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 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.

Review: ‘Summerland,’ starring Gemma Arterton, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Penelope Wilton and Tom Courtenay

August 3, 2020

by Carla Hay

Gemma Arterton and Lucas Bond in “Summerland” (Photo by Michael Wharley/IFC Films)

“Summerland” 

Directed by Jessica Swale

Culture Representation: Taking place in England from the 1920s to 1970s (and primarily during World War II in the early 1940s), the dramatic film “Summerland” has a predominantly white cast (with a few black people) representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash: A reclusive writer who’s a confirmed spinster must battle against prejudices (including her own) about raising a child during World War II, when she’s forced to become a foster parent to an evacuated boy, as she struggles to come to terms with a secret love affair that broke her heart.

Culture Audience: “Summerland” will appeal primarily to people who like period dramas that are about parental issues or LGBTQ issues.

Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Gemma Arterton in “Summerland” (Photo by Michael Wharley/IFC Films)

The emotional drama “Summerland,” which is set in England, takes viewers on a journey of someone who never wanted to become parent but is forced to take care of an evacuee boy during World War II. The experience has a profound effect on the child and his foster parent in more ways than one, in a story that has a few big surprises. Written and directed by Jessica Swale, “Summerland” also serves as a reminder of how it’s more important to judge a a family by how they treat each other, rather than by society prejudices of what a family is supposed to look like.

The movie begins in 1975, in a rural beachside area of Kent, where reclusive and cranky writer Alice Lamb (played by Penelope Wilton), who’s in her 70s, is working at home on a book, by using a typewriter. She’s temporarily interrupted by two girls, about 8 or 9 years old, who are at her front door, asking for donations to help the elderly. Alice rudely tells the girls before she slams the door on them, “You know how you can help the aged? You can bugger off!”

Astute viewers will notice that that the two little girls who were at Alice’s door have a strong physical resemblance to two women whose close relationship is revealed later in the story. Seeing these two little girls together appears to have triggered some of Alice’s memories, because most the movie then flashes back to Alice (played by Gemma Arterton) when she was in her early 40s, living in the same house, during World War II.

Alice was a reclusive writer back then too. She has an unpleasant demeanor and a moody reputation. People don’t know if she’s going to ignore them or snap at them. And because Alice is a never-married, childless woman of certain age who lives alone, she is the subject of a lot of the town’s gossip, with some of the townspeople believing that she might be a witch. A few of the residents have given her the unflattering nickname “The Beast of the Beach,” which is what they call Alice behind her back.

It’s revealed later in the story that Alice (who has no siblings) doesn’t seem to have any close family members or friends. Her mother isn’t really mentioned, but Alice’s father played a huge role in her life by encouraging her to follow her dreams. Alice’s father died when she was a child, and Alice was devastated by this loss.

Alice isn’t just a cantankerous eccentric. She seems to go out of her way to insult or hurt people. For example, she goes into a candy shop and sees that a little girl wants to buy some chocolate, but the girl’s mother says no because they can’t afford it, Alice buys the chocolate that the child wants. But instead of generously giving the chocolate to the little girl, Alice keeps the chocolate for herself and smirks outside when she can hear the little girl crying in dismay inside the shop.

It’s made abundantly clear that Alice doesn’t like children. And so, she’s very shocked when a boy in his early teens is placed into her care, despite her protests. The boy’s name is Frank (played by Lucas Bond), he’s an evacuee from London, and Alice is told that she received a letter from the foster-care system saying that she was expected to take care of him. Alice claims she never received the letter.

Alice tries to come up with excuses not take the child into her care, but the foster-care system is overwhelmed, and Alice is told she has no choice to take Frank until they can find another foster home for him. Frank’s father is serving in the military during the war, while his mother is still in London. Frank’s mother sent Frank away for his safety, since London was the target of intense bombing at the time.

During Frank’s first evening at Alice’s house, she treats him in an annoyed and dismissive manner. For dinner, she plops down raw food on a plate and says, “You don’t expect me to cook for you. There’s the stove.” At night, she doesn’t really care if Frank will sleep well, and she doesn’t do anything to make him feel comfortable. When Frank tells her that he usually has a glass of milk before he goes to sleep, Alice ignores him.

Upon his arrival in Kent, Frank is enrolled in a school called St. Nicholas, where the kindly headmaster Mr. Sullivan (played by Tom Courtenay) provides some comic relief to the story because of his sometimes befuddled manner. During Frank’s first class session at the school, teacher Mrs. Bassett (played by Jessica Gunning) tells everyone to be nice to Frank when she introduces him to the students in the class. Mrs. Bassett assigns a seat next to an unfriendly girl named Edie Corey (played by Dixie Egerickx), who treats Frank like an unwelcome outsider.

When Mrs. Bassett says that Frank and Edie have to be class partners, Edie tells Frank, “I don’t believe in partners or sharing. I’m an individualist. I’m a maverick. Mavericks are free thinkers.”

