Coco and Mexican Culture

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Slate has a great guide to the cultural references in “Coco” that people who are not of Mexican heritage might miss. (Note that co-director Lee Unkrich has responded to one of the points in the Slate article, saying that the use of both Dia dos Muertos and Dia de los Muertos was intentional to reflect the support for both they found in their research.

And this piece by Manuel Betancort about watching “Coco” with a Spanish language soundtrack made me sorry I don’t speak Spanish. He says that “Coco” is “Pixar’s most culturally specific movie in their lauded pantheon.”

Here at last was the kind of dubbing that didn’t feel like it was mangling, or weirdly bending the original into something it was not. It just had its characters talking (and singing) in the very language they were meant to speak. There’s a difference, for example, in hearing Miguel’s family talk about ofrendas (a word that always feels like it’s being italicized by its voice performers when speaking English, eager as they surely are to make it clear it’s a Spanish expression many may not be familiar with), and quite another to see that word just roll along in dialogue that doesn’t needlessly highlight it.

That’s perhaps even truer when it comes to Hector, the bumbling skeleton that Miguel befriends while in the Land of the Dead, and to Ernesto de la Cruz, the famed musical legend the musically inclined young boy admires and hopes to find while in that fantastical world. The former may be voiced by García Bernal in both versions (he’s one of a handful of actors who made good use of his bilingualism to score a double gig) but the latter, played by Benjamin Bratt, was dubbed by Marco Antonio Solís. And not to diminish Bratt’s singing abilities, but it truly is something else to hear the Pedro Infante-like character be portrayed by one of Mexico’s most recognizable voices.

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Marshall

B +

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Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol, smoking
Violence/ Scariness: Allegations of rape and attempted murder, fights and beatings, gun
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: October 13, 2017

Copyright 2017 Open Road
“It’s a real life Bigger Thomas,” says a character describing the new case assigned to a young lawyer named Thurgood Marshall (Chadwick Boseman). Bigger Thomas was the young black protagonist who could not escape the fundamental racism of American society in Richard Wright’s novel, Native Son, accused of rape and murder. In this real-life case, a black chauffeur named Joseph Spell (Sterling K. Brown of “This is Us”) was accused of rape and attempted murder of his employer, Eleanor Strubing (Kate Hudson), a wealthy Connecticut socialite. Marshall, then the entire legal staff of the NAACP, was going from town to town representing black defendants, many whom “confessed” after being beaten and starved, but, Marshall insists, only those who are innocent. They do not have time or resources to devote to those who did what they are accused of.

This case is unusual because it is in the North and because it is so high-profile. It has been a front page story in the newspapers and many white families are firing their domestic employees because they are so terrified.

Connecticut may not have the overt, explicit racism of the Jim Crow laws, but in some ways that makes fighting its version of bigotry more difficult. The judge (James Cromwell) refuses Marshall the normally automatic courtesy of allowing him to represent Spell in court without being a member of the state bar association. Instead, a local lawyer named Sam Friedman (Josh Gad) must argue the case, even though he has no experience in criminal trials and is very reluctant to get involved. “That must be difficult,” Marshall tells him wryly. “To have a reputation to think of.” Marshall may sit at the counsel’s table but may not address the judge or examine witnesses. He says that not being allowed to speak is the worst blow he has had as a lawyer, worse than having to enter the courthouse by the back door.

This is an absorbing drama on many levels, working purely as an “Anatomy of a Murder”-style courtroom mystery, as a historical depiction of the roots and mechanics of social change, and as the personal story of the two young lawyers facing enormous professional and personal challenges, developing a friendship, and becoming better at what they do.

