movie: The Watermelon Woman (1997)

This 1997 film is an autobiographical mock-umentary in which filmmaker Cheryl Dunye stars as “Cheryl,” more or less herself: a young Black lesbian working in a video store with her buddy Tamara, and working as well on a film project which documents her research into the identity of a historic Black female actor known in credits only as “the Watermelon Woman.” This actor played the “mammy” or kitchen/maid/”help” roles that were most of the available work for Black women of her time, the 1930s. Cheryl learns that this woman luckily lived in Philadelphia, where Cheryl also lives; she finds people who knew her; the research goes fairly well. At the same time, Cheryl meets and begins a romance with Diana – who is white, which causes friction with Tamara. Two plotlines, then: finding the Watermelon Woman, and navigating romance and relationships across race lines.

On the one hand, as some testy reviewers have pointed out, the script can be a little stilted, and the acting falters; a few lines are fumbled, and I wish they’d reshot those scenes. The research plotline, in particular, is overly simplistic: two friends drive from Philly to New York to get into a special lesbian archive (acronym C.L.I.T.) and are in and out in five minutes! The research is too easy, too quick. But, it’s all in service of a message, right? The film is all-around dated – but it’s over 20 years old, so, fair enough. Those reviewers who criticized jumpy camerawork just missed the message, though: it’s presented as hand-shot by relative amateurs, you guys. Remember Blair Witch Project?

On the other hand, this project is sweet, heartfelt, and in pursuit of the kinds of social work I’m absolutely behind. It was funny, and earnest. I kind of loved it.

Just before closing credits, the screen reads: “Sometimes you have to create your own history. The Watermelon Woman is fiction. Cheryl Dunye, 1996.” IMDB quotes her further: “The Watermelon Woman came from the real lack of any information about the lesbian and film history of African-American women. Since it wasn’t happening, I invented it.” In other words, the outlines of this story may well be true, but in the absence of even a sketchy “watermelon woman” to investigate, Dunye has allowed a fictional one to stand in for those lost to history. I dig this way of dealing with absence.

Poo-poo to the crabby critics. An imperfect but fine film.


Rating: 6 photographs.

movie: The North Star (1943)

By Source, Fair use, Link

Another quick movie review: I’ve had this one in a queue for a long time. Lillian Hellman wrote the screenplay for this drama about a Nazi attack on a Ukrainian collective farm, where the locals rather romantically undertake to defend their land and resist the greater power at whatever cost. Wikipedia says “the film was an unabashedly pro-Soviet propaganda film at the height of the war,” and they are not wrong. Romantic, yes; propaganda, yes; and yet it’s neatly done and who doesn’t sympathize with romantic guerrilla resistance to Nazis?? I certainly do, and I enjoyed this movie, found it heartwrenching even as I saw its machinery working to just that effect.

[In the 1950s, the House Un-American Activities Committee took exception, and the film was re-cut to remove the idealized portrayal of Soviet collective farms, and to include references to the Hungarian Uprising of 1956.]

Teenage romance, children and pets, a principled stand taken by an aging doctor, homegrown guerrilla tactics, hometown pride, fraternal bickerings set aside in the face of larger enemies – I say The North Star has it all. I was impressed that this one from all the way back in 1943 was available for free on Amazon Prime (Amazon is evil but here we are). Go check it out.


Rating: 7 guns.

movie: Wonder Boys (2000)

Quick review here… as I got ready to start my new teaching job, a friend said I should watch this movie I’d never heard of. There were a few moments that were silly enough that I rolled my eyes briefly, but overall I have to say, this was hilarious and moving and yes, recognizable. I’m pleased I spent an evening this way.

