CGB Review of Detroit (2017)

I cannot believe this happened in America…and yet, in a most depressing way, I actually can.

This is my review of Detroit.

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On July 23rd, 1967, an after-hours unlicensed bar called “Blind Pig” had been raided (for the third time, according to historical records).  As bar patrons were taken into police custody, a Molotov cocktail was thrust at police, setting off a riot that would throw all of Detroit into anarchy.  With residents looting and officers arresting left and right, trust between kinsmen had evaporated.  The spirit of hate and violence found its way to the Algiers Motel, where various people had sought refuge from the chaos outside.  When one of the motel guests, a man named Carl Cooper, shoots a starter pistol out the window, the police outside are alarmed and suspect there to be a sniper.  They end up at the doorstep of the Algiers Motel and from there is the beginning of a horrific night: Twelve people–ten black men and two white women–are harassed and interrogated by three Detroit police officers for several hours in a search for a rogue sniper.  False executions, beatings and, eventually, actual deaths–specifically the murders of Carl Cooper, Fred Temple, and Aubrey Pollard occur within the walls of the Algiers Motel.

The Hits
So I did some research on the 12th Street Riot and the Algiers Motel tragedy (it’s commonly called an “incident,” but I’m calling it a tragedy), and based on what I read and the information I collected, I think that both events were recreated the best way they could have been.  The movie opens with the Blind Pig raiding and the riot that ensues provides context leading up to what happened at the Algiers Motel.  The first twenty minutes have a sense of grand scale and visual storytelling.  If anything, this film is a thoughtful depiction of two things: the mob mentality and anarchy.  We see the bar patrons and observers angrily question the nature of the arrests in the opening scene, and it is made clear that raids such as these are commonplace but infuriating for all who are subjected to it.  This certainly does not justify the Molotov cocktail being thrown at police, but in terms of the narrative it does provide context.  The first hour presents a picture of harassed people succumbing to blind anger and a plethora of police officers– who were probably not prepared for a riot to literally conquer an entire city–reacting the best and worst way they know how.  I mentioned anarchy and that is because Detroit has a beleaguered past and the descent of a city to the depths of chaos is masterfully portrayed in this film.   Characters are seen running into grocery stores and rushing out with food, but because we are first shown looters fueling the flames, the sense of who is friend and who is foe is significantly blurred, which is typically how things play out in real-world riot situations.  There’s a particularly heart-wrenching scene where it had been previously established that there were rogue snipers targeting officers.  With this in mind, we cut to a young black girl peeking through closed blinds.  The camera then focuses on an officer who looks up and raises his gun at the window where we can only see the girl’s eyes…but not her face.
Now let us talk about the actual Algiers Motel storyline itself.  Halfway through the second act of the film, I found myself thinking that the Algiers Motel plot is both a strength and a weakness of the film.  I will explain the strengths first.
As a depiction of authoritarianism and realistic racism, this movie does a damn good job at showing both.  It is clear right from the get-go that the officers who are interrogating the Algiers Motel residents are less concerned with finding the starter pistol and are fueled by the thrill of having power over vulnerable human beings, as well as their own personal prejudices.   In terms of realistic racism, kudos go to Will Poulter, whose performance as Officer Philip Krauss is humanistic and terrifying.  This is not a cartoony racist; this is a racist person who you could conceivably pass by at the grocery store.  He’s not a moustache-twirling villain and he’s not given any overtly racist lines to spout out.  The racism of Philip Krauss is all in his attitude, in his treatment of the rioters leading up to what happens at the Algiers Motel.  A nuanced portrayal of an individual who sees certain groups of people as subhuman is far more unnerving.  You don’t have to use the “N-word” to be a racist.  It is how you perceive and treat those who are of a different race than yourself that speak volumes about your view on human dignity.

