Free Speech, Advocacy and Alain Mabanckou

The freedom of speech urgently needs defending, as a college campus club recently learned in LA’s Eagle Rock neighborhood, and intellectuals across America are rising to defend the First Amendment. From outspoken writers, journalists and bloggers across the political spectrum to filmmakers, academics and wealthy businessmen, such as Apple CEO Tim Cook, the nation’s most influential thinkers and creators are exercising the right to free speech by denouncing government control, coercion and censorship—and, in the case of an African novelist I met earlier this year, by praising persecuted voices.


Read the interview with Alain Mabanckou

His name is Alain Mabanckou. I had read about his choice to present an award for courage and freedom of expression by a writers’ group to the French satire publication Charlie Hebdo after its office was assaulted by radical Moslems in Paris after printing a caricature of Islam’s prophet Mohammed. Mr. Mabanckou is a member of the group, PEN American Center, which is dedicated to protecting the freedom of speech.

Under pressure to withdraw the award, PEN and Mabanckou refused to compromise.

That he did so after an Islamic terrorist attack on a similar type of event—a cartoon contest in Texas—hours before his New York City event, caused me to ask for an interview, which Alain Mabanckou granted. We met at a lounge and talked about Charlie Hebdo, his thoughts on free speech and his writing. In posting this interview, I wanted to demonstrate that not everyone who stands up to irrationalism, including radical Islam, is a conservative, a libertarian or an Objectivist.

As with the Brandeis University professor I interviewed about his lonely defense of a writer targeted by radical Islamic types and their apologists for expressing her ideas, I wanted to show the reader that it is possible to “think different” and be different from usual voices defending absolute free speech and act on principle. I think that, more than ever, it is important for rational Americans seeking to defeat barbarians and tyrants to know that the one who acts for good might be an intellectual who isn’t hiding in an ivory tower, removed from ordinary life here on earth. He might be an immigrant or refugee. He might express himself as kind, colorful and eager to know—as against harsh, bitter and filled with rage—yet be strong and capable of advocating free speech on principle.

Though it’s clear that in a matter of weeks this historic presidential election is likely to result in an American president wholly opposed to absolute freedom of speech, and despite more Islamic terrorist attacks happening here, I remain optimistic about the future for freedom. There are left-wing and right-wing intellectuals—moviemakers are intellectuals—making thought-provoking motion pictures about lone heroes defying the status quo, as I wrote about in a Medium post here. There are great American heroes realizing the spirit of “Let’s Roll” everywhere, as I wrote about here. And there are brave and benevolent gentlemen taking stands based on reason and these facts demonstrate that, while these are desperate times for civilized man, victory is possible.

On the eve of this year’s PEN American Center gala in Beverly Hills, I’m proud to post my interview with one such individual, the writer who names, recognizes and rewards Charlie Hebdo‘s courage in exhibiting the freedom of expression. Read my exclusive interview with Alain Mabanckou here.

Movie Review: Queen of Katwe

queen-of-katwe-poster-2Directed by Mira Nair, Disney’s reality-based Queen of Katwe—based on an article by Tim Crothers for a Disney-owned ESPN publication and written by William Wheeler (The Hoax)—moves through layers to unfold an incredible if familiar story of a poor child who becomes a champion.

The competition centers on the board game chess. Compressed into a five-year time frame, with David Oyelowo (Selma) as the coach, the occasionally generic movie about winning with good character is elevated by two actresses; one playing the child and the other as her mother.

The kid is portrayed by Madina Nalwanga, whose strong cheekbones and determined manner give her the stone face of a champ in training. But Nair directs her to act with her face and the result is a wider arc for her glory. The mother, a Christian widow who sells vegetables in a poor village in Uganda, Africa, to support her four children, is powerfully portrayed by Lupita Nyong’o (Star Wars: The Force Awakens, 12 Years a Slave). Oyelowo and cast are fine as well.

The screenplay is fine, too, with good lines, especially for the coach, who decides to teach chess to poor kids in Katwe while considering better paying work to support his family. Queen of Katwe holds that money is a means to an end and that living in poverty is not a virtue. For example, toward the end, when an endeavor for which one of the main characters ought to earn a reward becomes known, someone asks: “Was she paid?”

So, don’t confuse Queen of Katwe with Fox Searchlight’s Beasts of the Southern Wild or Slumdog Millionaire, which this sometimes resembles, for putting forth suffering as a virtue. This is a subtly but conclusively pro-capitalist movie.

