Field of Lost Shoes

An emotional tribute to young cadets who fought and died in the American Civil War.

Written by Thomas Farrell and David M. Kennedy and directed by Sean McNamara, Field of Lost Shoes (2014) tells the story of cadets from the Virginia Military Institute who fought at the Battle of New Market during the American Civil War. Despite an obviously low budget and inexperienced cast, the film is charming and emotionally engaging; one of the better Civil War films to be released in recent years.

Robert (Nolan Gould) is a freshman cadet, or “Rat”, who falls in with a tight group of upperclassmen, including John Wise (Luke Benward), an ex-governor’s son, and Moses Ezekiel (Josh Zuckerman), an aspiring sculptor and the first Jewish cadet at VMI. The war forms a backdrop to schoolboy antics like hazing, stealing food from the Institute’s enslaved cook, Old Judge (Keith David), and pursuing a romantic interest with the local girls, including Libby Clinedinst (Mary Mouser).

War comes knocking on their doorstep, however, when Union General Ulysses S. Grant (Tom Skerritt) sends Franz Sigel (Werner Daehn) and Captain Henry A. DuPont (David Arquette) with an army to subdue the Shenandoah Valley. Opposing him with a much smaller force is Confederate general and former U.S. vice president John C. Breckinridge (Jason Isaacs).

Breckinridge badly needs reinforcements, and he reluctantly sends for the VMI cadets, who his battle-hardened veterans regard as nothing more than children playing soldier. Will the cadets get there in time, and more importantly, will they prove their worth on the battlefield?

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Actress Gemma Chan Responds to Criticism Over Her Role in Mary Queen of Scots

Allure Magazine proclaims: “Gemma Chan Wants to End Whitewashing — In Hollywood and in History Books”

Back in January, I wrote an article criticizing director Josie Rourke’s “colorblind casting” choice in her historical film Mary Queen of Scots. Mary Queen of Scots recounts the sixteenth century struggle between Mary I of Scotland and Queen Elizabeth I over the throne of England. The film is largely historically accurate, depending on the source.

However, several black actors and one actress of Chinese decent appear in prominent roles, particularly Mary Seton (Izuka Hoyle), Lord Randolph (Adrian Lester), Bess of Hardwick (Gemma Chan), Andrew Ker of Fawdonside (Nathan East), and the English Ambassador to Scotland, George Dalgleish (Adrian Derrick-Palmer). Being either English or Scottish in the 1500s, of course, all of these people were pasty white.

Defenders of this peculiar casting choice have strained logic past the point of credulity, and once again, writers like Allure’s Jessica Chia have fallen back on that tired cliche “Internet trolls” to dismiss criticism of Gemma Chan’s role as Bess of Hardwick in Mary Queen of Scots.

“Why are actors of color, who have fewer opportunities anyway, only allowed to play their own race?” Chan asked. “In the past, the role would be given to a white actor who would tape up their eyes and do the role in yellowface. John Wayne played Genghis Khan. If John Wayne can play Genghis Khan, I can play Bess of Hardwick.”

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BlacKkKlansman: An Ahistorical Dark Comedy

An African-American police detective in 1970s Colorado Springs fights for acceptance at work while infiltrating the local branch of the Ku Klux Klan with help from his Jewish partner. Will he win the affection of a Colorado College activist and foil the KKK’s violent schemes? Starring John David Washington, Adam Driver, and Laura Harrier, BlacKkKlansman (2018) was written and directed by Spike Lee, et al. While entertaining, it jettisons historical accuracy to score contemporary political points.

BlacKkKlansman was inspired by the book Black Klansman (2014) by Ron Stallworth. Stallworth was a police officer and detective in the Colorado Springs Police Department who in 1979 responded to an ad in the newspaper looking to start a local branch of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan. With the help of a white officer posing as Stallworth at meetings, he successfully infiltrated the Klan for nine months. The Colorado Springs PD shut down the investigation after Stallworth was asked to lead the chapter, fearing word would get out that the police department had Klan affiliations.

