiography” covers a lot of the same topics that’s covered in “Sidney.” But to see him talk about his life story and experiences in what no one knew at the time would be his last major interview brings an special poignancy to this documentary.

Born in Miami, on February 20, 1927, Poitier grew up in poverty in the Bahamas, his parents’ native country. He was the youngest of seven children born to famers Reginald and Evelyn Poitier. “I wasn’t expected to live,” Poitier says of his birth. “I was born two months premature.”

Poitier says that he was so sickly at birth, his father brought a shoe box into the birth room because the family thought that baby Sidney would have to be buried in the box. Sidney’s frantic mother took newborn Sidney to different places in the neighborhood to find anyone who could help save his life. Evelyn found a female soothsayer who said she couldn’t give any medical help, but she predicted that Sidney would be find and he would grow up to be an influential person who would find fame and fortune.

Getting to that point wasn’t easy and it was far from glamorous. In 1942, at the age of 15, his father Reginald had Sidney move to Miami and live with an aunt and uncle, because Sidney had a friend who was a juvenile delinquent, and Reginald feared that Sidney would fall in with a bad crowd. Little did Sidney know that he would be facing a different type of damage to his innocence.

In Miami, Sidney went through major culture shock and racism that drastically changed his perspective of the world. “Within a few months, I began to switch my whole view of life,” Sidney says of moving from the Bahamas to Miami. He got a part-time job as a delivery boy, and he tells a story of not understanding why a white woman who got one of his deliveries demanded that he only go to the back of the house to make the delivery. Later, when he heard that members of the Ku Klux Klan were looking for him because of this incident, he got so unnerved that he decided to leave town.

But even that attempted trip was fraught with danger, because he was harassed and stalked by white police officers, who didn’t want to see a black male having the freedom to travel wherever he wanted. Needless to say, when Sidney heard that black people had better work opportunities in New York City, he soon relocated to New York City, where he discovered his love of acting.

Life in New York City was a very difficult challenge too. For a while, Sidney was homeless and had to sleep in a public bathrooms. He got a job as a dishwasher while also taking acting classes, which he says he was like being in useful therapy, where he could pour all of his emotions into fictional characters. He read books and listened to radio stars (especially Norman Brokenshire) to learn how to speak with an American accent.

His motivation to become a great actor came from being rejected by audiences at the American Negro Theater because, as a black man, he was expected to sing, dance and be funny. Sidney wanted to be a serious dramatic actor. One of the American Negro Theater officials told Sidney that he should just give up acting altogether. We all know what happened after that Sidney got that horrible advice. It’s an excellent example of how someone can turn failure and discouragement into a triumph.

It’s mentioned several times in the documentary that Sidney’s guiding principles were to do work that would make his parents proud. That’s why, throughout his career, he rejected doing roles that were demeaning to black people. He made his film debut as a doctor in the 1950 drama “No Way Out.” And the rest is history.

The year 1950 was also the year that Sidney married his first wife, Juanita Hardy Poitier. The couple had four daughters together: Beverly, Pamela, Sherri and Gina. During the marriage, Sidney had a nine-year on-again/off-again affair with actress Diahann Carroll (who died of cancer in 2019), his co-star in 1959’s “Porgy and Bess.” Poitier and Carroll later co-starred in 1961’s “Paris Blues.” Sidney and Juanita’s marriage eventually ended in divorce in 1965. Sidney describes this period of time of his life as one of career highs but personal lows. He also expresses remorse about how his marital infidelity and divorce hurt his family.

The documentary gives chronological highlights of his career in movies and in theater. For his role in 1958’s prisoner escapee drama “The Defiant Ones” (co-starring Tony Curtis) Poitier became the first black person to get an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor. It’s mentioned in the documentary that the movie’s ending was somewhat controversial among black people, because some critics thought it was pandering to a what’s now known as a “magical Negro” stereotype.

For his role in 1963’s “Lilies in the Field,” Sidney became the first black person to win Best Actor at the Academy Awards. It was a role that was originally turned down by Poitier’s longtime friend Harry Belafonte, who was busy with a music career. Belafonte also thought that the “Lilies in a Field” role (a black man who’s a nomadic worker befriends a group of white German nuns) was too corny and subservient. Belafonte does not do an on-camera interview for this documentary, but he can be heard in a few voiceover comments.

In 1967, Sidney was a bona fide superstar as the lead actor in critically acclaimed hit movies “In the Heat of the Night,” “To Sir, with Love” and “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.” All were groundbreaking in different ways in depicting race relations in cinema. And the fact that they were box-office successes are indications that times were changing, and the world was ready to see these types of movies.

For his “In the Heat of the Night” role, Sidney played a confident police detective named Virgil Tibbs, who demanded respect from everyone around him. There’s a famous scene in the movie where Virgil is slapped in the face by a racist white man for no good reason. In response, Virgil slaps the man in the face. At the time, it was rare for a movie to show a black man defending himself from this type of racist hate.

In “To Sir, With Love,” Sidney played a schoolteacher in East London who has to be the instructor for unruly white teenagers. It was another on-screen rarity at the time to see a black man in charge of white children. And in “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” Sidney had the role of a doctor who gets engaged to a white woman after a whirlwind romance, and she brings him home to introduce him to her shocked parents for the first time.

The documentary repeatedly mentions that for every accolade and trailblazing accomplishment that Sidney received, there were critics who thought that he wasn’t being “black enough.” Winfrey, who’s gotten the same type of criticism, remembers meeting Sidney after she became famous and was very in awe of meeting him. She says she asked him how he dealt with the “not black enough” criticism, and he gave her advice that she never forgot: He told her that as long as she was doing what felt right in her heart, that’s all that mattered.

