Review: ‘Antebellum,’ starring Janelle Monáe

September 18, 2020

by Carla Hay

Janelle Monáe in “Antebellum” (Photo by Matt Kennedy/Lionsgate)

“Antebellum”

Directed by Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz

Culture Representation: Taking place in various parts of the American South, the horror film “Antebellum” has a cast of African American and white people representing the middle-class and working-class.

Culture Clash: The world of a successful, modern-day African American woman is somehow linked to a Southern plantation where she and other African Americans are mistreated and abused as slaves.

Culture Audience: “Antebellum” will appeal primarily to people who might think that a horror movie about the brutality of slavery would have some insightful social commentary, but the horrific abuse in the film is mostly exploitation.

Gabourey Sidibe, Janelle Monáe and Lily Cowles in “Antebellum” (Photo by Matt Kennedy/Lionsgate)

You can almost hear the gimmick pitch that got “Antebellum” made into a movie: “Let’s make a horror film that’s like ’12 Years a Slave’ meets ‘Get Out.'” Unfortunately, “Antebellum” is nowhere near the quality or merit of the Oscar-winning “12 Years a Slave” and “Get Out,” even though QC Entertainment (one of the production companies behind “Get Out”) is a production company for “Antebellum.”

The sad reality is that “Antebellum” just seems like an exploitative cash grab to attract Black Lives Matter supporters, but the movie is really a “bait and switch,” because there’s almost no social consciousness in the movie and nothing to be learned from the story. “Antebellum” is actually a very soulless and nonsensical horror flick that uses slavery as a way to just have repetitive scenes of African Americans being sadistically beaten, strangled and raped.

Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz, who have a background in directing commercials, co-wrote and co-directed “Antebellum,” which is their feature-film debut. Normally, it’s not necessary to mention the race of a filmmaker when reviewing a movie. But because “Antebellum” is about the triggering and controversial topics of racism, slavery and the exploitation of African Americans, it should be noted that Bush is African American and Renz is white.

Just because an African American co-wrote and co-directed this movie doesn’t excuse the problematic way that racist violence against African Americans is depicted in the movie. “Antebellum” has this racist violence for violence’s sake, with little regard to making any of the slaves, except for the movie’s main character, have any real substance. It’s the equivalent of a mindless slasher film that doesn’t care about having a good plot or well-rounded characters but just takes perverse pleasure in seeing how the victims get attacked, tortured and possibly killed.

The movie doesn’t waste any time showing this cruel violence, since the opening scene is of a male slave named Eli (played by Tongayi Chirisa) being separated from his love partner/wife named Amara (played by Achok Majak) by a group of plantation supervisors in Confederate military uniforms. The group is led by the evil racist Captain Jasper (played by Jack Huston), who takes pleasure in torturing Amara, who is lassoed with a rope around the neck when she tries to run away in the cotton field. You can easily guess what happens next.

People who’ve seen any “Antebellum” trailers or clips might wonder why the movie’s protagonist (played by Janelle Monáe) seems to be in two different worlds: In one world, she’s a slave on a plantation during the Civil War era. In another world, she’s a present-day, happily married mother of a young daughter.

To explain why she exists in these two worlds would be a major spoiler for the movie. But it’s enough to say that the explanation comes about halfway through the film, and it creates questions that are never really answered by the end of the movie. “Antebellum” is supposed to take place in different unnamed cities in the South. The movie was actually filmed in New Orleans.

In the plantation world, Monáe is a quietly defiant slave who is secretly planning to escape with some other slaves. She has been named Eden by the plantation’s sadistic owner who goes by the name “Him” (played by Eric Lange), who assaults her and burns her with a hot branding iron until she agrees that her name is Eden. Later, he rapes her. The real name of “Him” is revealed later in the movie.

We don’t see Eden do much plotting to escape in the movie, mainly because the slaves have been ordered not to talk to each other or else they will be punished. It’s implied that Eden is the self-appointed leader of this escape plan because another slave named Julia (played by Kiersey Clemons) arrives at the plantation and expects Eden to fill her in on the escape details.

Julia, who is pregnant, tells Eden that she heard that Eden is from Virginia. Julia says that she’s from North Carolina. Eden replies, “Wherever you came from before here, you need to forget North Carolina.” Julia says, “That’s not possible for me. What are we doing? What’s the plan?” Eden responds, “We must choose are own wisely. But until then, we must keep our heads down and our mouths shut.”

Later, when Julia becomes frustrated by what she thinks is Eden stalling or not doing anything to implement the escape plan, she angrily says to Eden: “You ain’t no leader. You’re just a talker.” And since Julia is pregnant, you can bet her pregnancy will be used as a reason to make any violence against her more heinous.

Meanwhile, Captain Jasper has an equally racist wife named Elizabeth (played by Jena Malone), who is as ice-cold as her husband is quick-tempered. It’s implied, but not said outright, that she knows he rapes the female slaves. In an early scene in the movie, Elizabeth recoils when Jasper leans in to kiss her. She sniffs, as if to smell him, and says with a slightly disgusted tone, “Hmm. You started early.”

Meanwhile, the modern-day character played by Monáe is a sociologist and best-selling author named Veronica Henley, whose specialty is in social justice issues related to race. And in this story, she’s promoting her book “Shedding the Coping Persona,” which is about marginalized people learning to be their authentic selves instead of pretending to be something they’re not to please their oppressors. Veronica is well-educated (she has a Ph. D. and is a graduate of Spelman College and Columbia University) and she’s happily married. She’s prominent enough to have debates on national TV about topics such as racism and African American empowerment.

