Archive for June, 2017

In case you missed it – Hot Movie Takes from May-June 2017

A montage of film reviews and rumblings by Leo Adam Biga, Author of “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film.”

Hot Movie Takes– Ten for Ten, A Film Streams series celebrating ten years of the Ruth Sokolof Theater
Author of “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film”

Here is the Film Streams presser on the series:
Film Streams proudly announces Ten for Ten (July 15 – August 17), a retrospective selected by the nonprofit’s staff and board members to celebrate the tenth anniversary of their North Downtown location, the Ruth Sokolof Theater.

The process of determining the series began by creating individual top tens, which involved sifting through more than 1,600 films that illuminated the screens of the Ruth Sokolof Theater during its first decade. Though the lists varied wildly, when tallied what emerged was a series that champions some of the finest independent and foreign films released in the past ten years, and one indelible classic.

Selections include some of the biggest hits ever screened at the Ruth Sokolof Theater (SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE, MOONRISE KINGDOM, BIRDMAN) and the granddaddy of them all (NEBRASKA). It also includes smaller films that loom large in memory (LET THE RIGHT ONE IN, WINTER’S BONE, BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD, AMOUR). A recent pick (2016’s MOONLIGHT) and a repertory selection (1996’s FARGO) testify to the ongoing magic of film.

The tenth anniversary of the Ruth Sokolof Theater comes in the midst of a momentous year. Work is under way on Film Streams’ renovation of the 92-year-old Dundee Theater. When reopened, the historic theater will become the nonprofit’s second location.

Unless otherwise noted, tickets for all showings in the series are $9 general, $7 for seniors, students, teachers, military, and those arriving by bicycle, and $4.50 for Film Streams Members. For more information, questions or requests, please contact Patrick Kinney at (402) 933-0259 x 11 or

For details, visit

I am thrilled Film Streams is bringing back some films I didn’t see during their original release and have not had a chance to catch up with – unti now. Thank you, Film Streams.

Can’t wait to finally see:

And being the Alexander Payne book guy that I am, you know I’m excited that Payne’s NEBRASKA is a part of the series. Of course, I’ve seen that one a number of times, but I will definitely be back to see it again. If for some strange reason you’ve never seen NEBRASKA, this would be the time and place to see it. I’ve also seen FARGO and MOONLIGHT and I highly recommend them as well.

Finally, a hearty congratulations to the staff, board and members of Film Streams for gifting Omaha with this remarkable cultural asset and resource. Since its inception, and I’ve been reporting on it from the start, this organization has elevated the cinema culture here in countless ways. With the soon to re-open Dundee Theatre under its umbrella, the Film Streams cultural, educational impact will only grow.

Hot Movie Takes – “Brace for Impact” aka “Final Destiny”
©By Leo Adam Biga, Author of “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film”

I don’t know if the 2016 made-for-TV “Brace for Impact,” which also goes by “Final Destiny,” was made with the intention of being a pilot for a television series based on the protagonist, federal aviation crash investigator Sofia Gilchrist. But her character would make a compelling series lead. Kerry Condon does a fine job bringing the complex Sofia to life on screen in this Canadian-American co-production. Sofia is a brilliant but compulsive investigator who alienates everyone around her with her Sherlock Holmesesque obsessiveness, arrogance and defiance. She has all the requisite traits of a classic neurotic mind: intensely focused, analytical to a fault, socially awkward, afflicted with a fear of flying and prone to seeing criminal conspiracies in every case. Cursed with an ego that won’t be silenced, she feels she’s always right and she rankles at anything smacking of sexist, patronizing Old Boys Network behavior in her male-dominated field. She often feels her bosses and peers are trying to quiet or discredit her. She’s also paranoid and suffers from a persecution complex, so it’s hard to know what’s real and what’s not. Making matters worse, her temper sometimes gets the better of her and she says and does things, even getting physical, that get her in trouble and could be actionable in terms of losing her job and freedom. Indeed, when we first meet her she’s on suspension for an altercation with her supervisor, whom she detests.

She’s attending a fear of flying support group in preparation for a trip she’s promised to make with her brother. She’s no sooner buckled in her seat while the plane’s being readied for take-off than her intuition and anxiety kick in and her overwhelming sense of dread finds her unapologetically bolting off the aircraft – her exasperated but not altogether surprised brother going on without her. Minutes later, she learns the plane went down sometime after a fire was reported on board and crashed in a fireball with no survivors. She’s devastated by grief and guilt. Her very next reaction is pure Sofia: she heads right for the crash site to try and find out what happened. When her boss orders her to leave because she’s off-duty and emotionally comprised, she reacts violently before finally, reluctantly going. The rest of the story details her tenacious, often outside the bounds of protocol attempts to investigate the case with the help of confederates on the inside. Her suspicions of foul play go into overdrive when it’s confirmed the plane incurred a mid-air explosion of unknown origin. She stops at nothing to get answers and to run down leads for her theory, which appears flimsy at first. that a domestic terrorist act or plot was behind the explosion that brought down the plane. Her actions to try and prove her theory grow increasingly extreme. She’s caught breaking and entering and is forcibly arrested, she begins distrusting her only friend and she eventually risks not only her career but her life in pursuit of evidence.

Driving her is her own hyper-dedication to the work, her unshakeable hunch that mischief was involved and the haunting spirit of her brother demanding that she discover the truth.

The character of Sofia is alternately fascinating and irritating and there are times when you wonder, regardless of how good she is at her job, why anyone would tolerate her insufferable manner. But I found myself admiring her anyway, idiosyncrasies, quirks and all, because she’s a relatable flawed human being who cares so damn much that it nearly drives her mad. Sofia is a lot like the character Holly Hunter played in “Broadcast News.” Anal and impossible but so damn talented. I suspect some of the negative reviews I’ve found of the film have to do with some people being put-off by a strong female lead who does not take no for an answer and does not play by the rules. Somehow I think if her character was a man then all this Type-A personality stuff would have been more accepted by viewers.

There are some good supporting performances in the piece but everyone takes a back seat to Sofia, which is consistent with the force of nature she is. Director Michel Poulette and screenwriter Ian Carpenter do a good job pacing the story and always keeping Sofia’s neuroses center stage while never letting the core plot-line of her desperate search for clues stray.

The movie is available on Netflix.

Hot Movie Takes – “Unthinkable”
©By Leo Adam Biga, Author of “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film”

In the disturbing 2010 film “Unthinkable” Samuel L. Jackson plays “H” a CIA-military contracted torturer tasked with making a captured terrorist reveal the whereabouts of three nuclear bombs he’s placed in major urban American population centers and timed to detonate in a few days. The national security stakes are deemed so high that H’s brutal methodology, though abhorrent to most, is sanctioned in a black op, off the grid operation that has built in deniability written all over it, Michael Sheen plays Steven Arthur Younger, the radicalized American Muslim terrorist who purposely gets caught knowing his demands will not be met and he will be tortured and thus martyr himself to the cause . Carrie-Anne Moss plays FBI Special Agent Helen Brody, who’s asked to assist in the case and objects to the leeway given H. The film is graphic in its depiction of the torture tactics employed by H and the suffering endured by Younger/Mohammed. I assume the makers want us to be drawn in by the moral gray area the action straddles. For the greater good, H is allowed unchecked latitude to inflict pain and fear in the captive. In order to save millions of lives, the state is willing and able to condone the torture of the terrorist and even his family. H is pragmatic about it. Brody represents the conscience of the story. But she too finds herself willing to go beyond her own limits as time begins running out.
If the writer and director wanted me to intellectually-morally wrestle with the situation, I did not because I found the horror show of the torture scenes, which dominate the picture, outweighed any values calculus. By going so extreme, the story loses its power to stimulate that kind of refined examination and instead plays as a grind house, grade B exploitation flick. On that level and that level alone, the film works. As for any political-polemical-philosophical imperative, it fails rather miserably.

The best thing about it is the performance by Sheen as the terrorist willing to give up his life for his beliefs. The interplay and tension between Jackson and Moss is okay, but she’s pretty much overwhelmed by his larger than life presence, even in the part of a torturer who swear he’s not a sadist but whose actions say otherwise. The film tries to make Jackson’s character a complicated, conflicted soul, but i didn’t buy it. The film does a better job portraying the hypocrisy of our nation. We decry terrorism and torture but routinely engage in it ourselves. We rationalize it away or else deny it ever happened. And the film makes the point that we depend on people like H to do our dirty work for us. We turn him loose and then want nothing to with him or with the consequences of his actions. We wash our hands of it. This kind of behavior is as old as recorded history.

The drama is intense and engaging, up to a point, and then it just becomes a matter of how far H will go and what those around him are prepared to accept. The same goes for us in the audience. It would have been far better showing less and implying more. This movie is not terrible, just miscalculated and unmodulated, which muddles any thought-provoking intentions about the murky borderlines of what constitute moral imperatives and war crimes. I can see why it went straight to video.

You can watch it on Netflix. Just don’t expect too much.

Hot Movie Takes – “Promised Land”
©By Leo Adam Biga, Author of “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film”

The more movies I see, the more obvious it is that filmmakers trying to be ironical and satirical fall well short of the mark set by the contemporary master of that style of comedy, Alexander Payne. The latest example I’ve seen of a well-intended but not quite right effort in this regard is 2012’s “Promised Land.” The Matt Damon-John Krasinski project was co-written by Damon and Krasinski and directed by Gus Van Sant. Damon and Krasinski co-star along with Frances McDormand, Rosemarie DeWitt, Terry Kinney and Hal Holbrook, Despite all that talent, the film plods and meanders for long stretches that kind of go nowhere and really don’t serve to move the story forward or even to enlighten us more. In my opinion the makers got so caught up in trying to capture local color and to be authentic that they lost the core story in the process. To my eyes and ears, the earnest, slightly acerbic naturalism seems forced. Too much of the dialogue sounds like it was written and read, rather than just flowing spontaneously in the moment. Don’t get me wrong, there are some very good things in this movie, including good performances by all the principals and some of the supporting players. Amidst all the unnecessary layers of narrative, there is a good story that holds our interest and even has a message in the process. Damon and McDormand play salespeople who go to rural towns to buy leases on people’s land where natural gas has been found and will be extracted via fracking. They work for a powerful company that is prepared to do almost anything to get people to sign over their land. Damon’s character, Steve Butler, is a true believer in what he’s doing, until he comes face to face with his own familial past and the dirty business he is a part of and was oblivous to before. His nemesis is an environmentalist played by Krasinski who turns out to be the image in the mirror of himself that Steve increasingly doesn’t like seeing. Steve’s journey in self-awareness is interesing if predictaable and it is a bit of an endurance test to get there. There is a dramatic big twist and a satsifying final payoff at the end. both of which are contrived, but they do work for the story.

The film is available on Netflix.

Hot Movie Takes – 1967: A Memorable Year in Movies
©By Leo Adam Biga, Author of “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film”

Some of my recent Hot Movie Takes have focused on films celebrating 50 year anniversaries this year. In reviewing what I wrote, it occurred to me that an unusual number of very good English-language films were originally released in 1967. More than I previously thought. My previous posts about films from that banner year covered “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” “In the Heat of the Night,” “Bonnie and Clyde,” “Point Blank” and “The Graduate,” respectively. In doing some online checking, I found several more notable films from ’67, including some I hold in very high regard, Thus, I feel compelled to write about some of them, too. In this new post I reflect on this overlooked year in movies and give some capsule analyses about the pictures I’ve seen and feel most strongly about. I may eventually develop separate posts on ’67 movies of special merit or with special meaning to me.

Let me start by listing the movies I consider to be the best from that year of those I’ve seen. In descending order, my ’67 picks are:

Will Penny
Bonnie and Clyde
In Cold Blood
The Producers
The Graduate
In the Heat of the Night
Cool Hand Luke
Reflections in a Golden Eye
Point Blank
The Fearless Vampire Killers
Who’s that Knocking at My Door?
Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner
El Dorado
You Only Live Twice
The Dirty Dozen
To Sir, with Love
Barefoot in the Park
The War Wagon
Beach Red
Wait Until Dark
Throughly Modern Millie

That list includes a crazy range of cinema representing the crossroads the medium found itself at in that bridge year between Old and New Hollywood. A couple venerable but still vibrant filmmakers contributed to the year’s output: John Huston with his then-unappreciated and misunderstood “Reflections in a Golden Eye” and Howard Hawks with the middle film, “El Dorado,” of his Western trilogy that began with “Rio Bravo” and ended with “Rio Lobo.”

Richard Brooks, who rose to prominence as a screenwriter before becoming a highly successful writer-director, had the best movie of his career released in ’67, “In Cold Blood,” which is still as riveting, disturbing and urgent today as it was a half century ago. It captures the essence of the masterful; Truman Capote book it’s adapted from. The semi-documentary feel and the atmospheric black and white look are incredibly evocative. Though neither was exactly a newcomer, Robert Blake and Scott Wilson were strokes of genius casting decisions and they thoroughly, indelibly own their parts. I believe “In Cold Blood” features one of the best opening credit sequences in movie history. Even though the film doesn’t actually show overt violence, the intimate, voyeuristic way the Clutter killings are handled actually make the horror of what happened even more disturbing. Those scenes took what Hitchcock did in “Psycho” and pushed them further and really set the stage for what followed in the crime and horror genres.

Distinguished producer turned director Stanley Kramer chose that year to give us the most pregnant message picture of his career – “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.” Burt Kennedy, who owns a special place in movie history for his writing and producing that great string of Westerns directed by Budd Boetticher starring Randolph Scott, gave us an entertaining as hell if less than classic Western he wrote and directed – “The War Wagon” – starring John Wayne and Kirk Douglas.

More random cinema stirrings from that list:
Warren Beatty asserted himself a Player with the success of “Bonnie and Clyde,” which he produced and starred in. Its director, Arthur Penn, had made a splash with his second feature, “The Miracle Worker,” only to recede into the shadows until “Bonnie and Clyde” made gave him instant cachet again. The film also helped make Faye Dunaway a star. And it was the launching pad for its writing team, Robert Benton and David Newman, to become in-demand talents, both together and individually. Finally. that film, along with “The Wild Bunch,” took American cinema violence to a new place and stylistically introduced European New Wave elements into the mainstream.

