Review: ‘Till,’ starring Danielle Deadwyler, Jalyn Hall, Frankie Faison, Haley Bennett and Whoopi Goldberg

October 2, 2022

by Carla Hay

Jalyn Hall and Danielle Deadwyler in “Till” (Photo by Lynsey Weatherspoon/Orion Pictures)

“Till”

Directed by Chinonye Chukwu

Culture Representation: Taking place in 1955 in Illinois and Mississippi, the dramatic film “Till” features a predominantly African American cast of characters (with some white people) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: After her 14-year-old son (and only child) Emmett Till is murdered in a racist hate crime, Mamie Till-Mobley fights for justice in a system where white supremacy is enabled and enforced. 

Culture Audience: “Till” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of stars Danielle Deadwyler and Whoopi Goldberg, as well as to people who are interested in well-acted biographical stories about the civil rights movement in the United States.

Danielle Deadwyler and Whoopi Goldberg in “Till” (Photo by Lynsey Weatherspoon/Orion Pictures)

The heartbreaking and inspiring drama “Till” admirably tells the true story of Mamie Till-Mobley and how she not only fought for justice for her murdered son, Emmett Till, but also how she became an often-overlooked pioneer in the U.S. civil rights movement. Even though the events in “Till” take place in the 1955, everything about the movie remains relevant, as long as people are getting murdered, abused or harassed simply because of race or other parts of their identities. Danielle Deadwyler gives a stunning and emotionally stirring performance as a humble woman who channeled her grief over her murdered son (who was beaten, shot and lynched) into positive activism that has far-reaching effects that can be felt for years to come.

Directed by Chinonye Chukwu, “Till” could have easily been yet another civil rights movie about a crusading lawyer, a law-making politician, a famous activist with a large following, or a hate-crime victim. And although these characters are definitely in “Till,” all of these characters in this history-based movie are male. It’s rare that a movie about the U.S. civil rights movement focuses on an African American woman, even though African American women have been the backbone of many important social movements in the United States.

“Till” had its world premiere at the 2022 New York Film Festival in New York City. At the New York Film Festival’s “Till” press conference, which took place on the morning of the gala premiere, filmmaker Chukwu said that she didn’t want to direct the movie unless it centered on Till-Mobley. The movie’s producers agreed, and Chukwu presented her vision of the story, which included a rewrite of the screenplay to focus on Till-Mobley’s perspective. (Chukwu co-wrote the “Till” screenplay with Keith Beauchamp and Michael Reilly, two of the movie’s producers.)

It turned out to be the correct decision. One of Chukwu’s strengths as a director is in making great casting choices. Deadwyler, in the role of Till-Mobley, anchors the movie in a way that is the epitome of portraying inner strength and an ordinary person who becomes an extraordinary catalyst for social change. The movie also shows in subtle and not-so-subtle ways how grief and pain can be turned into something positive that becomes much bigger than being about just one person.

Many people watching “Till” might already be familiar with the name Emmett “Bo” Till and might already be aware of how the racist torture and murder of this innocent 14-year-old boy in 1955 was a turning point in the U.S. civil rights movement. The movie “Till” brings him to life in the performance of Jalyn Hall, who depicts Emmett as an outgoing and fun-loving teenager who liked to hang out with his friends and occasionally flirted with girls who caught his attention. People who know Emmett very well usually call him by his nickname Bo.

Born in 1941 in Chicago, Emmett was raised in Chicago, where his mother Mamie worked as an educator. Emmett was Mamie’s only child. In 1945, Emmett’s military father, Louis Till, died at the age of 23 in combat during World War II. Mamie then had a short-lived marriage (lasting from 1951 to 1952) to Pink Bradley, with the marriage ending in divorce. Mamie grew up in her home state of Mississippi but had relocated to Chicago in search of better work opportunities and a less oppressive racial environment.

That doesn’t mean racially integrated Chicago or anywhere is immune to racism. An early scene in “Till” shows Mamie shopping in a Chicago department store and asking a white store clerk about an item. The store clerk suggests to her that she shop in the basement, which was his way of saying that he didn’t want black customers to be shopping in the store’s main area.

With her head held high, Mamie looks him in the eye and calmly asks him, “Do the other customers know that too?” In other words, “Are you telling the white customers the same thing? Probably not.” It’s the first sign in the movie that Mamie is not going to play the role of a head-bowing, foot-shuffling servant, and that she can stand up for herself with intelligence and class.

In 1955, Mamie was in a happy and supportive relationship with Gene Mobley (played by Sean Patrick Thomas), who would eventually become her husband. Gene would become one of strongest sources of support during the family’s ordeal. Mamie and Gene didn’t legally marry until 1957 (two years after Emmett’s death), but they referred to each other as spouses, in a common-law way.

In August 1955, Mamie allowed Emmett to visit some of her relatives near Money, Mississippi, as part of his summer vacation. In the movie, perhaps out of a maternal instinct and concern, Mamie is apprehensive about sending Emmett to Mississippi by train on his own. At a time when racial segregation was legal and enforced in the South, she warns him that that “there are a different set of rules” for people who aren’t white in the South.

Emmett thinks that Mamie is being overprotective and maybe paranoid. Mamie’s mother Alma Carthan (played by Whoopi Goldberg) thinks so too. Alma tells Mamie that it’s time that Emmett be more independent since he’s close to being an adult and has to learn how to do things on his own. While Mamie says goodbye to Emmett the train station and he boards the train, she has a sudden look of fear on her face, which could be interpreted as a premonition that something terrible might happen to Emmett.

In Mississippi, Emmett stays with the Wright family, who are relatives on his mother’s side of the family. They include Emmett’s great-uncle Moses Wright (played by John Douglas Thompson); Moses’ wife Elizabeth (played by Keisha Tillis); and their son Maurice (played by Diallo Thompson). Moses makes money as a seller of cotton, and he oversees other African American men who pick cotton in the fields.

Emmett is expected to help out with this field work while he’s in Mississippi, but a city boy like Emmett immediately dislikes this type of physical labor. In the cotton fields, Emmett complains that picking cotton is a “square thing to do” (in other words, it’s too “country” for him), and he doesn’t take the work seriously. Instead, he sometimes goofs off on the job, such as pretending to pass out and getting a laugh when he reveals that nothing is wrong with him. It’s an example of Emmett’s impish sense of humor but also his naïveté at how different the lifestyle is for his working-class relatives in rural Mississippi, compared to the middle-class lifestyle he has in a big city like Chicago.

Maurice, who is in his late teens or early 20s, is a stern taskmaster who constantly warns Emmett not to be so cavalier about work and being an African American in an area where African Americans are targeted for lynchings and other hate crimes by white racists. During his stay in Mississippi, Emmett hangs out with Maurice and two of Maurice’s teenage pals who also work in the cotton fields: Wheeler Parker (played by Gem Marc Collins, also known as Marc Collins) and Simmy (played by Tyrik Johnson). Maurice is the unofficial leader of this group of friends.

When Emmett playfully flirts with some white teenage girls nearby, Maurice tells Emmett that he better not act that way with any white people, or else he could be killed. Emmett doesn’t take this warning seriously, because in his young life, he has personally never known anyone who was killed because of racist hate. And in Chicago, it’s not taboo for black people and white people to interact with each other.

One day, when Emmett, Maurice, Wheeler and Simmy have some time off from work, they hang out in front of a small grocery store. Emmett goes inside to buy a bottle of soda. The cashier behind the counter is Mrs. Carolyn Bryant (played by Haley Bennett), a white woman in her late 20s or early 30s. Emmett is friendly and open with everyone he meets, so he greets Carolyn with a smile and looks directly in her eyes.

In this racist area, where a black person is expected to act fearful and deferential toward white people, Emmett’s friendly confidence immediately makes Carolyn fill uneasy. She glares at him suspiciously has he pays for his soda. Emmett then tells her as a compliment, “You look like a movie star.”

Carolyn stares at him as if she can’t believe a black person is talking to her in this way. Emmett is oblivious to her silent hostility and takes his wallet and shows her a photo of actress Hedy Lamarr that he keeps in his wallet. “See?” Emmett says to Carolyn, as a way to point her physical resemblance. Carolyn looks even angrier, but Emmett doesn’t seem to notice.