The Misses
If you watch the second trailer for Detroit (Detroit Trailer 2 on YouTube, if you’re interested), it shows a gripping scene from the film of John Boyega trying to recollect and explain to two detectives what happened at the Algiers Motel.
I am sad to say that this scene is not the first scene of the movie and it really should have been.  The raiding of the Blind Pig bar is the opening scene, and as compelling as it is, it lacks the introduction of our main characters.  This leads into the main problem with Detroit: there is no one main character to gravitate towards and this is a chaotic story that really needs a consistent point of view.  John Boyega’s security guard protagonist Melvin Dismukes is marketed in both trailers as the film’s moral center.  However, the movie struggles to balance the character arches of both Melvin Dismukes and Larry Reed, the lead singer of The Dramatics, played brilliantly by Algee Smith.  As a result, John Boyega’s character is certainly sympathetic, but doesn’t evolve into an empathetic three-dimensional character.  Because the film is more focused on what happens rather than getting to know all who were involved, there’s no one character to connect with and feel the story through, which makes Detroit more of a spectator experience rather than a cinematic participation.  This is why Detroit is an unfocused narrative that would’ve made an excellent docudrama on the History Channel.
Here is the downside of the Algiers Motel plotline: As the second act of the film goes on, the Algiers Motel story devolves into an audience endurance test.  To be fair, because everything that happens in this plotline is intertwined, i.e. if one scene is cut from it, entire context is lost, I don’t know how the filmmakers could have shortened the second act.  That said, there is a way to properly lengthen such a heavy plotline so that it doesn’t become too long and lose impact.
I would like a final point that having John Krasinski, or Jim from The Office, play a hotheaded lawyer in the last twenty minutes of your gritty drama is a little distracting.  Just saying.

Overall Detroit will make you angry.  Whether you are black, white, whatever your background is, the ending is an egregious miscarriage of justice worthy of righteous anger.  Despite its setbacks in characterization and narrative focus, Detroit gives us a consummate picture of a frightening time in American history that we are seeing play out once again in 2017, a time when everyone thought they were in the right and nobody took the time to even consider that they could be wrong.  It depresses me and yet it does not surprise me that this tragedy happened in America.  Let us do our very best to ensure that another Algiers Motel does not happen in the land of opportunity again.

Saint Martin de Porres and Saint Josephine Bakhita, pray for us.

 

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Please pray for the repose of the souls of Carl Cooper, Aubrey Pollard, and Fred Temple. May they rest in the arms of our just and merciful Lord.

 

 

 

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CGB Review of Hidden Figures (2017)

Normally I’d begin this review with a witty remark, but instead I’ll open by thanking Katherine G. Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson for their service to our country.

This is my review of Hidden Figures!

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This is the untold true story of three African-American women who were behind the launch of astronaut John Glenn into orbit.  The main focus is on Katherine Goble (later Johnson), a brilliant mathematician–someone you should call the next time you’re taking a complicated statistics class (another story from my life for another day)–and her struggles to be treated as an equal amongst her predominately white male colleagues.  While that’s going on, we cut to Dorothy Vaughan and her determination to become a recognized supervisor and Mary Jackson’s fight to be the first African-American female engineer at NASA.
You have my good friend Stargift Tarakasha: Pagan Pro-Life Advocate to thank for requesting me to review this, and I’m so glad I did because this is a terrific film!  🙂

