Review: ‘Passing’ (2021), starring Tessa Thompson and Ruth Negga

December 18, 2021

by Carla Hay

Ruth Negga and Tessa Thompson in “Passing” (Photo by Edu Grau/Netflix)

“Passing” (2021)

Directed by Rebecca Hall

Culture Representation: Taking place in New York City in the late 1920s, the dramatic film “Passing” features a cast of African American and white characters representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: Two African American women, who were friends in high school, see each other for the first time in years and find out that they are living two very different lives: One of the women lives as her true identity as a black woman, while the other woman passes herself off as white. 

Culture Audience: “Passing” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in well-acted movies about how racial identity affects people’s perceptions about themselves and about other people.

André Holland and Tessa Thompson in “Passing” (Photo by Emily V. Aragones/Netflix)

If you could live your life identifying as another race, would you do it? It’s a question that viewers will inevitably have when watching the dramatic film “Passing,” where racial identity is used as both a weapon and as a shield, depending on the individual and the racial identity that the person presents to the world. Social class and sexuality are other identities that “Passing” shows can be used to confine or liberate people. A talented cast and steady direction from Rebecca Hall bring a cinematic vibrancy to this fictional story from the 1920s, but it’s a story that applies to many people’s lives in the past, present and future.

“Passing,” written and directed by Rebecca Hall, is Hall’s feature-film directorial debut. She adapted the movie from Nella Larsen’s 1929 novel of the same name. Larsen based the novel on her own experiences as a biracial person (her father was African American and her mother was Dutch), who was raised by her mother and white stepfather. Hall (who is British) also has “passing as white” in her family history: Hall’s maternal grandfather was an African American who passed himself off as white, according to the “Passing” production notes and according to what Hall has said in interviews.

“Passing” had its world premiere at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. Although the “Passing” novel and the movie are set the late 1920s, many of the same social constructs exist today. Most societies still expect biracial or multiracial people to choose just one race to identify with the most. And white supremacy still makes people think that the “whiter” someone is, the more “superior” that person is, and therefore more entitled to the best things that life has to offer.

It’s why in the story of “Passing,” when two African American women who were friends from high school, see each other for the first time in about 12 years, one of them has decided to live her life as a white woman. It’s a sweltering day in New York City when Irene Redfield (played by Tessa Thompson) stops by the restaurant of the upscale Drayton Hotel to cool off and have some lunch. Irene is a light-skinned black woman who considers herself to be a cultured and classy, but she knows that as long as people know that she is black, she won’t be allowed into certain places, such as this hotel whose guests are white people.

Therefore, when Irene is out in public, she tends to wear outfits (such as a hat that’s worn low enough to obscure much of her eyes) and talk a certain way so that people assume that she might be white. She doesn’t deny that she’s black, but she lets people think that she’s white if it helps her get through her day a lot easier. Irene lives in New York Cit’s Harlem neighborhood with her doctor husband Brian (played by André Holland) and their two sons Junior (played by Ethan Barrett) and Ted (played by Justus David Graham). Junior is about 10 or 11, whle Ted is about 8 or 9.

At the Drayton Hotel’s restaurant, Irene sees another woman sitting by herself at a table nearby. They look at each other, almost like they’ve just seen a ghost from their past. The other woman is Clare Kendry Bellew (played by Ruth Negga), who was a close friend of Irene’s when they were both in high school. Irene and Clare haven’t communicated with each other in the approximately 12 years since they’ve seen each other. They’re about to find out how their lives have gone down different paths.

After Clare and Irene greet each other and make small talk, Clare says that she’s visiting from Chicago. Clare is married to businessman named John Bellew (played by Alexander Skarsgård), and they have a daughter together named Marjorie, who is not on the trip with them and who is never seen in the movie. Clare proudly announces to Irene that John is white, and that they are raising their daughter as white. Clare also mentions that she was worried before Marjorie was born what shade the child’s skin color would be.

And there’s something else: John doesn’t know that Clare is not white. Clare was raised by her white aunts, which is one of the reasons why it was easy for her to conceal her true racial identity from John. Clare smugly comments on the burden of lying to her husband and many other people about her true racial identity: “All things considered, it was worth the price.”

When Irene says that she’s married to a black man who’s a doctor, Clare laughs in a surprised and condescending way. It’s as if Clare can’t believe that Irene chose to marry a black man with the knowledge that by doing so, Irene’s life would be harder. Irene asks Clare with some curiosity and envy if Clare is happy. Clare gloats, “Of course! I have everything I wanted!”

Shortly after this somewhat awkward reunion, John joins Clare at the restaurant table. Because this restaurant’s customers are white people and because Clare is talking to Irene, John incorrectly assumes that Irene must be white. He tells Irene that Clare dislikes black people so much that Clare won’t even have black maids. And in case it wasn’t clear that John is a racist, he says the “n” word during this conversation.

Clare smiles and agrees with John, without seeming to care how this conversation might be hurting Irene, who is too polite to object to all the racist talk in the conversation. However, it’s clear from the expression on Irene’s face that she’s feels hurt and betrayed. And so, when the conversation ends with Clare saying that they should keep in touch, Irene can barely hide the look of disbelief at Clare’s blatant phoniness.

At home, Irene tells her husband Brian about this uncomfortable encounter. He’s appalled, and he advises Irene to completely distance herself from Clare if Clare tries to get in touch with Irene again. At first, Irene takes that advice by ignoring the apology letter that Clare sends to her.

But one day, Clare shows up at Irene’s home unannounced and uninvited. This time, Clare says that she’s traveled to New York City for an extended visit without her husband and child. Clare is able to charm her way back into Irene’s life, with results that neither woman expects.

“Passing” is a “slow burn” movie where the pacing might be too sluggish for some viewers. But as a psychological drama, the movie is fascinating. It might be worth it to watch the movie more than once to pick up on subtle clues that might not have been noticed during the first viewing.

During Clare’s extended visit, she spends most of her time in Harlem, where she is introduced to Irene and David’s social circle. Viewers find out that when in Clare and Irene were in high school, Clare was considered to be prettier, more glamorous and more charismatic than reserved and introverted Irene, who often felt overshadowed by Clare. Those same dynamics start to repeat themselves as Clare starts to become the center of attention at social gatherings that she attends with David and Irene.

Things get complicated because of an unspoken romantic attraction that Irene seems to have for Clare that apparently existed since they knew each other in high school. Clare drops big hints in conversations that her own sexuality is fluid, while Irene seems to also be somewhere on the queer spectrum but is definitely in the closet about it. Any sexual attraction between the two women seems to be mostly on Irene’s part, based on the furtive, longing glances that she gives to Clare when Irene thinks no one else is looking.

Clare, who is extremely vain and manipulative, seems to sense this attraction and uses it to her advantage. It should come as no surprise when Clare starts flirting with Irene’s husband Brian, who seems attracted to Clare too. It puts Irene in a difficult situation because she doesn’t want to react too strongly by sending Clare away. After all, Irene still wants Clare to be around because Irene is attracted to Clare.

Meanwhile, Irene and Brian have disagreements over how to teach their sons about the dangers of white supremacist racism. Brian thinks that the boys should know about this harsh reality as soon as possible to prepare them for the real world. Irene thinks that the boys are too young to know, and that this type of knowledge will ruin what she thinks should be the boys’ happy childhoods.

For example, when there’s a newspaper report about a black man being lynched, Brian wants to talk about it with the kids, while Irene vehemently objects. They argue about it. Brian gets so frustrated with Irene that he blurts out to her: “I don’t understand how as intelligent you are, you can be so stupid!”

Over time, it becomes obvious that although Clare is lying about her racial identity to certain people, Irene is in a type of denial of her own—not just about her sexuality, but also about how her children will be treated as black people in a society that enables, teaches, and encourages white supremacy. Clare’s presence is a reminder to Irene about the extreme lengths that people will go to kowtow to a white racist mentality.

However, what Irene doesn’t expect is that Brian, who seemed to be all about black pride and who previously disapproved of Clare, is starting to grow closer to Clare. As for Clare, it’s eventually revealed that her so-called “perfect” life with her husband John isn’t so perfect after all. Clare’s lies about her racial identity have affected her a lot more than what she originally told Irene.

“Passing” has a few other characters in the movie who are mostly there as people who are part of Irene and David’s social life. Hugh (played by Bill Camp) is a white bachelor who is among the well-to-do white people who think it makes them look “cool” to hang out with black people in Harlem, but the same black people would never be invited into these white people’s homes. Hugh is a big gossip who likes making sarcastic observations about people.

Another person in the movie’s party scenes is black man named Ralph Hazleton (played by Amos Machanic), whose dance partners are often white women. Ralph often gets mentioned as an example when Hugh and other people at these parties talk about dark-skinned black men who attract white women. When Hugh asks Irene if she thinks Ralph is handsome, she says no but that Ralph is “exotic.” It’s left up to viewer intepretation to think if Irene really believes that or she just said something that she thought Hugh wanted to hear.

These are all just side characters to the main focus of the story, which is about Clare and Irene’s rekindled friendship and how it starts to affect Irene’s marriage to David. “Passing” could have taken a predictable melodrama route by turning this story into a love triangle involving screaming arguments or women catfighting over a man. But the movie has a low-key approach that is more about repressed feelings, with fear bubbling under the surface that secrets might be revealed.

Negga rises to the challenge of depicting Clare, who could be completely unlikable, as a complex character who is neither a hero nor a villain but someone who masks her insecurity with a “bon vivant” personality that can shapeshift to whatever can get Clare what she wants. When Clare sees that Irene is happily married and that Irene doesn’t have the burden of pretending to be another race, Clare wants some of that happiness too.

Thompson gives Irene an aura of someone who is used to being hurt but is trying to hold on to whatever dignity that she has when she’s in situations that cause her emotional pain. It’s why she’s reluctant to confront people or cause a scene. And it’s why she wants to delay as much as possible how and when her sons find out about the evils of racism.

“Passing” was filmed in black and white, using 4:3 aspect ratio, which was the standard aspect ratio for movies of the 1920s and 1930s. The movie admirably recreates a lot of other characteristics of the era, such the costume design, production design and music. Thompson’s body language and speech patterns as Irene seem particularly calibrated to embody someone from that era who wants to be a highly respected society woman, no matter who is with her. Irene is not someone who talks one way with white people and another way with black people. Clare, who comes from a higher-income household than Irene does, is the one who seems coarser and less refined than Irene when Clare is around other African Americans.

What the cast members and Hall are able to achieve with this film is more than commentary about people’s attitudes when it comes to race, social class or sexuality. By the end of the movie, audiences will understand that “Passing” is ultimately about truth telling about ourselves and other people. And telling the truth can sometimes have dangerous consequences when people are invested in perpetuating lies or keeping secrets.

Netflix released “Passing” in select U.S. cinemas on October 27, 2021. The movie premiered on Netflix on November 10, 2021.

Review: ‘Spider-Man: No Way Home,’ starring Tom Holland, Zendaya, Benedict Cumberbatch, Jacob Batalon, Jamie Foxx, Willem Dafoe, Alfred Molina and Marisa Tomei

December 14, 2021

by Carla Hay

Benedict Cumberbatch and Tom Holland in “Spider-Man: No Way Home” (Photo courtesy of Columbia Pictures)

“Spider-Man: No Way Home”

Directed by Jon Watts

Culture Representation: Taking place in New York City, the superhero action film “Spider-Man: No Way Home” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few African Americans and Asians) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: After 17-year-old Peter Parker has been exposed as the alter ego of Spider-Man, he enlists the help of mystical superhero Doctor Strange to make people forget this secret identity, but Doctor Strange’s spell brings several allies and enemies back from various dimensions of the Spider-Verse. 

Culture Audience: Besides appealing to the obvious target audience of comic book movie fans, “Spider-Man: No Way Home” will appeal primarily to people who like nostalgia-filled superhero movies and who are fans of this movie’s star-studded cast.

Tom Holland and Alfred Molina) in “Spider-Man: No Way Home” (Photo courtesy of Columbia Pictures)

Just like an artist’s greatest-hits box set offered to fans who already own every album by the artist, “Spider-Man: No Way Home” is best appreciated by people who’ve already seen all the previous “Spider-Man” movies. It’s filled with insider jokes that will either delight or annoy viewers, depending on how familiar they are with the cinematic Spider-Verse. Simply put: “Spider-Man: No Way Home” is an epic superhero feast for fans, but it should not be the first “Spider-Man” movie that people should see. There are too many references to other Spider-Man movies that came before “Spider-Man: No Way Home” that just won’t connect very well with people who have not seen enough of the previous “Spider-Man” movies.

Fortunately for the blockbuster “Spider-Man” movie franchise (which launched with 2002’s “Spider-Man,” starring Tobey Maguire as Peter Parker/Spider-Man), most people who watch “Spider-Man: No Way Home” will have already seen at least one previous “Spider-Man” movie. Maguire also starred in 2004’s “Spider-Man 2” and 2007’s “Spider-Man 3.” Andrew Garfield starred as Peter Parker/Spider-Man in two of the reboot movies: 2012’s “The Amazing Spider-Man” and 2014’s “The Amazing Spider-Man 2.” Another “Spider-Man” movie reboot series began with Tom Holland as Peter Parker/Spider-Man, starting with 2017’s “Spider-Man: Homecoming,” and continuing with 2019’s “Spider-Man: Far From Home” and 2021’s “Spider-Man: No Way Home.”

“Spider-Man: No Way Home” is the third “Spider-Man” movie directed by Jon Watts and co-written by Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers, the same writer/director team behind 2019’s “Spider-Man: Far From Home.” There were six screenwriters (including Watts, McKenna and Sommers) for 2017’s “Spider-Man: Homecoming,” which was also directed by Watts. The trio of Watts, McKenna and Sommers for three consecutive “Spider-Man” movies has been beneficial to the quality of the filmmaking.

Each “Spider-Man” film that this trio has worked on truly does feel connected to each other, compared to other franchise films where different directors and writers often change the tone of the sequels, and therefore the sequels feel disconnected. “Spider-Man: No Way Home” also makes several references to the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), which Spider-Man/Peter Parker (as portrayed by Holland) was a big part of, in his alliance with the Avengers. It’s another reason why it’s better to see previous Marvel-related movies with Spider-Man in it before seeing “Spider-Man: No Way Home.”

Because Spider-Man is Marvel Comics’ most popular character, you’d have to be completely shut off from pop culture to not at least know a few things about Spider-Man, such as he got his agility superpowers by accidentally being bit by a radioactive spider. Just like many superheroes, Peter is an orphan: His parents died in a plane crash, so he was raised by an aunt and an uncle. Even with knowledge of these basic facts about Peter Parker/Spider-Man, it really is best to see all or most of the previous “Spider-Man” films, because the jokes will be funnier, and the surprises will be sweeter.

Speaking of surprises, the vast majority of “Spider-Man: No Way Home” has spoiler information. However, it’s enough to give a summary of what to expect in the first 30 minutes of this 148-minute film without revealing any surprises. The beginning of “Spider-Man: No Way Home” picks up right where “Spider-Man: Far From Home” left off: Peter Parker—an intelligent and compassionate 17-year-old student who lives in New York City’s Queens borough—has been exposed as the secret alter ego of superhero Spider-Man. The culprit who exposed him was the villain Mysterio (played by Jake Gyllenhaal), who’s seen briefly in “Spider-Man: No Way Home” in the opening scene that shows the aftermath of this exposé.

