Culture Representation: Taking place in Louisiana in 1863, the dramatic film “Emancipation” features a cast of African American and white characters representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.
Culture Clash: After the Emancipation Proclamation frees enslaved people in the United States, a formerly enslaved African American man goes on a harrowing journey trying to escape from enslavers who still want to keep him and other people in captivity.
Culture Audience: “Emancipation” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of star Will Smith and anyone interested in watching an intense Civil War drama inspired by a real person.
Will Smith gives one of the most emotionally raw performances of his career in “Emancipation,” an intense drama that shows the abuse endured by a formerly enslaved man fighting for freedom and his family during the U.S. Civil War. Most people who see “Emancipation” will know in advance that it’s a movie that depicts human enslavement and the brutality that comes with this crime. And many people watching “Emancipation” might have seen other films or TV shows covering the same subject matter in detailed ways. However, even with that prior knowledge, viewers will feel the potent impact of “Emancipation,” not just as a movie about the Civil War era but also as an inspirational survival story in the midst of cruel human-rights violations.
Directed by Antoine Fuqua, “Emancipation” is inspired by a formerly enslaved African American man only known as Gordon, who was photographed for the media in 1863, while he was undergoing a medical exam as a soldier in the Union Army during the Civil War. A photo of a shirtless Gordon showing his back covered with massive whip scars (that are so large, they look like tree branches) garnered him the nickname “Whipped Peter,” when the photos were published in Harper’s Weekly. The “scourged back” photo is credited with spreading more awareness about the atrocities of slavery and increasing the movement for the Union Army to defeat the pro-slavery Confederate Army in the U.S. Civil War.
Gordon’s life story is only known in bits and pieces. Therefore, much of “Emancipation” (whose screenplay was written by Bill Collage) is fictional but inspired by Gordon’s real story and real events that happened during the Civil War. He is given the name Peter in the movie “Emancipation,” which takes place in 1863 in Louisiana, and begins shortly after President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863. This federal decree banned slavery in the U.S. and legally declared that all enslaved people in the U.S. were automatically free.
Of course, the people who depended on enslavement for their businesses did not want enslaved people to know about the Emancipation Proclamation. “Emancipation” depicts this societal problem where parts of the U.S. that sided with the Confederate Army and wanted to secede from the U.S. also refused to abide by the Emancipation Proclamation because they did not consider it a valid government decree. “Emancipation” shows in often-disturbing details how formerly enslaved people were caught in this crossfire.
The opening scene of “Emancipation” shows Peter (played by Smith) in a seemingly tranquil family setting. He’s washing the feet of his beloved wife Dodienne (played by Charmaine Bingwa), while their four children are nearby in the room. Their children’s ages range from about 5 years old to 14 years old. The children are daughter Betsy (played by Imani Pullum), who’s the eldest child; son Scipion (played by Jeremiah Friedlander); son Peter (played by Landon Chase Dubois), nicknamed Little Peter; and daughter Laurette (played by Jordyn McIntosh).
Peter and Dodienne are originally from Haiti, so they know what it was like to be free people before being unwillingly brought to the U.S. as enslaved people. They are very religious and believe in the power of prayer. In the opening scene where Peter is with his family, he says, “What can a mere man do to me? The Lord is with me. He is my strength and my defense. He has become my salvation.”
The family will soon have their inner strength severely tested when Peter is forced to relocate to another plantation in Clinton, Louisiana. He tries to fight back in self-defense, but he’s outnumbered and assaulted for defending himself. Peter’s wife and kids are helpless and sobbing as Peter is taken away.
During the ride to the labor camp, Peter and the other men who are with him see the heads of other African American men gruesomely displayed on tree sticks that line the road. It’s an ominous indication of what can happen to “runners” (people running from enslavement) or any black person who is murdered for whatever reason by a white supremacist racist. Fair warning to sensitive viewers: “Emancipation” has a lot of graphic violence that isn’t exploitative, but it might be too disturbing for some viewers.
One of the criticisms that “Emancipation” might get is that it portrays Peter as “too saintly,” perhaps because Peter is so vocal about his religious beliefs. But anyone with that criticism didn’t pay attention enough to the movie, because Peter actually is no pious pushover, since he doesn’t hesitate to dole out some violence when he absolutely has to do so in self-defense. The movie also shows how Peter’s experiences change him over time: He doesn’t lose his humanity, but he becomes hardened and reaches low points of utter despair.
Peter has been taken to a plantation owned by the cold-hearted Jim Fassell (played by Ben Foster), who inherited the property from his widowed father. One of the men who arrived in the same group as Peter is named Tomas (played by Jabbar Lewis), who is forcibly branded on his face with the letter “J” (for Jim), as Peter and the other enslaved men nearby watch in horror. Jim is described by one of the men as “one of the biggest hunters, day or night.” And the prey that Jim hunts is human.
At first, Peter tries to be as religiously optimistic as possible, even when the captured men around him have lost faith in a higher power and think Peter is being too naïve or downright delusional. When Peter finds out from Tomas that Tomas doesn’t have any family members or friends to think of in rough times, Peter gives this over-simplistic advice: “Then remember, this is just work. God is with us.”
One day, Peter overhears one of Jim’s sadistic employees named Howard (played by Steven Ogg) tell another employee that Abraham Lincoln has freed the enslaved people of America. Peter then sets a plan in motion to escape with some other formerly enslaved men to Baton Rouge, Louisiana, where he knows there are Union Army troops. It isn’t long before the word gets out about the Emancipation Proclamation, leading to formerly enslaved people on Jim’s plantation to engage in a massive uprising and escape.
