Pinocchio ~ A Review

(special to The Dreher Report)

By Michael Burton

Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio is a masterpiece. (Spoiler alert if you have not seen it yet). Geppetto and his son Carlo are developed in heartfelt detail within the opening 15 minutes. As a consequence, Carlo’s death (which you know is coming) leaves you feeling empty.

Geppetto goes down a dark road of drinking and self-loathing. He quits working and, in a drunken stupor, cuts down Carlo’s memorial tree to make a puppet. It all happens deep in the night while he’s completely shit-faced. A life-long mastery of woodcraft is blurred by alcohol yet it is obvious he can handle a chisel and block plane. It is not until morning, after Pinocchio is brought to life, that you see how freakishly assembled he is. It is shocking at first.

Voiced by a wonderful actor (Gregory Mann), Pinocchio quickly overcomes awkward social queues, falls in with a loathsome puppeteer named Count Volpe (Christoph Waltz), and becomes a beloved performer. You fall in love with him too.

Then he dies.

Throughout the film, Pinocchio ventures back and forth between the afterlife. Each time he encounters four black rabbits who look like the bunny in Donnie Darko. He learns the rules of eternal life from Death (Tilda Swinton) who is scary at first. She embodies Greco Roman, Egyptian, and Mesopotamian Gods all mixed together.

The narrative becomes a proto-Grecian myth as Death explains things patiently to Pinocchio. Each time he dies (whether by vehicle, bullet, or sea-mine) he learns that he has agency in life and he can learn from his mistakes. He learns of deeper more troubling problems too, privy only to those who live forever.

Pinocchio cost $35 million to produce. Once you see the quality of stop-motion animation you might guess why. This is by far one of the best stop-motion films.

Check out this interview with the character designers, animator, and production designer

Michael Burton is a digital artist, film director, and animation producer. Burton combines art, film, and animation to create historically based stories. He has produced several hybrid-animation shorts including Gold Slipper by Willa Cather (2020), Anna (2018), and Freedom Stories (2022). Burton produced and animated the feature film The Bell Affair (2022). Burton’s digital artwork has been featured across the country and in solo exhibitions at the National Willa Cather Center in Red Cloud, Nebraska, the Denver Art Museum, RISD Art Museum, Joslyn Art Museum, Digital Graffiti in Alys Beach, Florida, and the Sheldon Art Museum. 

He is currently the director of the Robert Hillestad Textiles Gallery and an Assistant Professor of Foundation Art and Design at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln

Knives Out ~ The Review

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Knives Out

starring Don Johnson, Jamie Lee Curtis, LaKeith Stanfield, and Daniel Craig

written and directed by Rian Johnson (Star Wars: The Last Jedi). 

(spoiler alert)

Knives Out is a cautionary tale for two groups of people: first,  multimillionaires who, on a whim, play a cat and mouse game I will call “Disinheritance”; and, second, the offspring of multimillionaires who stand to inherit the fortune of their multimillionaire relative.  Crime novelist and collector of automata (or moving dolls), Harlan Thrombey, multimillionaire played by Christopher Plummer, has been “murdered”.  Detective Benoit Blanc (played by Daniel Craig who tries his best to out southern a southern drawl) appears on the scene with his team, Lieutenant Elliott (LaKeith Stanfield) and Trooper Wagner (Noah Segan) to investigate matters.

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Harlan Thrombey, Patriarch

Knives Out is a captivating whodunnit filled with the usual twists and turns, and hidden secrets lurking about the nooks and crannies of the isolated Thrombey mansion (filmed at the Ames Mansion, a 20-room historic site located at Massachusetts’ Borderland State Park). If you are a fan of Agatha Christie, then Knives Out is your movie.

As with most dead who have taken care of their business here on earth, from the grave, Thrombey wields that four-corner document to upend the economic status of his relatives. At the reading of the Will by the family’s attorney Alan Stevens (Frank Oz), the inheritance of each relative is cut to pieces and thrown to Marta Cabrera (Ana de Armas), the young, unsuspecting Latinx home care nurse to patriarch Thrombey. Yes, the entire fortune: money, mansion, and publishing business.

Even though they have been subsisting on the kindness of Patriarch Thrombey while he was alive, the characters are worth caring about. Each actor interprets the patriarch’s betrayal with seething disbelief. All eyes turn to Marta, and you might feel a bit of a nick and cut from the “knife” of Thrombey’s Last Will and Testament but coupled with anger as the family, desperate to reclaim(?) the estate, threaten Marta with the deportation of her mother, who is in the United States illegally.