Veronica and her husband Nick (played by Marque Richardson) have an adorable daughter who’s about 5 or 6 years old named Kennedi (played by London Boyce), who’s very inquisitive and perceptive. After the family watches a debate-styled interview that Veronica did on TV with a conservative white male pundit (whose profession is listed “eugenics expert/professor”), Kennedi asks Veronica why the man was so angry. Veronica replies, “Sometimes what looks like anger is really just fear.”

Nick is the type of doting husband and father who will make breakfast for Veronica and Kennedi. Meanwhile, Veronica confides in her sassy single friend Dawn (played by Gabourey Sidibe) that she often feels guilty about being away from home when she has to work. Dawn reassures Veronica that she’s a great wife and mother and tells Veronica not to be too hard on herself. (Dawn, who is assertive and outspoken, has some of the best and funniest lines in the movie.)

Veronica has to go out of town to attend an African American-oriented conference called VETA, where she is a guest speaker. Dawn lives in the area, so they make plans to have dinner with Dawn’s friend Sarah (played by Lily Cowles), who is also single and available. Before Veronica meets up with them, she gets a bouquet of flowers delivered to her at her hotel. The flowers have a note that says, “Look forward to your homecoming.”

Veronica assumes that the gift is from Nick. But since this is a horror movie, viewers can easily figure out that Nick did not send those flowers. Some other strange things happen in the hotel room when Veronica isn’t there. And then, something happens after that dinner that explains how the plantation world and the modern world are connected.

Monáe does an adequate job in the role that she’s been given. And the movie’s cinematography, production design and costume design are actually very good. The actors who play the racists predictably portray them as caricatures of evil. The insidiousness of a lot of racists is that they hide their hate with fake smiles and polite mannerisms to the people they hate, but there’s no such subtlety in this story, since all of the villains are revealed early on in the story.

The biggest problem with “Antebellum” is the screenplay. The ending of the movie is absolutely ludicrous and it actually makes the African Americans in the story look dumb for not taking certain actions that could have been taken earlier. Therefore, “Antebellum” isn’t as uplifting to African Americans as it likes to think it is.

The tone of the movie is also uneven, because the slavery scenes are absolutely dark and brutal. But then the scenes with Sidibe and her sitcom-ish character are very out of place and dilute the intended horror of the movie. Sidibe is very good in the role, but the Dawn character was written as too comedic for this type of movie. And huge stretches of “Antebellum” are just plain boring, with no real suspense.

However, the main ridiculousness of “Antebellum” goes back to that plantation and the secret that’s revealed at the end of the movie. If people want to see the horrors of slavery depicted in an Oscar-worthy narrative film, then watch “12 Years a Slave.” Don’t watch “Antebellum,” which uses slavery as an exploitative gimmick as the basis for this moronic and not-very-scary horror movie.

Lionsgate released “Antebellum” on VOD on September 18, 2020.

Review: ‘Anthony,’ starring Toheeb Jimoh, Rakie Ayola, Julia Brown and Bobby Schofield

September 4, 2020

by Carla Hay

Toheeb Jimoh in “Anthony” (Photo by Ben Blackall/LA Productions/Peacock)

“Anthony”

Directed by Terry McDonough

Culture Representation: Taking place in England from 2005 to 2012, the dramatic film “Anthony” has a cast of white and black characters representing the middle-class and the working-class.

Culture Clash: This semi-biographical movie speculates what could have happened if real-life murder victim Anthony Walker, who was killed in a racist hate crime at the age of 18, had lived for the next seven years.

Culture Audience: “Anthony” will appeal primarily to people who can tolerate the concept of this movie, knowing that it was made to get people to feel sad or upset over this tragic murder.

Rakie Ayola in “Anthony” (Photo by Ben Blackall/LA Productions/Peacock)

On July 30, 2005, 18-year-old Anthony Walker was murdered in Huyton, Merseyside, England, by two white men in a racist hate crime that was an unprovoked attack. The two killers targeted Anthony, Anthony’s girlfriend Louise Thompson and Anthony’s cousin Marcus Binns, after seeing them waiting at a bus stop. After yelling racist insults at the trio, the killers chased them down in a car. Anthony had the misfortune of not being able to escape when the killers caught him and viciously murdered him.

These sordid details are necessary to know what’s in store when people watch the emotionally touching dramatic movie “Anthony,” which is a mostly speculative story about what Anthony’s life would have been like if the attack never happened and he had lived for the next seven years. The story is told in reverse chronological order, so that the end of the movie depicts what happened in real life: Anthony’s last year alive and what happened in the days leading up to his murder. 

Directed by Terry McDonough and written by Jimmy McGovern, the “what if” concept of “Anthony” could be considered tacky or offensive if this movie hadn’t been given the approval of Anthony’s mother Gee Walker, who appears briefly as herself at the end of the movie. Gee is convincingly portrayed by Rakie Ayola in the film. The movie’s overall tone is respectful of how it portrays Anthony Walker and his family. And for that reason, “Anthony” might be compelling enough to watch for some people.

The movie begins showing what Anthony could have been like at the age of 25. He’s at a black-tie award ceremony where someone is about to be announced as the winner of the Phoenix Turnaround Award, which is given to someone with a troubled past who turned their life around for the better. (This award is fictional and created for the movie.)

