August 29, 2016

Southside with You

Southside with You has an unlikely inspiration: the first date between Barack Obama and Michelle Robinson, in Chicago in 1989. Barack and Michelle would marry three years later, but Michelle was resistant to the young law student at first. She was his liaison for his law internship at her firm that summer, and she was wary of how the firm would view any attachment between them—and of his smooth confidence.

The movie takes place over one entire day. Barack asked Michelle to go to a community meeting with him, but after he picks her up, he sheepishly announces the meeting isn't for another few hours. They go to a museum, then lunch in a park, then the meeting, then a movie, and finally the drive home.

This is the first thing I like about the film: its unusual structure. Each event has its own atmosphere: the feel of the streets at morning or night, the changing light and sky. And each event moves their relationship forward, though not always in a straight line. Also, I suspect that most couples have a day like this—a moment early in their relationship where they spent all day long together and that remains memorable because of what was revealed over the course of that many hours together. There have been apt comparisons to Before Sunrise, but I think this film is actually better because more happens. Before Sunrise is a bit of a slice of life, but Southside with You is that plus more.

For one, it's funny. Michelle comes from an accomplished family, and when Barack pulls up in his disintegrating yellow Datsun, Michelle climbs in and finds a rusted hole where her feet should go. Tika Sumpter plays Michelle, and her wry disapproval of Barack is played a little too often—the script's fault more than Sumpter's, I think. But still—funny.

The acting would be virtue number two. Sumpter is a good, solid Michelle: grounded, smart, independent, and lively. But Parker Sawyers is a brilliant Barack Obama. There were times when I had to remind myself that it was an actor and not really Obama on screen. He was the closest to the real subject that I've seen in any biopic. But it's more than just mimicry. Sawyers creates a plausible version of his subject as a young man on the brink of his future. Michelle can see, and we can too, that he could almost go either way. He's so adored by those around him (the folks at the community meeting, for example, not to mention the partners at the law firm), and he's just on that edge between confident and arrogant.

Here's where the day-long format works to advantage. The film provides opportunities for Michelle to see past what might look like overweening cockiness. She's annoyed that he misled her about when the meeting started, but they go to the Art Institute of Chicago, and their mutual absorption in the art brings them back together. They go to the meeting, and the neighborhood's almost cloying love for him makes her roll her eyes; but that's countered by the realization of his obvious investment in these people's lives and community.

Obama's speech at the community meeting was one of the weaker moments of the movie, but only because of the frequent cuts to members of the audience looking skeptical and then eventually nodding sagely. The director could have used a lighter hand here. But the speech itself was everything it should have been, showing his incredible oratory and his unshakable belief in the power of pragmatic, incremental change. While the community's appeal for a recreation center has been turned down, Obama urges them to take "no" as "on"—as in "carry on." The no is just a first step. Then you figure out why they said no and what you can do to address that before trying again.

This principle comes in handy when they go to see Do the Right Thing and Michelle's worst nightmare comes true. They are spotted together by a senior partner. They muddle through, but Michelle gets in the car with a declaration: "now this [meaning them] will never happen." Now he is driving her home and they are subdued. But if we think he's leaving it at that, we don't know Barack Obama. He pulls the car aside at a Baskin-Robbins. Earlier in the day he had bought her a piece of pie, but she turned him down: "I'm more an ice cream kind of girl." As he said at the meeting, figure out someone's objection and then address it. The sweetness of the gesture and his determination, which is insistent but also gentle and respectful, creates an opening for them.

The give and take between them is so key. They are both brilliant and accomplished, but otherwise quite different. She has the most solid of loving families, and he was essentially abandoned by his parents. She is cautious, and he is daring. He challenges her to be less fearful. She challenges him to forgive his parents. Parker Sawyers' understated portrayal of Barack's pain in this regard is just beautifully done. The director, Richard Tanne, never lets the characters slip into caricatures or types. She's serious but not prissy. He's smooth but also soulful.

Likewise the film itself is never a caricature or a type. It has its own unusual rhythm and feel. Quiet and leisurely in a way, it's never political or obvious. But I found it quite extraordinary. Not perfect, but beautiful.  

August 23, 2016

Hillbilly Elegy, by J.D. Vance

Recently Robert Reich shared a link to an interview on The American Conservative website with the writer J.D. Vance. Vance grew up in Appalachia in poverty and has just published a book about Appalachia called Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and a Culture in Crisis. The topic at hand in the interview was why poor whites support Trump, but Vance discusses much more than that.

Vance talks about the challenges facing the type of poor white communities that support Trump. Poor whites are one of the few demographics that you can still mock with impunity. Multiple social crises plague these communities—drug addiction, loss of jobs, family violence. And poor rural whites often like Trump because Trump sounds like them: he's not political or careful. Trump "actively fights elite sensibilities" and spurns the condescension that has been poured on them for decades.

