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“What happened, Miss Simone?” Review. Oscar documentary series.

I’ll admit it: I’m weird. I actually really look forward to the nominations for best documentary every year. The 2016 class is one of the best I can remember. They’re all sad stories, as documentaries often are, but each offers a compelling look at both the unique personal struggles that people face every day, and the harrowing dangers involved in movements that sweep across nations.

In this post, I review a film about an amazing, unsung titan of music history:

What Happened, Miss Simone?

Chronicling the unlikely rise, tragic fall, and comeback of singer, songwriter, pianist, and activist Nina Simone, this movie takes an unflinching look at a talented woman’s life through old footage, new interviews, and the revealing personal diaries she left behind.

I has happy to see Nina get some love here since pop history has largely forgotten her role in the music scene of the sixties and seventies. She wrote the classic, “Feeling Good”, which is one of the classic jazz/big-band songs and was more recently popularized by Michael Buble’s (capable but watered-down) cover. She influenced everyone from John Lennon to Alicia Keys to Adele. All throughout the movie, I saw shades of Lauryn Hill, and I was reminded that so much of who an artist is comes from those they idolized.

The film does a great job of chronicling her triumphs as a young black, Southern girl who wasn’t very pretty but she did have immense talent. That talent brought her out of her humble beginnings and made her a jazz legend, and the story is told through some interviews with family, but mostly in Nina’s own voice from various archival interviews she did decades ago. Everything is flawlessly edited together to create this sense that Nina’s almost talking to you, personally.

This is a documentary about a musician, so of course there’s a lot of music in it. Jazz isn’t everybody’s cup of tea, so I can’t say that everybody will love the music here. But every song is carefully chosen and timed to fit into the film’s narrative. This isn’t a fluff film about a singer’s greatest hits. This is an honest, holistic look at the life behind the music; a life that is a sad reality for so many artists.

nina-serious

The movie’s strength does not lie in how it portrays Nina’s greatness. The film really works because of how it handles the truth of her weaknesses. She could be a menacing person, both in her performances and in her personal life with her husband and her daughter. We see and hear the people who knew her talk about how challenging she could be, but through Nina’s diary entries we also see that she was very aware of a maelstrom of conflict and emotion going on inside her. Her problems led to a dramatic downturn in what was once a lauded career.

The most controversial aspect of the film is Nina’s relationship with her husband and manager. It doesn’t take long to learn that he was abusive, and the film allows him the opportunity to tell his side of the story through footage of old interviews (which don’t really paint him in any better light). But the film also very clearly states that Nina seemed to be complicit in her abuse. There’s a sense that, in some perverse way, she lived for the conflict; perhaps even needed it. It is a brutally complex story that is woven throughout the middle of the film.

Later in the movie, we get a medical explanation for all those years of sound and fury that put Nina’s family, her managers, and promoters into chaos. But it comes almost as a matter of course. By that point in the film, any viewer can come to their own conclusion that she just…wasn’t quite right.

But her diagnosis (which is revealed through an interview with her daughter), leads into the final act of the movie where we see Nina enjoy a resurgence in her career. And, for the first time, she seems really happy to perform. It’s a peaceful resolution to a film that spent so much time detailing Nina’s rocky, roller coaster life, but it does deliver something close to what you almost never see in a documentary these days: a happy ending.

You can catch What Happened, Miss Simone? for free on Netflix. For a review of another Oscar-nominated documentary about a troubled starlet, check out my review of Amy

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A writer’s take on #OscarsSoWhite

Yes, this is one more post about the lack of diversity in the Oscars. But, hopefully, this one will bring some perspective you haven’t considered before.

Last night I engaged in a spirited debate on Reddit about the merits of the #OscarsSoWhite movement. I think I changed a lot of minds, judging by the number of upvotes. So I want to put those thoughts on a broader medium, and hopefully arm others with the points they can use to win their own arguments.

As a writer myself, I create casts of characters that reflect the world at large. Diversity is one of my main themes, because that is the world I see when I go outside and live in the rich metropolis that is LA. But, sadly, many creators here fail to translate these multicultural gifts into their work.

So we know there is a deeply disappointing lack of diversity in the Oscars again. But what’s the cause? How do we fix it? Is this hashtag movement even doing anything?

Let’s try to answer those questions by responding to the most common retorts to the movement.

