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A Civil Rights movie based on true events, 42 tells the story of Jackie Robinson, the first black baseball player admitted into the Major leagues, and who played for the Brooklyn Dodgers. He wore player number 42, hence the film name.

Although some players and fans supported Robinson, he also became the target of racism and discrimination from those who believed that black players should stick to their own African American league.

Fantastic film and fantastic acting by all involved, especially Chadwick Boseman as Robinson. Harrison Ford played Branch Rickey, the sports executive who signed Robinson. It’s also always good to see Christopher Meloni in any role, and here he played Leo Durocher, coach of the Brooklyn Dodgers.

Highly recommend this film – you certainly do not need to be a baseball fan (although that may well help). Definitely one of my favourites so far this year.

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Year of release: 2013

Director: Brian Helgeland

Writer: Brian Helgeland

Main cast: Chadwick Boseman, Harrison Ford, Christopher Meloni, Alan Tudyk, Nicole Beharie, Andre Holland, John C McGinley

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Just in case the post heading doesn’t make it clear – this post WILL contain spoilers! Probably none that you haven’t already seen in the media coverage and excitement over the release of this book, but spoilers nonetheless. The reason is that I don’t think I am really able to review Go Set A Watchman without revealing spoilers. So you have been warned…!

This book was written prior to Harper Lee’s classic To Kill a Mockingbird (hereafter referred to as TKAM), but the publishers apparently urged her to go back and write a story from Scout Finch’s point of view, which resulted in TKAM. It hardly needs pointing out that that book became a modern classic, a set text, beloved by almost everyone who read it. It also created in Atticus Finch, a true literary hero – a man who stood up for his principles and for what was right, despite huge and sometimes violent opposition.

Go Set a Watchman also concentrates mainly on Scout’s point of view, but Scout is now 26, living in New York and known by her proper name, Jean Louise. When she comes back to Maycomb to visit her family, she is shocked to realise that Atticus is not the hero she had previously considered him to be, and that in fact he supports segregation between black and white people. Her horror as she sees her much loved and respected father at a council meeting about how to keep black people out of white people’s business is shared by the reader. How can he do this to us? This shining example of all that is good and right is actually a racist???

The hurt is compounded when she discovers that the only reason he agrees to defend a black man accused of manslaughter is to stop the NAACP defending him and demanding black people on juries and wanting other rights to which Atticus and most citizens of Maycomb do not believe they should be entitled.

So for many reasons, this book was not entirely comfortable reading. The writing itself is not as polished and does not flow as easily as TKAM, but it IS very readable, and for the most part, despite the subject, I did enjoy it. However, the last part of the book (and once again there are going to be major spoilers here) when Jean Louise confronts her father and he explains his reasons for behaving the way he does – basically, he says that he is still a good guy but for the sake of all that is good and holy, those black people cannot be allowed the same rights as white people – is uneasy to stomach, especially when Jean Louise ends up coming around and sees his beliefs from his point of view.

All in, I would say that I am glad I read this, and would recommend it to fans of TKAM.

(For more information about the author, please click here.)

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At the request of the family of Martin Luther King, Jr., King Scholar Claybourne Carson used Stanford University’s vast collection of King’s essays, his speeches and interviews with King, to construct this book, which tells the story of King’s life, with particular attention on his work for Civil Rights and equal opportunities for black Americans.  Each chapter focuses on a specific time, campaign or incident, and describes not only the events taking place, but King’s own determination to keep going, the difficulties that he faced – both emotionally and physically – and the reasoning behind his actions, including his absolute determination that the campaign should be non-violent.

I found the book thoroughly absorbing.  King was clearly an eloquent man with a passionate belief in justice for all, and this comes through on every page.  I knew about the man and his life prior to picking up this book, but reading his thoughts in his own words was still very enlightening.  I was full of admiration for a man who knew that his work put him in physical danger and indeed saw friends and colleagues die for the cause, who felt sometimes that he was fighting a losing (non-violent) battle, who encountered differences of opinion even within his own campaign, but yet refused to give up striving for what was right and fair.

