Archive for the ‘Comments on interesting movies’ Category

Living late into one’s fourth stage of life may be a blessing but it also means having outlived nearly all one’s friends, and in today’s mobile society, being an elderly stranger in a world of strangers. For me, the reality is not ideal but it’s all right. I am neither alone nor lonely, but still, when Lenore, the daughter of a dear friend from the past, remembering my involvement in India, reached out to me, I was pleased. It connected me to pleasant memories. (written of here) Even more pleasing was discovering that Lenore had grown up to become an artist and filmmaker and a passionate environmentalist with a particular passion for saving tigers in the wild, which led her to India.

She emailed me her video of experiences in two of India’s national tiger reserves, plus photographs taken along the way, one of which tells me definitely I will like her. The girls gather close to her, happy and smiling and having fun. Obviously, they and all the individuals shown in the film’s interviews feel they can trust Lenore and her instincts.

Click here for the video  People of the Wild Tiger. It is twenty-some minutes long, easy to watch, as I did, several times, and I was impressed. I was watching a movie in which the central character is an idea, a vision of ourselves as companions and custodians of other creatures in our environment, in this case of the tiger, an idea expressed first in a quotation from the Mahabarata, observed throughout the film in images and actions, and in the denouement expressed again in a most touching and tender connection between tiger and human.

Numbers stated in the video’s initial scenes are worth repeating in print. “Although thousands of tigers are kept in zoos, circuses and as pets, and more than 10,000 are held in cages in Chinese and other Asian tiger farms to be used in traditional medicines, across the world fewer than 3000 tigers live free and wild in their natural habitat.”

Lenore continues from there to tigers in India and into a culture quite different from her own. Change is under way, but until quite recently, the dominate assumption in her American culture, traceable back to Aristotle, has been that we, as humans, are superior to all creatures in nature and may rightfully use them for food, clothing, labor, amusement, whatever we please, as if we ourselves were not part of nature. (I wrote here of communication with animals.) She wrote, “The video features interviews with my contacts in the fields of conservation: naturalists, entrepreneurs and educators who are making heroic efforts to save these seriously endangered animals … I am captivated by the spiritual side of the project. The Indian people’s reverence for animals goes back to prehistoric times, and is very much intact today. Ancient religions are practiced by tribes, and India is also the birthplace of many nature-centered major religions: Buddhism, Hinduism, Sikhism, and Jainism, presenting celebrations almost every day.”

Lenore had been an eco-tourist in Morocco, Egypt, Jordan, Turkey, but the tour to India sparked her “new video mission,” and she became a traveler rather than a tourist, observing and learning without judging. Regarding her visit to Varanasi (Benares to me), kept brief because she saw no connection to the tiger, only temples for elephant and monkey gods, she emailed me, “I included some shots of Varanasi because I am so in love with the light (for photos), the wafting incense and sounds, and the feeling of ancient religions, mostly Hinduism.” She shows a typical narrow Benaresi street, funerary scenes on the ghats, and with people in the background, a pigeon bobbing about in the space in a wall where a stone should have been. As narrator, Lenore speaks of Mother Ganga, of the holy Ganges river dying from human waste and chemical pollution. Many hundreds of towns and cities along the Ganges’ banks pour raw sewage into the river and industries dump in all sorts of waste. Plastic junk collects in and covers the water. In 2014, a government ministry was formed and funds were allocated to have the Ganga clean by 2020, but there is failure at all levels of government. Funds go unused, long-term plans have not been developed and far, far from enough action has been taken.

Lenore’s visits in India took her first to Kerala during the harvest ceremonies, which includes on the fourth day the Pulik kali, a popular folk dance performed by men painted and costumed either as tigers or as hunters and (from what I read) they act out scenes such as a tiger preying on an animal or a tiger being shot in the tiger hunt, the ruling elite’s antique sport. The Puli Kali is great fun for all but it celebrates the past, not the concerns of environmentalists.

I remember tales of the fearsome Bengal Tiger from my childhood. And from an article published in 1924, American Brigadier General William Mitchell reports that tigers posed a major threat in central India, killing 352 people in the villages surrounding the Surguja district in 1923 alone. “Tigers have been known to cause whole districts to be evacuated,” he writes. “There is a record of one beast which so terrorized a community that 13 villages were evacuated and 250 square miles thrown out of cultivation. Another completely stopped work on a public road for many weeks, while it frequently happens that mail-carrying is suspended on account of tiger activities. … …  Tiger-hunting is regarded in India as a royal sport, and he who is successful in bagging this master of the jungle is looked upon as a public benefactor.”

Lenore’s first tiger reserve is in the Biligiriranganatha Swamy Temple Wildlife Sanctuary, the BRT Wildlife Sanctuary

Men on their way to hunt for honey

and she fell in there with people who take me back to my anthropological past. They are the Soliga, an ethnic group (under Indian law, a “tribe”) of some 20,000 persons who descend more directly than most other Indians from the original hunter-gatherer Out of Africa migration, c. 70,000 years ago, and are related genetically to the Australian aborigines. They are people who remained through the millennia isolated in their remote, densely forested mountainous area, living in small communities, practicing slash and burn agriculture with ragi, a type of millet, gathering foods from the land, practicing a religion of deities and spirits from nature. They lived peacefully, and except for exchanging items such as honey and bamboo with nearby villagers, probably for clothing and metal tools (the tool for grating coconut had to be a trade item), until 1972 remained essentially invisible to outsiders. It was in that year that the government designated their territory a wildlife preserve, and in 2011 a tiger reserve.

In 1974, members of the community were forced out of the reserve but more recently the government has reassessed Soliga rights to the land. They can no longer be evicted, they may cultivate crops, and they may collect, use and sell forest produce within the Sanctuary. How I would love to have been with Lenore, interviewing and observing. Over the years, working on health care projects in rural areas where development/modernization was happening, it seemed to me that the experts in charge of introducing change should have consulted more with the local people, the true experts on that environment. (I wrote of this for Bali)

The Soliga know their wildlife, which Lenore wonderfully captures in her filming, and they are able and willing to protect their tigers. Here for a note on the Soliga contribution to saving our biodiversity.  Included is the Soliga’s deep knowledge of controlled fire for preserving the forest.

In Lenore’s second tiger reserve, the Ranthambore National Park, she interviewed and filmed the Mogya, another “tribe,” a people who until recently lived isolated in the forests, only marginally in contact with nearby villagers.  A brief history — Before and during the British imperial era, the Ranthambore forest was owned and managed by the Maharajah of Jaipur and held by the Kingdom’s royalty as their private hunting ground (mostly for tigers), taxing the villagers for access to the forest. In 1953, the Rajasthan government acted to protect the forest and in 1955 declared the entire forest the Sawai Madhopur Sanctuary. In 1973, the government of India initiated Project Tiger and the Sanctuary was declared a tiger reserve area. In 1980, with the enlargement of the park, the farmers of more than 12 villages were shifted out of the Sanctuary.

The Mogya also lost their homeland. They had been semi-nomadic hunter-gatherers, practicing no farming of any sort. The men tracked and hunted hares, boars, other animals for food and during harvest time moved to the villages to guard the crops and people from wild animals, and perhaps, to work as laborers. After the park was established, the Mogya became totally displaced, living in poverty, without good housing, without schools, in poor health, involved in crimes to earn money, which included poaching tigers for a poaching mafia.

A Mogya man

Which takes me to Lenore’s interview with Divya Khandal. Divya and her husband, Dharmendra Khandal, are examples of India’s wonderful tradition of volunteers and volunteer organizations. She created a women’s cooperative craft enterprise, Dhonk, to teach the Mogya and the villagers, women and young men, job skills and to provide them and their families with an economic alternative both to poaching and to over-grazing. The workers have good pay and good working conditions and are encouraged to become partners in promoting sustainability and protecting the forests. Dhonk shares part of its profits with the Ranthambore NGO Tiger Watch.