The Hits
What a likable, charming cast!  I loved the bond and rapport between Katherine, Mary and Dorothy.  Their sisterhood is delightful to watch and is truly the heart of the movie.  Taraji P. Henson is exceptional as Katherine.  She brings a warmth and quiet strength to the character that makes her easy to relate to.  The best part of her performance comes when she gives an impassioned speech in which she confronts the fact that the “colored bathroom” is a mile away from her building.  I love how whenever she is doing calculations, it is as if she enters into her own world where it is just her and the numbers.  It reminded me of Benedict Cumberbatch’s performance as Alan Turing in The Imitation Game.
This film handles the topic of institutional racism as tactfully as possible.  You don’t have that one overtly racist character who hisses the “N-word” at our main characters, instead the film makes use of judgmental glances, half-hearted conversations between white characters and the leading ladies, and scenes such as a white librarian telling a very respectful Dorothy, “I don’t want any trouble,” signaling her [Dorothy] to leave with her two sons.  The movie personifies “Separate but Equal” in the way it has the white characters, both male and female, treat the African-American characters.  There’s an interesting evolution of the relationship between Dorothy Vaughan and Kirsten Dunst’s character Vivian Mitchell; it starts with Ms. Mitchell hiding her sense of superiority behind a veil of sympathy towards Dorothy and the other African-American women at NASA, and as Katherine, Mary and Dorothy make progress in their work, Ms. Mitchell begins seeing Dorothy in particular in a whole new light.  The same goes for Katherine’s relationships with Jim Parsons (Sheldon from Big Bang Theory) Paul Stafford and Kevin Costner’s character Al Harrison.  Paul and Al work as exact opposites of one another.  Paul represents blatant institutional racism, while Al’s obsession with space and calculation explains his inadvertent enabling of benign racism.
I’d like to say kudos to the audience I saw this with.  There were quite a few scenes where the audience clapped; for one, when Al Harrison knocks down the “Colored Ladies Only” sign from the women’s restroom, hence allowing the African-American women of the building to use any women’s bathroom they want.  I normally don’t comment on the audience when I see these movies, but I would like to point out that the audience at my screening was quite diverse, which speaks of Hidden Figures’ appeal to anyone regardless of their background.  🙂

The Misses
This movie sort of has the same problem as the 2015 Steve Jobs biopic and “The Martian” in that, unless you are an enthusiast of math and science, the calculations might go over your head.  Granted, the film focuses more on the emotions of the characters who are doing the calculations rather than the numbers themselves, but still filmmakers have yet to find a way to make chalkboard-mathematics exciting to those who aren’t fans of math.
This movie does fall into some inspirational-movie-tropes, like uplifting music playing in the background when, say, a main character makes a statement or when Paul Stafford and the other office workers first see Katherine’s equation.

Overall, Hidden Figures is an enjoyable, feel-good biopic to start off 2017!  With wonderful performances from Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monae, a tasteful handling of institutional racism and an engaging story, Hidden Figures propels to the stars of good cinema, bringing to light the heroic service of three courageous women who paved the way in getting us to the moon and back.

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Thank you Katherine Goble-Johnson, Mary Jackson and Dorothy Vaughan for your service.

 

Saint Josephine Bakhita, pray for us.

Presidential Candidates Won’t Save You

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Don’t worry, I’m not going to go on a megalomaniacal rant about how I can’t stomach any of the candidates.  This post would be longer than Tolstoy’s War and Peace if I did that.
As I watch the debates (yes, both the GOP and the Dem debates), read articles online and listen in on conversations about the candidates among my family and friends, there is a theme that strikes me.  Mr. Trump continuously promises to “Make America great again,” while Mr. Sanders swears to hold big corporations responsible.  Miss Clinton vows to uphold the rights of women and other minority groups, while Mr. Cruz pledges to protect religious liberty.
What do these four people have in common?  They promise to be a savior in some capacity.

Even in our secular society, the concept of a savior still appeals and rings true for many people.  While the savior complex has always been prevalent in past presidential elections, the idea of electing a man (or woman) who can “save our country” from the path we are currently on is especially strong during this presidential season.  If you talk to a supporter of Mr. Trump, Miss Clinton, Mr. Cruz or Mr. Sanders, there is definitely a sense that they truly believe in their candidate’s ability to save our land.

