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About the Author
Although I consider myself equally Californian, Oregonian, Nevadan, and Mexican, I currently reside in Reno, “The Biggest Little City in the World!" I love watching and playing most sports (I played rugby in college) but since I’m an adult with bills to pay, I also work in surgery at a local hospital. I come from a big family; if you speak Spanish I’ll force you to be my friend to help me practice. Most importantly, I’m super excited to be a part of Backseat Directors!

ACTOR SPOTLIGHT: John David Washington

Before the release of Malcolm X (1992), Denzel Washington was already a rising star and an Oscar winner. Under the direction of Spike Lee, he would receive widespread acclaim and yet another nomination for portraying the famed activist and minister. Yet the film marked the genesis of another, unexpected career. In one of the final scenes of the film, young Black students in a Harlem classroom come to their feet and declare with resolve and reflection, “I am Malcolm X!” Lee invited Denzel’s oldest son, John David, to play one of the kids, and his parents agreed. Lee saw it as an opportunity to enhance the young boy’s resume, but even he couldn’t have anticipated that John David Washington would be fated to have a career as great as the film he debuted in.

Washington is the son of not one but two famous parents; his mother Pauletta Pearson Washington is also an actress and Juliard-trained pianist that has worked on Broadway as well as in film.  Acting appealed to Washington from a young age; he recalls being enchanted by his mother’s music and his father performing Shakespeare in the park [1]. But he also wanted something for himself, far from the impressive shadows of his successful and talented parents. He found that independence in playing football. Washington soon established himself as a talented running back in high school, an All-American recruited by several FBS colleges. His choice to attend and play for Morehouse College was unexpected, but he held the record there for career rushing yards for seven years. Upon graduation, he suited up as an undrafted free agent for the St. Louis Rams, but never made it to the field. Instead, he spent some time playing in the United Football League and overseas. While training for an attempted return to the NFL, all his athletic efforts ended with a pop; he had torn his Achilles tendon, and with it went his football dreams.

Despite the inherent dejection, the injury gave him the push to pursue his acting ambitions. His mother took him to his very first audition, while he was still on heavy painkillers from surgery and in a boot [2]. The get-up probably made an impression because after multiple, grueling auditions he landed the part in HBO’s Ballers (2015-2019) alongside Dwayne Johnson. Considering his background, playing the role of a controversial football star seemed tailor-made and Washington excelled. He continued his work in Indie films, starring in Love Beats Rhymes (2017), Monsters and Men (2018), and All Rise (2018). While filming The Old Man and the Gun (2018), he got a text from Spike Lee. The director invited him to read a book about the first black police officer in Colorado Springs, who also managed to infiltrate the Klu Klux Klan. When he finished the compelling narrative and came back to report, Spike said, “See you this summer” [3]. Just like that, within 3 years of making a career change, Washington had the leading role in a historical drama that was nominated for Best Picture, for which his performance was universally praised.

John David Washington in a scene of Christopher Nolan’s Tenet | Warner Bros. Pictures.

As if that weren’t impressive enough, Washington’s next gig was the lead in a Christopher Nolan movie alongside Robert Pattinson, Elizabeth Debicki, and Kenneth Branaugh. The mind-bending spy-thriller Tenet (2020) is now playing everywhere that theaters are open. It proves that Washington has what it takes to be an action star, as his athleticism enabled him to perform many of his own stunts. I think it’s also worth adding a seemingly small detail about his performance in a Hollywood where most movies steer away from actresses that are taller than their male costars. Debicki, who is 6’3” without heels, walks tall and brings her acting A-game while Washington holds his own with the confidence necessary to be her costar. That presence, along with his killer fight scenes, is going to make him an international household name.

He’s still young in the business, but Washington isn’t taking anything for granted. And now that he’s proven how well he stands on his own two feet, injuries and all, perhaps we can see a collaboration within the brilliant Washington family. It’s plain to see he inherited talent, but the success he can claim for himself. What we’ve seen suggests there’s much more ahead for the second-generation actor; will he claim an Oscar, suit up as a superhero, or portray a historical icon? Whatever the endeavor, John David Washington won’t be filling anyone’s shoes; he’ll be taking to red carpets in a pair all on his own.

Citations:

  1. The Untold Story of John David Washington
  2. Mahershala Ali & John David Washington – Actors on Actors
  3. Conversations with John David Washington of BLACKKKLANSMAN

REVIEW: The Personal History of David Copperfield

Searchlight Pictures
Rated: PG
Run Time: 119 minutes
Director: Armando Iannucci

If you’re wondering, this movie has nothing to do with a magician. It’s about the O.G. David Copperfield, a fictional character created by the one and only Charles Dickens from which the famed illusionist took his stage name. Finding inspiration in Dickens’ own story, The Personal History of David Copperfield (2020) details a young man’s personal struggles and the strong personalities in his 19th century lifetime. To attempt detailing the plot further would only create confusion or do the film disservice, but it’s definitely a period film with plenty of witty one-liners, poignant messages about misfortune, morality, and all the things you’d expect from a Dickens tale. It’s beautifully shot, creatively told, and peacefully thought-provoking. Though other films might be more ruminative of our time, ‘Copperfield‘ is cathartic and sweet, presenting an unflinching hope that though fortunes fall, they are fated to turn right again.

