Wednesday, July 28, 2021

This Week in Movies with Meaning

Reviews of "Against the Current," "God Exists, Her Name is Petrunya" and "Truman & Tennessee: An Intimate Conversation," as well as a podcast preview, are all in the latest Movies with Meaning post on the web site of The Good Media Network, available by clicking here.

‘Petrunya’ offers hope where it’s absent

“God Exists, Her Name is Petrunya”(“Gospod postoi, imeto i’ e Petrunija”) (2019 production, 2021 release). Cast: Zorica Nusheva, Labina Mitevska, Simeon Moni Damevski, Suad Begovski-Suhi, Violeta Shapkovska, Petar Mircevski, Andrijana Kolevska, Nikola Kumev, Bajrus Mjaku, Xhevdet Jashari, Stefan Vujisić, Ilija Volcheski, Mario Knezović. Director: Teona Strugar Mitevska. Screenplay: Teona Strugar Mitevska and Elma Tataragic. Web site. Trailer.

When our lives stagnate or don’t turn out as hoped for, we often need a miracle to get on track. Out of cynicism and disbelief, that’s frequently seen as too much to hope for. But, then, all of a sudden, out of the blue, something happens to change all that, completely shifting our outlook and altering the circumstances in our favor. This is particularly beneficial when the stakes are high and many would be affected by a change in fortune. Such is the case in the uplifting and satirical new Macedonian morality play, “God Exists, Her Name is Petrunya”(“Gospod postoi, imeto i’ e Petrunija”).

Life is quite unfulfilling for Petrunya (Zorica Nusheva), a plus-sized, thirty-something unemployed college graduate who still lives at home with her parents, Vaska (Violeta Shapkovska) and Stoyan (Petar Mircevski). She has few prospects for work or for a meaningful social life, and some would say that it’s largely of her own doing, making little effort to improve herself or her lot in life. But, then, it’s not entirely surprising, either, given that she lives in the sleepy little community of Štip, Macedonia, a town with high unemployment levels and few jobs. There are particularly few opportunities for women, given the ensconced patriarchal culture of the former Yugoslav republic. Most women are relegated to comparatively menial jobs, such as garment workers and secretaries, often under the thumb of leering, sexist bosses.

Vaska tirelessly attempts to motivate her daughter to find work and a man, but she unwaveringly clings to the traditional outlook that women are supposed to be subservient to their bosses and husbands. This attitude flies in the face of Petrunya’s views; she’s a liberated free thinker who believes that women should stand up for themselves, even if her own lack of initiative in this regard often leaves something to be desired and undermines her noble contentions. Nevertheless, that doesn’t deter her maternal diehard control freak from trying to push her agenda, nagging Petrunya to get up off her behind and move on with her life instead of perpetually sponging off mom and dad. And, when she learns about an opening for a secretarial position at a nearby garment factory, she cows Petrunya into going for an interview.

Petrunya quickly discovers that her would-be boss (Mario Knezović) is the personification of an unrepentant letch. She leaves the interview disgusted and wanders aimlessly around Štip, trying to collect her thoughts. In the course of her meandering, she comes upon an Orthodox Christian priest (Suad Begovski-Suhi) leading a religious procession and, oddly enough, a group of men dressed only in swim trunks as they move toward the local river. The sight is strange, considering it’s January 19 and decidedly quite cold. However, given that it’s also the Epiphany religious holiday, it’s time for the latest edition of a longstanding tradition, one in which a cross is blessed and tossed into the river. And, once the cross splashes into the water, it’s a signal for all of the eager bathers to jump into the river to retrieve it. The one who is fortunate enough to find it is then said to be blessed with a year’s worth of happiness and good luck. Anyone can participate in this unusual religious sport, provided one condition is met – only men are allowed. But that doesn’t stop Petrunya.

After a disappointing job interview, Petrunya (Zorica Nusheva) wanders aimlessly around her Macedonian village trying to collect her thoughts before stumbling upon an event that will change her life, as depicted in the new, fact-based morality play, “God Exists, Her Name is Petrunya” (“Gospod postoi, imeto i’ e Petrunija”). Photo courtesy of 1844 Entertainment.

Apparently unaware of the rules of the game, Petrunya impulsively jumps into the river, too. And, as fate would have it, she successfully recovers the cross, much to the amazement of all the onlookers. However, her retrieval of the icon sets off an immediate firestorm. Several male participants, including a particularly angry and vocal contestant (Ilija Volcheski), claim that Petrunya “stole” the cross, despite the fact that she obviously and legitimately came across it first. Before long, disgruntled competitors seek redress from both the priest and police authorities, including Chief Inspector Milan (Simeon Moni Damevski).

Petrunya is soon taken into custody for questioning, even though no formal charges are filed, primarily because no one can stipulate what, if any, laws she has broken. Frequent allegations are leveled against her that she broke “the rules,” but those rules are never fully enumerated (not to mention the fact that rules don’t have the force of law). In true patriarchal fashion, the priest, the inspector, disgruntled participants, and others, including an intimidating interrogator (Nikola Kumev) and potential prosecutor (Bajrus Mjaku), seek to bully Petrunya, gestures that increasingly empower her and galvanize her in her confrontational stance. She continually and aggressively demands to know what she did wrong and why she can’t rightfully retain possession of the cross, requests that repeatedly go unanswered.

As the situation heats up, it draws the attention of the media, most notably an ambitious journalist, Slavica (Labina Mitevska), intent upon raising awareness of Petrunya’s plight (and less than subtly seeking to bolster her own public profile). With her beleaguered cameraman (Xhevdet Jashari) in tow, she covers the story from as many angles as possible, zealously upping the scenario’s feminist message with each televised report.

In search of a cross tossed into a river with the promise of good fortune for its finder, Petrunya (Zorica Nusheva, center) and a field of all male competitors desperately look for the icon in director Teona Strugar Mitevska’s latest, “God Exists, Her Name is Petrunya” (“Gospod postoi, imeto i’ e Petrunija”). Photo courtesy of 1844 Entertainment.

In no time, the circumstances threaten to spiral out of control. The patriarchal old guard holds firm to its position, even receiving backing from sources like Vaska, who obsequiously and unquestioningly adheres to the view expected of her. Petrunya is virtually on her own, supported only by Slavica, her father and a sympathetic young police officer (Stefan Vujisić). But, the more her foes try to push their position, the more they realize they’re on shaky ground, especially when faced with an intractable adversary who appears to have the force of law on her side. Will Petrunya be able to hold on? Or will her opponents overrun her with threats, intimidation and even outright physical violence? Maybe she’d better hold on to that cross as tightly as she can.

In this day and age, many of us might assume that the sexist attitudes Petrunya faces have disappeared, but, as her experience shows, that’s obviously not the case. Societies that cling to unabashed, inherently biased patriarchal thinking still exist, making life difficult for women who are seeking to advance their status and fulfill aspirations that they believe aren’t in any way restricted by gender. As a consequence, those who feel oppressed have to work harder at making their voices heard to see their objectives realized.

In the face of such opposition, it can be difficult to stay committed. However, those who believe in their cause understand the need to remain focused and ardent in their pursuits. That’s crucial, because our beliefs, thoughts and intents ultimately work to shape what we experience through the conscious creation process, the philosophy that maintains we draw upon these resources in manifesting the reality around us. A commitment to those notions is thus essential to see those goals materialize.

When unsupported claims of cheating and theft emerge in a religious-based sporting competition, a particularly vocal competitor (Ilija Volcheski) calls for “justice” against the wrongdoer in “God Exists, Her Name is Petrunya” (“Gospod postoi, imeto i’ e Petrunija”), now available in limited theatrical release and for streaming online. Photo courtesy of 1844 Entertainment.

Petrunya understands this, even if she’s not completely conscious of it, as some of her actions (or lack thereof) demonstrate, primarily before she becomes embroiled in the cross grabbing controversy. That changes, though, once she sees what she can accomplish, despite the relentless criticism she’s grown accustomed to and the oppressive, incessant bullying she experiences at the hands of the sore losers in the race for the icon. She realizes that she can accomplish certain goals, despite what others contend. She believes in herself, and that bolsters her confidence to succeed and to empower herself. She’s not the inferior, incompetent ne’er-do-well that her mother and the men of Štip make her out to be.

Through this experience, Petrunya genuinely begins to tap into the nature and power of her true self, and, with beliefs to back up that newly discovered self, she runs with what she’s found. While some might find her argumentative and gratingly confrontational, she’s actually just fighting for what she believes to be truly and rightfully hers, and who can blame her for that?