Edie’s personality is basically a lot like Alice’s. And so, later in the movie, when Edie and Alice first meet, they seem to recognize these unpleasant traits in each other and clash later during a crucial part of the story. Edie also has an additional prejudice against Alice because Edie’s grandmother Margot (played by Siân Phillips) is one of the townspeople who thinks that Alice is a witch.

Edie and Alice eventually warm up to Frank, who is an inquisitive and amiable child, although understandably feeling anxious about when he’ll be able to see his parents again. Alice gradually opens up to Frank about her spiritual beliefs (she’s a pagan and an atheist), her interests (writing, reading and looking for mirages) and her love life (she says she loved someone once, but it was a long time ago). Unlike other people, Frank is not judgmental over Alice being a spinster with no children, so she appreciates that he seems to have an open mind.

Alice’s love affair is shown in flashbacks throughout the film. Alice met Vera (played by Gugu Mbatha-Raw), the love of her life, when they were both attending Oxford University in the 1920s. They had an instant connection and become close very quickly.

Vera and Alice also lived together, but they kept their romance a secret because homosexuality was considered very taboo in that time and place. And so, Alice and Vera pretended to the world that they were platonic roommates. However, Vera and Alice had very different visions of their future.

Alice was more inclined to want to live openly as a lesbian couple, while Vera was still very much closeted. What ultimately drove them apart was Vera’s desire to become a mother, which Vera said was more important to her than anything else—even more important than her relationship with Alice. It’s for this reason that Vera broke up with Alice and walked out of Alice’s life.

This heartbreak puts into better context why Alice is so embittered about love and seems repulsed by the idea of taking care of a child. But as Alice and Frank get to know each other, they both realize that they’ve grown more attached to each other than they thought they would be. And they start to learn that being a good parent doesn’t mean that you have to be heterosexual and married.

When Frank and Alice start to talk about heaven, Alice tells Frank that “heaven was made up to make Christians feel better.” She says that if heaven were real, what about the people who died before Christianity existed? “Where did their souls go?” she asks Frank, who can’t answer the question. Alice tells Frank that does sort of believe in a celestial place called Summerland, which she describes as a “pagan heaven” that isn’t based on religion but a peaceful state of mind.

And one day, when Frank discovers an old music album of Alice’s and asks if they can play the album, she snaps angrily at him and tells him now. She says the album was a gift from a female friend she used to have. Based on her emotionally raw reaction, Frank can tell that this album has brought back some painful memories.

Frank astutely guesses that the album was a gift from the “past love” Alice told him about on another day. When Alice asks Frank, “Do you think it’s strange if a woman loved another woman?” When Frank says no, Alice bursts into tears at his unconditional acceptance.

Alice then tells him that most people think that same-sex love is wicked: “They think it’s a sin and we should burn in hell.” Frank replies, “It’s not as bad as marrying someone you don’t like.” And then it’s Alice’s turn to correctly guess something about Frank’s life: Frank’s parents do not have a happy marriage.

“Summerland” doesn’t clutter the story with a lot of unnecessary characters. The movie shows Alice and Frank’s relationship evolving in ways that are sometimes sweet, sometimes uncomfortable, but emotionally realistic, for the most part. Arterton’s Alice is the center of the movie, which she carries quite well, because the actress understands that it’s not about making Alice likeable but making her believable.

As foster child Frank, Bond does a very good acting job, since Frank is the person who gets Alice to take a hard look at herself and face some of the issues that she’s been hiding underneath her gruff exterior. Frank also learns some harsh lessons about life during his time with Alice. “Summerland” has some moments that blatantly pull at people’s heartstrings, but if people look beyond the film’s sappy moments, there’s an impactful message about being open to change and finding love in unexpected places.

IFC Films released “Summerland” in select U.S. cinemas and on digital and VOD on July 31, 2020.

Review: ‘The Fight’ (2020), starring Lee Gelernt, Dale Ho, Brigitte Amiri, Josh Block and Chase Strangio

July 31, 2020

by Carla Hay

Brigitte Amiri and Dale Ho in “The Fight” (Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures)

“The Fight” (2020) 

Directed by Elyse Steinberg, Joshua Kriegman and Eli Despres 

Culture Representation: This documentary about the New York City-based American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) features a predominantly white group of people (with some Asians, Latinos and black people), as the movie follows five ACLU attorneys in their battles for civil rights.

Culture Clash:  The movie (which began filming shortly after Donald Trump was inaugurated as president of the United States in 2017) focuses on four main issues that ACLU is fighting against with the Trump administration: immigrants’ rights, reproductive rights, voting rights and LGBTQ rights.

Culture Audience: “The Fight” will appeal primarily to people who have liberal political views and/or support what the ACLU is doing.