By far, the characters are the best part of the film. David (Def Patel) is blissfully awkward and earnest, Agnes Wickfield (Rosalind Eleazar) is the best friend everyone wishes they had, Mr. Dick (Hugh Laurie) is present and absent in all the right ways, and Aunt Betsey (Tilda Swinton) is the sweetest/sternest oddity around. The simple, homespun sense of Peggotty (Daisy May Cooper) and the contrasting cold of Jane Murdstone (Gwendoline Christie) are, in a word, perfect. The entire cast is just a skill-fest. It’s like the actors are all on the Great British Baking Show; technically they are all trying to outdo each other, but it’s just so friendly and fun and they are so busy celebrating each other that you forget it’s a competition. The film drew attention for its “color-blind” casting, for which there are a number of fair criticisms. For my part, I enjoyed a movie where race didn’t seem to matter; they were just brilliantly talented British actors absolutely killing their individual roles. There’s great beauty in a bunch of weirdos navigating a troubling life that could easily get the better of them. At one low point in the film for our characters, David tells Mr. Dick, “We must be cheerful,” at which point Mr. Dick nods in serious understanding and proceeds to put on a nervous smile that unsettles his fellow characters but sends ripples of laughter through any in the audience. 

Aneurin Barnard and Dev Patel in a scene of The Personal History of David Copperfield | Searchlight Pictures.

In the preface of his novel, Charles Dickens calls David Copperfield his “favorite child,” perhaps because much of the character’s life is taken from his own. It provided some light to him in difficult times of his life, and I feel that director Armando Iannucci strives to do the same with his film adaptation. ‘Copperfield‘ is a healthy dose of happiness amidst a year defined by illness. Its charming way of winking through worries makes you feel like it will all be okay, for them and for you. The movie takes a few liberties with the original novel, but I enjoyed the changes. It is still a timeless tale touching on homelessness, poverty, prison, struggle, and the beauty of imperfection. As David Copperfield comes to see his life differently as he writes about it, you can’t help but feel grateful, even cheerful, about your own.

It’s an easy film; I’ll definitely be adding it to my collection of period films perfect for rainy days and a good, clean laugh. Not many films make me wish I was sick, but this one had me yearning for a fever or a head cold, just so I could cuddle up with a fuzzy blanket. When it is digitally released in the fall, I will be sure to have my granny sweater and hot cocoa ready. That being said, it was a real joy to take my mom to see it in the theater. My only disappointment, though admittedly a severe one, was that only 4 people attended our showing. I wanted to look around and see rows of smiling faces all feeling the same warm fuzzies; instead, I just listened to the elderly couple a few rows down bicker about whether they should take the leftover popcorn home. While it isn’t a blockbuster or big-screen spectacle, ‘Copperfield‘ deserves to be seen, so see it any way that you feel comfortable. But go see it!

Recommendation: Go See It!

REVIEW: Unhinged

Solstice Studios
Rated: R
Run Time: 93 minutes
Director: Derrick Borte

Driving has an uncanny ability to unleash the worst in people. It’s the right combination of high-speed danger, intoxicating power, and an air of anonymity behind closed windows that turns normally reasonable people into foaming lunatics. If I’m Dr. Jekyll in normal life, then I’m Mr. Hyde behind the wheel. All it takes is for someone to not use their blinker, come too close to my lane, or go the speed limit for me to lose my mind or loose my insults. Occasionally, I’ll hear my parents’ voices in my head; first, my mom’s go-to reply to my angry outbursts: “Don’t say that; you don’t know what kind of day they are having.” Then, my dad’s reminder to drive defensively, as if everyone on the road was out to kill me. Both pieces of advice, however irritating, would go a long way towards preventing the events of Unhinged (2020) from happening in real life. The scariest part? To some extent, they already are.

Unhinged tells the story of a traffic encounter between Tom Cooper (Russell Crowe), a man whose troubles have him slowly eroding into murderous apathy, and Rachel Hunter (Caren Pistorius), a single Mom under heavy financial and familial stress. Tom zones out at a traffic light and Rachel honks at him angrily for not going when the light turns green (incidentally I did this on my way to the theater). Then, in the most relatable of awkward situations, the man she just cussed out pulls up alongside her at the next light. Their exchange provokes his wrath to the point where he pursues her the rest of the film. The encounters build in ferocity as Tom terrorizes without restraint and Rachel finds herself a victim of the worst road rage imaginable.

I feel that the movie did a great job of reflecting on the state of our society, exhibited blatantly by behavior in traffic. While it by no means condones or seeks to redeem the violence Tom inflicts on others, Unhinged provokes a frightening question; even if Rachel escapes Tom, how many people like him are out there? How far are we ourselves from becoming unhinged? Regardless of whether Rachel bests Tom or not, the environment that facilitates his rampage still exists, both in the film and outside the theater. My personal interest in this film came largely from the fact that my favorite actor was playing the villain. Though he won a Golden Globe last year for portraying Roger Ailes, he expressed hesitation for this role. Having seen the film, I can understand his concern; Tom is brutal, unrelenting, and out for blood. He doesn’t care if he’s caught, he just wants to cause some damage first. In one scene, he explained his disillusion with life and I totally bought it; though I did not empathize, his attempt at pathos was grounded in the reality of our societal condition without getting too preachy. The movie claims “he can happen to anyone” and supports this thesis outstandingly.

Russell Crowe appears in a scene of Unhinged | Solstice Studios.

