Category Archives: On Politics

It can’t happen here: The Edge of Democracy (****)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on November 16, 2019)

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“That’s my man right there…love this guy…the most popular politician on Earth.”

 – President Obama in 2009, upon meeting then-Brazilian president Lula da Silva

“They say he’s the Donald Trump of South America…Do you believe that? And he’s happy with that. If he wasn’t, I wouldn’t like the country so much. But I like him.”

– President Trump in 2019, commenting on current Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro

Politics ain’t beanbag (as the saying goes). It can be a nasty business. Latin American politics have a particular rep for volatility; historically an ever-simmering cauldron of violent coups, brutal dictatorships, revolving door regimes and social unrest. In my 2012 review of Lula: Son of Brazil, Fabio Barreto and Marcelo Santiago’s stirring yet frustrating biopic about the former president of Brazil Luis Inacio Lula da Silva I wrote:

[…] Luis Inacio Lula da Silva’s life journey from dirt-poor shoeshine boy to benevolent world leader (he served as president from 2003-2010) seems tailor-made for the screen, with the major players in his life plucked straight out of Central Casting […] You have the Strong Saintly Mother (Gloria Pires), the Drunken Abusive Father (Milhem Cortaz), and the Childhood Sweetheart (Clio Pires, pulling double duty as The Young Wife Who Dies Tragically). […]

 We watch Lula (played as an adult by Rui Ricardo Diaz) come of age; he graduates from a technical school, gets a factory job, loses a finger in a lathe mishap, and marries his childhood sweetheart. His first marriage ends tragically, after which he begins (at the encouragement of his brother and to the chagrin of his mother) to gravitate toward leftist politics. […]

 By the time he becomes a union official in the late 70s, he finds himself at loggerheads with the military-controlled government of the time. After officials identify him as one of the prime movers behind a series of major work strikes, he is arrested and jailed. After prison, the increasingly politicized Lula helps create Brazil’s progressive Worker’s Party in the early 80s, and then…and then…the film ends.

 Ay, there’s the rub, and the main reason why political junkies may find this slick, well-acted production inspiring on one hand, yet curiously unsatisfying on the other. […]

 I found myself  wondering “what happened next?!”, and asking questions like: What did he do to earn declaration as Brazil’s most beloved president, with an approval rating of 80.5% during the final months of his tenure? What inspired President Obama to greet him at the G20 summit with “That’s my man right there…love this guy…the most popular politician on Earth”? […]

The film left me hanging like a chad on a Florida ballot. But, as Fate would have it I was listening to Democracy Now while driving to work the other day (as progressive pinko NPR-listening Lefties often do) and lo and behold –I found out “what happened next”:

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: We begin today’s show in Brazil, where former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva was freed from prison Friday after 580 days behind bars. Lula’s surprise release came after the Brazilian Supreme Court ruled to end the mandatory imprisonment of people convicted of crimes who are still appealing their cases. Lula has vowed to challenge Brazil’s right-wing President Jair Bolsonaro in the 2022 elections. During a rally on Friday soon after his release, Lula warned about Bolsonaro’s ties to violent militias.

 LUIZ INÁCIO LULA DA SILVA: [translated] “Bolsonaro was democratically elected. We accept the result of the election. This guy has a mandate for four years. Now, he was elected to govern the Brazilian people, and not to govern the militia in Rio de Janeiro. … I want to build this country with the same happiness that we built it when we governed this country. My dream isn’t to solve my problems. Today I’m a guy that doesn’t have a job, a president without a pension, not even a television in my apartment. My life is totally blocked. The only thing I’m certain of is that I have more courage to fight than ever before.”

 AMY GOODMAN: Lula was serving a 12-year sentence over a disputed corruption and money laundering conviction handed down by conservative Judge Sérgio Moro, an ally of current far-right Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro. After that, he became the justice minister. Lula has long maintained his innocence. Earlier this year, The Intercept revealed Moro aided prosecutors in their sweeping corruption investigation, known as Operation Car Wash, in an attempt to prevent Lula from running in 2018 election. This cleared the path for Bolsonaro’s victory. At the time of his imprisonment in April 2018, Lula was leading the presidential polls.

 Wow. If Lula pulls it off in 2022, it would be the political comeback story of the century. But that chapter is yet to be written. The current political reality in Brazil is somewhat tenuous, precipitated in part by the ascension of the aforementioned President Bolsonaro.

President …who? Here’s a refresher from the New York Times, dated March 19, 2019:

President Trump hosted Jair Bolsonaro, the Brazilian president, at the White House on Tuesday, and it was something like looking in the mirror.

 Like other authoritarian leaders Mr. Trump has embraced since taking office, Mr. Bolsonaro is an echo of the American president: a brash nationalist whose populist appeal comes partly from his use of Twitter and his history of making crude statements about women, gay people and indigenous groups.

 “They say he’s the Donald Trump of South America,” Mr. Trump marveled during a speech to the Farm Bureau in January, noting that Mr. Bolsonaro had been called the “Trump of the tropics” since taking office this year. “Do you believe that? And he’s happy with that. If he wasn’t, I wouldn’t like the country so much. But I like him.”

“Something” changed in Brazil’s sociopolitical sphere in the 8 years that elapsed between 2010, when the progressive populist Lula left the presidency with an unprecedented 80.5% approval rating, and 2018, when far-right candidate Bolsonaro won the election.

In her extraordinarily intimate documentary, The Edge of Democracy (now available on Netflix) Brazilian actress and filmmaker Petra Costa suggests there is something much more insidious at play in her country than a cyclical left-to-right shift. Costa’s film delves into the circumstances that led to the impeachment of former President Dilma Rousseff (Lula’s hand-picked successor) and Lula’s imprisonment (which began in April of 2018).

Costa begins with a recap of the military dictatorship in Brazil that began with a 1964 coup and effectively ended in 1989 with the first election of a president via popular vote in 29 years, then moves on to cover Lula’s 8-year tenure (2003-2010), which brought a great deal of positive social change in the country through various progressive programs.