Lee Gelernt in “The Fight” (Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures)

The documentary “The Fight” takes a behind-the scenes look at some of the legal battles waged by the New York City-based American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) shortly after Donald Trump was inaugurated as president of the United States in January 2017. Although the legal issues aren’t new, the documentary shows that Trump’s attempts as president to make sweeping changes to civil-rights laws brought increased urgency for the ACLU to fight back against those attempts.

“The Fight” co-directors Elyse Steinberg, Joshua Kriegman and Eli Despres had unprecedented access to ACLU headquarters as well as high-ranking members of the ACLU team. The movie focuses on five attorneys with four different specialties: Lee Gelernt (immigrants’ rights); Brigitte Amiri (reproductive rights); Dale Ho (voting rights); and Josh Block and Chase Strangio (LGBTQ rights).

Each of these four issues is given a spotlight, as the featured ACLU attorneys prepare legal cases that represent these causes. Cameras are not allowed in the courtrooms for these cases, but what happens on the inside of these courtrooms is depicted in the film through audio recordings, illustrations and animation.

Gelernt is involved in battling Trump’s order to banning immigrants from several Muslim-majority countries, as well as the controversy over immigrants seeking refugee status in the U.S. and being locked up and separated from their children. He is he deputy director of the ACLU’s national Immigrants’ Rights Project and director of the project’s Access to the Court’s Program. In the documentary (where almost all of the clients’ full names are not disclosed, for privacy reasons), Gelernt is shown helping an African immigrant woman identified only as “Mrs. L” in her case against U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) because she was separated from her 7-year-old daughter, who was sent to live in Chicago without Mrs. L’s permission.

ACLU Reproductive Freedom Project deputy director Amiri fights back in cases involving abortion restrictions that the ACLU believes are unconstitutional policies against the U.S. Supreme Court case Roe v. Wade, which made abortion legal in all U.S. states in 1973. Amiri, with the help of ACLU reproductive rights attorney Meagan Burrows, is shown helping a 17-year-old Spanish-speaking pregnant immigrant in the case Garza v. Hargan.

The immigrant, who is identified only as “Jane Doe” in the documentary, says that her pregnancy was due to rape, and she wants an abortion, but is being prevented from getting an abortion by the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), which she says is treating her like a prisoner. In an interview with Spanish, she says that ORR officials won’t let her outside, they follow her into the bathroom, and they won’t let her visit a doctor. The outcome of her case is a race against time, because in the U.S. state where she lives, abortion is illegal when a pregnancy reaches at least 20 weeks, and Jane Doe’s interview in the documentary was when she was 15 weeks pregnant.

ORR director Scott Lloyd, an admitted right-wing conservative, is the ACLU’s chief nemesis in this case, since he’s the official who signed off on Jane Doe not being able to have an abortion. Lloyd is seen squirming and being evasive in a videotaped deposition when asked what his views are on abortion. But later in the documentary there is TV footage of him appearing on a conservative talk show openly discussing that he is a conservative Christian who thinks abortion should not be legal.

ACLU Voting Rights Project director Ho does a lot of work against voter suppression. But the main battle that he has in the documentary is the case Department of Commerce v. New York, which is the ACLU’s fight to prevent any questions from being added to the 2020 U.S. Census that asks if anyone in a U.S. household is a U.S. citizen. The ACLU and other civil-rights groups have a legal argument that this question about U.S. citizenship is unconstitutional for a U.S. census, because the question is designed to deter people from filling out a census form if they are not U.S. citizens or have people in their households who aren’t U.S. citizens, thereby making them underrepresented in the census.

Block (an openly gay cisgender male) and Strangio (an openly transgender male) work as a team. Block is a senior staff attorney with the National ACLU’s Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender & HIV Projects. Strangio (who is a parent to a daughter, who’s shown in the documentary) is deputy director for Transgender Justice with the ACLU’s LGBT & HIV Project. Block and Strangio are seen working on the case Stone v. Trump, in reaction to Trump wanting to ban transgender people from the U.S. military. In this case, the ACLU is representing transgender male plaintiff Brock Stone, a U.S. Navy petty officer first class who has been in the Navy since 2006.

The directing style of the documentary is cinéma vérité, with each of the narrative jumping back and forth between each case. There is ample use of a split-screen format (with three or four screens at once) to show what might be happening on multiple cases. However, all of this doesn’t get confusing because the cases and the lawyers are very distinct from each other, and everything is smoothly edited to together in a cohesive storytelling style.

And fortunately, the documentary isn’t cluttered with a lot of interviews with people who aren’t involved in the cases, because those outside people would be a distraction and could possibly compromise some of the confidentiality of any pending cases at the time. Other ACLU employees who are briefly featured in the documentary include ACLU executive director Anthony Romero and ACLU deputy director of communications Stacy Sullivan.

