It started long ago, the love affair between Oscar and Laurel. Of course, we know Oscar as the shiny gold statue presented to Academy Award Winners, and we’ve come to recognize film festival laurels as a symbol of excellence. Even as far back as the first major film festival, the Venice Film Festival (1932) presented Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, which then went on to win an Oscar for the lead actor Fredric March.
But that was way back then, and the marriage has evolved to become more about the prestige picture. Back in the 1930’s, a Time magazine writer used the term “prestige picture” to describe movies made by studios to please major critics, rather than to make money. Many such movies have come from literary classics, and most of them fall into the Cause Cinema genre, as socially relevant themes are a constant.
From a studio standpoint, many of their Award winners played top film fests, a number of them recognized on AFI’s 100 Years 100 Movies list. On the Waterfront (Venice), To Kill a Mockingbird (Cannes) and Apocalypse Now (Cannes), just to name a few.
In more recent years, this relationship has really thrived. Without studio muscle, indie films really score from this connection and Park City is often the first dance. A few years ago, we were treated with Whiplash (2015), as this little indie film, made for under 4 million, premiered at Sundance and then sold to Sony Pictures Classics. The movie later scored a handful of nominations, including Best Picture.
In that same year, Sundance also played Citizenfour, which went on to win the Oscar for Best Documentary, along with dozens of other festival awards. The subject is pervasive global surveillance, Ronnie Scheib of Variety wrote “No amount of familiarity with whistleblower Edward Snowden and his shocking revelations of the U.S. government’s wholesale spying on its own citizens can prepare one for the impact of Laura Poitras’s extraordinary documentary Citizenfour."
The following year, a few more festival darlings rocked the Academy Awards, two of them anchored by themes of music. Amy, an expose on the troubled life of musician Amy Winehouse, played in Cannes and many others before taking home the Best Documentary Oscar. Nominee What Happened Miss Simone, presents Nina as a civil rights activist.
The biggest winner that year was a little film called Room, which premiered at the Telluride Film Festival. A24 acquired the movie, which went on to secure a Best Picture nomination and a win for star Brie Larson in the Best Actress category.
Last year, we reached another level, with a number of cause movies being recognized. Two of the highlights were indie films without a home when they started their festival run, both earning Best Picture nominations. Manchester by the Sea was acquired by Amazon, who was determined to make a new splash distribution space. Moonlight was acquired by A24 and went on to win Best Picture. Each film earned awards in their respective screenplay and acting categories as well.
In the Documentary section, we had three extraordinary festival films competing for the Oscar (13th, Life Animated and I am Not Your Negro), ultimately, losing to OJ Simpson. Each of these projects demonstrated a command of their craft, shedding new light on important social issues in uniquely cinematic fashion.
Cut to 2018. Oscar nominations were just announced and a number of festival standouts are once again being recognized. Ladybird (Telluride), Three Billboards (Toronto) and Mudbound (Sundance) are all competing in multiple categories.
As this year’s dance in Park City winds down, here’s to hoping the connection between Oscar and Laurel continues. A majority of these indie projects raise awareness on important issues. The fact that more of these films are being made, earning critical acclaim and generating heat at the box office, should tell us something. We are embracing entertainment as vehicle for change, mass communication in the best light.
To see any of the films mentioned in this post, click on thumbnails below.
Over the years, there have been many terrific movies produced on the subject of civil rights and racial discrimination. Most of these movies were made by major studios, a number of them prestige pictures recognized during awards season. We all know about To Kill a Mockingbird (1962), and that Oscar winning performance by Gregory Peck. In the Heat of the Night (1967) won Best Picture, and Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing was “robbed” in Cannes, when many thought it would take home the top prize.
Denzel was amazing as Malcolm X, and Daniel Day played Lincoln to perfection. What about Oprah in The Color People? And, of course, 12 Years a Slave won Best Picture.
The thing is, most of us have heard of these movies, thanks to the studio marketing machine. I thought it might be more useful to present a list of 10 movies made outside the system, terrific films you may not have on your radar. There are a variety of styles offered here, a blend of narratives and docs; but they are all engaging and inspire change.