All hell breaks loose, because Mysterio has twisted things to make it look like Spider-Man is a villain, not a hero. Peter and his girlfriend MJ (played by Zendaya) are caught in the middle of a crowded New York City street when Peter’s Spider-Man identity is exposed. And the backlash is immediate. Before getting into any harmful physical danger, Spider-Man puts his superhero skills to good use by whisking himself and MJ to safety.

However, the Department of Damage Control quickly detains Peter, MJ, Peter’s best friend Ned Leeds (played by Jacob Batalon) and Peter’s aunt May Parker (played by Marisa Tomei) for questioning. And who shows up to give some legal advice? Attorney/blind superhero Matt Murdock, also known as Daredevil (played by Charlie Cox), who makes a very brief cameo. Matt says, “I don’t think any of the charges will stick. Things will get even worse. There’s still the court of public opinion.”

There’s not enough evidence to hold Peter and his loved ones in the interrogation rooms, so they go back home and ponder their next move. But how long can they stay safe, when people know where Peter lives and where he goes to school? Spider-Man has been branded as a troublemaker by certain people, such as fear-mongering journalist-turned-conspiracy theorist J. Jonah Jameson (played by J.K. Simmons), who no longer works as the editor of the Daily Planet newspaper. Jameson is now anchoring TheDailyPlanet.net, a 24-hour news streaming service.

However, Spider-Man is still a hero or an anti-hero to many more people. When Peter goes back to school the next day, he’s treated like a celebrity. Students surround him to take photos and videos with their phones. Faculty members fawn over him. Conceited and bullying student Flash Thompson (played by Tony Revolori), one of Peter’s nuisances at school, tries to latch on to Peter’s newfound fame by now claiming to be Peter’s best friend. Flash has already written a tell-all memoir to cash in on Peter’s celebrity status.

Peter, MJ (whose real name is Michelle Jones) and Ned are in their last year at Midtown School of Science and Technology. They have plans to go to the prestigious Massachusetts Institution of Technology (MIT) together after they graduate from high school. But due to their high-profile brush with the law, the three pals are worried about their chances of getting into MIT.

This hoped-for MIT enrollment becomes the motivation for Peter to go to fellow New York City-based superhero Doctor Strange (played by Benedict Cumberbatch) to ask for his help. Peter wants Doctor Strange to cast a spell so that people will forget that Peter is really Spider-Man. Doctor Strange is reluctant, but he gives in to Peter’s pleading. As Doctor Strange is casting his Spell of Forgetting, Peter interrupts several times to tell Doctor Strange to exempt some of Peter’s loved ones (such as MJ, Ned and May) from the spell.

Doctor Strange is extremely annoyed, so he cuts the spell short and is able to contain the spell’s powers in a cube-sized box. But some damage has already been done: The spell has opened the multi-verse where anyone who knows who Peter Parker can be summoned and go to the dimension where Peter is. And some of these individuals are villains from past “Spider-Man” movies. Doctor Strange gives Peter/Spider-Man the task of capturing these villains to imprison them in Doctor Strange’s dungeon that looks like a combination of a high-tech jail and a mystical crypt.

The return of some of these villains has already been announced through official publicity and marketing materials released for “Spider-Man: No Way Home,” so it’s not spoiler information. These villains are:

  • Norman Osborn/Green Goblin (played by Willem Dafoe), from 2002’s “Spider-Man”
  • Otto Octavius/Doctor Octopus, also known as Doc Ock (played by Alfred Molina), from 2004’s “Spider-Man 2”
  • Flint Marko/Sandman (played by Thomas Haden Church), from 2007’s “Spider-Man 3”
  • Dr. Curt Connors/The Lizard (played by Rhys Ifans), from 2012’s “The Amazing Spider-Man”
  • Max Dillon/Electro (played by Jamie Foxx), from 2014’s “The Amazing Spider-Man 2”

“Spider-Man: No Way Home” has some other surprises, some of which have already been leaked to the public, but won’t be revealed in this review. A few other non-surprise characters in “Spider-Man: No Way Home” include Doctor Strange’s portal-traveling sidekick Wong (played by Benedict Wong), as well as Harold “Happy” Hogan (played by Jon Favreau), Tony Stark/Iron Man’s loyal driver who is now taken on minder duties for Peter. In “Spider-Man: Far From Home,” Happy and May had a fling that ended. Happy fell in love with May and wanted a more serious romance with her, so he is still nursing a broken heart about it in “Spider-Man: No Way Home.”

The movie’s action sequences are among the most memorable in “Spider-Man” movie history, in large part because of the return of so many characters from the past. A lengthy part of the movie that takes place on the Statue of Liberty will be talked about by fans for years. Because so much of “Spider-Man” relies heavily on people knowing the history of this movie franchise to fully understand the plot developments and a lot of the dialogue, “Spider-Man: No Way Home” will probably be a “love it or hate it” film.

The movie’s mid-credits scene directly correlates to the mid-credits scene for 2021’s “Venom: Let There Be Carnage.” And the end-credits scene for “Spider-Man: No Way Home” features a glimpse into the world of Doctor Strange. People should know by now that movies with Marvel characters have mid-credits scenes and/or end-credits scenes that are essentially teasers for an upcoming Marvel superhero movie or TV series.

“Spider-Man: No Way Home” has some wisecracking that seems a little too self-congratulatory, but those smug moments are balanced out with some heartfelt emotional scenes. And all the jumping around from one universe dimension to the next might be a little too confusing to viewers who are new to the Spider-Verse. Some people might accuse “Spider-Man: No Way Home” of overstuffing the movie with too much nostalgic stunt casting as gimmicks. However, die-hard fans of the franchise will be utterly thrilled by seeing these familiar characters and will be fully engaged in finding out what happens to them in this very entertaining superhero adventure.

Columbia Pictures will release “Spider-Man: No Way Home” in U.S. cinemas on December 17, 2021.

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

December 4, 2021

by Carla Hay

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

“A Journal for Jordan”

Directed by Denzel Washington

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review: ‘West Side Story’ (2021), starring Ansel Elgort, Rachel Zegler, Ariana DeBose, David Alvarez, Mike Faist, Brian d’Arcy James and Rita Moreno

December 2, 2021

by Carla Hay

Ansel Elgort and Rachel Zegler in “West Side Story” (Photo courtesy of 20th Century Studios)

“West Side Story” (2021)

Directed by Steven Spielberg

Some language in Spanish with no subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in 1957 in New York City, the musical drama remake “West Side Story” features a cast of white and Latino people representing the working-class.

Culture Clash: A young Puerto Rican woman and a young Polish American man fall in love with each other, despite having people close to them who are in rival, warring gangs that are opposed to this romance.

Culture Audience: Besides the obvious target audience of fans of the original “West Side Story” movie musical, this 2021 version of “West Side Story” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of director Steven Spielberg and movie adaptations of Broadway musicals.

Ariana DeBose and David Alvarez in “West Side Story” (Photo courtesy of 20th Century Studios)

The 2021 remake of “West Side Story” is exactly the glossy spectacle that you might expect from director Steven Spielberg. The movie is a bonafide crowd-pleasing epic that makes some interesting changes from the 1961’s “West Side Story” movie, a classic that was directed by Jerome Robbins and Robert Wise. In the 2021 version of “West Side Story,” some of these changes work better than other revisions to the original movie. The original “West Side Story” movie was based on a Tony-winning musical that debuted on Broadway in 1957. The Broadway musical was written by Arthur Laurents, with music by Leonard Bernstein and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. Ernest Lehman wrote the screenplay to the 1961 “West Side Story,” while Tony Kushner wrote the screenplay to the 2021 “West Side Story.”

The original “West Side Story” movie starred Natalie Wood, Richard Beymer, Rita Moreno and George Chakiris as four young people in New York City who are caught in the middle of gang warfare, ethnic bigotry and risky romance. Moreno and Chakiris won Oscars for their supporting roles in the movie, which won a total of 10 Oscars, including Best Picture. (Moreno’s Oscar victory was groundbreaking, as she became the first Latina to win an Academy Award.) Is the 2021 version of “West Side Story” worthy of 10 Academy Awards? No, but there are some standout performances that should bring more attention to some very talented cast members. They do all their own singing, unlike some of the stars of the original “West Side Story” movie.

Most fans of musicals already know the basic premise of “West Side Story,” which is set in New York City (specifically, in a working-class area of Manhattan’s West Side) in 1957. It’s a story inspired by William Shakeapeare’s “Romeo and Juliet.” In “West Side Story,” a sweet and innocent Puerto Rican woman named Maria, who’s in her late teens, falls in love with a slightly older, streetwise Polish American man named Tony, who is an ex-con trying to start a new and reformed life away from an all-white gang that he used to lead called the Jets. Maria’s domineering older brother Bernardo is the leader of an all-Puerto Rican rival gang called the Sharks. Bernardo is dating Maria’s sassy best friend Anita. Needless to say, the romance of Maria and Tony sparks a war between the Jets and the Sharks.

In the original “West Side Story” movie, Wood was Maria, Beymer was Tony, Moreno was Anita and Chakiris was Bernardo. In the 2021 “West Side Story” remake (which also takes place in 1957), Rachel Zegler is María, Ansel Elgort is Tony, Ariana DeBose is Anita and David Alvarez is Bernardo. Unlike the original “West Side Story” movie, Spielberg’s “West Side Story” remake avoids any criticism of “whitewashing” racial casting, by casting the people of color characters with actors who are also people of color. Zegler is a Latina of Colombian heritage. DeBose is multiracial; in interviews, she sometimes identifies herself as African American. (DeBose’s father is Afro-Latino, and her mother is white.)

Perhaps the biggest and best change to the “West Side Story” remake is the clever idea to cast original “West Side Story” movie co-star Moreno in the role of a new character: Valentina, the no-nonsense but kind-hearted owner of a drugstore called Doc’s Chemists, where Tony works. In this version of “West Side Story,” Valentina is the widow of Doc, the store’s owner in the original “West Side Story” movie. (Doc was played by Ned Glass.) Considering all the racial discord in the story, the Valentina character gives the movie added poignancy because a Latina woman has given Tony a chance to redeem himself and start a new life.

Valentina represents the bridge between the divides caused by racism and xenophobia in the community that’s depicted in the movie. And there’s an extra layer of female empowerment/solidarity in a pivotal scene in the movie, when Anita defends herself from being attacked in the store by members of the Jets, and Valentina intervenes to put a stop to the assault. This scene has a greater impact than in the original “West Side Story,” when the upstanding but somewhat wishy-washy Doc was the one who stopped the attack.

Rather than putting the scene in a stereotypical context of a man coming to the rescue of a woman, this “West Side Story” movie has a woman in charge (Valentina), who is the unflinching moral compass in a maelstrom of hate and chaos. The scene is also symbolic of all the racism and sexism that women of color have had to experience and what happens when women help each other in moments of distress and pain. Moreno has talked extensively in interviews about how this scene was the most emotionally difficult one for her to film in the original “West Side Story,” and she has said it was a surreal experience to film it again in the “West Side Story” remake—this time, as the rescuer instead of the one being attacked.

Spielberg’s “West Side Story” remake stays true to the main elements of the story. The movie opens with the Jets in a rubble-filled area that’s undergoing reconstruction to make way for higher-priced homes. The Jets, led by Tony’s best friend Riff (played by Mike Faist), are hoodlums who come from dysfunctional families and are hostile toward non-white immigrants whom they feel are taking over the city. Since 1917, Puerto Rico has been a U.S. territory, and people born in Puerto Rico are U.S. citizens. But that doesn’t stop people like the Jets (and many other xenophobic and racist people) from thinking that Puerto Ricans aren’t “real Americans.” If Tony had any past racism when he was in the Jets, it’s not directly mentioned in the movie. What’s clear is that Tony is now a reformed person and very much against racism.

Meanwhile, many of the Sharks, including Bernardo, dislike white people, whom they see as racist oppressors. Puerto Ricans such as Bernardo, María and Anita are U.S. citizens but feel like immigrants in the United States, where English is the dominant language and there’s open hatred and discrimination against people who aren’t white. Bernardo feels that the Sharks are superior to the Jets because, as he tells Riff in one of their many confrontations, at least most of the Sharks have jobs. The Jets—who are U.S.-born, mostly unemployed descendants of white European immigrants—are fueled by anger in their perception that the American Dream has been ripped away from them.

María, Bernardo, and Anita (who all pay rent and share the same apartment in this “West Side Story” remake) represent the American Dream of people whose first language is not English, which they’ve had to learn in order to get certain opportunities. María, Bernardo and Anita also represent Puerto Ricans who come to the United States in search of a better life while the majority of their families still live in Puerto Rico. Coming to a place like New York City—where the cost of living and is higher and the living spaces are smaller than most other U.S. cities—can be a rude awakening that can be handled with optimism or pessimism. This dichotomy is represented in one of the musical’s most famous song-and-dance numbers: “America,” with Anita taking the lead for the optimistic side, and Bernardo taking the lead for the pessimistic side.

A noticeable difference in this “West Side Story” remake is that the Puerto Ricans speak a lot more Spanish—and there are no subtitles. It’s a clear indication that Spielberg (who is one of the movie’s producers) wanted this version of “West Side Story” to be more inclusive to Spanish-speaking audiences and present a more realistic depiction of people who speak more than one language. Although the 2021 version of “West Side Story” has no subtitles for the Spanish-language dialogue, it’s easy for people who don’t know Spanish to figure out what what’s being said, based on the cast members’ tones of voice, body language and facial expressions.

In this movie remake, the Puerto Rican characters are less concerned about assimilating in English-speaking America than their counterparts were in the 1961 version of “West Side Story.” Valentina even says so, when she makes this comment about her interracial marriage: “I married a gringo. He thinks that makes me a gringo. I ain’t.”

“West Side Story” was ahead of its time for having the androgynous Anybodys character, who is presented in both movies as a young transgender man, during an era when the word “transgender” did not exist. In the “West Side Story” remake, Anybodys (played by Iris Menas) is a lookout for the Jets. Anybodys is sometimes referred to as a “girl,” but Anybodys would rather be just one of the guys.

There’s a point in the movie where people start using male pronouns to describe Anybodys—and that makes Anybodys very happy. In the 2021 “West Side Story” remake, Anybodys has less screen time than the Anybodys in the first “West Side Story” movie. The character is depicted with more subtlety and less-exaggerated mannerisms in the remake.

Just like in the original “West Side Story,” the movie begins with the introduction of the Jets, followed by the Sharks, and the tensions between the two gangs. The Jets are first seen emerging from the rubble with paint cans, which they use to commit vandalism on an outdoor wall mural of the Puerto Rican flag. (This vandalism of a Puerto Rican flag mural is new to the remake.) The Sharks see this vandalism, are offended, and a brawl ensues between the two gangs until police arrive to break up the fight.

On the scene is Officer Krupke (played by Brian d’Arcy James), a “regular Joe” cop who would like nothing more than for the Jets and the Sharks to stop fighting each other, even though he knows that’s not very realistic. Krupke’s swaggering boss is Lieutenant Schrank (played by Corey Stoll), who’s even more impatient with these rival gangs than Krupke is. Schrank gruffly insults the Jets by calling them “the last of the can’t-make-it Caucasians,” and he barks this order: “Evict yourself from my crime scene, Bernardo!”

