Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Total Injustice: How the Zimmerman Trial Showed the Ugly Side of America

   A few days ago, I received the worst “what if” I have ever heard.
   Playing around with what-ifs is something that you see a lot in journalism. The speculations are usually casual, thought-provoking, but always in good fun. This one was decidedly different.
   I was chatting with a professor about the verdict on the Zimmerman trial, and our email exchange revolved around a single question I had for him: was the decision a result of the prosecution’s ineptitude to present proof, or was the jury racially motivated? After some brief thoughts, he closed his response with the following:

                Ask yourself this, Tyler: Do you think Zimmerman would have reacted the same way if he’d seen you walking through his neighborhood?

   ‘Food for thought’ is a little bit of an understatement, no? Keep this in mind while we backtrack a little bit here.
   What we had here with this trial was the apparent murder of a young black man by a half-white, half-Hispanic neighborhood watch volunteer. Trayvon Martin was unarmed, and George Zimmerman carried an automatic weapon. The prosecution needed to show that Zimmerman had malicious intent in confronting Martin, and the defense needed to show that Martin had only been killed in self-defense—that the young man had instigated the violence himself. At its roots though, this was a murder case.
   Sounds strange, does it not? After all, what were the predominant themes in the media during this whole trial? The jury is all female. There are no black people on the jury. Zimmerman was half-white and Martin was African-American.
   The questions were worse. Was Zimmerman a racist? Was Trayvon asking for it? Should these neighborhood watch volunteers have guns in the first place?
   The real question should be this: Are we not missing something? A young man is dead! The person of Trayvon Martin, amidst all of the race questions and observations, was totally lost, and it was not the first time we saw something like this. Remember the O.J. Simpson trial? Instead of the focus being on the horrible passing of two people, all you heard about were the white folks crying for an outrage and the black folks cheering on “their man” as he attempts to outrace the police. A time of mourning became a time for this inflated racial competition of sorts.
   Is this not what we saw again here with Zimmerman? If the man was convicted, it was a victory for blacks, a chance for some sweet justice after so many lifetimes and generations of Rodney Kings and Emmett Tills. This may be largely justified historically, but as we saw in the Simpson trial, there have been times where it was more about beating the white folks and less about seeing justice for the deceased. Of course, in the incidences like the Rodney King beating, the opposite was true for whites—no justice, just an opportunity to show people who was in charge.
   Back to the what-if.  If George Zimmerman saw me instead of Trayvon Martin, the answer—undoubtedly and assuredly—is that he does not give me a second thought. Instead of rousing suspicion, I am allowed to go home and eat my Skittles and drink my iced tea and live out the rest of my young adult life unconscious of my inadvertent advantages. There is no death, no trial, no rousing national debate. Instead, fate was wicked enough to drop Trayvon Martin at the wrong place at the wrong time, and now we face the consequences of one man’s assumptions—whether he was aware of them or not.
   What exactly these consequences entail joins the list of ugly questions that America faces in the wake of this ordeal. It is easy to point at history and say empty things along the lines of, “But look how far we’ve come. But look where we were. But it was so much worse.” But—but—but nothing. We live in a time where homosexuals can marry freely, women regularly head major corporations, and a non-white individual sits in the most powerful position on the planet. A black teenager should be able to walk home and eat his candy in peace. We should be able to observe critical trials without making racial alliances. We should be able to mourn the lives that were lost without any mind toward skin color. In this country, our desire to beat out “the other guys” in the justice system overshadowed the tragic death of a teenager. Sure does not sound progressive to me.
   For weeks and weeks now, we heard that we needed justice for Trayvon Martin. Whether you believe the courts gave it to him or not does not matter now. What does matter is that America never gave him justice. Instead, we were blinded by color, and we failed to honor a bright young life or mourn the loss of a hopeful future.
   There was never justice for Trayvon Martin, not from us, not from the courts, not from anyone.
   We have the capacity to be better than this, but in these racially-sensitive situations, we have not shown it. What happens next is up to us—there is no formula, no instruction manual, no guidelines. It comes down to us being decent people, and remembering the decent people behind all of these tragic stories. We have to remember that this is not about race—it is about people.