The screenplay by father and son Michael and Joseph Koskoff is forthright in addressing the complicated ethics of preparing a defense for an individual client that many not always be consistent with the larger political imperatives. It also delicately if not always sucessfully skirts the complicated problem faced by contemporary films based on real-life events: if the white character teaches the black character, it’s condescending, but if the black character teaches the white character it’s “magical Negro.” In real life, Samuel Friedman was already active in civil rights cases before the Spell case, and he was slender and athletic. But for dramatic purposes, here he is played by Josh Gad and his character only takes insurance cases. We first see him winning for an insurance company on a technicality that leaves the disabled plaintiff without any damage payment. And Marshall’s character changes very little over the course of the film. He is sophisticated, tough, smart, and confident all the way through which is great as a tribute to one of the towering figures of the 20th century, but without some kind of character arc like the one given to Friedman, the risk is that he becomes a supporting character in the movie that has his name in the title. Fortunately Boseman is intensely charismatic and a gifted actor who is able to bring a great deal to the role, and he and Gad have a strong chemistry that benefits and is benefited by director Reginald Hudlin’s gift for understanding when comedy is needed to lessen the tension. Brown is also excellent in a role far removed from the high educated and successful characters on “This is Us” and “People v. O.J.” Indeed, the entire cast is outstanding, especially Hudson, Ahna O’Reilly as a juror, and Barrett Doss as Marshall’s host and friend.

The film balances the personal, the political, and the professional lives of its heroes and is frank about the opportunism — and the opportunity — of their choices. It places it in the context of its time, as Friedman’s family in Eastern Europe is captured by the Nazis and white thugs attack both lawyers. It makes its case as effectively as Friedman and Marshall make theirs — that courage and persistence bring change and that there are good people out there who will work, with all of our help, to make it happen.

Parent should know that this story concerns a real-life trial for rape and attempted murder with sexual references and situations, themes of racism including beatings and police brutality, some strong language, domestic violence, and some strong and racist language.

Family discussion: Why did Marshall represent only innocent clients? Did Spell have a fair trial? What has improved since that time? What has not?

If you like this, try: “Separate But Equal” and “Mr. Civil Rights: Thurgood Marshall and the NAACP”

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Dolores Huerta and Peter Bratt on the New Documentary “Dolores”

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Dolores” is a new documentary that tells the story of activist icon Dolores C. Huerta, president and founder of the Dolores Huerta Foundation, co-founder of the United Farm Workers of America. If Ginger Rogers is known for matching Fred Astaire’s steps backwards and in high heels, Huerta was as responsible as the better-recognized Cesar Chavez for bringing the attention of the world to the rights of immigrants, women, and farm workers while raising eleven children as a single mother and constantly being marginalized and underrated because of her race and gender. I spoke to Huerta, who was awarded the nation’s highest civilian honor by President Barack Obama, along with the director of the documentary, Peter Bratt.

In the film, we see you begin by sitting down in living rooms or talking to farm workers in the fields to encourage them to insist on fair treatment. What did you say to them?

Dolores Huerta: When you are organizing a group of people, the first thing that we do is we talk about the history of what other people have been able to accomplish; people that look like them, workers like them, ordinary people, working people, and we give them the list. These are people like yourself, this is what they were able to do in their community. And then we talked about the issues that they’re facing in their own community and then we would say to them, “Well, just like these other people did, they were able to accomplish all these great things. You can do the same thing. But the thing is that you got to do it because if you don’t nobody else is going to do it for you; nobody else is going to come into your community and solve your problems. So you have to take on the issues yourself. You’re the ones who have to volunteer to make the work happen.”

So we do a whole series of these little house meetings and you probably get a hundred and fifty people together and out of that group then you have a cadre of them that will come up and they’ll volunteer to do the work that needs to be done and that’s how the leaders are developed. When you go into a community you’ll never know ahead of time who the leaders are going to be. The leaders come up from the volunteers that do the work and it’s amazing because then they do these incredible things in their community that they never thought they had the power to make that happen. Basically, the message is: you have power, the power is in your person and you can make this happen but you can’t do it alone; you’ve got to work with other people to make it happen, you have to make a plan and you have to volunteer. And it works; it’s like magic.

You go out there and you find those people that have this burning passion that they want to change things and you basically are just giving them the tools. This is the way that you do it: you come together with a group of people, you pass petitions, you go to the city council, you go to the board of supervisors and you can make it happen.

Peter Bratt: She actually was telling me a story that she hopped on a Greyhound to northern central California, throughout the bus ride was expecting sixty to seventy people at a house meeting which had only one person, and she said she gave it her all because one person can be the most incredible leader that can change thousands of lives. That was a great lesson.

