Look, I think a lot of us can agree that America isn’t doing great these days. The land of the free and the home of the brave is exhausted, sick, anxious, distracted and at war with itself. Given that there is only a few weeks left to a momentous election, it is not controversial to say that this is not the brightest time in the country.
So while I don’t know if it’s by design or by chance, it’s a coincidence that four films premiered on digital services this weekend try to thread a complicated needle: see America for what it is and still find hope in it. . Two are film versions of acclaimed Broadway plays; another is from one of the country̵
The images these films paint aren’t rosy at all. They don’t mess with myths about restoring past greatness or being the best of ourselves. But the people who created them are looking for the core of humanity in the midst of injustice and, in their own way, each of them finds it.
Put all four together and you will begin to see a portrait of America that is thoughtful, layered and hopeful, drawing on the past to understand the present and find something in the present that points us into the future. I can’t think of a better theme to look for in these difficult and busy days.
Clock Time for a heartbreaking story of true courage and hope
Heartbreaking and passionate, Time it is the chronicle of a deferred love and of the life that hope can give. Garrett Bradley’s documentary follows Fox Rich (aka Sibil Richardson), who has spent 21 years stubbornly petitioning for the release of her husband, Rob from prison. Rob is serving a 60-year sentence for a juvenile crime in which both were involved; meanwhile, Fox has raised their six children and is becoming a powerful advocate for change in her community.
Time describes his struggle, demonstrating how mass incarceration constantly separates black families in America, as well as bureaucracy and centuries of narratives hide the truth and pain of those separations. And from the start, Fox has been making videos at home, which look like a diary of his pain, his endurance, and his commitment to hope.
How to watch it: Time is streaming on Amazon Prime Video.
Clock What the Constitution means to me for an angry and hopeful perspective on law, debate and rights
When Heidi Schreck was 15, she traveled to the Pacific Northwest for speech competitions hosted by the American Legion chapters, giving impromptu speeches on the meaning and importance of various constitutional amendments. Years later he recreated that experience with What the Constitution means to me, who earned Tony and Pulitzer nominations during her 2019 Broadway run. Schreck wrote and starred in the play, in which she pretends to be herself 15, talking about the Constitution – at least until her youthful optimism is challenged both from his adult realism than from his family’s past stories.
The filmed version of What the Constitution means to me (with direction from You don’t want to be my neighborMarielle Heller) captures that moving, angry, heartbreaking and strangely inspiring Broadway show. Schreck skillfully shifts between his personal history, the stories of his ancestors’ lives and in-depth knowledge of Supreme Court decisions and arguments, weaving together politics, rights speeches and lived experiences. And he ends up fighting with a teenage debate partner about the future of the Constitution – a moment that shows the power and true purpose of a real and thoughtful debate.
How to watch it: What the Constitution means to me is streaming on Amazon Prime Video.
Clock The Chicago trial 7 for a stimulating call to dissent and to place honor where it is due
The Chicago trial 7 is an Aaron Sorkin Humdinger signature, a courtroom drama about the past with the present in mind. Its subject is the six-month trial of a group of men accused of conspiring and crossing state lines with the intent of inciting a riot in Chicago during the 1968 Democratic National Convention. The men went to Chicago to protest against the Vietnam War. Riots have occurred. But the men didn’t conspire – and what’s more, they insisted that the Chicago Police Department started the violence.
Sorkin wrote and directed The Chicago trial 7, which plays a little with real historical events in the service of history. But the film draws parallels between the issues that mattered then – racism, militarized police, uneven justice, challenges to the right to protest – and those that still resonate today. With a brilliant cast that includes Mark Rylance, Eddie Redmayne, Sacha Baron Cohen, Jeremy Strong, John Carroll Lynch, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Frank Langella and Joseph Gordon-Levitt, among others, The Chicago trial 7 is a film that aims to connect the points of the past with those of the present and suggests that sometimes the long arm of justice crosses rocky territory.
How to watch it: The Chicago trial 7 is streaming on Netflix.
Clock American Utopia by David Byrne for a lively, beautiful musical celebration of our differences
In 2019, former Talking Heads frontman David Byrne edited a Broadway show that wasn’t a concert, play, musical, or anything else, really, except a recognizable Byrne-ian production. On a gray stage full of light and texture, accompanied by a group of brilliant barefoot musicians and singers dressed in matching gray suits, Byrne has woven a story of America. The songs in his catalog have been reinvented for a joyful journey into his mind and through the way he imagines the possibility of an American utopia.
Spike Lee captured the whole thing in the movie, and the result is American Utopia by David Byrne, a simultaneously realistic and surreal journey through what makes a nation a nation: we share the same home. Byrne’s songs question the notions of house and home and what they mean in an American context. His answer is that we are all different; we look different, we speak differently, we believe in different things, yet there is still hope that we can decide to rebuild our home together. I dare you not to dance while you watch it.
How to watch it: American Utopia by David Byrne airs at 8pm east of October 17 and start streaming on HBO Max simultaneously.
If you are looking for something else …
- Kajillionaire, Miranda July’s latest comedy, arrives this week on digital on demand services (find the full list of services here). Starring Evan Rachel Wood, Gina Rodriguez, Debra Winger and Richard Jenkins, it’s a quirky and loving story of growing up and learning to love. (I loved the movie and wrote about how it shows July’s enduring affection for the strange in us all.)
Coming to select virtual cinemas: Martin Eden, which seems as much a tribute to Italian cinema as an adaptation of a Jack London novel. It’s the story of a young man named Martin (Luca Marinelli, who you may have seen on Netflix The old guard) who aspires to join the ranks of the elite through self-education. It’s a critically acclaimed tragedy shot in a luxurious way.
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