Have a look at trailers below and know that all of these titles are available, if not found on Netflix, Amazon or iTunes, I include the link to stream the films.
Freedom on my Mind
1994 ‧ Indie film/Political cinema ‧ 1h 45m
The Academy Award nominated Freedom on my Mind is the first film to chronicle, in depth, the story of Freedom Summer. It vividly tells the complex and compelling history of the Mississippi voter registration struggles of 1961 to 1964: the interracial nature of the campaign, the tensions and conflicts, the fears and hopes. It is the story of youthful idealism and shared vision, of a generation who believed in and fought for the principles of democracy.
To see: https://vimeo.com/ondemand/freedomonmymind
Talk to Me
2007 ‧ Biography/History ‧ 1h 59m
Outspoken ex-convict Ralph “Petey” Greene (Don Cheadle) talks his way onto the air at a white-owned radio station in 1960s Washington, D.C. Fueled by the new music and social upheaval of the times, he courts controversy while becoming the voice of the black movement.
Soundtrack for a Revolution
2009 ‧ Rockumentary/History ‧ 1h 22m
Bill Guttentag’s documentary examines the importance of music during the U.S. civil rights movement that took place during the 1950s and ’60s. The various sit-ins and public demonstrations of the era incorporated protest songs, folk tunes and spirituals, music that was a crucial part of the movement. Guttentag uses archival footage and interviews to connect specific songs (covered by artists including the Roots and John Legend) to specific events, such as the Montgomery bus boycott.
See Movie: https://www.vudu.com/movies/#!content/185516
The Black Power Mixtape
2011 ‧ Historical Documentary/Documentary ‧ 1h 40m
The Black Power Mixtape 1967–1975 mobilizes a treasure trove of 16mm material shot by Swedish journalists who came to the US drawn by stories of urban unrest and revolution. Gaining access to many of the leaders of the Black Power Movement — Stokely Carmichael, Bobby Seale, Angela Davis and Eldridge Cleaver among them — the filmmakers captured them in intimate moments and remarkably unguarded interviews.
Thirty years later, this lush collection was found languishing in the basement of Swedish Television. Director Göran Olsson and co-producer Danny Glover bring this footage to light in a mosaic of images, music and narration chronicling the evolution one of our nation’s most indelible turning points, the Black Power movement.
Music by Questlove and Om’Mas Keith, and commentary from prominent African- American artists and activists who were influenced by the struggle — including Erykah Badu, Harry Belafonte, Talib Kweli, and Melvin Van Peebles — give the historical footage a fresh, contemporary resonance and makes the film an exhilarating, unprecedented account of an American revolution.
2013 ‧ Crime film/Romance ‧ 1h 30m
Though he once spent time in San Quentin, 22-year-old black man Oscar Grant (Michael B. Jordan) is now trying hard to live a clean life and support his girlfriend (Melonie Diaz) and young daughter (Ariana Neal). Flashbacks reveal the last day in Oscar’s life, in which he accompanied his family and friends to San Francisco to watch fireworks on New Year’s Eve, and, on the way back home, became swept up in an altercation with police that ended in tragedy. Based on a true story. Sundance, Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award winner.
Dear White People (2015)
2014 ‧ Comedy/Satire ‧ 1h 48m
Director Justin Simien wrote the script and promoted his crowdfunding campaign through social media. He raised $40,000 instead of the goal of $25,000. Even with studio interest, Simien decided to remain independent. Dear White People raises the challenging questions. Through a number of characters who all struggle with racism in different forms, we get a picture of how pervasive it is, and most importantly, how we all can take action. SXSW Audience Award winner.
What Happened, Miss Simone?
2015 ‧ Biography/Musical ‧ 1h 41m
Simone found purpose in the civil rights movement, and realized she could use her fame and talents to support the fight for equality.
