Tag Archives: racism

Review – Lincoln (12a) [2013]

Lincoln - title banner

Star Rating: 4/5

Director:

  • Steven Spielberg – Saving Private Ryan, War Horse, Indiana Jones I-V

Cast:

  • Daniel Day-Lewis – Gangs of New York, There Will Be Blood, Nine
  • Sally Field – Mrs Doubtfire, ER, The Amazing Spider-Man I & II
  • Joseph Gordon-Levitt – The Dark Knight Rises, Looper, Sin City II
  • Tommy Lee Jones – No Country For Old Men, Captain America: The First Avenger, Emperor, Bourne V
  • Jackie Earle Haley – Watchmen, Shutter Island, Robocop
  • David Strathairn – LA Confidential, The Whistleblower, The Bourne Ultimatum & Legacy
  • James Spader – Boston Legal, The Office, By Virtue Fall
  • David Oyelowo – The Last King of Scotland, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, The HelpInterstellar
  • Michael Stuhlberg – Steve Jobs

Music Composer:

  • John Williams – Star Wars I-VI, War Horse, Indiana Jones I-V

All democratically-elected state leaders, whether they are presidents or prime ministers, have an ambition for reaching their respective position. For some, it is about power and/or aggrandisement; for others, it is about putting their names down in the history books. But for an exceptional few, it is about being uniquely in the right place at the right time and enabling their ideologies and actions to make them stand out from among their peers. President Abraham Lincoln (1860-65) belongs to the last category, and Steven Spielberg’s admirable biopic, Lincoln, illustrates why this is the case.

President Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis) forcefully telling his cabinet that he intends to proceed with the amendment and that they must help him.

President Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis) forcefully telling his cabinet that he intends to proceed with the amendment and that they must help him.

Lincoln revolves round events in America during January 1865. At the time, no-one was certain as to how long the Civil War (1861- April 1865) would continue. The Unionists, led by President Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis) and the armies of the north, are in a strong position. But the rebel Confederacy, led by Jefferson Davis and the armies of the south, are not about to surrender either.

The latter’s resolve is further stiffened upon hearing that, despite the war raging on, President Lincoln intends to push through Congress the highly contentious Thirteenth Amendment (the abolition of slavery) before the legislature ends its session at the beginning of February. The Confederacy’s hatred of black people and their slavery-based economy cannot allow for it. But will their attempts to block the proposed amendment succeed?

Lincoln’s storyline is intelligent; yet, slightly lacking in depth and, at 150 minutes, drawn out. Despite being potentially confusing for someone who has no knowledge of the era, the political wranglings going on behind the scenes throughout the film are great to watch because they are amusing and appear realistic. They also indicate that there was more than an element of corruption in American politics in the 1860s. (Then again, does The Ides of March show us that American politics is significantly different today?)

Moreover, the debates on slavery and freedom throughout Lincoln are intellectually stimulating. In the present era, it defies belief to learn that President Lincoln was a ‘radical,’ even among his key allies, for wanting the abolition of slavery. The Thirteenth Amendment was a measure that America (apparently) wasn’t yet ready for in 1865 (almost sixty years after Britain and France had abolished the Slave Trade, and four years after Tsar Alexander II had passed the emancipation of serfdom in Russia).

However, one only has to read Harriet Beecher Stowe’s 1852 novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, to realise that Lincoln fails to illustrate the inherent racism towards black people that existed even among abolitionists. Similarly, the movie says nothing of the four Union states that permitted slavery, which is strange as those four states could have been portrayed as a thorn in President Lincoln’s side.

Mary Lincoln (Sally Field) welcoming home her eldest son, Robert (Joseph Gordon-Levitt).

Mary Lincoln (Sally Field) welcoming home her eldest son, Robert (Joseph Gordon-Levitt).

Furthermore, the film only deals seriously with two issues: the amendment and the Civil War. While they understandably dominated Lincoln’s presidency, surely there were other matters for the president to consider, such as the annual budget and foreign relations? None of these are ever mentioned, which has the indirect effect of making President Lincoln appear almost two-dimensional.

But to say that the ex-president was anything less than a highly-complex and gifted man serves to undermine him, and Daniel Day-Lewis exemplifies this with a performance of remarkable consistency. He captures the former president’s quirkiness, social awkwardness and witty humour fantastically, as well as his indefatigable zeal and reason for his ideals.

Day-Lewis undoubtedly dominates Lincoln, but that does not mean that the supporting cast should be ignored. With the exception of Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who is average at best and whose role, as the ex-president’s son, Robert Lincoln, could easily have been shelved, Sally Field as the ex-president’s worrisome and frenzied wife, Mary Lincoln; Tommy Lee Jones as the savvy Republican Congressman, Thaddeus Stevens; David Strathairn as the cautious Secretary of State, William Seward; Jackie Earle Haley as Alexander Stephens, the racist Vice-President of the rebel Confederacy; and even James Spader, as the underhand Mr. Bilbo (no, not Baggins) are all superb.

President Lincoln exploring the aftermath of a battlefield, knowing that his decisions have cost many Americans their lives.

President Lincoln exploring the aftermath of a battlefield, knowing that his decisions have cost many Americans their lives.

Equally good are the costume and make-up designs, which truly bring the 1860s to life. Likewise, John Williams should be praised for writing a soundtrack that does not sound remotely like Star Wars, Home Alone or Indiana Jones. Indeed, Williams’ score here is more subtle in nature. It adds a touching element to Lincoln that makes the movie that bit more poignant when it matters most.