To that point, Nair struggles to inject religion into the plot, but it doesn’t really fit and it drags the movie, which takes too long to gain momentum. Queen of Katwe thrives when engaging its conviction that a child must be loved, nourished, taught and given the tools to hold herself as the highest value. In this way, Akeelah and the Bee, the South Central Los Angeles teacher-student drama financed by Starbucks, came to mind.

Nair provides an immersion in African life, with soccer, dancing, bargaining and various multicultural, including Islamic, influences through a predictably colorful crew that the coach assembles. Katwe’s chess team competes among children of Africa’s status quo, granting jabs at cronyism and the Islamic dictatorship Sudan.

Queen of Katwe gets distracted and tries too hard to demonstrate multiculturalism. But chess-playing Phiona’s 2007-2011 journey from illiterate villager to chess champ reading Garry Kasparov’s Test of Time is earned, if pre-ordained, through hardship, loss of innocence and, finally and fully, happiness. Nalwanga is best in scenes of concentration, in which the girl plays chess (chess players may want more focus on the game). Nalwanga’s Phiona shows the strenuous effort to purge self-doubt and emerge with the choice to induce thoughts, strength and pride. Lupita Nyong’o cultivates this theme with her parenting portrayal, which shifts the plot from gamesmanship to family as a wellspring to success, though it’s Oyelowo’s coach who delivers the explicit theme that students should use their minds. As in Akeelah and the Bee, the rational child is portrayed as virtuous for her rationality.

This, more than the game and its pieces and moves, makes Queen of Katwe a good family film.

LA’s Eagle Rock

The northeastern part of Los Angeles contains a neighborhood known as Eagle Rock with a population of about 30,000. I’ve enjoyed visiting and writing about the hillside section of LA for years. I almost bought a mid-century modern house near there some years ago and I write about Eagle Rock for a newspaper owned by the LA Times.

That’s why I’m disturbed by this week’s reports by the LAPD and an Eagle Rock campus club of an attack on a police vehicle and an apparently unrelated siege against a 9/11 memorial display at a small liberal arts school located there. Both incidents are under investigation by law enforcement.

Eagle Rock is tucked away by Glassell Park, Glendale and Highland Park in the northeast section of the city. Its main artery is Colorado Boulevard, which runs into Pasadena in the San Gabriel Valley where the Tournament of Roses parade strolls every year on New Year’s Day. The boulevard used to be lined with motels, Italian family restaurants and antique shops from Glendale to Eagle Rock before the Colorado Street Bridge.

latimeslobby2016It’s still somewhat like that, though this small and interesting part of LA is changing. Crime has been a problem in Eagle Rock ever since I can remember. Homelessness, too. Pockets of the northeastern section, which, like Los Angeles, is part suburb, part urban, contain a variety of LA points of interest, from the actual hillside ‘eagle rock’ (because it resembles an eagle) for which the neighborhood is named to the 1953 recreation center at 1100 Eagle Vista Drive, conceived and designed by Richard Neutra. The rec center, with Neutra’s retractable walls, includes basketball and tennis courts and areas for children’s play and gymnastics. Its need for improvement is among several topics addressed at last week’s local council meeting, which I wrote about here in a piece posted on the Los Angeles Times website.

This week’s attack against police off the 134 freeway and anti-American vandalism and assault on freedom of speech at Occidental College, where Barack Obama and Jack Kemp, the 1996 vice-presidential nominee, once took classes and graduated, respectively, are major events and ought to cause Eagle Rock residents, schools and businesses serious concern. When I attended the all-volunteer council’s meeting, I found those attending and presiding to be very engaged, especially about the prospect for worsening crime, so I anticipate a strong reaction.

But I also think Eagle Rock is a microcosm of the country, with crumbling infrastructure and more government control, with some focused more on punishing the productive and profitable than on improving the quality of life by protecting the First Amendment and property rights. I’ve also found decent hardworking individuals in the community who have lived, bought, traded, worked and invested there for years.

As with good Americans everywhere, they must rise to the challenge of this new siege on free speech and assault on law enforcement by showing up at council meetings, speaking out, exercising the freedom of speech and defending the rights of the individual.

Eagle Rock, like America, certainly has what it takes to end the attacks.

From the shops, boutiques and eateries along Eagle Rock Boulevard to Eagle Rock’s library and the wine tasting room on Colorado Blvd., which I wrote about last week, there’s more good than bad in this uniquely mixed LA neighborhood. As the wine tasting room’s owner, an Occidental alum and businessman who spoke of his plans to host a talk by Oxy scholars on Greek mythology, said when he showed a tattoo of Achilles: “I love the classics.”

