Tag Archives: Racism

A Drink Before the War by Dennis Lehane

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For your information, I broke the rules early on and read the fifth book, Gone, Baby, Gone in the Lehane’s Kenzie and Gennaro series before I read his debut novel A Drink Before the War. Comparing the two, I actually like Gone Baby Gone, a teeny bit better than I like this one. I can see how Dennis Lehane developed as a writer between the penning of these two books. Not only is Gone, Baby, Gone more emotionally effective, it doesn’t hit the reader as much with its social issues.

Don’t get me wrong, A Drink Before the War is a well-written mystery. I don’t even generally read mysteries, but even when I’m in a funk and can’t seem to finish anything, I can finish a book by Dennis Lehane. I haven’t read a single one of his books that have let me down or proven difficult for me to complete yet. Although I preferred Gone, Baby, Gone to this, I recommend you read A Drink Before the War first since it is the first book in the series so the timeline will make more sense chronologically if you start there.

A Drink Before the War follows private investigator Patrick Kenzie, a world-weary smart aleck who pulls no punches about his cynicism concerning the human race, and his beautiful and spirited partner, Angela Gennaro, as they navigate a gritty, Noir-ish urban Boston landscape. Some phony politicians recruit Patrick to find a black cleaning lady, Jenna Angeline, who has pilfered some important documents and disappeared.

Immediately the case smells fishy; what exactly do these documents pertains to? And why does Jenna act like her thievery of the papers is a matter of honor when Patrick does manage to find her? The answer lies among a long-time feud between two gangs and a whole lot of political corruption (politicians? Be less-than-ethical? Why I never!)

Meanwhile, Patrick deals with his seemingly unrequited love for Angela, who’s married to an abusive d-bag who smacks her around, and confronts his own prejudices when a lot of racial and socioeconomic issues simmer to the surface of this deceptively simple case. This book is well-written, thoughtful, and exciting, and Patrick’s acerbic mixture of sarcasm and cynicism makes him a dynamite narrator. There’s always something interesting going on or bubbling up in the background of this action-packed book.

I do think Lehane went a little overboard with the hot-button race issues. The book hardly ever drags, but when it does, it is  due to the sometimes didactic exposition on white privilege and race wars the author sprinkles, occasionally excessively, into the prose. I think politics have a place in fiction, even detective fiction, but this was just too much. The story should be able to present it’s issues without beating us over the head with them.

I’ll admit, Gone, Baby, Gone didn’t always use the utmost subtlety when bringing up the perils of the child protective system, but this struck me as more heavy-handed. Maybe it’s partially because everything seems to be riding hard on race issues lately (from Black Lives Matter to the Oscars debate) so I didn’t need another reminder of the hostile racial climate of today.

However, A Drink Before the War benefits from Patrick’s fresh voice and a multitude of memorable characters such as the protagonist’s ticking time bomb one-man army of a ally Bubba Rodowsky and Jenna herself, who’s made some bad decisions in life but ultimately fucks herself attempting to do the right thing for herself and her family.

What I like best about this series is that every book’s a page turner, I can’t wait to get my hands on the second novel in the series, and I recommend Dennis Lehane to anyone with a enjoyment of crime fiction and a pretty strong stomach (his books can get pretty brutal at times.) If thrillers about scandal, corruption, and hard-boiled detective action is your thing, you should do yourself a favor and pick this book up from your local library or bookstore

Rabbit-Proof Fence (2002)

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Most children can’t refrain from doing some whining and complaining on their weekly excursion to Wal-Mart. So when you see these little troopers trekking across the country, you can’t help but be uplifted a little. And have things placed in some serious perspective.

In Australia in the year of 1931, white settlers are extremely concerned that the half-caste aboriginal children of the bush will procreate with partners of the darker persuasion and stamp out sacred whiteness from peoples’ lineage. So concerned are they that they recruit an expert at white bigotry by the name of A.O. Neville (Kenneth Branagh) to help send mixed race children to grim work camps. Their intention is to ensure the children will learn to walk the walk, talk the talk, and worship the higher power of white Christians, and, God willing, pair up with white mates, gradually easing the aborigine lineage out of their family tree. Because everybody knows that the more whiteness you put in someone’s genealogy, the whiter the descendants will look. And white is might, apparently. But what these people didn’t count on intrepid youngsters Molly, Gracie, and Daisy.