That this revelation occurs on the holiday of the Epiphany is a tremendous irony, to be sure. But that irony is actually rooted in Petrunya’s newfound ability to transform her beliefs into manifestations that are in line with her desires and her authentic self. She draws upon the tremendous faith she has quietly come to place in herself, an additional spiritual link to the practical developments that have emerged as a result of this experience. There’s something of an irony in that, too, given that Petrunya generally has had a secular outlook on life, but transformative events like this can do much to reshape one’s existence, both personally and in terms of how they impact the wider world.

When Kosta, an Orthodox Christian priest (Suad Begovski-Suhi, right), tries to convince Petrunya (Zorica Nusheva, left), the winner of a religious-based sporting competition, to surrender her prize for having improperly participated in the all-male contest, as seen in “God Exists, Her Name is Petrunya” (“Gospod postoi, imeto i’ e Petrunija”). Photo courtesy of 1844 Entertainment.

While Petrunya seems to have a gradual and modest change of heart about spiritual matters as her story progresses – as evidenced by her mounting desire to retain the cross, something she previously would likely not have cared much about – this development illustrates the significance of divine input in the unfolding of events. As our collaborator in the conscious creation process, the divine spark helps to make possible what we seek to attain. Petrunya may not be consciously aware of this joint alliance, given her views on religion, but it’s present nevertheless, especially in the ways that things develop. There’s a genuineness about this, too, particularly when one witnesses how Petrunya fares in comparison to those who claim to speak for God as definitive authorities on spiritual matters. One could say that, in this context, the film’s title aptly reflects what’s at play in this story.

Based on Petrunya’s experience, as well as the message that Slavica seeks to promote through her broadcasts and the no-nonsense guidance offered by the protagonist’s best friend, Blagica (Andrijana Kolevska), one would likely characterize this movie as a feminist manifesto. However, as an interview with director Teona Strugar Mitevska in the film’s production notes indicates, calling this picture a story exclusively about women’s rights sells it short. Mitevska says that it’s a universal story, one that speaks to the search for justice, fairness and equality, regardless of gender or other defining characteristics. The core beliefs associated with manifesting and promoting these principles are essentially the same, no matter what the underlying issue may be. Petrunya’s efforts at challenging authority figures to seek the implementation of change may be primarily directed at benefitting women, but the process she employs could just as easily be used to better the circumstances of minorities, excluded constituencies or others who face comparable conditions.

Given how this story opens, Petrunya may seem an unlikely candidate to champion a cause such as this. But, then, considering how her life had been unfolding, perhaps she needed a catalyst like this to get her on track. And, in this case, it was one that had a greater purpose behind it, too, one that would benefit not only her, but also others similarly situated. It was as if she were living out her destiny, one that she had not consciously envisaged or anticipated, yet it was one whose impact would be significant and felt by others besides herself. In the process, Petrunya’s undertaking led to the betterment of not only herself, but also others around her, a practice in conscious creation circles known as value fulfillment. In a culture where women are often openly treated as being second-class citizens, Petrunya’s righteous defiance sends a powerful signal to those who would support unjustified actions that try to thwart the legitimate aims of others. In the wake of events like this, it’s apparent there truly is a God – and He/She/It has collaborators who help to make initiatives like this possible.

Status-seeking journalist Slavica (Labina Mitevska, foreground) aggressively seeks to cover a controversial story while wearing down her beleaguered cameraman, Boykan (Xhevdet Jashari, background), in “God Exists, Her Name is Petrunya” (“Gospod postoi, imeto i’ e Petrunija”), now available in limited theatrical release and for streaming online. Photo courtesy of 1844 Entertainment.

Taking on an entrenched, centuries-old social, religious and political patriarchy is no easy feat, but the protagonist in this pan-European production unwittingly does just that. Director Mitevska’s latest crackles with intensity and biting satire, telling the fact-based story of a 2014 incident involving a similarly situated woman who was proclaimed to be “crazy,” “troubled” and “disturbed.” It delivers an important and empowering message, despite getting bogged down occasionally in repetitive, circular arguments, making the picture come across as a little heavy-handed and dogmatic at times (at least to those of us who reside in more tolerant and open-minded societies). Nevertheless, for a culture that has long fought against progressive social change, perhaps such a sledgehammer approach is what’s needed to get the message across to those who have staunchly resisted it and used whatever means available to them to reinforce such an archaic view against women. To many, it might seem that films like this should no longer be necessary, but the fact that it was made suggests the opposite and that there’s yet more work to be done. Fortunately, “God Exists” does a fine job in that regard. The film has been playing in limited theatrical release and is available for online streaming.

Miracles can work wonders to restore hope, especially when it seems irretrievably lost. They can lift our spirits and restore our faith in the notion that things can work out for us. For those particularly beset by misfortune, that can be a godsend – literally – as Petrunya discovers for herself. But, for these wonders to be truly effective, we must recognize the role we play in their manifestation, developments that wouldn’t occur without our involvement, no matter how much input our divine collaborator supplies. Realizing that is indeed significant, if not a miracle in itself.

Copyright © 2021, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.

Documentaries Aplenty on Frankiesense & More

Summertime is movie time, and this year is a little different, one characterized by a plethora of excellent new documentaries, a number of which will be discussed on the next edition of The Good Media Network’s Frankiesense & More video podcast with yours truly and special guest host Danielle Findlay. Tune in Thursday July 29 at 1 pm ET on Facebook Live by clicking here for a lively discussion of new releases worth seeing in theaters or via streaming. And, if you don’t see the show live, catch it later on demand!

Monday, July 26, 2021

Summer of the Documentary

Tune in for the latest Cinema Scribe segment on Bring Me 2 Life Radio, Tuesday, July 27, at 2 pm ET, available by clicking here. And, if you don't hear the show live, catch it later on demand on Spreaker, Spotify, Apple, iHeartRadio, Google Podcasts, Castbox, Deezer, Podchaser and Jiosaavn.

Friday, July 23, 2021

‘Truman & Tennessee’ profiles the creativity of two icons

“Truman & Tennessee: An Intimate Conversation” (2021). Cast: Archive Footage: Truman Capote, Tennessee Williams, David Frost, Dick Cavett, Tom Brokaw, Gore Vidal. Voiceover Narrators: Jim Parsons, Zachary Quinto. Director: Lisa Immordino Vreeland. Web site. Trailer.

Genuine literary icons are rare. Writers who possess the ability to grasp profound insights and then deftly express them through prose don’t come along often. But, for those times when they’re present in uncharacteristically prolific numbers, it’s indeed fortunate for the world of literature. So it was in the mid 20th Century when two such giants were at the peak of their creativity, a pair of writers whose lives and works are profiled in the engaging new dual biography, “Truman & Tennessee: An Intimate Conversation.”

Truman Capote (1924-1984) and Tennessee Williams (1911-1983) were two of the greatest American wordsmiths of the 20th Century. Both were born in the South. Both rose to fame in the 1950s. Both wrote works that contained controversial subjects for the time. Both battled with issues of alcoholism and artistic stagnation. Both became celebrities in their own right, earning notoriety outside of their writing accomplishments. Both were unabashedly gay at a time when such revelations were quite uncommon. And, even though they wrote works through different milieus (Capote primarily penning novels and short stories, Williams composing stage plays), the parallels between their lives and works were uncanny. But, to a great degree, that’s not surprising, given that they were also friendly rivals and good, lifelong friends.

Truman Capote, one of two iconic American writers featured in the new dual biographical documentary feature, “Truman & Tennessee: An Intimate Conversation.” Photo courtesy of Keystone/Getty Images and Kino Lorber.

“Truman & Tennessee” is a rare dual biography chronicling the lives of these two writers, detailing the works of each and showing their compositions’ similarities in tone and thematically. The film also examines how their parallel personal lives significantly influenced the content of their writings. But, perhaps most importantly, director Lisa Immordino Vreeland’s offering presents an ongoing “dialogue” between Capote and Williams, drawing from materials they each wrote about one another and presented in alternating voiceover narrations read, respectively, by actors Jim Parsons and Zachary Quinto. These readings are further supplemented by archive footage of Capote and Williams in television interviews conducted by David Frost, Dick Cavett and Tom Brokaw. The result is an intriguing and introspective look into the hearts, minds and work of these two literary icons.

