Tag Archives: On Politics

All this and WWIII: A mixtape

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on March 19, 2022)

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It’s 1961 again and we are piggy in the middle
While war is polishing his drum and peace plays second fiddle
Russia and America are at each other’s throats
But don’t you cry
Just get on your knees and pray, and while you’re
Down there, kiss your arse goodbye

-from “Living Though Another Cuba”, by XTC

What with the reheated Cold War rhetoric in the air (commensurate with the escalation of Vladimir Putin’s war of aggression against Ukraine), it is beginning to feel a lot like 1983. That was the year President Reagan made his “Evil Empire” speech, in which he planted the idea of deploying NATO nuclear-armed intermediate-range ballistic missiles in Western Europe as a response to the Soviets having done the same in Eastern Europe.

For those of us of a certain age, what was going in in 1983 with the Soviets and the looming nuclear threat and the saber-rattling and such hearkened back to 1962, which was the year President Kennedy faced the Cuban Missile Crisis, where we came “this” close to an earth-shattering kaboom (OK-I was 6, but I do remember watching it on TV).

Meanwhile, in 2022…I’m sensing Cold War III.

This past Thursday on Democracy Now, co-hosts Amy Goodman and Nermeen Shaikh interviewed Phyllis Bennis, author and fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies, who pointed out far-reaching consequences of the war in Ukraine that are already playing out:

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Phyllis, could you respond specifically — to go back to the question of the U.S. sending arms to Ukraine — the provision, in particular, of these 100 so-called killer drones, Switchblade drones? This is the first time since the Russian invasion that the U.S. will be providing drones, though Ukraine has been using, apparently to great effect, Turkish — armed drones provided by Turkey. Could you speak specifically about these drones that the U.S. is going to supply?

PHYLLIS BENNIS: Yeah, this is a serious escalation of what the U.S. is sending. As you say, Nermeen, the Turkish drones have been in use by the Ukrainians for some time now. But these drones are significantly more powerful, and the expectation is that they would be used against groupings of Russian soldiers on the ground. And they could result in the deaths of large numbers of soldiers if they were used effectively.

The question of drone extension, where drones are being used, is a very serious global question as we look at the militarization that is increasing in the context of this war. Countries across Europe are talking about remilitarizing. Germany, in particular, is saying they are going to spend a lot more money on their military, that they’re going to start spending 2% of their GDP on military forces, something that has been a goal of NATO, that has so far has only been reached by about 10 European countries, not including Germany, which is of course the wealthiest country in Europe. So, this is a very serious level of escalation. Whether it will have a qualitative shift in the battlefield situation in terms of the balance of forces, I don’t think we know yet, but it does represent a serious U.S. commitment. […]

So, it’s very, very important that the pressure remain on the Biden administration to maintain the opposition to a no-fly zone. It’s going to be increasingly difficult, I think, because in Congress there is — there’s certainly not a majority, thankfully, but there are increasing members of Congress that are calling for a no-fly zone. Some of that is presumably political posturing. But if that rises and if there’s a public call because there’s this sense of, “Well, let’s just do that, let’s just have a no-fly zone,” as if it was this magical shield, I think that it will become increasingly difficult for the Biden administration. So that becomes increasingly important.

It’s taking place, this debate is taking place, in the context of what I mentioned earlier, the increasing militarization that is one of the consequences of this war. We’re seeing that certainly across Europe, but we’re also seeing it in the United States — the new $800 billion [sic], parts of the $14.5 billion — sorry, the $800 million for the new package, the $14.5 billion package that has already been underway for Ukraine. The arms dealers are the ones who are thrilled with this war. They’re the ones that are making a killing. And that will continue. That will continue with a newly militarized Europe in the aftermath of this war. So the consequences are going to be very, very severe.

“The arms dealers are the ones who are thrilled with this war.”  Bingo. When I heard that, a verse from Bob Dylan’s “Masters of War” instantly popped into my head:

Let me ask you one question
Is your money that good?
Will it buy you forgiveness?
Do you think that it could?
I think you will find
When your death takes its toll
All the money you made
Will never buy back your soul

Plus ca change. I’ve had lots of songs popping into my head lately…here’s a few more:

“New Frontier” – Donald Fagen

“The Russians Are Coming” – Captain Sensible

“April Sun in Cuba” – Dragon

“Living Through Another Cuba” – XTC

“And So It Goes” – Nick Lowe

“Land of Confusion” – Genesis

“99 Luftballons” – Nena

“Red Skies” – The Fixx

“Two Tribes” – Frankie Goes to Hollywood

“Leningrad” – Billy Joel

“Russians” – Sting

“Breathing” – Kate Bush

Outside gets inside
Ooh-ooh, through her skin
I’ve been out before
But this time it’s much safer in

Last night in the sky
Ooh-ooh, such a bright light
My radar send me danger
But my instincts tell me to keep

Breathing (out, in, out, in, out, in)
Breathing, breathing my mother in (out, in, out, in, out, in)
Breathing my beloved in (out, in, out, in, out, in)
Breathing, breathing her nicotine (out, in, out, in, out, in)
Breathing, breathing the fall (out, in, out, in, out, in)
Out, in, out, in, out, in, out, in, out, in…

We’ve lost our chance
We’re the first and last, ooh
After the blast, chips of plutonium
Are twinkling in every lung

I love my beloved, ooh
All and everywhere
Only the fools blew it
You and me knew life itself is

Breathing (out, in, out, in, out, in)
Breathing, breathing my mother in (out, in, out, in, out, in)
Breathing my beloved in (out, in, out, in, out, in)
Breathing, breathing her nicotine (out, in, out, in, out, in)
Breathing, breathing the fall (out, in, out, in, out, in)
Out, in, out, in, out, in, out, in, out, in
Out, in, out, in, out, in, out
Out, out, out, out

[TV announcer] “Difference between a small nuclear explosion
And a large one by a very simple method
The calling card of a nuclear bomb is the blinding flash
That is far more dazzling than any light on earth
Brighter even than the sun itself
And it is by the duration of this flash
That we are able to determine the size of the weapon (what are we going to do without?)

After the flash a fireball can be seen to rise
Sucking up under it the debris, dust and living things
Around the area of the explosion
And as this ascends, it soon becomes recognizable
As the familiar mushroom cloud

As a demonstration of the flash duration test
Let’s try and count the number of seconds for the flash
Emitted by a very small bomb then a more substantial, medium sized bomb
And finally, one of our very powerful high yield bombs.”

What are we going to do without? (Ooh, please)
What are we going to do without? (Oh, let me breathe)
What are we going to do without? (Ooh, quick, breathe in deep)
We are all going to die without (oh, leave me something to breathe)
What are we going to do without? (Oh, leave me something to breathe)
We are all going to die without (oh God, please leave us something to breathe)
What are we going to do without? (Oh, life is)

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Happy end of the world: Top 15 Anti-Nuke Films

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on February 26, 2022)

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“The atomic bomb made the prospect of future war unendurable. It has led us up those last few steps to the mountain pass; and beyond there is a different country.”

-J. Robert Oppenheimer

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So what have we learned since 8:15am, August 6, 1945-if anything? Well, we’ve tried to harness the power of the atom for “good”, however, as has been demonstrated repeatedly, that’s not working out so well (Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, Fukushima, et al).

Also, there are enough stockpiled weapons of mass destruction to knock Planet Earth off its axis, and no guarantees that some nut job, whether enabled by the powers vested in him by the state, or the voices in his head (doesn’t matter-end result’s the same) won’t be in a position at some point in the future to let one or two or a hundred rip. Hopefully, cool heads and diplomacy will continue to keep us above ground and rad-free. After all, this is the 21st Century.

Oh, crap

[Updated February 24] Moscow (CNN)— Before the crack of dawn, just before explosions began in cities across Ukraine, Russian state television unexpectedly broadcast an address by Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The two self-proclaimed “people’s republics” of Donetsk and Luhansk, in the breakaway Ukrainian region of Donbas, which he had officially recognized as independent less than two days before, had “turned to Russia with a request for help,” he said. To answer that call he was launching a “special military operation.” Its purpose: to “demilitarize” and “denazifiy” Ukraine.

Within minutes, Russian missiles began hitting targets in Ukraine. “Our actions are self-defense against threats,” he told his fellow Russians, claiming Moscow had no plans to occupy Ukraine. “We do not plan to impose ourselves on anyone,” he insisted. […]

Putin described the “special military operation” in limited terms, to protect people living in Donbas who, he claimed, had been subjected to “genocide,” a charge that Ukraine has strenuously denied. But in the next breath, he lashed out more broadly: “NATO supports Ukrainian neo-Nazis … our actions are self-defense against threats.”

As he has done so many times before, Putin claimed Russia had no choice but to defend itself. With a hard-edged tone in his voice, he seemed to threaten the US, Europe and NATO which, in just a few minutes, would witness his armed forces opening fire on Ukraine, something the Kremlin had consistently dismissed as western “hysterics.”

“Whoever tries to interfere with us, and even more so, to create threats for our country, for our people, should know that Russia’s response will be immediate and will lead you to such consequences that you have never experienced in your history.

“We are ready for any development of events. All necessary decisions in this regard have been made.”

Putin, who for years had criticized the West for ignoring his complaints about NATO’s expansion toward Russia’s borders, was finally striking back with fury. “I hope,” he concluded his short address, “that I have been heard.”

Tick…tick…tick…

Every January, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists gives the human race its annual physical, to determine the official time on the Doomsday Clock. In January of 2021, they determined that it was “100 seconds to Midnight”.

So how are we doing now?

[January 20, 2022] – Last year’s leadership change in the United States provided hope that what seemed like a global race toward catastrophe might be halted and—with renewed US engagement—even reversed. Indeed, in 2021 the new American administration changed US policies in some ways that made the world safer: agreeing to an extension of the New START arms control agreement and beginning strategic stability talks with Russia; announcing that the United States would seek to return to the Iran nuclear deal; and rejoining the Paris climate accord.

