Review: ‘P.S. Burn This Letter Please,’ starring Henry Arango, James Bidgood, Michael Alonga, Robert Bouvard, Claude Diaz, George Roth and Joseph Touchette

January 19, 2021

by Carla Hay

Henry Arango, also known as Adrian, in “P.S. Burn This Letter Please” (Photo by Alex Bohs/Discovery+)

“P.S. Burn This Letter Please”

Directed by Michael Seligman and Jennifer Tiexiera

Culture Representation: Taking place in primarily in New York City, the documentary “P.S. Burn This Letter Please” interviews a predominantly white group of people (with a few Latinos and African Americans), who are current and former drag queens or LGBTQ book authors/historians, about the New York City drag scene in the 1950s and 1960s.

Culture Clash: Dressing in drag and being a member of the LGBTQ community often had to be kept underground, since people were arrested or faced other punishment if they weren’t heterosexual.

Culture Audience: “P.S. Burn This Letter Please” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in drag queen culture or LGBTQ history from the mid-20th century.

George Roth, also known as Rita George, in “P.S. Burn This Letter Please” (Photo by Zachary Shields/Discovery+) 

Drag queens have become a very visible part of mainstream pop culture, due in large part to the Emmy-winning “RuPaul’s Drag Race” and other TV shows about drag queens. But there used to be a time in the U.S. when dressing as a drag queen in public was illegal and could put people in danger of being physically harmed. During the 1950s to 1960s, television became fixtures in American households, but the idea of a TV show about drag queens would be considered too offensive or scandalous at the time. What was going through the minds of gay/queer men who were New York City drag queens in their prime during this era?

The documentary “P.S. Burn This Letter Please” takes an insightful look at this underreported part of LGBTQ history, by including numerous interviews with the drag queens of this era, as well as authors of books that researched this culture. During this era, LGBTQ people could be legally fired from jobs, assaulted or worse, just because of their sexuality. When closeted LGBTQ people wrote love letters or other letters declaring their sexuality, it was very common for the letter writers to ask the recipients to burn the letters, out of fear that the letters could get into the wrong hands. This fear of homophobic persecution is the sobering inspiration for the documentary’s title.

Directed by Michael Seligman and Jennifer Tiexiera, “P.S. Burn This Letter Please” features a charismatic cast of current and former drag queens who were mostly in the 80s and 90s when this documentary was filmed. Some of the people who are interviewed started out as drag queens in their youth and then decided to live as transgender women. And they all have to tales to tell that are fascinating as well as harrowing.

The interviewees include:

  • Michael Alonga (Drag name: Daphne), a former drag queen who had a lover of 18 years named Aaron who died of AIDS in 1986
  • Henry Arango (Drag name: Adrian), a Cuban immigrant whose drag name was inspired by his mother Adriana
  • James Bidgood (Drag name: Terry Howe), a drag queen and costume designer
  • Robert Bouvard (Drag name: Robbie Ross), a former Air Force member who’s originally from Wichita, Kansas
  • Claude Diaz (Drag name: Claudia), who was arrested in 1958, at age 23, for stealing Metropolitan Opera wigs valued $3,000 at the time
  • Lennie (no last name) (Drag names: Dee Dee LaRue, Dayzee Dee), a former drag ball promoter who came to New York City from a rural Pennsylvania town, after leaving home at 18 to join the military
  • Terry Noel (Drag name: Terry), who got transsexual surgery arranged by Anna Genovese, the sister of mob boss Vito Genovese
  • George Roth (Drag name: Rita George), who was named Miss Fire lsland in 1969, and who impersonated a woman in public for the first time when he put on his mother’s orange taffeta dress and went grocery shopping
  • Joseph Touchette (Drag name: Tish), who says that the description “drag queen” was derogatory back then and the preferred description was “female impersonator”

Also interviewed are “Gay New York” author George Chauncey, “Vintage Drag” author Thomasine Bartlett and “Mother Camp” author Esther Newton. Drag historian Joe E. Jeffreys comments on the importance of finding letters written by LGBTQ people from eras when it was illegal to be a non-heterosexual: “Photographs tell us one thing. Words tell another.”

And because there was such a fear of these letters being found, they were often destroyed. Robert Corber, a professor in American institutions and values at Trinity College, has this to say in the documentary about the huge void in LGBTQ historical papers that chronicle what it was like to be queer during these bygone eras: “We don’t have archives of letters, archives of diaries. What we do have are archives of arrest records.”

“P.S. Burn This Letter Please” mentions one of the main inspirations for the documentary: In 2014, a box containing hundreds of letters was discovered in a Los Angeles storage unit. The letters dated back to the 1950s and were addressed to a young man named Reno Martin, who would later become known as Hollywood agent Ed Limato. When Martin left his hometown to pursue a career in radio, his closest gay/queer friends wrote the letters to stay connected to him.

The friends, many of who became drag queens in New York City, trusted Martin with their most intimate stories. He became their confidante, and the letters they wrote to him have now become important written documents for drag queen history since most of these types of letters were destroyed out of fear.

Alonga, who was one of the friends who wrote to Martin, comments on the importance of camaraderie in the underground New York City drag queen scene: “We felt like sisters … Well, sisters that were really brothers to the public.” Arango, who has an unapologetically flamboyant personality, shows off his large collection of vintage dolls in the documentary and quips later in the movie: “I could never act butch. It would give me a rash.”

Where did these drag queens hang out in New York City? The two nightclubs mentioned the most in the documentary are Club 82 and Cork Club. Club 82 had more of a heterosexual crowd, who often went there to see female impersonators. According to the documentary, Club 82 also attracted a lot of celebrities, including John F. Kennedy Jr. (before he became U.S. president), Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, Natalie Wood and Warren Beatty. Club 82’s general manager Pete Petillo was married to Anna Genovese, mob boss Vito Genovese’s sister who arranged for Noel’s transsexual surgery.

Cork Club was more underground than Club 82 and catered more to a LGBTQ crowd. One of the Cork Club regulars was a Dominican drag queen named Josephine Baker (real name: Roberto Perez), who dressed like the real Josephine Baker. Drag queen Josephine was a very close friend of Diaz, who describes Josephine in the documentary as “wild,” “gorgeous” and a “kleptomaniac.”

In fact, the two were partners in crime when they were busted for stealing those Met Opera wigs. (Perez tragically died of AIDS in 1988, at the age of 53.) Diaz also mentions that he and Perez were also very close friends with a drag queen named Billie.

Although there are certainly happy memories shared in the documentary, there are also tales of heartbreak, trauma and health problems. Because drag queens are often the targets of bigotry and ridicule, it can take a toll on their self-esteem. Noel says of the way he felt during most of his life: “I didn’t feel worthy of anything.”

Many of the drag queens say that they went through struggles with finances and mental health. Some turned to prostitution to support themselves. Diaz says he was put in a psychiatric institution at age 16, and he later became a sex worker. He says that he made more money as a prostitute when he was dressed in drag.

The documentary mentions that this clique of drag queens had a “trick room,” a description they used for a rented New York City hotel room where they kept their drag queen clothes. It was a safe storage space for those who couldn’t risk keeping the clothes in their own homes, for fear of homophobic retaliation.

Bouvard remembers that when he was in the military in New Orleans, he discovered gay bars. When he dressed in drag, he often fooled the military guys, who would escort him on dates, as if he were a cisgender woman. Bouvard mentions that if the men who escorted him knew the truth, he would have been killed. Later in the documentary, Bouvard opens up about his health problems, including being HIV-positive and having an amputated leg because of a blood clot.

Although all of the current and former drag queens who are interviewed in “P.S. Burn This Letter Please” are white or Hispanic, the documentary gives a brief acknowledgement of African Americans in New York City drag culture. Phil Black, an African American drag queen, is mentioned as an influential scenester during the 1950s and 1960s, because he founded the racially integrated Phil Black Ball for drag queens. Unfortunately, Asians and Native Americans are not mentioned at all in the documentary. Viewers are left to speculate why there wasn’t enough information for these racial groups included in the film.

Harlem historian Michael Henry Adams explains in the movie that much of that erasure has to do with white men being the ones who usually get to write American history: “The best thing about history is to be able to go to the past and discover yourself. The great difficulty for we who are marginalized, be we women or black or gay, as you look at what is purported to be history, we’re invisible. We don’t exist.”

The filmmakers could have done a better job at exploring the underreported racial diversity in the New York City drag scene of the 1950s and 1960s. “P.S. Burn This Letter Please” also could have used more revelations about the era’s drag beauty contests and drag costume balls that were and still are big parts of drag culture. Roth comments on these events: “We didn’t realize we were doing it for the next generations.”

The current and former drag queens in the documentary came of age before Pride parades existed, but they say that they became enthusiastic supporters once these parades began to happen in the 1970s. (The documentary shows Arango, in very skimpy drag gear, attending the New York City Drag March during Gay Pride Weekend in 2017.) These parades were a turning point in LGBTQ people and their allies to openly express themselves in an even more public way than previously done.

Despite some flaws, “P.S. Burn This Letter Please” is best enjoyed as a compilation of anecdotes and personal stories, rather than a comprehensive historical account of New York City drag queen life in the 1950s and 1960s. “P.S. Burn This Letter Please” would make an excellent companion piece with director Peter Howard’s 2019 documentary film “The Lavender Scare,” which goes more in-depth about why letter-burning was a big part of the LGBTQ community before the gay-rights movement happened.

Discovery+ premiered “P.S. Burn This Letter Please” on January 4, 2021.

Review: ‘Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,’ starring Viola Davis and Chadwick Boseman

January 1, 2021

by Carla Hay

Chadwick Boseman, Dusan Brown, Colman Domingo, Michael Potts, Viola Davis  and Glynn Turman in “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (Photo by David Lee/Netflix)

“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”

Directed by George C. Wolfe

Culture Representation: Taking place in 1927, in Chicago and briefly in Barnesville, Georgia, the dramatic film “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” features a predominantly African American cast of characters (with some white people) representing the middle-class and working-class.

Culture Clash: A tough-talking blues diva and her rebellious cornet player have conflicts and power struggles with each other, while they both have constant battles with white racism and the emotional scars that this bigotry has left on them.

Culture Audience: “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” will appeal primarily to August Wilson fans and people interested in well-acted movies about African American experiences.

Glynn Turman, Chadwick Boseman, Michael Potts, and Colman Domingo as Cutler in “May Rainey’s Black Bottom” (Photo by David Lee/Netflix)

“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” triumphs as one of the rare movies adapted from a celebrated play that can actually claim to be better than the play, thanks to powerhouse performances by Viola Davis and Chadwick Boseman. The movie version of “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” which is based on August Wilson’s play that debuted on Broadway in 1984, takes place mostly in a small recording studio, but the deep emotional impact and the breadth of social issues experienced and conveyed by the characters go beyond the confines of that studio. The story is set in 1927, but the story’s themes are universal and timeless.

Directed by George C. Wolfe with a screenplay written by Ruben Santiago-Hudson, “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” begins in Barnesville, Georgia, where blues singer Ma Rainey (played by Davis) is giving a foot-stomping, rousing performance to an enthralled audience in a tent. She’s sweating profusely, as she does in every scene in the movie, and caught up in the rapture of giving a raw and passionate performance for the adoring crowd.

When she’s off stage, Ma isn’t the fun-loving, “good time gal” that she might appear to be when she’s on stage. Ma is a middle-aged diva who’s feeling the pressure of being considered a “has-been” as her former protégée Bessie Smith is almost certain to surpass Ma in popularity. It’s an ageism problem faced by many entertainers, especially women, who are at the mercy of fickle audiences and industry people who might end up moving on to someone who’s considered younger, more contemporary and more attractive.

Ma has earned the nickname the Mother of the Blues, and she’s not about to give up her reign at the top that easily. She uses her clout and her unique talent as reasons to do and say what she wants, including showing up late, berating her employees, and making people kowtow to her sometimes-unreasonable demands. It’s clear that Ma’s way of asserting her power is to counterbalance the humiliation and pain of racism that she experiences as a black woman in America, where white supremacy was legal in the form of racial segregation and other Jim Crow laws.

“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” references the Great Migration, a period of time (1916 to 1970) in U.S. history where millions of black people relocated from the states in the South to states in other parts of America. These areas outside of the South were often viewed as presenting better opportunities for people of color, but these areas certainly were not immune to racism. When Ma travels to Chicago for the one-day recording session that’s the majority of this story, it represents her own personal parallel to the Great Migration.

Where Ma goes, drama usually isn’t far behind. Upon arriving in Chicago during a sweltering summer, she gets into a dispute on the street when she’s accused of pushing down a white man. A cop (played by Joshua Harto) who’s called to the scene is inclined to arrest her, but Ma uses her clout, loud voice and her “take no crap” attitude to get the cop to back off.

Ma, who lives openly as a lesbian (as did the real-life Ma Rainey), is traveling by car to the recording studio. Accompanying her are her much-younger lover Dussie Mae (played by Taylour Paige) and Ma’s teenage nephew Sylvester (played by Dussan Brown). As gruff as Ma is to most people in her life, she shows tremendous loyalty to the few people who are closest to her, especially Sylvester.

Dussie Mae is an attractive young woman whose relationship with Ma is fairly new and is more like a “trophy girlfriend” than a soul mate to Ma. Throughout the movie, it’s implied that Dussie Mae is somewhat of a gold digger. Dussie Mae goes through life using her looks and sex appeal to get people to financially support her—not because she’s mean-spirited but because she’s too unsophisticated to doing anything else with her life.

Ma, as usual, is running late on her way to the studio, where she is scheduled to record the song “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.” When Ma and her two-person entourage (Dussie Mae and Sylvester) finally get there, Ma takes charge and sometimes gets into subtle and not-so-subtle power struggles with the men who’ve been waiting for her at the studio. These power struggles have many different layers that exemplify issues of gender roles and racial discrimination.

