Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967)
Joanna Drayton comes home unexpectedly to announce to her parents, publisher Matt (Spencer Tracy) and art gallery owner Christina (Katharine Hepburn) she’s getting married to John (Syndey Poitier). Joanna’s progressive parents have taught her race shouldn’t be a determinate in how you treat other people, but their theoretical posturing is put to the test when they realize their little girl is going to marry a black man.
In 1967, this was cutting edge, but now it seems dated. However, it remains important as a reminder there was a time when serious, fair-minded people had reservations about interracial relationships.
But I don’t love this movie because of its importance to the history of race relations in America, I love it because it’s the last film to feature Spencer Tracy who died less than a month after filming ended. You can sense his struggle with mortality in his performance; you can feel Katharine Hepburn’s pride and sadness. The pain of the two leads creates a beautiful film about dying and grief underneath the surface of this film about the travails of racism in late 1960s America.
The Snake Pit (1948)
Nearly seventy years later, this examination of mental health treatment is remains relevant; western society is still struggling with how to humanely treat the mentally ill and there’s still a significant stigma attached to those suffering from diseases of the mind.
This is a harrowing portrayal of a terrifying illness, and the greatest achievement of Hollywood legend Olivia de Havilland.
A Life in the Balance (1913)
When an unnamed landlord catches three Italian tenants making bombs and chases them away, the evil Italians conspire to murder his child in a ridiculously complicated plot. Fortunately, their plan is thwarted.
This film destroys the idea of a harmonious melting pot in early twentieth century America, and like most other films directed by Mack Sennett, it’s as subtle as Hans Moleman’s epic.
The Thin Man Goes Home (1945)
When famed married detectives Nick and Nora Charles (William Powell and Myrna Loy) visit his parents, they are unwillingly pulled into yet another caper in the fifth and penultimate film of the Thin Man series.
Just like every other detective series from Agatha Christie to Scooby Doo, you know Nick will solve the case. What sets these films apart are their wit, William Powell’s charm, his amazing chemistry with Myrna Loy, and the cute antics of their dog, Asta
Based on a series of novels by Dashiell Hammet, the Thin Man films are comedic versions of his Sam Spade novels. While not particularly riveting or exciting, it’s a pleasant way to spend an afternoon.
Richard III (1912)
For mostly economical reasons, traveling actor Frederick Warde filmed a version of Richard III and toured with it, delivering a brief introduction before each “performance.”
This film was long thought lost, but was discovered by a projectionist in 1996. At 55 minutes, it’s a condensed version of the play, but radiates with the vitality of its source material. This is one of Shakespeare’s most famous plays for a reason: its story of an amoral, power-obsessed man has echoed through the ages and its reverberations can still be felt in such recent popular characters as Walter White and Frank Underwood.
O.J.: Made in America (2016)
OJ is the ostensible focus and this seven hour documentary explores his life in detail, but the true subject is the history of American race relations in the aftermath of the Civil Rights Movement. Race has been the central paradox of American history. No country has been more succesful at racial integration, but few countries have had a more contentious racial history.
The story of Orenthal James Simpson is an effective vehicle to discuss many of our issues with race. The way some black men are coopted to demonstrate how tolerant others are. The way a significant number of black men view success and embracing one’s heritage as mutually exclusive, marrying white women to gain acceptance in white society. The way athletics has become the focal point for many African-American youths. The way celebrity and political power have intertwined in the television age. The long, tortured relationship between police and the African-American community.
The murders of Nicole and Ron were justified and glossed over by many of OJ’s defenders who argued his supposedly unfair treatment was bigger than their deaths. His defense team callously and cynically played the race card to advance their own agenda, justice and truth be damned. Over twenty years later, the trial remains a racial Rorschach test.
I don’t particularly like the other early ethnographic documentaries I’ve seen: Nanook of the North (1922) and Chang (1927). However, this film about the Bakhtiari tribe in present day Iran was insightful.
Directed by Meriann Cooper, who would go on to direct King Kong (1933), this is a fascinating look at how an ancient tribe of people survived into the early twentieth century. It’s a little heavy-handed and there’s a paternalistic “look at the backwards natives” vibe, but considering it was produced in the mid 1920s it’s fairly progressive.
Serial womanizer Alfie Elkins (Michael Caine) sleeps with numerous married women (including the wife of a friend he meets in a convalescent home). He has a child with a girlfriend, but refuses to marry her.
Later, he convinces one of his lovers to have an abortion to keep her husband from discovering their affair. This event traumatizes both of them.
Made and set during Swinging London, this film asks tough questions about identity and purpose in a value system which devalues fidelity, serving as an excellent deconstruction of the animating principles of the free love movement.