Perhaps even more heartening was the return of science and evidence to US policy making in general, especially regarding the COVID-19 pandemic. A more moderate and predictable approach to leadership and the control of one of the two largest nuclear arsenals of the world marked a welcome change from the previous four years.

Still, the change in US leadership alone was not enough to reverse negative international security trends that had been long in developing and continued across the threat horizon in 2021.

US relations with Russia and China remain tense, with all three countries engaged in an array of nuclear modernization and expansion efforts—including China’s apparent large-scale program to increase its deployment of silo-based long-range nuclear missiles; the push by Russia, China, and the United States to develop hypersonic missiles; and the continued testing of anti-satellite weapons by many nations. If not restrained, these efforts could mark the start of a dangerous new nuclear arms race.

Other nuclear concerns, including North Korea’s unconstrained nuclear and missile expansion and the (as yet) unsuccessful attempts to revive the Iran nuclear deal contribute to growing dangers. Ukraine remains a potential flashpoint, and Russian troop deployments to the Ukrainian border heighten day-to-day tensions.

They certainly saw THAT coming; not that the annual Bulletin gets too much attention:

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Who cares about what a bunch of  alarmist, smarty-pants “scientists” in silly lab coats are screeching about when there are more important matters to address, like “woke” M&Ms…amirite?

As for the smarty-pants in lab coats…anything else we should know?

The Chinese have started to build new ICBM silos on a large scale, leading to concerns that China may be considering a change in its nuclear doctrine. China and Russia have both tested anti-satellite weapons recently, increasing concerns about rapid escalation in any conventional conflict with the United States. Efforts by all three countries to field hypersonic missiles are beginning to yield results, intensifying competition. While experts disagree on both the causes and the consequences of these programs, they clearly mark the start of a new arms competition.

But surely, China isn’t an immediate concern. I mean, they just hosted the Olympics.

Oh, god…

[February 24] Taiwan on Thursday said that at least nine Chinese military jets crossed into what the self-ruled island calls “its air space.”

A statement by Taiwan’s Ministry of Defense said the island nation’s air force scrambled away from the Chinese jets.

“The Air Force aircraft issued radio warnings and air defense missile systems (were) deployed to monitor the activities,” the ministry said.

It added the Chinese jets entered what Taiwan calls the air defense identification zone (ADIZ), in the southwestern region of the island, home to over 24 million people.

The high number of jets entering the ADIZ came when Russian President Vladimir Putin announced a military intervention in Ukraine early Thursday, just days after recognizing two separatist-held enclaves in eastern Ukraine, drawing widespread international condemnation and announcements of tougher sanctions on Moscow.

Good times. Which reminds me…back to the scientists. So, what time is it now?

In view of this mixed threat environment—with some positive developments counteracted by worrisome and accelerating negative trends—the members of the Science and Security Board find the world to be no safer than it was last year at this time and therefore decide to set the Doomsday Clock once again at 100 seconds to midnight. This decision does not, by any means, suggest that the international security situation has stabilized. On the contrary, the Clock remains the closest it has ever been to civilization-ending apocalypse because the world remains stuck in an extremely dangerous moment. In 2019 we called it the new abnormal, and it has unfortunately persisted.

OK, then. In consideration of this week’s events, here are my picks for the top 15 (still) cautionary films to watch before we all go together (when we go). Uh…enjoy?

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The Atomic Café – Whoopee, we’re all gonna die! But along the way, we might as well have a few laughs. That seems to be the impetus behind this 1982 collection of cleverly reassembled footage culled from U.S. government propaganda shorts from the Cold War era (Mk 1), originally designed to educate the public about how to “survive” a nuclear attack (all you need to do is get under a desk…everyone knows that!).

In addition to the Civil Defense campaigns (which include the classic “duck and cover” tutorials) the filmmakers have also drawn from a rich vein of military training films, which reduce the possible effects of a nuclear strike to something akin to a barrage from, oh I don’t know- a really big field howitzer. Harrowing, yet perversely entertaining. Written and directed by Jayne Loader, Pierce Rafferty and Kevin Rafferty (Kevin went on to co-direct the similarly constructed 1999 doc, The Last Cigarette, a take down of the tobacco industry).

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Black Rain– For obvious reasons, there have been a fair amount of postwar Japanese films dealing with the subject of nuclear destruction and its aftermath. Some take an oblique approach, like Gojira or I Live in Fear. Other films, like the documentary Children of Hiroshima and the anime Barefoot Gen deal directly with survivors (who are referred to in Japan as the hibakusha).

One of the most affecting hibakusha films I’ve seen is Shomei Imamura’s 1989 drama Black Rain (not to be confused with the 1989 Hollywood crime thriller of the same title that is also set in Japan). It’s a simple tale of three Hiroshima survivors: an elderly couple and their niece, whose scars run much deeper than physical. The narrative is sparse, yet contains more layers than an onion (especially considering the complexities of Japanese society). Interestingly, Imamura injects a polemic which points an accusatory finger in an unexpected direction.

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The Day after Trinity– This absorbing film about the Manhattan Project and its subsequent fallout (historical, political and existential) is one of the best documentaries I have ever seen. At its center, it is a profile of project leader J. Robert Oppenheimer, whose moment of professional triumph (the successful test of the world’s first atomic bomb, three weeks before Hiroshima) also brought him an unnerving precognition about the horror that he and his fellow physicists had enabled the military machine to unleash.

Oppenheimer’s journey from “father of the atomic bomb” to anti-nuke activist (and having his life destroyed by the post-war Red hysteria) is a tragic tale of Shakespearean proportion. Two recommended companion pieces: Roland Joffe’s 1989 drama Fat Man and Little Boy, about the working relationship between Oppenheimer (Dwight Schultz) and military director of the Manhattan Project, General Leslie Groves (Paul Newman); and an outstanding 1980 BBC miniseries called Oppenheimer (starring Sam Waterston).

Oppenheimer remains a fascinating character; Christopher Nolan recently began production on a 2023 biopic titled (wait for it) Oppenheimer, starring Cillian Murphy.

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Dr. Strangelove or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb- “Mein fuehrer! I can walk!” Although we have yet to experience the global thermonuclear annihilation that ensues following the wheelchair-bound Dr. Strangelove’s joyous (if short-lived) epiphany, so many other depictions in Stanley Kubrick’s seriocomic masterpiece about the tendency for those in power to eventually rise to their own level of incompetence have since come to pass, that you wonder why the filmmakers even bothered to make it all up.

It’s the one about an American military base commander who goes a little funny in the head (you know…”funny”) and sort of launches a nuclear attack on the Soviet Union. Hilarity and oblivion ensues. And what a cast: Peter Sellers (as three characters), George C. Scott, Sterling Hayden, Slim Pickens, Keenan Wynn, James Earl Jones and Peter Bull. There are so many great quotes, that you might as well bracket the entire screenplay (by Kubrick, Terry Southern and Peter George) with quotation marks.

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Fail-SafeDr. Strangelove…without the laughs. This no-nonsense 1964 thriller from the late great director Sidney Lumet takes a more clinical look at how a wild card scenario (in this case, a simple hardware malfunction) could ultimately trigger a nuclear showdown between the Americans and the Russians.

Talky and a bit stagey; but riveting nonetheless thanks to Lumet’s skillful  knack for bringing out the best in his actors. Walter Bernstein’s intelligent screenplay (with uncredited assistance from Peter George, who also co-scripted Dr. Strangelove) and a superb cast that includes Henry Fonda (a commanding performance, literally and figuratively), Walter Matthau, Larry Hagman, and Fritz Weaver.

There’s no fighting in this war room (aside from one minor scuffle), but there is an almost unbearable amount of tension and suspense. The final scene is chilling and unforgettable.

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I Live in Fear-This 1955 Akira Kurosawa film is one of the great director’s most overlooked efforts. It’s a melodrama concerning an aging foundry owner (Toshiro Mifune, unrecognizable in Coke-bottle glasses and silver-frosted pomade) who literally “lives in fear” of the H-bomb. Convinced that South America would be the “safest” place on Earth from radioactive fallout, he tries to sway his wife and grown children to pull up stakes and resettle on a farm in Brazil.

His children, who have families of their own and rely on their father’s factory for income, are not so hot on that idea. They take him to family court and have him declared incompetent. This sends Mifune spiraling into madness. Or are his fears really so “crazy”? It is one of Mifune’s most powerful and moving performances. Kurosawa instills shades of Shakespeare’s “King Lear” into the narrative (a well he would draw from again in his 1985 film Ran).

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Ladybug, Ladybug– I didn’t have an opportunity to see this chilling 1963 drama until 2017, which is when Turner Classic Movies presented their premiere showing (to my knowledge, it had never been previously available in any home video format). The film marked the second collaboration between husband-and-wife creative team of writer Eleanor Perry and director Frank Perry (The Swimmer, Last Summer, Diary of a Mad Housewife).

Based on an incident that occurred during the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, the story centers on how students and staff of a rural school react to a Civil Defense alert indicating an imminent nuclear strike. While there are indications that it could be a false alarm, the principal sends the children home early. As teachers and students stroll through the relatively peaceful countryside, fears and anxieties come to the fore. Naturalistic performances bring the film’s cautionary message all too close to home.

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Miracle Mile- Depending on your worldview, this is either an “end of the world” film for romantics, or the perfect date movie for fatalists. Anthony Edwards and Mare Winningham give winning performances as a musician and a waitress who Meet Cute at L.A.’s La Brea Tar Pits museum. But before they can hook up for their first date, Edwards stumbles onto a fairly reliable tip that L.A. is about to get hosed…in a major way.

The resulting “countdown” scenario is a genuine, edge-of-your seat nail-biter. In fact, this modestly budgeted, 90-minute sleeper offers more heart-pounding excitement (and much more believable characters) than any bloated Hollywood disaster epic from the likes of a Michael Bay or a Roland Emmerich. Writer-director Steve De Jarnatt stopped doing feature films after this 1988 gem (his only other feature was the sci-fi cult favorite Cherry 2000).

