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Monday, July 29, 2013

Oscar Grant, Witness for Trayvon Martin: "Fruitvale Station" review

by Jennifer Epps

This piece was first published on on July 22, 2013.

Oscar Grant, police shooting victim in Oakland 

George Zimmerman's defense team essentially put Trayvon Martin on trial, so maybe the prosecution should have called Oscar Grant to testify. If it didn't make a difference that Trayvon was dead, the fact that Oscar was dead shouldn't have been an obstacle either -- he might have been especially qualified, since both Oscar and Trayvon were black men gunned down in their prime by those supposedly watching out for public safety.

Fortunately, in the new film Fruitvale Station, Oscar Grant is essentially a character witness for Trayvon, and for scores of other young black men who've died at the hands of "law enforcement'. Oscar, only 22, was shot on New Year's Eve, 2008, by a BART subway police officer in Northern California. The details of his demise are so extreme they seem like they'd have to be one-of-a-kind: Oscar, an unarmed black subway passenger who was not being violent when the officers decided to arrest him, was shot dead in the back while prone, face-down, on the Fruitvale station platform, in full view of a packed train of witnesses. The defense claimed by white BART cop Johannes Mehserle was that he mistook his gun for a taser. Consequently, he received a sentence of just 2 years -- and served only 11 months.

But behind the specifics of Oscar Grant's horrific tragedy lies the even greater horror and tragedy inherent in the fact that this kind of extra-judicial execution is commonplace. A recent study by the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement found that 136 unarmed blacks were shot dead last year by police, security guards, and self-appointed vigilantes. This adds up to an extra-judicial killing of an African-American every 28 hours. The new film doesn't address these stats, but it certainly stems from that kind of awareness.

The fiction feature Fruitvale Station, winner of big prizes at the Sundance and Cannes Festivals, requires a generous supply of Kleenex. Though its simple presentation is elegant and spare, it makes you weep not just for Oscar and his family, or for Trayvon and his, but for the state of America in general. Without preaching or heavy-handedness, with the utmost of subtlety, first-time writer-director Ryan Coogler shows convincingly that something is very wrong out there.
Though the genre is character study, this drama is named after the infamous subway station. It isn't titled after Oscar, I suspect, because the socially-urgent point of this carefully researched docudrama is that Oscar didn't die because of anything he did, but because he happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. And if you're a young, poor, black man in America, it can be the wrong place and wrong time almost anywhere, almost anytime.

Coogler does use some of the actual cell phone camera footage of the incident as an opening prelude, but his focus in the film is on supplying the visuals that have been missing from our consciousness: how Oscar spent his last day alive. He shows us what Oscar valued, what he regretted, and what he hoped for, making sure we get to know Oscar intimately so we can truly mourn for him. The script, which Coogler wrote after perusing the cell phone footage, interviewing the family, and researching Oscar's life and character, depicts Oscar as a loving young father and boyfriend, a considerate son who actually listens to his mom these days, and a likeable family man whose grandmother dotes on him.

Movie still from climax of Fruitvale Station distributed by the Weinstein Company

Oscar, charismatically played with what seems like effortless naturalness by Michael B. Jordan, is a complex person here. He is often joyfully childlike, especially when playing with his 4-year old daughter Tatiana (played by Ariana Neal, a great find) yet he also falls into deep, serious introspection over the course of the day. He does seem to genuinely love his girlfriend Sophina, a feisty and very watchable Melonie Diaz, and he genuinely wants them to have a future together. Yet he also has a penchant to flirt, and he has been caught doing much more. Moreover, he has trouble showing up on time for work, and has lost his job because of it. When the movie starts, he is preparing to sell drugs again to pay the rent.

Fruitvale Station doesn't hide Oscar's prison record, in fact it brings it to the fore by turning it into a long flashback and by showing that Oscar's mother Wanda (a towering Octavia Spencer) was at one point so upset by his repeat convictions -- apparently for dealing -- that she hardened her heart against him for a difficult period of time. Now, he is torn between the life he wants to lead and the life he has led, conflicted and confused but also very close to his siblings, elders, and nuclear family. Part of the message, of course, is that people don't fall into either/or polarities, that just because a black man isn't a genteel scion of accomplishment like Sidney Poitier in Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, it doesn't mean that he's a vicious incorrigible criminal who threatens the social fabric.