On the flip side, the documentary doesn’t shut out opposing views of the ACLU. There is some archival footage of ACLU opponents getting into debates with ACLU attorneys on TV talk shows (usually on cable news channels), as well as news footage of Trump and his supporters at Trump rallies and speeches. And the documentary briefly includes other examples of the ACLU representing people or groups that promote hate speech and other controversial issues that the ACLU says that people have a right to express under freedom of speech.

There’s also a segment in “The Fight” where all of the featured attorneys read aloud or show many of the hate messages that they get (on social media, by mail or by phone), because of the work that they do for the ACLU. Many of the haters identify themselves as Trump supporters, and the ACLU lawyers who aren’t straight white men are often called racist, sexist or homophobic slurs.

Gelernt says of the hateful criticism that often includes death threats or other threats to his safety: “If you don’t look at the negative stuff, you’re sort of in your own bubble.” Ho comments on being the target of ACLU haters: “I don’t want to run from this,” as he says as he takes a hate-filled postcard that he got in the mail and tacks the postcard on his office wall.

The documentary also includes an unflinching look at how there can be conflicts within the ACLU. The ACLU won a lawsuit for a Unite the Right protest (consisting of white supremacists) to be held on the streets of Charlottesville, Virginia, on August 11 and August 12, 2017. That rally led to tragedy, when a Unite the Right supporter plowed his car through counterprotesters, killing 32-year-old counterprotester Heather Heyer.

Although some people blamed the ACLU for this tragedy, others did not. And the documentary shows that people in the ACLU also had different opinions on how the ACLU’s legal defense for the Unite the Right protest to take place ended up playing a role in this tragedy. The documentary does not show anyone at the ACLU getting into heated debates about this protest, but the film does offer two different points of view from high-ranking ACLU officials.

ACLU director David Cole (a white man) stands firm in his belief that the ACLU did the right thing in helping make the Unite the Right protest happen: “We defend civil liberties for all,” he says in the documentary. Meanwhile, ACLU deputy legal director Jeffrey Robinson (an African American man) says that privately, he had a problem with the ACLU being involved in making the Unite to Right rally happen, and he did not support ACLU’s decision to represent the Unite the Right people in their legal case to make the protest happen. Robinson comments in what was obviously a prepared statement: “The ACLU was not responsible for Heather Heyer’s death, but we were not a random organization just watching what happened.”

The documentary does a good job of making the featured attorneys look very human. The attorneys are all shown with family members (Gelernt, Amiri and Ho are married with children) and with getting emotional during the many ups and downs in their cases. They all show empathy for their clients. And they all talk about the toll that their stressful work takes on their personal lives and emotional health. However, none of them wants to quit because they say that the work is too important to them.

They attorneys aren’t afraid to show their insecurities: Block wants Strangio to take the lead on the Stone v. Trump case, because Strangio is transgender, but Strangio declines to do so because he says that he’s still not comfortable standing up in court and making arguments. Ho is the lawyer who tends get gets tongue-tied and flustered the most. Gelernt talks about feeling that if he loses a case, he will let down not just his client but also American society. (All ACLU attorneys probably feel this way too.)

But not everything is dead-serious in the film. There are touches of humor, such Gelernt (the oldest lawyer in the documentary’s featured five) getting flustered when he doesn’t know how to plug a phone charger into a computer. Each of the attorneys give a tour of the ACLU offices in their own unique style, and during his tour Gelernt admits that he doesn’t even know how to use the copy machine.

Meanwhile, Block is shown going from pleased to frustrated when he uses a dictation program on his computer. Things starts out fine but then the computer program’s translation abilities quickly goes awry, in one of the funnier scenes in the film. Ho is shown in multiple scenes practicing his courtroom arguments in front of a mirror, sometimes with amusing results.

Of the legal cases featured in “The Fight,” most of the outcomes are already known. However, just because there have been rulings on these cases (some of which were appealed), that doesn’t dilute a lot of gripping suspense and emotionally stirring moments in the documentary, since it shows for the first time many of the behind-the-scenes, real-time reactions that the ACLU people had to major steps in the cases.

The ACLU is celebrating its 100th anniversary in 2020, so “The Fight” is a fitting tribute to the legacy and longevity of the ACLU. But as Ho says in the documentary, the ACLU should not be counted on as the only way to defend liberties for everyone, when there are forces trying to take away or restrict those freedoms. “It’s not going to be lawyers in courts,” he comments on who will be making the most progress. “It’s going to be people [in the general public] turning the ship around.”

“The Fight” probably won’t change a lot of people’s political opinions. Trump’s views on issues such as immigration and abortion were made very clear during his presidential campaign, so people who voted for him in 2016 expected him to act on those views. However, for anyone interested in what politically liberal attorneys at the ACLU are doing behind the scenes to push back against many of the changes that Trump and politically conservative lawmakers want for the United States, “The Fight” offers an insightful peek into this process.

Magnolia Pictures and Topic Studios released “The Fight” in select U.S. virtual cinemas, on digital and on VOD on July 31, 2020.