Vance also talks about the virtues of these communities—about his grandmother and others in his community who were admirable and decent and interesting. He notes that the Scots-Irish culture of honor is deeply rooted there. These people aren't stereotypes or cartoons; they are individuals who are persevering amid terrible circumstances and who have rich, worthwhile lives.

Where he falters, I think, is when it comes to politics. There's a strain of criticism in recent years toward liberals who think of themselves as such humanitarians but are revealed to be prejudiced jerks. The 1997 film Waco: The Rules of Engagement is a case in point. The filmmaker toured the country taking down prosperous liberals who sneered at southern idiots who joined David Koresh's cult. The novel The Emperor of Ocean Park by Stephen L. Carter skewered white progressives for their hypocrisy and hidden racism. Vance has a bit of this. While Republicans put too much emphasis on personal responsibility and values, ignoring the role of economic hardship and throwing up their hands at the cultural problems, he takes liberals to task for dismissing the agency and dignity of poor whites.

These are not equivalent faults, however. Vance tips his hat at Ta-Nehisi Coates and admits, "Too many conservatives look at that situation, say 'well that’s a cultural problem, nothing we can do,' and then move on.  They’re right that it’s a cultural problem: I learned domestic strife from my mother, and she learned it from her parents.  But to speak 'culture' and then move on is a total cop-out. There are public policy solutions to draw from experiences like this: How could my school have better prepared me for domestic life? How could child welfare services have given me more opportunities to spend time with my Mamaw and my aunt, rather than threatening me–as they did–with the promise of foster care if I kept talking? These are tough, tough problems, but they’re not totally immune to policy interventions."

As for liberals, he offers: "Neither are they entirely addressable by government.  It’s just complicated." Liberals tend to look to economic solutions: to provide financial support and to throw money at schools.  He warns that you can throw money at school, but that won't solve problems if the entire culture is permeated with family violence and drug addiction. In addition, liberal handouts are insulting to a people for whom honor and dignity are so important.

The longer I thought about this, the angrier it made me. It's unfortunate that "handouts" are humiliating to receive, but financial help is better than no help. Schools absolutely cannot make up for toxic home environments, but they can at least provide basic skills and a safe haven and maybe even decent air conditioning and heat and plumbing–and yes, even life skills to avoid repeating the mistakes of past generations. A culture of honor, even if it has roots in "Scots-Irish" heritage rather than ghetto street values, is nothing to be admired, especially if it results in scapegoating and short-term emotional payoff at the expense of long-term well-being.

It's also unfortunate that poor whites respond to these challenges by scapegoating foreigners and Muslims and progressives, who are actually the only ones attempting to understand and address their problems. Vance claims that neither party has done anything to help these communities, but that's patently untrue. It is consistently liberals who try to implement policies to help people help themselves: addiction counseling in jail, early childhood intervention programs, vocational training, safe lead paint removal. Vance claims that poor whites are humiliated by the "Bush/Obama" foreign policy and military failures, that they join the military in disproportionate numbers but that their experience in the army leaves them nothing to be proud of. Well, I'm sorry that we can't conjure up a just war so that people can feel good about their military service; that's a ridiculous thing to expect. And the military failures are, again, not equally the fault of Republicans and Democrats. One party got the US into an untenable fight, and another party recognized it and got us out.  

Vance says early on in the interview: "We need to judge less and understand more." That is precisely the liberal ethic, one that is broadly mocked by conservatives. Liberals are both more idealistic and more pragmatic than conservatives: We believe that we can observe reality, try out practical measures, and see what works. The point is not that culture isn't important–it's everything. But you can't wave a magic wand and change culture. So instead you chip away at the things that might affect culture, things that you might have a chance at influencing: jobs, health care, drug addiction, law enforcement reform. And you, ideally, don't let ideological biases get in the way.

I see ideological biases in conservatives when it comes to issues like legalizing pot or providing easy access to contraception. Vance sees ideological bias in liberals when they fail to admit that troubled communities are characterized by both poverty and single-mother households. He sees this as a turning away from facts and reality–his only example. But liberals de-emphasize single-mother households for a good reason: they are a symptom, not a cause. And in any case, single mothers aren't the problem; absent fathers are the problem. In communities like these, mothers stay and fathers don't. If you don't think women should have children unless they're married, please remember that a marriage license does not create commitment; rather commitment creates a marriage license, or at least something equivalent. Simply bemoaning a culture of single motherhood doesn't help anything. But supporting access to birth control and women's choice does.

