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Politics at the Movies

Thurgood

Directed by Michael Stevens
Review by Tony Sheppard

In 2008, Laurence Fishburne (“C.S.I.,” “The Matrix”) received a Tony Award nomination for his Broadway performance in the one-man play “Thurgood.” This film is a performance of the play that was recorded at the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater. As such, Fishburne is the entire cast, and the film is a lightly-staged monolog, or series of monologs, that highlights the life and career of Thurgood Marshall, civil rights advocate and the first African American U.S. Supreme Court Justice. It was produced for HBO to be broadcast during Black History Month and will premiere on Thursday, Feb. 24th, with additional screenings to follow over the next few weeks.

One-hundred-plus minutes of a single actor talking may sound like a glorified lecture, but the film and the delivery are engaging throughout. It seemed much shorter than it is. It opens with Fishburne as Marshall entering the theater and chatting briefly with the audience about his own days in Washington, D.C., at the Howard University Law School, during the depression. Marshall was in Howard’s class of 1933, starting at a time when his skin color barred him from entry to the University of Maryland and the all-black Howard had an all-white faculty.

At this point, Fishburne is playing an older Marshall, somewhat infirm and walking with a cane. But he transforms subtly as he starts to recount his past days, becoming a younger man through nothing more than posture and movement. At times it’s so incremental that you almost want to go back and watch sections again to see the changes, and we slowly watch him age as he tells the story of a remarkable life and career.  

His great-grandfather was a slave, and it serves as a reminder of how recent that history was for someone of his generation. We are similarly reminded throughout the story of the segregation and discrimination that he and others faced, even as he fought against it – riding in colored-only railroad cars as he traveled to fight court cases related to segregated schools, and almost being lynched while fighting another case that also took him into the deep South.

The main narrative starts with a description of the Plessey vs. Ferguson (1896) case that established the concept of “Separate but Equal” as an accepted (for the time) application of the Fourteenth Amendment (“equal protection”). This was the basis of everything from segregated water fountains and bathrooms, to segregated schools and colleges.  It could either be fought head-on as a challenge to its original interpretation, or as a means to ensure that the segregated facilities really were equal in practice, as the precedent required.  

The majority of the cases described throughout his career are pre-cursors to the landmark Brown vs. Board of Education (1954) which Marshall argued before the Supreme Court. At the time, he was lead counsel for the NAACP and the case subsumed several other cases, including one, Briggs vs. Elliott (1952) that Marshall had earlier lost in South Carolina.  

As many of these cases are recounted throughout the play, the emotion and delivery by Fishburne are such that even such simple storytelling produces profoundly emotional responses. These are amazing moments described between lighthearted commentary about drinking and dating. But there are also tales of family life and the loss of his first wife that are touching and profound. Similarly, the stories that relate to being called the “n” word as a child and young man range from deeply moving to unexpectedly but intentionally amusing (as when he found himself waiting tables for a Senator who both verbally abused him but also heavily tipped him).

It’s a remarkably simple and efficient production, with a stage play that is limited to very few props, a table and some chairs, and a large screen behind Fishburne that displays period photographs. But even those are kept to a minimum, and there is very little to ever detract from the powerful and riveting delivery of the narrative. On only a couple of occasions, Fishburne delivers dialog from another character, the opposition lawyer from the Brown case. Otherwise he remains in character as Marshall, telling his story and teaching a willing audience about key moments in the civil rights movement, including exchanges between him and Dr. Martin Luther King.

Fishburne is great in this role. It’s easy to see why he received the Tony nomination. He tells the many stories and shares jokes, and the character of Marshall as student, activist, lawyer, and Justice shines throughout, becoming well-rounded and fully formed despite the minimalism. I don’t really know enough about Marshall’s career, on an independent basis, to fully critique the accuracy of the play/film, but it seems consistent with what limited amount I have heard or read. If nothing else, it is both inspiring as a stand-alone narrative and also serves as an inspiration to delve further into the details of the life it depicts. I would recommend it either for students of history, or as the basis for a meaningful family or community event. As the character recounts early on in the play, he was taught how one person really can make a difference to the world, and he took that idea and ran with it throughout his career.