The Jets and the Sharks don’t trust each other, but both gangs have even less trust of the police. It’s why no one in either gang will snitch when the police try to find out who started the violent fight. No one is arrested this time, but the fight’s not over. As soon as the cops leave, Riff and Bernardo agree that there should be a rumble to decide which gang will come out on top. Anita and María openly express their disapproval of Bernardo’s gang activities, but he doesn’t pay attention to them, and there’s not much María and Anita can do to stop him.

Riff is somewhat of a reluctant chief of the Jets because he became the default leader when Tony was sent to prison for attempted murder of a young man during a gang fight. Now on parole, Tony is keeping his distance from the Jets because he truly wants to turn his life around and no longer be a criminal. Tony will not rejoin the Jets, despite Riff’s constant pleas.

Faist’s version of Riff has an insecure scrappiness to how he handles his gang leadership, indicating that Riff craves and fears power. He looks like he’s got a more fascinating and harrowing story to tell than Russ Tamblyn’s version of Riff in the first “West Side Story” movie. Tamblyn’s Riff looks like a frat boy gone bad. Faist’s version of Riff looks like a real street survivor who’s had a rough life and has the facial scars to prove it.

Riff has a platinum-blonde girlfriend named Velma (played by Maddie Ziegler), who is loyal and loving to him, but she disapproves of him getting involved in violent crimes. It’s a change from the Velma in the first “West Side Story” movie, where Velma was much more of a gang moll who looked the other way or encouraged Riff to be a violent thug. Ziegler became an actress after years as a professional dancer. Her dance expertise shows in Velma’s feisty and eye-catching dance moves.

In this “West Side Story” remake, Tony goes into more details about his life in prison in ways that weren’t in the original “West Side Story” movie. He still talks more about how prison changed him and made him determined to lead a law-abiding and productive life, but he expresses more guilt about the crime and more remorse about how he hurt the victim. After he was released from prison, Valentina gave Tony a job and a place to stay. (He lives in the store’s basement.) Valentina has known the members of the Jets since they were children. She has become a mother figure to Tony, who is estranged from his parents.

Just like in the original “West Side Story,” Tony and María meet and have a “love at first sight” encounter at a dance attended by local young people, including the members of the Jets and the Sharks. The dance’s chaperone announces at the dance that it’s a “social experiment” to better integrate white people and Latinos who live in the area. “And then you can all go back to your feral lives,” the chaperone cynically adds. However, racial segregation is still a fact of life that the attendees find difficult to change at this dance. They still congregate in groups according to race, including the inevitable dance-off where Anita and Bernardo outshine everyone else.

As an example of how much slicker this version of “West Side Story” is, the dance is held at a shiny-looking, well-lit school gymnasium, compared to the somewhat dark and grimy-looking dancehall in the original “West Side Story” movie. It’s a setting that looks a little too polished and well-kept for an area that’s supposed to be populated by people who are struggling financially and has public schools that are more run-down than they should be.

Tony has come to this dance reluctantly, after much persuasion from Riff, who wants to use the dance as away for Tony to see all of his former gang pals again. But once Tony and María lock eyes, meet cute behind the gym bleachers, and exchange some smitten dialogue, Tony can’t think of anything else but being with María. Tony and María couple up immediately by dancing together and having their first kiss just a few minutes after meeting that night. They agree to meet the next day at a museum.

Tony and María’s attraction to each other doesn’t go unnoticed. Bernardo orders Tony to stay away from María . Bernardo would rather that María date someone who’s Puerto Rican, such as his mild-mannered best friend Chino (played by Josh Andrés Rivera), who is not a member of the Sharks, although Chino would like to be. Chino was sort of Maria’s date at this dance, but Chino and María’s relationship has always been about platonic friendship only.

At the dance, Bernardo gets a little rough by pushing Tony away when he sees that Tony is interested in María. Riff and the rest of the Jets come to Tony’s defense, which leads the Sharks to get in on the dispute. María and Anita are disgusted with all of this seemingly never-ending fighting between the Sharks and the Jets, so they leave the dance. However, Tony doesn’t join his former gang cronies in this fight and instead runs out of the dance to look for María , but she is long gone.

The next day at Doc’s store, Tony has told Valentina about this new romance. He asks Valentina how to say, “I want to be with you forever” in Spanish, so that he can make this declaration of love to María on their first date. These kids move fast. Even Valentina notices how quickly Tony wants to commit to María, by cracking this joke: “You sure you don’t want to ask her out for coffee first?” Because this movie is set in the 1950s, when it was more common for people in the U.S. to get married in their late teens and early 20s, this swift courtship is easier to believe than if the movie had been set in the present day.

María and Tony are blissfully happy together in the short time that they’ve known each other, but their romance is threatened by the growing hatred between the Jets and the Sharks. The “West Side Story” remake keeps the sentiment that María and Tony have a pure love for each other. It’s a love that borders on obsession, especially in a scene where María gets some very bad news about something Tony did to hurt one of María’s loved ones, and her priority is to comfort Tony. However, there’s a slight but noticeable difference in how the remake presents this scene, which is in a better way than the first “West Side Story” movie.

The “West Side Story” remake has no drastic revisions to the songs’ tempos or arrangements. The movie also doesn’t add any original songs that were written specifically for this remake, in an attempt to get awards for new and original movie music. The song placements mostly stay true to the original, with some notable exceptions.

“I Feel Pretty,” Maria’s joyous ode to romance and self-confidence, has a different setting. In the original “West Side Story” movie, Maria sang “I Feel Pretty” in a private room with three seamstresses. In the “West Side Story” remake makes this musical number a much more public spectacle.

María works as a cleaning woman at a boutique. She sings “I Feel Pretty” while dancing through the rooms of the boutique with several other cleaning women during after-hours. This setting gives the scene a more aspirational tone to what the characters do, as they let loose in a boutique where they work but probably can’t afford the clothes that are sold in the boutique.

Fans of Moreno will have to wait until the last third of the movie for Valentina’s big musical moment: the show-stopping tune “Somewhere,” which she performs solo. It’s an absolute exquisite rendition that might make some viewers more than a little misty-eyed. All of the cast members rise to the occasion to make this “West Side Story” very entertaining and emotion-filled. There isn’t a mediocre performer in the movie’s principal cast.

Zegler carries her scenes as María with an eager-to-please demeanor. She doesn’t have the star power of Wood, but Zegler and Elgort have nice chemistry together as María and Tony. Elgort doesn’t always sound like the working-class New Yorker that he’s supposed to be as Tony when he speaks, but Elgort gives Tony the type of heartthrob charm that makes it easy to see why María falls so hard and fast for him. Elgort and Zegler have singing voices that are very good, but not particularly distinctive.

DeBose lights up every scene that she’s in and is the breakout star of the movie. Her version of Anita has a commanding presence and the flashiest dance movies. Debose’s larger-than-life portrayal of Anita is ideal for this type of splashy movie musical. Anita has a big personality, but she also has a more realistic view of life and love than starry-eyed María. And that’s why, for adults with enough life experience, Anita is a more relatable character than María.

Alvarez’s Bernardo has more machismo, as well as a little more emotional depth, than the Bernardo of the original “West Side Story” movie. Bernardo uses his arrogance to cover up his insecurities over feeling like he’s someone who’s “not good enough,” so he over-compensates. What he sees as being over-protective of María is really being over-controlling. What he sees as pride in being a Shark is really an endorsement of violent racism.

In the original “West Side Story,” Anita and Bernardo were an attractive couple, but you never got the impression that they had much romantic passion for each other. There’s more believable sexual heat with Anita and Bernardo in this “West Side Story” remake. DeBose and Alvarez seem to have natural chemistry with each other as Anita and Bernardo, who sees himself as the ultimate alpha male. Sex in the movie is hinted at but not explicitly shown. For example, Anita and Bernardo kiss passionately before slamming a bedroom door behind them; María and Tony wake up together half-dressed in bed.

As for the dazzling dance numbers, “West Side Story” movie remake choreographer Justin Peck brings his ballet background to the movie, with dance moves that are more complicated but a little more graceful, enhancing the stellar work by choreographer/director Robbins for the first “West Side Story” movie. DeBose is a standout in the dance scenes, which have a more sensuous and unbridled energy than the original “West Side Story” movie. (And that’s probably because depictions of sexuality in movies had more restrictions in movies released in 1961, compared to 2021.)

For the “West Side Story” remake, cinematographer Janusz Kaminski and production design make things look bigger and more over-the-top in scale. An overcast night can’t just be an overcast night. It looks like a fog-filled, full-moon scene out of a horror movie. A crumbling slum area can’t look like a crumbling slum area. It looks like a bombed-out war zone. It’s all very impressive, in terms of visuals.

And yet somehow, this more ambitious, bigger-budget version of “West Side Story” loses some of the neighborhood intimacy that the original “West Side Story” movie had. Everything looks professionally done in the remake, but just a little too staged and calculated. And maybe that’s because the movie was filmed and built on soundstages. (The “West Side Story” remake was filmed at Steiner Studios in Brooklyn.) Sometimes bigger isn’t always better.

The ending of the “West Side Story” remake doesn’t end as abruptly as the first “West Side Story” does. Without giving away too many details, it’s enough to say that the remake has a more melodramatic ending with some preachiness. It’s a revision that some “West Side Story” fans might like, while others won’t. This slightly new ending doesn’t take away from the overall spirit of “West Side Story,” which is a celebration of life and love, with the knowledge that both can be precious, fleeting and experienced with a lot of heartache.

20th Century Studios will release “West Side Story” in U.S. cinemas on December 10, 2021.

2021 Gotham Awards: ‘The Lost Daughter’ is the top winner

Olivia Colman in “The Lost Daughter” (Photo by Yannis DrakouliIdis/Netflix)

by Carla Hay

With four prizes, including Best Feature, the Netflix drama film “The Lost Daughter” was the top winner for the 31st annual Gotham Awards (formerly known as the IFP Gotham Awards), which were presented November 29, 2021, at Cipriani Wall Street in New York City. The Gotham Awards are produced by the Gotham Film & Media Institute, formerly known as the Independent Filmmaker Project. As of 2020, the Gotham Awards added categories for television programs.

“The Lost Daughter” won the Gotham Awards for Best Feature, Bingham Ray Breathrough DIrector Award (for Maggie Gyllenhaal); Best Screenplay (for Gyllenhaal); and Best Leading Performance (for Oliva Colman), an award that was also given in a tie to Frankie Faison of “The Killing of Kenneth Chamberlain.”

Other multiple winners included the Apple TV+ comedy/drama film “CODA,” which won two Gotham Awards: Outstanding Supporting Performance (for Troy Kotsur) and Breakthrough Performance (for Emilia Jones).

In the TV categories, the winners were Netflix’s “Squid Game” (Outstanding Series – Long Form); FX’s “Reservations Dogs,” (Outstanding Series – Short Form); and Topic/PBS’s “Philly D.A.” (Breakthrough Nonfiction Series). There was a two-way tie in the category of Outstanding Performance in a New Series: Ethan Hawke of Showtime’s “The Good Lord Bird” and Thuso Mbedu for Amazon Prime Video’s “The Underground Railroad.”

For the first time, the Gotham Awards eliminated gender-based prizes for performances. These gender-neutral categories for performances have been expanded to have up to 10 nominations per category, instead of five nominations for actor categories and five nominations for actress categories.

These are the new Gotham Awards categories for movies: Outstanding Lead Performance, Outstanding Supporting Performance and Breakthrough Performer. In addition, there are two new Gotham Awards categories for TV: Outstanding Performance in a New Series and Breakthrough Nonfiction Series.

In non-competitive award categories, the honorees are announced in advance. They are Kristen Stewart (Performer Tribute); Eamonn Bowles (Industry Tribute); the cast of “The Harder They Fall” (Ensemble Tribute); and Jane Campion (Director’s Tribute).

Here is the complete list of winners and nominees for the 2021 Gotham Awards:

*=winner

Best Feature

“The Green Knight”
David Lowery, director; Toby Halbrooks, James M. Johnston, David Lowery, Tim Headington, Theresa Steele Page, producers (A24)

“The Lost Daughter”*
Maggie Gyllenhaal, director; Osnat Handelsman Keren, Talia Kleinhendler, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Charles Dorfman, producers (Netflix)

“Passing”
Rebecca Hall, director; Nina Yang Bongiovi, Forest Whitaker, Margot Hand, Rebecca Hall, producers (Netflix)

“Pig”
Michael Sarnoski, director; Nicolas Cage, Steve Tisch, David Carrico, Adam Paulsen, Dori Roth, Joseph Restiano, Dimitra Tsingou, Thomas Benski, Ben Giladi, Vanessa Block, producers (NEON)

“Test Pattern”
Shatara Michelle Ford, director; Shatara Michelle Ford, Pin-Chun Liu, Yu-Hao Su, producers (Kino Lorber)

Best Documentary Feature

“Ascension”
Jessica Kingdon, director; Kira Simon-Kennedy, Nathan Truesdell, Jessica Kingdon, producers (MTV Documentary Films)

“Faya Dayi”
Jessica Beshir, director and producer (Janus Films)

“Flee”*
Jonas Poher Rasmussen, director; Monica Hellström, Signe Byrge Sørensen, Charlotte De La Gournerie, producers (NEON)

“President”
Camilla Nielsson, director; Signe Byrge Sørensen, Joslyn Barnes, producers (Greenwich Entertainment)

“Summer of Soul (…Or, When The Revolution Could Not Be Televised)”
Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, director; Joseph Patel, Robert Fyvolent, David Dinerstein, producers (Searchlight Pictures, Onyx Collective, Hulu)

Best International Feature

“Azor”
Andreas Fontana, director; Eugenia Mumenthaler, David Epiney, producers (MUBI)

“Drive My Car”*
Ryusuke Hamaguchi, director; Teruhisa Yamamoto, producer (Sideshow and Janus Films)

“The Souvenir Part II”
Joanna Hogg, director; Ed Guiney, Emma Norton, Andrew Low, Joanna Hogg, Luke Schiller, producers (A24)

“Titane”
Julia Ducournau, director; Jean-Christophe Reymond, producer (NEON)

“What Do We See When We Look at the Sky?”
Alexandre Koberidze, director; Mariam Shatberashvili, producers (MUBI)

“The Worst Person in the World”
Joachim Trier, director; Thomas Robsham, Andrea Berentsen Ottmar, Dyveke Bjørkly Graver, producers (NEON)

Bingham Ray Breakthrough Director Award

Maggie Gyllenhaal for “The Lost Daughter” (Netflix)*
Edson Oda for “Nine Days” (Sony Pictures Classics)
Rebecca Hall for “Passing” (Netflix)
Emma Seligman for “Shiva Baby” (Utopia Distribution)
Shatara Michelle Ford for “Test Pattern” (Kino Lorber)

Best Screenplay
“The Card Counter,” Paul Schrader (Focus Features)
“El Planeta,” Amalia Ulman (Utopia Distribution)
“The Green Knight,” David Lowery (A24)
“The Lost Daughter,” Maggie Gyllenhaal (Netflix)*
“Passing,” Rebecca Hall (Netflix)
“Red Rocket,” Sean Baker & Chris Bergoch (A24)

Outstanding Lead Performance

Olivia Colman in “The Lost Daughter” (Netflix)* (tie)
Frankie Faison in “The Killing of Kenneth Chamberlain” (Gravitas Ventures)* (tie)