Dharmendra is a conservation biologist and works with Tiger Watch. In 2003 he did a survey in Ranthambore park and discovered that more than 18 tigers were missing. Two years later a government study showed 22 tigers missing, so he talked with Mogya men for intelligence on poaching activities, which enabled the police to conduct raids on poachers, recovering guns, traps and tiger flesh, bones, paws, and also led to Tiger Watch funding Dharmendra’s plan for saving the tiger. He enlisted Mogya men who had worked with the poachers to help him and the police destroy the poaching criminal network, then reached out to the community with employment in the park for the men, employment in Dhonk for the women, schools for the children and health facilities for all the family. As a direct result, both a people and the tigers in the park are far safer than before.

The final scenes in Lenore’s video are beautiful.


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I enjoyed the movie for a number of reasons, one being the sheer pleasure of watching Meryl Streep recreate Julia Child. Streep gives us, brilliantly and authentically, the extraordinary Julia, the woman who in the 1960s and beyond became, through her cookbook and her TV presence, a beloved chef and teacher to America’s middle-class women. Her “… “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” … stands with a few other postwar touchstones — including Dr. Benjamin Spock’s “Baby and Child Care,” the Kinsey Report and Dr. Seuss’s “Cat in the Hat” — as a publication that fundamentally altered the way a basic human activity was perceived and pursued. … ”

And the movie reminded me of the years, in the 1960s, when Ravi and I and our children lived (with intervals in Somalia) as a college faculty family with a circle of friends like ourselves, doing normal middle-class family things together. (pictured and discussed here)    I recognize references to “The Joy of Cooking,” the basic cookbook for my American women friends, and before discovering French cuisine, for Julia as well. I had grown up a stranger to the kitchen, so in the mid-1950s, when Ravi and I moved from student housing into an apartment near the campus, I bought a cookbook for basic information, and while deciphering the mysteries of Ravi’s home food, duplicated my grandmother’s simple dishes. Cooking Indian meant locating exotic ingredients and much experimenting and practicing, plus considerable patience on the part of Ravi and the children, but by 1960 it had become standard in our home. The other wives in our social circle, all proud and wonderful cooks, took to watching Julia on day-time TV, hours when I was at the university, teaching, and my memories of her are from them, of their delight with her and her high, flighty voice, of them laughing about the way she brushed off her on-camera mistakes, like the flipped omelet that fell on the stove instead of back into the pan. Because of Julia, we all tried new foods and recipes. My children accepted eating artichokes, dipping the leaves into lemon-butter, just like French grown-ups do. However, one day I made a cassoulet and was furious when, after all that extra time and work, the outcome was simply baked beans tasting little different from any I had made previously. I stayed with my Indian cooking and discovering other ethnic dishes.

The movie gives us Julia in Paris with her remarkable husband, Paul Cushing Child, played to perfection by Stanley Tucci.  Robert Ebert, and a few other commentators, seem uncomfortable with both Julia’s husband and Julie’s husband playing supporting roles to strong-willed women. Another anomaly for Julia and Stanley was the difference in height. She stood 6’2” and he was considerably shorter. Nevertheless, they were well suited to one another. He was a talented and accomplished individual fully capable of living with and complementing Julia in her endeavors. He adored her, and for good reason; everyone was enthralled by her unique feminine style, one that ruled the scene while never challenging the social order of men’s dominance over women. She does show off a bit, though, while learning French cooking in the totally male environment at the Cordon Bleu, the famous and central institution for foodies everywhere. Her impressive accomplishments before marriage and her bored upper-class wifedom are described here, along with videos.

Julie is nicely portrayed by Amy Adams. Chris Messina plays Julie’s husband, believably supporting Julie as she finds her true self, then angry with the toll her obsession takes on him. As with most of the movies dealing with women in the workplace, children are nowhere in mind or in sight, (The Intern, here, is an exception) although it is established early-on in Julie  & Julia that Julia was deeply disappointed in not being able to have a child.

Julie & Julia is not a Chick Flick, not of the film genre in which women star and deal with the emotional aspects of life, particularly with love and romance. Someone invented a term for an equivalent genre, the Guy-cry film, in which most, often all, the characters are male and they dwell on concepts of brotherhood, sacrifice, loyalty, and family. I wonder, though, if Guy-cry movies are truly a genre. To me, guy movies are simply all the genres together — the Westerns, Film Noir, Science Fiction. etc., etc. (I wrote here on the Swashbuckler genre.)   They are movies made by men from a male perspective, one that women have generally accepted as the valid way to view reality.

If one’s image of our world were exclusively through movies and nothing else, one would think that at least three-quarters of all humans were male and that all females were either quite young or the mother of an adult male. I haven’t yet calculated the very low rates for non-European-descent males. In the January 8, 2018 New Yorker article on sexual harassment by Dana Goodyear, ”Letter from California, Can Hollywood change its ways?” Professor Stacy L. Smith concluded that of the speaking roles in Hollywood movies, 66.5% are male (even with a trend toward more women shown in professional roles) and 74.3% of the characters over age 40 are male. (Television dramas seem better balanced.) More than 70% of screenwriters and nearly 85% of the directors are men. Smith finds the number of women on-screen remains unchanged since the 1940s, and the industry’s culture behind the camera remains similar to its on-screen culture. I detect changes toward a more modern view of women, but she views the image of women perpetuated by Hollywood as marginalized and unimportant, and further, that this image is mirrored throughout top film markets across the globe. She notes that when women direct, their films become more representative of real life.

The writer, director and producer of Julie & Julia is Nora Ephron, an adventurous film maker who also wrote novels and was a skilled cook. Each chapter of “Heartburn,” her novel about the breakdown of her marriage to Carl Bernstein of Watergate exposé fame, contains a recipe. She would naturally be attracted to Julie Powell’s 2005 best-selling “Julie & Julia: 365 Days, 524 Recipes, 1 Tiny Apartment Kitchen,” subtitled, for its paperback edition, “My Year of Cooking Dangerously.”

Ephron uses Julie’s story to frame Julia’s story and bring it into the present. We have a contemporary young woman continually upset and ultimately disappointed with her work and career path turning for fulfillment and achievement to the master she so admires, still available to her in print and on television. Both stories are important. I especially appreciate the honor they pay to women in life’s most essential responsibility, that of preparing good food for the people we love (or maybe who just depend on us) and their defining the cook as a highly skilled craftsperson, occasionally as an artist. (I do wish more emphasis could be placed on cooking at home as a means of maintaining one’s health in this world of fast-food empty calories.)

There is a surprising, almost shocking moment in the movie. It is here for what, how and why it happened.




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I wrote months ago that I see modern society as being on the threshold of the most fundamental social change since the Agricultural Revolution some 12,000 years ago, a change brought on by a technology that became available in 1960. It was the Pill, the first ever reliable, safe, convenient, affordable contraceptive. The Pill, and more recent contraceptives, give women control over when/if to become pregnant and the consequences have been playing out since, for men, children, the family, the workplace and government. All this is too obvious and complicated for further comment from me. I’ve already spelled out my thinking here, and took it into account when viewing and then commenting on recent movies that center on a woman. There’s the woman in The Intern and the girls in The Whale Rider and Queen of Katwe. And we have a new interest in women, such as the three in Hidden Figure and Gertrude Bell in Queen of the Desert, who accomplished and succeeded without being subordinate to a man who is the primary actor.

I commented on Queen of the Desert and wrote that Werner Hertzog is not the Director for a movie based on Gertrude Bell’s life, that I found Shekhar Kapur much better suited to such an endeavor. However, after revisiting his Elizabeth and seeing his second Elizabeth movie I decided he would be only a little better than Hertzog. Do we have a director who understands Middle East history and politics and Gertrude Bell’s role in it well enough to make the movie? I do not have an answer to the question.

I watched Kapur’s Elizabeth in 1998

Elizabeth in coronation robes, by Nicholas Hilliard

and accepted his interpretation of Elizabeth as a young woman in love while she learned politics and power and finally decided on the sort of Queen her people needed. I am not a student of British history, and actually know little of it other than what is relevant to its colonial policies in America and India. It was Kapur’s story-telling that made the movie memorable. The one aspect I doubted was Elizabeth having sex with Robert Dudley and never getting pregnant. How could that be? And wouldn’t infertility be considered a problem? After all, the reason for a royal marriage was to produce an heir to the throne. Still, I suspended disbelief. I was blown away by Kapur’s operatic, high drama style and the amazing concept Elizabeth expresses in the final scenes where she creates her image of the Virgin Queen. I was not aware that Kapur knew almost nothing of the period in which the movie is set, and had admitted to his ignorance.