Sidney and Belafonte, who were as close as brothers, were at the forefront of the entertainment industry’s involvement in the U.S. civil rights movement. However, the two friends had occasional estrangements over various issues. One of these issues was that Sidney tended to be more politically conservative than Belafonte when it came to the support of Black Power groups that advocated for preparing for a race war and all the violence associated with war, especially after the devastating 1968 deaths of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy. In his senior years, Sidney became an ambassador representing the Bahamas.

The documentary mentions that by the early 1970s, the Black Power movement and blaxploitation movies made Sidney seem like a somewhat a has-been and outdated movie star to some people. He began to shift his attention more to directing and producing movies. His feature-film directorial debut was the 1972 Western “Buck and the Preacher,” in which he co-starred with Belafonte. It’s mentioned in the documentary that as a filmmaker, Sidney practiced what he preached in the civil rights movement and gave plenty of jobs to people of color in front of the camera and behind the camera.

The 1970s decade was also period of change in his personal life: Sidney and Canadian actress Joanna Shimkus fell in love while co-starring in the 1969 movie “The Lost Man.” In the “Sidney” documentary, Shimkus Poitier says she never heard of Sidney until she got the role in the movie, whose love story plot mirrored their own romance. The couple had daughters Anika and Sydney Tamiia, and then wed in 1976, and remained married until Sidney’s death.

In the documentary, Sidney says that his second marriage also gave him a second chance to be a better husband and father. His daughters from his first marriage became part of his blended family. Sydney Tamiia (who is now known as Sidney Poitier Heartstrong) mentions that her parents made sure that she and her sister Anika grew up with other interracial families, with Quincy Jones and his interracial family being close friends with the Poitier family.

Jones is one of numerous stars who have joyous and insightful things to say about Poitier. Other entertainment celebrities who are interviewed include Denzel Washington, Halle Berry, Spike Lee, Robert Redford, Morgan Freeman, Lenny Kravitz, Barbra Streisand, Louis Gossett Jr., Katharine Houghton and Lulu. Also interviewed are civil rights activist/former politican Andrew Young, writer/historian Greg Tate, civil rights activist Rev. Willie Blue, journalist/historian Nelson George and University of Memphis history professor Aram Goudsouzian, who wrote the 2004 biography “Sidney Poitier: Man, Actor, Icon.”

All of these interviewees have wonderful things to say and are often very witty when saying these things. That is not too surprising. However, what will stay with viewers the most is that they wouldn’t be saying those things if Sidney had not had such an exemplary life. His impact is immeasurable and goes far beyond the entertainment industry. He’s an unforgettable role model of hope, dignity and progress in striving for a better world.

Apple Studios released “Sidney” in select U.S. cinemas and on Apple TV+ on September 23, 2022.

Review: ‘A Journal for Jordan,’ starring Michael B. Jordan and Chanté Adams

December 4, 2021

by Carla Hay

Chanté Adams and Michael B. Jordan in “A Journal for Jordan” (Photo by David Lee/Columbia Pictures)

“A Journal for Jordan”

Directed by Denzel Washington

Culture Representation: Taking place from 1998 to 2018, in New York City; Akron, Ohio; Washington, D.C.; and Iraq, the dramatic film “A Journal for Jordan” has a racially diverse cast of characters (African American and white people, with a few Asians and Latinos) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: Based on true events, a single mother to a 12-year-old son tells the story of her relationship with her son’s deceased father, who was a U.S. Army sergeant killed in the line of duty in Iraq.

Culture Audience: “A Journal for Jordan” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of star Michael B. Jordan, director Denzel Washington (who does not appear in the movie) and emotion-driven stories about love and loss.

Chanté Adams and Michael B. Jordan in “A Journal for Jordan” (Photo by David Lee/Columbia Pictures)

“A Journal for Jordan” pulls at audience heartstrings in all the right ways by telling this romantic and bittersweet story that ultimately celebrates life and what we make of it. Directed by Denzel Washington and written by Virgil Williams, the dramatic film “A Journal for Jordan” is based on journalist/book publisher Dana Canedy’s 2008 memoir of the same name. The book not only told Canedy’s story but also the story of her fiancé Charles Monroe King, a U.S. Army sergeant who was killed in the line of duty in Iraq in 2006, less than two months before he had been scheduled to return to the United States. The book included King’s journal entries that he wrote to his and Canedy’s son Jordan, who was a baby when King died.

“A Journal for Jordan,” which is Washington’s fourth feature film as a director, is his most sentimental and heartwearming movie that he’s helmed so far. It’s also the first movie that Oscar-winning actor Washington has directed where he is not in the movie as an actor. Although the movie’s title might give the impression that Jordan (played by Jalon Christian) is the focus of the story, he is not.

The story (which jumps around in the timeline) is centered on Jordan’s parents Dana (played by Chanté Adams) and Charles (played by Michael B. Jordan) and what happened during their eight-year romance. The other parts of the movie show Dana’s life as a single mother raising Jordan. Washington and Jordan are two of the producers of “A Journal for Jordan.”

A movie like this could be overly sappy, but director Washington shows admirable restraint in letting the story unfold tenderly—mostly in flashbacks that have the tone of fond memories through the lens of longing for someone who has passed away. Even the film’s musical score (by Marcelo Zarvos) is understated. There are no bombastic, violin-heavy orchestrations to manipulate people’s emotions, as is often the case with movies about tragic love stories.

“A Journal for Jordan” opens with a fever-dream type of montage that’s a collage of memories of Charles and Dana as lovers, as well as scenes of the Iraq combat zone where Charles tragically lost his life. If people see this movie without knowing what the story is about beforehand, it’s clear in the first five minutes that someone has died. The movie doesn’t take long to tell audiences who it is.