Molly (Evelyn Sampi) is the oldest of three aborigine girls, and she leads her younger sisters Gracie (Laura Monoghan) and Daisy (Tianna Sansbury) on an epic escape from the camp in which they’ve been placed. Using the tracking techniques of their ancestors, the girls manage to evade detection for days while attempting to follow the ‘rabbit-proof fence’ to freedom, and ultimately to their much-beloved home and family. Unfortunately, Neville has other ideas, and his determination combined with the girl’s gumption leads to a cross-country chase that will test all four people’s willpower. Because Molly and her sisters aren’t just three little girls on the lam anymore- they’ve captured the hearts and attention of the disfranchised aborigines wheedling away their days in labor camps. They stand for something- and that’s the one thing Neville won’t allow.

Although the film version of the real story of Molly Craig and the book that ensued is probably a rather sugarcoated account of the horrors the Craig girls endured and their harrowing escape from captivity, it still captures the imagination and sympathy of viewers with very little understanding of these events. I personally knew nothing about the racial issues between the white settlers and the natives in Australia, although I know that the white man has tended to conquer wherever hew saw an opportunity to do so, from the Native Americans, to Africa, to even this. The filmmaker, Philip Noyce, chose a trio of good little actresses and although their inexperience sometimes shows they manage to carry the film for the most part on their small shoulders.

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Kenneth Branagh is despicable without being extravagantly and exaggeratedly evil, and the horrors of the camp where Aborigines are trained as domestic servants and have their culture systematically stamped out are shown with harrowing restraint. I think Neville (or ‘Devil,’ as the native children not-so-charitably call him) believes he is doing the right thing by attempting to ensure the preservation of the white race; it’s just that what he sees as right is in reality so very, very wrong. His character reminds me of a quote I once heard (I don’t remember who it’s attributed to, though,) that ‘every villain is a hero in his own mind.’ I’m sure Neville thinks he’s just dandy and righteous with the Lord and doing right by his countrymen, but it just so happens he’s an asshole- a big one.

The set-up of Rabbit-Proof Fence is kind of standard, not particularity innovative or new for the genre of dark emotionally charged biopics, but there are moments of genuine heartbreak and legitimate darkness. In one harrowing scene, a Aborigine maid hides the runaways in her bed because she believes if they’re in the room, it will prevent her white boss from raping her. It is scenes like these when you get a glimpse of how screwed up these events in history are. It also proves that you can leave some things to the imagination (where they are often just as scary, if not even scarier) when you’re making a movie about bleak historical events. At times I thought this movie could have benefited from showing a bit more of it’s horrific content; it’s not that I get jazzed up by child abuse and racism, I don’t; it’s just that there could have been a little more impact if it hadn’t stayed within the confines of the PG-13 rating. But in a way, they showed enough- enough to give you the idea of what Australian Aborigines went through during this time, the aftereffects of which their still grappling with today.

While Rabbit-Proof Fence is a meditation on a tumultuous time in history, it’s not a bore- slim at just over 90 minutes and compelling for it’s entire runtime, it’s probably a more arresting experience if you know nothing about the film’s social and political events beforehand. I suspect if you know a lot about the period the movie describes, it’ll seem a little lightweight and unsubstantial. It’s one of those movies that, while not hugely original, does hold the viewer’s investment and sympathy throughout and achieves the single greatest thing a film can achieve- it tells a great story. My guess is that if you like these kind of heart wrenching biopics, you, as I did, will be rooting for the girls all the way; and you, too, will have shed a tear by the closing credits.

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Paradise: Love (2012)

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  Pardon my French, but these old corpulent tourist cunts need a serious kick in the teeth. I haven’t been discomforted by watching a movie like this in along time. And considering the crazy – disturbing crap I watch on a regular basis, that, my friend, is saying something!

Controversial filmmaker Ulrich Seidl’s first installment  in the ‘Paradise’ trilogy takes a probing look into the world of sex tourism. 50  year  old Teresa (Margarete Tiesel ) yearns for love, but what kind of love can be found here  as a aging ‘sugar mama,’ travelling to Kenya to tempt young impoverished men with unspoken promises of material prostitution? She says at one point that she needs a man to see her for who she really is, past the saggy boobs and stretch marks and wrinkles, yet she dehumanizes the black men she shamelessly uses for sex as soulless slabs of ebony flesh.

