The Book Thief: A Restoration of Faith in Humanity

We have all seen and read films about the Holocaust: Elie Wiesel’s Night, The Diary of Anne Frank, Schindler’s List, etcetera; however, these films and books as well as others that have been written about the Holocaust are true accounts by victims of the Holocaust or true accounts of Jews who were helped by Germans or other Europeans during War World II.  The Book Thief, however, is a novel by Australian author, Markus Zusak, that uses verisimilitude as it tells the story of a German family who hid a young Jewish man for several years during World War II. The book has been made into a film of high quality directed by Brian Percival. The film is told through a personified death (Roger Allam) that knows all of the characters because at some point in the retelling of this drama, he becomes intimately acquainted with all of them. The protagonist, Liesel ( Sophie Nelisse), is placed in a foster care family when her mother (Heike Makatsch)) is no longer able to care for her.  Her brother dies shortly before she is placed undesirably with this family (Liesel and her new mom are both skeptical of her becoming part of the family).  Upon arrival, Liesel bonds with her new dad (Geoffrey Rush) but she has a strained relationship with her new mother (Emily Watson).  After attending school for the first time at her new school, her inability to read or write is detected.  As a result, her father adroitly teaches her to read.  Liesel has a friend, and a confidant  (Rudy, played by Nico Liersch) who makes her feel comfortable in her new environs.  The backdrop for this film is the impending Holocaust.  The film highlights the difficulty of being Jewish during this time.  As history tells us, the Jews in many European countries were rounded up and taken to concentration camps.  The film, however, does not focus on the concentration camps, but on the personal sacrifice of one family to help a young Jewish man, Max (Ben Schnetzer), escape detection.  Like Anne Frank, this man was hidden in Liesel’s family’s basement over a protracted period. When deciding whether the family would help this man whose father was known by the family, the father says, “We can’t afford not to.”

This commitment proves to be difficult both financially and emotionally, for the family must now engage in surreptitious behavior and Liesel must clandestinely hide this information from her best friend, Rudy.  The family must ration their food to feed their house guest, Max.  Liesel must engage in mendacity and the family must take care of Max during his recurrent illness.  The film underscores the daunting secretive tasks that the family undertakes to safely hide the young man and protect the family. As we see the challenges that befall the family, the film causes an emotive response that makes one despise the vestiges of prejudice regardless of its source.

The title of this film takes its name from Liesel’s desire to read.  She is given books by the wife of her mother’s client.  At that point in the film, the woman’s husband prohibits Liesel from reading the books.  As a result, she stealthily takes books from their library.  Moreover, when books are forbidden to be read and they are burned, she smuggles a book that she desires to read.  During the seclusion of Max, both he and Liesel read books until he is no longer able to read because of his recurring malaise which periodically plagues him for long periods of time.

During the war, the family undergoes great heartache and sorrow and the young man realizes that he must flee as he feels that his detection is imminent.  No one knows  whether he is likely to survive the horrors of the war, but one clings to hope and does not want to despair. The writer of the  screenplay and the director both have an ability for producing an emotional response from the audience.  The film highlights the hatred for others, including blacks.  It also juxtaposes hatred with admiration as the film shows that not everyone hates those who have been deemed outcasts.  In spite of all the sullen moments, the film helps restore our faith in humanity. As the climax happens, one feels raw emotion and wonders whether anything good can be resurrected from such a tragedy.  We get our response from our narrator Death, who is omniscient regarding the life and times of all of the characters.  As the denouement comes, one cannot help but ask, ” Is there a balm in Gilead?” That question is answered.