The kind of characterization of Oscar which Coogler and Jordan assemble, with internal contradictions, has the most sterling of pedigrees: Shakespeare was fond of it too. It is also poignant. In the dramatic world of the film, Coogler proposes that this day was different long before the BART train back from San Francisco pulled into the station; Oscar seems to have made a tacit New Year's resolution to straighten up and fly right. And this interpretation is apparently justified -- a Slate article cites  statements by Oscar's loved ones which support the idea that Oscar planned to reform. In filmic terms, it is also supreme irony. The structure of the film is such that Oscar deals with various personal problems over the course of the first two-thirds of the film but reconciles with his girlfriend, celebrates his mom's birthday, and approaches 2009 -- soberly -- with hope for a better life. If you had never seen the headlines, you might be convinced there's about to be a happy ending.

What Coogler has crafted is a strong counter-narrative to the one pushed by so many whites from Middle America, who seize on whatever flaws they can find in the biographies of black men like Oscar and Trayvon. Fruitvale Station is a much-needed rebuttal to the myth of the "super-predator', a racist stereotype which, longtime social justice activist Tom Hayden makes plain in a recent article in The Nation, stems from a national propaganda campaign that dates from the 1980s -- a tainting of certain Americans (in other words, people of color) as so dangerous and bad at their core that society is in an "us or them' situation with them.

In order to continue to hold on to the racism that is so near and dear to them, Zimmerman supporters and, I suspect, Mehserle fans, yearned deeply to find a reason to justify murder. How upset they were at the slightest doubt, at the merest whisper that Trayvon might not be a murderous thug who had it coming. Coogler quietly dispenses with this element of Oscar's story by staking out a clear position on what caused the fight that led to the police being called in: a white man who frequently tormented Oscar back in prison suddenly attacks him on the subway car. This is a significant part of the story Fruitvale Station tells: the only thing that Oscar does that leads to any trouble with the police on Dec. 31, 2008 is that he fights another subway passenger in self-defense.

Eye-witness reports from the crowded and jostled passengers who saw the fight before the train pulled into Fruitvale are contradictory. But according to several witnesses, there was indeed a fight between Oscar and a white man who'd been in prison with him. Coogler changes several names of supporting characters who do wrong in the film, but Slate identifies the alleged pugilist as David Horowitch. (For the record, he denies being in the fight.) The film shows him playing it cool on the train when the police start dragging off the young black men -- thus illustrating how it never even occurred to the cops to look for a white guy.

Trayvon Martin

Self-defense is the million-dollar concept right now, because Zimmerman's attorneys and cheering section have twisted things to try to make us believe Trayvon had no right of self-defense. Yet the negation of that right tends to be a red flag which reveals the underlying imbalance of power. Ask Iraqis whether they had a right of self-defense when the U.S. attacked them; ask Gazans where theirs was under Israel's bombardment. Coogler's film lets us see that Oscar at least ought to have had the right of self-defense.

That crucial prison flashback mid-way through the film is extremely helpful in this area, especially when you think about it afterward. It helps us to realize what Oscar must have gone through while in prison -- he appears beaten up, and refuses to answer his mother's questions about it. When the Horowitch character threatens him in jail (which happens in plain view with guards watching) Oscar responds as if his very survival is at stake. This preps us to understand Oscar's instantaneous transformation when the same guy reappears much later and lunges at him -- how Oscar switches in one breath from holiday relaxation to fierce defense mode.

And earlier in the film, Coogler had included another exchange that also is part of the portrait of Oscar vis-a-vis aggression. So different from media sound bites regarding the Zimmerman trial, this scene illustrates what the concept of de-escalation and "retreat' might really mean. When his former boss tells him he won't give him his job back, Oscar is humiliated and desperate and reacts with an angry, ominous threat. The store manager happens to be Latino, and that moment could easily have become a racially-charged clash or power struggle. But the manager actually likes Oscar, continues to employ his brother, and, probably most important of all, understands where Oscar is coming from. He knows he's just upset. So he doesn't bite. The whole situation is defused, and Oscar calms down.