However, the honeymoon began to sour during the presidency of Lula’s successor Dilma Rousseff. Elected in 2011, Rousseff (a former member of a leftist guerilla group that fought against the military dictatorship-which led to a 2-year imprisonment from 1970-1972 during which she endured torture) largely upheld the ideals of her predecessor, but was impeached and removed from office in 2016 as a result of the “Car Wash” scandal.

What separates this film from an informative but dry episode of Frontline is Costa’s deeply personal perspective. The 36-year-old director points out that she is approximately the same age as Brazil’s hard-won democracy, and makes no bones about the fact that her parents were passionate left-wing activists who openly railed against the dictatorship.

But the real coup for Costa (no pun intended) is the amazing accessibility she was given to President Rousseff and ex-President Lula during times of particularly high drama in their lives. This lends urgency and adds a “fly on the wall” element to the palace intrigue.

There is something Shakespearean about the rise and fall of the two leaders, which gives the film the feel of a byzantine political thriller. There is also a Kafkaesque element. In one scene, a visibly scandal-weary Rousseff candidly alludes to the protagonist in “The Trial” with a heavy sigh. “Do you really feel like ‘Josef K’?” someone asks. “Yes,” she replies with a sardonic chuckle, “I feel just like Josef K…but Josef K with an attorney.”

The film’s most dramatic moments derive from the footage Costa was able to get while she was essentially holed up for 3 days with Lula at a trade union hall while he vacillated over turning himself in. When Lula announces he is ready to face the music, a crowd of his supporters tries to stop him from doing so, forming a human blockade between him and the police outside the hall waiting to arrest him.

As you watch Lula give an impassioned speech to his supporters (many of them in tears) to explain his decision and reassure them everything will be fine, you understand why people are so drawn to him.

This is the most powerful documentary about South American politics since Patricio Guzman’s The Battle of Chile. It is also a cautionary tale; we have more in common with Brazil than you might think. As Costa observed in an interview on Democracy Now:

“…Brazil has the third-largest incarcerated population in the world. It’s a huge crisis, similar to the United States. And we need an urgent judiciary — like, prison reform and judiciary reform that will make our judiciary system more efficient. I think the mistake that many people fall into is thinking that constitutional rights can be abused to have a more efficient system. The danger with that is that today Lula’s constitutional rights can be abused, tomorrow mine, tomorrow yours. And where do we stand as a democracy?”

Where do WE stand as a democracy? As politicians say, “that’s an excellent question…”

On mad kings, Mueller’s report, and Altman’s Secret Honor

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on April 20, 2019)

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It’s been déjà vu all over again this week. In my 2008 review of Frost/Nixon, I wrote:

There’s an old theatrical performer’s axiom that goes “Always leave ‘em wanting more.” In August of 1974, President Richard Nixon made his Watergate-weary exit from the American political stage with a nationally televised resignation soliloquy and left ‘em wanting more…answers. Any immediate hopes for an expository epilogue to this 5-year long usurpation of the Constitution and Shakespearean tragedy were abruptly dashed one month later when President Gerald Ford granted him a full pardon. Like King Lear, the mad leader slunk back to his castle by the sea and out of public view. […]

[Actor Frank Langella] uncannily captures the essence of Nixon’s contradictions and complexities; the supreme intelligence, the grandiose pomposity and the congenital craftiness, all corroded by the insidious paranoia that eventually consumed his soul, and by turn, the soul of the nation.

Speaking of the devil, on Sunday CNN premiered the concluding episode of Tricky Dick, a 4-part docuseries about Nixon’s life and political career (recommended-CNN always repeats broadcasts, so don’t despair if you missed it first time around).

It was followed by an hour-long panel discussion about the lessons learned, hosted by Anderson Cooper and featuring journalist Carl Bernstein (who famously broke the Watergate story for the Washington Post with Bob Woodward), former Nixon White House lawyer John Dean, presidential historian Timothy Naftali and former Watergate Special Prosecutor Richard Ben-Veniste. When Cooper asked him about the legacy of Watergate, Ben-Veniste said:

“As I said in my book, written shortly after I left the office [as Special Prosecutor] …For the future, the lessons of Watergate are wonderful, in that the system worked–in this circumstance…but they almost didn’t work. For the future, does it take something more than what we have experienced in Watergate [regarding] the type of evidence: demonstrative, incredibly powerful evidence of criminal wrongdoing for a President of the United States to be put in a position of either resigning, or certainly [being] impeached and convicted?”

That was a loaded question, coming as it did 4 days prior to the official (belated) release of the (almost) full Mueller report to the United States Congress and the American people. Of course, everyone on that panel was fully aware that the exhaustive 2-year investigation looking into possible foreign interference in the 2016 presidential election, possible collusion with the Trump campaign, and possible obstruction of justice by Trump and/or members of his administration after the fact was about to come to a head.

Carl Bernstein was more succinct, offering this take:

“The system worked in Watergate. But it worked ultimately because there was a ‘smoking gun tape’. It’s very questionable whether the system would have worked without that gun.”

Bernstein was referring to Nixon’s self-incriminating statements regarding a coverup and obstruction of justice…captured for posterity via a secret recording system the President himself had arranged to be set up in order to document all his Oval Office conversations.

And so here we are, 45 years after Nixon resigned, and the media, members of Congress and concerned citizens find themselves poring over the 400 pages of the Mueller Report (replete with “limited” redactions) as they ask themselves the other $64,000 question:

Is there a “smoking gun” buried somewhere in here…or a reasonable facsimile thereof?