Michael Greyeyes in “Wild Indian” (Vertical Entertainment)
Brittany S. Hall in “Test Pattern” (Kino Lorber)
Oscar Isaac in “The Card Counter” (Focus Features)
Taylour Paige in “Zola” (A24)
Joaquin Phoenix in “C’mon C’mon” (A24)
Simon Rex in “Red Rocket” (A24)
Lili Taylor in “Paper Spiders” (Entertainment Squad)
Tessa Thompson in “Passing” (Netflix)

Outstanding Supporting Performance

Reed Birney in “Mass” (Bleecker Street)
Jessie Buckley in “The Lost Daughter” (Netflix)
Colman Domingo in “Zola” (A24)
Gaby Hoffmann in “C’mon C’mon” (A24)
Troy Kotsur in “CODA” (Apple TV+)*
Marlee Matlin in “CODA” (Apple TV+)
Ruth Negga in “Passing” (Netflix)

Breakthrough Performer

Emilia Jones in “CODA” (Apple TV+)*
Natalie Morales in “Language Lessons” (Shout! Studios)
Rachel Sennott in “Shiva Baby” (Utopia Distribution)
Suzanna Son in “Red Rocket” (A24)
Amalia Ulman in “El Planeta” (Utopia Distribution)

Breakthrough Series – Long Format (over 40 minutes)

“The Good Lord Bird,” Ethan Hawke, Mark Richard, creators; James McBride, Brian Taylor, Ryan Hawke, Ethan Hawke, Jason Blum, Albert Hughes, Mark Richard, Marshall Persinger, David Schiff, executive producers (Showtime)

“It’s a Sin,” Russell T Davies, creator; Russell T Davies, Peter Hoar, Nicola Shindler, executive producers (HBO Max)

“Small Axe,” Steve McQueen, creator; Tracey Scoffield, David Tanner, Steve McQueen, executive producers (Amazon Studios)

“Squid Game,” Kim Ji-yeon, Hwang Dong-hyu, executive producers (Netflix)*

“The Underground Railroad,” Barry Jenkins, Colson Whitehead, creators; Barry Jenkins, Adele Romanski, Mark Ceryak, Brad Pitt, Dede Gardner, Jeremy Kleiner, Colson Whitehead, Jacqueline Hoyt, executive producers (Amazon Studios)

“The White Lotus,” Mike White, creator; Mike White, David Bernad, Nick Hall, executive producers (HBO Max/HBO)

Breakthrough Series – Short Format (under 40 minutes)

“Blindspotting,” Rafael Casal, Daveed Diggs, creators; Rafael Casal, Daveed Diggs, Jess Wu Calder, Keith Calder, Ken Lee, Tim Palen, Emily Gerson Saines, Seith Mann, executive producers (STARZ)

“Hacks,” Lucia Aniello, Paul W. Downs, Jen Statsky, creators; Jen Statsky, Paul W. Downs, Lucia Aniello, Michael Schur, David Miner, Morgan Sackett, executive producers (HBO Max/HBO)

“Reservation Dogs,” Sterlin Harjo, Taika Waititi, creators; Taika Waititi, Sterlin Harjo, Garrett Basch, executive producers (FX)*

“Run the World,” Leigh Davenport, creator; Yvette Lee Bowser, Leigh Davenport, Nastaran Dibai, executive producers (STARZ)

“We Are Lady Parts,” Nida Manzoor, creator, Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner, Surian Fletcher-Jones, Mark Freeland, executive producers (Peacock)

Breakthrough Nonfiction Series

“City So Real,” Jeff Skoll, Diane Weyermann, Alex Kotlowitz, Gordon Quinn, Betsy Steinberg, Jolene Pinder, executive producers (National Geographic)

“Exterminate All the Brutes,” Raoul Peck, Rémi Grellety, executive producers (HBO/HBO Max)

“How to With John Wilson,” John Wilson, creator; Nathan Fielder, John Wilson, Michael Koman, Clark Reinking, executive producers (HBO/HBO Max)

“Philly D.A.,” Ted Passon, Yoni Brook, Nicole Salazar, creators; Dawn Porter, Sally Jo Fifer, Lois Vossen, Ryan Chanatry, Gena Konstantinakos, Jeff Seelbach, Patty Quillin, executive producers (Topic, Independent Lens, PBS)*

“Pride,” Christine Vachon, Sydney Foos, Danny Gabai, Kama Kaina, Stacy Scripter, Alex Stapleton (FX)

Outstanding Performance in a New Series

Jennifer Coolidge in “The White Lotus” (HBO Max/HBO)
Michael Greyeyes in “Rutherford Falls” (Peacock)
Ethan Hawke in “The Good Lord Bird” (Showtime)*
Devery Jacobs in “Reservation Dogs” (FX)
Lee Jung-jae in “Squid Game” (Netflix)
Thuso Mbedu in “The Underground Railroad” (Amazon Studios)*
Jean Smart in “Hacks” (HBO Max/HBO)
Omar Sy in “Lupin” (Netflix)
Anya Taylor-Joy in “The Queen’s Gambit” (Netflix)
Anjana Vasan in “We Are Lady Parts” (Peacock)

Review: ‘Who We Are: A Chronicle of Racism in America,’ starring Jeffrey Robinson

November 28, 2021

by Carla Hay

Jeffrey Robinson, Hank Sanders and Faya Ora Rose Touré in “Who We Are: A Chronicle of Racism in America” (Photo by Jesse Wakeman/Sony Pictures Classics)

“Who We Are: A Chronicle of Racism in America”

Directed by Emily Kunstler and Sarah Kunstler 

Culture Representation: The documentary “Who We Are: A Chronicle of Racism in America” features a predominantly African American group (with a few white people) of civil rights activists, entrepreneurs, historians and authors discussing the racial prejudices and challenges experienced by people of color, particularly African American men, in the United States.

Culture Clash: The documentary, led by civil rights activist/attorney Jeffrey Robinson, has the premise that people cannot truly be honest about racism in America without acknowledging that America was built on white supremacy that oppresses non-white people in entrenched systems that still exist today.

Culture Audience: “Who We Are: A Chronicle of Racism in America” will appeal primarily to people interested in historical accounts of racial bigotry in America that have a personal touch (due to Robinson’s on-camera narration and interviewing), but don’t expect there to be much discussion about racism against people who aren’t African American men.

Jeffrey Robinson in “Who We Are: A Chronicle of Racism in America” (Photo by Jesse Wakeman/Sony Pictures Classics)

“Who We Are: A Chronicle of Racism in America” is partly a filmed lecture by scholar Jeffrey Robinson, partly a historical account and partly a personal journey taken by Robinson to retrace past experiences with racism and race relations. The movie features compelling interviews and information but puts an overwhelming emphasis on bigotry inflicted on black men. The documentary should have been more inclusive of other people of color who experience racism too.

For example, the documentary has almost no acknowledgement of the genocide of Native Americans that allowed white Europeans to take over the land that is now known as the United States of America. You can’t have a truly comprehensive discussion about racism in America without including the brutally honest but necessary history explaining how white people became the dominant race in a part of North America where Native Americans were the dominant race for centuries. The documentary also does not cover the well-documented and shameful examples of U.S. government-sanctioned racism and other forms of bigotry experienced by Latinos and Asians in America.

“Who We Are: A Chronicle of Racism in America” (directed by sisters Emily Kunstler and Sarah Kunstler) is nevertheless a well-intentioned film and addresses many important topics about racial discrimination. The title is just a little misleading though. A more accurate title would be “Who We Are: A Chronicle of Racism Against Black Men in America.” That’s because almost all of the examples of racist hate crimes that are examined in this documentary are crimes in America against black men. This documentary packs in a considerable amount of information in its 118-minute running time, but the vast scope of what this documentary intended would have been better-suited as a docuseries instead of a feature-length film.

“Who Are Are: A Chronicle of Racism in America” made the rounds at several film festivals, including the SXSW Film Festival, Hot Docs, AFI Fest and DOC NYC. It’s the type of movie that is supposed to make people uncomfortable because it covers uncomfortable truths that many people want to deny or forget. The documentary sounds an alarm that there’s still a lot of work to be done in healing from and preventing the damage of racism that is still pervasive today.

If it seems like “Who We Are: A Chronicle of Racism in America” has a well-articulated and methodical tone of attorneys presenting a case, that’s because several attorneys or people with legal backgrounds were involved in the making of this film. Jeffrey Robinson, the movie’s on-screen narrator and interviewer, is an attorney who founded the Who We Are Project non-profit group to combat racism. Proceeds from this documentary will go to Who We Are Project. He has a background working as a deputy legal director and the director of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) Trone Center for Justice and Equality, as well as a public defender and an attorney in private practice.

Robinson, Emily Kunstler and Sarah Kunstler are among the producers of “Who We Are: A Chronicle of Racism in America.” Emily Kunstler and Sarah Kunstler (who co-founded the social-justice film production company Off Center Media) are two of the daughters famed civil rights attorney William Kunstler. Sarah is a practicing attorney. Emily’s mother is attorney Margaret Ratner Kunstler.

When white directors make a documentary or any project about white supremacist racism, some people will automatically question the validity or authenticity of the project. Emily Kunstler responded to this skepticism by making this statement in the “Who We Are” documentary’s production notes: “Throughout the making of this film, one of the questions we often get is why are two white women making this film? Our answer is that the history of slavery in the United States is not Black history, it is American history; a history of white supremacy and white complicity as well as a history of Black oppression and resistance. Growing up, Sarah and I were taught that it was our moral responsibility to stand up against racism and fight for justice. This responsibility includes learning and sharing our country’s painful history.”

“Who We Are: A Chronicle of Racism in America” has three distinctive types of footage that are all interwoven seamlessly throughout the film:

  • (1) A filmed speaking appearance about American racism that Robinson did in June 2018 at New York City’s Town Hall. This footage was directed by Gbenga Akinnagbe, who is one of the producers of this documentary
  • (2) Archival footage of many of the people, places and events discussed in the documentary.
  • (3) Interviews about racism in America that Robinson conducted in various U.S. cities.

Robinson has an engaging style of public speaking that is partly like a scholarly history teacher, partly like an intellectual sociologist and partly like an impassioned civil rights activist. He infuses his recitation of alarming statistics and data about racism with his own personal anecdotes, in order to make the information more relatable. He sometimes cracks sarcastic jokes to lighten the mood. Other times, his facial expressions show the emotional pain of remembering being the target of racism and feeling empathy to others who’ve also experienced this type of hatred and discrimination.

In the documentary’s opening scene, Robinson is seen on stage at the Town Hall appearance addressing a common argument that some people have when trying to minimize the damage caused by slavery in America. Robinson says that these deniers often say, “‘Slavery is not our responsibility.’ But it’s our shared history. And when we try to turn it into something that it’s not, when we try to make more light of what it was, then we are denying who we really are and are impeding our ability to move forward as a community and as a nation.”

As an example of how divisive people’s opinions are about how slavery in America should be remembered, the documentary mentions the ongoing debates of whether or not certain slave owners in American history should be celebrated. Controversies over which public statues should be removed or which architectural structures should be renamed indicate that this is a hot-button topic that won’t be going away anytime soon. Oftentimes, when people talk about not removing these statues or other tributes, they say it’s about “being patriotic.” But does “being patriotic” mean embracing historical racists as heroes?

In the documentary, Robinson shares his opinion on where people should draw the line: If a historical figure (especially a slave owner) is best known for doing things that advocated for keeping slavery and/or racial segregation legal, then those historical figures should not be celebrated with public statues, structures or any government-funded institutions named after them. If a historical figure’s accomplishments consist mainly of progress for the United States that’s greater than the fact that the historical figured owned slaves when it was legal in the United States, then it’s best to not remove the statue or tribute. Robinson cites former U.S. presidents who were slave owners (George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, to name a few) as examples of historical figures who shouldn’t be “erased” or “cancelled,” because their legacies for what they did in U.S. history far outweigh the fact that they owned slaves.

Several of the flashpoint events in civil rights history are mentioned during Robinson’s Town Hall speaking appearance, which includes a Power Point-type visual presentation on stage. These tragedies include the 1921 massacre and burning of Black Wall Street in Tulsa, Oklahoma; the 1955 murder of 14-year-old Emmitt Till, who was brutally slaughtered by two white men in Money, Mississippi, after Till was wrongfully accused of whistling at a white woman; and the 1968 assassination of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. in Memphis. For many of these tragic events, Robinson goes to the scene and/or interviews people who were associated in some way to the victims of these hate crimes.

In Tulsa, Robinson interviews Lessie Benningfield Randle, one of the last known survivors of the Tulsa massacre. Even though she was a little girl when the massacre happened, she still has horrific memories of this tragedy. She witnessed people being shot and bodies piled up on the street. “I never want to see anything like that again,” she says with a haunted look in her eyes.

Also in Tulsa, Robinson visits Dr. Tiffany Crutcher, the twin sister of Terence Crutcher, an unarmed college student who was killed in 2016 by a white police officer named Betty Jo Shelpy, who claimed self-defense. Dr. Cruther says that her brother was not identified as a suspect when Shelpy arrived on the scene and that the media “dehumanized” him as a criminal when in facts he was not a criminal. “He laid on the street like an animal,” she says bitterly about how her brother’s dead body was unattended to for hours.

While in Memphis (Robinson’s childhood hometown), Robinson visits the Lorraine Motel, the site of King’s assassination. Robinson describes his own father as someone who was involved in the civil rights movement, and he has vivid memories of being taken to protest marches as a child. Also in Memphis, Robinson has an emotional reunion with Robert “Opie” Orians, a former classmate and friend of Robinson’s when they both attended St. Louis Catholic School and were on the school’s basketball team. Jeffrey Robinson and his older brother Herbert Robinson (who appears briefly in another part of the documentary) were the first black students at the school.

Opie’s father Richard Orians is also part of the reunion with Opie and Jeffrey. Richard, who used to coach the school’s basketball team, talks about an incident when the St. Louis team was barred from entry for a game at a rival school because a black student (Jeffrey) was on the St. Louis team. All three men get emotional, with eyes tearing up and voices cracking, when Richard says that, out of principle, he removed the team from the premises because he didn’t want to the team to be associated with a school that would make this racist decision. At the time, Richard says that he protected the team by not telling them the real reason why they were withdrawing from the game.

Jeffrey also remembers another racist incident he experienced as a child during a basketball game, when someone on the other team called him the “n” word. Jeffrey’s father was watching the game nearby, so Jeffrey went to his father to complain about the racist insult. Jeffrey remembers his father’s empathetic but stern response: “What do you want to do about it?”

His father asked Jeffrey if he would rather quit the game and let the racist feel superior, or stay in the game to prove to the racist that a racist slur wasn’t going to stop Jeffrey from playing the game. Jeffrey decided to stay in the game. He said it was an early lesson in not letting racists get what they want when they using racist insults and other forms of racism to make the targets of their hate feel inferior or defeated.

Jeffrey shares another personal story when he meets up with Kathie Fox, whose mother-in-law Mildred was the realtor of the Robinson family. The family—Jeffrey’s parents Herbert Sr. and Lameris; older brother Herbert Jr.; and younger brother Larry (who appears briefly in this documentary)—couldn’t move into a mostly white neighborhood until Mildred enlisted her married friends Lib and Pat Smith to buy a house in the neighborhood and then transfer the deed to Herbert Sr. and Lameris. Jeffrey remembers the look of shock on some neighbors’ faces when his family moved into the neighborhood. It was not uncommon for African American families to have to ask white allies to be their proxies to buy a house in a white neighborhood, because racist realtors would not sell houses to black people.