Instead, Emmett cheerfully waves goodbye. And as if to make it clear that he thinks that Carolyn is pretty, she looks back at her and gives a flirtatious whistle. Carolyn is so incensed at this point, she leaves the counter to get a shotgun, which she plans to aim at Emmett. When Emmett sees that he could get shot but this angry racist, he suddenly understands the enormity of the situation.

Emmett runs outside while Carolyn follows him with the shotgun in aimed at him. Emmett and his pals quickly get in their truck and drive away before the situation escalates. Maurice is furious when he finds out what Emmett said and did. Maurice immediately wants to tell his father what happened, but Wheeler and Simmy convince Maurice to keep it a secret between the four of them.

However, this incident isn’t kept a secret by Carolyn. A few days later, her husband Roy Bryant (played by Sean Michael Weber) and his half-brother JW Milam (played by Eric Whitten) force their way with guns into the Wright family home, kidnap Emmett, and take him in their truck, where Carolyn and a few other men have come along for the ride. After Carolyn identifies Emmett as the teenager who flirted with her, Emmett is taken to an isolated farm area.

“Till” does not show on screen what happened to Emmett after he was kidnapped, but the movie does have some disturbing sound effects that don’t leave any doubt that he was tortured and beaten. At the New York Film Festival press conference for “Till,” Chukwu said she made a conscious decision for the movie not to show any physical violence against “black bodies.” It was the correct choice, because showing this type of violence could be thought of as exploitation and gives too much agency to the murderers.

Mamie finds out that Emmett has been kidnapped. Friends, family—including Mamie’s father, John Carthan (played by Frankie Faison), who is divorced from Alma and has remarried—as well as other people in the African American community join Mamie in their frantic search for Emmet. And then, they get the devastating news three days after his abduction that Emmett was found murdered (he was beaten and shot to death) in the Tallahatchie River. These scenes are heart-wrenching to watch.

Overwhelmed by grief, Mamie’s first priority was to get Emmett’s body returned to her so that he could be buried in Chicago. She wasn’t thinking about becoming an activist. But after seeing his disfigured and bloated body (which is replicated on screen), Mamie makes a crucial decision to let Emmett’s body be photographed and published by the media.

Mamie also decides that his funeral would be an open-casket funeral, where the thousands of attendees could see for themselves what the horrors and evils of racism look like up close. As Mamie says later in the movie when she tells reporters how she felt when she saw Emmett’s dead body: “My son came home to me reeking of racial hatred.”

The rest of “Till” takes viewers on an emotional journey as Mamie uses her inner strength to get justice for Emmett, which was also really a battle for anyone else wronged by a racist American society. Along the way, she meets some influential people who help her and teach her how to navigate being a civil rights activist with the agendas of politicians, lawyers and the media. Mamie also became more involved with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) as a result of her political awakening.

Rayfield Mooty (played by Kevin Carroll), a Chicago labor who also happened to be Mamie’s second cousin, was instrumental in putting Mamie in with the NAACP. In the movie, Rayfield is the first person to bluntly tell Mamie that she has to think strategically. “It would be a good opportunity for a politician to take on Emmett’s cause in an election year,” he advises her.

Her other allies include NAACP attorney William Huff (played by Keith Arthur Bolden), who was recommended to Mamie by Rayfield; civil rights activists William Medger Evers (played by Tosin Cole) and Myrlie Evers (played by Jayme Lawson), Medger’s wife. “Till” shows how the murder of Emmett was just the beginning of the trauma, since murder trial was a continual barrage of racial inequalities that gave preference to the white defendants. Although it is widely believed that several people were involved in Emmett’s murder, only Bryant and Milam went on trial for the murder.

The murder trial in September 1955 (a quick turnaround, considering the murder happened just a month before) is an example of how there are often two types of justice, based on the races of the people involved. Although many “Till” viewers will already know the outcome of the trial before seeing the movie, it doesn’t make the outcome any less impactful. “Till” has a lot of riveting scenes that are meant to upset and enlighten people.

“Till” also shows that sexism against women also played a role in how Mamie was mistreated and misjudged by bigoted members of society during the media coverage of the trial. (Her morality was attacked because she had been divorced, which is criticism that would have been less likely to be inflicted on a divorced man.) She was also advised to not look angry in public, even though she had every right to be angry about what happened to her only child.

And that’s why it’s important for this movie to be shown from a female perspective. In 1955 American society, Mamie didn’t have the privilege of being a church leader or a chapter president of the NAACP, since those leadership positions were almost always were held by men. Even in the early civil rights movement, women were rarely allowed to give long and passionate speeches in public. It’s why what Mamie accomplishes goes beyond racism but also speaks to how she dealt with gender inequalities within the civil rights movement.

“Till” also shows in effective ways the burden of guilt that the women in Emmett’s family feel because they made the decision to let him take that fateful trip to Mississippi. One of Goldberg’s best scenes in the movie is showing through her body language the heavy heart that Alma must have felt in knowing that she was the one to convince Mamie that Emmett needed to go to Mississippi on his own. When Alma breaks down in tears and expresses an outpouring of guilt to Mamie, it’s an example of how trauma often makes loved ones feel responsible for what happened, or feel like they didn’t do enough to protect their loved one, even though it wasn’t their fault.

The movie also accurately depicts that Mamie did not become an activist overnight. It was a gradual process as she began to understand that no one else could be a better advocate for Emmett than she was. Mamie did not ask to become a public figure who was thrust into the spotlight. It was a calling that she answered, out of love and necessity.

Chukwu brings solid direction to “Till,” with many artistic choices in sound, production design, film editing, music, costume design and cinematography. It would be tempting for any filmmaker to make “Till” look like a sweeping epic melodrama. But thankfully, Chukwu and the other “Till” filmmakers refrained from making “Till” look like a social justice soap opera. An over-the-top tone would ruin the whole point of the movie, which is to make the story relatable.

“Till” shows in many ways that the horrific crime that happened to Emmett and his family can, has and does happen to ordinary, law-abiding people through no fault of their own. And, just as importantly, the movie helps people understand that you don’t have to come from a rich or privileged background to make a difference in society. “Till” arrives in theaters in the same year that the Emmett Till Antilynching Act was signed into law by U.S. President Joe Biden on March 29, 2022. The law now makes lynching a federal hate crime in the United States.

The technical aspects of “Till” work very well for the movie, but the story unquestionably has a particular resonance because of how Deadwyler and the rest of the cast members fully embody their characters with authenticity. Even when experiencing so many indignities, Deadwyler shows through her nuanced and outstanding performance how Mamie remained dignified and steadfast in her search for justice. “Till” is a necessary reminder that the work of Till-Mobley and other civil rights advocates is far from over, because racism is everyone’s problem, not just the problem of the people who are targets of this hate.

Orion Pictures will release “Till” in select U.S. cinemas on October 14, 2022, with an expansion to more U.S. cinemas on October 28, 2022.

Review: ‘Sesame Street: 50 Years of Sunny Days,’ starring Sonia Monzano, Whoopi Goldberg, Angelina Jolie, Rosie Perez, Steve Youngwood, Kay Wilson Stallings and Sherrie Westin

May 20, 2021

by Carla Hay

Ryan Dillon (Elmo puppeteer), Bradley Freeman Jr. (Wes Walker puppeteer) and Chris Thomas Hayes (Elijah Walker puppeteer) in “Sesame Street: 50 Years of Sunny Days” (Photo courtesy of ABC)

“Sesame Street: 50 Years of Sunny Days”

Directed by Rebecca Gitlitz

Culture Representation: The documentary “Sesame Street: 50 Years of Sunny Days” features a racially diverse group of people (African American, white, Latino and Asian) discussing their connection to the groundbreaking children’s TV series “Sesame Street.”

Culture Clash: “Sesame Street,” which launched in 1969 on PBS, was the first nationally televised children’s program in the U.S. to be racially integrated, and “Sesame Street” has endured controversy over racial diversity, AIDS and representation of the LGBTQ community.

