2017 Film, Film

Dayveon is included in “all of us”

In his 2010 TED talk, “A Call to Men” (also the name of the organization of which he is co-founder, A Call To Men), Tony Porter speaks about the dangerous “man box” that restricts boys and men from being fully human:

“I grew up in New York City, between Harlem and the Bronx. Growing up as a boy, we were taught that men had to be tough, had to be strong, had to be courageous, dominating — no pain, no emotions, with the exception of anger — and definitely no fear; that men are in charge, which means women are not; that men lead, and you should just follow and do what we say; that men are superior; women are inferior; that men are strong; women are weak; that women are of less value, property of men, and objects, particularly sexual objects. I’ve later come to know that to be the collective socialization of men, better known as the ‘man box.’ See this man box has in it all the ingredients of how we define what it means to be a man. Now I also want to say, without a doubt, there are some wonderful, wonderful, absolutely wonderful things about being a man. But at the same time, there’s some stuff that’s just straight up twisted, and we really need to begin to challenge, look at it and really get in the process of deconstructing, redefining, what we come to know as manhood.”

Just as we need voices like Tony Porter’s, we need a continuous stream of stories like Dayveon (first-time feat. film dir. Amman Abbasi; writ. Amman Abbasi and Steven Reneau). The film tells the story of Dayveon (Devin Blackmon), a young man struggling with the death of his older brother. The landscape is a poor, rural Arkansas. This is a quiet film, a type of film I love that allows me to focus on the characters and the setting in a deep, pointed way with no distractions. The quiet rural land in Dayveon reflects the lack of opportunity and the absence of hope that drive Dayveon into a gang and toward what, in his restrictive “man box,” would make him powerful and immune to the fate of victimhood. Symbols like a menacing swarm of bees are ominous like the continuous anxiety of falling deeper into poverty and the relentless grief that results from losing people to death and from losing dreams of financial, physical, emotional, or psychological security.

African American men make up the cast, along with Dayveon’s sister, Kim (Chasity Moore), who is raising him. She encourages her partner, Brian (Dontrell Bright), to spend time with Dayveon, and he attempts to take on the role of a caring male role model for Dayveon. Brian expresses tenderness toward Dayveon that beautifully blows apart the man box. Blackmon does an exceptional job in both his private moments and in his public moments. In both situations, even while not speaking, he expresses volumes with his face and in how he moves through his room, explores the areas surrounding where he lives, and engages in nonverbal communication with his friend, Brayden (Kordell Johnson). This brilliantly displays the strength of what can be expressed through quietness.

In terms of spoken lines, for me the best is a scene we need so much more of. Sitting in a living room, a group of men express their frustrations and disappointments with life–never being able to get ahead, not being able to pay the bills, always feeling the bitterest feeling of defeat because whenever there is a sense of progress there is a setback that knocks them back down as if to remind them that people like them are not allowed to have success that leads to any type of security. They smoke together and express their feelings. They are vulnerable in front of their male friends. The man box disappears in these moments, and they provide a perspective on the actions of those who we see engage in gang activity, violence, and crime.

How Dayveon himself survives involves a direct battle between the lure of the gang and the encouragement from his sister and Brian, who want a better life for him. I have seen boys and men transform before my eyes, and not in a way that has meant a safe, healthy life. There is a point at which those in that situation pick a road to take, and that choice influences everything from how they speak to how they dress to how they carry themselves to, of course, how they view the world. But we all have aspirations and emotions and the need to express and share what is inside of us. The man box prevents men and boys from engaging in those normal, human activities. Dayveon reminds those who may forget that men (and African American men, too) are included in “all of us.” This film can remind men who forget that they are included. We need to eliminate the man box because it is a human need to be fully human.

Revisit – The Mask You Live In, The Hunting Ground

Watch Porter’s TED talk:

2017 Film, Documentary, Film, History, Literature

The Pulitzer at 100 / Score: A Film Music Documentary

Awards and film scores can be elusive. With any prestigious award steeped in tradition, there is a discussion about the greats who never won. Timing is also tricky. If only that movie or that novel had not been released in such a “strong year.” But wouldn’t one want to be included as a peer in a strong year as opposed to a weak one? Winners of these awards sometimes live in disbelief that they reached the pinnacle because it still does not seem real or because they reached it while others have not.

Film scores are elusive because, as Score: A Film Music Documentary (official site) reminds us, while we may notice they are there, we do not notice just how powerful they are in shaping our movie experiences. We are unaware of how they creep in and come at us from all sides and angles and predict our reactions before even we know what we will think or feel. Scoring a film is an art with so much to it than we realize, and first-time documentary film director Matt Schrader takes us behind the scenes to give us a glimpse at how it is done. Actors, directors, and screenwriters are not the only ones who anxiously watch moviegoers’ expressions as they sit in theaters and experience movies. Musicians who work at matching the action with the score are, again, so vitally influential that we do not even realize the extent of their impact. Score: A Film Music Documentary goes a long way in encouraging an understanding of this work, yet it will also leave you with a reminder that there will always be that element that can only be described as the magic of film.