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One Night Stand –An early effort from filmmaker John Duigan (Winter of Our Dreams, The Year My Voice Broke, Flirting, Sirens), this 1984 sleeper got lost in the flurry of nuclear paranoia movies that proliferated during the Reagan era (Wargames, The Manhattan Project, Red Dawn, et.al.).

Four young people (three Australians and an American sailor who has jumped ship) get holed up in an empty Sydney Opera House on the eve of escalating nuclear tension between the superpowers in Eastern Europe. In an effort to quell their anxiety over increasingly ominous news bulletins droning from a portable radio, the quartet find creative ways to keep up their spirits.

Uneven, but for the most part Duigan (who scripted) deftly juggles romantic comedy, apocalyptic thriller and anti-war statement. There are several striking set pieces; particularly an affecting scene where the group watches Fritz Langs’s Metropolis as the Easybeats “Friday on My Mind” is juxtaposed over its orchestral score. Midnight Oil performs in a scene where the two young women attend a concert. The bittersweet denouement (in an underground tube station) is quite powerful.

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Special Bulletin– This outstanding 1983 made-for-TV movie has been overshadowed by the nuclear nightmare-themed TV movie The Day After, which aired the same year (I’m sure I will be raked over the coals by some readers for not including the aforementioned on this list, but frankly I always thought it was too melodramatic and vastly over-praised).

Directed by Edward Zwick and written by Marshall Herskovitz (the same creative team behind thirtysomething), Special Bulletin is framed as a “live” television broadcast, with local news anchors and reporters interrupting regular programming to cover a breaking story.

A domestic terrorist group has seized a docked tugboat in Charleston Harbor. A reporter relays their demand: If every nuclear triggering device stored at the nearby U.S. Naval base isn’t delivered to them by a specified time, they will detonate their own homemade nuclear device (equal in power to the bomb dropped on Nagasaki). The original airing apparently panicked more than a few South Carolinian viewers (a la Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds radio broadcast in 1938). Riveting and chilling. Nominated for 6 Emmys, it took home 4.

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Testament- Originally an American Playhouse presentation, this film (with a screenplay adapted by John Sacred Young from a story by Carol Amen) was released to theaters and garnered a well-deserved Best Actress nomination for Jane Alexander. Director Lynne Littman takes a low key approach, but pulls no punches; I think this is what gives her film’s anti-nuke message more teeth and makes its scenario more relatable than Stanley Kramer’s similarly-framed but more sanitized and preachy 1959 drama On the Beach.

Alexander, her husband (William DeVane) and three kids live in sleepy Hamlin, California, where afternoon cartoons are interrupted by a news flash that nuclear explosions have occurred in New York. Then there is a flash of a different kind when nearby San Francisco (where DeVane has gone on a business trip) receives a direct strike.

There is no exposition on the political climate that precipitates the attacks; this is a wise decision, as it puts the focus on the humanistic message of the film. All of the post-nuke horrors ensue, but they are presented sans the melodrama that informs many entries in the genre. The fact that the nightmarish scenario unfolds so deliberately, and amidst such everyday suburban banality, is what makes it very difficult to shake off.

As the children (and adults) of Hamlin succumb to the inevitable scourge of radiation sickness and steadily “disappear”, like the children of the ‘fairy tale’ Hamlin, you are left haunted by the final line of the school production of “The Pied Piper” glimpsed earlier in the film… “Your children are not dead. They will return when the world deserves them.”

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Thirteen Days– I had a block against seeing this 2000 release about the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, for several reasons. For one, director Roger Donaldson’s uneven output (for every Smash Palace or No Way Out, he’s got a Species or a Cocktail). I also couldn’t get past “Kevin Costner? In another movie about JFK?” Also, I felt the outstanding 1974 TV film, The Missiles of October (which I recommend) would be hard to top. But I was pleasantly surprised to find it to be one of Donaldson’s better films.

Bruce Greenwood and Steven Culp make a very credible JFK and RFK, respectively. The film works as a political thriller, yet it is also intimate and moving at times (especially in the scenes between JFK and RFK). Costner provides the “fly on the wall” perspective as Kennedy insider Kenny O’Donnell. Costner gives a compassionate performance; on the downside he has a tin ear for dialects (that Hahvad Yahd brogue comes and goes of its own free will).

According to the Internet Movie Database, this was the first film screened at the White House by George and Laura Bush in 2001. Knowing this now…I don’t know whether to laugh or cry myself to sleep.

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The War Game / Threads– Out of all of the selections on this list, these two British TV productions are the grimmest and most sobering “nuclear nightmare” films of them all.

Writer-director Peter Watkins’ 1965 docudrama, The War Game was initially produced for television, but was deemed too shocking and disconcerting for the small screen by the BBC. It was mothballed until picked up for theatrical distribution, which snagged it an Oscar for Best Documentary in 1967. Watkins envisions the aftermath of a nuke attack on London, and pulls no punches. Very ahead of its time, and it still packs quite a wallop.

The similarly stark and affecting nuclear nightmare drama  Threads debuted on the BBC in 1984, later airing in the U.S. on TBS. Director Mick Jackson delivers an uncompromising realism that makes The Day After (the U.S. TV film from the previous year) look like a Teletubbies episode. It’s a speculative narrative that takes a medium sized city (Sheffield) and depicts what would likely happen to its populace during and after a nuclear strike, in graphic detail.

Both  productions make it clear that, while they are dramatizations, the intent is not to “entertain” you in any sense of the word. The message is simple and direct-nothing good comes out of a nuclear conflict. It’s a living, breathing Hell for all concerned-and anyone “lucky” enough to survive will soon wish they were dead.

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When the Wind Blows– This animated 1986 U.K. film was adapted by director Jimmy Murakami from Raymond Brigg’s eponymous graphic novel. It is a simple yet affecting story about an aging couple (wonderfully voiced by venerable British thespians Sir John Mills and Dame Peggy Ashcroft) who live in a cozy cottage nestled in the bucolic English countryside. Unfortunately, an escalating conflict in another part of the world is about to go global and shatter their quiet lives.

Very similar in tone to Testament (another film on this list), in its sense of intimacy amidst slowly unfolding mass horror. Haunting, moving, and beautifully animated, with a combination of traditional cell and stop-motion techniques. The soundtrack features music by David Bowie, Roger Waters, and Squeeze.

Baby steps: A therapeutic mixtape (redux)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally published on Digby’s Hullabaloo on February 19, 2022)

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I hesitate to use the word “victory”, as this one is Pyrrhic at best; but…baby steps:

The families of nine victims of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting announced Tuesday they have agreed to a $73 million settlement of a lawsuit against the maker of the rifle used to kill 20 first graders and six educators in 2012. The case was watched closely by gun control advocates, gun rights supporters and manufacturers, because of its potential to provide a roadmap for victims of other shootings to sue firearm makers.

The families and a survivor of the shooting sued Remington in 2015, saying the company should have never sold such a dangerous weapon to the public. They said their focus was on preventing future mass shootings by forcing gun companies to be more responsible with their products and how they market them.

At a news conference, some of the parents behind the lawsuit described it as a bittersweet victory.

“Nothing will bring Dylan back,” said Nicole Hockley, whose 6-year-old son was killed in the shooting. “My hope for this lawsuit,” she said, “is that by facing and finally being penalized for the impact of their work, gun companies along with the insurance and banking industries that enable them will be forced to make their practices safer than they’ve ever been, which will save lives and stop more shootings.”

President Joe Biden called the settlement “historic,” saying, “While this settlement does not erase the pain of that tragic day, it does begin the necessary work of holding gun manufacturers accountable for manufacturing weapons of war and irresponsibly marketing these firearms.”

While I was glad to hear the President publicly endorse the settlement, his encouraging words will likely do little to break the Congressional stalemate on pushing through any game-changing gun reform legislation. As the U.S. continues to lead the world in gun-related deaths, the time for action was yesterday (don’t just talk the talk, walk the walk).

Earlier this week on Democracy Now, host Amy Goodman interviewed gun reform activist David Hogg, who certainly didn’t mince words regarding this continued inaction:

AMY GOODMAN: David, first, I want to go to the morning after the [2018 Marjory Douglas Stoneman High School] massacre [in Parkland, Florida] four years ago. You were speaking with CNN and said — amazingly, at that moment, keeping yourself together, considering what you survived and how many didn’t — said action was needed right away to deal with gun violence.

DAVID HOGG [from 2018 archival interview]: What we really need is action, because we can say, yes, we’re going to do all these things, thoughts and prayers. What we need more than that is action. Please. This is the 18th one this year. That’s unacceptable. We’re children. You guys, like, are the adults. You need to take some action and play a role, work together, come over your politics and get something done.

AMY GOODMAN: That was the day after the massacre that you had the presence of mind, David, to talk about what needs to be done in this country, given the horrific attack you had just experienced. Can you talk about from then to now, what you are calling for, what you’ve gone through? Thank you so much for joining us from school. You’re at Harvard now, a student in Cambridge.

DAVID HOGG: Yeah, you know, it’s amazing to look back at that and think about those things that have changed. In the immediate aftermath of the shooting, in the couple of months after that, leading up to midterms, we changed gun laws in Florida, a deeply Republican Legislature that has a — basically, the NRA has a stranglehold over. Despite, you know, basically everybody in the establishment thinking it was impossible, we did change gun laws there.

We were able to force the hand of the Florida state Legislature to get over their politics and work together to actually do something. In the time since Parkland, we passed nearly — well over 50 gun laws at the state level. We changed the Dickey Amendment so that we were able to get the CDC to study the effectiveness of gun laws at the state level, and gotten them funding. And on top of that, we have, you know, some of the most pro-gun violence prevention candidates, at least on paper, ever elected in American history.

Now it’s about making them act. And the reason — the thing that we’re calling for right now is specifically for President Biden to do even more that is within his executive power to act to address gun violence. And two of those things are creating an office, a national office of gun violence prevention, and a director of — a national director of gun violence prevention, that can work together to create a comprehensive plan to address gun violence from the federal government and not create just a piecemeal piece of legislation that’s just universal background checks and one other thing or just universal background checks, but comes up with a comprehensive plan for the federal government to address gun violence, regardless of what’s happening in the Senate.