As most writers are well aware, it’s always wisest to draw upon what one knows when putting pen to paper. So it was for both Capote and Williams. They wrote about their Southern upbringing and heritage. They plumbed subject matter that was near and dear (or at least familiar) to them, often painful in nature and exploring themes they were acquainted with, such as alcoholism, abuse and sexual repression. And they both achieved tremendous acclaim for what they wrote, with many of their materials being made into movies, many of which are featured in a series of well-chosen film clips that effectively capture the themes and nature of their works.

Tennessee Williams, one of two iconic American writers featured in the new dual biographical documentary feature, “Truman & Tennessee: An Intimate Conversation.” Photo courtesy of Getty Images and Kino Lorber.

The processes that produce such results are both simple and complex. Their simplicity stems from tapping into the particulars of one’s experience. Their complexity comes from how one views them and translates those details into thoughts, beliefs and intents. But how does one reconcile the two?

From a theoretical standpoint, Capote and Williams provide us with an important example from which to draw. As evidenced by their writing, we see a pair of scribes who intuitively knew how to authentically convert these intangible notions into tangible creations. They drew from their experience and transformed those incidents into thoughts, beliefs and intents that they then used in penning their works.

That, in essence, is the foundation of the conscious creation process, the philosophy that maintains we tap into those resources for manifesting the reality we experience. Even if Capote and Williams were unfamiliar with this philosophy, they certainly were masters of its principles, as evidenced by the results they produced. And that’s important to the rest of us, because, if this practice can be employed successfully for composing a novel or stage play (as their example illustrates), it can conceivably be used for the materialization of any other venture, be it painting a portrait, designing an interior space or simply making dinner. The process can be applied to virtually any undertaking, no matter what aspect of life we apply it to.

Truman Capote, author of Breakfast at Tiffany’s and In Cold Blood, as featured in director Lisa Immordino Vreeland’s dual biographical documentary feature, “Truman & Tennessee: An Intimate Conversation,” now available for streaming online. Photo by Globe Photos/mediapunch/Shutterstock, courtesy of Kino Lorber.

By drawing from what we know – the innermost thoughts, beliefs and intents of our true selves – we can operate from a standpoint of personal integrity. Even if those experiences aren’t the most pleasant but make for a worthwhile creation (like good prose or drama, for example), the more we can delve into their depths to formulate beliefs that lead to something meaningful, the more authentic we can be in yielding those manifestations. Such authenticity tends to ring true, not only with us, but also with others, leading us to embrace the validity and fidelity of those creations, as well as to foster their acceptance at large, a condition that no doubt helps to account for the popularity and appreciation of the works of writers like Capote and Williams.

To bring these writings into being, Capote and Williams let their creativity flow freely, without hindrance or limitation, even when it came at a high personal cost. When Capote wrote In Cold Blood, for example, he became more than a little personally involved in the creation of this nonfiction novel and the fates of the convicted murderers it was based upon, a development that affected him profoundly. The impact was so intense and pervasive, in fact, that he descended into the depths of alcoholism and struggled to write anything new, issues that plagued him for the remainder of his life. Yet, in enduring this experience in bringing this book to life, Capote produced what is arguably one of the greatest literary works of the 20th Century.

Tennessee Williams, author of The Glass Menagerie and A Streetcar Named Desire, among other works, with one of his prized bulldogs, as featured in director Lisa Immordino Vreeland’s dual biographical documentary feature, “Truman & Tennessee: An Intimate Conversation,” now available for streaming online. Photo courtesy of Harry Ransom Center/The University of Texas at Austin and Kino Lorber.

Of course, this naturally raises issues about the nature of what we create – and what beliefs we embrace in doing so. Such exercises may indeed yield remarkable results, but we must be cognizant of the costs involved. Is it wise to tap into territory that could potentially destroy us, even if it leads to a good book? Such instances truly can be prime examples of “be careful what you wish for.” As was the case for both Capote and Williams, suffering can indeed serve as a source of inspiration or as a stumbling block to personal and creative fulfillment.

Still, no matter what we draw from, when our creative efforts result in manifestations that stand the test of time, we live out our destiny, what conscious creators call value fulfillment, the act of being our best, truest selves for the betterment of ourselves and those around us. Capote and Williams gave us a wealth of literary and theatrical classics, enriching our cultural lives and enlightening us to some of life’s most challenging circumstances. It also helped that they had each other to help guide one another in these undertakings, something we should all bear in mind when it comes to consulting our kindreds in taking on creative initiatives of our own. With such an outlook and resources like these, there’s no telling what we may be capable of bringing into being in our efforts to make the world a better place for all of us.

Bringing together the insights and words of two legendary writers in one film is an intriguing approach to the biographical documentary genre, an approach employed cleverly and skillfully in this offering. By combining archive interview footage with voiceovers of their writings, viewers see a picture emerge not only of these two gifted artists, but also the parallels between their respective backgrounds, the nature of their longstanding friendship and the ways in which their personal lives influenced their work. These discussions are supplemented by numerous clips from film and television adaptations of their novels and plays, including “A Streetcar Named Desire” (1951), “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” (1958), “Baby Doll” (1956), “The Night of the Iguana” (1964), “The Glass Menagerie” (1973), “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” (1961) and “In Cold Blood” (1967), to name a few. While this release is not always especially revelatory about either of these well-known individuals, it’s nevertheless quite intimate and authentic in their on-screen depiction, especially in the archive interviews. If nothing else, this film puts an interesting spin on its material and brings its protagonists back to life, even if only for a little while. The film has been playing in limited theatrical release and is available for streaming online.

Perhaps the greatest attribute of the works of these writers is the gifts to us that they represent. We should be grateful for these literary and theatrical masterpieces for the contributions they have made to the world of the written word, additions that have benefitted us all. Truman and Tennessee may not have had the easiest time bringing these materials to life, but their efforts were rooted in integrity and a desire to capture the truth. They have enriched us, both for their insights and authenticity, speaking to us in a manner that’s simultaneously personal and universal, results that only an icon can achieve.

Copyright © 2021, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.

Friday, July 16, 2021

‘Against the Current’ navigates the quest for personal truth

“Against the Current” (2021). Cast: Veiga Grétarsdóttir, Helga Snædel, Guoni Páll Viktorsson, Grétar S. Pétursson, Sólveig S. Kristinsdóttir, Kristinn Grétarsson, Bjarki Jónsson, Örlygur Sigurjónsson, Elín Esther Magnúsdóttir. Director: Óskar Páll Sveinsson. Screenplay: Margrét Örnólfsdóttir and Kristin Ólafsdóttir. Web site. Trailer.

To truly prove ourselves, sometimes we must pursue goals that are seriously over the top, quests that most of us would view as seemingly impossible, possibly even foolhardy. The statements such gestures make go a long way toward validating the intents behind them. But, perhaps even more importantly, they say a lot about us – who we are, what we’re championing and what we’re made of. So it was for a determined athlete who attempted something never before tried, a venture designed to prove something about herself and what she stood for, as depicted in the inspiring new documentary, “Against the Current.”

Veiga Grétarsdóttir spent many years in search of herself. This courageous transgender kayaker struggled to come to terms with her identity, a difficult task for someone trapped in a body whose physical gender did not match what was in her consciousness. She tried desperately to be the man she was born, attempting to live up to the qualities and behavior of what society expected. It was an ordeal compounded by being born into a family with two brothers, both of whom were comfortable in their own skin and urged their sibling to join them in their typical male pursuits. Veiga (born Veigar) joined them and likewise sought to engage in all of the activities that make men who they supposedly are. She openly admits to intentionally overcompensating in these activities, as if making an extra effort would somehow make a difference, a common practice among transgender individuals trying to vanquish their seemingly inexplicable contrary impulses. Veigar even went so far as to get married and have a child with his wife, Helga, believing that this was what a man was supposed to do and that it would “cure” him of these “errant” thoughts.

But, try as he might, Veigar could not fight his feelings. He felt compelled to dress in women’s clothing and to apply makeup. He would look for ways to hide his secret and to indulge these urges in private, often making excuses to his wife and family so that he could have time to be alone to pursue his impulses. However, despite the satisfaction he derived from these solitary diversions, he had difficulty reconciling his reality with his feelings. It tore him up, and he decided he had to make a change. He thus attempted suicide – twice.

Transgender kayaker Veiga Grétarsdóttir battles the waves of the North Atlantic as she attempts to circumnavigate Iceland in a counterclockwise fashion in the engaging new documentary, “Against the Current.” Photo courtesy of Kino Lorber and Zeitgeist Films.

