Thursday, January 28, 2021

City Hall





Director/editor/producer Frederick Wiseman



CITY HALL               B                                                                                                                USA  (272 mi)  2020  d:  Frederick Wiseman

The people who work for the city work for you.  They’re there to service you.                    —Marty Walsh, Boston mayor

Listed #1 in the Top 10 Films of 2020 by Cahiers du Cinéma (Cahiers du Cinéma Reveals Their Top 10 Films of 2020 ...), currently available for free viewing in its entirety on PBS (, shot in the pre-Covid era of 2018 and 2019, Wiseman spent ten hours shooting, all compiled into a four and one-half hour film that examines Boston’s Democratic mayor Marty Walsh, an Irish Catholic, the central figure of the film, and his various legislative bodies in public meetings as they attempt to identify problems and outline solutions, where government’s primary function is to serve its constituents, making sure needed services are accessible and provided in a timely manner, whether it be immigrant groups, veterans, substance abuse, the disabled, or the elderly.  Questions are taken, with the mayor encouraging residents to take advantage of government liaisons who are specifically chosen to be their spokesperson in government, maintaining contact with ordinary citizens, identifying scams against the elderly, encouraging them to contact the police for follow-up, as the only real protection is an open and transparent system designed specifically to help them.  Like a civics class in grade school, the film is really a portrait of democracy at work, where the various government departments each reach out to their own constituents, maintain a two-way dialogue, with the mayor acknowledging the importance of the meetings, where personal stories take center stage, humanizing what they do, where each is encouraged to participate, provide their own story, and be part of the overall solution where they all work together to solve common problems.  Perhaps the biggest lesson is that no one is alone, as everyone’s connected by a phone call or an email, with someone on the other end of the line devoted to help them.  It’s an encouraging look, almost always a positive spin, because the city of Boston is not too big, and has not been devastated by financial shortfalls, like many other major urban American cities that are largely underfunded.  Just under the surface, and never really adequately addressed, is Boston’s notorious history of racism, especially with their sports franchises, with the Boston Red Sox the very last baseball team to integrate blacks into baseball, where Boston sports fans are known for making blistering racial outbursts, with many black athletes acknowledging being uncomfortable whenever they play in Boston.  Even the legendary Bill Russell, winner of 11 NBA titles, was called every nasty racial slur imaginable while playing for the Boston Celtics, revealing he learned to block that out, playing for the team, not the fans, and ended up refusing to sign autographs as a result. 

In a blistering economic appraisal, however, it was discovered that 55% of Boston residents are non-white, 28% are foreign-born, coming from 150 different countries of origin, where immigrants own 33% of city businesses.  According to the Brookings Institute, Boston is ranked #1 in terms of income inequality in the entire United States.  In the Federal Reserve Bank’s “Color of Wealth” report, the first to break down net worth by ethnic groups, the median net worth of black families in Boston is a mere $8 dollars, while the median net worth of white families is $247,000, an astounding difference.  How does this happen?  In reviewing various Boston employers, many still require a bachelor’s degree for 100% of all job applicants, in all positions, skilled and non-skilled, professional and non-professional,  By elevating the employment qualifications, employers not only discourage but disqualify otherwise eligible minority applicants, which sounds very much like the arbitrary standards used in the Jim Crow South to exclude blacks from voting.  Looking around the country, that’s not the normal reality anywhere else.   Boston has a peculiar ban on deficit spending, effectively capping city hall’s budget, which minimizes their expenditures, with the largest income source coming from property taxes, which allows for annual growth.  San Francisco, by contrast, is a city of similar population size, around 7 or 800,000, but more than double the budget.  There’s a public meeting with Cruz Construction Company, a minority non-profit that does outreach with youth, offering computer training while also serving as mentors, identifying the wealth gap between black and white families, with an average white family earning $275,000 to a black family’s $750, resulting in increased minority hiring as well as minority companies doing business with the city.  Community activists accentuate their role, claiming community benefits should be determined and driven by the community, and not the developer.  But what becomes patently clear is that money talks, so it’s actually the developers who have final say, as they’re devising the plans, constructing the buildings, and changing the look of the neighborhoods without much interference, whether it helps the community or not.  So much for democracy and community input.