Great cast with Michael Douglas as the maybe-slightly-washed-up writing professor, Tobey Maguire as weirdo student, Katie Holmes as higher-achieving student who wants to sleep with her professor, Frances McDormand as chancellor who really is sleeping with the professor, Robert Downey Jr. as his editor, and more. (I had to double-check my memory but yes, Tobey Maguire was Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby movie. The two roles echo each other a bit.) The plot has it all: an admired novelist struggling to complete his second novel; jealousy of a talented student; academic office politics; sex and betrayal; industry and professional bullshit; a louche Robert Downey Jr. Like I said, there was a bit of silliness, but there were a lot of laughs. Several times I scared my little dog with sudden loud belly laughs. I was as surprised as he was.

Oh, and it’s marketed as a rom-com… I was less taken with the love story than that, but there was so much to hear to admire.

And no, to answer Barrett’s question, I do not intend to be this close with my students. More boundaries, please.


Rating: 7 dogs.

movie: Matewan (1987)

Having recently visited the museum, I knew I had to track down this movie, which was not easy – thanks Barrett for your help!

Matewan is the retelling of the story of Bloody Mingo County and the Battle of Matewan, where the humble coal miners stood up to the bosses and lives were lost. It’s an iconic story in American labor rights history, and it’s movingly told here.

We begin with Joe Kenehan (Chris Cooper, in his film debut) arriving in the town of Matewan, West Virginia as a union organizer sent to help the locals with their ongoing strike. (I was immediately reminded of the adage that there are only two stories in the world: a person goes on a journey, or a stranger comes to town.) On the same train that brings Kenehan are a group of Black miners from Alabama who are being brought in as strike-breakers; the local miners attack these men before they even reach Matewan, presaging racism and violence that will plague organizing efforts. Kenehan exhorts the locals, however, telling them that it’s workers against bosses, not white against Black or anybody else (there is a recently arrived group of Italian miners in town, too).

It’s uphill work getting the white WV miners to let Blacks and Italians into the union, just as it’s uphill work getting the latter groups to strike, but Kenehan’s speeches, and the poor conditions and disrespect of the mine bosses, do achieve this. Everyone puts down their tools; the miners and their families construct a tent city on the edge of town (as their housing is all company-owned), and the workers bumpily navigate their union. Meanwhile, hired guns with the Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency try repeatedly to do the work of intimidation: evictions, repossession of food and furnishings, and general pressure and violence. They are repeatedly thwarted by the town’s major and sheriff, and once by armed “hill people” from outside of town. For a time, it looks like the ragtag union bunch are well-positioned to win their fight, because of the tight local community. But hanging over this impression is knowledge that the company, and Baldwin-Felts, has only to bring in more and bigger guns, and eventually the town will be outnumbered.

The action of Matewan proceeds from Kenehan’s arrival through organizing and early conflicts and concludes just after the Battle of Matewan, the shootout where the mayor and Kenehan, and seven Baldwin-Felts guys, are killed. Voiceover by Danny from a later date (he is now a grown man, and still a coal miner) indicates that the union was eventually defeated in the West Virginia Mine Wars by the US military, and that conditions have more or less returned to their starting point.

Remarkable characters include the boarding-house proprietress who initially puts Kenehan up – a miner’s widow – and her teenage son Danny, a coal miner, budding Baptist preacher, and passionate union man; Few Clothes (delightfully played here by James Earl Jones), leader of the Black contingent; a flirtatious widow with a role to play; and two miners’ wives in the camp, one West Virginian and one Italian, who begin as antagonists but forge a friendship even without benefit of a common language. Several miners, union men and Baldwin-Felts thugs play individual roles, as well, but these are less developed personalities. While there is no question that this is a film with a message and that takes a side, these flawed human characters make it something more and better than propaganda.

While Few Clothes, the sheriff and mayor, and several union men and Baldwin-Felts guys were true historical characters, Kenehan and Danny are both inventions for the purpose of this film. On the one hand, I find they work very well as central characters to focus our sympathies and make the story come alive. On the other hand, I regret that it took fictional characters to do this work, and I wonder if the same emotional results could have been achieved using only true figures. I believe so; but I guess it would have been harder to focus it, with a larger cast and no one central hero like Kenehan. But isn’t that a beautiful fact of the union, that there is no one, single hero?