Also in Memphis, Jeffrey meets up with Tami Sawyer, a Shelby County commissioner of District 7, who led the charge to take down a statue in Memphis of Nathan Bedford, a Confederate Army general and the first Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. Sawyer says there’s no legitimate excuse for any past or present member of the KKK to be honored with a publicly funded statue that makes that person look like a hero. Still, the people who successfully lobbied to have the statue removed got a lot of resistance from those who say statues like that represent “Southern pride.” To other people, these types of statues are symbols of racist white supremacy.

While visiting Clayborn Temple in Memphis, Jeffrey interviews Carolyn Payne, whose unarmed brother Larry Payne was shot to death by a cop when Larry was 18 years old. Larry was unfortunately in the wrong place at the wrong time, since there was no evidence that he did anything wrong. Nothing ever happened to the cop who killed Larry. Carolyn says that she and her family will probably never know what really happened because she thinks there was a racist cover-up by the police who were involved. Sadly, there are too many other incidents like this to put into just one documentary.

In Alabama, Jeffrey visits author Josephine Bolling McCall, whose father Elmore Bolling was murdered in 1967, for being “too successful to be a Negro,” according to a newspaper report that she reads out loud and which is shown in the documentary. She describes how her family found her father shot to death in a ditch. “It’s ingrained in my memory,” she says with heartbreak. No one was indicted for this crime.

While in Selma, Alabama, Jeffrey speaks with retired Alabama senator Hank Sanders and activist Faya Ora Rose Touré, who are part of a group of citizens who want the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma to be renamed the Freedom Bridge. Edmund Pettus was a Grand Dragon in the KKK. Considering the historical significance of Selma in the civil rights movement, many people think it’s an insult that there’s a bridge in Selma (or anywhere, for that matter) named after someone who was proud to be a racist.

In Charleston, South Carolina, Jeffrey visits the Old Slave Mart Museum, where operations manager Ista Clarke gives a harrowing, detailed description of what it was like for slaves to be bought and sold there. Also in Charleston, Jeffrey accompanies Sights and Insights Tours owner Al Miller on a trip to the Ashley Avenue Oak Tree, which was the site of numerous lynchings, mainly of African American men. It’s mentioned that in almost all of these lynching cases, the victims were lynched not for doing anything wrong but for not being white.

African Americans are the vast majority of people who are interviewed in this documentary, but one white person is interviewed who represents people who think that the Confederate flag is not a symbol of racist hate. In Charleston, Jeffrey talks to one of three white men standing outside on the street while holding the Confederate flag. The three men are from a pro-Confederate flag group called Flags Across the South. It should be noted that although these men claim to be proud to stand up for their cause, they’re all wearing hats and sunglasses, as if they don’t want their faces to be fully exposed.

Jeffrey talks to Flags Across the South chairman Braxton Spivey on the street. And what Spivey has to say can only be described as being making excuses for slavery. Spivey comments, “Slavery had nothing to do with the [Civil] War. It was about money.” Spivey adds, “Slaves were treated like family,” and he believes that slaves “chose to stay” in captivity.

Jeffrey looks visibly disgusted at Spivey’s historically inaccurate rhetoric and blatant racism. When Spivey is asked if he would ever want to be owned as a slave, he admits he would not. But the subtext of what Spivey believes is that he thinks that white people shouldn’t be the slaves in society. Jeffrey shakes his head as he walks away and comments on Spivey: “Facts are not important to that gentleman.”

In New York City, Jeffrey talks to law student Darren Martin, who had the cops called on him when he was moving into his apartment. Apparently, an unidentified neighbor assumed that because Martin is African American, his moving activities were thieving activities. Martin says that six police officers responded to the complaint as if he were a criminal, even though he showed proof that he was new resident of the building and he was moving in. Like many people who experience this type of racism, Martin took out his phone and video recorded the incident. His video went viral and made the news.

Also in New York City, Jeffrey interviewed Gwen Carr, the mother of Eric Garner, an unarmed African American man who died in 2013 after a police officer put Garner in a chokehold and Garner repeatedly yelled, “I can’t breathe!” The cop acted with this type of force in response to seeing Garner illegally selling loose cigarettes. That incident was captured on video, made international news, and became a touchstone tragedy that fueled the Black Lives Matter movement.

Carr describes her slain son: “He was a gentle giant.” She also says that she went into a deep depression after his death but then had a spiritual awakening: “The Holy Spirit spoke to me one evening” and asked if she was going be dead like her son, or if she was “going to get up, lift up his name, and let people know exactly who he was, and not let the media demonize him. Even though it’s too late for my son, we have to save other lives.”

While in New York City, Jeffrey interviews Inside Out Tours managing director Stacey Toussaint, who talks about how slave labor was the backbone of New York City, which was a financial hub for insurance and financing of the slave trade. Toussaint says that she wants more people to understand that even though Southern states are often singled out as the worst states in America for racism, the reality is that racism can be anywhere.

Other people interviewed in the documentary are Chief Egunwale F. Amusan, president of the African Ancestral Society in Tulsa; Reverend Dr. Robert Turner, pastor of Historic Vernon Chapel A.M.E. Church in Tulsa; Kristi Williams, a Historic Greenwood/Black Wall Street historian; and Jeffrey’s nephew Matthew Liam Brooks, whom Jeffrey raised as a son after Brooks’ mother died.

During his Town Hall speaking appearance, Jeffrey says that dealing with racism means dealing with the ugly fact that many people are too heavily invested in keeping white supremacist racism in the economy and other systems that affect people lives. And when it comes to stopping racism, he makes this pointed observation: “A lot of people say they want change. They just don’t want the change to cost them anything or require them to change anything about the way they are living.”

One of the best ways to sum up the point of this documentary is from something that Jeffrey says in his Town Hall speaking engagement: “America has demonstrated its greatness time and time and time again, and America is one of the most racist countries on the face of the earth. Those two things are not mutually exclusive. It is not an either/or. And the reason I’m asking us to think about this is that literally, the future is at stake.”

Sony Pictures Classics will release “Who We Are: A Chronicle of Racism in America” in select U.S. cinemas on January 14, 2022.

Review: ‘The Humans’ (2021), starring Richard Jenkins, Amy Schumer, Steven Yeun, Beanie Feldstein, June Squibb and Jayne Houdyshell

November 23, 2021

by Carla Hay

Pictured clockwise, from bottom left: Steven Yeun, Beanie Feldstein, June Squibb, Richard Jenkins, Jayne Houdyshell and Amy Schumer in “The Humans” (Photo courtesy of A24)

“The Humans” (2021)

Directed by Stephen Karam

Culture Representation: Taking place in New York City, the dramatic film “The Humans” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with one Asian person) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A Thanksgiving family gathering in a creaky New York City apartment brings out various levels of tension and secrets. 

Culture Audience: “The Humans” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in watching movies adapted from stage plays and movies about family gatherings that show realistic conversations.

Amy Schumer in “The Humans” (Photo courtesy of A24)

“The Humans” will keep viewers guessing on what terrible things might happen at an often-uncomfortable family reunion during Thanksgiving. It’s not a horror movie, but it’s a well-acted study of psychological turmoil. “The Humans” movie is the feature-film directorial debut of Stephen Karam, who adapted the movie from his Tony-winning play of the same name. Don’t expect any major plot twists to happen. This dialogue-heavy movie puts more emphasis on the characters’ interactions and creating an uneasy mood.

If watching “The Humans” makes some viewers feel slightly claustrophobic, that’s clearly the intention. The entire film takes place in one location: a drab New York City duplex apartment in a shabby building. It’s the type of apartment that’s probably overpriced just because it’s in Manhattan’s Chinatown, which has undergone various degrees of gentrification. The apartment has several rooms but still seems cramped and unsettling when the Blake family (the clan at the center of the story) gathers for this Thanksgiving dinner.

The two residents of the apartment are Brigid Blake (played by Beanie Feldstein) and her boyfriend Richard (played by Steven Yeun), who have recently moved into this duplex. Their move is so recent, their new home is still mostly unfurnished. Brigid, who is in her late 20s, is an unemployed classical musician/composer who is looking for work in her chosen profession. Richard, who is 35, is studying to be a social worker.

The other family members who are at this Thanksgiving gathering have all traveled from Pennsylvania. Brigid’s older sister Aimee (played by Amy Schumer) lives in Philadelphia. Brigid and Aimee’s parents are Erik Blake (played by Richard Jenkins) and Deirdre Blake (played by Jayne Houdyshell), who both still live in Scranton, where they raised Brigid and Aimee. Erik’s mother, who’s nicknamed Momo (played by June Squibb), uses a wheelchair and has dementia.

Momo lives with Erik and Deirdre, who is Momo’s primary caretaker while also holding down a job as an office manager. Later on in the movie, Deirdre mentions that she’s been at the same company for 40 years and started working there not long after she graduated from high school. Deirdre expresses some resentment that she’s been passed over for promotions. She complains that she now reports to two guys in their 20s who make a lot more money than she does, just because they have fancy college degrees.

Erik has also been a longtime staffer at his place of employment. For the past 28 years, he’s been working as a maintenance custodian at a Catholic school. As one of the perks of the job, when Aimee and Brigid were children, he was able to enroll them in the school without having to pay tuition. Erik and Deirdre are planning to build a lake house for their retirement. Construction on the house has been stalled due to various issues, but Erik tells the family that things are back on track to finish building the house.

Aimee, who is openly a lesbian or a queer woman, is experiencing some setbacks in her career and personal life. She’s heartbroken over a recent breakup with a girlfriend named Carol, who is not seen in the movie, but who talks to Aimee on the phone during one of the movie’s heart-wrenching scenes. Aimee also tells the family that she’s being ousted from her corporate job because she took too much personal time off from work.

Aimee needed the time off to deal with her medical issues: Aimee has kidney dysplasia and colitis. She hasn’t told her parents yet that she has to make a decision on whether or not to get surgery. Aimee confides in Brigid that she’s afraid that no one will want to date her after the surgery. Brigid gives Aimee a pep talk and tells her that Aimee is attractive and a great catch.

“The Humans” moves along at a slow pace where not much happens except people talking. However, throughout the movie, there are things that literally go bump in the night—specifically, loud thumps that can be heard from the apartment upstairs. The noise unnerves Erik the most. Several times during the movie, Brigid has to assure him that the noise is coming from a harmless elderly woman who lives upstairs.

Out of all the family members gathered for this Thanksgiving, Erik is the one who seems to be the most restless and on edge. He sometimes goes to the windows (which do not have drapes or blinds) to look out, as if he’s certain that people might be looking in on them. This old, creaky building also has problems with its electricity and plumbing. You can easily predict what will happen at one point with the electricity.

“The Humans” might give the impression that it’s going to turn into a haunted house movie. “The Humans” has some “jump scares,” but it’s best if people know in advance not to expect “The Humans” to be a horror film. There’s a feeling of foreboding and dread throughout the film, but it’s mainly from these family members dealing with and confronting their insecurities and secrets.

For example, there are various resentments that certain family members have toward each other. Brigid feels that her mother Deirdre is overly critical of her, while Deirdre resents that bossy Brigid always acts like talkative Deirdre is an embarrassment to the family. Erik and Deirdre are very religious, so they’d prefer that Richard and Brigid live together as a married couple. Brigid seems to want to eventually get married, but it’s a sensitive topic for her because she thinks that she and Richard should be more financially stable before thinking about marriage.

Erik and Deirdre accept Aimee’s sexuality, but they don’t discuss Aimee’s love life at length in the way that they talk about Brigid’s love life. These parents don’t really come right out and say it, but they show through their words and actions that they’re more invested in who Brigid’s life partner will be because they think that because Brigid is heterosexual, she’s more likely to get married and have children.

Erik is more judgmental than Deirdre, when it comes to what other people experience in life. For example, Erik believes that therapy is self-indulgent, and he thinks that he personally never needs therapy in his life. At one point during the dinner, when someone reveals getting treatment in the past for depression, Erik insensitively says that religion has been his own “anti-depressant.”

How religious is Erik? He has a figurine of the Virgin Mary that he has carried with him for this Thanksgiving dinner. And it should come as no surprise that he’s the one who leads the prayer before they begin their Thanksgiving meal. Erik believes in having a traditional patriarchal role for his family. And usually, when someone is this self-righteous in a movie, that person is probably the one who has the biggest secrets to hide.

This is Richard’s first Thanksgiving with the family, so he has the “outsider” role in the movie. He tries to keep the peace when certain family members start to bicker with each other. Richard has some secrets too that eventually come out in the dinner conversation.

As an example of how cheerful Richard wants this family gathering to be, he has a device that can project visual images onto any wall. He chooses to project the image of a cozy, burning fireplace. When it’s projected on the wall, it looks like a real fireplace, and it gives the drab and nearly empty room a warmer ambience.

Brigid, who is somewhat of a control freak, turns off the device because she thinks that having a fake fireplace looks tacky. Richard disagrees and wants to keep some kind of ambience projection image going in the room, to make the room look lived-in and not so barren. Observant viewers will notice that this back-and-forth between Brigid and Richard about whether or not to use this device in the room is not just about any power struggles in their relationship. It’s also about Brigid showing defiance about Erik’s expressed disapproval of the shabby condition of the apartment building.

Erik isn’t shy about telling Brigid that he thinks her choice to live in New York City is somewhat foolish, when she can have bigger and better living space in Scranton for a fraction of the cost of living expenses in New York City. It’s implied that Erik and Brigid have had ongoing disagreements about where she lives. She lives in New York City because she loves it and knows that she will have better career opportunities in New York, but Erik sees it as Brigid turning her back on her Scranton roots. Erik also doesn’t understand why Aimee wants to live in a big city like Philadelphia, although Erik is much more disapproving of Brigid living in New York City.

At first, Richard and Erik have some unspoken awkwardness between them, because Erik doesn’t know Richard very well and isn’t quite sure how much Richard might be a threat to Erik’s influence over the family. However, Richard is very mild-mannered and a people pleaser. Erik starts to warm up to Richard when he sees that Richard has no intention of being the most dominant person in this family.

But some things are really bothering Erik. And little, by little, he begins to reveal what those things are. Erik starts off by telling everyone that he’s been having nightmares of being chased in a tunnel. Richard then confesses that he’s also had a recurring nightmare: falling through an ice cream cone made of grass. Richard is also a sci-fi enthusiast, so he shares a theory of what outer-space aliens must think about human beings on Earth. This theory ties into the main theme of this movie.

Every movie about a family Thanksgiving dinner seems to have it share of family squabbles. “The Humans” is no exception. Much of this discord has to do with family members not feeling respected or heard. For example, an emotional blow-up happens after Brigid shares her disappointment over getting constant rejections for a grant and because her job search hasn’t been going well. Erik replies flippantly, “Well, you can always work in retail.” That comment sets off an argument between certain members of the family.

And what is Momo doing during all of this family drama? She doesn’t say much, but there’s a moment during the dinner when her memory seems very sharp. It gives the other family members some hope that maybe her dementia hasn’t gotten worse. How long that hope lasts is shown in the movie.