“The Graduate” similarly ignited the New Hollywood with its inventive visual style, contemporary soundtrack and cool irony. Beneath that cool exterior are red hot emotions that finally burst forth in the latter part of the picture.

“Will Penny,” the film I have as the best from that decade among the pictures I’ve seen, may not be familiar to many of you. It should be. The Tom Gries written and directed Western contains the best performance of Charlton Heston’s career. The stiff, arrogant, larger-than-life weightiness that made him a star but that also trapped him is no where to be seen here. He is the very epitome of the low-key laconic cowhand he’s asked to play and he’s absolutely brilliant in the minimalistic realism he brings to the role. The supporting players are really good, too, including a great performance by Joan Hackett as the love interest, strong interpretations by Lee Majors and Anthony Zerbe as his riding companions, and superb character turns by Clifton James, G.D. Spradlin, Ben Johnson and William Schallert. The villains are well played by Donald Pleasance as the evening angel patriarch of a mercenary family and Bruce Dern as one of his evil sons. Schallert, as a prairie outpost doc, beautifully delivers one of my favorite lines in movie history when put upon by Will (Heston) and Blue (Majors) to fix their ailing companion Dutchy (Zerbe) and, smelling their rankness and shaking his head at their daftness, sends Will and Blue away so he can get to work with: “Children, dangerous children.”

The story of “Will Penny” is exquisitely modulated and even if the climax is a little frenetic and over the top, it absolutely works for the drama and then the story ends on its more characteristic underplayed realism. The satire of the piece is really rather stunning, especially for a Western. This was an era of American filmmaking when certain genre films, especially Westerns and film noirs, were generally not deemed worthy material for Oscar nominations. If “Will Penny” came out years later or even today it would be hailed as a great film and be showered with awards the way Clint Eastwood’s “Unforgiven” was (“Will Penny’s” better in my book).

The crime story that is the backdrop of “In the Heat of the Night” is pretty pedestrian and mundane but what makes the picture sing is the core dramatic conflict between black Northern cop Virgil Tibbs and white Southern cop Bill Gillespie in the angst of 1960s Mississippi. That’s where this film really lives and gets its cultural significance. Sidney Poitier and Rod Steiger are crazy good working off each other.

“Cool Hand Luke” was the latest vehicle for the series of rebel figures Paul Newman played that made him a star (“Somebody Up There Likes Me,” “The Long Hot Summer,” “Hud,” “The Hustler,” “Harper”) and he took this one to the hilt. It’s not really a great movie, though it’s very engaging, but Newman is a treat to watch as he repeatedly tests authority. The film includes an amazing number of then obscure but soon to be well-known character actors.

For my tastes, “The Producers” is the best comedy ever made. It is an inspired work of looniness that decades later transferred into a successful Broadway musical. No offense to Nathan Lane, but he’s no Zero Mostel in the role of Max Bialystock. Everything hinges on Max, the brash, boorish, desperate, impossible has-been of a producer reduced to seducing wealthy old women to get some of their cash to live on. When he hires nebbish accountant Leo Bloom to examine his books and hears Leo muse to himself that a play could make more as a failure than as a success by raising, in advance, far more money than the play will ever cost to put on, Max instantly seizes on the wild-hair idea as a scheme to get rich. After terrorizing and seducing sweet, dissatisfied Leo to participate in this larceny, the two embark on a grand guignol adventure to find and mount the worst play they can find. They’re sure they’ve found it in “Springtime for Hitler,” a demented musical homage to the fuhrer penned by a certifiable lunatic who believes what he’s written is a serious work of art. Not taking any chances, Max hires a raving drag queen director and encourages him to go over the top with Busby Berkeley numbers and a dim-witted lead playing Hitler as a drug-crazed hippy. Despite their best efforts and complete confidence the play will open and close in one night to disastrous reviews and the audience walking out in disgust, Max and Leo discover to their despair that they have a hit on their hands. “Where did we go right”” a desolate Max asks rhetorically. Mel Brooks wrote a greet screenplay and perfectly cast Mostel and Wilder as the fraudsters. They were never better on screen than here. We care about them, too, because the heart of the comedy is a love story between these two men, who are opposites in every way except in their mutual affection for each other. You might say each completes the other.
Kenneth Mars and Dick Shawn deliver truly inspired performances as the stark raving mad playwright and as the flower child Hitler, respectively.

That same year, 1967, introduced the world to a future cinema giant in Martin Scorsese. His little seen debut feature “Who’s that Knocking at My Door?” – starring a very young Harvey Keitel – contains themes that we have come to identify with the filmmaker’s work. Sure, it’s raw, but it’s easy to see the characteristic visual and sound flourishes, urban settings and dark-spiritual obsessions that would infuse his “Mean Streets,” “Taxi Driver,” “Raging Bull,” “King of Comedy” and “Goodfellas.”

It was also the year that Roman Polanski released his first American film, “The Fearless Vampire Killers,” a sumptuous feast for the eyes send-up of the vampire genre.

I know “The Dirty Dozen” is a popular flick with an eclectic and even iconic cast in a wartime adventure that’s pure entertainment hokum but I find it too much of it canned and over-produced. Lee Marvin holds the whole thing together but outside of his performance and some routine training and combat scenes, there’s not a whole lot there. It pales in comparison to other anti-war films of that era, such as “Paths of Glory,” “Dr. Strangelove” and “MASH.”

“Barefoot in the Park” is a contrived but endearing romantic comedy that showcases Robert Redford and Jane Fonda in two of their more liable if less than taxing parts. They’re both good light comedians when they want to be and early in their careers there was little to suggest in their screen work they would be fine dramatic actors as well. Charles Boyer and Mildred Natwick basically steal the show with their overripe but delicious performances as the parallel older couple to the young couple engaged in navigating the hazards of love.

The conceits of “Wait Until Dark” were barely acceptable when I was a kid, but not so much anymore We’re asked to believe that a blind woman, Susy, (Audrey Hepburn) alone in her apartment can summon the courage and presence of ming to ward off a gang of thieves, one of whom is a cold-blooded killer. The henchmen, played by Alan Arkin, Richard Crenna and Jack Weston, concoct elaborate games of deception to try and get what they want, which is a drug stash she unknowingly possesses. The whole con setup is way too implausible as is the way Susy prevails against all odds. I mean, it’s one of those movies where we know the protagonist is going to survive but we’re asked to put aside our intelligence and common sense. I don’t what the picture looks like on a big screen, as I’ve only seen it on television, but on the small screen at least it badly suffers from the apartment supposedly being in total blackness, and thus blinding the last bad guy, when Susy’s clearly visible.

Here are several more films of note from ’67. It’s also quite a hodgepodge. I’ve seen portions of many of them but not enough of any one film to comment on it.

Two for the Road
How I Won the War
The President’s Analyst
The Night of the Generals
Far from the Madding Crowd
The Way West
In Like Flint
Casino Royale
Valley of the Dolls
Hour of the Gun
The Taming of the Shrew
Five Million Years to Earth
Poor Cow
A Guide for the Married Man
How to Succeed in Business Wothout Really Trying
The Trip
Hells Angels on Wheels
The Honey Pot
The Happiest Millionaire
The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre
Rough Night in Jericho
Tony Rome
The Flim-Flam Man
Up the Down Staircase
The Whisperers
A Matter of Innocence
The Incident
The Comedians
Woman Times Seven
Divorce American Style

Hot Movie Takes – “Masterminds”
©By Leo Adam Biga, Author of “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film”

The flat-out funniest comedy I’ve seen in a long time is “Masterminds” (2016), a rollicking, laugh-out-loud riff on a true life caper that went very right and very wrong. My partner Pam had the same reaction. Zach Galifianakis is hilarious and touching as earnest armored car driver David Scott Ghantt, the pawn in the 1997 Loomis Fargo & Company heist in North Carolina that netted its dim-witted gang more than $17 million, though Ghantt, the inside man on the job, saw very little of the loot himself. Aside from many embellishments, the gist of the story told on screen jibes fairly closely with actual events. Disenchanted with his life, Ghantt allows himself to be snookered into the crime by Kelly (Kristen Wiig), a former co-worker with whom he’s smitten. She acts as the reluctant middle woman between David and the callous ringleader, Steve Eugene Chambers (Owen Wilson). David has the keys to the facility and to the vault and when it comes time to pull off the robbery he goes in alone, when the place is empty. The fact that his confederates wait outside and don’t put themselves on the line should tell David something about their unreliable intentions. The job is way too big for one man and so it takes a ridiculous amount of time. But it does go off without a hitch, at least until David gets stuck in the back of the van that he’s stowed the cash in and seems to lock himself in. What happens next is one of many brilliant sight gags throughout the picture.

There are some very good supporting bits by Jason Sudeikis as The Killer, aka Mike McKinney, Kate McKinnon as David’s strange fiance Jandice, Leslie Jones as FBI agent Scanlon and Devin Ratray as Runny. The film’s portraits of rural types is strikingly similar to Alexander Payne’s “Nebraska” and it’s interesting to note that one actor in that 2013 film, Ratray. is also in “Masterminds.” Two actors with prominent roles in “Masterminds” – Wiig and Sudeikis – are in Payne’s new film “Downsizing.” “Masterminds” isn’t nearly as good as “Nebraska” but it’s better than it could have been in other hands.

Director Jared Hess and screenwriters Chris Bowman, Hubbel Palmer and Emily Spivey have concocted a delirious, fast-paced romp that smartly never stays with a gag too long yet has the nerve and the balls to keep upping the ante with crazy characterizations and slapstick action bits. There’s one chase scene that’s an obvious homage to silent film comedy chases and the new take on it is hold-onto-the-seat-of-your-pants thrilling and funny. And the film doesn’t really telegraph much of where it’s going other than making it obvious that even though he’s screwed, nothing really bad, as in physical harm, is going to come to our protagonist. I knew nothing of the real life events the film drew from but I felt what the filmmakers intended – empathy for David and hope that he would come out alright, even if he did have to do time behind bars. Comedy is. no pun intended, funny business when it comes to taste. This film may or not tickle your funny bone but we were definitely captured by its anarchic spirit and we gladly went along for the ride.

“Masterminds” is available on Netflix.

Hot Movie Takes – “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner”
©By Leo Adam Biga, Author of “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film”

Thirty-five years passed from the time this movie came out in 1967 and my actually bringing home the core dilemma dramatized by the fictional story. In the movie, the white daughter of an older white patrician couple introduces them to her fiance, an African-American physician, Dr. John Prentice Jr., played by an unflappable Sidney Poitier. The daughter, Joanna (Joey), feebly played by Katharine Houghton, fully expects her folks to grant their unequivocal blessing for the marriage. The mother, played by the fierce Katharine Hepburn, does almost immediately. The father, played by the stubborn Spencer Tracey, goes through a real struggle before he approves. In real life, I am the white son of a working class white couple. I was in my early 40s when I introduced them to the first serious girlfriend in my life – a black woman named Joslen. Unlike the daughter in the movie, I expected my parents would object to the interracial relationship and I was right, they did, only more so than I imagined. They both came around in time to the idea of an interracial union and to her as a potential daughter-in-law but it was tense there for awhile. All of which is to say that that chestnut of a movie so in synch with and out of touch with its times has a deeper resonance for me now than when I first saw it in the late 1960s-early 1970s.

Its liberal filmmaker was Stanley Kramer. His most enduring screen work was when was strictly a producer, not a director, too. His directorial efforts include several good films, this one included, that deal with potent social justice, intellectual and moral issues but the emotional and contextual life of the characters and situations rarely rise to the complexity of the subjects explored on screen. “Guess” is a glaring case in point because it was such a sensation in its time. The screenplay by William Rose plays it safe within the interracial setup by having the young lovers so appealingly perfect. About the only negative thing that can be said about the two of them is that they are naive, especially Joanna. Then there’s the fact that her man, John, is practically a saint. Joanna’s parents are not only liberal but educated. John’s parents, played by Beah Richards and Roy Glenn, are educated as well. The two mothers are the most sympathetic to the situation. The two fathers struggle with it the most. But the whole damn thing is so polite and antiseptic that it all rings a little less than true. On the other hand, the agonizing that goes on does feel real because race makes you confront things in yourself and others that you didn’t know were there or that you suppressed.

The scrutiny and litmus test that parents, siblings, friends and society put interracial couples through is a damn uncomfortable experience. Maybe the dynamics are not like that for all such relationships, maybe things have changed, but it’s still A Thing that carries lots of baggage for lots of people. Denying otherwise would be as naive as some of the movie’s characters. Black and white is still a potent mix in America that some people still have a problem with or are threatened by – on both sides of the racial divide. That’s just reality and common sense. So how far have we come in the whole interracial thing since the famous Loving case and since this movie? Well, interracial unions are legal and much more socially acceptable. There are certainly way more of these relationships out in the open. What is in people’s hearts and heads, however, can’t be legislated or mandated and I think there’s still a good deal of fear and resentment over race mixing or at least more than we’d care to acknowledge. But the more blended relationships and babies that happen, any remaining opposition will be a moot point by the end of the next century or so, when most Americans will be a blend of skin tones. Will that make color a neutral factor? Of course not. As long as there are different skin colors or hues, and as long as there are attitudes and judgments that attend them, people will use these factors as excuses for discrimination and hate. It’s part of the human condition.

The best part of “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” is watching two great actors who were longtime companions off-screen and who enjoyed a rare chemistry on-screen, Hepburn and Tracy, throwing egos aside and exposing themselves emotionally in ways rarely seen before from them. Tracy had been ill for several years and died only weeks after the shoot wrapped.

The worst parts of the film are its treacly moments, particularly involving the daughter, who seems far too girlish, frivolous and unsubstantial a person for a man of John’s maturity. Then there’s the whole conceit of the to-be-married couple needing the consent of the daughter’s parents. John will only marry Joanna if they grant their blessing. And there’s a ridiculous deadline imposed on the proceedings that is supposed to add dramatic tension to the whole works having to do with a trip to Europe he has to make. He demands an answer before he departs. Oh, and there’s the black maid (played by Isabel Sanford) who’s opposed to the whole affair and let’s everyone know it. In these and other ways the film feels like it was made in the mid-1950s, along the lines of a Douglas Sirk melodrama like “Imitation of Life” (except it doesn’t have the bite of that picture) rather than of its own time, the late 1960s. I mean, it’s painfully obvious that Kramer and Rose were generationally and culturally out of touch with their own time despite their progressive leanings.

