Thursday, May 30, 2013

In the Valley of Elah - A review

Written and directed by Paul Haggis, 2007

Starring: Tommy Lee Jones, Charlize Theron, and Susan Sarandon

This past Memorial Day, I was flipping through the channels on the television and decided to watch a film titled, In the Valley of Elah.  The film at first appeared to be a fairly typical mystery involving a missing soldier who had recently returned from Iraq.  As the film unfolded, it became clear that this movie was much more than a typical mystery that happened to be based on a true story.  This also became a good way to spend Memorial Day.

The Story Outline

Tommy Lee Jones played the leading role of Hank Deerfield.  Deerfield was a veteran who had been a military police officer.  While he saw that there were many problems with the military, he identified with that lifestyle.  He shined his shoes and pressed his pants every day.  He was proud of his time in the military and felt he had served his country.

When he received news that his son was missing, he felt that something was profoundly wrong.  He knew his son, and thought that he would never abandon his post.  So, Deerfield traveled to the military base where his son was stationed and decided to carry out his own investigation.

After retiring from the military, Deerfield became a truck driver who transported gravel.  He also studied military history and knew how to be a meticulous investigator.  Eventually he learned that his son had been murdered and his body was mutilated.  The immediate question was: Who would have done such a horrendous crime?

Two stories

This film is about the development of principal two stories.  One story is about Deerfield’s son and his friends in the military.  We only see his son through flashbacks.  Deerfield spoke of his son as a decent person who wanted to pursue a military life. 

Then, we see his son driving a humvee in Iraq.  The son has orders never to stop the vehicle because stopping for any reason might expose the troops to an ambush.  We see this soldier murder a child playing in the road because he would not stop his vehicle.

After this incident, the son calls the father at home, apparently having a breakdown because of the guilt he felt from murdering a child.  The father understands the horrors of war.  Although he doesn’t know what his son has done, he suggests that he tough it out.

Then, we see the son toughing it out by adapting to his environment.  This would mean that he sadistically tortured a prisoner.  He, or one of his friends desecrated the corpse of someone they murdered.  In the course of the film, we see that most of the soldiers who saw these acts felt that they were a big joke and a source of humor.

Then, we see the other story.  This is of Hank Deerfield the veteran who identified with the military.  As we see this story develop, we see Deerfield change his views of the military.  As he sees the transformation that took place with his son, he begins to question the essence of what the military is all about.                    

The final scene of the film brings together the entire story.  Deerfield does something that might be seen as a prank from a high school student.  However, Deerfield was someone who supported the military throughout his life.  The final scene makes it clear that he felt that there was something profoundly wrong, not just with the military, but also with the government that sent his son to Iraq.

Heaven & Earth

While the film, In the Valley of Elah was highly effective in its opposition to the U.S. war machine, there was an important story that this film didn’t attempt to portray.  This is how U.S. sponsored wars effect the very individuals they claim to protect. 

We see this story in Oliver Stone’s 1993 movie Heaven & Earth.  Tommy Lee Jones also has a role in this film.  This is the true story portrayed in the book by Le Ly Hayslip titled: When Heaven & Earth Changed Places.

In this story we see how Hayslip’s family was virtually destroyed because of the war against the people of Vietnam.  While Hayslip’s family had a difficult life before the war, things became impossible in the so-called U.S. effort to “defend democracy.”  Her family farm became a demilitarized zone.  Her sister became a prostitute for the U.S. military.

These two films effectively destroy all the arguments the U.S. government has made to support their wars.  These two films make us raise the questions: Why did the government order thousands of soldiers to give their lives in these wars?  Why did the government spend trillions of dollars on these wars?  How did the destruction of entire nations benefit anyone?

These are the kinds of questions we need to ask when the government continues to ask us to support their wars.  This is especially relevant on Memorial Day as well as the Forth of July.     