Clayborne Carson has done a wonderful job of using King’s writings to build a clear chronological narrative, and it was often heartbreaking, but never less than inspiring to read.  I thoroughly recommend this book to anyone and everyone.

(For more information about Martin Luther King, Jr., his life and work, and his legacy, please click here.)

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Harriet Beecher Stowe was a staunch advocate for the abolishment of slavery in the mid-1800s, and Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which is her most famous book, was a novel about the evils of slavery and the slave trade.  It is said that when Beecher Stowe met Abraham Lincoln, he said to her, “So you are the little lady who wrote the book that started this great war in reference to the American Civil War.  However, while is it certainly true that the two met, it has never been confirmed that Lincoln said such a thing, although I can see why the book would have caused a large stir when it was released.

The titular character starts the novel as a slave owned by Mr and Mrs Shelby.  He has lived for several years on their plantation, and has a wife and children there.  Due to financial woes, Mr Shelby sells him to a slave trader, and the novel follows Tom’s life through two more owners.  It talks about the other people he meets, some benevolent, such as Augustine St Clare, who determines to give Tom his freedom, and others not so.

Because of the historical and political significance of this book, I really really wanted to like it.  I had meant to read it for ages, and finally picked it up after a friend told me she had enjoyed it.  And the thing is…I came away a bit disappointed.  The main thing that hit me about this book was just how preachy it is.  There’s a lot of religion in Uncle Tom’s Cabin.  A LOT.  And people are divided into one of three categories.  If you are a Christian, you are a good person.  If you are not a Christian, you are an evil person.  If you are not a Christian but are striving to be, you will probably be a good person in the end.  I understand that books have to be read in context; it’s important to remember when this novel was written, but whereas some classics age well, Uncle Tom’s Cabin has aged badly (well, it’s just my little opinion of course).  It’s overwhelming preachiness – which appears without fail on at least one out of every two pages – got somewhat tiring after a while.  It’s a shame, because when Beecher Stowe stepped away from the religious aspect, her writing could be quite enjoyable and even amusing.  I’m not a religious person, but I don’t have anything against religion.  I just don’t need it ramming down my throat quite so often, or to be told that anybody who is not a Christian is inherently bad.

Also, for a book which strives so hard to point out that slaves are just as much people as anyone else (which sounds obvious in today’s world, but again remembering when this was written – slaves were seen as commodities or possessions, nothing more), it is a shame that the slaves themselves are spoken about in broad stereotypes (several times, Beecher Stowe makes reference to a trait that is common “to their race.”), and rather patronisingly.

Although there is little characterisation, the story itself was a quite enthralling one, and would have been much more enjoyable if it had been told as a more straightforward narrative without the religious lecturing part.  My favourite part was the section of the book where Tom was living with the St Clare family, and within the confines of his situation was happy.  The ending contained a ridiculous amount of coincidence, which made the last few pages hard to take seriously, but I cannot deny that the book did make me cry on a couple of occasions.

I think I would probably recommend this book, but more because of its significance, rather than because I especially enjoyed it.  At times, it was enjoyable, but I found it hard going at times.  Nonetheless, it did help to change the widely held view that slavery was acceptable, and it’s worth reading the book that managed to do such a thing.

(For more information about Harriet Beecher Stowe, or Uncle Tom’s Cabin, please click here.)

 

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I don’t listen to a lot of audiobooks and it’s very rare for me to think that a book is better listened to than read, but in this case, I’ll make an exception.  The Measure of a Man is narrated by Sidney Poitier himself, and he has such a beautiful voice, that it really enhanced my experience of the book.  It also worked really well as an audiobook because he is so conversational in tone – he peppers his narration with phrases like, “You follow?” or “You see?”

As for the content itself – wow!  This is a wonderful autobiography and then some.  While Poitier does tell the story of his life, it’s not necessarily a straightforward chronological account of events.  At times it comes across more as a philosophical discussion, where he uses his own life as a starting point.