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On one hand, I refuse to praise Thrombey’s change of heart. Thrombey allowed his relatives and their offspring to live with him and nourish family ties on average of fifty years. Along the way, he provided them a lavish lifestyle of privilege and pleasure on average for fifty years, and on a whim he imagines them jumping to it and earning a living? Confess to indiscretions? Please! Yes, they are dysfunctional but he shares the greater responsibility of every dysfunctional dynamic formed within the confines of that mansion. As the powerful patriarch, he determined to play with people’s lives.

Even more egregious, his Last Will and Testament endangered the lives of Marta, her mother, and her sister. What he ultimately commits in front of Marta in his study causes her extreme trauma and that she question her nursing skills.

On the other hand, there seems to be an overarching aspect of the story. Perhaps when it all comes down to it, Johnson suggests it is the blood, sweat, and toil of the immigrant population that made possible for the Harlan Thrombeys of the world to garner the wealth and privilege they enjoy. Let that marinate.


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Linda Drysdale (Jamie Lee Curtis)

On another, I would surmise that Knives Out is a filmic lesson in expectations held by those who have trust funds pending or a rich relative who has been maintaining familial lifestyles with an allowance, or those who are in line to inherit anything. As I viewed Knives Out, the first stanza of Alice Walker’s poem “Expect Nothing” came to mind:

Expect nothing. Live frugally
On surprise.
become a stranger
To need of pity
Or, if compassion be freely
Given out
Take only enough
Stop short of urge to plead
Then purge away the need.

… because at any moment, your kinsman/woman could pull knives out and slash your every assumption, laughing all the way to the grave.℘

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Harriet ~ A Review

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John (Zackary Momoh) and Minty (Cynthia Erivo)

The jewel in Harriet is black love. The film opens with it. As I watched John and Minty/Harriet Tubman love up on each other in the establishing shot, I did not care what happened next. I just didn’t. They hugged–tightly. They kissed–passionately. They hugged again–tightly. He, a free man, married an enslaved woman. She, after taking her freedom, came back for him. Yes, he did what he did later but only on news of her “death”.  Then, to see her father — to see the love in his eyes for his girl and the trust he had in her decision to run — I thought of my own father.
Harriet Tubman was loved. She was respected. She was believed in and on. She was trusted. Her mother loved her and said it. Her father loved her and said it. All of her brothers and sisters loved her and said it. Her husband loved her; believed in her. He would have died for her, if she had let him. The pastor loved and believed in her. It is he who entrusts her with the routes and names of people who will facilitate her journey. Those enslaved believed in her. All hugged her neck on every visit. Be not mistaken: Harriet Tubman loved them back. Harriet is love.

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Minty/Harriet w/ her pastor Rev. Green (Vondie Curtis-Hall)

What struck me was how the men–black and white–protected her. Oh. How they protected her. A white farmer knows Harriet is hiding in the back of his wagon but, to paraphrase Zora Neale Hurston, he ‘takes her a piece of the way with him’ then moves aside for her to continue on her mission. After witnessing the beauty of Harriet’s crossing of the river, another young black man joins her venture. Later, he provides safe passage for her family. There’s more. White men in Philadelphia draw their rifles on her enslaver when he tries to kill her on the wharf.  In tandem, the young black men on the docks in that same city secure her safety. That’s love.
The director, Kasi Lemmons, has prepared for us a most refreshing dramatization of the community of enslaved people that thrived during a time when white plantation owners considered people of African descent nothing but property. She also takes us on the inside of the free black community in Philadelphia and portrays their support of the enslaved who dared to take their freedom. Marie Buchanan, a free-born black woman in Philadelphia, embraces Harriet in her home as she would a sister. In addition, Lemmons makes known the white Americans, across social class, who, in their own way, resisted the institution of slavery; that there were black men–young men–who, in this story, made possible Harriet’s successful enterprise.

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Marie (Janelle Monae) teaches Harriet

On the whole, Harriet tells us that when you are loved up on and validated in your own church, community, and family, you can cross the river to the other side and with others in tow. You can return again and again. You can live to tell it. That’s love.
Let us pray.

Where’s My Roy Cohn

A Review

Listen Here @ 1:00:07

Joseph McCarthy. Julius Rosenberg. Ethel Rosenberg. Espionage. Rupert Murdoch. John Gotti. Homophobia. Master Manipulator. Ronald Reagan. Donald Trump.

Each term. Each person. Line ’em up. Then wait. Just wait. One slip of a man will emerge from the bushes: Roy Cohn, the notorious attorney extraordinare who came of age and gained power and influence during a most infamous time in the history of the United States: The McCarthy Era.

I did not know Roy Cohn; but the House UnAmerican Committee lead by Joseph McCarthy, I knew all too well. I learned of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg but had no idea the man behind that moment in our history. Even when Donald Trump asked “Where’s My Roy Cohn” after the former Attorney General Jeff Sessions recused himself from the Russian investigation in 2017, Roy Cohn did not ring a bell.