This display of pride in explicit free expression and support for the foundations of Western civilization is just what besieged Eagle Rock needs.


Articles about Eagle Rock by Scott Holleran

Businessman Sponsors Local Artists at Wine Tasting Room

Eagle Rock Neighborhood Council Meeting on Sign, Property Regulations, Neutra-designed Rec Center

Photo Exhibit at Eagle Rock Branch Library

Movie Review: Snowden

Hero worshippers should be predisposed to Oliver Stone’s Snowden, opening this Friday, September 16, 2016.

They will not be disappointed.

I’m not a fan of the controversial filmmaker’s, though his pictures, such as Alexander and JFK, have merit. Like his right-wing counterpart, director Clint Eastwood—whose September movie Sully also laments and examines the fall of the hero who is a much-maligned white male—leftist Oliver Stone makes character studies. Stone’s movies, like Eastwood’s, are naturalistic. They are not romanticized.

Snowden may be Stone’s best picture. Though flawed, slow and uneven in stretches, the cinematic adaptation of two books about the young American for whom it is titled is surprisingly even-handed, moving and potent. Stone is merciless in assailing the Obama administration’s dishonesty, portraying the fundamental betrayal of essential American principles, and decent people such as Edward Snowden, with sharp lines, video clips and cuts.

Snowden, like Sully, starts with the sound of voices. They talk on the telephone. Audio gives way to video and social media until, slowly, insidiously, it dawns on the audience what mass, indiscriminate metadata collection by the state means in everyday practice—how it violates your privacy and your rights, how by implication surveillance statism does nothing to defend your rights, your money or your life. Stone employs this shadowy, paranoid sensibility throughout the film. It is one of his trademarks.

He also deviates from his hyper-masculinity with a depiction of an intelligent and sensitive man at the beginning, as against the end as in Sully, of an exceptional career. Ed Snowden (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, The Walk), as he’s sometimes known here, enlists in the U.S. Army Special Forces after the Islamic terrorist attack on September 11, 2001. The small, slender, vision-impaired epileptic computer geek lacks the physicality to make it through basic training.

But Snowden possesses the desire, dedication and patriotism. The Army stint, shown as in Sully through scattered flashbacks, marks a turning point in his philosophical growth. This progression is captured in one crucial scene in which Edward Snowden reveals to an interviewer key influences, such as Henry David Thoreau, Joseph Campbell and Ayn Rand.

“Ah, Atlas Shrugged,” the interviewer says in recognition of Rand’s masterpiece, referring to one man who stopped the motor of the world. So goes Snowden‘s theme that the idealist moves the world, in Snowden’s case at the price of his own mobility and autonomy. This is how Stone, with screenwriter Kieran Fitzgerald, casts the tale’s individualist—with Edward Snowden as a real-life John Galt.

At least Stone, an anti-war conspiracy theorist who once sought to remake The Fountainhead, grasps that “going Galt” means blending in to change the world. This is exactly what self-taught Snowden does as he gains security clearance and stature to earn trust and authority, including from Nicolas Cage’s mentor (who’s like Henry Cameron in The Fountainhead), setting terms and hacking systems at the state’s various spy and surveillance apparatuses including the CIA and NSA at posts in Europe, Asia and the Eastern and Western United States.

The freethinking high school dropout is paired with a free-spirited sensualist (Shailene Woodley of the Divergent films) to accentuate the mind-body meld to come. Their romance heightens tension. Woodley, who apparently sought the role on principle, adds poignancy. Both characters rise above surveillance state whispers smearing them as misfits. Ed and Lindsay (like Sully and his wife Lorraine in the other movie) are productive equals in partnership trying to live and enjoy life on their own terms.

snowden-movie-poster-useSnowden is inscrutable and remote. His girlfriend is expressive and right there in the moment. Like many of today’s hobbled youths, they seek to find balance in a confusing world. Whether they succeed is entirely unknown, and necessarily so, as this movie must remain elusive to protect the innocent (and, in real life, Edward Snowden met with Stone and Fitzgerald in Moscow and cooperated with the movie, making it more pro-American, according to Stone.) Stay seated for the end credits for a clue. Woodley’s Lindsay really puts Snowden’s actions in perspective of the pursuit of happiness. If a fraction of this story is true, it’s an alarming, powerful and chilling account of the nation’s descent into dictatorship.