At least one Congressperson has stepped up to the plate and said (in so many words) “Smoking gun?! Try a field howitzer!” Taking an extraordinarily fearless and principled stance amid the disappointing backpedaling and hand-wringing angst emanating from many of her colleagues, senator and presidential hopeful Elizabeth Warren was interviewed Friday night by Rachael Maddow on MSNBC, and did not mince any words:

 “This is about point of principle […] This isn’t about politics. This isn’t even specifically about Donald Trump himself. It is about what a President of the United States should be able to do and about the role of Congress is in saying: ‘No. A president does not get to come in and stop an investigation about a foreign power that attacked this country, or an investigation about his own wrongdoing.’ Equal justice under law, no one is above the law; and that includes the President of the United States. It is the constitutional responsibility of Congress to follow through on that. […]

Because it matters, not just for this president, it matters for the next president, and the next president after that, and the next president after that. I get it…in dictatorships, the government coalesces around one person in the middle and does everything to protect that one person. But that’s not where we live. We live in a democracy, and it is controlled by a constitution. And the way we make that democracy work is with checks and balances. And a president who says, “I don’t have to follow the law, and nobody can touch me on criminal acts” -that’s not right.

The Constitution says that the House and the Senate can do this. […] And every member of the House, and every member of the Senate should be called on to vote: Do you believe that constitutes an impeachable offense? I do believe that the evidence is just overwhelming that Donald Trump has committed these offenses, and that means that we should open proceedings in the House. And then the House can take a vote.”

Nixon famously stated in the David Frost interviews, “I’m saying that when the president does it…it’s not illegal.” Mind you, he made that statement several years after he had resigned from the office of the president in shame, ending a decades-long political career in the most humiliating manner imaginable. Yet he never publicly apologized for any of the questionable actions he engaged in while serving as the President of the United States.

If that pathology reminds you of somebody else…perhaps a specific “somebody” currently occupying the White House, you will not be surprised to learn that there is a disturbingly prescient link between Richard M. Nixon and Donald J. Trump, in the form of this letter:

 

December 21, 1987

Dear Donald,

I did not see the program, but Mrs. Nixon told me you were great on the Donahue show.

As you can imagine, she is an expert in politics, and she predicts that whenever you decide to run for office you will be a winner!

With warm regards,

Sincerely,

(signed) Richard M. Nixon

 

Nightmare fuel.

How ironic that Nixon, the man who many historians posit lost his 1960 presidential bid because he was not as telegenic as JFK and never did get the hang of the medium (even once he eventually became the leader of the free world) was nonetheless canny enough to recognize a master manipulator of the idiot box when his wife saw Trump on a TV show.

Howard Beale: “Why me?”

Arthur Jensen: “Because you’re on television, dummy.”

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Which brings me to why I felt this was the perfect week to pull out my dusty DVD of Robert Altman’s brilliant (and underappreciated) 1984 film adaptation of Donald Freed and Arnold M. Stone’s one-man play Secret Honor (****) to take it for a spin on current events.

Originally titled as “Secret Honor: The Last Testament of Richard M. Nixon” when it opened in 1983 at Los Angeles Actors’ Theater, the film is a fictional monologue by Nixon, set in his post-presidential New Jersey office. Part confessional, part autobiographical, and (large) part batshit-crazy postcards from the edge rant, it’s an astonishing piece of writing; a pitch-perfect 90-minute distillation of Nixon’s dichotomy.

Philip Baker Hall (most recognizable from the Paul Thomas Anderson films Hard Eight, Boogie Nights, and Magnolia) pulls out all the stops in a tour-de-force turn reprising his stage role.

His Nixon is at once darkly brooding and explosively feral, pacing his claustrophobic office like a caged animal, swigging Chivas Regal and alternately pleading his “case” before an unseen Court of Public Opinion and howling at the moon (not dissimilar to how late night TV satirists envision Donald Trump pacing the Oval Office, wolfing cheeseburgers and unleashing Tweet storms from the Id).

Nixon, who is taping his monologue on a cassette recorder (in a blackly comic reference to his purported technical ineptitude, he spends the first several minutes of the film fumbling and cursing while trying to figure out how to work it) largely speaks in the first person, but oddly switches to the third at times, referring to his “client” whenever he addresses “your honor” (it’s no secret Trump often refers to himself in the third person).

The word salad soliloquies Nixon utters as he prowls the long dark night of his soul in arctic desolation share spooky parallels with the word salad soliloquies that Trump bellows as he prowls podiums in the full light of day at his public rallies.

Nixon frequently rants at his “enemies”. He is particularly obsessed with “those goddam Kennedys”. This is one of the more revealing insights into Nixon’s psychology contained in Freed and Stone’s screenplay; Nixon, ever self-conscious about his modest Quaker roots, is obviously both resentful and envious of the Kennedys’ privileged patrician upbringing, Ivy League education, movie-star charisma, and physical attractiveness.

He also lights into the other usual suspects in his orbit: Henry Kissinger, President Eisenhower, liberals, “East coast shits”, Jews, the FBI, and the media (you know…the “deep state” and “fake news”).

In rare moments of lucidity, he sadly recalls the untimely deaths of his brothers (Arthur, who died in 1925 at age 7, and Harold, who died in 1933 at age 23, both from TB) and speaks tenderly to the portrait of his late mother (although it gets weird when he refers to himself as her “loving dog”…and promptly begins to bark).

Hall is mesmerizing; while he doesn’t physically resemble Nixon, he so expertly captures his essence that by the end of the piece, he is virtually indistinguishable from the real item. It takes substantial acting chops to carry an entire film; Hall has got them in spades.

Film adaptations of stage plays can be problematic, especially in a chamber piece. But since this is, after all, Robert Altman…not to worry. He cleverly utilizes the limited props to his full advantage; for example, the four CCTV monitors in the office pull double duty as both a metaphor for Nixon’s paranoia and a hall of mirrors representing his multiple personalities (shades of the symbology in Pete Townshend’s rock opera Quadrophenia).

It also helps that Hall’s performance is anything but static; he moves relentlessly about the set (in a supplemental interview on the Criterion DVD, Hall recalls the original running time of the play as 2 ½ hours…I can’t begin to imagine the mental and physical stamina required to deliver a performance of that intensity night after night). DP Pierre Mignot deserves major kudos for his fluid tracking shots.

