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America

The_Butler_poster

Instantly, you’ll be hit by how ‘The Butler’ is like the ‘Forrest Gump’ of the civil rights movement. It flies through the past 70 years of American race relations and politics from the view of a character that has been left out of history books, but who was right at the forefront of it. Forest Whitaker plays a modest, uneducated man telling his story without fully realising how close he was to defining moments.

The film loosely follows the story of Eugene Allen, a man who served as a White House butler for 34 years. His story was reported in the Washington Post just after Obama was elected president in 2008. This is an “inspired by” rather than “based on” true events film, a phrase which seems to imply a request for more creative freedom. Allen is fictionalised as Cecil Gaines who experiences a Hollywood traumatising childhood and is motivated to put his emotion into serving. Fortunate enough to encounter people willing to mentor him he learns respect not just for his work, but for himself in his societal position, being scolded when he describes himself using the “white man’s word.”

The back-story montage quickly shows his career progression, eventually leading to an offer to serve right in the centre of the American Government. From this, the narration launches right into the thick of the film: a collision of family and political drama.

Forest Whitaker is a strong and dignified lead, which not only is consistent in his stoicism and reserve as Cecil ages but also in his charm. The scene where Cecil is invited to The White House might be used for workshops on how to give a superb job interview.

Oprah Winfrey, as Gloria Gaines, brings a glowing presence although she has little opportunity to shine: she seems to be a vessel for her husband. The most she gets to do is occasionally feel neglected by her workaholic spouse or praise and defend his career.  However, they both provide needed warmth that does not always come through the script.

The film is also packed with rubbery impressions of presidents and important figures.  If you look at ‘The Butler’s poster, you can use its star-list to play some cameo spotting. Tick them off as they roll along the narrative conveyer belt. Their brief appearances are a bit distracting; partly to keep us watching but possibly not for the best reasons.

Not intending to sound facetious, but it’s also possible to play history bingo too. The film works its hardest to honour every important event and figure of civil rights into its condensed and watchable two hours. It achieves its referential mission but weighs the film down; compromising on a stronger and more personal exploration of segregated society through a mixed family and political drama.

The narrative is sometimes a bit confusing and clumsily packed; meaning the emotional pay off is never explosive enough. Gaines is pressured by his son’s political involvement in civil rights campaigning and his own proximity to power. He must appear invisible in the arena of politics. Yet, as he is stuck in a moral situation, wondering whether to break the butlers’ code of silence and hoping his son’s political activity goes under the White House radar, we don’t feel the jeopardy. Apparently there was a possibility he could lose his job. Cecil’s fears, disguising of emotion, and the voyeuristic spying tension all had a lot of potential to have been increased.

Lee Daniels’ direction also restrains on a ferocious depiction of segregation and protesting. Harsh language and racial slurs are used appropriately. Real photos are shown to inject some authentic and chilling realism but these are also a little jarring.

I think that a lot has been held back and toned down so as not to incite trauma for younger viewers and for anyone who has been on the receiving end of horrific prejudice. As an educational film it also packs in the moral aphorisms, sometimes too many to remember. Occasionally it has an unnecessary didactic style. One scene essentially lays out what Cecil Gaines represents, like a patronising film student leaning over and giving you a mini lecture. It spoils the enjoyment of a character whose actions and story spoke for him.

As a tribute to steps taken for, and a celebration of, a more respectful society this film could have been an oxygen stealing triumph. It is somewhat let down by clunkiness and a struggle to capture the expanse of its subject, which could have been achieved in a more epic 3 hours. Though the ending is not quite a full-on tearjerker, it might stroke you with a reflective and temporary optimism for humanity. It also wets the appetite for next year’s Mandela film where we will continue to mourn, honour and maybe physically cry for a real life hero.

Reviewed by Lewis King.

captain-phillips-international-posterAs it was only a few years ago, it’s likely that you’ll remember the events that ‘Captain Phillips’ is based on. In 2009 the cargo ship of Captain Rich Phillips and his crew was boarded by four young Somali pirates. Events escalated, leading to Phillips being captured by the Somalis and enduring a hostage situation on the escaping lifeboat.

At the time, the news reportage of these real hijackings and the simultaneous portrayal of pirates as fun adventurers in Western cinema couldn’t have felt more at odds with each other. It is pure conjecture, but I wonder whether there is something about the word ‘pirate,’ and our cultural associations with it, that stops us from truly understanding the severity of the issue. Perhaps, by wrapping it up in an entertaining Hollywood production, ‘Captain Philips’ will raise some awareness about real piracy and the global economic issues that surround it.