Don’t blame the Oscar voters; blame the industry

This ignores who the Oscar voters are; they ARE the industry. This isn’t the press or fans voting. These are people who worked (or are currently working) in the industry. Top of their field. The Producers Guild of America (PGA) membership overlaps most with the Academy’s. These are people who have the ability, resources, and influence to help get more minorities into film. They are the exact people you’d want to lobby.

And, unfortunately, they are overwhelmingly white (94%), old (62 and up), and male (74%).

Now, don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing wrong with being an old white guy. The world needs old white guys. But when such an important body that is supposedly curating the best film contributions of all groups is overwhelmingly comprised of just one group, it leads to a lack of diverse perspective that can appreciate a film or script or actor outside the Oscar “norm”.

There weren’t enough “black” movies out there that warranted nomination

Putting aside the problem with designating a movie as “black” or “white”, this statement just isn’t true.

Just a few of the critically lauded films with majority black casts that were eligible for Oscar noms:

  • Dope
  • Tangerine
  • Chi-raq
  • Girlhood – French film, critically acclaimed (96% on RottenTomatoes), yet never made it to the conversation for best foreign language film (because France submitted Mustang, a similarly reviewed film about pale Turkish girls, unlike Girlhood which is all dark black girls. Just sayin’).

And it’s not just “black” movies here. It doesn’t have to be black movies. Latinos and Asians do make movies too.

Me, Earl, and the Dying girl – diverse cast, won the Sundance Grand Jury Prize AND the Sundance Audience Award, directed by a Latino. No Oscar love.

Yeah, but those movies you mentioned didn’t make a lot of money. Nobody saw them

I hear this argument often, and it’s somewhat valid for the industry as a whole, however when it comes to the Oscars it falls apart for one simple reason:

It’s only very recently that many Oscar nominated movies did well at the box office, and even today, a lot of them don’t.

Take Birdman for instance. It was far, far from a box office smash. The only reason it did as well as it did was BECAUSE of the Oscar buzz. It was one of the lowest-grossing Best Picture winners ever.

The Artist grossed less than 50 mil in box office but it beat out The Help for Best Picture (which did very well, grossing 177.5 million, proving that black women can indeed bring in both money and award recognition if you cast them)

Children of Men? Nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay, Cinematography, and Editing. Ho hum at the box office (widely considered a commercial flop).

The Hurt Locker hadn’t even cleared 15 million at the box office until the Oscar buzz started.

So it’s safe to say a lot of people didn’t see a lot of Oscar movies, or were even aware of them until they started getting Oscar buzz. And that’s okay; the Oscars aren’t supposed to be about who made the most money.

But a big part of the discrepancy that is very important in the spirit of #OscarsSoWhite is that movies without majority white casts aren’t getting the “Oscar bump” that pulls them out of obscurity, like so many other movies got (including last year’s best picture winner Birdman).

Yeah but black movies specifically don’t make money unless they’re stupid comedies and that’s why the industry doesn’t make them

Oh really?

  • Creed: 181 million box
  • Straight Outta Compton: 200 Million Box office
  • 42: 97 million
  • The Butler: 116 million domestic alone

I could go on.

Okay, so what’s the deal? Why aren’t more minorities getting roles in these movies

This is the most important question, and there are many theories. Here’s mine.

I live in LA (I can actually go outside, look up, and see the Hollywood sign), and I am dipping my toe into the screenwriting businesses. There is a strong culture of “default white”. Meaning that UNLESS you very specifically make a character a certain ethnicity, the producers and casting directors will just default to white.

And it’s not just me saying this. The ScriptNotes podcast (led by screenwriters John August and Craig Mazin) is arguably the most famous and influential podcast on Hollywood filmmaking. They covered this very problem in their 180th episode where they had guest Aline Brosh Mckenna (who wrote The Devil Wears Prada).

Quote from the transcript:

John: And I want to go back to something you said earlier. If you don’t stipulate that a person is a certain — is not white –

Aline: Yes.

John: That person will be white. And that’s the thing I sort of found again and again as you sort of go through the casting. So I do that thing what you talk about where I will deliberately give a person, you know, a Chinese last name so that they will look at Chinese actors for that part, because if you don’t do that, the default just tends to become white.

That doesn’t mean that casting directors are racist. In fact a lot of them are quite nice, open-minded people. But they’re working in a world that has been traditionally white, largely because it was allowed to be that way for so long. Every art looks to what came before for inspiration, but in the case of Hollywood cinema the past was lily white because nobody else was allowed to play.

