Real News, Real Casualties

With a certain occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue constantly claiming that the news is fake – especially anything disputing his view of the world – it’s important to remember that news is often written in the blood of those doing the reporting. In 2017, 48 journalists were killed worldwide, and 262 were imprisoned (73 in Turkey alone). This gives an immediacy to the new movie A Private War, which tells the story of Marie Colvin, the celebrated war correspondent for the London Sunday Times who died during the siege of Homs in Syria in 2012.

The movie begins – and ends – with a view of battle-torn Homs and a voice over provided by the real Colvin. In between the camera follows her from Sri Lanka, covering the Tamil rebellion, through Iraq, Libya, and finally to Syria. Wherever there was a hotspot, Colvin would be there. In her life she also covered Kosovo, Zimbabwe, and the Ivory Coast, though the Middle East was her specialty. The screenplay by Arash Amel is based on Marie Brenner’s Vanity Fair article, “Marie Colvin’s Private War,” and it both looks at the conflicts and their affect on Colvin herself. Physically she lost an eye, leading to her wearing an eye patch through much of her career, but the psychological costs were even higher. You can’t cover the discovery of a mass tomb of Saddam Hussein’s victims or a hospital purposefully targeted for attack without wearing out a bit of your soul.

The film does an excellent job of recreating the conflicts Colvin covered, though it misses what led her from her birth in Queens, New York, and her childhood in Oyster Bay on Long Island to her working for the Sunday Times. She’d been an exchange student in Brazil during her junior year of high school and attended Yale to get an anthropology degree. However, while there she took a class from John Hersey, one of the first practitioners of “New Journalism” which combined storytelling with non-fiction reporting to bring an emotional element to the story. A war correspondent during WWII, Hersey won a Pulitzer Prize for his reporting on the aftermath of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. Colvin did graduate with her anthropology degree but following the course with Hersey she was set on a course to be a globe-trotting reporter, first for United Press International, and then for Sunday Times.

Director Matthew Heineman is known for his documentaries – he received an Oscar nomination for Cartel Land in 2015 – and he brings a straightforward realism to the filming of Colvin’s story. But what gives the film its fire is a riveting performance by Rosamund Pike. Her voice tells the story of cigarettes and booze, all consumed in extreme quantities. While on assignment, she’s a juggernaut, doing everything she can to get the story. (One scene has her talking her way past a roadblock in Iraq by telling the guards she’s a nurse, using her gym membership card as her documentation.) Back in England, without the tension of war, the cracks kept together under pressure break open, leaving her vulnerable, even as she hides behind a prickly exterior.

Pike’s ably supported by Jamie Dornan as Paul Conroy, Colvin’s long-time photographer. A former soldier, Conroy knew the danger of war zones but still went back, this time armed only with a camera. There’s also an interlude in the piece where Colvin become romantically involved with a man played by Stanley Tucci.

When Colvin was killed, the Syrian government put out the story that she died from an IED explosion, to blame anti-government rebels in Homs for her death. However, that was disputed by Conroy, who survived and testified it was an artillery attack from the government forces that likely used the signal from the broadcast Colvin had just finished in order to target her location. Colvin had had to sneak into Syria via off-road motorcycle as the government tried to cut off any independent reports of what was happening. They wanted the story to be that they were fighting violent rebels, not blasting away at citizens who didn’t support Assad’s repressive regime. For the government, Marie Colvin was dangerous, for she was an independent witness to the war crimes they wanted to hide from the world. It cost Colvin her life.

Whether they’re throwing bombs or throwing insults, tyrants and would-be dictators know that an independent press is a threat to them, and they’ll do whatever they can to keep reporters from doing their job. Thank God for people like Marie Colvin, who speak the truth to power.