Reviewers of Elizabeth uniformly gave high praise to Cate Blanchett as Elizabeth and to the cast overall but they varied in their appreciation of Kapur’s interpretation and style of filming. Ebert is fairly positive on Kapur’s presentation of the period’s history and adds, approvingly, that Kapur …  “ … clothes Elizabeth, her court and her architecture in the colors and texture of medieval India. The film is largely set in vast, echoing halls, their pillars reaching up into the shadows. He is attentive to the rustle of dresses and the clank of armor, gives us a barge on the Thames like a houseboat on a lake in Kashmir. Action is glimpsed through iron filigree screens, dresses are rich with embroidery, hairstyles are ornately elaborated, and yet there is the feeling that just out of sight of these riches are the rats in the kitchen and the slop-pots in the halls. ”

From The Guardian’s review, “It’s tempting to suggest that if Shakespeare had come back four centuries later to make a movie about his Queen, this is how it might have turned out.”

Clearly, Kapur’s aesthetic turned off the NYTimes’ Janet Maslin.  “  ,,, (T)his Elizabeth is presented as a glamorously stressed out modern woman who must cope with a super-intense case of having it all. That the film’s Indian director … knew nothing about England’s Queen Elizabeth I when he undertook this lavish costume drama only helps to make his Elizabeth that much sassier a sovereign, slouching on her throne. His film concerns itself with elaborate appearances, anachronistically modern flourishes, Roman Catholic-Protestant intrigue, the difficulty of resolving career with personal life and the small matter of Elizabethan history, pretty much in that order.”

In the Britannia website, according to Kathryn Gillett, who studies Tudor history, “If you’re looking for a video to watch this spring, “Elizabeth” (nominated for an Oscar for Best Picture) might work as light entertainment. But keep in mind, this visually interesting, yet shadowy, portrait of the creation of Elizabeth I as The Virgin Queen is more fiction than history. … the movie goes out of its way to shock the audience with outrageous behavior that never would have happened. … … In fact, the woman who donned the English coronation robes in 1558 was a hardened and practiced politician who was not afraid of her power, and knew how to use it. She was raised in the reign of her father, Henry VIII, learning only too well how dangerous even a slight personal or political misstep could be. …”

I recently watched Kapur’s Elizabeth:The Golden Age (2007) on DVD, first as a movie and again with his fascinating commentary. In creating his mature Elizabeth, Kapur gave her a companion, an intimate friend who is much younger, very pretty and also named Elizabeth but called Bess. The implications are critical to the feminine aspect of Elizabeth’s persona. The other aspect is of Elizabeth as the monarch who ruled a nation that had broken from the Catholic Church, who ruled as a Protestant over both Protestant and Catholic subjects while being threatened by Catholic Kings in alliance with the Church in Rome. It is in the commentary that Kapur speaks of the film as operatic. He describes the marvelous buildings where he filmed and the colors of costumes to convey mood and of space to define a character. For example, scenes with Elizabeth and her women attendants are set in circular spaces and without walls (which means, I imagine, their feminine bond). He uses close-ups, which empowers the actors, then has the camera pull back, frame the scene through small, intricate spaces in the antique structures, and at times adds perspective from on high. For the wonderful locations where he filmed, check here.

I see no problem with the theatrical (movies are theatre) presentation of a character’s personality or action that diverges from historical fact, as long as it corresponds reasonably well with known history. Theatre presents a particular take on a story rooted in the culture, stories of love and romance, of family and friendship, of divisions in the society, of power and politics, reminding its viewers of the story’s cultural and personal significance and perhaps setting them to examining both from a new perspective. (A version of Romeo and Juliet. Today’s Hamilton on Broadway.) Every society has theatre. In pre-literate societies it was fables and myths. In ancient Greece, myths were enacted on a stage and the plays were preserved in writing. As colonies of the Roman Empire, Europeans inherited theatre and developed it into a major art form. I know a little of Chinese and Japanese traditional theatres. And puppet shows and dance in Indonesia. Movies are modern society’s popular theatre. Movies shape much of how most people understand history. Think, for example, of the images we have of World War II versus the Vietnam War. A good movie should present an accurate picture of the time and place in which the story is set, but viewers should also realize they are being told a story; they are not in a classroom being taught by scholars.

In this instance, Kapur’s Elizabeth movies stray too far from historical fact.  In fact, he seems to delight in ignoring history. In an interview with NPR he said, “I actually took what they called ‘The Virgin Queen’ and showed her in bed with a man. I quite enjoyed doing what I did, much to the initial regret of a lot of British historians, who said she was a virgin. And I said, ‘Prove it.’ ”

Carole Levine has an excellent article, “Elizabeth: Romantic Film Heroine or Sixteenth-Century Queen?” on movies and history. She compares the film with reality and begins with “Presenting history on film in a way that is both historically accurate and dramatically satisfying can be a difficult task. Last year’s Elizabeth, directed by Shekhar Kapur and starring Cate Blanchett, is the most recent attempt to dramatize the life of one of history’s most interesting characters. Sometimes dramatic films must sacrifice historical accuracy to present the greater “truth” about a person or a time period or simply to make a satisfying story. Shakespeare’s own history plays were filled with inaccuracies but are great drama, and Kenneth Branagh’s version of Henry V beautifully recreates medieval politics and the horrors of war while presenting wonderful character development. Henry V works as both modern film and historical drama. Elizabeth, all too often, does not.”

Another quote from the article — “The script appears most responsible for the film’s failings.” Michael Hirst was the screenwriter for both Elizabeth movies, as well as for an award-winning television series, The Tudors. What went wrong?

Levine ends her lengthy and informative article with — “Beautifully photographed, with an impressive cast, the film Elizabeth can be compelling to watch but felt like a missed opportunity. I wish the script had done a better job of presenting a highly complex and fascinating queen. If seeing the film makes the audience want to learn more about the 16th-century Queen Elizabeth, however, it will still have served a good purpose.”

The Wikipedia article on Elizabeth, the Golden Age, gives us the movie’s plot, and recognizing that the film’s history of the era is heavily fictionalized, provides a list of the characters and events with particularly informative comments on each.  Additionally, it has a discussion titled Claims of anti-Catholicism. “The film depicts an important episode in the violent struggle between the Protestant Reformation and the Counter-Reformation that polarised European politics.” The article lists claims of anti-Catholicism from newspapers, men of the Church and one historian, followed by Kapur’s response: “I would describe all history as fiction and interpretation … [A]sk any Catholic and they’ll give you a totally different aspect of history … History has always been an interpretation … I do believe that civilisations that don’t learn from history are civilisations that are doomed to make the same mistakes again and again, which is why this film starts with the idea of fundamentalism against tolerance. It’s not Catholic against Protestant; it’s a very fundamental form of Catholicism. It was the time of the Spanish Inquisition and against a woman whose half of her population was Protestant, half was Catholic. And there were enough bigots in her Protestant Parliament to say, “Just kill them all”, and she was constantly saying no. She was constantly on the side of tolerance. So you interpret history to tell the story that is relevant to us now”.

Ebert and other movie reviewers considered Kapur’s style over-the-top on this second Elizabeth.  The Guardian completely pans Elizabeth:the Golden Age, in effect calling it ridiculous. A few reviewers claim the movie is biased against the Catholic Church. From another Wikipedia Kapur quote  – “My interpretation of Elizabeth is an interpretation of greater tolerance [than King Philip of Spain], which is absolutely true. It’s completely true that she had this kind of feminine energy. It’s a conflict between Philip, who had no ability to encompass diversity or contradiction, and Elizabeth who had the feminine ability to do that.”