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Venus and Serena – The film – A review

Maiken Baird
Michelle Major

Written by:
Michelle Major

My father had a lifelong passion for tennis and introduced me to the game at an early age.  I consider myself fortunate to have an appreciation for this game and to have lived at a time when Venus and Serena Williams competed.  In my opinion, their story is one of the most compelling in the history of all sports.   

I first saw Venus Williams compete at the U.S. Open before she became a champion.  At the time, I had never seen a woman play tennis who had that kind of power.  I knew that if she could control her power she would dominate the game.  She certainly did that.

The background to this story

The film Venus and Serena gives the background to their lives and begins to explain why they became so successful in this sport.  While I’ve never met the Williams sisters, this review will look at some issues that the film didn’t cover.

Venus and Serena’s father is Richard Williams.  Richard Williams was born and raised in Louisiana, and in the film he spoke about how he had been brutalized during those years.  Eventually he lived in the inner city of Compton, California, where he taught the Williams sisters to play tennis.   

In Isabel Wilkerson’s book, The Warmth of Other Suns – the epic story of America’s Great Migration, she wrote about Dr. Robert Foster who also was born and raised in Louisiana, and then migrated to California.  She wrote about how Dr. Foster wasn’t able to make many stops on his way to California in 1953, because there were few hotels that would allow him to stay due to the color of his skin.  Dr. Foster’s experience was similar to immigrants from all over the world.  He left a place where he didn’t want to be, and went to a place where he wasn’t wanted.

Wilkerson also wrote about how there was an entire African American community that had migrated from Louisiana to California.  One family that migrated was the basketball star Bill Russell’s parents.  Another migrant was Geronimo Pratt.  Pratt became a leader of the Black Panthers.  He served about 29 years in prison for a murder the courts eventually argued that he did not commit.

Understanding that this was the environment Richard Williams needed to deal with, his story becomes much more compelling.  Certainly, Mr. Williams didn’t learn the finer points of tennis during his childhood in Louisiana.  Eventually he learned how tennis was a game that young Black women could excel in.  Armed with this knowledge, as well as his history of brutalization in Louisiana, he trained two of his daughters to excel in the game.   Mr. Williams also taught his children to be proud of the fact that they are Black.

Richard Williams wasn’t the only parent who raised his children to succeed.  Certainly, Oracene Price, the Williams sister’s mother was a big part of their story. 

Other parents of star performers

Andre Agassi’s father was also a taskmaster to his son.  Agassi also became one of the dominant tennis players of his day. 

I listened to an interview with Agassi when he talked about his autobiography, Open.  He said that he hated the pressure cooker atmosphere of competitive tennis.  He also admitted to using methamphetamine to relieve the stress he felt.

A better person to compare Richard Williams to would be Joe Jackson who was the father of Michael Jackson.  Both Williams and Jackson raised their children to go right to the top of their avocations.  Both Williams and Jackson were taskmasters who required their children to focus on their talent and to avoid the day-to-day activities children normally participate in.  Both the Williams and Jackson families were, or continue to be, Jehovah’s Witnesses. 

While Richard Williams was born in Louisiana, Joe Jackson was raised in Arkansas and migrated to Gary, Indiana.  In Gary, Joe Jackson became a steel worker and did everything in his power to make sure his children didn’t endure a similar fate.  Unlike the story of Richard Williams, Joe Jackson admits to having beaten Michael Jackson.  In the film Venus and Serena, there was no allegation made that Richard Williams beat his children.

Clearly there have been problems between the Williams sisters and their father.  Oracene Price also has a few unkind words to say about her former husband.  In no way am I attempting to say that these views were not legitimate.  All I’m attempting to say is that Richard Williams’ effort to make his daughters into world champions was a truly compelling story.

Why is the Williams sisters story so compelling? 

While others have been burnt out after a few years of competition, both Williams sisters have remained champions for over a decade.  They have done this through serious injuries or illnesses.  They have done this while being booed because of the color of their skin.  They have done this while enduring the murder of a sister.  They have done this in a sport that attracts the affluent, while being raised in the inner city of Compton, California.