The six men in the recording studio who experience Ma’s mercurial range of emotions during this challenging day are:

  • Levee (played by Boseman), the charismatic, foul-mouthed cornet player who’s the newest and most arrogant member of Ma’s band.
  • Cutler (played by Colman Domingo), the band’s trombone player who is very loyal to Ma and considers himself to be the most experienced and skilled in dealing with her mood swings.
  • Toledo (played by Glynn Turman), the band’s pianist who is the most likely to be the jokester in the group.
  • Slow Drag (played by Michael Potts), the band’s bass player who is the quietest and most laid-back member of the group.
  • Irvin (played by Jeremy Shamos), Ma’s longtime manager who often has to be a peacemaker when she decides on a whim to throw situations into chaos.
  • Sturdyvant (played by Jonny Coyne), the manager of the recording studio who grows increasingly impatient with Ma’s diva antics.

In the scenes in the recording studio, Irvin and Sturdyvant (who are white) are often together in a booth that overlooks the recording room where they can watch through a glass window what’s happening down below with the Ma and the rest of her African American colleagues. Irvin and Sturdyvant usually leave the booth to go into the recording studio when there’s a problem that affects their time and money invested in this recording session. And there are several interruptions to the recording session for this reason.

The higher location of the booth and its separation from the main recording studio room are obvious metaphors of the spoken and unspoken racial barriers that exist between the people in this recording session, where racism is a festering wound that has impacted the characters on a personal and societal level. Ma and her colleagues are all too aware that even though Ma is the star in this room, she still has a subservient role to the white men who control the music industry. It’s a role that she expresses with a lot of emotional pain, bitterness and defiance throughout the story.

At one point in the story Ma says with heavy resentment: “They don’t care care nothin’ about me. All they care about is my voice.” She adds, “If you colored and you can make them some money, then you all right with them. Otherwise, you just a dog in the alley.” And later in the story, Ma reveals that even though Irvin has been her manager for the past six years, the only time he invited her to his home was so she could perform for his “white friends.”

There are also issues over gender roles that permeate the story. When Ma arrives at the recording studio, she finds out that all the men who’ve been waiting for her have already decided that she will record a new, more upbeat version of “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” with the arrangement written by Levee. Ma refuses and declares that she is going to record the original version of the song. She also insists that her nephew Sylvester is going to do a short spoken intro to the song, even though he’s a stutterer.

Ma literally and figurately throws her weight around as she has diva tantrum after diva tantrum. At one point, she shouts: “I make more money for this outfit than anyone put together!” And when she finds out that the Coca-Cola that she requested in advance isn’t in the studio, she refuses to start recording until she gets her Coca-Cola.

All of the members of her band are very compliant except for Levee, who constantly challenges Ma’s decisions and tries to assert himself as a visionary musician whom Ma needs if she wants to get more respect for her music. Early on in the story, Tyree tells Cutler: “I ain’t like you, Cutler. I’ve got talent. I know how to play real music, not none of this jug band shit.”

Levee shows flashes of vanity (he brags about his shiny yellow shoes and is aware of how good-looking he is) and hubris (he thinks all of his ideas should be immediately accepted), but underneath that cockiness is someone who’s got deep-seated emotional pain and trauma. During the long stretches of time that the musicians in the band are waiting for Ma, Levee slowly opens up about his past and reveals secrets that explain why he acts the way that he does.

At one point, Levee is teased by the other members of the band when they see Levee acting in a very deferential way to Irvin and Sturdyvant. The band mates try to make Levee feel like he’s an “Uncle Tom,” which triggers Levee into losing his temper and then revealing a defining incident from his past that permanently changed his outlook on life. He tells this story in a harrowing monologue that’s one of the best scenes in the film.

Ma and Levee’s clashes with each other aren’t just about music. An observant Ma notices that Levee has been looking at Dussie Mae in a way that makes it obvious that he’s attracted to her. Dussie Mae flirts back when Ma isn’t around. And it doesn’t take long for Levee to ramp up his sexual advances toward Dussie Mae, even though the other band members warn Levee that Dussie Mae is “Ma’s girl.”

Levee’s disagreements with Ma over her musical direction, as well as Levee not even trying to hide that he’s interested in making moves on Ma’s lover, put him in a precarious situation where he might or might not be fired from the band. As time goes on during the day and Ma goes back and forth about whether or not she’ll complete the recording, Levee is going through his own insecurities and turmoil. At times, he also clashes with Cutler, especially when it’s revealed how Levee feels about God and religious beliefs.

Under the assured direction of Wolfe, “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” not only has a top-notch cast but the movie also excels in costume design, production design and music. The stage/play version of the story takes place in the winter, but the filmmakers made the astute decision to change the season to summer during an oppressive heat wave. It gives the movie more of a “pressure cooker” look and tone that’s an accurate reflection of the simmering tensions that permeate throughout the entire story.

Davis and Boseman give award-worthy performances in this movie that goes beyond personality conflicts and ego posturing. “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” (which was Boseman’s last movie; he died of colon cancer in August 2020) is also a story of the shared trauma of racism and how even the strongest of souls are tested by this insidious societal cancer. Viewers who are sensitive about hearing racially derogatory names should be warned that the “n” word is said many times in this movie, usually when uttered by Levee.

Even though the movie is called “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” the character of Ma has a lot less screen time than Levee does. If Ma is the heart of “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” then Levee is the soul. Levee and Boseman’s heartbreaking performance represent anyone who has survived trauma inflicted by other people but struggles with the damage that can be inflicted by self-destruction.

Netflix released “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” in select U.S. cinemas on November 25, 2020. The movie premiered on Netflix on December 18, 2020.

Review: ‘Happiest Season,’ starring Kristen Stewart, Mackenzie Davis, Alison Brie, Aubrey Plaza, Daniel Levy, Victor Garber and Mary Steenburgen

December 22, 2020

by Carla Hay

Kristen Stewart and Mackenzie Davis in “Happiest Season” (Photo by Jojo Whilden/Hulu)

“Happiest Season”

Directed by Clea DuVall

Culture Representation: Taking place in the Pittsburg area, the romantic comedy “Happiest Season” features a predominantly white cast (with some African Americans and Asians) representing the middle-class and upper-middle-class.

Culture Clash: A closeted lesbian invites her live-in girlfriend to a family Christmas gathering, and the girlfriends agree to keep their romance a secret from the family during this visit.

Culture Audience: “Happiest Season” will appeal primarily to people interested in seeing a Christmas-themed comedy about families where the central couple happens to be members of the LGBTQ community.

Pictured from left to right (in front) Asiyih N’Dobe and Anis N’Dobe and (in back) Burl Moseley, Alison Brie, Kristen Stewart, Mackenzie Davis, Mary Holland, Victor Garber and Mary Steenburgen in “Happiest Season” (Photo courtesy of Hulu)

There’s a certain formula that romantic comedy films have when they take place during the Christmas holidays and much of the plot revolves around a family get-together: Siblings have rivalries, couples have relationship problems, and at least one person in the family has a big secret that they’re desperately trying to hide. “Happiest Season” (directed by Clea DuVall) follows a lot of the same formula, except that it’s a rare Christmas-themed movie that has lesbians as the central couple in the story. Sony Pictures Entertainment’s TriStar Pictures was going to release “Happiest Season” in theaters until the company sold the movie to Hulu.

In “Happiest Season,” which takes place in the Pittsburgh area, the big secret is that one of the women in the lesbian couple still hasn’t told her family that she’s a lesbian and in a live-in relationship with a woman whom her family thinks is a platonic, heterosexual roommate. Harper Caldwell (played by Mackenzie Davis) is a journalist at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, and she’s been living with her girlfriend Abigail “Abby” Holland (played by Kristen Stewart), who is working on getting her Ph. D. in art history at Carnegie-Mellon University. Abby and Harper have been dating each other for a little more than a year and have been living together for the past six months.

Harper and Abby are both in their late 20s, smart and very friendly, but Abby is a little more introverted than Harper is. They have a very loving and respectful relationship, but they come from different family backgrounds. Abby is an only child. Her parents, who died when she was 19, were completely accepting of her sexuality when Abby told them that she’s gay. Harper is the youngest of three sisters, and her parents are very traditional and image-conscious. Harper has been afraid to tell her family that she’s a lesbian because she thinks that her parents will disapprove and reject her.

Harper’s parents Ted Caldwell (played by Victor Garber) and Tipper Caldwell (played by Mary Steenburgen), who live in a suburb of Pittsburgh, raised their children to be over-achievers. And now, Ted (a city councilman) is running for mayor, so Harper becomes even more conscious of the scrutiny that her family will receive because of this political campaign. It’s one of the reasons why Harper wants to delay telling her family about being a lesbian and the true nature of her relationship with Abby.

One evening, Abby and Harper take a romantic stroll during a guided Christmas tour of the neighborhood. Harper impulsively steers Abby on a detour to hop up on a stranger’s rooftop so they can get a romantic view of the city and make out with each other. But the occupants of the house hear people on the roof and almost catch Abby and Harper.

Abby barely escapes when she slips on the rooftop and finds herself hanging from the eaves of the roof. Harper tries to rescue Abby, but Abby falls into an inflatable Santa Claus in the front yard. The two women are able to run off just as the occupants of the house go outside and see the two intruders. This slapstick moment is a foreshadowing of some of the wacky-but-predictable physical comedy that happens in other scenes in the movie.

After this rooftop misadventure, Harper invites Abby to meet Harper’s family for the first time during the Christmas holidays. They plan to stay at Ted and Tipper’s family home for five days. Even though Abby says that she’s “not much of a Christmas person,” she agrees to the visit because she wants to meet Harper’s family.

Abby had committed to pet sitting for some friends during this period of time, so she has to find someone who can substitute for her on short notice. She enlists the help of her openly gay best friend John (played by Dan Levy), who is a literary agent. He agrees to take on the responsibility of pet sitting while Abby goes on this family visit that will be a turning point in her relationship with Harper.

John is somewhat stereotypical of a sassy and flamboyant gay man who usually has the role of a “tell it like it is” sidekick. However, John is also a confidant who has a lot of compassion and knows the true meaning of loyalty in a friend. Abby is going to need it, considering what she goes through in this story.

Abby tells John a secret: She plans to propose to Harper during this family holiday visit. John is skeptical of marriage, which he calls an “archaic institution,” but he’s happy for Abby and he wants the best for her. Abby explains to John why she wants to marry Harper: “It’s not about owning [her]. It’s about building a life with her.”

During Harper and Abby’s car trip to Ted and Tipper Caldwell’s home, Harper finally confesses to Abby that she’s been lying to her about what Harper’s family knows about Harper’s sexuality. Harper tells a shocked Abby that not only is her family unaware that Harper is a lesbian who’s been dating Abby, the family also doesn’t know that Abby is a lesbian too. As far as Harper’s family knows, Harper and Abby are two heterosexual women who are platonic roommates.

At first, Abby wants to back out of the trip, but Harper convinces her not to because she promises Abby that she will tell her family the whole truth after the holiday season and after the mayoral election. Harper says that she couldn’t live with the guilt if she thought her father would lose the election simply because some people wouldn’t vote for a mayor who has a child from the LGBTQ community. It’s fairly obvious that the city where Ted wants to become mayor has a lot of politically conservative voters.

At the Caldwell family home, Abby meets Ted and Tipper (who is obsessed with getting perfect photos for her Instagram account), who are somewhat condescending to Abby. They repeatedly call her “the orphan” and show gushing sympathy to her, as if she’s a little lost child. And because Tipper doesn’t know that Abby and Harper are sleeping together, Tipper tells Abby that she will be staying in a separate bedroom, which predictably leads to a few scenes of Abby and Harper sneaking into each other’s bedroom and trying not to get caught.

Ted is consumed with his mayoral campaign. One of his goals is to get the endorsement of a high-powered and influential donor named Harry Levin (played by Ana Gasteyer), who gives the impression of being a rich snob. One of the people who works with Ted in his campaign is Carolyn McCoy (played by Sarayu Blue), who is described as super-efficient and someone who is very concerned about the image projected by Ted and his family.

Because Ted and Tipper have had high expectations for their children, it’s created a fierce rivalry between Harper and her oldest sister Sloane (played by Alison Brie), who has inherited her parents’ fixation on presenting an image of having a perfect life. Sloane and her husband Eric (played by Burl Moseley) have twins who are about 7 or 8 years old: son Magnus (played by Anis N’Dobe) and daughter Matilda (played by Asiyih N’Dobe), who live such a regimented life, they come across almost like little robots.

Sloane and Eric used to be high-powered attorneys, but they gave up their jobs in the legal profession to make gift baskets for a living. However, pretentious Sloane refuses to call them gift baskets. Instead she uses this description when talking about her and Eric’s job to Abby: “We create curated gift experiences inside handmade, reclaimed wood vessels.” She also brags that Gwyneth Paltrow’s lifestyle website Goop “picked us up and sales have been through the roof ever since.”

Harper’s other sister is Jane (played by Mary Holland, who co-wrote the “Happiest Season” screenplay with director DuVall), who has a bubbly personality but is somewhat nerdy and socially awkward. Jane, who is single with no children, has been working on a sci-fi fantasy novel for the past 10 years. Although it’s not said out loud, Ted and Tipper think of Jane as the “disappointing” child because she’s not as accomplished as her two sisters are and she has a tendency to be clumsy. Her parents think that Jane is handy when it comes to figuring out computer problems and Internet access in the house, but that’s about it.

Of course, a romantic comedy about a couple with honesty issues usually has additional complications, such the presence of ex-lovers who might or might not want to rekindle a past romance. In “Happiest Season,” Harper has not one but two people from her dating past who cause discomfort in different ways for her. The appearances of these two exes will have an effect on Abby too.

First is Harper’s ex-boyfriend Connor (played by Jake McDorman), whom Harper dated when she was in college. Connor doesn’t know that Harper broke up with him because she’s a lesbian, and he still has lingering feelings for her. Harper’s other ex who comes into the picture is a doctor named Riley (played by Aubrey Plaza), who was Harper’s first girlfriend when they were in high school together. Harper and Riley’s breakup, which is described in the movie, was very painful and it set the pattern of Harper being dishonest about her true sexuality to most of the people in her life.

