Monthly Archives: November 2013

A Poet’s Advice For Unlikely Partners: Just Dance


Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif (second from left) shakes hands with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry next to Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi (far left) and French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius (far right) after a statement on early November 24, 2013 in Geneva.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif (second from left) shakes hands with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry next to Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi (far left) and French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius (far right) after a statement on early November 24, 2013 in Geneva.


Fabrice Coffrini/AFP/Getty Images

Sometime after 3 a.m. on Sunday, international negotiators emerged from a conference room in a Geneva hotel, bearing with them weary smiles and a historic agreement. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, Iran Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and representatives from five other world powers had come together on a deal to freeze the Iranian nuclear program temporarily.

Of course, conversation about the deal didn’t end when the negotiators stepped away from the table. In fact, it has only just begun, as Americans, Iranians and the rest of the world react to the agreement reached at the negotiating table. The deal has been called by some the most important breakthrough with the Islamic republic since 1979; by others, it’s been called a distraction that doesn’t go far enough.

In the confusion of voices, context can lend a vital anchor when understanding landmark events such as these. In this installment of our series, “This Week’s Must Read,” author Ariel Dorfman suggests a book that he says might bridge national differences and help Americans connect with regular Iranians.

The Essential Rumi

This Week’s Must Read

The Essential Rumi, translated by Coleman Barks with John Moyne.

The agreement to temporarily curb Iran’s nuclear program has been called a breakthrough for diplomacy. But it also demands another sort of breakthrough, a unique chance for Americans to gently plunge into the deepest wells of Persian identity that originate in a civilization preceding ours by many centuries.

We can do so by connecting with Rumi, a Sufi master born in 1207, whose luminous, salacious mystical verses written in Farsi are carried by all Iranians in their hearts, as we do the words of Shakespeare. To read even a small selection of Rumi’s witty poems to his beloved can help shatter the blinding stereotypes that separate us from ordinary men and women in Tehran today.

But exploring the world of Rumi is not merely a matter of what I would call literary diplomacy, people-to-people diplomacy through poetry. Rumi was one of the wisest men to have wandered the earth. Besides exulting in his quest for love and God and the milk of reconciliation, we might also turn to him for guidance as to how Americans, Iranians and others should react to this nuclear deal — including those who might be skeptical.

“Give up wanting what other people have,” Rumi says. “That way you’re safe. / Where, where can I be safe? you ask. / This is not a day for asking questions.” In another poem, he says, “Gamble everything for love, / if you’re a true human being.”

And some words of warning to those involved in these negotiations on both sides: “The wine God loves / is human honesty.” And, “Don’t let your throat tighten / with fear.”

As to breakthroughs, Rumi tells us: “Dance, when you’re broken open. / Dance, if you’ve torn the bandage off. / Dance, in the middle of the fighting.” Dance with Rumi’s words and risk breaking yourself open. Then perhaps we’ll have brought some peace to the troubled souls of our vast and divided humanity.

“We have fallen into the place,” Rumi promises, “where everything is music.”

The latest book by Chilean-American author Ariel Dorfman is Feeding on Dreams: Confessions of an Unrepentant Exile. Six of his books have been translated into Farsi. He lives with his wife, Angélica, in Durham, North Carolina and, when time permits, in their native Chile.

Finding ‘Great Beauty’ Amid Rome’s Corruptions


In The Great Beauty, director Paolo Sorrentino surveys the city of Rome through the eyes of jaded journalist Jep Gambardella (Tony Servillo), taking in the city's degeneracies alongside its eternal beauties.

In The Great Beauty, director Paolo Sorrentino surveys the city of Rome through the eyes of jaded journalist Jep Gambardella (Tony Servillo), taking in the city’s degeneracies alongside its eternal beauties.


Gianni Fiorito/Janus Films

Rome is often called the Eternal City, and generations of filmmakers from around the world have sought to capture its enduring beauty on screen.

The new film The Great Beauty is the latest, a picture that casts Rome itself in the title role. After playing to critical acclaim in Europe, it opens in American cinemas this month. The film is also Italy’s official entry at this season’s Academy Awards.

The Great Beauty is a double-edged portrait, out to capture both the beauty and the ugliness of modern Rome.

A World Of Distractions

The film opens with a rooftop party to end all parties: a flashy crowd of the city’s sexiest and richest, grooving and grinding above Rome’s skyline. When the man of the hour — Jep Gambardella, journalist and onetime novelist, turning 65 — makes his entrance, he’s tailored to a fault and surrounded by women.

Director Paolo Sorrentino says this flashy opening is meant to hurl you right into the Roman high life.

“I believe the beginning of movies has to be a breakthrough,” he says. “I wanted to create a party scene that’s unforgettable, knowing that party scenes are very complicated for directors. We worked a lot, we worked many days. I picked each face one by one.”

The Great Beauty sets the stage for its exploration of Rome with an opening birthday-party scene of surpassing decadence.


Gianni Fiorito/Janus Films

The Great Beauty sets the stage for its exploration of Rome with an opening birthday-party scene of surpassing decadence.

The Great Beauty sets the stage for its exploration of Rome with an opening birthday-party scene of surpassing decadence.

Gianni Fiorito/Janus Films

As the party swirls around him, Jep steps out of the crowd, lights his cigarette and speaks into the camera, reflecting on the one great novel he wrote 40 years ago and the life of substance he’s avoided ever since.