   Only then can justice truly be served.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Sleeper Hits: Hidden-Gem Movies You Need to Watch this Summer

   It is summer, and you are slacking. Maybe you peel yourself off the couch or away from the fridge long enough to see a popcorn-blockbuster or skim Game of Thrones’ Wikipedia page to catch up on what happened, but a slacker you are, and a slacker I am too.
   No longer. Seeing as ‘tis the season to be a little butt-sore on your couch all day, I will not stop you, because dammitall if you are not going to exercise your god-given right to watch terrible Adam Sandler movies on FX or old re-runs of Chopped. What I want you to do though, what I am imploring you to do, is to use this couch time wisely. How? Easy—take some chances on the hidden gems of Hollywood.
   A lot of flicks are lost in the never-ending cinematic shuffle these days. Whether they had the misfortune of debuting alongside budget-bloated cash-ins or were just victims of limited releases, there are some truly great movies out there that are criminally under-viewed. So start pirating head on down to your local video store (after, of course, you go back in time to when those things were relevant) and pick up these flicks—whatever genre you prefer, you might just find a new favorite.

Shoot ‘Em Up
   No, that is not two genres mistakenly tacked on top of each other. Shoot ‘Em Up is the name of the flick, and it is a hell of a flick to boot. Terrifically self-aware, surprisingly clever, and glossed over with a jam-tastic soundtrack and scores of so-over-the-top-it’s-awesome action scenes—this is one where you sit back, chomp on the munchies, and enjoy the ride. Shoot ‘Em Up is there to point out the ridiculousness of other shoot ‘em ups, and it does that by being as absurd as possible. It knows exactly what it is, and it does it really darn well.
   Oh, and did I mention that it features none other than Clive Owen spouting some of the greatest one-liners you will ever hear? Believe it. Turn your brain off and watch Shoot ‘Em Up.

Honorable Mentions: Hot Fuzz

Super Troopers
   Like Reno-911 meets . . . well, it is pretty much a knockoff of Reno-911, but hey, it has some really quality laughs. You follow a Highway Patrol office as they bring down a local drug ring—simple enough.
   Here is what sets it apart though: after one viewing, it will not seem like much, but in the days and weeks to come, it is pretty darn tough to find yourself not tempted to play “Repeat” or “The Meow Game” amongst your friends and buddies. Just like that, a low-key comedy suddenly blossoms into a surprisingly quotable and memorable movie. The goofball cast and simple story rely little on big names or intricate points—this is pure shenanigans at its very best.

Honorable Mentions: Beerfest, Hot Fuzz (seriously, Hot Fuzz is damn good—great action, great comedy, really British, Simon Pegg’s in it, super quotable, super cool)

Science Fiction
Twelve Monkeys
   In this time-travel flick, you have Brucie Willis going back to try and hunt down the source of a virus that wiped out five-billion folks and forced humanity underground. The premise is intriguing, the characters are interesting, and your main man Brad Pitt gives an Oscar-nominated performance as the prime suspect in releasing the virus. The plot might be a little unnecessarily thick at times, but the ending is one of the best in modern sci-fi. Great performances, a cool world, and a huge sense of satisfaction as the puzzle pieces come together make this one to remember—and one to wonder why you did not hear of it sooner.

Honorable Mentions: Starship Troopers, Primer, Upstream Color (see below for these last two)

Lars and the Real Girl
   Ryan Gosling plays a recluse who buys a hyper-realistic sex doll to keep him company. Rather than using it for the obvious, however, he keeps it around as a simple friend. The doll accompanies him to family events, dinner parties, and through all the staring and murmurs, there might be a thing or two to be learned about love here. Charming, funny—I dare say it is worth watching for man and woman alike. Clearly, there is not really much like it out there. This is Ryan Gosling like you have not seen him. Girls will think it is cute. Guys will find a surprising amount of charm. Good stuff.

Honorable Mentions: Blue Valentine (highly acclaimed, but not widely-seen by general folks. WARNING: definitely a tough watch—it is another Gosling flick, but this chronicles a failing marriage, complete with ex-boyfriend issues, kid issues, pregnancy issues, sex issues—one of the single most depressing movies you will watch, but memorable and thought-provoking at the very least)

   Ryan Reynolds stars as a truck driver who, while on tour in Iraq, wakes up in a coffin buried deep underground. As the viewer, you wake up with him (in one of the most memorable openings in modern cinema—no kidding—it rivals the opening of Children of Men up there, and that is one of the single best openings ever filmed) and never leave his side for all 90 minutes of tense, gritty claustrophobia. This is literally an entire movie filmed in a box, and the resulting movie is nothing short of a pure thriller experience.
   This is hands-down Ryan Reynolds best flick, and thank goodness, because this truly inventive movie simply would not work without him. Totally delivers. If you ask me, this is one of the most white-knuckling, force-you-to-the-edge-of-your-seat movies put out in the last decade. Insanely tense, insanely well-done, insanely good. And oh man—just wait until the snake arrives.

