two movie reviews: sugarman and cloud atlas

in the past 16 months, 4 people that i love have transitioned, 3 as total surprises. i find that one of my grief activities is immersing myself in movies, the more epic and ‘grand human story’ the better. in that spirit, i went to see searching for sugarman and cloud atlas. here’s what i thought:

searching for sugarman is the story of a brilliant musician from detroit who was never recognized in the u.s., but, without knowing it, became extremely popular amongst afrikaaners in the lead-up of the anti-apartheid period. the movie is told with a lot of wonder, and with a lot of instances in which a small action, a small clue, a few words break open a new realm of possibility. its a documentary, which is not my favorite genre simply because it is rare that documentaries are done well enough to be both accurate and entertaining. this is one of those rare successes, all the more amazing because the centerpiece of the movie is a man of few words.

perhaps because i am just coming from a conference where i was focusing a lot on the seen and unseen impacts of race and racism, i was very aware of the racial dynamics of this film, and it was really the only area where i was left wanting. rodriguez doesn’t get acknowledged in the u.s. as an important artist, except to the few white men who worked with him on producing his albums. this is attributed to the fact that latino artists weren’t really big in the u.s. at this time, though i find that hard to believe as a full explanation. i wonder how he was promoted, who he was promoted to – it feels like no one wants to take responsibility for the failure.

the only black character in the film is the owner of the label which produces rodriguez’s albums, and he seems to be a shady defensive grimy businessman – the rest of the characters outside of rodriguez’s family are white. there are no blacks or any other people of color in the audience rodriguez is accepted by, is a rock star to, which is white south africa.

this brings to mind two phenomena: one continues to happen in detroit, which is that artists, particularly black artists, are stars in europe, australia, even japan, but have a hard time booking shows at home. folks still have a hard time seeing the cutting edge brilliance of artists of color in the u.s., particularly if they aren’t making the approved paid-for sounds played on the radio.

the second is swedish/european filmmakers making these brilliant limited films about u.s. cultural moments – black power mixtape is another example. and we get hundreds of european film crews in detroit every year. the films are beautiful, meticulous, humane, and yet i wonder how this movie might have been told from a lens more conscious of the dynamics of a latino folk/rock singer in black detroit during a period of black political growth, getting accepted by afrikaaners as part of a radical cultural wave flowing in to disintegrate the conservative fabric that allowed apartheid to exist.

all that said, i was incredibly moved by this idea of a man becoming a rock star without knowing it. he’s just living simply, having offered his beautiful music to the world, having spent most of his life as an activist and laborer. and i love that once he learned he was a rock star, he was ‘serene’ about it, he did the rock star thing when visiting south africa, but didn’t leave behind the simple life he’d built in detroit. in some ways it’s a perfect fame, not marred by the day in day out press frenzy and the virus of wealth.

then i went to see cloud atlas (for the second time). i love this movie! it is not one but six melodramatic stories of love and revolution and its both taking itself very seriously and willing to be playful, goofy, laughing at itself and it’s scale.

i’ve recently been in several conversations about how we can evolve past the tendency to compete in our suffering – asking who is the most oppressed, the most poor, the most marginalized and victimized. with the depth of suffering and complexity of the human experience, there is no way this divisiveness strengthens us. it makes our movements unhealthy – i know it is a response to capitalism, and an appeal to humanity, often to generate charity (which might be part of why i think it is so unhealthy a practice: it is a way to deepen our dependence on those ‘less oppressed’ to give us things we demand, rather than stand with us in equality to create the things we all need and want). but it means that we are reductionist in how we see each other – i’m speaking here primarily of movement spaces. we lose a lot of the possibilities that come from people being more complex in their awareness of suffering and privilege, more complex in their self-identities. it makes me long for a movement where we center on what the strongest, most surviving, creative and generative parts of ourselves are, the places where we align, and what we can bring of our health and healing to that alignment.

so cloud atlas gave me more space to explore this line of thinking, because it really works to equalize suffering – women, slaves/blacks, gays, poor, the elderly, those deemed ‘crazy’ or rebellious by society, and at some point, intelligent beings created outside of the womb (called fabricants in this movie, but picking up on the role of robots, cylons, artificial intelligence).

the horrors we humans can unleash on anyone that we see as less than human is traced in all its overt and subtle ways throughout six different periods of time. and the question is raised, is freedom the point towards which we are evolving? is freedom relative, or absolute? this movie seems to say both/and in a way i love. the freedoms that these characters fight for seem so different in each story, and yet there is a sense that each instance of liberation comes through relationship, through unexpected love that explodes the myth of separation…and that there is an absolute freedom building within humanity over time.

most of the actors play more than one character in the film, which leads to what i can only call really special race moments. upon second watching it was much clearer the arc of each of these souls towards and away from good and evil over time. reminded me of the alternate history of kim stanley robinson’s the years of rice and salt, where a group of souls is reborn over a history where islam and buddhism become the primary religions of the world. the make-up allowed characters to cross age, race, class and gender boundaries, in many ways showing that time and appearance shift, but fundamental human struggles and evolutions are universal.

i want to hear what more of y’all think of cloud atlas. i know i was more excited to see it because i love the powerful self-love story of trans director lara wachowski.

what movies do y’all recommend right now?