The winner is announced as Mick Whitfield (played by Bobby Schofield), a man in his 20s, who begins stuttering badly when he goes on stage to accept the award. It’s shown later in the movie in the flashback scenes that Mick has struggled with being a stutterer for years. His shame over this condition eventually led him into a life of alcoholism and then  homelessness after his wife Helen (Stephanie Hyam) kicked him out of the house because of his drinking problem.

But as viewers see from this award ceremony, Mick has gotten his life back on track. And while he’s nervously accepting his award on stage, he tells the audience that he wants to give his prize to Anthony Walker, because Anthony “deserves it more than I do.” Anthony (played by Taheeb Jimoh), who has been seated in the audience and cheering Mick on, goes up on stage to hug his friend Mick.

The rest of the movie shows Anthony’s life, year by year, in reverse chronological order, from ages 25 to age 18. At age 25, he is happily married with a baby daughter. The movie’s flashbacks show how Anthony met his wife Katherine (played by Julia Brown), their courtship, his marriage proposal, their wedding and the birth of their daughter. The story also shows how Anthony met Mick and how Mick’s alcoholism affected their up-and-down friendship.

Anthony comes from a working-class family that includes his parents Gee and Steven (played by Leo Wringer), who have a rocky marriage. Steven is frequently absent from the home, and by the time that Anthony has his wedding, Gee and Steven are barely tolerating each other. (During a family photo at the wedding, the photographer asks if someone should get Steven to be in the photo, and Gee says not to bother.)

Even though Gee and Steven have a frequently troubled relationship, their love for their children is indisputable. Anthony has four siblings: sister Steph (played by Dominique Moore), sister Dominque (played by Shaniqua Okwok), sister Angella (played by Ade Ajibade) and brother Daniel (played by Wesley Bozonga), who all look up to Anthony. Because Steven is often not present in the household, Anthony is closer to his mother than his father.

Anthony is a bright student and a caring human being who has goals to become a civil-rights attorney in the United States. As he explains to Katherine when they first begin dating each other, black people in America are in desperate need for social justice when it comes to police brutality: “In England. we’re stopped and searched. In America, we’re shot.” The movie also shows how Anthony spends time volunteering as an assistant coach for a high-school basketball team (it’s how he met Katherine, a coach for the girls’ soccer team at the school) and what happens when he applies for an internship at a law firm.

Jimoh admirably portrays Anthony as someone with a great deal of compassion and patience but also a strong sense of right and wrong, with no tolerance for people who break the law. He remains calm when he experiences blatant racism. And he tells people that the best way to deal with racists who want to pick a fight is to walk away or try to talk them out of it. Unfortunately, Anthony could not escape from the racists who were intent on murdering him.

If Anthony is the soul of the story, then his mother Gee is the heart. The way that Ayola depicts Gee’s beautiful relationship with Anthony is heartwarming. And the way that she expresses Gee’s pain after finding out what happened to Anthony after the attack is heartbreaking.

“Anthony” took some risks in how it created a “what if” movie about Anthony’s life, but it’s not a conventional story about a murder victim. It makes the point of how much of a terrible waste it was for Anthony to die so horribly and the void he has left behind. And although it will never be known what Anthony’s life would have been like if he were still alive, the movie capably shows how much of a positive impact he made in his short life. Just brace yourself for the movie’s inevitable tragic ending.

Peacock premiered “Anthony” on September 4, 2020. BBC One televised the movie in the United Kingdom in July 2020.

Review: ‘Yusuf Hawkins: Storm Over Brooklyn,’ starring Diane Hawkins, Amir Hawkins, Freddy Hawkins, Christopher Graham, Al Sharpton, David Dinkins and Joseph Regina

August 14, 2020

by Carla Hay

Yusuf Hawkins in “Yusuf Hawkins: Storm Over Brooklyn” (Photo courtesy of Hawkins Family/HBO)

“Yusuf Hawkins: Storm Over Brooklyn”

Directed by Muta’Ali

Culture Representation: Taking place in New York City, the documentary “Yusuf Hawkins: Storm Over Brooklyn” features a predominantly African American group of people (and some white people) discussing the 1989 racist murder of 16-year-old Yusuf Hawkins and the controversial aftermath of this hate crime.

Culture Clash: Yusuf Hawkins was murdered by a mob of young white men just because Hawkins was an African American, and there were many conflicts over who should be punished and how they should be punished.

Culture Audience: “Yusuf Hawkins: Storm Over Brooklyn” will appeal primarily to people interested in true crime stories that include social justice issues.

Yusuf Hawkins, Amir Hawkins and Freddy Hawkins in “Yusuf Hawkins: Storm Over Brooklyn” (Photo courtesy of Hawkins Family/HBO)

The insightful documentary “Yusuf Hawkins: Storm Over Brooklyn” gives an emotionally painful but necessary examination of the impact of the 1989 murder of Yusuf Hawkins, a 16-year-old African American who was shot to death in New York City’s predominantly white Brooklyn neighborhood of Bensonhurst. He was killed simply because of the color of his skin—and it’s a tragedy that has been happening for centuries and keeps happening to many people who are victims of racist hate crimes. This documentary, which is skillfully directed by Muta’Ali, offers a variety of perspectives in piecing together what went wrong and what lessons can be learned to help prevent more of these tragedies from happening.