My favorite match of the many wonderful matches I’ve seen of the Williams sisters was one between Justine Henin and Serena Williams at the French Open.  Justine Henin may have been one of the best players in woman’s tennis during the time the Williams sisters competed.  Henin was thin, fast, and she could hit the ball hard.  Henin was also cool under pressure and a player needed to play a better game to defeat her, because she would not beat herself.

This was a wonderful match that was only decided by the last few points.  During the match some of the French fans, in all their stupidity, booed Serena.  These French fans must have forgotten that French colonial armies had been defeated by armies of people who were not Caucasian in places like Algeria, Haiti, and Vietnam.

On this day, Henin won the few points that enabled her to win the match.  However, Serena Williams never gave up, and played hard until the end.  Serena would be a champion for a much longer period of time than Justine Hardin, and win more championships. 

In the film, Venus and Serena, Serena Williams talked about why she has been so competitive on the tennis court.  She said that she didn’t want to be another statistic.  In other words, her background was a clear factor in her outstanding success.   

This is a story of how two young sisters managed to overcome nearly insurmountable odds to become world champions for over a decade.  This is a story of how they have done this while remaining proud of who they are. 

Certainly, the world’s problems will not be solved by world champion tennis players.  However, this story is about how it was indeed possible for two young talented Black women from an inner city of this country to gain the discipline to achieve their goals.  While there have been many others who have achieved other momentous goals, certainly Venus and Serena Williams deserve their place in history.                                

Thursday, May 2, 2013

One Day in December – A review

One Day in December – Celia Sánchez and the Cuban Revolution
By Nancy Stout, 2013
Monthly Review Press

For many years, I’ve been inspired to read about the lives of revolutionaries.  These are people who had been raised in a more or less typical environment, and transformed themselves into leaders of political movements.  These political movements didn’t merely attempt to reform one or another aspect of society.  No, these leaders attempted to form a new kind of government that would have completely different priorities.  The list of some of these leaders would include, Spartacus, Thomas Paine, Tecumseh, Frederick Douglass, Jose Martí, Ida Wells, Mother Jones, Vladimir Illyich Lenin, Eugene Debs, Malcolm X, Ernesto Che Guevara, and Nelson Mandela.

Looking at this list we see that most of these leaders were men.  Nancy Stout spent ten years researching her biography of Celia Sánchez.  Reading Stout’s book, we can see why the name Celia Sánchez clearly needs to be added to this list.  In this biography we see a woman who overcomes unbelievable odds to put in place a government that transformed the lives of the Cuban people.

Celia Sánchez’ early life

Celia Sánchez was one of eight children.  Her mother died when Celia was a child.  Celia’s father, Manuel Sánchez was a medical doctor who was born into a prominent Cuban family.  Manuel Sanchez decided that he didn’t want to pursue a lucrative medical career in Havana. 

Instead, he set up a practice in a small town called Pilón, on the southeastern part of Cuba in the province of Oriente.  Pilón also happened to be in close proximity to the Sierra Maestra mountain range.  The Sánchez home was located next to the sugar mill that dominated the life of the town.  While this home was the most prominent in the community, it only had access to electricity for a few hours per day.

Manuel Sánchez’ decided that he would not charge his patients who could not afford his services.  Many of those patients never had access to medical care and could barely afford to survive.

Celia Sánchez decided not to pursue a formal education.  Instead she pursued a different kind of education as a medical assistant to her father.  She talked to all of her father’s patients and assisted in their treatment.  At times, Celia and her father would make house calls where they visited their patients on horseback.

Manuel Sánchez also taught his daughter about the long and revolutionary history of Cuba.  He introduced her to the rugged forest of the Sierra Maestre and taught her to appreciate its beauty.  He also took her deep-sea fishing, and this became one of Celia’s passions.  After a day of fishing, Celia and her friends would eat their catch of the day on the beach and under the stars.

Celia also liked to wear makeup with bright red lipstick.  She read the fashion magazines and oftentimes visited Miami where she purchased goods for her side business.  Even after the revolution, when she usually wore military fatigues, she also liked to wear high-heel shoes.