The 2005 feature take-off of this movie, “Guess Who” is lightweight, comedic entertainment that actually comes closer to some truths than the original though it also comes up short in digging down in the weeds of race and relationships. The more recent movie reverses the situation so that it’s a black women taking home her white fiance to meet her parents.

“Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” is available on Netflix and YouTube.

Hot Movie Takes – “In the Heat of the Night”
©By Leo Adam Biga, Author of “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film”

Another classic movie enjoying its 50th anniversary this year is 1967’s hot-house race and crime drama “In the Heat of the Night.” Set in Sparta, Mississippi and current to the time it was made, this not too subtle film goes right for the juggler in pitting a black Philadelphia homicide detective against a white southern police chief in the investigation of a recent murder. Virgil Tibbs gets caught up in the case when he’s at first taken in as a potential suspect while waiting for the midnight train to take him back home after visiting family down south. Tibbs, played by Sidney Poitier, is a fit man outfitted in a suit. He’s well-spoken and educated and despite the aggravation of the situation he’s the consummate professional. In town, he meets his counterpart in the person of police chief Bill Gillespie, played by Rod Steiger, who by contrast is overweight and slovenly in uniform, rather lax when it comes to protocol and professional courtesy and no match for Tibbs intellectually, though he does have good instincts.

Gillespie, of course, is a racist but he’s also smart and big enough to know that he must swallow his pride if he has any chance of solving the murder of one of Sparta’s leading citizens. The pressure is on to find the culprit and Gillespie weighs this rare opportunity to have a real specialist on the case against the ire of that expert being an authoritative black man in the heart of the Jim Crow and Ku Klux Klan South. He finds out early on that Tibbs won’t be cowed or insulted without a response but he doesn’t realize how far he’s prepared to go until he sees a white man slap Tibbs and Tibbs slap him back harder. That raises the stakes for this powder-keg scenario that is one part potboiler and one part social justice treatise.

The film won the Best Picture Academy Award. Stirling Silliphant won the Oscar for his adaptation of John Ball’s novel. It’s a very good script but he had Poitier, Steiger and a strong supporting cast (Warren Oates, Lee Grant, Scott Wilson, Harry Dean Stanton) to thank for interpreting it so fully and with such humanity. Steiger won Best Actor and his is a great performance but it’s a crime that Poitier wasn’t even nominated because Steiger’s performance was totally keyed to what Poitier gave him and he gave him a lot. Norman Jewison did an efficient job pacing the narrative and his liberal leanings infuse the proceedings. Hal Ashby’s editing keeps things moving. Haskell Wexler’s cinematography gives an urgency and immediacy to the action. The score by Quincy Jones captures and intensifies the potent drama.

But the whole film rests on Poitier and Steiger and they deliver staggeringly great performances. They play two very different men coming from two very different places but they need each other and after enmity bordering on hate they grow to respect one another. You might say they even have a kind of love for each other that can only come from going through trauma and catharsis. The two actors’ conflicting acting styles and personalities also work wonderfully well for the characters.

Taking on what this film took on in a major Hollywood production was pretty revolutionary at the time. It’s dated in places but it’s still a powerful work. The same can be said for its 1967 race drama companion piece, “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” also starring Sidney Poitier. Where “Heat” is raw and visceral, “Guess” is staid and cerebral. But the two films actually touch many of the same nerve endings. They just do it in different ways. The writing is weaker in “Guess” but the genius of Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy more than make up for it.

Hot Movie Takes – “Burn After Reading”
©By Leo Adam Biga, Author of “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film”

The Coen Brothers should stick to traditional American comedies and leave the British-inspired comedies to, well, the British. I refer to the brothers’ 2008 film “Burn After Reading,” which isn’t British at all, of course, except the spirit of it is, It’s very much in the tradition of the Ealing Studio satires the Coens admire, so much so that they remade one, “The Ladykillers,” and none too successfully I might add. “Burn After Reading” was their first original screenplay since “The Man Who Wasn’t There.”

I personally long for the Coens’ to return to the darkly poetic work they did in”Miller’s Crossing” and to stop futzing around with farce.

For “Burn After Reading” the Coens assembled a stellar cast, including four Oscar-winners, but not even their individual and collective talents could save this from mediocrity. I mean, it’s not bad, and sometimes it really works, but more often than not it just plods along without anything really compelling you to care about the cartoonish characters. The most interesting of the bunch, Osbourne Cox (John Malkovich), is given short shrift in the end and the whole convoluted spy story that never was is dispatched at the end as if it never happened. Similar brush offs are given the characters played by Brad Pitt, Frances McDormand, George Clooney, Tilda Swinton and Richard Jenkins. That cavalier, it-doesn’t-really-matter attitude is precisely why the movie never fully engages because there’s nothing truly at stake or on the line. There has to be, even in a comedy. Yes, even in a comedy like this one about the folly of idiocy and greed turning a benign event into an orgy of deceit, blackmail and killings. But every time we invest in these characters and the peril, real or imagined, of their circumstances, we get the rug pulled out from under us or they are summarily killed off or otherwise handled. This is a farce, like the Coens’ “Fargo,” but what’s missing here is the menace.

The whole thing revolves around the machinations of people caught up in a spy ring that doesn’t even exist. An ex-CIA analyst (Malkovich) begins writing a memoir based on non-classified documents. His cheating wife (Swinton) who is divorcing him copies the material onto a disc that she provides to her attorney’s office. The attorney’s secretary has the disc in a bag when she goes to a gym and it somehow ends up on the locker room floor. Two employees (Pitt and McDormand) view the contents of the disc on a computer and conclude they’ve stumbled upon valuable government secrets and proceed to try and extort money from Cox for the disc’s return. Jenkins is the gym manager who wants nothing to do with the disc but is willing to do anything for McDormand, whom he adores. Meanwhile, Clooney is a Treasury agent sleeping with Swinton and eventually McDormand, too. Bad things happen when Pitt and McDormand keep pushing the players into compromising, even dangerous situations created by their own imagination, paranoia, greed and guilt.

As things spiral out of control, the CIA monitors the activities of these clowns and eventually must intervene.
J.K. Simmons has a cameo near the end as an exasperated CIA superior who’s given a rundown of the mayhem and carnage that’s ensued and is eager to make it all go away. It’s a performance he’s given in countless films and even though he was fairly recent on the cinema scene when the movie came out, less than a decade later his part seems canned.

“Burn After Reading” is available on Netflix.

Hot Movie Takes – “Meadowland”
©By Leo Adam Biga, Author of “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film”

Reed Morano is an Omaha-born cinematographer-turned-director who has worked on several highly regarded independent films, including “Frozen River.” She made her feature directorial debut with 2015’s “Meadowland,” a stark, honest look at the unraveling that happens to parents who lose children. Her very good work on that project has made her a hot property as a director. She directed one episode each for the television series “Halt and Catch Fire” and “Billions” and then directed three episodes of “The Handmaid’s Tale” and now she’s in post-production on her latest effort as a feature director, “I Think We’re Alone Now,” and in pre-production on another, as-yet-untitled, feature project. I finally saw “Meadowland” the other night – it’s available on Netflix – and found it to be one of the most effective films I’ve ever seen about emotional disturbance. It takes you to the very dark inner places and recesses of mourning and the compulsive, ritualized behaviors that often accompany it.

I don’t have children and so I don’t know what it is like to lose a child, but I have suffered loss. Both parents and my former life partner all died within five years of each other. I was already dealing with compulsive behaviors when Joslen died and her passing only triggered more compulsive acting out. The story revolves around a couple played by Luke Wilson and Olivia Wilde who are undone by the unthinkable that happens: their little boy goes missing during a brief bathroom stop at a roadside gas station during a family drive in the country. The film opens with the incident and the couple’s frantic, desperate, shocked discovery that he’s gone and no where to be found. The film then jumps to a year later and the stuck place that both the husband and wife are still in. They’re professionals. Phil’s a cop and Sarah’s a public school elementary teacher. He’s the realist who presumes their son is dead. He keeps most of his feelings inside. He secretly visits the site where his boy went missing. He attends support group meetings. He tries connecting to people. She lives in complete repression and denial, behaving as though her son is alive and well somewhere. Her fantasy is that he’s happy with another family. Her obsession with keeping him or a facsimile of him alive leads her to increasingly dark behavior that makes her a risk to herself and others.

Even though Phil’s more in touch with reality than his wife, the husband’s own behavior has all the earmarks of someone in great pain flailing about for relief. Phil gets angry at a friend when he finds out his buddy’s wife is pregnant and didn’t share the news with him first. in his upset state, Phil interprets this as a betrayal by the friend. Pete, a fellow grieving dad from the support group, shares with Phil a recurring dream he has of meeting the man whose reckless hit and run driving killed his daughter. Again, in his altered stated, which is to say not in his right mind, Phil manages to get the culprit’s address and gives it to Pete with a “do what you have to do” absolution, which Pete is horrified by, even saying, “This is not helping.”

As skewed as the husband is, the wife is free-falling and he knows it. But the pain and isolation are so much for these two that they’ve lost the ability to connect and communicate. When police investigators suspect the couple’s missing boy is likely among the victims of a known child sex offender, Phil cooperates by looking at photos but Sarah refuses to. Instead, she fixes on a foster care boy named Adam at school that she begins grooming to be her substitute son. She insinuates herself into his life and concocts a crazy plan for them to be together. Meanwhile, the police make positive identifications and the dark, trance-like spell she’s been in finally breaks.

The ending doesn’t give the characters some magical sudden fix, only the possibility of moving on for having finally confronted the elephant in the room, or in this case, the elephant in the field. You’ll understand when you get there.

Giovanni Ribisi is very good as Phil’s addict brother, a lost man living with the couple until his life gets back in order. John Leguizamo is affecting as Pete, the support group friend whom Phil creeps out. Omaha’s own Yolonda Ross, who previously appeared in a short that Morano photographed, has a small part as the principal of the the school Sarah teaches at. There are also good turns by Juno Temple, Ty Simpkins (as Adam), Kevin Corrigan, Eden Duncan-Smith and others. The actors well serve the script by Chris Rossi.

Morano, who did her own cinematography, finds many effective ways to intimately frame the despair and dislocation of the protagonists without resorting to pandering. Yes, what Sarah does is extreme, but it’s well within the realm of possibility.

Hot Movie Takes – “Being Flynn”
©By Leo Adam Biga, Author of “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film”

Robert De Niro seemed to be coasting in his older age until a couple films he co-stars in were released in 2012 – “Silver Linings Playbook” and “Being Flynn.” I haven’t seen the former, but I understand he’s quite good in it, and I just watched the latter last night on Netflix and it confirmed for me that De Niro still has the capacity for greatness. I’d go so far to say that his portrayal of John Flynn in “Being Flynn” is equal the commitment and intensity he brought to “Taxi Driver,””The Deer Hunter,” “Raging Bull” and “King of Comedy” more than three decades earlier. Like the on-the-edge characters of Travis Bickle, Michael, Jake LaMotta and Rupert Pupkin, he invests his all in Flynn, an intelligent man suffering from some undiagnosed mental illness. “Being Flynn” belongs just as much to Paul Dano as Flynn’s son Nick, who has demons of his own to deal with. Dano is one of my favorite millennial actors and he’s well-matched here with De Niro.

This is a based on real life father-son story unlike any other. When Nick was a child his alcoholic, wannabe-writer dad got into serious trouble with the law and went away to prison. His mom Jody, played by Julianne Moore, divorced John and raised Nick alone. Even when Nick’s dad got out of prison, he was never in his son’s life. John never visited but he did write a series of letters in which he rambled on about his own genius and the masterpiece of a book he was writing. After years of not seeing each other, John reaches out to a now young adult Nick for help. Nick comes face to face with the man he only knew from the disparaging things his mother said about him and they largely turn out to be true. He’s a hopeless drunk, he has delusions of grandeur and he goes off on vile, vulgar rants. He may be paranoid schizophrenic. He may just be an alcoholic asshole. But this once shadow in his life suddenly reappears in the flesh and his profane presence weighs heavily on Nick, who find him impossible to deny or ignore anymore.

Nick, too, is a struggling writer and when he finally meets the man who was only a phantom in his life and discovers him to be a wreck of a human being and a failed writer, it messes with Nick’s own idea of himself as a writer. Nick shares with his father his fear and guilt that words he wrote in a notebook discovered by his mother precipitated her committing suicide. John dissuades him of this notion, asserting that no words ever killed anyone and that his mother undoubtedly killed herself because she hated herself and her life.

Things go to a whole other place when John winds up homeless and becomes a guest at the homeless shelter where Nick works. Confronted daily with his father’s sickness, it becomes too much for Nick, who descends into drug addiction. He’s very much afraid he’s becoming his father. But John, who has his lucid moments, tells Nick in no uncertain terms that while they share writing talent by virtue of sharing the same DNA, Nick is not him and therefore is not fated to end up like him. Madness or not, John always encourages Nick in his writing. Ad he reminds him that the shit and the beauty and everything in between that is our life is all the material we ever have and need as writers. It’s all subject matter. So, listen and watch, and write.

From start to finish the film has dueling narrators in Nick and John. The question is who’s authorial voice do we trust and which will win out. The answer comes at the very end. The movie flash forwards to a time when Nick has eventually found healing and his way into a life of writing and teaching. He has a family of his own. He invites his father to a poetry reading and there the final bequeathment of writing legacy is passed from one generation to the next. Nick comes to realize his father once had promise but his problems overwhelmed whatever talent he had and that it’s now up to him to tell the stories to tell the stories of his father and mother, the family, and his own journey of discovery.

