Posted: 01/15/2012


Elaine’s Best of 2011

by Elaine Hegwood Bowen

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The Interrupters

The Interrupters is a fantastic indie film that is gaining more and more speed, with each screening.
The movie shows the efforts of the CeaseFire violence prevention organization and their staff members as they go throughout Chicago neighborhoods—Englewood, Roseland, Pilsen, and others—trying to bring peace. It covers a year in the life of gangbanging in Chicago, 2010, when “as many people died in Chicago from urban violence as those soldiers who died in Iran.”
The star of the film, if there is to be one, is Ameena Matthews, who is the daughter of imprisoned gang leader Jeff Fort, and who by her own admission has had a pretty rough life. But she has turned all of the bad things that may have happened to her around in order to help others as an interrupter, one who goes into the thick of gang dissension and warfare to help talk sense into young Black and Latino men’s heads, and young Black women. As documentaries go, The Interrupters does a good job of getting to the root of the problem—gang violence—and its effects without a lot of politics getting in the way.
The Interrupters (inspired by a 2008 New York Times Magazine article by Alex Kotlowitz, There Are No Children Here), directed along with Hoop Dreams director Steve James, is a film worth going to see, whether you are affected by gang violence or not. The community can benefit from knowing that although they seem to gain little financial reward, the interrupters from CeaseFire gain much in knowing that they have intervened and stopped many violent acts within Black and Latino communities. They are about saving lives, they say, and the documentary can attest to that!

The First Grader
The First Grader is a film about determination and perseverance and a yearning to make things right at any cost. The year is 2003, and 84-year-old Kenyan and former Mau-Mau freedom fighter Stephen Kimani Ng’ang’a Maruge (Oliver Litondo), has fought in the civil war, lost his immediate family, as well as his wife and son who he watched as the British executed them at point blank range. But even after all these tragedies, Maruge hasn’t lost his will to receive an education even during the sunset of his life.
He has received a letter from the government that he must read himself, and he embarks on a literal and figurative journey to the new school for first graders—he simply wants in. But the townspeople and the administrators don’t like the fact that the teacher is using precious resources on an old man. He is kicked out but detests the loose structure of the adult school. He returns to the first grade school, and the young students wage a protest of their own. He eventually obtains his education.
Based on a true story, The First Grader allows the audience to see a lonely, elderly man who not only strives to keep up with the class but is an inspiration to the other first graders. It is such a triumphant story. Maruge went on to complete his education, speak in Washington, D.C., and be listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as the oldest person to begin primary school.

Rise of the Planet of the Apes
This ain’t yo grandmother’s Planet of the Apes!! Rise of the Planet of the Apes was one of the best films that I saw in 2011.
Although many films are in this franchise, the 21st Century computer-generated graphics in this latest film will have you on the edge of your seat, waiting in anticipation for the next scene. It’s an age-old story of dominance, and this time the humans think that they have one over on the apes. Wrong! James Franco stars as a scientist named Will Rodman who is working on a medicine that he thinks will cure Alzheimer’s and none too soon, as his father, Charles, played by John Lithgow, is suffering from the disease that attacks the elderly. But something goes wrong one day, when they are administering the concoction to a bunch of apes gathered in the lab. One ape has just about had enough and crashes into a meeting, after which all apes are euthanized, but lo and behold a baby ape is found in one of the cages.
But Franco takes this cute, adorable ape named Caesar home for safekeeping. He inadvertently received the medicine thru his mother, and it heightens any sense of intelligence that he had.
Caesar becomes as smart as a whip, and eventually becomes too overprotective of family members. Caesar intervenes when Charles gets into a ruckus with his neighbor; he is captured and taken to a primate shelter, where he meets other apes.
Just like in prison, Caesar has to prove himself to the other apes, because they sense that he thinks he’s better than the rest of them. But in the end, just like in a gang, they all meet on one accord—to overtake the humans. They band together, use their own sign language and break out of the primate house. They go to the lab and release all the other apes that are being held there for experimentation. Then they go off on the great “ape escape” through San Francisco, on the freeway, knocking police cars and officers alike out of their way.
In the end, Caesar and his new-found friends run back to the park where Will once took him. Will catches up with him, telling Caesar that he will take him home, but Caesar is having none of it. He’s heard this before. Except that this time, he lovingly pulls Will closer and whispers in his ear, “Caesar is home.”
This movie is priceless—there are no longer “ape” costumes like when Charlton Heston and Roddy McDowell were playing in these blockbusters. The chimpanzees, gorillas and orangutans crafted through performance-capture—in which the motions and features of human actors were recorded digitally, then layered over with computer animation to create photo-realistic primates—made it look like the real thing.