Additionally, a lot of these people grew up in WASPy environments with not a lot of diversity. So they stick to what they know, and everything ends up default white, until you challenge them on it.

Perhaps the best example I can think of here is the casting of Danny Glover in Lethal Weapon. Marion Dougherty, legendary casting director who blazed trails in her own right as a woman, read the Lethal Weapon script and talked with director Richard Donner. And the convo went something like this:

Marion: “What about Danny Glover?”

Donner: “But he’s black!”

Marion: “So what, he’s black. He can act. The script doesn’t say anything about Murtaugh’s race.”

To his credit, Donner had an epiphany, questioned his own prejudices, and cast Glover (and became good friends with him). Donner talks about this in a speech he gave awarding Glover some award (I can’t find it now, but it’s in the great movie Casting By).

Moral of the story: nothing changes if we don’t call it out consistently and vocally. Many times people aren’t even really aware of what they’re doing, or they’re working off of outdated beliefs about what can work in the industry.

As long as we keep calling the industry out on it, things will change. We need more Marion Dougherty’s.

*header image courtesy of Lee and Low books (blog.leeandlow.com)

Screenplay with annotations
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Adventures in Screenwriting

I’ve started writing movie scripts. My first one is basically complete, and currently undergoing edits. I’m in that special “gratification” phase between “I’ll never finish” and “everything I wrote is crap and I don’t know why I’m doing this”. Needless to say, I’m enjoying the gratification while it lasts.

But, as a novelist, I have to say I enjoyed writing a full length story in a month. Novels are long, laborious works of love and sweat and pain and joy. But the screenplay thing is quick in comparison, and an exciting process from beginning to end. I am 100% sure that this is because I’ve spent so many years crafting stories in long form. Somebody just starting out in screenwriting would probably find it very challenging. It’s all relative.

For me, screenplays are an outlet for the stories I’ve had in my head for years, but they weren’t quite right for a book. Sometimes I think of stories that are rich in visuals, audio, and sight gags…and it’s quite difficult to pull those off in prose. But with the screenplay I can paint with images, and that’s creatively liberating.

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Movie Review: Ida

One of the Oscar categories that Americans routinely do not “get” is the Foreign Language film. Mainstream audiences typically hate subtitles, and they really hate stories they can’t relate to. The cinema sensibilities of Europe, South America, and Asia don’t always cleanly translate to those of us used to Hollywood structure, and Ida is sadly just the latest film fitting the trend. Ida is black and white, slow, takes place in Poland, and has very little music. For all those reasons, it was destined to be a movie not many people saw. But it is a beautiful film nonetheless, and one worth watching mainly because of its cinematography.

To be honest, I found it a little hard to watch Ida all the way through. At one hour and 22 minutes run-time it’s not even a long movie, but its slow pace makes it feel like it’s dragging along. Much of that is due to the film’s remarkable lack of sound. There’s little dialogue, and hardly any music. But this is not the kind of movie you watch for thrills and excitement.

Where Ida really shines is in its visual storytelling, but it doesn’t use expensive CGI or rich colorful landscapes. Director Pawel Pawlikowski pulls off the amazing feat of making the ordinary look stunning. He takes simple, drab settings that most of us would not pay any attention to and he puts them in a different perspective that finds astonishing beauty in mundane surroundings.

Ida GIF

I like directors who try to make their movies so beautiful that each shot is a work of art, and Ida is that kind of movie. From beginning to end, you can take a random moment in the film, print it, stick on the wall of an art exhibit, and pass it off as the work of a master photographer. That’s what makes this film truly special. The story isn’t much, and it’s certainly not going to leave you with any good feelings when the end credits roll, but you will definitely remember the images which tell a story far behind the sparse words in the script.

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This post is part of my Oscars 2015 series, where I review/discuss movies up for that coveted golden trophy. Check out the first post in the series, my review of Birdman

Birdman screencap
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Movie Review: Birdman

I finally somehow created the time to see Birdman at an odd time on a weekday. I can see why it’s getting so much recent award love. The first hour gave me a revealing and intimate perspective on the craft of acting that I haven’t seen before. The second hour focuses on flawed people trying to deal with reality; an ironic tale of what’s it like to try to have a real life when you’re a professional pretender. I can see why some critics wouldn’t be great fans of it, but I can also see why people in “the biz” love it. To really understand why the movie is suddenly gaining Oscar momentum for the coveted Best Picture award, you have to understand the interesting, insular town where all this voting is done.

