The Danish prince and I go way back. As I was writing a review of a moving and well-acted performance of that great play last week, I started thinking about all the varieties of Hamlet that I have seen over decades of theater-going.
I saw college productions—and I read Hamlet in a memorable Shakespeare course at one of my alma maters, Harvard on the Rocks—the two-year University of Illinois in Chicago at Navy Pier. (Later it became a four-year university and moved to its current campus.)
The first Hamlet production that I remember vividly was during the 1963 opening season of the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis. We lived then in western Wisconsin and splurged to subscribe to the Guthrie for a number of seasons, until we moved to Illinois in 1969. That first season opened in the new semi-arena theater, directed by Tyrone Guthrie himself. George Grizzard was featured as Hamlet. Gertrude, Hamlet’s mother, was played by Jessica Tandy. Horatio, his loyal friend, was played by Graham Brown, a Black actor and original member of the Negro Ensemble Company. That was 58 years ago and that casting was not considered remarkable.
Done in modern dress and “despite the tennis rackets and umbrellas,“ Guthrie’s version was, in critic Dan Sullivan’s view, “in the best, nonacademic sense of the word, a traditional performance.” And it was memorable for a young theatergoer.
Since then, I’ve seen many Hamlets, both memorable and not-so memorable. These are some of the memorable ones.
The Wisdom Bridge production directed by Robert Falls, starring Aidan Quinn, was remounted at the Civic Opera Theatre in 1985. Falls’ Hamlet opened at Wisdom Bridge’s Evanston theater and moved downtown for a briefer second run. The production was notable for its modernistic touches, such as the use of technology and Quinn’s Hamlet spraying “To be or not to be” as graffiti on a wall. The late Del Close, a Chicago comedy icon, played Polonius.
The Stratford Festival in Canada staged Hamlet in 1994 in the arena-like theater space it used then for its more modestly staged productions. It was done in modern dress in a starkly minimalist style.
Kenneth Branagh’s filmed Hamlet in 1997 was screened at the now departed Fine Arts Theatre. Filmed on 70mm stock, it was the only complete Hamlet ever filmed and ran four hours with an intermission. It was set in the 19th century and was otherwise a traditional take on Hamlet.
At the Public Theater’s Newman Theater in New York in January 2000, director Andrei Serhan staged a controversial production, which included Hamlet over-imbibing and vomiting on stage. Liev Schreiber was a really effective Hamlet, because of or despite the director. I was sitting in an aisle seat midway up in the sharply raked theater. The most thrilling moment during the whole play came when Schreiber, meandering up the theater steps, sat down on the stair next to me to deliver a monologue. I didn’t breathe for a few minutes.
Another Hamlet film in 2000, directed by Michael Almereyda, didn’t win as much praise as Branagh’s did. But I liked the director’s concept and staging. Ethan Hawke played Hamlet, a film student; I remember him wearing a knit cap in many scenes. The setting is modern-day Manhattan and the battle is over the Denmark Corp., taken over by Hamlet’s uncle after doing away with his brother. Hotel Elsinore is the castle.
Court Theatre produced what director Charles Newell called an experimental Hamlet in February 2002 with Guy Adkins playing Hamlet. It was an odd and minimalist production with some quirky staging and design choices. Newell made major cuts in the script; running time was about half the full length.
Writers Theatre staged Hamlet at its Tudor Court space in 2012 with Scott Parkinson as Hamlet. Parkinson always seemed to me to fully inhabit his roles and he was stunning as the Dane in this modernist production.
The Gift Theatre, a tiny storefront in Jefferson Park, staged a stripped-down version of Hamlet in 2018, directed by Monty Cole. The production has “suggestions of classic elegance but contemporary hipster dress and props,” I wrote. Cole focused on Shakespeare’s language in his interpretation of the play.
Chicago Shakespeare produced Hamlet in May 2019. It was a beautifully acted and staged modern-dress Hamlet. Along with a fine cast, Larry Yando played Polonius. Any play where you get to see Larry Yando is worth seeing.
Invictus Theatre, fall 2021. This terrific storefront production was the one that that got me started writing about my Hamlet journey.
What is it about Hamlet that makes this play so endlessly fascinating? Shakespeare wrote many other interesting plays—tragedies, comedies and history plays—that a theater fan can love. Hamlet is special because of the character himself. He is, as the late literary scholar Harold Bloom described, one of the first self-aware theatrical characters. Hamlet and the Falstaff of Henry IV, Bloom said, are the invention of the human, “the inauguration of personality as we have come to recognize it.” Their “inwardness becomes the heart of light and of darkness” in ways that were more radical than any found in literature before Shakespeare. Bloom also observed that Hamlet was as ancient and important a hero as Achilles or Oedipus.