Early on, she and a friend (Inge Maux) talk crassly and loudly about the black male as pure object in front of a young barkeep, carelessly assuming by default that the man can’t understand a thing they’re saying. In one fell swoop, a sensual, vibrant country which a rich culture and history is reduced to a kitschy tourist trap where unattractive old women go to get fucked and idly take in the scenery. This is reflected in the apparent belief by the tourists that they can learn a few trite words and phrases in Swahili and they’re fully assimilated into Kenyan culture.

The nudity and sexual content here is frank verging in a uncomfortable striptease scene as unnecessarily  pornographic  and the raw nakedness displayed on screen is not always flattering, especially as far as the women are concerned. I have to admit, the extended stripping/boner scene took this movie down a few notches for me, having crossed the line in my eyes and become borderline pornography, but the movie itself is a deliciously ambiguous portrayal of male objectification and casual racism.

The thing about this story is that these women, these fat horny lumps of pitiful desperation, probably don’t see themselves as racist. They think they’re being complimentary, reducing their boy toys to pieces of sex meat. But they’re not. They’re gross and repugnant and they don’t even know it. They’re not being any more complimentary than if an old man looked at a young black woman and called her ‘brown sugar’ and asked her to come into the bathroom for a quickie.

So that’s why I didn’t feel bad for Teresa when she was used by her Kenyan sex partner (Peter Kezungu)  for her hard-earned cash. Any sympathy I had for her initially was snuffed out by the last scene, where the story shoots straight down into a sexual and psychological hell. How desperate and hot to trot can one person be? Pretty desperate, apparently. And who says women can’t be predators? It might be harder to physically overpower a man, but that doesn’t mean you can have psychological power or fiscal power over him. Both kinds of power are bountiful in this disquieting film.

“Paradise: Love” ties into the two later films in the trilogy thematically, and it features Maria Hoffstatter as Teresa’s religious fanatic sister (the lead in the 2nd film) and Melanie Lenz as Teresa’s heavyset, sexually curious daughter (lead in the 3rd, and final film) in  small roles. There’s a lot of static shots, reminiscent of Michael Haneke, moments that seem incredibly quiet in contrast to the extremely emotionally painful things that are going on. There’s  hardly any violence, but there’s a barely contained sense of menace, of something terrible just waiting to happen in this outwardly sunny habitat.

Margarete Teisel is the perfect person to play Teresa, and I mean that in a totally complimentary way  my point is not just that she is dowdy and plump, but also that she conveys insecurity and desperation well, carries it in her shoulders. She’s not too pretty, but also she gives the impression of being ordinary in every way, even desperately so. Not too beautiful, not too smart– just a sad person struggling with her mediocrity, 

Even with minimal on-screen violence, “Paradise: Love” will make you squirm in your seat for it’s unique vision of subjugation and power play. It’s not my favorite film in the trilogy in fact, it’s probably my least liked of the three but it still has it’s ‘hey, this filmmaker is really getting at something here’ moments. And it doesn’t really matter that I saw the trilogy all out of order each film tells it’s own, desperate story, with minimal confusion plotwise. Watch it if you dare- it’s definitely a taboo shattering film.

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One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey

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If you are among the multitude of viewers who have seen Milo Forman’s 1975 film adaptation of this novel, you probably know how this story of a fun-loving rebel who bucks the system and butts heads with the tyrannical Nurse Ratched plays out. Upon reading the Ken Kesey novel, however, one comes upon deeper dimensions within the original source material; namely, the added perspective of Chief Bromden, the physically imposing, profoundly introspective, and perpetually silent American Indian.

For those who haven’t read this book or seen the movie, an overview- Bromden is a Schizophrenic inmate in a section of a mental institution lorded over by power junkie Nurse Ratched, who rules with an iron fist. Ratched controls the ward with quiet fear-mongering, politely menacing intimidation, and calm, calculated mind games. Her rule is much like that of a totalitarian state, a metaphor the novel seems all too aware of- everything is for the wretched men’s own good, of course and initially reasonable-sounding requests wheedle and nettle at the patient’s sanity while Ratched invariably comes out on top.