Relatability is what made the movie for me. Situations that are most eating at our characters are every day in nature; finances, divorce, education, health expenses, living with family, and just trying to be on time for things. I almost feel that “stress”, while not as grabby as “unhinged”, is probably more descriptive of the film’s focus. People that encounter Tom and Rachel are for the most part checked out, disconnected, and uncompassionate. Carl Ellsworth penned the screenplays for fantastic thrillers like Disturbia (2007) and Red Eye (2005), and likewise created an effective and believable set-up that carried a well-earned intensity throughout Unhinged. But he is also responsible for three lines of dialogue that I found more annoying than my parents’ backseat driving. They really ruined the seriousness and thrill of this film for me. Other thrillers involving vehicular stalkers like Joy Ride (2001) have a healthy helping of cheesiness that enhances the intensity. For the most part, Unhinged was real and unflinching without any sign of letting off the gas pedal. So when it gets cheesy, it’s as jarring as a fender bender. That, along with an ending that made me feel like I was watching a government-sponsored-ad for safe driving, soured what should have soared.

In spite of my petty complaints, I’ve spent the weekend trying to convince people to come with me to see it again. What better compliment can you give a film? Occasionally timely and ultimately thrilling, I believe Unhinged is worth your time and just as intense as advertised. A rated-R road-rage thriller might not be everyone’s first choice, but if you can stomach the 90-minute ride, you’ll find yourself on the edge of your seat.

Recommendation: Go See It!

ACTOR SPOTLIGHT: Jamie Foxx

As a new comedian, Eric Marlon Bishop was making a name for himself in L.A. at open mic nights. His impressions and physical comedy would frequently draw standing ovations. However, his success was undercut by the comedians who controlled the set list; they weren’t interested in being upstaged by a newbie, so they’d keep an eye out for his name and keep him off the list. Bishop’s solution was to sign up with different stage names every time he performed, using gender-neutral names because he noticed that there were far fewer female comedians at open mic and they were more likely to get called up [1]. One of these aliases would become his identity in the entertainment world as he rose to A-list status not only in comedy but also in music and film. Now, everybody knows him as Jamie Foxx.

Bishop/Foxx was an eminently talented kid; not only was he a great student and the first quarterback at his high school to pass for over 1,000 yards, but at 15 he became the musical director for his Baptist church choir [2]. He attributes much of this to his grandparents, who raised him in a strict Christian household in Terrell, TX. Foxx credits his grandmother as being his first acting coach because she taught him to “act like you got some sense” and “act like you’ve been somewhere” [3]. But from a young age, Foxx was a class clown. His antics would get him in trouble, until a third-grade teacher decided to use his talents to her advantage. As a reward for good behavior, she would let Foxx tell jokes to the class on Fridays, mostly bits he picked up from watching Johnny Carson [4]. Even though he got a university scholarship for piano performance, Foxx left higher education to pursue comedy in L.A. and marked that departure with a new name.

Jamie Foxx as Ray Charles in the 2004 film, Ray. His performance won Foxx an Academy Award for Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role.

His gift for hilarity eventually enabled him to join the cast of In Living Color (1990-1994), a sketch comedy series that launched the careers of Jim Carrey and Jennifer Lopez. Foxx’s first movie role was soon to follow, making his debut alongside comedy legend Robin Williams in the movie Toys (1992). For his first few years, it seemed that comedy would define him; he was passed up for the role that won Cuba Gooding Jr. an Oscar in Jerry Maguire (1997) [5] and instead went on to play a character named Bunz in the much-maligned movie Booty Call (1997). His first dramatic role came as a struggling quarterback alongside Al Pacino in the sports drama Any Given Sunday (1999). Later he portrayed Drew Bundini Brown, trainer and cornerman in Ali (2001) with fellow comedian-turned-actor Will Smith in the titular role. He was critically praised for his performance as a day-dreaming taxi driver whose life derails when he picks up a hitman (played by Tom Cruise) in the thriller Collateral (2004). These, together with his talent for music and impersonations, laid the foundation for his critically-acclaimed role as Ray Charles in the biopic Ray (2004). His work won him the Oscar for Best Actor, not to mention the SAG, Critic’s Choice, BAFTA, and Golden Globe awards for the same category. Recently, he began work on a biopic for his friend Mike Tyson, with himself playing the much-debated boxer. The project is years in the making, but Foxx is already bulking up for the role, sharing his progress on Instagram.

From left to right: Ansel Elgort, Jamie Foxx, Eiza González, and Jon Hamm in a scene of Baby Driver (2017) | Sony Pictures Releasing.

Despite his accolades, his detractors often claim that Jamie Foxx plays himself in every movie he stars in. While I wouldn’t call him chameleonic, I will defend the depth he brings to his characters. While still maintaining aspects of his signature charm, Foxx manages to pull off a menacing criminal in Baby Driver (2017), a cynical sports reporter in Valentine’s Day (2010), a U.S. President in White House Down (2013), a homeless musician with schizophrenia in The Soloist (2009), an all-in Marine staff sergeant in Jarhead (2005), and an freed slave bent on revenge in Django Unchained (2012), among his aforementioned projects. When he plays a record executive in the movie Dreamgirls (2006), he flawlessly transitions from likeable chum to sleazy dirt-bag. Even if his persona never fully disappears, I feel that his storytelling abilities are undeniable. Despite his talent for impersonations, I can’t think of an actor/comedian/musician to compare him to; he is simply his own category.

