Wednesday, August 14, 2013

For the Cause [2013]

MPAA (UR would be PG-13 / R)  Fr. Dennis (3 1/2 Stars)

IMDb listing

For the Cause [2013] (written and directed by native Chicagoan Katherine Nero) had its premiere recently at Chicago's 19th Annual Black Harvest Film Festival held at the Gene Siskel Film Center.

Readers of my blog will certainly note that I've come to enjoy the calendar of film festivals held here over the course of the year in our fair city.  After a while, one also gets a sense of the relative sizes of audiences that attend these film festivals.  So here I do wish to note that perhaps since (1) Katherine Nero, the film's director is from Chicago, (2) she filmed the movie during the course of the previous summer on Chicago's South Side and (3) most of the actors/actresses were recruited from Chicago, that though the film's themes are serious and definitely transcend Chicago and I would argue even the United States (see below) the showing of the movie to a packed mostly African American audience at this film festival in Chicago dedicated to African-American Cinema had a cheerful "hometown feel" to it.  Indeed, before the showing of the film, a smiling, cheerfully dressed Ms Nero, happily acknowledged the presence of a good number of similarly cheerful attendees to the screening from her Church as well as others who had been her sorority sisters during her college days. Yet the cheeriness belies the depth and multifaceted challenge of this film...

So what is it about?  It is about a young professional African American woman named Mirai M. Scott (played by Charlette Speigner) a lawyer working for a firm specializing in cases of African-American prisoners who had been incarcerated (either found guilty on bad/tainted evidence or forced to take plea deals) for crimes that they did not commit; her parents Fredi Scott (played by Shariba Rivers) now a university Professor presumably in history or political science and Rolly Spencer (played by Eugene Parker) who jumped bail / fled the country to Canada (Windsor, Ontario) in the early 1970s when Mirai was a young child due to his involvement locally (in Chicago) with the Black Panther Party; and then Mirai's boyfriend Paul Godfrey (played by Jerod Haynes) also a young African American professional (though more of an accountant/businessman) and his parents Harry and Claudia Godfrey (played by Anthony Lemay and Pam Mack respectively).

Present in this mix are two African American families who have largely "made it" in recent decades having achieved upper-middle class / professional status but who arrived at this point by different (if interrelated) means.

It's obvious in the film that Mirai's family was more "politically conscious" than Paul's but it also carries the scars of its past radical political involvement: Rolly had to flee the country (and though he apparently had started a new family out in Windsor he apparently never achieved the status/economic security of any of the others).  Further, the circumstances of Rolly's departure also caused obvious hardship/pain to both Mirai and Fredi.  (He comes back into their lives after being extradited, decades after the fact, to the United States from Canada and asks his daughter to defend him at trial ...).  Indeed throughout much of the film, Fredi seemed more angry at Rolly for abandoning them than at the circumstances that appeared to drive him to do so.

In contrast, the Paul's family appeared to be simply a happy and relatively successful contemporary African American family.  They didn't seem to have been particularly involved in ANYTHING during the Civil Rights Era (or in more radical language, the Black Liberation Era) of the 1950s-70s, even if they certainly benefited from its gains.  On one hand one could certainly be resentful of them: What did they do?  What sacrifices did they make?   BUT THIS IS ONE ASPECT OF THE FILM THAT MAKES IT MORE UNIVERSAL THAN ONE WOULD INITIALLY THINK: Maybe Paul's family was not OUT THERE, MORE COMBATIVE, INDEED MORE MILITANT, but IT WAS ALSO MORE "NORMAL." 

I think of my Slavic background and the famous scene in Dr. Zhivago [1965 IMDb] where the Radical (and still basically good guy) Strelnikov explains to the initially far wealthier/far better connected Dr. Zhivago (and clearly also a good guy, indeed the central protagonist of that story) of all the plans that he and the Party have for Russia and asks him what his (Zhivago's) part will be in these Grand Plans.  Noting the extensive "surgery" that Strelnikov was presenting to him, the Dr. Zhivago answers that he just plans "to live so that the patient (Russia) does not die."

How often across the course of my life have I heard people from often disparate but always ABNORMAL political situations -- folks from my parents' Czechoslovakia during the Communist Era, Catholics from Northern Ireland during "the Troubles," refugees from present day Iran, Coptic Christian refugees from Egypt, Israelis often survivors (often now children of survivors) of the Holocaust tired of living in a constant struggle to simply exist, Palestinian companions of mine in Grad school seething with anger as they recalled what it was like to spend hours passing through 2-3 Israeli checkpoints on a road and in a part of the West Bank that EVERYBODY agrees will one day go back to Palestinian control anyway -- all yearning to "just live a normal life," where one could "just worry" about educating the kids, being both a good spouse and happy in one's marriage, and (for those who are religious) to "live in peace with God the Creator of All." 

