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kottke.org posts about Wesley Morris

Some Observations on Leaving Neverland

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 05, 2019

I watched Leaving Neverland last night in one four-hour sitting…as in I literally didn’t leave the sofa. Completely riveting. Here are some thoughts I have about it.

1. At its heart, this is not actually a movie about Michael Jackson. It’s about two men, James Safechuck and Wade Robson, whose lives were utterly ruined by a man they idolized & trusted. Their childhood innocence ripped away. Their families torn apart. Their current families left wondering if they can be trusted with their own children. As the movie progresses, Jackson almost fades into the background and the viewer is just left with these men, feeling and empathizing with them and their families.

2. One of the things I was most struck by, especially in the early part of the film, was the way the two men and their families described Jackson in almost a tender, loving way. There was little on-camera anger and lashing out (although there undoubtably was during their still-ongoing recovery process). I was left with a feeling of unease that in a deep and complicated way, these two men still care for Jackson. That feeling’s gonna stay with me for a loooong time.

3. As I’m writing this post, one of Jackson’s songs echoes in my head: “Heal the world / Make it a better place / For you and for me.” I have no idea what to make of this or how to process it.

4. It is pretty simple. Unless you’re willing to perform complicated mental gymnastics to bamboozle yourself into conspiracy theory land, the plain truth is that Michael Jackson was a pedophile. You can feel however you want about that — he was a monster, he was a man broken by his own abusive childhood & twisted by the vortex of fame — but you cannot simply dismiss it. Maureen Orth covered previous accusations about Jackson for Vanity Fair; her recent article is a good short summary of the facts.

5. If you’re a famous actor who spent lots of one-on-one time with Jackson when you were a child, why would you ever in a million years tell anyone that he sexually abused you?

6. A statement released by the Jackson estate said that Leaving Neverland is “the kind of tabloid character assassination Michael Jackson endured in life, and now in death”. Who knows if they actually watched the film because it is the opposite of a sensationalistic hit piece. This isn’t Michael Moore bombast. The film is careful, methodical, and, aside from some slightly ominous music at times, quite respectful towards Jackson given the circumstances. As Wesley Morris writes, “‘LEAVING NEVERLAND’ is long but delicately, patiently done — and so quiet; you can practically hear yourself listening.”

7. No One Deserves As Much Power As Michael Jackson Had by Craig Jenkins:

If you don’t believe that Jackson touched anyone inappropriately, you have to reckon with the fact that he knowingly coerced families into allowing their children into his orbit while incrementally driving their parents away; that he nudged them out of the picture as they got a little older, only remembering to call when he needed someone to testify in a court of law. You have to listen to the Robson family explain how Jackson’s machinations pried the young boy’s parents apart, how the singer convinced them to move to Los Angeles from Australia, how Robson’s father committed suicide because they left him.

You come away from the film with the sense that Jackson was, at a minimum, a troubled and deeply manipulative person, more so than we’d ever imagined.

8. In Michael Jackson Cast a Spell. ‘Leaving Neverland’ Breaks It., Wesley Morris grapples with his fandom of Jackson (just as he did with Bill Cosby last year).

The story was that Jackson never molested anybody. And we stuck to it, and it stuck to him. And the question now, of course, is what do we do? It’s the question of our #MeToo times: If we believe the accusers (and I believe Wade and James), what do we do with the art? With Jackson, what can we do? Wade became a successful choreographer who’s made a career out of teaching his version of Jackson’s hydraulic bounces, whips, and stutters to Britney Spears, ‘N Sync, Cirque du Soleil and rooms full of aspiring dancers. “Look Back at It,” the big single from A Boogie Wit Da Hoodie’s No. 1 album from January, is built out of two Jackson hits. Michael Jackson’s music isn’t a meal. It’s more elemental than that. It’s the salt, pepper, olive oil and butter. His music is how you start. And the music made from that — that music is everywhere, too. Where would the cancellation begin?

9. Where does the cancellation begin? I have no idea about the music; I love so many of his songs (my kids are fans too, which is a whole other thing I don’t know how to deal with) but “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough” now has a second sinister meaning that I will never be able to shake. I will say this though: I’ve posted a number of things about Jackson on kottke.org over the years that are unrelated to the sexual abuse allegations. Not anymore. It’s time to hear other stories.

Thirty Years of Spike Lee

posted by Tim Carmody   Jan 25, 2019

Spike Lee - Black KKKlansman.jpg

Spike Lee’s first film, She’s Gotta Have It, came out in 1986, but the writer/director/actor’s best film, the one that made him famous, Do the Right Thing, celebrates its thirtieth anniversary this summer. It’s worth reading contemporary reactions to Lee’s film—Joe Klein’s infamous “Spiked?” is the classic example—if only to see how terrified Lee made people.