I recently moved from the west side of LA to Hollywood, just a couple blocks away from the Dolby Theater where the Oscars will be held. Even before I made the move, there was a feeling that you just can’t escape the movie business here. It permeates everything. Several true stories from my time here in LA:

  • Ran into Jamie Lee Curtis at the grocery store
  • Went to my mom’s place and there was a film crew setting up shop outside
  • Overhead the manager at the Chipotle off Hollywood and Vine saying he actually went to (and finished) film school
  • Was walking home and a guy was on his cell phone encouraging the person on the other end of the line that yes, they really did have what it takes to be a showrunner

The last 3 items happened just in the past three days. This city breathes and bleeds the performing arts, and the basic building blocks of film and theater are the actors/actresses who make it all look like magic when it’s actually often incredibly difficult and draining.

Although Birdman is set in New York’s theater scene, the story has many Hollywood connections (the lead character is a former Hollywood star trying his hand at “important” work in theater, and trying to get other Hollywood actors on board but they’re too busy). Actors are actors whether they’re on a stage or a set. And the people who live and work with the actors are just as much a part of the process even though you never see them. Birdman is a genuine look at not only the process of professional make believe, but also the people who get ground up in the gears of the acting machine either directly or indirectly. Those voters at the Screen Actors Guild and Producers Guild and “The Academy” are all in “the biz”. When they see this movie they probably see a part of their own lives, and sometimes it’s in an unflattering light but it’s always genuine.

Of course, Birdman has many other things going for it. The actors are fantastic. The script is punchy and surprising. The direction is outstanding and incredibly detailed. The approach of doing the film all in one big “single shot” sequence also makes the film seem simultaneously real and also surreal. And the driving drum beat in the background of the major scenes, while jarring at first, keeps the viewer alert and in the moment.

It is a skillfully crafted film, but its greatest strength in this award season is that it is a skillfully crafted film about the craft that all the voters have committed their lives to supporting in one way or another.

2014: The Year in Stories
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2014: The year in storytelling

I’m a writer. I tell stories. So, much of my perspective of the world is through a lens focused on how we mere human beings reach for the divine through our fiction, the stories we tell of what might be instead of what is. While a popular thing to do this week is lament all the political and social strife that have left their mark on our minds and hearts, I want to take a moment to be a bit contrarian and talk about how 2014 was a great year for the art of storytelling.

Movies fell in love with science, and scientists

Interstellar, The Theory of Everything, and The Imitation Game sold audiences on hard science and engineering, and the very human stories behind the people who make it all happen. In a time when so many people feel that America is falling into an age of anti-intellectualism, this was a huge and welcome trend.

Comic book stories on the big and small screens aren’t as much about superheroes; un-super heroes shone too

The comic book industry has long provided a treasure trove for the movie industry, but this year so a little departure from focus on the guys with crazy powers and focused on the heroes who can’t fly, don’t have super strength, and don’t have healing factors. Gotham took Batman out of the Batman story and mostly focused on the crazy but fascinating crime drama of Gotham city, sticking to a simple formula of cops vs. robbers. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D Season 2 mostly did away with the superhero stories from season 1 and focused on the human team and how they had to use tech, smarts, and guts to win the day. And the blockbuster comic movie of the year, Guardians of the Galaxy, stars a guy who is pretty much your average bro (despite being half alien).

The book industry didn’t change much, which is maybe a good thing

Although we did see some big battles among publishers over digital distribution, and there were some experiments that may change the future of how people pay for books and how authors get paid, for the most part the year in fiction books was pretty similar to previous years, with young adult stories selling well but also big names like King, Grisham, and Murakami topping the charts. And we also saw the continuation of a trend that should surprise no one: movies sell books more than anything else.

As Variety notes:

Nine of the 10 top selling books of the year were tied into a film adaptation or film franchise of some kind, with various publications of John Green’s “The Fault in Our Stars,” first published in 2012, occupying three of the 10 slots. The success of Green’s novel and its film adaptation, which earned more than $300 million in global box office this year, propelled his 2007 title “Looking for Alaska” into the tenth spot, marking the only standalone, non-film-related novel on the book list.

2014 saw some changes in the storytelling industry, and trends are starting to shift. But most important of all is the recognition that we DO still have a thriving storytelling industry that uses fiction to help us gain perspective on reality.