Peter runs into the swampy woods with three younger men in their 20s: Tomas, John (played by Michael Luwoye) and Gordon (played by Gilbert Owuor). Jim and two sidekicks are in pursuit on horseback with two attack dogs. Jim’s lackeys are a sleazebag named Harrington (played by Ronnie Gene Blevins) and a traitorous African American named Knowls (played by Aaron Moten). The rest of “Emancipation” shows what happens during this terrifying journey.
Robert Richardson’s sweeping cinematography of “Emancipation” has all the markings of an epic war film, but the hues are often awash in gray and brown, as a reflection of this very grim and bleak story. Fuqua’s direction does not let the tension let up as soon as Peter escapes and faces life-or-death situations from humans and wild animals. Smith’s performance as Peter is riveting in expressing heartbreak and hope. It’s not a dialogue-heavy film, because Peter is not very talkative, and while he’s hiding out, he often spends a lot of time alone. However, Smith is able to poignantly express much of the anguish, fear, bravery and faith that define his “Emancipation” character.
As chief antagonist Jim in “Emancipation,” Foster has the most conspicuous of the movie’s supporting roles. Foster does a skillful version of the “evil slave master” villain that’s been seen in many other movies and TV shows about enslavement. There’s a standout scene where Jim describes a childhood memory of his enslaved nanny, and his coldly hateful monologue encapsulates the fear and loathing that white supremacists have about people of other races being treated as equals to white people.
“Emancipation” is not an easy film to watch for a lot of viewers. Some people might also give criticism because they think there are already too many movies and TV shows about the trauma of racist enslavement. However, “Emancipation” is respectful of this serious issue without glossing over the harsh realities, even though some viewers will inevitably complain that this movie from Hollywood filmmakers has Hollywood movie characteristics. It’s not a documentary, but “Emancipation” is a necessary history lesson that gives people an idea of what many other formerly enslaved people in America had to do to survive in a nation coming to terms with its shameful involvement in slavery.
Apple Studios will release “Emancipation” in select U.S. cinemas on December 2, 2022. The movie will premiere on Apple TV+ on December 9, 2022.
Culture Representation: Taking place in the early-to-mid-1990s, mainly in California and Florida, the dramatic film “King Richard” features a cast of African American and white characters (with a few Latinos) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.
Culture Clash: Coming from an underprivileged background, Richard “Richie” Williams becomes the first tennis coach of his daughters Venus and Serena, but his unorthodox methods often clash with the traditions of the elite world of tennis.
Culture Audience: “King Richard” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of star Will Smith and the real-life Venus Williams and Serena Williams, as well as people who are interested in well-acted sports movies about people who triumph against the odds.
The dramatic film “King Richard” is both a tribute and a feel-good Hollywood version of how Richard “Richie” Williams guided his daughters Venus and Serena to tennis superstardom. The movie is set in the early-to-mid-1990s, at the beginning of Venus’ and Serena’s tennis careers. The tennis matches in the story focus more on Venus’ rise to tennis glory, since her championships came before Serena’s.
In the role of Richard Williams, Will Smith gives a very charismatic performance as a flawed but loving and determined father. The movie shows in abundance how Richard Williams’ stubbornness was both an asset and a liability when he became the person who had the biggest impact on Venus’ and Serena’s respective tennis careers. As it stands, this movie is told from Richard’s male and very domineering perspective.
What saves this movie from being unchecked worship of patriarchy is that it gives credit to Oracene “Brandy” Williams (Venus and Serena’s mother, winningly played by Aunjanue Ellis) as being an underrated, positive force in the family. Oracene (who was a nurse when this story took place) was the one who held the family together in their toughest times. She was also the intelligence behind some of the crucial decisions that were made when Venus and Serena were underage children. If Richard was the “king” of the family, then Oracene was undoubtedly the “queen.”
Directed by Reinaldo Marcus Green and written by Zach Baylin, “King Richard” doesn’t shy away from some of the controversial aspects of Richard Williams’ life, nor does the movie portray him as saintly. But the title of the movie says it all: The intention of “King Richard” is to give Richard Williams the same level of respect as the tennis stars who are treated as sports royalty. It’s a bit of a stretch, considering that Richard wasn’t the only coach that Venus and Serena ever had.
The movie acknowledges that Venus (played by Saniyya Sidney) and Serena (played by Demi Singleton) had plenty of other people who helped them along the way. There are moments when “King Richard” puts Richard Williams a little too much on a pedestal for being a “prophet” who predicted, when Venus and Serena were in elementary school, that Venus and Serena would become phenomenal tennis champs. Much ado is made about his 78-page plan where he made these predictions. The movie also depicts how Richard filmed homemade videos as electronic press kits to promote Venus and Serena.
Lots of parents have grandiose plans for their children, but it helps if those kids have the talent for whatever the parents are motivating them to do. This movie could have had a little more insight into the talent that makes Venus and Serena so special, as well as more information on when they started showing an interest in tennis. “King Richard” starts off with Venus at approximately age 11 and Serena at approximately age 10, with Richard as their “tough love” coach, already practicing on run-down tennis courts in their working-class hometown of Compton, California. At the time, Richard worked the night shift as a security guard.
The movie makes it look like all Richard had to do in the earliest days of their tennis career was to get Venus and Serena to practice a lot, in order to put the two sisters on the path to becoming great tennis players. But did Venus and Serena start with that passion for tennis, or were they pushed into it? The movie never says, because Richard (as the protagonist) is the main focus of the story. (It should be noted that Smith is also one of the producers of “King Richard.”) There are countless tennis parents who do the same things that Richard did to prepare their kids to become professional tennis players, but we don’t hear about them because their tennis kids just aren’t talented.