During this past Lenten season, I found myself really pondering Jesus’ sacrificial offering and its meaning.  By His death and resurrection, He redeemed humanity and paved a way for us to obtain Heaven.  Our Risen King stripped the prince of darkness of his hold over mankind and gave us a lifeboat.
The idea that a single presidential candidate can bring about salvation of any kind does in fact benefit someone; a particular entity whose goal it is to keep our attention off of the True Savior.
I truly believe that Satan uses political rhetoric to his advantage, to take people’s eyes off the state of their own souls and keep them distracted with the state of the political climate.

I am in no way telling you to not vote.  I am not trying to discourage you from participating in the political process.  What I am saying is that a politician can only impose legislation, not salvation.  A president can improve the economy, but not shield us from Hellfire.  Presidents come and go, but Jesus is the One who stands between us and the deception of the evil one.

Stand by a candidate if you wish, but keep your eyes to Jesus always.

Saint John Vianney, pray for us.

Putting A Hashtag On Human Life

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Florissant, Missouri, June 24th, 2015

While speaking at a historic black church, presidential candidate Hilary Clinton spoke to the congregation about her mother, who became a maid as a teenager after being abandoned by her own parents.  All was fine and good…until this happened:

“What kept you going?” Mrs. Clinton had asked her mother.  She then explained that, “Kindness along the way from someone who believed she mattered.  All lives matter.

In another era, the last three words would have been well-received, wholeheartedly embraced by most people regardless of their political leanings. However, that is not the case in 2015.  It is all thanks to two simple hashtags: #AllLivesMatter and #BlackLivesMatter.

Southern California, June 24th, 2015

It was during my lunch break that I logged onto Facebook and found my newsfeed riddled with statuses and articles all concerning Mrs. Clinton’s use of “All Lives Matter.”  Blindsided by Internet activism, I took a breath and followed my natural instinct to investigate.  Once I had gotten the whole story of Mrs. Clinton’s debacle, I decided to look deeper into the two hashtags #AllLivesMatter and #BlackLivesMatter.

#BlackLivesMatter was a hashtag created after the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the 2013 trial centered on the killing of African-American teenager Trayvon Martin.  It was later revived after the death in 2014 of another African-American man named Michael Brown.  The purpose of #BlackLivesMatter was to tackle racial issues that continue to plague this country years after the Civil Rights Movement.  However, there is an opposing camp:  #AllLivesMatter, a hashtag created as a counter to #BlackLivesMatter.  Unlike the first hashtag, which emerged in 2013, the second hashtag entered the picture after the shooting of Michael Brown.

What I want to know is what is it about these two hashtags that fuels the flames of impassioned emotions in people?  Alongside this, a more disturbing question emerges in my mind: How did we get to this place where we as a society have to hashtag whose life is more important than the other?  If the value of a person’s life can be ranked from greatest to least, then we are all drowning.

Into The Minds of Two Movements

I’ve always felt that once you know the psychology of both sides of a conflict you can often get to the root of the problem, so let’s dive into the mindsets of these two opposing forces.

From what I have observed, the #BlackLivesMatter camp sees itself as champions for the African-American community.  They feel that the justice system treats this community unfairly, and the acquittals of George Zimmerman and Officer Darren Wilson have struck a serious blow to the black community morale.  I completely understand how the mother of a black son would be fearful for her child’s life in light of Trayvon Martin (age 17), Eric Garner (age 43), Michael Brown (age 18) and Tamir Rice (age 12).  Their issue with #AllLivesMatter is that it comes off as too broad and dismissive of the deaths of these three men and a young boy.

The #AllLivesMatter camp, which exists to counter #BlackLivesMatter, feels that the opposing camp is preaching that only one specific group of people is more important than others.  They see it as exclusory of other sets of people, and dismissive of situations where a white person is shot and killed by a black person, or an African-American is murdered by a Hispanic-American.  Anyone could be the victim and anyone could be the perpetrator.  They fear that by giving all the attention to one specific ethnicity, this raises the possibility of other racial groups being ignored.