And what do you know, both of these exes just happen to be at the same restaurant at the same time when the Caldwells and Abby are there for a family dinner. Connor was secretly invited by Tipper, who wishes that Harper and Connor would get back together. Riley is at the restaurant by sheer coincidence. Riley and Connor end up in other social situations with Harper and Abby, together and separately. And, as expected, Abby is jealous of Connor, while Harper gets uncomfortable when she sees Abby and Riley becoming friendly with each other.

Except for the lesbian aspects of the movie, “Happiest Season” doesn’t do much that’s different from a lot of predictable romantic comedies. There’s some over-the-top slapstick in the movie that might or might nor be amusing to viewers. This type of cheesy physical comedy somewhat lowers the quality of the movie, but it’s nothing that’s too detrimental to the story.

The romance between Harper and Abby is convincing, with Davis and Stewart handling their roles with great aplomb. Abby’s character is written with more realism and grace than Harper’s character, who is very selfish and immature during some pivotal moments in the story. Some of the best scenes in the film are those between Abby and John, as well as Abby and Riley.

“Happiest Season” works best when it touches on issues about the true meaning of family and the cost of living a lie. The movie doesn’t have any heavy-handed preaching though, and there are plenty of comical scenarios to balance out the more emotionally dramatic moments. “Happiest Season” isn’t an exceptionally well-made romantic comedy, but it has enough charm and entertaining performances to please viewers who like sentimentality with some slapstick.

Hulu premiered “Happiest Season” on November 25, 2020.

Review: ‘Friendsgiving,’ starring Malin Akerman, Kat Dennings, Aisha Tyler, Jack Donnelly, Jane Seymour, Chelsea Peretti and Ryan Hansen

October 25, 2020

by Carla Hay

Pictured clockwise, from left: Deon Cole, Aisha Tyler, Andrew Santino, Christine Taylor, Kat Dennings, Jack Donnelly, Malin Akerman, Jane Seymour, Ryan Hansen, Mike Rose, Scout Durwood and Rhea Butcher in “Friendsgiving” (Photo courtesy of Saban Films)

“Friendsgiving”

Directed by Nicol Paone

Culture Representation: Taking place in Los Angeles, the comedy film “Friendsgiving” has a predominantly white cast of characters (with some African Americans, one Latino and one Asian) representing the middle-class and upper-middle-class.

Culture Clash: A Hollywood actress and her best friend, who are trying to get over big breakups in their respective love lives, plan to spend a quiet Thanksgiving together, but those plans are disrupted by several unexpected guests.  

Culture Audience: “Friendsgiving” will appeal primarily to people who like lowbrow comedies that think any jokes about sex, drugs and selfish antics are automatically supposed to be funny.

Pictured clockwise from bottom left: Serenity Reign Brown, Kat Dennings, Christine Taylor, Aisha Tyler, Deon Cole, Everly or Savannah Sucher, Malin Akerman and Jack Donnelly in “Friendsgiving” (Photo courtesy of Saban Films)

When there’s a comedy film about a large, chaotic holiday gathering, how much you might enjoy the film really comes down to one thing: Would you want to spend time with any of these people in real life? “Friendsgiving” swings hard and aims low in this vulgar comedy about mostly self-absorbed people at a Thanksgiving dinner, where the majority of the people weren’t even invited by the host. There are some mildly amusing moments, but “Friendsgiving” is really just a series of crude jokes, as the movie’s characters preen, make mischief, and whine about something that eludes almost everyone in this movie: a happy, long-term, monogamous relationship.

“Friendsgiving” is the feature-film debut of Nicol Paone, who has a background in stand-up comedy and as a writer for Funny or Die. Unfortunately, this movie is written as if everyone is a caricature waiting to spout some foul-mouthed lines that someone would write for a mediocre stand-up comedy act. The good news is that the characters’ personalities are distinctive and you can tell them apart from each other. The bad news is that their personalities are also very shallow.

Set in Los Angeles on Thanksgiving Day, the two central characters of “Friendsgiving” are longtime best friends Abby Barrone (played by Kat Dennings) and Molly (played by Malin Akerman), who have had very different reactions to painful breakups in their love lives. Abby is still recovering from being dumped in January by her ex-girlfriend Maeve, who is a single mother. Molly is a semi-famous Hollywood actress who’s raising a baby son named Eden (played by twins Everly and Savannah Sucher) on her own. Molly’s businessman husband Michael left her because he said he didn’t want to be married to her anymore.

Molly’s impending divorce hasn’t reached the stage of signing divorce papers yet, but she considers herself to be single and available. And she’s already found a new lover: a Brit who’s a cheerful, New Age type of philanthropist named Jeff (played by Jack Donnelly, who’s married to Akerman in real life), whom she’s been dating for only about two weeks. They met when Molly was in London for a press tour for a movie called “Pluto Raiders,” which is described as a basic sci-fi action flick.

Meanwhile, Abby is still wallowing in her breakup misery and has a hard time getting back into the dating pool. Abby doesn’t label her sexuality in the movie, but she mentions that Maeve was the first woman she ever dated, after Abby previously dated only men. In one of several video chats that Abby has with her nosy and opinionated family members—including Abby’s mother (Rose Abdoo) and Abby’s younger sister Barbara (played by Dana DeLorenzo)—Abby is given unsolicited advice on her love life. She is “out of the closet” with her family members, who are a traditional Italian clan on the East Coast, and they seem to think it’s best if Abby settles down and marries a man.

According to the production notes for “Friendsgiving,” the movie is loosely based on Paone’s real-life experiences during one Thanksgiving, when she was mourning a breakup from an ex-girlfriend, while Paone’s best friend was raising a baby after her husband had left her. This shared loneliness and breakup blues sparked the idea for the movie. Paone is openly gay, and she describes Abby as a “gay lady” in the movie.

Although the heart of the movie is about the friendship between Molly and Abby, the story is more focused on Molly. It’s at Molly’s home where the Thanksgiving dinner is held, and Molly is the one whom people seem to want to be around, probably because she’s a fairly successful actress. She lives in a spacious house, but it’s clear that she’s not an A-list actress who can afford any live-in staff.  (There’s no nanny in sight.)

The opening scene of “Friendsgiving” gets right to the raunchiness, as Molly is dressed as a dominatrix while she and Jeff are engaged in some light BDSM play. Their sex session is interrupted by a phone call from Molly’s friend Lauren (played by Aisha Tyler), who asks Molly if she, her husband and two kids can come over to Molly’s place for Thanksgiving. Lauren gives a vague explanation that she’s going a little stir-crazy in the home and wants to spend Thanksgiving at Molly’s place, and she offers to bring some food. Molly is too polite to say no.

Meanwhile, Abby is chatting by phone with her mother and sister while doing some last-minute Thanksgiving shopping in a grocery store. There are clues to how obnoxious Abby can be, such as when she guzzles a bottle of wine while shopping. When a store manager tells her that drinking alcohol in an open container is not allowed in the store, Abby refuses his request to stop, and she gets thrown out by security. Before Abby leaves the store, she makes sure to do some damage to the Christmas tree on display.

Abby plans to spend a quiet Thanksgiving with just Molly and Eden. But there would be no “Friendsgiving” movie if that happened. Needless to say, Abby isn’t too pleased when she hears that there will be more people at the Thanksgiving dinner than originally planned. In fact, Abby is furious, and she starts whining about it like a bratty teenager.

Jeff is invited to stay for Thanksgiving dinner too, since Molly figures out that he’s lonely and has nowhere else to go. And of course, since this is a movie that wants to cram in as many jokes as possible about sex and penis sizes, the first time that Jeff and Abby meet, he accidentally walks into the room completely naked. As an embarrassed Jeff covers his genital area, Abby quips, “It’s no big deal. I have one just like it in my top drawer, except mine is bigger.”

It turns out that Lauren invited several people over to Molly’s place for Thanksgiving without checking with Molly first. And then, Molly’s sex-crazed Swedish mother Helen (played by Jane Seymour), who’s on her fifth marriage, shows up unannounced without her current husband. And, much to Molly’s embarrassment, Helen acts exactly how you would think a no-filter “cougar” would act.

In addition to Molly, Abby and Helen, the people who are at this larger-than-expected Thanksgiving dinner include:

  • Jeff, Molly’s new lover whom Abby begins to compete with in the kitchen and for Molly’s attention.
  • Lauren, who brings some low-dosage psychedelic mushrooms to share with Abby and Molly. (Molly declines to take any mushrooms, but Lauren and Abby do.)
  • Dan (played by Deon Cole), Lauren’s husband who is loving and attentive, but Lauren seems bored and restless in their marriage.
  • Lauren and Dan’s children Lily (played by Serenity Reign Brown), who’s about 8 or 9 years old, and Jack (played by Kenneth Sims), who’s about 5 or 6 years old. The children have no purpose in the movie but to look cute, sit at the kiddie table, and possibly walk in on something “adult” happening.
  • Gunnar (played by Ryan Hansen), a vain actor who is an ex-boyfriend of Molly’s and whom she broke up with years ago because he cheated on her. Gunnar was invited to the Thanksgiving dinner by Molly’s mother Helen, who thinks Molly and Gunnar should get back together, but Helen didn’t know about Jeff when she invited Gunnar.
  • Gus (played by Mike Rose), who’s openly gay, single, and lets it be known that he has a brother who’s been missing for years, which has no bearing on this movie at all, but it’s an attempt to give Gus some kind of backstory.
  • Rick (played by Andrew Santino) and Brianne (played by Christine Taylor), an image-obsessed, materialistic newlywed couple from Orange County who met each other four months ago and have been married for one month. A running gag in the movie is Brianne has recently had some kind of plastic surgery on her mouth, which she can’t move properly.
  • Claire (played by Chelsea Peretti), a New Age hipster who’s recently become a shaman (or a “shawoman,” as she would prefer to be called) and who can’t stop spouting platitudes about people being in touch with their feelings. And maybe she’s a part-time drug dealer too, because Claire sold the mushrooms that Lauren brought to the party.

There are also three lesbians whom Lauren invited to the party in an attempt to match any of them up with Abby. The lesbians don’t have names in the movie, but they have nicknames in the end credits. The lesbians each give brief monologues to the camera explaining their likes and fetishes when it comes to dating.

The first lesbian to arrive at the dinner is nicknamed Denim (played by Rhea Butcher), and she likes to wear denim and gives off a Tig Notaro vibe. The second lesbian to arrive at the dinner is nicknamed named Palo (played by Scout Durwood), and she’s a neo-hippie who seem likes the type to go to the Burning Man Festival. The third lesbian is nicknamed Civil (played by Brianna Baker), and she’s a left-wing militant feminist.

In addition, comedians Wanda Sykes, Margaret Cho and Fortune Feimster make cameo appearances as Fairy Gay Mothers, in a scene where Abby is having a psychedelic hallucination. The Fairy Gay Mothers give Abby some “Wizard of Oz”-inspired advice, since she is recently out of the closet as a queer woman: “All you have to do is tap your wing-tipped Oxfords three times and say, ‘There’s no place like Home Depot.'”

It’s one of the funniest scenes in the movie, which doesn’t have a lot of very funny scenes. By the way, Sykes is shown on the movie poster for “Friendsgiving.” But it’s misleading to think that she’s in the movie as one of the main stars. She’s barely in the film. Sykes, Cho, and Feimster are only in the Fairy Gay Mother scene, which lasts for only about five minutes. Unfortunately, the characters that are annoying in “Friendsgiving” get much more screen time than this hilarious trio.

Seymour, who’s British in real life, has a questionable Swedish accent for her character of Helen, who is one of the worst people in this group of mostly spoiled and obnoxious egomaniacs. When Molly makes it clear to Helen that she’s not interested in getting back together with Gunnar, Helen declares, “If you won’t have him, I will.” And then Helen proceeds to make a fool out of herself in trying to seduce Gunnar.

Molly is actually one of the more tolerable people in this group, but she shows a lot of bad judgment in quickly letting this group take over her household. Some of these guests thoughtfully brought potluck dishes, but others didn’t. And there’s a scene later in the movie that involves the baby and some irresponsible actions that send Molly and some other people into panic mode. It’s one thing for the adults in this story to act dumb, but it’s not that funny to make it a joke that an innocent child’s safety is put at risk because of some the shenanigans at this party.

Because there are so many guests at this dinner, “Friendsgiving” doesn’t spend a lot of time on character development. Therefore, everything in the movie is as superficial as the characters, which is why the movie has nothing to fall back on except more crude jokes and predictable gags. The overwhelming attitude that all the adults have at this Thanksgiving dinner is: “I’m going to do whatever makes me feel good, even if it hurts other people.”

And it’s why there’s an ill-conceived scene in the movie where Lauren and Abby make out with each other (this isn’t spoiler information, since it’s in the movie’s trailer), and Lauren’s husband Dan finds out and naturally feels hurt by this infidelity. And it’s just so cringeworthy to see Helen try to be sexy with the ex-boyfriend of her daughter. It should come as no surprise later when Helen admits to Molly that her latest marriage is on the rocks, but it’s still no excuse for Helen’s selfish and predatory actions. Someone of Seymour’s talent deserves better than this tacky role, even if she doesn’t exactly master the Swedish accent that she’s supposed to have in the movie.

Dennings has a lot of very good comedic timing, but it’s too bad that a lot of lines she has to deliver make Abby insufferable. Akerman (who is one of the producers of “Friendsgiving”) is solid in her role as Molly, while the supporting actors do an adequate job with their very limited characters. Peretti can bring some chuckles as the spacey-yet-pretentious Claire, but those laughs are few and far in between, since Claire is a one-note character.

A better movie would’ve had less people at this Thanksgiving dinner. For example, the characters of Gus, Rick and Brianne don’t really add anything to the story except stereotypes that aren’t very funny. And speaking of stereotypes that aren’t very funny, here’s an example of some dialogue between the lesbian nicknamed Denim and the lesbian nicknamed Palo. Demin asks Palo, “Do you like basketball?” Palo replies, “I don’t like balls of any kind.” 