True events are also compressed, and sometimes conflated. I feel more forgiving of this move; this being not history, but a stylized version thereof, it’s okay with me that we made the storyline a little tighter and easier to follow, and more dramatic for its brevity. Inserting a fictional central hero feels less faithful to me that compressing a timeline. Maybe that’s just me? At any rate, if you’re learning the history of Matewan and West Virginia’s Mine Wars, do look further than this film, excellent though it is. (This should go without saying and applies to all historical fiction.)

Although a sad story and therefore hard to watch, I found this movie also beautiful and well done. I appreciated the cinematography, darkness and shadow moving, the feelings of tragedy and betrayal; it made me cry. I highly recommend it, if you can find it. Know your history, friends.


Rating: 7 rabbits.

movie: Coal Miner’s Daughter (1980)

This biopic centers on country legend Loretta Lynn, the daughter of (yes) a coal miner in Butcher Holler, Kentucky. I was recently motivated to track it down in part by that Kentucky music issue of Oxford American.

First, the superficial bits: I am impressed with how well this cast resembles the characters they play. Sissy Spacek as Loretta, Tommy Lee Jones as her husband, Doolittle “Mooney” Lynn, and Beverly D’Angelo as Patsy Cline offer remarkable likenesses. There is less to go on with Ted Webb, Loretta’s father, but Leon Helm did a fine job with that role. (IMDB’s trivia section claims, “Loretta Lynn is said to have fainted when she saw Levon Helm in full make-up and wardrobe, because of his amazing resemblance to her real father.”) Phyllis Boyens-Liptak as Clary, Loretta’s mother, reminded me most of Dorothea Lange’s “Migrant Mother.” All the acting struck me as more than adequate. Spacek’s Loretta is somehow both quaking and fiery: she alternates between terror and resolute defiance. Jones is charismatic and frightening. I felt drawn in and engaged by this movie – forgot I was watching actors at all.

The relationship between Mooney and Loretta made me plenty uncomfortable. In the movie, she is 13 years old when they marry; Rolling Stone says she was 15, but this is still disturbing, just to a slightly different degree. On their wedding night, in the movie, he rapes her. The next morning, he hits her for the first time. I did not enjoy watching this. But if this is the true story (and the movie is based on Loretta’s autobiography, so we are to take it as such – at least as close to fact as autobiography ever is), I can agree not to look away. This aspect reminded me of Urban Cowboy, but that fellow-1980 movie of abusive honky tonk relationships does not have the stamp of “truth” on its side, so I consider its offense a little worse, at least from the one angle.

Anyway. Nobody said this movie would be about everybody doing the right thing. It’s a movie about real people, at least ostensibly. Let me say a little more about the “truthiness”: this is a biopic, based on life, via an autobiography, with a co-author, of a celebrity, who has some interest in promoting an image her fans will appreciate. (In that Rolling Stone piece, she and her publicity team are quoted as basically falling back on that stereotyped Southern lady’s coyness about age.) So, based on a real life as represented by the woman who lived it. I’m not trying to be hard on Loretta. These are generalizations, not specific to her. None of us has infallible memory, and celebrity has been known to distort, too. While Loretta and Mooney come off in this movie as messy and imperfect, they are certainly also relatable and sympathetic; this is a classic rags-to-riches story where we root for the underdog. It’s arguably easy on its stars. I figure this movie is fact-adjacent.

I did get involved with it. I cared about the characters. I felt Patsy’s death, and Loretta’s several crises; I was both very angry with Mooney and understood Loretta’s attraction. It was visually pleasing. The music was (of course) excellent, and Spacek and D’Angelo sang their parts throughout, which is impressive. Long story short, this was well worth my time; I can only imagine the nostalgia it holds for viewers who are either from an Appalachia recognizable here, or big Loretta Lynn fans (or both). I’m not the former, and only a moderate fan, but it was a good enough time.