Over-all, Lincoln is a venerable film with clever dialogue, a beautiful set and enchanting acting. The movie might be a little long and simplifies some of the historical issues, but this should not negate that President Lincoln was one of the rare few leaders who have managed, almost single-handedly, to change the course of history. He understood the uniqueness of his epoch and acted upon his conscience, despite knowing the storm it would cause (as well as unknowingly making him pay the ultimate price for it). Lincoln demonstrates all of this wonderfully and shows us why President Abraham Lincoln is rightly regarded as the archetypal president that so many of his successors have tried (and often failed) to emulate.

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Review – The Help (12a) [2011]

Star Rating: 4.5/5

John F. Kennedy (JFK), President of America (1960-63), proclaimed in 1963 that “moral courage is a more rare commodity than bravery in battle or great intelligence.” He was referring to the civil rights movement in America, when African-Americans, particularly in the south (now known as the ‘Bible-belt’), were discriminated against and did not have the right to vote. The Help magnificently brings to light the inequality that African-Americans suffered in Mississippi in the early-1960s, and that there were some people with the moral courage to put an end to it.

Eugenie ‘Skeeter’ Phelan (Emma Stone) out for a meal with friends, looking fabulous.

The Help is based on the book with the same title, written by Kathryn Stockett. It is not a true story. The film revolves round the aspiring young author, Eugenie ‘Skeeter’ Phelan (Emma Stone – Ghosts of Girlfriends Past, Friends With Benefits, Birdman). At a time when the civil rights movement is picking speed in America, Skeeter has become uneasy by the way her friends treat their African-American maids, and so decides to write a book about it. She decides to write her book from the angle of the help in order to highlight Caucasian maltreatment to them in the home.

Skeeter approaches Abileen (Viola Davis – Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, Eat, Pray, Love, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close), the maid of her friend Hilly (Bryce Dallas Howard – The Village, Spiderman 3, 50/50), for her opinion and experiences. Abileen is a middle-aged woman who has spent her entire life raising Caucasian children, almost from birth, only to see them turn into their parents. Despite being initially reluctant to speak out, due to the fear of violent reprisals, Abileen lets Skeeter interview her. Soon, Minny (Octavia Spencer – The Soloist, Herpes Boy, Girls! Girls! Girls!), another African-American maid, tells her stories too. Then, many more do the same to give Skeeter an all-round picture of what life is like for African-American maids in Caucasian homes.

The Help may be a very slow and far-from-intense film; yet, it is powerful and emotive. The movie may not be factual, but it is based on much truth and reflects the period accurately. In the same way that the works of Charles Dickens and Theodore Dostoyevsky are seen to be more representative of their respective eras than historical narratives, so too can The Help be seen in the same vein. Despite a few minor historical inaccuracies, such as segregation, one could probably learn more about the innate levels of Caucasian racism towards African-Americans in the Bible-belt in the 1960s from this film, and the variety of ways it manifested itself, than from most factual history books.

Abileen (Viola Davis) eavesgropping on a conversation wherein she hears a torrent of racism towards African-Americans.

But for a film about racism, The Help is surprisingly honest. It shows all sides to be human, meaning that all the characters, whether Caucasian or African-American, have decent and defective qualities. This should be applauded since it would have been easier for the director, Tate Taylor (Pretty Ugly People), to have made one side inherently ‘good’, the other side inherently ‘bad’, and one or two instances of crossovers as a cheap façade. That Taylor doesn’t do this makes The Help plausible.

The realism of the film, however, would not be possible without the actors putting in exceptional performances. Indeed, the entire cast, and their accents, are flawless. The pretty Emma Stone demonstrates that she can play intelligent roles with vigour, enabling her to grow more beautiful and appealing in the process. Viola Davis performs so well, viewers can empathise with Abileen’s predicament and cry because of her awful experiences.

Octavia Spencer may not make audiences weep like Davis does; nevertheless, she too plays marvellously as the feisty, loud-mouth and funny Minny. Furthermore, one can even appreciate the performances of the horrible, racist women, portrayed by Bryce Dallas Howard, Ahna O’Reilly (Herpes Boy, House Under Siege, Girls! Girls! Girls!), Allison Janney (The West Wing, Pretty Ugly People, A Thousand Words), and the other ladies, or the silly, naive Celia, played by Jessica Chastain (Jolene, The Debt, Take Shelter), as they are all performed with brilliant consistency.

A first day at work for Minny (Octavia Spencer) at the house of the over-excited Celia (Jessica Chastain).

Like the quality of the acting, The Help has been put together superbly. At 146 minutes, the film might feel drawn out, but the choreography has been stitched together smoothly and the cinematography is apt for the locations of the movie. What’s more, the music has been chosen well to enhance the scenes, particularly the heart-rending ones.

All-in-all, The Help might drag, but it is an excellent, touching film. The acting is remarkable and the movie epitomises well the attitudes of people, whether Caucasian or African-American, living in the deep-south of America in the early-1960s. In 1963, JFK proclaimed that the struggle for civil rights “will not be finished in the first 100 days. Nor will it be finished in the first 1,000 days, nor in the life of this administration, nor even perhaps in our lifetimes on this planet. But let us begin.” The Help, therefore, enables us to measure how far we have come in almost fifty years because of people like JFK and Skeeter who had the moral courage to start changing people’s attitudes towards African-Americans.

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