One of the best aspects of “Yusuf Hawkins: Storm Over Brooklyn” is how it has interviews with many of the crucial people who were directly involved in the murder case and the subsequent controversy over how the perpetrators were going to be punished. The people interviewed include members of Yusuf Hawkins’ inner circle, such as Yusuf’s mother, Diane Hawkins; his younger brother Amir and older brother Freddy; Yusif’s cousins Darlene Brown and Felicia Brown; and Yusuf’s friends Christopher Graham and Luther Sylvester, who was with Yusuf during the attack. (Yusuf’s father, Moses Stewart, died in 2003.) They are all from the Brooklyn neighborhood of East New York.

The documentary also has the perspectives of some Bensonhurst residents or people who allied themselves with the accused perpetrators. They include Joe Fama, who was convicted of being the shooter; Stephen Murphy, who was the attorney of Keith Mondello, who was accused of being the mob’s ringleader; and Russell Gibbons, an African American who was a friend of many of the white men in the mob of attackers. Gibbons was involved in providing the baseball bats used in the attack, but Gibbons ended up testifying for the prosecution.

And in the aftermath of the murder, several people became involved in the investigation, court cases and public outcry seeking justice for Yusuf. The documentary includes interviews with activists Rev. Al Sharpton, Dr. Lenora Fulani, Rev. Conrad Tillard (formerly known as Conrad Muhammad) and Rev. Herbert Daughtry; Douglas Nadjari, who was New York’s assistant district attorney at the time; former New York City mayor David Dinkins; publicist Ken Sunshine, who was Dinkins’ deputy campaign manager at the time; Joseph Regina, a New York Police Department detective involved in the investigation; and journalist John DeSantis, who covered the Yusuf Hawkins story for United Press International.

There have been many disagreements over who was guilty and who was not guilty over the physical attacks and shooting, but no one disputes these facts: On August 23, 1989, Yusuf and three of his friends—Luther Sylvester, Claude Stanford and Troy Banner (who are all African American)—went to Bensonhurst at night to look at a 1987 Pontiac Firebird that was advertised in the newspaper as being for sale. Banner was the one who was interested in the car.

When they got to Bensonhurst, all four of them were surrounded by a mob of young white men who were in their late teens and early 20s (it’s estimated that 10 to 30 people were in this mob), who attacked them with baseball bats and yelled racial slurs at them. Yusuf was shot to death during this assault. (A handgun was used in the shooting.) The attack was unprovoked, and several people involved in the attack later admitted that it was a hate crime.

Nadjari comments in the documentary: “Yusuf and his friends walked into what I call ‘the perfect storm’ … They [the attackers] didn’t want black guys in the neighborhood.” And even defense attorney Murphy admits: “You’d have to be stupid to not determine that there was a racist element to the whole thing to begin with.”

Furthermore, Yusuf and his friends were not “thugs” with a history of violence. All of the people who knew Yusuf describe him as a thoughtful, caring and good kid. He was the type of person who looked out for his friends to steer them away from trouble. It was consistent with his personality that he would accompany a friend who wanted to look at a car for sale. As journalist DeSantis comments in the documentary about Yusuf: “He was perceived by many to be a martyr.”

It came out during the investigation that a lovers’ quarrel was the spark that ignited the viciousness of the attack. Mondello’s girlfriend at the time was Gina Feliciano. During an argument between Feliciano and Mondello earlier that evening, she said that she was going to have a bunch of black guys come to the neighborhood to beat up Mondello and his friends. Feliciano lied in that threat, but apparently Mondello believed her. According to testimony in the trials, Mondello and the rest of the mob wrongly assumed that Yusuf and his friends were the (fabricated) gang of black thugs that Feliciano had said was coming to assault Mondello.

The documentary points out that even though New York City has an image of being “liberal” and “cosmopolitan,” the city is not immune from racism and racial segregation. East New York and Bensonhurst are just 13 miles apart, but these two very different Brooklyn neighborhoods might as well have been on other planet, because the people in these neighborhoods rarely mixed with each other. East New York has a predominantly working-class black population, while Bensonhurt’s population consists mainly of middle-class white people, many who are Italian American.

According to Amir Hawkins, who was 14 at the time his brother Yusuf was murdered, even though he lived in Brooklyn for years, all Amir knew about Bensonhurst was from “The Honeymooners,” one of his favorite sitcoms. He says of Bensonhurst: “Nobody told us, ‘Hey, that’s off-limits You can’t go there.'”

Amir also gives a chilling description of how his grandmother Rosalie seemed to have some kind of premonition that something would go horribly wrong when Yusuf was in Bensonhurst. According to Amir, when his grandmother found out that Yusuf had gone to Bensonhurst, Amir says he never saw his grandmother more upset in his life. Sadly, her apparent premonition turned out to come true, when the family got the devastating news about Yusuf’s murder later that night.

As an African American and longtime Bensonhurst resident, Gibbons admits in the documentary that he has experienced a profound racial identity crisis and still has deep-seated inner conflicts about race. He says that even though he was bullied by white racists in Bensonhurst, he also wanted to be friends with them. Gibbons was the only “black friend” of the mob accused of attacking Yusuf and his friends.

In the documentary, Gibbons downplays his role in providing the baseball bats used in the attack. Just as he said in trial testimony, Gibbons claims that all he heard on the night of the incident was that some black and Latino men were coming to Bensonhurst to attack some of his friends and he wanted to assist his friends in defending themselves. He says in the documentary, “I wasn’t thinking about race. I was just there because my friends were there.”