You get the idea. If “Friendsgiving” were a meal, then it would be a meal that should be skipped because of all the stale cheese that’s being offered.

Saban Films released “Friendsgiving” in select U.S. cinemas, on digital and VOD on October 23, 2020. The movie’s release date on Blu-ray and DVD is October 27, 2020.

Review: ‘Kajillionaire,’ starring Evan Rachel Wood, Debra Winger, Richard Jenkins and Gina Rodriguez

September 25, 2020

by Carla Hay

Richard Jenkins, Debra Winger and Evan Rachel Wood in “Kajillionaire” (Photo by Matt Kennedy/Focus Features)

“Kajillionaire”

Directed by Miranda July

Culture Representation: Taking place in Los Angeles and briefly in New York City, the dark comedy “Kajillionaire” features a predominantly white cast (with some Latinos and African Americans) representing the middle-class and poor.

Culture Clash: A family trio of con artists, who are on the verge of being evicted, scheme up ways to get their rent money and team up with another con artist who has a big effect on them.

Culture Audience: “Kajillionaire” will appeal primarily to people who like quirky comedies that have original and memorable characters.

Gina Rodriguez and Evan Rachel Wood in “Kajillionaire” (Photo by Matt Kennedy/Focus Features)

Stepping into the world of “Kajillionaire” (written and directed by Miranda July) is like stepping into a sad and desperate world that rarely gets acknowledged in the media, but exists for an untold number of people in America. It’s a world where unemployed white people are barely making enough money to survive, but they’re not homeless, they’re not out on the streets begging for money, they don’t fit the “trailer park” stereotype, and they give the appearance that they’re regular, middle-class citizens. They’re not on government assistance, probably because they haven’t filed any recent tax returns to prove they’re eligible for benefits.

And so, some of these destitute people turn to illegal scams as a way to make money. Usually, the narrative in the media and in movies is that poor people who live a life of crime in big U.S. cities are usually people of color who are drug dealers or armed robbers. But “Kajillionaire” flips that narrative to show that there’s an underbelly of people who might not be dealing drugs or committing armed robbery, but are still caught up in illegal activity that involves cheating and stealing. “Kajillionaire” also flips the typical narrative of white con artists in movies, who are usually depicted as thinking big and going after fortunes worth millions.

People familiar with writer/director July’s work already know that she brings a quirky and often sardonic sensibility to her movies. It’s a sense of humor and style that’s not for everyone, especially people who prefer more conventional, straightforward comedy. “Kajillionaire” (which is July’s third feature film) is her best feature film so far, because it’s more than a story about con artists. It’s also a story about the value of empathy and human connection.

In “Kajillionaire,” viewers are introduced right away to the lifestyle of a Los Angeles family trio of small-time con artists who are barely getting by financially. Old Dolio Dyne (played by Evan Rachel Wood) is a morose 26-year-old who doesn’t know any other life except being a con artist, because her parents trained her to be that way. Old Dolio’s parents Robert Dyne (played by Richard Jenkins) and Theresa Dyne (played by Debra Winger), who look like ex-hippies, think up a lot of schemes with their daughter to get money illegally, but the parents usually send Old Dolio to do a lot of the dirty work.

That’s what happens in the movie’s opening scene, when Old Dolio is shown taking a set of stolen keys to a post office, opening a mailbox there, and extending her hand so far back into the mailbox that she can reach over and steal the contents of the mailbox next to the one she opened. She feels confident in committing this crime because there’s no surveillance camera in that particular room of the post office. There’s a choreographed movement sequence that Old Dolio does before she enters the post office, so she can avoid other video cameras around the building.

What she steals from the other post-office mailbox is a package in a bubble wrap envelope. When she goes outside, she and her parents open the package, only to find that the package’s contents have very little value. There’s a stuffed animal that Old Dolio figures she can use to get a fake refund at a retail store, because she has an old sales receipt from the store that lists a generic “toys and games” item for $12.99.

There’s also a necktie in the package, which Robert guesses is “not a cheap tie.” And he says something odd to Old Dolio: “You can’t see it because you’re not a cheap birth.” It’s the first sign that something is “off” about the way Robert and Theresa have raised Old Dolio, besides the fact that they’ve taught her how to be a con artist.

It’s revealed later in the movie that her parents named her Old Dolio (which is her legal name) because it was the name of an old loner guy they knew who inherited a fortune. Robert and Theresa (who walks with an unexplained limp) were hoping they could steal his fortune through identity theft after he died. But after he died, they found out that he had squandered his fortune, so the name turned out to be useless.

It’s just one of many examples that show why this family has remained on the margins of society as small-time con artists. They’re not down on their luck. They’re just not very smart and they don’t want to do honest work.

On the one hand, Robert and Theresa seem to want the American Dream of becoming wealthy. As Robert says, “Most people want to become kajillionaires.” On the other hand, Robert and Theresa don’t want to call too much attention to themselves by doing scams involving large amounts of money. It’s a mindset that they’ve instilled in Old Dolio.

Later in the movie, Robert tells someone that Old Dolio learned how to forge before she learned how to write her own name. The eccentric con artists in “Kajillionaire” also have a fear of experiencing a devastating earthquake, which they call “The Big One.” It’s a term that people who live in California often use to describe the earthquake that scientists say can happen sometime in the future and can kill thousands of people.

Robert, Theresa and Old Dolio are a self-contained con-artist unit. They live in a downstairs back office of a factory called Bubbles, Inc., which apparently is in the business of making water bubbles. One of the inconveniences of the family’s cramped and cluttered living space, which has been rented to them, is that pink water bubbles frequently seep from the ceiling and down the walls at a certain time of day. They have to clean the bubble mess before it spreads to other parts of the room. (It’s one of this movie’s many quirks.)

Old Dolio, Robert and Theresa don’t have any friends, and no other family members are mentioned. It’s not said outright, but it’s implied that Old Dolio never went to regular school and was probably homeschooled by her parents. There are many signs that Old Dolio is clueless about certain things in life that she would’ve known about if she grew up being around people other than her parents.

It also becomes apparent that Old Dolio is very uncomfortable in her own skin and is fearful of being touched by people. After the family’s stolen haul from the post office yields items of very little cash value, Robert and Theresa then send Old Dolio to do a scam they’ve apparently done before: Old Dolio dresses up as a Catholic school girl and pretends to be a “good Samaritan” who found an expensive watch and is returning it to the rightful owner.

The scam is that the family really stole the watch, and Old Dolio is supposed to get a reward for “finding” the watch, not by asking for a reward, but being so nice that there’s a big chance that the owner will give her an unsolicited reward. It’s not explained in the movie how or where they got this stolen watch and how a random Catholic school girl would know how to track down the rightful owner. However, Old Dolio is next seen showing up at the house of an upper-middle-class, middle-aged couple named Althea (played by Patricia Belcher) and Victor (played by Kim Estes), who welcome her into their home when they see she’s there to return Victor’s watch.

Old Dolio’s entire conversation with Althea and Victor isn’t shown, because the next thing that happens is Old Dolio goes back to her parents, who find out with dismay that Althea and Victor gave a reward, but it isn’t the cash that the con artists were expecting. The reward is a gift certificate for the massage business owned by Althea and Victor’s daughter Jenny (played by Da’Vine Joy Randolph), whom Old Dolio says (with some envy) Althea and Victor couldn’t stop talking about because they’re so proud of their daughter.

Old Dolio goes to Jenny (who works out of her home) to try and finagle a deal so Old Dolio can get some cash out of the gift certificate. Jenny explains that there’s no cash refund for the gift certificate, and she offers to give Old Dolio the massage so she can at least get something out of the gift certificate. Old Dolio reluctantly agrees, but she says that she wants the massage to last only 20 minutes instead of the usual 60 minutes that would be covered by the gift certificate.

Old Dolio flinches every time Jenny touches her. Her discomfort goes beyond someone who’s never had a massage before. It’s a sign (one of many) that Old Dolio has never been touched affectionately before, especially not by her parents. Old Dolio’s almost pained reaction to the massage reaches a point where Jenny just keeps her hands slightly above Old Dolio’s body without touching her and asks her if that’s okay. It’s only then that Old Dolio says this touchless “massage” is acceptable to her, but she doesn’t stay long anyway.

Another awakening for Old Dolio comes when she finds out about how mothers who’ve just given birth form a bond with their newborn babies. This discovery (which serves as a catalyst for what comes later in the story) happens by chance. A neighbor named Kelli Kain (played by Rachel Redleaf) sees the family outside the bubble factory and knows their con-artist reputation, because she offers Old Dolio $20 to impersonate her to attend a class that was “assigned by a case worker.” Kelli says that the people in the check-in area won’t ask for identification.

When Old Dolio gets to the class, she finds out it’s a class about parenting newborn children. The class watches a video showing how a mother bonds with a newborn baby, who instinctively knows how to find a breast to nurse on when the baby is placed on the mother’s chest. The class instructor named Farida (played Diana Maria Riva) then explains that newborn babies who are placed on their mothers’ chests are more likely to be well-adjusted people, compared to babies to are ignored and “put on a cot.”

This information ignites a curiosity in Old Dolio, who asks her parents if she was one of those “cot babies.” Her mother says yes. And there are many other signs that Old Dolio’s parents have withheld physical and emotional affection from her.

There are also indications that Old Dolio is a virgin who has never dated anyone before, because she’s been taught not to trust other people who aren’t her parents. In one scene, Old Dolio shows her mother a wooden trinket. Theresa responds by saying in a tone of warning, “When a man gives you anything made of wood, he’s saying, ‘You give me wood.'”

In another scene, when Old Dolio asks her parents about what it was like to take care of her as a baby, Theresa suspiciously asks Old Dolio if she is pregnant. Old Dolio shakes her head in surprised disgust and reminds her mother that it wouldn’t be possible for her to be pregnant. But then, Robert bizarrely starts sniffing like a dog at Old Dolio, as if he can smell whether or not she’s pregnant. No one said these people are entirely sane.

Robert, Theresa and Old Dolio have been dodging their landlord Stovik (played by Mark Ivanir), because they’re three months behind on the rent. When they do see him, Robert always lies and says things like that they’ll have the money but he just started a new job and hasn’t gotten paid yet. They owe $1,500, but in reality, they aren’t even close to having $150. Stovik (who has an unusual emotional condition where he starts to cry when he’s agitated) finally has had enough of their excuses and gives them two weeks to pay what they owe or else he’ll evict them.

Old Dolio comes up with the idea to do a luggage insurance scam. The plan is for the three of them take a round-trip air flight to New York City, with their luggage insured. On their return trip back to Los Angeles, Old Dolio will pretend to be a stranger to Robert and Theresa, who will “steal” one of Old Dolio’s suitcases from the baggage claim area. Old Dolio will then file an insurance claim, which pays about $1,575.

Viewers have to assume that this trip was paid for with a credit card, since these con artists don’t have the cash for this trip and they don’t have checking and savings accounts. Knowing this family, the credit card information was probably stolen. On the flight back to Los Angeles, Robert and Theresa are seated next to a chatty and flirtatious stranger named Melanie (played by Gina Rodriguez), who makes it clear that she likes to drink alcohol and have a good time.

Robert takes to Melanie right away. Old Dolio, who is in a seat located slightly behind her parents, notices this instant camaraderie and seems envious that her father is friendlier to this stranger than he is to his own daughter. It isn’t long before Robert tells Melanie about the family’s luggage insurance scam. Melanie immediately agrees to help them, which sets off a series of experiences where Melanie latches on to the family because she’s a con artist too. Unlike the Dyne family, Melanie has a job, but she’s looking to make more money, and there’s a sense that she’s in the con game for the thrills.

During the family’s con artist antics with Melanie, it’s apparent that Old Dolio’s repressed sexuality is something that she can no longer ignore. Melanie is aware of it too, and she sometimes seems amused by it and sometimes seems to be sympathetic about it. There are several scenes in the movie where Melanie subtly and not-so-subtly uses her sex appeal to test boundaries with certain members of this family.

Old Dolio sometimes scolds Melanie for trying to “rile people up” because of Melanie’s tendency to wear revealing and tight clothes. Any adult can see why Old Dolio has this reaction to what Melanie wears. It’s because of Melanie that Old Dolio starts to understand how her parents have prevented Old Dolio from missing out on many things in life.

Melanie, who lives alone, is very close to her mother, whom she talks to frequently on the phone. (Elena Campbell-Martinez is the voice of Melanie’s mother.) It’s the type of mother-daughter relationship that Old Dolio never had with Theresa. And Melanie joining this family of con artists tests the bounds of the family’s loyalties to each other.

What’s so distinctive about “Kajillionaire” is how July made this story otherworldly yet grounded and how well the main characters are brought to life by Wood, Winger, Jenkins and Rodriguez. Wood (who does some great physical choreography in the movie) and Rodriguez are the standouts, because the heart of the story is how Old Dolio and Melanie’s relationship evolves. Melanie and Old Dolio have opposite personalities but have something in common: They’re both con artists, in more ways than one.

It isn’t until Melanie comes into the family’s lives that Old Dolio slowly finds out how emotionally stifled she has been. Old Dolio hasn’t been really been “living” but really has just been “existing” in a dysfunctional bubble created by her parents. (And if people really want to go deep in analyzing this movie, perhaps the bubble factory is a metaphor.)

Wood plays the Old Dolio character with a voice that’s a few octaves below Wood’s normal speaking voice. It’s a way of perhaps giving Old Dolio a somewhat androgynous aura. When she’s not dressed up as part of a con game, Old Dolio wears baggy unisex clothes. It’s an indication that she’s unsure of her sexuality, or at least trying to avoid wearing clothes that make her look feminine.