I do not know if women really are more able than men to encompass diversity or contradiction, but psychological research into male and female management styles in organizations did show that the women were more democratic, encouraging participation, and the men were more autocratic, directing performance. Kapur never questions a woman’s ability to lead. He views women as full sexual beings who can also participate fully in public life. I wonder, given the two movies, if he thinks a woman who becomes a mother can still perform equally in a public role, one outside the family?

Whatever the faults of his Elizabeth movies, Kapur’s sense of theatre caught my imagination. I enjoyed both movies and will try to locate his The Bandit Queen (1994) to watch. I expect that, it being on an Indian woman in Indian society, he hews closer to what, in fact, actually happened to her and what she actually did.

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Although reviewers of Queen of the Desert were less than enthusiastic about the movie, I watched it through to the end, annoyed at several points, but always engaged. After all, this is a biopic, a film genera often weak in story-telling, but the woman being pictured was an extraordinary individual who played a significant role in shaping the world we live in.

From Angelica Jade Bastien – “… Despite the rich biographical material of the real-life woman on which this is based and the skill of the filmmakers involved, Queen of the Desert ends up being an emotionally empty, thematically ill-defined, and listless affair. It is never able to communicate the complexity of the woman at its center. … … International upheaval, as viewed from the intimate vantage point of a historical figure as enchanting and modern feeling as Gertrude Bell, gives the filmmakers a variety of avenues to explore. But instead of hinging the emotional through-line on her ambition, proto-feminist leanings, or what made her so well-suited to navigating the tribal conflicts, the film focuses on the most prosaic aspect of this fascinating woman: her love life. …”

In his review, Peter Debruge praises Nicole Kidman’s performance, but another reviewer remarks on the fact that Kidman was in her mid-40s but had nothing done to change her appearance when playing Gertrude Bell as not yet 20 years old, then as Bell in her thirties and forties living out in the hot dry desert air that ages the skin. Still, Kidman does a reasonably effective portrayal of Bell’s personality. The movie does not take us into the years of Bell’s most important and relevant endeavors, when she was in her fifties working with a King in his mid-thirties, at a time when her health was poor. She died at age 58.

The movie’s photography is good, with impressive views of the desert and vast stretches of sand in Morocco and/or Jordon, substituting for Iraq and Syria where the action really took place. The film’s market scenes are probably from Morocco. Gertrude and Henry, the man she loves, (played by James Franco) climb around in the attractive ruins of ancient buildings, most likely in Morocco, but otherwise I remember seeing only one bit of traditional architecture.

Caravanserai interior

Traveling across the desert, Bell and her caravan stopped at walled compounds that may have been, or were intended to be, caravanserais, establishments at one-day caravan journey intervals, usually with an inn, a small mosque, a stable and facilities for the camels and horses.  One stunning view in the movie is of Bell on horseback, riding along a river that flows through a deep mountain canyon, probably in Jordan.

This colorful four-minute video from PBS is a good introduction to Gertrude Bell.

I highly recommend this article, a review of books about Gertrude Bell. The title is The Queen of the Quagmire.

Gertrude Bell was extraordinarily talented, privileged, from a wealthy and well-connected family, adored and indulged by her father and stepmother. Her grandfather was Sir Isaac Lowthian Bell, a member of Parliament who had worked alongside Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli. She attended the best schools and was the first woman at Oxford to win First-Class Honors in history. In 1892, age 24, on a long visit in Tehran with her uncle, the British Minister/Ambassador to the Persian state, she became fluent in Persian and two years later published a book on Persia. During the next decade she traveled and famously climbed mountains in Switzerland. In late 1899, she traveled to Jerusalem and began studying Arabic. She also took photographs that reflect her interest in and respect for the people she encountered. I think this photo is hers.

In 1900, on a trip from Jerusalem to Damascus, Bell went on horseback through hostile country to Petra, and without permission from the Turkish authorities, into the country of a fierce people, the mountain Druze of southwest Syria. The experience is dramatized in the movie. The reigning Druze chief, who had been a student in Paris, received her as his guest and they discussed French poetry, in French. The Druze faith is a sect of Isma’ili Shia Islam. (I wrote here about Ismaili origins.)

In 1901, a months-long trek across Greater Syria resulted in Bell’s classic “The Desert and the Sown,” a book that includes her photographs and vividly describes towns, cities and the vast deserts of Arabia.

In 1902 Bell and her brother went touring by steamship and railways to British India and continued on to Mandalay in Burma, Pinang in Malaysia, Singapore, the Dutch colonial centers in Java, to South Korea, Japan and to Canada. She recorded their travels in photographs she took along the way. The last photo is from Quebec and is dated July 1903. I will return later to her numerous, interesting and informative photographs of places I have known and written about. An archive of the photographs she collected is also available on-line.

In 1905, Bell explored Anatolia as an archeologist and published her observations in a series of articles in the Revue Archéologique. In 1907, she worked in central Turkey with a well-known archaeologist and New Testament scholar. Their excavations in Binbirkilise were chronicled in  “A Thousand and One Churches.”

Bell and Lawrence

In 1910, Bell met T.E. Lawrence, a young Oxford graduate with honors in history. She was visiting an archeological site on the western bank of the river Euphrates, just south of the Syrian-Turkish border, where he was at work, being trained in archeology. This encounter and their friendship is in the movie.


The movie has a sequence that particularly intrigued me, one that took place in Hail city (or Hi’il) in which Bell tricks her way into the palace of the Emir. (The Barzan Palace in Ha’il was later destroyed by the Al-Sauds) She was again on a trek across the desert, this one a spying mission for the British to determine the military organization and strength of the Emirate of Jabal Shammar, based in Hi’il, Emirate of The House of Rashīd, against their formidable enemies, the House of Saud, rulers of the Emirate of Nejd. She enters the palace, discovers the Emir is away and is trapped there, held by the women of the harem until he returns. She acquires the needed information from the women, along the way having her hands painted with henna. When presented at last to the Emir, she cleverly wins her release and reports to the British that they should back the Al-Sauds. Ibn Saud won final victory over the Rashidis in 1921, making him the ruler of most of central Arabia. (Enlarge the map to locate Hi’il, the Rashids, and Riyadh, the Saudis.)

In 1914, at the outbreak of the war, unable to join the colonial service for the Middle East, Bell volunteered with the Red Cross in France. In 1915, however, both she and Lawrence were summoned to Cairo to serve in the Arab Bureau. In 1916, they sent her to Basra, ancient port city on the Persian Gulf, captured in 1914 by British forces because, as Winston Churchill knew, that is where the oil fields are. She was to advise Chief Political Officer Percy Cox, whom she had met in India when he was a young army officer serving as the colonial administrator to a Princely State south of Bombay. Among her duties was drawing maps to help the British army reach Baghdad. She was the only female political officer in the British forces.

A good map helps make sense of a situation, and these are great maps. Maps 4 through 8 are directly relevant here.

This is an excellent and readable article for facts and analysis of Gertrude Bell.

I can imagine the film that should have been made of Gertrude Bell, one that could honorably accompany Lawrence of Arabia. The movie would be centered on Gertrude Bell’s role in virtually creating modern Iraq.

Gertrude Bell with Faisal

She drafted the Iraqi borders, conferred with and persuaded its reluctant tribal chiefs to join the new country, worked with and assisted the thirty-five-year-old Prince Faisal to become King Faisal. (in Queen of the Desert played by Younes Bouab) It was not always an easy relationship, but as her influence waned, he continued with her, helping her set up Iraq’s archeological museum.

Gertrude with Haji Naji, farmer and friend

She was intent on keeping the people’s historical treasures for them rather than being shipped off to Europe. She also helped establish the national library and a school for girls. She loved Arabia; she wanted to live out her life in her Baghdad home and gardens. She died there from an over-dose of sleeping pills. The movie I envision would include flashbacks into her youth, into the adventures and accomplishments that prepared her for the Iraq years, including why she never married. After all, she did have two, maybe three, romantic episodes in her life. She was an attractive woman, and despite her strong will, quite feminine.

A possible plot and script for the movie are clearly embedded in this article by Chris Calder, based on “Desert Queen: The Extraordinary Life of Gertrude Bell, Adventurer, Advisor to Kings, Ally of Lawrence of Arabia,” by Janet Wallach, Random House, 1996.

