Every week, the Criticwire Survey asks film and TV critics two questions. (The answer to the second, “What is the best film in theaters right now?” can be found at the end of this post.) Send suggestions for future questions to sam at indiewire dot com.
Q: With protests still raging over grand juries’ failure to indict two police officers in the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, Americans have turned to “Do the Right Thing,” “Selma” and even “To Kill of Mockingbird” as a means of articulating their outrage and grief. In times like these, what cultural works do you turn to for understanding, or solace, or as a means towards forging a path ahead?
Monica Castillo, Movie Mezzanine, Paste
It’s hard for me to look past “Do the Right Thing,” considering the similarities to the Eric Garner case, and in the credits of “Selma,” Ferguson is namechecked in the closing song. Over the past few days, my mind has wandered back over to “The Black Power Mixtapes 1967-1975.” Prior to Mookie throwing a trashcan through Sal’s pizzeria, the lingering question of when to fight back has always had a presence in activism, including “Do the Right Thing’s” constant parallelism to MLK’s nonviolent ideals and Malcolm X’s militant rebuttals. “Black Power Mixtape” becomes a means to explore the different responses to systemic racial violence with its interviews and commentary of activists then and now. What does it mean to do the right thing when the system meant to protect you kills you? Mainstream narratives tend to overlook the context of these demonstrations, the history of violence, and the racial injustice practiced in everyday American life by only looking at recent events. Sal doesn’t get it and only sees his broken show windows, but what does Mookie see? Do those in power ever ask the kinds of questions Swedish journalists did of Angela Davis or do they only see broken windows?
Joey Magidson, The Awards Circuit, First Showing
First of all, I’ll just throw this out there that I come at the recent outrage over the police related deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner due to my own past. In short, I was briefly a member of the New York City Police Department (though I resigned while still in the Academy to pursue writing full time), so there tend to be some shades of grey for me at times. Regardless, that’s a whole other thing and these deaths are obvious tragedies. On to the question. Depending on the real life issue, there are times where escapism is the more desirable situation, but when I’m confronting something head on, I tend to try to match the film to the moment. Obviously, “Do the Right Thing” continues to be more relevant than ever, while Selma certainly is of the moment as well. On my end, I’ve historically turned to music just as much, notably the work of Bruce Springsteen. I’d imagine that his song “American Skin (41 Shots)” would ring true today to anyone who has never heard it before, despite it being written almost a decade and a half ago as well as being in response to the shooting death in 1999 of Amadou Diallo as opposed to Brown or Garner. That’s the one bit of culture that I find myself turning to at times like these.
Glenn Kenny, RogerEbert.com, Some Came Running
I don’t turn to any movies for any of the things you mention, but I would like to point out something about “Do The Right Thing” and why it remains a great, inexhaustible movie. Some people watch it and say, “Wow, why does Mookie throw the garbage pail through the window like that, after all Sal’s done for him? It’s so counterproductive!” Spike Lee knew why then, and he knows why now. Mike Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice and what are probably countless others are why.
Carrie Rickey, Philadelphia Inquirer, Yahoo!
“Get on the Bus” and “Malcolm X” are go-to movies for me. I love “Mockingbird,” but feel it would not offer much solace to many to see a black man convicted for a crime he did not commit.
Tim Grierson, Screen International, Paste
The last couple weeks have reminded me that when processing grief or outrage, I turn to music and movies for two very different needs. Whether it’s 9/11, these recent grand jury decisions, Bush’s reelection in 2004 or something more personally troubling, I reach for albums that articulate pure anger or pure sorrow. If I want art that mirrors how I’m feeling, music is my outlet: There’s nothing that matches the visceral, immediate power of a four-minute song. But as much as I love a movie like, say, “Do the Right Thing,” I don’t want that right after the events of Ferguson. A two-hour film feels too long to be embedded in those feelings. Instead, in recent weeks, I’ve really been drawn to rewatching movies like “Under the Skin,” “The Grand Budapest Hotel” and “The Lego Movie,” which have nothing to do with current events. In difficult times, I want music to remind me and movies to help take my mind off things for a little while.