“I wanted to make it very clear from the very start that the world we were going to enter is a world made of a people who seek to constantly distract themselves, in order not to dedicate themselves seriously and sensibility to real life,” Sorrentino says.

As the party ends, Sorrentino’s camera pans out to reveal Rome just before dawn. New York University professor Stefano Albertini says it’s the image of an ancient city at peace in a way the film’s characters are not.

“It’s probably one of the few times of the day when the city is almost a desert,” Albertini says. “Because even in the middle of the night there are always lots of people around — but then at dawn you have that metaphysical sensation that you are in an empty city that is in between something.”

And as the main character walks home in that early light, he pauses to look at children beginning their day in a convent, the camera lingering to relish the details of the marble columns and arches of ancient buildings.

‘The Sacred And The Profane’

Peter Becker, who is releasing the film in the U.S., says Sorrentino’s Rome demands that kind of introspection.

“We’re constantly reminded of this glorious architecture and statuary, and of the fantastic legacy of ancient Rome that surrounds you just by being in Rome,” he says. “And so how can you not measure yourself against that on a day-to-day basis in a certain way? It’s just your environment.”

In addition to stunning tableaus of buildings and light, Sorrentino uses classical music to convey the grandeur of Rome and to contrast it with the party jams that soundtrack the decadence.

“By having the Vatican within it, Rome is seen as the center of the sacred world,” Sorrentino says. “But it is also the city where the profane, sin and vulgarity, are everyday occurrences. Through music, I wanted to show the coexistence of these two sides of the city, the sacred and the profane.”

A National Tradition

This certainly isn’t the first film to explore those uniquely Roman contradictions, the sins and the saints. Sorrentino follows in a line of post-war Italian filmmakers who sought to contrast the poverty and glamour of Rome, to puncture the image of movie stars riding around fountains on Vespas.

Like Federico Fellini, Sorrentino makes his characters almost caricatures. He inserts strange, surprising moments into the narrative. In one of them, a chorus of singers perform above a fountain as Japanese tourists try to capture the beauty on their cameras. Suddenly, one of them drops dead.

In director Federico Fellini‘s 1960 film, La Dolce Vita, another journalist (Marcello Mastroianni) avails himself of the beauty of Rome, including Sylvia (Anita Ekberg) and the city’s famous “Fontana di Trevi.”


AFP/Getty Images

In director Federico Fellini's 1960 film, La Dolce Vita, another journalist (Marcello Mastroianni) avails himself of the beauty of Rome, including Sylvia (Anita Ekberg) and the city's famous "Fontana di Trevi."

In director Federico Fellini‘s 1960 film, La Dolce Vita, another journalist (Marcello Mastroianni) avails himself of the beauty of Rome, including Sylvia (Anita Ekberg) and the city’s famous “Fontana di Trevi.”

AFP/Getty Images

“That character, a tourist … is seeking beauty and ends up being overwhelmed, overtaken by that beauty,” Sorrentino explains. “Beauty is a fleeting experience that does not last. All things that do not last hurt us, and metaphorically, beauty can kill us.”

And that’s a kind of commentary on the pursuit of pleasure that characterized the Rome of former Prime Minster Silvio Berlusconi — a city of extremes, rife with corruption, excess, hedonism and ugliness.

But Albertini says The Great Beauty isn’t just an attack on Berlusconi. It’s also an indictment of the intellectuals and artists who retreated from responsibility in those years.

“The fact that Sorrentino decides that his character moves around the circles of leftist Rome, and that in these leftist circles, the emptiness is as big as it is in the circles of the right says much about his personal evaluation that I happen to agree with,” Albertini says.

“It’s not only a problem of an ugly right. … It’s also the problem of an empty left.”

According to Albertini, The Great Beauty marks “the end of a creative crisis,” not for a single person, but “what seems to be the creative crisis of an entire country.”

The main character, in any case, finds a path out of his own creative crisis, a path beyond the nightlife, and one that renews his faith in Rome’s great beauty.

A Poet’s Advice For Unlikely Partners: Just Dance


Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif (second from left) shakes hands with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry next to Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi (far left) and French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius (far right) after a statement on early November 24, 2013 in Geneva.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif (second from left) shakes hands with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry next to Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi (far left) and French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius (far right) after a statement on early November 24, 2013 in Geneva.


Fabrice Coffrini/AFP/Getty Images

Sometime after 3 a.m. on Sunday, international negotiators emerged from a conference room in a Geneva hotel, bearing with them weary smiles and a historic agreement. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, Iran Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and representatives from five other world powers had come together on a deal to freeze the Iranian nuclear program temporarily.

Of course, conversation about the deal didn’t end when the negotiators stepped away from the table. In fact, it has only just begun, as Americans, Iranians and the rest of the world react to the agreement reached at the negotiating table. The deal has been called by some the most important breakthrough with the Islamic republic since 1979; by others, it’s been called a distraction that doesn’t go far enough.

In the confusion of voices, context can lend a vital anchor when understanding landmark events such as these. In this installment of our series, “This Week’s Must Read,” author Ariel Dorfman suggests a book that he says might bridge national differences and help Americans connect with regular Iranians.