As a student of Academy Awards history, I was excited to see The Pulitzer at 100 to learn about the history of another award of the highest level. But even more precious was hearing the winners themselves–winners from the various fields the Pulitzer recognizes–talk about their work and also what it meant and still means to have received the honor (sometimes more than once).

I must say my favorite interview was Paula Vogel (How I Learned To Drive, Pulitzer Prize for Drama, 1998). The way she described writing and her experience of winning intrigued me; her passion and, well, her way with words made me want to keep writing. Michael Cunningham, oh yes. He won the fiction award in 1998 for The Hours. (Read this novel immediately.) I also highly recommend his novel A Home at the End of the World (1990). The movie adaptation of The Hours (2002) is my favorite film, and you should listen to Cunningham’s commentary on the DVD. (The movie adaptation of A Home at the End of the World [2004] leaves too much to be desired for me to suggest it for viewing. The film goes off track at what I think is too powerful a place to be ignored.)

Released at the 100th anniversary of the award, The Pulitzer at 100′s timing is impeccable, and during the question and answer period after the screening, director (Academy Award® winner for Strangers No More [2010]) Kirk Simon reminded me why I admire documentary filmmakers so much. They have an idea, they have passion for that idea, they pull all the pieces together, and they work hard, many times with just themselves–the filmmaker–and a small crew. They get in and educate us and bring us their careful consideration of a subject, and we are better for it. Paula Vogel made me want to keep writing, and seeing the diversity of extraordinary talent from journalism (the Joseph Pulitzer biographical narrative is top-notch in the film), letters, drama, and music made me proud to be a writer and a person who values the art of storytelling.

I love documentaries. They bring the elusive to the forefront–but I still marvel at the magic of film.

2015 Film, Film

Yosemite – beautifully quiet and ambiguous

Nine times out of ten I really enjoy quiet films. These films, when they are also beautifully shot, allow me to focus on subtleties and details and be free from the noise that distracts us from getting to the real business of gaining insights into the human experience. They usually include beautiful natural shots, and the cinemotography makes settings tremendously delicious. These movies allow me to focus on the characters—on people—what I love most about the movies. Yosemite is one of those films for me. My second film in my April 25th RiverRun schedule, Yosemite, set and filmed in Palo Alto, California (and Yosemite for a portion), is based on stories by James Franco (who plays a dad who takes his two young sons to Yosemite). However, the director, Gabrielle Demeestere, as she herself let us know after the film (she was in attendance!), added her own touches to the story that make it unified and complete.

Set in 1985, Yosemite gives us the stories of three young boys navigating family life, personal struggles, and complicated friendships. Along with the beauty and quietness, there is true-to-life ambiguity that leaves the audience squirming, both justifiably and questionably, as the tendency to see situations in black and white may have left some people squirming a little too much while I began to understand that there was no longer a strong necessity. But just then I was talking about one particular plot element and everything it suggests and does not suggest. There are other moments that leave us wondering, and that is a wonderful thing; squirming keeps us alive. (Explore the tag above) This film is carried by outstanding child performances (Alec Mansky. Everett Meckler, Calum John, Troy Tinnirello), and you should see Yosemite to see them learn and make their way. They have plenty to say, and they say it well.

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2015 Film, Documentary, History

The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution


During the last Christmas holiday, my brother (43), my dad (63), and I (31) had a spirited (heated) discussion about race. I mention our ages because they, in addition to our individual personalities and experiences (which are largely shaped by our ages), have so much to do with our perspectives and comments. My mother, who I wished would join in, just sat there giving looks that said plenty. We discussed the racial problem in this country, and at one point I said, “People get tired of being mistreated, so we need to consider that long history of mistreatment while we are considering people’s actions.” While we agreed in some areas and disagreed in others, I think that my comment resonated. I cannot simply take current events into account when they are in retaliation against a long chain (I use that word deliberately) of abuse.

I thought of that conversation (which is one of many–I love family debates) after I finished watching the documentary The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution (Stanley Nelson – Freedom Riders, Freedom Summer, Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple, The Murder of Emmett Till) at RiverRun International Film Festival (It was my first film of the day). As I watched and learned about the party and the movement and its eventual split into factions and disarray, I saw African Americans’ reactions to continued abuse. I saw the intersection of race and gender. I saw people give their lives in the fight for equality that continues today. I saw human beings facing their human flaws. But the line in the film that affected me the most was a statement that, despite infighting, despite insurmountable struggles, the original, most important purpose of the party was motivated by a love of people. That love is what inspired them to do something for their people. That is what resonates with me the most because they did something, despite an entire nation that was against them. People get tired of mistreatment. We must take into account, to quote the Declaration of Independence, the “long train of abuses and usurpations” a group suffers (really take it into account) when we judge its actions and the decisions it makes. This reminds me of what Ruby says in Cold Mountain: “Every piece of this is man’s bullshit. They call this war a cloud over the land. But they made the weather and then they stand in the rain and say, ‘Shit, it’s raining!'” When will this country realize that it made the weather?