As Snowden remains straight, sincere and principled in his patriotism, trying to decode the security versus liberty false dichotomy for himself, with Woodley regarding questioning government as the principle upon which America was founded, Snowden filters references to FISA courts, the Iraq war, encryption, the military-industrial complex, PRISM and Xkeyscore into its paranoid mix of Cold War and post-9/11 government types controlling the country with fear but neither clarity in communication nor victory in war.

This makes Snowden‘s basic flaw—a refusal to depict a single Islamic terrorist act—more glaring. Dramatizing Snowden’s traitorous or heroic act in 2013 (which I first wrote about here and praised in earnest here) requires a plausible argument against surveillance statism, which means accounting for its results, which necessitates showing acts of war by jihadists.

None are evident in Stone’s Snowden.

The absence of jihadists robs the movie of a crucial part of what must have been readily evident to Snowden, whose life starts to resemble Jason Bourne’s; that none of this incessant “security theater” (i.e., TSA) stops Islamic terrorist attacks. Despite this omission of relevant facts, Snowden is not mere propaganda (like Spike Lee’s interesting Malcolm X) and, while it moves glacially in spots through the programmer’s methodical approach to understanding his government, his girlfriend and how his work might harm the innocent, he fully earns his conclusion that “the only thing we’re protecting is the supremacy of [the] government.”

In fact, Snowden downplays the fundamental threat and danger to man’s rights by grounding the tale in the tension-packed days when he met with filmmaker Laura Poitras (Melissa Leo), left-wing activist and journalist Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto) and Ewen MacAskill (Tom Wilkinson) and assumes a broad context of knowledge about the ramifications of mass, unchecked statism. After Snowden quit the CIA on principle, he “thought things were going to get better under [Barack] Obama”, like many Americans did in 2008, which is why the movie’s second half, as he moves with Lindsay to Oahu to work in an underground spy facility, generates suspense and heaviness.

His historic act of defiance snowballs into a nerve-wracking climax that taps today’s mass anxiety.

“I was wrong,” Snowden says about his trust and optimism for President Obama, whose lies consume the story and threaten everything Edward Snowden—who by now has gone from being a pale code-puncher to a man with priorities, commitment and the blush of color—values, treasures and loves. “Yes We Can” becomes the motto affirming Big Brother’s rising power to watch and control your life, with Gordon-Levitt nailing Snowden’s measured, composed analysis, referencing the Nuremberg trials to his complacent, compliant boss (Scott Eastwood) and judging for himself what constitutes proper transparency and disclosure.

In the end, with a Hong Kong hotel’s Do Not Disturb sign serving as the euphemism for the great American proclamation “Don’t Tread On Me”, Snowden pulls off what is at once sharp, powerful and painful to watch: a penetrating portrait of a damaged, fragile youth of ability and promise—representing America’s future—driven to surrender his freedom and flee to faraway lands by military-industrial statism, i.e., fascism, in order to protect his life, rights, woman and Constitutional republic. Snowden in its paranoia and grating, glacial imperfection, delivers a pale-faced superhero who is human, frail and vital—not hollow, weak and blank.

For this reason, Snowden is excruciatingly emotional if you know in advance what his being jettisoned from the nation he fought to serve objectively means and it’s likely to be inexplicably agonizing and anxiety-inducing if you don’t. In either case, you will probably want to exercise free choice over controlling your private property and keep covering your computer’s camera. Whatever you think of Edward Snowden and Oliver Stone’s Snowden, you have only Ed Snowden to thank for that.

Movie Review: Sully

sully-2016-movie-posterDepicting one man’s competence and confidence with psychological depth, director Clint Eastwood (Jersey Boys, American Sniper, Gran Torino, Invictus) made another little character masterpiece with Sully, starring Tom Hanks as Captain Chesley Sullenberger.

Mr. Hanks has never been better and neither has his co-star, Aaron Eckhart (The Dark Knight, Thank You for Smoking, Love Happens) as the commercial airline pilot’s loyal first officer. Their camaraderie in and out of the cockpit seals a bond in this simple, powerful movie about the January 15, 2009, US Airways water landing that became known as “the miracle on the Hudson”.

That the Hudson River touchdown, which spared all lives on board, is an act of rational man, not a miracle, stabilizes the newest film by Warner Bros. and Mr. Eastwood. The movie’s real conflict is also manmade—it’s a galling aftermath initiated by the U.S. government. Captain Sullenberger, known as “Sully”, faces an outrageous inquisition in the hours that follow the harrowing, historic aviation disaster.

“Clear for takeoff” in voiceover is how the movie begins and the visceral, shocking story is depicted without gratuitousness, trivialization or triumphalism, all of which could be deadly to this delicate undertaking, which, at its core, is a badly needed shot of post-9/11 heroism.