The movie’s first scene of dialogue takes place in New York City in 2007. Dana is a senior editor at The New York Times, where she’s an intelligent, hard-working and ambitious employee who does investigative news work. She’s just landed an interview with an important source for a story she’s been working on of her own initiative.

When she tells her boss (played by Stephen Sherman) that she got this crucial interview, she’s dismayed to find out that he’s assigned a co-worker named Rosenblum (played by Spencer Squire) to work with her on the story, based on Rosenblum saying (but not proving) that he could have valuable information to add. Dana isn’t happy about someone being added to a story that she worked hard on from the beginning. And she says so to her boss, who basically cuts her off and ignores her concerns, as he walks side-by-side with Rosenblum in front of her.

When the boss turns around to talk to Dana, he has a look of slight disgust on his face as he indicates to Dana that she should look at her blouse. Dana looks down at her blouse and is embarrassed to see there’s a stain from leakage of breast milk. It’s a moment that nursing mothers can dread because they know that there are sexist bosses and co-workers who think that pregnancy and childbirth make women less competent employees.

Viewers who’ve worked in newsrooms will also notice how realistic this scene is in showing the subtle but still noticeable ways in which people who aren’t white men are often treated with less respect in work environments that give white men the biggest leadership positions and the highest salaries. The scene also shows that Dana is the type of person who’s not afraid to speak up for herself, even if she doesn’t get the results that she deserves. In other words, Dana is no pushover.

As a frustrated Dana goes back to her office, she gripes to a middle-aged co-worker named Miriam (played by Susan Pourfar), who is Jordan’s godmother, about Rosenblum being dropped in on her assignment, probably because she knows that Rosenblum will get credit for a lot of the work that Dana did. Miriam is sympathetic, but she seems worried about how Dana is living. “Don’t isolate yourself,” Miriam tells Dana.

Miriam thinks Dana’s life should be about more than just going to work and going home. Dana reminds Miriam that she’s a single mother of a baby and doesn’t have time for much of a personal life. At home, Dana seems lonely and somewhat overwhelmed—not about taking care of the baby but by grief over the loss of Jordan’s father.

And sure enough, Charles appears to her in a dream, as a somewhat shadowy figure where he says, “Tell him everything, Ma.” (Ma was his nickname for Dana after she became a mother.) And the next thing you know, Dana is on her computer, typing out her memories of Charles for Jordan to read when he gets old enough to understand.

During her writing, Dana also includes quotes that Charles wrote in his “A Father’s Legacy” journal. Some of the quotes include: “Dear Jordan, I want you to know that it’s okay for boys to cry” because “crying can release a lot of pain and stress. It has nothing to do with your manhood.” This trip down memory lane triggers the flashbacks that are shown in the movie.

The majority of the movie then shows the ups and downs of the relationship between Charles and Dana, beginning when they met in 1998. Charles was a first sergeant in the U.S. Army stationed in Ohio. At this point in his life, Charles has been in the Army for 11 years. He grew close to Dana’s retired parents (played by Robert Wisdom and Tamara Tunie), who live in Akron, Ohio. Charles’ parents aren’t seen in the movie, but soon after he meets Dana, he tells Dana that he loves his parents, but he couldn’t get through certain things in life without the family-like support of Dana’s parents.

Dana’s parents treat Charles almost like a son. How this surrogate family relationship developed is not shown in the movie, which is told from Dana’s perspective. Dana’s strict father used to be a drill sergeant in the U.S. Army. Charles met Dana’s father through some kind of Army connection. After Dana meets Charles, she finds out that he’s so close to her father, that Charles calls him Pop. Charles tells Dana it’s because her parents have helped him with a lot of emotional support. She replies sarcastically, “You didn’t grow up with them.”

Dana tries to avoid visiting her parents as much as possible. It’s not that she doesn’t love them, but seeing her parents brings back painful memories of her childhood and reminds her of the type of life that she doesn’t want to have. It’s revealed in bits in pieces of conversations in the movie that Dana thinks that her parents have an unhappy marriage and that it’s her father’s fault because he has a long history of infidelity. Dana saw firsthand how this infidelity made her mother miserable but afraid to end the marriage. It’s why Dana has major issues with trust and commitment when it comes to romantic relationships.

In the spring of 1998, Dana goes back home to visit her family, which also includes her younger bachelorette sister Gwen and her younger married brother Mike. As an indication of how much distance she wants to keep from her parents, Dana stays in a hotel instead of her parents’ house during this visit. During a sibling conversation in their parents’ backyard (where Gwen calls Dana a “Type A” personality), Dana makes no apologies for her big-city, single life. “Men are luxuries, not necessities,” Dana comments.

Dana meets Charles when she stops by his place at the recommendation of her father, who clearly wants to play matchmaker. Charles is an illustrator artist in his spare time. (He likes to do portraits of people.) Dana admires his work and asks him who his favorite artists are. He says Claude Monet and Georges Seurat.

Dana, who considers herself to be a sophisticated intellectual, is immediately impressed. Charles also says that his life goal is to retire from the Army when he reaches the title of sergeant major, and then he wants to devote his time to painting art. After finding out about his love of art, Dana gives Charles an obvious chance to visit her in New York. She tells Charles that maybe he’d like to see a real Monet painting up close at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

There’s an immediate attraction between Dana and Charles, but she plays it cool overall, at first. Because Charles knows that Dana is staying at a hotel, Charles asks Dana if he can drive her to the Canedy family barbecue happening the next day. She agrees and is a little taken aback when he suggests that he pick her up at 9 a.m., which is hours before the barbecue starts.