Culture Audience: “Sesame Street: 50 Years of Sunny Days” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in a comprehensive overview of “Sesame Street,” with an emphasis on how “Sesame Street” is responding to current global issues.

Stacey Gordon (Julia puppeteer) in “Sesame Street: 50 Years of Sunny Days” (Photo courtesy of ABC)

ABC’s documentary “Sesame Street: 50 Years of Sunny Days” offers some nostalgia for “Sesame Street” fans, but the movie is more concered about how this groundbreaking children’s culture has made an impact around the world and with contemporary social issues. Directed by Rebecca Gitlitz, it’s an occasionally repetitive film that admirably embraces diversity in a variety of viewpoints. The major downside to the film is that it won’t be considered a timeless “Sesame Street” documentary, because the movie very much looks like it was made in 2020/2021. Therefore, huge parts of the movie will look outdated in a few years.

“Sesame Street: 50 Years of Sunny Days” premiered on ABC just three days after director Marilyn Agrelo’s documentary “Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street” was released in select U.S. cinemas. “Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street,” which focused mainly on “Sesame Street’s” history from 1969 to the early 1990s, interviewed people who were “Sesame Street” employees from this time period, as well as some of the family members of principal “Sesame Street” employees who are now deceased. “Sesame Street: 50 Years of Sunny Days” takes a broader approach and includes the perspectives of not just past and present employees of “Sesame Street” but also several “Sesame Street” fans who are famous and not famous.

In addition, “Sesame Street: 50 Years of Sunny Days” (which was produced by Time Studios) makes a noteworthy effort to convey the global impact of “Sesame Street,” by including footage and interviews with people involved with the adapted versions of “Sesame Street” in the Middle East and in South Africa. “Sesame Street,” which is filmed in New York City, launched in 1969 on PBS. In the U.S., first-run episodes of “Sesame Street” began airing on HBO in 2016, and then on HBO Max in 2020. “Sesame Street” is now available in more than 150 countries.

“Sesame Street: 50 Years of Sunny Days” quickly breezes through how “Sesame Street” was conceived and launched. There are brief mentions of “Sesame Street” co-creators Joan Ganz Cooney and Lloyd Morrisett, but this documentary does not interview them. “Street Gang” has interviews with Ganz Cooney and Morrisett, who go into details about how they were inspired to create “Sesame Street” to reach pre-school kids, particularly African American children in urban cities, who had television as an electronic babysitter.

“Sesame Street: 50 Years of Sunny Days,” just like “Street Gang” did, discusses that the concept behind “Sesame Street” was to have a children’s TV show with a racially integrated cast and puppets, which were called muppets. A lot of research went into creating the show before it was even launched. The intent of “Sesame Street” was for the show to be educational and entertaining.

But the creators also wanted “Sesame Street” to include real-life topics that weren’t normally discussed on children’s television at the time. For example, when actor Will Lee, who played “Sesame Street” character Mr. Hooper, died in 1982, “Sesame Street” had an episode that discussed Mr. Hooper dying. “Sesame Street” did not lie to the audience by making up a story that Mr. Hooper had moved away or was still alive somewhere.

Time For Kids editorial director Andrea Delbanco says, “Many people avoid the topics that they know are going to be lightning rods. ‘Sesame Street’ goes straight for it. And they handle each and every one of them with the amount of thoughtfulness and research and care that they require.”

David Kamp, author of “Sunny Days: The Children’s Television Revolution That Changed America,” mentions that one of the reasons for the longevity of “Sesame Street” is the show’s ability to adapt to changing times: “They’ll pivot. They’ll adjust. They’ll say, ‘We got it wrong. Now, we’re going to get it right.’ That’s one of [the show’s] great virtues.”

One of the noticeable differences seen in comparing these two “Sesame Street” documentaries is how racial diversity has improved for “Sesame Street” behind the scenes. “Street Gang,” which focused on the first few decades of “Sesame Street” shows that although the on-camera cast was racially diverse, behind the scenes it was another story: Only white people were the leaders and decision makers for “Sesame Street” in the show’s early years. Several current “Sesame Street” decision makers are interviewed in “Sesame Street: 50 Years of Sunny Days,” and it’s definitely a more racially diverse group of people, compared to who was running the show in the first two decades of “Sesame Street.”

Sonia Monzano, an original “Sesame Street” cast member (her character is Maria), says that although the show has always had a racially diverse cast, the muppets are the “Sesame Street” characters that people remember the most. “I remember my first scene with [muppet character] Grover,” Monzano comments with a chuckle. “It took me a while to be comfortable, not try to upstage them. And that’s the same with kids. You give them the platform. Get out of their way.”

As memorable as the “Sesame Street” muppets are, the human characters on the show had a particular impact on children, who saw “Sesame Street” people who reminded them of their family members or neighbors. Several celebrities who are interviewed in the documentary grew up watching “Sesame Street”—including Lucy Liu, Rosie Perez, Olivia Munn and Questlove—and they talk about the importance of seeing their lives and experiences represented on the show.

Perez comments on the show’s racial diversity: “We needed to see that, because when you’re a little girl in Brooklyn watching ‘Sesame Street,’ it’s nice to know that when you opened your door and walked down your stoop, you had the same type of people on your television.” Perez says about “Sesame Street’s” Maria character: “She was my Mary Tyler Moore,” and that until Maria came along, “Desi Arnaz Jr. was our only [Hispanic TV] role model for years.”

Racism, social justice and AIDS are some of the topics that “Sesame Street” has openly discussed over the years, sometimes to considerable controversy. But one topic was apparently too much to handle in “Sesame Street’s” first year: divorce. In “Sesame Street: 50 Years of Sunny Days,” it’s mentioned that the original pilot episode of “Sesame Street” had a segment about muppet character Mr. Snuffleupagus dealing with his parents’ divorce. The “Sesame Street” executives did a test screening of this episode with children.

“The kids freaked out” because the idea of divorce was too upsetting for them, says Time staff writer Cady Lang. And the episode was “tossed out.” The documentary has some of this unaired Mr. Snuffleupagus “divorce” footage. In the documentary, Martin P. Robinson, the puppeteer and original voice for Mr. Snuffleupagus, expresses disappointment that this decision was made to eliminate talk of divorce on the first “Sesame Street” episode, because he says it was a missed opportunity for “Sesame Street” to start off with an episode that would have been very cutting-edge at the time.

However, there would be plenty of other episodes that would rile up some people. It’s not mentioned in the “Sesame Street: 50 Years of Sunny Days” documentary, but it’s mentioned in the “Street Gang” documentary that TV stations in Mississippi briefly wouldn’t televise “Sesame Street” in 1970, because they said people in their communities thought the show’s content was inappropriate. They denied it had to do with the show having a racially integrated cast. But considering that Mississippi was one of the last U.S. states to keep laws enforcing racial segregation, it would be naïve to think that racism wasn’t behind the “Sesame Street” ban.

The topics of racism and race relations take up a lot of screen time in this “Sesame Street” documentary, but mostly as pertaining to a contemporary audience, not the “Sesame Street” audience of past decades. Black Lives Matter protests and the racist murders of George Floyd and other African Americans have been discussed on “Sesame Street.” And there has been a concerted effort to have all races represented on “Sesame Street,” for the human cast members as well as the muppets.

Roosevelt Franklin (the first African American muppet on “Sesame Street”) was on “Sesame Street” from 1970 to 1975, and was voiced and created by Matt Robinson. The “Sesame Street” documentary briefly mentions Roosevelt Franklin, but doesn’t go into the details that “Street Gang” did over why the character was removed from the show: A lot of African American parents and educators complained that Roosevelt Franklin played too much into negative “ghetto” stereotypes. In the “Sesame Street: 50 Years of Sunny Days” documentary, musician Questlove and TV host W. Kamau Bell mention that they have fond memories of watching Roosevelt Franklin on “Sesame Street” when they were kids.