But what if one doesn't live in "normal" circumstances?  Be it in Franco's Spain or being African American in the United States.  And SELF-EVIDENTLY from the arrival of the first African slaves (in chains...) on American shores, the experience of African Americans has been marked by Radical Injustice.  And while we may look back today and consider NOW the success of the African American Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s-1960s led by Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. a foregone conclusion, (1) we also know now that (for instance) then US FBI director J. Edgar Hoover seemed hell-bent on destroying Martin Luther King, Jr and (2) the more radical alternatives offered by the Black Muslims (Nation of Islam) and, yes, the Black Panthers did much to help the white (and arguably WASP) establishment in this country "see the wisdom" of bending to the still peaceful, still praying, movement of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr and the SOUTHERN CHRISTIAN LEADERSHIP CONFERENCE.

This is all to say that Paul's happy and quite successful family owed its tranquility and happiness in good part to the sacrifices of Mirai's family.  And to my white readers, who might find terrifying/utterly incomprehensible even the possibility of even partly justifying the actions/existence of the Black Panther Party in the African American neighborhoods of America's cities in the 1960s-70s, I ask you to just take a few steps back.  There isn't that big of a difference between what the Black Panther Party was trying to do in the African American neighborhoods of American cities and what the ANC was actually able to do in the townships of Apartheid era South Africa or the IRA was able to do in Belfast, Northern Ireland.   In each case, peoples who experienced/perceived themselves to be oppressed had been "policed" by police/security forces overwhelmingly composed of their experienced/perceived oppressors: in the case of Apartheid era South Africa by white dominated security forces, in the case of Northern Ireland by an effectively ALL-PROTESTANT regional police force the Royal Ulster Constabulary (R.U.C.) and in American cities in the 1960s by still-overwhelmingly white urban police forces.  It was IMHO an extremely wise decision by America's cities to move to integrate their police forces -- I write this working in a parish with a good deal of police officers, both white and Hispanic, as parishioners -- because police forces that come from the same backgrounds as the people they are policing are instantly more credible to the people they are policing than people who come from elsewhere...

Very good.  So a good part of the story in this film takes place in the context of this backdrop:  Yes, some African American families have in recent decades "made it" into the upper middle / professional class, but ... On the one hand are they appreciative of the sacrifices made by others, "foot soldiers" as it were, to make their success possible?  And on the other hand, what of the lingering wounds often psychological/social of those who did sacrifice themselves so that others could succeed / achieve greater happiness in a more just society?  HOWEVER, this is actually ONLY ASPECT of this very thoughtful film, arguably its backdrop.

The OTHER IMPORTANT PART of the film BECOMES APPARENT as it progressively reveals to us viewers why Mirai's parents had their falling out.  On the surface, it would seem that Mirai's father Rolly really didn't have much of a choice but to jump bail and flee the country after being involved in an incident that ended-up wounding a Chicago Police Officer.  So why was her mother Fredi so upset with him?  This becomes the second half of the movie...

To those who do wish to see the movie, which I imagine will play other African American film festivals across the country in the coming year and will probably become available at some point on iTunes or Amazon Instant Video, I give a BIG SPOILER ALERT NOW.  However, for those who probably won't see the movie but have found its subject matter thusfar interesting, this is what happens:

The reason why Mirai's mother is so upset at Rolly is NOT because he abandoned her / Mirai by fleeing to Canada but rather that he abandoned her EVEN BEFORE by allowing her to be raped by several others belonging to the Black Panther group to which they belonged: "You let them run a train on me!" she yells at him at one point.

THIS IS THE SECOND ASPECT OF THE FILM with a MORE UNIVERSAL DIMENSION to the story than one would initially expect.  In recent years, SEVERAL MOVIES have confronted the topic of the abuse of women in times of conflict often by men who had been trusted/friends before the conflict and/or were often lionized as "heroes" in the initial histories written afterwards.

I'm thinking here of two movies in particular.  The first is Defiance [2008] which was about the otherwise heroic exploits of the Jewish partisans led by the Bielski brothers in Nazi occupied Byelorussia.  Heroes in a sense they were, but both the film and the original book on which it was based (which was written by a Jewish woman historian named Nechama Tec) made it clear that from the perspective of the women in the Bielski brothers' partisan group, they didn't exactly feel "free."  Most of the women had to "cut deals" with men in the band, serving them as "forest wives" in return for protection against other men in the group.   The second film is the one directed recently by Angelina Jolie named In the Land of Blood and Honey [2011]. That film was about the systematic abuse/rape of women during the Bosnian War in former Yugoslavia in the 1990s, a situation that was personalized by a couple, she a Bosnian (Muslim), he a Serb, that knew each other casually before the war but progressively entered into a radically unequal relationship during it.  Yes, he "saved her" (and even arguably liked her and tried to be nice to her) but ...

This film, For the Cause [2013] whose title takes on an ironic quality, is a third film that confronts this subject.  Indeed, after this terribly painful secret is revealed, the whole of Mirai's mother's life begins to make sense.  She remains a radical.  Yet she devotes her life to studying and writing about the abuse of women (both in Bosnia and Rwanda and then across Africa).  One understands her and indeed the message of the film: Justice requires Justice across the board.  And in our day and age this means Justice for Women.  It's becoming increasingly hard to justify lionizing "Freedom Fighters" who end up abusing women.

This is film that truly carries a punch.  Good job!

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