Dana says yes, but she oversleeps and isn’t ready when Charles arrives to pick her up at scheduled 9 a.m. time. She’s very apologetic, he’s very understanding, and they head to a local diner to have breakfast. It all sounds like the beginnings of an ideal romance. But there are a few obstacles, as there are always seems to be in real-life love stories that are made into movies.

For starters, Charles tells Dana that he’s in the middle of a divorce. His estranged wife, who lives in Texas, has custody of their daughter Christina. (Christina is never seen in the movie.) Charles tells Dana that his marriage fell apart because he and his soon-to-be-ex-wife were too young when they got married, but he says that he loves being a father. Dana is accepting of this information, but she’s thinking at this point that Charles isn’t likely to become her boyfriend because they would have to do long-distance dating.

Things go well at the barbecue. Charles is polite, respectful and attentive to Dana. And, of course, family members happily notice that Dana seems to like Charles as much as he seems to like her. However, the realities of Charles’ divorce and single parenthood come crashing in on Charles and Dana’s first date when he leaves the barbecue early because he says he has a phone date to talk with Christina.

Another slight bump in the road comes when it takes nearly two months for Charles to call Dana again after their first date together. She’s slightly annoyed that it took him this long, but he explains that he waited until his divorce was made final. Dana likes Charles enough to give him a chance to get to know her better.

Dana and Charles end up dating, of course, and their romance kicks into high gear when he visits her many times in New York. On the first visit, she invites him to stay with her at her apartment. First, she says he can sleep on the couch. Then, she changes her mind and says he can sleep in the same bed with her.

Their courtship is sweet and passionate. Charles is not as sophisticated as Dana initially thought he was, but she doesn’t mind. For example, when he first visits her in New York, they go to an Italian restaurant for a dinner date. It’s there that Dana finds out that Charles doesn’t know what olive oil is because he asks her what it is when it’s put on the table. Dana also has to educate Charles on the differences between shows that are Broadway, off-Broadway and off-off-Broadway.

In addition, Dana thinks Charles could have a better sense of fashion. She notices that he likes to wear jeans and scruffy-looking athletic shoes. No problem. She buys him a designer suit as her first Christmas gift to him. He’s a little uncomfortable with wearing suits, but he knows that if he’s going to be in Dana’s life and the types of social events that she goes to, there’ll come a time when he’ll have to wear a fancy suit. And so, Charles accepts the gift when Dana goes with him in the store to see if the suit fits.

Charles also likes to tell corny jokes. Dana doesn’t mind that either. She thinks it’s actually a little endearing. For example, one of his running jokes is saying, “Guess what?” And then following it up by saying, “Chicken butt.” These are some of the little jokes that couples have that make Charles and Dana’s romance realistic and relatable to people who’ve had similar relationships. Meanwhile, Dana’s career at The New York Times is thriving, and she eventually gets promoted to senior editor.

It’s not all smoth sailing though for Charles and Dana’s relationship. Charles’ Army career means that he has to move around a lot. There are also instances where Dana gets upset because she thinks that Charles seems to care more about his Army colleagues than he cares about her, while he thinks she’s not understanding enough about his military responsibilities. These disagreements about his Army commitments cause the biggest conflicts in their relationship. After 9/11 happens and Charles is deployed to Iraq, the relationship gets put even more to the test.

“A Journal for Jordan” can be a little too slow-paced for some viewers, but the movie remains thoroughly grounded in reality. The fact of the matter is that in real life, a lot of romances go in stops and starts. People who want to see a movie with a lot of melodramatic contrivances found in too many romantic dramas will be disappointed. There’s no love triangle, no meddling best friend, no race to the airport to tell someone they want to make the relationship work. People who are tired of seeing these over-used clichés in romantic movies will be delighted that “A Journal for Jordan” can’t be bothered with these clichés.

What audiences will get is an authentic look at a romance between emotionally mature and responsible adults. Adams gives a charming and engaging performance that exudes all the real qualities that strong, independent women have when they allow themselves to be open and vulnerable to love. Jordan is equally charismatic in his own way in portraying this Army sergeant with a strong moral compass, a deep sense of loyalty and a romantic side that many people look for in a partner.

Charles is not a flashy Romeo but someone who says and does what exactly what he means. And that’s so much more important than “big talkers” who make grandiose promises that they have no intention of keeping. Charles and Dana aren’t perfect, but when they make mistakes or hurt each other emotionally, they try to make things right. And they accept each other for who they are. That’s true love.

“A Journal for Jordan” is a refreshing example of a movie that shows what a lot of middle-class African Americans are really like. It’s become tiresome to see African American romances depicted in movies and TV shows as relationships plagued by crime, poverty or drugs. The reality is that many African Americans are a lot like Charles and Dana, so kudos to everyone involved who helped make this true story into a movie.

“A Journal for Jordan” is also about another type of love story that’s just as important, even though it doesn’t get as much screen time in the movie: the love between a parent and a child. The scenes of Jordan as a 12-year-old have a deep emotional impact because it’s when he starts to become very curious about his father. Jordan’s questions bring up heartbreaking memories for Dana, who has been reluctant to tell Jordan the details of how Charles died.

Even though most of the movie is about the mostly happy romance between Dana and Charles, make no mistake: There are several scenes in the movie that are intended to be tearjerkers. Two of these scenes involve a bunch of red balloons that Charles had with him on a day that he and Dana were spending some time outdoors with Jordan. Another emotionally charged sequence happens during a trip that Dana and 12-year-old Jordan take to Washington, D.C.

The pace might drag a little in some areas of “A Journal for Jordan,” but if you care about these characters and what happens to them, then the movie is watchable from beginning to end. You don’t have to come from a military family to relate to what happens in the movie. Anyone who has treasured memories of a loved one can relate to this true story, which has been eloquently expressed in this inspirational film.