The greatness of this film lies with its ability to connect with the audience’s humanity.  Most progressive people loathe prejudice directed against segments of society.  Most likely, the audience is sensitive to everyone’s need for both love and acceptance.  As a result, the audience is able to see and feel the destruction of one’s prejudice.  The director helps us see how unacceptable prejudice is to the social fabric of our society.  When Liesel’s friend puts tar on his body because he identifies with the runner, Jessie Owens, he is ridiculed for wanting to be athletically successful like Owens. The film shows how children emulate the ideas of their parents- both good and bad.  Those children who learn hate from their parents, grow to hate those who are not of the same culture as they are.  Likewise, Liesel and her family are empathic toward others.  Their self-sacrificing behavior restores our faith in humanity and helps us realize that good does triumph over evil. Although this film lacks high profile American actors, it is arguably one of the best films of the year and it is worth seeing. The film’s brilliance is in its screenplay and in its direction. Although the acting is of great quality, the story in its conflicts, in its hopes, and in its resolution make for a splendiferous viewing. It helps us walk away with “esperanza” as the music played on the accordion ushers us toward a more halcyonic time.  It is in limited release.

Do the Hustle: An American Tale of Mendacity, Prevarication, and Reciprocity

The seventies was a decade of disco dancing, music, platform shoes, and political deception. In New Jersey, at that time, the Abscam scandal was unfolding.  The scandal took its name from a phony Arab that was used to lure politicians into taking bribes with the promise of helping the city of Camden, NJ prosper economically. The mayor of Camden along with several Congressman and a U.S. Senator were arrested on federal charges including bribery.  This political corruption and the social era of the seventies serve as the backdrop for the film American Hustle directed by David O. Russell and starring Christian Bale (Irving Rosenfeld), Bradley Cooper (Richie DiMaso), Amy Adams (Sydney Prosser), Jennifer Lawrence (Rosalyn Rosenfeld), and Jeremy Renner (Carmine Polito). Robert DeNiro makes both a noteworthy and witty performance. Many other actors deliver captivating performances.  The film catapulted me retroactively to the seventies era of great music and dancing.  I expected to see the characters dance the hustle as a symbolic representation of that era and of the film.  Unfortunately, I did not notice this dance in the two dance scenes.  However, there were other decade emblems that captured the decade well.  This awesome film is all about deception and reciprocity. It scintillatingly uses wit and humor to convey the themes of both covert mendacity and reciprocity. The first half hour of the film is largely told in flashback so that the audience can understand the first ten minutes of the film.  It ends with a twist that is reminiscent of  déjà vu; however, because it was unexpected, the scene helps render a surprising conclusion to this superb film.

In the opening scenes of the film, we are introduced to the characters’ foibles and proclivities.  Bale sports a “comb over” to hide his balding head with a glued on toupee, for which he is ridiculed. The audience is immediately drawn into this comedic scene that may be all too familiar for some older or younger audience members.  As we are introduced to the major characters, the mendacious dynamics of the relationship between the characters is unclear; however, as we are given more information through flashback, the opening scene becomes less obscure. We are informed about the relationship between Sydney and Irving and how they came to meet Richie.  All of the characters are comical either because of their attire, their hair, their obsession with foul smelling nail polish, and because of their relentless obsession with greatness while disdaining mediocrity.

The acting under the direction of Russell is superb as the actors are all given lines that greatly illustrate their range of acting. Bale is able to show the duality of his character as he shows compassion when the audience least expects it.  Both Cooper and Lawrence are hilarious as the audience breaks out in boisterous guffaws during many of the scenes. Adams in her risqué clothing and phony accent delivers a compelling performance.  The setting is exemplified by all of the cars, clothing, and music that help the actors shine in their respective roles.

Many of the Oscar worthy films this year are based on true events.  American Hustle, is a fictionalized account of a true event, but it is told with great humor that may make it difficult to win an Oscar for best picture, for its chief competitor may be Twelve Years a Slave, a serious account of an unfortunate historical event.  In spite of the humorous raconteur, it is one of the best films that I have seen this year.  I highly recommend this film.  I may just see it again and join the audience in spirited laughter. Beware of long lines!