Curiously, Boston, which has a black population of 24%, has never elected a black mayor, so the perception of racism persists.  Denver, by contrast, with a black population of only 10 or 11%, has elected two black mayors, as well as a Mexican-American.  Both are Democratic strongholds.  In the 1970’s, Denver and Boston were the first northern cities that federal courts ordered to desegregate public schools, prompting opposition from white critics of “forced busing,” where the reaction in Boston was violent, broader, and lasted longer, with children pelted with eggs, bricks, and bottles, and police in combat gear fought to control angry white protesters besieging the schools.  It wasn’t until black parents paired with white affluent suburbanites from seven different communities, sending their kids outside the city, that any peace prevailed.  Despite the rosy economic growth of the city, and the promises of better things to come, one lingering fact the city has not addressed is that one in six residents is still struggling for food.  Somewhat surprisingly, there’s very little public criticism of the current city administration, with no spokesperson from the opposing political party and no newspaper critique challenging their actions, allowing the mayor to pretty much dominate the film with his unchallenged assertions, putting his positive spin on things, and rarely holding the city accountable for its sins of the past, like avoiding the toxic influence of the Catholic Church cover up in very public sex abuse scandals highlighted in Tom McCarthy’s Spotlight (2015).  In terms of the unfathomable median net worth disparity, the mayor simply says they’re not proud of that, offering diversity aims when it comes to city business, but never effectively reigns in private industry which has a free hand to continue racial exclusion.  The film shies away from these details, for some reason, but continues to show the city from the mayor’s viewpoint, offering a sunny outlook, where he’s always got his own personal stamp when it comes to confessing his own story, a recovering alcoholic for more than 20 years, a child cancer survivor, where these personal details are his way of politicking, as it only adds to the humanization of his appeal.  But we never hear a contrasting voice of opposition who doesn’t feel things are going swimmingly. 

An example of late-stage Wiseman, now 90-years old, no longer just long uninterrupted takes with no commentary or narration, no music (other than street sounds), and no editorializing, but interspersed throughout are a few short transitional shots of the city’s architecture shot by John Davey, becoming a prominent feature, both in city buildings but also neighborhood homes.  Easily the most contentious scene comes when an Asian-American store owner seeks approval for a cannabis dispensary in a public meeting in Dorchester, the poorest and most racially diverse neighborhood in the city, already overwhelmed by crime and high incarceration rates, where the black residents, which include a large population of transplanted Cape Verdean Islanders who speak Portuguese, are openly suspicious, despite apparent good intentions by the owners, that this doesn’t exactly serve the community’s interests or needs, largely appealing to people from outside Dorchester, but may instead add to a series of unanticipated problems, as there’s already too much congestion and no place to park, police protection is stretched to the limits, and Asians don’t have a history of employing blacks in their business.  When raising their concerns, showing surprising depth and analytic detail, reflecting the views of a community that’s been overlooked and underserved, with few opportunities for black employment or advancement, the Asian owners try to counter their concerns, sounding like both sides are actually listening to one another, suggesting they will mentor blacks from the community not just in jobs but in positions of importance within the company.  Amazingly, the community activists are directly asking how this change will actually help and benefit the surrounding community, but it’s all just talk, as the community has no ability to vote up or down on the issue, as instead it’s all part of the city process of mandatory open public meetings prior to opening the business, where reports of the community input discussion will be sent to city hall for evaluation, but the city has the final word in dispensing licenses for these highly lucrative employers, where property, unfortunately, takes precedence over people.  More importantly, the city expresses no interest in relaxing the cannabis possession laws, freeing non-violent prisoners, or otherwise addressing the needs of people of color who have been blatantly targeted by racially oppressive drug-enforcement policies. 