Not all today’s literary scholars agree with Bloom, of course. He was too dismissive of the need for diversity and moving beyond the Western canon of literature created by white men. But he deserves to be valued for his intense and thoughtful consideration of Shakespeare, in particular in his 1998 book, Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, in which he considers all 38 of the Bard’s plays and names 24 of them as masterpieces. In 2003, Bloom published Hamlet: A Poem Unlimited, in which he updated some of his observations on Hamlet from his Invention of the Human book.
That’s eleven Hamlets that I can remember and a lot of reading about Hamlet. In addition to Harold Bloom, I mentioned two interesting fictional takes on Hamlet in my recent review. Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell is the story of William Shakespeare’s family and his son, Hamnet, who died at the age of 11, most likely from the bubonic plague. Nutshell, by Ian McEwan, is told from a more peculiar viewpoint: that of the fetus in Gertrude’s (Trudy’s) womb as she and her husband’s brother Claude plot a murder. Nutshell is short and mischievously clever.
Now I can only sit back and wonder: When and where will my next Hamlet be? And what creative techniques and concepts will the next director use to shed new light on this immortal story?
The nighttime streets are dark and shadowy, elegant in rubble and 19th century buildings. Cobblestones glisten in the light from street lamps. Carol Reed’s 1949 film, The Third Man, shows us a visually stunning Vienna, a masterpiece of the noir realm, and probably one of the greatest films of all time.
The black-and-white film is a thriller, starring Joseph Cotten, Trevor Howard, Alida Valli, and, of course, Orson Welles as the elusive Harry Lime. Welles only appears in the last third of the film, but steals the show and becomes the lead…although not the hero. He’s one of those evil but charismatic characters, whose 21st century counterparts are Tony Soprano, Walter White (“Breaking Bad”) and yes, Don Draper (”Mad Men”).
Graham Greene wrote the screenplay for The Third Man after visiting Vienna, finding it atmospheric, and meeting a man in a bar who told him a story about a crime similar to Harry Lime’s. Greene wrote a novella as a source text—and then turned it into the screenplay. The story takes place in Vienna, soon after the end of World War II. Wartime rubble is everywhere. The city is divided into four zones by the Allies—the British, French, Americans and Russians. Some scenes were actually filmed in London, when Welles refused to go back to Vienna for filming.
The film opens with the arrival in Vienna of an American writer of western pulp fiction, Holly Martins (Joseph Cotton), who has come because his childhood friend, Harry Lime, promised him a job and a room. Martins learns that Lime died a few days earlier after being hit by a speeding car on the street. Martins meets a British officer at the cemetery and also sees an intriguing woman (Anna Schmidt, played by Valli). He begins to think the facts of Lime’s death are suspicious and demands that the officer (Lt. Calloway, played by Trevor Howard) investigate. Calloway tries to get Martins to leave Vienna but Martins stays, meets (and falls in love with) Anna and tries to learn what happened to Harry. Martins eventually learns more about Lime from Calloway, including crimes Lime has committed. In one of the film’s famous scenes (with an essential cat), Martins discovers that Lime is still alive. The Ferris wheel scene and the iconic chase through Vienna’s sewers cap off the film.
The other characters in The Third Man are key to the noir nature of the film. Baron Kurtz (a weaselly character played by Ernst Deutsch), Harry’s doctor, Dr. Winkel (Erich Ponto) and of course, the mysterious Mr. Popescu (Siegfried Breuer) are strong hints that all is not as it seems in Vienna.
The expressionistic cinematography in The Third Man makes Vienna another character in the film. Robert Krasker, the cinematographer, used wide-angle lenses and skewed framing so that exteriors seem off balance. Nighttime chase scenes through the streets and rubble of Vienna are simply gorgeous in their noir shadows, always suggesting danger is just around the next caryatid. Late in the film, Martins goes to visit someone in the Soviet zone and behind him, you see workers on the pile of rubble that used to be the Gestapo headquarters in Vienna.
The musical composition, “The Third Man Theme,” performed on the zither by Anton Karas, is heard throughout the film, sometimes sad, sometimes jaunty or jangly, sometimes melodramatic, but always a key element. The song became famous separately from the film and topped the music charts in 1950, making Karas famous.
The final scene, where Holly waits for Anna at the side of a road and she walks toward him, past him and out of the scene without looking at him, is shot with a very wide angle, making for a long and suspenseful tracking shot.
Two elements of Vienna take on extreme importance in the film. The complex sewer system below the streets where the final chase takes place is dark and wet with many twists and turns. You don’t have to use your imagination to know how it smells. The wiener riesenrad or giant Ferris wheel (212 feet tall) near the entrance to the Prater amusement park is where Martin and Lime finally meet. The famous scene in the cab of the Ferris wheel was filmed at Shepperton Studios in London, where the cab (and some of the sewer system) were reconstructed. When Martins and Lime get off the Ferris wheel, Lime makes his famous “cuckoo clock” speech, comparing Italy and Switzerland.