Although most muppets aren’t really any race, some of have been created to be of a specific race or ethnicity. Some muppets look like humans, while others look like animals. For the human-looking muppets, there have been Asian, Hispanic and Native American muppets in addition to the muppets that are presented as white or black people. And the documentary also gives significant screen time to Mexican muppet Rosita, a character introduced in 1991, which is considered a role model to many, particularly to Spanish-speaking people. Carmen Osbahr, the puppeteer and voice of Rosita, is interviewed in the documentary.

The documentary features a Mexican immigrant family called the Garcias, including interviews with mother Claudia and her autistic daughter Makayla, who are the only U.S. citizens of the family members who live in the United States. The Garcias say they love watching “Sesame Street” for Rosita, because she represents so many American residents who are bilingual in Spanish and English. Claudia Garcia, who moved from Mexico to the United States when she was 12, comments in the documentary: “When I was 12, it was not cool to speak Spanish. Now, it [the ability to speak Spanish] is a super-cool thing that you have.”

Four other diverse muppet characters are the Walker Family, an African American clan that is intended to be a major presence in contemporary “Sesame Street” episodes. Elijah Walker (a meteorologist) and his underage son Wesley, also known as Wes, have already been introduced. The characters of Elijah’s wife Naomi (a social worker originally from the Caribbean) and Elijah’s mother Savannah were being developed at the time this documentary was filmed. The documentary includes concept art for Naomi and Savannah.

According to Social Impact U.S. vice president Rocío García, “The Walker Family is a new family we’re creating for the racial justice initiative [Coming Together].” Wes and Elijah are characters that are supposed to contradict the media’s constant, negative narrative that black males are problematic. “Sesame Street” producer Ashmou Young describes the Wes Walker character as “a happy, energetic, innocent child who loves reading and architecture.” Elijah is a positive, intelligent role model. And no, he does not have an arrest record.

Bradley Freeman Jr., the puppeteer for Wes Walker, says in the documentary how proud he is to be part of this character, which he knows can be a role model for all children. “I was bullied at school for being black. That’s something that can hurt you, and you don’t know how to talk about it.” In “Sesame Street,” Elijah and Wes candidly discuss race issues and what it means to be an African American.

Omar Norman and Alisa Norman, an African American married couple, are in the documentary with their two daughters and discuss how the Walker Family on “Sesame Street” means a lot to them. Elder daughter Macayla says it’s impactful when Elijah talks to Wes about racism and how being a black male means being more at risk of experiencing police brutality. Omar gets emotional and tries not to cry when he thinks about how it’s sadly necessary for these topics to be discussed on a children’s show.

All the muppet characters were designed to not only teach kids (and adults) about life but also show what the world is all about and how to cope with problems in a positive way. Chris Jackson (who’s known for his role in the original Broadway production of “Hamilton”) talks about writing the song “I Love My Hair,” which debuted on “Sesame Street” in 2010. The song was written for any girl muppet to sing, but it has special significance to black girls because of how black females are judged the harshest by what their hair looks like. Jackson says that after he wrote the song, he thought, “I think I just wrote a black girl’s superhero anthem,” which he knows means a lot to his daughter.

And if some people have a problem with “Sesame Street” supporting the Black Lives Matter movement, well, no one is forcing them to watch the show. Kay Wilson Stallings, executive vice president of creative and production for Sesame Workshop, comments: “Following the murder of George Floyd, the company decided to make it a company-wide goal of addressing racial injustice [on ‘Sesame Street’].” U.S. first lady Dr. Jill Biden adds, “‘Sesame Street’ is rising up to he movement and addressing what’s going on and what kids are seeing and feeling around them.”

Wilson Stallings says, “We showed diversity, we showed inclusion, we modeled it through our characters. But you can’t just show characters of different ethnicities and races getting along. That was fine before. Now what we need to do is be bold and explicit.”

Sesame Workshop CEO Steve Youngwood comments on increasing “Sesame Street’s” socially conscious content: “We realized that nothing was hitting the moment the way it needed to be. And we pivoted to address it. The curriculum we developed is going to be groundbreaking, moving forward.”

LGBTQ representation on “Sesame Street” is still a touchy subject for people who have different opinions on what’s the appropriate age for kids to have discussions about various sexual identities. In 2018, former “Sesame Street” writer Mark Saltzman, who is openly gay, gave an interview saying that he always wrote muppet characters Ernie and Bert (bickering best friends who live together) as a gay couple. The revelation got mixed reactions. Frank Oz—the creator, original voice and puppeteer for Bert—made a statement on Twitter that Ernie and Bert were never gay.

Sesame Workshop responded with a statement that read: “As we have always said, Bert and Ernie are best friends. They were created to teach pre-schoolers that people can be good friends with those who are very different from themselves. Even though they are identifiable as male characters and possess many human traits and characteristics (as most ‘Sesame Street’ muppets do), they remain puppets, and have no sexual orientation.”

In retrospect, Sesame Workshop president Sherrie Westin says: “That denial, if you will, I think was a mistake.” She also adds that people can think of Ernie and Bert having whatever sexuality (or no sexuality) that they think Ernie and Bert have. As for LGBTQ representation on “Sesame Street,” Jelani Memory (author of “A Kid’s Book About Racism”) is blunt when he says: “It’s not enough.”

And it’s not just social issues that are addressed on “Sesame Street.” The show has also discussed health issues, such as the AIDS crisis and the COVID-19 pandemic. Although “Sesame Street” got pushback from some politically conservative people for talking about AIDS on the show, this criticism didn’t deter “Sesame Street,” which was supported by the majority of its audience for this decision. Dr. Anthony Fauci is in the documentary praising “Sesame Street” for helping educate people on health crises.

The documentary includes a segment on the first HIV-positive muppet Kami, a character in “Takalani Sesame,” the South African version of “Sesame Street.” Kami, who is supposed to be a 5-year-old girl, was created in 2002, in reaction to the AIDS epidemic in South Africa. Her positive outlook on life and how she is accepted by her peers can be viewed as having an impact on people that’s hard to measure.

Marie-Louise Samuels, former director early childhood development at South Africa’s Department of Basic Education, has this to say about Kami: “It wasn’t about her getting some sympathy. It was really about how productive she is in society with the virus.” Even though Kami was well-received in South Africa, “the U.S. was not as receptive,” says Louis Henry Mitchell, creative director of character design at Sesame Workshop.

Also included is a segment on Julia, the first autistic muppet on “Sesame Street.” It’s a character that is near and dear to the heart of Julia puppeteer Stacey Gordon, who tears up and gets emotional when she describes her own real-life experiences as the mother of an autistic child. Julia is one of several muppet characters that represent people with special needs. As an autistic child of a Mexican immigrant family, Makayla Garcia says in her interview that Rosita and Julia are her favorite muppets because they represent who she is.

The documentary shows how “Sesame Street” is in Arabic culture with the TV series “Ahlan Simsim,” which translates to “Welcome Sesame” in English. The Rajubs, a real-life Syrian refugee family of eight living in Jordan, are featured in the documentary as examples of a family who find comfort in “Ahlan Simsim” even though they’re experiencing the turmoil of being refugees. David Milliband, CEO of International Rescue Committee, talks about how “Sesame Street” being a consistent presence in children’s lives can help them through the trauma.

Other people interviewed in the documentary include Shari Rosenfeld, senior VP of international at Social Impact; Elijah Walker puppeteer Chris Thomas Hayes; Dr. Rosemarie Truglio, senior vice president of education and research at Sesame Workshop; Dr. Sanjay Gupta; Peter Linz, voice of muppet character Elmo; “Sesame Street” actor Alan Muraoka; Nyanga Tshabalala, puppeteer for the mupppet character Zikwe on “Takalani Sesame”; and former “Ahlan Simsim” head writer Zaid Baqueen. Celebrity fans of “Sesame Street” who comment in the documentary include Usher, Gloria Estefan, John Legend, Chrissy Teigen and John Oliver, who says about the show: “It was my first introduction to comedy, because it was so relentlessly funny.”

United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNCR) special envoy Angelina Jolie comments that The Count (the muppet vampire who teaches counting skills) is her favorite “Sesame Street” character: “He had a wonderfully bold personality: The friendly vampire helping you learn how to count. It worked for me.” Whoopi Goldberg adds, “All the things that ‘Twilight’ did for vampires, The Count did more. [The Count] made vampires cool because they could count.”