This is a raw, real and yet poetic film that puts us right there on the borderline of human existence. At various points, both Flynns straddle the lines of stability and instability, permanent shelter and homelessness, self-hatred and self-love. When the son expresses concern over his father being out there on the streets, the father reassures him that he is a survivor. He lets Nick know he’s a survivor, too. They both loved Jody but she didn’t possess their strength. It’s up to them to go on and to fulfill their destinies.

Writer-director Paul Weitz deserves major props for adapting Nick Flynn’s memoir “Another Bullshit Night in Suck City” to the screen. Flynn was a creative consultant on the project and I have to think he helped keep things real without ever allowing them to become sensationalized or maudlin.

Hot Movie Takes – “Full Metal Jacket”
©By Leo Adam Biga, Author of “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film”

Stanley Kubrick’s harsh war satire is not everybody’s cup of tea and though I am a great admirer of his body of film work, there are times the cold, cruel calculations of his observations leave me wanting or wondering. His acerbic 1987 take on the Vietnam War, “Full Metal Jacket,” aided and abetted by co-writers Michael Herr and Gustav Hasford, is perhaps the most disturbing of the four great Hollywood movies made about that conflict. “The Deer Hunter” is more about the war at home and within then it is the experience of the war itself. “Apocalypse Now” is about the journey into darkness that all wars are but especially that one. “Platoon” is about the intense, intimate horror of combat. “Full Metal Jacket” is about the killing cultures and mindsets that militaries engaged in war create – from training through combat – and the impossible moral dilemmas they present to soldiers in the field.

Of the four films, all of which are powerful in their own right, “Full Metal Jacket” may be the most ambitious in terms of what it has to say but it may be the least successful it saying it. It’s also not as satisfying as his two earlier anti-war films, “Paths of Glory,” and “Dr. Strangelove.” I’m posting about “Full Metal Jacket” because I watched it last night on Netflix. It’s the first time I’ve seen the pic since its release 30 years ago and my response on this occasion was almost identical to what I remember feeling and thinking all that time ago. Like many viewers, I find the first third set in Marine boot camp to be outrageously funny and horrifying, often at the same time. Lee Ermey is incredible as the drill instructor. He was a DI and he famously contributed most of his own profanity and insult-laden dialogue. Matthew Modine is very good as the smart-aleck narrator and protagonist, “Private “Joker.” Vincent D’Onoforio is fabulous as the disturbed, put-upon draftee, Private “Gomer Pyle,” who finally snaps. And Arliss Howard is fine as Private “Cowboy.” That first section ends on a violent, disoriented note reminiscent of how Kubrick handled Jack Nicholson’s mad rampages in “The Shining.” The film then abruptly cuts to Vietnam, where Joker’s a sergeant and a war correspondent with Stars and Stripes newspaper. There he’s reunited with Cowboy, also now a sergeant, who introduces him to the rest of the squad Joker finds himself attached to, including Sergeant “Animal” (Adam Baldwin) and Corporal “Eightball” (Dorian Harewood). Where the opening section of the film depicts the process by which individuals are broken down to become unthinking killing machines, the middle section establishes Vietnam as a location and the squad as a kind of living organism drawn to death and destruction. It’s this middle section where the film drags and loses its way a bit. The film finds its intensity again once the story focuses on urban warfare in the third and final section. It’s particularly in the last extended battle sequence and aftermath that ends the film that “Full Metal Jacket” regains the power of the first section. The remaining squad members go into the still burning wreckage of a city to eliminate a sniper who’s killed three of their comrades. It becomes all about revenge at that point. When the sniper is found and mortally wounded, it becomes about something else again and the Marines come face to face with the stark truth that what they’re doing there is violating humanity, inclding their own. The final tracking shots of fully armed U.S. Marines moving on foot through a haze of smoke and fire while singing the Mickey Mouse Club song is a murky, muddled but not altogether ineffective way to end things on. The effect is something like that of Sam Peckinpah’s “The Wild Bunch,” which he meant to be a denouncement of violence but which can be interpreted as sending the opposite message. “Full Metal Jacket” is clearly anti-war in places and in its overall approach, but it also suggests in other places that war is a game. “The Wild Bunch” by the way is a better film than this because its main characters are more fully fleshed out than those of “Full Metal Jacket,” where intentionally or not the characters never rise much above surface types and symbols. Kubrick sometimes became so caught up in the techniques of visualization that his narrative, character-based storytelling could suffer. When the writing’s great, and here it’s less than great, it doesn’t matter, but here it does.

Speaking of visuals, “Full Metal Jacket” has to be one of the best production designed (Anton Furst) and art directed (Keith Pain) cinema achievements in movie history. The whole bloody thing was filmed in England and yet it places you in a facsimile of wartime Vietnam that viscerally captures the out of mind, out of body experience of that time and place and of those events that call on human beings to do inhuman things. The urban battle scenes do have a strange, surreal or dreamlike quality to them that’s consistent with the theme of war being a very dangerous and deadly game played by child-men operating in a state of suspended animation or detachment or denial. Until the reality of kill or be killed hits home.

The “shit,” as combat is referred to by grunts in the middle of it, has no frame of reference for the participants. It is its own universe with its own morale dimensions. No one escapes unscathed. More than anything, that’s what “Full Metal Jacket” captures and portrays.

Hot Movie Takes – “Fort Defiance”
©By Leo Adam Biga, Author of “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film”

“Fort Defiance” is a delirious 1951 B Western that adds its own peculiar stamp to the psychotic cinema West with its particularly bloodthirsty, revenge-bound themes. In line with many theatrical and television Westerns of the time, it exploits racist myths to move its plot along. Interestingly, it also subverts the genre’s own conventions with a gun-slinger whose acrobatic firing escapades anticipate “The Matrix” by fifty years. And while many of its characters and scenes are unimaginatively derivative and much of the dialogue forgettable, there are just enough variations and distinctive takes on things, such as the occasionally sumptuous cinematography, evocative locations, artful framing, jump cuts and sardonic lines, to make an otherwise forgettable film worth taking a look at.

Outside more discerning viewers, Westerns like this give the form a bad name because they perpetrate nonsensical historical inaccuracies in their depiction of Native Americans as soulless, mindless aggressors forever on the warpath yet also easily dispatched threats routinely gunned down by any white man wielding a rifle or six-shooter.

The story is a strange take on the prodigal son proverb that has a blind man, Ned (Peter Graves) pining for the return of his thought-to-be hero brother Johnny (Dane Clark) from the Civil War. Ned and his uncle Charlie work a small desolate spread in Indian territory. When a stranger, Ben (Ben Johnson), rides into their lives looking for Johnny, it’s clear he has unfinished business with him. It turns out he’s been searching for Johnny ever since the war’s end and has even sacrificed rejoining his wife in order to stay on his tracks and exact revenge. Johnny betrayed the trapped men in his regiment to the enemy and Ben’s younger brother was killed in the action. Ben was the only survivor. Ben has sworn to himself he won’t rest until he kills Johnny, and therefore, he remains on and strangely becomes like a brother to Ned. When Charlie informs Ned and Ben that Johnny is believed to be dead, Ned expresses a desire for he, his uncle and Ben and his wife to go in partnership together. But a sullen Ben has lost his chance at revenge and sets out to rejoin his wife. However, Ben returns, smitten with the idea of Ned’s dream and writes for his wife to join them. Then we learn that Ben wasn’t the only one wanting Johnny dead. Parker, a local powerbroker, lost a son in the war to the same dirty deed Johnny pulled. Parker, backed by a posse, rides onto Ned’s place looking to kill both Johnny and Ned. While Charlie fends off the mod with a rifle, Ben and Ned escape into Indian territory.
Badgered by Ned for the truth about his brother, Ben tells him the story of how Johnny became a turncoat during the war. When Johnny appears, Ned learns from him first-hand that he’s unremorseful for what he did in the war and makes no bones about also being a robber and killer. He’s robbing banks and stages to get money for an operation to return Ned’s sight.

Ben still wants his revenge on Johnny and the rest of the story is a tense, sometimes violent dance between these two, both of whom love Ned, and fending off Indian attacks and a final confrontation with Parker and his gang. The melodrama pot often gets to over-boiling. At one point, even Ned wants to kill Johnny. Ned’s sweet character is nearly undone when the script and direction call for him to say and do ridiculous things. Graves does a commendable job trying to keep his portrayal within realistic bounds, but it’s a lost cause. Johnson is as always very solid in his part. He does more with less better than most actors of his or any generation. Clark, an animated imitation of John Garfield, is not an actor I particularly like but he does bring a wild, glinting charisma and machismo and then there are those gun wielding acrobatics of his that remind me of martial arts gun and sword play. He’s also given several wiseass one-liners to speak that are both in keeping with his character and unbelievable given the life and death stakes involved. George Cleveland is very good as Uncle Charlie. But most of the rest of the character players give stiff, one-note, cliched performances.

Iron Eyes Cody leads the renegade Navajo warriors and served as technical director on the shoot. I don’t know whether to hold him or the director or producers he worked for responsible for the insulting portrayals of Native Americans, but it’s a sad commentary on those times – when Hollywood generally didn’t care to even make an attempt to get things right in this way.

Director John Rawlins was a busy B editor turned director who definitely showed an eye for composition and an ear for exposition but refinement was not his style. He also had an odd habit, at least in this movie, of showing things in medium or long range that you expect to see in closeup and I’m not sure if this was intentional or a result of not getting enough coverage on set. Whatever the explanation for this pattern, it does offer an interesting viewing perspective that makes us more dispassionate observers than engaged participants. I’m not sure that’s what he intended, but that’s the net effect.

The movie is available in full and for free on YouTube.

Hot Movie Takes – “Zulu”
©By Leo Adam Biga, Author of “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film”

My first two experiences at the movies made a great impression on me and they could not have been more different in theme and content though each were decidedly British: “Zulu” and “Mary Poppins.” They were both released in 1964. I’m not sure if I saw them upon their initial theatrical run or sometime rather soon after. I would have been 6 years old in ’64. Whatever the case, I remember being thoroughly mesmerized by these super spectacle color pictures. I mean, they rocked my world with their bigger than life images, scenes and musical scores. This post deals with “Zulu” and a separate post will deal with “Mary Poppins.”

Dynamic is the first word that occurs to me in describing “Zulu,” a beautifully made derring-do film shot on location in Africa that contains some of the most impressive, epic outdoor action set pieces in modern cinema history. There’s a bit of the adventurist “Gunga Din” spirit to it, though “Zulu” is more historically rooted and realistically grounded. Yes, it glorifies and mythologizes an historical late 19 century colonial British battle victory over indigenous people in Southern Africa, when a greatly outnumbered British detachment held its ground against Zulu attackers, But the film also pays a good deal of respect to the Zulu nation and its warrior culture. The film even goes to great lengths to document an earlier Zulu victory over British forces. If anything, the British come off worse than the Zulus with their silly class distinctions, false pride, arrogant attitudes and foolish decorum. Even when the Zulus are finally beaten back, they pay homage to the beleaguered British, whose courage they admire, by chanting a song. I can’t imagine the British doing the same in return. By the way, this didn’t really happen at the conclusion of the conflict. It was a dramatic invention to show the British in a heroic light, though it also serves to show the Zulu people in a dignified light.

The genius of the film is in keeping the vast majority of the action centered on the isolated British Army station and its defense against overwhelming odds. American director Cy Endfield, who co-wrote the script, does a masterful job setting up the geography of the action by first establishing the Zulu stronghold and then the British outpost in relation to it and the surrounding hills. It’s impossible to not get the sense that the British are out of their element and simply don’t belong there and that the Zulus are, in fact, fighting to keep their own land and autonomy. Given when the film was made and who made it, and that it was intended as an entertainment celebrating the “heroic” British stand, it’s also unavoidably jingoistic and racist. That doesn’t or shouldn’t detract from the quality of the physical filmmaking. Where there is a weakness though is in the hand to hand battle scenes, but that’s purely a function of how such scenes were handled then, which is to say unrealistically. Those pathetically staged scenes with half-hearted, almost polite thrusts of spear and bayonet definitely mar the picture if for no other reason than there are so bloody many of them. Also hurting the picture is an unnecessarily long sequence in which a pacifist father-daughter missionary team repeatedly interfere with the troops’ and officers’ assigned duties to hold the station at any cost. Far better had these irritating characters been sent packing early on. The stiff upper lip British thing wears thin, too. Yet the story remains gripping because Endfield finds many interesting ways to present the warfare – from different angles, perspectives – and to break it up with interludes or moments of quiet, reverie, exhaustion, despair and comic relief. He even shows things from the Zulus’ POV a few times.

Besides the pitched battles, stirring visuals and stunning locations, one of the strongest elemenst is the tension between the two senior officers played by Stanley Baker, who co-produced the film, and Michael Caine, whose first co-starring role this was. Their characters come from different classes. Baker is the Everyman engineer thrust into command and Cain the foppish legacy officer forced by seniority to defer to the commoner. They must work past their differences in order to lead the men under their command in the most trying of circumstances. Interspersed are a number of personal side stories concerning certain of the men and the sacrifices they make and the risks they take with their lives on the line.

The best performances in the film, however, belong to Gert van den Bergh as Adendorff, a native white paramilitary figure, and Nigel Green as Colour Sergeant Bourne. The opening and closing narration is read by Richard Burton.

The single strongest aspects of the film are the portentous musical score by John Barry, the eerie sound of the Zulu warriors beating their shields and the arresting warlike chants of the tribesmen in concert with the electric photography of Stephen Dade and the sharp editing of John Jympson. But that rousing Barry score makes even more powerful the ominous presence of the Zulus, as if they are a force of nature sweeping across the savannah, the unrelenting attacks they wage on the outpost and the steadfast defense put up by the British.

The Paramount release was executive produced by American Joseph E. Levine, who specialized in handling international co-productions, foreign films and American films with exploitation, B elements.

“Zulu” is available on Netflix and YouTube.