Review: ‘Pornstar Pandemic: The Guys,’ starring DeAngelo Jackson, Dante Colle, Pierce Paris, Elijah Wilde, Jack Loft, Alter Sin and Alex Lecomte

July 30, 2020

by Carla Hay

DeAngelo Jackson in “Pornstar Pandemic: The Guys” (Photo courtesy of Breaking Glass Pictures)

“Pornstar Pandemic: The Guys” 

Directed by Edward James “EJ”

Culture Representation: Taking place in the Los Angeles area, Atlanta, New York City, Brazil and Spain, the documentary “Pornstar Pandemic: The Guys” features a predominantly white group of men (with one African American and one Latino) who work in adult entertainment, doing non-sexual videoconference interviews about how their lives have changed since the COVID-19 pandemic.

Culture Clash: Most of the men talk about how they deal with online haters, crazy fans and misperceptions about men who do gay porn for a living.

Culture Audience: Fans of these adult entertainers are obviously the target audience of “Pornstar Pandemic: The Guys,” but the documentary might also appeal to people who are curious about how the COVID-19 pandemic is affecting people who work in porn. 

Dante Colle in “Pornstar Pandemic: The Guys” (Photo courtesy of Breaking Glass Pictures)

The first thing that people need to know about the documentary “Pornstar Pandemic: The Guys” is that it has absolutely no sexual activity and no frontal nudity. “Pornstar Pandemic,” although it has a very catchy title, is basically a very tame interview documentary where male adult-film performers (some more famous than others) are shown in friendly videoconference calls talking about how they’re handling the coronavirus pandemic since the pandemic shut down filming of anything where social distancing is not possible. The interviewees, who do mostly gay porn, also give tours of their homes and show some of their socially distant outdoor activities. The only nudity in the film is when one of the porn stars (Dante Colle) is seen taking a shower and his backside is briefly shown.

If that’s not sexually interesting enough for viewers, there are plenty of places online to see these performers doing sexual activities on camera. But if you’re curious to see what their personalities and lives are like when they’re in semi-quarantine, then “Pornstar Pandemic” might be worth checking out if you know that this movie about porn stars doesn’t have any porn in it.

However, the running time for the movie is a little too long (132 minutes), and boredom might set in quickly for people who are expecting a lot of raunchy talk. There’s hardly anything in the documentary that would be considered sexuality explicit dialogue. It’s a very mainstream, non-pornographic film, but that doesn’t mean the movie is appropriate for everyone.

Longtime adult-film director/producer Edward James “EJ” directed “Pornstar Pandemic: The Guys” as his first mainstream documentary feature. Most of the job is in the editing, because the movie is really just a series of videoconference segments, mostly moderated by adult-film performers Alter Sin (who’s from Spain), Alex Lecomte (from Brazil) and Jack Loft (from the United States).

The movie begins with Sin and Lecomte interviewing Loft at the partially furnished home that Loft shares in Atlanta with his manager, who is not interviewed or seen in the movie. Loft, Sin and Lecomte together then do individual interviews with Colle, Pierce Paris, Elijah Wilde and DeAngelo Jackson. And then, at the end, EJ (who is not seen on camera) interviews Loft, Colle, Paris, Wilde and Jackson. All of them say that their families and friends know that they do porn for a living. They also say that cyberbullying and criticism are unavoidable on social media, and it’s best not to fall into the trap of believing all the harsh things that people say.

In this documentary, Loft is one of the newcomers to porn. He talks about how the coronavirus pandemic shutdown happened soon after he filmed just one porn scene, after moving to Atlanta from a small town in Iowa. Loft (who looks like he’s in his early 20s, and whose physical appearance would put him in the “twink” category) says of his choice to do porn for a living: “I’ve never been the type of person who thinks sex work or pornography was something to be ashamed of.” He adds that “every gay guy” he knows is on Only Fans and/or watches porn.

Loft also says that his family and friends know about his decision to do porn, and they’re okay with it. He believes that for people in his generation (Generation Z), taking naked selfie photos and making consensual sex videos are less taboo than it is for previous generations. He also believes that in the future, there won’t be as big of a stigma for this type of activity as there is now. “Ten years from now, there’s less of a chance of someone trying to use my adult films and my adult pictures against me. In 10 years, I hope it won’t be a big deal.”

This is where Loft shows a major blind spot when it comes to gender, because he doesn’t really seem to understand that when it comes to posing for pornographic photos or doing sex videos, men get a lot less negative reactions and society shaming for it than women do. Loft is also openly gay, so any videos of him having sex with a man wouldn’t be as shocking as it would be if he were a man who presented himself as straight in his personal life.