In the movie, Oracene (who was a widow when she married Richard in 1980) is the one who tells Richard that practicing on inferior tennis courts with substandard tennis rackets would get Venus and Serena nowhere, no matter how much hard work they did. Oracene is the one who motivates Richard to make the right connections in the elite world of tennis, where you need the kind of money that’s required to pay for training and entry fees into top tennis tournaments. However, the Williams family couldn’t afford these fees at the time. It’s at this point in the movie that Richard starts to transform himself into a maverick wheeler dealer in the tennis world.
He’s an unlikely tennis maverick. From the opening scene, the movie makes it clear that Richard’s English grammar skills aren’t very good, and he comes from a rough-and-tumble background. In a voiceover, Richard describes the type of upbringing he had: “Tennis was not a game peoples played. We was too busy running from the [Ku Klux] Klan.” (Richard was born in 1942 in Shreveport, Louisiana.)
Later in the movie, Richard tells his daughters: “When I was your age, I had to fight someone every day,” which is why he says that doesn’t get as fazed by setbacks as other people might be. The issues of racial differences and social-class inequalities are ever-present in the movie because a huge part of Venus’ and Serena’s success story is about how they became champions in a sport that’s been accessible mainly to white people who can afford it.
The Williams family members who are also depicted in the movie are Oracene’s three daughters from her first marriage: Tunde Price (played by Mikayla Bartholomew), Isha Price (played by Daniele Lawson) and Lyndrea Price (played Layla Crawford). (In real life, Venus, Serena and Isha are among the executive producers of “King Richard.”) When this movie takes place, the Williams household consists of Richard, Oracene, Venus, Serena, Tunde, Isha and Lyndrea. The girls are seen being being playful and happy around each other, doing things such as karaoke-type talent shows in their home when they spend time together.
However, “King Richard” has fairly shallow portrayals of Tunde, Isha and Lyndrea as nothing but characters whose main purpose in life is to agree with Richard and cheer on Venus and Serena when needed. In a household of five sisters, the sisters are never seen arguing with each other, or having jealousy issues because a parent seems to favor one child over another. This lack of sibling conflict is very unrealistic. The movie doesn’t seem to want to acknowledge that Richard’s single-minded focus on making Venus and Serena tennis champs surely came at a cost to his relationship with his stepdaughters, who must have felt treated differently by him.
Even in the best of circumstances, “King Richard” makes it look like Richard didn’t think his stepdaughters were worthy of the same type of attention that he was giving to Venus and Serena. Richard briefly mentions that he thinks that his other daughters in the household are “future doctors and lawyers,” but if he spent any time supporting his stepdaughters’ career goals, the movie never shows it and never shows what those goals were. “King Richard” doesn’t make an effort to distinguish the personalities of Tunde, Isha and Lyndrea, because the movie just makes them background characters in the Richard Williams show.
The only time Richard is showing individual “protective dad” attention to one of his stepdaughters is in an early scene in the movie where 16-year-old Tunde is watching Venus and Serena practice on a Compton tennis court. Richard and his other stepdaughters are there too. Some guys in their 20s are nearby. One of them, who’s named Bells (played by Craig Tate), tries to flirtatiously talk to Tunde, who seems uncomfortable with his attention. She quickly walks away from Bells when Richard sees what’s going on and tells her to get away from this leering stranger. Richard steps in and orders Bells to leave Tunde alone because she’s only 16 and not interested in dating him.
In response, Bells turns into a thug and punches Richard hard enough for Richard to fall to the ground. Richard gets up and walks away, but all five of the girls have witnessed this assault while waiting in Richard’s Volkswagen van. When he gets in the van and he’s asked if he’s okay, that’s when Richard says he had to fight someone every day when he was the same ages as his daughters. “And I didn’t have no daddy to stand in the way,” he adds. “They’re going to respect y’all.”
It won’t be the last time Richard takes a beating. He gets beat up physically, emotionally and mentally in various ways during his unstoppable efforts to make Venus and Serena among the greatest tennis players of all time. He gets plenty of rejections, of course. And he’s openly ridiculed for his decision to take Venus and Serena out of junior league tennis tournaments, so that Venus and Serena could focus on their education and go directly to the professional leagues. He often annoys people with his blunt approach, because he can be arrogant.
Richard is not a smooth talker, but the one characteristic that defines Richard in his key to his success is persistence. He’s well-aware that he doesn’t come from an educated, privileged and well-connected background. But that’s exactly why he’s so hungry for the success that he wants for Venus and Serena. He’s also fiercely proud and supportive of Venus and Serena, even if they lose a match. At least that’s how the movie portrays him.
Because of Richard’s persuasive finagling, Venus and Serena sign on with their first professional coach: Paul Cohen (played by Tony Goldwyn), who agrees to coach Venus and Serena for free because he believes in their talent and wants a cut of any prize money they will eventually win. For a while, Oracene helped RIchard with coaching duties for Serena when Cohen initially said he would only coach one of the sisters for free, and Richard decided it would be Venus. Later, Venus and Serena sign on with coach Rick Macci (played by Jon Bernthal), who agrees to relocate the entire Williams household to Macci’s home base in Florida’s Palm Beach County, where he pays for all of their living expenses and buys them the house where they live.
Macci is also motivated by getting a percentage of the millions that he thinks Venus and Serena will eventually earn. At the time, the Rick Macci International Tennis Academy (in Delray Beach, Florida) was best known for training tennis star Jennifer Capriati (played by Jessica Wacnik), who was an idol of Venus and Serena. Macci is shocked and dismayed when the investment he thought he made in Venus and Serena as future junior league champs turns out to be funding for Venus and Serena to not go on the junior league circuit after all.