At its core the film is a survival thriller, and director Paul Greengrass grips us by pumping out heart thumping tension. The pacing is consistent, even in the quite lengthy third act. In comparison to ‘Argo,’ another recent film based on a real international hostage incident, ‘Captain Phillips’ plays with the audience’s sense of hope and fear with more intensity. There is, however, the feeling that there has been a small bit of miss-marketing and some action fans may be expecting a modern ‘Under Siege,’ but this is not an action film. There are plenty of exciting sequences, but the title protagonist is not a one man army. It’s a portrayal of a real man’s attempts at escape and painful endurance. Despite his situation, there is plenty of humanity and sympathy from Phillips which, unsurprisingly, Tom Hanks expresses excellently, bringing a heart breaking performance as the film progresses.

Greengrass’ experience of handling true tales such as this one shines through, as the wider picture is also explored without any deviation or affect on pacing. The piracy issue is handled in the best possible way: without unnecessary blame and with plenty of room for interpretation and discussion.

Early on, the film pictures a poverty stricken fishing village in Somalia and the conditions of recruiting pirates.
There’s no demonisation of the Somalis as a ’threat’ to the Western economy or suffocating portrayal of them as forced victims. There are subtle references to an organised crime figurehead and a hierarchy of power, but they’re explored in appropriate doses; enough to spark interest but without providing overly simplistic answers.

There are moments between Philips and his lead captor, Muse, that explore the relationship between Africa and America. In one scene Muse tells Phillips about his ambition to go to America, imagining the country as that iconic land of opportunity. Unfortunately, no economy is stable and even work in the Western world is not guaranteed. This is subtly acknowledged by the captain himself at the start of the film, in conversation with his wife. This insight into Muse’s aspirations makes him an interesting character as he is brutal and dislikable but also desperate and sympathetic.

There has been some controversy surrounding the portrayal of the title man himself, with Phillips’ real life crew describing actions he took as reckless and even blaming him for the hijacking. Authenticity is always a point of contention when it comes to films based on true stories and, in this particular case, most of it probably stems from the use of Phillips’ own memoirs as the main source for the plot. That said, I didn’t feel that he was overly portrayed as an American hero.

Despite acknowledging his quick wittedness and bravery in the face of adversity, and despite being called ‘Captain Phillips’, the film is not just about Captain Phillips. It is an intelligent thriller that will rock your emotions whilst subtly engaging you in the wider context of the piracy issue.

Released in the UK on October 16th 2013.

 

Floating CityI delved into Floating City with the expectation of gaining a quantifiable, data-driven insight into New York’s underworld… and knowing, best-selling author, Sudhir Venkatesh’s involvement in the Freakonomics series, I may be forgiven for this. To some extent, Venkatesh himself seems to expect it too. But Venkatesh is not an economist. He’s a sociologist with issues. Personal issues, career issues… all of which accompany him on this journey through a rarely glimpsed, but nevertheless large, portion of New York’s population.

Venkatesh inserts himself into the lives of sex workers, drug dealers, madams and johns in an attempt to find some correlation between class / race boundaries and the illegal and illicit economy that spans across them. Can a Latina street hooker become a high-earning escort? How does a downtown drug dealer get into the upperclass cocaine market? Venkatesh explores both of these questions and more, but not with numbers and charts.

Instead, Venkatesh spends years with individuals, conducting interviews and following their escapades. He blurs the line between sociologist and journalist by becoming personally involved and emotionally attached, often more than he would like to admit. As a result, as a reader, you can’t help but do the same.

In the end ‘Floating City’ feels more like a collection of short true-stories tied together by a loose theory, than an academic read… and there’s nothing wrong with that if you’re prepared to leave your preconceptions at page 1. After all, regardless of this book’s definition, the lives of Venkatesh’s study subjects make for a shocking, intriguing and delectably dark read.

‘Floating City’ is due for release in the UK on the 12th September 2013.

Reviewed by Francesca Bassenger. Image courtesy of Penguin, with special thanks to Mari Yamazaki.

Texas was a really interesting state. I had never been to the US before, but no doubts thanks to Hollywood, I went with a fair few preconceptions that it would be this vast empty filmset with all the extras wearing cowboy hats and wielding guns. What was so interesting was that my ideas weren’t that far off.