Why was it important to you to tell this story?

Peter Bratt: Dolores in my view challenges the three pillars of society. She’s challenging patriarchy and yes, that’s part of gender discrimination but it’s also racial. She’s also a Chicana; she’s a woman of color. The third one is as a labor activist she’s challenging the institution of capitalism, and I think those are the three great threats and that made her dangerous. I think those complexities combined to keep her in the margins.

The people who appear in the film are very candid and sometimes very emotional. How do you as a filmmaker develop a sense of trust so that they will share those memories and feelings?

Peter Bratt: I have some history with Dolores. I’ve known her for a little while and I think there was initially a great amount of trust between her and myself and Carlos Santana whose idea this was, and I also knew a few of her daughters from years back. So I think initially there was trust but you still have to prove yourself and earn even more trust. The most important thing as a director is you have to create a safe environment where you make the person feel safe enough to open their heart and reveal the soul; that’s ultimately where you’re trying to get. We interviewed probably about fifty people and the ones that we selected for the film were the ones who we felt truly opened their hearts and spoke their truth.

What has surprised you in terms of how far we’ve come and what has been the most persistently frustrating?

Dolores Huerta: Women are now 50 percent of the law schools and medical schools, so we can look at all the progress that we’ve made, but we can see all the progress that we still need to make and now with the voter suppression going on and with the racism rearing its ugly head we know that we’ve got to really step up our game on the progressive side and get people to vote because a lot of people aren’t voting. They’ve taken civics out of our high schools. People were asleep but I think they’re waking up now. Trump has given everybody a good kick and people are waking up and realizing they’ve got to get involved. That’s the message that we want to send with the film; for people to get involved at the local level, at the community level, at the state level and international level because we can’t afford to let the right wing take over our country. My son Emilio is running for Congress to continue the fight for social justice.

Peter Bratt: Sometimes I just want to put the covers over my head and stay in bed and I feel like no matter what I do it’s ineffectual and I get depressed. So for me having spent these last few years with Dolores, to see her not just doing the work but impassioned about doing the work and getting out there at the grassroots level and she still goes out into the fields in 100 degrees to organize this farm operation, she’s still doing it in the school boards, on water boards, she’s been getting people involved and to see her so engaged and relentless. The fortitude is awe inspiring and yet there is this joy and this passion while continuing to do the work, It encourages me to like quit feeling sorry for myself and get back out there. To me as a filmmaker that’s the biggest reward, to see people lift themselves up and recommit themselves.

A briefer version of this interview originally appeared on the Huffington Post.

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HIstoric Black Films Available on Netflix

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Twenty of the films in the Kino Lorber Pioneers of African-American Cinema collection are now available on Netflix. They include Paul Robeson’s debut in “Body and Soul,” a black and white silent film where he plays the dual roles of a preacher and his evil brother and “The Bronze Buckaroo,” with Herb Jeffries as a singing cowboy, as well as “Hot Biskits” (a man cheats at golf using magnets), “Birthright” (a Harvard-educated man goes home to start a school), and “Verdict not Guilty” (“Truth” serves as judge over a woman’s life).

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Ed Skrein Turns Down a Mixed-Race Role

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Ed Skrein (the bad guy in “Deadpool”) agreed to play Ben Daimio in the new “Hellboy” movie. But when he found out that the character is half Asian he turned down the role, saying he did not think it was appropriate for him to take the part. “Representation of ethnic diversity is important, especially to me as I have a mixed heritage family. It is our responsibility to make moral decisions in difficult times and to give voice to inclusivity. It is my hope that one day these discussions will become less necessary and that we can help make equal representation in the Arts a reality,” he wrote.

On one hand, there is the view that any actor should be able to play any part. But given the extreme disparity in the treatment of minority actors, that should not apply until as many non-white, female, GLBTIA, and disabled actors are being cast in any part that does not specifically rely on being a cis-gender white male. We salute Skrien for taking this position and hope it shames the producers into hiring an actor whose ethnicity is consistent with the character he is playing.

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