Necessity is a Mother

The new movie Widows is based on a BBC series from the early 1980s. It was one of the first writing projects of Lynda La Plante, who would later write (and produce) “Prime Suspect,” which was a hit on both sides of the Atlantic. The six-part “Widows” TV series captured the imagination of a 12-year-old boy named Steve McQueen. Almost four decades later, the boy is now a writer/director/producer himself, and an Oscar-winner for his last film, 12 Years A Slave. The win gave him the chance to do any project he’d like, and he decided to return to the story that mesmerized him as a child. Sometimes the loves of our childhood are best left in the past, but thankfully that’s not the case here.

McQueen and his co-screenwriter, Gillian Flynn of Gone Girl fame, have set the updated story in Flynn’s hometown of Chicago. In many ways, the rough and tumble gangster heritage of the Second City is a good mirror for London in the early days of the Thatcher administration, with its balkanized neighborhoods, underworld of crime, and urban rot. It predated the gentrified version of London that was created in the mid-1980s thanks to an infusion of market money.

We’re introduced to the women of the title and their husbands with short, illuminative scenes interspersed with a robbery that ends very, very badly. Veronica (Viola Davis) is married to Harry Rawlings (Liam Neeson), someone for whom crime has definitely paid well. They have a high-end apartment, a chauffeur to drive their SUV, and a passionate marriage. Linda (Michelle Rodriguez) is an entrepreneur selling fashionable women’s clothes, but her husband is a drag on her dream as well as her pocketbook through his gambling. Alice (Elizabeth Debicki) is a willowy beauty, but she’s been a punching bag for both her husband (Jon Bernthal) and her mother (Jacki Weaver).

Worse than their men dying, the caper Rawlings and his men pulled was the theft of two million dollars of campaign funds from Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry), who’s locked in a special election for a city council seat caused by the failing health of its long-time occupant Tom Mulligan (Robert Duvall). Instead, Mulligan’s son Jack (Colin Farrell) is trying to continue the family dynasty, which has paid off handsomely through the dispersal of patronage and kickbacks from those blessed. While Jamal, a gang leader from his youth, is threatening, his brother and lieutenant Jatemme (Daniel Kaluuya) is a pure sociopath,

Jamal wants his money back, even though the cash was destroyed in the fiery explosion that kill the men. The only item of value that might cover that high a bill is the detailed plans left by Harry for his next caper. Rather than try to sell it, Veronica brings Linda and Alice into the plan to carry out the robbery. The final member of the team is Belle (Cynthia Erivo), who starts out as Linda’s babysitter but joins the conspiracy to help a friend.

McQueen and Flynn have essentially squeezed a full novel with all of its subplots and ancillary characters into a two-and-a-quarter hour movie. The plot twists and turns as the woman figure out how to implement Harry’s plan, and even the actual caper doesn’t end the twists. But it is also a story of empowerment, of the women playing against the assumptions of the men who think they’re in charge. In one brilliant scene, Debicki’s Alice uses the reality of what her life was like to enlist help getting a supply of guns. Just before the heist, Rodriguez’s Linda sums up why she’s doing it – she wants her children to know that she stood tall against those who thought they could smack her down.

If you like mysteries and crime dramas, and you don’t mind focusing on a densely plotted story, Widows will reward you with a satisfying tale well told.

Catch Up Time

I’ve joined the AMC Stubs program, which allows me to see three movies a week for a monthly charge. Considering the charge is about what I paid to see three movies in a month, it’s a great deal for me. But the volume makes it hard to keep up with reviews for them all, and, frankly, some of the movies aren’t worth a full review. So from time to time I’ll do short reviews to share my thoughts and cover all I’ve seen. Here are four.

The House with a Clock in its Walls

For the adaptation of a children’s story to the big screen, Eli Roth isn’t the first director you’d think of for the project. Roth’s first feature was the horror film Cabin Fever, and he followed it with Hostel (the original & Part II) and The Green Inferno, none of them even close to family fare. But the best children’s stories have an element of fear within them, and The House with a Clock in Its Walls certainly has that. It’s based on a book written in 1973 by John Bellairs and illustrated by Edward Gorey, known for his macabre works. Roth brings a sense of danger to the production, but he also seems to be having an immensely fun time as well.