Here’s hoping that this week’s court decision will be a catalyst for meaningful change (although it hinges on the legislative branch of our government to do their part as well). Speaking for myself, my hands are all wrung out regarding this particular subject. As I lamented in a 2018 post I published just several days following the Parkland shootings:

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.

And so, four years later (to the day) I’m re-posting that playlist (slightly revised), because these songs remain timely. As Harry Chapin tells his audience in the clip 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.

“Bang Bang” – Green Day

“Family Snapshot” – Peter Gabriel

“Friend of Mine” – Jonathan & Stephen Cohen

“Guns Guns Guns” – The Guess Who

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

“In the Ghetto” – Elvis Presley

“Jeremy” – Pearl Jam

“Melt the Guns” – XTC

“Perfection” – Badfinger

“Saturday Night Special” – Lynyrd Skynyrd

“Sniper” – Harry Chapin

“Ticking” – Elton John

The Fierce Urgency of Now (more than ever)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on January 15, 2022)

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In honor of Martin Luther King Day, I’ve combed my review archives and curated 10 films that reflect on race relations in America; some that look back at where we’ve been, some that give us a reality check on where we’re at now and maybe even one or two that offer hope for the future. We still may not have quite reached that “promised land” of colorblind equality, but each of us doing whatever we can in our own small way to help keep Dr. King’s legacy alive will surely help light the way-especially in these dark times.

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Black KkKlansman (2018)So what do you get if you cross Cyrano de Bergerac with Blazing Saddles? You might get Spike Lee’s Black KkKlansman. That is not to say that Lee’s film is a knee-slapping comedy; far from it. Lee takes the true story of Ron Stallworth (John David Washington), an African-American undercover cop who managed to infiltrate the KKK in Colorado in the early 70s and runs with it, in his inimitable fashion.

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. (Full review)

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The Black Power Mixtape (2011)–The Black Power movement of the mid-60s to mid-70s has historically been somewhat misrepresented, due to an emphasis on its more sensationalist elements. The time is ripe to re-examine the movement, which despite its failures and flaws, still emerges as one of the last truly progressive grass roots political awakenings that we’ve had in this country (if you’re expecting bandolier-wearing, pistol-waving interviewees spouting fiery Marxist-tinged rhetoric-dispense with that hoary stereotype now).

Director Goran Olsson was given access to a treasure trove of pristine, unedited 16mm footage from the era. The footage, recently discovered tucked away in the basement of Swedish Television, represents nearly a decade of candid interviews with key movement leaders, as well as meticulous documentation of Black Panther Party activities and African-American inner city life. Olsson presents the clips in a historically chronological timeline, with minimal present-day commentary. While not perfect, it is an important historical document, and one of the more eye-opening films I have seen on this subject. (Full review)

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The Boys of Baraka (2005) – Co-directors Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady have fashioned a fresh and inspiring take on a well-worn cause celebre: the sad, shameful state of America’s inner-city school system. Eschewing the usual hand-wringing about the underfunded, over-crowded, glorified daycare centers that many of these institutions have become for poor, disenfranchised urban youth, the filmmakers chose to showcase one program that strove to make a real difference.

The story follows a group of 12-year-old boys from Baltimore who attended a boarding school in Kenya, staffed by American teachers and social workers. In addition to more personalized tutoring, there was emphasis on conflict resolution through communication, tempered by a “tough love” approach. The events that unfold from this bold social experiment (filmed over a three year period) are alternately inspiring and heartbreaking. (Full review)

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The Force (2017) – Peter Nicks’ documentary examines the rocky relationship between Oakland’s police department and its communities of color. The force has been under federal oversight since 2002, due to myriad misconduct cases. Nicks utilizes the same cinema verite techniques that made his film The Waiting Room so compelling. It’s like a real-life Joseph Wambaugh novel (The Choirboys comes to mind). The film offers no easy answers-but delivers an intimate, insightful glimpse at both sides. (Full review)

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The Girls in the Band (2011)– Contextual to a curiously overlooked component within the annals of American jazz music, it’s tempting to extrapolate on Dr. King’s dream. Wouldn’t it be great to live in a nation where one is not only primarily judged by content of character, but can also be judged on the merits of creativity, or the pure aesthetics of artistic expression, as opposed to being judged solely by the color of one’s skin…or perhaps gender? At the end of the day, what is a “black”, or a “female” jazz musician? Why is it that a Dave Brubeck is never referred to as a “white” or “male” jazz musician?

In her film, director Judy Chaikin chronicles the largely unsung contributions that female jazz musicians (a large portion of them African-American) have made (and continue to make) to this highly influential American art form. Utilizing rare archival footage and interviews with veteran and contemporary players, Chaikin has assembled an absorbing, poignant, and celebratory piece. (Full review)

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I Am Not Your Negro (2016)– The late writer and social observer James Baldwin once said that “Whatever white people do not know about Negroes reveals, precisely and inexorably, what they do not know about themselves.” Sadly, thanks to the emboldening of certain elements within American society that have been drawn from the shadows by the openly racist rhetoric that spouted from the Former Occupant of the White House, truer words have never been spoken.

Indeed, anyone who watches Raoul Peck’s documentary will recognize not only the beauty of Baldwin’s prose, but the prescience of such observations. Both are on display in Peck’s timely treatise on race relations in America, in which he mixes archival news footage, movie clips, and excerpts from Baldwin’s TV appearances with narration by an uncharacteristically subdued Samuel L. Jackson, reading excerpts from Baldwin’s unfinished book, Remember This House. An excellent and enlightening film. (Full review)

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In the Heat of the Night (1967)–“They call me Mister Tibbs!” In this classic (which won 1967’s Best Picture Oscar) the late Sidney Poitier plays a cosmopolitan police detective from Philly who gets waylaid in a torpid Mississippi backwater, where he is reluctantly recruited into helping the bigoted sheriff (Rod Steiger) solve a local murder. Poitier nails his performance; you can feel Virgil Tibb’s pain as he tries to maintain his professional cool amidst a brace of surly rednecks, who throw up roadblocks at every turn.

While Steiger is outstanding as well, I find it ironic that he won “Best Actor in a leading role”, when Poitier was ostensibly the star of the film (it seems Hollywood didn’t get the film’s message). Sterling Silliphant’s brilliant screenplay (another Oscar) works as a crime thriller and a “fish out of water” story. Director Norman Jewison was nominated but didn’t score a win. Future director Hal Ashby won for Best Editing. Quincy Jones composed the soundtrack, and Ray Charles sings the sultry theme. (Full review)

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The Landlord (1970)–Hal Ashby only directed a relative handful of films, but most, especially his 70’s output, were built to last (Harold and Maude, The Last Detail, Bound for Glory, Shampoo, Being There).

In The Landlord, Beau Bridges plays a trustafarian with “liberal views” that his conservative parents find troubling…especially after he buys a run-down inner-city tenement, with intentions to renovate. His subsequent involvement with the various black tenants is played sometimes for laughs, other times for intense drama, but always for real. The social satire and observations about race relations are dead-on, but never preachy or condescending.

Top-notch ensemble work, featuring a young Lou Gossett (with hair!) giving a memorable turn. The lovely Susan Anspach is hilarious as Bridge’s perpetually stoned and bemused sister. A scene featuring Pearl Bailey and Lee Grant getting drunk and bonding over a bottle of “sparkling” wine is a minor classic all on its own. Moses Gunn’s sharp screenplay was adapted from Kristin Hunter’s novel. They don’t make ‘em like this anymore-honest, bold, uncompromising, socially and politically meaningful, yet also entertaining. (Full review)

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Let the Fire Burn (2013)– While obscured in public memory by the (relatively) more “recent” 1993 Branch Davidian siege in Waco, the eerily similar demise of the Philadelphia-based MOVE organization 8 years earlier was no less tragic on a human level, nor any less disconcerting in its ominous sociopolitical implications.

In this compelling documentary, director Jason Osder has parsed a trove of archival “live-at-the-scene” TV reports, deposition videos, law enforcement surveillance footage, and other sundry “found” footage (much of it previously unseen by the general public) and created a tight narrative that plays like an edge-of-your-seat political thriller.

Let the Fire Burn is not only an essential document of an American tragedy, but a cautionary tale and vital reminder of how far we have yet to go to completely purge the vestiges of institutional racism in this country. (Full review)

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The Trials of Muhammad Ali (2013)– There have been a number of films documenting and dramatizing the extraordinary life of Muhammad Ali, but they all share a curious anomaly. Most have tended to gloss over Ali’s politically volatile “exile years” (1967-1970), during which the American sports icon was officially stripped of his heavyweight crown and essentially “banned” from professional boxing after his very public refusal to be inducted into the Army on the grounds of conscientious objection to the Vietnam War.

Director Bill Siegel (The Weather Underground) fills in those blanks in his documentary. As you watch the film, you begin to understand how Ali the sports icon transmogrified into an influential sociopolitical figure, even if he didn’t set out to become the latter. It was more an accident of history; Ali’s affiliation with the Nation of Islam and stance against the Vietnam War put him at the confluence of both the burgeoning Black Power and anti-war movements. How it all transpired makes an absorbing watch. (Full review)

Previous posts with related themes:

Judas and the Black Messiah

When They See Us

Rampart

Blood at the Root: An MLK Mixtape

The Trial of the Chicago 7

William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe

Beds Are Burning: Top 10 Films for Indigenous People’s Day

Now We See the Light: A Mixtape

Conspiracy a go-go (slight return)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on November 20, 2021)

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Note: Monday marks 58 years since the JFK assassination, so I am re-posting this piece (from November 23, 2019) with revisions and additional material.