Possibly as a way to increase the feeling of misdirection throughout the film, people are called by the wrong names. Anna calls Holly Harry several times. Holly calls Calloway Callahan. (“I’m English, not Irish.”) Holly mispronounces Dr. Winkel’s name (“It’s Vinkel.”)
If you can find them, there are two documentaries about the film. Who Was the Third Man? is a 30-minute film made by the city of Vienna in 2000 with interviews with cast and crew. Shadowing “The Third Man” (2005), is a 90-minute story of the making of the film.
The Third Man is being screened this week at the Music Box Theatre as part of the Noir Across the Atlantic series. You can find it streaming on YouTube or Amazon Prime for $3.99.
This review was previously published in Third Coast Review. Image courtesy Music Box Theatre.
My bones, my genes, my blood aren’t Irish.
They’re rooted in the fields, towns and ghettoes
Of Central Europe.
They‘re called German, Swiss, Polish, Ashkenazi Jew.
But there’s a sliver of my ancestry from the British Isles.
That’s where my soul comes from
The lyrical language, drama and poetics
Of my certain Irish ancestors….
May they be called Yeats, O’Casey, Joyce, Wilde, Beckett or Heaney
Who wrote of love, war, death and the human spirit.
My Irish is in politics too.
The separation of the Irish into two parts,
And the decades of the Troubles
That divide Northern Ireland
With bombs, guns, touts and hunger strikes
All because of two religions at war
That religious war only interests me
Because of the signs, banners and the shadow of a gunman.
I’ll take no religion, thank you,
But if I was Irish, I’d be IRA,
Not Unionist, RUC or UDA.
The Troubles were only the latest
In the forever war for independence
By Ireland from its brutal English overlords.
No, I’m not Irish except for that 3 percent sliver of my genetic heritage
But my heart and soul are drawn and quartered
By the poetry and politics of both my Irelands.
NOTE: Just trying out a poem from a planned new collection for 2022. Hope you find it interesting.
Dear readers and friends: I’m writing today on behalf of all Chicago’s small, local, quirky, indie media, and for my own online arts magazine, Third Coast Review. We are only three days away from the deadline for the 2021 Chicago Independent Media Alliance #SaveChicagoMedia fundraiser. If you’re not a regular reader of Chicago indie media, you can still support us–and definitely find a way to support your own local indie media.
Our goal for this year’s campaign is $50,000, and as of yesterday we raised just over $38,000. As you can see, we still have quite a ways to go—but with your help, we can still get there.
Right now, any donations you make to an individual outlet of your choice at www.savechicagomedia.org will be tripled, thanks to a generous matching grant from the Feinberg Foundation and McCormick Foundation. That means your $20 donation to Third Coast Review becomes $60, and a $100 donation will be turned into $300 in our pocket.
But you may be wondering, what does $100 actually mean to a local Chicago media outlet?
A hundred dollars means different things for different outlets, but for a Chicago arts magazine like New City, $100 covers the cost of writing and editing one arts feature. A $100 donation will help Sixty Inches from Center bring on a new photographer and writer. For various other outlets, $100 means a freelance reporter will be compensated for their time. Even just $20 means filling the gas tank of Inside Publication’s delivery van. $20 will also give Paseo Podcast the ability to record monthly interviews. And $20 will pay for 20 minutes of audio transcription for any one outlet.
But most importantly, your donation will help get Chicago independent media back on its feet after the Covid-19 pandemic, and ensure our city’s diverse, eclectic media scene can survive. That’s more important than ever today, when major media are consolidating and being taken over by private equity investors with no interest in our community.
A donation of any amount will help. Donate today at www.savechicagomedia.org to have your donation tripled. Thank you.
Eight years ago, I wrote a post about Richard Blanco’s poem, “One Today,” presented by the poet at Barack Obama’s second inaugural. I was so moved by Amanda Gorman’s poem for Joe Biden’s inaugural this week, I wanted to read her poem for myself, by myself. I thought you might want to do that too. Gorman, the Youth Poet Laureate, delivered her poem vividly and dramatically. She was a sophisticated and stylish slam poet.
You can find the transcript here and you also might want to check out this site, where you can find all the inaugural poems. You might be surprised to find out that all the presidents who have invited inaugural poets have been Democrats. (Explain that to me, please.) The first was in 1961, by Robert Frost for John F. Kennedy’s inauguration.
In Gorman’s poem, I have added stanza breaks for easier reading, since the transcript is a single long text. If I find Gorman’s original text, I will replace this version.