By contrast, Coogler clearly shows the BART police brutalizing Oscar and his friends from the moment they arrive. The cops seem to be trying to escalate the situation -- perhaps in part to create a cause for arrest. Indeed, Slate attests, witness statements from the subway passengers who watched the BART police's detention of Oscar and his friends affirm that police were hostile and physically abusive to the young black men. There are also witnesses who've testified that Oscar was co-operating with police as they started to arrest him.

Mehserle's excuse as to how he came to shoot Oscar is not even mentioned in Fruitvale Station until the postscript right before the credits -- Coogler doesn't dignify Mehserle's explanation with his attention, and leaves the exact thought process in Mehserle's head up to us to figure out. The depiction of the cacophony on the station platform is from the victim's point-of-view, which pushes the entire audience to imagine themselves on the receiving end of racial profiling and police brutality in a system where Driving While Black can be suspicious behavior. Coogler takes it one level further, by showing the trauma of Riding the Subway While Black. Sadly, when he began this project he may not have known there would soon be a national case where a 17-year old found guilty of Walking While Black would be retroactively given the death penalty. The film, by examining one specific case and one specific life so vividly, sets a paradigm with which to view many such cases and lives -- following in the footsteps of the Italian neo-realists, who knew that observing the small was a door to the enormous. Indeed, Coogler considers Vittorio de Sica's The Bicycle Thief one of his influences.

Movie still of Oscar Grant and daughter in by Weinstein Company

The astute Fruitvale Station is deceptively staid, employing the episodic, random-observations approach that Charles Burnett, renowned filmmaking pioneer from Watts and a 1960's UCLA film school grad, employed to profound effect in his cinema verite-style, classic dramatic feature Killer of Sheep. At the same time, Coogler's film holds a passionately-beating heart beneath its cool exterior. This incredible combination would be an impressive achievement from a seasoned pro, but Coogler just earned his filmmaking MFA from USC in 2011. And unlike so many, many film school grads, he's actually able to resist showing off camera pyrotechnics and fancy edits in his first feature. Instead, he very wisely just lets the actorsact. He recognizes that he has a terrific cast, isn't afraid of them like some directors are, and together they work magic.
Fruitvale Station deserves to have the kind of impact Gus van Sant's Milk did five years ago. That film about the openly gay San Francisco politician Harvey Milk and his 1978 assassination was honored with eight Academy Award nominations and trophies for Best Actor and Best Original ScreenplayNot only were these plaudits well-deserved artistically, but they were cultural signs of progress for gay rights, and helped, simultaneously, to further advance the cause.

It's worth remembering that Milk's assassin Dan White used a "Twinkie defense" successfully in court -- claiming he ate too many Twinkies, and that the sugar threw off his judgment. In the Oscar Grant case, it was the "Taser defense". The bizarreness of such explanations did not prove to be a deficit, and that seems almost certainly to be because these killers had fan clubs, in the general public and in the courtroom, who were searching for any semblance of an excuse to let them get away with it. Milk's murder was emblematic of a sickness within the culture -- rabid homophobia -- which was part of what made the story so important to revisit. Likewise, Oscar Grant's death and the multitude of tragic stories like his happening in Sanford, Florida and all over America are potent symbols of rampant racism, and it's of great import to the current spirit of activism opposing it that Coogler has made such a fine film affirming the rights of Oscar and his peers.

Fruitvale Station has the high quality, originality, topicality, fresh faces, and support of the awards-savvy Weinstein Brothers to make it a strong contender for a bunch of Academy Awards for its acting, writing, and directing (the media will love the cute headlines about Oscars for Oscar). It also stands a good chance of being embraced as an inspiration and an organizing tool by a burgeoning movement -- there have been street demonstrations every day since the Zimmerman verdict came out, with protesters often marching miles and miles, and some leaders are calling for a "new civil rights movement" in the face of the demonization of Trayvon, the rash of Stand Your Ground laws, the gutting of the Voting Rights Act, the craze of voter I.D. requirements, New York's unconstitutional "stop-and-frisk" policy, and California prisons' human rights violations. Certainly the film would be an excellent consciousness-raiser for people of all races, and a great conversation-starter.