RELATED:

Project Power‘ Movie Review

I’ve chosen to focus on Foxx’s film career, but his career in music is no less impressive, and he has a Grammy to prove it. But if you feel like a laugh, then I recommend you watch “Wheel of Musical Impressions with Jamie Foxx” [6]. I’m pretty sure Jimmy Fallon created the game with Foxx in mind, and I can almost guarantee it will make you laugh at least once. If you’re in the mood for more dramatic performances, Foxx recently starred in Just Mercy (2019) as the wrongfully-convicted Walter McMillian and Project Power (2020), which is now streaming on Netflix. Though I wonder if there’s anything he can’t do, I believe Foxx’s x-factor is not his talent, but his personality. His free time is spent throwing wild parties, playing celebrity basketball, and shooting the bull with those in the biz [7]. In almost every interview, whether he is a guest or the host, Foxx begins by complimenting the person sitting across from him on their recent work. Though he may not be doing stand-up, his comedic timing enables him to make memorable connection with both viewers and his peers. The day he wants to take over late-night television, all he has to do is say the word. For now, I’ll just look forward to his vocal talents in the upcoming Pixar film Soul (2020).

Citations:

  1. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h63FotmAN_c
  2. https://www.blackpast.org/african-american-history/foxx-jamie-1967/
  3. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y2a1nzAciMc
  4. https://therake.com/stories/icons/jamie-foxx-goes-off-script/
  5. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tWxB-T-KgFk
  6. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dGidYBqBHVw
  7. https://theundefeated.com/features/jamie-foxx-baby-driver/

REVIEW: The Tax Collector

RLJE Films
Rated: R
Run Time: 95 minutes
Director: David Ayer

As a kid, my dad took my brother and I to the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry (OMSI) to spend the night aboard a retired Navy submarine. OMSI had a great program to educate us about the science and history behind the machine, but I was most excited for us to plunge below the surface and take the submarine for a spin. Imagine my dismay when my dad confessed that submerging was not part of the deal; we spent the night parked safely afloat in the Willamette river, never to explore the possibilities of the hyped-up watercraft. Laying in my 17-inches of bunk, I was deeply disappointed in the shallows of my nautical escapade. The Tax Collector (2020) left me with a similar reaction.

The story follows David Cuevas (played by Bobby Soto), who in addition to being a devout Christian and involved father is an intimidating tax collector for a crime lord in South Central L.A. Watching him conduct brutal business amidst the family’s preparations for a quinceañera had me making connections to The Godfather (1972), as Cuevas is a man living two lives in two worlds he claims coexist. But both lives are threatened when an old enemy of Cuevas’ boss called Conejo (Jose Conejo Martin) comes to town and attempts a takeover. Like those he collects tax from, Cuevas learns that he has his own price to pay and attempts to settle the score before the screen fades to black. There are moments reminiscent of director David Ayer’s previous screenplays Training Day (2001) and End of Watch (2012), but they are lost amidst numerous bad investments in runtime.

The best part of the movie was the interplay between Cuevas and his partner Creeper (Shia LeBeouf), who attends his duty to “terrify the herd” with sick satisfaction and stone-cold stares. Despite his sadistic nature, Creeper is wholly devoted to his partner. When he tells Cuevas, “zI’ll ride with you ‘till the wheels fall off,” you believe him. The complexity of both characters is best shown when they are together; Creeper doesn’t believe in God but has consigned himself to hell, while Cuevas asserts that his own religious convictions and familial devotions allow him “to go into the darkness but come back into the light”. Creeper serves as a foil to Cuevas’ duality, a warning sign that having a foot in both worlds doesn’t work. This concept was fascinating, but it was forgotten as the plot progressed. Consequently, Cuevas ceased to be complicated or compelling. Instead of gripping action, you get a lot of gun-waving and threat-throwing that doesn’t really add to the story or help you care about the characters. The DNA is there, but it’s just sitting in a plain petri dish with no signs of life. A myriad of plot threads with little substance leads to an ending that comes up short, just like Cuevas’ count of the tax collections earlier in the movie.

Shia LaBeouf and Bobby Soto in a scene of The Tax Collector | RLJE Films.

The biggest problem for me was figuring out the overall story arc. I thought I was watching a critique of the toxic masculinity that keeps a steady death toll in L.A. neighborhoods, but instead the movie seemed to revel in it. The opening credits claim that gang culture is all about love, honor, loyalty, and family, and it seems to really believe it, expounding on it with heavy-handed dialogue. The relationship between the values that the gang preaches and the fruits of their labor form an interesting dichotomy, but any chance of deep exploration is overthrown by random stabs at shock factor. Like when the big baddie bathes in the blood of a young woman and sacrifices a chicken to the devil, or when the bullets start flying and the tally of revenge kills ramps up so fast you lose track. The good guy cries, seethes, and swears, but I was too emotionally checked out to care much.

There’s a part of me that feels defensive of the film because so many critics have condemned it with a mercilessness to match Creeper’s. I especially feel that the claims that The Tax Collector is racist and brownfacing are completely unwarranted. I so badly wanted this movie to be great, but alas it wasn’t so. The character of David Cuevas is described as “a candle in the darkness,” but this film feels more like a shadow of the greatness it could have been and what I wish it was. The great team of collaborators and top-notch trailer got me so excited for a movie that proved to be like my OMSI experience; I expected torpedos and got torpor instead. I can only hope that Ayer’s next venture makes the submarine seaworthy once more.