Richard Brody, New Yorker
“Selma” is in fact a good movie to start with, because of its remarkable focus on the political context that enables white officers to kill black people with impunity. The element of plus ça change is infuriating, depressing, outrageous (in fact, it’s worth noting political circumstances depicted in the film that, since 1965, have actually gotten worse). That sense of pure outrage brings to mind two films made around the time of the events depicted in “Selma”: Michael Roemer’s “Nothing But a Man,” from 1964, which dramatizes the intimate devastation of pervasive, unredressed injustice; and Jean-Luc Godard’s “Masculine Feminine,” filmed at the end of 1965 and featuring a scene from Amiri Baraka’s play “Dutchman,” transposed to the Paris métro, that gives voice to deep and righteous outrage in outrageous form.
Ben Travers, Indiewire
It’s often too hard to revisit movies that so closely emulate the real-world events bringing about such difficult emotions. While recognizing how disappointingly prophetic “Do the Right Thing” becomes today, I can’t look to it for how to properly move forward because it exists in my mind as a harbinger of doom rather than a preventative force from it. The lessons and warnings are there, but its damning parallels overwhelm them (at least, for me).
I instead try to reset. I look to films with an impeccable moral compass that’s carried me through time and time again. Usually that means “When Harry Met Sally,” “Love, Actually,” and more recently “About Time.” The latter works of Richard Curtis lay things out simply without ignoring the complexities of human emotion, creating films that serve as mission statements for anyone with love in their heart (and who don’t roll their eyes when reading the expression “love in their heart”). Yes, these movies are overwhelmingly white when analyzed from the racial perspective rightly dominating our current cultural landscape, but more importantly, they’re resoundingly human. And that’s what we all need to remember now, then, and always.
Nell Minow, Beliefnet, RogerEbert.com
When I want to think outside of my own assumptions and experiences, I turn to Spike Lee. “Do the Right Thing,” of course, but the movie that has most affected the way I see the challenges of the ways we communicate about race, I think of the scene in “School Daze” when the militant character goes out for fast food and is confronted by the black townies, one of the most powerfully wrenching interactions ever put on film in part because there is such deep understanding of all perspectives.
Jason Shawhan, Nashville Scene, Interface 2037
I concur with the examples of “To Kill a Mockingbird” and “Do the Right Thing” (they haven’t screened “Selma” in my town yet). I would also include Altman’s “Nashville.” And the Tom Robbins book “Skinny Legs and All,” oddly enough. I’ve always found its viewing of man’s inhumanity to itself as the violent birth spasm of a new, more enlightened way of living strangely reassuring.
Neil Young, Hollywood Reporter
My personal top ten isn’t exactly overflowing with inspirationally edifying works celebrating the noblest aspects of the human spirit in adversity (“American Graffiti”? “Don’t Look Now”? “Suspiria”?!), but there are exceptions. “The Elephant Man” for one. Another: Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s “A Canterbury Tale.” As World War II rages, two plucky Brits and a chirpy GI unite to – well, to solve a mystery which involves a weirdo hiding in trees and pouring glue into the hair of passing women. But this pleasingly bonkers plot is really just a launch-pad for a boldly graceful disquisition on liberty, equality and fraternity, millennial in its scope and universal in its hard-knock common sense. A “movie for this moment”, even if “this moment” has been actually going on for centuries.
Mike McGranaghan, The Aisle Seat, Film Racket
Whenever I can’t quite make sense of the world — or need a pick-me-up from unpleasant things happening in it — it always helps to revisit some of the classic ’80s comedies I grew up with. “Caddyshack,” “Fletch,” “The Blues Brothers,” “Ghostbusters,” “National Lampoon’s Vacation” — these movies, and others, bring a sense of familiar comfort, while also providing some much needed laughs. They’re not deep or profound, but they do make me feel good, without fail.