Lee’s Q&A in Cannes in 1989 is also required viewing:

Lee still does should-be-shocking things—last year at Cannes, he repeatedly called Donald Trump a “motherfucker”—but the reaction to him is very different. He’s become an elder statesman, part of the fraternity, an academy nominee for Best Director and Best Picture thirty years after his best work got shut out from award consideration.

It’s all about timing. Lee thinks the Academy has come a long way from where it was thirty years ago, but warns against becoming complacent:

“Hollywood has really ramped it up,” he said. “They are making more diverse films. But in order to make sure this is something that is steady and not a trend is for us to see diversity among the gatekeepers, the rarified individuals that decide what we’re making and not making. That’s the only way to ensure against more cyclical droughts, that’s the new frontier. We’ve got a lot of stuff now, but what films are coming out next year? I’m not going to have a film. Who’s going to be there next in the marketplace? The only way to ensure this does not become a trend is that it should be commonplace.”

He used saltier language with the New York Times, but still suggested that the different treatment of his newer film is largely a matter of good timing:

Does any part of you feel like it’s overdue?

I mean, look, it’s no secret. 30 years is a long [expletive] time. But I’m not complaining! It’s a joyous day. I’m blessed for this day. Blessed for the recognition. And there’s a feeling that it’s not just the people that worked on this film [that have earned recognition], it’s the people that have been working on my films since 1986.

You’ve made all kinds of films — some independent, some with studios, some that you wrote, some that were written by others — was there anything about “BlacKkKlansman” that you thought had the potential to resonate in a different way?

Well, when Jordan Peele called me up and gave me the pitch “Black man infiltrates the Ku Klux Klan,” I was intrigued, because with the absurdity of that premise comes humor. Kevin Willmott [a co-writer of the film] and I knew that if we could use the movie to connect the past with the present, we could do something that connected with people. And it was a tough thing to do. But it was successful, and it speaks directly to the world we live in today with this guy in the White House. Today, when 800,000 Americans need a break as we go into another week of this temper tantrum about how this guy wants his money for his wall. A wall he wants to be built upon the border of a country that he says [is home to] rapists, murders and drug dealers. And that they’re gonna pay for! Which is not true.

This film deals directly with the madness and the mayhem of this Looney Tunes, cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs world [laughs]. And I feel that many years to come, when historians search for a piece of art that clearly shows what is happening today, “BlacKkKlansman” will be one of the first things they look at. Because this film is on the right side of history.

But if you really want to use Do the Right Thing to understand contemporary film, the best example is this magisterial essay by Wesley Morris, “Why Do the Oscars Keep Falling for Racial Reconciliation Fantasies?

From Driving Miss Daisy (which won the Best Picture Oscar the year Do the Right Thing wasn’t nominated) to the past year’s Green Book, pictures about race the Academy loves tend to have a common structure, where racism is somehow not enabled by capitalism (and vice versa) but abated by it:

The white characters — the biological ones and somebody supposedly not black enough, like fictional Don — are lonely people in these pay-a-pal movies. The money is ostensibly for legitimate assistance, but it also seems to paper over all that’s potentially fraught about race. The relationship is entirely conscripted as service and bound by capitalism and the fantastically presumptive leap is, The money doesn’t matter because I like working for you. And if you’re the racist in the relationship: I can’t be horrible because we’re friends now. That’s why the hug Sandra Bullock gives Yomi Perry, the actor playing her maid, Maria, at the end of “Crash,” remains the single most disturbing gesture of its kind. It’s not friendship. Friendship is mutual. That hug is cannibalism.

Do the Right Thing blows up that structure, which is why it was so threatening:

Closure is impossible because the blood is too bad, too historically American. Lee had conjured a social environment that’s the opposite of what “The Upside,” “Green Book,” and “Driving Miss Daisy” believe. In one of the very last scenes, after Sal’s place is destroyed, Mookie still demands to be paid. To this day, Sal’s tossing balled-up bills at Mookie, one by one, shocks me. He’s mortally offended. Mookie’s unmoved. They’re at a harsh, anti-romantic impasse. We’d all been reared on racial-reconciliation fantasies. Why can’t Mookie and Sal be friends? The answer’s too long and too raw. Sal can pay Mookie to deliver pizzas ‘til kingdom come. But he could never pay him enough to be his friend.