There are many variables in how porn stars’ sex work will affect their futures, but women who’ve done porn in the past definitely have a harder time overcoming the stigma that comes with it. For example, “Million Dollar Listing New York” reality star Fredrik Eklund, a real-estate agent who is openly gay, has freely admitted to making gay porn videos in his past. Would a woman in the same circumstances be given the opportunity to star in an internationally televised American reality show? At this time, realistically? No. The double standard is real, and it’s not going away anytime soon.

Loft also says that he’s noticed that since the pandemic, people are spending more time online but also being more authentic with their feelings when they’re online. If he’s able to become a more well-known porn actor, he says his two biggest fears are that we won’t look good-enough on camera and that he’ll be misunderstood as disrespectful or inauthentic.

Just like the other performers interviewed in the documentary, Loft says he’s been focusing more on his online activities as a way to make money. And working and staying in shape is obviously a huge priority for all of the actors who are interviewed. It goes without saying that the pandemic doesn’t stop these performers from doing “solo” videos.

Colle (who lives in a small trailer in Malibu, California) says the pandemic has given him more time to work on content for his videos that people can access by subscription or pay-per-view. Colle, who says he doesn’t want to label his sexuality, comments that he’s lucky that his parents have been completely accepting of him doing porn. He also talks about the misconceptions that people have about men who enjoy having sex with men and women. Colle mentions that gay people can be just as prejudiced as straight people who think that sexuality means that you have to choose one gender to be attracted to sexually.

He also shares some stories about what some crazy fans will do to get him to notice them. He says that he uses his parents’ address as his mailing address, so they sometimes get some very kinky mail. Colle also mentions that because he learned from his parents to be smart about saving his money (maybe that’s why he lives frugally in a tiny trailer instead of a house or apartment), he says that he’s not financially panicking during the pandemic, unlike many people he knows who lost their incomes and are running out of money because of the pandemic.

Colle shows some of his workout routine. He also admits that since the pandemic, he doesn’t shower every day, and sometimes he’ll go up to three days without showering. And in case anyone cares, Colle has two very adorable French bulldogs, who make an appearance in his individual interview segment.

Speaking of cute pets, Paris (who lives in Los Angeles) shows two kittens that he’s fostering and plans to adopt. Paris says his hometown is Bozemon, Montana, where he used to be a farm worker. He opens up a little about his high-school days, by saying that he was sort of a “class clown” who got along with various cliques in his school.

And he says that the he’s had a “fetish” for anal sex ever since he first heard a gym teacher mention it in a high-school sex education class. Just like Colle, Paris says he’s open to having sex with men and women in his personal and professional lives, but on camera, Paris is mostly known for having sex with men.

Paris also says that he got inspired to do porn by a TV show (which he does not name) that had crazy sports stunts. He admits that his income has dropped because of the pandemic, but he’s doing more solo videos and his fans like to see his “naked workouts.” He adds, “That’s what’s keeping me busy and making me money.”

When asked how he prepares for doing a porn scene, Paris says that he’s found that he has to spend at least 45 minutes before doing a scene to get mentally and physically ready. He mentions that if he just nonchalantly shows up on the set without that preparation, it has a negative effect on his performance.

Wilde is fairly new to porn, compared to most of the others in this documentary. Currently living in New York City, he says in the documentary that he was born in Montreal but grew up in New York. He used to by a gym trainer as a day job, but due to the pandemic, he lost his gym job. Wilde also says that, as a former go-go dancer, he especially misses going to nightclubs, dancing, and being able to hug his friends.

DeAngelo Jackson, who identifies as gay and lives in Atlanta, is one of the veterans in this documentary’s group of performers. He’s been doing porn since 2008. He says that he lost his virginity in a porn scene, and he describes that experience as “traumatizing.” Unlike the other people interviewed in this documentary, Jackson says his strict and religious family has difficulty accepting that he does porn for a living.

His father was in the military, so Jackson says that he grew up as an “Army brat” in various countries and learned to appreciate different cultures. He also says that when he’s not performing, he’s an “introvert.” There’s a scene in the documentary of Jackson playing a video game wearing very skimpy brief underwear that leaves nothing to the imagination.

At the 2020 GayVN Awards (the Oscars of gay porn), Jackson became the first person of color to win the Best Actor award. He says he’s humbled by the prize, but he also understands that winning the award is something bigger than him, because it’s symbolic of breaking a racial barrier in the porn industry.

He also hopes the prize means that more people will look at black men in porn as not just a “fetish” but award-worthy actors. Wilde, who is also a person of color, mentions toward the end of the documentary that he hopes to follow in Jackson’s footsteps, but Wilde says that would just be happy to be nominated for any award.

When asked for his advice on what he would tell men who are new to porn, Jackson replies: “Know who you are,” because he’s seen too many young men in their late teens and early 20s get “lost” and overwhelmed in adult entertainment because they don’t have a strong sense of identity. Jackson also echoes what some of the other performers say in the documentary: Be professional and treat it like a regular job.