Adam Batty, Hope Lies at 24 Frames Per Second
I tend to retreat in to the movies at times like this, and hide away from the madness that’s out here in the real world. In the middle of last week’s injustices I found myself watching “It Happened One Night,” the perfect Hollywood construct with which to distract from how awful reality can be.
Even the best revolutionary cinema is tainted when contextualization comes in to play. The optimism of the work produced in France towards the late 1960s is shattered when one remembers that May ’68 was ultimately a failure, while the Hollywood revolution that came later in that same generation with the New Hollywood is one bookended by a cinema produced to the whims of non-artists.
Jeff Berg, Las Cruces Bulletin, ABQ Free Press
Not exactly pictures that I use for solace, but these titles have had a strong influence on me over the years, especially the terribly underrated and little seen “Salt of the Earth.” Also: “If…,” “Easy Rider,” “The Baader-Meinhof Complex,” “Johnny Got His Gun,” “Medium Cool,” and in a lighter vein, “The Milagro Beanfield War.” Also two lesser known docs: “An Injury to One” and “Winter Soldier.”
Gary Kramer, Gay City News, Philadelphia Gay News
I think films like “Do the Right Thing” and “Boys N the Hood” are very good in articulating and/or presenting the rage folks feel at racial injustice. I was less impressed with “Fruitvale Station,” which covered similar territory. I find that too many films chronicling racial tensions are what author Matthew Hughey calls “White Savior Films” — movies where white characters uplift racial others. I find that inspirational dramas about racial conflicts are rarely as provocative as a film where the complexity of the issues are played out without being didactic or facile. While some fiction films attempt this, I would suggest folks watch the doc “The Central Park Five” to get another perspective on racial injustice.
M. Leary, Filmwell
As a film critic in St. Louis, the appearance of “The Pruitt-Igoe Myth” in 2011 struck me then as a powerful, prescient moment for our city. There were numerous local screenings and forums about the film, all of which generated precisely the same conversations we are having now. I have returned to the film several times over the past few months as a space of reflection.
The “cultural works” I also think important at the moment are the live stream video accounts of the protests around the country as they unfold. This new media is shaping our perception of civil rights in the US in striking ways.
Greg Cwik, Indiewire, the Believer
“Apocalypse Now”: Because humans are horrid creatures and Coppola makes no attempt to hide that and I have absolutely no faith in people
John Keefer, 51 Deep
Movies are not a cure-all. Moments like these call for solemn introspection. There is an inherent madness in human beings that we fail to acknowledge, more often rationalize, and which we hide from behind slogans and fantasies fed to us about the proper way to live. We can see this ignorance in the bile spewed by the talking heads who defend those officers responsible. They believe that they know what is good and right and mighty and that terrifies me. No one knows that beyond reproach and people who say they do are selling snake oil. Those people who murdered Eric Garner should be in jail right now awaiting trial and they are not because of a uniform they were wearing at the time, because of a job they have. The only solace I can think of is that within all of us is the capacity to overcome and correct our base animal nature. Since this is a Film site I’ll quote “The African Queen” when Hepburn says, “Nature… is what we are put in this world to rise above”.
Josh Spiegel, Movie Mezzanine
My pick may be relatively obvious, but aside from something like the still-potent and righteous “Do the Right Thing,” I’d go with “12 Angry Men,” which remains as thrilling and self-consciously critical of white privilege now as it was in 1957. Though there are other versions of Reginald Rose’s story of a jury swayed by a doubtful man who sees through the circumstantial evidence of a murder case, Sidney Lumet’s take remains the best. That a dozen strangers can decide anyone’s fate, let alone be convinced by one or another passionate speaker, and can base it on far-from-ironclad evidence, seems awfully modern after the last few weeks of embarrassing miscarriages of justice in the American legal system. It’s a film that ends with a glimmer of hope, but “12 Angry Men” succeeds so well primarily because of the fury fueling each of its characters.
Michael Pattison, Sight & Sound, Fandor
All of the hard work’s happening outside the cinema.
Q: What is the best movie in theaters?
A: “The Babadook”
Other movies receiving multiple votes: “Interstellar”