Friday, June 14, 2019

Facing Life (and Death) in the ‘Hood: The Hate U Give

High school, the movies tell us, is Hell. High school is a place where boys, pushed in unfamiliar directions by puberty, vie to prove their machismo.  Being labeled a geek, a jock, or a brainiac hardly makes life easy. And girls face their own special challenges. Puberty strongly affects them too, as does the feeling of needing to fit into a social clique. Recent flicks like Lady Bird and this year’s Booksmart explore the mixed-up psyches of high school girls. Looking back a bit, we could call this a genre, and include on the list such high-school-set movies as Heathers (1998), Mean Girls (2004), and Easy A (2010), all of them focusing on smart young women trying to figure out their place in the world.

The girls in these movies face boy problems, best-friend problems, too-smart-for-her-own-good problems. But Starr Carter, the girl at the center of The Hate U Give, has problems of a much more life-and-death kind. At age 16, she’s just seen a close childhood friend needlessly gunned down by a cop at a traffic stop. And six years earlier, when she was only ten, another best friend died in a drive-by shooting. Such is life, we’re told, when your skin is black and you live in what most people call the ghetto.

Starr’s parents, Big Mav and Lisa, highly value their ethnic roots. They’ve chosen to make their home where they grew up, in Garden Heights, a place they consider (despite the gangs and the drug dealers) a genuine community. Still, out of concern for their children’s welfare,  they’re now bypassing the local public school to send the kids to Williamson, a posh suburban academy. That’s where Starr learns the fine art of code-switching, shifting her home-grown speech patterns so that her classmates are never reminded of her inner-city origins. As she explains in the voiceover that continues throughout the film, the white kids love using black phrases and intonations, because “slang makes them cool. Slang makes me ‘hood.” That’s why the uniform-wearing preppie she calls Starr Version 2.0  is not comfortable sharing with her school friends the trauma she’s just experienced, even though news of Khalil’s death has rocked the city and she herself has been asked to testify in front of a grand jury probing the police officer’s conduct. .

The Hate U Give (the title comes from a Tupac Shakur lyric) is based on a Young Adult novel that’s been an international best-seller since 2017. The novel, by Angie Thomas, presents a wide social panorama that includes ghetto thugs, yuppie suburbanites, good-hearted elders, and a black cop who serves as the Carter family’s alternate father-figure. Family dynamics are complicated. Starr’s dad -- of whom she lovingly says, “You set an example of what a man should be” -- has a prison record and is raising a child he fathered with a woman who’s now in thrall to the local gang lord. Perhaps because of the novel’s huge success, the filmmakers have stayed largely faithful to the source material, to the point that a casual viewer will surely be confused by the intricacy of the relationships on display.

A few big changes have been made, though. That Grand Jury scene is shot impressionistically, for greater impact, with the dead boy appearing as a ghostly presence in the jury box. Starr’s parents, in the film version, never abandon Garden Heights, despite the retaliation they face from gang-affiliated hoodlums. And a key moment featuring Starr’s younger brother vividly drives home Tupac’s point: "The Hate U Give Little Infants Fucks Everybody." It’s a thought worth considering.

Tuesday, June 11, 2019

Tap-Dancing Around TV on the Tonys

This past weekend, Broadway celebrated itself with the annual Antoinette Perry awards. Although, in this era of streaming and binge-watching, no televised awards show can hope to capture the Nielsen ratings it once enjoyed, for the viewing public the Tony shindig is still the most entertaining of the bunch. Partly this is because those savvy Tony folks give out their less exciting awards during commercial breaks, so that we at home never have to sit through the honoring of the year’s best sound designer or lighting maven. And each host is carefully selected on the basis of sparkling personality, musical talent, and for being a familiar living-room presence. For years, Neil Patrick Harris was the go-to Tony host, and he made an amusing cameo appearance in 2019. Lin-Manuel Miranda has also ably taken on the job. But in 2019 the role of the MC went to the ebullient James Corden, who nimbly presided over the festivities on the gargantuan Radio City Music Hall stage.

The Tony event, needless to say, is always a celebration of the joys of live theatre, as epitomized by Broadway. In fact, Corden’s splashy opening number emphasized the fact that “This is live! . . . We are alive!” In other words, part of the excitement of Broadway (ideally, at least) is its freshness, its spontaneity, its sense that anything can happen. (Of course there are also drawbacks: cramped theatre aisles, iffy air conditioning, rude seatmates, an endless line to the ladies’ room at intermission.) Award-winning actors are always insisting that the theatre is their true home. Still, it remains true that many of Broadway’s brightest stars spend most of their time on the tube. See, for instance, the great Audra MacDonald (currently a regular on The Good Fight) and Laurie Metcalf (The Conners), as well as Corden himself. Though this jolly Brit was first introduced to America in 2011 as the Tony-winning star of an updated Italian farce, A Man and Two Guvnors, he is today known and loved by millions for hosting The Late Late Show, home of both “Carpool Karaoke” and the even wackier “Crosswalk the Musical.”