The Hill We Climb
When day comes we ask ourselves,
where can we find light in this never-ending shade?
The loss we carry,
a sea we must wade
We’ve braved the belly of the beast
We’ve learned that quiet isn’t always peace
And the norms and notions
of what just is
Isn’t always just-ice
This week I had a chance to revisit the most spectacular theater experience I’ve ever had. It took place on a weekend in February 2007. Over the course of two days, I saw all nine hours of The Coast of Utopia, Tom Stoppard’s trilogy on 19th century Russian intellectuals and revolutionaries. My New York friend Patricia and I hung around the new Time Warner Center at Columbus Circle and visited neighborhood cafes in between going to the Vivian Beaumont Theater at Lincoln Center for many glorious hours of theater. This week Lincoln Center Theaters celebrated that monumental theatrical achievement.
I flew to New York after work on Friday and met Patricia for an early lunch on Saturday, saw Voyage, part one, then had an early dinner and saw Shipwreck, part 2. On Sunday, we saw a matinee of Salvage, part 3. We had a final dinner, at which we both were almost too exhausted to talk. I had bought copies of the scripts and read Voyage on the way home on Monday morning. I saved the playbill on my bookshelf along with the three volumes of scripts.
The trilogy was also done as a marathon on a few Saturdays when you could see all three plays in one day, from 11am to 11pm.
I’ve never forgotten that weekend and like most memorable theater experiences, the visuals are imprinted in my brain, to be brought out when some tangential memory nudges them. That’s what happened this week.
Lincoln Center Theaters celebrated the 14th anniversary of The Coast of Utopia’s U.S. premiere in November 2006 with a virtual discussion that was open to theater fans. Director Jack O’Brien, four cast members—and—in person from London—the playwright himself. I was on a Zoom call with Tom Stoppard! No, he didn’t know I was there—only the participants were on the Zoom screen. But it was an exhilarating moment.
The play has more than 70 characters, performed by 40 actors in the New York production. The cast size and complexity of the story explain why this magnificent historical work has been produced only three times: in London in 2002, in New York in 2006-07, Moscow in 2007 and Tokyo in 2009. (This article describes the daunting nature of the production.)
Scenic design for the trilogy was by Bob Crowley and Scott Pask with costumes by Catherine Zuber. The gorgeous musical score, very much like a film score, was by Michael Bennett.
The actors participating in the discussion were Jennifer Ehle and Martha Plimpton, who played Liubov and Varenka Bakunin, two sisters, in Voyage; Ethan Hawke, as their brother Michael Bakunin, a writer and student of philosophy; and Billy Crudup, who played Vissarion Belinsky, a noted literary critic and radical.
The actors discussed the production experience, which involved a year’s commitment, starting with nine months of rehearsal. (The typical rehearsal time for a modern play is four to six weeks). Cast members prepared by studying Russian history and literature and four of the actors (including Plimpton) made a trip to Russia. “We did endless research…. We had books, piles of books, and notebooks where we noted reactions and questions,” one of the actors commented.
Before seeing The Coast of Utopia, I had been preparing too by reading Russian history and cultural history (Ivan Turgenev, Alexander Pushkin and Karl Marx are among the characters in Utopia). Many of the characters, including Belinsky and Alexander Herzen, are drawn from history. The play’s title comes from a chapter in Avrahm Yarmolinsky’s book, Road to Revolution: A Century of Russian Radicalism (1959), which is on my to-be-read list.
The cast compared the production—especially the occasional Saturday marathon performances—like going to camp. Meals were brought in and there were dressing rooms available for naps, Plimpton said. The intense rehearsal and performance schedule meant they spent almost all of their waking hours together at Lincoln Center Theaters for a year.
One experience they all vividly remembered was when actor Richard Easton, who played Alexander Bakunin, the father of the Bakunin siblings, “died on stage” for seven minutes. It wasn’t part of the script, but the audience didn’t realize that at first. During a preview performance, Easton spoke a final line (it was “That is my last word” after an argument with Michael) and started to exit, only to crumple in a heap at side stage. He had a heart attack. When Hawke realized that the fall was serious, he asked the audience the classic question, “Is there a doctor in the house?” But a stagehand performed CPR. Easton was revived in the ambulance and underwent a procedure to fix a heart arrhythmia. The opening date was briefly delayed because Easton’s character was a pivotal part of Voyage.
Hawke remembered that Easton asked him to come to his hospital room to run lines. After that, Hawke said, “we were all in service to something larger than ourselves.”
The play begins in a Chekhovian way; Voyage is set at Premukhino, the Bakunin country estate 150 miles northwest of Moscow. The sisters and brother Michael all long to escape to the city. At one point, in the middle of Voyage, Michael, who is in Berlin studying philosophy and translating a history, is asked to come back to the estate because Alexander wants him to study “agriculture,” for which he has no fondness.