Matt Tyrnauer’s documentary Where’s My Roy Cohn brings to relief Roy Cohn, a mastermind … a shadow of sorts lurking within the vein of the most recognized moments in our history. Tyrnauer’s Cohn is assured, Columbia University educated, and an aggressive craftsman in the art of manipulation. His tactics? Admit nothing. Apologize nevah! Lie and lie no matter the truth. Smear your enemies. Disparage the press. Go on the offense—immediately.

Where’s My Roy Cohn is a study of a product of capitalism—what that system can produce and what it will allow to have full reign in the halls of power.

Where’s my Roy Cohn is an exploration of the arrogant disregard for the law to such an extent that people, such as mob boss John Gotti, called on him for a defense.

There is no doubt Tyrnauer’s political leanings, but the director courageously offers up an incisive documentary raid on the personal life of Roy Cohn. Call him the devil. Call him evil. But there is one fact you cannot deny him: Roy Cohn was a shrewd and talented engineer of the maneuver and influence. He understood full well how far a system could bend. When it was rumored that he had contracted AIDS, he merely replaced them with his correct diagnosis: he had liver cancer.

Special to Where’s My Roy Cohn are the commentaries from his family, and from columnists such as the late Liz Smith, writer Ken Aluetta, radio personality Sam Roberts, and Donald Trump’s former longtime political advisor Roger Stone.

The beauty of Where’s My Roy Cohn resides in the knowledge of just how this kind of personality works; its strategies and maneuvers … you won’t be caught off guard again. After viewing Where My Roy Cohn, I wanted to hug every single person who had been kind to me and for those who had tripped me up on their evil, I can now say, and say it with a smile: I see you! Just as did Martin London who successfully engineered Roy Cohn’s disbarment in 1986 for unethical conduct. Five weeks later, Roy Cohn died of complications from AIDS on August 2, 1986 in Bethesda, Maryland. He was 59 years old.

A True Crime ~ A Review

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Filmmaker Marques Green has a watchful eye on the travails of young Black men in his newest short film A True Crime. Donte (Tireni Oyenusi) is a 14-year-old in search of his own current in the flow of his community. In his search, Donte becomes entangled in an all too familiar situation we are witnessing at present in our socio-political climate: he is coerced to confess to a crime he did not commit.

I wanted to show his [Donte’s] sense of betrayal by the cops he thought were his friends but now are full on enemies. All of this in the middle of the night, and he is all by himself.

~ Tireni Oyenusi

Green’s inspiration for A True Crime comes from an actual crime that happened to a developmentally challenged black teenager named Davontae Sanford in Detroit, Michigan. Sanford was tried as an adult and convicted of four murders in 2007. When professional hitman Vincent Smothers confessed to the murders, Sanford was exonerated of the crimes in 2016. “I thought it was an interesting and layered story all the way around,” says Green, “It sparked so many questions for me like why would he make up a story and admit to something he didn’t do? How could the police violate him so willingly? How could this happen? What can we learn from it and, ultimately, what will bring change?”

Marques Green Portrait Nov 2017 B&W

Marques Green, Director

We first meet Donte walking alone idly on a sunny day among discarded items on the sidewalk. The ice cream truck arrives. Children gather around Phil (Christian Henley), a gang member, as he passes out money to them to buy ice cream. Phil’s generosity encourages Donte to ask for his share to purchase ice cream as well. Phil pushes him away. Clay (Freddie Gibbs), Phil’s partner, arrives in a shiny red car with his girlfriend (Veranique Basquez). As Clay enters the car, Donte asks to hang out with them. Phil replies, “Are you crazy? Yo’ slow ass ain’t fit to be part of this!” Later, when Donte awakens his mother to advise her that something has happened, she tells him “mind your business and take yo’ ass back to bed. Go!”

Donte, for certain, is in a precarious space: too old to belong with the kids and too young to cruise with the grown up Old G’s. In this vortex of confusion, Donte unwittingly begins his journey for inclusion. “He’s coming of age and navigating manhood,” explains Green, “and I wanted to know exactly how that happens for Donte in a community that has made him invisible. I wanted us to look at ourselves and these situations, to really see how the community has failed him, to show how alone he is.”

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Tireni Oyenusi as Donte

Oyenusi caught the character’s isolation within his community when he read the script. “The first thing that hit me was how much struggle he goes through. On top of having emotional and behavioral disabilities, he just wants to fit in. He wants so badly to be a part of the community. Nobody wants to hang around him. I saw all of that struggle.”