Old Dolio and Theresa also have identical hairstyles: very long and parted down the middle. They wear their hair in a way that it sometimes obscures their faces, as if in their perpetual lifestyle of being con artists, they know that it’s better to have their faces disguised as much as possible. Old Dolio automatically looks for surveillance cameras everywhere she goes, as demonstrated in a scene where she and Melanie are shopping in a grocery store and Old Dolio tells her immediately where all the security cameras are. Melanie cheerfully responds by saying that she doesn’t need that information because she’s going to pay for her selected items.

“Kajillionaire” has such unique characters and situations shown in memorable ways that it’s a welcome alternative to the stale and formulaic comedy films that Hollywood has been churning out for several years. People who have no tolerance for seeing weirdos on screen won’t like this movie. But for everyone else, “Kajillionaire” takes viewers on a sometimes unsettling, sometimes humorous ride that shows how the pursuit of money everything else is not worth the cost of losing one’s humanity.

Focus Features released “Kajillionaire” in select U.S. cinemas on September 25, 2020.

Review: ‘I Hate New York,’ starring Amanda Lepore, Sophia Lamar, Chloe Dzubilo and T De Long

September 18, 2020

by Carla Hay

Sophia Lamar in “I Hate New York” (Photo courtesy of 1844 Entertainment)

“I Hate New York”

Directed by Gustavo Sánchez

Some language in Spanish with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place mostly in New York City, the documentary “I Hate New York” (filmed from 2007 to 2017) about four artistic transgender or transsexual people who have been longtime residents of New York City, with additional commentary by cisgender people who have been part of the New York City underground artist scene .

Culture Clash: Several people in the documentary talk about experiencing transphobia and how rising rents and gentrification have changed New York City’s artistic scene for the worse.

Culture Audience: “I Hate New York” will appeal mainly to people interested in LGBTQ issues and the New York City artistic scene from the 1990s to 2010s. 

Amanda Lepore in “I Hate New York” (Photo courtesy of 1844 Entertainment)

The artistic people in the provocatively titled documentary “I Hate New York” don’t really hate the city all the time. It’s more like a love/hate relationship. They love the city’s endless choices when it comes to art and culture. They love how people can come to New York and find more acceptance than they would in more conservative cities. But they also hate how the city has become too expensive for struggling artists. And they hate how the way transgender people are still targets for hate crimes and still have to fight for a lot of basic rights that cisgender people take for granted.

Directed by Gustavo Sánchez over the years 2007 to 2017, “I Hate New York” takes a fascinating, raw and emotionally up-and-down look at four transgender or transsexual people who have been longtime New York City residents and part of the city’s entertainment and artistic scene. The four stars of the movie are:

  • Amanda Lepore, a transsexual woman who has a Marilyn Monroe-inspired image and who is best known for being a nightlife personality and model.
  • Sophia Lamar, a transsexual woman who is a Cuban immigrant, as well as a singer, actress and dancer known for her edgy entertainment.
  • Chloe Dzubilo, a transgender woman who became the lead singer of the punk band the Transisters and an outspoken AIDS activist.
  • T De Long, a transgender man who’s an aspiring rapper, DJ and artist (with the stage name TJ Free) whose gender transition is documented in the film.

All of them candidly tell their personal stories and struggles about being a transgender artist in New York City. A description shown in the beginning of the documentary describes the movie this way: “It is an intimate portrait of four heroines living at the margins of activism, transgender culture and nightlife.”

Also weighing in with their opinions are Bibbe Hansen, a former Andy Warhol Superstar; nightlife personality/promoter Linda Simpson; photographer/activist iO Tillett-Wright; filmmaker Katrina Del Mar; promoter Geordon Nicol; and performer/musician Kembra Pfalher.

Lepore and Lamar used to be very close friends came up in the 1990s nightclub scene together. They even sued the nightclub Twilo together for transgender discrimination in 2001, when the club fired them as dancers for not being “real women.” But then, sometime in the late 2000s, Lamar and Lepore had a falling out and they no longer speak to each other.

Dzubilo and De Long had a different kind of connection: They became a romantic couple as De Long (who used to be known as Tara Jo) was transitioning into being a man. Their love story in the movie is touching and tragic.

What all four have in common is that they came to New York City to reinvent themselves because they weren’t really accepted in the places where they lived before. They all had different struggles with their gender identity and experiencing transphobia. And they all found their artistic voices by living in New York City.

Lepore, who is originally from New Jersey, has been open about her past as a dominatrix before she was able to make a living as a nightlife personality. In the documentary, she talks about knowing as a child that she is female. As a teenager, she secretly took female hormones so her body could match her gender. And at 17 years old, the father of her then-boyfriend paid for her sex confirmation surgery. She married the boyfriend, but the marriage didn’t last.

Broke and desperate after she left her husband, Lepore says, “I was working as a dominatrix because I didn’t have any job skills. I wasn’t making enough money doing nails and little jobs, which weren’t paying the bills … I was able to make money as a prostitute without having sex.” One thing that worked out for Lepore was that she was able to live in a hotel that used to be managed by an ex-boyfriend, and her rent pretty much stayed the same for years because the hotel’s management gave her a special discount due to that relationship.

As for all of her plastic surgery, Lepore lists the alterations she’s done to her body, including breast augmentations, a nose job, rib reductions and silicone injections in her hips, lips, cheeks and buttocks. She’s also had her eyes tilted and her hairline pulled down. Just like a lot of women who’ve had surgery to make their breasts bigger, Lepore likes to show that she thinks it was money well-spent, by having a tendency to wear low-cut tops or display her naked breasts in public.

Lepore says she’s all about glamour and escapism. And she still proudly identifies as a “club kid.” The documentary shows her getting dolled up and hobnobbing in nightclubs, usually accompanied by another transgender friend. Fellow nightlife diva Simpson says of Lepore: “Amanda’s fame … is sort of a by-product of what she became.”

If Lepore is about glamourous escapism, Lamar is the opposite: In the documentary, Lamar says, “Club kids are dead,” and she says her artistry is more about realism and being a contrarian. But at the same time, Lamar admits that she enjoys manipulating the truth when it comes to her artistic expressions: “People are in love with a liar,” she says. “People like being lied to.”

Whereas Lepore prefers dance music, Lamar’s preferred music has a rock edge. The documentary includes some footage of Lamar performing her style of avant-garde rock in a nightclub. According to Lamar, she began calling herself Sophia at the age of 13, which is somewhat unusual since a lot of transgender people come out as transgender at a later age. She explains why she changed her first name at such a young age: “Some things are punk rock before they’re punk rock.”

Lamar (who speaks English and Spanish in the movie) also describes her difficult journey when she immigrated to the United States from Cuba. She says that the boat that she and her family came in capsized. They and other passengers had to be rescued by helicopter. She got her chosen surname Lamar because “el mar” means “the sea” in Spanish.

The contrast between Lamar and Lepore is also obvious in how they view nostalgia. Lepore clearly idolizes Marilyn Monroe (she often dresses like how Monroe looked in the 1950s) and she doesn’t mind talking about her heyday as a “club kid.” Lamar has this to say about why she doesn’t like to dwell on the past: “Nostalgia is private … like masturbation. Nostalgia is like a cancer.”

Nightlife promoter Nicol comments in the documentary: “Sophia Lamar is probably one of the most important nightlife people in New York.” And although former friends Lamar and Lepore no longer speak to each other, Lepore says they are still connected because they still go to the same nightclubs and still know a lot of the same people. Whichever style of performance art that people prefer, it’s clear that there’s room for both Lepore and Lamar in New York’s nightlife.

Although neither and Lamar nor Lepore go into details about what went wrong with their friendship, Lepore hints that Lamar was the one who ended it. Lepore comments in the documentary about their estrangement: “I was upset about it … I’ve moved on … It did hurt at first … It was more her than me.”

While one relationship unraveled among two of people starring in this documentary, another relationship blossomed. Dzubilo describes herself a kid who came from a working-class Connecticut family and grow up around a lot of “white, New England, conservative small-town stuff.” Dzubilo comments in the documentary: “I went to private school on a scholarship, but I always had this deep internal life.”

She moved to New York City in the early ’80s when Studio 54 reopened under new owners after original owners Steve Rubell and Ian Schrager were imprisoned for tax evasion. Dzubilo says when she first lived in New York City, she felt he felt “gobbled up” by the city. She says she became a “wild child” and had a boyfriend who was a drug dealer. The documentary includes footage of Dzubilo as lead singer of the Transisters, a punk band consisting of all transgender women.

Dzubilo attended the Parsons School of Design and received an associate degree in Gender Studies from the City University of New York City College in 1999. But she also went through tough times, including being homeless and being diagnosed as HIV-positive, which led to her being a passionate AIDS activist. At the time she filmed this documentary, Dzubilo also talked about having other health issues, such has having debilitating problems with her bones.

It isn’t made clear in the documentary how Dzubilo and De Long met, but the movie shows De Long in the days when De Long was living as a woman named Tara Jo and she was an aspiring rapper. De Long, as Tara Jo, says that when she was a child, her dream was either to be a Hollywood star or a baseball star.

De Long also has a lot to say about how New York City has changed since she moved to the city in the mid-1990s from rural Illinois: “I wish New York could be more accessible the way it used to be, more of a place where artists can come and sort of start and not be in debt and have a chance to live here. Unfortunately, it’s a tough place to start.” De Long continues, “The problem with the underground is there’s no money in it. And you get to a certain age when you can’t do it for free anymore.”

Dzubilo and De Long became a couple when De Long was living as a transgender man. It’s mentioned in the documentary that De Long has since made the full transition by having the operation. In case people don’t know what happened in Dzubilo and De Long’s relationship, that information won’t be revealed in this review. However, the documentary does show what happened, and it’s the most emotional part of the movie.

One of the scenes that shows an example of things that cisgender people take for granted is when Dzubilo and De Long jubilantly describe how they took a trip outside of the United States as a transgender couple. They were able to get through the customs checkpoint with their passports without being questioned or harassed because they’re transgender. They talk about how that type of gender acceptance, which cisgender people don’t have to think about when they show their identification, was a huge milestone for them.

All four of the transgender stars in this movie became trans activists, with Dzubilo being the most politically active of the four. Lepore has this to say about her trans activism: “What I do is a statement. I help people in my own way.”

“I Hate New York” (which is Sánchez’s feature-film debut as a director) has a lot of raw-looking hand-held footage, but there’s also some artistic shots, especially of the nightlife scenes. And because the movie was filmed over 10 years, it’s a compelling journey into the lives of these four transgender people. “I Hate New York” isn’t about disdain for America’s most-populated city but rather hate for any transphobia they’ve experienced and New York City’s increasingly difficult financial barriers for struggling artists. However, the transgender people who star in this documentary admirably show how they’ve been able to rise above the hate.

1844 Entertainment released “I Hate New York” on digital and VOD on September 1, 2020. The movie was originally released in Spain in 2018.

Review: ‘Mr. Soul!,’ starring Harold C. Haizlip, Alvin Poussaint, Harry Belafonte, Loretta Long, Nikki Giovanni, Christopher Lukas and Gayle Wald

September 17, 2020

by Carla Hay

Ellis Haizlip (center) with members of the J.C. White Choir in “Mr. Soul!” (Photo by Alex Harsley/Shoes in the Bed Productions)

“Mr. Soul! ”

Directed by Melissa Haizlip

Culture Representation: The documentary film “Mr. Soul!” examines the history of Ellis Haizlip, the co-creator/host of the National Education Television (NET)/PBS variety series “Soul!” (which was on the air from 1968 to 1973), and interviews a group of African Americans and white people who are entertainers, current and former TV producers, artists, educators, authors and civil rights activists.

Culture Clash: “Soul!” was the first nationally televised U.S. variety series that gave a spotlight to African American culture, and a lot of the show’s content was considered edgy and controversial.

Culture Audience: “Mr. Soul!” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in African American culture or TV shows from the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Ellis Haizlip and AmIri Baraka in “Mr. Soul!” (Photo by Chester Higgins/Shoes in the Bed Productions_

Before there was BET, before there was “Soul Train,” a publicly funded variety series called “Soul!” paved the way for nationally televised U.S. programming devoted to showcasing African American culture. “Soul!” was on the air from 1968 to 1973, but the excellent documentary “Mr. Soul!” tells the inside story of how “Soul!” co-creator/host Ellis Haizlip (who died in 1991, at the age of 61) had the vision to mastermind this type of programming, which was revolutionary at the time and continues to influence African American entertainment variety shows today.

Ellis Haizlip’s niece Melissa Haizlip skillfully directed this documentary, which has a treasure trove of archival footage and insightful commentary from a diverse array of people who were connected to the show in some way. Some of the documentary includes Ellis’ own correspondence, which is narrated in voiceover by actor Blair Underwood.

In watching the documentary, it’s clear that “Soul!” was definitely a product of its time. The show was conceived and born during the turbulent civil rights era of the late 1960s, when the U.S. was reeling from the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy in 1968, after John F. Kennedy and Malcolm X were also murdered earlier in the decade. The Black Power movement was a force to be reckoned with , and so it was only a matter of time before TV executives decided there was a need to give the movement a showcase on television.

As the documentary points out, although Ellis Haizlip was one of the co-creators of “Soul!,” he didn’t initially plan to be the on-camera star of the show, since he preferred to work behind the scenes. According to “Soul!” co-creator/producer Christopher Lukas, he and Ellis decided to start the show after Lukas kept hearing Ellis talk about “how lively the renaissance of the arts of black communities around the country” was and there should be a TV show it.

Dr. Harold C. Haizlip, a cousin of Ellis and a short-lived host of “Soul!,” confirms that Ellis’ vision was to “legitimate all of the variety of expressions of the arts,” particularly in the African American community. Nat King Cole and Harry Belafonte (who is interviewed in “Mr. Soul!”) had their own variety/talk shows, but those programs were aimed mainly at white audiences. Lukas says that Ellis didn’t want “Soul!” to be an African American version of “The Tonight Show,” but wanted “Soul!” to be “deeper, jazzier and more controversial” than the typical variety show on national television.

