The Hate U Give -Film Review

The three main children in The Hate U Give are named Starr (Amandla Stenberg), Seven (Lamar Johnson) and Sekani (TJ Wright).

I’ve often wondered where these seemingly less traditional names come from – particularly names where the meaning is the name and the name the meaning. As a white person, perhaps I am accustomed to Anglo names where their origins are less obvious. Names like Elizabeth (meaning my God is my oath), John (meaning Yahweh is gracious), Harry (meaning home ruler), Jessica (meaning to behold), Robert (meaning bright fame), Hannah (meaning grace) and so forth.

When I have taught students named Goodness, Charity, Wisdom, Prince and others where the meaning of the name explains itself immediately, I had presumed their parents, often African (in the case of this film African American), had torn a random selection of words from a dictionary and pulled one out of a hat. But upon watching The Hate U Give it became clear to me these names, which are often values, traits or flattering abstract nouns, are allocated with deliberation. More so than the randomness of say Gwyneth Paltrow and Chris Martin’s fruit-based Apple or Kim Kardashian and Kanye’s compass-orientated North.

The children’s father Maverick ‘Mav’ Carter (Russell Hornsby) explains:

“You know not everybody got super-powers like you. Shine your light. I didn’t name you Starr by accident.

“I gave each of you power in your names. Seven – perfection, Starr – light, Sekani – joy. Use it so when you ready to talk, you talk. Don’t you ever let nobody make you quiet.”

And Starr does talk. The film talks. And we all need to talk.

Police shootings and deaths in custody have been the trigger for riots. In my living memory I recall two vividly: The first was the 2004 Redfern riots sparked by the death of Thomas Hickey. The second was upon my arrival in London when the 2011 London riots were triggered by the death of Mark Duggan.

Both years apart, yet still an ongoing issue. It’s not one I’ve experienced firsthand. I hope not to. But this film and the teen novel it is based on, by Angie Thomas, are valuable commentary on the privilege divide and the misplaced government resources that firstly lead to cases of police racism.

At times The Hate U Give seems to approach the subject with a certain superficial washed-out Hollywood glossiness. I suppose after all it is a teen drama, so can’t afford to get too gritty. Yet it raises the questions that need to be asked. It doesn’t shy away from biases on both sides, like when Starr brings home her white boyfriend Chris (K.J. Apa), leading to her father’s attempt to give him a tip, assuming the boyfriend is the cheauffer, then declaring, “That boy is white…Chris? What kind of plain-ass name is that?”

And indeed, what’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would it smell as ‘plain-ass’? If we call a ‘spade’ a ‘shovel’ instead of a ‘spade’, should we call a ‘Harry’ a ‘Home ruler’ and call a ‘Hannah’ a ‘Grace’? If we mix our metaphors, should we avoid name-calling to realise we’ve confused verbs and idioms?

(For the record, ‘Chris’ can be etymologised to ‘Christ’. Draw your own biblical conclusions between Starr and Chris.)

The imagery of Starr being a beacon of light is ever present as her voice cuts through the rhetoric on both sides of this race issue to lead toward a stronger future. Her given name and ‘super-power’ had been granted in hope for her generation that they can achieve where others have failed (which reminds me, I also had a student called Hope – it makes sense to me now).

 

 

Captain Marvel – Film Review

Captain Marvel (Brie Larson) is the obvious superhero role model for all girls around the world. How quickly and fickly we have forgotten Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman, Lucy Lawless as Xena (technically not a superhero – but you get the drift) or Scarlett Johansson as the Black Widow.

But when it comes to successful merchandising, having a ‘first’ of something is most important: not the first female superhero, not the first female lead, not the first female Marvel superhero, but rather the first Marvel female lead superhero. It occurred to me as I watched the character Monica Rambeau, daughter of Carol Danvers’ (aka C. Marvel’s) friend Maria (Lashana Lynch), swanning around in awe of Captain Marvel that there will soon enough be the first Marvel female black superhero lead. But, why kill two birds with one stone when you can merchandise over both. Sure enough, we’ll have the first something or the other leading another Marvel universe escapade in the not too distant future as we destabilise the status quo of white male Marvel superheroes (Antman, Captain America, The Hulk, Doctor Strange, Spiderman, Iron Man, Hawkeye, Thor and so forth).