Watching the film again in context of all the drama and angst surrounding the release of the Mueller report, I was struck by both its timelessness as a cautionary tale about the dangers of unchecked power and corruption, and its timeliness as a reminder of what democracy looks like at its lowest ebb-which is where we may be now. Time to wake up.

As Oliver Stone reminded us in the closing credits of JFK: What is past is prologue.

Making ends meet: A top 10 mixtape

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on January 12, 2019)

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As we enter the 3rd week of the “partial” government shutdown, we’re hearing more and more stories of how it’s affecting thousands of federal employees and contractors who are either on forced furloughs, or who are being asked to continue working…without pay. 

This has not only thrown a spotlight on how many of the folks who help keep the country running smoothly are barely scraping by as it is, but it has opened a broader dialogue on how many Americans are living paycheck-to-paycheck, period. The stats are not too rosy:

[from US News & World Report]

In fact, living paycheck to paycheck – meaning there’s not a cash cushion to cover the bills if the income stops for a while – is a common condition in America. In the 12th richest nation in the world by per capita GDP, nearly 8 in 10 U.S. workers live paycheck to paycheck, according to a 2017 study  by CareerBuilder, a human capital management firm. And the trend crosses over income groups: more than half of minimum wage workers said they needed to hold down two jobs to make ends meet, while one in 10 workers earning $100,000 or more yearly say they live paycheck to paycheck.

And if there’s an emergency? A large number of Americans don’t have an accessible stash of money to cover a substantial health care expense or car repair, studies show. The Federal Reserve Board in 2017 found that 44 percent of American households surveyed could not cover a $400 emergency expense.

Oy vay.

With that cheery thought in mind (and in consideration of the adage “misery loves company”) I’ve curated a playlist of songs that appropriately…commiserate. Erm, enjoy?

 (In alphabetical order…)

“Blue Collar” – Bachman-Turner Overdrive

“Five O’clock World” – The Vogues

“Hole to Hide In” – Foghat

Manic Monday” – The Bangles

“9 to 5” – Dolly Parton

 “Pieces of a Man” – Gil Scott-Heron

“She Works Hard for the Money” – Donna Summer

“Wichita Lineman” – Glen Campbell

“Working Class Hero” – John Lennon 

“Work to Do” – The Isley Brothers 

Who is America? – BlacKkKlansman (****)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on August 18, 2018)

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“I-I am going to be a storm-a flame-
I need to fight whole armies alone;
I have ten hearts; I have a hundred arms;
I feel too strong to war with mortals-
BRING ME GIANTS!”

-Edmond Rostand, from Cyrano de Bergerac

[To two members of the KKK, while pretending to capture Bart]

Jim: Oh, boys! Lookee what I got heyuh.

Bart: Hey, where are the white women at?

-from Blazing Saddles; screenplay by Mel Brooks, Norman Steinberg, Andrew Bergman, Richard Pryor, and Alan Uger

To bring in something, such as a fish, by winding up the line on a reel.

-from The Free Dictionary definition of the phrase “reel something in”

So what do you get if you cross Cyrano de Bergerac with Blazing Saddles? You might get Spike Lee’s new joint, Black KkKlansman. That is not to say that Lee’s film is a knee-slapping comedy; far from it. It does contain laughs, but there is nothing funny about some of the reaction it has sparked after only a week. From an Indie Wire article:

[Actor] Topher Grace contacted police after receiving a threatening phone call reacting to his role as former Ku Klux Klan grand wizard David Duke in Spike Lee’s “Black KkKlansman”. According to reports (via TMZ) Grace told police that someone called him over the phone and referred to him using a gay slur. The mystery caller also warned Grace that his role as Duke would “ruin race relations in America.” […] Grace reportedly described the caller as “aggressive” and “angry.”

Speaking of “race relations in America”, here’s something even less amusing. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, there are 917 hate groups currently operating in the U.S. And (to paraphrase Gimli the dwarf) it gets even better! If you go to the SPLC website and click the “100 Days in Trump’s America” report, there’s lots of fun facts:

As he spoke to the nation on Jan.20 [2016], President Donald Trump reminded white nationalists why they had invested so much hope in him as their champion and redeemer. He painted a bleak picture of America: a nation of crumbling, third-world infrastructure, “rusted-out factories,” leaky borders, inner cities wallowing in poverty, a depleted military and a feckless political class that prospered as the country fell into ruin. He promised an “America First” policy that would turn it all around. […]

Despite his failure to achieve any major legislative victories, Trump has not disappointed his alt-right followers. His actions suggest that – unlike the economic populism of his campaign – Trump’s appeals to the radical right did indeed presage his White House agenda. On Jan. 31 [2016], former Klan leader David Duke tweeted: “everything I’ve been talking about for decades is coming true and the ideas I’ve fought for have won.”

Well fuck me. There’s that fine fellow David Duke popping up again! When Mr. Wizard Tweeted he’d been “talking about” certain ideas “for decades” …he wasn’t exaggerating. The “David Duke” depicted in Lee’s film is the David Duke of the 1970s, right around the time he became the public face of the “National Association for the Advancement of White People”. This was also when he dropped the hood and robes for a suit-and-tie look.

True story. This window-dressing may have fooled some people, but it didn’t wash with Ron Stallworth (played by John David Washington), an African-American undercover cop who managed to infiltrate…and become a card-carrying member (!) of the KKK in Colorado in the early 70s. To address the obvious question, he didn’t crash a Klan rally and ask where all the white women were at, because 1) that would’ve gone over like a lead balloon with the goys in the hoods, and 2) again, Lee’s film is not a comedy (per se).

Stallworth ingratiated himself with the organization Cyrano style. He made them fall in love with him by proxy. The “Ron Stallworth” who wooed his local Klan by whispering sweet racist nothings over the phone was not the same “Ron Stallworth” who attended the meetings. That was Stallworth’s white surrogate, his Jewish undercover partner Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver). In other words, this was old school “catfishing”-if you will.