Hulking half-Indian Bromden knows all about Ratched’s power plays; he’s been there longer than almost anyone. He’s seen patients come and go, have their brains fried to a crisp during extended bouts of electroshock therapy or be rendered obsolete vegetables through sadistic and unnecessary lobotomies. But Bromden, who has been playing the role of a deaf-mute for years, and thus learning the darkest secrets of the clueless patients and staff, who are none the wiser, never counted on Randle P. McMurphy.

McMurphy, an amusing ne’er-do-well, a redheaded rapscallion who takes the ward by storm, is exactly what the institution needs to bring up their spirits and make them question their docile obedience of Nurse Ratched. A hellraiser from square one, he fights Nurse Ratched’s authority every chance he can get, and although at first his mad scramble at rebellion seems arbitrary to the meek patients, his free spirited independence is infectious, and begins to creep over the whole ward.

Chief Bromden seems more like a lawn decoration of a character in the movie, lingering in the background while Jack Nicholson  as McMurphy (suitably mischievous, but definitely not redheaded) takes the center stage. In the book, he is a fascinating and vital protagonist. I’ve always liked characters that were introspective and quiet, considered to be fools and reacting mildly to the insanity around them. Bromden is always thinking, always assessing. The joy of his character is that we get to see into this silent man’s thoughts. ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’ deals with a multitude of themes, including the fascism, gender roles, racism, industrialization, and the woes of a life half lived, ruled by sterility and quiet timidity.

Chief Bromden is Schizophrenic, so he often seems like a bit of an unreliable narrator, prone to sporadically ranting about thick waves of fog rolling over the ward, things shrinking and growing before his eyes, and the inexhaustible evils of the ‘combine,’ or society as a well-oiled, malevolent machine. Other times he seems sharp, bright-eyed, and impossibly wise. The supporting residents of the mental faciity presented in this novel are unique and arresting without seeming improbably quirky or kitschy, always a concern in books dealing with extreme mental illness.

If there’s one thing I would point out in this book that I wasn’t crazy about, it’s the portrayal of minorities and particularly women. While Chief Bromden is a strong, admirable, and likable character, Nurse Ratched’s ‘black boy’ minions are total fucking assholes who speak in jiving pigeon English. McMurphy repeatedly refers to the men as ‘coons’ and although his behavior isn’t exactly condoned, it isn’t treated as unacceptable either. He even refers to Turkel , the kindest of the ‘black boys,’ as an ‘old coon’ at one point. I know, I know, Kesey’s portrayal of bigotry is historically accurate, but it’s also discomforting for a modern person to read.

The fact that the racist language doesn’t get chided or sternly corrected by the author or any of the characters throughout the book is probably part of the reason it was banned and challenged multiple times since it’s publication. And censorship isn’t right. This book has many good qualities that overshadow it’s racially sensitive content. Many parents don’t like books that don’t spoonfeed their kids political correctness and pat moral lessons. My main issue was with the women in the book. The only remotely redeemable female characters were prostitutes for Chrissakes,come to relieve our poor stuttering Billy Bibbitt of his virginity. Ken Kesey seems to have some rather barbed things to say about women’s lib and us ladies in general beneath his story of the epic struggle between a gargantuan she-bitch and a rabble of cowed, frightened patients.

But never mind. Good writing is good writing, and ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’ got it. Often lyrical, sometimes beautiful, the book observes our complacency as a society as well as our habit of overlooking life’s outcasts. Powerlessness is a continuous theme- the black aides, given shitty jobs and generally crapped on by society, torment the patients, while Nurse Ratched bullies them all into quiet submission. Ironically, many of the patients are here by choice. If men would choose this hell, what awaits them in the outside world? What horrors have they escaped in their home lives, their jobs and their families? Anyone whose seen the film adaptation know that things don’t end well here. But the book is a worthy read even for those who already know the film’s story.

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou

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Esteemed poet and memoirist Maya Angelou chronicles her life from lonely, isolated black girlhood to sexual awakening and teen motherhood in this sad, poetic true-life account. Little Maya never believed much in her own self-worth, and racism was as rampant in the small community of Stamps, Arkansas, that she lived in with her Grandmama and disabled Uncle Willie as the wrenching poverty of both blacks and whites. Her unwavering sense of fatalism  forced her into the belief that she would live a brief, harsh life of subjugation before dying in a crazy dramatic way (in this sense, she is more like the modern youngster than she might think.)