His description of his childhood on Cat Island in the Bahamas was wonderful.  Although his family lived in poverty, he points out that living in poverty on Cat Island was very different to living in poverty in some concrete jungle.  As a child, he lived in a place with a beautiful climate, cocoa plum trees, sea grapes and wild bananas.

However, the most interesting – and in many ways upsetting – part of the book was when Poitier described his life in America which started when he moved to Florida aged 15, and then moved on to New York, and eventually started acting.  This was a a time of racial segregation, and he realised exactly what it meant to be classed as a second class citizen.  As an example – he recalled one event when he was already quite well known in films, and he went to a restaurant for a bite to eat.  The black Maitre d’ explained that he could have a table there, but they would have to put a screen around him, for the sensitivity of the white diners.  When offered jobs on certain films, he was asked to sign papers disowning those of his black friends who were campaigning for equal rights (he always refused to do so).

Throughout it all, Poitier’s dignity and strong sense of right and wrong shines through.  He speaks strongly of his love for his parents, and how they inspire him in his life – whatever work he does, he does for them as well as for himself and his own family.  He describes how he has always tried to be the best that he can be, his search for answers, his hopes for not only himself, but the world at large.  He’s honest about himself; those parts of himself that he is proud of, and the mistakes which he has made.

This is not a revealing, kiss-and-tell autobiography, and it is all the better for it.  Poitier does not delve into the subject of murky or tawdry Hollywood tales, and is respectful of those people who he does mention by name.  He does discuss some of his most famous films – which made me immediately want to go out and rewatch them – and reveals his motivation for playing certain roles, and refusing certain others.

Overall, I’d say that this is one of the best autobiographies I have ever read (or listened to).  I would strongly recommend it, not only to anyone with an interest in Hollywood or film-making, but also to anyone with an interest in the civil rights movement.

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This film was based on Kathryn Stockett’s novel.  Set in Mississippi in the early 1960s, it tells the story of an idealistic young woman nicknamed Skeeter, who decides to interview the African-American maids who work for the white families in her neighbourhood, and find out what life is like for the maids.  She plans to write a book based on the maids’ stories, but this risky venture places her at odds with her family and friends.

I loved the book, and often find that films based on books can be a disappointment.  However, in this case, I thought the film was also wonderful, with beautiful performances all round.  Emma Stone played Skeeter, and while I did not initially think that she was the right fit for the part, she was excellent.  Viola Davis (who was nominated for an Oscar for her performance) played Aibileen beautifully – I cried over her character’s losses and heartbreaks.  Octavia Spencer won the Oscar for her performance as Minny, and it was well deserved – she managed to combine just the right amount of sass and vulnerability (and her revenge on her bigoted and hateful former employee Hilly was both hilarious and shocking!)  Jessica Chastain played Celia Foote, Minny’s new employer, a sweet and insecure young woman, who is rejected by Hilly and her band of followers, because Celia is married to Hilly’s ex-boyfriend (and also because Celia is sexy and pretty).  Celia and Aibileen were in fact my two favourite characters, both in the book and the film.

Even knowing about the segregation laws, and the discrimination that people faced, it is still squirm inducing to see it played out on screen.  The hypocrisy of Hilly was breath-taking – she was happy to make herself look good by raising money for starving African children, but heaven forbid that her black maid should be allowed to use the family bathroom.  It’s okay for Minny to raise Hilly’s child and cook the family’s food, but she should not be allowed to eat in the same room as them?  Bryce Dallas Howard played Hilly, and should be given credit for her excellent portrayal of such a hateful and ignorant character.  Allison Janney was also wonderful – but when isn’t she?! – as Skeeter’s sick mother, and Sissy Spacek shone as Hilly’s mother, who was a much nicer character than her daughter.

The characters are all fully fleshed out, and there are moments of laughter, sadness, triumph and despair throughout the film.  I cried at a number of scenes, but there are plenty of ironic laughs to be had as well.  I recommend both the film and the book very highly.