Progress is slow.

But cynicism aside, we are grateful for the eventual evolution. As with the release of Black Panther, which saw a campaign to raise money for disadvantaged children to see the film at a cinema, the release of Captain Marvel has seen Brie Larson campaigning for the #CaptainMarvelChallenge raising more than $60,000 to send young women to see the film.

Here are films changing the message being sent to young people, and additionally changing the experience. It is of course all in line with the humanitarian messages of Stan Lee and friends’ creation of the Marvel Universe.

The thinly veiled plot of refugees, in Captain Marvel, is one that is as relevant as ever. It is a universal issue that developed nations are dealing with. This film asks people to look past the media and/or political veil that paints refugees as ‘evil’ and poses the more confronting questions about whether those leading us and informing us are ‘evil’.

Captain Marvel is not just another beat in the over arching story of the Avengers films’ plots; Captain Marvel is a story for our time, a hero for our time and for the children of our time.

The Florida Project – Film Review

I love Disney as much as the next person. In fact, it verges on obsession. I’ve collected the animated films. I’ve read Walt Disney’s biography. I’ve dragged my cousin through the Disney Family Museum. I noticed Jenny’s bear in The Rescuers has a striking resemblance to Winnie the Pooh and that the tea set in Tarzan looks like the same one from Beauty and the Beast before the teapot was anthropomorphised into Mrs Potts. I’ve been to two of the Disney theme parks (granted a proper obsessive would have been to all of them – I’ve not been to the parks in Florida).

However, The Florida Project was an eye-opening, juxtaposing jolt of the disparity between the rich and poor surrounding the consumerist culture lying in the wake of the Disney parks and, for that matter, the entire company. The desperation and depravation of the young protagonists was enough to put you off your discontinued Kellogg’s Buzz Blasts cereal. The discount outlet selling knockoff Disney merchandise across from the dilapidated motel where Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) and her mother Halley (Bria Vinaite) live, may well motivate you to run your plush Lots-o’-Huggin’ Bear through the garden shredder.

Moonee is barely school-age and is running around the motel like an anti-Disney Mowgli. Instead of being raised by wolves, she’s being raised by the fringe dwellers of the Disney World who are foul-mouths, prostitutes, drug takers, drug dealers, petty criminals and drop-kicks. It’s truly the seedy underbelly of the Disney experience and a sad reality of how far things are from the EPCOT (Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow) concept, which Walt dreamed up for the purpose of avoiding the usual pollution and dangers of an urban city. The land allocated for EPCOT inevitably became the hedonistic sanctuary of multiple Disney theme parks and resorts.

The Florida Project is highlighting this. But it’s equally a cry for help and portrait of strong humans fighting against the adversity that is struck down upon them. Moonee’s mother is a child herself. The desperation from these characters is too real. It reflects too many children inhabiting our cities and schools. These sorts of pressures should not be put upon them. Their childhoods are being stolen. They are being judged by adults (like when other parents in the precinct refuse to let their children associate with Moonee). Where is their adult compassion? There are adults who appear to actually hate kids (proper hate – unlike the author of this ironically titled blog). The sole adult who shows protectiveness and care is the manager (Willem Dafoe) of The Magic Castle Motel. Even he reaches breaking point when he discovers Halley servicing clients in her room and nicking their park passes to hawk off in carparks. He digs deep to find empathy. They are kids after all. They should not be cast out to survive alone. We must nurture and keep them. This film should remind us, not shock us. The inevitable end potentially reminds us of the escapist value of a world such as Disney’s. It is only that the real and the fantasy worlds should not be so far apart.

Training Teachers to Kill – Film Review

People argue the teacher is having to adapt and become counsellor, surrogate parent, nutritionist, advisor, baby-sitter and so forth. Now add to the mix security officer – or at least that’s the way Ohio county sheriff (and loyal Trump supporter) Richard K Jones would have it in Channel 4’s documentary Teachers Training To Kill.

In the wake of a shooting in one of the local schools, Sheriff Jones decides it would be best to provide gun training for teachers and arm a number of staff members in each of the schools. Thankfully, by the end of the documentary there is only one school which takes up the scheme of arming teaching staff with guns. Regrettably, that’s one school too many.