Review of Kasi Lemmons’s Black Nativity, the musical

Relationships are often fraught with conflicts. With hope, these conflicts are resolved favorably.  These conflicts and their subsequent reconciliation are evident in Kasi Lemmons’s the Black Nativity. He is both the author and the director of the screenplay. The original work, by Librettist, Langston Hughes, uses themes of love, hope, and reconciliation as the backdrop for the birth of Jesus in this film. It is through the birth of Jesus and through His life that we find these themes aforementioned.  The film is centered around Langston who has to spend Christmas with his grandparents whom he has never known.  The film stars at least one A-list actor as well as other accomplished actors.  Forrest Whittaker stars as Rev. Cornell Cobbs, Angela Bassett stars as Aretha Cobbs, his wife, Jennifer Hudson stars as Naima, his daughter and Jacob Latimer stars as Langston, the grandson of Rev. Cobb. There are other talented musicians who star in this musical performance who help make this film celebrity filled and enjoyable.  The film is a combination of both a musical and a drama that captivates its viewers from the inception of the film. It is through Langston that restoration takes place.  The question that permeates the film is if Christ is omnipotent, then why has reconciliation not taken place between Rev. Cobb and his daughter? This is a question that every Christian must apply to his own life and answer at some time during his relationship with Jesus. The answer is that with Christ, reconciliation is always possible.  At what cost are we willing to reconcile and how long are we willing to persevere in prayer until it happens? These questions and answers are explored in great depth in the film.

The soundtrack has songs that greatly speak to the emotions of the characters and the daunting circumstances that surround the characters. Within the first fifteen minutes of the film,  we are able to empathize with Langston when Nas, a rapper, sings “Motherless Child”.  Langston feels like a motherless child because he is sent to live with family whom he had never met. Moreover, the decades old song, “Jesus is on the Mainline” sung by Bassett and Whittaker speaks to the hope of reconciliation by Rev. Cobb and his wife with their daughter. Additionally, “He loves me still ” helps everyone to see that Jesus loves us in spite of our faults, in spite of our “mess ups”. The songs inspire us to come to Jesus in spite of our mistakes.

Forrest Whittaker and Jacob Latimer deliver stupendous performances.  Many viewers will be able to both empathize and sympathize with both characters.  Latimer is an up and coming singer and actor who exhibits great effusion when acting.  Whittaker, as Cobb, when perturbed manages to deliver his lines emphatically without losing his ministerial attributes.  When leaving the theater, one feels encouraged and hope filled-knowing that with Christ all things are indeed possible.

This film is beautiful and inspirational.  Although the themes and some scenes are mature, this is a great family film that can give all of us an impetus to work through conflicts so that reconciliation takes place.  This film helps us realize that Christ’s love is the reason for the season. This film is highly recommended.

Alexander Paynes’s Nebraska: A Film Review

When the state of Nebraska is mentioned in conversation (almost never actually, except for conversing about a woman I once met and befriended from Nebraska) the discourse is usually about corn fields and football.  One seldom associates the state with major events let alone a film.  In addition, many of us from the NYC metropolitan area may not know many people from Nebraska or may never have visited the state ever.  Currently, the state is on my list of places to see as I become closer to attaining my goal of visiting all 50 states.  After seeing Alexander Paynes’s  comedic – like Nebraska, shot in beautiful black and white with awesome cinematography, one may not be inclined to place it at a high priority for tourism except that some of the people portrayed were the most lovely people.  The movie stars Bruce Dern as Woody Grant, Will Forte as David Grant, June Squibb as Kate Grant, Woody’s wife, Bob Odenkirk as Ross Grant, and an unforgettable appearance by Stacy Keach as Ed Pegram.  Squibb has some classic comedic laughs that have the effect of producing guffaws. Forte and Odenkirk have some memorable scenes that makes one chuckle and smile.

The film is not so much a representation of the state of Nebraska as it is about the representation of the state to Woody Grant, played by Bruce Dern, who won best actor at the Canne Film Festival this year for his portrayal of Grant. The film centers around Woody Grant who believes that he has won a million dollars because he received a letter in the mail alluding to the idea that he may be a winner.  As a result of his mistaken belief, he sets out on a journey from Billings, Montana (A state with natural awesome wonders) with David, one of his sons (his son is aware of his dad’s demented belief) to Lincoln, Nebraska to claim his winnings.  On the journey, Woody and David meet family and friends whom they have not seen in years.  In various ways, Woody and David try to reconnect with family and Woody himself meets old friends.  Through all of these encounters, Woody’s son gains a better understanding of his father.  As with most people who have won a prodigious amount of money, news travels through Woody’s hometown about his supposed winnings.  Old family and friends come to collect money that Grant has allegedly owed for many decades.  It’s with all of these former relationships that the feelings and thoughts about the mundane lives of these Nebraskans spring forth.