It’s because Richard didn’t want his future tennis champs to get burned out on the junior league circuit. Richard tells Macci of this plan after Richard got what he wanted in their contract. Richard made the then-controversial and unheard-of decision to take Venus and Serena out of the junior leagues (the traditional route for tennis players to turn pro), so they could go to school like “normal kids” while training to go straight into the professional leagues.
Richard is further convinced he made the right decision when he sees the scandalous downfall of Capriati, beginning with her 1994 arrest for marijuana possession. The arrest exposed many of Capriati’s personal problems, which she has since largely blamed on the pressures and burnout of her junior league tennis career. Many people doubted that Venus and Serena could turn pro in their mid-teens, but Venus and Serena proved the naysayers wrong.
In addition to Capriati, other real-life tennis players are depicted by actors in brief appearances in the movie. They include John McEnroe (played by Christopher Wallinger), Pete Sampras (played by Chase Del Rey) and Arantxa Sánchez Vicario (played by Marcela Zacarias), who is Venus’ opponent in the movie’s big tennis showdown. McEnroe and Sampras are seen training with Cohen during one of Richard’s first meetings with the coach. Don’t expect any of these other tennis stars to have any meaningful lines of dialogue in the movie. Each person only says a few sentences.
In the movie, Richard is depicted as being a proverbial “helicopter dad” who hovers during practice and tries to tell coaches Cohen and Macci how to do their jobs. The movie demonstrates in these scenes that these coaches only tolerated Richard because of Venus’ and Serena’s talent, not because these coaches genuinely liked Richard as a friend or respected him as a business person. Macci, who’s more emotional than Cohen, isn’t afraid to express his anger at feeling deceived or frustrated by Richard. Both coaches are the friendliest to Richard when it’s about how they can make money off of Venus and Serena.
The movie tends to gloss over the fact that for all of Richard’s big talk, what really opened important doors for Venus and Serena were the money and connections of coaches such as Cohen and Macci. Richard was a package deal with Venus and Serena. We’ll never know how differently Richard might have been treated by some of these people if Venus and Serena weren’t his underage children at the start of their tennis careers.
In other words, if Venus and Serena weren’t underage children under Richard’s legal control, would he have been as successful in launching their careers? The movie implies the answer: Probably not, because less people in the tennis industry would’ve tolerated him and his admittedly alienating ways.
However, it’s precisely because Richard was the father of Venus and Serena that he protected them in ways that many coaches or managers probably would not have protected them. The issue of race cannot be underestimated because Venus and Serena got “real talk” from Richard about the racism they would experience in the sport of tennis, which has a reputation for being elitist and catering mainly to white people. As such, one of the movie’s obvious “Oscar bait” clips is a scene where a tearful Richard tells Venus in a pep talk about her groundbreaking role in professional tennis: “You’re not just going to be representing you. You’re going to be representing every little black girl on Earth!”
Venus and Serena are portrayed as polite, hardworking children who have no other interests besides tennis and hanging out with their sisters. In the movie, Richard is shown discouraging Venus and Serena from getting too close to kids outside of their family. When Richard wants a “yes” answer from his daughters, they answer, “Yes, Daddy,” like robotic kids on command. Richard expects Venus and Serena to tell him he’s their best friend when he asks. Venus complies with the answer Richard wants to hear, but Serena says Venus is her best friend first.
It’s all played for laughs and feel-good cheer. But some of this banter just seems a little too phony, giving the impression that a lot of the real story is left out about how Richard would lose his temper and say harmful things to Venus and Serena. It’s hard to believe this movie’s rosy portrayal that Richard never really yelled hurtful things to Venus and Serena, when every hard-driving, tough-talking coach does that one point or another to people whom the coach is training. The perspectives of Venus and Serena are not given much importance in this movie, except when it comes to how they’re going to win tennis matches.
For example, viewers never learn what Venus and Serena liked to study in school or what types of friends they made in school, even if the movie makes it look like Richard was the type of father who didn’t want his underage daughters to invite any friends to visit them in their home. The movie never shows how the family celebrated milestones such as Venus’ and Serena’s birthdays, or when they graduated from middle school to high school. It’s a strange omission, considering that in real life, Richard got a lot of criticism precisely because he wanted Venus and Serena to have “normal” school experiences at that age instead of going on tennis tours.
The movie’s erasure of Venus’ and Serena’s childhood experiences that aren’t related to tennis or family all goes back to the patriarchal purpose of the movie: Showing how Richard programmed Venus and Serena on how to be tennis champs, not how to prepare them for life after tennis. There have been several documentaries about Venus and Serena where the two sisters openly admit that they will have a difficult time dealing with life when they both retire from tennis.
And how hard was Richard on Venus and Serena? The movie hints that people had concerns. There’s a scene where a police officer and a government social worker go to the Williams home in Compton to investigate a complaint that Venus and Serena were being abused because of all the rigorous training that Richard made them do.
Richard and Oracene are naturally insulted and defensive. They deny any abuse, and nothing comes of the complaint. The movie makes it look like a jealous neighbor named Ms. Strickland (played by Erika Ringor) is behind the complaint, but you have to wonder if that neighbor character was created in the movie as a villainous stand-in for well-meaning people in real life who had concerns about Richard’s parenting skills.
Whether or not there was any abuse, the family did have serious problems, which is acknowledged in one of the movie’s best scenes. It’s when Oracene confronts Richard for letting his ego stifle Venus’ wishes to play in the professional leagues at the age of 14. Oracene and Richard have an argument, which leads to Oracene verbally ripping into Richard for abandoning the family he had with his first wife and not seeming to care about having a relationship with the children he left behind in the divorce. (Richard had five biological kids and one stepchild with his first wife Betty Johnson, to whom he was married from 1965 to 1973.)