Donte indeed finds acceptance but it is in the back seat of a squad car with Detective Brown (Hector Bustamante) and Detective Myers (Michael Cognata), two “friendly” policemen who have been called to the murder scene of the four people in the neighborhood. Detective Myers “befriends” Donte but with an ulterior motive. Cognata analyzed the role to discover other dimensions to his character. He reveals, “Detective Myers is a part of an evil scheme but I wanted to make sure to bring some sympathy, some humanity to him. He’s under pressure to solve the crime. People don’t always intend to harm. Myers was in a position to help that kid but his choices in this situation were for his own protection. It was his inability to stand up when the moment was right.” Green agrees,

the dynamic between the cops – the pressure they feel in trying to solve this quadruple murder–works against Donte. Both interrogate him without his parent; he has no protection in that room. One cop knows what they are doing is wrong but works with his superior officer to create the downfall of Donte. To make matters worse, Donte doesn’t understand the weight or gravity of the situation he is in.

A True Crime, then, is a story of violation: a violation of rights, a violation of space, and a violation of trust. Derek Whitacre’s music score strikes the haunting realities Donte has to face in his desperation to fit in. Cinematographer Bruce Francis Cole deftly uses warm and cold hues of gold, blue, and white lighting to create the tone and ambiance of these public and private disruptions.

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Donte and Clay take a dream ride

The flashing lights from the police car violate not only public space of the neighborhood,  also, the violation occurs in the private space of the home. There is no rest. There is no privacy. Lights pierce through Donte’s bedroom awakening him from sleep; they sweep through the living room; and, beams of red pound against the outer walls of houses. When the white beam from the police’s light flashes on Donte in the yard, Donte reacts as if a sword has impaled his body. The only peace to be found is in Donte’s head as he imagines hanging out with Clay and Phil in that shiny red car. 

People don’t always intend to harm. Myers was in a position to help that kid but his choices in this situation were for his own protection.

~ Michael Cognata

There are several angles to the story, and Shayar Bhansali’s seamless editing makes fluid each narrative intersection. Cognata notes how pressure plays out in the film. He says, “everyone is under pressure to make a decision. Donte’s mother, for example, whom we briefly hear from, probably works a lot so she’s tired and has to sleep through the majority of time with her son, so there is a lack of leadership there.” Oyenusi marks out Donte’s distress throughout the story. The particular choice the actor makes in his final close-up signifies the character’s desperation. “At that point, I really tried to feel what Donte was feeling as he was among strangers,” Oyenusi says, “I wanted to show his sense of betrayal by the cops he thought were his friends but now are full on enemies. All of this in the middle of the night, and he is all by himself.”

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Donte and Detective Myers (Michael Cognata)

Green’s overarching angle in A True Crime is the exploration of the justice system, a system he believes, “needs a lot of work, and there are different ways those who work within that system try to get us caught up in it. That could have been me in the back of that squad car or my brother or any Black youth. I wanted to place the audience in Donte’s position to feel the pressure he was forced to deal with. The whole situation is a crime, really.”

In the final analysis, Green is motivated to tell not just stories, but stories that investigate the moeurs of every day life. “I have to create. Real stories inspire me, and  A True Crime embodies all of the elements I see Black men having to navigate on a daily basis.”

Diego Nájera and Katherine Fisher, producers; Sheri Bradford, Executive Producer; Valerie Castillo Martinez, Francisco Velasquez, and Angel Kristi Williams, Executive Producers-Film Independent; Roxy Hua, Production Design; Robyn Owen Silvestri, CSA, and Michael Sanford, Casting.  

A True Crime  premieres at Philadelphia’s BlackStar Film Festival in August 2019.

For more information on Marques Green, visit

A True Crime is a project of Film Independent Future Filmmakers’ Project Involve. For more information, visit


The Fall of the American Empire

Money has its own power. What will you do when it talks to you?

A Review

Listen Here @ 1:02:32

The Fall of the American Empire. Don’t the let the title fool you. The film is set not in America but in Montreal, Canada. Based on a true crime that happened in Old Montreal in 2010, film director Denys Arcand explores issues of class and race framed by two duffel bags filled with $12 million dollars. The Fall of the American Empire opens with a couple assessing their relationship in a diner. The mood is somber. Linda cannot understand why her boyfriend Pierre-Paul works as a deliveryman, especially since he earned an advanced degree in philosophy. “If you’re so smart,” she begins, “why aren’t you president of a bank?” He answers, “I’m too intelligent.” From there, he commences to critique some of the great writers philosophers whom he deems were “dumb as mules” even though they hold the distinction of “genius” in the academy. “Hemingway, the novelist, thought he could box … Louis Althusser strangled his wife!” he uses as examples to convince her. In certain scenes, though, Pierre-Jean flexes his philosophical knowledge. Given the circumstances, he quotes Artistotle, Kant, Socrates, and Ludwig Wittenstein.

