TV & DVD Review: The Marva Collins Story (1981)

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This December 1, 1981 CBS television movie starring Cicely Tyson (Roots, Sounder) as pioneering Chicago teacher Marva Collins, who died this week while in hospice care at the age of 78, is very good. The 100-minute Hallmark Hall of Fame movie, co-starring Morgan Freeman (The Dark Knight, An Unfinished Life, Last Vegas) as her husband, was filmed on location in Chicago.

Hers is an untold but grand and heroic story. The classical education teacher, who wrote several books about her essentially Socratic pedagogical and motivationally-driven method, focused on the individual in her teaching. As I wrote in 2009 (read the post here), she was passionately anti-deterministic and pro-free will in her approach to reaching a student’s mind. In short, Collins did not think poor, black students were destined to play basketball or languish in poverty, illiteracy and despair. She held to the idea that each individual has merit and potential and that the young must be nourished, taught and loved.

The Marva Collins Story dramatizes the initial part of her epic struggle to break free from being a government education worker in Chicago’s dreaded public school system and creating her own school in her own home, all while married to a man (Mr. Freeman) who loved her and mothering three children.

In scene after scene, the Chicago Public School teacher refused to settle for less than the best quality for her Garfield Park ghetto students. Collins taught the classics in literature, emphasizing key themes as lessons for living in poverty and achieving self-reliance. When the classroom is vandalized by thugs, leaving her homeroom deflated and demoralized, Collins, who dresses smartly and expects the same of her young elementary schoolers, singles out one child who asks why? for a warm, loving explanation that life is hard for those who are of superior ability. She basically tells the boy to expect to be envied by those who are jealous. This is a lesson well learned and well played by Ms. Tyson, one of the best actresses of her time.

The woman the kids call Mrs. Collins is remarkable in her steadfast dedication to demanding that the fundamentally bankrupt institution matches her ability to teach her students. Collins mutters about the “bureaucrats” and finally strikes out on her own, opening her own school, Westside Preparatory School. Attracting the most deeply victimized students in the government-controlled educational system, few rally behind her. She pleads for help in the form of sponsorship from Chicago-based businesses. She writes to the media. She seeks the proper government approval, which only frustrates her efforts more because the government’s arbitrary rules are in constant self-contradiction. In one scene, when a bureaucrat comments on her behind her back, Marva Collins swings back into action and puts him—and, really, the whole damned state-sponsored educational system—in its lowdown place. She is indefatigable.

But The Marva Collins Story is about her free enterprise, not merely her character. It dramatizes the painstaking process one must undertake to defy the traditional, the expected, the status quo, especially if you’re a lone, black woman from whom others irrationally expect less. Add the fact that even less is expected of poor, black students and there you have the mindset of the welfare state, which Marva Collins identifies, defies and puts to shame. That she lines up students one by one—a boy who is fascinated with flight, a girl who’s been told she’s mindless, other outcasts lost in government’s ghetto schools—and praises them with love and encouragement for their ability, not scorn and indifference to the use of their reasoning minds, is the point of her story. Marva Collins climaxes with an example in capitalism, as the children take a field trip which is earned, not used as an excuse to indulge sloth and mediocrity, when Mrs. Collins takes her Westside Preparatory pupils to the Chicago Mercantile Exchange.

Whatever flaws in her approach, which is sort of a catch-all immersion in the basics and classics, she is honest and straightforward about her limitations to parents, students and family. Her devotion to her task is rewarded with a visit from a newspaper reporter and an epilogue explains how she turned down an offer from President Reagan to serve as a government cabinet secretary (of a department he’d pledged to abolish, a promise he never did keep). Marva Collins’ story is exceptional for its vision, nerve and entrepreneurialism and, with a powerful rendering of Rudyard Kipling’s poem If—, The Marva Collins Story shows and tells what’s essentially heroic about her tale as it is and ought to be.


Rent or Buy The Marva Collins Story

 

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Movie & DVD Review: On the Waterfront (1954)

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Redemption through testimony—an individual rising against the mob to exercise free speech and speak out—is the theme of Elia Kazan’s On the Waterfront (1954), which deserves its reputation as a great motion picture. The movie, starring Academy Award-winning Marlon Brando and Eva Marie Saint in her Oscar-winning motion picture debut, is comparable in moral heft to Stanley Kramer’s Judgment at Nuremberg (1962), throwing out radical ideas, questions and challenges for the audience that grant no quarter to half measures, pragmatism and grayness. Everyone should see this film, based on Pulitzer Prize-winning newspaper articles, and take the test it offers in this wholly absorbing drama.