Because “The Humans” is more of a “slice of life” film instead of an event-filled movie, some viewers might feel disappointed that the movie isn’t a mystery thriller. The film’s music, cinematography and editing certainly give the impression that something terrifying and possibly supernatural could happen at any moment. However, viewers should know in advance that this movie has several scenes that show mundane activities, such as family members trying to navigate Momo’s wheelchair in narrow doorways, or people making small talk about repairs that need to be done in the apartment.

The main reason to see “The Humans” is for noteworthy performances by the cast members, who bring a lot of authenticity to their roles. The conversations between these family members are at their best when they’re about showing their vulnerabilities and not trying to put up a façade that life is perfect. And that seems to be the point of this movie: It’s easy to blame others for causing misery. It’s a lot harder to admit that people are sometimes their own worst enemies.

A24 will release “The Humans” in select U.S. cinemas and on Showtime on November 24, 2021.

Review: ‘House of Gucci,’ starring Lady Gaga, Adam Driver, Jared Leto, Jeremy Irons and Al Pacino

November 22, 2021

by Carla Hay

Jared Leto, Florence Andrews, Adam Driver, Lady Gaga and Al Pacino in “House of Gucci” (Photo courtesy of Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures)

“House of Gucci”

Directed by Ridley Scott

Culture Representation: Taking place from 1978 to 1997, mostly in Italy and New York City, the dramatic film “House of Gucci” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with one Latina and a few Asians) representing the middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: After middle-class Patrizia Reggiani marries into the wealthy Gucci family, family members start to battle over the Gucci empire of luxury goods, resulting in one of the family members getting murdered. 

Culture Audience: “House of Gucci” will appeal primarily to fans of the movie’s star-studded cast, the Gucci brand and tawdry true crime movies.

Jeremy Irons in “House of Gucci” (Photo courtesy of Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures)

Just like a fake Gucci item, “House of Gucci” is a tacky sham that quickly falls apart. Don’t be fooled into thinking this is a high-quality movie, just because of the celebrity names and Oscar pedigrees of the movie’s headlining stars and director. The movie looks good, when it comes to production design, costume design, makeup and hairstyling. But the screenplay is atrocious, the acting is uneven, and director Ridley Scott helmed “House of Gucci” like it’s an idiotic melodrama made for mediocre television, but with a much higher budget than most TV-movies will ever have. (“House of Gucci” even has some laughably bad freeze-frame shots as lazy ways of putting emphasis on a particular emotion.)

It’s all the more reason for viewers to be disappointed that several Oscar winners and Oscar nominees have stepped into this “smoke and mirrors” cesspool of a movie. We all know that the fashion industry is all about image and how someone looks on the outside. That doesn’t mean that a movie about the Gucci empire’s biggest scandal needs to be shallow and superficial too.

The weakest link in “House of Gucci” is the screenplay, written by Becky Johnston and Roberto Bentivegna. They adapted the screenplay from Sara Gay Forden’s 2000 book “The House of Gucci: A Sensational Story of Murder, Madness, Glamour and Greed.” The “House of Gucci” movie is slipshod in certain details, by getting some basic facts wrong about this notorious murder case. And many parts of this movie are surprisingly dull. Don’t expect there to be any riveting scenes of a murder trial in “House of Gucci.” There aren’t any. There’s a poorly written, anti-climactic courtroom scene that’s rushed into the movie.

The Gucci murder case involved a complex group of real-life people, who are mostly reduced to caricatures in the movie. However, a few of the “House of Gucci” cast members make the film watchable because of their performances: Lady Gaga, Jeremy Irons and Jared Leto. They stand out for completely different reasons.

Lady Gaga is compelling to watch as the scheming Patrizia Reggiani, who was at the center of the Gucci scandal because Reggiani was convicted of masterminding a murder plot. The details of the Gucci murder case are well-documented, but in case anyone reading this review doesn’t know anything about the case before seeing the movie, this review won’t reveal who was murdered. (Although it’s pretty obvious, when you consider who would have to die for Reggiani to inherit a large share of the Gucci fortune.)

Lady Gaga’s performance as Patrizia Reggiani takes a deep dive into campiness, occasionally comes up for air in earnestness, and sometimes lounges around in limpness. Overall, Lady Gaga has the type of on-screen magnetism that even when Patrizia is doing awful things, it’s with the type of villainous charisma where you know this character is capable of convincing some people that she did very bad things for very good reasons.

A campy performance isn’t necessarily a problem if the rest of the actors are on the same wavelength. Unfortunately, “House of Gucci” director Scott failed to bring a cohesive tone to this movie. Other “House of Gucci” actors give performances that are not campy at all but come across as if they truly believe this is a serious, artsy drama worthy of the highest accolades in the movie industry in every top-level category.

That’s the kind of performance that Adam Driver gives in “House of Gucci,” where he portrays Patrizia’s beleagured husband Maurizio Gucci. Maurizio met Patrizia when he was a law student and had no intention of joining the family business. Driver’s portrayal of Maurizio has the type of personality transformation that actors usually relish.

Maurizio goes from being mild-mannered and easily manipulated when he meets Patrizia while he was in law school to becoming a ruthless and recklessly spending businessman who casts Patrizia aside when he decides to move in with his mistress Paola Franchi (played by Camille Cottin) and divorce Patrizia. Their divorce became final in 1994.

“House of Gucci” makes it look like Maurizio abandoned not only Patrizia but essentially neglected their daughter Alessandra after the divorce. The three actresses who portray Alessandra in “House of Gucci” are Nicole Bani Sarkute (Alessandra at 3 years old); Mia McGovern Zaini (Alessandra at 9 years old); and Clelia Rossi Marcelli (teenage Alessandra).

In reality, Patrizia and Maurizio had two children together: daughters Alessandra (born in 1976) and Allegra, born in 1981. The erasure of Allegra from the movie is just one of the many details that “House of Gucci” gets wrong. The movie also changes the timeline of when Patrizia and Maurizio met and got married. In the beginning of the movie, Patrizia meets Maurizio in 1978. In real life, Patrizia and Maurizio met in 1970 and got married in 1972.

In the “House of Gucci” movie version of Patrizia’s life in 1978, she was working as an office manager for her stepfather’s truck transportation business in Milan, Italy. Patrizia and Maurizio meet at a nightclub party of one of his friends. Maurizio is standing behind the bar, and Patrizia mistakes him for the bartender, so she asks him to fix her a drink. Maurizio thinks that she’s confident and sexy. He tells her that she reminds him of Elizabeth Taylor.

Patrizia seems much more interested in Maurizio when he mentions that his last name is Gucci. Patrizia asks Maurizio if he wants to dance. He says no. The scene then cuts to Patrizia and Maurizio dancing together on the dance floor. Patrizia’s persuasive personality sets the tone for much of their relationship.

It seems like the “House of Gucci” filmmakers decided to change this couple’s courtship to take place in the late 1970s solely for the purpose of having disco music in the movie’s scenes that depict the early years of their relationship. After all, Lady Gaga looks better twirling or slow dancing on a 1978 dance floor where there’s a disco ball and Studio 54-type of partiers, instead of a scene at a 1970 party that would probably have to be staged with a bunch of rich-looking hippies.

Therefore, the “House of Gucci” soundtrack serves up its share of disco music, such as Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love,” Donna Summer’s “Bad Girls,” Blondie’s “Heart of Glass” and Donna Summer’s “On the Radio.” Later, when the movie’s timeline goes into the 1980s, the soundtrack features songs such as the Eurythmics hits “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)” and “Here Comes the Rain Again.” The soundtrack songs often blare in “House of Gucci” in music-video-styled sequences that further cheapen the look of the movie.

The first sign that Patrizia is willing to do whatever it takes to get what she wants is when she stalks Maurizio on campus at his law school. She follows him into a library and pretends to “coincidentally” run into him again. This scene is like something right out of a Lifetime movie. Maurizio has no idea that he’s being targeted, so he goes along with Patrizia’s seduction and is eventually convinced that their relationship is true love.

Irons gives an understated and believable performance as Rodolfo Gucci, Maurizio’s widower father, who is the only Gucci family member who holds on to his dignity in this movie. Rodolfo is immediately suspicious of Patrizia and her intentions for his only child. Rodolfo doesn’t come right out and use the words “gold digger” when he warns Maurizio not to marry Patrizia, but Rodolfo expresses his concerns that Patrizia is not a woman of substance and that she seems to be latching on to Maurizio because of the Gucci family fortune.

Even though Rodolfo vehemently disapproves of Patrizia, it turns out that Rodolfo and Patrizia actually agree on something: They both think that Maurizio should go into the Gucci family business. However, Maurizio’s refusal to follow his father’s wishes leads to him being estranged from Rodolfo for a while.

Maurizio is kicked out of the family home and cut off from his family’s financial support. With nowhere else to go, Maurizio moves in with Patrizia and her parents. Maurizio gets a job working for Patrizia’s stepfather Fernando (played by Vincent Riotta), who’s depicted in the movie as someone who engages in shady business practices.

To put an emphasis on how much Maurizio is estranged from his former life, when Patrizia and Maurizio get married in a church, the movie makes a point of showing that the pews on the bride’s side of the aisle are filled with her family members and friends, while the pews on the groom’s side of the aisle are almost empty. George Michael’s 1987 song “Faith” is played in the movie’s soundtrack after Patrizia and Maurizio exchange vows and walk happily out of the church. This soundtrack choice is an example of more of the movie’s carelessness with details, because the wedding took place years before “Faith” was released and before Michael was even a pop star.

Meanwhile, Rodolfo’s older brother Aldo Gucci (played by Al Pacino, hamming it up in the type of moody roles he’s been doing recently) doesn’t trust Aldo’s dimwitted son Paolo (played by Leto) to be in charge of any part of the family business. Aldo reaches out to Maurizio to come back to the family fold, but Maurizio still hesitates. Patrizia eventually joins forces with Aldo to persuade Maurizio to reconcile with his family and become part of the Gucci business empire. Maurizio eventually agrees, because at this point in his life, he still wants to please Patrizia. For a while, Patrizia and Maurizio made their home base in New York City during Maurizio’s rise in the Gucci business.

More scheming and manipulations ensue, exactly like how you expect them to play out in a movie that is plagued with clumsy clichés. Patrizia and Maurizio are not shown having any meaningful conversations that are not about his family, money or business. In other words, the movie falls short of convincing viewers that Maurizio and Patrizia had a deep emotional love that would make him blind to her gold-digging ways.

Maurizio and Patrizia have a passionate sex life in the beginning of their relationship, so the movie implies that lust, not love, was what really brought this couple together. The sex scenes in “House of Gucci” aren’t very sexy because they look more like parodies of soap-opera-styled sex. Items on tables are shoved aside and crash on the floor to make room on the table for whatever sex act occurs. Any vigorous thrusting doesn’t look erotic but looks more like someone having a robotic workout routine at a gym. And the orgasms sound very fake.

It’s not much of a surprise that “House of Gucci” is a very “straight male gaze” movie where only women’s nude private parts are shown, not men’s nude private parts. And speaking of people in “House of Gucci” in various states of undress, this movie has a semi-obsession with Patrizia being seen in bathtubs or saunas. Apparently, the filmmakers want viewers to think that life is supposed to be more luxurious if you take baths instead of showers.

The supporting characters in “House of Gucci” are either over-the-top ridiculous (Salma Hayek as Giuseppina “Pina” Auriemma, a self-described psychic who befriends Patrizia), or bland as bland as can be (Jack Huston as Gucci financial advisor Domenico De Sole; Reeve Carney as fashion designer Tom Ford) with no intriguing personalities. Pina is a stereotypical con artist who gives vague predictions to Patrizia (“I see a big fortune coming your way”) and mystical-sounding advice, such as telling Patrizia that Patrizia should wear more red for “protection” and more green for “cleansing.”

The fashion industry is a mere backdrop to the betrayals and lies that usually originate from Patrizia and spread like a virus to other members of the Gucci family. For example, “House of Gucci” wastes an opportunity to give a fascinating insider’s look at the Gucci empire. Instead, the movie gives trite portrayals of the massive reinvention that the Gucci brand underwent from the 1970s to the 1990s. The movie serves up a fast-food version of what happened on the business side of the Gucci story.

“House of Gucci” unrealistically makes it look like it was only Patrizia who had the business sense to tell the family in the 1980s that it was devaluing the Gucci name by licensing the brand to cheap-quality merchandise, and that they needed to go back to Gucci being synonymous with luxury. The Gucci brand was then repositioned as “hip/trendy” (not old-fashioned) luxury. For all of her supposed business skills, Patrizia isn’t actually showing doing any real work as a so-called Gucci powerhouse. According to this movie, all she seems to be good at doing is telling people what to do.

The “House of Gucci” role of fashion designer Ford, a native of Texas who is credited with helping further reinvent the Gucci brand in the 1990s, is literally a walk-on role: The most memorable things that he does in the movie is give the traditional end-of-show designer stroll on a runway after showing a collection, and when Ford reads a newspaper article that praises him, he walks out of the room to say that he can’t wait to call his mother.

At no point in the movie is anyone in the Gucci empire shown having a strong relationship with Ford, even though he was a driving force at Gucci, where he worked from 1990 to 2004, with most of those years spent as Gucci’s creative director. There are some hints that De Sole had his own agendas and ambitions, but the character is written in a completely boring and hollow way. Unless you’re a fashion aficionado who knows about De Sole and his further ascent in the Gucci empire, you might have a hard time remembering his name after watching this movie.

“House of Gucci” is also problematic in how it portrays women, because the three female characters with the most prominent speaking roles are either villains (Patrizia and Pina) or a mistress (Paola). Vogue magazine editorial executive Anna Wintour (played by Catherine Walker), actress Sophia Loren (played by Mãdãlina Ghenea) and Paolo’s wife Jenny Gucci (played by Florence Andrews) have meaningless cameos in “House of Gucci.” Even back in the 1970s to 1990s, when this movie takes place, women were so much more important in the fashion industry than what “House of Gucci” makes it look like.

Out of all the portrayals of the Gucci men in “House of Gucci,” Leto’s performance as Paolo is the flashiest one. Much of the performance’s standout qualities have to do with the top-notch prosthetics that Leto wears to make him look like a completely different person who is heavier and older than Leto’s real physical appearance. However, Leto does show some actor panache by having an amusing Italian accent, and he plays Paolo’s buffoon role to the hilt, bringing some intentional comedic moments.

Leto’s performance is only marred by some silly-looking scenes, such as when Paolo does an awkward dance of jubilation with Patrizia when she deceives aspiring fashion designer Paolo into thinking that his horrendous fashions are fabulous and worthy of being part of the Gucci brand. It’s the type of scene that looks like something Steve Martin and Dan Aykroyd would’ve rejected for their Two Wild and Crazy Guys act on “Saturday Night Live.” Paolo’s words and actions get more cartoonish as the movie goes along. A low point is when Paolo urinates on a Gucci scarf in a fit of anger.

Unfortunately, the best performance efforts by the “House of Gucci” cast members can’t overcome the very cringeworthy screenplay that ruins this movie. In one scene, when Patrizia and Maurizio have an argument, she chokes up with tears and says: “I had no idea I married a monster.” He replies coldly, “You didn’t. You married a Gucci.” In another scene, Pina snarls at someone, “Don’t fuck this up, ’cause I’ll put a spell on you!” In another scene, Paolo says, “Never confuse shit with chocolate. They may look the same, but they’re very different. Trust me, I know!”