Jolie also comments on “Sesame Street’s” social awareness: “What they’re bringing is more relevant to today than ever.” The documentary includes 2021 footage of “Sesame Street” executives cheering when finding out that Sesame Workshop and International Rescue Committee won the MacArthur Foundation’s inaugural 100 and Change Award, a grant that gives the recipients $100 million over a maximum of six years.

There’s also a notable segment on the music of “Sesame Street.” Stevie Wonder (who has performed “123 Sesame Street” and “Superstition” on “Sesame Street”) performs in the documentary with a new version of the “Sesame Street” classic theme “Sunny Days.” The documentary has the expected montage of many of the celebrity guests who’ve been on “Sesame Street” too.

“United Shades of America” host Bell says that being asked to be on “Sesame Street” is a “rite of passage” for “famous people at a certain point. Got to get that ‘Sesame Street’ gig! That’s when you know you really made it: When ‘Sesame Street’ calls you.”

Although there’s a lot of talk about certain “Sesame Street” muppets, the documentary doesn’t give enough recognition to the early “Sesame Street” muppet pioneers who created iconic characters. The documentary briefly mentions Jim Henson (the creator and original voice of Kermit the Frog and Ernie), but Frank Oz (the creator and original voice of Grover, Cookie Monster and Bert) isn’t even mentioned at all.

Big Bird is seen but not much is said about Caroll Spinney, who was the man in the Big Bird costume from 1969 to 2018, and who was the creator and original voice of the Oscar the Grouch muppet. Spinney died in 2019, at the age of 85. Henson died in 1990, at age 53. Oz did not participate in the documentary.

The movie doesn’t mention the 2012 scandal of Elmo puppeteer Kevin Clash resigning from “Sesame Street” after three men accused him of sexually abusing them when the men were underage teenagers. The three lawsuits against Clash with these accusations were dismissed in 2014. Clash had been the puppeteer and voice of Elmo since 1984.

“Sesame Street: 50 Years of Sunny Days” tries to bite off a little more than it should chew when it starts veering into discussions about United Nations initiatives and how they relate to “Sesame Street.” There’s no denying the global impact of “Sesame Street,” but “Sesame Street” is a children’s show, not a political science show about international relations. And some viewers might be turned off by all the talk about social justice content on “Sesame Street.”

The documentary could have used more insight into the actual process of creating these memorable muppets. Except for some brief footage in a puppet-creating workspace, that artistic aspect of “Sesame Street” is left out of the documentary. Despite some flaws and omissions, the documentary is worth watching for people who want a snapshot of what’s important to “Sesame Street” in the early 2020s. Whereas “Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street” is very much about the show’s past, “Sesame Street: 50 Years of Sunny Days” tries to give viewers a glimpse into the show’s future.

ABC premiered “Sesame Street: 50 Years of Sunny Days” on April 26, 2021. Hulu premiered the documentary on April 27, 2021.

Review: ‘Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go For It,’ starring Rita Moreno

February 4, 2021

by Carla Hay

Rita Moreno in “Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go For It” (Photo courtesy of Roadside Attractions and American Masters Films)

“Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go For It”

Directed by Mariem Pérez Riera

Culture Representation: The documentary “Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go for It” features a group of predominantly Hispanic people (and a few white people and black people), discussing Rita Moreno, the only Latina entertainer who has won an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony Award, also known as being an EGOT winner.

Culture Clash: Moreno talks about racism and sexism that caused problems for her.

Culture Audience: “Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go for It” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in biographical stories about celebrities with long careers who broke barriers, as well as frank discussions about what it’s like to be of Hispanic ethnicity in the predominantly white American entertainment industry.

A photo of Rita Moreno on the set of 1961’s “West Side Story” in “Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go For It” (Photo courtesy of MGM Studios)

“Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go For It” doesn’t reveal anything new and significant that Rita Moreno didn’t already reveal in her 2013 self-titled memoir. However, this laudatory documentary, which includes Moreno’s participation, is still inspirational and will be very informative to people who know very little about Moreno’s story before seeing this movie. Breezily directed by Mariem Pérez Riera, “Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go For It” follows a pleasant but not groundbreaking celebrity documentary formula of flattering commentaries from other celebrities and pundits; archival footage and exclusive documentary footage; and candid but selective confessions from the celebrity. “Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go For It” had its world premiere at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival.

The movie opens with a scene of Moreno preparing for her 87th birthday party in 2018. But she’s not being fussed over by an entourage of people. She’s in her house’s kitchen laying out the silverware and the decorations, with some help from assistants. Moreno is all too aware that people watching this scene will be surprised that she’s doing the kind of work a personal assistant or event planner would do.

Moreno quips, “You can tell I’m not a real star because somebody else would be doing this. Show business: That’s why you must never really believe anything about your fame and all that kind of bullshit. Yeah, it goes up and down. Right now, it’s up.”

The documentary includes footage of the party (which has a Cuban costume theme, because Moreno says she likes hosting themed costume parties), where an energetic and lively Moreno dances happily with guests. She’s charismatic, humorous and has a very obvious zest for life. It’s that mixture of self-deprecation and self-confidence that Moreno has on display throughout the entire documentary.

And these personality traits have helped Moreno (who was born Rosa Dolores Alverío Marcano in 1931 in Humacao, Puerto Rico) sustain a career for longer than a lot of people end up living. But, of course, she didn’t get to where she is so easily. And the documentary rightfully gives Moreno a lot of screen time to tell her story: the good, the bad and the ugly.

She recounts that from an early age, she knew she wanted to be an entertainer: “Being a natural performer, I think I was born that way, I was wired that way. I wanted to be a movie star since the time I saw my first picture.”

Moreno’s mother Rosa María, who was a seamstress, left behind Moreno’s father Francisco and Moreno’s brother Francisco Jr. in Puerto Rico to move with Moreno to New York City in 1936. Moreno vividly remembers seeing the Statue of Liberty and thinking that the statue represented the president of the United States. It might have been a future indicator that Moreno would go on to support feminism and other progressive issues when she became a social activist in the 1960s.

The documentary could have used some insight from Moreno about how leaving behind her father and brother impacted her life and if she ever kept in touch with them. It’s unclear if the filmmakers didn’t ask her those questions, or if they did ask but Moreno didn’t want to talk about it on camera. At any rate, she doesn’t mention her family left behind in Puerto Rico for the rest of the documentary.

Nor does there seem to be any attempt by the filmmakers who find anyone who knew Moreno from her childhood or her teenage years, to verify some of her stories of what life was like for her before she became famous. It’s an omission that’s an example of how this documentary is certainly good about rehashing information that Moreno has already talked about in several interviews and in her memoir, but the documentary doesn’t really dig beneath the celebrity veneer in a way that is entirely revealing, even if it might make the celebrity uncomfortable.

Moreno says that her mother fully supported her showbiz aspirations from a very young age, because Rosa María would often dress her daughter up like a doll and encourage her to perform wherever she could. By the age of 15, Moreno dropped out of high school because she was busy working as an entertainer. By the age of 16, she was supporting her family with her income.

But that doesn’t mean that her entry into showbiz went smoothly. Moreno remembers that as a child living in New York City, which was very racially segregated at the time, she had insecurities because she was treated as inferior because of her race. And as she became a young woman, she says she was often the target of stereotypes of being a “spicy” or “sexpot” Latina whose only worth was in her physical appearance.

A fateful meeting with Louis B. Mayer (the co-founder of MGM Studios) led to Moreno’s first big break in the movies. She went with her mother for an appointment to see Mayer at New York City’s Waldorf Astoria Hotel, where Mayer was staying in the penthouse. Moreno’s first major role model as a movie star was Elizabeth Taylor. And so, for this important meeting with Mayer, Moreno says in the documentary that she deliberately made herself look like Elizabeth Taylor as much as possible. The tactic worked, and Mayer decided on the spot to give Moreno a contract at MGM, because he said that she looked like a “Spanish Elizabeth Taylor.”

