Monday, 7 December 2015

Movie Review: Dear White People/Truth (2015)



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I hate political correctness. Of all the many, many activist movements that the Internet age has violently screwed up beyond repair, being PC would easily be the worst casualty. Now, for the record, I am not talking about simply “treating each other with respect”; Neil Gaiman is still one of the greatest minds in the history of speculative fiction, but that doesn’t mean he is immune from being wrong. Political correctness, as it stands today, is the mode of thinking that says Roald Dahl’s Revolting Rhymes should be removed from store shelves because it has the word ‘slut’ in it. Because of this mindset, if an Aboriginal candidate became Prime Minister of my country and did an abjectly bad job at it, the majority won’t say anything because it would be construed as racist and not simply pointing out errors where they stand. It is the big dangling anvil over everyone’s heads that makes them afraid to stand out against the much larger issues, simply because they run the risk of offending people in the process. Newsflash: It is literally impossible to go through life without offending someone during that time. There’s a reason that I hold no qualms about what I discuss on this blog, and that’s because regardless of how it is worded, there will always be someone who takes umbrage with it. With this all in mind, I look at today’s film involving satirising racial tensions with a certain hesitance, considering how badly it could all go down given our modern-day sensibilities. Nevertheless, this is Dear White People.

The plot: Sam (Tessa Thompson), Lionel (Tyler James Williams), Coco (Teyonah Parris) and Troy (Brandon Bell) are all African-American students at the predominantly white Winchester University. Sam’s radio show and independently-published book that look at the racism present at the university, coupled with the actions of white student Kurt (Kyle Gallner), end up raising the racial tensions of the entire campus, leading up to a Halloween party that no-one will soon forget.

Because Barack Obama was elected as President, for some reason people decided that racism was officially over in the United States. It doesn’t even take someone native to the U.S. to see that that is most unfortunately not the case. That feeling of blind tokenism is at the heart of this film’s extremely sharp pen when it comes to race relations. As we watch the imposed isolation of Winchester’s black students, we see that segregation based on society’s labels is alive and well… in more ways than we’re willing to admit. Kurt’s group of white privilege-personified frat boys like to consider themselves as being ‘hip’ because they listen to Public Enemy; in other words, how the world views people like me who carry certain views about being PC. Now, this film does not excuse their actions and, rightfully so, portrays them as hipster irony-abusing douchebags. Not that they’re racist, though; they have black friends that they barely talk to. To contrast this, we see that the Armstrong-Parker house is more than willing to shun and throw rocks at those same white people, even the ones that haven’t done anything wrong. Not to say that it is any worse than the opposite; just that it acknowledges that, despite what Sam says, black people can be racist too. What makes this work even better is how it pushes the token attitude past race situations and even goes into the area of sexuality as well: Despite their reluctance to accept Lionel's sexuality, they aren’t against gay people; they listen to Frank Ocean.

Aside from tokenism, writer/director Justin Simien examines cultural appropriation as well from three angles concerning African-Americans: White people appropriating black people, black people appropriating white people and black people appropriating themselves. Through Kurt, his crew, the frequent ebonics-laced slanguage utilized by the characters and the frankly unnerving Halloween party they throw, we get a good idea on that first point. Through Troy Fairbanks and how he tweaks his expected racially-driven social tendencies when in the presence of his predominantly-white classmates, we see the second point. The last one may seem a little off, but it ties back into those expected social behaviours. This time, through Sam and her wanting to address problems on campus. Now, don’t get me wrong, Sam brings up some very good points when it comes to the attitudes of not just the campus but of society as a whole. However, her mindset is born from a want to be proud of who she is without completely understanding what that is exactly. As such, she ends up borrowing from past militant black leaders to help her shape her own actions, sometimes even without understanding what those actions lead to. After all, this is the person who used an election for Head of House as a platform to push her agenda, but then wasn’t able to act when she actually won that election. Through the combination of these three perspectives, it essentially leads to what is a rather basic conclusion but still one that should be addressed: Race shouldn’t be the defining factor. It shouldn’t be the one and only reason why people choose to act or not act, nor should it be the only thing that defines a person. When Lionel and Troy make a connection in a small scene, it’s not out of their shared heritage or understanding of their respective sexualities; it’s because they both love Star Trek.

All in all, considering all that has happened in recent years, racial tensions on a college campus and facetious arguments about suppressing freedom of speech may not seem like that much in the grand scheme of things. But it is during these moments that mentalities are forged that create life-long perspectives of the world. The road to violence is paved with jocular intentions, and seemingly harmless bits of jokey racism can lead to larger acts. In that way, this is an amazingly well done look at racial politics and, while addressing that no one side comes out entirely clean, shows that there are times when the ‘joking’ goes way too far. I’m in no way against edgier comedy that involves racial humour, but there are still lines that aren’t meant to be crossed. This isn’t political correctness gone mad; this legitimately is an issue of people not showing respect for other people. It’s better than UNindian, since this film’s cultural examinations don’t come packaged with any incredibly unsettling romantic subplots. However, mainly out of the surprise of just how smart it was when it comes to its own form of subtext, Blinky Bill: The Movie ranks just a bit above this one.