“Strength takes many forms, and the most obvious forms are not always the most significant. The men who create power make an indispensable contribution to the Nation’s greatness, but the men who question power make a contribution just as indispensable, especially when that questioning is disinterested, for they determine whether we use power or power uses us. […]

If sometimes our great artists have been the most critical of our society, it is because their sensitivity and their concern for justice, which must motivate any true artist, makes him aware that our Nation falls short of its highest potential. […]

We must never forget that art is not a form of propaganda; it is a form of truth […] But democratic society — in it, the highest duty of the writer, the composer, the artist is to remain true to himself and to let the chips fall where they may. In serving his vision of the truth, the artist best serves his nation.”

President John F. Kennedy, from his Robert Frost tribute address (October 23, 1963)

“Where were you when Kennedy got shot?” has been a meme for anyone old enough to remember what happened that day in Dallas on November 22, 1963…56 years ago this past Friday.

I was but a wee military brat, attending my second-grade class at a public school in Columbus, Ohio (my dad was stationed at nearby Fort Hayes). Our class was herded into the gym for an all-school assembly. Someone (probably the principal) gave a brief address. It gets fuzzy from there; we either sang “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” or recited the Pledge of Allegiance, and got sent home early.

My 7-year-old mind could not grasp the profound sociopolitical impact of this tragedy; but I have come to understand it in the fullness of time. From my 2016 review of Jackie:

Understandably, the question of “why now?” could arise, to which I would reply (paraphrasing JFK) …why not? To be sure, Jacqueline Kennedy’s story has been well-covered in a myriad of documentaries and feature films; like The Beatles, there are very few (if any) mysteries about her life and legacy to uncover at this point. And not to mention that horrible, horrible day in Dallas…do we really need to pay $15 just to see the nightmare reenacted for the umpteenth time? (Spoiler alert: the President dies at the end).

I think that “we” do need to see this film, even if we know going in that there was no “happy ever-aftering” in this Camelot. It reminds us of a “brief, shining moment” when all seemed possible, opportunities were limitless, and everything was going to be all right, because Jack was our king and Jackie was our queen. So what if it was all kabuki, as the film implies; merely a dream, invented by “a great, tragic actress” to unite us in our sadness. Then it was a good dream, and I think we’ll find our Camelot again…someday.

Sadly, anyone who follows the current news cycle knows we’re still looking for Camelot.

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They will run you dizzy. They will pile falsehood on top of falsehood, until you can’t tell a lie from the truth – and you won’t even want to. That’s how the powerful keep their power. Don’t you read the papers?

From Winter Kills (screenplay by William Richert)

The Kennedy assassination precipitated a cottage industry of independent studies, papers, magazine articles, non-fiction books, novels, documentaries and feature films that riff on the plethora of conspiracy theories that flourish to this day.

Then there was that Warren Commission report released in 1964; an 888-page summation concluding JFK’s alleged murderer Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone. This “conclusive” statement, of course only fueled more speculation that our government was not being completely …forthcoming.

2019 marks the 40th anniversary of one of the more oddball conspiracy thrillers based on the JFK assassination…Winter Kills, which has just been reissued on Blu-ray by Kino-Lorber. Director William Richert adapted his screenplay from Richard Condon’s book (Condon also wrote The Manchurian Candidate, which was adapted for the screen twice).

Jeff Bridges stars as the (apolitical) half-brother of an assassinated president. After witnessing the deathbed confession of a man claiming to be a “second gunman”, he reluctantly gets drawn into a new investigation of his brother’s murder nearly 20 years after the matter was allegedly put to rest by the findings of the “Pickering Commission”.

John Huston chews the scenery as Bridges’ father (a larger-than-life character said to be loosely based on Joseph Kennedy Sr.). The cast includes Anthony Perkins, Eli Wallach, Sterling Hayden, Ralph Meeker, Toshiro Mifune, Richard Boone, and Elizabeth Taylor.

The film vacillates between byzantine conspiracy thriller and a broad satire of other byzantine conspiracy thrillersbut is eminently watchable, thanks to an interesting cast and a screenplay that, despite ominous undercurrents, delivers a great deal of dark comedy.

I own the 2003 Anchor Bay DVD, so I can attest that Kino’s 4K transfer is an upgrade; accentuating cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond’s exemplary lens work. Unfortunately, there are no new extras; but all bonus materials from Anchor Bay’s DVD have been ported over, including an entertaining commentary track by director Richert (the story behind the film’s production is nearly as over-the-top as the finished product).

Is Winter Kills essential viewing? It depends. If you like quirky 60s and 70s cinema, it’s one of the last hurrahs in a film cycle of arch, lightly political and broadly satirical all-star psychedelic train wrecks like The Loved One, The President’s Analyst, Skidoo, Candy and The Magic Christian. For “conspiracy-a-go-go” completists, it is a must-see.

Here are 9 more films that either deal directly with or have a notable link with the JFK conspiracy cult. And while you’re watching, keep President Kennedy’s observation in the back of your mind: “In serving his vision of the truth, the artist best serves his nation.”

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Suddenly – Lewis Allen’s taut 1954 hostage drama/film noir stars a surprisingly effective Frank Sinatra as John Baron, the cold-blooded leader of a three-man hit team who are hired to assassinate the (unnamed) President during a scheduled whistle-stop at a sleepy California town (interestingly, the role of John Baron was originally offered to Montgomery Clift).

The film is essentially a chamber piece; the assassins commandeer a family’s home that affords them a clear shot at their intended target. In this case, the shooter’s motives are financial, not political (“Don’t give me that politics jazz-it’s not my racket!” Sinatra snarls after he’s accused of being “an enemy agent” by one of his hostages). Richard Sale’s script also drops in a perfunctory nod or two to the then-contemporaneous McCarthy era (one hostage speculates that the hit men are “commies”).

Also in the cast: Sterling Hayden, James Gleason, Nancy Gates, Christopher Dark, and Paul Frees (Frees would later become known as “the man of a thousand voices” for his voice-over work with Disney, Jay Ward Productions, Rankin/Bass and other animation studios).

Some aspects of the film are eerily prescient of President Kennedy’s assassination 9 years later; Sinatra’s character is an ex-military sharpshooter, zeroes down on his target from a high window, and utilizes a rifle of a European make. Most significantly, there have been more than a few claims over the years in JFK conspiracy circles suggesting that Lee Harvey Oswald had watched this film with a keen interest.

There have been conflicting stories over the years whether Sinatra had Suddenly pulled from circulation following Kennedy’s death; the definitive answer may lie in remarks made by Frank Sinatra, Jr., in a commentary track he did for a 2012 Blu-ray reissue of the film:

[Approximately 2 weeks] after the assassination of President Kennedy, a minor network official at ABC television decided he was going to run “Suddenly” on network television. This, while the people were still grieving and numbed from the horror of the death of President Kennedy. When word of this reached Sinatra, he was absolutely incensed…one of the very few times had I ever seen him that angry. He got off a letter to the head of broadcasting at ABC, telling them that they should be jailed; it was in such bad taste to do that after the death of President Kennedy.

Sinatra, Jr. does not elaborate any further, so I interpret that to mean that Frank, Sr. fired off an angry letter, and the fact that the film remains in circulation to this day would indicate that it was never actually “pulled” (of course, you are free to concoct your own conspiracy theory).

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The Manchurian Candidate – There’s certainly more than just a perfunctory nod to Red hysteria in John Frankenheimer’s 1962 cold war paranoia fest, which was the last assassination thriller of note released prior to the zeitgeist-shattering horror of President Kennedy’s murder. Oddly enough, Frank Sinatra was involved in this project as well.

Sinatra plays a Korean War vet who reaches out to help a buddy he served with (Laurence Harvey). Harvey is on the verge of a meltdown, triggered by recurring war nightmares. Sinatra has been suffering the same malady (both men had been held as POWs by the North Koreans). Once it dawns on Sinatra that they both may have been brainwashed during their captivity for very sinister purposes, all hell breaks loose.

In this narrative (based on Richard Condon’s novel) the assassin is posited as an unwitting dupe of a decidedly “un-American” political ideology; a domestic terrorist programmed by his Communist puppet masters to kill on command. Some of the Cold War references have dated; others (as it turns out) are oddly timely…evidenced as recently as this past week.

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Seven Days in May – This 1964 “conspiracy a-go go” thriller was director John Frankenheimer’s follow-up to The Manchurian Candidate. Picture if you will: a screenplay by Rod Serling, adapted from a novel by Fletcher Knebel and Charles W. Bailey II.

Kirk Douglas plays a Marine colonel who is the adjutant to a hawkish, hard right-leaning general (Burt Lancaster) who heads the Joint Chiefs of Staff.  The general is at loggerheads with the dovish President (Fredric March), who is perceived by the general and some of the other joint chiefs as a “weak sister” for his strident support of nuclear disarmament.

When Douglas begins to suspect that an imminent, unusually secretive military “exercise” may in fact portend more sinister intentions, he is torn between his loyalty to the general and his loyalty to the country as to whether he should raise the alarm. Or is he just being paranoid?

An intelligently scripted and well-acted nail-biter, right to the end. Also with Ava Gardner, Edmund O’Brien, and Martin Balsam.

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Executive Action – After the events of November 22, 1963, Hollywood took a decade-long hiatus from the genre; it seemed nobody wanted to “go there”. But after Americans had mulled a few years in the sociopolitical turbulence of the mid-to-late 1960s (including the double whammy of losing Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King to bullets in 1968), a new cycle of more cynical and byzantine conspiracy thrillers began to crop up (surely exacerbated by Watergate).

The most significant shift in the meme was to move away from the concept of the assassin as a dupe or an operative of a “foreign” (i.e., “anti-American”) ideology; some films postulated that shadowy cabals of businessmen and/or members of the government were capable of such machinations. The rise of the JFK conspiracy cult (and the cottage industry it created) was probably a factor as well.

One of the earliest examples was this 1973 film, directed by David Miller, and starring Burt Lancaster and Robert Ryan. Dalton Trumbo (famously blacklisted back in the 50s) adapted the screenplay from a story by Donald Freed and Mark Lane.

A speculative thriller about the JFK assassination, it offers a scenario that a consortium comprised of hard right pols, powerful businessmen and disgruntled members of the clandestine community were responsible.