Throughout the film, there are many comedic lines in the midst of a couple of disheartening scenes.  These comedic scenes interspersed with great cinematography is illustrative of what Nebraska represents to Woody, his wife, and his two sons all of whom join him on his journey for either part of the way or for the entire adventure.  Old memories that once faded into the background are resurfaced.

The final scenes of the film make for a heartwarming dramatic denouement.  This is one of the best endings seen in recent memory. Just maybe reconnecting with an old Nebraskan friend or acquaintance may be a great antidote for whatever ails us.  Make this film a priority.  Do not be fooled by the title.

Review of Vallee’s Dallas Buyers Club

Over the last three decades there has been great advancement in the treatment of HIV/AIDS.  Many of us know of or about someone who died from the disease.  Jean-Marc Vallee’s Dallas Buyers Club chronicles Ron Woodruff’s (played by Matthew McConaughay) journey from his diagnosis to his treatment of HIV, and the impact he had on the AIDS community.  The film is a tribute to his impact on AIDS patients throughout the country in the mid to late 80’s and well into the next decade. The film also stars, Jared Leto, both a fellow AIDS patient and crossdresser, and Jennifer Gardner as Dr. Eve Saks, the doctor who initially treats both men.  The title emanates from “buyers clubs” that sprouted up as a result of the inability to get effective treatment that suppresses the impact of the AIDS virus without significant side effects. As many of us recall, HIV was originally thought to be a gay man’s disease.  This idea is greatly apparent in the film as Woodruff, at the outset of his diagnosis, refuses to acknowledge that he has the virus that causes AIDS.  He insisted that he was no “Fag”.  Initially in the film, Woodruff uses pejorative language against gays because he did not agree with their lifestyle .  He and his associates have total disdain for the gay community. Once diagnosed, Woodruff is given thirty days to live.   After a brief period of denial, he realizes that he did indeed have HIV.  Consequently, he researches treatment as well as the side effects of the medication he is given.  Initially, he obtains AZT illegally, but soon realizes that the side effects are too great.  McConaughay plays a convincing Woodruff for his resolution and for his tenacity which are depicted as if Woodruff had played the role himself.  Unfortunately, Woodruff is no longer with us  to affirm McConaughay’s performance.  The film is told through the trials and triumphs of the AIDS community.

In the late 80’s, AZT was the drug that was commonly prescribed; however, the drug in its original strength was too strong for the average AIDS patient. In the film, Woodruff decides to go out of the country to buy drugs for fellow AIDS patients.  Despite the law against selling drugs in the United States that were purchased internationally, Woodruff decides to sell them to patients so that they would have the needed medication; however, that is ephemeral.  As a result of the illegality of selling the drugs, he forms a buyers club to skirt the law.  The AIDS patients become part of the Dallas Buyers Club where they pay for membership in the club that enables them go receive the medication as part of their membership which pays for the medication.  In the end, he helps an innumerable amount of people live longer than expected.  Moreover, he helped the medical community rethink their treatment of AIDS patients, including the prescription and strength of AZT.

During this time, he becomes less contemptuous and disdainful toward the gay community as his character is transformed.  They grow to love him and he grows to respect them. He even befriends Rayon, a cross dresser, played by Leto, who has AIDS.  The film chronicles the friendship of Woodruff and Rayon as they both support one another through their illness.  In the end, because of all of his efforts, Woodruff lives for seven years past his initial pronouncement of thirty days to live.

In the beginning of the film, we are given a glimpse of Woodruff’s character and of his sex addiction. He is not amiable toward others, especially to the gay community.  Moreover, there are multiple scenes and derisive language concerning his sex life and concerning his original lack of empathy that are quite graphic. We are shown his sexual addiction over  his entire adult life, even after his initial diagnosis.  He never used protection because he associated AIDS with gay men.   He rejected the diagnosis because he loved “pussy” so much that he could not fathom that he could be diagnosed with AIDS. Both he and his friends mocked gays; however, as time passes, we see him defending gays and going through great difficulty to assist them. That enamor is reciprocated by the many people whom he helped live longer and more comfortably with AIDS.

