A Huey Newton Story (2001)

Written by: Roger Guenveur Smith. Directed by: Spike Lee

AhueypnewtonstoryLook closely at the Spike Lee film of the Roger Guenveur Smith one man play and you’ll notice it’s called A Huey Newton story. This title is in the spirit of the post-modern idea that history is not one story but many that can be both contradictory and true. In the case of this work “A” takes on even more significance. This piece is not the dramatic tale of the Black Panthers co-founder cumulating with his murder. Rather, the piece is an imagination of how Huey Newton might tell his story if given the chance: there is an emphasis on history and anti-racism, but that is not the full scope of the work.

History is often told with particular reference made to heroes and villains: heads of state and revolutionaries alike. This is a logic that many movements and political figures try to counter, saying that what matters is not them but their movement and their goals. In practice, the representation of movements through canonized individuals will likely never go away. Joining the cause of an individual has a certain intimateness to it that joining a broad struggle for idealism never will.

A Huey Newton story is above all else an exploration of the mental struggle between honouring heroes and honouring causes. The film puts Newton on a pedestal: to be more precise: a chair on a stage where Newton sits in front of an adulating audience. Newton then begins his film-spanning monologue. He is almost a stand-up comedian, but not quite, as his stream-of-consciousness style presentation varies in tone from sombre, to comedic, to academic, to vulnerable, to unintelligible. His faceless audience laughs at all of his jokes as if he is a standup comedian: but he is clearly not one an. In this sense we are presented with the image of cult of personality: the audience adores Newton not simply because of his jokes but because he is Huey P. Newton

But while the film allows us to enjoy (or at least enjoy others enjoying) Newton’s personality cult, he deconstructs it. Newton reads his poems and questions the meaning of his own existence, one poem asking what part of his body is essentially him (ie if he could continue to exist if they are all stripped away). At another moment Newton embodies loneliness, expressively moving to Bob Dylan’s “Ballad of a Thin Man” like an archetypal moody teenager. While Newton shares his political theory, including his views on the violence-non-violence continuum and the role of the Panthers as a political vanguard, he avoids fiery ideological preaching in favour of jokes, introspection and more anecdotal commentary on racism (Eg decrying a radio station for playing the Eric Clapton version of “I Shot the Sheriff”).

Cigarette smoke factors regularly into the film’s artistic aesthetic. Newton sits and dances in billows of smoke while waiting to make profound and profoundly-empty statements. Newton breaks down the granduous mistake of even this part of his image, denouncing cigarettes as “reactionary suicide.”

Those unfamiliar with one man shows may be sceptical as to the art form’s potential to entertain, especially in the film format. A Huey Newton story, however, is very easy to appreciate. Guenveur Smith’s Newton dazzles with his wit and moodiness, while Lee’s shots accentuate the vividness of Newton’s persona. If you’re interested in social justice and history absolutely check out A Huey Newton Story, but do so realizing it is simply “A” story. It may not help you pass your history test, but it does provide a stunning, complex and sympathetic portrait of a historical figure in a manner that is both thought provoking and encapsulating.

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The Sunshine Boys (1975)

DirectedSunshine_boys.jpeg by: Herbert Ross. Written by: Neil Simon

They’re perfect for each other and they can’t stand each other: that’s the premise of Neil Simon’s comedic play The Sunshine Boys. The 1975 film version is remembered for the performances of its stars Walter Matthau and George Burns as two Vaudeville Comedians, reuniting for a TV special. Burns, aged 79, won an Oscar for his performance, re-launching a career that would last until his death at the age of 100.

The film was updated somewhat from the play, featuring opening scenes about Willie Clark’s (Matthau) audition for a Frumpy’s potato chips commercial. The appeal of The Sunshine Boys is its well-written humour about how humour is made. In the audition scenes, we laugh at two actors’ attempts to do intentionally-over-the-top acting for the chips commercial. Shortly thereafter, Clark explains-to-excess what makes words funny (he blames his poor audition on “Frumpy’s not being a funny word).

The film like the play, unfortunately peaks a bit too early. Willie Clark, anxious about his mortality and nostalgic for an acting career that he has grown sick of, engages in ridiculous antics. His counterpart, Al Lewis (Burns), is hard of hearing and irritable in his own right, but is rather pedestrian in comparison to Clark. Despite being named for a duo, The Sunshine Boys, is essentially Clark’s story, with Lewis serving as a sort-of-straight man.

The problem with this structure is not that having a straight man is a bad thing, but rather that by the time Lewis is introduced into the story, the film already has an established straight-man: Clark’s nephew and agent, Ben (Richard Benjamin). Ben functions as a more effective straight-man than Lewis. Ben’s straight-man patiently attempts to engage with Clark’s absurdity. Lewis, however, is in-conflict with Clark, meaning rather than engaging with and subsequently highlighting Clark’s absurdity, he fights it with his own irateness. Lewis’ persona thus sits in an awkward middleground: he is too finicky to be the straight-man, but finicky enough to be absurd.