Hot Movie Takes – “The Gunman”
©By Leo Adam Biga, Author of “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film”

This is one of those movies (released in 2015) when less than a third of the way in you ask yourself why the stars agreed to make this claptrap. In this case, the stars are Sean Penn and Javier Bardem. But there are other heavyweight actors, too, including Mark Rylance, Idris Elna and Ray Winstone. I won’t bother you with the plot details other than to say that when we meet Penn, who plays Jim, he is part of a Black Ops assassination team posing as security workers in the war-torn Democratic Republic of Congo. Their clients are for-profit companies exploiting the chaos for their own gains. Javiar Bardem is Felix – a civilian secretly cooperating with the team. Both men love the same woman, Annie, played by Jasmine Trinca, only she is Jim’s woman and Felix resents that he can’t have her for himself. The team is given an assignment that calls for Jim to kill a high ranking government official that will then necessitate him immediately evacuating the continent. Before he executes the hit, he asks Felix to take care of Annie. The assassination throws the country into even more turmoil and Jim inexplicably doesn’t go back for her. The story flash forwards eight years and Jim’s back in the Congo doing humanitarian aid work by drilling fresh water wells. When mercenaries come for him and he miraculously kills them all despite having retired from the field years before, it sets off a crazy series of events. It turns out the clients who gave him the assassination job years earlier are under investigation by Interpol and one by one members of Jim’s team have been eliminated. Jim, with the help of an old colleague played by Ray Winstone, sets off on a blood-soaked journey to find Felix, which means finding Annie, and the whole rest of the over-worked story is Jim behaving like Jason Bourne and overcoming hordes of bad guys sent after him. Little by little, layers of treachery and deceit are unraveled and he learns that one of his own, a character played by Mark Rylance, is on the wrong side. Eventually, Jim and Annie are both running for their lives. Even when the bad guys seem to have the upper hand, Jim always finds a way out. Eventually, he cooperates with Interpol (this is where the Idris Elba character comes into the story) and has as leverage documentary evidence of what went down in Congo and who the players were. That doesn’t stop a gory climax in which both Jim and Annie are in peril.

All I can say is, if this is meant to be a Bourne-like or “Taken” film (the director made “Taken”), it doesn’t rise to that level. If it’s meant to be something more, it utterly fails. It is a tired retread of a thousand other movies just like it, some better and some worse, but the point is there’s nothing original here. And I don’t find actors Penn’s age getting all buff for a role that requires extreme action convincing. He’s way too old for this kind of part. I mean, what does having a cut physique have to do with being an unstoppable killing machine? A hard body will not stop bullets or blades and certainly won’t help much in fighting hand to hand against equally trained opponents. Oh, I forgot, the conceit of movies like this is that the protagonist is the best of the best and therefore unbeatable. Right. That might work in something like Bourne or Bond or in Batman or Superman where it’s all set up and part and parcel of the well-established character, but here we’re asked to buy it sight unseen with no plausible explanation given for his superhero abilities.

Bardem has the good sense and taste to have his character killed off midway through. Penn, unfortunately, hangs around to the bitter end. Bardem at least brings some manic, maniacal spark to his hideous character. Penn, meanwhile, seems to think that affecting a brooding demeanor and feigning guilt, desire and noble intentions are enough and that we won’t care he’s not really investing himself in the role. I mean, I just didn’t give a damn after a certain point. The fault there, too, lies with the screenplay writers and the director. If they’d given half as much attention to the emotions and motivations of Penn’s central character as they did to building his physique and staging the elaborate violence scenes, then we might have had a real movie. As it is, we’re left with a dark adult cartoon that aspires to be a serious movie but becomes a parody of other movies.

Judge for yourself by watching it on Netflix, though I can’t bring myself to recommending this waste of time other than as a mindless diversion while you eat a snack.

Hot Movie Takes – “Point Blank”
©By Leo Adam Biga, Author of “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film”

John Boorman was reportedly given carte-blanche on his first American feature “Point Blank” (1967) because star Lee Marvin believed in him enough to defer his own final script and cut approval to the then-young, brash upstart from Great Britain. The resulting film is unlike anything we’d come to expect from the formulaic gangster pic for its ambiguity, its use of memory and time, its nonlinear structure and its metaphorical references to organized crime as just another iteration of big business. Marvin stars as career criminal Walker, a walking anachronism or ghost who was left for dead on a job and is back to claim the money owed him – by any means necessary. He’s been out of circulation for an indeterminate number of years and seemingly reenters the scene like a tough guy from an earlier era to find everything changed. The music and the mores, the bag men and trigger men, they’re all a different breed from him. Colder, more calculating. Soulless. He soon learns that getting the money owed him involves a convoluted syndicate of middle and upper managers who keep passing the buck to somebody higher up the chain of command. One by one, Walker confronts these pencil pushers in suits to get what’s his and when they balk or defer he either dispatches them himself or lets somebody else do it for him. Every time he thinks he’s about to collect, things are undone by some new deceit. By the end, Walker is a disoriented phantom who has no one he can trust. He doesn’t even believe what he sees with his own eyes.

The film plays like a nightmare and in fact many viewers speculate that Walker is dreaming the story or is actually dead. In the end, the surreal qualities of the story become part of its fabric or texture and you just go along with it because this is, at its root, a revenge picture and as such it’s driven by the intense feelings of rage and retribution that Walker embodies. It’s evident in the way he walks, talks, sulks, broods, drives, fights, makes love and kills. He’s already a dead man, literally or figuratively, and so he has nothing to lose. It’s that precise nether realm of emotion and detachment that the film resides in. In this way it’s similar to the original “Get Carter” and to “The Limey,” two of the better crime films ever made. The dissipation of its protagonist reminds me of the original “The Gambler” and “The Friends of Eddie Coyle,” two more masterworks in the crime genre.

Marvin’s supporting players in “Point Blank” include John Vernon, Keenan Wynn, Lloyd Bochner, Michael Strong, Carol O’Connor and Angie Dickinson. The cinematography by Philip Lathrop, the editing by Henry Berman and the art direction by Albert Brenner and George Davis is very strong and of the best of its time in terms of pushing past convention. The film is very much inspired by and a response to the then-trendy French, Czech and Polish New Wave in cinema.

Boorman has gone on to be a filmmaker who often works at the extreme ends of mainstream cinema (“Hell in the Pacific,” “Deliverance,” “Zardoz,” “Excalibur,” “The Emerald Forest”). The results are sometimes uneven but never uninteresting or not engaging. “Point Blank” is about as subtle as a punch to the gut but it’s also strangely poetic in its post-noir nihilism.

Marvin was a great character actor who went on to be a big star and when he really cared about the projects he was in he did memorable work, and “Point Blank” is right up there with his best performances and best films. His screen presence has rarely been matched and he uses it to great effect in this movie. He’s a thinking man’s criminal who can turn violent at any moment. His character in “Point Blank” bears some similarities to the villainous roles he played in “The Killers” and in “Gorky Park,” two more very good crime films in which Marvin finds complex colorings to his characters.

Hot Movie Takes – “Bonnie and Clyde”
©By Leo Adam Biga, Author of “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film”

Fifty years have not aged “Bonnie and Clyde” in the least. This seminal American film from 1967 plays just as fresh and vital today as it did half a century ago. In their script David Newman and Robert Benton treat the story of the Depression-era bank robbing couple of the title in such a way as to make their criminal escapades resonant with the social-cultural rebellion of the Sixties. Director Arthur Penn, in turn, found just the right approach – visually, rhythmically and musically speaking – to make Bonnie Parker, Clyde Barrow and their gang romantic, tragic and pathetic all at once. The casting is superb. Warren Beatty has never topped his performance as the enigmatic Clyde. Faye Dunaway makes what could have been a one-dimensional part complex with her multi-layered portrayal of Bonnie. Gene Hackman is a life force as Buck Barrow. Estelle Parsons almost goes too far as Blanche but keeps it together just enough to add an hysterical tone. And Michael J. Pollard brings his characteristic weirdness as CW Moss. Gene Wilder adds manic glee in a brief but memorable interlude as Eugene Grizzard. There are some great turns by nonactors, including Mabel Cavitt as Bonnie’s mother, that add authenticity. There is a free, open, rollicking, bordering on cartoonish levity to the gangster proceedings artfully counterpointed by fatalistic grimness. The story unfolds in the Dust Bowl, Bible Belt ruins of poverty, farm foreclosures, bank runs, desperation, conservatism and fundamentalism and all that comes through in various scenes and sets. It’s also the story of two star-crossed lovers who can never quite consummate their attraction for each other, perhaps because they negate rather than fulfill each other.

More than most films, “Bonnie and Clyde” captures the parallel strains of American naivety, idealism and dream-making alongside its penchant for venality, corruption and violence.

Penn made some very good films, but this was his best, with the possible exception of “Night Moves.” I believe “Bonnie and Clyde” works so well because the script is so good at describing a very specific world and Penn and Co. are so good at realizing that on screen. It’s said the Robert Towne also contributed to the script. Like with any great film, you can feel the all-out commitment its makers had in capturing something truly original. Yes, the film is in a very long line of gangster pics, but rarely before or after has one so effectively balanced comedy and drama, myth and history, romanticism and reality. Editor Dede Allen’s work in creating the frenetic yet highly controlled pace of the film is outstanding. Burnett Guffey’s cinematography is a splendid blend of Hollywood gloss meet documentary meets French New Wave. The different tones of the film made old-line Warner Brothers studio execs nervous because they didn’t know what to make of it or do with it. Some veteran critics didn’t get it upon their first look. Most notably, New York Times critic Bosley Crowther, was practically shamed into giving the film a second watch when his initial negative review was so out of step with the critical mainstream who saw it as a bold, exciting and entertaining take on an old Hollywood genre.

Sure, the film may seem somewhat tepid or tame in the wake of Quentin Tarantino’s and Christopher Nolan’s darkly comic visions of gangster worlds. But there had to a “Bonnie and Clyde” before there could be a “Reservoir Dogs” or “Pulp Fiction” and a “Memento” or “The Dark Night.”

“Bonnie and Clyde” is credited with jumpstarting the American New Wave or New Hollywood that we associate with the late ’60s through the late ’70s. If that’s true, then several other films from around that same decade, some of them made years before “Bonnie and Clyde,” also greatly contributed to that movement, including:

Splendor in the Grass
The Manchurian Candidate
Wild River
David and Lisa
Nothing But a Man
A Thousand Clowns
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
The Graduate
Point Blank
In the Heat of the Night
The Producers
The Wild Bunch
East Rider
Midnight Cowboy
Take the Money and Run
Five Easy Pieces
The Landlord
Harold and Maude
Dirty Harry

Beatty produced “Bonnie and Clyde” and it was THE project that made him a real Player in Hollywood. He’s gone on to act in and produce and direct some very good films but I’m not sure he’s ever done anything since that worked so well as this. He did make one other great film as an actor in Robert Altman’s “McCabe and Mrs. Miller.” I am a big fan of two films Beatty acted in, wrote and directed: “Heaven Can Wait” and “Reds,” which are rather safe and conventional compared to “Bonnie and Clyde” but no less entertaining. But for my tastes anyway Beatty’s never made a better film than the very first one he appeared in: “Splendor in the Grass.” On that project he had the very good fortune to work with a master at the peak of his powers in director Elia Kazan and to inherit a great script by William Inge. Beatty learned from the outset how important it is to align himself with the best talent and aside from a few notable exceptions, he did that during the ’60s and ’70s.

Hot Movie Takes – “Colors of Heaven”
©By Leo Adam Biga, Author of “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film”

I find the award-winning South African film “Colors of Heaven” a difficult film to review because watching it I often felt two movies were streaming at the same time: a very good and a very bad one. There is so much to admire about this inspired-by-true-events story. Action-filled drama punctuated by romance, violence, revolution, racism and historic events. High production values. And a whole lot of heart. To its detriment is a melodramatic script that settles for caricature and cliche over nuance, some shaky acting and a tendency for the director Peter Bishai, who co-wrote it with Andre Pieterse, to want to emulate Quentin Tarantino and not having the chops to do it. Indeed, it seems as if the makers of this film couldn’t decide what primary tone they wanted for it. It’s variously satiric, ironic, over-the-top and soberly dramatic and often all of those things in the same sequence, which makes for a confusing stew if not handled very carefully and artfully. The film’s uneasy balancing act also reminded me of Richard Rush’s “The Stunt Man,” and even in his very capable hands that film nearly careens out of control at several points and its multiple shorelines and tones don’t always mesh well. Then there’s the protagonist of “Colors of Heaven,” Muntu, who’s portrayed as a confounding, irritating fellow drawn to trouble and danger. He’s seem so cavalier, reckless and random about the decisions he makes that at several key junctures I just didn’t care what happened even though the events depicted should have made me care. The whole works threaten to unravel near the end but just enough narrative discipline kicks in to make the payoff worth the sometimes erratic quality. It’s definitely a film that is greater than the sum of its many imperfect parts.

Watch it on Netflix and judge for yourself.

The near mythic story of Muntu that the movie tells takes place in the 1970s and 1980s. leading up to, during and after the Soweto uprising and the rise of Nelson Mandela. When we meet Muntu he is a young man on the run. He is a former national icon for the child acting role he had in a wildly popular South African film that paired him with a white child actor, Norman Knox, who became his best friend. What happens to Muntu and his friend in their adulthood is inextricably linked to that nation’s brutal apartheid state and the growing resistance to it. The deep psychosis and terrible cost of apartheid is well delineated in the dramatic exposition. It’s just that, for me anyway, the filmmakers crammed in way too many incidents than they knew how to manage and they didn’t give me a multi-dimensional protagonist so much as an enigmatic and convenient avatar whose path intersects with a great deal of chaos. He must navigate equally treacherous elements of traditional tribal culture, white society, the rebellion movement and the underground-underbelly world. The story is replete with personal loss and sacrifice. But I suspect it would be even more powerful if the makers focused on a few incidents rather than the dozen of more they try juggling, which tends to only muddle things. Less would have been more in this case.