I recommend, as well, this article by O’Briend Browne – “Creating Chaos: Lawrence of Arabia and the 1916 Arab Revolt.” Reading it, I at last have a reasonably clear picture of the battles in Lawrence of Arabia. I quote from it below.

Geraldine Bell’s King Faisal is T. E. Lawrence’s Prince Faisal, a friend to both. (the composite picture is from here.) In 1916, Bell was sent from Cairo to Basra; Lawrence was sent to the Hejaz as a liaison officer to advise the Arab troops who would play a vital role in the Allied victory over the Ottoman Empire in World War I. It was to the Arab Revolt of 1916–1918, initiated in Mecca by Hussein bin Ali, Sharif of Mecca, with the aim of securing independence from the Ottoman Empire and creating a single unified Arab state. He and his four sons engaged in the fighting were Hashemites, of the lineage who ruled Mecca from the 10th century until its conquest by the House of Saud in 1924. “As Lawrence later wrote in his remarkable account of the campaign, Seven Pillars of Wisdom, “I found Abdulla too clever, Ali too clean, Zeid too cool.” Then he met the 31-year-old Feisal, who was “the leader with the necessary fire.” It was the beginning of a long friendship based on trust, warmth, and a shared vision to lead the revolt into Syria. Assigned as Feisal’s liaison officer, Lawrence would blossom into an intrepid guerrilla fighter, operational tactician, and strategic visionary. So closely did he empathize with the Arabs that Feisal soon presented him with the silken robes of a Bedouin leader, which had the advantage of being more comfortable than a British uniform for camel riding and desert fighting.”

In Lawrence of Arabia (1962) Alec Guiness, at age 48, played Prince Faisal. Compare his appearance and demeanor in the movie with the photograph and actual history of Faisal. Guiness was too old for the part. (and his interpretations of men in other cultures has always annoyed me.) The real Faisal was a young leader in the fight for independence. He had led men into battle, participated in the disastrous setting up of a government for Damascus. At the Paris Peace Conference in 1919, “ … Feisal, Lawrence, and Arab leaders … expect(ed) to enjoy the fruits of their sacrifices and feats. Instead, Feisal discovered his name had been omitted from the official list of delegates. But in meetings and speeches he made his presence felt. “The Arabs have long enough suffered under foreign domination,” Feisal proclaimed, resplendent in robes of white silk and gold. “The hour has at last struck when we are to come into our own again.” President Wilson, meeting the Arab leader, said, “Listening to the emir, I think to hear the voice of liberty.”

Werner Hertzog is not the director for a movie on Gertrude Bell. Remembering Shekhar Kapur’s  Elizabeth from 1998, on Queen Elizabeth, I thought he might be the better director for a movie on a woman like Bell. I had read the negative reviews of Kapur’s 2007 film, Elizabeth: the Golden Age, and was positively impressed with his defense of the way he conceptualized the history and the conflict depicted in the movie. Having since watched the second Elizabeth and revisited the 1998 Elizabeth, I’ve reconsidered. My recent views on this are expressed in the next post.


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I took the above title from this review.

This movie critic considers Queen of Katwe “irresistible” and “… if there is anyone out there capable of remaining unmoved by this true-life triumph-of-the-underdog sports story, I don’t think I want to meet that person.” I agree.

I loved Phiona, the girl who, while hauling water and hawking maize to help feed her family, continually thinks about strategies in her chess game and who goes on to win at chess tournaments and become the pride of her neighborhood, and eventually of Uganda,. She recounts, here, how in 2005, at the age of nine, she discovered the Sports Outreach Ministry Chess Academy. “I lost my dad when I was three years old. After my dad died, we had nothing. My mum had no job. We didn’t even have food. At the age of 6, I dropped out of school because my mum didn’t have money to pay my school fees, … even rent money and we were chased out of our house and started sleeping on the streets. … we didn’t have enough to eat. My brother came and told me about the chess programme and that after every game, they get a meal … So I followed him … I was always hungry … I got porridge. That was the day I discovered chess.”

Phiona is played in the movie by Madina Nalwanga, a fourteen year old girl from another poor neighborhood of Kampala, found by a casting director in a community dance class. Like Phiona, Nalwanga grew up struggling to help her family pay for basic things, like education. She sold maize in the market. When Lupita Nyong’o, who plays the mother, asked Madina to take her and the cast to the market, Madina taught them how to buy ingredients for a typical Ugandan meal and how to cook it.

I loved all the chess-playing children, loved the teacher who sustains them and loved Phiona’s fierce, courageous mother.

If the teacher were not based on a real person with a known record, one would think him an idealist invented to advance the plot, but he is Robert Katende, Founder and Director of the SOM Chess Academy, a Civil Engineer trained in IT and computers, as well as being skilled in soccer and other sports. He is an extraordinary human being beautifully portrayed by  David Oyelowo in an extraordinary performance. Katende’s wife should be honored as well. She is a talented and dedicated teacher, quite heroic in supporting her husband in every way so he could turn down a well-paid job as an engineer to work for the church and stay with his chess-playing children. I like the way he uses the Mission’s battered old bus to take the children to fancy private schools for the chess competitions, the bus becoming another character in the story.

Katwe is a market and residential area of Kampala, Uganda’s capital. Reviewers call Katwe a slum.  I dislike that word. I prefer to describe Katwe as a teeming, crowded area lacking proper urban infrastructure, where mostly poor but decent people lived. Clearly, some individuals took advantage of others but I saw no evidence of organized crime, or even petty theft. On the other hand, there is no evidence, either, that Katwe is a community with neighborly women friends or children playing together. When Phiona’s mother could no longer pay the rent and lost the simple, rude shelter she had for her children, no one came to help her. The only advice she heard was to get herself a man to take care of her – in exchange, of course, for sex, maybe housekeeping services. But without marriage. She had been married, been a wife and mother in a stable family, then left a widow when her husband, the children’s father, died of AIDS. Phiona’s older sister slipped into the Katwe mode for a woman to survive. Phiona feared this happening to her.

Mira Nair, the Director, filmed in the streets and the markets of Katwe and in the building that Katende had secured for the chess academy and that the children had helped clean and maintain. Surrounding the market area were huge stacked bundles of firewood to be sold as fuel for cooking. Nearby a man sold the easier to use but more expensive charcoal. Over 94 percent of Ugandans use wood fuel or charcoal for cooking. I thought of the consequences for the environment. In many developing countries women collect firewood from already fallen branches or from bushes and small trees (here for an exception in India). It does not threaten the forests, but for how long can it be available to meet the needs of a growing urban population. Electricity is unlikely to be available soon. LPgas and kerosene are unaffordable. Charcoal is the alternative and, unfortunately, it is made from mature trees, causing deforestation in Uganda, as in many countries worldwide. At the present rate of tree loss, this beautiful country will lose all its forests within one generation, by 2050. Here for an optimistic statement for Uganda, here for the issue of charcoal more broadly stated, and here for a more realistic picture in Uganda.

Mira Nair lived in Kampala for years. Her son was born in the hospital where Phiona’s brother is taken after an accident that actually happened, and he was treated as shown in the movie. Nair is obviously fond of Kampala. She knows the society well enough to show how middle-class women cruise in their cars through Katwe, often sit stalled in a traffic jam, car windows down, interacting with local vendors and bold, active children. Katende and his wife live in a middle-class house in what seems to be a middle-class neighborhood within walking distance of Katwe. We see children in uniforms going to school and Katende’s wife teaches in a school but who runs the schools is not explained. Nair arranged to have scenes filmed on the shore of the magnificent Lake Victoria.

In real life, Phiona Mutesi, with the support from her chess accomplishments, later returned to school in Kampala, in private schools, and is now attending Northwest University in Kirkland, Washington, U.S. A friend from Uganda arrived with her, joining the small school where students dream of it becoming a chess powerhouse.  Check here and here for statistics on Ugandan education by age and gender, on health service and other matters.

I like these interviews for the insight they give us into the actors and into life in Uganda. Mira Nair chose her music with care and sensitivity to the meaning of the film. The video by Alicia Keys at the end of the article is an example of that. It is also here and is followed by the marvelous video of the movie’s song and dance, #1 Spice, that includes Mira Nair’s son. In one scene we see a woman running through the market stacks of firewood.