Denys directs a charming ensemble of characters who make unlikely turns in their life once the duffel bags of money are dropped into the picture. Now how did THAT happen? A botched robbery. Two young black men contracted by the mafia to rob a retail shop called The Hollywood. It just so happens that Pierre-Jean arrives at The Hollywood to make a delivery while the robbery is taking place. The robbery is foiled by the store’s security guard. Dead bodies are sprawled everywhere, and as luck would have it, one of the perpetrators drops the bag of money at the feet of Pierre-Jean in his escape. The other perpetrator stumbles outside of the store with his bag and falls face down in the parking lot. Interesting. Pierre-Jean does not call for an ambulance nor the police; rather he scans for witnesses. The area is quiet—real quiet. Pierre-Jean’s next move sets in motion a charming cat-and-mouse adventure between Pierre-Jean, his team, and the police.

By happenstance, Pierre-Jean assembles a company of a high class prostitute, an ex-money launderer, and a corporate executive to aid him in laundering the money. Pierre-Jean and Company elude the police and the crime syndicate. It’s a tense but delightful game as they get to move in and out of Montreal society with just a modicum of detection.

But Denys Arcand makes a subtle statement: the cat-and-mouse cunning of Pierre-Jean and comrades happens only for them, the white members. Remember the Black perpetrator who survives? His name is Jacmel Rosabert. He pays for the crime in a most grueling way. The torture scene is gratuitous – really, all too much to bear, especially when Jacmel is thereafter tossed out like a Hefty gallon plastic bag on a trash heap by the mob. To add insult to my viewing injury, Vladimir Francois, the Black businessman who masterminded the robbery—and of in his own store nonetheless, comes to a gruesome fate leaving his wife and two children in what surely will upend their lives. After all is said and done, Arcand decides to pay homage to those citizens who awaken every day out of their sleeping bags, from their folded packs of clothes; those who have spent the night in a store’s entrance or under a bridge; those who are the homeless. Strange. I had to ask myself, why am I feeling this is too little too late?

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Her Smell @ The Ross

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Elizabeth Moss as Becky Something

Director Alex Ross Perry brings to the screen frenetic energy swaddled in pain, delusion, and despair in his film Her Smell. Starring Elizabeth Moss of The Handmaiden’s Tale, Her Smell charts in five acts the rise and fall and rise of an all-girl punk band called Something She. Becky Something, played by Moss with chaotic intensity, is the leader of the band.

Her Smell is noisy and cantankerous and messy, to the point of viewer exhaustion. The usual suspects that plague these bands? They’re all there: Drug abuse, verbal abuse physical abuse, member betrayals; the manager who wants to throw himself off a cliff; the self-destruction, the distressed child, the unsung ex-husband who patiently waits for his ex-wife’s recovery, the “OMG where is she? Is she ready to go on?” moments; then the full mental breakdown and … recovery – if you could call it that.

The film unfolds in the 1990s, when the punk rock scene was all the rage. Something She is well-received by the patrons at the club called Her Smell. At times the story breaks into cinematic pieces, and cinematographer Sean Price Williams gracefully moves to put them all back together. Moss interprets Becky Something as an abrasive raptorial bird who opens her wings to isolate herself from bandmates. The band members of Something She hang on by a thread to keep the band going in spite of their fear of collapsing. Dan Stevens plays Danny, her tolerant ex-husband who shields their daughter from her mother’s destructive ways. It is clear that celebrity and stardom have engulfed Becky into its vortex, and there is nothing pretty about it! Nothing.

What is missing from the cinematic narrative, however, is the reason for Becky’s slide into self-abuse. What happened? When and how did her identity fracture? Becky’s mother, Ania, played with maternal angst by Virginia Madsden, offers no answers. Interesting to Her Smell are the behind the scenes cinematic portraits of those persons who are trapped within the quagmire of recording studios and encased in halls offstage walled in by concrete. They are always on the brink of being swallowed whole by the celebrity for whom they are paid to endorse. Hmmmm … feels like a satellite of hell!

This film is most tedious to watch; it’s like taking in cinematic poison. You will be hard-pressed to make an investment in the characters, and Becky’s redemption is too little, too late.

Screen Shot 2018-03-09 at 6.30.01 PMHer Smell plays through May 16 at the Ross Media Arts Center in Lincoln.

Also showing at the Ross are The Mustang and Sunset.


Blue Caprice ~ A Review

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Alexandre Moors’S Blue Caprice is a chilling film. This first time writer/director’s film imagines the backstory to the 23 days of terror in the Washington Metropolitan area instigated in October 2002 by John Allen Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo, better known as the D.C. Snipers. This film is haunting, and right from its opening, you know Moors has created a dramatization of events that will leave you feeling depressed, and he doesn’t let up. The atmosphere is cold, distant, and dreadful. Moors’s exploration of revenge, for example, uncovers how deep it cuts into the spirit and what revenge manifests in the human psyche once it is enacted.