I also see ideological bias in statements like these: Vance says, "My biggest fear with Trump is that, because of the failures of the Republican and Democratic elites, the bar for the white working class is too low.  They’re willing to listen to Trump about rapist immigrants and banning all Muslims because other parts of his message are clearly legitimate." I find this statement absurd: that Trump's hostility to immigrants and Muslims is somehow tangential to his appeal. As Vance himself acknowledges just a sentence or two later: "A lot of people think Trump is just the first to appeal to the racism and xenophobia that were already there, but I think he’s making the problem worse." There we can agree.

Vance sees Democrats and Republicans as failing equally when it comes to addressing his native culture. But it takes some fast dancing to make this stick. He seems to have evangelical Christian beliefs, so maybe he has a religious and cultural attachment to conservatism that makes it hard for him to own up to the unequal failures of the two parties. Because, trying to understand? Liberal. Trying to help? Liberal. Avoiding mocking vulnerable demographics? Liberal. And arguing that poor whites can be excused for making bad decisions regarding politics because they feel condescended to? That's a much greater insult to their agency and dignity than anything liberals have offered. 

August 6, 2016

Moby Dick: A Sample (1)

The whole thing is so nice—the alliteration, the ease of it—but that last line takes it to another level:

"In summer time, the town is sweet to see; full of fine maples—long avenues of green and gold. And in August, high in air, the beautiful and bountiful horse-chestnuts, candelabra-wise, proffer the passer-by their tapering upright cones of congregated blossoms. So omnipotent is art; which in many a district of New Bedford has superinduced bright terraces of flowers upon the barren refuse rocks thrown aside at creation's final day."

August 5, 2016

Melville's Crazy Genius

I started reading Moby Dick for the first time about two weeks ago. Somehow I was surprised to find it a work of literary genius, despite EVERYONE saying it was a work of literary genius for literally the last hundred-plus years.

I always imagined Melville's prose to be staid and stately. What I found is that it's is much more like Tristam Shandy than The Scarlet Letter. Dude is ALL over the place, in the best way possible. In lesser hands his style might be chaotic or confused, but every piece of it is brilliant by itself and works brilliantly as a whole.

Example: After a normal chapter of exposition, Melville opens the next chapter like a play. The chapter is written like a script, where one by one sailors (or groups of sailors) say their piece, like this:

How the sea rolls swashing 'gainst the side! Stand by for reefing, hearties! the winds are just crossing swords, pell-mell they'll go lunging presently.

Crack, crack, old ship! so long as thou crackest, thou holdest! Well done! The mate there holds ye to it stiffly. He's no more afraid than the isle fort at Cattegat, put there to fight the Baltic with storm-lashed guns, on which the sea-salt cakes!

He has his orders, mind ye that. I heard old Ahab tell him he must always kill a squall, something as they burst a waterspout with a pistol—fire your ship right into it!

Blood! but that old man's a grand old cove! We are the lads to hunt him up his whale!

Aye! aye!

This particular bit of dialogue may not convince a reader that Melville's a genius, but here's a little further on. Two soldiers have gotten into an argument and are about to fight. The other soldiers have made a circle around them, egging them on:

A row! arrah a row! The Virgin be blessed, a row! Plunge in with ye!

Fair play! Snatch the Spaniard's knife! A ring, a ring!

OLD MANX SAILOR. Ready formed. There! the ringed horizon. In that ring Cain struck Abel. Sweet work, right work! No? Why then, God, mad'st thou the ring?

So a fight commences in a ring of onlookers, and Melville writes, "In that ring Cain struck Abel. Sweet work, right work? No? Why then, God, mad'st thou the ring?" Has there ever been a more perfect literary union of philosophy, context, and character than that?

And then Melville finishes off the chapter with this final soliloquy in the voice of a black boy sitting by himself in the ship, having overheard the dangerous plans to pursue the White Whale. I can't begin to parse the racial currents in this novel, but it's hard to think of another great writer of his era sending this raucous chapter by plummeting to the lowest member of the crew—a child no less, and a black one—so poignantly taking up his consciousness, and in one moment showing the cost to the powerless of the foolishness of the powerful:

PIP (shrinking under the windlass). [...] Blang-whang! God! Duck lower, Pip, here comes the royal yard! [...] But there they go, all cursing, and here I don't. Fine prospects to 'em; they're on the road to heaven. Hold on hard! Jimmini, what a squall! But those chaps there are worse yet—they are your white squalls, they. White squalls? white whale, shirr! shirr! Here have I heard all their chat just now [...]  it makes me jingle all over like my tambourine—that anaconda of an old man swore 'em in to hunt him! Oh, thou big white God aloft there somewhere in yon darkness, have mercy on this small black boy down here; preserve him from all men that have no bowels to feel fear!