The Essential Rumi

This Week’s Must Read

The Essential Rumi, translated by Coleman Barks with John Moyne.

The agreement to temporarily curb Iran’s nuclear program has been called a breakthrough for diplomacy. But it also demands another sort of breakthrough, a unique chance for Americans to gently plunge into the deepest wells of Persian identity that originate in a civilization preceding ours by many centuries.

We can do so by connecting with Rumi, a Sufi master born in 1207, whose luminous, salacious mystical verses written in Farsi are carried by all Iranians in their hearts, as we do the words of Shakespeare. To read even a small selection of Rumi’s witty poems to his beloved can help shatter the blinding stereotypes that separate us from ordinary men and women in Tehran today.

But exploring the world of Rumi is not merely a matter of what I would call literary diplomacy, people-to-people diplomacy through poetry. Rumi was one of the wisest men to have wandered the earth. Besides exulting in his quest for love and God and the milk of reconciliation, we might also turn to him for guidance as to how Americans, Iranians and others should react to this nuclear deal — including those who might be skeptical.

“Give up wanting what other people have,” Rumi says. “That way you’re safe. / Where, where can I be safe? you ask. / This is not a day for asking questions.” In another poem, he says, “Gamble everything for love, / if you’re a true human being.”

And some words of warning to those involved in these negotiations on both sides: “The wine God loves / is human honesty.” And, “Don’t let your throat tighten / with fear.”

As to breakthroughs, Rumi tells us: “Dance, when you’re broken open. / Dance, if you’ve torn the bandage off. / Dance, in the middle of the fighting.” Dance with Rumi’s words and risk breaking yourself open. Then perhaps we’ll have brought some peace to the troubled souls of our vast and divided humanity.

“We have fallen into the place,” Rumi promises, “where everything is music.”

The latest book by Chilean-American author Ariel Dorfman is Feeding on Dreams: Confessions of an Unrepentant Exile. Six of his books have been translated into Farsi. He lives with his wife, Angélica, in Durham, North Carolina and, when time permits, in their native Chile.

Rick Najera: A Latino In Hollywood Is ‘Almost White’


Copyright © 2013 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I’m Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We hope you had a wonderful Thanksgiving – wherever you were and whatever you did. And no matter what you had on your table, we hope you took some time to tell and to hear some stories going around that table. So today, we decide to dedicate our program to notable storytellers. Later in the program, we’ll hear the barbershop guys tell a few stories of their own about the people who made a lasting impression on them. And we’re going to start things off with Rick Najera. The name may not be familiar to you, but his probably is. He’s a jack of all trades, having worked as an actor, a writer on cutting-edge television shows like “MADtv” and “In Living Color.” He’s been an executive, a producer, a consultant whose work has helped many other performers get the attention they deserve. Recently, following the advice of one of his mentors, he decided to tell his own story his way. And with that, he decided to turn a spotlight onto the experiences of other Latinos in Hollywood. His book is titled “Almost White: Forced Confessions of a Latino in Hollywood.” And when we spoke recently, I asked why he used to phrase forced confessions.

RICK NAJERA: Well, you know, I never wanted to tell the story. So the publisher and the editors were like, well, do you really want to say this? And I go, no, not really. And I wanted to write other things. And then they said, write about your life. And I thought, who’s going to really want to hear about my life? And then I realized, my life, just looking at it individually, really tells the whole story of the Latino experience in America. So that’s how I approached it, was that, you know, anything happening in my life, I put in the book, and it exposed what was going on with Latinos in the greater.

MARTIN: One of the things about the book that is striking is that you kind of toggle between these really funny episodes, but some really terrible experiences. You know…

NAJERA: Yeah.

MARTIN: …Starting with the one that opens the book, where you had this really scary account of a bad case of pneumonia that you had not had treated. And it caused you to fall, and you wind up in the ICU. You have a seizure, you fall and you land in the ICU.So that is what kind of forced you to – or encouraged you – forced is the word you used to kind of…

NAJERA: Yeah. I’m one of those writers that doesn’t like to write. But I’ve written so much material, it’s ridiculous. And so when the coma happened, basically, I went through a seizure, had hit my head, nearly bled to death and went into a coma. And my brain was swelling and all that. I looked like I had no future. And even when my doctor had saw me, they said, you know, Rick may not come back normal, which my wife was fine with that ’cause she’s like, well, he was never normal in the first place. So, you know, it’s not going to change a thing. He’s not going to come back as an accountant. You know, and then it would’ve been really bad.

MARTIN: I think I’m going to call her to second source that.

NAJERA: Well, I came out of the coma, and, you know, I really looked at my life and I said – I wanted to chronicle it. I wanted to bring it down and talk about it in a very human, honest way. And the coma reminded me that every day was a miracle. I was so happy to do something – leave something behind.

MARTIN: Going back to the title again, “Almost White,” could you just read me a passage from the book where you talk about that?

NAJERA: Sure. In every story, there’s a beginning, a middle and an end. More than anywhere else in Hollywood, the story commences when you are defined and cast as a type. I was cast as the Latino. I always had to fight for my identity because when you’re a Latino, to a white American you’re not black, you’re not white. What you are is almost white. Now lying in the hospital, I was almost dead. They gave me a syringe full of sleep, and I drifted into darkness. Tied to the bed with IVs in my arms and a tube down my throat, I looked like a man with no future. And with no future, I dreamt of my past. Almost white.