The Muppets
Okay, since I’m a sucker for nostalgia, the latest movie about the Muppets was also a great one in my book. Just to see the gang in high-antics and good form after so many years was a delightful holiday treat.
The old Muppet studios are being sold, and an oil baron is just waiting to drill, unless the Muppets can come up with $10 million. The gang decides to reunite, ala the Blues Brothers. But all aren’t so willing in the beginning and the star, in my eyes, Miss Piggy is a bit reluctant, stubborn and self centered. I just love Miss Piggy and the Muppets, but Miss Piggy has always captured my attention.
The Muppets are helped by real-life people Gary and Mary, from Smalltown, USA, and Walter, the world’s biggest Muppet fan. He is so much of a fan that he really must be the lost Muppet. He grew up as a plush toy and has always honored and loved the Muppets. They are all crestfallen when they discover that the studio is in bad disrepair and about to be sold.
The oilman named Tex Richman is so certain that the Muppets won’t be able to pull this one off. But the band of Muppets is victorious; the Muppets are reunited and stage a variety show telethon to raise the money. The Muppets has a timely twist to it, as it’s a story of land-grabbing banks up against the little man.

Midnight in Paris

Midnight in Paris, from celebrated director Woody Allen, was a delightful movie. I enjoyed it, because it used a time portal to transport Gil Pender, played by Owen Wilson, to another era in Paris. I enjoyed it even more so when one night Gil goes to famed Bricktop’s, whose African-American owner has been called “….one of the most legendary and enduring figures of twentieth-century American cultural history.”
While in Paris with his fiancée, Inez, played by Rachel McAdams, and her parents, Gil, who is an idealist screenwriter at heart, finds himself in a part of Paris that he had never visited, after he became lost, walking back to his hotel. But as he set on the steps, and modern cars passed him by, an old Rolls Royce pulled up, and the occupants beckoned him inside. It just happened to be right past midnight, and it just so happens that this is when the world turned differently for Gil.
He was suddenly in 1920’s Paris with F. Scott Fitzgerald, Zelda, Gertrude Stein, played by Kathy Bates, Ernest Hemingway, Pablo Picasso, Josephine Baker, T. S. Eliot and other literary, jazz and art figures. In one scene at an art gallery, after Gil has met Picasso and Adriana, one of Picasso’s secret lovers, he critiques one of Picasso’s portraits with such fervor, because he has just met the great painter and the woman who influenced that particular piece of art. After a while, Gil falls in love with Adriana.
He is so wrapped up in this “midnight” world, and he falls in love with another woman. Finally, the relationship between Inez and Gil is just too weird and as equally strained, and the couple call it quits.
Bates, Adrien Brody, Corey Stoll, Tom Hiddleston and others playing the cultural greats seemed to have such fun doing this movie. While many would think that a movie going back and forth in time might be hard to keep on track, Midnight in Paris was so fluid and the scenes set in days gone by were wonderfully played out. I enjoyed this movie and do know that Woody Allen can be tough to swallow at times. However, I understand that this film was such a hit at the recent Cannes film fest, with it being described as “a wonderful love letter to Paris.”


Terri is the story of a young man, who is isolated from his classmates but who has a tender heart and caring spirit for his Uncle James, who suffers from dementia and with whom he lives. He doesn’t know his mother or father, and to add to his introverted demeanor is the fact that he is heavyset and the butt of constant jokes from his classmates.
From the producers of Blue Valentine and Half Nelson comes a sensitive story about a sensitive, plus-sized teenaged boy who is just trying to live his life as comfortably as he can. His comfort extends so far that he wears pajamas all the time, even to school, simply because he says they fit better.
Terri is ordered to see the assistant principal Fitzgerald, played by a cool, 60’s-talking John C. Reilly. The two forge a friendship cloaked in counseling sessions that brings young Terri out of his shell, while he also teaches Fitzgerald a thing or two.
Terri longs for friends at school, and one day comes to the defense of Heather, a promiscuous classmate who is being expelled because she and her boyfriend were making out in the home economics class. Terri implores Fitzgerald not to expel her, because she was not as willing as it seemed, and she and Terri also forge a friendship. Fitzgerald gets Terri to tag along when the school secretary finally dies from emphysema, and his friend Chad tags along. The two boys, while learning a thing or two about respect for the dead, use this experience as another rite of passage, in which the two said they had never participated.
This movie was a hit at Sundance, and while it may have a few elements of Precious, it is a far cry from the movie that garnered comedienne Monique an Oscar. Precious was, of course, about a heavyset Black teen girl. But she was abused by her mom and dad; and she was illiterate and became pregnant, as well as developed HIV. She, too, was at first shunned by classmates, and she, also, had caring teachers. But none of the darker themes are at work in Terri, which makes it a more delightful movie to watch.