Celia also became intimately aware of the grinding poverty that surrounded her.  Many, if not most people were illiterate.  Workers who did the backbreaking work of cutting sugar cane only had an income for about three months per year.

The rural guards operated as a despotic and tyrannical dictatorship.  They took whatever they wanted from the campesinos who lived in the area.  The rape of women by the rural guards was a common occurrence.  Those who resisted the will of the rural guards routinely faced torture and or death.

Celia and her father supported two political leaders who attempted to put in place a rational government in Cuba.  Both these efforts failed.

Then, a new organization was formed called the July 26 movement.  Celia joined and had a new hope of transforming Cuba.

The revolution

Joining the July 26 movement meant that Celia would have challenges she never had before.  She would need to transform herself from a relatively independent woman, into someone who took strict orders from Frank País, who was, along with Fidel Castro, one of the two central leaders.  Failure to carry out these orders could mean disaster.

País had a discussion with Celia where they talked about how Fidel Castro would be landing on a ship from Mexico.  This ship would be carrying a rebel army that would carry out a guerrilla war in Cuba.  Celia’s job would be to use her contacts in the Sierra Maestra to aid the liberation army when they landed.  This job was ideally suited for Celia since she not only knew everyone in the region, she also knew those people who would be willing to give everything for a chance to change the Cuban reality.

When the boat called the Granma finally was supposed to land there was an unavoidable delay.  When the Granma finally landed there was a near total catastrophe.  The government announced that Fidel Castro, as well as most of the soldiers from the rebel army were dead. 

Celia might have wondered if all of her efforts throughout her life to bring about change in Cuba were over.  Then, one of her friends found her and gave her the news that Fidel and the remnants of his army were safe in the Sierra.

Now Celia’s job would be to aid Frank País to recruit soldiers for the rebel army and to secure supplies.  Celia had the ingenious idea of setting up a training center in the middle of a forest of a weed-like plant that grows wild in Cuba.  The training center was on a rice plantation in the town of Manzanillo, located in close proximity to the headquarters of the rural guards.

The owner of the rice plantation made an unexpected visit to his property.  At the time Celia was a known and wanted fugitive.  The plantation owner discovered Celia’s whereabouts and demanded that she leave his property.

Celia responded that: “I’m not leaving.  You are leaving.”  This is an example of how Celia understood how to quickly and decisively deal with a potentially disastrous situation.  Had this plantation owner reported Celia to the authorities, this would have compromised both Celia and all the soldiers in her training center.  This might have also, in effect, sentenced the Cuban people to more years of despotic tyranny.

The government of Fulgencio Batista became obsessed with wiping out the rebel army.  Life became increasingly difficult in the cities for Celia and Frank País.  Eventually the government captured País and murdered him without a trial.  Sixty-thousand Cubans in Santiago came out for his funeral and literally closed down the city.

Eventually life became too dangerous for Celia in the city and she joined Fidel in the Sierra Maestra.  Here she would have a new life.  This meant marching for ten to twelve miles every day to avoid discovery by Batista’s armed forces.  At the end of these marches the rebel army might enter a town where they demonstrated how these soldiers were completely different from the rural guards.

In these rural towns conditions existed that were similar to conditions of rural towns in much of the underdeveloped world.  The United Nations estimated that every day about 30,000 children under the age of five die of preventable diseases.  One of the problems affecting these children is the lack of shoes.  Parasites enter the feet of children, who sustain bloated stomachs, and might die of dehydration caused by diarrhea.

Celia knew many of the people in these villages.  When she saw a child who needed medical attention she spoke with the parents and asked if a rebel doctor could treat their children.  She also asked if they wanted a rebel priest to preside over a wedding or a baptism.  We should keep in mind that many of the rebels were not religious.  She also participated in setting up schools, that, for the first time would teach the people of these towns how to read.