Beginning with Leonard Bernstein’s somber musical score, On the Waterfront starts with a particular turning point in the life of Terry Malloy (Brando) who has chosen to become “a bum”. Something stirs within this shell of a man, an embittered New Jersey dockworker, when an act of evil with which he is complicit is executed to its logical conclusion—an innocent man is murdered by a gang of criminals—and, as with the East German Communist in The Lives of Others (2006), the guilty seeks absolution.

This Catholic notion, delivered in a secular sense with Catholicism standing in for morality, is encouraged by a decent priest (Karl Malden), opposed by Terry’s brother (Rod Steiger) and assaulted by the mob boss, Johnny Friendly (Lee J. Cobb). Terry’s drive for moral cleansing is ignited, navigated and judged by the woman with whom he falls in love (Saint), a strong and innocent type.

Her name is Edie and she represents the good. The real villain in On the Waterfront is the public, the collective, the others. They—look for Pat Hingle, Nehemiah Persoff, Fred Gwynne, also Martin Balsam as a federal policeman—are the silent killers that sanction the rule of the mob. As Terry falls for Edie and learns how to love himself, really, it’s waterfront subculture, society at large, that governs and accepts or denies Terry’s redemption. The moral dilemma he faces is whether to submit to injustice or speak up and stand against the others.

This central conflict, dramatized throughout anti-Communist whistleblower Kazan’s pictures (Panic in the Streets, A Face in the Crowd, Gentleman’s Agreement, Man on a Tightrope, Viva Zapata!), is evident everywhere in On the Waterfront. Opposing ideas are peppered in anti-Communist whistleblower Budd Schulberg’s Oscar-winning screenplay: “Don’t say nothin’—keep quiet; you’ll live longer”—”You don’t ask no questions, you don’t answer no questions, unless you wanna wind up [dead]”—and, as Terry’s thug-tribalist brother puts it: “Don’t think about it—do it.”

On the Waterfront universalizes its narrowly defined setting with a physically brutal and exhaustive contest between reason and anti-reason. From an urge to “join the congregation” which in this case is a euphemism for submitting to rule by brute, tribal force to the priest’s pressing question “Who killed Joey?” as Brando’s Terry walks in, the mob’s blithely accepted ways and means come to fester in each part of the waterfront. The only consistent avenger besides Malden’s priest and Balsam’s lawman—who are both portrayed with deliberation as strictly limited in their effectiveness—is the initially murdered man’s sister, played by Saint, who is pivotal to grasping and granting Terry’s epic quest and request.

Saint’s Edie is intelligent, kind and able. Edie finds and sees the good in Terry—she is unafraid of the damaged and the dangerous—and she is like the deformed kitten she spares and adopts, willing to be different and stand out. When she first finds intimacy with the self-unmade boxer whom the audience later learns thinks he “coulda been a contender”, she welcomes him with total trust. Terry warns against Edie’s benevolence with the line that his philosophy of life is to do it to others before others do it to you. But Edie, a greedy young woman who insists that she wants “much, much, much more” than what’s offered by the Catholic Church, sees the man’s potential despite himself.

Kazan exploits their scenes beautifully, with pigeons fluttering and whistles blowing—and Malden’s Father Barry bracing Edie with the fact that life is hard and actions have impact—until Edie confronts with horror the truth of what’s been done and, finally, with blood spilling and death looming over the waterfront, Terry takes himself down to lift himself up, whatever consequences may come.

This is Terry’s story and Marlon Brando shines as the piece of meat torn between living for others and living for himself, if it’s not framed as such, using his feeble mind to move his muscle to really power up his mind for the first time—”It’s isn’t just brains. It’s how you use them”, someone says—inspired by an unconquered feminine idealist who dares to go against the conventions, notions and practices of the world in which she lives. When Edie tosses a drink back for the first time, to Terry it’s a dare to ditch his fake self and get right with himself.

Whether he does and what comes of it is what moves the movie’s action. On the Waterfront fully explores what it means to take, mold and re-shape one’s lesser self into a greater man (and what it means to love and have him). Elia Kazan, who by all accounts (including his own) lived by these themes, masterfully conveys and cashes in the everyday struggle to be one’s best—even if it means going up against the whole world—and coming out clean, honest and proud. Kazan’s On the Waterfront stands against the conformity that dominates mid-20th century America with a naturalistic snapshot of what one can do against the irrational. It is not as grand and operatic as audiences have been led to believe. On the Waterfront is small and intimate. Today, this great movie still inspires one to rise, fight and win.