Realizing that suicide was not an answer, Veigar finally recognized the need to acknowledge and accept his circumstances. With the help of a support group and friends like Elín Esther Magnúsdóttir, Veigar stepped aside to allow Veiga to come forth. She underwent the gender reassignment process and became the woman she is today.

While much obviously changed in Veiga’s new life, her old life did not completely disappear, such as her love of sport, particularly kayaking. In fact, she always dreamed of circumnavigating her native Iceland, an ambitious undertaking for anyone who has ever attempted the 2,100-kilometer journey. But Veiga’s ambition was something even more bold than the attempts made by others who undertook this venture – she wanted to go about it in a counterclockwise direction, against the prevailing current.

When asked why she wanted to undertake such an odyssey, Veiga remarked that she had been going against the current all of her life and that a journey of this nature somehow seemed aptly fitting. But there was more to it than that. Just as comedian Dick Gregory undertook prolonged fasts and long-distance runs to draw attention to causes near and dear to him, Veiga embarked on her quest to promote awareness of transgender issues. After all, as Gregory observed, once people ask why someone is engaging in extreme ventures like this, it opens the door to explaining why and thereby making the cause known, a goal comparable to what Veiga was undertaking. In addition to promoting support for the transgender community, she was also seeking to generate interest in several organizations aimed at providing assistance to those in need. She particularly sought backing for groups offering help to prevent suicides among at-risk trans individuals, a cause especially important to her in light of her own history.

The beauty of the Icelandic coast provides a dramatic backdrop for director Óskar Páll Sveinsson’s gorgeous and inspiring new documentary, “Against the Current,” the saga of transgender kayaker Veiga Grétarsdóttir’s attempt to circle the island, as the title suggests, against the current. Photo courtesy of Kino Lorber and Zeitgeist Films.

After months of preparation and training, Veiga was at last ready to begin her journey. Accompanied by fellow kayaker Örlygur Sigurjónsson for the first leg of her trip, she embarked from her home port of Isafjärder on the west coast of Iceland to start what would be a 103-day endeavor. With director Óskar Páll Sveinsson in tow, the filmmaker and his crew followed Veiga on this remarkable and groundbreaking trip. Gorgeously filmed footage of her journey, intercut with segments drawing parallels between this odyssey and the one that led her to this venture, tell a compelling story of triumph, fortitude and personal growth on multiple fronts. The result is an uplifting and enlightening tale of what we can accomplish – and who we can be – when we set our minds to it.

The twin journeys examined in this film reflect the twin journeys that Veiga underwent in her life, and they mirror one another in many ways. That’s not entirely surprising, though, given that our outer world is a reflection of our inner selves, the realm of our thoughts, beliefs and intents. Those are the tools that make our existence come to life through the conscious creation process, the philosophy that maintains we manifest the reality we experience by tapping into these resources. Our existence thus becomes a materialization of what we hold most dear, and Veiga’s experience illustrates this with tremendous clarity and fidelity. Even if she never heard of this philosophy, she became a master of its principles, an accomplishment apparent in the results she attained.

Transgender kayaker Veiga Grétarsdóttir prepares for a day on the waters off the coast of Iceland in the inspiring new documentary, “Against the Current,” now available for streaming online. Photo courtesy of Kino Lorber and Zeitgeist Films.

In reaching this point, though, Veiga had to face a number of personal fears, serious limitations that were holding her back from achieving fulfillment in life. This required her to address these issues and examine the beliefs that were driving them. And, by being willing to confront them directly, she was able to rewrite those notions and, in turn, courageously reshape her existence. That’s quite an accomplishment in itself, but the particulars of what she did were even more impressive, given that they unfolded on multiple fronts.

To a great degree, Veiga was able to achieve this by taking a good, hard look at who she really was – on the inside. In doing so, she was able to face her truth and then live it, through her beliefs, with integrity. That proved significant, as that integrity enabled her to materialize her reality with tremendous authenticity, a result that provided her with great satisfaction.

Given the challenges Veiga took on, she came face to face with great undertakings on two fronts. In depicting these endeavors, director Óskar Páll Sveinsson described Veiga’s journey as one characterized by two classic confrontations: humanity vs. nature, as evidenced by her kayaking adventure, and humanity vs. itself, as seen in her gender reassignment odyssey. Both called for struggle and sacrifice. However, as Veiga admits, these challenges enabled her to boost her self-confidence, helping her grow more committed and courageous, skills she took with her from these experiences that she believes she will be able to draw upon in future ventures. She hopes, as I’m sure most of us would, that this development will be something she carries with her, enabling her to draw upon it when needed in subsequent undertakings. All she needs to do is believe in herself and her abilities.

In the Land of the Midnight Sun, twilight comes late but with great beauty, as depicted in the fascinating new documentary, “Against the Current.” Photo courtesy of Kino Lorber and Zeitgeist Films.

With these elements in place, Veiga was ultimately able to live out her destiny. That’s something we should all hope we’re able to do, particularly when it helps provide benefits to others, a practice known in conscious creation circles as value fulfillment. By taking on these challenges, Veiga drew attention to the needs and concerns of transgender individuals, efforts that have helped lead to the betterment of the trans community. There’s a tremendous nobility to come out of that, but one that’s also characterized by a great sense of personal fulfillment and satisfaction knowing that our beliefs – and their manifestation – have really helped make a difference.

What resulted from this 103-day endeavor, as chronicled in Sveinsson’s sensitive and gorgeously filmed documentary, is a journey of self-discovery on multiple fronts – and one not limited to the waters off the coast of Iceland. The juxtaposition of the two primary story threads is perfectly balanced, showing uncanny parallels between what Veiga experienced on the ocean and what she underwent during her life onshore. In addition to footage of Veiga’s experience in both of these journeys, the film also features interviews with her parents, Grétar and Sólveig, her brother, Kristinn, her lifelong friend, Bjarki, her former wife, Helga, and kayaking experts, Guoni Páll Viktorsson and Örlygur Sigurjónsson, all of whom provide additional insights. This offering is an inspiring and uplifting piece of filmmaking, one sure to stir the spirit, tug at the heart and encourage us to fulfill potential we never knew we had. The film is currently playing in limited theatrical release and is available for streaming online.

When we succeed at proving to ourselves (and others) that we’re capable of living our personal truths, we often come away from the experience with a new sense of self, one that tends to be authentic, empowering and uplifting in many ways. Veiga Grétarsdóttir proved that to herself through her heroic journeys and to us through this film. The path to fulfillment may not have always been an easy one, but the results speak for themselves and, one would hope, help to inspire those seeking to accomplish the same.

Copyright © 2021, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.

Tuesday, July 13, 2021

This Week in Movies with Meaning

Reviews of "Summer of Soul," "The One and Only Dick Gregory" and "The Neutral Ground," as well as a magazine article preview and a film festival wrap-up, all in the latest Movies with Meaning post on the web site of The Good Media Network, available by clicking here.

Monday, July 12, 2021

A 'Summer of Soul' on The Cinema Scribe

Tune in for the latest Cinema Scribe segment on Bring Me 2 Life Radio, Tuesday, July 13, at 2 pm ET, available by clicking here. And, if you don't hear the show live, catch it later on demand on Spreaker, Spotify, Apple, iHeartRadio, Google Podcasts, Castbox, Deezer, Podchaser and Jiosaavn.

‘The Neutral Ground’ exposes an obscured truth

“The Neutral Ground” (2021). Cast: CJ Hunt (narrator and interviewer), Mitch Landrieu, Jason Williams, Christy Coleman, Michael “Quess” Moore, Malcolm Suber, Angela Kinlaw, Thomas Taylor, Karen Cox, Ashley Rogers, Dr. Ibrahima Seck, Abdul Aziz, Luther Gray, Freddi Evans, Dread Scott, Mr. Hunt, Darcy McKinnon. Archive Footage: Pierre McGraw, Donald Trump, David Duke. Director: CJ Hunt. Web site. Trailer. Movie.

When the truth remains hidden, it’s difficult to move forward and make progress in resolving thorny social issues. But, when it’s intentionally buried under a barrage of myths and lies designed to purposely obscure it, that makes the effort considerably more daunting. That doesn’t mean it’s impossible, though, as chronicled in the satirical and emotionally charged new documentary, “The Neutral Ground.”

In 2015, the New Orleans City Council considered a proposal to take down four statues honoring Confederate Civil War “heroes” and organizations, including those dedicated to General Robert E. Lee, commander of Southern forces, General P.G.T. Beauregard, the military officer who fired the first shots of the Civil War at South Carolina’s Ft. Sumter, and Confederate President Jefferson Davis. A hotly debated public hearing was held, characterized by passionate arguments from proponents on both sides of the issue. It was all that Council President Jason Williams could do to keep the hearing from getting out of hand. But, when the measure came up for a vote, it passed resoundingly, with only one Council member dissenting.