One of the most appealing aspects of the film is a thread running through it which suggests that things really don't have to be this way. Oscar charms a young white woman he spots at a meat counter by calling up his grandma to give her a recipe; one of Oscar's longtime drug customers is a friendly Asian tough guy (which may be a conscious counterweight to the historical animosity between blacks and Koreans evident in the 1992 L.A. uprising); an immigrant shopkeeper kindly unlocks his store after hours to the youths' girlfriends; and Oscar and a white father-to-be meet for the first time on the street in San Francisco and end up bonding briefly over women, love, and how having your own family can change your life. Even more powerfully, on the train, the New Year's Eve revelers jammed in together start dancing to the music someone has brought. They are strangers, they are different races and even different sexual orientations, but they celebrate the coming of another year in a fleeting moment where the most obvious thing about them is their common humanity.

By shining a warm but very clear light on a life snatched away too soon, on a community so often overlooked or misrepresented, Coogler has demonstrated how rare it is for movies to actually be about real people and about the real, important things going on in America. Fruitvale Station shames Hollywood by setting a good example.



Some other recent cases of police killing unarmed people of color:

Alesia Thomas

-- the LAPD physically abused this 35-year old black woman last year while arresting her for sending her children to a police station; she died in their custody and they have refused to release video of the incident.

Kenneth Chamberlain
--this 68-year old African-American heart patient was shot dead in 2011 inside his own home in White Plains, N.Y. when the police responded to an automatic medical alarm.

Manuel Diaz
--this 25-year-old Latino was shot from behind while fleeing police in Anaheim, CA. One shot hit him in the buttocks and he fell; while down he was shot in the head.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Rebel, Rebel: "The Company You Keep" and "The East"

by Jennifer Epps


In The East, a film showcased at the Sundance Festival, co-writer and up-and-coming star Brit Marling plays Sarah, a young private-sector spy keen to do well for her agency. She has to keep her assignments so secret she tells her nearest and dearest she’s off to Dubai when really she’s just a drive away in the deep woods, infiltrating a troublesome band of youthful anti-corporate eco-terrorists. She lives with them, learns their ways, and becomes assimilated in order to uncover their schemes to disrupt big business – a service much coveted by those same businesses. But the experience is so intense, this monkey-wrench gang gradually starts to change her. Whenever the unit temporarily disbands and she heads back to her normal city life, she feels like she has come back from a foreign country, only now it’s her home that feels foreign.

The East is named after the fictitious anarchist collective Sarah spies on -- a mysterious, much-hyped group of rebels out to punish mega-corps which heartlessly destroy the planet or poison masses of human beings. The movie is many things – spy caper, romance, psychological drama, crime thriller, coming-of-age story, animal-friendly environmentalist lament – but it is perhaps predominantly a journey-to-another-world. Like Alice or Dorothy, once covert agent Sarah slips into the woods, she finds herself in an alien, Looking-Glass world. There are no surreal talking animals in this universe, but with the very first initiation rite Sarah can see she’s “not in Kansas anymore” – and that she’s out of her element. Tough as nails and primed for a fight, Sarah is astonished to discover that battle isn’t really the point here among all the soul-baring and trust exercises.

Of course, Sarah is a stand-in for the audience, so Marling and writing partner Zal Batmanglij (the film’s director) peel away the outer layers of the forest-dwelling radicals incrementally, letting us first see them the way she would. The most immediately alienating is Benji (an ardent Alexander SkarsgĂ„rd), who comes off at first as a Charles Manson-like cult leader. His hair is archaically, kiddingly, long, and he appears to hold a privileged status in the commune-like encampment from which he delights in breaking newcomers’ spirits. Then there’s diminutive Izzy (Ellen Page), so solemn and ideologically fierce she seems like the most potentially dangerous. And though the group turns to Doc (Toby Kebbell) for medical help, his manner and his simple home remedies are so unorthodox his ministrations seem likely to do more harm than good. Yet before too long Benji’s wild tresses have been shorn, Izzy has revealed her soft side, Doc’s qualifications have been affirmed, and we, along with Sarah, have gained insights into this band’s traumas, regrets, and vision.