Frankly, the premise is more intriguing than the film (which is flat and talky), but the filmmakers deserve credit for being the first ones to “go there”. The film was a flop at the time, but has become a cult item; as such, it is more of a curio than a classic. Still, it’s worth a watch.

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The Parallax View – Alan J. Pakula’s 1974 thriller takes the concept of the dark corporate cabal one step further, positing political assassination as a sustainable capitalist venture, if you can perfect a discreet and reliable algorithm for screening and recruiting the right “employees”.

Warren Beatty delivers an excellent performance as a maverick print journalist investigating a suspicious string of untimely demises that befall witnesses to a U.S. senator’s assassination in a restaurant atop the Space Needle. This puts him on a trail that leads to an enigmatic agency called the Parallax Corporation.

The supporting cast includes Hume Cronyn, William Daniels and Paula Prentiss. Nice work by cinematographer Gordon Willis (aka “the prince of darkness”), who sustains the foreboding, claustrophobic mood of the piece with his masterful use of light and shadow.

The screenplay is by David Giler and Lorenzo Semple Jr. (based on the 1970 novel by Loren Singer, with a non-credited rewrite by Robert Towne). The narrative contains obvious allusions to the JFK assassination, and (in retrospect) reflects the political paranoia of the Nixon era (perhaps this was serendipity, as the full implications of the Watergate scandal were not yet in the rear view mirror while the film was in production).

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The Conversation – Written and directed by Francis Ford Coppola, this 1974 thriller does not involve a “political” assassination, but does share crucial themes with other films here. It was also an obvious influence on Brian De Palma’s 1981 thriller, Blow Out (see my review below).

Gene Hackman leads a fine cast as a free-lance surveillance expert who begins to obsess that a conversation he captured between a man and a woman in San Francisco’s Union Square for one of his clients is going to directly lead to the untimely deaths of his subjects.

Although the story is essentially an intimate character study, set against a backdrop of corporate intrigue, the dark atmosphere of paranoia, mistrust and betrayal that permeates the film mirrors the political climate of the era (particularly in regards to its timely proximity to the breaking of the Watergate scandal).

24 years later Hackman played a similar character in Tony Scott’s 1998 political thriller Enemy of the State. Some have postulated “he” is the same character (you’ve gotta love the fact that there’s a conspiracy theory about a fictional character). I don’t see that myself; although there is obvious homage with a brief shot of a photograph of Hackman’s character in his younger days that is actually a production still from …The Conversation!

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Blowout -This 1981 thriller is one of Brian De Palma’s finest efforts. John Travolta stars as a sound man who works on schlocky horror films. While making a field recording of ambient nature sounds, he unexpectedly captures audio of a fatal car crash involving a political candidate, which may not have been an “accident”. The proof lies buried somewhere in his recording-which naturally becomes a coveted item by some dubious characters. His life begins to unravel synchronously with the secrets on his tape.

The director employs an arsenal of influences (from Antonioni to Hitchcock), but succeeds in making this one of his most “De Palma-esque” with some of the deftest set-pieces he’s ever done (particularly in the climax).

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Three Days of the Condor – One of seven collaborations between star Robert Redford and director Sydney Pollack, and one of the seminal “conspiracy-a-go-go” films. With a screenplay adapted by Lorenzo Semple, Jr. and David Rayfiel from James Grady’s novel “Six Days of the Condor”, this 1975 film offers a twist on the idea of a government-sanctioned assassination. Here, you have members of the U.S. clandestine community burning up your tax dollars to scheme against other members of the U.S. clandestine community (no honor among conspirators, apparently). Also with Faye Dunaway, Cliff Robertson and Max von Sydow.

Pollack’s film conveys the same atmosphere of dread and paranoia that infuses The Conversation and The Parallax View. The final scene plays like an eerily prescient prologue for All the President’s Men, which wasn’t released until the following year. An absolutely first-rate political thriller with more twists and turns than you can shake a dossier at.

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JFK – The obvious bookend to this cycle is Oliver Stone’s controversial 1991 film, in which Gary Oldman gives a suitably twitchy performance as Lee Harvey Oswald. However, within the context of Stone’s film, to say that we have a definitive portrait of JFK’s assassin (or “assassins”, plural) is difficult, because, not unlike Agatha Christie’s fictional detective Hercule Poirot, Stone suspects no one…and everyone.

The most misunderstood aspect of the film, I think, is that Stone is not favoring any prevalent narrative; and that it is by the director’s definition a “speculative” political thriller. Those who have criticized the approach seem to have missed that Stone himself has stated from the get-go that his goal was to provide a “counter myth” to the “official” conclusion of the Warren Commission (usually referred to as the “lone gunman theory”).

It is a testament to Stone’s skills as a consummate filmmaker that the narrative he presents appears so seamless and dynamic, when in fact he is simultaneously mashing up at least a dozen possible scenarios. The message is right there in the script, when Donald Sutherland’s “Mr. X” advises Kevin Costner (as New Orleans D.A. Jim Garrison) “Oh, don’t take my word for it. Don’t believe me. Do your own work…your own thinking.”

Tears of a clown: Too Soon: Comedy After 9/11 (***)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on September 11, 2021)

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Satire is tragedy plus time. You give it enough time, the public, the reviewers will allow you to satirize it. Which is rather ridiculous, when you think about it.

― Lenny Bruce

Like many people of “a certain age”, I can remember where I was and what I was doing when President Kennedy was assassinated on November 22, 1963. I was attending school (2nd grade) in Columbus, Ohio. There was a school assembly. The principal made some remarks, we put our hands over our hearts, recited the Pledge of Allegiance and were dismissed.

I was not mature enough to grasp the historical significance of what had just happened, nor parse the sociopolitical fallout that ensued in the wake of this great national tragedy. All I got from the principal’s remarks that afternoon was “blah blah blah” and something about a magic ring and the end of the world. My main takeaway was that I got to go home early.

In May of 1963, a musician named Vaughn Meader picked up a Grammy award for Album of the Year…but he didn’t play a note on it. Meader was the star of an ensemble of voice actors who were recruited by writers Bob Booker and Earle Dowd to impersonate then-President John F. Kennedy and his family for a comedy album entitled The First Family.

It’s one of the first comedy albums I remember listening to when I was a kid, because my parents owned a copy (filed next to The Button-Down Mind of Bob Newhart in the built-in storage cabinet of their stereo console). Meader had been doing his JFK impression on stage, but it wasn’t until the surprise success of the gently satirical 1962 LP (7.5 million copies sold-impressive even now for a comedy album) that his career really skyrocketed.

This was, of course, decades before social media existed. Consequently, it would take nothing short of an Act of God to “cancel” an entertainer’s career overnight. Unfortunately for Meader, whatever career boost God gave him with one hand, he took away with the other on November 22, 1963.

As a (possibly apocryphal) story goes, Lenny Bruce was booked for a gig on the night of November 22, 1963. Undeterred by the shocking murder of the President earlier that day, he went on with the show. Reportedly, Bruce went onstage, but said nothing for several minutes, finally breaking his silence with “Boy …is Vaughn Meader fucked.”

Which begs a question: Too soon? Regardless, as Bruce predicted, Meader’s comedy career effectively ended that day. As Oliver Stone said in JFK, “The past is prologue.”

“I think it’s the duty of the comedian to find out where the line is drawn and cross it deliberately.”

― George Carlin

Fast-forward to the night of September 29, 2001. The nation was still reeling from the horror of the September 11th attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon that took the lives of over 3,000 people. The New York Friar’s Club was roasting Hugh Hefner. It was the first significant gathering of comedy heavyweights since the attacks.

The mood in the room that night was tentative. These were professional funny people, but like all Americans they were not in a jovial frame of mind. Nonetheless, the show went on. When Gilbert Gottfried took to the podium, his opener was a real doozy:

I had to catch a flight to California. I can’t get a direct flight…they said they have to stop at the Empire State Building first.”

You could have heard a pin drop. Then someone yelled “TOO SOON!

Gottfried’s story does have a happy ending. Reading the room (correctly), he immediately switched gears and launched into a venerable joke that comedians have amused each other with offstage for decades. It’s known as “The Aristocrats!”  because…well, the punch line is: “The Aristocrats!”

It’s more of an improvisational exercise (or gross-out contest) than a “joke”, as whoever is telling it must embellish the setup, while assuring the premise and punchline remain intact. Long story short, Gottfried not only won back the crowd, but he also had fellow comics in tears as they all enjoyed a much-needed yuk.

Unlike the Lenny Bruce anecdote, this is not apocryphal…it’s on film. The footage originally popped up in the 2005 documentary The Aristocrats but serves as an apt opener for Nick Fituri Scown and Julie Seabaugh’s documentary Too Soon: Comedy After 9/11, which premiered on VICE-TV this week (there is a commemorative showing at L.A.’s Chinese Theater September 11).

The directors enlist comics, Broadway players, late-night TV hosts, SNL cast members, and writers for The Onion to share how they reconciled with a newly sensitized sociopolitical landscape to eventually find a way back to just being, you know – “funny”.

For some, it wasn’t simply struggling with writer’s block or facing glum-faced audiences. Muslim-American performers like Ahmed Ahmed, Negin Farsad, Maz Jobrani, Hari Kondabolu, and Aasif Mandvi recall the Islamophobia they encountered, ranging from having racist epithets hurled their way to outright death threats.

Another phenomenon that arose in the wake of the 9/11 attacks was a pernicious purity test that entertainers (or anyone with a public platform) had to pass with flying stars and stripes, under penalty of becoming persona non grata.

The most well-known example (as recalled in the film) was what happened to comic Bill Maher. Just 6 days following the attacks, Maher was hosting his weekly ABC panel show Politically Incorrect. His guest was outspoken conservative Dinesh D’Souza.