Mayor Mitch Landrieu, an ardent supporter of the proposal, was thrilled with the outcome of the vote. He hoped that the removal of the monuments would help to heal some longstanding pain, referring to the decision as one aimed at remembrance of, not reverence for, what the statues represented. And he hoped that the entire process would be wrapped up within a few months. If only it were that easy.

In the months that ensued, the removal plan remained a contentious issue, despite its official approval. Opponents filed lawsuits, and progress to take down the statues stalled. For all practical purposes, nothing was changing other than the growing volume of the public discourse.

Enter biracial comedian and social observer CJ Hunt. He had been a New Orleans resident for a number of years and was fascinated by what was unfolding before him. The field producer for Comedy Central’s The Daily Show was so intrigued that he even began work on a YouTube project about the subject. However, as the issue grew in intensity, he could see that an online video wouldn’t be sufficient for covering the depth and complexity of what was transpiring. And that is how this film project was born.

Director CJ Hunt (right) stands before one of four Confederate statues slated for removal in New Orleans as detailed in the insightful new documentary, “The Neutral Ground.” Photo by Paavo Hanninen.

Hunt had a lot of questions, some of which were philosophical in nature and others of which were highly personal. As someone with a Black and Filipino background who grew up attending a predominantly White prep school, he tended to downplay his mixed-race minority heritage in order to fit in. But, as he entered adulthood, he had many unanswered questions about his background, especially when it came to why an apparent love of the Confederacy persisted among White Southerners and how he and the minority community should feel and react to that devotion.

To get to the root of this matter, Hunt had to do a deep dive into the history of the Confederacy to discover the hold it had on so many Americans through the years, including today. It was a process that took him to many locales throughout the South to unravel a variety of highly cherished myths, long-entrenched beliefs that helped explain the Confederate mystique, the reasons behind the erection of the monuments in the first place, and the perpetuation of the lore that has lasted through the years and continually fueled a culture built on dogma, lies and gross misperceptions. And, once these truths were exposed, Hunt was able to see where the outrage toward these symbols came from, an understanding that he sought to elucidate through this film.

Despite the reluctance of many Southerners to admit that the Confederacy lost the war, the fact remains that they were defeated, pure and simple. But, when up against such a harsh truth, there’s a natural tendency for those on the losing side to save face. As Hunt observes, this was particularly true when it came to healing the grief of the survivors of Southern soldiers killed in battle. Although there may have been a certain nobility in aiding grieving widows and mothers, those who orchestrated such efforts took matters a step further by concocting an entire mythology about the disappearance of an Old South that never existed. This led to a sentimental story about the South’s tragic defeat in the war known as “The Lost Cause,” a fable glorifying its fallen dead and sugarcoating a way of life that they unsuccessfully fought to defend.

As the myth grew, so, too, did the misconceptions about the reasons for the conflict. For example, one of the biggest fallacies was that the war was not about slavery, but, rather, about “states’ rights.” Of course, as Hunt found in his research of the secessionist documents that led to the creation of the Confederacy, the states’ rights in question were those associated with the “right” to own slaves, a contention boldly proclaimed in these historical writings. To compound matters, the attempted rewriting of the history of the South also included frequent statements about “the fair and kind treatment” that slaves received from their masters, with bad apples being more the exception than the rule.

Really? African-Americans would certainly tell a far different story. Which is why memorials exalting such a bald-faced deception have drawn the ire of those whose ancestors were subjected to an atrocious social system, not the genteel way of life so often depicted in books and films.

After a protracted legal battle, a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee is finally removed from a pedestal overlooking the City of New Orleans as depicted in director CJ Hunt’s engaging new documentary, “The Neutral Ground,” now available for streaming online. Photo by Paavo Hanninen.

The film goes on to show how the mythology grew over the years after the war. As former slaves began to gain power during Reconstruction, African-Americans saw their level of empowerment rise, something that did not sit well with many White Southerners. First they lost the war, and now they were seeing their former “property” beginning to occupy positions of prominence. In their view, that was intolerable, prompting them to turn up the rhetoric of “The Lost Cause.” Increasingly massive memorials were being erected, and they were often placed in the proximity of locations like courthouses and government buildings. Such strategic placement was designed to send a message to let minorities know who was in charge. Even as late as 50 years after the war ended, this practice continued, a time long after many veterans and survivors of the conflict had died off. And, for those born in the interim, this was a way to indoctrinate them into a way of thinking that clung to outdated values and helped ensure the perpetuation of a power structure whose time had come and gone.

Hunt makes it clear that Southerners weren’t the only ones complicit in this movement. A number of Northerners played a role, too. For instance, many of the bronze statues destined for Southern locales were, in fact, cast in the North. Many of the books written about the Old South came out of publishing houses located in New York. Even the post-war reunified federal government played a role by backing away from Reconstruction when it became apparent it wasn’t working, removing troops and mothballing progressive programs, all in the interest of quelling Southern discontent and encouraging the notion that the US was once again one big happy family.

The bottom line in this, Hunt contends, is that the nation has been lulled to sleep about the truth of what really happened. Consequently, the issues associated with these buried truths have been ignored and allowed to fester. The discussion that we have long needed to have about this subject has been purposely set aside in hopes that it will simply go away, and the impact of this has been felt not only on a social scale, but also on an individual one. It’s been part of the reason, for example, why many young African-Americans have been left in the dark and/or have so many questions about their heritage, not unlike the director himself. It also accounts for why so many White Americans are unaware of where the anger of minorities comes from – and why it matters to make changes to rectify an intentionally obscured past.

So where do we go from here? As noted in the film, it’s unrealistic to expect that we can kill the myth simply by getting rid of its symbols. Indeed, even being able to make that happen can be a more protracted exercise than anyone realizes. It took New Orleans several years to eventually bring down the statues due to impediments like long legal battles and even Mayor Landrieu’s inability to find cranes to facilitate the process (their owners having been threatened if they aided the removal).

But that doesn’t mean we can’t take steps to get the ball rolling. Making the public aware of what really happened and telling the stories that have gone untold are good starting points. Considering how long these issues have persisted, they may not be resolved overnight, but we have to start somewhere, and films like this provide us with good places to begin. And Hunt has given us an excellent springboard to launch this process.

As director Hunt’s poignant visual essay so effectively shows, beliefs – no matter what they may be – are remarkably powerful and persistent phenomena. Thanks to the conscious creation process, the philosophy that maintains our thoughts, beliefs and intents manifest the reality we experience, these resources have the ability to materialize whatever they represent, for better or worse. And, in the case of the circumstances depicted in this film, they have done so with tremendous staying power, commemorating individuals and events from over 150 years ago. This brings true meaning to the notion of beliefs being capable of memorialization as tangible materializations, powerful, physical symbols of ideas, no matter how heinous or unacceptable they may be – or have become.

Right-wing extremists protest the removal of a Confederate monument in New Orleans as shown in director CJ Hunt’s “The Neutral Ground,” the premiere offering of the new season of the PBS documentary series POV, now available for streaming online. Photo by Paavo Hanninen.

This principle can obviously be applied for positive, uplifting ideals as well. But, in the case of the Confederate statues in New Orleans and other municipalities of the American South, they have been erected – and maintained – to promote and perpetuate an agenda backed by beliefs that are antiquated and out of touch with contemporary thinking. That support, which has been sustained by the same beliefs that prompted their original placement and dedication, is what filmmaker Hunt and groups promoting the monuments’ removal have been seeking to expose, making the real intents behind them known in order to change the narrative and set the record straight.

Changing entrenched beliefs is often difficult, again due to the power and persistence underlying them. But it’s not impossible by any means. It requires the formation and promotion of new beliefs, notions that clear away the obscuring camouflage and reveal the truths that have been hidden in the shadows of these falsely glorified icons for all these many years. And, when those revelations surface, they have the power to change hearts and minds – and to win over the support of those who have been uninformed or who have willfully chosen to stay asleep and in denial. Those new beliefs thus have the power to write a new public narrative, one that wipes clean the longstanding falsehoods and is capable of launching a new dialogue, one in which an obscured truth at last becomes known.