Of course, a TV show with this type of content can’t be at the mercy of advertisers, so public television was the best fit for “Soul!,” at a time when cable TV and the Internet didn’t exist. According to Lukas, the Ford Foundation quickly stepped up to fund “Soul!” as a New York City-based TV series on the nonprofit NET network, which was part of PBS. Lukas remembers that the title of “Soul!” was admittedly generic, but it was the only title that the producers could agree upon that best encompassed the spirit of the show.

Although there were other African American shows on U.S. public television that came before “Soul!” (such as “Black Journal,” “Like It Is,” and “Say Brother,” now titled “Basic Black”) these were primarily news and public-affairs programs. “Soul!” aimed to have to have more of a focus on arts and entertainment, while also including commentary about news, politics and other social issues, as they pertained to African Americans.

Dr. Alvin Poussaint, a world-renowned Harvard University professor and psychiatrist whose specialty is African American studies, was chosen as the first host of “Soul!” But his prestigious academic background didn’t translate well to him being a great TV personality, according to Poussaint and other people in the documentary. And so, Poussaint was asked to leave the show after only four episodes, according to Lukas.

The next host of “Soul!” was Harold Haizlip, who admits he wasn’t well-suited to be the show’s host either. At the time, he had a day job as headmaster for New Lincoln School, a New York City private school for kids in pre-kindergarten through 12th grade. Harold says that hosting “Soul!” was considered “radical” at the time, so he was slightly afraid that people from his highbrow academic world would find out and ostracize him. Harold didn’t have to worry about that for long, since he also parted ways with the show.

Lukas remembers that Ellis was initially reluctant to host “Soul!” because Ellis didn’t have a lot of on-camera experience. However, Ellis was eventually convinced to host “Soul!” when he figured out that, as the “face” of “Soul!,” it would give him more power to fulfill his vision for the show. Ellis started out as a very awkward host, but he eventually got the hang of it. And because Ellis did not have a highly academic persona, like the predecessor hosts, he probably came across as more “relatable” to the audience.

Several people, including Harold Haizlip and Lukas, mention that because Ellis was an openly gay man who knew what it was like to experience bigotry, that probably affected his willingness to be more open-minded to have guests on the show who were rejected by other TV shows. It’s noted many times in the documentary that if Ellis really liked a new artist, it didn’t matter if the artist had a hit or not, he wanted to champion the artist on the show. Several people mention that, unlike other TV programs that had lip syncing from music performers, “Soul!” always required that people perform live, giving the show a level of authenticity that other variety shows did not have.

Ashford & Simpson, Patti LaBelle and the Bluebells, Al Green, Toni Morrison, Arsenio Hall Roberta Flack, Novella Nelson and Earth Wind & Fire were among the artists who got their first major TV breaks by appearing on “Soul!” In the documentary, Valerie Simpson says, “There would not be an Ashford & Simpson without ‘Soul!'” Simpson’s husband/musical partner Nicholas “Nick” Ashford says that Ellis believed in them before they believed in themselves. (Ashford was interviewed for the movie four months before he died in August 2011, according the documentary’s production notes.)

Ellis also didn’t limit his choices to artists who did “safe” material, since many of the guests were controversial. Lukas says that Ellis wanted to embrace the radicals and the religious conservatives in the African American community. Louis Farrakhan, who would become the leader of the Nation of Islam in 1977, was a guest on “Soul!” in 1971. Farrakhan, who is considered the leader of Black Muslims in America, has frequently come under fire for comments that are anti-Semitic, racist against white people and homophobic. It’s noted in the documentary that Ellis’ “Soul!” interview with Farrakhan was the first time that Farrakhan admitted on TV that he would try to be more open-minded when it came to accepting people who aren’t heterosexual.

The Last Poets, an all-African American male poetry group, was on “Soul!” multiple times. The group was controversial for frequently using the “n” word in its poetry lines and titles. When the Last Poets would perform on “Soul!,” it was completely uncensored, as it is in this documentary. Last Poets members Abiodun Oyewole and Umar Bin Hassan are among the documentary’s interviewees. Oyewole comments on the group’s frequent use of the “n” word in its art: “You’ve got to show how black you are by your actions.”

“Soul!” was not only very Afro-centric on camera, but the show was also very Afro-centric behind the scenes, since the majority of the show’s producers were African American women, according to the documentary. Former “Soul!” associate producers Anna Maria Horsford and Alice LaBrie are among those interviewed in the documentary. “Soul!” gave a great deal of airtime to black women co-hosting the show and doing on-camera interviews, when nationally televised U.S. primetime variety series, then and now, usually hire white men for these jobs.

In one episode, “Soul!” devoted the entire episode to African American female poets. “Soul!” also gave a big platform to activist/poet Nikki Giovanni, who appeared on the show numerous times and is interviewed in the documentary. Her 1971 exclusive interview with writer James Baldwin is considered one of the highlights of “Soul!’s” history. (Ellis and Baldwin initially didn’t along with each other, but the two men would eventually work together on “The Amen Corner” tour of the stage play.)

Loretta Long, who was an original “Soul!” co-host, remembers that the show gave her an opportunity to be on television at a time when television was limiting casting of African American women to mostly subservient or demeaning roles. Long says in the documentary about her on-camera opportunities at the time: “Television wasn’t an option for me, because I didn’t want to be Beulah. I didn’t want to be the maid.” She says of her first time on “Soul!”: “That first show, the atmosphere was electric!” Long would later go on to become one of the original stars of “Sesame Street.”

And long before Horsford found fame as an actress on sitcoms such as “Amen” and “The Wayans Bros.,” this former “Soul!” associate producer made several on-camera appearances on “Soul!” as an activist/poet. On a side note, the documentary includes late 1960s footage of actress Roxie Roker (Lenny Kravitz’s mother, who was most famous for co-starring on “The Jeffersons”) hosting the public-affairs/news program “Inside Bed-Stuy” It’s an example of the on-camera opportunities that public TV programs gave to African American women who were often shut out of other TV programs at the time.

Several people comment in the documentary that when African American guests came on “Soul!” (whose studio audience was also mostly African American), they showed a certain level of comfort that they didn’t have on other shows. When Grammy-winning legend Steve Wonder appeared on “Soul!” in 1972 to introduce his band Wonderlove, he didn’t seem to want to leave the stage. What was supposed to be a guest segment turned into an entire episode of Wonder performing.

Avant-garde jazz artist Rahsaan Roland Kirk was nowhere near as famous as Wonder, but he’s named in the documentary as an example of the type of “underground” African American artist who would never be able to get booked on any nationally televised primetime variety series at the time. The documentary includes footage of Kirk’s notorious 1972 appearance when he played three instruments at one time and ended the performance by ripping up a bridge chair on stage.

“Soul!” would later eventually expand its programming to include Latino issues and culture. Former “Soul!” host Felipe Luciano gets tearful in the documentary when he remembers how Ellis gave him his first opportunity to be a producer on the show. Luciano says that because of Ellis’ openness to include Latino culture in “Soul!,” Luciano was able to book and introducer Tito Puente on the show.

Some other notable appearances on “Soul!” included Sidney Poitier and Belafonte doing an interview together; Muhammad Ali discussing his conscientious objection to the Vietnam War; husband-and-wife actors Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee in one of their first TV appearances together; and interviews with activists Betty Shabazz, Stokely Carmichael and Kathleen Cleaver, who is interviewed in the documentary.

The documentary includes some family background information about Ellis (who grew up in the Washington, D.C., area), including mentioning that from an early age, he liked to direct performances and come up with creative ideas for shows. Ellis was the second child of four kids. He had an older sister named Doris, a younger sister named Marie and a younger brother named Lionel. Ellis was closest to Marie.

The family experienced a tragedy when Ellis’ beloved mother Sarah died when he was 17. His aunt Nellie than became like a surrogate mother to the kids. But Ellis’ father (Ellis Sr.), who’s described as very strict and religious, had a hard time accepting that Ellis was gay. Ellis’ cousin Harold gets emotional when he comments in the documentary about Ellis Sr.’s homophobia toward Ellis Jr.: “Even then, I knew Ellis was a very special person, and he needed a nourishing environment, rather than a critical one.”

Fortunately, Ellis found acceptance with his TV family at “Soul!” Before landing at “Soul!,” Ellis (a Howard University graduate) worked in theater while he was in college and eventually started working in television. “Soul!” came to an end when funding was cut off due to much of the controversial content.

As Harold comments about the show’s cancellation: “‘Soul!” was undiluted and absolutely in your face—and that was its value and also its undoing.” Former “Soul!” producer Luciano remembers being upset that Ellis was so calm and accepting about the cancellation, because he thought that Ellis would be more inclined to fight to keep the show on the air. A few days before the last episode of “Soul!” was filmed, another tragedy struck the Haizlip family. That tragedy won’t be revealed in this review, but it’s enough to say that it had a profound effect on Ellis, who continued to work for PBS for most of his career.

Other people interviewed in the documentary include Beth Ausbrooks and Mary Wilburn, two of Ellis’ childhood friends; actors Obba Babatunde and the late Novella Nelson; filmmakers Thomas Allen Harris, Louis Massiah and David Peck; writers Khephra Burns and Greg Tate; former “Soul!” production secretary Leslie Demus; former “Soul!” staff photographer Chester Higgins; dancers Carmen de Lavallade, , Sylvia Waters and Judith Jamison; choreographer George Faison; musicians Billy Taylor and Questlove; and activists Amiri Baraka and Sonia Sanchez.

Also contributing their commentary are producer/director Stan Lathan; former National Black Theatre director Sade Lythcott; entertainer Melba Moore; former WNET executive/former National Urban League president Hugh Price, Rev. Cheryl Sanders, a niece of Ellis Haizlip; Syracuse University professor Robert Thompson; Harvard University professor Sarah Lewis; George Washington University professor Gayle Wald, author of “It’s Been Beautiful: Soul! and Black Power TV”; and “James Baldwin: A Biography” author David Leeming.

A lot of people who watch “Mr. Soul!” will find out many things about African American television that they didn’t know about before seeing this documentary. It’s why “Soul!” remains underrated and often overlooked when people talk about groundbreaking American television. But “Mr. Soul!” is a fitting and well-deserved tribute to “Soul!” and the visionary Ellis Haizlip, who took bold risks in bringing the show to life.

Shoes in the Bed Productions released “Mr. Soul!” in select U.S. cinemas on August 28, 2020.

Review: ‘The Lawyer,’ starring Eimutis Kvoščiauskas, Doğaç Yıldız and Darya Ekamasova

September 5, 2020

by Carla Hay

Eimutis Kvoščiauskas and Doğaç Yildic in “The Lawyer” (Photo courtesy of TLA Releasing)

“The Lawyer”

Directed by Romas Zabarauskas

Some language in Lithuanian with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in Lithuania and Serbia, the drama “The Lawyer” features a mostly white European cast (with a few Middle Eastern people) representing the middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: An openly gay lawyer, who falls for a male webcam model, finds out that his new love interest is a Syrian refugee in Serbia, and the lawyer tries to get him asylum in another country.

Culture Audience: “The Lawyer” will appeal primarily to people who like stylishly made independent dramas with realistic scenarios and storylines about the LGBTQ community and immigration issues.

Eimutis Kvoščiauskas and Doğaç Yildic in “The Lawyer” (Photo courtesy of TLA Releasing)

LGBTQ rights and immigration issues collide in the drama “The Lawyer,” a quietly effective drama that shines a light on how the sexuality of LGBTQ war refugees might affect their immigration status. Written, directed and produced by Romas Zabarauskas, “The Lawyer” takes its time (the first third of the film) to get to the heart of the story, which is viewed from the perspective of a protagonist named Marius (played by Eimutis Kvoščiauskas), an openly gay Lithuanian attorney in his 40s who lives alone but he has an active social life.

It’s shown in the beginning of the film that Marius (who lives and works as a corporate attorney in the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius) has a reassuring way with people where he likes to help solve their problems. The opening scene is of Marius at his law office, calming down a demanding socialite friend of his named Darya Ivanova (played by Darya Ekamasova), who has stormed into the office because she’s upset that a gossip website has made a less-than-flattering remark about an outfit that she wore to an event.

Darya had worn a shirt with a large print of the insignia that was on the flag of former Soviet Union. The website’s published a photo of Darya in the outfit, with the headline: “Darya Ivanova’s Shocking Out: Nostalgia for the Soviet Occupation?” Darya is so offended that she wants to sue the website and she’s already been browbeating an unwitting receptionist at Marius’ law firm to get someone at the law firm to do something about this “problem.”

Even though Marius reminds Daria that his law firm does corporate law and wouldn’t be able to take the case, he tells her he’ll see what he can do. “How can we refuse to work with Madame Darya?” he tells her. Darya thanks him effusively and leaves before she can further berate any more employees. Marius’ ability to diffuse the situation is the first indication that Marius likes to see himself as a “fixer” of people’s problems. And this personality trait explains much of what he does later in the movie.

Marius, who is single and doesn’t have any children, has a circle of friends in the LGBTQ community. During a house party dinner with some of these friends, it’s revealed that Marius has a reputation for being promiscuous, although he insists that he would be in a serious, monogamous relationship if he could find true love. Marius laments, “I’m an old poof in homophobic Lithuania.”

At this dinner, Marius has been somewhat set up on a blind date with a bisexual transgender man named Pranas (played by Danilas Pavilionis), who works as a sculptor. After the dinner, when Marius and Pranas are alone together, they talk some more and find out they’re not very compatible. Pranas (who’s about 15 to 20 years younger than Marius) calls Marius a “privileged corporate lawyer.” When Marius asks Pranas if he would make a sculpture of Marius if Marius commissioned it, Pranas replies that Marius wouldn’t have the money for it. Oh, snap. That’s the end of that date.

Marius’ attorney salary has given him a very comfortable upscale life (and the sleekly modern apartment to prove it), but he’s not as wealthy as his friend Darya. As for his love life, Marius’ promiscuity is hinted at in the movie, but it’s not really shown, except for later in the story when he randomly picks up a guy. It’s hinted that Marius can have a tendency to be self-absorbed. When he talks to his friends who set him up on the blind date with Pranas, they are dismayed to find out that that Marius didn’t recognize Pranas, who was featured in a LGBTQ “coming out” public service announcement that was co-sponsored by Marius’ law firm.