The Paolo character might want to warn people not to confuse defecation with chocolate, but viewers should be warned not to confuse “House of Gucci” with being a superb film. For a movie that’s supposed to be about a haute couture/luxury fashion brand, it wallows in the muck of cheap gimmicks, sloppy screenwriting and a lack of self-awareness about how horrendous the worst parts are. The end result is a tawdry mess. And you can’t erase the stink from that.

Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures will release “House of Gucci” in U.S. cinemas on November 24, 2021. “House of Gucci” is set for release on digital and VOD on February 1, 2022. The movie’s release date on Blu-ray and DVD is on February 22, 2022.

Review: ‘C’mon C’mon,’ starring Joaquin Phoenix, Gaby Hoffmann and Woody Norman

November 19, 2021

by Carla Hay

Joaquin Phoenix and Woody Norman (center) in “C’mon C’mon” (Photo by Tobin Yelland/A24)

“C’mon C’mon”

Directed by Mike Mills

Culture Representation: Taking place in various U.S. cities (including Los Angeles, New York City and New Orleans), the dramatic film “C’mon C’mon” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few African Americans and Latinos) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A never-married, middle-aged bachelor, who works as a radio producer, finds out for the first time in his life what it feels like to be a parent when he takes care of his estranged sister’s 9-year-old son for an extended period of time.

Culture Audience: “C’mon C’mon” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in watching emotionally intimate, well-acted movies about family relationships.

Woody Norman and Gaby Hoffmann in “C’mon C’mon” (Photo by Tobin Yelland/A24)

What does “family” mean to you? The answer depends on who’s answering the question. The dramatic film “C’mon C’mon” (written and directed by Mike Mills) is an emotional portrait of three family members coming to terms with their individual identities and what the concept of “family” means to them. The movie also takes an equally impactful, broader look at children’s various perspectives of the world, because the male lead character (who’s a radio producer) travels across the U.S. to interview children about the world for his radio show.

As the three family members who go through various ups and downs in the story, Joaquin Phoenix, Gaby Hoffmann and Woody Norman give noteworthy performances that will make more than a few viewers shed some tears, but not in a manipulative, melodramatic way. The acting in the movie looks natural and somewhat effortless. In some ways, “C’mon C’mon” is a road trip movie, but the real journey is how the three main characters discover new things about each other and themselves.

“C’mon C’mon,” whose cinematography is entirely in black and white, was filmed from November 2019 to January 2020, before the COVID-19 virus infection rate turned into a pandemic. However, the movie seemingly aims not to identify the story by any particular year in the early 21st century. “C’mon C’mon” made the rounds at a few film festivals (such as the Telluride Film Festival, Chicago International Film Festival and New York Film Festival), because of the movie’s pedigree as an awards contender. The entire story of “C’mon C’mon” takes a low-key approach, so don’t expect extreme plot developments or surprising twists to happen.

In the movie, Phoenix is a radio producer named Johnny, who lives in New York City, but he travels a lot because of his job. Johnny is a never-married bachelor in his 40s, he has no children, and he’s currently not dating anyone. Later on in the film, it’s revealed that Johnny hasn’t had a special love in his life for quite some time. He’s essentially “married” to his work. He’s good at his job, but he doesn’t seem emotionally attached to anyone. That’s about to change.

Johnny is currently working on a series that interviews children from all over the United States. In the interviews, Johnny asks them things such as “What do you think about the future?” or “What scares you?” or “What makes you angry?” Sometimes, the children are interviewed with their parents in the room, while other times no adults are in the room except Johnny and a co-worker. Throughout the movie, various children are shown being interviewed by Johnny. Most times, they appear on screen, but other times, Johnny is seen playing back snippets of these audio interviews.

“C’mon C’mon” opens in Detroit, where Johnny is doing some of these interviews. A 13-year-old girl who’s being interviewed says that adults have to pay more attention to what’s around them. Throughout the movie, many of the children’s comments express a hopeful but concerned outlook on life. Many of the kids worry about some of the problems that they have to deal with (a decaying environment, racism, economic insecurities) that they think will become heavier burdens when they are adults.

One day, when he’s in a hotel room, Johnny gets a call from his estranged younger sister Viv (played by Hoffmann), who is is only sibling. Viv, who is a single mother living in Los Angeles, has called to tell Johnny that she needs him to come to Los Angeles to temporarily take care of her 9-year-old son Jesse (played by Norman), who barely knows Johnny. Viv explains that Jesse’s father Paul (played by Scoot McNairy), who moved to Oakland (which is about 370 miles north of Los Angeles), is going through some personal issues, and Viv wants to be there for Paul. Viv and Paul (who were never married) are no longer a couple, and she has sole custody of Jesse.

The conversation is polite but strained. There’s obvious tension between Johnny and Viv, which they don’t want to get into over the phone. However, it’s revealed in this phone call that Johnny and Viv have some lingering resentment toward each other over their mother, who died about a year ago after an extended period of being in ill health. Eventually, viewers find out that Johnny and Viv disagreed over how their mother should be cared for in her final months of life and whether or not taking her off of life support should be an option.

Johnny agrees to put some of his work on hold to go to Los Angeles and look after Jesse. When he arrives at Viv’s home, Jesse is shy with Johnny, an uncle he hasn’t seen for years. However, Jesse is aware that Viv and Johnny have barely spoken to each other and have had an estranged relationship for quite some time. And this family discord isn’t just because of Johnny and Viv’s mother.

The tension between Viv and Johnny is also because Johnny disapproves of Paul. Not everything about Viv and Paul’s history with each other is revealed, but enough comes out in conversations for viewers to find out why Johnny considers Paul to be a disruptive force in their family. It’s implied that Johnny never really thought that Paul was good enough for Viv, especially because of the emotional pain she went through by being in a relationship with Paul.

Paul is bipolar, which is not specifically said out loud in the movie, but it’s implied based on his symptoms and other clues in the movie. For example, Jesse has a children’s book called “The Bipolar Bear Family: When a Parent Has Bipolar Disorder,” written by Angela Ann Holloway. Paul has been in a psychiatric facility before to get treatment for his mental illness.

Paul apparently doesn’t have any close relatives who can look after him, because Viv seems to be the only person in his life who’s taken on the responsibility of getting him the treatment that he needs. And because Paul and Viv were never married and are no longer a couple, it explains the murky situation that comes about when Viv has to make certain decisions about Paul’s medical care. Paul is shown briefly in the movie in present-day scenes and in flashbacks.

Paul is a symphony musician, who moved to the San Francisco Bay Area because he wanted to work for the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra. As Viv explains to Johnny, “the transition fucked him up,” and Paul is having some kind of breakdown. Viv needs to go to the San Francisco Bay Area to see about convincing Paul to check himself into another mental health facility again. She would rather that he get treatment voluntarily, because she doesn’t want to be the one to force him into an involuntary admission to a psychiatric institution.

Meanwhile, Jesse is aware that his father has bioplar disorder, but no one in the family has ever told him any specific details about why Paul’s illness is severe enough that he has to get in-patient treatment for it. (The word “suicidal” is never mentioned to Jesse, but it’s implied that Paul has been a danger to himself.) All Jesse knows is that his father sometimes has to go into a hospital when he has another episode that needs treatment. The stigma of mental illness is realistically portrayed in “C’mon C’mon,” as something that family members feel secret guilt or shame about, because they often try to hide or deny the illness.

During the course of the movie, Viv has to stay in the San Francisco Bay Area longer than she expected. And so, Johnny ends up taking care of Jesse for longer than Johnny expected. The majority of “C’mon C’mon” is about how Johnny and Jesse’s uncle/nephew relationship evolves to the point where Johnny becomes the closet thing that Jesse has to a father figure. At one point, Johnny contemplates whether or not he should move to Los Angeles.

Johnny’s caretaking of Jesse doesn’t happen in one, long continuous stretch. There’s a point in the movie where Viv returns to Los Angeles and then has to go back to the Bay Area again, but Johnny can’t be in Los Angeles because of work commitments. Jesse begs Viv to let him stay with Johnny in New York City and then travel with Johnny on the job. Johnny and Jesse’s travels are not spoiler details, because they’re shown in the movie’s trailers.

Jesse is a precocious and curious child who loves to read. Viv encourages Jesse to be a free thinker and allows him to question things. It’s why Jesse asks Johnny some questions that make Jesse uncomfortable, such as why Johnny isn’t married. Johnny says that he was with someone named Louisa, but she broke up with him. Johnny says he still loves Louisa, who is not seen in the movie.

One question that’s harder for Johnny to answer is why he and Viv stopped talking to each other for a long time. Johnny tactfully explains to Jesse that it’s because he and Viv couldn’t agree on the caregiving for their dying mother. The mother’s cause of death is never mentioned in the movie, but there are flashback scenes of Viv and Johnny visiting their mother on her deathbed.

There were resentments and jealousies between the two siblings before their mother got sick. Viv always felt that she never got the full approval of her mother and that Johnny was the favored child. Johnny felt like Viv’s tension with their mother was the reason why Viv seemed to not be as compassionate with their dying mother as Johnny thinks Viv should have been.

Johnny doesn’t want to badmouth Viv to Jesse, so he doesn’t tell Jesse these things. However, Johnny and Viv do confront their bitter feelings for each other with arguments over the phone. Paul’s current mental breakdown has also triggered bad memories of when Johnny told Viv to break up with Paul in the past, when Viv wasn’t ready to end the relationship. Viv thinks that Johnny meddled too much in her relationship with Paul.

Soon after Johnny begins taking care of Jesse, Jesse tells Johnny that Viv correctly predicted that Johnny would be a little awkward with Jesse, but that Johnny will eventually get used to Jesse. During the time that Johnny spends with Jesse, he finds out that taking care of a child is a lot harder than he thought it would be. Viv has certain bedtime rituals for Jesse that Jesse wants Johnny to do too. Jesse also shows signs of hyperactivity, so Johnny calls Viv for advice on how to get Jesse to go to sleep.

Another thing that Johnny has to learn is how to be a responsible caregiver when it comes to children’s meals. Like a typical bachelor who lives alone and travels frequently, Johnny has a refrigerator that is not stocked with much that’s appropriate for a child. When Johnny takes Jesse with him to go grocery shopping, Johnny gets a scare when Jesse wanders off and Johnny frantically tries to find him.

The movie shows in a lot of tender and quiet moments how this uncle and nephew eventually learn to trust each other, like each other, and eventually become friends with each other. Johnny and Jesse find out that that they have a lot more in common than they originally thought. They both love Viv but they both dislike how she lets Paul’s problems consume her. Johnny and Jesse are also more comfortable talking about things outside of themselves rather than their innermost feelings. When Johnny tries to interview Jesse for his radio show, Jesse is very reluctant and says no.

However, Jesse notices that Johnny likes to make audio diaries, so Jesse starts making his own audio diaries too. Johnny also shows Jesse how to operate Johnny’s professional audio equipment. There’s an adorable scene that takes place on California’s Venice Beach where Johnny and Jesse discover that Jesse not only likes operating this equipment, he could end up having a passion for radio. When Jesse arrives in New York City, Johnny introduces Jesse to two other radio producers who work closely with Johnny: Roxanne (played by Molly Webster) and Fern (played by Jaboukie Young-White), who are both very friendly to Jesse.

One of the most effective aspects of “C’mon C’mon” is how unpretentious it is in showing that learning and protection between adults and children can go both ways. Too often, dramas with a story of an adult taking care of a child for the first time will put an emphasis on what the adult is going to teach the child. However, “C’mon C’mon” shows that Johnny learns a lot from the children he’s in contact with, whether it’s someone he met briefly during an interview, or a nephew who turns out to be a special and unexpected friend. The movie has a pivotal scene in New Orleans that’s an example of how powerful a child’s emotional protection and wisdom can be.

The black-and-white cinematography gives “C’mon C’mon” a timeless vibe to it that looks best in the New York City scenes. In other scenes, such as in the vibrancy of a New Orleans street parade or in the sunny glow of Venice Beach, some viewers might wish that the movie had been in color. The movie’s lack of color doesn’t take away from the exemplary performances and screenplay for “C’mon C’mon,” which have such authenticity, it will resonate with viewers.

In “C’mon C’mon,” Phoenix gives an understated and nuanced performance as a “regular guy” (the type of character that he usually doesn’t play), who finds out from a child that he’s not as emotionally mature as he thought he was. In the role of perceptive Jesse, Norman gives a breakout performance that will stand as one of the best from a child actor in a 2021 movie. Hoffmann brings heartache and grit to her performance as Viv, who feels conflicted and guilty over the messiness in her life, while doing her best to make what she thinks are the right decisions.

“C’mon C’mon” could have been a very sappy movie that goes off in very phony directions. Fortunately, it is not, although some viewers might be a little bored if they’re expecting more exciting action in this movie. As for the movie’s most emotional scenes, there are some genuinely sentimental, tearjerking moments, but this is not a tragic story. There are no over-the-top villains or crazy adventures.

It’s a story grounded in reality about people trying to get through life in the best way that they can. What inspired the title of this movie? It’s from one of Jesse’s audio diary entries, where he says that when unpredictable things happen in life, you just have to “c’mon c’mon.” This human resilience is celebrated eloquently in “C’mon C’mon.”

A24 released “C’mon C’mon” in select U.S. cinemas on November 19, 2021.

2021 DOC NYC jury winners announced

November 17, 2021

The following is a press release from DOC NYC:

 

DOC NYC, America’s largest documentary festival, revealed the 2021 award winners for its juried U.S. Competition, International Competition, Metropolis, Kaleidoscope, Shorts, Short List: Features, and Short List: Shorts sections. Winners of the inaugural IF/Then Shorts x Redford Center Nature Access Pitch competition were also announced. A complete list below.

The in-person portion of the festival’s hybrid 12th edition continues through November 18 with screenings and panels at New York’s IFC Center and Cinépolis Chelsea, along with a special closing night presentation of The First Wave at The Beacon Theatre. DOC NYC’s online screenings run through November 28, with some 100 features available to stream across the United States, including almost all the award winners. Select winners also have in-theater screenings during the festival’s final two days in person in New York.

Online DOC NYC Live conversations, presented on Facebook Live, will take place on November 22 with the filmmakers from the Short List: Shorts section, and on November 23 with talent behind the films in the festival’s Short List: Features section. For a full schedule of films and events, see www.docnyc.net. Ticket and pass information is below.

For DOC NYC’s competitive sections, five juries selected films from the festival’s new U.S. Competition, International Competition, and Kaleidoscope sections, as well as its long-running Metropolis and Shorts lineups, to recognize for their outstanding achievements in form and content. The Short List: Features program—a selection of nonfiction films that the festival’s programming team considers to be among the year’s strongest contenders for Oscars and other awards—vied for awards in four categories: Directing, Producing, Cinematography, and Editing, with a Directing prize also awarded in the Short List: Shorts section. The Short List awards were voted on by two juries of filmmaker peers.

Winners of the 2021 Grand Jury Prize in the U.S., International, Kaleidoscope, Metropolis, and Shorts competitions will each receive a deliverables package provided by PostWorks New York.

Voting for the festival’s Audience Award continues through November 18; the winner of the award will be announced on November 19.

U.S. Competition: The jury selected from among twelve new American nonfiction films in this section.
Remaining screening: Wednesday, November 17 at 9:40pm at Cinépolis Chelsea.