The chances of achieving such a result are enhanced when we tackle the project as a collaborative effort, an act of co-creation. By taking this approach, we have an opportunity to tap into the power, energy and beliefs of multiple sources. In addition to the efforts of individuals like the director and crew of this film, the initiative garnered further support from organizations like Take ’Em Down Nola, the New Orleans Slave Trade Marker Project and the staff of the Whitney Plantation Museum, all of which are featured in the picture. This goal also benefitted from efforts in other cities with Confederate statutes where similar initiatives were launched, such as Charlottesville, VA, Baltimore, MD, Durham, NC, Richmond, VA and Charleston, SC. By making this more than just a New Orleans issue, proponents of this endeavor have created a groundswell of support to change the nation’s landscape – not just physically, but also in the minds and consciousness of its citizens.

Mardi gras celebrants sit atop a pedestal that once served as the foundation for a Confederate memorial in New Orleans as seen in director CJ Hunt’s “The Neutral Ground.” Photo by Paavo Hanninen.

This is not to suggest that the memorials are entirely without merit. However, what needs to change is an understanding of the meaning for why they were erected and what we should take away from their original creation. Instead of glorifying the remorseful failure of a defeated secessionist nation, they should serve as powerful reminders of the morals and values that said nation stood for – intolerance, involuntary servitude, racial hatred, and other unspeakable social and ethical atrocities. Putting the statues into that context, perhaps by placing them in designated locales dedicated to fostering that purpose, would be a means for reminding us of the errors of our ways rather than the exaltation of man’s bigotry and foolhardiness. That, of course, would imbue these idols with an entirely new meaning, backed by a new set of beliefs, notions different from those for which they were originally established. These new ideas can transform the dialogue, sending a powerful message both to those who once lauded the existence of these landmarks and, one would hope, an enlightened posterity.

This campaign this represents a tremendous learning opportunity, one aimed at providing us all with a tremendous life lesson. As is often widely acknowledged, those who don’t learn from the past are indeed destined to repeat it. As Hunt stresses in this film, this is a chance for America to take off the blinders, to learn what really happened and to discover how we tried to bury the truth for the sake of other considerations. It’s an opportunity to learn the dangers of denial, of how we placed the expediency of fulfilling certain goals over openly acknowledging some painful realities, a course of action for which all of us – Northerners and Southerners alike – share the guilt that has persisted to this day. And it’s a situation that can only be rectified by changing the beliefs that write the narrative in which we all play a part, both individually and collectively.

Aptly subtitled “A Film About Sore Losers,” this superb debut documentary feature by director Hunt draws upon a modern-day Battle of New Orleans – one aimed at removing public symbols commemorating a failed social system that celebrated slavery, racism and White supremacy. In exposing the false narrative that has kept this myth alive for over a century, the filmmaker tells a story that’s both stunningly comic and utterly tragic. Hunt’s skillful tongue-in-cheek questioning and editing techniques effectively blow the lid off the ignorance, cynicism and hypocrisy of the alleged virtues that sanction fellow humans being treated as property and inherently inferior. As the premiere episode of the new season of the PBS documentary series POV, this excellent offering is now available for streaming online from the program’s web site. Hunt’s film succeeds both as a work of filmmaking and as an enlightening and educational vehicle, one that every American should see if we ever hope to resolve these long-simmering conflicts.

Copyright © 2021, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.

Saturday, July 10, 2021

‘Dick Gregory’ embodies the principle and practice of integrity

“The One and Only Dick Gregory” (2021). Cast: Interviews: Chris Rick, Kevin Hart, Dave Chappelle, Harry Belafonte, Wanda Sykes, Nick Cannon, Lena Waithe, W. Kamau Bell, Rob Schneider, Lillian Gregory, Christian Gregory, Ayanna Gregory, Greg Gregory, Myrlie Evers-Williams, Robert Lipsyte, Edward Schmitt, Sheila Moses, Steve Jaffe, Lawrence O’Donnell, Rock Newman, Cathy Hughes, Jack Healy, John Bellamy, Gordon Brooks, Joe Madison. Archive Footage: Dick Gregory, Medgar Evers, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Merv Griffin, Jack Paar, Mike Wallace, David Frost, Ed Bradley, Arsenio Hall, Hugh Hefner, J. Edgar Hoover, Muhammed Ali, Michael Jackson, John Lennon, Yoko Ono. Director: Andre Gaines. Screenplay: Andre Gaines. Web siteTrailer.

Living one’s truth is indeed a virtue – and one that some say is becoming increasingly rare in these contentious times. It’s unclear whether this is due to an unwillingness or an inability to do so. Either way, though, if we’re to revive this practice, we need inspiring examples to draw from, and, these days that means looking to our past to find suitable role models to help show us the way. So it is in the superb new biographical documentary, “The One and Only Dick Gregory.”

When a film’s title claims to be about “the one and only” Dick Gregory, it’s not exaggerating, particularly when it comes to the character and magnitude of its subject. The St. Louis-born African-American comedian, social activist and health advocate lived quite a life, one unlike anyone who came before or after him during his 84 years (1932-2017). He may have come from a poor background, but he certainly made the most of what he had to work with, as this new documentary so eloquently shows.

Gregory came to prominence as a comedian in Chicago in 1961 with a breakthrough performance at the Playboy Club. Ironically, this was a stint where he was named a last-minute replacement for another comic. He made quite an impression with his pointed, racially focused humor, delivered through a routine presented to an audience of mostly White Southerners in the Windy City for a convention. Gregory became an overnight sensation, quickly rising through the ranks of the entertainment world and landing spots on television programs like The Jack Paar Show, not an easy feat for Black performers of any stripe at the time. But Gregory’s incisive humor, his smooth delivery and his cool demeanor made him a stand-out, possessing a combination of qualities that separated him from other African-American comics of the time.

Gregory’s success soared, becoming one of the most in-demand performers of his day. And that prominence earned him a respectability few Black entertainers enjoyed at the time. It would subsequently enable him to embark upon undertakings far different from his night club appearances and TV gigs, ventures that made an impact more significant and meaningful than anyone might have realized, including the comic himself.

With the rise of the civil rights movement, and in light of the ongoing discrimination inflicted upon minorities in places like the American South, Gregory could not stay silent. His routines were often punctuated by racially based humor, so he was certainly no stranger to controversial material. Now, however, he saw an opportunity to make use of his comedy as a way to get the public’s attention with regard to civil rights issues. Getting people laughing about sensitive topics was a way to getting their ear. And, given his success as an entertainer, he had built up considerable clout, a reputation that carried tremendous weight in helping to influence and reshape the public debate about these charged social issues.

As time passed, however, Gregory did more than just tell jokes. He became an activist, working side by side with civil rights leaders like Medgar Evers and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. He and his family became actively involved in protests, an effort that resulted in more than 100 arrests and jail time. But Gregory was not about to just pay lip service to these issues; he saw a need to become a participant in these initiatives, and he never backed down, freely giving his time and money to the cause.

Gregory’s efforts did not stop with securing rights for the Black community, either. According to his daughter Ayanna, he also participated in protests focused on the rights of women, Native Americans and even poor Whites. He saw injustice and wanted to see it eliminated. This also became apparent in his vocal criticism of the highly unpopular Vietnam War, which was taking a disproportionate toll on the African-American community. When it came to matters like these, he simply couldn’t remain silent.

Gregory was skillful at courting support, too. For example, when the entertainment industry became leery of booking him because of his increasingly controversial stances, he actively sought out audiences where he knew he would be warmly welcomed, most notably college campuses, which were growing progressively more restless with an unsatisfactory status quo. He became one of the nation’s most in-demand guest lecturers at universities, where he often gave long and engaging presentations, punctuated by his singular sense of humor.

But, even with his success on college campuses, Gregory saw the need to generate more publicity for his views. To compensate for this, he sought inventive ways to generate attention, such as going on prolonged fasts and engaging in long-distance runs. When questioned why he undertook these seemingly unconventional pursuits, he said that, if people asked him about them, it opened the door for him to explain himself, thereby drawing attention to the reasons behind these activities. The strategy worked, garnering considerable media coverage and earning him a reputation that transcended his success as an entertainer. He was now becoming equally known as an emerging social activist.

In the wake of his fasts and long-distance runs, Gregory’s physique significantly changed. Having been a 288-pound chain smoker, he shed a tremendous amount of weight and quit his four-packs-a-day habit. He also became a vegetarian and then a vegan, radically transforming his diet. And, as a result of this makeover, he saw the critical (and thereunto previously underappreciated) role that health and well-being played in personal empowerment, both individually and as members of society. Gregory saw that poor diets and inadequate health care reinforced the disempowerment that plagued minority communities, so he subsequently became an ardent advocate for change in these areas. He became the developer and spokesperson for a proprietary product known as the Bahamian Diet, one that became wildly successful and made him millions.