Rating: 7 pots of food.

movies: When They See Us (2019) and The Central Park Five (2012)

I was keyed up for the release of When They See Us as a Netflix original miniseries at the beginning of June. (I’m treating it here as a movie, especially because “limited series” seems like such a downplay for a serious work of art and social commentary.) I viewed the four episodes in three evenings, rushing through, feeling both addicted and horrified, unable to look away. I thought I was prepared for the subject matter, but I was shocked beyond expectations.

The show handles events from 1989, when five boys (four Black, one Puerto Rican and Black) were arrested for the brutal rape and beating of a white woman jogging in Central Park. Their names are Raymond Santana, Yusef Salaam, Kevin Richardson, Antron McCray, and Korey Wise. Although there was no evidence linking them to the crime, and although their confessions were full of holes and inconsistencies and signs of police coercion, they were found guilty. The four younger boys, ages fourteen to fifteen, were sentenced to between five and ten years. Korey Wise was sixteen, and received ten to fifteen, entering adult prison directly. In 2002, another man in prison for a series of rapes, Matias Reyes, confessed to the crime, and Korey (still incarcerated) was released, and all five men’s convictions were vacated.

It’s a terribly painful story to see unfold. On the April night in 1989, we see a large group of boys running through Central Park and acting out. They push at and harass bicyclists. They beat up a man. It’s easy to see how things escalate: boys roughhousing, and then some of them take it a step too far; imagine yourself one of those boys. You’re not responsible for the actions of those you’re with; you don’t even know all of them. It turns out that the jogger was raped in the same park on the same night, beaten within an inch of her life. Three of the boys who would become known as the Central Park Five were arrested that night. The next day, police came looking for Yusef Salaam. His friend Korey was with him when they take him in, and agreed to come along, just for moral support. In an ugly-ironic twist, Korey would serve the longest sentence for this crime in which none of the Five had any involvement.

It’s unsurprising that When They See Us knocks it out of the park with Ava DuVernay as creator, co-writer and director. Under her guidance, we see the boys running through Central Park. We see them picked up by police, and interrogated without parents present for hours and hours, without bathroom breaks or food; we see them pushed around, threatened, and coached through their false confessions. We see them in court and then in prison; we see them get out and hug their families and try to put their lives back together. We see Reyes confess to the rape. I am deeply impressed by the acting performances given by both the young actors (portraying the teenaged boys) and adults. I am horrified, over and over again.

I’m glad (well, that’s a weird word) to see the story of Korey Wise’s sister given air time, too: Marci was a trans woman murdered while he was incarcerated, who we meet only through flashbacks, as he weathers solitary confinement by living in a dream world largely starring this much-loved older sister. The story of a murdered Black trans woman is unfortunately common still today, and Marci deserved this coverage. She is beautifully played by Isis King.

I was also intrigued to meet the very sympathetic (in both senses) character of Roberts, a white prison guard who goes out of his way to be kind and generous to Korey, even holding him in an embrace when he finds out about Marci’s death. Roberts does not appear to come from real life (go figure). He was a sweet departure, but his totally fiction existence feels like a final driving-home of the horror of this true story.

I find the title interesting, too. I can think of several ways to follow this phrase, from ‘when they see us, they only see one thing/they think they know us,’ to ‘when they see us, then, finally, we’ll get justice,’ in the sense that we mean when we say it feels good to be seen. The story is so clearly about racism, about the way in which these boys, these children, were handled as proxy for everything that the world feared about Black men in 1980s New York. A white woman was raped, and they came for the Central Park Five just like they came for Emmett Till. And they were just babies: that’s one of the advantages of seeing and not just reading about this story, seeing the faces of these boys and realizing how very young they were.