The story was adapted by Eric Kripke, who created the long-running “Supernatural” TV show as well as “Timeless.” Set in 1955, Clock tells the story of Lewis (Owen Vaccaro) who comes to live with his uncle Jonathan (Jack Black) following his parents’ death in a car accident. He soon discovers his uncle is a warlock and Jonathan’s friend and neighbor, Florence Zimmerman (Cate Blanchett), is a powerful witch who doesn’t like to do magic anymore. The house where Jonathan lives was owned by a dark wizard who hid a clock in the walls. Jonathan isn’t sure why, but he knows it’s a harbinger of nothing good.

Vaccaro is quite good in the role of Lewis. He’d been in the two Daddy’s Home comedies in a supporting role, but here he carries the movie as the central character. Pairing Black and Blanchett seems like mixing beer with Dom Perignon, but they have surprisingly good chemistry. The story suffers in comparison to the Potterverse, but Roth captures both a sense of wonder and menace so it keeps your attention.

Hunter Killer
Gerard Butler has settled into the action/adventure genre, not just starring in films but also producing them. The results have been uneven. Olympus Has Fallen and its sequel London Has Fallen were decent and diverting, but his venture into science fiction, Geostorm, was drivel. Hunter Killer is more former than later.

Butler plays the new skipper of an attack submarine who’s sent into Russian waters when the Navy loses contact with another of their subs. He discovers the sinking of the US boat, along with a Russian sub, is the first move in a coup against the Russian President by the Minister of Defense. With the help of a Seal team, Butler must thwart the Defense Minister’s plans while walking a fine line so he doesn’t start World War Three.

This doesn’t rise to the level of The Hunt For Red October, Das Boat, or the older classic, Run Silent Run Deep. Hunter Killer has more in common with the sub movies popular during World War II, though the special effects are a hundred times better. The film also stars Common as the rear admiral in charge of the sub fleet, and he does a decent job, but Gary Oldman is wasted as a shrill, two-dimensional Navy Chief of Staff.

It’s a fast-paced two hours that tells a pedestrian story in an exciting way, but once the lights come up it quickly fades from your memory.

To see the trailer, please click here.

Disney’s The Nutcracker and the Four Realms

I was looking forward to a movie version of Tchaikovsky’s marvelous ballet. I’m still looking forward to that, since Four Realms is not a dance movie despite the presence of Misty Copeland. Two directors whose work I’ve enjoyed in the past share the directing credit. Lassa Hallstrom (Chocolat, The Cider House Rules) did the principle photography, but was unavailable for a month of reshoots. Instead, Joe Johnston (October Sky, Captain America: The First Avenger) finished the film. But you need something to work from, and the script by first-time screenwriter Ashleigh Powell is more like a retread of Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland.

There are some good parts. Mackenzie Foy (no relation to First Man’s Claire Foy), is exceptionally watchable. (She’d also played the child Murph in Interstellar) Foy has just turned 18, and I look forward to her transitioning into adult roles. The extended ballet/modern dance hybrid by Copeland fills in the backstory of the four realms. It’s incredibly beautiful and the high point of the film, but it ends too soon. And then there’s the Rat King, which is the stuff of nightmares.

But the rest of the film suffers in comparison to those parts. There are cameo-size roles for Morgan Freeman and Helen Mirren that add little. Kiera Knightley is fun at first as the Sugar Plum Fairy, but the performance becomes wearing as it goes on. Worse for me, though, was the relegation of Tchaikovsky’s wonderful music to mood music. The main themes keep coming up, but there’s no rhyme or reason to their use. Frankly, you’d get much more enjoyment out of listening to Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite than watching this mishmash.

To see the trailer, please click here.