But Maya (AKA Marguerite) had a  way to escape her tough circumstances- her love of books and writing, which kept her spirit strong and her mind sharp in the face of myriad staggering adversities. Through prejudice, sexual abuse, and eventually teen pregnancy, Maya not only survived, but slowly developed her sense of self and the belief that she and the African-American race deserved better than what they had been given.

Good writing is a prerequisite in an autobiography, but it also helps to have an interesting story that will grab the reader’s interest. ‘I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings’ has both. Angelou retreats so far into the mind of her younger self that the book seems free of Angelou’s adult beliefs and opinions. Sometimes it’s hard to figure out how she felt about a situation at the time she wrote the book. Maya Angelou has had a fascinating, though frequently tragic life, and the prose she incorporates into the book rolls off the tongue like sweet honey.

I found the author’s own personal feelings of self-hatred and worthlessness following her rape at age eight at the hands of her mother’s boyfriend particularly heart-wrenching. No one should ever have to feel guilty for a act of sexual violence done unto them. But I was thrilled when Mr. Freeman (the name of the bottom-feeding pederast in question) was rubbed out by Maya’s mafioso relatives. Sweet justice! Of course, it would have been better if the abuse hadn’t occurred at all, but the killing of the child rapist gave me pleasure in an mostly bleak and depressing book.

The racism portrayed within these pages is shocking (the white dentist achieving a particular low,) but it makes the reader think about how far we’ve come as a society. Nowadays if someone cared to indulge in a ‘jigaboo walks into a bar’ joke they would be greeted by most with moral outrage and unlaughing silence. Back then racism wasn’t just a mindset- it was a way of life. People had never considered that blacks could be anything more than their drastically inferior dark-skinned servants,  and in many places- including the South- thinking that there might be an alternative to prejudice and hate was all too much for these white hicks to take in.

The only thing I didn’t like about this book is that it ended far too abruptly. It concluded on a hopeful note, but at the same time it just kind of left me hanging. It’s funny, a lot of the behavior exhibited by Maya’s most well-regarded relatives would be considered child abuse by today’s standards.

She just kind of laughs countless whippings and frankly psychotic behavior (for instance her stuttering Uncle Willie  threatening to burn her and her brother Bailey on the stove) off, but nowadays that kind of acting out by unhinged grown-ups would now be followed by a visit by CPS. People talk about the ‘good old days,’ where kids were hard-working and respectful and everything was more wholesome, but were the old days really that great? This book, and others, answer my question with an emphatic no.

If you like kind of slow books that love each word onto paper, rather than simply writing them in the way of popular writers, you’ll adore Angelou’s precisely, and gorgeously written memoir. And, grim as it is, ‘I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings’ is not without it’s humor. “Preach it, Brother Thomas!” In the wake of Maya Angelou’s death the world lost a great literary voice. She brings barbed honesty and haunting lyricism into what could have been a standard coming-of-age narrative.

Kindred by Octavia E. Butler

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Occasional bad luck is inevitable. Dana, the protagonist of ‘Kindred”s luck is cataclysmic. A strong willed and -minded black woman married happily to a white older man, she is transported through time and space without so much as a how-do-you-do to slavery-era Baltimore to save her white ancestor, Rufus Weylin, from an untimely death. Without Rufus’ inevitable union with a slave woman, little Dana will never come to be- or so she believes as she returns time and time again throughout Rufus’ life to save him, increasingly cognizant of what a sadistically self-obsessed monster he is gradually becoming.

“Kindred” is my first book by Octavia E. Butler, and I was struck by how well it delivers on it’s sumptuously creative premise. It is a speculative work of fiction, but is anything but fantastical when dealing with the hardships of the slaves on the Weylins’ plantation. Seeing Dana try to hide her education and her fierce independence in attempts to play the role of a ignorant, subservient slave held a kind of morbid fascination for me. In Rome, do as the Romans do. But in this case you pretty much have the equivalent of a red target painted against your cursedly brown flesh.

As it turns out, time travel works in this kind of like the wormhole to Narnia. Dana is summoned back to the past only to find that was hours for her, turns out to be years for the people left behind in the past. ‘Kindred’ never lets you forget the spiraling disorientation of living in such a changeable reality.