As for Fama, he says nothing new in the documentary that he hasn’t already claimed during his trial in 1990. Although he didn’t testify during his trial, Fama admits that he was part of the mob of attackers, but he claims that he’s not guilty of shooting Yusuf. Fama went into hiding after the murder, but he eventually turned himself in to police a little more than a week after the murder. During the documentary interview, Fama is shifty-eyed when discussing the case and seems more concerned about trying to appear innocent than expressing remorse about the circumstances that led to Yusuf’s murder.

Yusuf’s father (Moses Stewart) had been mostly an absentee father who left the family when Yusuf was about 17 months old. Walter Brown, a friend of Stewart’s, says in the documentary, says that Stewart was “stupid” for being a deadbeat dad, but Stewart wanted a chance to redeem himself. In January 1989, Stewart and Yusuf’s mother Diane reconciled, and so he was back in the family’s life. Seven months later, Yusuf was murdered.

After the murder, Stewart reached out to Sharpton who, along with other activists, spearheaded the protests and rallies demanding justice for Yusuf. Yusuf’s mother, father, brothers and other family members participated in many of these protests and rallies, but it’s mentioned in the documentary that Yusuf’s father was more comfortable than Yusuf’s mother with being in the media and public spotlight. There’s archival footage showing that Yusuf’s mother was often very reluctant to make a statement when there was a crowd of media gathered around asking her to say something.

In the documentary, Yusuf’s mother gives heartbreaking descriptions of her nightmarish grief. Its sounds like she had post-traumatic stress disorder, because she experienced panic attacks and became paranoid of going outside at night and was afraid of doing simple things such as taking the subway. She and other family members and friends confirm that losing Yusuf is a trauma that they will never get over.

Yusuf’s murder happened to occur in an election year for New York City’s mayor. The incumbent mayor Ed Koch was widely perceived by his critics as too sympathetic to the accused attackers. (Koch died in 2013.) Dinkins, who defeated Koch in the primary election and would go on to become New York City’s first black mayor, openly supported the Hawkins family before, during and after the trials took place. Dinkins comments in the documentary about how Yusuf’s murder affected the mayoral race that year: “I knew that Yusuf Hawkins would be a factor in my contest, but I’d like to believe that we treated it as we would have had I not been seeking public office.”

The protests also came at a time when filmmaker Spike Lee’s 1989 classic “Do the Right Thing” had entered the public consciousness as the first movie to make a bold statement about how racial tensions in contemporary New York City can boil over into racist violence against black people. It’s not a new problem or a problem that’s unique to any one city, but in the context of what happened to Yusuf Hawkins, “Do the Right Thing” held up a mirror to how these tragedies can occur. The documentary mentions that Lee and some other celebrities became outspoken supporters of the Hawkins family.

The documentary also offers contrasting viewpoints on the protests, which included protestors going into Bensonhurst on many occasions, sometimes to protest at other events happening in the neighborhood. There’s a lot of archival footage of the protestors (mostly black people) and angry Bensonhurst residents (mostly white men) clashing with each other, with many of the Bensonhurst residents and counterprotestors hurling racially charged and racist insults at the protestors.

While Sharpton and other activists involved with the protests felt that the protestors were peaceful and law-abiding, critics of the protests thought that the protestors were rude and disruptive. It’s part of a larger issue of how people react to racial injustice. Some people want to stay silent, while others want to speak out and do something about it.

In fact, it’s mentioned in the documentary that Yusuf’s family was initially told by police to not speak out about the murder because the police were afraid that news of the murder would cause civil unrest. But after the media reported that Yusuf’s murder was a racist hate crime, the crime couldn’t be kept under the radar. According to several people in the documentary, the media helped and hurt the case.

The documentary mentions that although the media played a major role in public awareness of this hate crime, the media (especially the tabloids) got some of the facts wrong, which distorted public opinion. One of the falsehoods spread by the media was that Yusuf or one of his friends in the attack was interested in dating white girls they knew in Bensonhurst, and that was one of the reasons for the attack. In fact, Yusuf and the three friends who were with him didn’t know anyone in Bensonhurst and were really there just to look at a car for sale.

And even though Dinkins publicly gave his support to the Hawkins family, the documentary reveals that there was tension behind the scenes between Dinkins and Sharpton. Dinkins wasn’t a fan of the protests because he felt that they were too disruptive, while Sharpton and many of his supporters thought that Dinkins and other local politicians weren’t doing enough to help with the protestors’ cause. The documentary shows that although Dinkins and Sharpton were at odds with one another over the Yusuf Hawkins protests, many people in positions of power (including Dinkins and Sharpton) used the murder case to further their careers.

Sharpton was also controversial because of his involvement in the Tawana Brawley fiasco. In 1987, Sharpton publicly supported Brawley (a teenager from Wappinger Falls, New York), who claimed that four white men had raped her and covered her in feces. But her story turned out to be a lie, and the hoax damaged Sharpton’s credibility, even though he claimed he had nothing to do with the hoax. Many of Sharpton’s critics pointed to the Brawley hoax as a reason why Sharpton couldn’t be trusted.

In the documentary, Fulani makes it clear that she thinks that it’s enabling racism when people are told to keep silent about it: “I think the problem is that the people who aren’t involved in being racist pigs couldn’t get it together enough to make a different kind of statement.” The documentary shows that a huge part of the controversy in cases such as this is that a lot people can’t really agree on what kind of statement or response should be made.