Nobody’s Fool

There’s been a trend recently to R-rated comedy, with Girl’s Trip and Bridesmaids among others. The R doesn’t always mean really funny, though. Nobody’s Fool is another entry in that trend, with Tiffany Hadish as a woman recently released from prison who moves in with her successful career woman sister, played by Tika Sumpter. Hadish’s character, Tanya, discovers her sister is being catfished by an on-line suitor, to the point that she ignores the owner of a coffee shop who’s sweet on her.

The movie is directed and written by Tyler Perry, who usually stays in the PG realm. Nobody’s Fool doesn’t wear its R comfortably, as it veers from farce to sex comedy to woman empowerment story to syrupy love story over and over again. The wide fluctuations of tone has been an aspect of his Madea comedies, but here is seems mechanical.

Some may enjoy it more, but I found I didn’t care for the characters, and there were few real laughs in the picture.

To see the trailer, please click here. 


Occasionally, a film fan finds themselves in a theater without great hopes for the movie they’re about to see, only to be pleasantly surprised that it’s much better than they expected. Usually it’s the other way around, with your hopes shattered when a highly-anticipated movie underwhelms. Last Saturday I experienced both feelings. I’d gone out to see The Girl in the Spider’s Web, only to be disappointed by it. But I decided, since I was there, I’d give Overlord a look see. I’m glad I did.

The trailer tacks more toward the horror genre, perhaps wanting to build on last year’s Get Out, but it’s more of a sci-fi thriller blended with a war flick, two genres I’ve enjoyed all my life. For those knowledgeable about history, the movie throws a major mistake and an anachronism in your face right at the start. Set during the Normandy Invasion on June 6th, 1944, the movie opens with an air armada of C-47 troop transports (the military version of the DC-3) flying above the naval armada headed for the beaches, traveling in evening light. It lets the paratroopers look down on the massed force, which makes a great shot, but it never happened. The short flight from England to Normandy took place in darkness. The anachronism is that the troops are integrated, even having a black sergeant leading them. In fact, the American Armed Forces were completely segregated, a condition that lasted until three years after the war’s end.

But then the planes (now in darkness – that was a fast sunset!) take fire from the German anti-aircraft batteries so intense it cuts many of the planes apart and throws all plans into confusion, which is pretty accurate. The central character in the piece, Boyce (Jovan Adepo) is a black soldier recently drafted, seeing his first combat. His squad has been assigned to destroy a radar installation in a French village before the main attack begins at 6 a.m., but only a few soldiers make it out of the plane alive, and a handful survive the drop to head toward the objective under the leadership of battle-weary Ford (Wyatt Russell).  On their way they encounter Chloe (Mathilde Ollivier), a resident of the village who reluctantly (at first) agrees to help them. It turns out the radar tower is inside a German compound that houses a much greater danger to the Allies.

Overlord is being marketed that it’s from J.J. Abrams. That make sense since the cast, director, and screenwriters are pretty much unknowns. Director Julius Avery had done one feature in Australia, along with a half-dozen shorts, before making Overlord. Screenwriter Billy Ray has the longest list of credits, including the screenplays for Shattered Glass, Flight Plan, The Hunger Games, Captain Philips, and The Secret in Their Eyes, along with a guilty pleasure of mine, 1997’s Volcano (with the classic tag line, “The Coast is Toast”). Also working on the screenplay was Mark L. Smith, who did The Revenant. Adepo’s done a few TV series, including “Jack Ryan” and “The Leftovers”, while Ollivier done one other feature. Russell has several supporting credits, including Ingrid Goes West and Table 19, though he might be best known for a truly mind-blowing episode of Black Mirror called “Playtest.” But they and the rest of the cast gel into an effective ensemble.

Ray and Smith take some of the classic tropes of the war film and rip them apart. One of the soldiers is planning to write a book, but that idea is soon blown away. They also keep the story racing along throughout its two-hour run time with twists, turns, and scares that keep the adrenalin pumping throughout. With the few hours from the parachuting into France to the deadline to blow the radar tower, it comes close to being told in real time.