I end with a consideration of Uganda’s fundamental problem, its overpopulation and population growth. I could see it plainly illustrated in the movie, in watching Phiona’s mother and her older sister. (Here for a readable statement with statistics for 2008.)

Uganda’s current population growth rate is 3.28 %, compared with 1.2%, the world average. It is overwhelming this once-rich land of the Buganda Kingdom. In 1962, when Uganda became an independent country, the population was somewhere around 7,000,000 and the median age was 17 years. The current population size is approaching 44,000,000. Half of Ugandans are sixteen years of age and younger. Uganda’s median age is the lowest in the world. By 2040, in less than a generation, the population will have doubled.

Despite the reality of more children than a family or a nation can afford, virtually nothing is being done to make contraceptives accessible and affordable to women. The government has no commitment to family planning and may, in fact, be encouraging high birth rates; President Yoweri Museveni has called the nation’s population explosion a “great resource.” I read that 20 percent of married women in Uganda have access to contraception but can only guess how they get it. The churches will aid in providing education but not, it seems, in the other equally important investment for empowering women. I suspect that a basic reason why men in Katwe resist marriage is because it means continually having babies they cannot support.

A useful statistic for judging development in a country is the Total Fertility Rate, roughly, the average number of children born per woman of child-bearing age. The U.N. has Uganda’s TFR for 2016 at 5.4, down from 6.9 only five years ago.  (The CIA has 5.8 as the 2016 estimate.)  Life expectancy has recently increased, to about 60 years, some months more for women, a few less for men.

Experience shows that the TFR goes down as countries urbanize. The marginal cost of another child is much higher in a city apartment than it is on the farm. Uganda is still largely a rural country. 16.8 % of the population is urban. The 2016 national TFR may have been 5.4, but that year’s urban TFR is estimated at 4.0 while for the rural population, the remaining 83.2%, the rate was 5.9. Rural folk are more likely to have fewer schools, fewer modern facilities such as electricity, less access to modern medical care, lower incomes, etc., etc. Traditional belief systems continue, and in Uganda they seriously work against women having fewer births. Here for a study of the effects on a woman in rural life from patriarchy, polygamy, her role in the joint family, her lack of education about biology, her lack of information about and access to modern contraceptives, and more.

I searched on-line to learn about the social class of those boys in the fancy private school and found this — they come from a very small and very wealthy elite. Uganda is like no other country — potentially very prosperous but with a two-century history of colonialism, warfare, terrible corruption and dysfunctional governments it now struggles to overcome.

The 2016 Poverty Assessment here gives information for placing Phiona in Ugandan society. Her life was not unusual for city children. In 2006, 53 percent of Ugandans lived on $1.90 PPP (Purchasing Power Parity) per day. By 2013, 35 percent remained at that level. (I assume 18 percent had a somewhat higher income.) The number of people in extreme poverty declined but was still nearly 20 percent of the population. Uganda is mostly rural; being poor on the farm is more easily managed than the same income in the city but being urban means better access to schools and other positive aspects of modern life. Unfortunately, the government had made no significant improvements in sanitation, safe water, access to clean energy, or in quality education or health care. Through her talent and the goodwill of Robert Katende and his wife, Phiona miraculously escaped. From the article quoted above, she said, “I want to become a lawyer. I want to be a lawyer for kids because when I look at kids in Uganda, especially those in the slums, there is no one to speak on their behalf.” She says with emphasis: “That’s what I would like to do..be a Children’s rights lawyer.”


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I was so absorbed in the Hidden Figures story, so in awe of the women’s accomplishments that I needed to know if it were true, if based on real people and actual events. If so, a movie showing three women’s critical contributions to NASA during the Space Race in the 1960s, nearly sixty years ago, fits into a theme I’ve been following. Like the movies in my last two blog posts, Hidden Figures presents a new and modern perspective on women, on accepting women in roles previously held almost exclusively by men, on a woman being something and someone other than a mother, a wife, daughter, sister, or an essentially feminine, female presence. Until recently, movies made in Hollywood and elsewhere, with few exceptions, defined women, even strong women, in relation to a man. If the woman were employed, it was in a job considered appropriate for a woman, as a secretary, nurse, librarian, primary school teacher. The women in Hidden Figures are scientists and engineers working at the cutting edge of technology; only in recent years is the public prepared to hear their story and give them the respect they deserve.

Included in this excellent review of the movie is an idea for another such movie. In the late 1800s “ … the Harvard College Observatory employed a group of women who collected, studied, and cataloged thousands of images of stars on glass plates. As chronicled in Dava Sobel’s book The Glass Universe, these women were every bit as capable as men despite toiling under less-than-favorable conditions. Williamina Fleming, for instance, classified over 10,000 stars using a scheme she created and was the first to recognize the existence of white dwarfs. While working six-day weeks at a job demanding “a large capacity for tedium,” they were still expected to uphold societal norms of being a good wife and mother.” I and little girls of previous generations were told that scientists are always men because boys are naturally good at math and girls are not and everyone knows that this is true.

The movie Hidden Figures is based on Margot Lee Shetterly’s non-fiction book Hidden Figures: The Story of the African-American Women Who Helped Win the Space Race (2016). She was born in Hampton, Virginia, where mathematician Katherine Johnson, (played by Taraji P. Henson), engineer Mary Jackson (by Janelle Monáe) and supervisor/computer expert Dorothy Vaughan (by Octavia Spencer) lived and where the NASA-Langley Research Center is located. Shetterly’s father was a research scientist in NASA and her mother, a professor in Hampton University. Shetterly is Black and knows the Hampton community from the inside.

How faithful is the movie to reality? From Richard Brody’s review in the NYTimes for the racial situation —   “ … the movie is aptly and thoroughly derisive toward the discriminatory laws and practices that prevailed at the time. The insults and indignities that black residents of Virginia, and black employees of NASA, unremittingly endured are integral to the drama. …”   The first scene of the three women together shows them on a country road, their car stalled, the hood open and Dorothy underneath the engine, trying to fix it. “ … A police cruiser approaches. They tense up; Dorothy says, ‘No crime in a broken-down car,’ and Mary responds, ‘No crime being Negro, neither.’ Their fearful interaction with the officer—a white man, of course, with a billy club in hand and a condescending bearing—is resolved with a comedic moment brought about by the women’s deferential irony. What emerges, however, is nothing less than an instance in a reign of terror. …”

The movie’s historical accuracy is discussed here.  The scene where Harrison smashes the Colored Ladies Room sign did not happen. In real life Katherine refused to walk the extra distance to use the colored bathroom and, in her words, “just went to the White one.” Harrison letting her into Mission Control to witness the launch was added. Screenwriter Theodore Melfi said he saw no problem with the changes he made; the movie representations are essentially true in showing the racism that Black women dealt with every day. Because of Virginia’s segregation laws, African American “computers,” as the women mathematicians were called, had to work in a separate “colored” building at the Langley Research Center. Not mentioned in the movie — The White women “computers” were provided with special housing, while the Black women were left to find their own accommodations. An interview with Katherine Johnson is here, in a video. She’s an attractive person. She says, “I didn’t feel any segregation. I knew it was there, but I didn’t feel it.”

Johnson’s calm self-confidence is impressive, as is that of Mary and Dorothy. I wondered where it came from and decided to look into the personal history of each of the three and learn something of the community and culture that shaped her. To quote James Baldwin: “History is not the past. It is the present. We carry our history with us. We are our history.”

While working at NASA, the three women were living in Hampton, in the city’s Black middle-class community. And what a history the city has.

It dates from 1607, when Captain Christopher Newport and his men, having sailed from London, landed at Old Point Comfort, later Fort Monroe, on the southeastern end of the Virginia Peninsula, and claimed it for the colony of Virginia. They continued sailing up the James River and established Jamestown, America’s first English colonial settlement. A few years later, Virginia colonials returned to Old Point Comfort, took over the Native American community on the Hampton River and established their own town on the site.