During this argument, Oracene reminds Richard that he’s had a string of failed businesses because he gave up too quickly when things got a little too hard for him. It’s easy to read between the lines, even though the movie doesn’t come right out and say it: Venus and Serena were Richard’s last-ditch attempt to get rich after he failed at starting his own businesses. He needed their talent because his own skills as an entrepreneur were questionable at best.
In the movie’s zeal to put Richard on a “prophet pedestal” and to make Oracene and Richard look like a loving couple that will stay together “’til death do us part,” the movie’s epilogue leaves out this reality: Richard and Oracene divorced in 2002. In 2010, Richard married his third wife Lakeisha Juanita Graham (who’s young enough to be his daughter), they had a son, and then the marriage ended in divorce in 2017. Maybe the “King Richard” filmmakers think that the public shouldn’t care about these details of Richard being a failure as a husband because Venus and Serena turned out to be rich and famous.
Despite the flaws in the movie’s screenplay, “King Richard” has exemplary acting from Smith, who gives one of his best movie performances as the gruff but compelling Richard. Sidney’s portrayal of Venus gets more of an emotional journey than Singleton’s portrayal of Serena, who is mostly in Venus’ shadow at this point in the sisters’ lives. (In real life, Serena would later emerge has having a more assertive personality than Venus.)
In the movie, Richard explains to Serena that he planned for Venus to become a star first. Richard predicts Venus will be ranked No. 1 in the world before Serena achieves that same goal, but Serena will eventually be considered by many to be the “greatest of all time” in tennis. He tells Serena: “I knew you was rough, you was tough, and you was a fighter.”
Sidney and Singleton both adeptly handle the movie’s tennis-playing scenes. A big highlight of the movie is an emotionally gripping, climactic scene at the 1994 Bank of the West Classic tournament in Oakland, California. One of the movie’s strengths is that it doesn’t fall into the usual clichés of how sports dramas usually end. However, the tropes of a “tough love” father/coach are played to the hilt.
As a sports movie, “King Richard” might disappoint some viewers who are expecting more screen time devoted to tennis matches. But more tennis matches on screen should be expected if Venus and Serena were the central characters. “King Richard” never lets you forget that the central character is someone who was never a pro tennis player: Richard Williams. However, the movie has the grace to admit that Venus and Serena turned out to be extraordinary people because of their mother Oracene too.
Warner Bros. Pictures released “King Richard” in U.S. cinemas and on HBO Max on November 19, 2021.
Culture Representation: The documentary “Dads” has a racially diverse group of people (white, black, Asian and Latino) representing the middle-class and wealthy and talking about fatherhood.
Culture Clash: Some of the fathers interviewed in the film talk about defying traditional masculine stereotypes, by being more involved in raising their children than previous generations of fathers were expected to be.
Culture Audience: “Dads” will appeal to anyone who likes nonfiction films about parenting issues, even though it shuts out any perspectives of fathers who are poor or have negative attitudes about being fathers.
The documentary “Dads” puts such an unrelenting positive and happy spin on fatherhood that it has a strange dichotomy of being a nonfiction film that isn’t entirely realistic. Bryce Dallas Howard (the eldest child of Oscar-winning filmmaker Ron Howard) makes her feature-film directorial debut with “Dads,” which devotes considerable screen time to members of the Howard family talking about fatherhood. “Dads” is ultimately a very uplifting “feel good” movie, but it doesn’t do anything groundbreaking or reveal any new concepts of fatherhood.
There are no deadbeat dads or bitter fathers who’ve lost child custody in “Dads.” Instead, the documentary focuses only on fathers who love being dads and have good relationships with their children. There are several celebrities interviewed in the film (all of whom have a background in comedy), such as Judd Apatow, Jimmy Fallon, Neil Patrick Harris, Ron Howard, Ken Jeong, Jimmy Kimmel, Hasan Minhaj, Conan O’Brien, Patton Oswalt and Will Smith.
“Dads” has three kinds of footage: soundbites from the celebrities, with Bryce Dallas Howard as the interviewer (she sometimes appears on camera); clips of home movies (the clips from random, unidentified people give the documentary an “America’s Funniest Home Videos” look); and six in-depth profiles of seven middle-class fathers from different parts of the world.
Although the celebrities offer some amusing anecdotes, many of their stories seem rehearsed or their comments are made just to crack a joke. Smith, in particular, seems to have memorized way in advance what he was going to say in this documentary. With the exception of Ron Howard, the celebrities are not shown with their children in this documentary, which is why the celebrity segments in the film are pretty superficial. The best parts of the documentary are with the people who aren’t rich and famous, because that’s the footage that actually shows “regular” fathers (who don’t have nannies) taking care of the kids.
The seven non-famous fathers who are profiled in the movie are:
Glen Henry (in San Diego), an African American who became a “daddy vlogger” to document his experiences as a stay-at-home dad.
Reed Howard (in Westchester, New York), who is Bryce Dallas Howard’s youngest sibling and was a first-time expectant father at the time the documentary was filmed.
Robert Selby (in Triangle, Virginia), an African American whose son survived a life-or-death medical crisis.
Thiago Queiroz (in Rio de Janeiro), a Brazilian who started a podcast and blog about fatherhood and who advocates for longer time for paternity leaves.
Shuichi Sakuma (in Tokyo), who is a Japanese homemaker.
Rob Scheer and Reece Scheer (in Darnestown, Maryland), a white gay couple who adopted four African American kids.