MARTIN: Wow, you know, you – so part of what you’re doing with this book is you’re giving yourself permission to kind of really talk about what that…

NAJERA: Yeah.

MARTIN: …Has been like. Now one of the things you talk about in the book is how the options for Latino actors and actresses are very limited or have been very limited. But you also wrote for two shows that were known for having diverse casts.

NAJERA: Yeah.

MARTIN: You’ve created these opportunities and for taking on race-based humor. So I’d like to play a clip from a sketch that you wrote for “In Living Color.” The premise of the sketch is that the famed Latino actor Edward James Olmos is cleaning up after the LA riots. So let’s take a lesson.

NAJERA: Oh, yeah.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, “IN LIVING COLOR”)

JIM CARREY: All right people, let’s go. Listen to me. Come here. I want to pontificate. You have wallpapered, you have painted, you have saved thousands of remodeling dollars. But what lies ahead is the biggest job of all.

JAMIE FOXX: And what’s that?

CARREY: Fixing my face. Everybody get the putty knives. Make me look good. I want to be governor one day.

MARTIN: Oh no.

NAJERA: Oh, no.

MARTIN: Where did you get the idea for that?

NAJERA: You know, after the riots – and I love Edward James Olmos. He’s a very close friend. He’s one of the biggest heroes in my life, and so that – he remembers that. He always remembers that sketch. But I got the idea of the sketches after the riots that happened in LA. And I got attacked during the riots. I was wearing a suit, unfortunately. And I walking out during the height of the riots, and I was listening to my DVDs and wasn’t listening to the radio. And I see the smoke and all the stuff, and I’m like, oh, what’s going on here? Wow, check this out. Lot of smoke, lot of fire, wow. A lot of minorities running around. This is interesting. And so I get jumped. It was, like, five black guys and four Mexicans. First, I was happy. It’s good to see Mexicans and blacks together, just a wonderful feeling of diversity. And so they were together and basically beating me up. And so I was like, you know – I turned all ethnic. I was like, you know, what are you saying, man, what are you saying? You know, get off of me, you know. And they were like, wow, the white guy got possessed by a Mexican. So I survived the riots. And during that, you know, Eddie said let’s clean up LA. So I went with him to clean up a group of, you know, supposedly bad parts of LA. But the liberal white group that I was with, we veered off the track in Compton and ended up in a neighborhood that was just a normal neighborhood. So I remember this black woman came out holding a little one-eyed Chihuahua in her hand going, get off our lawn. There no riot here. Get of the lawn. That’s my house. This my lawn. So these Liberals were fighting for a piece of trash in her front lawn, and I just went, this is ironic and so strange, and I have to write about it. And that was it. That’s where the sketch came from.

MARTIN: But you know what else is funny? That’s Jim Carrey.

NAJERA: Oh, yeah.

MARTIN: The voice that you heard…

NAJERA: Yeah.

MARTIN: …Is Jim Carrey playing Edward James Olmos.

NAJERA: Yeah. It’s Jim Carrey playing Edward James Olmos and Jamie Foxx. So…

MARTIN: And Jamie Foxx was the other voice that you heard. OK, but you have the white guy playing one of the big Latino stars. I mean, I’m just saying…

NAJERA: …The bigger picture was, hey, Eddie almost was getting a national recognition being spoofed ’cause I was spoofing Cher. I was spoofing a lot of big stars. And that’s the way I looked at it. And to tell you the truth, Jim Carrey at that point was so hot. But it was just more, the story – the things I would do, a lot of times I would write as a writer, I’d say, a group of mariachis and four Latino men, you know, in a scene. All of a sudden, I’d look around and there’s mariachis, all these Latinos and they’re catering with me. And I’ve provided work for Latinos left and right. And my show “Latinologues” that went to Broadway did the same thing. There was over 150 actors in it. So sometimes people look at comedy and get, you know, offended, but they’re not seeing the bigger picture. The bigger picture is I’m providing a showcase for Latinos all the way to Broadway.

MARTIN: If you’re just joining us, I’m speaking with Rick Najera. He’s an actor, writer, director, producer and author of the memoir “Almost White: Forced Confessions of a Latino in Hollywood.” Let me just play a clip from your Broadway show, which you wrote and acted in, a wildly popular production called “Latinologues.” And for those who might not be familiar, I’d like to play a clip of one of the characters, which is particularly popular, if you don’t mind my saying that. It’s a border agent named Buford Gomez.

(SOUNDBITE OF SHOW, “LATINOLOGUES”)

NAJERA: (As Buford Gomez) I put the panic to the Hispanic. I put the pepper spray to Jose. I put the baton to Juan. Deportation’s my business, and business is good. And I may see a strange looking car coming at me, and I say, hey, you with the “I heart Puerto Vallarta” on your car, pull it on over. Hey, I smell chicharrones. That whole family, pull it over. And I knock on the trunk of the car – now no Mexican can ever resist this. You knock on the trunk, you say (knocks three times), que viva Mexico. Viva! Viva! Viva!

NAJERA: Yeah.

MARTIN: And this was always one of your more popular characters…

NAJERA: Yeah.

MARTIN: …both with…

NAJERA: Anglo and Latinos.

MARTIN: …Anglo and Latino, you know, audiences.

