Archive | Essays

The Timeless Blueprint of ‘Selma’

I have seen “Selma,” Ava DuVernay’s remarkable portrait of Martin Luther King Jr. and the three Alabama marches that inspired the 1965 Voting Rights Act, at two press screenings. The first took place in November, and I wept so copiously that I felt it my duty to see the film again in order to write about it objectively.

The second screening was held in mid-December. Common was still rapping, “That’s why we walk through Ferguson with our hands up” over the closing credits as I emerged into a Times Square filled with protestors. Some were silently standing in front of the police station; others were holding signs reading “I Can’t Breathe,” a reference to Eric Garner’s final words as he was choked to death by a cop. For a minute I felt like I was in the film itself, and that’s when I got it: There’s no objective way to see “Selma,” and that’s how it should be. King may have prescribed peaceful protest but he also stated adamantly that there is no neutrality when it comes to the issue of civil rights.

The only man from the twentieth century who has an American federal holiday named after him, Martin Luther King Jr. is almost inarguably our country’s most influential civil rights leader to date. Yet, as improbable as it may seem, “Selma” is the first feature-length film ever made about him. Wisely, DuVernay and screenwriter Paul Webb don’t compensate by covering the entire arc of King’s life. Instead, they pick up right where a more traditional King biopic might have ended: when awards have already been bestowed but important work is left to be done. Continue Reading →

The Secret History of Wonder Woman

Mark Twain once said, “History doesn’t repeat itself but it does rhyme.” Certainly that’s true when it comes to feminism. Women began the twentieth century fighting for the right to vote as well as for legal, affordable contraception. Although they achieved their goals, 100 years later voting is once again a problematic issue and the “right to choose” becomes more tenuous by the day.

Part of the problem is women today take their liberties for granted because they don’t realize how recently they were acquired. “Herstory” isn’t remembered well, even by many activists. And when that’s the case, we’re not just doomed to rhyme; we’re doomed to lose momentum.

In her new book, The Secret History of Wonder Women, Jill Lepore reminds us of the suffragists and feminist utopists of the early twentieth century who helped birth the most popular female superhero of all time. Although the raven-haired Amazon didn’t debut in a comic book until 1941 (just as the United States entered World War II), Lepore details how she harkens back to the first wave of feminism. Continue Reading →

Of a Feather: Short Stories, ‘Birdman,’ and ‘Olive Kitteridge’

“Birdman” is being touted as one of the movies of the year. Certainly it is the best one by Alejandro G. Iñárritu since his 2000 feature, “Amores Perros.” Dizzying, stagy, and constantly on the move, this show-biz comedy turns all the director’s normal delusions of grandeur on their heads – and then levitates them. Literally. The film begins with a shot of Michael Keaton levitating in a dingy backstage dressing room.

Keaton plays Riggan Thomson, a Hollywood has-been who made his fortune playing Birdman, a screen superhero remarkably like Batman, whom Keaton played twice in real life. On a quest for artistic credibility, Riggan is putting on his first Broadway production, and the film takes place entirely in Time Square’s St. James Theater in the days leading up to the show’s premiere. As director, star, and producer, Riggan is bearing what seems like the whole world upon his shoulders. His male lead (Edward Norton) is a viciously talented saboteur who’s dating his female lead (Naomi Watts) and ogling Riggan’s daughter (Emma Stone), an angry waif recently sprung from rehab. Another castmember (Andrea Riseborough) announces she’s pregnant with Riggan’s baby. Critics and moneymen are circling Riggan like vultures, and – speaking of vultures – Riggan can’t seem to shake the ghost of Birdman. Literally, of course. Such flourishes of magic realism are both funny and ominous, though we don’t get the time to determine what they presage. Instead, the film is shot in what seems like one breathless, un-ending take; we never stop racing up and down stairs, darting into murky rooms, and, on one occasion, flying out the theater’s back door and through city streets. (Riggan is naked when this takes place.)

Even when they’re not onstage, the actors are hilariously melodramatic, especially Watts and Norton. Both capable of great subtlety, here they are wonderfully (rather than tiresomely) full of themselves. We can say the same for Iñárritu. A director who often brings sanctimony to a whole new level, for once he seems unwilling to take things as seriously as his protagonists do. A winking hamminess has supplanted the phony naturalism that usually seeps through every frame of his films.

So what’s changed? Continue Reading →

"All, everything I understand, I understand only because I love."
― Leo Tolstoy