Tag Archives: Civil Rights


29 Oct

‘Till’: Mother’s first step seeking justice for son ensures that world sees the violence against him

By Tom Meek Friday, October 28, 2022

Everyone should know the story of Emmett Till, who became a civil rights flashpoint when he was lynched in Mississippi while on school break during the summer of 1955. If you don’t, you now have a personal mandate to see “Till.”

In her telling of the Till saga, writer-director Chinonye Chukwu (“Clemency”) makes some wise narrative choices. First, the film does not crescendo with Emmitt’s unconscionable murder. That hate crime – the very definition of one – happens in its first third, with the brutality remaining off-screen yet still visceral and grim. Secondly, Chukwu gives us both viewpoints as to what happened in a general store when black northerner Emmett (Jayln Hall, giving a wide-eyed, affable turn) bought candy and interacted with Carolyn Bryant (Haley Bennett), the white proprietor of the establishment. We get Emmett’s boyish interaction with Bryant, telling her that she looks like the movie star he carries a photo of in his wallet (in real life, it was a girl in his school class in Chicago). Later, at trial, Bryant claims she was sexually assaulted by the 14-year-old boy, a story now widely held as fabrication and one that appears pretty unbelievable during sham court proceedings.

What Chukwu homes in on is the journey of Emmett’s mother, Mamie Till-Mobley (Danielle Deadwyler, “Station Eleven” and “The Harder They Fall”), and her quest to exact justice in the Jim Crow South at a time no black person could reasonably hope to find justice. Mamie’s character arc is radical, rewarding and well done, thanks to Deadwyler’s effusive commitment and heartfelt conveyance. When we meet Mamie she’s apprehensive about Emmett’s sojourn south by himself to visit cousins. The warnings from Mamie, Emmett’s uncle (John Douglas Thompson) and cousins – to not engage with or raise an eye to a white person and, if you do, to submit and back off – are profuse. Later that evening after the encounter, Bryant’s husband Roy (Sean Michael Webber) and friend J.W. Milam (Eric Whitten) and a small posse show up and abduct Emmett from his uncle’s house.

Crushed by the news of Emmett’s death, Mamie demands the body. After encouragement from the NAACP to fight the crime, she holds an open-casket funeral to show the world what was done to her son; the rendering of the bloated, mutilated body is not easy to take, which was the point then and now. If you had yet to be sparked by outrage, here’s your match.

With the resources of the NAACP, Mamie is able to press charges and get Roy and J.W. in court. But as history shows, they were acquitted (by an all-white jury). Shortly afterward, they confessed to the murder in a story in Look magazine for which they received $4,000. Carolyn Bryant also allegedly confessed in an interview with Duke University scholar Timothy Tyson that “Nothing that boy did could ever justify what happened to him,” though those conclusive words were not recorded.

To its credit, the film does not end on such a defeatist note, but moves on from the trial with Mamie’s continuing to fight in the civil rights movement. The transformation from fraught, worrying mother to empowered activist is earned and complete. At the core is Mamie’s deep emotional resolve despite her initial apprehension to step onto a national stage, but once there, there is no wavering. Next to Cate Blanchett’s remarkable incarnation of an egomaniacal conductor in “Tár,” Deadwyler delivers the most essential and critical performance in a film this year. The film’s also crafted with caring nuance, as much about a mother’s personal journey as about social shifting events. There’s nothing didactic or shaming and there’s no need; the shame is right there in history, an inglorious, senseless bloody stain – the film is just a reminder of it. Feeling too late but not too little, the The Emmett Till Antilynching Act was signed into law this year, amending the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act.

Judas and the Black Messiah

14 Feb

Judas and the Black Messiah’: Black Panthers attempt to change history, but it repeats itself

By Tom MeekFriday, February 12, 2021

“Judas and the Black Messiah” begins as a fairly rote history lesson – though an important one – detailing the galvanization of the Black Panther Party in Chicago in 1968 and onward in the wake of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. and the year’s chaotic Democratic convention (so beautifully chronicled by Haskell Wexler’s “Medium Cool,” a wild blend of real footage and staged narrative, and Aaron Sorkin’s faux follow-on, “The Trial of the Chicago Seven,” which came out last year).

The film, directed by Shaka King (“Newlyweeds”), is blessed with the thespian thunder and lightning punch of Daniel Kaluuya (“Get Out”) and LaKeith Stanfield (“Sorry to Bother You”) playing 21-year-old Black Panther leader Fred Hampton and Bill O’Neal, Hampton’s security adviser who also happened to be an FBI informant. Hampton as depicted seems enlightened and visionary beyond his years – charismatic, powerfully eloquent in the way other iconic Black leaders of the era were, and willing to take up arms if the structures of society try to cage or emasculate a people. It’s a riveting tour de force by Kaluuya, but the film’s engine and drive comes from its Judas. King, who also penned the script, tries to cast O’Neal in a somewhat sympathetic light, more pressed by his FBI handlers (Jesse Plemons and Martin Sheen as J. Edgar Hoover), but we also get framing footage of a 1990 interview with the real-life O’Neal (his only interview), and the character in the dramatization and the one in the archive reel don’t feel congruent. It’s not hampering to the film, which finds fire as the Panther movement builds, matched by police that employ offensive (and perhaps illegal) force to hammer it down. But it does leave the enigmatic burn of just who was Bill O’Neal, and what was his motivation?