The Sunshine Boys’ humor relies on exploiting the formula of pairing a straight man (Ben) with a ridiculous one (Clark). The comedy stems from the straight man having to bear the burden of his companion’s absurdity, while the companion, being absurd, cannot appreciate the consequences of his actions. This formula is seen, for instance, in the paring of Sheldon and Leonard on The Big Bang Theory, David and Woody in Nebraska, and Michael Bluth and his entire family in Arrested Development. While this technique can produce hilarity, it can at times feel like a bit of a short cut. In Nebraska, I wondered how David’s straight-man-level-headedness could exist in a world entirely populated by absurd figures. Straight-men can seem more like tools than real characters: they represent what the “reasonable viewer” wants to see in a “reasonable” person, rather than what a person in that character’s situation would actually be like. Ben, however, cannot be subject to this critique, for while he absolutely serves the function of a straight-man, he is a flawed character in his own right. Ben is not simply a nephew doing his uncle a favour. He’s an agent looking to establish himself, and this means over-investing in the seemingly doomed project of reuniting a comedy duo whose members are hopelessly at odds. Ben is simultaneously the voice of reasonability, and mildly-swindling travelling salesman trying to sell to old men on a reunion that they are fated to ruin.

The Sunshine Boys is an enjoyable comedic work, and I have no wish to dispute its status as a classic. It nonetheless fails to live up to the potential that exists within its own confines: the potential to use Ben’s character just a bit more, rather than over-estimating the potential of the film’s titular comedy duo.

Diplomacy (2014)

Directed by: Volker Schlöndorf. Written by: Cyril Gely (playwrite), Schlöndorf (screenplay edits)

Diplomatie_posterLet’s start with the basics; Diplomacy is a film adaptation of a play based on historical events. With defeat imminent for the Nazis, Hitler has concocted a final, unthinkable plot to be carried out in occupied Paris. Hitler, however, is not a character in the film. Instead the story centres around Nazi General Dietrich von Choltitz, who is set to carry out Hitler’s orders, and a Swedish diplomat, Raoul Nordling, bent on stopping them. The film’s title is not subtle metaphor—the story is a plea for belief in diplomacy and a tribute to the Swedish diplomat’s negotiating skills.

Diplomacy, as a WWII film, had it works cut out for it. Few governments/warring parties are as universally despised as Hitler and Nazi Germany. Artists who depict WWII and its ensuing tragedies are thus challenged to make statements that go beyond what everybody knows—that war is bad, that WWII was particularly bad, and that that particularly badness stemmed from Hitler’s distinctly-intentional genocide. At times, Diplomacy feels like it cannot meet the high bar that WWII films must overcome. The diplomat tells the general that senseless killing and Nazism are wrong. “How profound!” many audiences will think sarcastically.

Yet even in these moments of weakness, Diplomacy begins to reveal its strength. I thought of the moments I’ve spent watching Fox News, exasperated by its ideological bias. I also thought of a scene in the comi-tragic TV show Atlanta, when Earn (Donald Glover) an unemployed, bankrupt father tries to order a kids meal at a restaurant (due to his financial situation), and is refused. A voice was screaming in my head as I watched that scene; why couldn’t some character have just told the cashier to be decent, and prioritize Earn’s right to eat over enforcing a fast food chain’s bureaucratic rules!? Why couldn’t someone have told the Fox News broadcasters to stop spewing bullshit about universal health care being a tyrannical disaster? Diplomacy gives us a character who does just that. He calmly stares a Nazi in the face and tells him to act conscientiously. It sounds absurd, but I came to realize it’s what I wanted to see, and perhaps what many will want to see.

Diplomacy not only imagines a world in which a character tells a Nazi to be decent…it imagines a world in which the tactic works. The film should be praised for this political work alone. Far too often, as news of international conflict is brought before the public, many will think “the enemy” cannot be reasoned with: that the enemy simply enjoys its brutality (or alleged brutality) too much. Diplomacy reminds viewers that aversion to killing is a near universal human trait, and therefore, diplomatic solutions should never be written off as utopian/hopeless.

One of the film’s great lines comes when the Swedish diplomat references the story of Isaac and Abraham, begging the Nazi general not to follow the orders of a “God” that would have him kill his “son” (the city of Paris). While the film is based on true events (limiting its ability for creative experimentation), and while the direction its plot takes is ultimately endearing, the delivery of this line still left me questioning Diplomacy’s playwright. What if, I pondered, the general and not the diplomat had raised the Isaac and Abraham comparison? The diplomat raises this argument simply so that he can rebut it. By contrast, if the general had raised the argument, surely he would have fleshed it out. The point he would be making is that as a humble servant of “God” (Hitler, in this case) he was in no position to question the morality of his master. Abraham did not want to kill Isaac, but was prepared to do so to follow orders. Similarly, the general did not want to follow Hitler’s orders but shows a firm preparedness to do so regardless.