Whilst in must be said that each city had its own character and style the land between them, where theses extraordinary expanses lie, is wild and lonely.

Alexander Rhind is a freelance photographer living in Peckham and working wherever.
To see more of his work go to www.alexanderrhind.com

Written by Alexander Rhind. Photography © Alexander Rhind.

Black Banners - coverAli Soufan is a former FBI special agent and renowned counter-terrorism interrogation expert. His book ‘The Black Banners: Inside the Hunt for Al Qaeda’ provides a chilling account of the fight against terrorism over the past 20 years, and is quite possibly the most essential read on the subject out there at the moment.

Soufan provides a look at the inner-workings of Al Queda including detailed information about individuals and the group’s structure. He discusses their ideologies, and explains how knowledge is the key to coercing Al Qaeda members into cooperating. Not water-boarding.

He takes us inside the interrogation rooms and provides first hand accounts of other borderline-torture interrogation techniques implemented by the CIA, which they later excused with false information about the results these techniques produced. Time and time again the distrust between the CIA and FBI is highlighted, leading to a series of missed opportunities and the failure to intercept terrorist plots such as 9/11.

Most shocking is the politicisation of national security by the Bush administration and the affect of this on the FBI’s work. Through Soufan’s account, the harsh and glaring light of truth is shone on scandals that, until recently, were hidden in the murky shadows of ‘classified information.’ An absolute must-read.

‘The Black Banners: inside the Hunt for Al Qaeda.’ was released in the UK on the 26th July 2012.

Reviewed by Francesca Bassenger. Image courtesy of Penguin, with special thanks to Karen Browning.

Yves Merchand and Romain Meffre are two photographers from Paris who met in 2002. Finding that they often photographed in the same places, with very similar results, they eventually decided to work together.

In 2005 they began collaboration on a project that meant, that over the next five years of their lives, they would travel to Detroit seven times. Each of those visits was spent photographing the city’s crumbling, abandoned and dilapidated buildings.

Detroit was once a symbol of the American Dream. The booming auto industry of the 1920s made it a city of growth, affluence and modern thinking. In many ways it was pivotal in the creation of the world we live in today. Now however, it holds an entirely different image. Riddled with gun crime, drugs and arson attacks, poverty is rife and many houses have been left to decay or have been burnt to the ground altogether.

For the residents who remain, these eye-sores are a painful reminder of the tragedy that has befallen their once glorious city. Nevertheless, it can’t be denied that upon beholding Merchand and Meffre’s work, ‘The Ruins of Detroit’ can be seen as nothing short of stunningly beautiful.

They say, “At first, in a very candid way, there’s nothing more attractive than visiting something mysterious like an abandoned castle or an abandoned theatre. In a second reading, ruins are very evocative of our human nature and its paradoxes, our spectacular ability to create and self-destruct.”

Merchand and Meffre are not alone in their fascination with ruins. ‘Ruin Porn,’ as it sometimes referred to, is a growing sensation amongst photographers and photo-bloggers. Even the film industry has used Detroit as a backdrop for scenes of American destruction. Red Dawn 2 for example (a film about Chinese communist occupation of America) was shot in Detroit.

It’s easy to see the appeal. The buildings are not only beautiful in a physical sense… beams of light shining through holes in the ceiling, colours peeling away from walls… they are also beautiful in what they represent. They capture the past, present and future. They allow you to imagine the many lives that have passed through them, like an archaeologist looking over an ancient Roman settlement, but at the same time they provide a chilling warning of what the future of the world might one day become.

You can see more of Yves Merchand and Romain Meffre’s work on their website. One of their images was recently used for the cover of ‘The Last Days of Detroit,’ a book about Detroit by Mark Binelli.

Written by Francesca Bassenger
Photographs © and courtesy of Yves Merchand and Romain Meffre.

detroit

Mark Binelli’s book ‘The Last Days of Detroit’ is an engagingly detailed portrayal of a conflicted city. Crime, arson, desperation and extreme poverty mix with art, glimmers of hope, and regeneration schemes.

Chapter by chapter, Binelli guides us through each of these elements aided both by the city’s history and his own. Having grown up in Detroit, his views are not without a hint of bias (or heightened insight depending on which specific point in the book we’re referring to) and rarely without a peppering of ironic wittiness.