Moreno says in the documentary that this big break is an example of how one person can change the course of someone’s career in a matter of minutes, in ways that years of hard work cannot do. Moreno had a contract with MGM, but it came with strict limitations, because it was back in the days when movie studios controlled and dictated whom their rising young stars could date and how they would appear in public. And because of her racial identity, Moreno was always typecast as the “ethnic girl” where she usually played supporting characters who were written as subservient and/or intellectually inferior to white people.

It’s fairly well-known that Moreno’s most famous movie role was in the 1961 movie musical “West Side Story.” Nothing new about her “West Side Story” experience is revealed in this documentary that she hasn’t already talked about elsewhere. She won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for her role as Anita in “West Side Story,” making her the first entertainer of Hispanic ethnicity to win an Oscar. She still jokes about how her speech was short because she was so shocked that she won, and she’s been making up for that short speech ever since.

Moreno is also in director Steven Spielberg’s “West Side Story” remake, which is due out in December 2021. Details about her role in the movie have not yet been revealed as of this writing, but she plays a character named Valentina. The documentary has brief footage of her walking onto the set of the “West Side Story” remake, with Spielberg making a quick cameo.

Moreno’s traumatic experiences with sexual assault and sexual harassment aren’t glossed over in the documentary. Just like she’s done in other interviews and in her memoir, she talks about being raped in her 20s by her agent at the time. (Moreno does not name him.) She says she continued to work with him because he was the only agent she knew at the time who would represent a Latina performer. Moreno says that rape experience also fueled a lot of realistic anger when her “West Side Story” character Anita successfully fought off a gang of male attackers.

Moreno also shares the experience of being sexually demeaned at an industry party in Beverly Hills when she was in her early 30s. The perpetrators were not only a powerful party guest but also the party host, according to Moreno. She describes being told by party guest Harry Cohen, who was head of Columbia Pictures at the time: “You know, I’d like to fuck you.” She says that, at the time, she laughed off this sexual aggression to his face, because she was afraid of the backlash she would get if she got visibly angry.

And later, when the party host (whom she does not name but she describes as a well-known distillery mogul) asked her to dance, he sexually grinded on her without her consent. During this assault, he said to her, “You’re a sexy little bitch, aren’t you?” Moreno says she was so mortified and scared that she asked the Mexican gardeners at the party to take her home, and they willingly obliged because they could sense that she had been violated in some way.

Moreno mentions that these gardeners were the “classiest people at the party.” And it’s clear that she tells this story to serve as an example of why people shouldn’t be dazzled by money and fame as a reason to think that someone is “better” than someone else. Money and fame don’t buy class. And being rich or famous doesn’t mean someone is incapable of heinous acts.

Moreno’s story is also an example of how winning an Oscar isn’t an automatic guarantee of getting bigger and better opportunities. After winning an Oscar, she says was only offered roles where she played the type of character that was a lot like Anita in “West Side Story.” Because she didn’t want to be typecast, Morena says in the documentary she turned down roles and that she didn’t do movies for another seven years after she won the Oscar for “West Side Story.” She says that instead, she worked in TV and theater.

This is where this documentary’s filmmakers show some carelessness. A quick look at Moreno’s filmography shows that she in fact did appear in several movies during the seven years (1962-1969) that she says that she didn’t. But she was correct in saying that she also worked in television during that time period. Her inaccuracy doesn’t mean that she deliberately lied, but it’s very possible her memory of that time period isn’t as accurate as it should be. It’s why celebrity documentaries aren’t always reliable if the celebrity controls too much of the narrative and the filmmakers don’t really care to fact check.

Moreno also talks about her torturous romance with Marlon Brando, whom she says she dated off and on for seven or eight years from the mid-1950s the early 1960s. It’s clear that she’s still conflicted about him all these years later. She bitterly describes him as an “anathema in my life,” but she also says that he loved her. And she has some therapy-speak when she declares, “He was the daddy I couldn’t please. I think about [him] now. What was there to love?”

She describes Brando as brilliant but also very selfish and controlling. Just as she did in her memoir, Moreno talks about how she got pregnant with Brando’s baby and secretly hoped that he would marry her. Instead, she found out he didn’t want to be her husband or the father of her child, and she had an abortion, which was illegal at the time. She had medical complications after the abortion that were traumatic for her.

Moreno also talks about how she was so distraught over the relationship with Brando that she attempted suicide. This is information that Moreno revealed several years ago. After they ended their relationship, Moreno and Brando co-starred in the 1969 movie “The Night of the Following Day,” where they have an argument scene and she slaps him in the face. She says that it didn’t take much acting on her part because she channeled her real-life rage at Brando into the scene.

If there’s any good that came out of her relationship with Brando, she says it was that he helped awaken her social consciousness during the 1960s. She became involved in the civil rights movement and feminist causes before it was “trendy” to do so. She says of her progressive political activism: “For the first time, I felt useful.” The movie includes video footage of her giving speeches and attending political marches and rallies, such as the 1963 March on Washington, led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

In one scene in the movie, Moreno is shown in her “One Day at a Time” dressing room, watching on TV the 2018 U.S. Senate’s Supreme Court confirmation hearings for Brett Kavanaugh, who was nominated by Donald Trump for the Supreme Court. Moreno watches Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, a former schoolmate of Kavanaugh’s from high school, testify that he sexually assaulted Ford in 1982, when they were teenagers. Moreno comments that she believes Ford, and that some of the testimony about sexual assault is triggering for her.

Moreno also describes her relationship with her husband Leonard Gordon, a cardiologist who later became her manager. They were married from 1965 until his death in 2010, at the age of 90. She recalls how she was charmed during their early courtship because he wasn’t aware that she was famous when they first started talking to each other. Moreno also said one of the best things about their relationship was that he had a knack for making her laugh.

But she’s also candid about admitting that toward the end of their marriage, she basically fell out of love with him, but they never got divorced because he loved her more than she loved him. Moreno also says that she and her husband had terrible fights and had a very dysfunctional marriage. However, Moreno confesses that they were skilled at hiding their marriage problems from the world, including their daughter (and only child), Fernanda Gordon Fisher, who is interviewed in the documentary. Gordon Fisher says that her parents had a good marriage with normal disagreements that weren’t too serious.

That’s not the way her mother describes it. Moreno says that Gordon was a “control freak” who didn’t like the “raucous and loud” side of her. She says, “When Lenny died, I gave that little Rosita [referring to herself] permission to leave.” She also admits she felt relieved when he died because “I didn’t have to answer to anyone anymore.”

Moreno has mixed feelings about her late husband, but there’s no doubt that she and her daughter adore each other. It’s mentioned that when Moreno’s daughter was in her 20s, she toured with Moreno and was Moreno’s backup singer/dancer. The documentary shows how Moreno and her daughter are still very close. Moreno also talks lovingly of her two grandsons (Cameron and Justin Fisher), who are briefly shown in the documentary.

The movie chronicles several of Moreno’s career highlights, including winning a Grammy for the 1972 cast recording album of children’s TV series “The Electric Company”; a Tony Award in 1975 for her featured performance in “The Ritz”; and two Emmys in 1977 and 1978, for guest-starring on “The Muppet Show” and “The Rockford Files.” She was also a recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2004 and was celebrated at the Kennedy Center Honors in 2015.

As for the title of this movie, it’s inspired by slogan on a T-shirt that Moreno wore when she received a career achievement award at a Television Critics Association event in 2018. Footage of her getting ready for the event and her acceptance speech is included in the documentary. “Just a Girl Who Decided to Go For It” is a saying that sums up her persona perfectly: gutsy, vibrant and never forgetting her humble beginnings.

Most of the people who provide commentary for the documentary are other famous entertainers. Their remarks about Moreno are all positive, while some of the Latina actresses (such as Eva Longoria and Karen Olivo) expound on the specific barriers that Hispanic female entertainers often face in showbiz. Other people interviewed in the documentary include some actors who’ve co-starred with Moreno over the years, including George Chakiris (“West Side Story”), Morgan Freeman (“The Electric Company”), Héctor Elizondo (“Cane”) and Justina Machado (“One Day at a Time”).