Gibbons, the African American who was a friend to the Bensonhurst mob of attackers, has this criticism of Sharpton and his protests: “Men like that, they do more damage, and maybe they think they’re doing good.” NYPD detective Regina adds, “Yusuf Hawkins did lose his life because the color of his skin, but not because Bensonhurst is a racist, vigilante neighborhood trying to keep colored people out … There was justice. And after that justice, there should have been peace.”

But considering the outcome of the trials, it’s highly debatable if justice was really served. And is there really peace when people are still getting murdered for the same reason why Yusuf Hawkins was murdered? As long as people have sharply divided opinions on how these matters should be handled by the public and by the criminal justice system, there will continue to be controversy and civil unrest.

“Yusuf Hawkins: Storm Over Brooklyn” could have been a very one-sided documentary, but it took the responsible approach of including diverse viewpoints. “Yusuf Hawkins: Storm Over Brooklyn” is the well-deserved first winning project of the inaugural Feature Documentary Initiative created by the American Black Film Festival and production company Lightbox, as part of their partnership to foster African American filmmakers and diversity in feature documentaries. And the poignant ending of this documentary makes it clear that Yusuf will be remembered for more than his senseless murder. The positive impact he made in his young life goes beyond what can be put in a news report or documentary.

HBO premiered “Yusuf Hawkins: Storm Over Brooklyn” on August 12, 2020.

Review: ‘Burden,’ starring Garrett Hedlund, Forest Whitaker, Andrea Riseborough, Austin Hébert, Usher Raymond and Tom Wilkinson

February 26, 2020

by Carla Hay

Pictured clockwise, from left to right: Taylor Gregory, Andrea Riseborough, Forest Whitaker, Dexter Darden, Crystal Fox and Garrett Hedlund in “Burden” (Photo courtesy of 101 Studios)

“Burden” (2020) 

Directed by Andrew Heckler

Culture Representation: Taking place primarily in the small town of Laurens, South Carolina, this dramatic film has a racially diverse cast of African American and white characters portraying the poor and working-class.

Culture Clash: The movie tells the story about racial tensions and hate crimes that get worse when local Ku Klux Klansmen open a KKK shop/museum in the town, and one of the KKK members becomes a former racist.

Culture Audience: “Burden” will appeal primarily to people who like to see dramatic retellings of stories about people involved with civil rights and fighting racism.

Garrett Hedlund and Tom Wilkinson in “Burden” (Photo courtesy of 101 Studios)

There’s been a mini-trend of “based on a true story” feature films about white racists who change their bigoted ways of thinking, by having unlikely friendships with black people. In the movie, one black person in particular makes the difference in reforming the white racist. We saw this same premise in 2018’s Oscar-winning “Green Book,” 2019’s “The Best of Enemies” and now in 2020’s “Burden.”

Written and directed by Andrew Heckler (his first feature-length film), “Burden” won’t be nominated for any Oscars, but it’s a solid film that has a top-notch cast, even though the movie can veer into well-worn clichés. The movie’s timeless message is more important than the recycled way that much of the movie was filmed.

Taking place in the small town of Laurens, South Carolina, in the mid-to-late 1990s, the story is told mainly from the perspective of the title character, Mike Burden (played by Garrett Hedlund), a self-described “redneck” troublemaker who was orphaned at an early age. The movie begins in the spring of 1996, when Mike (who’s in his 20s) is making his living at a repo company, which is not-so-subtly called Plantation Repossession. He also has a long history of being a criminal. Most of his antisocial behavior consists of violent hate crimes, because he’s a longtime member of the Ku Klux Klan and has risen to the title of Grand Dragon.

Mike has a mentor/father figure in local Klan leader Tom Griffin (played by Tom Wilkinson), who is grooming Mike to be his successor. Mike is such a part of Tom’s family that he’s become like a brother to Tom’s son Clint (played by Austin Hébert), who works with Mike at Plantation Repossession. Tom’s wife Hazel (played by Tess Harper) is also a white supremacist who’s proud to have her family in the KKK.

Tom, Mike and other local Klansman have opened up a storefront in town called the Redneck Shop and KKK Museum, despite objections from many of the citizens in Laurens and beyond. One of the most vocal protestors is Rev. David Kennedy (played by Forest Whitaker), the leader of the New Beginnings Missionary Baptist Church. Rev. Kennedy is a devoted family man to his wife Janice (played by Crystal Fox) and teenage son Kelvin (played by Dexter Darden).

Meanwhile, the movie shows two other people who eventually play a role in Mike Burden’s transformation. One is a single mother named Judy (played by Andrea Riseborough), who first meets Mike when he and Clint come over to her house to repossess items from her live-in boyfriend, who’s an unemployed former NASCAR driver and a heavy drinker. The other person is Mike’s former schoolmate Clarence Brooks (played by Usher Raymond, also known as Grammy-winning singer Usher), who encounters Mike and Clint when they go over to Clarence’s house to repossess his television.

Even though Clarence tells them his sob story about being laid off due to company cutbacks and asks the repo men to give him a break, Mike and Clint are unmoved. Clarence tries to appeal to Mike’s memories of when they were friends as young kids, but Mike somewhat smugly tells Clarence that he can’t make an exception for him or else he and Clint will lose their jobs. While they’re far enough away so Clarence can’t hear them, Clint and Mike make a racist comment about Clarence being on welfare.