Glen Henry used to work as a sales clerk at men’s clothing store, but he was so unhappy in his job that his wife Yvette suggested that he quit his job and become a stay-at-home father. (At the time “Dads” was filmed, the Henrys had two sons and a daughter.) Glen Henry, who has a blog called Beleaf in Fatherhood, began making videos documenting his fatherhood experiences.
Glen admits that he thought at first that it would be easy to take care of the kids by himself, but he found out that he was very wrong about that. “I felt like an imposter,” he says of his early years as a homemaker. Even though his wife Yvette says she wasn’t thrilled about Glen putting their family’s life on display for everyone to see on the Internet, she says it’s worth it because Glen is a much happier person as a stay-at-home dad.
Echoing what many of the fathers say in the documentary, Glen Henry comments: “The role of father has shifted in a major way. We went from providing, being there for holidays and disciplining to being all the way involved—and you kind of look like a dork if you’re not.”
He continues, “I feel like being a father made me the man that I am. My children taught me to be authentic and honest with myself. Fatherhood has given me a whole new identity.”
Reed Howard, who was expecting his first child with his wife when this documentary was being filmed, talks about the home videos that his father Ron filmed of all of his children being born. (Clips of some of those videos are included in the documentary.) Reeds says half-jokingly that since all of Ron’s kids were forced to watch the videos, it was “traumatic” to see part of his mother’s body that he never wanted to see.
Ron Howard’s father Rance (who died in 2017) is also interviewed in “Dads.” Rance says that when Ron was a co-star on “The Andy Griffith Show,” Rance suggested to Andy Griffith to not have Ron’s character Opie written as a brat. Griffith took the advice, and the father-son relationship on the show was modeled after the relationship that Rance had with Ron in real life. (Rance Howard and Ron Howard are the only grandfathers interviewed in the movie, by the way.)
Most of the dads interviewed in the documentary get emotional and teary-eyed at some point in the film. Ron Howard’s crying moment comes when he says that his greatest fear as a father was that he wouldn’t be as good as his father was to him. Reed (who is Ron’s only son) expresses the same fear about not being able to live up to the great experiences that he had with Ron as his father.
Selby has perhaps the most compelling story, since his son RJ was born with a congenital heart defect. Selby describes years of stressful hospital visits and medical treatments in order to help RJ live as healthy of a life as possible. This dedicated dad had to make many sacrifices, such as taking unpaid time off from work and forgo paying some bills in order to pay for RJ’s medical expenses. “There was no doubt in mind: I would forever be his protector,” Selby says of his outlook on being RJ’s father.
Selby is also the only father interviewed in the film who isn’t financially privileged, since he says that he often didn’t have a car during his son’s ongoing medical crisis. And when he did have a car, it was repossessed multiple times because he couldn’t make the payments. He ended up working a night shift because it was the only way he could have a job (he doesn’t mention what he does for a living) while also going to school and taking care of RJ during the day.
Chantay Williams (who is RJ’s mother) and Selby were never married and didn’t have a serious relationship when she got pregnant with RJ. Selby breaks down and cries when he remembers that when he found out about the pregnancy, he didn’t want Williams to have the child and he didn’t talk to her for two months. But he changed his mind, asked for her forgiveness, and is now a very involved father.
However, Selby says that he still feels shame over his initial reaction to the pregnancy, and he comments that he’ll probably spend the rest of his life trying to make up for that mistake. Williams says in the documentary that Selby is proof that someone can change, and that he’s truly a devoted father and that his devotion isn’t just a show for the documentary cameras.
Quieroz (a married father of two sons and a daughter) knows what it’s like to not have a father raise him, since his dad wasn’t in his life for most of his childhood. He says that it’s one of the reasons why he vowed to always be there for his kids. Quieroz’s day job is as a mechanical engineer, but he also started a fatherhood podcast with two other Brazilian fathers, and he has a fatherhood blog. It’s through the blog that Quieroz’s estranged father got in touch with him. The outcome of that contact is revealed in the documentary.
Sakuma talks about how, in Japanese culture, men who don’t work outside the home are considered “society dropouts.” When he was diagnosed with an autoimmune disorder 20 years ago, Sakuma could no longer work outside the home. He became so depressed that he contemplated divorce and suicide, until his wife begged him: “Please continue living for me.”
After Sakuma regained his health, one of the first things he wanted to do was become a parent, but his wife didn’t want to have kids. He says in the documentary that he began a personal campaign that lasted two years to get his wife to change her mind. She changed her mind when he told her that men can do anything when it comes to raising a child, except for pregnancy, childbirth and breastfeeding. He convinced her that he would make a great stay-at-home dad, which he is to their son.
Rob and Reece Scheer didn’t expect to become parents to four kids in a short period of time (less than a year), but that’s what happened when they fostered four children, whom they eventually ended up adopting. Rob and Reece have three sons and one daughter; two of the sons are biological brothers. Rob (the older husband) says he knew that he wanted to be a father since he was 6 years old. Rob describes how he grew up with an abusive father, but that traumatic experience helped him know that he wanted to be the opposite of abusive when he became a dad.
The four kids adopted by Reece and Rob also come from troubled backgrounds, so Rob believes surviving his own abusive childhood helps him relate to his kids in that way. As for Reece, he was working two jobs when he decided quit those jobs to be the couple’s stay-at-home partner. They had to make the sacrifice of having a lower household income, but now the family lives happily on a farm, which the dads say has been beneficial for the emotional well-being of their kids.
Rob Scheer says that sometimes people say unintentionally ignorant things about gay couples who are parents. “People ask, ‘Who’s the mom and who’s the dad?’ We’re both dads, but the one thing that we do is that we both partner. That’s what parents should be doing.”