I Am Not Your Negro
2016 ‧ Documentary ‧ 1h 35m
This is an impressive re-imagination of James Baldwin’s biography, almost a spiritual documentary a meditation on the hidden meaning of race in America. But rather than creating a by the numbers biopic, filmmaker Raoul Peck intercuts photos, interviews and archival footage to make a statement around civil rights. His effort attempts to reconcile the difference between what the US says it stand for and what it actually does.
Considered by many film critics as one of the best docs of the year in 2016, this powerful movie was nominated by the Academy for Best Documentary.
2017 ‧ Documentary ‧ 1h 43m
Told by the activists and leaders who live and breathe this movement for justice, Whose Streets? is an unflinching look at the Ferguson uprising. When unarmed teenager Michael Brown is killed by police and left lying in the street for hours, it marks a breaking point for the residents of St. Louis, Missouri.
Grief, long-standing racial tensions and renewed anger bring residents together to hold vigil and protest this latest tragedy. Empowered parents, artists, and teachers from around the country come together as freedom fighters. As the national guard descends on Ferguson with military grade weaponry, these young community members become the torchbearers of a new resistance.
Filmmakers Sabaah Folayan and Damon Davis know this story because they have lived the story. Whose Streets? is a powerful battle cry from a generation fighting, not for their civil rights, but for the right to live.
2017 ‧ Documentary ‧ 1h 47m
Winner of the Gotham Independent Film Award for Best Documentary Filmmaker Yance Ford investigates the 1992 murder of a young black man. It becomes a gut wrenching personal journey, since the victim, 24-year-old William Ford Jr., was the filmmaker’s brother.
Yance speaks directly to the camera about his brother’s murder 20 years ago, and about its affects on the family. You really get the sense of unfinished business, racial tension and deep sorrow felt by the filmmaker, as he reconstructs the stories surrounding the murder. Strong Island is both memoir and investigation into the circumstances under which his brother was murdered, by a white car mechanic.
Click here to see related blog on Rosa Parks, with additional films connected the civil rights movement.
Let us know your your favorite picks!
What the Health?
New year. New hope for health and wellness. New transparency in big business. Well, two out of three is not bad.
Our Health is a great place to start as we transition into 2018. We all have new goals, and health considerations rank high. Yes, health costs are escalating, in tandem with an increased risk of food related diseases, but there is hope if we are willing to make some adjustments.
To borrow from the Stoics (and a shout out to Ryan Holiday ), we just have to focus our perceptions, accept what is out of our control and direct our actions in a way that can bring about solution.
Being More Aware
Let's start with the lay of the land, the results of a broken system. After doing some research, and seeing an eye-opening documentary (What the Health ), here are a handful of facts, just give you a taste health challenges we face:
What We Can not Control
The movie goes deeper, shedding light on the dark secrets. We learn about partnerships between organizations and brands that should scream out conflict of interest . After numerous doctors and nutritionists enlighten us with the connection between meat and diabetes, we learn the American Diabetes Association is taking sponsorship dollars from meat producers and providing menu items on their website, with beef, chicken and pork! They do not seem to be interested in preventing Diabetes, as they are the millions of dollars from sponsors who supply drugs into the system. More than a handful of their sponsors are Pharm companies!
Both the American Cancer Association and the USDA seem to follow similar paths. Politics, lobbying and money; But let's not give the whole story away. What the Health Covers the bases, with more facts, stats and living examples.
Just a few more not-so-fun facts, before we consider a solution ...
We Can Take Action
The truth is, while we can not upend an entire system, we can change our diet and feel better. We can curb escalating disease. You will see results with a plant-based diet, and that myth about protein, vegetarians not getting enough is just plain false. Plants are loaded with protein; so do not let that stop you Here is a great article with over a dozen protein sources.
It's worth a try. Having been a Pescatarian for years, I'm more than a little curious to gauge the difference in eliminating fish from my diet. I certainly hope to avoid ever giving Pharma the satisfaction of needing their drugs because I did not care enough to eat better.
I know this is a tough commitment, but it's worth seeing the movie, and then you can make a more informed decision. What the Health, right?
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