The next time Mike and Judy see each other, she’s at the racetrack with her elementary-school-aged son Franklin (played by Taylor Gregory). Mike and Judy lock eyes in the way that people do in movies when you know that they’re going to fall in love. Even though Judy has broken up with her deadbeat boyfriend, she’s somewhat reluctant to date Mike because she knows about his bad reputation. But Mike is very charming and polite to her and Franklin, so eventually she gives in, and they start dating and fall in love.

Before Mike goes though his transformation, much of the story shows the dichotomy of his personality. One the one hand, he’s a hard-working employee and a romantic boyfriend to Judy. On the other hand, he participates in vicious crimes against people who aren’t white or Christian. He and his KKK cronies regularly beat up black people. And they’re the kind of racists who, when they’re driving in a truck and see a black girl walking down a deserted road by herself, they urinate on her and laugh as they pass by.

Mike’s mentor Tom thinks so highly of him that he tells everyone at a local KKK chapter meeting that he’s signing over the store/museum deed to Mike. What Mike does with that real-estate deed after he leaves the Klan becomes the center of a lawsuit that’s depicted in the last third of the film.

But before that happens, Judy makes it clear that she despises that Mike is in the KKK, and she starts spending more time working with Rev. Kennedy and the other people in his congregation who want to shut down the Redneck Shop and KKK Museum. She eventually helps Mike see the error of his ways, and he leaves the Klan.

But there are consequences, as Mike becomes the target of his former KKK comrades’ hatred. He loses his job and eventually his home. He gets beaten up by his former Klan buddies. Mike eventually turns to Rev. Kennedy for help.

Rev. Kennedy offers Mike, Judy and Franklin a place to stay at his home, which is an offer that his wife Janice objects to at first because she doesn’t want her family to be put in danger. The reverend’s son Kelvin is also upset by letting Mike and his new family into the Kennedy home and what it could mean for the Kennedy family. The danger is very real, since Clarence gets beaten up by KKK members because of Clarence’s association with Mike.

As the story unfolds, there are scenes that predictably happen. Judy’s son Franklin and Clarence’s son Duane (played by Devin Bright) become friends in a déjà vu of Mike and Clarence’s childhood friendship. The controversy over the KKK museum gets national attention, bringing Jesse Jackson (played by an actor) to town for one of the protests. Mike’s baptism (by Rev. Kennedy, of course), which takes place at a lake, shows a reformed Mike emerging from the water in slow-motion. It’s filmed with the kind of adoration that’s usually reserved for “miracle” scenes.

“Burden” sometimes gets hokey, but the good intentions outweigh the sometimes overly sentimental direction. The movie doesn’t sugarcoat that turning around a violent bigot’s life can be complicated, messy and dangerous. But the movie shows that things can improve for people who used to be enemies of each other if they have enough compassion, knowledge and resources to help people change for the better.

The former location of the Redneck Shop and KKK Museum has now been renamed the Echo Theater. According to a press release from 101 Studios (the U.S. distributor for “Burden”), 101 Studios and the New Baptist Missionary Church “are partnering to rebuild the space so that it becomes a center of positivity for the first time in its history. National and local partners, such as Lowe’s, are working with 101 Studios and the New Baptist Missionary Church to contribute supplies and materials to the renovation efforts.”

101 Studios will release “Burden” in select U.S. cinemas on February 28, 2020. 

2019 DOC NYC movie review: ‘Healing From Hate: Battle for the Soul of a Nation’

November 18, 2019

by Carla Hay

Tony McAleer, Amar Kaleka and Sammy Rangel in “Healing From Hate: Battle for the Soul of a Nation” (Photo courtesy of Big Tent Productions)

“Healing From Hate: Battle for the Soul of a Nation”

Directed by Peter Hutchison

World premiere at DOC NYC in New York City on November 13, 2019.

The rise of hate crimes in recent years has led to an increase in documentaries and news reports about bigotry and its effects on our culture. “Healing From Hate: Battle for the Soul of a Nation” focuses on former extreme racists who have devoted their lives to helping others get out of the belief systems and lifestyles of hate groups. The three main stars of the film are Life After Hate co-founder Frank Meeink, the real-life inspiration for the dramatic film “American History X”; Life After Hate co-founder Tony McAleer; and Sammy Rangel, a Latino former gang member who founded the group Formers Anonymous for ex-bigots. (Rangel says in the documentary that he used to hate white people.) All of the men openly admit to committing several hate crimes in the past, and they’ve spent time in prison.

The film points out several common denominators of people who join extreme racist groups: They usually had abusive childhoods; they feel mistreated by mainstream society and joined hate groups to have surrogate families; and they often abuse drugs and/or alcohol, even if they leave the hate groups. All of the ex-racists in this documentary fit this profile, and they talk about their ongoing struggles with substance abuse.

