Well, here we are in 2021 and it’s looking better already. Not only is there light at the end of the tunnel for this maddening period in our history (albeit still miles away), but we’ve got some very exciting films looming on the horizon in our Virtual Movie Palace. This week we’re officially beginning the 2021 Oscar conversation with our first in a series of international Academy Award contenders opening every Friday, beginning with Latvia’s BLIZZARD OF SOULS this week, which has been called “[a] more realistic ‘1917’” by the Hollywood Reporter. Then, in the following weeks, we’ll have MY LITTLE SISTER from Switzerland, YOU WILL DIE AT TWENTY from the Sudan, and TRUE MOTHERS from Japan, all of which may be in serious consideration for Best Picture this year as well, considering how Hollywood’s film output in in 2020 was seriously lacking.
But I’m getting a little ahead of myself. Though we’re excited to see these fresh new movies enter our virtual sphere, unfortunately it’s also time to say goodbye to a few of our favorites from 2020 that are seeing their last days in our Virtual Movie Palace. So, let’s flashback to 2020, just this once, to some of my previous reviews for films that will be closing after this Thursday.
Published July 2, 2020
Plot: Using interviews and rare archival footage, JOHN LEWIS: GOOD TROUBLE chronicles Lewis’ 60-plus years of social activism and legislative action on civil rights, voting rights, gun control, health-care reform and immigration.
“We’ve come so far and we’ve made so much progress, but as a nation and a people, we are not quite there yet. We have miles to go.” Words spoken by Rep. John Lewis of Georgia in the sober opening of Dawn Porter’s JOHN LEWIS: GOOD TROUBLE from CNN Films and Magnolia Pictures. As a co-founder and chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), one of the original 13 Freedom Riders, a speaker alongside Martin Luther King Jr. at the March on Washington in 1963, and a member of Congress since 1987, John Lewis knows something about progress. He has dedicated his life to it, and in fact, this film is as much a history of the voting rights struggle of the last 50 years as it is about his life, so intertwined are the two subjects.
Though much of the documentary was filmed in 2018, and continuously flashes back to the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, it has little to say about today’s conflicts; nevertheless, it is the film we need in our current moment. As Julie Hinds of the Detroit Free Press writes, the documentary “provides the superhero inspiration you’ve been missing” as COVID-19 continues to stall the Summer blockbuster season. […]
The son of sharecroppers, Lewis grew up in the small town of Troy, Alabama, where he lived on a farm picking cotton. Using interviews with him and his siblings, Porter paints a picture of his life and the path that was laid before him as a boy who practiced preaching to a congregation of his family’s chickens at a young age. But from there, the documentary draws little on his personal life and rather focuses on his lifetime crusade to give his constituents, and all people of color, equal voting opportunities.
But as much as Porter lifts Lewis up as a Civil Rights icon […], she also provides inspiration and hope that his fight will continue in a new generation. Featured in the documentary are many young members of Congress, including Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts, and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, who look up to Lewis and speak of his influence with the same admiration that Lewis speaks of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
JOHN LEWIS: GOOD TROUBLE is available through Friday, January 8
Published August 5, 2020
Plot: At a defining moment in American history, a scrappy team of heroic ACLU lawyers battles for abortion rights, immigrant rights, LGBTQ rights and voting rights.
Though the ACLU focuses on hundreds of cases across the nation at any given time, the film zooms in on five as we meet lawyers Lee Gelernt, Brigitte Amiri (an Ann Arborite and Michigan Theater fan!), Dale Ho, Josh Block and Chase Strangio. […]
We are given just a glimpse of their day-to-day as they study and painstakingly prepare to step in front of the Supreme Court, while the audience is given hints of the toll it takes on their personal lives. And it’s not just time spent away from their families as they travel and work late, but each of the subjects also offer horrifying examples of the hate mail and messages they receive on a regular basis.
And it’s all done to protect the civil freedoms we are promised in the Constitution, not to promote politicized beliefs. Though the film does focus on arguments typically bolstered by left-leaning politicians, the filmmakers also remind us of previous controversial cases that protected the free speech of clients like the Westboro Baptist Church, the Nazi Party, and the white supremacists who sparked violence in Charlottesville in 2018.
While discussing these events, ACLU Deputy Legal Director Jeffery Robinson offers the film’s thesis, saying that freedom of speech, and all other basic human rights, is not “for the people you agree with, it’s a right for everybody.” It’s this idea that makes the film so important, because it makes the point that our freedoms are taken for granted or misunderstood by so many involved in the constant barrage of antagonization produced by our two-party system. And when the filmmakers show us the lives of the real people affected by these arguments and decisions, and are more than just talking points, we see just how unfortunate it is that politics need to be involved at all./
I personally love documentaries and stories like this that show the minutiae of preparation and work involved in producing major stories. We may celebrate or sulk over the outcomes, but nevertheless, there is inspiration to be found from the people that lead from beginning to end. […]
THE FIGHT is available through Friday, January 8
Published November 18, 2020
Plot: An exploration of the fallout of MIT Media Lab researcher Joy Buolamwini’s startling discovery of racial bias in facial recognition algorithms.
H.A.L, Terminator, Replicants, Droids: this is what Hollywood has told us to expect from artificial intelligence in the 21st century. But today there are nine companies building A.I., all in the U.S. and China, and what they’ve created is much more sly and devious than predicted by Kubrick, Lucas, and the like.
Exploring this topic means going down a dark, deep rabbit hole, but it’s a worthwhile journey to take in CODED BIAS, a documentary now playing in our Virtual Movie Palace from director Shalini Kantayya, which was nominated for a Grand Jury Prize at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival.
Rather than a physical automaton that can think on its own, as in so many Hollywood movies, the A.I. we have is dependent on math and probability, working on a scoring systems to predict human nature. It is used to monitor streets, determine hiring, evaluate professionals, manage housing, and most noticeably to sell, sell, sell. And we’ve allowed it to cozy into our personal cyber bubbles with barely a second thought.
There is, however, a simple flaw just in that description: if A.I is meant to predict human nature, how does it account for the innate biases in us all? The frustratingly simple answer is that it doesn’t. In fact, our biases are embedded in its programming, born from an industry where fewer than 14% of researchers are women, and even fewer are people of color.
Finally, Kantayya leaves us with hope. Not only from the people we meet, but from companies like IBM that understood and implemented the changes required. And then there are those in Congress who are beginning to intervene and take power from the tech companies that have gone too far.
Though the advancement of A.I. has progressed so quickly, it is still young, and it is not too far gone that we can’t find and fix these flaws. Kantayya tasks the audience to open our minds, accept new ideas, and not put blind faith in “Big Data” as we have begun to.
CODED BIAS is available through Thursday, January 7
Though we hate to see them leave us, we’re thrilled that we had the opportunity to play these films virtually and share them with you. Also leaving us this week is AMULET, a horror film from director Romola Garai that tells the story of a former soldier who is stricken with terror after taking a job to help a young woman and her housebound mother. AMULET is available through Friday, January 8
I’ll be back next Wednesday to talk about BLIZZARD OF SOULS with you, but until then, have a great week!