The surprising real talk from black community residents is one of the few sequences in the entire film that isn’t filled with bureaucratic speak, as the film is heavy on city department meetings and mayoral speeches before various community groups.  Yet what’s perhaps most surprising is how the interest of the status quo continually gets authorized, with very little, if any, real social change ever enacted.  Nothing is done to address the high school-to-prison pipeline, black incarceration, police brutality complaints, social justice concerns, high crime, or address any of the racial disparities, where the film, despite its length, simply looks the other way and instead shows a city with good intentions.  Much like the recent Steve James documentary of Chicago, City So Real - made for TV (2020), the mayor in each film is given the role of the film’s central figure, where they are allowed to set their own agenda and frame it in a way that is favorable to them, as we never learn whether any of these discussed projects ever gets finished, while businesses are free to basically do what they want, regardless of gentrification concerns or community opposition, unrestricted by bureaucratic red tape, never providing the transparency needed or desired, with unanswered questions continually surrounding their mega-projects.  That’s just how business works in big cities, so long as they don’t get caught in criminal behavior.  The film hones in on a variety of city services, such as the performances of marriages at city hall, the 311 phone operators listening to non-emergency requests for something that needs to be taken care of, snow and sanitation removal, an on-site building inspector thoroughly doing his job, a rat exterminator, tree trimmers, roads are repaved, a camera surveillance system that evaluates traffic conditions, even identifying a double-parked car, sending a police crew out immediately, while also supporting cultural events, like the celebrations surrounding Chinese New Year.  Even a few people challenging the issuance of traffic tickets were successful in overturning their convictions, with the cameras chronicling police precinct meetings before they hit the streets.  The film just follows the mayoral lead, including the celebratory pomp and circumstance associated with the largely white city victory parades (surprisingly singing Neil Diamond’s Sweet Caroline after a World Series win), various luncheons for special interests, and many, many speeches, all wrapped in the American flag as proud examples of American democracy at work, with a military color guard and two uniformed policemen singing the national anthem as a duet before an invited gathering at a state of the city address where the mayor regales about the possibility of four more years.  

Sunday, January 24, 2021

Ma Rainey's Black Bottom


Ma Rainey

Playwright August Wilson












MA RAINEY’S BLACK BOTTOM             C                                                                               USA  (94 mi)  2020  ‘Scope  d: George C. Wolfe

My greatest influence has been the blues. And that’s a literary influence, because I think the blues is the best literature that we as black Americans have.                                                            —August Wilson, 2004 interview, An Interview with August Wilson - Believer Magazine 

White folk don’t understand about the blues.  They hear it come out, but they don’t know how it got there.                                                                                                                                      —Ma Rainey (Viola Davis)

While any August Wilson play is to be celebrated, this Netflix movie is wrong-footed and overpraised, largely over-acted, going for grandiose moments, failing to capture the tone and sheer artistry of Wilson, who elevates dialogue through the understated naturalism of the performers, where their collective voices emulate the black experience in America.  Writing a play for every decade of the 20th century, this one written in 1982 is set in the 1920’s, an era of the Jim Crow South when the black-owned Chicago Defender newspaper urged blacks to migrate north where there were available jobs working on the railroads, like butlers, porters, waiters, and cooks.  Poorly edited and not particularly well-made, the director has a long history in the theater, but is a relative novice in the film industry, where the look of the film is pure artifice, like taking place on a Hollywood set, showing no interest whatsoever in capturing real life, where the entire film exists in a netherworld of make believe, where there isn’t a single likeable character in the entire film, which is a bit shocking, as nearly every August Wilson character exudes personality and appeal, which is why his stature as a playwright is so revered, as his characters seem to be speaking just to us.  Initially influenced by the blues music of Bessie Smith, offering the unfiltered language of raw poetry to describe the black experience, Wilson found commonality in sharing similar truths, using the voice of ordinary people to express profound revelations, caught up in circumstances many viewers can relate to, providing a sense of urgency to everyday life.  Except for an opening number set in a juke joint in the mysterious backwoods of the South, the film is set entirely in one sunny day in Chicago in 1927 when Ma Rainey (Viola Davis) and her band arrive at a recording studio to record a few songs, with Davis lip-synching in the role, actually sung by back-up singer Maxayn Lewis, who once performed with Ike & Tina Turner as one of the Ikettes.  Needless to say, things don’t go as planned, as the incendiary experience is given a racial undertone of discord and conflict, where it’s clear the hot-headed trumpet player Levee (Chadwick Boseman in his final performance before his untimely death from colon cancer) has his own ideas of how the band should play, making it no secret that his aspirations are beyond playing backup for Ma Rainey, that he wants to form his own band and record his own songs, immediately set straight by Colman Domingo as Cutler, the trombonist who calls the shots (with Rainey viewing him as the leader of the band), reminding the young upstart that the band plays what Ma Rainey tells them to play, pure and simple.  Anything else will surely butt heads with the “Mother of the Blues,” who runs the show, as Ma Rainey was the first entertainer to successfully bridge the divide between vaudeville, a cabaret-style developed out of minstrel shows that catered largely to white audiences, and an authentic black Southern folk expression, a symbol of racial pride, emerging from the common experience of her audience, developing a closeness and familiarity to working people, making over 100 recordings in the 1920’s, writing many of her own songs, including Bo Weevil Blues, Ma Rainey - Bo-Weavil Blues - YouTube (2:46), and Moonshine Blues, Ma Rainey - Moonshine Blues (1923) YouTube (3:05), producing music alongside Louis Armstrong and pianist Thomas A Dorsey.  Never achieving the massive acclaim of Bessie Smith, who she helped mentor, she nonetheless provides her own authenticity and unapologetic swagger to the blues, an openly queer woman who had love affairs with women, dressed in satin gowns with ostrich feathers, and a mouthful of gold teeth, expressing a black female narrative that is strong and powerful, offering an intimate glimpse into telling the story of black life.    