Having experienced the boom and subsequent bust of the auto industry, Detroit is city that can’t help but look back with nostalgia at what it once was: A thriving symbol of the American Dream. Now, derelict, empty and lacking even basic amenities those left behind face a daily struggle against crime and poverty. ‘The Last Days of Detroit’ tries to make sense of how it all came to be and, with significantly less certainty, what Detroit will become.

For a while now journalists and photographers have shared an almost perverse interest in the strangely beautiful dilapidation of Detroit’s houses, schools and theatres.

It’s a phenomenon that has earnt itself the name ‘ruin-porn’ (Yves Merchand and Romain Meffre produced an entire photo-book on the subject entitled ‘The Ruins of Detroit’ in 2010.) But this interest is now going one step further with artists snapping up cheap houses and warehouse spaces and converting them into studios. Could this be the beginning of a trendy, arty new Detroit?

‘The Last Days of Detroit.’ was released in the UK on the 10th January 2013.

Reviewed by Francesca Bassenger. Image courtesy of Random House.

America. The land of the free… In the last century America has engraved itself so deeply in the global consciousness that it’s hard to miss its influence. With the American Presidential elections coming up the world watches in anticipation because, like it or not, what happens in America affects the rest of us.

America has had an intriguing relationship with the rest of the world politically, economically and socially. This great nation has power likened to previous superpowers like the Roman Empire and Great Britain (back in its heyday). But empires come and go, so it’s not unnatural to wonder whether America will suffer the same fate.

It’s hard to imagine a world where America is no longer the giant. Politically, it’s a force to be reckoned with. When you consider its influence in the United Nations, the major platform for international political and economic relationships, it’s easy to see why this is the case.

America holds a permanent seat on the Security Council of the UN. It also spends more money on its military than a number of governments have at their disposal. Not to mention the various alliances it’s made with other important players in world politics like the UK, France and Germany.

Countries that do not agree with, or even dare to oppose American policy, do it at their own peril. Presidents get ostracised (Paul Kagame, Robert Mugabe,) others get killed (Saddam Hussein.)

America’s made many enemies and has been involved in many high-profile wars over the years such as Vietnam, Japan, Afghanistan and Iraq. This has earned its respect, fear and derision from the world. It’s fair to say that during George Bush’s tenure as President, it was mostly derision, but now with Obama, the world is a lot less edgy about who America might attack next.

This country is famous for pushing its foreign policy agenda. No other country has its tentacles in as many political pots (so to speak) as America does. This is compounded by the substantive economic influence America has on the rest of the world.

This country practically invented foreign aid in the early-mid 20th century. Trillions of dollars later, many countries in the ‘developing’ world are more economically stable and forever indebted to America. Literally.

As much as America has helped these countries, what it requires (or demands) in return is often construed as classic manipulation. There are always strings attached. In fact, it’s gone as far as threatening withdrawal of aid unless policies and laws are introduced or removed by recipient countries. In the economic and political minds of many middle and low-income countries America is a pushy, preachy, self-righteous, arrogant and manipulative country.

Increasing numbers of African countries are now turning to Asia, particularly China, for economic and trade partnerships. Unlike America, China is not preachy and doesn’t really care about other countries’ political affairs (unless, of course it interferes with said trade.) What’s more, China does’nt care if you kiss its arse. China just wants a good business plan. Full stop.

In addition to this, emerging economies like Brazil and India are less dependent on foreign aid. As countries are becoming more economically independent, they are turning to eachother to do business. This has lead to the strengthening of regional economic structures that do not involve America and its allies, and that is bound to have an impact in coming years.

Furthermore, with America’s struggling economy, which has featured heavily in this year’s Presidential campaign, some parts of the world seems to be moving on quickly. Asia Pacific has now overtaken North America as the region with the most billionaires on earth.

Luckily, the biggest Advantage America has over its predecessors in world domination is social power. The American social ideology is its biggest international export. One word. Media.

The biggest factors here are Facebook, Twitter and Hollywood. As their T.V. shows and movies circulate all over the world, the American social construct is rapidly becoming the world’s social construct. America has shaped world opinions on everything from democracy, to gay rights, to romance, to Justin Beiber. The idea of the American dream has spilled over into the rest of the world and is now everyone’s dream.

A great deal of the reality of American life has been masked in movies, songs, ‘reality T.V’…so much so that people all over the world imagine an America that simply does not exist. But it is this glorified version of this great nation that draws people in. This is what keeps us interested, and as long as that interest is held, America will always be relevant.