Win-Win is an indie film that focuses on a family that takes a socially alienated 16-year-old boy who is a stellar wrestler into its home. The father, Mike played by Paul Giamatti, comes in contact with the boy’s granddad Leo, played by Burt Young. Leo is suffering from Alzheimer’s and the state is ready to commit him to senior housing. Mike is an attorney who represents the elderly population, and he decides to volunteer to be Leo’s guardian, telling the judge that he will take care of him. There is no one else to take care of Leo, since his daughter is a drug addict. But Mike takes the $1500 monthly stipend that he’s paid for caring for Leo and still places him in senior housing. He does this because his practice is suffering, as well, and he could use the extra money.
Leo doesn’t like being in senior housing, but he has no choice. Leo’s grandson, Kyle, runs away from home and comes to Providence, Rhode Island, to see his grandfather but discovers that Mike has taken charge.
He and his mother don’t have much of a relationship, and Mike and his wife and young daughter don’t have much choice but to invite Kyle into their home, since his mother is on drugs and he’s not to happy to be returned home.
Once Mike discovers that Kyle, played by Alex Shaffer, is a wrestling champ, he signs him up for school and tries to use him to help the team that he coaches win the next championship. Afterward Kyle nurtures a relationship with Leo, even when his mom shows up and tries, unsuccessfully, to cash in on Leo’s estate.
After some wrangling around and lies discovered, Mike not only has a winning wrestling team but also has the good mind to return Leo back to his home, where he belongs. Burt Young is great in this movie, and Giamatti and Shaffer are also great in a film about one family taking in a wayward youth.

Little Senegal

Little Senegal is a film about a reverse genealogy search that finds a man in Senegal longing for his family members who might have been sold into slavery, sent to America, and never to be heard from again.
Alloune, played by Sotigui Kouyate, works as a slave museum tour guide at the site where ships left Senegal for the United States, but with each American tourist he yearns to find his relatives. One day, he leaves Africa and travels to North Carolina, as he knows that this is one stop on the slave trade from Africa to America. He is a very intelligent man, as he really knows how to inquire about slave families bought and sold in the Carolinas. He finally figures out that he has family living in Harlem—and he is in for a culture shock.
Alloune finds a nephew named Hassan (who drives a cab and has other black-market ventures). With Hassan’s help, Alloune tracks down Ida Robinson, a woman filled with attitude and pride who owns a little sidewalk store. Alloue sweet talks her into hiring him as a helper and security guard against the sidewalk thugs. She admits that she doesn’t like or trust Africans, and that there is nothing in Africa that would be even remotely interesting to her. The two become close—almost romantically.
Ida has a granddaughter who turns up ashamed and pregnant. She has been estranged from her grandmother, and Alloune is shocked by all the disrespect and discontent that he observes between the two generations. He sets out to rectify the situation, as well as help his American cousins rediscover the African pride that they have lost.
Alloune also finds out that Blacks born on American soil and those brought over on slave ships aren’t as close as he thinks they should be. Little Senegal is a movie that reveals how cultural differences and Western influences have allowed the two groups to grow apart from one another. Shot in the Senegalese community of Harlem, Little Senegal shows life in New York’s projects and touches on themes of racism and discrimination between African Americans and their native African cousins.