Muhammad (Isaiah Washington) and Malvo (Tequan Richmond)

Muhammad (Isaiah Washington) and Malvo (Tequan Richmond)

What is alarming about this film is the danger many of our teenagers encounter when the usual suspects of societal systems are breached, and therefore leaves them open for anyone to facilitate their coming of age. I’m talking about family, church, and/or community. Without these systems and healthy guardianship, the intense need to belong makes them susceptible to forces that will destroy them. Isaiah Washington gives a superb performance as Muhammad, and he makes seamless his character’s transition from concerned surrogate father to seasoned sociopath. Tequan Richmond as Malvo illicits some sympathy because all the while you are thinking his parental abandonment at the age of 15 made him vulnerable to Muhammad’s abuse and manipulation.

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The Butler – A Review

Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker)

Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker)

I, Too, Sing America
I am the darker brother.
They send me to eat in the kitchen

Tomorrow, I’ll be at the table

They’ll see how beautiful I am
And be ashamed—

I, too, am America.
–Langston Hughes

The “darker brothers “and sisters have burst out of the kitchen, and they have arrived strong and beautiful on the doorstep of The White House in Lee Daniels’ impressive film The Butler. The film calls up a history that can be traced back to the time when the prevailing plantation system meant that the enslaved cut and hauled each stone to build that house; that George Washington would bring his enslaved servants, Ona “Oney” Maria Judge and Hercules to it (both eventually escaped); that Paul Jennings, President James Madison’s servant/slave would come; that Elizabeth Keckley would be modiste to First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln and William Slade, President Lincoln’s butler; and, finally, that Eugene Allen, the butler on whose life the film is based, would join them in a history proving that the African American has had and continues to have an intimate relationship with The White House, our national home.

Elizabeth Keckley

Elizabeth Keckley

William Slade

William Slade

Paul Jennings

Paul Jennings

Daniels firmly holds on to his dramatization of the socio-cultural and racial dynamics as he moves the butler, Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker), through his thirty-four years in the White House. Who would have predicted, however, that the elegance of domestic science would sashay out and rise as the star of the film! The conventions of manners, grace, and poise within the national home reign supreme, and they are invigorating. As the tea cups, water glasses, dinner plates, silverware and cloth napkins are set and folded respectfully by the hand of each butler, one cannot help but think of Booker Taliaferro Washington, who also thrust a long arm into the presidential suite throughout his career. Say what you will about Washington’s philosophy on and his praise of industrial education, the former slave-turned-consummate educator and founder of the esteemed Tuskegee Institute (1881) understood all too well the attractive art of domestic science and its “neatness and system”. In Working with the Hands, the sequel to his autobiography Up From Slavery, for instance, Washington discovers that seeing the artistry in the product of his manual labor cultivates a positive sense of self. After surveying the results of his handiwork in grounds-keeping while in the service of Mrs. Viola Ruffner, his most exacting white employer, Washington proclaims,

when I saw and realised that all this was a creation of my own hands, my whole nature began to change. I felt a self-respect, an encouragement, and a satisfaction I had never before enjoyed or thought possible. Above all else, I had acquired a new confidence in my ability actually to do things and to do them well. (9).

Booker T. Washington

Booker T. Washington

The Hampton Normal and Agricultural School in Virginia (later Hampton Institute) nourished Washington’s self-respect as the school attended his book-learning with its practical industrial education curriculum. At Hampton, Washington learned grounds-keeping, iron and woodwork, cooking, agriculture, personal cleanliness and protocols in behavior. The industrial arts , later to be called Shop Class and Home Economics, then enjoyed an easy collaboration with liberal arts education–that is until, I would surmise, the national effort to integrate public schools in the 1970s. There was a push to focus college/university degrees in the liberal arts, or what Washington labeled “mental and religious education”. This change, unfortunately, shoved to the side the industrial arts such as cabinetmaking and carpentry; mechanical drawing and brickmasonry; dressmaking and tailoring; and welding and mechanic. Almost overnight, “satisfaction inspired by the sight of a perfectly made bed,” and “pillows placed […] at the right angle, and edges of the sheets turned over” became, it seems, anathema to Black progress. (11). Shop Class and Home Economics, then, began their slow but sure decline.

Eugene Allen serves President Gerald Ford and guests at The White House

Eugene Allen serves President Gerald Ford and guests at The White House

Fortunately, The Butler remembers, with deference, the craftsman who works with his hands, and he stands proud along with the iconic Pullman Porter and Chauffeur. Central to The Butler is the acknowledgement of three fundamental components essential for the success of a craftsman’s training: First, expertise for the butler, acquiring an appreciation for etiquette; second, apprenticeship, to hone the craftsman’s skills; and, finally, teachers with an ardent investment in student learning. The African American male and the white mistress, notably, tutor Gaines, and their tutelage produces The Butler, a precise craftsman bearing grace and confidence.