The storyline concerns philosophical and literary debates in pre-revolutionary Russia (and in Berlin and Paris) between 1833 and 1866. The actual Russian revolution, of course, was another half century in the future, but that didn’t hinder discussions about liberty and censorship. Shipwreck takes place in Russia, then in Germany and France; and Salvage is set among the intellectual and revolutionary community in Paris.
The most important character in the radical/intellectual theme is Alexander Herzen, who Stoppard defines as a “would-be revolutionary,” but is an important historical figure. One of the most moving scenes in Shipwreck is about an actual shipwreck on which Herzen’s young son, Kolya, was lost. His wife is eagerly awaiting the arrival of her mother-in-law who has taken her grandson Kolya on a trip to Paris. The scene where Herzen has to tell Natalie, his wife, that Kolya is not returning, is devastating.
Stoppard was asked what inspired him to write on the subject of the Russian intellectuals and radicals. He said he was moved by the status of the critic Belinsky in Paris, “where you could write anything you wanted and no one cared” whereas in Russia, “one could only read work like this at midnight.”
Stoppard was also asked when he knew he was writing three plays. It happened when I was writing the first, he said. And commenting on his own experience working with the Lincoln Center Theaters team, that nine months “was the most binding and bonding theater I’ve ever done.”
An audience member asked Stoppard whether we can learn anything for today from his work on radicals and revolutionaries. He responded that the strongest ideas in The Coast of Utopia are about families. That is the case also in his latest play, Leopoldstadt, about a wealthy Jewish family in Vienna going through another type of wrenching political change in the first half of the 20th century. The family had escaped the pogroms in the East but the fates of the generations are impacted by communism and fascism over the years.
I recently read the script of Leopoldstadt (I had to draw a family tree chart to keep track of the family branches). So far it has been produced only in London in January 2020. Had it not been for the coronavirus, it most likely would be on stage in New York by now and scheduled for Chicago in a coming season. It is a profound and moving play with nearly 40 characters over distinct time periods from December 1899 to 1955. I look forward to seeing Leopoldstadt performed on stage, perhaps in 2022.
Near the end of the discussion, director O’Brien summed up our mutual yearning for an end to our life of physical distancing. “Here’s what the theater does. You have to be there…. You’re in a room of people who are giving their heart and soul to you. We have survived pandemics since Aeschylus and we’ll survive this.”
Update: You can now watch The Coast of Utopia discussion on YouTube but only through January 10.
This article was previously posted in Third Coast Review.
Chicago Girl is the title of my new book and indeed I am a Chicago girl. I’ve lived here most of my life, with occasional and sometimes lengthy forays to Missouri, Colorado, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Ohio and Kentucky. But I’ve been back to my home base for 35 years and I’m not going anywhere.
My new book of essays is part memoir but mostly a series of reviews and observations on theater, music,film, books, writing, politics, technology and a bunch of other subjects that I obsess about.
The cover is a view that may be familiar to you if you’re a Chicagoan. I took it from the Chess Pavilion at North Avenue Beach, looking south toward Navy Pier.
Many of the essays are adapted from reviews and articles I’ve written over the last eight years. But there are anomalies, like a timeline of my life in technology, starting with my acquisition of a certain special fountain pen at the age of 12. And there’s a long poem titled “City Lady Blues” about why I never wanted to move to the suburbs, despite the temptations offered by a certain gentleman. “Can’t you see I’m a city lady? Don’t wanna be a country girl.” I performed that poem one evening with my son Steve playing background blues on his tenor sax. And the oldest essay in the book is “The Story of Max: The World’s Greatest Cat,” written in 1987.
The ironic aspect of my book’s publication now is that the pandemic enabled me to finish it. In normal times, I would be seeing and reviewing three or four plays a week, but that activity was shut down along with most of the rest of our lives. So I decided to focus on finally finishing the book of essays I had fiddled with for a few years. I wrote about that in “Poem for a Pandemic: A Nightmare and a Blessing” in April..
If you’re interested in learning more about my book, both the personal stories and the arts commentary, check it out here and on the publisher’s website. Right now, you’ll find the print version but the e-book will be available soon.
The news is driving me nuts. I’ve tried to avoid watching it the last few days. I’m at heart a news junkie but the obsessive attention to this presidential race is making me crazy. And still is, the morning after. I usually have the TV on while I’m working or doing stuff around home. But this week I’ve been listening to music (especially the new Bruce Springsteen album, Letter to You) or one of my playlists on Spotify or Pandora or even music on the radio!
In the evening, I’ve been reading books (I’m in the middle of Ayad Akhtar’s Homeland Elegies: A Novel and just started Augustus by John Williams). And watching movies or a few great examples of virtual theater (Irish Repertory’s The Touch of a Poet was superb and I loved seeing What the Constitution Means to Me again).