Grand Jury Prize: Once Upon a Time in Uganda, directed by Cathryne Czubek, co-directed by Hugo Perez, and produced by Gigi Dement, Cathryne Czubek, Matt Porwoll, Hugo Perez, and Kyaligamba Ark Martin.

Alan Hofmanis and Isaac Nabwana in “Once Upon a Time in Uganda” (Photo courtesy of Blue Finch Films)

Juror’s statement: “We choose Once Upon a Time in Uganda for illustrating the transformative capacity of film to bridge cultures and change lives. We are inspired by the charming, original method the filmmakers took in documenting the creative joy of Wakaliwood, a community that relies on ingenuity and imagination to overcome the economic obstacles of global audiovisual production; and we appreciate how Once Upon a Time in Uganda demonstrates the connective power of international film festivals in asserting that ‘the audience is our family.'”

Special Mention: Refuge, directed/produced by Erin Berhardt and Din Blankenship.

Jurors’ statement: “We give an honorable mention to Refuge for addressing one of the U.S.’s most urgent problems — the lack of civil dialogue, or any dialogue, between our warring cultural factions.”

Jurors: Jaie Laplante (Executive Director, Miami Film Festival); Amy Nicholson, filmmaker; Valerie Torres (Director of Theatrical Sales and Exhibitor Relations, Shout! Factory)

Films featured in the U.S. Competition section: Anonymous Sister, Be Our Guest, Boycott, Exposure, Grandpa Was an Emperor, Newtok, Objects, Once Upon a Time in Uganda, Refuge, The Slow Hustle, A Tree of Life, United States vs. Reality Winner.

International Competition: The jury selected from among twelve new international productions in this section.

Grand Jury Prize: On the Other Side, directed by Iván Guarnizo, produced by Jorge Caballero.

Beatriz Echeverry in “On the Other Side”

Jurors’ statement: “With its exquisite directorial vision and restraint, On the Other Side deeply affected us, the jury. The film is testament to a courageous, emotional, and deeply personal endeavor by filmmaker Iván Guarnizo, elegantly bypassing the heavy handed tropes of trauma and violence to instead craft a work of art that is poetic and profound. In a world increasingly polarized, where constant battlelines are being drawn, the nuances of this film’s journey and care towards its participants show us the power and hope of redemption, forgiveness, and humanity.”

Special Mention: After the Rain, directed by Jian Fan, produced by Richard Liang, S. Leo Chiang.

Jurors’ statement: “We would also like to recognize After the Rain by Jian Fan, a standout among a strong group of international contenders. The jury appreciated the dedication to the story over a decade and the steady, observational lens of the filmmaking team to craft a deeply intimate and haunting film.”

Jurors: Samara Chadwick (Executive Director, The Flaherty); Aseem Chhabra (Festival Director, New York Indian Film Festival); Bao Nguyen, filmmaker.

Films featured in the International Competition section: After the Rain, Be My Voice, Comala, The Bubble, Come Back Anytime, The Devil’s Drivers, F@ck This Job, The Forgotten Ones, Go Through the Dark, The Mole, On The Other Side, Young Plato.

Kaleidoscope: The jury selected from among seven films in this section, which showcases essayistic and formally adventurous documentaries.

Grand Jury Prize: Nude at Heart, directed by Yoichiro Okutani, produced by Asako Fujioka, Eric Nyari

“Nude at Heart”

Juror’s statement: “The jury awards its top prize to a film of risky and decisive filmmaking, a film that documents with confidence an insular world, and builds an intelligent, purposeful distance between the filmmaker and the characters. This is a film that trusts its own images to lead us into a complex world and community of work and collective support—a film that doesn’t moralize, sexualize, or objectify its subjects, but instead models a careful gaze, offers a subtle entry into a fascinating universe, and gives space and presence to its inhabitants.”

Special Mention: Nothing But the Sun, directed by Arami Ullón, produced by Pascal Trächslin

Juror’s statement: “The jury would also like to award a Special Mention to a film that provides a gateway to a diverse and complex history, and helps to salvage and give a form to a common memory. This is a choral film, one full of speaking that prioritizes the collective, rather than an individual voice, and explores the fragility of media in preserving oral histories, encounters, emotions, and the residue of trauma.”

Jurors: Daniela Alatorre, producer; Cíntia Gill (Festival Director, formerly of Sheffield DocFest, Doc Lisboa), Leo Goldsmith (The New School)

Films featured in the Kaleidoscope section: Cow, Edna, Invisible Demons, Nothing But the Sun, Nude at Heart, The Man Who Paints Water Drops, Three Minutes: A Lengthening.

Metropolis: The jury selected from among seven films in this section, which is dedicated to stories about New Yorkers and New York City.

Grand Jury Prize: Hold Your Fire, directed by Stefan Forbes and produced by Tia Wou, Fab Five Freddy, and Amir Soltani.

“Hold Your Fire”

Jurors’ statement: “The filmmaker elegantly and impactfully uses the past to illuminate the social and political issues that are still critical to consider today. The black and white archival footage comes colorfully to life with masterfully edited sequences and music that pull you into the moment. The interviews highlight their emotionally conflicted responses and challenge us to consider the differing points of view. In this contemporary contemplation of violence and race relations in our culture, we are left to consider the possibility of redemption and hope.”

Special Mention: Charm Circle, directed and produced by Nira Burstein and produced by Betsy Laikin.

Available online through Sunday, November 28.

Jurors’ statement: “The honesty and bravery of the filmmaker are powerfully felt in approaching the subject of family dysfunction in a candid and uncensored way. With strong character development, the narrative patiently/lovingly unfolds with moments of humor and creativity to build compassion for a family’s hopes and dreams as well as a profound sense of loss.”

Jurors: Beth B, filmmaker; Denise Greene (Director of Programs, Black Public Media); Lucila Moctezuma (Program Director, Chicken & Egg Pictures).

Films featured in the Metropolis section: Charm Circle, End of the Line, Hold Your Fire, Mimaroğlu: The Robinson of Manhattan Island, Mr. Saturday Night, The Photograph, The Reverend.

Shorts Competition: All new short films playing at the festival were eligible for the Shorts Grand Jury Prize, with the exception of DOC NYC U showcases and Short List: Shorts selections.

Shorts Grand Jury Prize: NASIR, directed by Nasir Bailey and Jackson Kroopf and produced by Jackson Kroopf.

“NASIR”

Jurors’ statement: “For its lucid and lyrical portrait of an artist as a young man, the 2021 DOC NYC Shorts Grand Jury Prize is presented to Nasir Bailey and Jackson Kroopf’s exquisitely crafted NASIR. The film finds its soulful subject in a state of transition, proudly granting the audience permission to witness his slow, steady, hard-won glow up. Energized by the subject’s effortless charisma and potent musical gifts, the film emerges as a deeply human study of self-actualization and personal evolution. Intimately assembled with an eye for luminous, delicate imagery and direction, the film unfurls with a quiet confidence, flowing elegantly between moments of pathos and poetry—ultimately standing tall as a beacon of transmasculine resilience and joy.”

Special Mention: American Scar, directed and produced by Daniel Lombroso, and produced by Yara Bishara, Melissa Fajardo, Stephania Taladrid.

Jurors’ statement: “American Scar turns a well-mined, seemingly completed Trump-era story into a compelling call-to-action by creatively cataloging the environmental impact of the abandoned US-Mexico border wall. Startling images capture the destruction caused by humanity’s hubris and serve as a harbinger of things to come. The film presents a stark reminder of the devastating impact of human action on the natural world and offers a rousing and immediate call for change.”

The 2021 winning Short film qualifies for consideration in the Documentary Short Subject category of the Annual Academy Awards® without the standard theatrical run (provided the film otherwise complies with the Academy rules).

Jurors: Faridah Gbadamosi (Artistic Director, Outfest); Robin Robinson (festival programmer, True/False); Robert John Torres (festival programmer, Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival).

Short List: Features: DOC NYC’s Short List for Features puts the spotlight on 15 documentaries representing the best of the year.

Directing Award: In the Same Breath, directed by Nanfu Wang

“In The Same Breath” (Photo courtesy of HBO)

Jurors’ statement: “Nanfu Wang cracks open the story of the global COVID-19 pandemic using an incredibly personal and political lens to reveal China’s propaganda machine — and America’s. The jury celebrates Wang’s unwavering, skillful and persistent command of the documentary craft that it takes to make such a complex and emotional film.”

Producing Award: Flee, produced by Monica Hellström, Signe Byrge Sørensen, Charlotte De La Gournerie. 

“Flee” (Image courtesy of Neon)

Jurors’ statement: “Among the many strengths of Flee, the jury recognizes the enormous task of producing the film. Whether securing funding for expensive animation, fostering groundbreaking creativity, or managing an intricate post-production phase, the producing team’s critical role made Flee the vital, touching, artistic achievement it is.”

Editing Award: Ascension, edited by Jessica Kingdon

A livestreamer for Yiwu Siwen Shoe Company in “Ascension” (Photo by Jessica Kingdon)

Jurors’ statement: “Ascension never stops surprising, despite its leisurely pacing and seemingly straightforward construction. The jury applauds Jessica Kingdon’s patient and astute editing that weaves striking imagery of China’s gaping social divides into a poetic reflection on — and quiet critique of — consumption and capitalism.”

Cinematography Award: Faya Dayi, cinematography by Jessica Beshir

“Faya Dayi” (Photo courtesy of Janus Films)

Jurors’ statement: “Jessica Bashir’s cinematography in Faya Dayi is both an aesthetic and spiritual achievement. Bashir has a bare awareness that holds wisdom, her visual translation so elevated it feels as if operating from the subconscious. The cinematography in Faya Dayi reminded the jury how much we can learn from simply watching.”

Special Jury Prize for Cultural Treasures: Summer of Soul (… Or When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised), directed by Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, produced by Joseph Patel, Robert Fyvolent, David Dinerstein

Sly Stone in “Summer of Soul (…Or, The Revolution Could Not Be Televised”) (Photo courtesy of Searchlight Pictures)

Jurors’ statement: “For its directorial vision, fantastic editing, and overall funky beats that weave history and culture into the colorful fabric of one summer festival in Harlem, the jury awards a Special Jury Prize for Cultural Treasures to Summer of Soul. If we could, the jury would travel back in time to release this film 50 years ago so it would have informed our collective memory. Instead, we hope this award will encourage audiences to imagine the collective history we should have had.”

Jurors: Nadia Hallgren, filmmaker; Kimberly Reed, filmmaker; Hao Wu, filmmaker.

Short List: Shorts: DOC NYC’s Short List for Shorts highlights 12 documentary shorts that the festival’s programming team considers the year’s leading awards contenders.

Directing Award: Don’t Go Tellin’ Your Momma, directed by rubberband, Topaz Jones, produced by Luigi Rossi

“Don’t Go Tellin’ Your Momma”

Jurors’ statement: “For its innovative structure and immediacy, we selected Don’t Go Tellin’ Your Momma as our winner. The playful editing combined rich visuals, moving personal archival material, and thought-provoking interviews to give audiences a full sense of the filmmaker and his community. The storytelling successfully nails both personal experience and political history.”

Special Jury Mention: The Queen of Basketball, directed by Ben Proudfoot, produced by Elizabeth Brooke, Abby Lynn Kang Davis, Gabriel Berk Godoi, Brandon Somerhalder, Sarah Stewart

Jurors’ statement: “We also chose to recognize The Queen of Basketball with a Special Mention. Viewers fall in love with Lusia because the filmmakers deftly convey her deep strength and fragility at the outset. We are immersed in the experience of a pathfinding woman athlete whose remarkable career was cut short by the racial and gender barriers of her time. Bringing the film full circle to the next generation – a little girl shooting hoops in Lusia’s driveway – opens this storytelling to the future.”
Jurors: Mirra Bank, filmmaker; Kirstine Barfod, producer; Alison Klayman, filmmaker.

IF/Then Shorts x The Redford Center Nature Access Pitch: The Redford Center and IF/Then Shorts announced Between Earth and Sky as the winner of the inaugural IF/Then Shorts x The Redford Center Nature Access Pitch event at DOC NYC, celebrating stories that spotlight the benefits of time spent outdoors.

Between Earth and Sky, directed by Andrew Nadkarni and pitched by Nadkarni and producer Swetha Regunathan, will receive a $25,000 production grant and a year of wraparound mentorship from IF/Then Shorts. Also selected as honorable mentions by the jury of the Nature Access Pitch were Fruit of Soil and Makana o ke Mele (Gift of Song), each of which will receive a $5,000 grant and distribution consultation from IF/Then Shorts. Upon their completion, all three films will be featured as part of The Redford Center’s Nature Films Program.

After announcing the winning films live at DOC NYC Festival, Jill Tidman, Executive Director of The Redford Center shared, “This day reminded me that there’s so much vital work taking place that most people don’t know about. Amazing individuals and communities are working to solve the problems of nature access, and their stories are just incredible. I am so inspired and honored to have these new documentaries as part of The Redford Center family of films. We are going to support them, in many ways, to make sure their work is shared with the world. I couldn’t be happier with the outcome of this inaugural Nature Access Pitch, our partnership with IF/Then Shorts, and the platform of DOC NYC.”

TICKETS AND PASSES:

Festival tickets and passes may be purchased at docnyc.net/tickets-and-passes or at venue box offices. Online tickets and passes are available for purchase online only.

In-person Screenings: $19 General Admission/$17 Seniors & Children/$16 IFC Center Members, unless otherwise noted.

All screenings in the Short List: Features, Short List: Shorts, Winner’s Circle and DOC NYC U sections, as well as all Monday-Friday screenings starting before 5:00pm: $12 General Admission/$10 IFC Center members

Online screenings:

$12 General Public/$9 IFC Center Members

Passes and Ticket Packs:

Online Film Pass $250

Grants access to all the films screening on the festival’s virtual platform, November 10-28.

Five-Ticket Package for Online Screenings $45

Ten-Ticket Package for Online Screenings $80

A package of 5 or 10 online tickets at a special discount price.

Sponsors

The festival is made possible by:

Leading Media Partners: New York Magazine; The WNET Group

Major Sponsors: A&E; Apple Original Films; Netflix; WarnerMedia

Supporting Sponsors: discovery+, National Geographic Documentary Films; SHOWTIME® Documentary Films

Signature Sponsors: Amazon Studios; Bloomberg Philanthropies; Cquence; Hulu; National Geographic; NBC News Studios; NYC Mayor’s Office of Media and Entertainment; Participant; PostWorks; Sony; XTR

Signature Media Partners: IndieWire; The New Republic; WNYC

Event Sponsors: 30 for 30 / ESPN Films; Cinépolis Luxury Cinemas; Consulate General of Canada in New York; Cowan, DeBaets, Abrahams & Sheppard LLP; Fox Rothschild LLP; Frankfurt Kurnit Klein & Selz PC; IF/Then Shorts; Impact Partners; JustFilms | Ford Foundation; MTV Documentary Films; Reavis Page Jump LLP; SVA’s MFA Social Documentary Film; The Redford Center; TIME Studios; Wheelhouse Creative

Friends of the Festival: Agile Ticketing; Cinesend; Essentia, Ptex; Shiftboard; Telefilm Canada

DOC NYC is produced and presented by IFC Center, a division of AMC Networks.

Complete DOC NYC program information can be found at: www.docnyc.net

To inquire about sponsor or partnership opportunities for DOC NYC, please contact Raphaela Neihausen, Executive Director, at raphaela@docnyc.net.