Year of release: 2011

Director: Tate Taylor

Producers: Mohamed Khalaf Al-Mazrouel, Nate Berkus, Jennifer Blum, L. Dean Jones Jr., John Norris, Mark Radcliffe, Jeff Skoll, Tate Taylor, Derick Washington, Michael Barnathan, Chris Colombus, Brunson Green, Sonya Lunsford

Writers: Kathryn Stockett (novel), Tate Taylor

Main cast: Emma Stone, Viola Davis, Bryce Dallas Howard, Octavia Spencer, Jessica Chastain, Ahna O’Reilly, Allison Janney

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Click here for my review of the novel.

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Adapted from ER Braithwaite’s book about his own experiences, this is the story of an intelligent and well-educated young black man, who having fought for Britain in WWII, is faced with racism when he tries to find work after the war.  He ends up as a teacher in a rough London school, where his pupils have no respect for adults and no interest in learning, because they don’t expect to be able to do anything with their lives.  Despite the difficulties he initially faces, he perseveres, and teaches the children that to earn respect from others, they must first respect themselves.

Ansu Kabia was wonderful in the lead role, bringing a dignity to the part that has long been lacking in the schoolroom where he attempts to prepare his students for adulthood.  Matthew Kelly was also great, although maybe slightly underused, as the liberal headmaster, who does not believe in discipline, and I loved Nicola Reynolds as ‘Clinty’ – a no-nonsense teacher with a great sense of humour.  Paul Kemp played a good part as a racist school teacher, who lacks any respect for his pupils, but who is also affected by Rick Braithwaite’s intelligence and dignity.

I loved the scenery – it was very clean and spare, and the cast cleverly incorporated the scene changes into the action.  The story had many funny moments, and a few uncomfortable ones, when the audience sees the racism shown to Rick by others.  The ending left me with a lump in my throat and tears in my eyes.  Overall, a great show, well worth seeing if you get the opportunity.

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John Briley’s novel was adapted from his own screenplay for the film of the same name, which in turn was adapted from two books by Donald Woods (‘Biko’ and ‘Asking for Trouble’).

It tells the true story of the friendship between white Journalist Donald Woods, and black anti-Apartheid activist Stephen Biko, in South Africa in the 1970s.  Initially suspicious of each other’s motives, Woods and Biko become united, driven by their desire for equality in South Africa.  When Biko dies in Police Custody – the Police’s story is that he died of a self-imposed hunger strike, while Biko’s body, and the routine practices of certain Police at the time make it clear that he was beaten and tortured to death – Woods is determined to tell Biko’s story to the rest of the world.  However, the South African government and Police are determined to stop him, and place a banning order on him, effectively placing him under house arrest, and not allowing him to be in the company of more than one person at a time, save for immediate family.  However, Woods is determined that Biko’s story should be told.

I enjoyed the book a lot – it made me gasp in horror at times, but was very compelling.  The injustices committed against people in this book made my eyes pop, even though I already knew something about them.

The story is told in two parts – the first covers the friendship between the two men, while the second, after Biko’s death, describes Woods’ determination to see some justice for his friend, by telling the story of Biko and what he was striving for in South Africa.  My only criticism of it would be that it doesn’t go into some areas in much depth, and I would have liked to have known more.  It does read like a novel (and is described as such by the author), and so even though it is a true story, it flows well, and is hard to put down.  I would have liked to have learned more about Biko’s life leading up to the events in the story, but as it is adapted from the screenplay, it only really describes what was happening in the film, which focused on just that time in Biko’s life.  However, I would still recommend this book highly.

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This heartwarming (often a cliche, but very true here) story, written by Alfred Uhry, about a cantankerous old Jewish lady and her black chauffeur, was made famous by the film starring Jessica Tandy (who won an Oscar for her part) Morgan Freeman and Dan Aykroyd (both men also received Oscar nominations).  Here, it is brought to the stage, starring Gwen Taylor as Daisy, Don Warrington as Hoke, and Ian Porter as Daisy’s son Boolie.