One of the questions that Bryce Dallas Howard asks the celebrities is to define what a father is in one word. Fallon says “hero,” while Minhaj says “compass.” Many of the celebrity fathers in the documentary make obvious comments that are similar to each other, such as: “There’s no instruction manual/rulebook to being a father.”
And although Kimmel and Jeong briefly mention the medical scares they went through with their children (a heart defect for one of Kimmel’s sons, a premature birth for one of Jeong’s children), the documentary doesn’t show them opening up about these issues in a meaningful way. Instead, most of the celebrity soundbites are meant to elicit laughs. Several of the celebrities make references to their busy careers when they talk about how their work keeps them from spending more time with their kids, but they know that they’re working hard to provide very well for their children.
Although the non-famous fathers who are profiled in “Dads” seem to be a diverse group because they’re from different countries and racial groups, they actually have more in common with each other than not, because they’re all middle-class fathers with children who were under the age of 13 at the time this documentary was filmed. It seems like these fathers were selected because they have young children who are in the “cute” stages of life—no kids who are teenagers or adults—thereby creating more documentary footage that was likely to be “adorable.”
Apatow and Smith are the only fathers who talk about how fatherhood became less fun for them when their children became teenagers. They mention that they had to learn to give their teenage kids space, adjust to their kids’ growing independence, and allow them to make their own decisions on issues, even if those decisions turned out to be mistakes. But since the documentary doesn’t do any up-close profiles of non-famous fathers who have teenagers, the only commentaries about raising teenagers come from rich and famous guys, and it’s questionable how relatable these celebrity dads are to the rest of the public.
For example, Smith has said in other interviews (not in this documentary) that he and his wife Jada don’t believe that their kids should be punished in their household when they do something wrong, their kids never had to do household chores, and he and Jada allowed their kids to drop out of school when the kids didn’t feel like going anymore. Apatow admits in the documentary that he’s also a permissive dad who never really punished his kids if they did something wrong. Is it any wonder that many celebrities are perceived as raising spoiled kids who are out of touch with the real world?
One of the other shortcomings of “Dads” is that, except for Selby, the documentary completely ignores major financial strains that parenthood can cause. It’s as if the documentary wants to forget that financially poor fathers exist in this world too. And even though Minhaj is the only one in “Dads” to mention the immigrant experience, “Dads” could have used more fatherhood stories from an immigrant perspective.
However, if you want a heartwarming look at famous and non-famous dads who say that parenthood is the best thing that ever happened to them, “Dads” fulfills all those expectations. This documentary is more like a series of love letters instead of a thorough and inclusive investigation.
Culture Representation: Set in Miami and Mexico City, this male-centric action-adventure movie has a racially diverse cast of African American, Latino, white and Asian actors.
Culture Clash: “Bad Boys for Life” is a story of law enforcement versus ruthless criminals.
Culture Audience: “Bad Boys for Life” will appeal primarily to fans of the “Bad Boys” franchise and Will Smith admirers, but the movie’s superior quality to the previous two “Bad Boys” films could attract many new fans to the franchise.
“Bad Boys for Life,” starring Will Smith and Martin Lawrence, has accomplished something most franchise movies haven’t been able to do—make the third film in the series the best one so far. Michael Bay, who directed the first two “Bad Boys” movies—1995’s “Bad Boys” and 2003’s “Bad Boys II”—is no longer at the helm at the franchise, although he does make a cameo as a wedding emcee in “Bad Boys for Life.” And because Bay is no longer the director in charge of the “Bad Boys” franchise, the homophobic and racist jokes are gone, as well as the voyeuristic camera-angle shots that objectify the private parts of scantily clad women.
The directors of “Bad Boys for Life” are Moroccan-born Belgian filmmakers Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah, who previously directed indie films and episodes of FX’s crime-drama series “Snowfall,” before making their major-studio film debut with “Bad Boys for Life.” Smith, Jerry Bruckheimer and the other producers of “Bad Boy for Life” made the wise choice of hiring directors who’ve injected some new blood into this intermittent movie series. With “Bad Boys for Life,” there’s also a new team of screenwriters to the franchise: Chris Bremner, Peter Craig and Joe Carnahan, who flip the script with some surprising twists. And here’s another refreshing aspect of “Bad Boys for Life”: The best parts of the movie aren’t in the trailers. In fact, the trailers make the movie look very predictable when the film really isn’t.
Make no mistake: The gun fights, car chases and machismo that people love about the “Bad Boys” franchise are all still there. So too is the crackling energy between Miami cop partners Mike Lowery (played by Smith) and Marcus Burnett (played by Lawrence), who are bickering opposites as much as they are loyal best friends. And the characters still reference Inner Circle’s “Bad Boys” reggae song, which was also made famous as the theme song to the reality show “Cops.” Another familiar “Bad Boys” movie trope that’s still part of the franchise is the 360-degree slow-motion shot of Mike and Marcus standing up after a moment of despair. But even with all of these repeat characteristics, “Bad Boys II” was such an inferior, bloated mess that the only way for to go was up for any subsequent “Bad Boys” movie.
The first two “Bad Boys” films followed the cliché formula of cops versus drug dealers. They also had a token female supporting character as “a damsel in distress” type who wanted to be perceived as a strong woman, but was really someone being protected by Mike and Marcus. (In “Bad Boys,” the token female sidekick was Téa Leoni, who played a witness to a murder. In “Bad Boys II,” Gabrielle Union played Marcus’ younger sister, who was an undercover cop that Marcus and Mike still had to rescue.)