Marius and Paranas didn’t have a love connection, perhaps because Marius’ attention has been on his favorite webcam model, a handsome man who calls himself Ron. After some mutual flirting through their webcam chats, Marius persuades the model to give him his personal phone number, which is against the rules.

Marius and the model continue their conversations privately, and the model reveals that his real name is Ali (played by Doğaç Yildiz), and that he’s a Syrian refugee living in Belgrade, Serbia. Ali also tells Marius that he’s gotten suspended from the webcam service because another use reported him for giving out his personal phone number to a customer.

Meanwhile, Marius gets his own bad news: His mother calls to tell him that his father has died. When he goes back to his hometown to attend the funeral, his mother (played by Neringa Bulotaitė) tells Marius that Marius’ father was sorry for the way things went. It’s not stated outright, but it’s implied that Marius and his father were estranged at the time of his death, but it’s not stated why they were estranged. Marius’ earlier comment about Lithuania being “homophobic” certainly suggests that he’s experienced bigotry or hatred about his sexuality, perhaps from his father. The movie doesn’t go into details about how long Marius has been openly gay.

A turning point in Marius and Ali’s relationship happens when Marius tells Ali about his father’s death, and Ali comforts him in a very compassionate and sincere way. It’s the first sign that they will have more than a superficial online relationship because there’s an unspoken bond they now share over grief and loss. Marius decides to visit Ali in Serbia, where Marius will be for a week.

Marius and Ali’s first date is very casual: They go jogging. Ali doesn’t want them to become lovers right away, but Marius reminds him that he’s only going to be in Serbia for a week. Ali opens up a little more about his refugee situation and he insists that he doesn’t want to be thought of as a victim. “You’re too handsome to be a victim,” Marius tells Ali. Ali responds, “You’re too handsome to be a lawyer.” Yes, it’s that kind of movie with corny romantic dialogue.

However, since Marius is an attorney, Ali asks Marius if there is any way that Marius can help. Marius tells Ali that he’s a corporate attorney and doesn’t know anything about immigration law Marius is also hurt because he thinks that Ali isn’t interested in dating him and just wanted to use him for his legal services. They agree that perhaps there was a misunderstanding and they should part ways.

But since Marius has a “savior” complex, he changes his mind and tracks down Ali at the refugee camp in Krnjaca, where Ali lives. Ali is very surprised and somewhat embarrassed to see Marius there, but he agrees to accept Marius’ help. Marius insist that Ali spent the rest of the week with him at Marius’ hotel. Ali tells Marius that he’s bisexual and that he’s not fully “out of the closet” yet.

At first Marius tries to keep things platonic, but one thing leads to another and they become lovers. Ali, who is originally from the Syrian capital of Damascus, tells Marius about some painful losses he’s experienced because of the Syrian war. Ali says he wants to move to another country, but he doesn’t want to be openly identify as a member of the LGBTQ community, which would give him a better chance of being out in a “protected” status with immigration. Ali also says he hasn’t been the victim of a homophobic hate crime, so that makes it even more difficult for him to apply for refugee status.

What happens to Ali and Marius and their new romance is shown in the rest of the movie, which takes great care to depict this love story in a touching and sometimes humorous way. Viewers will want to root for this couple as they navigate the complications of international law and immigrant refugee policies. One of the biggest obstacles to Ali and Marius living together is that Lithuania does not have an immigration policy for Syrian refugees that is as open and friendly as other countries’ policies. And Marius has no intention of moving to Serbia, since Ali doesn’t want to stay in Serbia either.

“The Lawyer” writer/director/producer Zabarauskas made the right decision to have the story told from Marius’ point of view because Marius represents the “privileged blind spot” that many people have when they hear about war refugees but don’t really think much about refugees until a refugee problem affects them directly. The people who are most likely to watch “The Lawyer” are those who probably have this “privileged blind spot” too, and it might make these viewers think of the fallout of the Syrian war in more human terms.

The movie’s stylish cinematography (by Narvydas Naujalis) plays with color palettes in a meaningful way. When Marius is feeling lust or love, he’s shaded in red. The morning after Ali and Marius become lovers, they wake up in their hotel in a scene that is shot in black and white, recalling the romance of old European movies.

Where “The Lawyer” falls a little short at times is in its writing and acting. The dialogue can be a bit hokey. For example, in the scene where Ali asks Marius for help with his immigration status, Marius tells Ali: “You may be Cinderella, but I’m no Prince Charming.” The spoiled socialite character of Darya is also unnecessary to the story, although there’s a scene in her art gallery that’s visually compelling because of the oversized photos on the walls and how they are filmed.

Kvoščiauskas can be a little wooden as an actor. But to be fair, his stiff demeanor could also be interpreted as Marius being somewhat closed off from his emotions until he falls for Ali. Yildiz has a more natural, more believable style to his acting. The movie definitely gets better in the second half, when Marius and Ali’s relationship starts to develop.

Although the movie’s screenwriting and acting have minor flaws, “The Lawyer” is worth watching for the overall story. The emotions of the characters are depicted in an authentic way. And the movie makes an unforgettable point of showing how the negative effects of a war reach far beyond the borders of the country at war.

TLA Releasing released “The Lawyer” on DVD on August 18, 2020. Dekkoo premiered the movie on August 20, 2020.

Review: ‘The Garden Left Behind,’ starring Carlie Guevara, Michael Madsen, Ed Asner, Danny Flaherty, Alex Kruz, Tamara Williams and Miriam Cruz

September 4, 2020

by Carla Hay

Carlie Guevara in “The Garden Left Behind” (Photo courtesy of Uncork’d Entertainment and Dark Star Pictures)

“The Garden Left Behind”

Directed by Flavio Alves

Some language in Spanish with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in New York City, the dramatic film “The Garden Left Behind” features a racially diverse cast of characters (Latinos, African Americas, white people and Asians) of transgender and cisgender people representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A young transgender woman who is an undocumented immigrant from Mexico experiences hateful discrimination and personal struggles during her quest to get medical treatment for her transition.

Culture Audience: “The Garden Left Behind” will mostly appeal to people interested in transgender female issues that are portrayed realistically in a scripted movie. 

Miriam Cruz in “The Garden Left Behind” (Photo courtesy of Uncork’d Entertainment and Dark Star Pictures)

The struggles of undocumented immigrants in America are rarely told in movies from the perspective of a transgender woman, but the drama “The Garden Left Behind” admirably and authentically gives a voice to this often-overlooked community. Directed by Flavio Alves (who co-wrote the screenplay with John Rotondo), “The Garden Left Behind” is anchored by an impressive performance by Carlie Guevara, who makes her feature-film debut in the movie.

Alves and Rotondo are cisgender men, so they did a lot of research before making “The Garden Left Behind,” a movie that was partially crowdfunded through eBay. Alves says in comments that are in the movie’s production notes: “In order to do the story justice, we met with more than 30 trans-led organizations, with hopes of including their concerns about the fictional story we were building. John and I wrote this story because we care deeply about the transgender community, and shortly after starting our research, we understood that it would require us to do a lot more homework in order to develop authentic characters.”

The filmmakers also made the decision to casting only transgender people in the transgender roles. And they had several transgender people in the behind-the scenes film crew. According to what Alves says in the movie’s production notes: “We were lucky enough to have the Trans Filmmakers Project join the production team of our film, providing us with a large pool of transgender representation behind the camera, so that they could gain experience making media, that will eventually help them to develop stories of their own. In addition to TFP, a long list of other fantastic organizations helped support the film, including GLAAD, who took us under their wing and provided special trainings for our crew of actors, advocates, and allies.”

It’s important to mention all of this information about the movie because all of that authenticity shows in “The Garden Left Behind,” which takes viewers on an emotionally powerful journey of one woman’s experiences in trying to overcome obstacles and discrimination from bigots who want to mistreat transgender people as outcasts. And the filmmakers should be commended for having real transgender representation on screen and off screen for the movie, because many movies about transgender people still don’t cast transgender people in transgender roles, and they shut out transgender people from being on the film crew.

The story of “The Garden Left Behind” takes an intimate look into a few months in the life of Tina Carerra (played by Guevara), a vibrant transgender woman in her early 20s whose goal is to make a complete medical transition into the female gender. She lives with her loving grandmother Eliana (played by Miriam Cruz) in New York City’s Bronx borough, and Tina is the one who’s responsible for earning the household income. Tina (whose birth name is Antonio) has been living in the United States with her grandmother (who only speaks Spanish and is also undocumented) since Tina was 5 years old. Tina’s parents are not mentioned or seen in the movie.

The obstacles to Tina’s life goal are very daunting: Tina is barely able to pay the household bills on her salary as a rideshare diver. As an undocumented immigrant without a college education, her career options are also limited. And she’s too proud to ask for help from people she knows, including her boyfriend Jason (played by Alex Kruz), an older businessman whom she’s been dating for the past two years.

Tina and Jason’s relationship is a lot like how romances are between trans women and straight men: The men often want to keep the relationship as secret as possible. This secrecy is starting to irritate Tina, but Jason is taking small steps toward making their relationship more public when he takes Tina out to dinner for the first time. However, it bothers Tina that Jason, who works in a corporate office job, still won’t introduce her to his family and friends.

Eliana is aware that Tina has been dating Jason, who sometimes comes over to the apartment for late-night trysts with Tina, but Tina hasn’t introduced Jason to Eliana, and it’s implied that Eliana doesn’t even know his name. The morning after one of these trysts, Eliana tells her that Jason is welcome to sleep over on the couch, but Tina brushes off the subject of her love life in a defensive way. Eliana sheepishly responds by saying that she won’t try to pry in Tina’s personal life. Tina also doesn’t know how to talk to her grandmother about her goal to transition into a fully biological female.

However, Tina gets emotional support about the transition from her transgender female friends. They include Tina’s outspoken and sassy best friend Carol (played by Tamara Williams), plus Amanda (played by Ivana Black) and Briana (played by Lea Nyeli). Carol is the one who recommended that Tina see a doctor in the city who has worked with transgender people for years and is someone who can sign off on the psychiatric clearance that Tina needs to be eligible for her medical transition.

Tina has already told Dr. Cleary (played by Ed Asner) about her family situation by mentioning that her grandmother is “the only family I have. We’re very close. Let’s just say she has my back.” During the therapy sessions, Tina also says that her grandmother often talks about certain fond memories that she has of Mexico, such as the food, their former family home and the garden that was at the home. The stories of the garden are so influential to Tina that she has become an avid gardener in a small lot in the Bronx.

Tina confides in Carol that Dr. Cleary is sometimes frustrating because he keeps asking the same questions. But in the therapy sessions, it’s shown that Dr. Cleary keeps asking the same questions because Tina is reluctant to answer the questions clearly. She either won’t answer or gives vague answers that are not enough for Dr. Cleary to give a full evaluation.

“We’re on the same team,” Dr. Cleary tells Tina, “but I need to know more so I can evaluate you.” One of the questions that Tina seems to have trouble answering is: “Why are you here?” It’s another question that Dr. Cleary asks Tina that finally breaks the ice and gets them to open up to each other: “Are you happy?”

Tina asks Dr. Cleary what the definition of happy is and asks him to tell her what makes him happy. He says that what makes him happy is waking up to his wife, seeing his children and grandchildren succeed, and doing his job. After Dr. Cleary shows himself in a more human light, it improves Tina’s ability to have candid conversations with him. Dr. Cleary eventually diagnoses Tina with having gender dysphoria, which is the diagnosis she needs to start getting medical treatment for her transition.

But Tina experiences major obstacles because she doesn’t have health insurance and she can’t afford the out-of-pocket costs that she would have to pay to continue the medical treatment. She also begins breathing and voice-exercise therapy to have a more feminine-sounding voice. In order to pay for some to these costs, Tina makes a decision to sell her car, which means she can no longer be a rideshare driver.

Luckily, she finds another job as a bartender at a local bar where she and Jason have been customers. Tina and Jason have had a friendly relationship with the bar’s owner/manager Kevin (played by Michael Madsen), who hires Tina on the spot when he sees that she has good bartending skills. Because she’s an undocumented immigrant, Tina ends up paying for a fake resident alien card (or green card) so that she can work at the bar.

Meanwhile, Tina has a passing but polite acquaintance with a young man in his late teens named Chris (played by Anthony Abdo), whom Tina encounters sometimes while he’s working at his cashier job at a local convenience store where she’s a regular customer. Chris is very quiet and shy, but he hangs out with a trio of rowdy, homophobic teenagers who are his teammates on a local baseball team.

Chris’ bigoted pals are group leader Oscar (played by Danny Flaherty), Adrien (Sidiki Fofana) and Leo (played by Will Kirsanda), who have no qualms about showing how much they hate anything to do with the LGBTQ community. On the night that Tina and Jason have their first dinner together at a restaurant, they are walking and cuddling on the street after they leave the restaurant. Oscar, Adrien and Leo happen on the same street, and when they see Tina and Jason together, the troublemaking trio starts yelling transphobic insults. The harassment brings Tina to tears, but Jason comforts her with a passionate kiss before they go into his place.

Unfortunately, it won’t be the last time that Tina and other people in her transgender community are the targets of hate. Shortly after Tina experiences this harassment, Carol’s close friend Rosie gets beaten up by police officers for being transgender, but the cops haven’t been held accountable. This hate crime sparks Carol to organize Trans Lives Matter protests, and Tina becomes part of the movement too. The protests and media coverage set off a chain of events that have profound effects on Tina’s life in ways that are both inspiring and horrifying.

“The Garden Left Behind” is not always an easy film to watch if people aren’t prepared to see the hatred and inhumane way that other human beings are mistreated in life. But it’s a harsh reality that is experienced by many transgender people who are often overlooked and treated as undeserving as the same rights as everyone else. The movie shows Tina’s political awakening when she begins to understand that by staying silent and doing nothing, she is indirectly helping the bigotry and hate crimes to thrive.