When The Greater Good Is Forgotten

Any time I write about a controversial issue, I always ask God to point me to a Saint who is related to said issue.  Because this op-ed is about race and social justice, God guided me to Saint Martin de Porres, an interracial Peruvian monk who was the illegitimate son of a Spanish knight and a freed black woman.  During his time on earth Martin had experienced racism firsthand due to his mixed blood.   In spite of this, he was known for his compassion and humility, which was the driving force of his charitable deeds throughout Lima, Peru.  Because of his humble character, he never forgot the One he served and never let pride in his good works cloud his judgment.

I began to wonder, “What if Martin didn’t have the gift of humility?   It’s easy for a virtuous person to become aware of their accomplishments…” This thought led me to think about the modern heroes of literature and cinema (Harry Potter, Katniss Everdeen, Peter Parker/Spiderman, etc.) and how they never thought to themselves, “Oh, I’m such a hero!”  They were simply fighting for a greater cause.  What happens when social justice activists see themselves as heroes?  If someone thinks they are ahead of everyone else, it is easy to get comfortable and neglect self-improvement.

That was when I realized that comfort in the message can lead to corruption.  Most people would agree that discrimination is wrong and that every life matters, but too often the actions of activists betray the message.  As a result, in this case both parties (#BlackLivesMatter and #AllLivesMatter) have a public image problem.

#BlackLivesMatter is tainted by the images of looters during the Ferguson protests.  Because the loudest voices get the most attention, the media focused more on the looters than on the peaceful demonstrators.  While most of the looters just wanted to cause trouble, it is also possible that some of the looters were good people who started out as peaceful, but got caught up in the outrage and were blinded by their desire to fight a system that they felt had wronged their community.  Fueled by frustration, they chose a destructive path that was caught on camera.

#AllLivesMatter is tainted by its own inception: It was created for the sole purpose of opposing #BlackLivesMatter and had no further vision.  With the mindset of “Everybody agrees that all lives matter, so winning the public will be no problem,” this led to their camp neglecting to work toward a greater good.  Their lack of vision caused the hashtag #AllLivesMatter to be used by ill-informed people as a way to dismiss the concerns of the black community.  In turn, the #BlackLivesMatter camp went further on the offense and gave their opponents the ammunition they needed to portray the looters as the face of #BlackLivesMatter.

When two forces go to war with one another and lose sight of the greater good, social justice is reduced to fashionable controversies that are here today and gone tomorrow, resurrected in the public square only after the death of another unarmed black father/husband/brother/son/friend makes the headlines.  Does it take another tragedy to keep the productive conversation going?

#SomeLivesAreConvenient

Earlier I asked how we as a society came to this place where the value of human life can be ranked from greatest to least.  If the skirmish between #BlackLivesMatter and #AllLivesMatter has shown us anything, it is that the pyramid of who is convenient and who can be ignored has permeated American politics for a long time.  Every civilization goes through a period of establishing a human pecking order.  In our time this mindset couldn’t be more evident than by the two hashtags #BlackLivesMatter and #AllLivesMatter.  Both sides accuse the other of being dismissive of certain lives, but it is their fighting between themselves that keeps effective change from coming to fruition.

In a perfect world, these two camps could perhaps come together and say, “We both have a sound message, so why don’t we stop bickering with each other and go after the real enemy?” the real enemy being social injustice, even the human pecking order.   Unfortunately, after the Garden of Eden peace rarely lasts before conflict steps in.

Saint Martin de Porres did not fight poverty by creating hashtags and inflaming passions.  The will of God was his General, humility was his armor, and his faith by example was what brought hope to the desperate poor.   He did not champion certain types of people who advanced his agenda.  He served all.

Until we remove the price tag on human life, social justice will always be like a faucet that only pours out water when it suits an agenda.

Saint Martin de Porres, pray for us.

1 Corinthians 4:6, “I have applied these things to myself and Apollos for your benefit, brother, so that you may learn from us not to go beyond what is written, so that none of you will be inflated with pride in favor of one person over against another.”