Most rewarding has been seeing old movies, some for the first time. For years while I was a Netflix DVD subscriber, I had The Garden of the Finzi-Continis in my saved queue forever. Apparently it wasn’t on DVD until recently. I read about it being part of the UK Jewish Film Festival. I was going to sign up for that (just to see that film) when I discovered it was streaming on YouTube with very legible English subtitles.
The Garden of the Finzi-Continis is set in Ferrara in northern Italy in the late 1930s. The Finzi-Continis are wealthy, sophisticated Italian Jews. Wealthy enough to have a huge walled estate with miles of garden (or forest) and tennis courts in addition to their palatial mansion. Middle-class Jews in Ferrara think the Finzi-Continis are not real Jews, or that they don’t think they are Jews. But in the end, of course, they are all Jews.
The film is directed by Vittorio de Sica (Bicycle Thief and Shoeshine) and it’s truly beautifully filmed with gorgeous settings and glamorous people. It’s a non-love story about Micol (tall, blonde daughter of the F-Cs) and Giorgio, a handsome scholarly Jewish man who has been in love with Micol since their school days. He pines for her but she considers him a dear friend and nothing more. There’s much more to the story than that, and it’s played out against the background of Mussolini’s dominance in Italy and increasing restrictions against Jews in Ferrara.
Another old film I watched while avoiding the news is the 1987 docudrama, Conspiracy: The Trial of the Chicago 8, available on Amazon Prime Video. It features actors playing the roles of the leading figures in the trial with film clips inserted from interviews with the actual people. So we have Robert Loggia playing William Kunstler and Kunstler himself opining on the trial occasionally. The film was made for cable TV and it’s based on trial transcripts so there is a lot of real-life dialog and events (such as the horrific gagging and chaining of Bobby Seale).
It’s basically a 33-year-old version of the new Aaron Sorkin film, The Trial of the Chicago 7, which I also strongly recommend. The Sorkin film has snappier dialogue but the outrageous and outraged characters (Hoffman, Rubin, Davis, Dellinger) are just as wildly manic and adorable in the older version. The 1987 film is set entirely in the courtroom while the new film is also set in other locations and makes use of news footage from 1968. The Sorkin film is available on Netflix and currently screening live in some cinemas (Landmark Century Centre in Chicago).
While scrolling through my list on Amazon Prime Video, I discovered What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael. This is a great documentary about the brilliant movie critic. It made me appreciate her as much more than an insightful critic and writer. She fought fiercely for years to be recognized as a female critic and get a paying job in what was traditionally a white man’s world. Same old, same old, right? But she persisted–and so we know her today as the plainspoken, spiky, often iconoclastic film critic for the New Yorker. The 2018 film runs about 100 minutes.
Another old film I watched recently is The Pianist, a WWII-era film (made in 2002) about the pianist and composer Władysław Szpilman, a Holocaust survivor, who lived through the war years hiding out in various places in the Warsaw ghetto. It’s a great film with a fine performance by Adrian Brody and direction by Roman Polanski. (it was on Netflix until recently but you can rent it for $3.99 now on YouTube). The film was adapted from Szpilman’s book titled The Pianist: The Extraordinary Story of One Man’s Survival in Warsaw, 1939-45, which he wrote soon after his survival. The book was published in Poland in 1946 and then suppressed. German and English translations were finally published in 1998 and 1999. Both the film and the book are worth your time for the author’s first-person accounts of seeing his family members being loaded on trains and sent off to Treblinka and his own survival, helped by friends and strangers and finally by a sympathetic and music-loving German officer.
My latest article for Third Coast Review is an essay about racial injustice and our racist history themes appearing in compelling ways in pop culture. I recommend some TV drama series, films and books for your consideration. And I take time to focus on one book—Eddie S. Glaude Jr.’s Begin Again: James Baldwin’s America and Its Urgent Lessons for Our Own. In addition to describing how Baldwin’s writing and political attitudes changed through his experiences in the civil rights and Black Power eras, Glaude defines The Lie that encompasses our racist attitudes. So read on and I hope you’ll find something that sounds intriguing as well as some you’ve already loved or hated.
We’re living in a strange period of horror shows in politics, health and racial injustice. You never know what type of abomination you’ll find when you turn on your phone, computer or tv set or open a newspaper. Another black man killed by white cops? Another protester attacked or a Black Lives Matter protest broken up by white nationalists? Another 1000 souls dead from Covid-19? Another clueless tweet from the White House?
Historians a century from now may decide that this part of the 21st century was a political horror show. So it only makes sense that the real world of racial injustice and our racist history is bleeding over into pop culture. We can now partake of film, video, books and music where these historical themes are blended with horror and heroic stories.