Written by Irene Kyomuhangi.
Photography © Noel Y. Calingasan

 

Being from Brooklyn I have often been asked, with naïve curiosity, if I have “ever been shot at?” But with more and more news stories of shootings happening in America’s seemingly idyllic suburbs, I find myself holding my tongue from saying that I feel safer in New York City than out in the heartland of my country.

One of the more recent examples of this is the shooting of movie goers at a midnight screening of ’Dark Knight Rises’ in Aurora last month. It happened a mere ten miles from Columbine High School where thirteen years ago, twelve students and one teacher were murdered.

Since the Dark Knight shooting I have been in the presence of many who have simply asked, “What is wrong with Colorado?” That question, though rhetorical, is valid. Has the US become a place where going to school, shopping, or even the cinema means there’s a chance you’re putting yourself in the line of a bullet?

The right to bear arms is the second amendment of the United States’ Constitution, and is one of the hottest topics of this year’s election season. (Thankfully freedom of speech trumps its rank as the first amendment, though that is also up for debate… but that is a topic of another article altogether.)

The popular opinion is that carrying a concealed weapon can come in handy in many a situation. For example, had someone in that movie theatre been armed, they could have retaliated against the gunman, James Holmes, defending themselves and hundreds of others.

They would have also taken the risk of challenging an increasingly more agitated and violet assailant, creating more panic, killing dozens more in the crossfire, or turning themselves from ’victim’ to ’suspect’ in the eyes of the responding police.

Not to mention the fact that a study by the University of Pennsylvania states that gun carriers are 4.5 times more likely to get shot than citizens who are unarmed…

Despite this, Colorado saw a 43% increase in firearm sales in the following four days after the massacre: A clear example that the lax approach to gun control across the United States has created a country of paranoid, fearful, gun-totting citizens.

But with gun control laws differing state to state and family days at the shooting range common outings, the road to reform will be a long one.

Nevertheless, when in the midst of writing a piece on the gun control issue in the United States, and up pops a breaking news alert informing you of a shooting that has just occurred in a Wisconsin community, it certainly causes one to pause.

Written by Claire Matern. Photography © Peter Wallace.

Twitter: @ClaireMatern

Stephen Shames’ photography captures the everyday struggles, joys and dangers of being a young man growing up in the Bronx. Starting in 1977, Shames documents over two decades of life, love, family, violence, drugs and community. He follows his subjects as they grow from boys to men, gaining their trust and becoming part of their chaotic world.

His images have a sense of intimacy, ease and comfort that only an accepted insider could achieve. He takes the phrase ’fly on the wall’ to a whole new level, capturing some jaw dropping moments along the way.

The images are accompanied by Martin Dones’ stirring autobiographical narrative. As a man in his forties looking back on his boyhood, he provides a backstory that shows the images in a completely different light. It’s almost impossible to believe that the smiling children they portray are living the same lives that Dones describes in his accounts. Behind those baby faces, there is little innocence left.

The images and text somehow tell two different stories, or perhaps more accurately, two sides of the same story. (Shames himself admits that there is no journalistic agenda, no particular point to prove, just captured moments.) In this way the two contrast and compliment each other, creating a well rounded account of Bronx life.

In his interview at the end of the book Shames talks about wanting to show the good as well as the bad, the camaraderie, the fun, and the love that these boys experience on their journey to adulthood.

In reality though, I can’t help but find an overall feeling of tragic inevitability portrayed in this work. Sadly many of the people in the photographs were later killed or imprisoned.

The very ’joys’ these young boys experience… hanging out on the street, having a close knit crew, skipping school, getting high, having sex at an insanely early age… These things may be portrayed almost as ’fond memories’ but to an outsider, they’re nothing more than the doomed beginnings of a downward spiral.

So perhaps it’s fair to say that whilst Shames keeps the reader in the spontaneity of the ’boy’ moment, Dones provides the gut-wrenching hindsight of manhood. The story wouldn’t feel quite so complete or truthful if only one of these elements were present.

In no uncertain terms this is a spectacular piece of photo-journalistic work, no matter how unintentional it may have been. Photography, interview, and autobiography come together to provide an eye-opening and thought provoking visual and literary experience, and it deserves a place on your iBook shelf.

Download Bronx Boys by clicking here.

Reviewed by Francesca Bassenger, Photography © Stephen Shames, with thanks to FotoEvidence.