Overlord managed a respectable third-place opening at the box office, behind the kid-friendly The Grinch and the previous week’s winner Bohemian Rhapsody. Hopefully it will have time to build up a following, for this film has the potential to be the sleeper hit of the season.

When It Doesn’t Stick Together

The Millennium Series by Stieg Larsson was a publishing phenomenon, with the first three books (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played With Fire, and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest) selling over 80 million copies in ten years. Sadly, Larsson died shortly after delivering the first three books to the Swedish publisher, so he never knew the sensation he created. All three books were adapted for Swedish TV in 2009, each as two 90-minute episodes, with Noomi Rapace and Michael Nyqvist in the central roles of Lisbeth Salander and Mikael Blomkvist. Originally only the first was to be released outside of Sweden in theaters, but the interest in the series led to theatrical releases for all three. Both actors ended up working in Hollywood, with Rapace doing Sherlock Holmes: Game of Shadows, Alien: Covenant, and the lead in the upcoming biopic, Callas, while Nyqvist played the villain in Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol and the Russian mob boss Tarasov in John Wick before his death last year. Dragon Tattoo got a Hollywood redo with David Fincher directing and Rooney Mara and Daniel Craig as the leads. It was hoped the other two original books would be filmed, but the productions never came together.

Meanwhile, the Swedish publisher of the series hired another author to continue Larsson’s work, publishing “The Girl in the Spider’s Web” in 2015, followed by “The Girl Who Takes an Eye for an Eye” last year. While they’ve been released around the world, they haven’t matched the success of the original three. A review of “Spider’s Web” found it to be a “standard crime” book. I had hope, though, when the movie version of “Spider’s Web” was announced, that it might come close to the earlier films, especially with Claire Foy in the Salander role. Her performance as Elizabeth in the first two seasons of “The Crown” was spectacular, and she was brilliant in First Man. She does do a decent job as Salander, given what she has to work with, though most everything else about the production is a disappointment. The movie is titled The Girl in the Spider’s Web: A New Dragon Tattoo Story, as if they’re afraid people have forgotten the earlier books and movies. Frankly, it would be better if they had, since Spider’s Web suffers greatly in comparison.

Director and co-screenwriter Fede Alvarez made the effective thriller Don’t Breathe two years ago. He teamed with Jay Basu on the script for Spider’s Web, and Steven Knight (an Oscar nominee for Dirty Pretty Things) also worked on the adaptation. But somewhere in the process they forgot half the story. While Lisbeth Salander is the more memorable character, Mikael Blomkvist is the anchor and safety net for the audience, creating an effective team. Spider’s Web  relegates Blomkvist (Sverrir Gudnason) to an afterthought while blunting Lisbeth’s prickly antisocial behavior. She was memorable because she was a loose cannon, but Alvarez, Basu, and Knight tie her down in a standard hero role.

The basic plot, about a program that can unlock every weapons system for the person who controls it, was done better in Sneakers. The movie also rewrites Lisbeth’s story to give her a sister, Camilla (Sylvia Hoeks), who stayed with Lisbeth’s abusive spy father while Lisbeth broke free – completely eliminating the central scene of The Girl Who Played With Fire when Lisbeth set her abusive father alight. Hoeks’ portrayal is as frozen as the gray winter landscapes that fill the screen; she had more emotion as the replicant antagonist Luv in Blade Runner 2049.

There are some sequences when the story takes flight, such as a cat-and-mouse tour through the airport as Lisbeth seeks to connect with Ed Needham (Lakeith Stanfield), an NSA agent. Stanfield’s performance creates a worthy adversary/ally for Lisbeth, but he doesn’t have enough scenes to save the movie. On the other hand, Lisbeth is thrust into the role of protector of a young math prodigy, but the maternalism inherent in the plot is far out of character for her.

“Standard crime” is a fitting summation for this endeavor, and a sad comedown for an extraordinary character like Lisbeth Salander.