NAJERA: Yeah…

MARTIN: Why do you think that is?

NAJERA: I think because Buford says what – outlaw. He’s kind of like an Archie Bunker character. He can actually say what most people are thinking, and he makes malapropisms and his whole thing about, I put the panic to the Hispanic. He’s very proud of his job. And there’s a lot of Latinos that work for the government are extremely – I mean, half the border patrol’s Mexican, which to me is always ironic. And – but they’re very, you know, the way they have it, there’s a right way and a wrong way, and this is the way we do it. And they’re very conservative. So it was easy for me to pull – you know, bring that character up because I used to get stopped at the border all the time. There was a guy coming up to me that, you know, was way browner than I ever was. And he’d be, you know, knocking on my trunk going, OK, anyone in there? I’d be going, come on.

MARTIN: And you’d be like, dude, I was born in California. What are you talking about?

NAJERA: I was born in – yeah, and guess where this happened? This happened in San Clemente border checkpoint. So it’s almost a hundred miles inside California I’m being pulled over and checked. So to me, it’s an irony. When my father fought in World War II – my uncle died in World War II in a Japanese concentration camp. My father was in Vietnam. My cousins were in Iraq, Afghanistan, places like that. And that’s the whole point. As Latinos, we’ve fought and died for this country and have contributed majorly to this country.

MARTIN: You know, it’s interesting, though, that you write about the fact that all people of color must, as actors, play roles normally not written by people of color. OK, more specifically, roles normally written by white males. The Hollywood writers’ room, even today, is seldom diverse. It’s changing, but the change is slow.

NAJERA: It’s not me saying it, it’s actually the Writers Guild of America saying it. The statistics are pretty horrible. It’s normally young, white males. And…

MARTIN: Why is that?

NAJERA: Well, it’s not that Hollywood is this evil empire doing these things. Hollywood is actually most likely a scared, white, 20-year-old boy. You know, it’s – their kind of thing is that they don’t know other Latinos. They don’t know African-Americans. They don’t hang out with people. It’s a very segregated world of Hollywood that you hang out – you give jobs to your friends. So if you’re not part of that boys club, you’re not going to get the job. You know, and I work – I’m treated very well. I work for CBS. I have an office there, and they’ve been great with the diversity program. They’re trying, but it’s not mean-spirited. They’re actually saying, OK, how do we do this? What do we do? So it really starts with the writers. And until that changes, it’s not going to happen.

MARTIN: What do you think your career stands for? What lesson would you want people to draw from your career? Not that it’s over with, but, you know, just taking the pause offered by your fateful trip to the ICU which caused you to write this book.

MARTIN: What lesson do you want people to draw?

NAJERA: I think I want people to draw that I’m inclusive not exclusive. So I think I want to be the guy that’s the bridge, and, you know, not the barrier. I grew up on the border. So being a bridge is a great thing ’cause borders don’t work. You know, the Great Wall of China didn’t work. You know, Berlin Wall didn’t work. So you need bridges between cultures and people, and that’s what I want to be.

MARTIN: Rick Najera’s latest book is called “Almost White: Forced Confessions of a Latino in Hollywood.” And he was kind enough to join us from our studios at NPR West, which is in Culver City, California. Rick Najera, thanks so much for speaking with us.

NAJERA: Thank you.

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A ‘Long Walk’ With Mandela, But It Shorts His Story


Idris Elba plays Nelson Mandela in a biographical film based on the former South African president’s memoir.


Keith Bernstein/The Weinstein Company

Idris Elba plays Nelson Mandela in a biographical film based on the former South African president's memoir.

Idris Elba plays Nelson Mandela in a biographical film based on the former South African president’s memoir.

Keith Bernstein/The Weinstein Company

Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom

  • Director: Justin Chadwick
  • Genre: Biopic
  • Running Time: 146 minutes

Rated PG-13 for some intense sequences of violence and disturbing images, sexual content and brief strong language.

With: Idris Elba, Naomie Harris, Terry Pheto

In English, Xhosa and Afrikaans.

Some movies try to underscore their authenticity by flashing dates, names and locations on the screen. Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom offers some dates and locations, but not much in the way of names. The result is a history of national transformation in which only two people really seem to matter.

One of them, of course, is Nelson Mandela, whose memoir is a major source for William Nicholson’s script. As embodied by Idris Elba, Mandela is a powerful physical presence. The movie shows its protagonist walking, running and doing pushups to freedom. Even during 27 years in prison, his vigor rarely flags.

The other dynamo is Winnie Mandela, Nelson’s second wife and eventual adversary, and Naomie Harris fiercely conveys the rage and certainty that make her the film’s most interesting character. The scenes in which she refuses to join her husband’s campaign for racial reconciliation are the strongest and most complex.

Elsewhere, however, complexity doesn’t seem to be a priority for director Justin Chadwick, whose previous historical pictures include the soapy, baldly fictionalized The Other Boleyn Girl. There’s a lot of Mandela’s 95 years to get on screen, plus a few corny dream sequences, and a mere 139 minutes to do it.

Chadwick begins, after a glimpse at the great man’s modest rustic childhood, with Mandela’s work as a lawyer in Johannesburg in the 1940s. The young attorney displays an erotic bravado that’s especially pungent — and risky — in piously racist South Africa. Mandela doesn’t just flirt with, fondle and cheat with black women; he embarrasses a white woman into dropping a theft case by displaying a contested pair of underpants to the court.