Except it’s not like a regular job. Some of the men interviewed in the film say that their parents and other family members express concerns that they will get HIV or AIDS in their line of work. This is an issue that seems to make porn actors very defensive, because porn actors say that the people they work with in porn are regularly tested for HIV and other STDs, and that it’s actually “safer” to do porn than to have sex with random people who aren’t tested.

One thing that all of these men have in common is that at the time of this filming this documentary, they didn’t talk about being in any committed relationships, past or present, although Colle says dating someone who also does porn is sometimes easier than dating someone who doesn’t do porn. And none of them admitted to having sex during the pandemic, although it’s kind of hard to believe that they’re all celibate during the pandemic. But based on what’s implied in the documentary, even without the pandemic, what they do for a living makes it challenging to have a long-term, committed relationship with a love partner.

Ultimately, “Pornstar Pandemic: The Guys” is a very simply made documentary that can serve as a time capsule of how some male porn stars were living during the first few months of the coronavirus pandemic. (This movie was obviously filmed before June 2020, because director JR says in the documentary that movie production should return to normal by June 2020, but that ended up not happening.) People who are expecting sexually explicit content in the documentary will have to look elsewhere. This movie is really a series of interesting, but not particularly fascinating, conversations to show a more human side to some current and aspiring male porn stars.

Breaking Glass Pictures released “Pornstar Pandemic: The Guys” on DVD and digital on July 28, 2020.

Review: ‘Denise Ho — Becoming the Song,’ starring Denise Ho

July 26, 2020

by Carla Hay

Denise Ho in “Denise Ho — Becoming the Song” (Photo courtesy of Kino Lorber)

“Denise Ho — Becoming the Song”

Directed by Sue Williams

Some language in Cantonese with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place primarily in China (and partially in the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom), the documentary “Denise Ho: Becoming the Song” has mostly Asians (and a few white people) discussing the life of pop singer/activist Denise Ho.

Culture Clash: Because she is an outspoken activist against China’s Communist control of Hong Kong, Ho has been banned from China and has lost the majority of her star income due to this ban and because sponsors have dropped her.

Culture Audience: “Denise Ho: Becoming the Song” will appeal primarily to Cantopop fans and people who like documentaries about social activists.

Denise Ho in “Denise Ho — Becoming the Song” (Photo courtesy of Kino Lorber)

How many politically outspoken celebrity entertainers would continue to be as outspoken if it meant that they would lose the vast majority of the income that they’ve been used to getting? This hypothetical question is the reality that singer Denise Ho has been living since 2014, when Hong Kong’s Umbrella Movement protests against China’s Communist control ignited a political awakening in her that resulted in her being banned from China, the main source of her income. The compelling documentary “Denise Ho — Becoming the Song” takes an up-close look at Denise Ho’s journey of stepping out from behind a manufactured pop-star image and showing the world her true self, even if it means she has to sacrifice a lot of money and personal safety.

Skillfully directed by Sue Williams, “Denise Ho — Becoming the Song” has the expected biographical details of Ho’s rise to stardom, but the movie gets a lot more interesting when it covers Ho’s social and political activism. Several people are interviewed for the film, including Ho; her mother Janny Ho; her father Henry Ho; and her brother Harris Ho, who is a keyboardist in Denise’s band.

Also interviewed are Asian history specialist Geoffrey Ngo of Georgetown University; John Tsang, former private secretary to Chris Patten, former British governor of Hong Kong; Victoria Hui, associate professor of political science at the University of Notre Dame; Margaret Ng, a member of the Hong Kong Legislative Council from 1995 to 2012; Jelly Cheng, Denise’s production coordinator; singer Kiri T; and John Tsang, who was Hong Kong’s financial secretary from 2007 to 2017.

Born in 1997 in Hong Kong, Denise spent her formative teenage years in Montreal. Coming of age in Canada had a major influence on her, she says in the documentary, because being in a democratic country that is socially liberal, compared to many other countries, made her realize how precious and crucial the freedoms of a democracy are.

“Canada changed me completely,” Denise says in the film. The emotional impact of her time in Montreal can be seen in a scene in the documentary where she is performing her song “Montreal” in front of a theater-sized crowd, and she breaks down in tears several times before she can begin the song.

Denise’s biggest celebrity idol was Cantopop singer Anita Mui, an entertainer known for her elaborate costumes and unapologetic feminist sex appeal. Denise said that she was so obsessed with Mui that she would even do things such as cut out Mui’s name from newspapers and magazines, just so she could add it to her collection of Anita Mui memorabilia. Denise says that in the 1980s, Mui was bigger in Hong Kong and China than Madonna was.

Denise  and her parents say that Denise was fairly shy when she was growing up  and didn’t really show an interest in being a professional entertainer. That changed when Denise was about 15 years old, and she got chance to be a singer in a group of young people doing a charity performance on TV. Denise says that having a solo in the performance boosted her confidence and that’s when she knew that she liked being in the spotlight.