Freddie Ready

In many ways, Bohemian Rhapsody could be your standard bio-pic. It starts late in the subject’s life, then flashes back to the beginning. For the next two-plus hours we see why the subject was worthy of the biography, until we complete the circle at the film’s starting point. Two examples of exceptional bio-pics that use this formula – each completely different in feel – are Yankee Doodle Dandy and Lawrence of Arabia. Both James Cagney and Peter O’Toole were nominated for Best Actor Oscars for their respective roles, though only Cagney won. And there are plenty lesser examples, some which hardly rise above the level of a lesser TV movie. Bohemian Rhapsody could have suffered that fate, but for two things: the operatic majesty of Queen’s music, and a positively stunning embodiment of Freddie Mercury by Rami Malek. If there’s any justice, he’ll also follow Cagney and O’Toole to an Oscar nomination.

The frame for the story is the huge Live-Aid rock concert that filled Wembley Stadium in London (along with John F. Kennedy Stadium in Philadelphia) on Saturday, July 13, 1985. Growing out of Bob Geldorf’s “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” all-star recording to raise funds to alleviate a horrific famine in Ethiopia, Live Aid featured a who’s who of the rock world at that time. Acts performing included U2, Bob Dylan, David Bowie, Madonna, Led Zepplin, and Phil Collins performed early at Wembley, then jumped on the Concorde, flew to the States, and performed at the Philadelphia venue. Around the world, the concert was watched by an estimated 1.9 billion people. Each performer got a twenty minute set, and the set voted best of all the performances was the one by Queen.

And it almost didn’t happen.

Bohemian begins with the camera giving Freddie’s view, leaving his London mansion (and his many cats), traveling to Wembley, and walking to the entrance of the stage, before the movie sweeps back fifteen years to when Freddie was still Farrokh Bulsara. He’d been born on the island of Zanzibar (now part of Tanzania) into a Parsi family: Indians from the Bombay region who practiced the Zoroastrian religion.  Farrokh was educated at a boarding school in Mumbai (where he began calling himself Freddie), but in the mid-1960s the family had to flee Zanzibar because of a revolution against its Arab rulers by native Africans. The conflict led to thousands of deaths. Freddie’s family settled in London, a much safer location, though Freddie felt the prejudices that simmered in England. He’d often be called “Paki,” short for Muslim Pakistanis, which was an extra insult through ignorance of his heritage. The movie correctly shows Freddie at his early job as a Heathrow Airport baggage handler, though it ignores his early work with short-lived bands. The script by Anthony McCarten (The Theory of Everything, Darkest Hour) compresses the story in a few ways – more on that later.

Soon Freddie has two meetings that change his life. The first is with Brian May and Roger Taylor (Gwilym Lee and Ben Hardy, respectively) who had a band at that time called Smile, a small joke since Taylor was studying to be a dentist. (The group could also have been called “Star” since May was studying astrophysics. He’d eventually get his degree following his career with Queen and worked with NASA on a project; He has an asteroid named after him.) After a gig, Smile’s lead singer tells May and Taylor he’s going to a different band. Freddie finds May and Taylor in the venue’s parking lot, and when he discovers what’s happened he offers to be their singer. May and Taylor push him away – understandably – until Freddie does one of their songs a capella. Both May and Taylor were producers for Bohemian, so it might have happened that way. After the addition of bassist John Deacon (Joe Mazello), the band is rechristened Queen by Freddie, who also designed Queen’s logo.

The second meeting gives the film its heart. Freddie was still an unknown when he met the love of his life, Mary Austin (Lucy Boynton). Malek and Boynton play their scenes together with a heartbreaking innocence, even as their complicated relationship leads to their separation after Freddie discovers his homosexuality. While Mary wasn’t involved in making Bohemian, the surviving band members helped Boynton with her portrayal so that it rings true.

Malek’s performance takes up the majority of the oxygen. With such a huge central character, the rest of the cast makes their presence felt through subtle and nuanced acting. Outside of the band, Aidan Gillen stands out as John Reid, the producer who helped guide Queen from unknowns to superstar status, and there’s a delightful performance by Tom Hollander as Jim Beach, the group’s lawyer and later manager.