Hot Movie Takes – “Packed in a Trunk: The Lost Art of Edith Lake Wilkinson”
©By Leo Adam Biga, Author of “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film”

Most of us have a desire to leave something behind that serves to commemorate our life. For some, it’s children and grandchildren. For others, a company, organization or foundation. And for still others, it’s the creative things we produce or make, whether the work of our hands or heads. Late 19th-early 20th century American artist Edith Lake Wilkinson never married and bore no children but she created an astounding body of work. Yet her contributions were nearly lost to the world when tragically, perhaps even criminally, she was committed to an insane asylum despite being a remarkably productive artist fully engaged in her work and in the world around her. It appears the openly gay feminist artist Wilkinson may have been the victim of a malicious attorney and a disgruntled ex-lover who used her lifestyle choices and possible bouts of anxiety and mania against her. It’s only thanks to fate and family that her long forgotten work, much of it packed away in a trunk and unseen for years, has been rediscovered and is now being shared with new generations. The story of this artist’s once obscure legacy seeing the light of day 60 years after her 1957 death is told in the 2015 HBO documentary “Packed in a Trunk.”

The story is equally that of Wilkinson’s great niece, Jane Anderson, a writer-artist-filmmaker whose personal connection to her ancestor drove her to try and make right the wrongs done all those years ago. Anderson grew up around some of her aunt’s work and she uncannily inherited Edith’s visual vocabulary. Their sketching and painting bear close resemblances to each other. Anderson feels another bond because just as her great-aunt was, she, too, is a gay feminist. The film chronicles Anderson’s decades-long attempts to try and restore some of what was stolen from Edith and what was denied the world, namely the sketches, paintings and wood blocks Edith made during a fruitful time in her life from the early 1900s through the early 1920s.

Restoring Edith to her rightful place becomes a mission for Jane and her partner Tess. When they discover that Edith had lived the best years of her life as a working member of the historic Provincetown art league, they are determined to reunite her work with that village on the northern tip of Cade Cod, Massachusetts. The film shows Jane meeting with artists and art gallery directors to try and interest them in her great aunt’s work, and they are all taken with it. Interestingly, years before the making of the film Jane tried eliciting interest but found none. It seems the documentary production carried the imprimatur that Jane alone didn’t have before. We learn as Jane learns that her great aunt was highly aspirational. She left her home in West Virginia to study art in New York Cit. She made her way as an artist and produced a great volume of work. She planned going to Paris to take in that city’s international art scene.

We also learn about the difficult time women artists had in that post-Victorian era of being taken seriously. Male artists always got preferential treatment and were given credit for things that sometimes women were denied. Most sadly, we learn that Edith had no one to look out for her best interests. She lost both her parents to a tragic accident and had no siblings, leaving her at the mercy of a callous attorney and a jealous ex-lover. Her institutionalization robbed her of the last three decades of her life, during which time she produced no work after such a prolific output in her 20s, 30s, 40s and 50s. She desperately needed a protector and advocate, but no one was there for her.

Poignantly, Jane is there for her today, preserving a legacy that would otherwise remain lost. Though Edith is gone, she lives on in her work and it’s through that work getting seen in exhibitions and online that Jane’s made Edith a relevant, appreciated and admired artist.

Some of my favorite parts of the doc are people seeing her work for the first time and being blown away by its quality. One can only wonder what Edith would make of her work finding new life and creating such a fuss all these years later, especially after she was locked away, discarded, forgotten – reduced to a shadow figure.

How may other bright talents have been silenced and lost through unjust asylum commitments based more on fear or ignorance or spite than on any sound diagnosis?

“Packed in a Trunk” is now showing on Netflix.

Hot Movie Takes – “Southpaw”
©By Leo Adam Biga, Author of “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film”

Antoine Fuqua’s “Southpaw” (2015) is a mess of a movie that ultimately works despite setting for spectacle over subtlety the first half and retreading tired cliches throughout. It’s only saved by the committed performance of star Jake Gyllenhaall as professional boxer Billy Hope.

But I have a bone to pick with him and other actors who feel they have to radically transform their bodies in order to play characters whose physicality is a part of their life. There’s no way an actor should have to go through some extreme training or regimen to get all ripped in order to play, as in this case, a boxer. I mean, even boxers and boxing trainers will tell you that the sport is far more about what’s between the ears than it is about throwing punches or strength or any of that stuff. Indeed, Titus “Tick” Wills, the trainer character Forest Whittaker plays in the film says that very thing to Billy Hope. Similarly, actors and acting teachers will tell you it’s the internal, not the external that matters in creating truthful characters. Ironically, when we first meet Billy, he’s a reigning light-heavyweight champion who’s in incredible condition, who can punch and who can take a punch but has no defensive skills whatsoever, The movie wants us to buy-into Gyllenhaall looking like a real fighter yet the early fight scenes are ridiculously over the top and unrealistic. There’s no way Billy could have gotten that far as a prizefighter, with a 43-0 record no less, with such atrocious or nonexistent defense, So, why did Gyllenhaall and director Antoine Fuqua believe it was so important for the actor to get so buff when very few fighters ever look like that and when his character is a pure slugger for whom that kind of ripped body is even rarer and really beside the point yet, and when they failed to capture the realism of ring action that other movies have made the standard for the genre? Look, I know one of the most iconic performances in screen history is by Robert De Niro as boxer Jake LaMotta in “Raging Bull,” in which he transformed his body twice, getting incredibly ripped and then getting grossly obese, but that’s Bobby f___ing De Niro were talking about. He’s a great actor. Jake Gyllenhall, though a good actor, is something less than great. And I know the boxing scenes in “Raging Bull “range from gritty to poetic, even surreal, but director Martin Scorsese was going for something far different than what Fuqua went after.

More telling and integral to Gyllenhaal’s characterization in “Southpaw” than the physical appearance he crafted is the way he transformed the way he speaks and behaves. Billy was an orphaned street kid and grew up in the rough and tumble state child welfare system and Gyllenhaal make me believe he’s from that world. He’s an angry person unable to deal with life outside the ring without his life partner, Maureen (Rachel McAdams).

The movie takes us down a predictable path in which Billy loses his wife to a bullet in a fracas he played a part in escalating and after he goes off the deep end he suffers another loss when his kid, Leila (Ooa Laurence in a pretty fair performance) is taken away from him and put in the child welfare system. Adding insult to injury, his manager Jordan (50 Cent in a lousy performance) drops him and then Billy loses his title in a dramatically contrived way that practically has him undergo a breakdown in the ring. Having lost everything, he sets about reinventing himself in order to pick up the pieces of his shattered life. Billy’s motivated to reclaim his title and redeem himself in order to get back his little girl. Aiding him on his comeback is Tick Wills, a gruff, good-hearted man who reluctantly takes on the ex-champ. There’s not one iota of originality in this movie but the writing, lead performance, direction and Mauro Fiore’s cinematography are just good enough to make it all work in the end, though I also found some of the supporting and peripheral performances weak and unconvincing. There’s also a notable lack of attention to detail in several scenes that made me feel the makers were more concerned with the melodrama of the piece than any true attempt at realism, even poetic realism. The second half is decidedly better and more grounded in reality than the first half and the later fight scenes are much better done as well.

I seem to recall this movie getting all sorts of love from critics but I can’t see why. It doesn’t hold up to the best boxing movies and even looked at as purely a drama, apart from its boxing theme, it’s mediocre at best. I found the last “Rocky” movie much better, much more realistic, much more moving than this picture.

A side note: I was amused to find Fuqua’s name appeared at least five times in the credits between his production company and his producing and directing roles on the picture, and all I can say is if I were him I wouldn’t want my name so prominently and frequently displayed on such a pedestrian work as this. The best thing Fuqua did was to cast Gyllenhaal and to get out of the way. Whenever he did get in the way, the pic suffered.

“Southpaw” is now showing on Netflix.

Hot Movie Takes – “Christine”
©By Leo Adam Biga, Author of “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film”

The sad, true-life story of Christine Chubbuck is told in the emotionally wrenching 2016 film “Christine” now playing on Netflix. Rebecca Hall plays Christine, a young, ambitious, emotionally disturbed television news reporter in the early 1970s trying unsuccessfully to hide her illness from co-workers and determined not to use medication to treat her condition. We find out pretty early on she’d previously suffered severe depression while living and working in Boston and that whatever happened there precipitated her moving to Sarasota, Florida, where she feels her talents are wasted at a struggling small market station. She works in a very intimate setting there but she cannot bring herself to connect with her colleagues, with the exception of Jean (Maria Dizzia). This jill-of-all-trades pulls camera, edits film, produces segments and aspires to be a field reporter like Christine, whom she admires. Jean worries about Christine because her workmate is always intensely fraught with angst and tension without ever admitting to it or letting on why. She’s the first to suspect something’s wrong but like most of us in similar circumstances, she’s in a quandary what to do about it.

Off her meeds, Christine is portrayed as a high functioning sick person subject to mood swings indicative of manic depression. Her high ideals to do serious thought pieces on real issues and her sense of perfectionism set her up for expectations that are bound to be frustrated.

Complicating things, Christine has a crush on vain anchorman George (Michael C. Hall) but is too unsure of herself to do anything about it., let alone clue him in on her interest. Christine resents that George flirts with the cute female sports reporter Andrea (Kim Shaw) and with a pretty receptionist-floor manager. Her self-esteem is so bad that she doesn’t think she has a chance with George anyway.

But Christine’s main conflict at the station is with the manager-news director, Mike Nelson (Tracy Letts), a gruff news hound who respects her ability but resents her condescending. combative attitude. He knows that Christine feels she’s too good for the station and she knows he knows. Nelson also increasingly feels he has an unstable person on staff and he, too, has no idea how to handle the situation.

To boost sagging ratings he demands that his reporters bring him “juicy” stories. After resisting this, because it goes against everything she believes in as a journalist, Christine finally gives in. In her increasingly manic, desperate states she gives him what she thinks he wants but her work becomes ever edgier, even disturbing. Her isolation only grows. Her desire to get out of the station increases when she learns the owner is eying to pluck someone from the staff for his new station in big market Baltimore. At one point, seemingly unable to do anything right, she has a blow out with Nelson that should have got her fired but she stays on. George tries to help by introducing her to a form of therapy but his attempts backfire when she learns he and the sports reporter are going to Baltimore.

The backdrop to all of this is Christine’s dysfunctional relationship with her mother Peg (J. Smith-Cameron), with whom she lives. Christine has an uneasy, unhealthy reliance on her mother for emotional support. When Peg tries to live her own life. Christine sees it as a threat to her own security and fears of abandonment.

Rebecca Hall is superb as Christine. She portrays the neuroses of the character in every aspect of behavior – from the way she walks and talks to the way she sits and stands to the way she responds to other people. It’s in her voice, in her inflections, in her posture, in her gestures. Everything about her is pinched, awkward and wound up tight like a spring. In Christine’s mind, the world she navigates is filled with treachery and stupidity. She sees people as conspiring against her. She survives life, she doesn’t live it. We also glimpse those episodes when she’s seemingly fine, though always wary. Smith-Cameron is quite good as her loving mother who is out of her depth dealing with her daughter’s manic-depressive condition. Michael C. Hall is effective as George, the well-meaning colleague who can see Christine is floundering, though neither he nor anyone around her realizes just how far she’s unraveling. Dizzia is impressive as Jean, the faithful friend whom Christine believes has betrayed her.

But the film’s best performance belongs to Letts as Mike Nelson. The respected stage-screen actor, playwright and screenwriter gives great dimension to a part that could have been played as a stereotype.

Kudos go to screenwriter Craig Schlowich and director Antonio Campos for never flinching from going to dark places but also never being exploitative with the material. Through it all, even after Christine ends her misery in a most bizarre and shocking way that certainly must have influenced “Network,” the story remains a deeply empathic and humanistic portrait of a woman in crisis. If we’re honest, all of us know someone like Christine or have aspects of her in ourselves.

Hot Movie Takes – “Against the Wall” & “Andersonville”
©By Leo Adam Biga, Author of “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film”

I recently watched via YouTube two John Frankenheimer films he made for cable networks during the 1990s: “Against the Wall” is his HBO dramatization of the Attica uprising of 1971 and “Andersonville” is his TNT depiction of the notorious Civil War Confederate prisoner of war camp of the title. Frankenheimer made these two, plus three other television movies (“The Burning Season,” “George Wallace,” “Path to War,” all to great acclaim, over an eight year period that brought his career full circle and marked something of a comeback. The director first made a name for himself in the 1950s as one of the preeminent directors of live television dramas. He helmed several of the most lauded feature length live TV dramatic productions and their success landed him in Hollywood. Along with Sidney Lumet, Arthur Penn, Franklin Schaffner, Sam Peckinpah and Robert Altman, he was part of a vanguard of TV directors who invaded the feature film ranks and helped create the New Hollywood with film school wiz kids Francis Ford Coppola, George Lucas, Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese. He gained great recognition for his big screen work in the 1960s (“The Manchurian Candidate,” “The Birdman of Alcatraz,” “The Train,” “Seven Days in May”) and then his career faltered somewhat the ensuing three decades, with more misfires than hits. “The French Connection II,” “Black Sunday” and “52-Pickup” marked his best work then before he found himself again by going back to television and then making one last killer feature, “Ronin.” In my opinion, the late Frankenheimer never made a truly great film and the closest he got was “Seven Days in May” and “Ronin.” Even his best work suffers from flaws that show up time and again in his movies. That doesn’t make his movies any less watchable though because he was a great storyteller who knew how to frame and move a story. But his best work, to my eyes only, never rose to the level of the best work of contemporaries like Lumet and Peckinpah.

I’m reviewing “Against the Wall” and “Andersonville” in the same post since they’re both by the same director and they’e both prison films. Though their action is separated by a century and one is a civilian prison and the other a military prison, the human rights violations and systematic dehumanization closely parallel each other.

“Against the Wall” is a typically well-crafted Frankenheimer film with a tough veneer of reality to it, a characteristic flair for kinetic camera movement and dynamic, mayhem-filled crowd scenes. Where the film lacks is in character development and in settling for cliche over subtlety.