How things sort out in history for Hampton and O’Neal is on the record, and to give those details here I believe would be to underserve the film and the viewing experience. In texture, “Judas and the Black Messiah” reminds me of Kathryn Bigelow’s dark, underappreciated 2017 unrest drama “Detroit,” in that it takes a smaller chapter of the civil rights struggle and shines a light on police audacity and social inequity. In their dramatic richness, the films help to keep those chapters in our minds, educate, revise the record and spark historical and social interest. “Judas” does all that and cements Kaluuya as an A-lister.

Green Book

22 Nov

‘Green Book’: Tour through segregated South drives a buddy movie that follows a true tale


Image result for green book

Peter Farrelly, best known as half of the brother tandem who made “Dumb and Dumber” (1994) and the chaotically uproarious “There’s Something About Mary” (1998), pulls something of an unexpected about face with “Green Book,” real-life saga about a white man chauffeuring a black man through the Deep South during the early 1960s.

The boss is Dr. Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali, a deserving Oscar winner for his work in “Moonlight”), a renowned jazz pianist tired of playing the Upper East Side who decides to take his talents south – in part to see the world, and also to make the world see him. His driver, a Bronx-bred Italian-American name Frank Anthony Vallelonga, aka Tony Lip (Viggo Mortensen). Tony is something akin to Robert De Niro’s fat Jake LaMotta – boy can he eat, he’s not one to take too much shit and he’s got a mouth. It’s “Driving Miss Daisy” (1989) in reverse in so many ways, with its racist backdrop still far too similar to what pervades our country now. Once difference is that the current “green book” is an app with historical insights; from 1936 to 1966, it was a vital guide to safe spots in the segregated South.

For the most part, the film’s a buddy bonding road movie, as the aloof intellectual and motor-mouthed lout with a heart of gold break down cultural and personal barriers. At its best, Tony doesn’t judge Don Shirley after bailing him out of several compromising and potentially explosive situations where the jazz pianist dips into the bottle too much and wanders outside the lines. At its worst, Tony lectures Shirley about “his people,” Motown stars the classical musician hasn’t heard (Little Richard and Aretha) and the virtues of fried chicken – a cringeworthy scene, if just for the risky proximity of grease to a neatly pressed white shirt. 

Farrelly lays it on a bit at times where films such as “Hidden Figures” (2016) “Miss Daisy” and “The Butler” (2013) respectfully observe and allow character and history to make points on their own terms. His actors, though, do a great job selling it, and forge a genuine chemistry, despite such overwrought handling – Ali welling with dignified resolve and Mortensen adding a ton of weight and tackling new emotional territory with a screwball sense of humor. Shirley has to stay in seedier hotels and can’t use the same restroom as white people, even though he’s the allegedly well-respected main attraction. Ultimately there’s the big end-of-tour performance in Birmingham at a white-glove country club (where Nat King Cole was once assaulted). The maitre’d, trying to appeal to Tony, explains that when the world champion Boston Celtics came to town, “even the big one didn’t get to eat in the club” after polite use of such phrases as “it’s a tradition” and “that’s how we do things down here.” Sign of the times, and one not to be forgotten.

Hidden Figures

7 Jan

One of the best films of 2016 (yes, it opened in New York City and Los Angeles a few weeks ago as part of awards season’s annual bait-and-switch shenanigans) happens to be a sentimental crowdpleaser that, for all its potential schmaltz and didactic pitfalls, maintains an incredibly poignant balance especially when it comes to matters of race – and there’s plenty of them; “Hidden Figures” is about three African-American women employed as engineers and mathematicians by NASA during the first space launch, just as Martin Luther King Jr.’s historic push for Civil Rights was gaining its groundswell.

It’s not a widely known bit of history, but Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), Mary Jackson (singer Janelle Monáe, successfully doubling up as an actor) and Dorothy Vaughan (Oscar winner Octavia Spencer, killer good) toiled for NASA during the Mercury space program as engineers and computers – mathematicians doing the technical legwork before Big Blue dropped its first mainframe – and proved critical in getting John Glenn up and into orbit. One of the film’s most telling – and touching – moments comes when Glenn (Glen Powell) meets Johnson during a technical assembly of scientists and mucky-mucks where she’s not only the only woman or person of color in the room, but the only one able to solve complicated flight variables mathematically. Later, when there’s a snag in the mission and the reentry point needs recalculating, he asks for her aid, referring to her simply as the “the smart one.” Continue reading