Recommendation: No Go

REVIEW: The Assistant

Bleecker Street
Rated: R
Run Time: 85 minutes
Director: Kitty Green

I love The Office. It’s dead-pan, documentary style is pure gold. It skillfully embraces the idea of a mind-numbing and even soul-sucking work environment, but does so in a way that finds the humor and even the joy in our 9-to-5s. When I hear the cheerful, cheesy intro, I can’t help but hum along as I watch the main cast go about their workday. In The Assistant (2020), filler scenes of mundane office life are about 87% of the 87-minute runtime. You just watch the main character, Jane, talk on the phone, stand in front of the microwave, smoke, sip coffee, and look overworked. She is basically Pam Beesly in the first season, right down to the pink turtleneck. If The Office had been a drama about Pam’s misery and Michael Scott was a male, predatory Miranda Priestly, then The Assistant would be the pilot episode. And it would never make it to television.

The Assistant premiered at the Telluride film festival in August 2019, then was distributed by Bleecker Street and released to a few U.S. theaters on January 31, 2020. It was just released to streaming on Hulu over the weekend. In that time, it’s developed an incredible disparity of opinion on Rotten Tomatoes; as of this article’s posted date, it holds a 92% approval rating from the critics and a 25% approval rating from the audience—that’s got to be a record or something. For my part, I side with the audience (yet another reason why I identify as a “Backseat Director” rather than “critic”). I’m sure there are subtleties that go unappreciated by my uneducated mind, and there will certainly be those that will advocate heavily for this film—but I couldn’t get past how boring this movie was. I think it speaks volumes that the most interesting part is a visit to human resources. The trailer and the cinematography would have you believe you are watching some sort of thriller, but the moments of build-up and unease lead to nothing. To say the movie is a slow burn is an understatement; I felt like I was waiting for a pot of water to boil, only to discover an hour-and-a-half later that the stove wasn’t even turned on.

Julia Garner in a scene of The Assistant | Bleecker Street.

The movie follows Jane, a relatively new hire at an unnamed production company, who’s working as a junior assistant. The movie takes place on a typical Monday, following her from the early hours of the morning and late into the night. She works hard but finds little joy in what she is able to accomplish. She’s been there five weeks, and she’s clearly miserable; in fact, she spends the whole movie with a facial expression that tells you this girl needs a new gig. In her day, there are various situations and happenings that make her uncomfortable and upset, and then the day ends, and the credits roll. Nothing is achieved, nothing is done, and nothing is different. It’s likely that the same kind of day Jane had on Monday will happen on Tuesday, and every day to follow. While workplace dramas that I adore like The Devil Wears Prada (2006) have rich characters and clear story arcs and a healthy sense of humor, The Assistant abandons any semblance of Hollywood escapism for a dull and grim reality. But this reality appears arcane in its portrayal of women in the workplace, and left me personally nonplussed.

The #MeToo movement is making an indelible mark on Hollywood, reflected in recent movies like Bombshell (2019) and the indefinitely delayed Promising Young Woman—but as a film, we deserve better than what The Assistant has to offer. The movie seeks to show the suffocating normalcy of sexual harassment and predatory behavior, but the monotony outweighs the misconduct. Even as a woman with her fair share of #MeToo experiences, I ask, “What’s the big deal?” I even found myself blaming the protagonist for her own misery, and that’s terrifying. My reaction alone proves the systemic nature of a problem that even victims have grown used to shrugging off. Unfortunately, I think the film will prove esoteric, which is ironic considering the movement is called “Me Too” and is supposed to represent half the planet’s population. I related more to Birds of Prey (2020) than this supposedly accurate depiction of workplace sexual harassment. My worry (and prediction) is that its subtlety will leave a great many asleep rather than woke.

Recommendation: SKIP IT

ACTOR SPOTLIGHT: Charlize Theron

I’ve always been interested in the stories of how movie stars are “found”; it always seems a perfect blend of hard work, sacrifice, and a little dumb luck. Charlize Theron’s moment came from inside of a bank in Los Angeles, where a teller had just refused to cash her check. Broke, far from home, and desperate to pay the rent, Theron found herself yelling at the bank teller, begging him to find a way. Prompted by her pleas, a man in line behind her offered his assistance, and eventually the check was cashed. [1] That man was John Crosby, a talent agent who helped her get connected in the industry and land a part in her very first movie, Children of the Corn III: Urban Harvest (1995).

Only a few months earlier, she’d been an 18-year-old looking down at her one-way ticket, worried that she was going to the wrong place because it said “Los Angeles” and not “Hollywood.” She hadn’t planned on being an actress; she came to New York from her native South Africa to study at the Joffrey Ballet and chase her dream of being a dancer, only to be told that said dream was no longer possible due to her persistent knee injuries. [2] But here she was, in a bona fide Hollywood picture! Her appearance was little more than a gross death scene where she’s mutilated by a Stephen King monster, but it was so important to her that she spent precious money on a brand-new pair of shoes for filming. Not only were her shoes ruined by the fake blood and muddy terrain of the corn field, but when she went to see the movie in theaters, she realized that her voice had been dubbed and she wasn’t listed in the credits. [3] It was clear that the interest was in her visage, but she didn’t want to be pigeon-holed because of her looks or her thick South African accent. She knew she could be more.

A side-by-side comparison of Charlize Theron: on the left, Theron poses with her Oscar for “Best Actress in a Leading Role” and on the right, Theron as Aileen Wuornos in Monster (2003) | Newmarket Films.