Although a lot of people can’t or won’t sympathize with Tina being an undocumented immigrant, her story is one shared by millions of undocumented people who came to the U.S. as children, through no choice of their own, because they were brought by adults who were also undocumented immigrants. Tina, like most of these Dreamers, is not a “charity case” who doesn’t want to work. She wants to be a productive member of society, but she also has the additional and costly challenge that cisgender people do not have: transitioning into the gender she should have had when she was born.

Perhaps by coincidence, “The Garden Left Behind” was released the same week as filmmaker/actress Isabel Sandoval’s dramatic movie “Lingua Franca,” which is also about a transgender woman who’s an undocumented immigrant in New York City. Whereas Sandoval’s character in “Lingua Franca” is at a stage in her life where she’s ready to get married, Tina has barely begun her adult life and is still learning about what it’s like to try to find a life partner as a transgender woman.

Although what ultimately ends up happening to Tina is easy to predict, that doesn’t lessen the emotional impact of the story. The way that Alves skillfully crafts the story shows that Tina, more often than not, lives a life that is very much like other young people who are financially struggling and worried about their futures. She just happens to be transgender and an undocumented Mexican immigrant, and therefore she has to deal with all the discrimination that comes with being in these identity groups. “The Garden Left Behind” should be essential viewing for people who want to see what it’s like for a transgender woman to find her voice and stand up for who she is, even if other people want to punish her for it.

Uncork’d Entertainment and Dark Star Pictures released “The Garden Left Behind” in select U.S. virtual cinemas on August 28, 2020. The movie’s VOD release date is September 8, 2020.

Review: ‘Lingua Franca,’ starring Isabel Sandoval, Eamon Farren and Lynn Cohen

September 3, 2020

by Carla Hay

Isabel Sandoval in “Lingua Franca” (Photo courtesy of Array)

“Lingua Franca”

Directed by Isabel Sandoval

Some language in Tagalog and Cebuano with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in New York City, the dramatic film “Lingua Franca” features a racially diverse cast (white people and Asians) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A transgender woman, who is a caregiver and an undocumented immigrant from the Philippines, has a fear being deported, so she decides to find a willing U.S. citizen to marry, and begins a romantic relationship with her employer’s adult grandson.

Culture Audience: “Lingua Franca” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in an emotionally authentic “character study” story of a transgender woman who is living a quietly desperate life. 

Isabel Sandoval and Eamon Farren in “Lingua Franca” (Photo courtesy of Array)

It’s no secret that a lot of undocumented immigrants in the United States pay U.S. citizens to marry them in order for the immigrants to get resident alien status and a “green card” that allows the immigrants to legally work in the United States. While this illegal marriage arrangement has been depicted in several TV shows and movies, the dramatic film “Lingua Franca” is unique because it’s told from the perspective of an undocumented immigrant who is a transgender woman. Isabel Sandoval, who is a transgender woman in real life, is the writer, director, producer, editor and star of “Lingua Franca,” which is a realistic and low-key character study rather than a movie packed with contrived melodrama.

The term “lingua franca” means “something that is like a common language,” according to Webster’s New World College Dictionary. In the movie “Lingua Franca,” viewers can have their own opinions on what the “common language” is in the story. But it’s clear that the two lovers at the center of the story are both looking for love and acceptance in each other because they feel like “outsiders” in their own worlds.

The movie takes place in New York City during the first year or two of Donald Trump’s presidency, because news reports seen and heard in the movie talk about the Trump administration’s order for the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to increase detentions and deportations of undocumented immigrants. There are racial overtones to these immigration crackdowns, since the vast majority of the undocumented immigrants being targeted for arrests, detentions and deportations are people of color, while the vast majority of ICE officials are white.

Sandoval plays Olivia, a transgender woman and undocumented immigrant from the Philippines. It’s not revealed in the movie how long Olivia has been living in the United States. Olivia has a Filipino accent, which suggests that she came to the U.S. as an adult.

Olivia is in her late 30s, and she currently lives in New York City’s Brooklyn borough, where she works as a responsible caregiver for an elderly American widow named Olga (played by Lynn Cohen), who is showing signs of dementia. Because of the rise in ICE arrests of undocumented immigrants, Olivia has become more paranoid about her immigration status being exposed.

Complicating matters is the fact that Olivia cannot change her gender and her name on her Philippines passport because of a law in the Philippines that does not allow transgender people to change their genders on government-issued identification. Therefore, she’s stuck in a complicated immigration limbo where she’s living her life as a woman in the United States, but the Philippines government officially classifies her as a man.

Olivia has a very quiet life that revolves around her job, since she has no family members in the area and she have very few friends. Olivia stays overnight in Olga’s home during the days of the week when Olivia works. Olga’s dementia has reached a point where she forgets that she’s in her own home. Olga sometimes calls on a house phone to ask Olivia to take her home, when Olga is already at home. Olivia patiently has to remind Olga to look at her surroundings in order to jog Olga’s memories and help Olga understand where she is.

Olivia’s closest friend is Katrina “Trixie” De La Fuente (played by Ivory Aquino), who’s also an undocumented immigrant from the Philippines. In one of the early scenes in the movie, Trixie gets married to a U.S. citizen named Daniel Cutler (played by Jake Soister), but it’s a legitimate marriage because they seem to be in love with each other. The wedding is a small ceremony (less than 50 people are in attendance) at a local courthouse.

Olivia’s date for the wedding is Matthew (played by Leif Steinert), who is also a U.S. citizen. It’s revealed later in the story that Olivia has been paying Matthew in installments, and once he has been paid in full, he has agreed to marry Olivia so that she can get her green card. But based on Matthew’s uncomfortable body language when he’s with Olivia at Trixie and Daniel’s wedding, Matthew is not feeling any close emotional connection with Olivia. What happens to Matthew and Olivia’s arrangement will come as no surprise to observant viewers.

Olivia has also been sending money to her mother in the Philippines. Her mother is heard, but not seen, in the movie by frequent phone conversations. (Helen Kwong is the voice of Olivia’s mother.) When Olivia’s mother calls her, it’s usually to find out when Olivia will be sending her money and to worry about Olivia’s immigration status in the United States. Her mother has heard about the increase in the number of ICE raids and arrests, so she tells tells Olivia to be careful.

Meanwhile, Olga’s grandson Alex (played by Eamon Farren), who’s in his late 20s, has returned to Brooklyn, where the rest of his immediate family lives. Alex was living on a farm in Ohio, but for whatever reason, he’s now back in Brooklyn. It’s not long before it’s revealed that Alex is an alcoholic and the “black sheep” of the family. He has an arrest record for driving under the influence: Before he moved to Ohio, Alex crashed his car into a bodega, and his family had to bail him out of jail for $5,000. It’s not stated how long ago this arrest happened, but it’s caused enough shame in his family that they consider his trustworthiness to be questionable.

Alex’s history of irresponsible behavior is one of the reasons why Alex’s uncle Murray (played by Lev Gorn) has reluctantly hired Alex to work as a trainee in the slaughterhouse where Murray is a supervisor to numerous employees, including Alex. Murray tells Alex that he only hired him as a favor to Alex’s mother, who is Murray’s sister. Murray warns Alex that Alex’s job is on a probation basis until Alex can prove that he’s a responsible and hard worker. He also tells Alex not to call him “uncle” when he’s on the job, because he doesn’t want the other workers to think that Alex is getting special treatment. Like an impish kid, Alex defies Murray’s request and calls him “uncle” anyway.

Alex and Olivia cross paths because now that Alex is living in Brooklyn again, members of his family (which includes his parents, his older brother and his brother’s wife) have asked him to help take care of his grandmother Olga during Olivia’s time off from the job. Olivia shows Olga’s schedule to Alex and the instructions on what to do. Olivia also tells Alex that she will still be the one to give Olga baths, but Alex will be in charge of almost everything else when Olivia isn’t there.

Olivia can see that Alex is nervous about having all of this responsibility because he admits to her up front that the schedule is a lot of him to handle. She calmly assures him that he can follow the schedule and that he’ll eventually get used to it. Meanwhile, although Alex and Olivia don’t flirt with each other when they first meet, it’s clear there might be some mutual attraction between them. For now, Olivia is trying to keep things professional with Alex.

Alex reconnects with some Brooklyn friends and finds himself falling back into his old drinking habits. At a scene in a local bar, Alex declines to drink alcohol at first because he says he’s in a recovery program for addiction. But then, a male friend eggs him on until Alex gives in and orders some vodka. It’s not shown what happens in the bar after that, but not surprisingly, Alex wakes up the next day with a hangover. And because he overslept, he’s late for the schedule he was supposed to keep for his grandmother Olga. Olivia finds out and gets irritated with Alex, but he is so charming to her that she ends up forgiving him.

It seems that Alex is leading an aimless life because there’s no indication that he has any goals or is ready to “grow up.” When he hangs out with his male friends, they play video games. The talk about sex with women, and one of the guys says that he suspects he might have dated a transgender woman because she would only give him oral sex and wouldn’t let him see her private parts. The guy who tells this story uses a derogatory term to describe this alleged transgender woman, so viewers know that Alex has at least one friend who’s bigoted against the LGBTQ community.

Olivia and Alex begin to spend more time together, because he has a car and a driver’s license, so he sometimes gives her rides to where she needs to go. Even though Olivia and Alex have opposite personalities (Olivia is introverted, Alex is extroverted), they start to become more attracted to each other. Alex incorrectly assumes that Matthew is Olivia’s boyfriend, and that’s when she confides in Alex that Matthew has been someone she’s been paying to eventually marry her so that she can get a green card.

She also tells Alex that she’s terrified by the possibility that she will be arrested by ICE. While Olivia and Alex are hanging out together outside one day, they see an undocumented immigrant being detained by ICE agents, who arrested the immigrant right on the street in front of the immigrant’s family members. It’s a sight that causes Olivia to become upset and more paranoid. Alex knows how much Olivia’s undocumented immigration status bothers her, and he tries to comfort Olivia.

Over time, Alex and Olivia’s conversations become more flirtatious until it’s pretty obvious that they’re going to become lovers. If it isn’t made clear enough that Olivia has sexual needs, there’s a scene of Olivia in her bedroom with a copy of D.H. Lawrence’s novel “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” on the dresser, and she takes out her vibrator to clean it.

Olivia and Alex eventually become lovers, but she hasn’t told him that she’s transgender. The sex scenes don’t really show what happens underneath the bed covers, but it’s implied that it’s possible that Olivia could have hidden her genital area from Alex. Olivia’s female breasts are seen in an upper-body nude scene, so it’s obvious she’s taken hormones, which probably made other parts of her body look more feminine too.

Will Alex find out that Olivia is transgender? Will Olivia marry Matthew or Alex to get a green card? And could she be arrested by ICE before any of that happens? The movie answers those questions, but not in an overdramatic “TV movie of the week” way, but in more of an atmospheric and introspective way that has lingering shots of the Brooklyn skyline and scenery, as Olivia and Alex’s love story develops.

“Lingua Franca” was released in the same week as the dramatic film “The Garden Left Behind,” which is about a transgender woman who’s an undocumented Mexican immigrant living in New York City. Even though the immigration status of these two women are the same, both of the movies and their central transgender characters are very different. In “The Garden Left Behind,” the transgender protagonist (who is named Tina) is a Dreamer in her 20s, and she becomes a political activist. Tina has a Latino American boyfriend who knows she’s transgender, but Tina isn’t at a stage in her life where she’s thinking about getting married, even if it’s to get legal immigration status.

In “Lingua Franca,” the transgender protagonist doesn’t want to do anything to call attention to herself and she definitely does not tell a potential boyfriend up front that she is transgender. And because Olivia is very introverted and passive, she doesn’t really have the type of personality to be a political activist. Olivia is someone who is okay with being as invisible as possible in American society, if it means it decreases her chances of being detained and deported.

Both movies have good acting, solid direction and well-written screenplays that realistically depict conversations, situations and events experienced by the characters. Olivia in “Lingua Franca” is a lot more emotionally isolated than Tina in “The Garden Left Behind.” Olivia doesn’t have any biological family members who live close to her (by contrast, Tina lives with her grandmother), and Olivia doesn’t have a support group of other people in the LGBTQ community.

Even if Olivia told potential husbands that she’s transgender, she’s at an age where a potential husband in an immigration arrangement might be more inclined to want a younger “trophy wife.” There’s some small acknowledgement of the “spinster” issue when, shortly after Olivia’s friend Trixie gets married, Olivia tells Trixie in a dejected tone that she’s “always the bridesmaid,” while Trixie tries to cheer up Olivia and tell her that she will eventually find someone to marry.

“Lingua Franca” has a lot of “slice of life” scenes that aren’t necessarily about moving the plot forward but they’re in the movie to give viewers a more vivid personality portraits of Olivia and Alex. It’s obvious that he’s not very stable, but will Olivia think he’s her best chance of getting legal immigration status? Olivia didn’t tell Alex that she’s transgender before they became lovers, but he knows how desperate she is to get her green card. There are a few scenes in the movie where he uses that desperation to emotionally manipulate Olivia.

“Lingua Franca” is Sandoval’s third feature film and the first feature where she has the name Isabel. For her previous two feature films—2011’s “Señorita and 2012’s “Apparition”—she wrote and directed under the name Vincent Sandoval. “Lingua Franca” might be a fictional film, but it accurately shows situations and feelings experienced by an untold number of transgender undocumented immigrants. And because Sandoval is also a transgender, there is a level of authenticity to this entire movie that would be difficult to achieve if the story had been told by all-cisgender group of filmmakers.

“Lingua Franca” poignantly shows how undocumented immigrants have to act “invisible,” for fear of being deported. That diminishment in society is further complicated when the immigrant is transgender. Thanks to Sandoval’s unique creative vision, “Lingua Franca” is an admirable spotlight that is not about pity but about respect and dignity.

Array released “Lingua Franca” in select U.S. cinemas on August 26, 2020, the same date that the movie premiered on Netflix.