As the musicians sit around waiting for Ma to arrive, including Glynn Turman as Toledo, the piano player, Michael Potts as Slow Drag, the bass player, and Cutler, Levee arrives wearing a brand new pair of shoes, spouting off asserting his own independence, while the others call him a fool and try to reign him back to reality, reminding him that he’s just hired to play, not to run things.  Nonetheless, he has ambition, with a willingness to change with the times, and loves the spotlight when his improvisations take center stage, which rubs Ma the wrong way, thinking this boy is more trouble than he’s worth, already getting the idea to fire him when they get to Memphis.  Cutler has already heard Ma’s reservations, while the others sense the inevitable, yet Levee refuses to be denied, thinking “I got my time coming.”  Right off the bat viewers sense something is wrong, not only with the overcaked make-up of Ma Rainey, where greasepaint is smeared all over her face, but in the portrayal of a star as an unsympathetic figure, never appearing happy, instead she remains aloof and to herself, where in the one song she does sing it is the voice of Viola Davis flirtatiously singing into the ear of her latest fling, Dussie Mae (Taylour Paige) showed off as her arm candy, hands and arms all over her, really not giving a damn what anyone else thinks.  Yet her defiant assertiveness reflects the wearying aspects of the business, “I don’t stand for no shit,” openly crossing the lines of white middle class respectability, as she has to continually stand up to and fight with white promoters and record producers, whose instinct is to devalue and underpay blacks, reaping all the profits to themselves, stealing their royalties, which is the history of black exploitation in the music business and an ultimate betrayal of the American Dream.  Yet the tone of the film is off-putting, never capturing that August Wilson rhythm where dialogue literally sings, instead actors either speak too fast, preen for the camera, or are seemingly in love with their own profiles, each with their own relationship with a camera, instead of a collective group trying to make a living in the era just prior to the Depression.  With too much attention paid to each individual, scene by scene, the direction is all wrong, losing the focus of the play, allowing actors to single themselves out and overact, especially the two stars Viola Davis and Chadwick Boseman, both mentioned as deserving Oscar winners, yet it’s only Colman Domingo as Cutler who offers an understated performance, where his vision of simplicity and clarity onscreen is well-needed, but the rest are completely out of rhythm, where the director is just not that interested in the best way to express Wilson’s material, or how to transform a play into a movie, instead turning this into generic movie-of-the-week territory, continually using stereotypes and clichéd images, where it’s actually uncomfortable to watch much of this simply due to a pathetic lack of aesthetic vision, which was first and foremost in the eyes of the playwright and in each stage presentation.  Films seem to dilute the power of the play, but there are rare exceptions, like Barry Jenkins’ Oscar winning 2016 Top Ten List #1 Moonlight, Sidney Lumet’s LONG DAY’S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT (1962), Mike Nichols’ Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966), or Robert Altman’s Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean (1982) and Fool for Love (1985).  Losing the tone of the playwright’s authentic voice, this feels more like Rob Marshall’s ill-advised version of Bob Fosse’s CHICAGO (2002), which won an Academy Award for Best Picture, but shouldn’t have, as it’s a substitute and shortcut version of the real thing, using plenty of bail-out edits, showing complete disregard for Fosse’s extended choreographic artistry, which is the genuine article.   