In the process many schools run training sessions for their staff at local shooting ranges and simulate school shootings to prepare teachers.

For the majority of the profession, teachers have sat through dull training sessions at work finding out about the latest curriculum developments. Team building sessions have perhaps been spent doing trust exercises or coming up with school values made from acronym-ising the school name. But running a shooting session at the gun club seems an extreme step for jazzing up a professional development session. Surely, they could have just got a glitter cannon for the guest speaker or put the budget towards a few extra curried-egg sandwiches.

There are many concerning aspects to this situation and gun use in general. I will just touch upon one aspect in this very complex issue.

I want to focus on the thought process of staff who agree to carrying guns around the school. I find it hard enough to swallow being given an extra yard duty shift, let alone if I were asked to start wearing a gun under my jacket.

Has the brainwashing of the state become so strong that people wouldn’t even question the conflicting ethics of protecting children, by carrying a gun to massacre other children?

The staff who were filmed taking part in the staff training days, appeared to be treating the whole thing with the same light-heartedness most of us take to a work social at the bowls club.

They were being trained to be killers and seemed ok with that. How does one go from being an idealist who wants to teach youngsters Pythagoras’ theorem to a vigilante who is prepared to shoot down the very same students?

It’s just not in the job description. I would have become a security guard, armed soldier or police officer if I thought I wanted a career that may require me to shoot someone dead. I just don’t have it in me. I get squeamish doing rat dissections.

It’s rare that I find myself floored by someone’s logic. Usually I can do the old, “Well, I suppose if I was in their situation, I’d maybe do (insert x, y and z)”.

But to think that I might spend my working day photocopying, sharpening pencils and marking books, yet every once in a while, I may need to shoot down a child point blank, I would not be able to do that. I don’t know who these people are who think that they can. And I doubt that they will be able to.

The main thing I took away, from watching this documentary, was that I am thankful I do not work in a part of the world where this happens.

Night School – Film Review

Tiffany Haddish’s character is a high school teacher earning an extra buck running the night school classes for grown-ups trying to pass their leaving exams. Kevin Hart, one of her adult students, storms in on her at one point, when she is in the middle of giving additional help to a struggling young student.

It is not an uncommon situation to find the giving teacher providing additional support, homework or counsel to a young child. Sure, teachers can clock on and clock off when the bell tolls, but many don’t. They are thinking about their young proteges most of the time.

That’s not to say Haddish is playing a self-sacrificing  character like Hilary Swank in Freedom Boys. She’s not that type of teacher. In fact, despite the broader slapstick elements of Night School, Haddish embodies a more balanced approach with a matter-of-fact approach to education. She’s not overly invested. If she sees a problem, she fixes it. When Hart’s character thinks she’s emotionally invested, she cuts him down a few pegs and tells him to get over himself.

She sees teaching as a job, and she does a good job. She goes beyond the call of duty, where there is a need, but she doesn’t let it tangle up with her personal life.

If we could all take a piece of pedagogical style from this film, we’d have injected a well needed counter-weight to the molly-coddling sentiment of some of the currently fashionable teaching trends, without of course losing our humanity.

Goosebumps 2: Haunted Halloween – Film Review

The scariest part of this film was spit balls.

“People respect us around here,” states Sam (Caleel Harris) as a saliva drenched portion of paper smacks into his face.

The projectile has been shot by the head jock and his cronies, who are now sniggering to themselves while referring affectionately to Sam and his offsider Sonny (Jeremy Ray Taylor) as the ‘Junk Bros’.

“Spit Wads! What are you, nine?” retorts Sam.

And he raises a pertinent question. What is an appropriate age to begin using these phlegmy missiles?

I’m sitting in the darkened cinema surrounded by eight, nine, ten and eleven-year-old students, who luckily do not have the ingenuity or skills to engineer a ben into a missile launcher. But nothing turns my stomach like spit balls – or ‘wads’ as the American appears to phrase it in Goosebumps 2: Haunted Halloween. Let’s be honest, they weren’t great as a child. I recall some of our classrooms having high ceilings, which allowed for a large target space above the whiteboards in each room. There was always some layer of encrusted paper framing the top of the board in an avant-garde papier-mache design.