There’s no way they can match Malek, of course. As Freddie on stage, or performing for others around him, Malek has Freddie’s strut and outrageous self-confidence nailed. Yet he also handles the needy, sad, and lonely Freddie who has trouble functioning when not performing.

What may be the movie’s biggest benefit is to introduce a new generation to the Queen repertoire. A large section of the film is dedicated to the production of the album “A Night At The Opera” with its quintessential track Bohemian Rhapsody. It also details the reaction of EMI when faced with a six-minute operatic rock song that Freddie wants to release as a single. Ray Foster, their main man at the label, dismisses it because “No teens will drive around beating their heads to Bohemian Rhapsody.” The kicker is that under heavy makeup, the actor doing the role is Wayne himself, Mike Myers. But sitting through the movie you are struck by how wonderful the other songs are, and how well they’ve stood up after thirty or forty years.

The production faced several challenges. Director Bryan Singer departed before the film was finished after being called out with multiple sexual assault allegations. Actor and director Dexter Fletcher was brought in to finish the film, though Singer’s name remains on the credits. There was also negative press about how Freddie’s sexuality was portrayed, and that his AIDS diagnosis was moved to before the Live Aid concert when it actually happened two years later. But with the construction of the film, it would have been even worse to simply leave the AIDS diagnosis to a card at the end. It adds urgency to the climatic performance at Wembley.

What you’re faced with, beneath the stage performer, is Freddie Mercury’s humanity.
There were several times I teared up watching the film. Those tears are the best review I could give Bohemian Rhapsody.

The Window That Needs to be Looked Through

The movie The Hate U Give, based on the bestselling book by Angie Thomas, begins with “The Talk.” It’s not one that any white family would have, but it’s a requirement for blacks – I assume other ethnic groups likely have their own version. In the movie, parents “Mav” and Lisa Carter (Russell Hornsby and Regina Hall) tell their pre-teen children how they must behave when they’re in a car pulled over by a policeman. It’s not if they’ll be pulled over – it’s when; it’s a given in their world. Mav owns the neighborhood grocery store, his wife is a nurse, but they know the unwritten offenses: driving while black, walking while black, fill-in-the-blank while black. The parents are aware a simple confrontation could easily rob them of one or both of their children.

A few years later, Starr Carter (Amandla Steinberg) gives a voiceover introduction to her world, beginning with her neighborhood. Unemployment is high, and the only jobs readily available are working for King (Anthony Mackie), the neighborhood gang lord and drug distributor. The high school is a horror to be avoided. But despite that, it’s a close-knit neighborhood that watches out for each other and revolves around the local barbecue house, the barber shop, and Mav’s grocery store. Lisa has insisted Starr and her brothers Seven (Lamar Johnson) and Sekani (TJ Wright) attend a private school, just as she did. As Starr puts it, at school she’s Starr Version 2, who never gives her white schoolmates any reason to think of her as “ghetto” even though the white kids constantly use black slang and listen to rap music. In the space of a few minutes, the audience is given a primer on economic inequality, white privilege, and cultural appropriation.

Starr has close friends at school like Hailey (Sabrina Carpenter), and a boyfriend, Chris (KJ Apa), who wants their relationship to go deeper. But on the weekends, she gets to be Version 1, at home in her neighborhood among people she’s known all her life, free to be black. Starr’s brought to a house party, and while there she reconnects with one of her closest childhood friends, Khalil (Algee Smith). Along with another friend who died in childhood, they were hooked on Harry Potter and used to pretend to be the three main characters of the books, Harry, Ron, and Hermoine. When an altercation at the party turns violent, the people scatter, and Khalil gets Starr to his car so he can drive her home.

