Spike Lee’s 4 LITTLE GIRLS (1997) – Powerful documentary about violence against race

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4 Little Girls is a remarkably clear-eyed telling of an incendiary tale — how four young black girls, ages 11 to 14, were killed in a 1963 bombing in Birmingham, Alabama.
I hesitate to compare 4 Little Girls to Schindler’s List, and yet it has that same quality of being a restrained, dignified recounting of an emotional incident. Spike Lee had been wanting to tell this story since before he became a noted filmmaker, and Lee brings all of his remarkable talents to bear. The movie is not flashy, just quietly gripping.
Lee frames the incident within the bigger picture of the Southern civil rights movement, particularly as it took place within an inflamed Birmingham. We see the town’s police commissioner, Bull Connor — described by one interviewee as “the dark spirit of Birmingham” — keeping order in town while driving a tank painted white, an image that is sure to bring gasps to those who aren’t familiar with the full story (which, I humbly admit, included me). And we see a repentant Gov. George Wallace, dragging a reluctant black colleague on camera so that Wallace can introduce him as “my best friend in the world.” (Notably, the “friend” looks quite unconvinced.)
It is that Wallace footage that might seem the most showy in a documentary otherwise bereft of editorializing. But it seems right to include the footage after seeing how the segregationist tactics of Wallace and others led indirectly to the deaths of Denise McNair, Carole Robertson, Addie Mae Collins, and Cynthia Wesley. Using little more than home movies and interviews with surviving family members, Lee brings the dead girls back to life and shows us that, when racial stereotypes are accepted and even honored, individual tragedies are the result.
Mostly, the story is told through simple, heartbreaking facts. Chris McNair tells us of the day he had to explain to his daughter Denise how she was taken by the aroma of a cooking hamburger at a lunch counter but could not eat there because she was black. And the film comes full circle by pointing out the inexplicable resurgence of black church bombings in the 1990’s.
Most of the victims’ relatives, understandably, become quite emotional on-camera. It can’t have been easy to reopen these old wounds, but 4 Little Girls makes you grateful that they endured their pain to do it. I only wish the movie had been up for Best Picture, as it is worth a dozen L.A. Confidential‘s.

THE COLOR HONEYMOONERS (2008) – Baby, they’re not the greatest

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(Time-Life Video has released a DVD set of episodes from the 1960’s era of The Jackie Gleason Show. Although I’m a long-time Gleason fan, I have no desire to purchase the set, even though it contains [as trumpeted in the DVD’s PR] “seven ‘Honeymooners’ episodes not seen in 50 years!”
That’s because I’ve seen The Color Honeymooners, a set released in 2008 that showcased a nine-episode arc in which the Kramdens and the Nortons — portrayed in the ’60s by Gleason, Art Carney, Sheila MacRae, and Jane Kean — go on an unexpected trip to Europe. These eps were actually my introduction to “The Honeymooners” when I was a kid — but viewing them decades later, I found they hadn’t aged nearly as well as the “Classic 39” episodes from 1955-56.
Here’s my review of The Color Honeymooners. [NOTE: If you are interested in purchasing the Time-Life set, it contains “Honeymooners” segments that are from the same era but completely separate from those on the Color set.)
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These segments from Jackie Gleason’s CBS variety show in 1966 are hour-long, musical (!) “Honeymooners” segments in which the Kramdens and the Nortons win a trip to Europe and have various adventures. (These are actually color remakes of musical episodes that were performed on Gleason’s variety show a decade before.) While I enjoyed these episodes well enough, I nevertheless get the impression that this is where Gleason’s comedic style, as with Lucille Ball’s in the 1960’s, started to calcify.

The black-and-white “Honeymooners” seems more “authentic,” if you will — you really get the sense that this is a couple barely making ends meet. By contrast, in the color eps, you can see Gleason and Carney really playing to the crowd. Every time a familiar bit of shtick comes, the audience goes crazy — a precursor of the whooping and hollering yahoos you hear on live-audience sitcoms these days.

And in the B&W eps, Gleason is far more believable as a pale, manic, barely-getting-by bus-driver. It’s kind of hard to identify with the Kramdens when each episode begins with a splashy production number, and once-pale Ralph sports a Miami tan.

Lastly, some of the writing is a bit open-ended, such as the episode where Kramden and Norton fall off their cruise ship and end up stranded at sea. (SPOILER ALERT)  In one scene, they’re in a lifeboat; in the next and final scene, there’s a quick wrap-up where their rescue is barely mentioned. They get all sorts of press coverage for their European trip and hardly anyone even notices a rescue at sea?