Naomie Harris plays the role of Mandela's second wife, Winnie Mandela, and the two of them spark some of the film's best and most complex moments.

Naomie Harris plays the role of Mandela’s second wife, Winnie Mandela, and the two of them spark some of the film’s best and most complex moments.


Keith Bernstein/The Weinstein Company

The story then leaps, and jarringly, to the 1960 massacre in Sharpeville, where police opened fire on unarmed demonstrators. That famous outrage is used here as narrative shorthand for Mandela’s radicalization, which in fact happened long before that. No matter: He begins to work with the African National Congress and its military wing, Spear of the Nation.

Arrested in 1962, Mandela is brought to trial with seven other men. One small detail is all that distinguishes them: The black “boys” are issued shorts, while the one prisoner of Indian descent is given trousers. Most of these men will still be Mandela’s cohorts 27 years later, yet they’re never introduced.

That’s typical of the movie, which focuses all too tightly on its namesake. Occasionally, the filmmakers crack open a window and context floods in, usually in the form of vintage TV news footage. Mostly, though, the movie is designed for people who already know some history of South Africa from 1942 to 1994, or who don’t much care.

The black-on-black carnage of the early ’90s is invoked but not explained; in fact this period is depicted almost grudgingly, as an annoying bump on the road to Mandela’s electoral triumph. Finally, South Africa’s first black president goes to greet his people, heralded by the tintinnabulating guitar of … U2’s “The Edge.”

Enlisting the Irish pompsters for that final musical flourish is a strange touch, and a telling one. The film was shot entirely in South Africa, and revels in golden light on dry yellow grasslands. But it’s still a very British movie, a respectful view from a suitable distance.

That approach is echoed by Elba’s performance, which is keyed to the public man, not the private one. Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom scants both history and psychology, thus rendering its account of South Africa’s self-determination saga equally opaque to scholars and casual observers.

A ‘Long Walk’ With Mandela, But It Shorts His Story


Idris Elba plays Nelson Mandela in a biographical film based on the former South African president’s memoir.


Keith Bernstein/The Weinstein Company

Idris Elba plays Nelson Mandela in a biographical film based on the former South African president's memoir.

Idris Elba plays Nelson Mandela in a biographical film based on the former South African president’s memoir.

Keith Bernstein/The Weinstein Company

Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom

  • Director: Justin Chadwick
  • Genre: Biopic
  • Running Time: 146 minutes

Rated PG-13 for some intense sequences of violence and disturbing images, sexual content and brief strong language.

With: Idris Elba, Naomie Harris, Terry Pheto

In English, Xhosa and Afrikaans.

Some movies try to underscore their authenticity by flashing dates, names and locations on the screen. Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom offers some dates and locations, but not much in the way of names. The result is a history of national transformation in which only two people really seem to matter.

One of them, of course, is Nelson Mandela, whose memoir is a major source for William Nicholson’s script. As embodied by Idris Elba, Mandela is a powerful physical presence. The movie shows its protagonist walking, running and doing pushups to freedom. Even during 27 years in prison, his vigor rarely flags.

The other dynamo is Winnie Mandela, Nelson’s second wife and eventual adversary, and Naomie Harris fiercely conveys the rage and certainty that make her the film’s most interesting character. The scenes in which she refuses to join her husband’s campaign for racial reconciliation are the strongest and most complex.

Elsewhere, however, complexity doesn’t seem to be a priority for director Justin Chadwick, whose previous historical pictures include the soapy, baldly fictionalized The Other Boleyn Girl. There’s a lot of Mandela’s 95 years to get on screen, plus a few corny dream sequences, and a mere 139 minutes to do it.

Chadwick begins, after a glimpse at the great man’s modest rustic childhood, with Mandela’s work as a lawyer in Johannesburg in the 1940s. The young attorney displays an erotic bravado that’s especially pungent — and risky — in piously racist South Africa. Mandela doesn’t just flirt with, fondle and cheat with black women; he embarrasses a white woman into dropping a theft case by displaying a contested pair of underpants to the court.

Naomie Harris plays the role of Mandela's second wife, Winnie Mandela, and the two of them spark some of the film's best and most complex moments.

Naomie Harris plays the role of Mandela’s second wife, Winnie Mandela, and the two of them spark some of the film’s best and most complex moments.


Keith Bernstein/The Weinstein Company

The story then leaps, and jarringly, to the 1960 massacre in Sharpeville, where police opened fire on unarmed demonstrators. That famous outrage is used here as narrative shorthand for Mandela’s radicalization, which in fact happened long before that. No matter: He begins to work with the African National Congress and its military wing, Spear of the Nation.

Arrested in 1962, Mandela is brought to trial with seven other men. One small detail is all that distinguishes them: The black “boys” are issued shorts, while the one prisoner of Indian descent is given trousers. Most of these men will still be Mandela’s cohorts 27 years later, yet they’re never introduced.

That’s typical of the movie, which focuses all too tightly on its namesake. Occasionally, the filmmakers crack open a window and context floods in, usually in the form of vintage TV news footage. Mostly, though, the movie is designed for people who already know some history of South Africa from 1942 to 1994, or who don’t much care.