Dana is a well-developed character, weakened but not weak, strong but not infallible. Even Rufus himself, sniveling bastard that he grows up to be, is painted with nuance and ambiguity, rather than thick, derisive strokes. You can see that Rufus is a worthless chode, but you can comprehend how he came to be that way, and hopefully regard him at brief moments with pity, rather than with all-consuming (and for all intents and purposes, well deserved) hatred.

I found the writing in “Kindred” both pragmatic (no frills to be found) and compelling. I was a little put off by how careless Dana, and later, her husband Kevin are at changing the timeline. Actions have consequences, every science fiction-slash- time travel buff knows that. But Dana and Kevin take no heed of the drastic ways they effect historical events.

Also, it was weirdly icky how Butler described Rufus’ continual sexual exploitation of the slave girl, Alice, as love, albeit, a ‘destructive love.’ It was old-fashioned and sometimes downright gross, and I thought that Butler , as a feminist and a woman , would no better than to call assault anything but what it is, assault. Love is wanting what’s best for someone. Rufus certainly didn’t want what was best for Alice, he wanted what was best for himself.

He was a sad little boy who grew into a nasty, pathetically small-minded man, having learned nothing but cruelty and hatred from his father. I liked how his relationship with Dana, his savior, stayed ambiguous throughout (until the end when thing went down in a big way.) It made the book so much more interesting than if she had just hated and been repulsed by him.

More than a science fiction novel, ‘Kindred’ goes beyond mere concept, delivering a pulse-pounding story with a compelling cast of characters. In a time and culture where slavery is a distant concept hidden away in history books, ‘Kindred’ takes it to the forefront of our attention as we watch history unfold with Dana. Like Dana, we are riveted and deeply moved. Unlike Dana, we experience it from the comfort of our own home. ‘Kindred’ isn’t just a must read for science fiction lovers. It’s a must read, period. Fin.

The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman by Ernest J. Gaines

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A work of fiction chronicling a life from the time of slavery to the civil rights era? Wow, I feel smarter already.

Meet Miss Jane Pittman, a 110-year-old black woman who lives on a plantation making meager wages from her white boss. She’s not a slave anymore, but she might as well be. She and her fellow  workers break their backs on the farm and receive next to nothing. Undereducated but smart as a whip, Miss Jane is quite a character. An unnamed schoolteacher convinces her to let him document her life in a series of audio recordings, suspecting Jane might have quite a story to tell. Oh, and does she ever!

Jane’s story encompasses almost a hundred years, dozens of characters, and a multitude of historical events. Jane has suffered years of abuse and heartbreak and has aged into quite a fine woman. She’s loved and lost, suffered and lost some more. But ages of struggle have given her a wise outlook on life. She’s been a slave. She’s been a wife, an adoptive mother, a warrior. But mostly she’s been quintessentially Jane, a experienced lady with a life time of memories to share.

I had never read anything by Ernest J. Gaines before The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, but I had heard many good things about him. As soon as I got ahold of a copy, I devoured it relatively quickly (for a slow reader like me, mind). A slim volume with a lot of ground to cover, Jane Pittman maintains the no-nonsense and the plain speech of it’s protagonist. I must confess I liked Jane a lot. I adored her strength and her offbeat spirituality.

I found this book to be an enlightening and educational experience without being too preachy. It certainly contains a refreshing lack of white guilt. You’ve got your basically good, decent white men and your dreadful minorities, and vice versa. Your black characters are not above racism and barbarism and your whites are not incapable of compassion. I got the impression Mr. Ernest J. Gaines has a good head on his shoulders and has bigger fish to fry than moaning about the ghastly whites, while still accurately portraying how the white man has fucked things up for many.

On the down side, I found the take of keeping all the characters straight daunting, to say the least. There were about two Marys, two Alberts, and innumerable Joes scattered throughout this narrative. Characters are introduced erratically never to be heard from again. Also, I didn’t find myself liking the last segment of the book as much as I enjoyed the first few parts. Miss Jane Pittman is best when dealing with Jane’s early years or the white Tee Bob’s doomed infatuation with a mixed-race schoolteacher.

However, when Jimmy, a precocious black boy who Jane mystically insisted could be ‘the one,’ showed up, I was just about ready for the book to end. I guess after introducing a strong, progressive African-American character like Ned earlier on and leaving Jimmy little room to develop, Jimmy just seemed like an extension of Ned. Now I know the decision was somewhat deliberate, but I still found the part of the book focusing primarily on Jimmy to be a bit of a bore.