As stated, Matthew McConnahey is convincing in his role.  He lost fifty pounds to play this character.  He was transformed from a handsome virile man, to one who was sickly in spite of his aggressive actions for  survival. One can see that Woodruff, as played by McConaughay, is not unctuous, but sincere in enabling us to see his transformed character.  His performance is Oscar caliber, although his costar, Leto, may in fact receive the Oscar nomination for his stunning portrayal as a crossdresser. Both actors move with ease in their role.  Currently, actors who star as crossdressers or as men playing female characters are receiving accolades and plaudits for their roles.  We have seen this in Fierstein’s Kinky Boots and in the musical adaptation of Dahl’s Matilda.  The Oscar’s await us with great expectation.

Analysis of Resilience in All is Lost and in Gravity

Two current films that both center around the theme of resilience are Gravity and All is Lost.  Both films have limited dialogue and a limited number of characters.  Gravity has barely two and Lost has one. Gravity involves an astronaut who is in the fight of her life for survival.  The situation is grave, and it is the lack of gravity that hinders her throughout the film. The astronaut, played by Sandra Bullock, has to decide whether she is willing to fight for survival or whether life is not meaningful enough to work through harrowing situations.  The astronaut endures a series of mishaps while despairing.  Her despair is evident early in the film narrative. Except at the commencement of the film, she has no one to exhort her to survive; however, with the help of her fellow astronaut, via a dream, she survives after landing in a body of water and swimming, thereafter, to the surface of the water.  The second film, Lost, also has a similar theme.

One cannot say that All is Lost is reminiscent of the silent film era because the score and a few words negate its characterization as a silent film.  Yet, this film depicts the true concept of acting when no dialogue is used.  This film, stars Robert Redford cast as a man whose name is “unknown.”  The film is told in flashback over a period of eight days.  This nameless man is both resilient and resourceful for he manages to survive at sea in the middle of the Indian Ocean with Madagascar as the nearest land mass.  This film is about ingenuity and survival in the face of great difficulty.  In the beginning of the movie, Unknown composes a letter presumably to his wife or another loved one apologizing for his lack of survival after his boat is severely damaged at sea by a barge or vessel.  At that point, the film flashes back to the beginning of this ordeal.  The man awakens to find that his boat has taken on water.  At that time the man engages in many acts of survival including hoisting himself at the top of the sail in an attempt to be noticed, sending out SOS signals, repairing the boat, ditching the boat that became more distressing to him, and inflating a raft that allows him a means of survival.  Despite all of his efforts for survival, his attempts at rescue go both unheard and unseen until he sets a massive fire in the inflatable raft so that his ship can be seen in distress.  He then jumps into the water because of the fire.  One then wonders whether he will survive in the ocean or succumb to the rough and vast current. At the end of the film, as Unknown is swimming back toward shore, a hand reaches down to help pull him out of the water.  At that point, the film ends.  In spite of unknown’s difficulties, one learns that all is not truly lost, for he survives amidst daunting circumstances.

The question to be asked and answered is what makes one both strong and resilient while others despair and capitulate.  Can these skills be taught?  If so, how do we teach them and should they be taught in conjunction with other attributes.  While analyzing All is Lost and Gravity, one can look at the resilience of both characters and examine possible reasons for their resolution for survival while applying the concept of resilience to humanity at large.

In both films, the major characters both realize that they have to lay aside every weight that entangles them,  In Lost, unknown ditches his boat because he sees it as an impediment to his survival.  Similarly, in gravity, the astronaut lets go of her original spacecraft because it is also a hindrance to her survival. Thus, there is a connection between letting go of weights and moving past life’s difficulties and its disappointments.  The first task is that one must recognize weights that hold him down.  The astronaut lost her young daughter.  As a result, she has not been able to move past this tragedy.  She feels as if she has little reason to live.  Thus, when she is in crisis, she is ready to quit fighting; however, her fellow astronaut exhorts her to look at her life so that she realizes that all is not lost (yes, we are still talking about Gravity.  The movie is about loss as well.) and that life is still worth living.