Though Batmanglij and Marling disapprove of these activists’ tactical choices when they injure others, we can see, eventually, how much respect they have for the young outliers’ heartfelt motivations, and for their willingness to explore an alternate form of living. Rather than just showing the surface trappings of counterculture, The East tries to get inside all this experimental living and find out what it’s really all about. (Marling and Batmanglij were inspired to write the film because they spent a few months living with squatting freegans.) And often the script is quite deft in the economical way it scores its points. The first dinner at the East’s remote hideout is a clever, visual way to show the group’s internal philosophy of interdependence. Then, at a climactic juncture, Sarah finds herself impulsively eating from a trashcan to illustrate the principles of freeganism – it’s a perfect merger of story, theme, character revelation, and eloquent speech-writing. It’s also a moment of humor/suspense that works beautifully.

Kudos are definitely due to Batmanglij and Marling for navigating a minefield with this kind of story: they could have easily fallen into preachiness either for or against their characters. Instead, Benji’s lynchpin character is variegated enough for Sarah and the audience to change our opinion of him in each of the film’s three acts. Likewise Sarah’s boss at the agency, the wonderful Patricia Clarkson, is never a cartoon but moves deliciously from mentor to formidable opponent.

The East doesn’t make us choose between collectivism and the power of one – it honors both. Its slight of build yet tightly-coiled heroine – thanks to a visceral performance by the ferociously intelligent Marling -- is a mesmerizing protagonist. She’s no latex-squeezed, ultra-competent action-heroine, but is instead serious and resourceful, sensitive and relatable, and she pays a high cost for her achievements. But after learning about harmony, equality, and unity from the rebels, she comes out the other side as an exemplar of the idea that one person can make a difference. It is thanks to her dynamic character that the film is able to pull off its balancing act, conveying the notion that: in questions of morality, even when the goals are harmony, equality, and unity, perhaps one’s own conscience is the only reliable arbiter.

Along the way, Marling and Batmanglij expose something that gets very scant attention – corporate spying on citizen activists – and at a time when Edward Snowden has made people more conscious of the extent to which our communications are being captured as a matter of course, this film couldn’t be more timely. Without lecturing (except briefly, in the sequence where Izzy confronts her CEO dad), The East manages to convey searing criticism of current business as usual in the U.S. of A. It is one of the most eloquent and vital movies indicting late capitalism you could hope to see, underpinning its twisty, surprising climax with the burning philosophical problem: how can we save the world?

The film provides no easy answers but is on the side of the angels -- it promotes, without spelling it out too much, mutual respect, co-operation, open-mindedness, and educating the public. It is clear that Batmanglij and Marling believe in film as a force for social change. But they also realize that to be effective they must be disciplined in providing us with compelling characters, a gripping conflict, and a tight story structure. They deliver all that in spades. The East lays down the gauntlet for other fiction filmmakers to retain a strong point-of-view on hot political topics and make an exciting entertainment to boot.



Robert Redford’s Sundance Festival gave Batmanglij and Marling’s film its premiere, and Redford even cast Marling in a pivotal supporting role in his own film The Company You Keep -- clearly he wasn’t concerned about the similarities between the two indies, though they were released within weeks of each other this spring. There certainly are similarities, though. The East and The Company You Keep are both thought-provoking political thrillers about a small group of domestic left-wing militants who are designated as terrorists by authorities. Both show the radicals’ driving forces to be reactions against mass-scale atrocities perpetrated by those in power. And both films clearly condemn violence as a tool of political resistance.