“Range” became the name of the game for Theron. Beginning in 1996, she appeared in at least two movies a year, everything from critically acclaimed dramas like The Cider House Rules (1999) to panned comedies like Waking up in Reno (2002). Even if the movies bombed, her stardom was on the rise. Then, she had a breakout year. First, she joined the popular caper The Italian Job (2003), which showcased her ability to hold her own in a star-studded cast. Then, she took the lead role in Monster (2003), a Patty Jenkins biopic about serial killer Aileen Wuornos, a mentally ill prostitute targeting former clients. She gained significant weight and shaved her eyebrows, disappearing in both features and physicality to morph into a different person altogether. Film critic Roger Ebert hailed her work as “one of the greatest performances in the history of the cinema.” [4] It made her the first South African to win an Oscar for acting and proved her versatility once and for all. No one would ever mistake her for just another pretty face again.

Theron continued to challenge herself with a myriad of characters: a victim of workplace sexual assault in North Country (2005), a police detective in In the Valley of Elah (2007), and an exhausted mother of three in Tully (2018). Her marketability has helped to fuel box office smashes like The Fate of the Furious (2017), Hancock (2008), and Snow White and the Huntsman (2012), and her comedic chops continue to surprise in A Million Ways to Die in the West (2014) and Long Shot (2019). The voice that wasn’t good enough for Children of the Corn was cast in Astro Boy (2009), Kubo and the Two Strings (2016), and The Addams Family (2019); she was able to showcase her transformative abilities yet again in Bombshell (2019), where she was unrecognizable as Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly. But perhaps her most well-known films are her action flicks. Despite Aeon Flux (2005) being a notorious flop that almost paralyzed her, [5] Theron returned to the genre with a vengeance in Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) as the now cultural icon Imperator Furiosa. She’s also had to learn fight choreography for Atomic Blonde (2017) and most recently The Old Guard (2020) (which is now available to stream on Netflix). And that’s less than half of her filmography from the past 25 years.

 

Charlize Theron in Atomic Blonde | Focus Features.

Despite her status in the upper echelon of acting and activism, I find the most compelling characteristic of Theron’s persona to be her relationship with her mother, Gerda. She is mentioned in almost every interview, appears as Theron’s date to award shows, and is constantly acknowledged as a co-parent in the raising of her two adopted grandchildren. She’s been there from the beginning: a cheerleader in Theron’s ballet classes, modeling gigs, and movie roles. But her daughter grew up with an unpredictable, alcoholic father—and Gerda was there when an incident of domestic violence resulted in Theron’s father’s death. [6] Theron was only 15 at the time, and firmly asserts that her mother’s actions saved her life. While some may point to such trauma as the fuel for what she has become, I think Theron’s success should not be attributed to tragedy. Hers is the kind of depth earned not only with experience, but also an inexhaustible work ethic and enthusiasm.

When I see Charlize Theron, I am reminded of the artist P!nk: the toughness and edge of someone who’s bigger than their problems, accompanied by the vulnerability necessary to talk about therapy, darkness, and heartache. She’s a renowned action star, so it might not be surprising to learn that she’s a UFC fan and can eat hot wings with levels of spice that nobody has any business trying to eat. [7] That commanding presence is evident on screen, and yet, there is a level of raw complexity in her performances that humanizes even the superhuman. Not everyone likes her tough exterior, her sarcastic sense of humor, or her candor, but in those traits I can’t help but see resilience and resolution to play a better hand than the one she was dealt. Rather than being intimidated, I choose to be inspired by the idea that we can live indefinable—despite trauma, struggle, and how others perceive us.

Citations:

  1. “Oprah Talks to Charlize Theron”
  2. Charlize Theron Biography
  3. “Theron’s Film Debut Pride Ruined By Dubbing”
  4. “The Warm Embrace of Charlize Theron”
  5. “Charlize Theron Has Seriously Damaged Her Body More Than Once During Filming”
  6. “Charlize Theron Details the Night Her Mother Shot and Killed Her Father: ‘I’m Not Ashamed'”
  7. First We Feast

DIRECTOR SPOTLIGHT: Spike Lee

Film director, Spike Lee.

My first memory of Spike Lee was following the 91st Academy Awards. Upon the announcement that Green Book (2017) had won Best Picture, the acclaimed director reportedly rose from his chair and angrily attempted to leave the Dolby Theater. It wasn’t uncommon for nominees to thinly veil their disappointment, but the idea that he would storm out because his movie didn’t win set me against the acclaimed director. As such, my first ever Spike Lee Joint was only two months ago when I finally got around to seeing the film he had so badly wanted to take home with the Best Picture honor: BlacKkKlansman (2017). Making my way through his filmography has convinced me that there is more to Lee than being a seemingly sore loser. So here is what I’ve learned about the man named Shelton Jackson Lee or (as his mother took to calling him) Spike.

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Spike Lee’s mother was a teacher of arts and Black literature. “She was the one who introduced me to film,” he says of Jacquelyn Shelton Lee. “My mother had the vision to introduce all her children to the arts…. but she never got to see my success” (1). She died during his sophomore year at Morehouse College. He would later continue his education with a Master’s in Film and Television from NYU, where he is currently a tenured professor. He has used his powerful storytelling to change the perspective on historical figures, as in Malcolm X (1992), or to tell criminally untold stories, as in BlacKkKlansman and most recently Da Five Bloods (2020). He cares for these stories as if they were his own, like many of his joints are. His filmography feels at times like a biography, as the experiences and places that formed him permeate his narratives: the innocence of childhood and maternal loss in Crooklyn (1994), the portrayal of social issues within the Black community in School Daze (1988), and the racial tensions and gentrification of Brooklyn in Do the Right Thing (1989). Lee makes his movies even more personal by starring in many of them himself. In fact, every member of his immediate family has participated in at least one of his projects; his father, a jazz musician, recorded the music for Lee’s first four films, including Mo’ Better Blues (1990). Spike Lee co-wrote Crooklyn with his siblings Cinqué and Joie, and his brother David has done the still-photography for almost all of Lee’s films.