One of the best ways to develop resilience is to be exposed to tragedy, and while exposed to it, it helps to have a supportive person who functions in a hortatory capacity. That person can coach a person through the challenging time; however, if one never experiences difficulties, he will be stymied at the onset of a tragedy.  In Lost, there was no coach, but Unknown clearly had survival skills.  He knew how to employ many measures to ensure his survival.  In Gravity, the astronaut had her fellow astronaut appear in a dream. He helped her to become resilient.

In addition, one’s temperament also impacts one’s resilience.  Having a choleric or aggressive temperament, may help one become resilient as long as one’s anger does not impede his ability to work through the difficulty.  If one is of the melancholy temperament, resilience may be more difficult because of the  natural tendency to wallow in misery. In Gravity,  the astronaut may have had a melancholy temperament, but through encouragement, she rises above her mercurial nature.  In lost, Unknown appears to have  a choleric temperament.  He is extremely aggressive when working toward survival. His aggression is an asset.

Resilience is a necessary skill for emotional survival.  Both determination and perseverance are needed for resilience to occur.  In both films, the major characters had these attributes. These skills can be taught, but one must have supportive family and friends or must have varying degrees of tragedy to help survive future tragedies. The old adage is true: no pain, no gain.

All is Lost is highly recommended for its superb acting.  Gravity is a poor second when compared to Lost.  If it were not in Lost’s shadow, Gravity may have been worth seeing.

Review of Twelve Years a Slave

Most of us are familiar with the story of Joseph in the Bible who was sold into slavery by his brothers who were jealous of him because he shared a dream with them that one day they would bow down to him and because his father loved him more than his other brothers.  He suffered greatly at the hands of the slave owners and was ultimately imprisoned for a wrong that he did not commit.  In spite of the challenges he faced during his imprisonment, he did not despair; he remained hopeful that one day he would be rescued.  Upon his rescue, he was reunited with his family, while holding no grudge against his brothers for their previous actions.  At this point that is where the parallels end with “Twelve Years a Slave” , the authentic narrative written by and about Solomon Northup, and the story of Joseph end.  Coincidently, Northup has the wisdom of “Solomon” who desires to go up North back to Saratoga to prove his free status.  He uses wisdom to maneuver through daunting situations.

“Twelve Years a Slave”, a film told partly through flashback, chronicles the tragic abduction and sale of Northup, a free “Negro” from Saratoga, New York , into slavery.  A pre- civil war film, initially  it portrays Northup freely moving about in his community and associating with Caucasians.  By 1824, slavery in New York was illegal and most blacks were free decades before the abduction of Northup in 1841. By 1802 many enslaved were beginning to gain free status in New York. The film, directed by Steve McQueen stars Chiwetal Ejiofor , Benedict Cumberbatch, Alfre Woodard, and Brad Pitt.  Northup, played by Ejiofor, was an erudite, a musician, and an engineer able to engage in esoteric conversations .  He was sold into slavery by two white men with whom he engaged in business. Using the words of Clarence Thomas during his confirmation hearings, this film is about a “high tech lynching for an uppity Negro.”

This film is about the survival, the resilience, and the ultimate triumph of an enslaved man despite ill-treatment.  The brutality by slave masters, by plantation overseers, and by the wives of the slave masters is depicted in horrid scenes.  This film is not for the weak stomached, but for those who have the wherewithal to sit through over two hours of a harrowing account of one of the most tragic eras in our nation’s history.  While viewing the film, the tension was palpable and the emotion unrestrained as many people shed tears and gasped at scenes.  One woman behind me walked out with about one half hour left in the film.  She said “I can’t take any more.”  Northup encounters severe beatings interspersed with little good treatment, while not fearing in his attempts to reach his family who has no knowledge of either his whereabouts or his current condition. He is courageous, in the face if fear, while exhorting his fellow enslaved to be strong.  This film also juxtaposes two modes of survival against the brutality of slavery.  Alfre Woodard plays the enchanted mistress of the slave master.  She has no qualms about what she is doing because she is served instead of  serving.  She has secured many of the benefits of white women because she willingly succumbed to the sexual demands of the slave master so that all ill- treatment that she heretofore suffered would cease.