Still, Redford’s film has its own precedents. It seems to make sense to view The Company You Keep as the third film in a Redford trilogy about the ‘War on Terror’. I haven’t heard him describe any such trilogy, but Redford’s last three films seem very much concerned with the post 9/11 era and the direction the country has taken. The first, Lions for Lambs (2007), was a politically laudable but artistically dull and didactic Bush-era anti-war screed. The second, the superb and moving drama The Conspirator (2010), was set in the maelstrom right after Lincoln’s assassination yet was indisputably modern in its portrait of the oppressiveness of railroading military tribunals like those Bush had brought into the fore as part of the ‘War on Terror.’ Most of the referents in Redford’s third film of the trilogy, The Company You Keep, are to the 1960’s and 1970’s, but the film is set in modern times, and its subject matter is terrorism, unjust war, and dissent. No doubt it wasn’t just a historical exercise.

The Company You Keep, like Redford’s prior two films, is the story of an older man, an educated liberal, who mentors an antagonistic or disengaged young upstart. In Lions for Lambs it was Redford as a university prof teaching apathetic student Andrew Garfield to care more about what his government is up to; in The Conspirator it was Tom Wilkinson handing over a complex defense case to Civil War veteran James McAvoy. Here it is Redford once again, as an aging attorney who is an upstanding citizen working for the public good. He scolds cocky rookie reporter Ben (Shia LaBeouf) – even while fleeing him half-way across the country. The chase begins because LaBeouf’s ambitious stringer discovers that Redford’s small-town lawyer is a big-time outlaw, an ex-member of a militant 1960’s group, and a fugitive from the FBI because of his secret terrorist past. 


The mentoring dynamic throughout Redford’s trilogy may simply be a natural outcome of Redford being in his 70’s and being highly successful, sought-after, and opinionated. Yet, if there’s one overriding aspect of Company which prevents it from being truly politically effective, it might be the film’s underlying ageism – an elevation of those politicos over 60 and a patronizing slant on the uninformed under-40s. The movie evinces an implicit belief that Hippies were much more aware and engaged than Tweeters are. The politicized people in Company are all above a certain age (played by Redford, Nick Nolte, Sam Elliott, Julie Christie, Susan Sarandon, Richard Jenkins, and Brendan Gleeson). By contrast, none of the young adults in the film (LaBoeuf, Marling, Anna Kendrick, and Terrence Howard, who plays an FBI agent) are politically opinionated – except, perhaps, about terrorism. The ex-hippies express passionate views in the film on current events, but the young people are more concerned with their careers, schooling, and personal lives. It’s weird that the retirement-age radicals who flee to the deep woods in Company somehow have no idea that anyone like the young rebels of The East could be hiding out too; in Company’s world, activism seems to have halted in the mid 1970s.

This isn’t to say the youngsters don’t have winning personalities. LaBoeuf’s cheeky, devious, irreverent reporter uses some of the sly techniques Redford himself used, alongside Dustin Hoffman, in All the President’s Men. He is also the Tommy Lee Jones character to Redford’s Harrison Ford, for just as in The Fugitive we find ourselves pulled in both directions, unsure whether to root for pursuer or pursued. But ultimately, the view of the press evinced by Company is that it is both shallow and overzealous: Ben’s doggedness in pursuing the ex-Weatherman is cast in a similar vein as Sally Field’s destructive investigative reporting in Absence of Malice.

Unlike the fictitious anti-corporate group living on the fringes in The East, the organization under scrutiny in Company is a real domestic terrorist organization: the infamous albeit small revolutionary group which dubbed themselves the Weather Underground Organization (WUO), formed in 1969 as a splinter of the Students for a Democratic Society. Discouraged by the failure of mass protest to end either the war in Vietnam or virulent racism at home, the Weather Underground chose to make bombs and try to overthrow the U.S. government. They were of course eschewed and condemned by the large protest movements of the time, but became more infamous.