I think this was everything it needed to be. As a crime drama, it’s gripping and moving. As social commentary, it’s thorough in its criticisms: the cops and prosecutors demonize themselves through their actions. I wept more than once. It’s also a visually impressive piece of art – this is where I’d normally call it visually pleasing, but of course that’s the wrong adjective – it’s full of expressive images, from the wide-angle view of boys in the park to the interrogation rooms and prison cells, and expansiveness of the outdoors to a man freed. I am still recovering emotionally from this story. Well done, DuVernay and full cast.

After feeling so affected by this show, I went looking for more, which led me to the documentary covering the same events from seven years earlier. The Central Park Five did much of the same job as the Netflix series, but with original footage and the perspectives of the men looking back from years later. Necessarily, it offered a less complete view of past events, because it stuck to the footage available; we don’t see police hit or threaten or coach the boys’ confessions, obviously, but we see the taped confessions, and we see the faces of the five boys and, later, men themselves. (Antron McCray allowed the use of his voice and not his image, as an adult.)

There was not much more of the story to be gained here, then, but an advantage in seeing it come from the people actually involved. I appreciated seeing what each character looked like, in comparison to the actor(s) who played them. I enjoyed seeing period footage of New York in general, too. I think it’s probably a good documentary, but it suffers some by comparison to When They See Us, which has the obvious advantage of being able to show more – whatever DuVernay wants to depict – and more dramatically. Having the two together feels like the right final call, of course, for the viewer wanting to explore this subject matter. I’m very impressed with both.

As a final remark, I want to say that I have a friend who has come into personal contact with Linda Fairstein, the evil, racist prosecutor in this story. This friend had her own horrible experience, which upholds what we learn about Fairstein here. Friend, I am sorry again for what happened to you. We’re decades late, but I’m glad everybody’s now talking about her and holding her responsible for some of her actions. Fairstein has enjoyed a career as a crime novelist until just recently: following a social media campaign, her publisher, Dutton, a Penguin Random House imprint, has ended the relationship. Small progress.


Rating: an average 8.5 years for these two fine films.

movie: Paris, Texas (1984)

Wim Wenders directs this visually stunning, stately-paced film set in West Texas and Los Angeles. I’m really here for those visuals, including old shots of my hometown of Houston (shot around the time of my birth) and the Big Bend area that means so much to me. The plot is as stark as that West Texas scenery. We open with a man (Harry Dean Stanton) in a filthy sports coat and red baseball cap (which didn’t mean then what it often means now), stumbling through the desert. He turns out to be Travis Henderson, who disappeared four years earlier. After he collapses in a little shop in the desert, his brother Walt comes to rescue him, taking him back to L.A. and the household where Walt lives with his wife Anne and the eight-year-old boy who is Travis’s son but calls Walt & Anne Mom & Dad.

Slowly and sparely, Travis and the boy, Hunter, build a relationship of sorts. When Travis gets ready to go find Hunter’s mother Jane, Hunter wants to come along (of course). The two take off on a road trip back to Texas, where the reunion is somewhat dissatisfying for everyone, I think, including me the viewer.

I found the ending (which I won’t spoil too much) a little disappointing. It reminded me of an Abbey novel, when he handles gender relations most poorly. But a dear friend of mine, who is a huge Wenders fan, points out that it’s only honest to Travis’s character; and I guess that’s not wrong. I claim that I wanted something, not sappy, but more open-ended, perhaps… but then I realize I’m thinking of A Perfect World, which was sappy, so maybe I’m not being honest with myself. I can’t say the ending wasn’t realistic. Maybe I wanted something unrealistic.

At any rate, I was pleased with the movie overall. I said I came for the visuals, and these did not disappoint; I could watch several hours more of the same.

Travis & Walt, truck, desert & sky

freshly shaven Travis seeks recognition in mirror

The plot is just a frame to hold these images. Or, the West Texas desert is the central character, more than any of the human ones. Or, the plot is merely performative of the desert. Or, the point of the movie and its plot is simply to communicate that the desert dwarfs humanity and our petty hopes and goals.

I’d watch this again, maybe again and again, and keep seeing new images and metaphors. That big sky.


Rating: 7 car doors.
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