The acting, the costume design, and the direction were all of a superb caliber.  Through the costumes, one can see how the free dressed compared with the enslaved.  During slavery, the enslaved often wore shirts made out of flax, a material through which linen is made.  In the film, the material that was used for the clothing of the enslaved was flax.  In Booker T. Washington’s slave narrative, he mentions the uncomfortability of flax. The viewer is also able to see and reflect on the many elements of slavery’s era and it’s impact on the human spirit.  For example, the travail of the enslaved was well captured.  The work in the fields was long and arduous.  Moreover, the acting is exceptional especially concerning the scenes of rampant and perpetual brutality (Including rape). The use of the “N” word was dispersed throughout the film showing the pejoration of the slave masters and the overseers toward the enslaved.  The acting was delivered superbly while remaining authentic to the time period especially concerning the brutal beatings delivered by the slave masters and by the forced delivery of the beatings by the enslaved toward each other. Lastly, the film shows how the faith of the enslaved was used as a means of survival.  They sang Negro spirituals to help ease the pain.  The acting, the costume designing, and the directing were all made possible through the narrative, “Twelve Years a Slave”, beautifully retold through the direction of McQueen Via Northup who was ultimately rescued from slavery through the efforts of a white man, played by Pitt, who became his confidant.

I wholeheartedly recommend this film.  It may not be appropriate for young children under the age of ten, unless they are precocious  and are able to stomach the horrors of extreme brutality and the harrowing effects so slavery.

Review of “American Promise”

On October 15, 2013, I had the privilege of seeing “American Promise” filmed by Brewster and Stephenson, two parents who chronicled the education of their son, Idris, and their son’s friend and schoolmate, Seun, at the Dalton School, one of the most prestigious private schools in the country.

Dalton had begun a campaign to increase diversity at the school.  As a result of the school’s desire to diversify, the parents enrolled their children there and began the documentation of their children’s education.  As the filmmakers began documenting the children’s education, they also decided to turn the camera on themselves and film their part in the process of their child’s education as well as the participation of the parents of the other child, Seun.  The film opens with a discussion of public school education versus private school education and with a discussion about the boys testing well on the admissions test for the school.  There is also a scene from the Kindergarten class at Dalton that is both engaging and experiential.  I immediately referenced my time in Kindergarten.  I wondered whether I would have been a science teacher if I had a class that was that engaging.

The film focuses on identity, on educational expectations, on parenting challenges, and on impediments to success. The parents soon realize that diversity is not enough and realized that there were many hindrances to success.  The filmmakers filmed over 800 hours of the education and of the life experiences of these two children which showed how daunting the challenges were.  The children enjoyed their time spent at the school in spite of its rigor.  The parents soon learned that their children would be recommended for tutoring because of the level of difficulty they were having with their academics.  Apparently the other parents at the school were spending over $35,000 for tutoring for their children.  The cost for Kindergarten in 1999 at the Dalton school was about $29,000. The film highlights the parenting challenges both academically and personaly.  The film documents the trajectory of the children’s education to the point of high school graduation. It also looks at the resilience of the children and its impact on their development.

One  purpose of the documentary is to initiate a conversation about the impact of race, parenting, expectations, and life experience on the education of African American boys in the United States.  As an educator, I have witnessed both students and teachers who have low expectations.  Moreover, I have also witnessed the low amount of effort that some of our children have toward their academics.  Although our children are resilient, we cannot discount the impact of significant life events on their academic and personal success.  The children who are most successful are the ones who work the hardest and who are the most resilient.

This film is not about the Dalton School; the events documented in this film happen throughout our country.  The purpose of this film is to initiate a conversation about how we can best serve our children, specifically black boys in America. I highly recommend this film.  Please go to Americanpromise.org for further information and for film locations.  It will be shown on PBS stations across America on February 3, 2014.  Please mark your calendar.  If anyone wants to have a discourse on this topic, feel free to contact me.