The Thirteen Colonies

We know from a letter written in 1619 by John Rolfe, widower of Pocahontas, that some 20 Africans from Angola had been rescued at Old Point Comfort from a slave ship. They were the first Africans to come ashore on English-occupied land in the future United States. The child of one couple, Antoney and Isabella, was baptized in 1624 in Hampton’s Anglican Church. At that time in that place, the Africans were considered indentured servants but the slave trade, mostly of Black slaves from the Caribbean, made slaves easily available in the colonies. In the North they lived in towns and worked as domestic servants, as artisans, sailors, longshoremen. In Virginia, the two Carolinas, and Georgia, in the South, where the weather was warm and wet and suitable for growing profitable cash crops, slaves worked on plantations growing tobacco, rice and indigo. In South Carolina, from the early 1700s to the mid-1800s, slaves outnumbered free Whites. Not insignificantly, South Carolina had in 1696 adopted the first full-scale slave code in British North America, modeled on the British colonial Barbados slave code of 1661 that came from the Caribbean, from island estates where White men ran plantations with African slaves who did the nasty, hard work of growing and processing sugar to be sold in Europe. In the northern colonies many colonists began to call for the abolition of slavery. They objected to slavery on moral grounds and, except for New England slave traders, it was not important to their economy. Nevertheless, after the American Revolution, 1775–1783, as a concession to the four Southern colonies, to keep them in the Union, the northern colonies agreed to the U.S. Constitution acknowledging, in coded language, the institution of slavery.

Wherever the plantation and whatever the crop being grown, plantation and slavery — dehumanizing, repressive, violent slavery — went hand in hand. In the 19th century, after the 1784 invention of a machine, the cotton gin, that removed seeds from the plant’s fiber, throughout the South cotton plantations grew in number and in size, becoming enormously profitable producing an easily storable and transportable raw material for the equally profitable textile factories of England and New England.

Ruins of Hampton, 1862

The American Civil War, from 1861 to 1865, a war over the future of slavery in America, set the circumstances for the city of Hampton and Fort Monroe to play a unique role in the conflict. Most of Virginia became part of the Southern Confederate States of America, seceding from the United States, but Fort Monroe remained in Union hands, part of the North. Confederate-owned slaves, to gain their freedom, escaped to the Union fort and were protected there in the Grand Contraband Camp, America’s first self-contained African-American community. In 1861, Confederate troops burned Hampton as they left in defeat but after the war the Black people who stayed and lived there revived the city. A number of modern-day Hampton streets still carry the names from that community. In 2010, 49.6% of Hampton’s population was African-American.

Emancipation Oak, Hampton

Mary Jackson, who had grown up in Hampton, attended Hampton University, a special university with a special history. In November 1861, Mary Smith Peake, the first Black teacher of the American Missionary Association (AMA), taught the children of Black freedmen who were living in the contraband camp. Until a building was provided for her, she held class under an oak tree for up to 50 children and at night for some 20 adults. In 1863, the Black community gathered under the Emancipation Oak to hear the first Southern reading of President Abraham Lincoln‘s Emancipation Proclamation.

Hampton Institute, 1899 class in mathematical geography

Hampton University grew out of the Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute, later Hampton Institute, established in 1868 by the AMA and the post-civil war government’s Freedmen Bureau. It is one of the historically black colleges and universities and, as well, a land grant university. The latter were institutions of higher learning benefiting from a 19th century federal program that enabled state governments to use federal land and other resources to support such colleges. Booker T. Washington was one of Hampton Institute’s first students.

Mary Jackson graduated in 1942 with degrees in Math and Physical Sciences from Hampton Institute and taught math in a Black high school in Maryland before returning home to positions as receptionist, bookkeeper and secretary, all within Hampton’s Black community. In 1951, she joined the NASA-Langley Research Center, reporting to supervisor Dorothy Vaughan’s computer group, and two years later was selected by a leading engineer to work on designing an advanced wind tunnel, which lead her to fight the segregated educational system and take the graduate level math and physics courses required for her to continue on the job as an engineer. In 1979, having hit the glass ceiling for the center’s female professionals, she moved into management as Langley’s Federal Women’s Program Manager, hiring and promoting the next generation of NASA’s female mathematicians, engineers and scientists.

Dorothy Vaughan was born in 1910 and grew up in a West Virginia town, in a state that was formed in 1861, after the American Civil War had begun. Counties on the northwestern side of Virginia broke away, separating from the Confederacy to stay in the Union and in the North, where they shared a border with Pennsylvania and Ohio. West Virginia on the west had coal mines for steam engines, of interest to northern railway building, and to the east mountain country suited to small family farms, not to plantations that were more like running a business that made slave holding profitable. The new state’s constitution provided for the gradual abolition of slavery and for “free colored children” to be provided with schools. African Americans were free but White prejudice and segregation continued. I wrote an essay here, on the movie Race and on Jesse Owens, the famous Black Olympics champion from Ohio. He was Dorothy Vaughan’s age. His history is relevant to this discussion.

The West Virginia state government required that schools be provided for all children but the town where Dorothy lived, Morgantown, at the Pennsylvania border, provided Black children with only part-time schooling and not in a public school building. Instead, classes were held in the St. Paul’s African Methodist Episcopal Church. In 2010, only 4% of the town’s population was African-American, and in the 1910s and ‘20s the Black community may also have been that small. The very talented Dorothy graduated from high school at age 15 and and was moved by her family to Ohio, where she attended, on full scholarship, the historic Black Wilberforce University.

I thought it curious that an African American university would be situated in an Ohio town. The search for an explanation of why and how became an education in my country’s history.

Ohio joined the Union in 1803 as a free state, i.e. no slavery. The town was named for William Wilberforce, a statesman in England who worked for the abolition of slavery and the end of the slave trade in the United Kingdom and its empire. The Wilberforce townspeople were small farmers and tradesmen most of whom, most likely, were members of the Methodist Episcopal Church (MEC), the organization that helped establish Wilberforce College.

The Methodist Episcopal Church began in the Thirteen Colonies in the 1760s, as an extension of the Methodist church being created in England by John Wesley, a priest in the Church of England who was organizing the common people largely neglected by the Church hierarchy. I once asked an English Methodist pastor about his church and the first thing he thought to tell me was of the early Methodists going into the factories and teaching workers to read and write, at the time an illegal activity. The Methodists in this break-off church were the poor but also shopkeepers, craftsmen, workers and small farmers, the sort of people who would immigrate to the New World. They respected hard work, honesty, virtue and repudiated upper class values and lifestyles. Their strong anti-slavery beliefs and actions were based on moral principles but also on the fact that cheap and docile slave labor undercut employment and decent wages for free men. They welcomed slaves as allies and members of their congregation.

By 1800, Methodism was expanding into the region around Cincinnati, Ohio, which includes Wilberforce, and by 1807, the first Methodist church had been built in Cincinnati. African American freedmen were members of the church but lacking equal status with Whites in the congregation, in 1816 a group left the Methodist Episcopal Church to establish the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME). In the 1820s, the MEC began in a number of the states to build colleges for their membership, and in 1865, to provide classical education and teacher training for Black youth, the Ohio Conference of the MEC and the AME founded Wilberforce College. Both Black and White community leaders were on the college Board. The school was later bought by the AME, the first college to be owned and operated by African Americans. It has an interesting history, described here.

Wilberforce was a station on the Underground Railroad, a network of secret routes and safe houses established in the United States during the early 19th century until the Civil War. It was used by slaves to escape the plantations into free states and Canada with the aid of abolitionists and allies who were sympathetic to their cause.

Dorothy graduated from college at age nineteen, in 1929, hoping to continue her education at Howard University, the highly ranked historically Black university in Washington, D.C., but the Great Depression set in and she needed to find a job. How she came to teaching math in a poor Black school in the middle of Virginia, I never discovered. I did learn, however, something new about the ground-breaking 1954 Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education. In 1896, the Supreme Court had ruled in Plessy v. Ferguson that the segregation of races in public facilities was constitutional if the separate facilities were equal. In the 1954 decision the Court ruled that separate cannot be equal and public school system must desegregate.