Director Spike Lee on location for the filming of Do the Right Thing (1989).

For me, Spike Lee Joints stand out as unsatisfying—not in quality or content, but in terms of the feeling that sits in my gut when the credits roll. He doesn’t shy away from displaying brutality, violence, and overt racism (as a result all but two of Spike Lee’s films have an R-rating). But what sets him apart is his determination to deny any resolution to the discomfort. Lee creates this feeling of unease not only with subject matter and dialogue but also with camera angles and movements. His signatures are a double-dolly shot where characters appear to be floating, and the simple direction of having characters break the fourth wall; but they aren’t looking at the camera—they are looking at you. The implied sense of obligation or responsibility for what is going on, especially when the subject matter is so jarring, isn’t pleasant. It’s impossible to watch Lee’s films and feel that everything is hunky-dory in the world and that there is no need for outcry. It’s why his films have become the standard for education on the social issues at hand.

Common criticisms of Lee include that his work can be heavy-handed and transparently political, and I don’t think he would disagree. In an interview with Piers Morgan, he said, “I know I have a reputation, but I’m always being put in this position [where] I have to speak on race… on behalf of 45 million African Americans” (2). He takes that responsibility seriously. For one, the name of his production company is “40 Acres and a Mule Filmworks”, referring to what was promised by the federal government (but never given) to newly freed slaves following the end of the Civil War; a reminder of what Black Americans have suffered at the hand of systemic injustice. In almost every one of his films a character says, “Wake up!”, sometimes repeatedly and directly to the audience. He’s been openly critical of directors that he believes are misrepresenting Black people, including Clint Eastwood, Tyler Perry, and Quentin Tarantino. He felt that Do the Right Thing was passed over in favor of a more polite and comfortable narrative in Driving Miss Daisy (1989), which was showered with praise, even the Academy’s top prize. When asked about his apparent agitation over Green Book’s similar victory, Lee responded, “Every time somebody’s driving somebody, I lose” (3).

Director Spike Lee, actors Topher Grace and Adam Driver on the set of BlacKkKlansman, a Focus Features release. Credit: David Lee / Focus Features

Despite losing Best Picture and Best Director, Spike Lee did not go home empty-handed. He won his first non-honorary Oscar for BlacKkKlansman’s adapted screenplay. The announcement was made by Samuel L. Jackson, who got his start in Lee’s films and has starred in six of them to date. At the news, Lee bounded onto the stage in a bright purple suit and leapt into Jackson’s arms, wrapping all four limbs around his old friend’s frame for a good few seconds before finally making his way to the microphone. The speech was characteristic of Lee: reminding those present that their country was built on the enslavement of an entire race and the genocide of the Native American people. As a fully committed people-pleaser, it’s hard for me to relate to someone so trenchant and passionate in their viewpoint. Like his films, Lee’s voice abandons subtlety and favors outrightness and unflinching sophistication. It may not be easy to hear, but without such a bold and unrelenting voice, would we see things the way we do now?

Citations:

  1. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=18ZPB_SvsKk
  2. The Atlantic: Spike Lee Interview
  3. Washington Post: Spike Lee’s Reaction to ‘Green Book’ Win

Does ‘The Help’ Help Fight Racism?

The Help (2011) directed by Tate Taylor | Walt Disney Studios.

To commemorate our trip to the Final Four tournament, my college rugby team made a fairly impromptu music video featuring Michael Jackson’s “Black or White.” It comprised of us dancing and lip-syncing like goofballs, all the while actually believing that the color of our skin didn’t matter. We were sisters, teammates, and eventually national champions. Today, the video reflects fond memories I have with teammates of all colors and backgrounds. When I think of “race relations,” those sweet expressions of unity and friendship are the summary of my limited personal experience; but I know that for my Black brothers and sisters, this is not the case. The fictional character Aibileen recalls the wrongful death of her son, saying, “The anniversary of his death comes every year and I can’t breathe, but to y’all it’s just another day of Bridge.” It’s this disparity in perspective that is stirring me to educate myself and increase my own awareness of racial injustice in the country I love.

The movie The Help (2011) has received both warm praise and heavy criticism. While some heralded it as inspirational, others claimed it was whitewashed, watered-down, and even harmful in combating real racism. Even actress Viola Davis, who was nominated for multiple awards for her portrayal of the previously mentioned Aibileen, expressed her disappointment with the film’s inability to focus on the characters that comprise its title, going as far as to say she regretted starring in it. I agree with her; the movie would have been better had it played out as the stories of a dozen black maids, interweaving with each other to actually answer the question “What is it like to be a Black maid in the 60s?” Instead, it spends considerable time on Skeeter (played by Emma Stone), a young, White post-grad who has an awakening to the atrocity and hypocrisy of her culture. Some would attribute this oversight to the author of the novel on which the film is based, claiming that she was not the right person to tell the stories of black maids because she is White. I disagree with the logic but consent that the story was not sufficiently focused on those it claims to represent. In spite of that and its other flaws, I still think The Help is worth watching.

(From left to right) Octavia Spencer, Viola Davis and Emma Stone in a scene of The Help | Walt Disney Studios.