The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman is a fascinating novel featuring a delightful heroine. It’s brilliance is in it’s artful simplicity, and I am looking forward to catching up with Gaines’ other books.

American History X (1998)

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It’s natural to be discomforted by the racist language and the violence in “American History X.” After all, what are we if we can’t be rattled and unnerved by terrific fiction? Don’t watch this movie if you’re not prepared for a film about racism where both the blacks and the whites act like absolute animals. This is not a story where the unending compassion of the African-Americans spells redemption for the biased white men. There is startling evil on both sides, just like in real life. And there are good, decent people of both races just trying to get by or to help others, just like in real life.

Danny Vinyard (Edward Furlong) is the kid the students feel antagonized by and the teachers don’t hold out much hope for. His latest travesty- “My Mein Kamf,” a response to a school assignment championing Hitler as a civil rights hero. However the principal of Danny’s tough inner-city school, Bob Sweeney (Avery Brooks,) is determined to help him grapple with his demons and someday, maybe, see the light.

Danny’s neo-Nazi brother, Derek (Edward Norton, in a fantastic performance,) gets out of prison for a sadistic racially-motivated crime a changed man. He wants nothing more to do with the white supremacist existence, and has decided to steer his younger brother, who places Derek on a lofty pedestal, away from the skinhead life. As Danny listens to Derek’s story of his life in prison and his change of heart, he realizes that breaking away from his racist beliefs might be the most important thing he ever does.

But disassociating with old friends and influences might be harder than it sounds, as Derek and Danny soon find out. Meanwhile, Sweeney instructs Danny to write a paper about the events that put his brother in prison and beforehand, led to the Vinyard brothers’ legacy of hate.

Anybody who knows anything about the making of “American History X” knows that the production of the film was a bit of a disaster. Tempers flared, Edward Norton micromanaged the script, and director Tony Kaye eventually wanted his name taken off the finished product and changed, oddly, to ‘Humpty Dumpty’ (hhmm, that’s not weird.) So it might be “American History X”‘s greatest wonder that the movie is not bad at all, despite it’s production woes; on the contrary, it’s very good.

The film does a great job in making you believe in the unlikely premise that Norton could change, after years of being a vicious skinhead and an all-around terrible person. The cycle of hate and of the Vinyard’s beliefs are really well-done. The terrifying thing about Derek’s character (one, of certainly many) is how he runs the gamut from almost rational (saying things that, on the surface make sense, then devolve into racist gobbledygook)) to batshit crazy.

Rather than making Derek a cartoon, he’s written as a terrifyingly believable monster- you can palpably feel the charisma he most hold for frustrated young men who want someone to blame for their screwed-up lives. Edward Norton is an acting powerhouse in this movie. It might still be the best performance of Norton’s career.

Bile and rage and pure adrenaline run through Derek’s veins- he’s scary intense, and you can fully comprehend the fear and even disgust his mom (Beverly D’Angelo) and sister (Jennifer Lien) must have felt before the prison term, simply living with him on a day-to-day basis.

I’ll give credit where it’s due- the whole cast does a great job. But it is Norton who will haunt you for days. Now for the low points. Well, the ending actually worked for me. I’m not sure it was the best way to end the story, but it was overall effective, albeit brutally so. Honestly, the only major problem for me was the music. It was a little too “Oh, let me make you experience major emotions!”

“American History X” is not only worthy for Edward Norton’s performance, although that may be what you remember most about it. It’s a genuinely powerful drama, one of the best of the 90’s. Many movies have preached the power of love over hate and enlightenment over prejudice, but rarely to such a meaningful effect.

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Gran Torino (2008)

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Actor/director Clint Eastwood stars as Walt Kowalski, a grizzled old bulldog of a man. Truculent and more than a little racially biased, Walt is the recently widowed father of uncaring sons, who would like nothing more than to put him in a rest home and get his house and his things. Old Kowalski laments at the state of his neighborhood, which is getting bought out by racial minorities, and is starting to attract an unsavory gang element.

When shy, bookish Hmong teenager Thao (Bee Vang) is pressured by his thuggish cousin into attempting to steal Walt’s beloved Gran Torino automobile (which is, along with his lab Daisy, the only thing Walt truly loves) as a gang initiation, Walt thinks his relations with his neighbors have hit an all-time low. But an unexpected friendship with the youth may be a reprieve for both of them.