We have watched African American women pass down this legacy in Jonathan Demme’s Beloved and, more recently, Tate Taylor’s The Help. We have heard Oprah Winfrey testify to Diane Sawyer on’s Person of the Week, “I am the daughter of a maid; my mother was a maid; my grandmother was a maid” to draw attention to the women in her family who worked with their hands in white households. The Butler puts front and center this same legacy in the African American male and his apprenticeship in domestic science.

The scenes between 10-year-old Cecil (Isaac White) and his father Earl (David Banner) in the cotton fields; 15-year-old Cecil (Aml Ameen) and the aged plantation mistress Annabeth Westfall (Vanessa Redgrave); and Cecil and Maynard, the dessert shop servant, (Clarence Williams III) are stirring illustrations of mentorship across lines of gender and race.

Mistress Wentworth (Vanessa Redgrave) and the making of The Butler

Mistress Wentworth (Vanessa Redgrave) and the making of The Butler

Let us move to a Georgia cotton field. Earl teaches Cecil how to pick the best cotton, using his hands to demonstrate the details of that labor. It is a lesson wrapped in humor: “Now you know the cotton is ready when the bud splits and the bowl is star shaped, like a big old star in the sky–like your big ol’ head!” After a traumatic event in the cotton field, Mistress Annabeth “promotes” Cecil to the big house. There, she instructs him on the rules of perfect service, which, for certain, would cause Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man to holler from the underground when he hears her first rule, “[Be] quiet when you’re serving,” and go on to say, “I don’t even want to hear you breathe. The room should feel empty when you enter it.”

Maynard (Clarence Williams III) coaches Cecil

Maynard (Clarence Williams III) coaches Cecil

Upon his “graduation” from the plantation to the city, Maynard tutors Gaines on how to serve white patrons: “Slow down; better to look at their eyes—see what it is they want; see what it is they need. Anticipate.” From the cotton fields to the big house to high society, Cecil’s discipline and pride in his work stand him ready to enter into his national home. Because we have seen him in these contexts, we feel such pride when Gaines announces himself at the White House gate, “I’m Cecil Gaines; I’m the new butler.”

The job is prestigious, but the national, political and the personal domestic spheres inevitably clash. The negotiations Gloria (Oprah Winfrey) and Gaines have to make to maintain their marriage, home, and parenthood are engrossing to watch. Secrecy and curiosity, no doubt, infiltrate their household. Gaines has access to the most highly classified information in the world: that requires the confidence to practice discretion. Gloria polishes her respect for this aspect of her husband’s job yet, understandably, yearns to see inside of the White House. This exclusion eventually takes its toll on Gloria. On notification of the Kennedy assassination from her husband, she retorts, “I’m really sorry about the President, I really am. But you and that White House can kiss my ass!”


Lee Daniels marks how an ordinary man who is educated on a Georgia plantation navigates the verbal and emotional restrictions required by his extraordinary job. This kind of control takes reserve; and, more important, respect for the gravity of one’s place. In all, The Butler pays homage to African American males in domestic service and to those who teach them. In the process, the filmmaker bestows honor on the hands that cleaned the china and polished the silver; that ironed the sheets to make the beds; and that prepared meals and served every one of them with dignity and style. The greater tribute, though, extends to the hands of every enslaved African American who hoisted the stones to build the house that President Barack Obama and family now live in. They, too, are singing America!

A special ‘thank you’ to Professor Emeritus Robert Haller (UNL) for lending his expertise in syntax.

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The Bluest Note ~ A Review

The blues notes no longer play for Tony Mann (Len Xiang)

The blues notes no longer play for Tony Mann (Len Xiang)

Marques Green (Que Films) is in good company with Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes because this independent filmmaker understands fully the ‘tune o’ those weary blues’ surveyed in his film short, The Bluest Note (2012). Penned by Oliver Webb, Jr., The Bluest Note is a brooding film that never releases the audience from its descent, even though we are hopeful until the very end. Hope indeed is the bluest note.

Len Xiang is Tony Mann, a once successful R&B / Jazz stylist whose own instrument—his voice–has betrayed him after having carried him through the hallowed halls of fame. The ‘blue notes’ elude him, and with every screech and scrag, Mann elicits from the audience a fervent plea to his vocal chords to serve the artist just one more time. Please? We learn later that a ruthless siren, Niva, has placed us under a spell. Played with uncompromising desire by model Jaynelle Clarke, Niva lures Mann to sing despite the vocal letdown. Mann’s wife, Christine (Stacey Lewis) relentlessly pushes her husband to see that Tony is “not that person anymore”, but she is no match for Niva. We, too, want Christine to stay out of our business!