Here we see the core values of the revolutionary movement.  After the revolution, the government developed a health care system where there are more doctors per capita in Cuba than in any other nation in the world.  There are also probably more teachers per capita in Cuba than any other nation in the world.  Thousands of these doctors and teachers travel throughout the world to aid people who live lives that are similar to the lives of the Cuban campesinos before the revolution.

We might also compare this attitude to the reality in the United States.  Here patients need to have an insurance card just to receive care and the care patients receive is based on the kind of insurance they have.  This means that there is an epidemic of treatable and curable diseases in the U.S. because the health care system is based on profit.  In fact, the U.S. pays more for health care per person than any other nation in the world.  Yet, many working people go into astronomical debt just to obtain the medical treatment they need.

Eventually the Batista government used the support it received from the United States to launch an offensive of thousands of soldiers against the rebels in the mountains.  Celia was charged with making the area controlled by the July 26 movement self sustaining for an indefinite period of time.

She organized the building of a small town in the mountains that was covered by a canopy of trees that hid the town from enemy aircraft.  In this town there was a headquarters for Fidel, a hospital, as well as an administration center.  Celia also had flowers planted to add to the beauty of this town.

She also organized farmers to plant vegetables that would sustain the people living in the area.  She organized a mule train to transport needed supplies up the mountain that would not be detected by Batista’s army.    

The morale as well as the persistence of the revolutionary movement became too powerful for the Batista government.  Batista left the country and the July 26 movement took control of the government.

Celia Sánchez and the revolutionaries take power

One of Celia’s first acts as a government leader was to organize a plane to fly over the Sierra Maestra and drop toys for the children of the region.  Before the revolution, Celia organized to give toys to hundreds of children on the holidays.  As a leader of the government, she made sure that this tradition would be continued.                

The accomplishments of Celia Sánchez after the revolution are too numerous to mention in this review.  Nancy Stout reported that when Fidel Castro mentioned an idea that might benefit people, it was Celia who organized to make that idea a reality.

One of her accomplishments was organizing to make the Zapata Swamp an ecological and tourist center.  She organized the construction of the Coppelia Ice Cream Parlor that serves about 35,000 people every day.  She organized the building of the huge Lenin Park on the outskirts of Havana.  Even during the most difficult moments of the revolution, Celia organized an archives which gives documentation to the events of the Cuban revolution.   Celia and Fidel also took personal responsibility for several children who had been orphaned during the revolution.  Typically Celia worked 16 hour days to accomplish these and many other goals.

Celia also set up an office in Havana for people from the Sierra Maestra who were having difficulties.  This office gave these campesinos medical care.  The women received hairdos, facials, and manicures.  This office would also help people find jobs.  Some would be assigned to assist craft people who taught their crafts to those who carried on the trade.  This kind of treatment gave the people from the countryside a new outlook on life.

Celia Sánchez passed away in 1980.  Millions of Cubans paid their respects at her funeral.  Armando Hart, who is a leader of the Cuban government gave the speech commemorating her memory.  He called Celia Cuba’s most authentic wild flower.  He also said that she was Fidel Castro’s “alter ego”­­—his trusted compañera, his second self.                  

Celia Sánchez’ place in history

Today media pundits like to fantasize about how woman who are politicians like Hillary Clinton represent the ideals of woman’s liberation.  They also imagine that woman who are corporate officers advance the goals of all women.  However, the capitalist system requires low paid workers to sustain it’s profits.  Capitalist politicians and corporate officers who might be millionaires seek to maintain this system.  As a result, women typically receive wages that are about 75% of the wages of men.

Celia Sánchez dedicated her life to doing away with the system that exploits women.  When the United States invaded Cuba at the Playa Girón or Bay of Pigs, Celia Sanchez was the first government leader to go to the sight of combat.  While Celia organized the fight to defend the Cuban people, Washington organized to put in place the old style government.  This would have been a government of theft, rape, torture, and murder.

Understanding this story, told by Nancy Stout and others, gives us a sense of why the Cuban people loved Celia Sánchez.  Her life also demonstrates that there will be more women who are capable of carrying out similar struggles throughout the world.