What ensues is the kind of story that frankly strains credulity…if it weren’t for the fact that this really happened (allowing for some creative license, naturally). Even Lee was skeptical at first, admitting in an interview that he did with Seth Meyers earlier this week:

“…when [co-producer] Jordan Peele pitched it to me, it was one of those very high-concept pitches. Six words: ‘Black man infiltrates Ku Klux Klan.’ […] I thought of [comedy sketches done by] Dave Chappelle, but [Peele] said ‘no’ and he sent me the book. I was very intrigued by it…it was in my wheelhouse.”

I think this is Lee’s most affecting and hard-hitting film since Do the Right Thing (1989). The screenplay (adapted by Charlie Wachtel, David Rabinowitz, Kevin Willmott and Lee from Stallworth’s eponymous memoir) is equal parts biopic, docudrama, police procedural and social commentary, finding a nice balance of drama, humor and suspense. The cast is uniformly excellent. Washington (son of Denzel) and Driver have great chemistry, and Grace captures Duke’s smarminess to a tee. Other standouts include Robert Lee Burke, Laura Harrier, Ryan Eggold and a genuinely scary Jasper Paakkonen.

Lee is aware he’s preaching to the choir and will never reach a certain percentage of the “fine people” in America…sadly, the very ones who would benefit most from his counsel. And if someone were to call Lee’s approach heavy-handed, I wouldn’t disagree.

He opens with the iconic crane shot from Gone with the Wind that pans over hundreds of dead and wounded Confederate soldiers and resolves with the tattered stars and bars. He cross-cuts a solemn Klan initiation rite with a monologue by revered civil rights icon Harry Belafonte, playing a man sharing a horrifying eyewitness account of a particularly gruesome 1916 lynching. In case you’re still unable to connect the dots between the Stallworth story with Black Lives Matter and Charlottesville, he tacks on a timely denouement that jams to a screeching halt just inches away from slamming into “ta-da!”.

Yes, he ladles in on with a trowel. But you know what? The voices of reason in America are drowned out daily by the relentless clatter and din of Trump-fueled polarization and misdirection. He who shouts loudest wins (apparently). The hoods are off? Fine. I say more power to artists like Lee with something substantive to add to the conversation who feel they must (figuratively) bonk you over the head first to get your undivided attention.

Subtlety is prologue. Resist. Or get riled by seeing this film, immediately. Bring a friend.

SIFF 2018: A Good Day for Democracy ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted at Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 2, 2018)

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I don’t need to tell you that democracy is a messy business. But when working correctly, it’s a good kind of mess (Mussolini made the trains run on time, but at what price?). Cecilia Bjork’s purely observational peek at “Almedalen Week”, an annual event held on Sweden’s isle of Gotland that corrals politicians, lobbyists, and everyday citizens into a no holds-barred, all-access setting serves as a perfect (albeit messy) microcosm of true democracy in action.

When strangers were welcome here: A hopeful mixtape

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 5, 2018)

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I don’t know if you’ve been following the story about the Central American caravan, but once they reached Tijuana last week, the media seemed to lose interest (it’s not as captivating as the new royal baby, I suppose). Well, media outside of Fox, where pundits continue to gin up the nativist hysteria that kicked off with Trump’s remarks claiming that the women within the relatively small group of asylum seekers “are [being] raped at levels that nobody has ever seen before”. He has also Tweeted he won’t let them through.

While there’s certainly nothing new about the anti-immigrant rhetoric that Donald Trump has been spouting nearly all his adult life (much less as “our” president), there’s been something particularly sickening to me about the racist dog-piling atop this group of people. Sure, we don’t know all their personal histories, but they are still human beings:

[from the San Diego Union-Tribune]

The final remnants of the Central American caravan began to disappear in Tijuana Friday after the last group of asylum seekers entered the United States.

Volunteers and migrants who plan to stay in Mexico slowly dismantled tents and canopies, picked up trash, folded blankets and swept dirt from the ground they slept on since arriving to the U.S.-Mexico border Sunday.

As the last members of the caravan entered the U.S. – about 70 of a total of 228 – some said goodbye to loved ones. Those staying behind include people who need more legal help before crossing into the U.S. and those who have already been deported and have slim changes of asylum.

Mario Mejia, 34, of El Salvador, said farewell to his wife. The couple planned to claim asylum together, but lawyers told Mejia his case for asylum is weak.

Mejia was deported from the U.S. five times between 2010 and 2013 after getting caught crossing the border illegally in the Arizona desert.

“The last time I was deported I spent a year and a half in prison,” he said. “The judge told me if I tried again I’d serve twice as much.”

Apart from his deportations from the U.S., Mejia has been deported from Mexico eight times. He’s applied for asylum in both countries but has been denied.

Mejia left El Salvador when he was 14 after members of MS-13 threatened to kill him if he didn’t join their gang.

“It’s a hard life,” he said. “I’ve never had a stable place to live in.”

As his wife walked toward the San Ysidro border crossing Friday, Mejia told her to keep moving forward and promised to call her brothers, who live in the U.S., to make sure they take care of her.

Later, as he packed his belongings into a backpack and helped clean up the caravan’s makeshift tent city, he pondered his future. He said he plans to stay in Tijuana and hopes to find a job in construction until he makes enough money for a bus ticket to Mexicali, where he has friends and better job opportunities.

From there? “I don’t know,” he said.

And that’s just one of the stories. It breaks your heart (if you have one). Here’s the thing-that’s not just Mario’s story. Outside of Native Americans, it is all our stories; all Americans. None of us are really “from” here; if you start tracing your family’s genealogy, I’ll bet you don’t have to go back too many generations to find ancestors who were born on foreign soil. Some Americans have conveniently forgotten about that fact.

That’s why I think it’s time for some music therapy. I’ve chosen 10 songs that speak to the immigrant experience and serve to remind us of America’s multicultural foundation.