As replacements for Joyce Randolph (as Trixie Norton) and Audrey Meadows (as Alice Kramden), respectively, Jane Kean is acceptable enough, but Sheila MacRae is wildly off the mark. She’s not nearly the non-pushover that Meadows was, playing Alice far too much for pathos. That works in scenes such as the one where Alice befriends an Italian child, but not when she has to stand up to Ralph. (An unintended laugh comes at the capper of one of the episodes, where Gleason tries to do a “Baby, you’re the greatest!” moment and can barely get his arms around the full-figured MacRae.)

This is nit-picking, I know, especially for die-hard “Honeymooners” completists who want everything they can get their hands on. (The familiar character traits still earn laughs, as when Ed Norton [Carney] comes back from a visit to the Roman Colosseum and tells Ralph, “Don’t bother going there — the place is falling apart!”) Still, some of these sore points make the Color Honeymooners run a distant second to the “Classic 39” in terms of writing, acting, and production.

An open letter to bullies

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October is National Bullying Prevention Month. As a show of solidarity, the National Bullying Prevention Center is asking that on Mon., Oct. 2, everyone wear a blue shirt to signify their support of bullying prevention.

Here’s my bullying story.

Being very unskilled socially when I grew up, I was the “classic” nerd. I got hassled in various ways through most of my teenage years, but the worst was in 1974, when I moved from Illinois — where I had lived, in a town of 1,600 people — to Arizona and had to attend a new school in the eighth grade. It was just before elementary-school graduation (no middle schools back then), and of course all of the “cliques” had long been formed, so I was pretty much a play-toy getting tossed in to a pack of lions. I look back on that year and do not recall how I summoned the energy to drag myself to school every morning.

I always wondered what would have happened if I’d gone so far as to kill myself (which I certainly thought about doing at least once). In 2010, I read that a particular girl had been bullied to the point that she committed suicide, and at her open-casket wake, many of the students who taunted her came by, not to pay respect or show remorse, but to further enjoy the grief they’d caused. This can be categorized only as sociopathy at its most extreme.

I suspect that psychologists and such would like to take these bullies aside and sensitively explain to them the implications of what they are doing or have done. If I could take such people aside, here’s what I’d tell them:

You’re null. You’re less than nothing. If you have to go so far as to drive someone off the face of the Earth in order to boost your self-esteem, you have no self-esteem of which to speak.

But then, you already know that, right? Because you never commit this insidious behavior alone. It’s always done with a pack of other people. If you were by yourself with this person you’re bullying, at worst, you probably wouldn’t give him or her the time of day. Or, you might find out that you actually have something in common with that fellow human. But get a group of your peers around you, and all of a sudden you’re deathly afraid of being seen as the “uncool” one.

Oh my God, you’re uncool! What an awful fate! Tell me, what does that matter? What will it matter? Will these people’s opinions matter to you in even a year or two, much less a decade or more from now? I belong to the Internet reunion group Classmates.com. Just for kicks, every so often, I try looking up the names of the fellow students who hassled me so viciously. Do you know that I cannot find a single one of them there? In 1975, their opinion of each other was seemingly the most important one on Earth. Now they can’t even be bothered to look each other up for a “virtual” reunion.

Will your sociopathic behavior get you anywhere in life? No, but if the survivor of your bullying is lucky, it might be the impetus to make him or her climb out their hole and prove you very, very wrong. Mega-celebrities such as Steven Spielberg and the late film critic Roger Ebert have recounted how they were the butt of classmates’ incessant bullying when they grew up. We all know what happened to Spielberg and Ebert. Have you ever heard anything from or about the guys who made fun of them in high school?

Lastly, you’re probably too young to think that you could possibly ever die. But it seems to happen to everyone, so i doubt that you’re the exception. The next time you want to belittle that poor kid at school, you might just want to get a quick image of yourself on your death bed, re-examining your life. Is that the primary image you want flashing in your brain? “What did I accomplish in my life? Hey, I did a superlative job bullying the bejesus out of that gay kid!”

You and your peers really think that kid is spineless and has low self-esteem. He has nothing on that gang surrounding him at his locker.

Finale of THE ADRIENNE BARBEAU BLOGATHON

Since the final two entries in our blogathon have now been submitted, it’s time to celebrate two big ones as we present

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Click here to read our entries from Day One. For those shown below, click on the individual blog’s name to read the entry.

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Moon in Gemini observes Adrienne’s acting magic opposite Paul Michael Glazer in the TV-movie “The Great Houdini.”

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And The Dream Book Blog examines Adrienne’s writing career as the author of her memoir and several novels.

As always, our sincere thanks to our blogathon participants as well as our voracious readers. We hope you enjoyed our take on a very versatile actress!

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