We applaud the attention finally being paid to Black artists and authors, given the decades where their work and talent was ignored. For instance, of the 1,034 films currently in the Criterion Collection, only nine titles are directed by Black filmmakers. A reader who comments on my 3CR essay points out that there are more films in that collection that feature Black writers, performers and themes.
This essay explores works that can educate and entertain us about the Black experience in racist America and how white people can become allies and change agents. Yes, Nikki Haley, we are a racist country.
Have we missed any of your favorites in these genres? Let us know in the comments.
Television and Films
“Lovecraft Country,” TV drama series and book. Currently running on HBO is the 10-part series adapted from the 2016 novel by Matt Ruff, developed from the book by Misha Green. The story follows Atticus Freeman, a young military veteran, in 1950s Jim Crow America. Atticus, his friend Letitia, and his Uncle George make a road trip to find Atticus’ missing father and track down a family secret. (The trip also enables George to do research for the next issue of his Safe Negro Travel Guide.) The trio encounters racial terrorism in so-called sundown counties as well as monsters lifted from the pages of a Lovecraft story. Much of the series and novel take place in Chicago—no less racist than the northeast or Jim Crow South, but we love seeing films that portray Chicago.
Jonathan Majors (The Last Black Man in San Francisco) and Jurnee Smollett (Birds of Prey) are terrific as Atticus and Letitia and Michael K. Williams (“The Wire” and “Boardwalk Empire”) is a pleasant surprise as Atticus’ stubborn dad, Montrose.
There are lots of history, literary and horror references in Lovecraft Country, named for the noted horror fiction author H.P.. Lovecraft (known for his racist and homophobic attitudes as well as the creator of the Cthulhu Mythos.) Atticus and George are great readers and Uncle George (Courtney B. Vance) is an expert on the horror genre. The 1921 Tulsa massacre plays a part in a later chapter of Ruff’s novel, so we assume it will appear in the film series. Episode 4 of “Lovecraft Country” runs Sunday, September 6, on HBO and you can find earlier eps on demand.
“Watchmen,” a superhero HBO series that ran in late 2019, is available from some on-demand and streaming services. “Watchmen” was adapted by Damon Lindelof as a sort of sequel to the 1986 Watchmen DC comic book series created by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons. (A 2009 film was adapted from the same comic book series.)
The series focuses on contemporary racist violence in Tulsa and the first episode begins with the 1921 massacre of the “Black Wall Street” district on Greenwood Avenue in Tulsa. In 2016, a white supremacist group, the Seventh Kavalry, wages a violent war against the police and minorities. Because of the murder of 40 police officer in their homes in 2016, the police force now hide their identities, including wearing face coverings or yellow balaclavas.
The cast includes Regina King as a police detective known as Sister Night, Don Johnson as police chief Judd Crawford (a man whose closet hides secrets), plus Jean Smart, Tim Blake Nelson, and Louis Gossett Jr.
There’s also a Watchmen Role-Playing Game.
The Black Lives Matter Collection on Netflix has compiled an array of anti-racist and Black artists and topics. The collection of narrative films, documentaries and TV series includes many important films about Black lives. These are some of my favorites in this category.
I Am Not Your Negro, a stunning work of documentary storytelling by Raoul Peck, based on texts by James Baldwin and documentary footage of his life.
Just Mercy, the biodrama about Bryan Stevenson (played by Michael B. Jordan), an idealistic young Harvard Law graduate who goes to Alabama to fight for poor people.
Director Ava DuVernay’s 13th, another powerful documentary, explores the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, adopted in 1865, which abolished slavery and ended involuntary servitude. DuVernay demonstrates how slavery has been continued despite the 13th through lynchings, Jim Crow laws and practices, disenfranchisement, police brutality and mass incarceration.
And Spike Lee’s 2020 film Da 5 Bloods about four aging Vietnam vets who return to Vietnam to find the remains of their fallen leader (Chadwick Boseman) as well as a treasure they buried there. The cast features Delroy Lindo, Jonathan Majors as his son, Clarke Peters and Norm Lewis. As our review says, Marvin Gaye’s music is the primary emotional thread of the film’s soundtrack, primarily songs from his landmark 1971 album What’s Going On.
Books on anti-racism and white privilege have been topping best-seller lists—especially titles that might help white people understand racism and the meaning of white privilege. Ibram X. Kendi’s How to Be an Antiracist says you either are racist or antiracist and thus trying to dismantle our racist history—there’s nothing in between, he says. His book has been on the New York Times combined print and e-book best-seller list for 15 weeks; it’s currently #5 in non-fiction there and #7 on Amazon.com.