Despite winning a nationally televised talent contest in 1996, Denise’s career stalled because she didn’t get a record deal right away. She eventually signed to Capital Artists, a record company that she says didn’t really know what to do with her. The contest gave Denise a chance to meet her idol Mui, and Denise (though a lot of persistence) eventually became one of Mui’s backup singers.

Mui became an important mentor to Denise, who released her first EP (aptly titled “First”) in 2001. It became an instant hit, with confident anthems, such as “Thousands More of Me” and “Home of Glory.” After Capital Artists shuttered, Denise signed to EMI, where her career continued to flourish, with hit songs such as  “Angel Blues” and “Goodbye … Rosemary.”

But tragedy struck, when Mui died in 2003 of cervical cancer, at the age of 40. Denise said she felt “lost” without her mentor. She adds, “After Anita died, I felt the burden of picking up what she left behind.” Denise continued to have hits, but her on-stage persona was very much in the same mold as Mui.

Denise says of living in the shadow of Mui: “For 10 years, I tried to live on her legacy in the very wrong way, I guess. It was very mixed feelings. I am still very honored to be her disciple, but I really wanted to build my own uniqueness.”

Production coordinator Cheng remembers a performance in 2013, when Denise sang Queen’s “Somebody to Love” and literally shed her costume and sang the song as herself, not as an Anita Mui tribute act. It was a turning point in Denise’s career.

At this point, Denise’s metamorphosis included being more publicly vocal about social issues. In 2008, she did an album called “Ten Days in the Madhouse” and the independent documentary titled “The Decameron,” which focused on mental-health patients struggling to survive in Hong Kong society. Although the movie flopped, she says that it was an important learning experience for her.

Then, in 2012, Denise came out as a lesbian during the annual Hong Kong Pride Parade. She never tried to hide or deny her sexuality when she was famous (some of her song lyrics were love songs to women, and one of her biggest hits was the gay-themed “Lawrence and Lewis”), but she never publicly declared her sexuality until she officially came out of the closet during this Pride event. In doing so, she became the first openly gay female pop star from Hong Kong. In the documentary, neither Denise nor anyone else talks about any of her past or present love interests.

In 2014, she joined in the Umbrella Movement’s pro-democracy protests (mostly involving students and other young people) against the Communist government of China, which gained control of Hong Kong after the territory was under British rule from 1841 to 1997. The Umbrella Movement gets its name because protestors use umbrellas to fight off violence and water-hose deterrents from police officers. The key issues of the movement’s protests are the Chinese government’s changes to any democratic laws, civil rights, and political processes that the people of Hong Kong had previously had for centuries.

Denise became a public figure speaking out against Communist China and participated in the protests in 2014. She was arrested and eventually banned from China, where she says she made about 80-90% of her income, through live performances and sponsorship deals. Over the next two years, major corporate sponsors, including Pepsi and Lancôme, cut ties with her. Her record-company contract was not renewed. She says that she also received several direct and indirect threats to stop speaking out about her political beliefs.

According to Denise, several businesses (including former sponsors  based in Western countries) that will no longer work with her have blacklisted her not necessarily because he Chinese government told them to but because these companies have decided to “self-censor” by distancing themselves from her because she’s been labeled as too controversial.

“Denise Ho — Becoming the Song” includes footage of Denise, who is now an independent artist self-financing her own tours, doing performances in the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom. At the height of her music career, she was headlining stadiums in Asia. As an independent artist, she now headlines theater-sized venues.

The movie includes Ho’s first-ever performance in New York City, where she did a show at Town Hall in October 2019. By contrast, the documentary shows the last time that Ho headlined a stadium was in 2016 at Hong Kong Coliseum, for her series of Dear Friend concerts, which was financed mainly through crowdfunding.

Also included is footage of Denise on the streets of Hong Kong with protestors when the Umbrella Movement street protests surged again in 2019. Even if her social activism has come at a high financial cost to her, it’s clear that she at least now feels free to be completely herself and commit herself to a higher purpose than just money and fame.

Under the matter-of-fact direction of Williams, the documentary isn’t overstuffed with too many political talking heads, but keeps the focus where it should be: on Denise Ho and how she is living her life. The movie doesn’t portray her as a martyr but as someone who understands that her political activism has come with a cost to a lot of comforts that she previously had. And it’s clear that Denise thinks the sacrifice, although sometimes difficult, has been worth it.

In the documentary, Denise doesn’t express any regrets about being an outspoken and very involved social/political activist. She gives a lot of credit to her immediate family members (who definitely stand by her) and Buddhism for helping her stay emotionally healthy. Denise says that Buddhism is “where my confidence and optimism come from.” And she has this final thought on what the future might hold for the causes she’s fighting for: “One of my strongest beliefs is that humanity always wins.”

Kino Lorber released “Denise Ho — Becoming the Song” in select U.S. virtual cinemas on July 1, 2020.