Sunday, January 25, 2015

Sounds of Cinema: Best and Worst Films of 2014

On today's episode of Sounds of Cinema I counted down my picks of the best and worst films of 2014.

Best:

1.Boyhood


2. Birdman


3. Whiplash


4. Noah


5. Gone Girl


6. Happy Valley


7. The Grand Budapest Hotel


8. Life Itself


9. Selma


10. Nymphomaniac



Worst:
  1. America: Imagine a World Without Her 
  2. A Haunted House 2 
  3. No Good Deed 
  4. Persecuted 
  5. The Expendables 3 
  6. And So It Goes 
  7. Deliver Us from Evil 
  8. Sabotage 
  9. Transcendence 
  10. Men, Women & Children 

You can find more information, including rationales for each film and lists of honorable mentions and cinematic trends of 2014, here.  

Monday, January 19, 2015

Should We Celebrate Martin Luther King, Jr. Day?

There are only two individuals in the calendar of the United States who have their own holidays: Christopher Columbus and Martin Luther King, Jr. There has been a growing and insistent opposition to our national recognition of Columbus Day but King’s holiday passes every year without question. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day is marked with somber pageantry in which politicians and civic leaders recycle talking points of peace and extol the virtues of King’s idealism while making vague overtures toward his legacy. But it’s time that we question just what it is we are paying tribute to.

On the outset, recognizing Martin Luther King, Jr. makes sense. He was the primary leader of the civil rights struggle of the 1960s, a movement that has become legendary in American culture. Further, King is a symbol of stability and moral clarity and his image stands in relief against a chaotic background of race riots, war, and changing cultural mores. That image was created and solidified in the combination of King’s nonviolent methods and the elegance of his literary and oratory works. Whether the man makes the times or the times make the man, King was the man for his time and for that he has been enshrined in the American consciousness alongside George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Abraham Lincoln.
 
Like most public figures, Martin Luther King, Jr. has achieved the status of a cultural idol. When we lionize King we do so not for who he was but for what he symbolizes. King, as an idol, represents not what is but what we would like to be the case and his “I Have a Dream” speech articulates a belief in equality of opportunity, a lynchpin of the American myths of meritocracy and democracy. That speech remains one of King’s most frequently referenced works and every January it is replayed and recited in schools, at community gatherings, and as a part of political events.

The embrace of King by the mainstream has been incongruous with the life he actually lived. Martin Luther King, Jr. was a lawbreaker and a rabble-rouser. The sit-ins and the marches were deliberate violations of the law. Despite all the portraits of King featured in high school murals, if students actually followed King’s example and protested injustices in the hallways of their institutions the way that King did it is likely they would be suspended or expelled for being “disruptive to the learning environment.” That’s not to say King’s methods were wrong. Far from it. But there is clearly a disconnect between our idolization of King and what he actually said and did.

And that is part of the problem. King, as a symbol, has been made to serve the establishment. The way in which our politicians and other leaders extoll King’s legacy is not to fight for the dream of equality of opportunity but to defend the status quo. The way King’s biography has been retooled in American history textbooks reflects this. Most students will go through their entire education without being exposed to King’s opposition to the Vietnam War or his work on behalf of the poor.

The sanitized public image of Martin Luther King, Jr. has been used to distort our understanding of history.  The popular discourse around the Civil Rights Movement gives the impression that it started in 1955 with Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott and ended with the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964 and the Voting Rights Act in 1965. King’s assassination in 1968 is cast as a tragic postscript, a sacrifice that punctuates the end of an era. Of course, the Civil Rights Movement didn’t start in 1955 nor did it end in 1965 or ’68. But with several major battles fought and won during that period we tend to think of the movement as something whose time has come and gone.

This is where Martin Luther King’s public image comes to nefarious purposes. It is taken as gospel that King and his allies conquered America’s racial injustices, bringing a shameful period of our history to a close, and ensured that all of us who came afterward live in a glorious future that is divorced from the outrages of the past. Instead of inspiring American culture to achieve greater levels of justice and equality of opportunity, the successes of King and his allies have been used to oppose any further advancements. Suggesting that America has not overcome its structural and institutional racism is tantamount to slander against King’s name and, by extension, America. In this sense, the public image of King has been turned from a progressive hero who fought the establishment and into a tamed subject of it. In short, the idol of Martin Luther King, Jr. has been twisted into an Uncle Tom.

The sanitized public image of King, the one extolled in annual Martin Luther King, Jr. Day celebrations, has been used to handicap the public’s ability to speak out. Reading or listening to King’s speeches, there is an undeniable righteous anger to his rhetoric but that has been sanitized from King’s public image. Contemporary liberal undertakings, such as the anti-Iraq War demonstrations from a decade ago and the Occupy Wall Street movement, have been neutered of their moral outrage. Leftists have convinced themselves that raising their voice and hurting someone’s feelings is tantamount to violence or organizing themselves hierarchically in order to get something done somehow violates the spirit of freedom. King’s legacy of pacifism has been turned into a tool of oppression by the powerful.

But perhaps the most damning thing about the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr is this: the Civil Rights Movement was a failure. The fights of King’s time were defined by two major accomplishments: opposing and outlawing segregation and the passage of the Voting Rights Act. While segregation is no longer officially codified, American society is as segregated now as it was the day that King was shot. It is an open secret that the justice system in this country is stacked against people of color and the educational system has become the cornerstone of an oligarchical power structure, especially the Ivy League institutions that are clearly more interested in the legacies of their most powerful donors than in the legacy of Dr. King.

The other major legislative pillar of the Civil Rights Movement was the passage of the Voting Rights Act. In the past year, the act was gutted by a Supreme Court decision. Something very important to understand about the reasoning of the majority opinion in this case is that it was based upon a belief that institutionalized discrimination is a thing of the past, a belief that is at least partly rooted in the popular understanding of the Civil Rights Movement which is indistinguishable from the image of Martin Luther King, Jr. With the Court’s decision, states immediately enacted voting restrictions with discriminatory effects, putting us right back where we were pre-1965.
 
With the major accomplishments of the Civil Rights Movement either thwarted or dismantled and the justice system used as a legalized lynch mob, it is incumbent upon all of us to ask just what it is we are celebrating on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. Politicians and civic leaders will spit platitudes of peace but for the oligarchy that truly runs this country, and their spokesmen in the mainstream press, “peace” is really a way of telling people to shut up. Anyone with any grasp of King’s actual ideas and methods can see that peace was never his purpose. King was interested in justice and that requires disturbing the peace.

King’s holiday may have started as a well-meaning recognition of a respected leader.  But when we’re celebrating the legacy of King, we’re really buying into a myth that has nothing to do with reality. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day has become a form of nationalistic idolatry, one that I doubt the man himself would partake in.