Because TV is his bread and butter, it makes sense that Corden’s opening number amusingly tap-danced around the love-hate relationship between the stage and the screen. “We’re much better than television,” he said at one point. In the next breath, he and his fellow thespians quickly pointed out some exceptions to this statement: Game of Thrones, Fleabag, Mrs. Maisel, Big Little Lies. And so on, and so on. Eventually, Corden was forced to admit the truth: “We love you, TV . . . you pay us so much more.”

This being so, it was no fluke that some of the nominees in major categories were movie and Tv personalities, whose box-office clout could help their stage shows to thrive. Among this Best Actor candidates were two genuine Hollywood stars appearing in theatrical versions of beloved movies. Jeff Daniel was cited for playing the Gregory Peck role in To Kill a Mockingbird. (Yes, I know it was a novel first.) And Bryan Cranston, the ultimate Tony winner, took on the part made famous on screen by Peter Finch, that of the half-crazed news anchor in Network, he who’s “as made as hell  and . . .  not gonna take it anymore.” Leave it to smart producers to understand that the ticket-buying public prefers familiar faces and familiar plot lines. And, in some cases, familiar costumes. Like the va-va-voom outfits that brought 80-year-old Bob Mackie a Tony for this year’s The Cher Show. Yes, we’d seen them before.

Friday, June 7, 2019

Tessa Thompson Addresses “Dear White People”

Poster mocks white folks' fascination with black hair

These days it’s hard to keep track of Tessa Thompson. Her image seems to be everywhere:  on billboards advertising the new Men in Black: International; on the tripartite cover of Vanity Fair, draped alongside other rising stars in a red dress to die for. I picked up a recent copy of Time saluting “Next Generation Leaders,” and there she was in a dramatic solo cover photo. Inside Tessa was given a full-page interview that probed her views on sexuality, race, and filmmaking, labeling her “an activist first, an actor second.”

Not bad at all for the perky young lady who used to hang out with my son after drama class at Santa Monica High School. She always had a personality to reckon with; now she’s entering the celebrity pantheon.

Tessa has recently been seen as an earnest young activist in Selma, as the girlfriend of the boxer in the Creed films, as the flawed superhero Valkyrie in Thor: Ragnarok, and as the outside-the-law star of a small indie, Little Woods. She also registered strongly on TV’s Westworld series. She seems to have roles galore coming up, including a stint voicing the top dog in a remake of Disney’s Lady and the Tramp. (Who knew?) But her breakout role was that of Samantha (“Sam”) White in Justin Simien’s 2014 satire of race relations at a tony liberal arts college, Dear White People.

I just re-watched this film recently, and found it delightful. It’s very much a product of the Obama era—the knucklehead president of Winchester College feels comfortable announcing that “racism is over in America”—but the issues it comically broaches are, alas, still with us today. What makes Dear White People so funny is the fact that virtually everyone (students, faculty, administrative staff) is essentially a hypocrite. The president may talk about educational goals, but he’s really fixated on sucking up to wealthy alumni. The dean (solemnly played by the invaluable Dennis Haysbert) is most concerned about his ongoing rivalry with the president. The campus militants ready to protest racism at every turn all seem to have ulterior motives too: one young Asian woman who hangs with the Black Student Union instead of supporting her own ethnic group explains, “You guys got better snacks.” Nor does the film overlook other campus types, like the misfit nerd, the future politician (who would really be happier as a comedy writer) and the “bougie” black chick relying on her “good hair” to get her the attention she craves. As for the most obnoxious of the white kids, the ones who gleefully promote a party mocking black stereotypes, they’re too pleased with themselves to be anything but jerks.  

Tessa’s role is one of the few that filmmaker Simien regards with some sympathy. As Sam, a student filmmaker whose “Dear White People” radio show is broadcast all over campus, she’s famous for her feisty take-downs of white assumptions. Her intensity is her hallmark. Someone says of her that “Spike Lee and Oprah had some sort of pissed-off baby.” But Sam’s got her secrets too, like a sympathetic white boyfriend who knows her favorite movie maven is actually not Spike Lee but Ingmar Bergman. It’s not until late in the film that we discover why she fights so hard to assert her blackness. This revelation confirms the film’s intelligence. Simien goes far beyond the outrageous hijinks of most college-based movies, drawing his various plot strands together to help us see something real about today’s campus life. And gives us a whole lot of laughs along the way.

 (No, that’s not Tessa on the poster, but here she is on her TIME cover.)