Instead of a “war against drugs” storyline, “Bad Boys for Life” veers in another direction, by having a young sharpshooter assassin named Armando Aretas (played by Jacob Scipio) on a revenge mission. Armando takes orders from his domineering and evil mother, Isabel Aretas (played by Kate Del Castillo), who’s in Mexico City while Armando is in Miami killing off law-enforcement people. Isabel’s husband was a drug lord, and she blames his death on people who are on the hit list. Viewers see in the beginning of the film that Mike is on the Aretas’ hit list, and Isabel (a femme fatale who’s into the occult) wants his execution to be saved for last.
Meanwhile, much of this sequel acknowledges how many years have passed between the second and third “Bad Boys” films, because there are constant references to how aging has affected Mike and Marcus. In the film’s opening scene, Marcus becomes a grandfather, when his daughter, Megan (played by Bianca Bethune), has given birth to a son, whom she names after Marcus.
Mike is still a smooth-talking bachelor playboy who’s slept with at least a few of the women who show up in the “Bad Boys” movies. He’s an heir to a fortune, and he indulges in his taste for high-priced cars and clothes. (The first two movies make reference to Mike having a deceased rich father, but Mike’s other family members aren’t seen or mentioned.) Mike isn’t the marrying type because he’s a workaholic whose entire identity is wrapped up in being at the top of his game as a police officer.
By contrast, Marcus is a married father who comes from a working-class background, and he’s always threatening to quit the police force. Marcus and his long-suffering wife, Theresa (played by Theresa Randle), had two sons and a daughter in the first “Bad Boys” movies, but only their daughter is seen in “Bad Boys for Life.” However, Joe Pantoliano has returned as Captain Howard, the immediate supervisor of Mike and Marcus, who still spends a great deal of time yelling at them for causing expensive chaos every time that Mike and Marcus chase criminals.
Even though Mike and Marcus have gotten older, they still have the same quirks. Mike is still a materialistic neat freak who loses his temper if any of his prized possessions gets dirty. Marcus is still the queasier and more sensitive of the two cops (his inclination to gag and possibly vomit at a crime scene is a running joke in all of the movies), and he’s the more spiritually minded partner who uses therapy and religion to deal with his stress. Marcus’ religious beliefs play a key role in a plot twist that keeps Mike and Marcus apart for about one-third of the movie.
“Bad Boys for Life” also shows more women in positions of power at the Miami Police Department than in the previous “Bad Boys” movies. One of them is Rita (played by Paola Núñez), the no-nonsense leader of a newly formed elite Miami PD intelligence team called Advanced Miami Metro Operations (AMMO), which uses a lot of highly advanced technology in their surveillance. Rita is a former flame of Mike’s, and she resents having to work closely with him again. Mike and Rita’s strained interactions with each other make it clear that their romantic relationship ended badly—and they’re not completely over each other.
Also on the AMMO team are weapons specialist Kelly (played by Vanessa Hudgens), who idolizes Mike; laid-back computer whiz Dorn (played by Alexander Ludwig), who’s got brawn to match his brains; and smart-ass former DEA agent Rafe (played by Charles Melton), who often clashes with Mike. All of these extremely good-looking people on the AMMO team look more like models than real police officers, but who said a movie like this had to be 100% realistic?
“Bad Boys for Life” still has some cliché moments, such as the ultra-violent scenes where people seem to have superhero stunt powers, the obligatory Miami nightclub scene filled with beautiful people, and the inevitable fire/explosion scenes where the heroes don’t get burned. And the movie has plenty of comedic moments, some better than others.
However, “Bad Boys for Life” adds emotional gravitas that wasn’t seen in the previous “Bad Boys” films. The very real and tragic consequences of murder are acknowledged in more depth. Mike and Marcus also come to grips with being middle-aged, since they don’t feel as invincible as they did in their youth. (Although Mike is much more reluctant to admit it than Marcus is.)
As for the double-whammy Aretas villains, they’re the most dangerous out of all the “Bad Boys” villains so far, since their crime spree is motivated by hatred and revenge rather than by trying to protect a drug-dealing business. All of the actors do a competent job with what they’ve been given for their characters in this action film. Smith, in particular, adeptly handles the surprising change that Mike goes through toward the end of the film, which leaves no doubt that another “Bad Boys” sequel is in the works.
Columbia Pictures released “Bad Boys for Life” in U.S. cinemas on January 17, 2020.
Jada Pinkett Smith has launched a weekly Facebook Watch show called “Red Table Talk” with her daughter Willow Smith and her mother Adrienne Banfield-Norris. The series premiere on May 7, 2018 will be followed by new episodes on Mondays. In the show’s first episode, titled “Motherhood,” Will Smith’s first wife Sheree Fletcher, sits down with Pinkett Smith (Will Smith’s second wife) to discuss their blended family together in public for the first time, according to a Facebook press release. Banfield-Norris also “shares her personal story about giving birth to Jada at age 17, the same age her granddaughter Willow is today.”
Jada has starred in movies such as “Girls Trip” (2017) and “Set It Off” (1996). She met Smith when she auditioned for a guest role on his sitcom “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.” Jada and Will Smith have been married since 1997. Their son Jaden was born in 1998. Will Smith and Fletcher (formerly known as Sheree Zampino) were married in 1992 (the same year that their son Trey was born), and were divorced in 2005. Fletcher and her second ex-husband, former NFL player Terrell Fletcher, were married from 2007 to 2014.
Willow made her acting debut in 2007’s “I Am Legend,” starring her father. She then began a music career, for which she is best known for the platinum-selling single “Whip My Hair,” which reached No. 11 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart in 2010. Her second album, “The 1st,” was released in October 2017.