Also weighing in with their thoughts are Lin-Manuel Miranda, Whoopi Goldberg (another EGOT winner), Mitzi Gaynor, Gloria Estefan, “One Day at a Time” executive producer Norman Lear, “Life Without Makeup” director Tony Taccone, “Oz” creator Tom Fontana and Moreno’s longtime manager John Ferguson, who breaks down in tears when he remembers how Moreno found her will to live after her suicide attempt. (Miranda and Lear are two of the executive producers of this documentary.) And some academics provide their perspectives on Moreno and her impact on pop culture, such as Columbia University artist/scholar Frances Negrón-Muntaner, The New School cultural historian Julia Foulkes and Columbia University film historian/author Annette Insdorf.

The documentary uses some whimsical animation at times to illustrate some parts of Moreno’s storytelling. But this added creative flair and all the celebrities who gush about her in the movie are all just icing on the cake. Moreno has more than enough charisma and has lived such a full life that her story could be a miniseries, not just a documentary film.

UPDATE: Roadside Attractions will release “Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go For It” in select U.S. cinemas on June 18, 2021. PBS’s “American Masters” series will premiere the movie on October 5, 2021.

Review: ‘Olympia,’ starring Olympia Dukakis

July 13, 2020

by Carla Hay

Olympia Dukakis in “Olympia” (Photo courtesy of Abramorama)

“Olympia”

Directed by Harry Mavromichalis

Culture Representation: Taking place in the United States, Greece and briefly in Canada and Cyprus, the documentary “Olympia” interviews an almost all-white group of people talking about Oscar-winning actress Olympia Dukakis, including entertainers, other colleagues, family members and Dukakis herself.

Culture Clash: Dukakis battled against sexist stereotypes and ethnicity biases by founding a theater company and not limiting herself to one type of outlet for acting.

Culture Audience: Besides the obvious target audience of Olympia Dukakis fans, “Olympia” will appeal primarily to people who like biographies about entertainers who refuse to be pigeonholed.

Louis Zorich (far left) and Olympia Dukakis (third from right) in “Olympia” (Photo courtesy of Abramorama)

The documentary “Olympia” is a lot like the Oscar-winning actress Olympia Dukakis herself—opinionated, funny, candid, foul-mouthed, sometimes rambling, but never boring. Directed by Harry Mavromichalis (in his feature-film debut), this up-close and personal biography of Dukakis will delight her fans as an updated companion piece to her 2003 memoir “Ask Me Again: A Life in Progress.” People who didn’t read the book might discover many things about Dukakis that they didn’t know but will probably end up liking.

This movie clearly was not a rushed job, since a lot of the “new” footage is obviously several years old. The movie begins with Dukakis in California to get her star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame—an event that happened in 2013. There’s some other footage of Dukakis (who was born in 1931) celebrating her 81st birthday in 2012. And in one of the movie’s funniest segments, she’s in San Francisco, as a grand marshal for the 2011 San Francisco Pride Parade. As she’s perched in an open car and waves to the parade crowd, she chuckles and makes this self-deprecating comment through her smile, “Some people don’t know who the fuck I am.”

The documentary will give viewers a pretty clear of idea of who Dukakis is because it’s fairly comprehensive in the access that director Mavromichalis had to Dukakis, her family, friends and colleagues, as well as her personal archives, such as photos and videos. She’s perhaps best known to the general public for her Oscar-winning role in 1987’s “Moonstruck,”  but Dukakis is also a longtime theater star and has several other roles in movies and television, including the 1989 film “Steel Magnolias.”

While in San Francisco for Gay Pride Weekend, Dukakis was honored for her memorable role as transgender woman Anna Madrigal in the 1993 PBS miniseries “Tales of the City,” based on the book series by Armistead Maupin. “Olympic knew she was part of something historic,” Maupin says of Dukakis’ “Tales of the City” role. “And she knew that what she was saying through that character had not been said before [on TV], not with such affection and clarity.”

“Tales of the City” executive producer director Alan Poul says of Dukakis as the Anna Madrigal characters: “It was a fearless and groundbreaking portrayal at a time when that kind of imagery in entertainment media didn’t exist.” The documentary also includes some hilarious footage of Dukakis having dinner with Maupin in a hotel room with some other friends. What’s in the movie makes people wish they could’ve been a fly on the wall to hear the entire dinner conversation.

Most people familiar with Dukakis already know that she was never an overnight sensation and had to pay her dues for decades. She says in the documentary that from an early age, she was “rebellious,” “independent” and resistant to conform to the strict gender roles that were expected of people in her generation.

Dukakis (who was born in Lowell, Massachusetts, and went to Boston University) talks about clashing with her strict mother, Alexandra (nicknamed Alec), when Olympia was growing up. She describes her mother as a disciplinarian who used sticks and belts—behavior that would be considered abusive by today’s standards. Olympia says about her mother: “Her job was to to keep shame from the family,” and Olympia’s independent streak “scared” her mother.

One of the ways that Olympia defied stereotypes was by becoming a Junior New England Fencing Champion when she was a teenager. Her cousin Michael Dukakis (the 1988 Democratic nominee for U.S. president) says in the documentary: “How many Greek kids were fencing champions or even fenced?”

Joyce Katis Picard, one of Olympia’s former Boston University classmates, remembers that she and Olympia stood out for their non-Anglo ethnicities, in a student body that consisted primarily of people of Anglo Saxon descent. Katis Picard says of her college friendship with Olympia: “We bonded as a way of protection.” She adds that even in her college days, Olympia was a feminist and nonconformist: “She moved beyond the messages of the time.”

In the documentary, Olympia talks about going through a period of time when “I was the queen of the one-night stand,” and having casual flings was a way of life for her. But that all changed when she and actor Louis Zorich fell deeply in love with each other. They married in 1962, and stayed married until his death in 2018. They had three children together: Christina (who declined to be interviewed for the documentary), Peter and Stefan, who are both interviewed in the film.

Although Olympia ended up taking a traditional path of getting married and having kids, that doesn’t mean that she was a traditional mother. In the documentary, she expresses remorse over some of her parenting skills: “I regret that I wasn’t able to handle my children better. I didn’t create boundaries and discipline. I did the best I could.” She also says she’s horrified by the memory of forgetting to pick up her son Stefan from school one day. He had to wait 45 minutes at the school while all the other kids had already left.

Peter says of his childhood growing up with two busy actors as parents: “At the time, I kind of wished my parents were more normal. They weren’t doing any gender roles in their marriage. At 8 years old, I was doing my own laundry.”

Although Olympia and her husband were married for 56 years (a rarity in a showbiz marriage), that did mean that they didn’t have some rough patches. She mentions that Louis was having an affair when she was pregnant with her first child, Christina. He made the decision to end the affair and stay with Olympia, who co-starred with her husband in multiple off-Broadway plays, including 1963’s “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” and 1980’s “The Cherry Orchard.”

In the documentary, Louis says that he didn’t expect to get married until he fell in love with Olympia. He remembers falling in love with her was the first time that he felt that way about anyone, even though he jokes that when he proposed to her, he couldn’t quite get the word “marry” out during the proposal. And he comments, “If someone says on my deathbed, ‘What do you remember about Olympia, it’s those two or three incredible [acting roles,” which he says include her starring role in the 2013 off-Broadway production of “Mother Courage,” which he says brought him to tears every time he watched her perform in the play.

“It’s one of my favorite relationships I’ve ever known,” actor Austin Pendleton says of the marriage of Olympia Dukakis and Louis Zorich. “They embrace each other in every sense of the word. They recognize each other on such a deep level.”

Olympia also opens up about a dark period in her life when she says she was addicted to “uppers and downers” for about two years. She decided she was going to quit one day when she looked in the bathroom mirror, and she heard a voice inside herself say, “You’re trying to kill yourself.” Olympia also mentions that there were other times in her life when she was suicidal, including an incident when she deliberately stepped in front of a truck, but a woman pushed her out of the way and saved her life.

In retrospect, Olympia says of her drug addiction: “A lot of these drugs were about trying to run ahead of everything.” Olympia also opens up about her thoughts on dying, by admitting that she’s afraid of death for this reason: “It’s a loss of what little part of myself is separate from everything else.”