This kind of “following orders” character is also represented in James Cameron’s Avatar through the figure of Col. Miles Quaritch. Quaritch is simultaneously a kindly, father figure, and someone willing to mercilessly kill all those who stand in his way (including his former pupil) when duty calls.

Like Quaritch’s, the general’s conduct represents an inherent flaw of many militaries: their internal codes of honour often come into conflict with more fundamental rules of morality. A good soldier loyally follows the orders of commanding officers and political officials. A good person doesn’t commit acts of genocide. Needless to say, in the context of Nazi Germany (which is just one example), these two coders were at odds.

A common refrain about WWII is the question: why didn’t good people stand up to Hitler? With its “Abraham and Isaac” line, Diplomacy hints at one of the answers: military (and police) ethics can mean not questioning even the atrocious orders of one’s leaders. Diplomacy, however, doesn’t end up taking this “Abraham and Isaac” approach very far. Perhaps this is because the question and answer may not prove satisfying to those who want to see the Nazis presented as a distinctly evil. Perhaps some would find it tasteless to see an explanation proposed for Nazi brutality that could also be applied to explain atrocities committed by western liberal democracies.

That digression aside, Diplomacy should be commended as a work that convincingly retells a historic episode to promote a message of peace. It is mostly well written, even if at times the unambiguous moral superiority of the diplomat can cause the writing to feel predictable. Diplomacy is the act of thinking through what may seem like hopeless situations and getting another to think in a similar way. By giving viewers a chance to see this kind of thinking in action, as well as allowing them space to imagine how it could go differently, Diplomacy has achieved its important moral end.

Fences (2016)

Written by: August Wilson, Directed by: Denzel Washington

Fences_(film)            As I gradually began the process of catching up on the 2017 Oscar nominees for best picture, I was both struck (and not surprised at all) when I recalled the lack of buzz drawn by Fences; the story of the family life of Troy Maxson (Denzel Washington), an African-American garbage collector living in 1950s Pittsburgh.

Fences is not a ground-breaking story about being black, poor and gay in America, nor is it a visually stunning homage to ambition and failure in Hollywood. But while Fences lacks the “wow-factor” of its Oscar-nominated peers, it has a distinct voice all the same. The film is adapted from a theatre-script, a script that playwright/screenwriter August Wilson seems to have left largely in tact. The action primarily takes place in front of an ordinary, brick-walled backyard, reminiscent of a stage-set. When a new character arrives, it’s usually with the opening of a door and an introductory line, reproducing theatrical style entrances. And, just as if the film was a play, its set only changes occasionally, forcing the actors to breathe life into the story with their performances.

Upon re-watching fences I came to understand why, in comparison to its Oscar competitors, it was not a great work. The script relies heavily on foreshadowing and exposition, meaning attentive viewers can predict where the film will go as early as its opening scene. This non-subtlety, however, is more than made up for by the impassioned, bantering-style in which the characters deliver their lines.

Troy, for example, spells out what his underlying psychological motivations are, but he does so with in his own, unforgettable way. A former negro-league ballplayer, he regularly complains about how he was better than white major-leaguer George Selkirk. Referencing Selkirk was a strong choice on August Wilson’s part, given that both now and, in all likelihood, in the 50s Selkirk was not exactly a household name (though Yankees fans may recognize him as the Canadian who succeeded Babe Ruth in right-field, performing decently, though not comparably to his predecessor). Troy’s contempt for Selkirk, along with his numerous other informed and not-so-informed baseball references (eg insisting that a black man will never make it with the Pirates, wilfully ignoring Roberto Clemente), contributes to his status as a distinct, well-rounded character; which makes up for the fact that many of his lines are overly expository.

Troy’s story is one of a marginalized man who deals with his oppression by reproducing it in his household with him as the alpha. Despite being a union man who speaks ill his boss, Troy applies a pull-up-your-boostraps approach in his dealings with his two sons, and a patriarchally-domineering attitude towards his wife. Fences, however, cannot be reduced to being a socio-political analysis of the behaviour of a certain kind of man. For much of the film Troy’s jabs at the career choices of his sons are delivered with cockiness, but not anger. And when Troy orders around his wife (Viola Davis) he does so light-heartedly, knowing full well that she won’t let him control her. Washington thus envisions Troy as a character who is troubled, stubborn, and idiosyncratic, but not tyrannical. This portrayal makes Troy’s story engaging, tragic and mysterious, even as the lines on the page are written to be a bit predictable.

Despite its shortcomings, Fences should be remembered as one of the more engaging films of 2017; think of it as a tonal mid-way point between Manchester by the Sea and Paterson, but with a noticeable amount of intersectionally-conscious socio-political commentary. If you’re looking to see some theatre without…well, going to the theatre, or if you share Troy’s view that George Selkirk is the embodiment of racial injustice, why not give Fences a try?