The black-on-black carnage of the early ’90s is invoked but not explained; in fact this period is depicted almost grudgingly, as an annoying bump on the road to Mandela’s electoral triumph. Finally, South Africa’s first black president goes to greet his people, heralded by the tintinnabulating guitar of … U2’s “The Edge.”

Enlisting the Irish pompsters for that final musical flourish is a strange touch, and a telling one. The film was shot entirely in South Africa, and revels in golden light on dry yellow grasslands. But it’s still a very British movie, a respectful view from a suitable distance.

That approach is echoed by Elba’s performance, which is keyed to the public man, not the private one. Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom scants both history and psychology, thus rendering its account of South Africa’s self-determination saga equally opaque to scholars and casual observers.

Silent For Years, A Riot Grrrl Steps Back To The Mic


Musician and riot grrrl Kathleen Hanna — formerly of Bikini Kill and Le Tigre, now with The Julie Ruin — is the fascinating central figure in the biographical documentary The Punk Singer.


Allison Michael Orenstein/Opening Band Films

Musician and riot grrrl Kathleen Hanna — formerly of Bikini Kill and Le Tigre, now with The Julie Ruin — is the fascinating central figure in the biographical documentary The Punk Singer.

Musician and riot grrrl Kathleen Hanna — formerly of Bikini Kill and Le Tigre, now with The Julie Ruin — is the fascinating central figure in the biographical documentary The Punk Singer.

Allison Michael Orenstein/Opening Band Films

To many baffled outsiders over 40, Bikini Kill frontwoman Kathleen Hanna was a weirdo riot grrrl bopping up and down onstage in her bra and panties, bellowing atonal revenge lyrics at anyone who’d keep her and her fellow women down.

To her ardent young following of 1990s Third Wave feminists, though, Hanna was an alt Messiah, hacking out a space for women in the punk-rock mosh pit and sounding an enraged alarm on behalf of victims of sexual assault.

Contrary to many media reports, she explains in the lively new biography The Punk Singer, Hanna was not raped by her father, though she says he was guilty of “inappropriate touching.” Mainly, though, the irascible Hanna père was a major put-down artist.

“Nobody ever listened to me my whole life,” says Hanna.

That could be any aggrieved teen talking, of course. But Hanna, who received early encouragement from the late experimental writer Kathy Acker (to whom the film is dedicated) looks born to lead.

She’s striking, with her jet-black hair, oval Modigliani face, pale Liz Taylor eyes and an offsetting fragility that adds poignancy. But it was her unfiltered, incandescent fury onstage that helped propel the riot grrrl movement from its Pacific Northwest base onto the national and international scene.

The Punk Singer, directed by Sini Anderson with substantial input from music-video and film director Tamra Davis, is a professional job with a home-made, patched-together look and a restless rhythm to match its subject. The film carries Hanna from her halting first efforts at self-expression — along with some of her collaborators, she was a student at Evergreen State College, an incubator for alt-artists like Matt Groening and Lynda Barry — through the heyday of Bikini Kill and the flourishing of riot grrrl fanzines and assorted on-the-fly happenings.

Where male punk distilled disaffection into an alienated nihilist aesthetic that was its own justification, the riot grrls carried punk rage into feminist activism — mostly, though not exclusively, against sexual abuse.

Almost overnight, we Second Wave feminists were transformed into the movement’s fuddy-duddy elders, and rightly so. Spontaneity and extremity were riot grrrl watchwords. They operated in collectives, and they were unafraid to wrestle back power or ignore the media as needed.

When Hanna — a friend and collaborator of Kurt Cobain — received an unsolicited punch in the face from Courtney Love (not one of nature’s joiners, and never a riot grrrl), she must have known she’d arrived. But arrival can be the kiss of death for such seat-of-the-pants movements; groups come apart, if not from lack of structure or internecine quarreling, then surely from sheer exhaustion.

Bikini Kill disbanded in 1997, and Hanna, who had begun a relationship with Beastie Boys‘ Adam Horovitz, regrouped with Johanna Fateman in New York to form Le Tigre, a more put-together band with a focused feel for melody and onstage glamor. The attitude stayed, but in a more mature key: The coal-black power suit in which Hanna walked onstage may have been ironic, but it was also stunning.

Still, Hanna was unwell and floundering, and in 2005 she dropped out of sight. The movie explains why, and the answer is affecting, but not especially relevant to the riot grrrl story. Or is it? Time and the frailties of the body are great equalizers, and rockers are more prone than most to burn out.

At its best, The Punk Singer tells the story of one pivotal life in a whole movement. Both Anderson and Hanna are at pains to avoid giving the impression that one singer carried the movement single-handedly. The riot grrrls and their standard-bearing bands have always been collective enterprises.

Now 45, Hanna is married to Horovitz, and to judge by the backdrop to her interviews, lives a comfortable life. That’s allowed, and she’s continued to reinvent herself as part of a new band, The Julie Ruin. She’s a fascinating figure.

I do wish the film had taken more time to discuss the legacy of this undoubtedly seminal moment in feminist history. But then perhaps that legacy is there, in plain view onscreen: The Punk Singer was mostly made by women, and its fans and collaborators include generations as far apart as The Runaways’ Joan Jett and Tavi Gevinson, the precociously savvy high schooler who runs Rookiemag.com, a wonderfully smart-mouthed website for teenaged girls. If the rowdy trail left by Hanna and her sisters can help wean today’s teens off their selfies and spur them to a little grrrl activism on their own behalf, it will have more than paid its way.