Kyle MacLachlan stars as Mike Smith, the son and nephew of lifer guards at Attica state prison in New York. We meet him after he’s returned home from going off to find himself. He’s come back to working-class rural America. Attica is a factory town and the prison there is referred to as another factory where you can do an “easy eight” (eight-hour shift). Mike’s father, Hal (Harry Dean Stanton) is retired from the prison and runs a bar but his uncle Ed still works at the correctional facility. Mike, whose wife Sharon (a very young Anne Heche) is pregnant with their first child, has resigned himself to work in the family business and his very first days on the job turn out to be a microcosm for the incompetence and cruelty that will spark the riot. He’s given no training. His supervisor, Weisbad (Frederic Forrest) is a sadist. He’s informed that the inmates run the place and the guards are just there to prevent anarchy. Through Mike’s eyes we see that even the prisoners’ reasonable demands are ignored or dismissed. Conditions are terrible. Tensions run high. Prisoners are systematically brutalized, humiliated and degraded. It’s a tragedy and explosion waiting to happen.

Samuel L. Jackson and Clarence Williams III are black activist inmates with very different agendas. As Jamaal, Jackson seeks to work proactively with the administration and the system to improve conditions. As Chaka, Williams wants revenge. Both men get their chance when a seemingly minor incident results in a group of inmates breaking ranks, overpowering their guard and proceeding to wrest controls of entire tiers and cell blocks, eventually overpowering several more guards and releasing the entire prison population out into the yard. There is no possibility of escape since the rest of the guards, by now heavily armed, man the walls looking straight down onto the yard. But the prisoners do have the guards they overran as hostages. Mike, his uncle Ed and Weisbad are among them.

My main issue with the film is the performance of MacLachlan. I honestly didn’t know what he was playing half the time. He’s a limited actor and I feel he got in over his head with the conflicted feelings he was asked to express in this role. Williams plays the patented wild eyed militant that wore thin years ago and here he just retreads the same old ground. Jackson, who can rely too much on sneers and shouts, gives a restrained performance here that helps hold the whole works together and serves as a counterbalance to both Williams and Forrest, another player guilty of over the top emoting.

Carmen Argenziano as the warden is fine if a bit one-note. The same for Philip Bosco as the commissioner. Perhaps the two most effective portrayals are by Harry Dean Stanton and Anne Heche. I think the real problem though is with the script. It’s too thin on character exposition and therefore the characters either come across as stereotypes, rather than archetypes, or as too vague and equivocal, as in the case of MacLachlan.

On the positive side, the movie did keep me engaged and by TV movie standards in the ’90s it has a gritty veracity to it that largely holds up. Frankenheimer was at his best directing scenes of pitched emotion and he had plenty of opportunities here to do so. Where I think he faltered was in striking the right balance between high drama and low drama. Scenes tend to be overplayed or underplayed and it’s more noticeable in this movie than in some of his others because of the wildly fluctuating nature of the events depicted.

The strongest thing the movie has going for it is its unvarnished look at the shit that went down at Attica. This was America at its worst and the problems bound up in that single prison were a reflection of what was happening in prisons all over America, and the sad thing is that even while prison reforms have been enacted, the incarceration culture has only grown.

“Andersonville” represented one of the biggest scaled productions Frankenheimer undertook. It appears that he and his team took great pains to make an historically accurate recreation of the POW camp. Hundreds, perhaps at times thousands of extras filled out the scenes, many of which were shot in awful weather that mirrored what the prisoners endured. The primitive, open stockade without any enclosures for the prisoners was meant to hold a fraction of the men who ended up there. With the Confederacy running desperately short of resources and the prison run by a Mad-Hatter Prussian with a cruel streak, the men were exposed to the elements except for what crude shelters they could erect from whatever scant supplies their knapsacks carried. Thy POWs had no access to clean water except for what rainwater they could collect and their only food was a meager and inconsistent apportionment of mush. Between the weather, the lack of clean water, the starvation diet, no sanitation, no real medical facilities and the overcrowded conditions, disease ran rampant. Nearly one of every four men imprisoned there died.

The story the film tells centers on a unit of Massachusetts men captured during a battle and taken to Andersonville. Through their eyes we are introduced layer by layer to the nightmare of the place. One member of that troop, private Josiah Day (Jarrod Emick) is the main protagonist, and his close comrades include Sergeant McSpadden (Frederic Forrest), Martin) Ted Marcoux) and Billy (Jayce Bartok). When our band of brothers first enters the prison yard they are greeted by Munn (William Sanderson), who attempts to lead them to a certain section on the pretext of protection but he’s intercepted by Dick Potter (Gregory Sporleder), a veteran of the hell-hole and an old comrade assumed killed in action. Dick, who was shot in both legs, walks with a crude crutch and is such a sight with his unkempt shoulder length hair and dirty rags on his back that the men don’t recognize him at first. Dick warns them that Munn is part of a rouge gang of “raiders” who beat and kill fellow Union soldiers to steal their provisions.

Much of the story revolves around the threat of the raiders, led by the flamboyant and treacherous Collins (Frederick Coffin), and the rest of the prison camp working up the will or courage to confront them. Another big thread of the story is the digging of a tunnel led by Sergeant John Gleason (Cliff DeYoung) and his men from a Pennsylvania detachment. They are joined in the endeavor by Josiah and his unit. And then there’s the steadily deteriorating conditions killing off scores of inmates and the harsh, inhuman way the men are treated at the orders of the martinet commandant, Captain Wirz (Jan Triska). William H. Macy plays a visiting Confederate colonel sent to document conditions there and he’s appalled by what he finds.

The performances are universally good and, as usual, Frankenheimer draws us in and moves the story right along, though it does tend to drag a bit toward the end. I think this movie is somewhat stronger than “Against the Wall” and comes close to the filmmaker’s best feature work. I don’t know if Frankenheimer purposely cast mostly then-unknowns in the leading parts but it works to the advantage of the film because we’re not projecting any past performances onto their work.

The roving, hand-held camera shots place us as the viewer right in amongst the prisoners and their misery. Frankenheimer and cinematographer Freddie Francis do a good job of alternating between the intimate, claustrophobic shots and the more establishing shots. We get a good sense for just how large and yet overcrowded the prison is and for where the various segments of it are, such as the raiders’ camp and the contaminated creek, in relation to our protagonists.

Strangely, for all the time and emphasis given over to the digging of the tunnel, I never got a clear sense for where it was in relation to the wall until the tunnelers popped out of the ground to try and make their break for escape and freedom.

POW movies are only as good as the interactions between the inmates, the dramatic tensions between the prisoners and their keepers and the personalities of the characters. If there’s a failing with this film it’s that the most charismatic of the prisoners, Dick Potter, is killed off fairly early on and even though Jarrod Emick is a fine actor his Josiah Day is too placid and passive. The bad guys in this film are far more interesting and tend to throw the whole works out of balance. Frederick Coffin as Collins is wildly entertaining if a bit hammy and Jan Triska as Captain Wirz goes him one further. Carmen Argenziano almost steals the show as the attorney who defends the raiders in a trial the troops hold to bring the vanquished cutthroats to justice. Argenziano is so powerful in his scenes that it practically throws the whole film out of balance. He and Forrest were in Frankenheimer’s “Against the Wall.”

SAFE HARBOR: Activists working to create Omaha Area Sanctuary Network as refuge for undocumented persons in danger of arrest-deportation

June 29, 2017 2 comments

SAFE HARBOR: Activists working to create Omaha Area Sanctuary Network as refuge for undocumented persons in danger of arrest-deportation

©by Leo Adam Biga
Appeared in El Perico (



Undocumented immigrants are among the culture war’s invisible victims. Asylum seekers risk everything to escape dangers in their homeland only to come here and face possible arrest, detainment and deportation. Application of illegal alien policies and laws vary by agents and judges. Defendants are at the mercy of capricious political winds.

Against this uncertain backdrop, some concerned citizens have formed the Omaha Area Sanctuary Network as part of a national safe haven movement. Based on refuge models in places like Austin, Texas, churches here would serve as sanctuary spaces for targets of Immigration and Customs Enforcement or other perceived injustice threats. Current custom and policy prevent ICE agents from going into “sensitive locations.” When arrest is eminent, the network would enact sanctuary. The affected person or persons would remain in sanctuary until their limbo status is resolved.

Recently, the Omaha group mobilized in response to a potential sanctuary situation, despite not yet having a church prepared to fill that role, said Lawrence Jensen, who helped launch the network. He said members volunteered their own homes before the case turned out to be a false alarm. The scenario proved a dry run for the group’s willingness to take action.

Jensen, a Union Pacific retiree, is a member of First United Methodist Church in Omaha, which has hosted network meetings. He attended an earlier event there in which two Guatemalan women who were in Austin sanctuary shared their stories.

“It was really moving to hear the things they had to go through and what was done for them because they were in sanctuary,” Jensen said. “Both of them felt they probably wouldn’t have survived if they went back to Guatemala. They needed a way to stay here.”

He said after the presentation he and others “decided we should try and do something similar,” adding, “It’s a faith issue more than anything to get involved where we see injustices and things that need to be acted on.”

Rev. Cyndi Simpson, a minister at Second Unitarian Church of Omaha, said, “This is absolutely a moral issue, a justice issue and a spiritual issue.” She said it’s “great there are other congregations and religious organizations interested in sanctuary because this will work best if we’re all woking together in a coalition.”

Simpson and Jensen know the network treadis on “tenuous” legal ground.

“There is no legal protection for the church,” Jensen said. “It’s just this policy, which so far has been respected. It could change just by an (executive) order.”

Technically, federal immigration law makes it a violation “for any person to conceal, harbor or shield from detection in any place … any alien who is in the United States in violation of law.”

“It’s not definite a church giving sanctuary would fall under that law, but it’s possible,” Jensen said. “It’s indefinite because it’s never been tested in the current climate.”

Though University of Nebraska at Omaha political science professor Jonathan Benjamin- Alvarado feels sanctuary churches are morally right, he cautions against them.

“The wide latitude granted ICE to ferret out ‘illegals’ would … put churches in the line of fire,” he said. “If schools, courts and government offices have already been deemed fair ground for the apprehension of individuals in violation of deportation orders, churches should take note. It has not happened yet, but if faced with the perception of ‘losing the war’ on immigration … churches may no longer be sacrosanct. An immigration raid on a church would be traumatic and potentially devastating for a church community.”

Simpson’s unswayed, saying, “To me, this is the work we’re called to do. So, let the consequences be what the consequences are. This is civil disobedience and that’s how change happens.”

Sanctuary’s been practiced before in America, Simpson is a veteran of the 1980s movement that took in political refugees fleeing Guatemalan civil war persecution.

“It’s very interesting to be here again,” she said.

Hosting someone in sanctuary means a commitment of resources for perhaps a year or more.

“During that time they’ve got to be fed and clothed, you have to see to their health needs, offer moral support. It may mean finding legal representation and accompanying them to court dates,” Jensen said,

Simpson said the Omaha network’s agreed to support family members when the main breadwinner’s imprisoned, deported or in sanctuary.

No one organization can do it alone.

“You can lessen the impact on the individual church by having lots of people sharing the work,” Jensen said.

The snag, thus far, is finding churches with a dedicated, facilities-ready physical space.

Simpson said the network’s expanded its search to include other kinds of religious organizations.

Network members say they’re also committed to conducting call campaigns and holding demonstrations to prod ICE to give up the chase and grant deferred action or freedom. When tipped off a raid will happen, activists plan doing “sanctuary in the streets” by notifying media and engaging in nonviolent disruption.

“ICE doesn’t like the publicity that comes with taking someone while the cameras are rolling,” Jensen said. “They’re liable to back off.”

Earlier this year, Jensen attended a sanctuary network conference in Denver. “There was a lot of discussion about exactly these kinds of things,” he said.

The network’s seeking what Jensen calls “natural allies” among groups like the Nebraska Democratic Party, Omaha Together One Community and Indivisible groups dedicated to resisting the Trump agenda.

Gauging who might step forward to offer sanctuary is difficult. As for his church, Jensen said, “It’s not at all certain the church as a whole would approve it, which is something that would have to happen. Most are progressive religiously and politically and socially, but there are some who would be concerned with the legality issues – so there would be some opposition. How it would play out, I’m not sure.”

Tacos and tequila take center stage at Hook & Lime

Tacos and tequila take center stage at Hook & Lime
by Leo Adam Biga

The high concept behind Hook & Lime Tacos + Tequila is a small plate nirvana paired with crafted margaritas for a fine dining-meets-street food experience.

The changing menu is anchored by tacos and tortas, family-style meals and appetizers. Seafood, pork, beef and chicken proteins predominate but some veggie dishes are available, too. The tortillas are made fresh on the premises every day. The extensive bar program is highlighted by homemade syrups and infusions and fresh-squeezed juices to complement the many varieties of tequila (140) and mescals (25).

Owner-manager Robbie Malm is vying for a North Downtown niche after making a success of Dudley’s Pizza in Ak-Sar-Ben Village. He’s confident Hook & Lime is reeling in the discerning diners it needs.

“I think we are starting to find our audience,” he said.
“When I drop food off at the table, people are just wowed by the presentation. They’re eating with their eyes first. They’re pleasantly surprised. It’s a lot tastier and more beautiful than they thought it would be. It’s fun to see because it feels like we’re over-delivering.”

He looked at other locations before fixing on NoDo,where a development boom is underway.

“I am very glad we ended up settling here. I like the idea of being part of an emerging neighborhood. I like being one of the anchors as the place builds up around us. It’s really exciting seeing everything going up. Right across the street we’ve got people that will be working here, staying here, living here.

“And obviously I’ve got a giant baseball stadium (TD Ameritrade Park) right behind me, which doesn’t hurt.”

Not to mention the CenturyLink arena-convention center. Then there are Slowdown and Film Streams on the same block and the Omaha Design Center and Hot Shops Art Center within easy walking distance.

“We get a lot of traffic from the Slowdown and Film Streams events and we’re starting to get a lot of neighborhood regulars,” Malm said.

Whoever ventures there is sure to note Hook & Lime is not your mainstream Mexican restaurant.

“We try to stay as far away from Tex Mex as possible and that is something we still have to explain to people,” said head chef Brandon Kalfut, He was chef de cuisine under Alex Sorens at the start-up before Sorens left. Kalfut previously worked in Denver and with Dario Schicke at Avoli Osteria and Clayton Chapman at The Grey Plume.