The DVD 

A 12-minute conversation with Kazan is excellent. The one-hour documentary is also informative, though best viewed after seeing the movie. Other extras are also included in this edition.


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Taylor Swift’s Activism for Apple

TaylorSwift on TimeWhen an individual moneymaker takes a moral stand on principle, realizes it with action and wins, the activism ought to be studied as an example in success.

This week, recording artist Taylor Swift provides such an example. Swift, a pop country music star, recently took to Tumblr (a blogging platform) to write a letter of activism (read Swift’s letter here). Swift explains that Apple’s new Apple Music streaming service precludes payment to artists in the first three months. Swift argues that this is wrong. In a persuasive, simple letter implicitly based on egoism, not altruism, because she predicates the letter on achieving her own values in an explicit expression of magnanimity, Swift makes the case for what amounts to intellectual property rights. Swift advocates what Ayn Rand called the trader principle, the essence of capitalism. As Swift concludes her letter to Apple: “Please don’t ask [artists] to provide you with our music for no compensation.”

Besides Swift’s fundamentally acknowledged fact that Apple’s terms are Apple’s to set, what distinguishes Swift’s activist letter from other forms of celebrity activism is her recognition of the good for being good. Swift does not malign Apple. In fact, she titles the post “To Apple, Love Taylor” and proceeds to express her “reverence” for Apple’s innovation and achievements. This demonstrates an understanding that acting in accordance with the company’s professed philosophy of human progress through new ideas is consistent with trading value for value. Harnessing the power of an artist that leftists and racists should regard as a beneficiary of “white privilege” or being among some inexplicably causeless “one percent” of wealthy millionaires, Swift, who has previously expressed support for Barack Obama, offers a perfectly rational example of selfish activism.

The letter is selfish, as against self-centered (as she points out when she writes that the issue of paying artists “is not about me”, which in this context is true), because in writing it she seeks to gain, keep and advance her values; in this case, the ability of artists to earn money to create. In a wider sense, the successful artist posting such a letter deepens the bond with fans and adds credibility to his brand. Swift’s letter succeeds on a number of levels in dispelling the myth that capitalism and benevolence are incompatible. Swift gains value as described, the struggling, unknown writer gains, her competitors also gain, and so do her patrons, employees and partners. The customer gains with greater funding for all artists which leads to more creation, variety and competition. Apple, too, gains from the compliments, publicity and Swift’s endorsement for the new platform and a better grasp of what top artists want and how they may communicate.

Capitalism is, in fact, win-win.

Taylor Swift’s letter displays an understanding of this principle. She does not seek the unearned. She also does not merely “kill them with kindness”, as a cynic might claim. The letter, praising Apple for allegiance to progress and innovation, is not structured for unearned guilt, vanity or opportunism. Swift’s letter ends with a thought which begins with the word ‘please’ extended as a courtesy, not with an arbitrary demand that Apple has a moral duty to serve others and sacrifice its profit. Swift backs her words with action, withholding her property on principle. This is the essence of good, selfish, rational activism (read my thoughts on activism here) in a dispute among good, selfish, rational men.

Those inclined to flame, troll or otherwise rant against anyone who deviates in the slightest degree from one’s values ought to look at Taylor Swift’s letter and learn from her example. This is activism that succeeds. As Apple executive Eddy Cue posted today on Twitter (and, as I teach in my social media course, social media is a crucial, legitimate tool for selfish communication), after granting Swift’s request: “We hear you, [Taylor Swift]…Love, Apple.” The exchange, namely that they are free to have it, is why I love capitalism.

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TV Review: State of the Union

220px-Jake_Tapper_at_the_White_HouseUnfortunately, Sunday’s premiere of CNN’s reconfigured State of the Union, which premiered in 2009, represents everything wrong with television, broadcast journalism and, in particular, political journalism. The one-hour Sunday morning news program, which is putting it generously, was soft, weak and incestuous. Billed as an exclusive interview with a former president, whose spouse is running for president, with another segment featuring the brother of a former president, the entire show centered upon access by the new host, who failed to disclose that he worked for the former president’s son-in-law’s mother.