Then Starr’s world is shattered when a traffic stop turns deadly – just as it has in real life for Sandra Bland, Philandro Castile, and too many others. She is the only witness to what takes place, but rather than ask what happened the detectives investigating the incident immediately start to turn the spotlight from the officer involved to Khalil. Starr’s saved from the interrogation by her uncle Carlos (Common), who is a police officer.

The Hate U Give revolves around Starr’s coming to grips with what happened, and the hard realization that fate has thrust her into being Khalil’s advocate. At the same time, you see how the events on the street that night are like a rock tossed into the pool of the city’s society, reaching beyond the neighborhood, disrupting every inch with its waves. The title is a quote from rapper Tupac Shakur that forms the acronym THUG LIFE: “The hate u give little infants f**ks everyone.” Hate breeds hate, particularly when it’s felt from the cradle on.

The script by Audrey Wells never becomes a polemic. Instead it keeps our attention riveted on Starr and the people around her. It is a human, and a humane, drama that forces the audience to ask the same questions facing Starr, and to answer what we would do if we were faced with a similar situation. For those of us whose privilege has allowed us never to truly face such questions, it is eye-opening. The power of drama is that we can slip inside another person’s skin for a brief period, but if the writer, director, and the actors have done their job well, we can never completely shed that skin again. It becomes a part of us, attached to our soul, and we can never go back to innocent ignorance.

Director George Tillman Jr. lovingly recreates Starr’s neighborhood, even the warts of the dilapidated buildings and the threat of violence, so that we understand the attachment the characters have to this place. It’s a rich tapestry of a movie, with the drama leavened by humor and heart throughout. There are, though, plenty of searing moments as Starr processes the events. In one particular scene, Carlos tries to explain to Starr what happens in an officer’s mind when he makes a traffic stop. It leads to an honest moment that’s devastating for them both.

This is a film filled with Oscar-caliber performances, starting with Steinberg. She’d ripped hearts out as Rue in The Hunger Games and had recently graduated to starring roles in lesser fare like Everything Everything and The Darkest Minds. With The Hate U Give she claims her place as a full-fledge actress of power and depth. Another standout is Russell Hornsby’s performance as Mav, projecting power and honor even in a world designed to bleach it away. If he doesn’t receive a best supporting actor nomination, it will be a crime. Along with the fine cast already mentioned, the film also has Issa Rae in a straight dramatic role as a community activist lawyer.

For many years the novel used in schools to deal with racism has been “To Kill A Mockingbird.” It is a fine novel, and the movie version with Gregory Peck is rightly viewed as a classic. I recently read an article, though, that suggested it’s time to retire the book from the reading list for schools. It’s almost 60-years-old, dealing with a time decades earlier, and its focus is the white perspective on race and racism. While Atticus Finch is a wonderful character, by identifying with him many have been able to rationalize that race relations are no longer as bad as they were in the days when “Mockingbird” is set. The false sense that things are better allowed the Supreme Court to gut the Voting Rights Act with the excuse that the abuses of those bad old days no longer existed. They didn’t recognize that the prejudice was held at bay by the Voting Rights Act, and without it those worse elements have reared their head again. We’ve now slipped back into restrictions that are the children of Jim Crow.

The Hate U Give provides a window to look at the world outside of the comfort zone of many in this country. It would be a worthy successor for “To Kill A Mockingbird” in school curriculum. Some may try to ban it, but then people have tried to ban “Mockingbird” many times. There’s even a scene in the movie that mirrors a classic moment from To Kill A Mockingbird, though it updates it for the world today. In Mockingbird, Gregory Peck’s Atticus sits outside the jail holding Tom Robinson (Brock Peters) and turns away a lynch mob with his words. In Hate, after a violent attack on their home, Mav gets Lisa, Starr, and Sekani to the safety of Uncle Carlos’s house. He then returns to his home and stands guard on the porch. After a moment, Seven joins him. There are no words spoken, for the threat is no longer the obvious kind like the lynch mob. Now the threats permeate society and flare up without warning. All Mav and Seven can do is stand ready.

See this movie.