Protecting Thao and his strong-willed, bright sister Sue (Ahney Her) puts Walt at odds with the local gang attempting to indoctrinate Thao and leads to a final, dramatic confrontation. Meanwhile, a well-meaning priest (Christopher Carley) has promised Walt’s deceased wife to get him to come to confession, and habitually visits Walt trying to offer him a Catholic perspective on the events surrounding him.

“Gran Torino” is outwardly a pretty simple movie about a prejudiced man coming to terms with a changing America and learning to value Minorities through the humanity of his neighbors, and all the actors, including the Asian non-professionals, give affecting performances. I noticed that early on there’s a little too much exposition offered by Walt’s family, which is a bit strident but keeps the drama moving at a steady pace, as Eastwood has a lot to cover.

Walt’s family really doesn’t give a crap about him- his bitchy granddaughter (Dreama Walker) tries to convince him to will the car to her when he “like, dies” (she says this right to the old man’s face!) and his grandsons sift through his stuff at his wife’s wake with a marked lack of respect. The kids’ father, Mitch, refuses to hold his children accountable and he and his wife are just as eager to claim Walt’s possessions as their offspring are.

Still, Walt finds a surrogate family, so to speak, with the people he least expected to. Walt is outwardly a pretty typical, ignorant, angry, and surly old man but he does behave in some surprising ways while developing at a believable rate. I’m not completely convinced he had removed the stick from his ass at the end (he still uses a very biased rhetoric, ‘gook,’ ‘slope,’ ‘beaner,’ etc.) but that makes his more believable because if he acted like a Disney character by the conclusion of the movie no one would buy it.

Carley plays one of cinema’s only sympathetic priests and he is appealing, as are Vang and Her. Despite the dark subject matter, there is light and humor allowed into the otherwise bleak story. Clint Eastwood does a good job of bringing Walt to life, and the ending is sad and tender but uplifting and hopeful at the same time.

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Django Unchained (2012)

“Django Unchained” is a blood-soaked, blackly funny, slavery-era extravaganza of a film, compliments of Quentin Tarantino. It is a movie populated with great actors delivering great dialogue, with some great gore and not one but two epic shoot-outs at the end to top it off.

Django (Jamie Fox) is a slave who was separated from his wife, Broomhilda Von Shaft (Kerry Washington) as punishment when the two tried to run away together from their plantation. Forced to walk shackled to a horse, under harsh winter conditions, Django is surprised to encounter eccentric “dentist” Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), who turns out to be a skilled bounty hunter.

King Schultz acquires Django under strange and bloody circumstances, and offers him a proposition: Django will earn his freedom if he helps King to identify three slavers who are wanted dead or alive. Thus begins a blood, unusual adventure as the two seek out outlaws and ultimately attempt to save Django’s wife from Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), a sadistic and insane slaveowner.

Christoph Waltz, who proved his acting chops playing opportunistic SS officer Col. Hans Landa in Tarantino’s 2009 film “Inglourious Basterds,” shines here as charismatic and mysterious King Schultz, who seems to have his own strange code of ethics.

Jamie Foxx is good and Kerry Washington excels playing a fairly uninteresting character, but the biggest surprise is DiCaprio. Nothing of 90’s heartthrob Leo is present as slimy, venomously evil Candie, like “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?” It’s a total transformation.

Some people might be disgusted by the sixth character: Stephen, a manipulative and subservient slave (Samuel L. Jackson), but I thought it was brave of Tarantino to introduce a black villain into a slavery-era film and show the shades of gray in race relations of that time.

There were certain parts of the movie I felt were a little excessive, for instance the KKK scene, which I felt dragged a little. The blood, too, could be a little excessive, but Tarantino without blood? Where would we be? Simply put, this will be a delight for fans of Quentin Tarantino, but people looking for a gentler, kinder, more sensitive movie will best look elsewhere.

Tarantino delivers as he always does: clever dialogue, creative shots, and gallons of blood. On a side note, although no movie could accurately portray the horrors of slavery, this film gets pretty far out of people’s comfort zone, which is more responsible for the controversy than any alleged racism. If you like Tarantino, you will like this strong entry into his cinematic universe.