One might be able to overlook such a transgression if the host were not as capable a journalist as Jake Tapper, who hosts CNN’s The Lead and does an excellent job in general, too. But, as I wrote about Megyn Kelly and Maria Bartiromo in their lackluster debuts on Fox News, one expects the best to be better than the competition. Tapper is among the best in TV’s journalism. Last month, he invited and interviewed Islamic jihadist target Pamela Geller after the Texas attack by Moslem terrorists on her free speech event; he was even-handed and respectful and asked good questions in what is one of her most passionate, articulate and persuasive interviews. He consistently asks questions that are sharp, independent and challenging, always questioning the state and showing a grasp of what it means to reduce the news to the individual. Though he’s a former Democratic Party operative and congressional Democrat’s press secretary, and his career includes jobs in both journalism and activism, he frequently asks pointed, intelligent questions like he’s in the Tea Party. Tapper’s coverage and analysis of war news, including CNN reporter Drew Griffin’s fine work exposing the Obama administration’s incompetence and conspiracy to deprive basic care to war veterans, is also very good.

This is why his failure to ask Bill Clinton even one question about his dreadful war and military record in the aftermath of the debacle of Iraq is so disappointing. It’s bad enough that Tapper failed to disclose the interview nature, agreement and audience terms and conditions involved with President Clinton, let alone his professional affiliation with the Clintons’ daughter’s husband’s mother or the fact that he dated the president’s mistress, an intern whose relationship with the president led to testimony which led to impeachment. Tapper’s exclusive interview with Clinton, packed with an audience of questionable origin and totally predicated on questions pertaining to Clinton’s dubious organization, amount to an infomercial for Clinton’s group. The connections among Monica Lewinsky, bombing and refusing to annihilate Islamic terrorists that would launch an attack on 9/11, Hillary Clinton, the jihadists’ Benghazi slaughter of Americans and Mrs. Clinton’s subsequent attack on free speech, are a thinking journalist’s dream. Whatever the ground rules for Tapper’s interview with the ex-president, he didn’t ask about any of those issues. This despite the attack on CNN by the president’s wife’s administration when she was secretary of state.

There is too much cronyism in Washington and Jake Tapper’s Bill Clinton interview reeks of it. This was underscored in a sidebar on another Bush presidential candidate, affectionately referred to here the entire time in subtitle as “Jeb”. The Jeb tag is presumably in accordance with the Jeb Bush for President campaign’s instructions to CNN to reduce and nearly eliminate any reference to that shriek-inducing last name. That the Jeb piece was conducted by the ultimate Washington toadying type, Dana Bash, an imperiously vacuous reporter whose Jeb Bush interview would have been more revealing if done by a high school student, just made the whole show worse.

“Dynastic” is the word Jake Tapper used in opening comments to describe the state of the union in State of the Union, 2015 version. This was before the soft, adoring, obsequious Clinton and Bush interviews and more of the same middling pundits chimed in. If only Jake Tapper had led with his mind the way he does on The Lead, if only he had really delved into the state of the union, not the state of the status quo. I had been looking forward to this program and had anticipated hard-hitting, radical challenges and questions and discourse from the reporter from Philadelphia. Judging by the first new show, Tapper merely strives for more of the same. The opposite is what viewers deserve.

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Cinderella for Home Entertainment

Disney disclosed this week that the year’s best movie, Cinderella by writer Chris Weitz and director Kenneth Branagh, premieres on home video this year on September 15. The movie will be simultaneously released on Blu-Ray, digital high-definition and the studio’s proprietary streaming brand, Disney Movies Anywhere.

Cinderella2015 Bluray smallThis picture, which director Branagh modestly calls “feather light”, ought to be the most anticipated home entertainment event of 2015. Most of this year’s films, thus far, are horrible by comparison to this lush, romantic and radical new movie (read my review here). The soundtrack is also perfect (read my review of Patrick Doyle’s musical score here). For the first time, I plan to write and post a separate review of the home video. Having seen Cinderella several times, I must say I look forward to watching this masterpiece again and owning it for home theater viewing.

Among the planned features are a piece on the fairy tale, bits on costume and making the Palace Ball sequence and an alternate opening scene. I’m told by Disney that director Branagh participates and introduces deleted scenes, too, though exact features vary according to merchandising deals and format. The frantic, unfocused short film “Frozen Fever” may also be included on certain products. Whatever the extras, whether you know and adore the fairy tale or not, the film in this format is its own reward. Those who value and long for the sight of romanticism, glamour and the ideal in motion pictures should save the date and, on September 15, savor seeing this exceptional movie.

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