McAleer, who is originally from Vancouver, says he changed his hate-filled lifestyle after the births of his daughter and son. One of the more effective parts of the film is when he returns to his hometown to visit members at Temple Shalom, where his hate crimes started. Another standout scene is when McAleer and Rangel visit the Sikh temple (gurdwara) in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, where in 2012, a white supremacist murdered six people and wounded four others before committing suicide. In an emotionally powerful moment, the documentary shows McAleer and Rangel going to the scene of the crime to meet with Amar Kaleka, son of the gurdwara’s murdered founder, as they talk and pray about the tragedy. The movie’s archival footage includes the 2017 deadly Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Other people featured in the movie are Randy Blazak, a criminologist and researcher of hate groups; Thomas Engelmann, founder and ex-member of the Aryan Brotherhood, which does a lot of recruiting in prisons; and author Michael Kimmel, a founder of Stony Brook University’s Center for the Study of Men and Masculinities. Also interviewed are former neo-Nazi Randy Furniss and African American activist/radio host Julius Long, who formed an unlikely friendship with each other after Long rescued Furniss from being attacked by an angry crowd protesting against white supremacist Richard Spencer’s 2017 speech at the University of Florida in Gainesville. Spencer is featured in the movie getting into a spirited debate about racism with Life After Hate co-founder Christian Picciolini, who is no longer affiliated with Life After Hate. You might notice a pattern here: This is a very male-centric movie.

The documentary, although well-intentioned, can’t quite overcome its biggest flaw: It basically ignores women. Current and former racists who are women are not mentioned or interviewed. In addition, most of the men in these reform groups have children, but the mothers of these children aren’t interviewed either. The film never bothers to answer these questions: What are these mothers’ perspectives? How are these children being raised? What happens when one parent leaves a hate group, but the other parent wants to stay? The filmmakers don’t mention if any effort was made to include an adequate number of female viewpoints in the documentary.

Although it’s true that the vast majority of violent hate crimes are committed by men, and most of the white supremacists who march at rallies are men, it’s also indisputable that women are a big part of white supremacy. Women’s roles in this damaging movement have been irresponsibly overlooked in this documentary. For example, women who are racists have other insidious methods of inflicting fear on the targets of their hate, besides committing violence. Viral videos and several news reports have proven that female racists like to call the police on people of color who are minding their own business and not breaking the law.

“Healing From Hate” also avoids discussing that within the white supremacy movement is an inherent culture of misogyny because of the belief that white Christian males are the most superior of the human race. However, the movie does not address any sexist beliefs these former racists probably had while in the movement, and the documentary never mentions if their therapy also includes “detoxing” from the overwhelming sexism in white supremacy. (A more accurate title of the movie is “Healing From Male Racists,” not “Healing From Hate.”)

Since men are the only focus of this documentary about current and reformed bigots, it paints an incomplete and inaccurate picture that male racists should be more important priorities than female racists. And this documentary’s emphasis on male redemption is itself kind of sexist. Not surprisingly, all the group therapy leaders in this documentary are men, and almost everyone interviewed for this movie is a man.

A friendly reminder to the filmmakers: Females are 51 percent of the U.S. population. If you’re going to do a documentary whose subtitle is “Battle for the Soul of a Nation,” it would help if you included perspectives from the gender that represents the majority of this nation. “Healing From Hate” director Peter Hutchison plans to make two companion documentaries: “Angry White Men: American Masculinity in the Age of Trump” (based on the sociology work of Kimmel) and “Auschwitz: Facing the Legacy of Hatred,” which will focus on McAleer’s redemption by showing him visiting the sites of Polish death camps. Let’s hope that the makers of these companion documentaries don’t forget that healing from hatred doesn’t exist in only a male vacuum. Female voices need to be valued and heard too.

UPDATE: Media Education Foundation will release “Healing From Hate: Battle for the Soul of a Nation” in select U.S. cinemas on September 4, 2020.

Sephora closes for half-day diversity training after SZA claims she was racially profiled

May 25, 2019

by Daphne Sorenson

On the morning of June 5, 2019, beauty-store company Sephora is temporarily closing all of its U.S. retail stores, distribution centers and corporate offices for a diversity-training program for company employees. The decision came after R&B singer SZA (whose real name is Solána Rowe) went public with an accusation that she was racially profiled by Sephora. According to SZA, the incident happened on April 30, 2019, while she was shopping at a Sephora store in Calabasas, California. SZA says that she had security called on her because she was wrongfully suspected of shoplifting.

SZA tweeted that day, “Lmao Sandy Sephora location 614 Calabasas called security to make sure I wasn’t stealing . We had a long talk. U have a blessed day Sandy.”

In response to SZA’s complaint, Sephora tweeted: “You are a part of the Sephora family, and we are committed to ensuring every member of our community feels welcome and included at our stores.”

In a statement on its community page, Sephora announced: “On the morning of 6/5, every Sephora store, distribution center, and corporate office in the US will close to host inclusion workshops for our employees. These values have always been at the heart of Sephora, and we’re excited to welcome everyone when we reopen. Join us in our commitment to a more inclusive beauty community.

Ironically, SZA says she was at Sephora to shop for Fenty Beauty products. SZA was part of Fenty’s lipstick campaign in 2017. Fenty founder Rihanna, whose real name is Robyn Fenty, sent a gift card and a handwritten note to SZA that read, “Go buy yo’ Fenty Beauty in peace sis! One love, Rihanna.” SZA shared these messages on an Instagram Story.

SZA is best known for her collaboration with Kendrick Lamar for the song “All the Stars” from the “Black Panther” soundtrack. The song was nominated for numerous awards, including an Oscar and a Grammy.

This isn’t the first accusation of discrimination that Sephora has faced on social media. There are dozens of messages from angry customers who claim that they were racially profiled as potential criminals, even though they say they didn’t do anything wrong.  Sephora has also been getting complaints on social media about discriminating against customers over the age of 40 and customers who have physical and intellectual challenges, by treating them rudely and dismissively. It looks like it took a celebrity to go public with a discrimination complaint before Sephora tried to do anything about it.