D’Souza was commenting on President Bush’s characterization of the terrorists as cowards. ”Not true,” D’Souza said. ”Look at what they did. You have a whole bunch of guys who were willing to give their life; none of them backed out. All of them slammed themselves into pieces of concrete. These are warriors.” Maher replied: ”We have been the cowards, lobbing cruise missiles from 2,000 miles away. That’s cowardly. Staying in the airplane when it hits the building, say what you want about it, it’s not cowardly.”

While others in the media (including print journalists, like Susan Sontag) made similar observations, Maher took the most public flak. This prompted him to embark on something akin to an apology tour, appearing on a number of other talk shows to clarify his remarks.

In the meantime Politically Incorrect began to lose sponsors hand over fist, and in June of 2002 ABC pulled it, citing slipping ratings. Maher has contended he was essentially fired for the comments he made about the hijackers in September 2001.

Good times.

On the flip-side of that coin, what could be more “patriotic” than laughing in the face of adversity? What could be more “American” than pulling yourself up by your bootstraps, dusting yourself off, and (in the immortal words of the late, great Chuckles the Clown), giving them “…a little song, a little dance, a little seltzer down your pants”?

The filmmakers include three key clips that encapsulate this spirit and the healing power of laughter: excerpts from David Letterman’s emotionally raw yet inspiring monologue for his first show following the attacks (September 17th, 2001), John Stewart’s equally heartfelt opener for his first post 9/11 episode of The Daily Show (September 20th, 2001), and the defiant, rousing return of Saturday Night Live on September 29th, 2001.

I remember watching all three of those programs when they originally aired and being reminded of them again in the documentary was an unexpectedly moving experience. Speaking for myself there is now an added layer of weltschmerz in recalling these moments of national unity and shared compassion, because if there are two things we’ve lost over these past 20 years in America, it’s a sense of national unity and shared compassion.

Just pray we never lose our sense of humor. Because if we do…boy, are we fucked.

 

Tribeca 2021: Not Going Quietly (***)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 12, 2021)

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You may not recognize Ady Barkan by name, but you may remember a chance encounter he had on a plane with then U.S. Senator Jeff Flake in 2017 that went viral. Barkan (diagnosed with ALS in 2016 at age 32) confronted Flake on an impending Congressional vote on a tax cut that would have negative residual effects on Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security programs that people with disabilities rely upon for health care assistance.

Nicholas Bruckman’s “warts and all” documentary charts how Barkin continues to use his skills as a longtime activist to spearhead a national campaign for healthcare reform, despite the progression of his disease. Don’t pity him-he doesn’t want it. You’ll pity yourself for not being out there making a difference like this amazing person.

No rest for the guilty

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on April 27, 2021)

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Good morning!

From The Guardian:

The systematic killing and maiming of unarmed African Americans by police amount to crimes against humanity that should be investigated and prosecuted under international law, an inquiry into US police brutality by leading human rights lawyers from around the globe has found.

A week after the former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin was convicted of murder in George Floyd’s death, the unabated epidemic of police killings of Black men and women in the US has now attracted scorching international attention.

In a devastating report running to 188 pages, human rights experts from 11 countries hold the US accountable for what they say is a long history of violations of international law that rise in some cases to the level of crimes against humanity.

They point to what they call “police murders” as well as “severe deprivation of physical liberty, torture, persecution and other inhuman acts” as systematic attacks on the Black community that meet the definition of such crimes.

They also call on the prosecutor of the international criminal court (ICC) in The Hague to open an immediate investigation with a view to prosecutions.

“This finding of crimes against humanity was not given lightly, we included it with a very clear mind,” Hina Jilani, one of the 12 commissioners who led the inquiry, told the Guardian. “We examined all the facts and concluded that that there are situations in the US that beg the urgent scrutiny of the ICC.”

Just when you thought it couldn’t get much worse (from today’s Democracy Now )…

Outrage is growing in Philadelphia after explosive revelations that the University of Pennsylvania and Princeton University have been in possession of remains thought to belong to two children who were among 11 people killed in the 1985 police bombing of the Philadelphia home of the radical, Black liberation and anti-police-brutality group MOVE. We show an excerpt of a training video — now removed from the internet — by an anthropologist at the University of Pennsylvania and Princeton University who has been using the bones of at least one of the young bombing victims for the past 36 years — without the knowledge or consent of the families — and get response from a MOVE family member. “It makes you wonder: What else do they have?” says Mike Africa Jr., a second-generation MOVE member who grew up with the children whose remains have now been located. “What else are they covering up? What else are they lying about?”

Good God.

This development is particularly egregious if you know the details of the 1985 MOVE incident. And anyone from Tucker Carlson to your drunk uncle at Thanksgiving who tries to convince you that the increasing spotlight on these incidents is some kind of phony human rights crisis being ginned up by Lefties and/or the “liberal mainstream media” has never cracked open a history book. And now it seems that the whole world is not only watching, but judging. As any person with a conscience and a whit of humanity should.

For just a tiny fraction of that history, here’s my original 2013 review of the excellent “found footage” documentary that recounts the 1985 MOVE incident, Let the Fire Burn (currently streaming on iTunes, Apple TV, and Amazon Prime Video).

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 7, 2013)

Attack the block: Let the Fire Burn (***1/2)

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While obscured in public memory by the (relatively) more “recent” 1993 Branch Davidian siege in Waco, the eerily similar demise of the Philadelphia-based MOVE organization 8 years earlier was no less tragic on a human level, nor any less disconcerting in its ominous sociopolitical implications.

In an enlightening new documentary called Let the Fire Burn, director Jason Osder has parsed a trove of archival “live-at-the-scene” TV reports, deposition videos, law enforcement surveillance footage, and other sundry “found” footage (much of it previously unseen by the general public) and created a tight narrative that plays like an edge-of-your-seat political thriller.

Depending upon whom you might ask, MOVE was an “organization”, a “religious cult”, a “radical group”, or all of the above. The biggest question in my mind (and one the film doesn’t necessarily delve into) is whether it was another example of psychotic entelechy. So what is “psychotic entelechy”, exactly? Well, according to Stan A. Lindsay, the author of Psychotic Entelechy: The Dangers of Spiritual Gifts Theology, it would be

…the tendency of some individuals to be so desirous of fulfilling or bringing to perfection the implications of their terminologies that they engage in very hazardous or damaging actions.

In the context of Lindsay’s book, he is expanding on some of the ideas laid down by literary theorist Kenneth Burke and applying them to possibly explain the self-destructive traits shared by the charismatic leaders of modern-day cults like The People’s Temple, Order of the Solar Tradition, Heaven’s Gate, and The Branch Davidians. He ponders whether all the tragic deaths that resulted should be labeled as “suicides, murders, or accidents”.

Whether MOVE belongs on that list is perhaps debatable, but in Osder’s film, you do get the sense that leader John Africa (an adapted surname that all followers used) was a charismatic person. He founded the group in 1972, based on an odd hodgepodge of tenets borrowed from Rastafarianism, Black Nationalism and green politics; with a Luddite view of technology (think ELF meets the Panthers…by way of the Amish). Toss in some vaguely egalitarian philosophies about communal living, and I think you’re there.

The group, which shared a town house, largely kept itself to itself (at least at first) but started to draw the attention of Philadelphia law enforcement when a number of their neighbors began expressing concern to the authorities about sanitation issues (the group built compost piles around their building using refuse and human excrement) and the distressing appearance of possible malnutrition among the children of the commune (some of the footage in the film would seem to bear out the latter claim).

The city engaged in a year-long bureaucratic standoff with MOVE over their refusal to vacate, culminating in an attempted forced removal turned-gun battle with police in 1978 that left one officer dead. Nine MOVE members were convicted of 3rd-degree murder and jailed.

The remaining members of MOVE relocated their HQ, but it didn’t take long to wear out their welcome with the new neighbors (John Africa’s strange, rambling political harangues, delivered via loudspeakers mounted outside the MOVE house certainly didn’t help). Africa and his followers began to develop a siege mentality, shuttering up all the windows and constructing a makeshift pillbox style bunker on the roof. Naturally, these actions only served to ratchet up the tension and goad local law enforcement.

On May 13, 1985 it all came to a head when a heavily armed contingent of cops moved in, ostensibly to arrest MOVE members on a number of indictments. Anyone who remembers the shocking news footage knows that the day did not end well. Gunfire was exchanged after tear gas and high-pressure water hoses failed to end the standoff, so authorities decided to take a little shortcut and drop a satchel of C-4 onto the roof of the building. 11 MOVE members (including 5 children) died in the resulting inferno, which consumed 61 homes.

Putting aside any debate or speculation for a moment over whether or not John Africa and his disciples were deranged criminals, or whether or not the group’s actions were self-consciously provocative or politically convoluted, one simple fact remains and bears repeating: “Someone” decided that it was a perfectly acceptable action plan, in the middle of a dense residential neighborhood (located in the City of Brotherly Love, no less) to drop a bomb on a building with children inside it.

Even more appalling is the callous indifference and casual racism displayed by some of the officials and police who are seen in the film testifying before the Mayor’s investigative commission (the sole ray of light, one compassionate officer who braved crossfire to help a young boy escape the burning building, was chastised by fellow officers afterward as a “n****r lover” for his trouble).

Let the Fire Burn is not only an essential document of an American tragedy, but a cautionary tale and vital reminder of how far we still have go in purging the vestiges of institutional racism in this country (1985 was not  that long ago).

In a  strange bit of Kismet, I saw this film the day before Nelson Mandela died, which has naturally prompted a steady stream of retrospectives about Apartheid on the nightly news. Did you know that in 1985, there was a raging debate over whether we should impose sanctions on South Africa? (*sigh*) Sometimes you can’t see the forest for the trees.

When strangers were welcome here: A hopeful mixtape

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on March 20, 2021)

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The story of America’s immigrants is all of our stories, all Americans. Outside of indigenous 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 born on foreign soil. Unfortunately, some Americans have conveniently forgotten about that

It’s been over five years since Donald Trump rode down his golden escalator and launched a longshot bid for president with a xenophobic, immigrant-bashing speech that electrified white nationalists and set a dark tone for his campaign and presidency.