The reason I make that statement is this: the story is not about fighting racism or injustice. There are other and better depictions of what it takes to combat an uneven and dangerous playing field. What I love about The Help is how it iterates the nature of relationships that exist in defiance of social injustice and inequality before the law. The character Aibileen works in the homes of 17 children and helps to raise them, often speaking of how much she grows to love them. These bonds run deep, but they are eradicated and defiled by a system that dehumanizes a member of that family unit based on pigmentation. I feel like The Help is actually a story about developing trust sufficient to cross imaginary lines with too-horrible-to-imagine risks. The process of collecting the interviews of the help shows the importance of listening, even if you don’t like what you hear. It’s not a White woman playing savior to a Black woman; it’s Black women and White women learning to trust each other with the truth. The precious, familial bond portrayed in The Help reminds me of what is at stake if we allow injustice to continue. It proves that there is power in telling our stories, or at least sharing the stories that inspired or changed us. And it’s the only reason I’m sharing my limited perspective at all.

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I’m grateful for those critical of The Help because they offer insights that I could not see on my own, and that has shaped the way I watch the film today. But I think to discount the film completely is a mistake. There is value in stories about friendships and personal trust developed between individuals with diverse backgrounds; yes, it’s remedial and at times cheesy (it’s distributed by Disney, after all). Like Remember the Titans (2000), it sacrifices the gritty reality of the past for palatable victories in manageable conflicts. As far as education, it’s about as informative as my rugby team’s music video. But as long as it serves as an appetizer and not your one and only course, The Help can leave you with warm fuzzies and hope that things can get better; that despite differences we can actually come to understand each other and, together, work for real change. This is just one of the films that the team at Backseat Directors will be discussing; don’t let it be the only one you watch.

ACTOR SPOTLIGHT: Josh Gad

US actor Josh Gad poses on the red carpet as he arrives to attend the European premiere of the film Frozen 2 in London on November 17, 2019. (Photo by Niklas HALLE’N / AFP).

Before he graduated from Carnegie Mellon University, Josh Gad spent four years being roommates with a musical theater hopeful named Rory O’Malley, who became his close friend. A few years after graduation, both Gad and O’Malley were cast in a Broadway show called The Book of Mormon. It would go on to become one of the most successful musicals of all time and earned both roommates Tony nominations. O’Malley says of Gad, “I’ve certainly had faith in Josh…I always knew that he is a comedic genius and it was just a matter of time.” He added that Gad was a drama major and never in the musical theater program; he just sang on the side.

Though he got his start on Broadway, Josh Gad was born to be in Hollywood. He was actually born in Hollywood, Florida, the youngest of three brothers and raised by traditionally Jewish parents. Both of his older brothers became lawyers, but from a young age Gad knew he wanted to be an actor. As a kid in the 90’s, he was obsessed with Disney movies, his favorite of which was Aladdin (1992) because of Robin Williams’ performance as Genie. Little did he know that one day he would be a Broadway star living in the same building as Williams and get to meet him in person. Josh Gad himself is most famous for his own portrayal of a comedic Disney side-character: the loveable, magical snowman Olaf in Disney’s Frozen (2013) franchise. Apart from the success of the film and its effect on his career, Gad became the first actor ever to win two Annie Awards for Voice Acting, both for his portrayal as Olaf in Frozen and Frozen II (2019) respectively. The character even got its own float in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade and has appeared annually since 2017. He doesn’t let that go to his head though; he scored not one but two nominations for the Golden Raspberry Award for Worst Supporting Actor for performances in The Wedding Ringer (2015) and Pixels (2015). Ironically, he shares that accolade with none other than Robin Williams, who was also nominated twice in 1999. 

But even for someone that’s talented, trained, and motivated, finding success or even just work as an actor can feel impossible. A few years after graduating from Carnegie Mellon, Gad grew weary of rejection and decided he was going to quit and go to law school like his brothers. When he told his mother, he was shocked to hear her crying. “I’m disappointed with you,” he recalls her saying, “I’m disappointed because you’ve spent 15 years dreaming about doing something and only 3 years trying to live out that dream.” Gad credits that conversation with giving him the courage to fly out to New York and audition to replace a Tony-winner in a Broadway production called, “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee”. At the time, an episode of ER was his only professional acting credit, but he won the part.

Josh Gad sings in a scene of Beauty and the Beast | Walt Disney Studios.

It wasn’t too long after that that he exploded onto the scene as Elder Cunningham in The Book of Mormon, and then made seemingly seamless transitions into television and film. One of his breakout movies was Love and Other Drugs (2010), where he played an awkward but entertaining brother of Jake Gyllenhal’s character. From there, he’s been in comedies, murder mysteries, dramatic biopics, as well as a long list of voice-acting credits. He’s gotten to use his Broadway-level singing voice not only in Frozen but also in the live adaptation of Beauty and the Beast (2017) as LeFou and as Birdie in Central Park (an animated musical sitcom that just debuted on Apple TV+ and is getting great reviews). As for movies, you can catch him as Mulch Diggums in Artemis Fowl (2020), which just debuted streaming on June 12 via Disney+.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the work hasn’t stopped for Gad. For kids, the “At Home with Olaf” animated shorts are fun and entirely produced from home by Gad and the animators, but by far my favorite is his “Reunited Apart” Youtube series where he brings together casts from classic films via Zoom in order to raise money for charity. Recently he brought together the cast of The Lord of the Rings trilogy and I loved every second of it. Despite it all, he still finds time to go on daily walks with his kids and read them the Harry Potter books (complete with his multitude of character impersonations, of course). I’m glad he’s had time to be home with his family, because his stardom train has been going strong for some time, and I don’t anticipate him giving up the spotlight any time soon.

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