Columbia Pictures will release “A Journal for Jordan” in U.S. cinemas on December 25, 2021.

Review: ‘The Tragedy of Macbeth,’ starring Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand

September 24, 2021

by Carla Hay

Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand in “The Tragedy of Macbeth” (Photo by Alison Cohen Rosa/A24/Apple TV+)

“The Tragedy of Macbeth” 

Directed by Joel Coen

Culture Representation: Taking place in Scotland and England in the 1600s, the dramatic film “The Tragedy of Macbeth” features a cast of white and black people representing the working-class, middle-class and royalty.

Culture Clash: A ruthlessly ambitious husband and wife lie, cheat and murder their way into becoming king and queen of Scotland, but their sins eventually catch up to them with deadly consequences.

Culture Audience: Besides the obvious target audience of fans of William Shakespeare’s “Macbeth” play, “The Tragedy of Macbeth” will appeal primarily to fans of Oscar winners Denzel Washington, Frances McDormand and Joel Coen.

Denzel Washington in “The Tragedy of Macbeth” (Photo by Alison Cohen Rosa/A24/Apple TV+)

“The Tragedy of Macbeth” gives William Shakespeare’s play “Macbeth” the minimalist treatment, laying bare the raw intensity of the story, which is masterfully channeled via powerhouse performances from Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand. Joel Coen (McDormand’s husband and longtime artistic collaborator) wrote and directed “The Tragedy of Macbeth” as a striking hybrid of an observational filmed stage play and an immersive cinematic experience. At a relatively brisk run time of 105 minutes, the movie defies the notion that movies made from Shakespeare’s work have to be pompous, self-indulgent bores. “The Tragedy of Macbeth” had its world premiere at the 2021 New York Film Festival.

Filmed in black and white, “The Tragedy of Macbeth” stays faithful to the source material but rolls out as a more streamlined piece of art that makes this version of the Macbeth story more accessible to people with short attention spans. People interested in watching the movie probably have some familiarity already with Shakespeare’s “Macbeth,” a tragic play that was first performed in 1606 and first published in 1623. Most people would agree that “Macbeth”—with its timeless themes of how a corrupt pursuit of power can destroy lives—remains among the top three of Shakespeare’s best and most well-known work.

There’s really no need to rehash a plot that a lot of viewers will know before seeing this movie. The story is essentially about a married power couple who want to rule over Scotland as king and queen, no matter what the cost. Washington portrays the title character as a man on a mission to get what he feels is owed to him after years of feeling unappreciated as a loyal lord to Scotland’s King Duncan (played by Brendan Gleeson), who is about to be viciously murdered.

The mastermind of this assassination is Macbeth’s wife Lady Macbeth (played by Frances McDormand), whose power and intelligence is underestimated by most people because she is a woman. However, behind the scenes and behind closed doors, Lady Macbeth is a master manipulator who is in many ways more cold-hearted and single-minded in her ambition than her husband is. When he has doubts about any of the dastardly deeds that she has in mind, she pushes those doubts out of his mind and motivates him to follow through with her plans.

Clawing one’s way to the top of Scotland’s royal hierarchy, without being a blood relative of a royal, means that a lot of people will have to die. (The killing scenes aren’t too gory, but there are a few non-explicit scenes involving child murder that might be disturbing for very sensitive viewers.) King Duncan has two adult sons: elder son Malcolm (played by Harry Melling) and Donalbain (played by Matt Helm), who are dutiful but unprepared for the destruction inflicted by the Macbeth couple. As the body count piles up, false accusations will fly, paranoia reaches a fever point, and certain people face a reckoning that seems to ask the question: “Was all that backstabbing worth it in the end?”

Other characters in the play that are also in the movie include Banquo (played by Bertie Carvel), Macbeth’s close ally and a general in King Duncan’s army; Fleance (played by Lucas Barker) Banquo’s son, who’s about 10 or 11 years old in the movie; Macduff (played by Corey Hakwins), Thane of Fife; and Lady Macduff (played by Moses Ingram), Macduff’s wife. Macduff is the first one in the king’s inner circle to suspect that Macbeth and his wife might be up to no good.

Just like like in the “Macbeth” play, the catalyst for Macbeth thinking he has a right to take the throne comes early on in the story when he envisions three witches who tell him a prophecy that he will become the king. However, the introduction of these witches in the movie doesn’t follow standard convention. At first, there’s the appearance of one witch (played by Kathryn Hunter, who plays all three identical witches), who is first seen with her face down in a sandy and barren area, like a vulture who’s hunched over from dehydration.

This witch, just like her look-alikes, is dressed all in black has bird-like mannerisms and even caws like a crow. She contorts her body and flaps her arms, like an ave from hell. And later, when she is joined by the other two witches, they transform into large and menacing black birds.

Washington’s portrayal of Macbeth is as a hothead who is prone to losing control of his emotions and stomping around and shouting as a way to intimidate people. Macbeth is all about short-term gratification. McDormand’s depiction of Lady Macbeth is as someone who is more likely to think long-term and see the big picture.

The difference between Lady Macbeth and her husband is that Lady Macbeth knows when to keep her mouth shut and not give away too much information. Witness the brilliant facial expressions of McDormand as Lady Macbeth in a scene where her husband Macbeth is ranting about something to a group of people in the king’s court. Lady Macbeth thinks he might let some valuable information slip, but she says nothing in order to keep up a façade of ignorance. However, the look on her face shows a brief flash of alarm, as if she’s thinking, “He better not say anything stupid!”