But, as the film notes, as successful as Gregory was as an entertainer, activist and health advocate, he also left much to be desired as a businessman. As abundantly as the money came in, it went out nearly as quickly, much of it donated to favorite causes and some of it caught up in protracted legal battles with business associates. Before long, Gregory found himself so destitute that he lost his home and could no longer afford health insurance for himself and his family. However, as he so philosophically observed, he came from nothing and wasn’t preoccupied with amassing wealth, believing that whatever money he earned should be put to use and not sat on.

This change in fortune pushed Gregory back into doing what got him started – entertaining. He began giving club performances and making appearances on TV shows and in films like “The Hot Chick” (2002) with comedian Rob Schneider. But, in the process, he never lost sight of his activism, either, frequently appearing on televised political forums, such as those broadcast on C-SPAN, where his outspoken rants often overshadowed other more staid guests. Indeed, as a vocal senior, Gregory didn’t hesitate to speak his mind, frequently pontificating with an uncharacteristically raw approach, one far different from the smooth delivery of his early days in show business. But, as his days dwindled and his health began to slide, he needed to make his points while he still had the chance. He may have been more in-your-face than he was at one time, but he wanted to make sure people knew how he felt, especially when it came to addressing subjects that hadn’t undergone the degree of reform he believed necessary with the passage of nearly six decades.

When Gregory passed away somewhat unexpectedly in 2017, he left quite a legacy on multiple fronts. Indeed, there was one and only Dick Gregory, but that shouldn’t come as any surprise. After all, considering everything he accomplished, that would truly be a hard act to follow.

One could make a good argument that finding individuals who live their truth and abide by the principles of personal integrity is becoming harder than ever these days. Some would say this is especially true in the entertainment business, where celebrities step forward to make stirring speeches for certain causes and then retreat into the wealth and privilege their careers have provided them. But Dick Gregory was different (hence the “one and only” designation). He held firm to his beliefs and made sure he translated them into actions, a hallmark practice of the conscious creation process, the philosophy that maintains we draw on their power and veracity to manifest the reality we experience. Gregory may not have ever heard of this philosophy, but he surely was a master of its principles in all he did.

What’s particularly inspiring about how Gregory lived his life is that his personal confidence in himself seemed to keep growing and expanding throughout his life. Even if there was something he hoped to accomplish but did not know how, he went and learned about it, steeled himself in his convictions and then made it happen. His beliefs in his abilities for accomplishing even the seemingly impossible were continually strengthened and imbued with so much resolve that he rarely missed the mark when it came to fulfilling his aspirations. That’s conscious creation in action, to be sure.

Gregory was also adept at forging alliances and partnerships in his endeavors, finding collaborators who were on the same page as he was in undertaking meaningful acts of co-creation. He tapped partners who could help him, such as boxer Muhammed Ali, who helped draw attention to one of Gregory’s long-distance runs and the reasons for it. He also joined forces with those who had common interests, such as singer Michael Jackson, who collaborated with Gregory in helping to fight hunger. And then there were times when Gregory volunteered to help others with their personal and public ventures, such as former Beatle John Lennon and his wife Yoko Ono, who called upon Gregory to help them kick their drug habits. In each case, the beliefs were in place, and the results spoke for themselves.

In examining the many facets of Gregory’s life, some might wonder how the diverse dots of his existence connected. How did a successful comedian become a fervent social activist and then an advocate for healthy living? It comes down to an ability to spot the connections that bind these diverse and seemingly disparate pursuits. Given that conscious creation maintains that everything in existence is intrinsically linked to everything else, there are indeed threads that join seemingly unrelated manifestations, even if they’re not easy to spot. But, for those like Gregory, who possess an uncanny ability to identify them, recognizing the connections is the first step in drawing upon their power and then being able to tap into them. Seeing, in this case, truly is believing, and believing is the trigger for acting and creating. Gregory’s success as an entertainer, for instance, was a starting point for working his magic, earning him the respectability and influence that made it possible for him to go after his other pursuits and become successful at fulfilling his aims in those areas. A little awareness, backed by complementary convictions, can indeed work wonders.

Gregory achieved more in his lifetime than many individuals do in multiple incarnations. He felt compelled to accomplish the goals he set out to do, often at great personal costs. But, then, given his upbringing, he knew the conditions that his fellow minorities were experiencing and was willing to go to bat for improving their well-being socially and politically, as well as when it came to their health. On some level, he must have seen this as his destiny, working as a champion for the betterment of others, a practice that conscious creators know as value fulfillment. Gregory truly lived his version of it and sought to inspire others through his example.

Gregory lived quite an amazing life, as depicted in this detailed new biography. With a wealth of archive footage of Gregory’s standup performances, his civil rights activism, his efforts to promote healthier living, and media appearances with the likes of Mike Wallace, Ed Bradley, David Frost, Arsenio Hall, Merv Griffin and Jack Paar, director Andre Gaines’s debut feature presents an in-depth look at this prescient icon’s fascinating life story. In addition to appearances by Gregory’s wife Lillian, his children Christian, Ayanna and Greg, and his friends and fellow activists, as well as his publicist, biographer and business partner, the film includes insightful conversations with those whom he inspired, including actor Harry Belafonte and comedians Chris Rock, Dave Chappelle, Kevin Hart, Wanda Sykes, Rob Schneider and Nick Cannon. While the picture provides a thorough treatment of Gregory’s activism, it nevertheless could have placed a little more emphasis on his comedy, given that the clout he built up as a successful entertainer was what made his later, more meaningful work possible. That aside, however, this excellent offering provides viewers with a fitting tribute to a remarkable talent and an impressive human being who brought true meaning to the word – and practice of– integrity. The film is currently playing on the Showtime cable TV network and its streaming site.

When we come to the ends of our lives and all is said and done, how many of us will be able to look back upon our times and say that we accomplished what we set out to do? What’s more, even if our goals have been achieved, how many of us will be able to claim that we reached them in line with integrity, reflecting the true intents we began with? It is possible, provided we stick to our beliefs and see them through. Dick Gregory did that, and his accomplishments serve as a shining example to the rest of us. And that’s no laughing matter.

Copyright © 2021, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.

Sunday, July 4, 2021

‘Summer of Soul’ celebrates a forgotten cultural breakthrough

“Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)” (2021). Cast: Interviews: Stevie Wonder, Gladys Knight, Marilyn McCoo, Billy Davis Jr., Mavis Staples, Chris Rock, Charlayne Hunter-Gault, Jesse Jackson, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Sheila E., Greg Tate. Performance Archive Footage: Stevie Wonder, Nina Simone, B.B. King, the Staples Singers, Sly & the Family Stone, the 5th Dimension, Gladys Knight & the Pips, the Chambers Brothers, David Ruffin, Hugh Masekela, Mahalia Jackson, Abbey Lincoln, Max Roach, Ray Barretto, the Edwin Hawkins Singers, Mongo Santamaria, Moms Mabley, Willie Tyler & Lester. Other Archive Footage: Tony Lawrence, John Lindsay, Jesse Jackson. Director: Ahmir-Khalib “Questlove” Thompson. Web site. Trailer.

It’s sad when a milestone event fades into obscurity. When one examines the impact it had at the time of its staging, one would hope that such a legacy would be sustained. However, those who remember the event carry the spirit of its impact within them, and, with a little help, it just might be possible to bring it back to life and celebrate the breakthrough it represented. Such is the case with the entertaining and uplifting new music documentary, “Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised).”

As America headed into the summer of 1969, the nation was holding its breath, worried what might unfold. In recent years, the country had become tense and divided over a variety of events – contentious race relations, riots in the streets, the unpopular Vietnam War, and distress over a wave of assassinations, including the Kennedy brothers, Malcolm X and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The year before in particular had been a difficult one, with fallout from the foregoing, as well as the violent demonstrations that took place at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. So, needless to say, there was considerable worry over what would be next, especially in the nation’s major cities.

A number of civic and political leaders believed it was important to find ways to dissipate the energy that had been building and could potentially be unleashed in undesirable ways. And, in New York, the largest city in the US, that issue was addressed by a plan to give residents a healthy means for doing just that – a festival that would provide them with some much-needed enjoyment, the Harlem Cultural Festival.

Singer Nina Simone gives a moving performance at the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival as seen in the enlightening and entertaining new documentary, “Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised).” Photo courtesy of Searchlight Pictures © 20th Century Studios.