“Across the Borderline” – Freddy Fender

This song (co-written by John Hiatt, Ry Cooder, and Jim Dickinson) has been covered many times, but this heartfelt version by the late Freddy Fender is the best. Fender’s version was used as part of the soundtrack for Tony Richardson’s 1982 film The Border.

“America” – Neil Diamond

Diamond’s anthemic paean to America’s multicultural heritage first appeared in the soundtrack for Richard Fleischer and Sidney J. Furie’s 1980 remake of The Jazz Singer (thankfully, Diamond’s stirring song has had a longer shelf life than the film, which left audiences and critics underwhelmed). Weirdly, it was included on a list of songs deemed as “lyrically questionable” and/or “inappropriate” for airplay in an internal memo issued by the brass at Clear Channel Communications in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. Go figure.

“America” (movie soundtrack version) – West Side Story

This classic number from the stage musical and film West Side Story (with lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and music by Leonard Bernstein) is both a celebration of Latin immigrant culture and a slyly subversive take down of nativist-driven ethnic stereotyping.

“Ave Que Emigra” – Gaby Morena

Speaking of exploding stereotypes-here’s a straightforward song explaining why cultural assimilation and cultural identity are not mutually exclusive. From a 2012 NPR review:

As a song that speaks of being an immigrant, [Gaby Moreno’s “Ave Que Emigra”] strikes the perfect emotional chords. So many songs on that topic are gaudy, one-dimensional woe-is-me tales. Moreno’s story of coming to America is filled with simple one-liners like “tired of running, during hunting season” (evocative of the grotesque reality Central Americans face today at home and in their journeys north). Her cheerful ranchera melody, with its sad undertone, paints a perfect portrait of the complex emotional state most of us immigrants inhabit: a deep sadness for having to leave mixed with the excitement of the adventure that lies ahead, plus the joy and relief of having “made it.”

No habla espanol? No problema! You can see the English translation of the lyrics here.

“Buffalo Soldier” – Bob Marley & the Wailers

Sadly, not all migrants arrived on America’s shores of their own volition; and such is the unfortunate legacy of the transatlantic slave trade that flourished from the 16th to the 18th centuries. As Malcolm X once bluntly put it, “[African Americans] didn’t land on Plymouth Rock; the Rock was landed on us.” Bob Marley entitled this song as reference to the nickname for the black U.S. Calvary regiments that fought in the post-Civil War Indian conflicts. Marley’s lyrics seem to mirror Malcom X’s pointed observation above:

If you know your history,
Then you would know where you’re coming from
Then you wouldn’t have to ask me
Who the heck do I think I am

 I’m just a Buffalo Soldier
In the heart of America
Stolen from Africa, brought to America
Said he was fighting on arrival
Fighting for survival

“Deportee (Plane Wreck at Los Gatos)” – Arlo Guthrie

Woody Guthrie originally penned this “ripped from the headlines” protest piece as a poem in the wake of a 1948 California plane crash (the music was composed some years later by Martin Hoffman, and first popularized as a song by Pete Seegar). Among the 32 passengers who died were 28 migrant farm workers who were in the process of being deported back to Mexico. Guthrie noticed that most press and radio reports at the time identified the 4 crew members by name, while dehumanizing the workers by referring to them en masse as “deportees” (plus ca change…). His son Arlo’s version is very moving.

“The Immigrant”– Neil Sedaka

Reflecting  back on his 1975 song, Neil Sedaka shared this tidbit in a 2013 Facebook post:

I wrote [“The Immigrant”] for my friend John Lennon during his immigration battles in the 1970s. I’ll never forget when I called to tell him about it. Overwhelmed by the gesture, he said, “Normally people only call me when they want something. It’s very seldom people call you to give you something. It’s beautiful.”

I concur with John. It’s Sedaka’s most beautifully crafted tune, musically and lyrically.

“Immigration Blues” – Chris Rea

In 2005, prolific U.K. singer-songwriter Chris Rea released a massive 11-CD box set album with 137 tracks called Blue Guitars (I believe that sets some sort of record). The collection is literally a journey through blues history, with original songs “done in the style of…[insert your preferred blues sub-genre here]” from African origins to contemporary iterations. This track is from “Album 10: Latin Blues”. The title says it all.

“Immigration Man” – David Crosby & Graham Nash

After an unpleasant experience in the early 70s getting hassled by a U.S. Customs agent, U.K.-born Graham Nash (who became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 1978) didn’t get mad, he got even by immortalizing his tormentor in a song. The tune is one of the highlights of the 1972 studio album he recorded with David Crosby, simply titled Crosby and Nash. I love that line where he describes his immigration form as “big enough to keep me warm.”

“Thousands are Sailing”– The Pogues

An ode to the Irish migrant wave that came in the wake of the Great Famine of the mid-1800s.

Tell me why: A therapeutic mixtape

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on February 17, 2018)

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In a 2016 piece about the mass shooting at Orlando’s Pulse nightclub, I wrote:

But there is something about [Orlando] that screams “Last call for sane discourse and positive action!” on multiple fronts. This incident is akin to a perfect Hollywood pitch, writ large by fate and circumstance; incorporating nearly every sociopolitical causality that has been quantified and/or debated over by criminologists, psychologists, legal analysts, legislators, anti-gun activists, pro-gun activists, left-wingers, right-wingers, centrists, clerics, journalists and pundits in the wake of every such incident since Charles Whitman perched atop the clock tower at the University of Texas and picked off nearly 50 victims (14 dead and 32 wounded) over a 90-minute period. That incident occurred in 1966; 50 years ago this August. Not an auspicious golden anniversary for our country. 50 years of this madness. And it’s still not the appropriate time to discuss? What…too soon?

All I can say is, if this “worst mass shooting in U.S. history” (which is saying a lot) isn’t the perfect catalyst for prompting meaningful public dialogue and positive action steps once and for all regarding homophobia, Islamophobia, domestic violence, the proliferation of hate crimes, legal assault weapons, universal background checks, mental health care (did I leave anything out?), then WTF will it take?