Persons of Color in Comic Book Movies

I had an interesting chat on GoodReads recently, and figured I’d make an extended version of my comments on the blog. The topic started in the Multiculturalism in YA,Fantasy, Sci FI,Paranormal and fun books group, and the issue at hand was the news that the next Fantastic Four movie might have a black actor (Michael B. Jordan) as Johnny Storm aka The Human Torch (a character who has always been white in the past). The news spurred some very disturbing but not-very-surprising Internet conversation about race. We’ve seen this kind of thing before, and we will no doubt see it again. But I think it’s important to look at the issue from multiple perspectives, and to constantly revisit it as American society shifts and evolves.

As an African-American author, and life-long comic book fan, I actually don’t like it when Hollywood changes the races of well-established characters. This is partially because I’m kind of a comic book purist/nerd, and partially because I just don’t think it’s necessary. Comic books are already full of interesting, popular characters of color (who have always been that way). We don’t need revisionist heroes.

John Stewart appeared in the Green Lantern corps in 1971
John Stewart appeared in the Green Lantern corps in 1971

 

People who read comics know that Marvel, Image, and DC comics have been introducing characters of many races since the ’70s, and there was an explosion of multiculturalism in the ’90s. Characters like Bishop, Jubilee, ShadowHawk, War Machine, DeathLok, Luke Cage, Spawn, Blade, Cloak from Cloak and Dagger, Sunspot, and Forge emerged in the most popular comics of their time. In some cases a hero is more of an icon than a particular person, and over the years their personas were passed on to new characters of different races, like black John Stewart joining the Green Lantern corps waaaaay back in 1971 or Steel joining the Superman corps in the ’90s or Miguel O’Hara becoming the first latino Spider Man in the early ’90s during the “Spider Man 2099” series. These characters were also prominently featured on TV (Bishop and Jubilee had major roles in the beloved ’90s X-Men cartoon, and John Stewart has been a major character in the Justice League cartoons). There are plenty of non-white characters in comic book lore who are very popular and have been so for many many years. Hollywood just needs to invest in them.

Chinese-American Jubilee and Wolverine have been teaming up for over 20 years
Chinese-American Jubilee and Wolverine have been teaming up for over 20 years

 

New Line Cinema has been the most forward-thinking studio in promoting non-white lead comic characters, having distributed both the Blade series and Spawn. Those were both fairly successful franchises financially, even though they weren’t exactly the best movies. But then we had Halle Berry as Catwoman, and things haven’t been the same since :-). Right now all we have is Nick Fury (who had a race-change in the comics long ago), but I have hopes things will change soon. The latest rumor is that Black Panther will FINALLY start shooting in 2014 after years of various actors/producers (including Wesley Snipes) trying to get it out of development hell, Bishop and Warpath are in X-Men: Days of Future Past, Zoe Seldana is confirmed to co-star in Guardians of the Galaxy, and if there is a Green Lantern reboot I would not be surprised if they went with a black actor because there’s strong precedent for that already in the Justice League cartoons.

Still, certain people in Hollywood will still opt for changing the race of old minor characters; creating “hand-me-down heroes” in an effort to bring something new to a franchise without too much risk. For lesser-known characters, race changes usually work out just fine (see Michael Clark Duncan as The Kingpin or Jamie Foxx as Electro in the upcoming Spider Man film). There wasn’t much complaint about either decision, probably because no one really had an attachment to either character (they’re not well-known among general audiences). It’s only when people start messing with the beloved “iconic” characters that the nerd-rage comes out. I do like the idea of opening up fiction to different interpretations and possibilities, and adding an actor that doesn’t fit the traditional race of the character is one way to do that, but it has to be done at the right time and with the right stories, and too often when it happens in Hollywood it feels forced and disingenuous.

If you’re interested in learning more about persons of color in comics, here are a few suggestions:

  • The Black Panther. Not only is he like an African Batman, he’s the head of a whole country!
  • The Spawn comics from the 90s were incredible.
  • Shadowhawk from Image Comics (who also tackled the topic of HIV when Shadowhawk contracted the disease in the 90s).
  • If you like Iron Man, War Machine did have his own comic for many years and Rhodey is quite a different character than Tony Stark.
  • Anything with Jubilee and Wolverine. They’re an odd couple, but that makes them all the more entertaining

You can find collections for all these on Amazon, or visit your local comic book store.