Aside from a few incidents, like Stallworth speaking to David Duke (Grand Wizard of the KKKK) and having his picture taken with him, that’s where the comparison parts ways. It turns out “based on a true story” is really “inspired by true events.” The writers took many creative liberties to forward a cinematic narrative and spoon feed the audience an overtly political message.

Attacks on the film’s accuracy have come from many corners. Sorry to Bother You (2018) director Boots Riley criticized Spike Lee for allegedly ..er.. whitewashing Ron Stallworth, turning him into a hero and downplaying his infiltration of black student organizations. “It’s a made up story in which the false parts of it try to make a cop the protagonist in the fight against racial oppression,” he argued.

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First Impressions of BlacKkKlansman

I finally went back to the theater (instant sticker shock, btw) to see the one movie I’ve been looking forward to for the past several months, BlacKkKlansman. Spike Lee is always an interesting if not controversial filmmaker, and the story of a black detective infiltrating the KKK promised to be entertaining if nothing else. The fact it was based on a true story sealed the deal. Unfortunately, it just wasn’t as good as I hoped it would be. Here are some of my initial thoughts, with a full review to follow next week.

  • After doing some research, it turns out “based on a true story” is really “inspired by true events.” Only the basic premise, and a few scenes, actually happened. The rest was made up.
  • This opens a can of worms for me, and not just from a historical perspective. If Spike Lee wanted to make a movie about racism, why fictionalize events from the 1970s, when there are so many other clear cut and dramatic examples of racism in U.S. history?
  • The dialog in BlacKkKlansman is so bad and anachronistic. It’s literally “I’m a racist character so I do nothing but talk about how much I love whiteness and hate minorities,” or “I’m a black activist so I do nothing but talk about black power, blaxploitation references, and how much I hate cops.”
  • The acting among the lead cast was decent. Topher Grace stole the show as race huckster David Duke.
  • What was Spike Lee’s message? Is it just to make parallels between racism in the 1970s and racism in the 2010s? Because he does that. A lot. He beats the audience over the head with it.
  • Or is he criticizing identity politics as a whole by making a side by side comparison of black power activists and white power activists? At one point a jump cut shows both groups shouting their respective slogans. This is contrasted with the main character’s chummy relationship with coworkers of different backgrounds.

That’s all for now. My review is mainly going to focus on the historical accuracy of the film and divining its message. Look for it on Monday!

Free State of Jones

An ex-Confederate organizes a rebellion in southeastern Mississippi during the American Civil War and continues to battle for equal rights for freedmen during Reconstruction in Free State of Jones (2016), written and directed by Gary Ross. The film alternates between the 1860s and a 1948 miscegenation trial, to the detriment of both. Free State of Jones bombed at the box office and received mixed reviews from critics.

The film begins at the Battle of Corinth in northeastern Mississippi, October 3-4, 1862, in which Confederate forces under Maj. Gen. Earl Van Dorn attempted to dislodge Union forces commanded by Maj. Gen. William Rosecrans from fortifications around the town of Corinth. Newton Knight (Matthew McConaughey) is a medical orderly in the Confederate army from Jones County, a predominantly poor area with few slaves.

Knight is disgruntled to learn of a Confederate law that allows sons of plantation owners to avoid military service depending on the number of slaves his family owns. This was designed to guard against slave uprisings, but it angered some poor whites who believed they were fighting a “rich man’s war”. When Knight returns the body of his nephew Daniel (Jacob Lofland) to his home county, he learns that Confederate Captain Elias Hood (Thomas Francis Murphy) is excessively confiscating goods from the local population.

Things get complicated when Knight meets and falls in love with a slave, Rachel (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), despite being married to Serena (Keri Russell). He fights back against the tax collectors and hides out in the swamp, where he meets fugitive slaves and befriends Moses (Mahershala Ali). Together with other deserters, they successfully rebel against the Confederacy and proclaim a Free State of Jones. After the war, freed slaves struggle against a segregationist South.