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The world loves an underdog. Except for some very rare exceptions, cinema tends to focus on the David of a given story rather than the Goliath. As a result of centuries of conditioning to unconditionally question authority, and to hate the faceless figureheads that run everything, we have grown quite accustomed to shaking our fists at the big guys. It is because of this, among other things, that so many conspiracy theories involving the Illuminati exist, despite a society that’s purportedly that secretive wouldn’t be known by name by pretty much everyone on Earth. However, this stance isn’t as easy to take when the minority was categorically shown to be wrong. Not to say it hasn’t been done; 300 became a pop culture cornerstone and it told that very story. Just that, when we’ve all become so comfortable with one side being in the wrong, it’s not so easy to show them in a positive light; it’s why barely any sports movies follow the team with the several year-long winning streak. As such, today’s film shines a spotlight on one of the more notorious live-to-air TV news blunders in recent memory. And no, this isn’t a blooper-worthy story; this is a bit more serious than that. This is Truth.

The plot: While looking through George W. Bush’s military history in preparation for the 2004 presidential election, 60 Minutes producer Mary Napes (Cate Blanchett) and her team come across a less-than-congratulatory report from one of his superiors. Eager to break the story, in the wake of similar allegations made towards Democratic hopeful John Kerry, Mary, her team and newscaster Dan Rather (Robert Redford) work together to make the news fit for broadcast. However, once it airs and accusations come in that one of their crucial pieces of evidence isn’t legitimate, they find themselves under direct inquiry and, potentially, the end of their respective careers.

This might be one of the best ensemble casts I’ve seen all year, because it is insane just how good the performances in this movie are. While I maintain that Redford should have been in this film a lot more than he was, he brings a lot of dignity and professionalism that a name like Dan Rather deserves. I’m a little disappointed that he doesn’t whistle like a tea kettle whenever he used the letter ‘s’, but then again, I’m the idiot whose first encounter with him was a parody on Family Guy. Topher Grace is an actor that has never been able to impress; blame it on how he neutered Venom in Spider-Man 3 and has never been able to recover from that some eight years later. That said, while he does serve as Author Avatar for most of the film, he is amazingly good at delivering the speeches and cocky douchebag gestures that he is given as investigative journalist Mike Smith. And then there’s Cate Blanchett, who might give the best performance of her career in this film. Seriously, it is shocking how good she is, pulling off determination, vulnerability and sarcastic wit to craft a nuanced and fleshed-out character. That, and she is does a great job at delivering the dialogue she’s given.

Writer and first-time director James Vanderbilt is probably best known for penning the script to David Fincher’s Zodiac. Unless you’re a raving comic book geek, in which case he’s best known for his “god-awful” work on the Marc Webb Spider-Man films… a rant for another day is brewing at that statement, so I’m going to abandon that at the pass and actually focus on the film I’m writing about for once. From his dialogue in Zodiac, it should be clear that the man is legendary when it comes to creating compelling stories about investigative journalism. Now, at this point, I want to again bring up creative biases and how it is important to understand where a given film is coming from. Here, we have a very Liberal filmmaker and the ‘Based On’ credit is the memoir of the focal character Mary Mapes; take it on board now before continuing. This film is meant to be shown from the perspective of the people responsible for a TV news item that is remembered about on par with the Geraldo Rivera & Al Capone’s Vault incident. Judging by the scepticism surrounding the event and the reporters involved, and how the film has been judged because of that, I’m guessing that not all critics believe that every side should have their say. With the intent to focus on the events as presented in mind, this is a brilliantly well put-together film. The writing is quick and whip-smart, yet stays coherent and never leaves the audience in the dust. The performances Vanderbilt gets out of these actors, even those I wasn’t expecting anything spectacular from, are all outstanding. Most of the great lines go to Mary, naturally, but some of her dialogue might stand as some of the best I’ve heard all year. Like, not since Dallas Buyers Club have I had a single line of dialogue have as big an impact as it does here. I won’t entirely spoil it but good lord, it’s always good when McCarthyism gets another smack to the face.

That said, this has quite a few soap-box moments, to the point where even I’m saying that they need to ease up on the grandstanding monologues. While we get some weirdly trite moments, like Col. Charles saying that Al Gore would have won the election if Mary’s mother hadn’t of died (it makes sense in context, but that only hurts the line more) or the elitist air that surrounds some of the journalistic discussions, but the big offender here is Mike Smith’s character. For all intents and purposes, this is the big Brian Griffin mouthpiece of the film. Not that this reflects badly on Topher Grace himself, as he puts a lot of passion into every word he’s given, but the out-of-nowhere diatribe he gives about Viacom does betray the film’s ideals when it comes to the truth. Then again, this is nothing new for Vanderbilt. As much as Zodiac is a greatly scripted film, it’s more than a little telling when you have a film about a serial killer who was never identified yet makes seriously heavy accusations towards a single suspect. However, at least this time around, he has grown a little aware of his own tendencies. After Mike's massive tirade against Viacom, one of his bosses facetiously remarks about how it isn’t about how he and the rest of the team screwed up; it’s because of a massive conspiracy. In that light, that entire blast of fire and brimstone can be interpreted as just a sudden bout of anger; after losing your job under those circumstances, it’s understandable.

All in all, I was seriously dubious about checking this out. In fact, considering it didn’t play at my local, I was originally just going to skip this film entirely. For the love of all things cinema, don’t make the same mistake that I nearly did because this film is immensely satisfying. The acting is stellar and the writing shows some of Vanderbilt’s more annoying sensibilities but also his definite skill when it comes to depicting news rooms. It’s better than Straight Outta Compton as, disregarding my affinity for hip-hop culture, this film’s performances and dialogue won out overall. However, in terms of overall quality, Sicario for a far more harrowing and engaging experience, thanks in no small part to the production values at work.

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