Much of the film reveals blacks talking among themselves in a relaxed manner, yet a dominant focus of their thoughts is the inevitable weariness of living in Jim Crow times, as these men have been traumatically shaped by the continual racial debasement from white men, with Toledo pointing out the utter disdain whites have for them, “The colored man, he’s the leftovers.”  Levee indicates his mother was nearly gang-raped by a group of white men when he was only 8-years old, but stopped when one of them knifed him in his chest while trying to protect her, leaving him a bloody mess with a permanent lifelong scar.  Afterwards he rages against God, asking where was he when this was happening, as he called out his name, but there was no answer, only an emptiness, feeling abandoned and disappointed, with no hope of salvation.  But Levee views his elders like some has-been Uncle Tom Negroes, instead feeling full of himself, showing utter defiance, brimming with confidence, believing it’s a new day and era, that his future knows no bounds.  Having faith in himself, however, isn’t the same thing as whites believing in him, as he’s viewed exactly like the others, as an afterthought, as cheap labor, or hired help.  Toledo and Cutler have been down that road before, but their advice is unheeded, with Levee singularly thinking he’s somehow different from the rest, even taking a shot with Ma’s girl Dussie Mae, who’s just a sex object in the film, viewed similarly by both Ma and Levee, both willing to watch her strut her stuff, until Levee gets his comeuppance.  But even Ma Rainey knows the score, in full antagonistic display with her white manager Irvin (Jeremy Shamos) and Mel Sturdyvant (Jonny Coyne), owner of the recording studio, who’s sick and tired of dealing with Ma acting like she’s queen of the universe, where they have to feign politeness.  He nearly blows a gasket just thinking about it.  Ma reveals what it’s really all about, “You’re colored and you can make them some money, then you’re alright with them.  Otherwise, you’re just a dog in some alley,” knowing they don’t give a rat’s ass about her. “They don’t care nothing about me.  All they want is my voice,” suggesting whites will pay her some respect until they get the recording they want.  After that, you’re yesterday’s news, they don’t need you anymore, as the record will line their own pockets, selling to both a white and black audience, paying the musicians, and even the star of the show, a small pittance for their time, raking in the bucks afterwards.  As for Levee, he thinks he’s got the white man wrapped around his finger, only to discover he’ll pay $5 for a song, but won’t let him record, claiming they’re worthless, that he has no use for them, swearing he can’t sell them, but he’ll “take them off your hands.”  All hopes and aspirations are effectively killed on the spot, his dreams dashed, where he’s just a nobody like everybody else.  For one day’s work, plenty happens, where dealing with the disappointment only begins to describe the trouble, as it’s a lifetime of disappointment all wrapped up into a few brief moments that will forever change his life.  There’s a humorous scene in a recent film, Radha Blank’s The 40-Year Old Version (2020), where a white producer’s recommendation to a black artist is to whiten up the play in order to reach a greater audience, which has the effect of suffocating her authentic voice, replacing a black message with a whitened-down version, which is exactly what happens at the end of the movie, showing a white band (that doesn’t exist in the play) playing the black music that was sold for peanuts, but whitening it up, all of whom were paid, as there was plenty of money to go around, effectively punctuating how black musicians were exploited during Jim Crow times, with whites basically stealing their music, living off the proceeds, while the artists live the rest of their lives in segregated poverty.    

The only one of Wilson’s cycle of ten plays set outside of the city of Pittsburgh, with screenwriter Ruben Santiago-Hudson adapting the playwright’s words for the film, musical compositions written by Branford Marsalis, with Denzel Washington serving as a producer, the theatrical version of the play runs two and one-half hours, with a brief intermission, nearly a full hour longer than the film version, so plenty was left on the cutting floor, nearly 40% of the play, so it’s not surprising the film lacks much of Wilson’s urgency, where the condensed version becomes something of an insult to his legacy.  Making matters worse, there’s a patronizing explanatory making-of-the-film documentary that follows immediately afterwards on Netflix, attempting to place an historical context on what was just viewed, something similar to what Steven Spielberg did with his historical films, sending out educational packets to be used in a school setting that supposedly added deeper context to what was altogether missing in the film itself.  The arrogance of this act is indescribable, as it assumes the material is worthy of a history lesson, yet it’s a fictional recreation, where the author takes poetic liberties, so the hubris to teach a history lesson afterwards assumes the makers of the film felt they touched a reality that is altogether missing in the movie, so they packed on additional material.  Can you imagine August Wilson’s response to making an additional movie, shown after the play, to discuss the merits and historical context of his work?  Wilson’s point of view, one assumes, is that it’s all in the play, where learning your history while evaluating and reflecting on the material is part of the viewing experience.  What makes Wilson’s plays so universal is that the core humanity is contained within, something relatable to different people from all walks of life and from anywhere around the globe.  It’s a sad state of affairs in Hollywood today that suggests we all need accompanying supplementary material to help us understand something that contains a movie-of-the-week reality.  The problem isn’t the historical message, or lack thereof, it’s with the film itself, as it’s a poor substitute for the real thing.     

A Reconsideration: Hearing Ma Rainey   1987 essay written by blues scholar Steven C. Tracy