She also admits to lifelong insecurities about not fitting in and being judged by her looks. “It never goes away, that thing of being ‘outside,’ that thing of being ‘different.'” She adds that at some point in her life, she found a way to fight the urge to fix herself and instead figured out how to accept herself for who she is instead of trying to change herself to please other people.

One of the obstacles she faced early in her career was being told that she was “too ethnic” for many roles. Instead of giving up, Olympia decided to create her own opportunities, by founding the Whole Theater Company in Montclair, New Jersey. Thomas Kean, who was governor of New Jersey from 1982 to 1990, comments in the documentary: “Olympia had high standards. Her feeling is, ‘Only the best.’ They [the Whole Theater Company] took chances.”

Carey Perloff, former artistic director of the American Conservatory Theater, has this to say about Whole Theater: “They did all kinds of crazy stuff … And they really talked to the audience,” in order to get their feedback.” Olympia is also seen in the documentary in rehearsals for Shakespeare and Company’s 2013 production of “The Tempest,” with Olympia in the role of Prospero.

And, of course, the documentary includes plenty of praise of Olympia from her colleagues and friends. Olympia’s “Tales of the City” co-star Laura Linney says of Olympia’s ability to move seamlessly between the worlds of theater, movies and television: “She was one of the first people to do that … [which was] very brave of her, because at the time, it was looked down on.”

Lynn Cohen, an actress who passed away in February 2020, affectionately describes Olympia as “generous,” “totally open” and “crazy.” Whoopi Goldberg adds, “She’s like a summer storm … Her range is frightening and wonderful to watch. It’s what every actor wants.”

Olympia’s longtime actress friend Diane Ladd says, “She’s a total professional. She doesn’t play diva or mademoiselle or goddess. She doesn’t pull any rank. She’s all heart. She’s a perfectionist. I like that.”

Other people interviewed in the documentary include Olympia’s actor brother Apollo Dukakis; Shakespeare and Company artistic director Tony Simotes; playwright Leslie Ayvazian; actress Lainie Kazan; former HBO executive Kary Antholis; and actor Rocco Sisto. The film has footage of Dukakis doing a Q&A of “Moonstruck” with director Norman Jewison, during a retrospective tribute to Jewison at the 2011 Toronto International Film Festival.

There’s also some great behind-the-scenes footage of Olympia getting ready for the 1988 Academy Awards, where she won the prize of Best Supporting Actress for “Moonstruck.” There’s also video of her family members’ reactions to her winning the award, including her mother who burst into tears at this victorious moment.

The documentary has some slices of humor, such as showing Olympia fumbling with a Siri device (you can tell how old the footage is from the version of Siri that’s seen in the film); going grocery shopping and interacting with star-struck fans while she vacations in Cyprus; and dictating an email message to her personal assistant Brenda Low-Kamen to send to actress friend Brenda Fricker and going off on a humorous tangent in the message.

One of the highlights of the film is when Olympia goes back to her family’s original hometown in Greece. (Her daughter Christine and some of her grandchildren are also there for the trip.) It’s in this footage that Olympia is not treated as a famous actress, but as a nostalgic, almost wistful person who’s rediscovering and finding a new appreciation for her family’s history. After she talks with a quartet of female villagers in her age group who’ve been lifelong friends, Olympia is so emotionally moved by the experience that she breaks down and cries when she thinks about how her life could have turned out differently if her parents had stayed in Greece.

Is “Olympia” a perfect film? No. Some of the documentary’s production values, such as the cinematography and editing, probably would’ve been better with a more experienced director in charge. For example, some of the non-archival footage looks like shaky outtakes from home movies. And some of the interior scenes could’ve benefited from better camera lighting.

However, this unpolished look to some of the movie isn’t too much of a hindrance, considering Dukakis’ unpretentious nature. She certainly wouldn’t want a documentary about herself to look too slick or ostentatious. As for the “new” footage that’s several years old, that isn’t too much of a problem either, since Olympia’s personality probably hasn’t changed in the years since that footage was filmed. “Olympia” is a movie that understands that a documentary about a celebrity shouldn’t really be about just chronicling a lifestyle but instead should be more about opening up a window, however briefly, into someone’s soul.

Abramorama released “Olympia” in select U.S. virtual cinemas on July 10, 2020.

UPDATE: Olympia Dukakis died on May 1, 2021. She was 89. She had been in ill health for quite some time, according to a family statement about her death.

2019 Academy Awards: performers and presenters announced

February 11, 2019

by Carla Hay

Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga
Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga at the 76th Annual Golden Globe Awards on January 6, 2019. (Photo by Paul Drinkwater/NBC)

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has announced several entertainers who will be performers and presenters at the 91st Annual Academy Awards ceremony, which will take place at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles. ABC will have the U.S. telecast of the show, which will not have a host. As previously reported, comedian/actor Kevin Hart was going to host the show, but he backed out after the show’s producers demanded that he make a public apology for homophobic remarks that he made several years ago. After getting a  firestorm of backlash for the homophobic remarks, Hart later made several public apologies but remained adamant that he would still not host the Oscars this year.

The celebrities who will be on stage at the Oscars this year are several of those whose songs are nominated for Best Original Song. Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper will perform their duet “Shallow” from their movie remake of “A Star Is Born.” Jennifer Hudson will perform “I’ll Fight” from the Ruth Bader Ginsburg documentary “RBG.” David Rawlings and Gillian Welch will team up for the duet “When a Cowboy Trades His Spurs for Wings” from the Western film “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs.” It has not yet been announced who will perform “The Place Where Lost Things Go” from the Disney musical sequel “Mary Poppins Returns.”** It also hasn’t been announced yet if Kendrick Lamar and SZA will take the stage for “All the Stars” from the superhero flick “Black Panther.”

Gustavo Dudamel and the L.A. Philharmonic do the music for the “In Memoriam” segment, which spotlights notable people in the film industry who have died in the year since the previous Oscar ceremony.

Meanwhile, the following celebrities have been announced as presenters at the ceremony: Whoopi Goldberg (who has hosted the Oscars twice in the past), Awkwafina, Daniel Craig, Chris Evans, Tina Fey, Jennifer Lopez, Amy Poehler, Maya Rudolph, Amandla Stenberg, Tessa Thompson Constance Wu, Javier Bardem, Angela Bassett, Chadwick Boseman, Emilia Clarke, Laura Dern, Samuel L. Jackson, Stephan James, Keegan-Michael Key, KiKi Layne, James McAvoy, Melissa McCarthy, Jason Momoa and Sarah Paulson. Goldberg and Bardem are previous Oscar winners.

Other previous Oscar winners taking the stage will be Gary Oldman, Frances McDormand, Sam Rockwell and Allison Janney, who won the actor and actress prizes at the 2018 Academy Awards.

Donna Gigliotti (who won an Oscar for Best Picture for 1998’s “Shakespeare in Love) and Emmy-winning director Glenn Weiss are the producers of the 2019 Academy Awards. This will be the first time that Gigliotti is producing the Oscar ceremony. Weiss has directed several major award shows, including the Oscars and the Tonys. He will direct the Oscar ceremony again in 2019.

**February 18, 2019 UPDATE: Bette Midler will perform “The Place Where Los Things Go,” the Oscar-nominated song from “Mary Poppins Returns.” British rock band Queen, whose official biopic is the Oscar-nominated film “Bohemian Rhapsody,” will also perform on the show with lead singer Adam Lambert. It has not been revealed which song(s) Queen will perform at the Oscars.

February 19, 2019 UPDATE: These presenters have been added to the Oscar telecast: Elsie Fisher, Danai Gurira, Brian Tyree Henry, Michael B. Jordan, Michael Keaton, Helen Mirren, John Mulaney, Tyler Perry, Pharrell Williams, Krysten Ritter, Paul Rudd and Michelle Yeoh.

February 21, 2019 UPDATE: These celebrities will present the Best Picture nominees: José Andrés, Dana Carvey, Queen Latifah, Congressman John Lewis, Diego Luna, Tom Morello, Mike Myers, Trevor Noah, Amandla Stenberg, Barbra Streisand and Serena Williams.

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