A Gospel Story, Reframed (Again) In ‘Black Nativity’


Jacob Latimore (left), Angela Basset, Jennifer Hudson and Forest Whitaker power through the season in Kasi Lemmons’ Black Nativity, a Christmas movie musical based on Langston Hughes’ gospel oratorio.


Phil Bray/Fox Searchlight Pictures

Jacob Latimore (left), Angela Basset, Jennifer Hudson and Forest Whitaker power through the season in Kasi Lemmons' Black Nativity, a Christmas movie musical based on Langston Hughes' gospel oratorio.

Jacob Latimore (left), Angela Basset, Jennifer Hudson and Forest Whitaker power through the season in Kasi Lemmons’ Black Nativity, a Christmas movie musical based on Langston Hughes’ gospel oratorio.

Phil Bray/Fox Searchlight Pictures

Black Nativity

  • Director: Kasi Lemmons
  • Genre: Musical, drama
  • Running Time: 93 minutes

Rated PG for thematic material, language and a menacing situation.

With: Forest Whitaker, Angela Bassett, Jennifer Hudson

Like Eve’s Bayou, her best-known movie, Kasi Lemmons’ Black Nativity presents a child’s view of a troubled family. The latter film is sweeter and slenderer, but that’s only to be expected: Black Nativity is a musical, after all, as well as a credible attempt at an African American holiday perennial.

The original Black Nativity is a gospel-music oratorio, conceived by poet Langston Hughes and first performed in 1961. It pairs the Christian nativity story with traditional spirituals and African drumming.

Hughes’ play is part of Lemmons’ movie, but the writer-director has added a framing story and some new songs. The tunes were composed in part by the pop-soul performer and producer Raphael Saadiq, with some of the lyrics penned by Lemmons.

The story begins in Baltimore, with a prodigal daughter and her son. Naima (Jennifer Hudson) hasn’t spoken to her parents in about 15 years, and the boy she named — what else? — Langston doesn’t know his grandparents. Now eviction looms, so Naima puts the kid (Jacob Latimore) on a bus to New York, where her mother and father live.

Grandpa is the starchy Rev. Cornell Cobbs (Forest Whitaker), who presides over a church in Harlem. Grandma is the warm, understanding Aretha Cobbs (Angela Bassett), who worries about her estranged daughter and grandson and sings in the church’s Vegas-style gospel choir.

Both Whitaker and Bassett do their own singing, quite credibly; indeed, those who don’t share the current taste for vocal gymnastics might prefer those performers’ numbers to Hudson’s Dreamgirls-like exertions.

The movie adds a framing device to Hughes’ story —one in which Naima (Hudson) sends her son (Latimore) to live with his grandparents after she falls on hard times.


Phil Bray/Fox Searchlight Pictures

The movie adds a framing device to Hughes' story --one in which Naima (Hudson) sends her son (Latimore) to live with his grandparents after she falls on hard times.

The movie adds a framing device to Hughes’ story —one in which Naima (Hudson) sends her son (Latimore) to live with his grandparents after she falls on hard times.

Phil Bray/Fox Searchlight Pictures

Once he’s arrived in Manhattan, some implausible mishaps send Langston straight to jail. Cornell quickly bails the boy out, but not before he meets Loot (Tyrese Gibson), a potential tutor in crime.

Most of the rest of the action takes place at the Cobbs’s memento-stuffed brownstone — Langston likens it to “a black people museum” — a nearby pawnshop or the church. At that last location, Christmas Eve means a performance of Hughes’ pageant, an annual tradition that draws an interracial crowd, including what seem to be a few gay couples.

A fairy-tale vision of inclusiveness, sure, but then even the movie’s most wretched characters glow in the Harlem lamplight. A homeless couple, including an upbeat pregnant woman, happily harmonizes on “Silent Night.” Only the Baltimore scenes (which were shot in New York) feel dingy and hope-deprived.

Black Nativity takes a stagey approach that often feels too broad for cinema. So of course the major characters regularly break into song, and all of them coincidentally arrive at the church for a climactic round of revelations and recriminations.

It turns out that Cornell owes everyone an apology — although his misdeeds pale next to those of the preacher in Red Hook Summer, another tale of a restive boy sent to New York to live with his pastor granddad. In Spike Lee’s film, the old man is a sexual abuser, but when Cornell proclaims “practice love,” there’s no double entendre.

In the movie’s wildest sequence, the preacher gives a jivey reading of the Gospel of Luke while Langston falls asleep and dreams that he’s in ancient Jerusalem, with the homeless couple now in the roles of Mary and Joseph.

Purists may object, but this is squarely in the tradition of African-American gospel interpretation. It’s also, like the rest of Black Nativity, utterly sincere.

Thanksgiving Tale: ‘A Fountain Of Snake’


In an annual tradition, writer Bailey White spins a fictional tale of love and life. This year’s entry is about a woman dying of cancer who is attended to by a series of old boyfriends, each of whom contributes some sort of minor service. The story ends with a symbolic event at an old hollow tree in the woods, where a coiled snake meets a violent end.