Throughout his tenure, Trump continued to sow division and hate with a steady stream of racist conspiracy theories and lies – all while installing extremists in positions of power and executing radical policies, such as banning Muslims from entering the country, separating immigrant children from their parents at the border and reversing basic protections for the LGBTQ community.

Trump’s words and actions had consequences.

Hate crimes and far-right terrorist attacks surged. Teachers across America reported a sudden spike in the use of racial slurs and incidents involving swastikas, Nazi salutes and Confederate flags. And in the first two years of Trump’s administration, the number of white nationalist hate groups rose by 55 percent, as white supremacists saw in him an avatar of their grievances and a champion of their cause.  

Now, Trump is gone from Washington. But the extremist movement he energized may be entering a perilous new phase […]

While this week’s mass shooting in Atlanta that left 8 people dead (6 of them women of Asian descent) is still under investigation and not yet been officially declared a hate crime, the incident has sparked a much-needed national dialog addressing recent spikes in racially motivated violence, particularly targeting members of the Asian-American community.

Yesterday, President Biden and Vice-President Harris addressed the issue head on:

President Biden and Vice President Harris called for unity after attacks against Asian Americans have surged since the start of the coronavirus pandemic.

“There are simply some core values and beliefs that should bring us together as Americans,” Biden said during a speech at Emory University in Atlanta on Friday. “One of them is standing together against hate, against racism, the ugly poison that has long haunted and plagued our nation.”

Biden’s remarks came three days after a gunman opened fire at three massage businesses in the Atlanta area, killing eight people, including six women of Asian descent.

While the suspect, 21-year-old Robert Aaron Long of Georgia, told investigators that the shootings were not racially motivated, physical violence and verbal harassment against members of the Asian American community have spiked over the past year.

“Whatever the motivation, we know this, too many Asian Americans walking up and down the streets are worried,” Biden said. “They’ve been attacked, blamed, scapegoated, harassed, they’ve been verbally assaulted, physically assaulted, killed.”

The president said that these incidents are evidence that “words have consequences.” […]

Harris, who joined Biden during the trip to Atlanta, called Tuesday’s shooting rampage a “heinous act of violence” that has no place in Georgia or the United States.

She also said that the uptick in anti-Asian hate crimes is a reminder that racism, xenophobia and sexism is real in America and “always has been.”

Looking on the bright side of this week’s news…one of the most oft-quoted lines from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s ‘I Have a Dream’ speech from the March on Washington on August 28, 1963 is this one: “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” I’d like to think that we edged a little bit closer to that better day this past Thursday:

That would be Kamala Harris, a woman of South Asian and West Indian heritage, a daughter of immigrants and the first female Vice-President of the United States… conducting the swearing-in ceremony for Deb Halaand, a woman who now holds the distinction of serving as the first Native-American Interior Secretary of the United States.

That only took us 245 years. But you know…baby steps.

Granted, it doesn’t solve all our problems, but it gives one hope, which is in short supply.

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 strong multicultural bedrock.

Alphabetically:

“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-fed 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.”

“We Are the Children” – A Grain of Sand

A Grain of Sand were a pioneering Asian-American activist folk trio, who hit the ground running with their 1973 album A Grain of Sand: Music for the Struggle of Asians in America. Chris Kando Iijima, Joanne Nobuko Miyamoto, and William “Charlie” Chin use minimalist arrangements, lovely harmony singing and politically strident lyrics to get their message across. I find this cut to be particularly pertinent to reflecting on the events of this week and quite moving.

Dare to struggle: Judas and the Black Messiah (***)

by Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on February 27. 2021)

https://i2.wp.com/www.thewrap.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/01/50814371477_45c391ee2b_k.jpg?ssl=1

Kay: You know how naïve you sound? Presidents and Senators don’t have men killed.

Michael: Oh. Who’s being naïve, Kay?

— from The Godfather

While it is based on a true story and billed as a “biopic”, Shaka King’s new film Judas and the Black Messiah feels more akin to fictional early 70s conspiracy thrillers like The Conversation, The Parallax View or Three Days of the Condor. Those three films (released in proximity of the Watergate break-in scandal and President Richard Nixon’s consequent resignation) are permeated by an atmosphere of paranoia, distrust and betrayal that mirrors the climate of the Nixon era. That is not to imply Judas and the Black Messiah is made up from whole cloth. From a recent Democracy Now broadcast:

[Host Amy Goodman] Newly unearthed documents have shed new light on the FBI’s role in the murder of the 21-year-old Black Panther leader Fred Hampton on December 4, 1969, when Chicago police raided Hampton’s apartment and shot and killed him in his bed, along with fellow Black Panther leader Mark Clark. Authorities initially claimed the Panthers had opened fire on the police who were there to serve a search warrant for weapons, but evidence later emerged that told a very different story: The FBI, the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office and the Chicago police had conspired to assassinate Fred Hampton. FBI memos and reports obtained by historian and writer Aaron Leonard now show that senior FBI officials played key roles in planning the raid and the subsequent cover-up. “It was approved at the highest level,” says attorney Jeff Haas.

Federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies conspiring to assassinate an American citizen as he slept in his apartment? It happened. Haas, a founding member of the People’s Law Office in Chicago and one of the lead lawyers in the (posthumous) Fred Hampton civil rights case elaborated to host Amy Goodman (from the same broadcast):

But what [documents] showed was that [FBI Director J. Edgar] Hoover, [director of the FBI’s Domestic Intelligence Division William] Sullivan and [head of the Extremist Section of the Domestic Intelligence Division George] Moore were following Roy Mitchell, a special agent in charge, very closely with regard to [FBI informant Bill] O’Neal. And they were complimenting him and rewarding him from the moment he gave the information and the floor plan [for Fred Hampton’s apartment] to special agent Mitchell. They were congratulating Mitchell on what a wonderful job he did with this informant. Of course, Mitchell got the floor plan, gave it to Hanrahan’s [Chicago] police, and that’s what led to the raid. The floor plan even showed the bed where Hampton and Johnson would be sleeping.

So, we knew much of this. We knew O’Neal had gotten a bonus. We never knew Mitchell got a bonus. And we never knew that Hoover and Sullivan and Moore were starting to watch this in November, 10 days before it happened. They were monitoring exactly what went on. And so it was approved at the highest level. And during the trial, we had sought to go up to Sullivan and Moore and Hoover, but the judge wouldn’t allow us. And we thought perhaps even John Mitchell and Richard Nixon were involved. We didn’t have these documents, so we couldn’t uncover that. This also shows that after the raid, the head of the FBI in Chicago met with and congratulated the informant, O’Neal, thanked him for his information, which led to the success of the raid.

Possible direct involvement by the White House certainly qualifies as the “highest level”. It is also interesting that an “Extremist Section of the Domestic Intelligence Division” existed in 1969 to keep close watch on the Panthers and other organizations that shared what present-day Fox prime time hosts might sneeringly refer to as “radical extremist socialist agendas” (BTW if such a special section still exists…where was their vigilance this past January 6th?).

That is a lot to unpack; much less in a 2-hour film. Perhaps wisely, writer-director King and co-writers Will Berson, Kenneth Lucas and Keith Lucas focus less on the complex political machinations and more on the personal aspects of the story.

More specifically, the filmmakers construct a dual narrative that shows how the life paths of charismatic Marxist revolutionary Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya) and the man who would ultimately play “Judas” to his “black messiah”, Bill O’Neal (LaKeith Stanfield) converged.

There isn’t much backstory offered explaining Hampton’s rapid transformation from aspiring law student who joined the NAACP in the mid-60s to founder of the Chicago chapter of the Black Panthers in 1968; but then again, considering that he was dead and gone by age 21, his historical impact seems all the more remarkable.

On the other hand, O’Neal (who was one year younger than Hampton) is a man with less lofty ideals and negligible passion for politics. He is a career criminal whose luck runs out when he gets nailed for a felony beef after driving a stolen car across state lines. The arresting officer is FBI agent Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons) who offers O’Neal a way out: infiltrate the Chicago chapter of the Black Panthers, become an FBI informant, and win fabulous prizes (like having his felony charges disappear). O’Neal accepts the deal.

O’Neal ingratiates himself with Hampton, to the point where he becomes a member of the Chairman’s trusted inner circle. Along the way, the filmmakers offer a Cliff’s Notes summary of Hampton’s brief but productive tenure as head of the Chicago Panthers; his implementation of a program providing free breakfasts for schoolchildren, establishment of a free clinic, and (most impressively) mediating a peace treaty between long-time rival Chicago street gangs (ultimately leading to formation of the original multiracial “Rainbow Coalition”).

Ironically, it’s not so much what Hampton “does” that matters one way or the other to FBI director Hoover (Martin Sheen) and the rest of the posse out to “neutralize” the threat (perceived or otherwise) Hampton represents to the status quo, but rather what he says…which is at times incendiary and what some might even call seditious (Hoover is on record declaring the Panthers “the greatest threat to the internal security of the country”).

Just months before his death Hampton is arrested for (of all things) stealing $70 worth of candy. He is convicted, but the charges are overturned. There were several police raids on the Black Panthers’ HQ the same year, although the filmmakers distill them into one shootout incident. Clearly, the authorities were circling their prey, culminating in the fateful late-night raid in December of 1969 that left Hampton and fellow Panther Mark Clarke dead and several people wounded. The reenactment of the incident is harrowing and affecting.

Ballistic evidence revealed one shot fired by the Panthers…and 100 (one hundred) shots fired by the police. Maybe it’s just me, but that sounds more like a police “assault” than a police “raid”. One of the people in the apartment that night was Hampton’s eight-month pregnant girlfriend Deborah Johnson (wonderfully played in the film by Dominique Fishback, who was a standout in the HBO series The Deuce). No matter how you may view Hampton’s place in history (hero or villain) the circumstances of his demise should dismay anyone familiar with the 14th Amendment of the Constitution, which says (among other things)

No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.

Judas and the Black Messiah is not a definitive biopic but does convey that what happened to Fred Hampton was an American tragedy…sadly, one that continues to occur to this day.