The Islamic terrorist attack on September 11, 2001, hangs over New York City throughout the movie. The sight of a plunging, screaming commercial jet about to crash in New York City after 9/11 was not unprecedented—look up the mysterious and forgotten Nov. 12, 2001, American Airlines flight 587 crash in Queens—and Sully’s skillful actions briefly but solidly united the fracturing nation, which had tumbled in an economic collapse and elected a new president.

That context figures deftly into Sully, which folds the fundamental change including economic hardship into its leading character. But what’s distinctive about Sully—based on the airline captain’s own memoir—is its capacity to show that man at his best is both rational and whole.

By this I mean that, as usual in Clint Eastwood‘s recent pictures, the hero is a work in progress, neither one with feet of clay nor one with abs of steel and this is a key part of Sully‘s point, as the audience discovers in a quietly climactic scene. The culmination comes after a steady, solid buildup in the 95-minute movie, which does contain disturbing images which may be too harsh for some viewers. I think those scenes, which cannot be discussed without spoiling the plot, are utterly merited. They’re integral, especially given Sully‘s point that to be heroic is human. These scenes are part of a progression in one introverted man’s introspection as he tries to navigate the new American cultural landscape of celebrity, if not necessarily hero, worship, a downward economic trajectory and the fetishization of fame.

Famous and accomplished Tom Hanks (Bridge of Spies, Philadelphia, Apollo 13, Larry Crowne, The Da Vinci Code, Toy Story 3) portrays Chesley Sullenberger with poise and command. The role requires that he show a man in full, to paraphrase Tom Wolfe, who goes from a haunted self-examination in a steamy mirror, self-doubt and fear of being found out as a fraud to supreme confidence in his knowledge of reality and his own judgment. He’s a detective on his own case, putting New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg in his proper place and stressing to Katie Couric the fact of his “whole life”, as against merely this particular part of his life, until he integrates the facts of his extraordinary, slow-handed, guided mastery in the cockpit of an Airbus crippled by a flock of birds.

This transformation occurs between the spine-chilling voices of stewardesses commanding passengers in unison like a chant or a prayer as the plane goes down and the familiarly soothing voice of NBC’s Brian Williams reporting on the incident. All of this is depicted in steps out of sequence while in order of Captain Sullenberger’s coming-to in a mind-numbing time in his life. Yet Mr. Eastwood and screenwriter Todd Komarnicki never let the audience forget that it happens while this man is suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder with not a single human from the airline or government offering to help. That no one takes care of strong, heroic men—including Eckhart’s character and a devastated air traffic controller—is an unmistakable aspect of this unforgettable film.

As he was in Spotlight and Stephen King’s The Stand, actor Jamey Sheridan as what amounts to the main villain, an evasive government bureaucrat that won’t look Sully in the eye when it counts, delivers a slippery contrast to the hero. Laura Linney (Mr. Holmes, Kinsey, Frasier) as the wife at home fits the role that drives Sully‘s subtext that the hero in today’s world is cast out by dominant forces on his own. The rest of the actors are fine, too, with Molly Hagan (Shootdown, The Lucky Ones, Some Kind of Wonderful) especially good as stewardess Doreen and Anna Gunn (TV’s Portlandia, Breaking Bad) shining as a government worker with a conscience.

Like next week’s opener, Oliver Stone’s Snowden, Clint Eastwood’s Sully focuses on the much-maligned lone, true life white male as a hero in Obama’s America; a sensitive, intelligent individual of ability breaking rules to trust instead his own judgment even when it means going against the state, in particular the Obama administration.

Sully fills out Sully’s cinematic, arresting story with multiple heroes—New York City policemen who follow baseball, rescue divers and the sure-handed captain of a boat named after Thomas Jefferson—including the sterling flight 1549 crew of Eckhart’s Jeff Skiles and a band of heroic stewardesses and it welds the cold, hard facts of Sully’s story to the unspoken pain over unavenged mass murder on 9/11 with an image of a jet screaming across Manhattan’s skies.

“A pilot never stops acquiring knowledge,” Sully’s father tells the boy in a flashback with a biplane in a piece of advice that the youth carries into a fighter jet. The power of this top virtue, rationality, leads the wounded, self-searching Chesley Sullenberger—with his partner at his side—to recover the power of his productiveness and pride. In letting Sully be seen this way on screen, thanks to Tom Hanks, in his most challenging role since Philadelphia, Mr. Eastwood puts a 21st century hero in a clarifying and rational context.