Other books that top those lists are Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility and Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow. Number 2 on that NYT list is Isabel Wilkerson’s Caste about the social stratification based on inclusion and exclusion in our society. I’m eager to read Caste; Wilkerson’s 2010 book, The Warmth of Other Suns, is a masterpiece history of the Great Migration of Blacks from the South’s Jim Crow society to the North, where they found other forms of discrimination.
Eddie S. Glaude Jr.’s 2020 book, Begin Again: James Baldwin’s America and Its Urgent Lessons for Our Own, is another important book on racial attitudes. He studies Baldwin’s writings, speeches and interviews from the early part of his career where he was a strong supporter of the 1960s civil rights movement until his attitudes changed. Baldwin was devastated and disillusioned about peaceful protest after the murders of his friends Martin, Medgar and Malcolm (Martin Luther King, Medgar Evers and Malcolm X) and the rise of the Black Power movement, which he supported. Baldwin spent much of his writing career living in Paris and Istanbul but apparently felt at home nowhere—certainly not in his native racist United States.
The thread throughout Glaude’s book is The Lie (my caps) on which all of American society is based. The Lie has three parts:
- The debasement of black people: They are characterized as inferior, less human than white people, stereotyped as lazy, dishonest, sexually promiscuous, and always seeking government handouts.
- Lies about American history: America is fundamentally good and innocent. Its bad deeds (slavery, genocide, internment camps, lynching, redlining, etc., etc.) were mistakes and have been corrected. (Add to that list food insecurity and our current “discovery” that Black and brown communities suffer and die more from COVID-19.)
- Changing events to fit the story whenever America’s innocence is threatened: America is a divinely sanctioned nation, a beacon of light and moral force in the world. Just one example is “the lost cause” story of the post-Confederacy.
The Lie is the mechanism that allows us to avoid facing the truth about unjust treatment of Black people. Baldwin said it started with the founders refusing to recognize a slave as a man. You can find many examples of The Lie in political speeches and writings today, especially from the right but also from the left.
There are many excellent novels in the enlighten-me-about-Black-life category. We have to include the source book for Lovecraft Country here and one additional novel.
Matt Ruff’s Lovecraft Country is a dark fantasy novel told episodically. As you read one exciting chapter after another, you realize that you are reading the raw material of a drama series. Each chapter focuses on one adventure or one character, even though they are intertwined. (There’s the chapter about Letitia’s new house in a neighborhood where she’s not welcome and another chapter where her sister Ruby turns into a woman named Hillary. At the end…but never mind. Read the book yourself.) This is Ruff’s sixth novel. The Readers Guide on Ruff’s website has background on some of the topics addressed in the book and drama series.
The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead, a 2016 book about Cora, a slave in Georgia who determines to leave the plantation and travels via the underground railroad (an actual railroad with stations underground) to various states and situations, each one more awful than the last. Her story is central to the book but is embellished by the stories of other slaves and some magical realism. The book won the 2016 National Book Award for Fiction and the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. Amazon Studios is adapting the book into a limited edition series directed by Barry Jenkin
Going Back in History
Richard Wright’s 1940 novel, Native Son, about Bigger Thomas, a young Black man who lives with his family in a tiny apartment in Chicago’s Black Belt. He’s hired to work for a rich white family and accidentally commits a terrible crime. His story is legendary and the book broke through into pop culture as a Book of the Month Club selection in 1940. It was later a film and recently adapted as a brilliantly conceived play by Nambi E. Kelley, which premiered at Court Theatre in 2014.
Ralph Ellison’s 1952 novel, Invisible Man, is a tragic and poetic book that’s hard to characterize; it’s almost Kafka-like in its opacity. The narrator, never named, moves to Harlem from the South but the story is about Black identity, Black nationalism, Marxism and the racial ideas of Booker T. Washington. Invisible Man won the National Book Award for Fiction in 1953. In 2012, Court Theatre also staged its world premiere adaptation by Oren Jacoby and Christopher McElroen.
And finally, listen to “Strange Fruit” (a disturbingly graphic protest song by Abel Meeropol) performed memorably by Nina Simone and in this video, by Billie Holiday.
Since there’s very little theater to review these days–occasionally a virtual reading or video replay–so I’ve been doing some book reviews. This book, a history of robots and automation, was particularly interesting as the author blends in aspects of how robots have appeared in popular culture over the centuries–dancing or playing chess and as characters in books, film and theater. The book traces how automatons led to automation, cybernetics and artificial intelligence in industry and weaves in examples of robots in culture.
Here’s my review of The American Robot: A Cultural History from University of Chicago Press. The author, Dustin A. Abnet, teaches American studies at Cal State Fullerton.
The book’s cover image shows a boy demonstrating Ideal Toy Company’s Robert the Robot, a popular remote-controlled toy in 1959.