Lady Macbeth has a temper too. She just doesn’t show it to people who could use this “unladylike” demeanor against her. And when McDormand’s Lady Macbeth gets angry, she bellows and barks in a voice that’s deep enough to sound like a man. McDormand’s interpretation of Lady Macbeth is that she knows her own power and strength. She’s not a fussy and frilly wife but one who’s willing to blur the lines of gender roles by showing a more masculine side than how other female actors might interpret this character.

“The Tragedy of Macbeth” has some recurring visual motifs that work well for a movie that was filmed in black and white and has a mild fascination with flight in open skies. First, there are multiple scenes that have a starry night as a backdrop. In a memorable moment, Lady Macbeth let’s go of a burning piece of paper, which flies out the window and into the night. And when the witches turn into birds, which happens more than once in the movie, it also exemplifies the type of flight that conjures of images of dark forces that hover and can’t be tamed.

Another effective visual technique that’s used in “The Tragedy of Macbeth” is conveying the feeling of being spied on and targeted. A scene with Banquo opens with what looks like a spotlight resembling a bullseye lens. The camera zooms up to show an aerial view of Banquo in this spotlight. It’s a foreshadowing of what happens later to Banquo, because he indeed becomes a target. And later in the movie, the three witches are perched on wooden square beams, as the witches look down like vultures ready to pounce.

Because there have been so many different adaptations of “Macbeth,” Coen succeeds in the intent to offer Macbeth through the lens of living in a world where generations of filmmakers and movie audiences have been influenced by the nightmarish lighting contrasts of German Expressionism. The movie’s cinematography (by Bruno Delbonnel), production design (by Stefan Dechant) and visual effects (supervised by Michael Huber and Alex Lemke) are stark and compelling, ranging from set pieces that look like they were made for a theater stage to the majestic simplicity of a cliff that becomes a pivotal location.

And when Lady Macbeth literally lets her hair down in private moments, she can be disheveled—more frump and happenstance than pomp and circumstance. Occasionally messy hair aside, Lady Macbeth’s wardrobe and the rest of the characters’ clothes are completely on point, thanks to stellar costume design by Mary Zophres. The costumes in “The Tragedy of Macbeth” might be the only reason to wish that this movie hadn’t been in black and white. However, the film’s monochromatic pallette is understandable, in order to reflect the dark despair that permeates throughout the story.

The members of this movie’s international cast use their natural accents. Most of the cast members are British. Washington, McDormand and Hawkins are American, while Gleeson is Irish. The varied accents are not a distraction, because the words of Shakespeare make everything sound very much of the era in which it was written. Accents just sound more classical when quoting Shakespeare.

All of the supporting actors in “The Tragedy of Macbeth” play their roles well, with Hawkins being a standout as the intuitive Macduff, a good man who loves his wife and kids and who finds himself in the crosshairs of death and betrayal. It’s hard to go wrong with a Shakespeare classic, a cast of this high level of talent, and a director who consistently makes films whose quality is above-average. The “Macbeth” story is a well-worn road for enthusiasts of performing arts, but “The Tragedy of Macbeth” makes this familiar ride very entertaining.

A24 will release “The Tragedy of Macbeth” in select U.S. cinemas on December 25, 2021. Apple TV+ will premiere the movie on January 14, 2022.

Review: ‘The Little Things’ (2021), starring Denzel Washington, Rami Malek and Jared Leto

January 29, 2021

by Carla Hay

Rami Malek, Jared Leto and Denzel Washington in “The Little Things” (Photo by Nicola Goode/Warner Bros. Pictures)

“The Little Things”

Directed by John Lee Hancock

Culture Representation: Taking place in California in 1990, the crime drama “The Little Things” features a predominantly white cast (with some African Americans, Latinos and Asians) representing the middle-class and the working-class.

Culture Clash: Two police detectives with contrasting backgrounds team up to find a serial killer.

Culture Audience: “The Little Things” will appeal primarily to people who don’t mind watching slow-paced and dull crime movies that waste the considerable talent of the starring cast members.

Denzel Washington and Rami Malek in “The Little Things” (Photo by Nicola Goode/Warner Bros. Pictures)

Take three Oscar-winning actors and put them in a crime thriller written and directed by filmmaker who has a solid track record of making crowd-pleasers. What could possibly go wrong? When it comes to the disappointing crime drama “The Little Things,” it’s not so much what went wrong but what should have gone right. Written and directed by John Lee Hancock (whose best-known movie is 2009’s “The Blind Side”), “The Little Things” ultimately fails to be exciting or innovative, considering that it stars the very talented Academy Award winners Denzel Washington, Rami Malek and Jared Leto.

Almost everything about “The Little Things” has been done before in other movies and done much better. There are key parts of the movie that will definitely get comparisons to director David Fincher’s 1995 classic “Seven,” written by Andrew Kevin Walker and starring Morgan Freeman, Brad Pitt and Kevin Spacey. The irony is that “The Little Things” was written by Hancock back in the early 1990s, before “Seven” (a far superior film) was released.

There are some noticeable similarities in both movies. “Seven” and “The Little Things” are about two cops (one middle-aged, one younger) who team up to hunt down a serial killer. The prime suspect is a mysterious creep who leads them in a cat-and-mouse styled investigation where he keeps them guessing about crucial aspects of the killing spree. (Freeman and Pitt were the cops in “Seven,” while Spacey was the suspected serial killer.)

In “The Little Things,” which takes place over a few days in October 1990, Washington plays the more experienced and older cop named Joe “Deke” Deacon, while Malek is the younger cop named Jim “Jimmy” Baxter. Leto has the role of a sleazy loner named Albert Sparma, who becomes the prime suspect in a string of murders of young women in Southern California. Unfortunately, there’s so much about the story that’s unimaginative and sluggishly paced that there’s very little suspense throughout the story.