Well, that didn’t take. Which reminds me-remember what happened a year ago this month? Here’s a quick refresher (from the Washington Times-February 15th, 2017):

Congress on Wednesday approved the first gun rights bill of the new Republican-controlled Washington, voting to erase an Obama administration regulation that would have forced Social Security to scour its lists and report some of its beneficiaries to the firearms no-buy list.

The Senate approved the bill on a 57-43 vote. The House cleared the legislation earlier this month.

If President Trump signs the bill into law as expected, it will expunge a last-minute change by the Obama administration designed to add more mental health records to the national background check system that is meant to keep criminals and unstable people from obtaining weapons.

In case you missed it, President Trump did, in fact, sign the bill into law. As expected.

So how did that work out for us? Remember Vegas? Watched any news…this week?

You know what “they” say-we all have a breaking point. When it comes to this particular topic, I have to say, I think that I may have finally reached mine. I’ve written about this so many times, in the wake of so many horrible mass shootings, that I’ve lost count. I’m out of words. There are no Scrabble tiles left in the bag, and I’m stuck with a “Q” and a “Z”. Game over. Oh waiter-check, please. The end. Finis. I have no mouth, and I must scream.

Something else “they” say…music soothes the savage beast. Not that this 10-song playlist that I have assembled will necessarily assuage the grief, provide the answers that we seek, or shed any new light on the subject-but sometimes, when words fail, music speaks.

As the late great Harry Chapin tells his audience in the clip I’ve included below: “Here’s a song that I could probably talk about for two weeks. But I’m not going to burden you, and hopefully the story and the words will tell it the way it should be.” What Harry said.

“Family Snapshot” – Peter Gabriel

“Friend of Mine” – Jonathan & Stephen Cohen (Columbine survivors)

“Guns Guns Guns” – The Guess Who

“I Don’t Like Mondays” – The Boomtown Rats

“Jeremy” – Pearl Jam

“Melt the Guns” – XTC

“Psycho Killer” – The Talking Heads

“Saturday Night Special” – Lynyrd Skynyrd

“Sniper” – Harry Chapin

“Ticking” – Elton John

Blood at the root: An MLK Day mixtape

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on January 13, 2018)

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I came into this world on April 4, 1956. 12 years later, to the day, the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. left it. My intention is not to attach any particular significance to that kismet, apart from the fact that I have since felt somewhat ambiguous about “celebrating” my birthdays (I could push the weird cosmic coincidence factor further by adding RFK was killed 2 months later on June 5th, my parents’ wedding anniversary…but I won’t go there).

There will be plenty of discussion and contemplation regarding that tragic day in a couple of months, especially as this will be the 50th anniversary, so I won’t dwell on that now. This holiday weekend is about celebrating his birthday. So tonight I wanted to share my top 10 picks for songs to honor the life and legacy of Rev. King. In alphabetical order…

“Abraham, Martin, & John” – Late 50s-early 60s teen idol Dion DiMucci reinvented himself as a socially-conscious folk singer in 1968 with this heartfelt performance of Dick Holler’s beautifully written tribute to JFK, RFK, and MLK. Seems they all die young…

“Barack Obama” – Yes, Cocoa Tea’s song is very much about MLK. Besides, you need to hear this right now. Remember, history is cyclical; one day, the sun will shine again.

“Blues for Martin Luther King” – In 1968, music was our social media. The great Otis Spann gives us the news and preaches the blues. Feel his pain, for it is ours as well.

“400 Years” – The struggle began long before Dr. King joined it; sadly, it continues to this day. A people’s history…written and sung by the late great Peter Tosh (with the Wailers).

“Happy Birthday” – A no-brainer for the list. Good to remember that Stevie Wonder was also a key advocate in the lobby to make Dr. King’s birthday a national holiday.

“Is it Because I’m Black?” – Syl Johnson’s question may sound rhetorical, but he pulls no punches.

“Pieces of a Man” – The late Gil Scott-Heron’s heartbreaking vocal, Brian Jackson’s transcendent piano, the great Ron Carter’s sublime stand-up bass work, and the pure poetry of the lyrics…it’s all so “right”.

“Pride (In the Name of Love)” – Including U2’s stirring anthem feels mandatory here.

“Strange Fruit” – “Black bodies swinging in the Southern breeze.” Billie Holiday’s song was powerful then, powerful now, and will remain powerful forever.

“Why (The King of Love is Dead)” – Like the Otis Spann song on this list, Nina Simone’s musical eulogy (written and performed here just days after Dr. King’s death) is all the more remarkable for conveying a message at once so timely, and so timeless.

A special guest post: Looking for comedy in the Muslim world

By Brad Upton

Note: Brad Upton is a Seattle-based comedian with whom I had the pleasure of working with during my stint in stand-up. He has just wrapped up a tour in Pakistan with several other comics, and has been posting on Facebook about his experience.  As we all know, there’s no crying in baseball…or comedy. Nonetheless, Brad wrote a post today that I found incredibly moving and inspiring; and in light of all the bellicose nationalist rhetoric coming from the top these days, it is a much-needed reminder that people are people, wherever you go. With his permission, I am re-publishing Brad’s thoughts here. – Dennis Hartley

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Please allow me to ramble.

Karachi, Pakistan

Last Wednesday night I went back in time and was able to relive what it was like when I started doing stand up. That feeling of excitement, anticipation, feeling the collective energy of the room, of the possibility….of the future. It felt like my beginning in 1984.

After a day of promotion, meals and being ferried throughout Karachi in traffic that can’t adequately be described other than a mass of scooters, motorcycles, 3-wheeled motorized rickshaws, buses, donkey carts, horseback and cars….none of them following any observable rules, we pulled up in front of a 5-story building on a side street. Everywhere we pull up in Karachi: a restaurant, studio, or hotel, a man or men, stand up and emerge from the shadows carrying highly modified automatic weapons. Blue slacks and blue polo shirts, this is security.