Lewis inhabits Christine’s hope, taking care to throw into sharp relief the despair over what marriage itself cannot save. Both Tony and Christine yearn for a revival of sorts. Mann craves what he once was in the public spotlight; Christine collects pieces from their marital past with the hope Tony will see the value in a life the two of them created in private before the intrusion of fame. Of her character, Lewis explains,

Stacey Lewis (Christine)

Stacey Lewis (Christine)

Tony and Christine genuinely loved each other and were committed to their marriage. I believe, however, it was nearly impossible for her to accept and to understand that she and the life they had before the fame were not enough for him to stop seeking validation from the public. I think Christine’s anger, sadness, and jealousy stemmed from the fact she was no longer Tony’s muse and was not a strong enough deterrent to keep him from self-destructing.

The seduction and taunt of celebrity culture without question have caused Christine’s ‘weary blues’, and Lewis notes, “once celebrity is achieved by someone that person will move heaven and earth to maintain it, even to their own detriment and to the detriment of their loved ones. It’s as if the idea of being regulated back to ‘normal’ is emotionally, mentally, and physically painful.”

We feel the pain. Mann strives for his voice to recognize that they once were a team, and to remember the vibrancy of their performances. He actually could sing again. All he has to do is take better care of his instrument, practice, and schmooze among his fellow artists. After all, people remember him … but only ‘when’. It is an agony born out of loss and desperation, and Green dramatizes without restraint the emotional cost of a gift that has vanished only to return in disrepair:

I think the loss of one’s gift is a very challenging thing and can cause people to react in all sorts of ways. With The Bluest Note our intention was to explore this loss. […] This particular case is extreme, but I do feel that many can relate to losing something that is very important to them.

Xiang, who in real-life performs on trains in New York (called a ‘Buster’), appreciates Green’s exploration of ‘finding your way back’ after disappointment and failure in The Bluest Note. He believes this particular journey receives short shrift by mainstream Hollywood when telling the Black artist’s story:

I am so honored to be a part of this film. Eminem’s 8 Mile, 50 Cent’s Get Rich or Die Tryin’, Carey’s Glitter and others … they show the rise to the top; Hollywood perpetuates this image of us loving the struggle because we were slaves and this is where we come from. I’m over that! There is so much info and research that goes into our lineage as Black people. Why not the story of somebody who has made it to the top then falls down? What choices do they make?

With piercing heaviness, Xiang bears Mann’s burden of choices as he makes a ‘come back’ but only to a place that has no role for him to play anymore. Personally for Xiang, he is all too aware of an artist’s everyday hustle to ‘make it’ in a highly competitive market and what is necessary to sustain his status once success actually is achieved. His character’s journey, he reveals, touches close to his heart.

Really, there is no character there, that’s all me! The music, the songs, too. Tony’s struggle is a struggle I am going through right now, so it was an honor to be that brutally honest in that film. Artists have to figure out how to continue to be artists if they fall. What are those ways? Right now, I’m pushing my way into an industry that is no longer how it used to be. It used to be you signed with a label, and there it was. Now all of that is out of the door. YOU are your own label; your own brand.

The Siren, Niva (Jaynelle Clarke) returns for Tony

The Siren, Niva (Jaynelle Clarke) returns for Tony

In Green’s project, Xiang seamlessly interfolds his own story but still defers to Tony Mann and all of the identity politics that come with him. The Bluest Note glimpses, through Mann, the transition of an artist’s identity from a ‘you’ that embraces you then casts you out into the land of ordinary or onto the strip of normal. Clarke exploits the camera’s power and grants Niva full range to mock Mann with her wisps of possibility. Her skill on the runway, moreover, bolsters her threat not only to Mann’s marriage but to his psychological well-being as well. More striking, cinematographer Giacomo Belletti films Mann’s loss and Niva’s seduction in alluring shades of dark chocolate, maroon, and blue/grey mist; then, he shifts to hues of apricot, rose and ivory to frame Mann’s once sung happiness.

Green rightly acknowledges, with clarity and coherence, the peculiar nature of talent; how it can lose its flexibility and ease of production at any given moment; and, how it will refuse to stand and deliver no matter the force … no matter the prayer. What happens, then, to the ‘you’ left standing? Langston Hughes well may have replied “You move on, man, you move on.” In The Bluest Note, however, where you move can mean a matter of life or death.

Marques Green, Director (Moses Djeli Photography)

Marques Green, Director (Moses Djeli Photography)

The Bluest Note will be screened at the California African American Museum in Los Angeles on August 10; it screened at the The BlackStar Film Festival Saturday, August 3 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and won the Jury Prize for Best Short. In February, The Bluest Note won the Outstanding Independent Short by The Black Reel Awards: Saluting African Americans in Film.

For more information on The Bluest Note, ‘Like’ on Facebook. Visit for more information on filmmaker Marques Green.

The Bluest Note made its debut at the UrbanWorld Film Festival 2012 in New York.

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