The opening scene of “The Little Things” looks like something out of a formulaic horror movie: A young woman is driving by herself at night on a deserted road somewhere in the Los Angeles area. She gets tailgated and then chased by a mysterious driver. She panics and drives off of the road to a diner, whose outside lights are on, but she finds out too late that the diner is closed and no one is there. She runs off into a desert area, and the mystery stalker gives chase on foot. Luckily, she’s able to run back out onto the road and flags down a passing truck in order to get rescued.

Viewers later find out that her name is Tina Salvatore (played by Sofia Vassilieva), and police think that she narrowly escaped from a serial killer who has been targeting young women and stabbing them to death. However, most of the murder victims have been prostitutes, and Tina doesn’t fit that profile. She didn’t even get a good look at the guy who tried to kill her and never heard him talk, so the chances are slim to none that Tina can identify this criminal. Tina, just like most of the female characters in this film, is essentially sidelined. Except for a brief scene later in the movie, this key witness is never seen again.

The women with speaking roles in this movie only serve one of three purposes: to be a crime victim; a current or former love interest; or someone who is subservient to men. These one-dimensional characters include Jimmy’s dutiful and adoring wife Ana (played by Isabel Arraiza); Deke’s ex-wife Marsha (played by Judith Scott), who works as a medical examiner and does whatever Deke asks her to do; and Los Angeles police detective Jamie Estrada (played by Natalie Morales), who follows the lead of her male colleagues and has a very thankless role in the investigation.

Deke is a deputy who works in the Kern County Sheriff Department, which is about 133 miles north of Los Angeles. It’s a much more rural area than Los Angeles, where Deke used to work as a sergeant in the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s homicide department until he left under a cloud of bad circumstances. While investigating this serial killer, Deke was suspended and had what’s described by a former colleague as a dangerous, stress-related emotional “meltdown.” He also had a heart attack.

Deke’s abrupt departure from the Los Angeles County Sheriff Department caused some hard feelings from his former co-workers there. One of them is Deke’s former boss Carl Farris (played by Terry Kinney), the Los Angeles County Sheriff Department’s homicide captain who ended up replacing Deke with Jimmy. Carl describes Deke’s exit from the Los Angeles County Sheriff Department as Deke being “run out” of the department, while Deke describes it as choosing to leave on his own.

It just so happens that Deke has to go back to the Los Angeles County Sheriff Department to pick up evidence for a robbery case that he’s working on in Kern County. And what do you know, one of the first people Deke meets when he goes back to the Los Angeles County Sheriff Department is Jimmy, who’s annoyed that Deke’s truck is blocking Jimmy’s parking space. It’s not exactly a “meet cute” moment, but people who won’t know anything about this movie before watching it can immediately tell from this scene that Deke and Jimmy will end up spending a lot of time together.

Deke finds out there’s going to be delay in getting the evidence he needs, so his former boss Carl sarcastically tells Deke he can kill some time by catching up with his former colleagues. One of the few people in the Los Angeles County Sheriff Department who’s still willing to be cordial to Deke is a detective named Sal Rizoli (played by Chris Bauer), who tells Deke over a meal at a diner that things just aren’t the same since Deke left the department. Sal says that the current department employees are “a bunch of nancies” who’ve “got no soul” and the department head honchos have “weeded all the heart out of the place.” Sal describes Jimmy as a “good cop, a college boy, a bit of a holy roller.”

Jimmy and Deke couldn’t have more different lifestyles. Deke is a divorced father of two adult daughters, and he lives by himself in a small, ramshackle house out in the desert. Jimmy is happily married with two young daughters, and he lives in a comfortably middle-class and well-kept home. Deke is not religious and is very jaded about life. Jimmy is supposedly religious and “by the book,” but this shoddily written movie doesn’t really show proof of that, because Jimmy ends up breaking all kinds of laws in his obsessive quest to solve the murders and arrest Albert.

Through a series of implausible circumstances, Jimmy invites Deke to help him investigate the murders, even though Deke is only supposed to be in town for a few days and the cases are out of Deke’s jurisdiction. The evidence that Deke is supposed to bring back to Kern County for an upcoming court case ends up being completely ignored in the rest of the story. That’s how bad this movie is.

Albert becomes a prime suspect because he works for a small-business appliance store that was called to repair a refrigerator in a young woman’s apartment. She ended up getting slaughtered on the day that Albert was supposed to be there for the repair appointment. And so, Deke and Jimmy immediately zero in on oddball Albert after some snooping around at his seedy apartment building. He’s also on their radar because eight years ago, Albert confessed to one of the murders and knew certain details that the killer would know, but he wasn’t held responsible for the murder because he had an alibi when the crime happened.

“The Little Things” wants to keep viewers guessing over whether Albert is the serial killer or if he’s just a nutjob who wants the police to think that he’s the culprit. There are too many plot holes to mention, including how the movie never explains how in a large urban area such as Los Angeles, the police are so sure that all of these murders are being done by the same person. In “Seven,” the serial killer left very specific clues so that law enforcement knew the same person was committing the murders. In “Little Things,” there is no such proof.

Instead, the movie is more concerned about showing the over-used crime movie trope of the “world-weary cop” partnered with the “eager-beaver cop” and how their personalities clash before they learn to work together for the same cause. What Jimmy and Deke have in common is that they’re both obsessed with finding the killer. Getting back on this serial killer case also seems to trigger something disturbing in Deke, because he starts to hallucinate seeing the dead women come to life in his dumpy motel room and in other places. And Deke talks to the corpses. Yes, it’s that kind of movie.

