Politics at the Movies

Imagine if M. Night Shyamalan directed a gory action flick: that’s pretty much “Book of Eli” (directed by the Hughes Brothers). Denzel Washington dices a couple dozen nondescript bad guys on his way to a “surprise” ending so predictable I’m tempted to give it away just to make a tiny dent in this clunker’s box office take.

It’s also the worst film I’ve even seen where a significant portion of the audience clapped at the end. I’m guessing they liked the serious Christian theme. It’s hard to believe Mel Gibson wasn’t involved, because it’s basically “The Passion of Mad Max.”

I don’t object to Christian themes in movies—especially Christians acting charitably (see: “The Blind Side”). But this is all self-righteous killing and dime-store mysticism, without any hint of lions lying down with lambs. The film wastes some great cinematography of a post-nuclear apocalypse landscape.

It also neglects a would-be interesting debate between Eli and Carnegie (Gary Oldman), a villain who wants to use the religious text he believes Eli carries in order to expand the one small town he controls into an empire. Except Washington’s Eli seems to have little concept of the knowledge he holds. He’s more like an “Avatar” in the hands of an angry God, there only for secondhand smiting. These two films do make neat bookends when it comes to pandering to audiences at either of the political spectrum.

For a real apocalypse, we checked out “Trouble the Water” (directed by Tia Lessin and Carl Deal), on DVD. This is Hurricane Katrina told from the camcorder of a black Ninth Ward resident, Kimberly Roberts. As billed, it does have some great footage shot from the eye of the storm. We see flooded streets, a dozen people trapped in an attic, a lone man saving people using a punching bag as a float.

Kim, only 24 at the time, has screen presence. She’s relentlessly upbeat without being clueless or schmaltzy, and she’s great at getting people to talk for the camera. She and husband Scott have a strong, stable marriage. They’re easy to root for.

At its best, “Trouble” shows the absurdity of the government’s breakdown in Katrina. The Roberts and a friend recount how they and other refuges trudged to a mostly-decommissioned Naval base near their house—a dry area with hundreds of empty dormitory rooms—and were turned away at gunpoint. Kim’s grandmother dies when staff abandons her and dozens of other patients at the hospital. Guards leave her brother with hundreds of other prisoners, but without food and water, for days at a local jail.

The film loses steam as it recounts the trio’s odyssey as hurricane refugees across the South. I found myself a little bored—and wondering why this homeless home movie was so cheered on the festival circuit after coming out in late 2008. Maybe it’s because I grew up in the urban South and have spent a lot of time in New Orleans (which was fairly post-apocalyptic long before Katrina). The people in this movie weren’t exotic to me. I had no trouble understanding slang and dialect my suburban Sacramento-raised girlfriend couldn’t. It does get momentum back as it shows how the disaster appears to have been used to rid what’s left of New Orleans of much of its black population.  

But the lack of help the subjects got at many turns may have had a lot to do not just with race but with gold teeth and rough manners. I found myself reminded how I used to think it was kind of funny how many of the more affluent and academically-successful African-American students in my classes in high school would over-enunciate and use big words. But years later I realized I do the same thing—perhaps because I’m a Southerner living in California. I’ve consciously tried to rid myself of any vestige of a Southern accent I may have had, because I knew it would be a liability.  

I was also reminded of this during “Precious,” when the title characters (Gabourey Sidibe) notes of her new teacher and her lesbian partner: “They talk like the TV channels I don’t watch.” While the most talked-about status symbols in this film have to do with race—especially that of light-skinned blacks in poor communities—language is perhaps the greater status symbol here, the characters marked by accents the way they might be in a film set in Victorian England.

I also found it interesting that the best indictment of the welfare system I’ve even seen came from a gay black man (director Lee Daniels). Comic actress Mo’Nique just won a much-deserved Golden Globe for best supporting actress as Precious’ mother. Her Mary is everything Rush Limbaugh might imagine when he pictures a welfare mother: a violent lazy bitch plotting to keep her daughter even fatter and more ignorant than she is. But “Precious” is far more complex than that, also showing the exploitive nature of “workfare” and championing what forgotten people can do when given a chance.

There were only about a dozen people in the theater. But I’m pretty sure everyone there both cried and covered their eyes at certain points. This story of a 300-pound illiterate Harlem teenager who bears two children by her own father is hard to watch—which is precisely why it’s the only film in this column I recommend without reservations.

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