I discovered that the students of the school where Vaughan taught for ten or more years, the Robert Russa Moton High School, had played a critical role in bringing about the 1954 decision. In 1951, 16 year-old Barbara Johns organized the students to protest the unfair treatment of education for Black students and the NAACP convinced the parents to protest through the courts. Moton High provided three-fourths of the plaintiffs in Brown vs. Board of Education. The school building is now a National Historic Landmark and a civil rights museum. The school was named for Robert Russa Moton from the Hampton Institute.

In 1943 Dorothy moved with her husband and children to Newport News, a city on the James River north of Hampton. It was during World War II and NACA, based in Hampton, had need of mathematicians. She soon rose to supervisor of the Black women “computers,” prepared them and the White “computers” to work the machine computers by teaching herself and her staff Fortran. She later headed the programming section of the Analysis and Computation Division (ACD) at Langley. All this while also raising her six children.

Katherine Johnson was born in 1918 in a small but wealthy West Virginia town near Virginia. Her curiosity and extraordinary math talent was evident at an early age, and because the town had only a primary school for Black children, her parents took her to a high school on the campus of West Virginia State College, which was, like Hampton Institute, a Black land grant college that attracted the top professors of the day, including the sociologist W. E. B. Du Bois. Her Black professors tutored her and arranged for her to receive a level of education in mathematics not ordinarily available to highly talented Black students, or perhaps to many students anywhere. She graduated from high school at age 14 and at age 18 from college, with high honors in mathematics and French, followed by teaching in Black high schools.

In 1939, a few years after Katherine graduated, West Virginia State College became the first of six historically Black colleges to be authorized by the Civil Aeronautics Authority to establish an aviation program, a program that graduated a number of the Black aviators in the World War II U.S. Army Air Corps. Others joined the famed 99th Fighter Squadron and 332nd Fighter Group (the Tuskegee Airmen) that served with distinction in the European TheaterRose Agnes Rolls Cousins was the first African American woman to become a solo pilot in the Civilian Pilot Training Program.

Following Brown v. Board of Education, West Virginia State College desegregated and was transformed from an all-Black land grant college to one with mostly White students.

After graduation, Katherine taught in Black high schools. When West Virginia decided, in 1939, to integrate its graduate schools, she and two young men were the first Black students to be offered places in West Virginia University, in Morgantown. She resigned from her teaching job and enrolled in the graduate math program. At the end of the first semester, however, she left school to have a child, then returned to teaching when her three daughters were older. In 1952, having learned of positions opening in NACA for Black women, Katherine and the family moved to Newport News for her to take advantage of the opportunity. Her husband died of cancer in 1956. In the movie, she is shown raising her daughters with the help of, I think, her mother and the beginning of her marriage to James A. Johnson, who had been a Second Lieutenant in the Army.

On September 22, 2017, the 99-year-old Katherine Johnson cut the ribbon for the Katherine G Johnson Computational Research Facility at the Langley research center in Hampton, Virginia, where she was honored as a trailblazing “human computer.”

It felt good seeing Katherine Johnson so honored and knowing that she and Mary Jackson and Dorothy Vaughan are being honored by the movie and the book on which it is based.


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My previous post is a commentary on Their Finest, a pleasant-to-watch, true-to-the-period movie of people making a movie in London, set in the period of Britain’s entry into the Second World War, centered on a woman finding herself as a professional screenwriter. In A Woman in Berlin, also set in WWII, we see women coping with total destruction and destitution at war’s end. It is a grim but powerful movie. I saw it over a year ago and can still recall many of the scenes and images. From Roger Ebert’s review – The central character, a woman known as Anonyma, “… is played by Nina Hoss, who …. has emerged as a strong, confident actress with innate star quality.” And from A.O. Scott in the New York Times’ review — “ … Ms. Hoss, whose strong frame and graceful bearing suggest both old-style movie-star glamour and Aryan ideals of feminine beauty, is an actress of haunting subtlety, and the film, episodic, ambitious and a few beats too long, is held together by the force of her performance. …” I was too engrossed throughout to think it too long.

It strikes me that both movies, both made in the 2000s, one British and the other German, share a modern perspective on their women characters and implicitly on women’s status in society. Until recently, movies from Hollywood and elsewhere, with few exceptions, defined women, even strong women, in relation to a man or holding a position, such as nurse, librarian, primary school teacher considered a woman’s job. In Their Finest women are shown using the circumstances available to them during the war to become independent, self-reliant, autonomous individuals who move out into the working world, defining themselves in terms of their skills and accomplishments. Reviewers wrote that in real life many women at the time, in the mid-1940s, believed the effect would be permanent, but I was a teenager then and remember no such talk. When peace and prosperity returned, women not only returned to their traditional roles, they forgot their wartime independence. For example, an American woman I knew who successfully held a high level government position in Washington during the war was replaced at war’s end by three young, inexperienced men, each of whom received a beginning salary higher than what she was ever paid. When she told me this I was incensed, but she was not; she thought it perfectly normal. She went on to open a small shop and became a successful businesswoman, then married and willingly closed the shop to become a proper housewife. This was America, and my experience has been that European women tended to be even less independent-minded. Victoria, in her comment on such matters, here, would agree with me. Her comment is at the end of my essay on women’s roles throughout history, which would begin to change in 1960, when we at last had The Pill, a reliable, affordable contraceptive. (Victoria’s delightful blog is The Franco-American Flophouse.)

The woman at the center of A Woman in Berlin is based on a real person, a journalist who kept a diary at the end of World War II when the Red Army took over Berlin. She recorded the systematic rape of German women, including herself, by Russian soldiers and how she and other women, always on the edge of starvation, used sex and their wits in dealing with the men to obtain food, some degree of safety, simply to survive. She published, anonymously, her diary as a book. From The Guardian – “ … When the diary that provided the source material for “A Woman in Berlin” was first published in Germany in 1959, it was attacked in print and quickly pushed aside. In West Germany patriarchal attitudes defining male sexual violence as a matter of female honor made the frankness of the diary seem brazen and shameful, while in the East (East Germany) criticism of the heroic Soviet liberators was forbidden.   The sexual depredations of the victorious Red Army in Germany at the end of World War II were hardly secret at the time, certainly not to the women who suffered them. But the systematic rape of German women by Russian soldiers was nonetheless shrouded in silence for decades. …”

The author records … the world actually in front of her eyes, and here no detail escapes her — the stench of buildings where Russians have defecated wherever it suited them, the eerie silence of a whole city hunkering down, the behavior of her neighbors, often petty even in crisis. She has written, in short, a work of literature, rich in character and perception. It is dispiriting that shame or fear of social ostracism caused her to hide behind the label Anonymous (her fiancé left her when he heard about the rapes), but even anonymously she has given us something that transcends shame and fear: the ability to see war as its victims see it. …”

From Roger Ebert “ … What little I know about war suggests that sometimes it comes down to a choice between two dismaying courses of action. Some people would rather die than lose their honor. Most people would rather not die, particularly if their deaths would not change anything. Why is a woman’s sexuality her honor? A man using sex as an instrument to survive would not be shamed. ”

In 2003 the diary was republished, still controversial but in the time of the women’s movement and after the collapse of Communism. It was a best seller.  And thus, finally, a movie was made that tells what actually happened and respects the women who survived the terror inflicted upon them.

There are other signs in cinema that the revolution in women’s status is happening everywhere, throughout the world. I enjoyed Whale Rider. It is a well-acted, beautifully filmed, authentic story of a Māori girl seeking to play a role in her community traditionally held only by a male. Her grandfather opposes her at every turn but a number of modern-minded men and boys actively assist her. Modern means including women in traditional men’s roles if that mode suits them, freeing boys and men from taking on traditional roles that do not suit them and giving individuals the opportunity to be themselves. The movie was made in 2002, a coproduction between New Zealand and Germany, directed by Niki Caro, based on the novel of the same name by Witi Ihimaera. It stars the wonderful actor Keisha Castle-Hughes as Kahu Paikea Apirana, a twelve-year-old Maori girl.

Here for a preview.  I learned something about film directing from this analysis of various scenes.


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