Though the kernel of Company is based on actual history, the names of the former Weather members are fictional and the characters composites. Dramatic license is taken to fashion a mystery about decisions of the past. It is not a literal evaluation of the Weathermen, it doesn’t care about the exact details of their tactics, whether there was any discipline to their goals of property destruction (warnings were generally issued so buildings could be evacuated) or how exactly they crossed the line into violence against living beings. (There is a documentary about the Weathermen to cover that, however – Ben is even shown watching it as research in this movie.) The facts, which Company doesn’t dwell over, are that three members of the WUO died while bomb-building, and three security officers were killed during a Brinks truck robbery staged by a couple of ex- WUO members -- who got sentenced to life, and 22 years, in prison. But Company is quite vague about the internal workings of WUO, or what led to the deaths of innocent people, because its characters are composites and because it doesn’t recreate the events of the fateful day – it is enough for the moral probing of the movie simply to establish that people died. There is a central mystery, but it manages to lie beyond the details of the long-ago crime; the film is not much interested in forensics, and focused instead on the human heart.

Screenwriter Lem Dobbs has adapted Neil Gordon’s novel The Company You Keep for this film. It is a book first published in 2003, long before the McCain-Palin campaign brought the Weather Underground back into the spotlight with charges that co-founder Bill Ayers knew Obama in Chicago. But the novel did emerge as Bush was laying the groundwork to make the world America’s battlefield. And like The East, this story asks the question of whether or not the ends justify the means, of whether criminally violent resistance against powerful criminals is warranted when the system itself is so violent to so many. Not too surprisingly, the answer in both films is no.

Author Gordon seems especially pissed off at the WUO: “I don’t think highly of the positions the Weather Underground took and I don’t believe that political violence was an effective or appropriate tool”, he told an interviewer. And he blames the WUO for an awful lot: “when Weather broke up SDS, which they did violently, undemocratically, and with huge cruelty, they destroyed what could have been an enormous, powerful progressive movement in this country…The American left never recovered.”



The trouble with having two back-to-back films which debate a choice between violent and non-violent resistance is that, surely, non-violence won that debate for most people long ago. It is not a major question for the millions of people who oppose corporate and imperialist agendas. Given that it sure isn’t every day that features about left-wing dissent hit the big screen, when two in the same season depict committed grassroots activism as extremist, violent militancy, there is definitely the chance of creating the wrong impression about those movements. And right-wing blowhards would love to milk that wrong impression and spread it to PETA, Greenpeace, peace marchers, and many others who try to fight the systems of cruelty and oppression the right would like to protect.

Of course, that is not what any of these filmmakers would want. Neil Gordon argues: “There is a great pathos to the history of the American left. Its death is the saddest story of our country…[W]hen we look at it from the vantage of today, where America, for all its power, has near–pariah status throughout the world, it can only make us long for the lost ideals of our country.” Both films want to take a complex view, to mourn the wasted opportunities for change when people with noble motives abandon core principles. Both of them keep alive the idea that an unjust system and the need for resistance still remain.

The flaw with the approach of nostalgia and bitter regret in Company is that though the characters may find clarity, they don’t offer much of a solution to the audience  – beyond an assertion that parents should take care of their children. (Despite his age, Redford’s character is often shown, in rather cloying scenes, as a dutiful father to a prepubescent daughter, and his commitment is a pillar of the film.) It’s true that nothing requires art to provide solutions, and often asking questions or exposing problems is enough. But we are dealing with the future of the planet and human civilization, and it would be nice to have something to go on. I get that the theme of Company is the importance of taking personal responsibility, and that this could very well be interpreted as a responsibility to become more active and engaged. But the metaphor of progeny-over-politics could also make any conservative family-values champion proud – they might not admit it, but that message is right up their alley. It is also, whether intentionally or not, a kind of argument in favor of disengagement.

The East takes a different approach from The Company You Keep in many ways. The characters feel rawer and more immediate. It’s less reserved, and it has a more youthful energy. And it has more relevance in the issues it presents: it’s about the state of the union right now, and the examples of corporate lawlessness targeted by the East’s members are loosely based on true recent instances. But perhaps the most important difference of all is that The East suggests at the very end – fleetingly and delicately – a way out of this mess of corporate mayhem and crimes against humanity. And that, ultimately, is a discussion well worth having.