I Am Number Four

Directed by D.J. Caruso
Review by Malcolm Maclachlan and Tony Sheppard

Malcolm: They could have called this “I am by the numbers.” Ok, bad joke. But I’m a little torn about this one. On the one hand, I was a bit offended by its startling lack of originality. On the other hand, I had a pretty good time.

Tony: I had a similar reaction. To make an equally bad joke, there are “countless” ways that this movie ought to fail, with plot holes and internal logical inconsistencies, but somehow it was still enjoyable.

Malcolm: This is probably partly because the story actually seems to riff on the idea that it’s so derivative. The plot – this is explained very early, so I’m not giving anything away – involves nine young aliens with superhero-like powers. Each has a number and an alias like “John Smith” or “Jane Doe” (not making this up). They each escaped a destroyed planet with a protector and came to Earth, where they’re being pursued by an alien race that also has their eye on our planet. The good guys are attractive and blond and the bad guys look like an evil “Star Trek” race that’s good at basketball.

Tony: But part of the problem was with those protectors. You have an entire alien race who’ve staked their future on stashing these nine kids away on a distant planet. They give each of them a “warrior” minder. Yet the movie starts with one of those warriors proving to be stunningly inept, not species-savingly competent.

Malcolm: The setting is a battle for the future of our planet, but really it’s all about the pressures of high school, and that’s why it works. John (Alex Pettyfer) is good-looking and a great athlete (having superpowers and all), but identifies with the nerds and outcasts. Sarah (Dianna Agron, who plays Quinn on “Glee”) is the pretty-girl loner, and Sam (Callan McAuliffe) is the picked-on geek who is obsessed with extraterrestrials. John longs for girls (in a very wholesome way), chaffs against his responsibility to save the world, and clashes with his protector Henri (Timothy Olyphant), who is a kind of hard-assed but benevolent stepfather. If you can’t find something to identify with in there, you either never went to high school or they were the best four years of your life.

Tony: Yes, and it’s wonderfully convenient that
the local geeky kid is into aliens and not building model railroads in his basement. Sam actually steals many of the scenes he’s in – he’s just inherently likeable, more so than some of the lead characters. There are moments when Sarah would be more likeable if she was killed by evil aliens, and she must babysit for the Trump family, judging by her extensive camera collection.

Malcolm: Now I usually have a problem with movie space aliens who don’t seem very, well, alien, given the diversity we see in human cultures. But that’s not really the point. These are all stand-ins for real life situations we’ve all found ourselves in while young (or better yet, while being young right now). Without putting a single original idea or setup on the screen, it’s still pretty entertaining – and my 11 and 14-year-old stepkids loved it. The “Mogadorian” bad guys work well, particularly their sadist leader (Kevin Durand), and have a pretty gross facial feature that’s incorporated nicely. There’s some fun riffing on “X Files” – obsessed people actually being right – something they could have done more with.

Tony: Again, yes – and Sam has one of those endearingly self-aware film moments when he shoots an alien and credits his extensive video gaming. But the Mogadorians seem to lack anything approaching a shred of creativity. The whole numbering sequence inherent in the film’s title is predicated upon them working their way through the kids entirely sequentially.  They’d get a lot further a lot faster if they suddenly skipped a few numbers and killed a kid who wasn’t expecting them to show up any time soon.

Malcolm: “I Am Number Four” is set up to be number one of many, and, as Tony put it, “I’d rather watch a few more of these than sit through another Twilight movie.” My own snootiness aside, I’ll probably end up doing both.

Tony: Well, realistically, so will I.  But aside from representing awful storytelling, the “Twilight” series has a lot to answer for in the book world. You can’t move at the bookstore these days without stumbling upon vampire novels. Picking up random books in the sci-fi section is like some kind of all-vampires-all-the-time practical joke, and the young adult section has more blood-letting than a Red Cross campaign.

But, against all odds, “I Am Number Four” somehow managed to work. The heroes are largely incompetent, the villains are worse, and the effects are cheesy – but the basic premise is mildly interesting. I felt like I was laughing along with it whereas I tend to feel like I’m laughing AT the “Twilight” movies (“Oh no, they’ve found us where we like to play vampire baseball. Our only chance is based in our strength in numbers. Let’s split up!”)  I’m looking forward to what they do with “We Are Numbers 4 Through 6” or whatever they call the next one, but I’m still not betting on the warrior/protectors.


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