As with all fads, there were long periods of time where nerd or vulnerable teacher would be free from onslaught in the creation of these paper-pulp pastiches. But when the trend was at large, you’d be living on a knife’s edge (probably the same edge of the knife used to dismantle the biro being used for the gun barrel).

Despite Sam implying it is a juvenile activity best suited for children in the single digit age bracket, students as old as seventeen have been known to assemble artillery from the art-supplies graveyard in pursuit of oppressing the weaker of the schoolyard species.

So, although this film features razor-toothed gummy bears, pick-axe-wielding garden gnomes, a jack-o-lantern-headed humanoid and the menacing ventriloquist doll Slappy, there is nothing that raises the hair on my back more than the inclusion of the loaded spit wad shooter. I’m glad to have avoided falling victim to its wrath.

Mary Poppins Returns – Film Review

It’s striking how Mary Poppins exists solely for the purpose of child-minding yet has no children of her own. In fact I find an immense pathos in her character. It was there in the first film and it is present in Mary Poppins Returns. There is a longing for more in her eyes.

Where school teachers, babysitters, au pairs and nanny’s metaphorically swoop in to educate and care for children, Mary Poppins does it literally, first with an umbrella and then more recently off the back of a kite. Then as quickly as she arrives, she disappears again. She only appears in sequences where she is dispensing advice, medicinal spoons of sugar or reprimands. She doesn’t appear to eat, consuming little more than the odd cup of tea. She doesn’t appear to leisurely read any books. She may not even sleep, as she’s too busy singing everyone else to sleep and we never see her retiring to her own bedroom. She plays directly into the preconception many children have of their daytime educators and carers that they live either in the broom cupboard or simply materialise at the times they are needed. A student of mine was once dumbfounded to have bumped into me at the local cinema, then asked why I wasn’t at school.

This is where I find the pathos. She seems to live solely for the children. She doesn’t appear to have her own family. She is the sad epitome of the teacher who is so invested in their students that it has been at the cost of all other facets of their life. Even when the opportunity of finding a companion presents in chimney sweep Bert, she is too preoccupied by her duty to be “practically perfect in every way”. By the time she flies in on the kite in Mary Poppins Returns Bert has presumably put down his brush and been hauled up in a depression-era nursing home. Mary, on the other hand, hasn’t aged a day. Any attempt by her to befriend Bert would be weird, though equally it would seem inappropriate for her to begin flirting with young lamp lighter Jack.

No. It seems Mary is destined to be an old maid. Far from being the banner waving champion of the suffragette movement as Mrs Banks was or the flyer distributing voice of the labour party as Jane Banks is, Mary Poppins is so preoccupied with perfection it verges on being a diagnosable case of obsessive-compulsive disorder. She is so flustered by things being out of place that it’s hard to imagine she’d cope with the imperfection of most human relationships.

So, I find myself wondering how much I am like her. I found myself in a great moment of empathy near the films end when she is handed a balloon by Angela Lansbury and declares “it’s time” then floats away. I know that feeling too well from leaving classes of children behind me. She knows her job is done but still appears saddened to return the children to their circumstances for better or worse. Those children are not hers. She has invested in them as though they were her own, but they are not hers. And where Mary Poppins gets to return to her lonely single bed apartment in the sky, many teachers and nannies probably return to their single bed apartment on the wrong side of town too exhausted from picking up the pieces of other people’s messes to tidy up their own mess. When Mary pauses a short moment before re-ascending, I couldn’t help but think this was a gut-wrenching moment for her. I couldn’t help but think the Banks’ life was a life she wished she had.

Is she forever destined to pick up the pieces of people’s own mismanaged attempts at child rearing? Will she be perpetually running her gloved finger along the infinitely dusty mantel of childhood emotional neglect? Shall she be shackled eternally to her talking parrot umbrella as sole confident and companion?

For all the singing and dancing, Mary Poppins epitomises the lonely path professional child minders must often tread, with one foot in the adult world and one in childhood. As Emily Blunt sings, we are perhaps left looking for ‘The Place Where the Lost Things Go’ in a vain attempt to recapture our own childhood while forgetting to live our adult life.