The festival was organized by performer/promoter Tony Lawrence, who had quite a knack for bringing people together to stage successful events. In this case, he worked with the City of New York, enlisting the support of Mayor John Lindsay. The program was held in New York’s Mt. Morris Park (now Marcus Garvey Park) over six weekends from June to August and featured an array of Black and Latino music, comedy and culture featuring a lineup that had never been assembled before – or since.

Even though smaller versions of the festival had been held in previous summers, those earlier events were nowhere close in scale to this undertaking. Given the size of the crowd – estimated at approximately 300,000 attendees – the festival was compared to another event taking place that summer about 100 miles away, earning it the nickname “the Black Woodstock.” And, because of the festival’s anticipated magnitude, it was decided that it should be documented. So, like Woodstock, the event was filmed, in this case under the coordination of TV veteran Hal Tulchin and backed by the healthy financial support of General Foods.

The festival was a resounding success. It included musical performances by the likes of Stevie Wonder, Nina Simone, B.B. King, the Staples Singers, Sly & the Family Stone, the 5th Dimension, Gladys Knight & the Pips, the Chambers Brothers, David Ruffin, Hugh Masekela, Mahalia Jackson, Abbey Lincoln, Max Roach, Ray Barretto, the Edwin Hawkins Singers and Mongo Santamaria, as well as the comedy of comic Moms Mabley and ventriloquist Willie Tyler & Lester, to name a few. In addition to the entertainment, the event was a showcase for Black culture, particularly in the area of fashion.

Front man Sly Stone of Sly & the Family Stone wows the crowd at the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival, as depicted in director Ahmir-Khalib “Questlove” Thompson’s rousing new documentary, “Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised).” Photo courtesy of Searchlight Pictures © 20th Century Studios.

But the event was significant for other reasons. It was a venue for ushering in social change, bringing together elements of the established civil rights movement and the emerging Black Power movement. The African-American community was now being encouraged to express itself rather than just look for ways to fit in. This was important given that the country was now under the leadership of recently elected President Richard Nixon, who was widely perceived as unsympathetic to the concerns of racial minorities. The festival also provided an opportunity to pay homage to slain civil rights activist Martin Luther King through a moving tribute led by Rev. Jesse Jackson featuring a tearful rendition of the leader’s favorite work of music performed by Mahalia Jackson and Mavis Staples.

Considering the success of the event, the promoters and documentarians were eager to find an outlet for the footage that was filmed at the six weekend concerts. Unfortunately, except for two one-hour specials broadcast shortly after the event on New York’s WNEW Channel 5 (now a FOX affiliate), there were no takers; all of the programmers that were approached said they didn’t envision any interest in a Black Woodstock movie or television special. None. At. All.

In hindsight, it’s almost inconceivable to believe that this could be the case. However, that’s what happened, and so the 40 hours of footage sat in Tulchin’s basement, unscreened or untelevised anywhere, for the next 50 years. And, because the footage never surfaced, the event itself was almost completely forgotten.


As one of the more popular acts at the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival, the 5th Dimension performs its blockbuster single Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In as seen in the excellent new documentary, “Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised).” Photo courtesy of Searchlight Pictures © 20th Century Studios.

Thanks to the efforts of director Ahmir-Khalib “Questlove” Thompson, writer Robert Fyvolent and a dedicated production team, the festival has now come back to life. The concert footage, which was recoded on high-grade two-inch videotape, enabled the material to be remarkably well preserved. This wealth of documentation thus provided the filmmakers with considerable fodder for making this superb film.

To augment the concert material, Thompson has incorporated numerous interviews, including many who attended the event, as well as some of those who performed or knew the organizers. Commentary into the significance and context of the festival is presented through additional interviews, including actor/comedian Chris Rock, journalist Charlayne Hunter-Gault, entertainer/composer Lin-Manuel Miranda, musician/producer Sheila E. and writer/musician/producer Greg Tate. These insights help to resurrect and illuminate a seminal event in a watershed moment for the African-American community, one that brought it to a level of prominence not previously enjoyed – and one that we can now enjoy again through the music that helped inspire it.

It’s always something to see when an individual or collaborative comes up with solutions to address potential problems involving innovative qualities. In looking back to 1969, when the threat of a summer of violence loomed, it was indeed a brilliant move when the organizers of the Harlem Cultural Festival came up with the idea for their event. They saw an issue on the horizon and managed to find an outlet to defuse the energy building behind it – and one that provided a good time for those who attended. That’s a win/win for everyone.

Blues guitarist B.B. King takes the stage at the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival as seen in director Ahmir-Khalib “Questlove” Thompson’s superb new documentary, “Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised),” now showing in theaters and on Hulu. Photo courtesy of Searchlight Pictures © 20th Century Studios.

What made the event and its outcome possible was a belief that it could be done, and therein lies the crux of its success, for our beliefs are what shape the reality we experience. Such is the essence of the conscious creation process, the philosophy that maintains we manifest the existence around us through the power of our thoughts, beliefs and intents. And, considering what resulted, there were some potent beliefs at work in making this all possible.

It’s especially important to note that the concept of the festival represented some significant thinking outside the box. Officials could have sat back and waited with baited breath to see what might happen. Or they could have chosen a more proactive stance, one in which they sought to cut off problems before they arose. And the fact that it was done in such a remarkably creative and uplifting way really helped to set it apart from more conventional solutions. By surpassing limitations and trying the untried, organizers managed to stave off the problems that worried them and produce an entertaining, inspiring and enjoyable time for all involved.

Clearly this was a remarkable act of co-creation, one in which multiple parties came together to accomplish a tremendous goal. Everyone concerned believed the result was attainable, and everyone played his or her part to make it happen. All of the parties involved were wise to place their trust in the skillful hands of those accomplished at pulling off programs like this, namely, promoter Tony Lawrence, documentarian Hal Tulchin and New York Mayor John Lindsay. Even when snags came up, such as the possibility of inadequate security for the event, planners got creative in their thinking and came up with a creative solution – augment New York Police forces with members of the Black Panther Party. Together the joint forces kept matters from getting out of hand, proving that even allegedly opposing forces could work in tandem for a common good.

A sea of fans fills New York’s Mt. Morris Park (now Marcus Garvey Park) for the Harlem Cultural Festival, a long-forgotten event brought back to life in the new documentary, “Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised).” Photo courtesy of Searchlight Pictures © 20th Century Studios.

Fifty years after the event, such inspired collaboration surfaced once again in the making of this film. The various parties responsible for bringing it into being helped to resurrect the memory of a truly astounding event. Even though the festival may have been largely forgotten and overshadowed by its upstate musical counterpart, it genuinely was an event worth remembering, and those involved in this documentary project made that happen. The rarely seen performances can again be enjoyed, and later-born generations can witness the impact it had on the Black and Latino communities.

That, if anything, is arguably the greatest legacy to come out of this event. It played a pivotal role in encouraging empowerment among its constituencies. It brought Black and African culture to a prominent (and previously seldom seen) center stage. It gave its people an opportunity to freely express themselves without restriction and to make their voices heard – not just on the concert stage but in American culture at large. And, even though the festival may not have finished the job, it helped light the match that got it going, a flame that burns to this day and one whose stoking is made possible by this film, providing us all with an eloquent and powerful record of its origin.

Director Thompson is to be commended for assembling an extraordinary selection of musical performances and providing viewers with context for the significance of this event. The film is thus more than just an entertainment vehicle; it’s a time capsule into the period, examining the impact that the summer of 1969 had on Black culture, activism and empowerment. The project is a tribute to the festival and the times, while simultaneously reawakening us to issues that still deserve attention all these many years later, pointedly reminding us that those who do not learn from history are destined to repeat it – and that we had all better be listening to more than just the music. The film is currently playing in theaters and on the Hulu streaming service.

To some, the contention that a music festival could play an important role in helping to shape the culture of a people or a nation may seem overblown. But, when one realizes that the 1960s are often characterized as “the Woodstock generation,” that notion might quickly be dispelled. So it is also with that event’s African-American counterpart. It may not have received the same degree of notoriety, but that doesn’t mean it didn’t have an effect, either. And now, with this film, a new generation of audiences has an opportunity to see what influence it had and how it has percolated down through the years, even if the event itself was not always cited as the source of this development. Here’s hoping we get it right this time and remember the Harlem Cultural Festival for what it was – a groundbreaking event that helped to reshape us as a society hoping for the better.

Copyright © 2021, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.