Brother Outsider

Brother Outsider is a documentary that covers the extraordinary life of civil rights activist Bayard Rustin. Rustin was an activist and a gay, Black man born in Pennsylvania in 1912. Rustin was the architect behind the esteemed 1963 March on Washington, after his involvement with the Fellowship of Reconciliation and the Communist Party—all of which were followed by the FBI—ended.
He came to Atlanta after he had been arrested many times for his political beliefs but finally jailed in 1953 on charges of sexual perversion in Pasadena, California. He helped Dr. King, and the documentary shares that Rustin was not only a member of the Black community but also an influential member of the LGBT community.
Five years in the making, Brother Outsider illuminates the public and private lives of Rustin, a visionary activist and strategist who has been called the “invisible man” and “the unknown hero” of the civil rights movement. The film has garnered more than 25 international awards and honors, including eight Best Documentary prizes and seven Audience Favorite awards at film festivals, along with the GLAAD Media Award for Outstanding Documentary and an NAACP Image Award nomination.
In a 2010 review of the best historical documentaries of the last decade, Michael Fox of the San Francisco Film Society described Brother Outsider as a “mesmerizing eye-opener that inspires audiences to carry on Rustin’s worldwide crusade against injustice, discrimination and poverty.” The movie is very educational and very moving.

Jumping the Broom

Jumping the Broom is the first African-American-centered movie that I have seen in a long time that didn’t have the obligatory church scene, with the choir jamming, the preacher “whooping” and the sistahs consumed by the Holy Ghost. Now I’m not saying that this is a bad thing—I am just saying that Jumping the Broom was a nice movie, even without the standards that go along with some Black movies.
In fact, Jumping the Broom, save for the title, is one of those movies that, had it been based on bourgeois and low-end white families, I would have questioned why the script couldn’t have been filled with Black people.
Well, I’m glad I didn’t have to question it, because thanks to Bishop T.D. Jakes and others, Jumping the Broom is filled with beautiful, snotty and working-class Black folks. And therein lie the issues. Jakes and company have made an entertaining movie this is so cool to watch—what with Angela Bassett (Mrs. Watson) as the bourgie mother of the bourgie bride, played by Paula Patton, with a bourgie father and housekeeper, all living on Martha’s Vineyard.
Alonso and Patton (Sabrina) meet and, since she’s headed to Japan after six months of courtship, the two decide to marry. What follows is a peep into socio-economic classism and privilege among Blacks that’s not normally offered in Hollywood movies.
The two families meet for the first time when Laz’ family and mother trek their suitcases to Martha’s Vineyard. Loretta Devine (Laz’ mother) resents the wealth, and she’s really aching because her son is leaving her and getting married. Bassett could give a rat’s ass about how Devine is feeling, because as she told her, “my family weren’t slaves, we owned slaves.”
After much tension and feeling so frustrated and left out, during the pre-wedding dinner, Devine shares a secret that she heard being discussed between Bassett and her sister. The wedding is called off, until Jason can find Sabrina at the beach and convince her that joining him as they both explore the rest of their lives together would be the best thing she’s ever done.
The wedding is back on, along with the Casper Slide and the broom ritual, but not a chicken wing in sight! Halleluiah!


Carjacked is a testament to the phrases: ‘revenge is sweet’ and ‘hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.’ Cute Maria Bello plays Lorraine, a recently divorced single mother whose hubby is a military guy who is trying to get sole custody of the couple’s young son. While in therapy, Lorraine is reminded that she is too soft. And lo and behold, shortly afterward she and her son are carjacked by a guy who just helped robbed a bank and is on the lam. Boy, did he mess with the wrong lady!
Stephen Dorff plays the carjacker named Roy, who forces Lorraine to drive to meet up with his accomplice who still has money from the heist. Possibly facing not only her death, but her son’s, Lorraine’s fight for survival summons up an inner strength and courage that she never thought she had. At first, the ride starts off as smoothly as any carjacking can go, with Lorraine cooperating and asking when Roy will let them go. But at some point, Roy discovers that she had a cell phone, and he remarks that he would hurt Lorraine’s young son. You can see her attitude change at that point, and she’s destined to get out of the situation—or at least get her son to safety. During a rest stop, her son is able to get lost in a group of schoolchildren who are on a field trip.
Afterward, Roy forces Lorraine in the trunk of the car and puts a couple of bullets into his partner; placing him in the trunk also. He sets the trunk on fire, but that’s no match (excuse the pun) for Lorraine, as she is able to escape. At a nearby rest stop, she watches as Roy carjacks yet another helpless female with a young daughter.
Lorraine literally goes into overdrive, catches up with Roy, and then the movies gets even better. The end of Carjacked is so sweet; Lorraine wins in more ways than one

Elaine Hegwood Bowen is an editor, writer and film critic in Chicago, who also serves as a news editor for

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