There are offices on the first floor. Five of us enter a hot, humid elevator that should probably only hold three. We emerge on the top floor. It certainly isn’t a bar, or a restaurant, or banquet room, or any kind of theater. It is an empty office space and this is where you find Karachi’s two-year-old, open mic comedy scene. There is a logo on the wall behind the comics proudly calling this place the Thot Spot. As we emerge from the elevator we can hear laughter as we slip quietly into the back of the room. The audience sits in rows of folding chairs. The room holds about 70 and is packed.

The room is electric with energy, each comic is getting big laughs. What takes me back in time is how the comics and audience are enthralled with what is happening. This vibe doesn’t exist at an open mic in the US; stand up is part of our culture and some of the comics have been going up for years.

This is different. This is new. This is fun. We’ve never done this. We’ve never had this. People are standing in front of their peers and talking about life in Karachi, their awkwardness, sex, politics, traffic, social media, dating, school, family, etc. Young Muslim men and women speaking their minds in ways that make their peers laugh.

Wait, I haven’t mentioned something VERY important. I THINK these are the topics. This entire show is being performed in Urdu. Many Pakistanis are bilingual but it seems Urdu is usually the first option.

I. Am. Mesmerized.

To hear stand up performed in a language I don’t understand is fascinating. I love the rhythm of the words and can quickly recognize an approaching punchline just by the pacing and nuances. I can hear the beats. I find myself laughing at jokes I don’t understand, verifying that laughter is contagious.

The audience and comics are aware that this night is different. The international professionals that have just arrived from Great Britain and the US will go up at the end and do 7-10 minutes each.

Our host, our organizer, our MC, Umar Rana, takes over the hosting duties at the conclusion of the Urdu sets and quickly converts the audience over to English. Keep in mind that myself, Dwight Slade and Shazia Mirza aren’t quite sure what we’re in for. We are almost sick with jet lag. We are confident, veteran professionals….but this is Pakistan. Will they like us? Have I chosen the right material? Will this joke make sense?

Suddenly I have the open mic feeling that I haven’t felt in over 30 years. I go first, followed by Dwight and Shazia. For all three of us, everything works. Every joke, every expression, every nuance. All three of us destroy and delight in the experience. The show wraps up and we stand around laughing and smiling and talking with our Pakistani cohorts. I suddenly have new friends!

This audience has given these pros a taste of what the weekend is going to be like. It is humbling. I witness what has happened at this open mic in Karachi and am proud of my profession. I got more out of this evening than they did. These people want to laugh and be entertained. These kids are Pakistan’s future. Inshallah.

 

Bang bang, shoot shoot

By Dennis Hartley

(In light of the tragedy in Las Vegas, I am re-posting this piece from February 16th of this year).

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Oh, boy.  From  The Washington Times:

Congress on Wednesday approved the first gun rights bill of the new Republican-controlled Washington, voting to erase an Obama administration regulation that would have forced Social Security to scour its lists and report some of its beneficiaries to the firearms no-buy list.

The Senate approved the bill on a 57-43 vote. The House cleared the legislation earlier this month.

If President Trump signs the bill into law as expected, it will expunge a last-minute change by the Obama administration designed to add more mental health records to the national background check system that is meant to keep criminals and unstable people from obtaining weapons.

 The previous administration had proposed requiring Social Security to search its records and report people receiving disability benefits or supplemental income payments and who had someone else managing their finances, deeming them “mental defectives” who shouldn’t be able to buy firearms. Republicans said that trampled on Second Amendment rights by casting too wide a net.
                                 

“It results in reporting people to the gun ban list that should not be on that list at all,” said Sen. Chuck Grassley, Iowa Republican and chief sponsor of the effort to repeal the Obama rule. “It deprives those people [of] their constitutional rights and, in a very important way, violates their constitutional rights without even due process.”

Oh, I see…it’s just those “compassionate conservatives” selflessly looking out for the interests of Americans with disabilities; standing up for their rights. At least when the Second Amendment is in peril. Because, as you know, they’ve always been there for those folks:

Good times!

This development strikes me as particularly odious, coming  as it does hot on the heels of PBS’ February 14 broadcast premiere of Tower, a harrowing documentary recounting the 1966 mass shooting  at the University of Texas.  Over an agonizing hour and a half period, a deranged sniper who had stationed himself on the observation deck of the UT Tower, methodically picked off nearly 50 people-killing 16 and wounding 3 dozen. He still had plenty of ammo left when two Austin policeman and a hastily deputized civilian were able to make their way to the top and take him out.

Last June, in a piece I wrote about the Orlando nightclub mass shooting, I pointed to the 1966 incident as a sad marker for America:

But there is something about [Orlando] that screams “Last call for sane discourse and positive action!” on multiple fronts. This incident is akin to a perfect Hollywood pitch, writ large by fate and circumstance; incorporating nearly every sociopolitical causality that has been quantified and/or debated over by criminologists, psychologists, legal analysts, legislators, anti-gun activists, pro-gun activists, left-wingers, right-wingers, centrists, clerics, journalists and pundits in the wake of every such incident since Charles Whitman  perched atop the clock tower at the University of Texas and picked off nearly 50 victims  (14 dead and 32 wounded) over a 90-minute period. That incident occurred in 1966; 50 years ago this August. Not an auspicious golden anniversary for our country. 50 years of this madness.  And it’s still not the appropriate time to discuss? What…too soon?

All I can say is, if this “worst mass shooting in U.S. history” (which is saying a lot) isn’t the perfect catalyst for prompting  meaningful public dialogue and positive action steps once and for all regarding  homophobia, Islamophobia, domestic violence, the proliferation of hate crimes, legal assault weapons, universal background checks, mental health care (did I leave anything out?), then WTF will it take?

(sigh) I have to ask again. WTF will it take? BTW, here is what it “took” for President Obama to lobby for the regulation that has just been overturned:

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But thank God the 2nd Amendment got through all this unscathed!