The story starts in 1948, in Georgia, USA, when elderly Daisy Werthan has yet another accident while driving, and her son insists that he will hire a chauffeur for her, and Hoke is the driver who he chooses.  Initially Daisy is reluctant, as she resents her loss of independence, but over the years, she and Hoke grow close and become good friends, who genuinely care for one another.  The story finishes in the 1970s, and as the times progress, the current affairs of the day are referred to, particularly Martin Luther King’s work to eradicate racism and inequality.

The cast of three were all stunning, and it’s incredibly hard to pick any as being better than the others, but I was totally bowled over by Don Warrington.  He played Hoke with charm, humour and tenderness.  Gwen Taylor was wonderful as the acerbic Daisy, who despite maintaining that she is not prejudiced against black people, makes a few remarks early on that suggest that she is, even if she doesn’t believe it herself.  So to see her become so enamoured of Martin Luther King, and be excited about the changes that are taking place (equality laws) is rather lovely.  Despite her initial hostility towards Hoke (which is not personal so much as what his presence represents, i.e., the fact that she is ageing and not as capable as she was), she still has a warmth about her.  Ian Porter was wonderful as the son caught between the old world which Hoke and his mother are familiar with, and the new world, with all the changes that it brings.  And yet, while he is not prejudiced, he still expresses fear about going to a banquet to celebrate Martin Luther King, because he fears that his business will suffer if he does.  However, it’s clear that he genuinely does like Hoke and grows to respect him.

The staging was also very clever – a simplistic set, but very effective, especially the driving scenes, with a backdrop of the places they visited being projected onto the back wall.  This worked extremely well.

The play was just about an hour and a half long, and there was no interval.  This worked to its advantage, as the play was probably not lengthy enough to warrant and break, and I think the flow of the story would have been broken if there had been an interval.

Driving Miss Daisy is at the end of it’s tour, which is a real shame, because I really want to recommend it to everyone I know!  It was a moving, thought-provoking, and often amusing story, and I had a tear in my eye at the end.  Just wonderful.

(For more information about this production, please click here.)

 

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Small Island tells the tale of four people before, during and after World War II, and deals with issues of racism, family and love.  Queenie Bligh’s husband Bernard went off to fight in the war and by 1948 still hasn’t returned.  Queenie has no idea where he is, or even if he is dead or alive.  To help make ends meet she has taken in lodgers, one of whom is Gilbert Joseph, a Jamaican man who fought for Britain in the war.  Queenie’s neighbours are outraged that she is allowing black lodgers into her home, but Queenie herself is more tolerant.  Gilbert’s wife Hortense, an educated and snobbish woman comes to Britain to join her husband and fulfil her dreams of a big house in the beautiful countryside, but the reality is very different.  She is living in one cramped and dirty room, in a neighbourhood where she is unwelcome because of her colour – and she is discovering that she does not really like – or even know – her husband.

The tales of these characters, and a fourth character of Queenie’s husband Bernard, are interwoven beautifully.  The story is gripping and entirely believable.  The scenes of both blatant and casual racism are disturbing and shocking to read (the casual racism sometimes more so than the blatant).  The hypocrisy of human nature, as well as the strengths of individuals, is also well depicted.

All four characters take it in turns to narrate the story, and the narrative switches from ‘Before’ (the war) and 1948, which is the present day in the story.  However, it never becomes confusing, and each character is distinct and fully fleshed out.  Queenie and Gilbert are the most sympathetic characters (to me anyway), while I found it difficult to warm to Bernard.  Hortense was possibly the most interesting however, and the viewer is taken from her early dreams to her shock that gradually comes over her as she discovers – as Gilbert did months earlier – that black faces are not welcome in Britain, although many black people fought for Britain in the war.

The ending was excellent, and really brought all the threads together.  There were a few surprises at the conclusion, but all of them fitted in well with the story.

The book won the 2004 Orange Prize for Fiction, the Whitbread Book of the Year in 2004 and the Commonwealth Writer’s Prize in 2005.  I am not surprised in the least at the acclaim it received.  Without hesitation I would recommend this book.

(Author’s website can be found here.)

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