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Suburbicon: A Suburban Gothic Crime Drama

A disgruntled middle manager’s insurance scheme unravels in an idyllic 1950s suburb in Suburbicon (2017). Gardner Lodge (Matt Damon) is a middle-aged man with a disabled wife, Rose (Julianne Moore), and a young son, Nicky (Noah Jupe). Their world is shattered when two thugs (Glenn Fleshler and Michael D. Cohen) seemingly break into their home and murder Rose with an overdose of chloroform.

In the wake of the tragedy, Rose’s sister, Margaret (also played by Julianne Moore), moves in with Gardner and Nicky, over the objections of her brother, Mitch (Gary Basaraba). Meanwhile, an African American family, Mr. and Mrs. Mayers (Leith M. Burke and Karimah Westbrook) and their son Andy (Tony Espinosa), move into the all-white community. This ignites a controversy that forms the backdrop for the film.

Suburbicon was written by the Coen brothers and directed by George Clooney (who revised the screenplay). Joel and Ethan Coen originally wrote the script in 1986. Their effort at finding whatever was laying around for their next film paid off by finishing 9th at the box office on its opening weekend. Suburbicon is Matt Damon’s lowest performing film and it has a current rating of 26 percent on Rotten Tomatoes.

Suburbicon is modeled after Levittown, New York, a planned community built by William Levitt between 1947 and 1951 and the nation’s first modern suburb. Levitt, who was Jewish, believed whites would not want to live in Levittown alongside black neighbors, so the original rental agreement excluded non-Caucasians. Levittown remains 88.9 percent white.

In Suburbicon, white mobs subject the Mayers family to 24-hour harassment, culminating in torching their car and hanging a Confederate battle flag in their broken window. Nicky and Andy, however, form a bond, suggesting a more tolerant future.

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Detroit: A Gripping Historical Drama

Detroit (2017), written by Mark Boal and directed by Kathryn Bigelow, dramatically recounts an incident in which three black men were allegedly murdered by police at the Algiers Motel during the 1967 Detroit Riot. Detroit grabs you and never lets go. Unfortunately, its subject matter might be a little too weighty for summer movie audiences. Bigelow, whose other films include The Hurt Locker (2008), K-19: The Widowmaker (2002), and Zero Dark Thirty (2012), set out to make a film critical of white privilege, so certain elements have been changed to conform to this perspective. In some ways the actual events were much worse than depicted.

First, some context. In 1950, Detroit was a diverse, prosperous, and culturally significant metropolis of 1.85 million people. It was arguably among the greatest cities in the United States. By 1967, Detroit was 40 percent African American, but its police force was 95 percent white. Migration to the suburbs had already caused significant population decline. The 1967 Detroit Riot (also known as the 12th Street Riot) began around 3:15 a.m. Sunday, July 23, 1967, after police raided an illegal after hours party in the office of the United Community League for Civic Action at 9125 12th Street.

The riot lasted five days, ending on July 27. Michigan Governor George W. Romney sent in the National Guard and President Lyndon B. Johnson sent in the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions to help restore order. When the dust settled, 43 people were dead, 1,189 injured (including 493 police, firefighters, and National Guard members), and 7,231 arrested. 2,509 stores were looted or burned, with an economic loss estimated at $40 to $45 million.

Three men, Aubrey Pollard (Nathan Davis Jr.), 19, Carl Cooper (Jason Mitchell), 17, and Fred Temple (Jacob Latimore), 18, were killed at an annex of the Algiers Motel, 8301 Woodward Avenue. Pollard was killed by Detroit Police Officer Ronald August (“Demens” – Jack Reynor), Temple was killed by Detroit Police Officer Robert Paille (“Flynn” – Ben O’Toole), and Cooper’s murderer remains unknown. Police officers involved in the incident were acquitted by reason of self defense at trial, so their names were changed for the film.

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