Honorable Mentions: The Prestige, The Machinist, Memento (all highly-acclaimed flicks, and they each have killer endings)

   Finally—a sports flick that takes the most enjoyable aspect of its chosen competition, isolates it, and brings it to the spectacular forefront. In this case, Goon is a hockey movie, and you are darn right that it is about fighting in hockey. It might be a classic underdog story—a bouncer named Doug is brought onto a local Canadian hockey team purely for his fighting skills, and soon looks to go up against the best brawler in the league—but Goon, for all its goofiness and at times clich├ęd writing, brings a tremendous amount of heart. It loves its premise, flaunts it like crazy, brings some terrific fighting action, and it just works.
   This is one of those “just trust me” kind of recommendations, but seriously, if you like sports flicks, give Goon  a try. You will not be sorry.

Honorable Mentions: Undefeated (see below), The Natural (highly-acclaimed, but oft-forgotten in the "movies I should show my kids" discussion)

Letters from Iwo Jima
   Clint Eastwood made this one as a companion piece to Flags of our Fathers, and unfortunately, the Japanese perspective brought forward by this flick was brushed aside by many a star-spangled American viewer. Regardless, Letters from Iwo Jima is far and away the better movie—the emotion is more impactful, the characters are more interesting, and the war action is brutal, heavy, and all too real. This is one of the rawest war flicks you will ever see, and easily one of the best foreign-language films made in the past decade (it is all in Japanese, in case you did not quite catch on by now).
   Far superior to its American partner-film in every way, this is the definition of a criminally-unviewed movie. This is one of Clint Eastwood’s best works—demands to be experienced.

Honorable Mentions: Jarhead, Enemy at the Gates

Primer, Upstream Color
   Usually, when the same man directs, produces, and stars in a movie, it is a recipe for disaster (whaddup Tommy Wiseau!), but in the case of Shane Curruth, who does exactly this in both of these flicks, the result is something extraordinary, if a little abstract.
   It is impossible to explain both of these simply, but in their essence, Primer is a time-travel flick and Upstream Color is a mind-control flick. Both, however, are far from simple, and easily demand multiple viewings. Your first time through might be rough in the comprehension department, but I promise, with some further reading and a follow-up view down the road, the rewards are bountiful. The stories are deep, thought-provoking, and intelligent. The performances, despite the lack of any big name whatsoever, feel genuine. The style is distinguished and unique. Even in not knowing everything after the fact, you can still sit back and know that what you watched, whatever it was trying to say, did it well and delivered one hell of an experience. Totally visceral and amazingly memorable, Primer and Upstream Color are absolute sleepers. Track them down, settle in, and give them a shot—just be prepared to think about them, talk about them, and invest in them for a long time to come.

Honorable Mentions: Moonrise Kingdom

And finally . . .
The Documentary
   Really though, if there is one thing I recommend you do this summer, it is that you hunt down some documentaries that interest you, and watch them. Then watch more. Then find some that you might not see normally, and watch those. Documentaries are totally under-viewed in themselves, and believe it or not, they can offer some of the most powerful, hard-hitting, spirit-lifting, insightful moments that the world of movies have to offer.
   As interest varies, taste varies, so here is a slew of general recommendations:
   The Imposter—a missing-person case takes a sinister, twisted turn
   Undefeated—follows an inner-city Memphis high school football team (won Best Doc. in 2012)
   Restrepo—follows a unit during the War in Afghanistan
   Hoop Dreams—looks at two young men’s aspirations to play professional basketball
   Exit Through the Gift Shop—the evolution of street art

   Enjoy your lazy summers, friends, but whether you are finding some down-time after your summer job or just kicking back on a weekend, I urge you to check out some of these flicks. Look into them and be enlightened—you might just find yourself a diamond in the rough.