Washington does a passable job of playing Deke as a cynical and emotionally wounded cop who’s haunted by his past, but “The Little Things” is a very forgettable entry to his impressive body of work. Malek is stuck playing a generic character who makes an implausible switch from being stringent and uptight to being a rogue cop who breaks the law with Deke. Among other law violations, Jimmy acts as a lookout/getaway driver when Deke intrudes in Albert’s apartment, while Albert is away, to look for and possibly steal evidence. Any cop or good screenwriter would know that this illegal break-in would make the evidence inadmissible in court, but it’s in this ludicrous movie anyway.

Leto makes the most effort to bring some unpredictability and nuance to his Albert character, but his performance is hindered by the substandard screenplay that doesn’t give Albert much to do except act like a weird scumbag and annoy Deke and Jimmy. And if these “detectives” are so great, why haven’t they investigated Albert’s activities over time to possibly tie him to the murders? Doing a couple of stakeouts just wouldn’t pass muster in the real world of homicide detective work.

“The Little Things” wants viewers to believe that these murders can be solved at lightning-fast speed during the few days that Deke is in Los Angeles. But ironically, the film moves at a sluggish and mind-numbing pace. It doesn’t help that the dialogue is often cringeworthy too. At one point, Jimmy tells Deke when they have one of their personality clashes: “If you piss on my leg and call it rain, we’re through.”

The movie gets its title because Deke has a mantra that “the little things” count in an investigation, and criminals often get caught because of “the little things” they do when they make mistakes. In other words, Deke is one of those cops who believes in the old saying, “The devil is in the details.” Unfortunately, “The Little Things” is very careless with details, and a more appropriate title for the movie is “The Big Plot Holes.”

Warner Bros. Pictures released “The Little Things” in U.S. cinemas and on HBO Max on January 29, 2021.

Denzel Washington backstage at the 2017 Screen Actors Guild Awards

January 30, 2017

by Carla Hay

The 23rd annual Screen Actors Guild (SAG) Awards took place on January 29, 2017, at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles.

DENZEL WASHINGTON

SAG Award win:

Outstanding Performance by a Male Actor in a Leading Role

(“Fences”)

Here is what this SAG Award winner said backstage in the SAG Awards press room.

Denzel Washington at the 29th Annual Screen Actors Guild Awards at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles on January 29, 2017.
Denzel Washington backstage at the 2017 Annual Screen Actors Guild Awards in Los Angeles. (Photo by Frazer Harrison/Getty Images)

BACKSTAGE INTERVIEW

Having been involved in this project throughout its Broadway incarnation to today does that make this an extra special moment for you to win this award?

Yeah, I guess so. Seven years ago, [producer] Scott Rudin came to me with the screenplay, and I realized I hadn’t read the play. I read the play. So I called him, and said, “I want to do the play,” and that’s what we did. And we had tremendous success with it. It definitely led me to believe that we could be successful making a film.

You’re playing somebody who had in some way different kinds of challenges. How did you leap from you to him?

You don’t know my past. You don’t know my past. We’re actors. You know you don’t have to kill somebody to play a murderer. So we’re actors. You try to tap into what you can relate to be yourself or someone you love or know. And in the case of August Wilson, it’s all in a play. He’s one of the most brilliant playwrights of our time, of any time, so it’s all there. All the clues are there for you if you if you dig deep.

And because we did it first as a play, it was scary. You don’t know if it’s going to work. you don’t know if you’re going to work in it. But about the third week of rehearsal, and because I had a big part in the play, I’m working with all the actors. About the third week, Viola [Davis] showed us where she was going in that big scene. And I was like, “Oh wait a minute. Okay, I better concentrate on my stuff with her because she delivers.”

What do you think about the huge fence our president wants to build with the Hispanic world, and how many fences did you have to go through to win this award?

This is what I think: I think we as Americans better learn to unite. I think we as Americans need to put our elected officials feet to the fire and demand that they work together or they won’t get back in office. You know, this age we live in, this accelerated Information Age, we’re getting further and further apart. We’re not getting together; we’re getting further and further and further apart.

Everybody can’t be right, but I think this is an opportunity, actually. You see how people are being energized and protesting and all that but I think this is an opportunity for us to look at ourselves as a country as they are we together really and are we holding our elected officials accountable to making sure that they’re working together, not just hey you’re on your side. I win what I win. You win what you win, because this is what is happening. And God only knows where it’s going. And “Fences” was a good movie too.

Only six actors and actresses have won an Oscar three times. What would it mean to you  to join that group?

You know, this was really a surprise tonight for me. I wrote some stuff down in case we were picked for Best Ensemble. I just assumed that wasn’t getting [this award]. I’ve been at this a long time so I prepare myself for rejection early on. I was just calm, so I really was surprised and unprepared, to be honest with you. But to be chosen by your fellow actors really is an honor.

We were all the same—some of this little more famous or more money or whatever, but we all basically try to interpret roles. So yes, to be in that company … I’m somebody told me also I think there’s only six actors who had Supporting and Best Actor [Oscars], and I think I’m one of the six. So, obviously, to be in that company would be amazing.

During your speech you were emotional as you spoke about  different actors. What was it about the “Fences” cast that really touched you that made you emotional?

When I turned 60, I realized this is not the dress rehearsal. You’ll never see a U-Haul behind a hearse. You can’t take it with you. The Egyptians tried. All they got was robbed. So what are you going to do with what you have? And everybody has something different to give—some money sometimes some patience, some love, some kindness. I get more joy of giving to others.

I’m here to support Viola and all the rest of them and August [Wilson]. I’m good. I’ve won everything that you can win. Man gives the award. God gives the reward. My mother taught me that years ago. And it’s taken me a long time to understand it, but that’s where I’m at I get more joy of seeing others do well.

 

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