“If diners order a dish and they seem a little hesitant on it,” Kalfut said, “our servers are very well-trained on what goes into it and getting people set into a comfort zone on the menu. There are familiar things and adventurous things on the menu, and that’s kind of what we try to strike a balance between.”

Familiar include’s a battered cod fried fish taco. On the more adventurous side is the Yellow Tail Escabeche.

“But you don’t have to dive all into something that’s totally unfamiliar,” Malm said. “You can get one of each. That’s kind of what we want to promote. For people who are just dipping their toes in the water, that’s fine – start here, and then come back next week.”

With some authentic offerings, such as the Salsa Flight, certain notes have been toned down while remaining true to the original.

“Some of these traditional sauces tend to be bitter and very layered in flavor and sometimes that’s a hard sell because people aren’t expecting that,” Kalfut said.

Two signature dishes – the Chorizo Torta and the Bone-in Barbacora – represent the pains taken to do things right. The house-made sausage is made with select cuts from the whole hog used head-to-tail in the kitchen and the shank is prepared over several days.

“A lot of technique and time is dedicated into making our chorizo,” Kalfut said. “It’s a double grind. For every one pound of meat, it takes about 17 ingredients. We grind anywhere from 80 to a hundred pounds, so multiply those 17 ingredients by 80 or a hundred. It’s one day literally just creating all the seasoning for it. A thousand peppers go into a hundred-pound batch. We soak and char off the peppers. Somebody physically stands in front of the grill to lightly char each pepper individually.

“The second day you grind the meat and marinate it. On the third day you do a secondary grind. We do all this before it’s even capable of going on the menu.”

The dish then is ready to be composed.

“Our Chorizo Torta is a classic,” Kalfut said. “We complement the chorizo with a local wild arugula, marinated white onions, house-made creme and a fried egg. A lot goes into something that eats really well, yet it’s simple and a hundred percent approachable.”

So is the Bone-in Barbacoa.

“It’s a five-pound bone-in beef shank. We actually have people call-up to make reservations just to reserve one because we can only do so many per week. It’s a cut of the cattle (femur) rarely used whole. We do a 24-hour salt cure and a three-day sous-vide (precision cook in a water bath). Then it rests one day before we even let it go on the menu.

“We do table-side service where I hand-shred the shank, tilt the bone up and pour all the bone marrow juices on it. We finish it with Kampala sea salt.”

“It’s an experience,” Malm said.

“It comes with our rice and Anasazi beans and we send out a bunch of accouterments,” Kalfut said. “Part of the bone-in presentation is an explanation of all these specialty components that don’t exist anywhere else on our menu because it’s all just infused into this one dish.”

For Malm, the care that goes into this single menu item is “a good example of our approach to everything, where we like to say nothing is an after-thought here. Rice and beans is the easiest thing to make an after-thought, but we have that same level of attention to detail for it.”

It all matters.

“And that extends to the bar program,” he said. “We make our own syrups. With our margaritas, instead of using Grand Marnier, we make our own orange brandy. That’s a collaboration between the chef and the bar manager. It’s always fresh-squeezed juice. We’re not using any kind of corn syrup, sour mix garbage. I would say these are the best margaritas in town.”

Bar manager Brian van Egmond, who learned his trade working at various Omaha spots and in Monterrey, Calif., said, “This is my first full cocktail menu and I am very excited being able to take our margaritas and give people a craft experience. Everything here is handmade in-house. We’re not carrying any liqueurs, we’re actually building them in-house. It’s something to really round the experience and we’re doing it at a great price point.”

Using his alchemy with flavors and Kalfut’s food science savvy, he said, “we’re able to take a 30-day infusion and crash it down into a five-hour process, which is hugely significant in keeping costs down.”

Details make magic of what could be mundane.

“The house margarita is a lot of times the after-thought
cocktail on the bar menu at Mexican restaurants,” Malm said. “We start with Exotico Blanco – a citrus zest infused tequila. We use the orange brandy – pulling that citrus essence into the mix, and our in-house made Turbinado syrup. All those things combined make a damn tasty margarita – and that’s the house margarita.

“That’s what sets us apart.”

Kalfut and van Egmond work closely on food-drink pairings.

“Finding the nice subtle differences between two or three Blancos to complement two or three fish dishes,” van Egmond said, “means one is going to have a grassier note and another one’s going to be a little sweeter and pull through to complement a more savory dish. You’re trying to get two completely different items to work together in a sort of harmony.”

Having someone with Kalfut’s experience, van Egan said, is an advantage.

“Brandon’s been a great source to learn from during this whole process.”

Collaboration “makes the pairings a lot more fun,” Kalfut said. “From the chef’s side of it, I’m like, ‘These are tasting notes for the dish,’ and then Brian reads them, spends time thinking about it and starts pulling stuff off the shelf and matching key points from the food’s flavor profile with key points from tequila or mescal profiles.

“Brian’s very open to us saying, ‘No, that won’t work with that dish.’ Then he grabs another bottle down. With his knowledge and palette, he has the ability to find what will complement the dish.”

It helps, Kalfut said, that “we take the criticisms of the food and the tastings very well from each other” and from customers, too. “We do take guest feedback very strongly, so if there’s something that needs to be tweaked, we evolve to what diners are looking for.
Getting it out of our heads and onto a plate is the first step and then after that it’s just feedback, feedback, feedback, until you get it to that perfect little bite.”

Hook & Lime is also a reflection of its chef’s and owner’s
personal cuisine adventures. A trip to Mexico made Malm a tequila convert and fired his passion for tortillas.

“One of my favorite dining experiences there was this giant market with food vendors making the tortillas right in front of you. An old Mexican woman would roll up a ball of masa in her hand and put it right on the grill. Seeing and smelling that fresh cooked tortilla was one of the main inspirations.”

As for Kalfut, “I go down to Austin, Texas a lot and try to hit up as many of the authentic restaurants as I can. My (culinary) background is very much French-Asian, so I would say a lot of the stuff I do is influenced by the places I’ve eaten, the places I’ve gone to.

“Ten years ago I didn’t think this (Mexican cuisine) was something I’d be doing. But I am very strongly influenced by outside sources and putting my own little love on it. I mean, I put own love on every dish, but you’ve got to start from somewhere.”

He and Malm, who both advocate sustainable practices.

“We’re as close to zero waste as we can be on all of our proteins,” Kalfut said, “Everything we bring in is head-to- tail and we find a way to use every component. Same with our produce. Every single day we only have about one Slim Jim trash can worth of food waste.”

The team takes it one step farther by recycling its oil, cardboard and glass.

Local sourcing is also important to Hook & Lime. Its local purveyors are listed right on the menu.

When the restaurant first opened Malm was strictly focused on the business side but he’s gotten more involved on the food side.

“To the point that he expos now,” said Kalfut. “He does all the final touches on a lot of the plates that go out. The first two months he was like, ‘Nope, don’t bother me with it,’ and now he’s the final touch on a lot of plates and he does it just as fast and as god as I can do it.”

“”Maybe not just as good, but I’m coming close,” Malm said.

Those last-minute touches complete the dish and plate.

“Like our Caesar salad needs to get some olive oil as well as fresh black pepper,” Kalfut said. “Our chicken taco gets Espelette french pepper as well as micro cilantro, olive oil and finishing salt.

“Sometimes it’s tweezer work where we literally use micro tweezers to place these things directly on each individual taco, for example.”

Malm enjoys it all, but “what really jazzes me,” he said,
is “the creation part” of turning concept into reality.

“Figuring out how it’s going to look, getting samples of plates and figuring out how they’re going to go together, piecing the menu together little by little – I really like that part of it. At Dudley’s, once that was done, there wasn’t a lot of opportunity for reinvention and that was one of the main reasons I wanted to do something smaller. I wanted to find a little more of a niche where the menu could be reinvented on a regular basis.

“The idea was always an elevated tacos and small plates concept restaurant. It’s a little more elevated than I originally had in mind. It’s evolved a lot, like every idea does. You tweak some things and little by little you find out what it wants to be.”

“We’re on our 12th menu adaptation,” Kalfut said. “I think we’re finding our stride. We’re continuously pushing.”

He’s happy to have an owner equally motivated by quality.

“Robbie’s never once said, ‘No, don’t buy that, it’s too expensive, no don’t bring that in, it’s too foreign.’ It’s always, ‘Yeah, bring it in, we’ll try it, we’ll see if it makes sense, we’ll see if it works, and if it doesn’t, we’ll try something else.’ That, from a chef’s perspective, is a dream come true.”

A by-request-only tasting menu is available on a select basis.

Open 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. for lunch and 5 p.m. to close for dinner, Tuesday through Sunday. Closed Monday.


Tenth Street Market will bring Vic Gutman’s dream to fruition

June 27, 2017 1 comment

Tenth Street Market will bring Vic Gutman’s dream to fruition

©by Leo Adam Biga

Vic Gutman is creating Omaha’s version of a year-round public market, modeled after Seattle’s Pike Place and Philadelphia’s Reading Terminal Market.

A Mother Goose nursery rhyme describes the joy of going to market for everything from a fat pig to a plum bun. After a decline, real-life public markets are making a comeback.

The Omaha Market House, Livestock Market and City Market once all operated. With the advent of the Omaha Farmers Market in 1994 and the subsequent emergence of co-ops, community gardens and urban farms linking producers with consumers, Omaha’s food ecosystem is reviving lost arts.

The next logical step in this move back to a local foods nexus is the public market slated to open in fall 2018.

The planned Tenth Street Market is the dream of Vic Gutman. The founder of the Omaha Farmers Market and Omaha Summer Arts Festival, his newest project culminates his extensive research into public markets and long-stated goal to bring one to Omaha again.

Built in 1890 as a streetcar barn, the Rail & Commerce Building at 10th and Pierce is set to become the Tenth Street Market, a year-round public market modeled after Seattle’s Pike Place and Philadelphia’s Reading Terminal Market.

His company Vic Gutman & Associates is busy raising funds for the nonprofit project that needs $18.3 million to repurpose a 108-year-old building as the public market place. Upwards of two dozen permanent vendors as well as pop-ups, dine-in restaurants, enclosed event spaces, and a scenic rooftop eating-viewing spot are called for in Alley Poyner Macchietto Architecture’s design. The all-local vendors will variously sell fresh and imported produce, meat, fish, cheese and assorted prepared foods ranging from baked goods to ethnic bites. Many trends will converge at the market: farm-to-table purveyors, street food, fine dining and education.

Ever since he first experienced one in his youth, Gutman’s been intrigued with public markets as catalytic hubs and conveners of commerce and community.

Laura Hall
Marketing & Development Specialist, Vic Gutman & Associates
Another fresh food option in Omaha will make the downtown area a more attractive place for people to live and work. It’s a gathering place for the community and a place for entrepreneurs.
It will bring traffic to an area of downtown that’s somewhat undiscovered at this point. It will also preserve a building that holds a rich piece of Omaha’s history to be enjoyed by future generations.

“I remember going to the Eastern Market in Detroit as a child and young adult,” he said. “That market brought people together from the city, from the suburbs – black, white, rich, poor, everyone. They all came together. I was attracted, too, by the stories behind the vendors. Many came from generational family farms or businesses. They were always very colorful, interesting. To me, it was the essence of community.”

Vic Gutman plans to create Omaha’s own unique version of public markets like Pike’s Place in Seattle.

In 1987, he attended a national public markets conference that sparked his study of the model.

“I have been researching this for 30 years. I’ve gone to markets all over the country, the world. I have interviewed managers of markets,” he said. “I’ve taken notes about what I liked, what I didn’t like.”

A 1990s feasibility study concluded downtown Omaha wasn’t developed and populated enough to support a market. Besides, Gutman said, “There wasn’t a strong enough movement yet about local food.”

“Well, all that has changed. I think the city is now ready for it because it’s no longer just a niche audience very interested in what they eat and how it’s prepared. The local food movement has really grown and it’s a much wider audience than it used to be.”

A farmers market resurgence laid the groundwork.

“People drive long distances to go to the farmers markets because not only do you have a great choice of fresh local food there but you have a chance to interact with the people who grew your food or baked the bread or made the jams and honey,” Gutman continued. “People also enjoy running into friends and neighbors there. Ingrained in the human species is a need to socialize, a need to be part of something bigger than yourself, and that’s always been true for the farmers markets.”

Consultant David O’Neil with Projects for Public Spaces said a public market “reveals a culture that’s already there.” He said, “By putting the pieces together in the right way, they kind of come together and then people can see it. It creates a sensual scale of accessibility.”

“It’s not just about buying and selling at one of these markets,” O’Neil said, “it’s the social dynamics. It creates an elixir for the local economy that’s almost magical. As the reappearing local economy comes back, people are like, ‘Wow, I didn’t know we had that.’ It’s very important to put these components of a local economy back in place and a market not only does it, but it activates all these other dormant roots. Everything starts reconnecting. It’s very exciting.”

Gutman said the Tenth Street Market is designed to tap these diverse roots.

“We are a mission-driven market. Sales for the tenants will be critical to the success of the market but also factoring into the success is that it attracts people of all different socioeconomic backgrounds and from all parts of the city. We want everyone to feel welcome there.”

The renovation of the historic building will preserve and bring back to life a beautiful winding staircase.

The 65,000-square-foot brick market building at 10th and Pierce Streets was once a streetcar barn and postal annex. The sloped, two-story National Register of Historic Places structure features a wood-paneled mezzanine and a grand staircase with scrolled wrought-iron railing.

The crossroads location appeals to Gutman.

“We want to be located in an economically diverse neighborhood and we feel where we are is that. We are close to South Omaha, North Omaha, we are right adjacent to downtown. There’s a boom of development now on South 10th Street but some of the oldest neighborhoods of the city are there, too.

“We want to be able to provide access to fresh food, healthy food, local food and the area we’re in doesn’t have an abundance of options to shop for this kind of food right now. So we will provide that service.”

David O’Neil said a public market’s convergence of producers, suppliers and consumers energizes an area.

“It’s just sort of what happens when you bring people and things together in a way where everybody benefits. With all the different transactions, there’s a lot of energy and innovation in these markets.

“People call it a local economy. It’s like a tributary economy, too, because it connects to the other economies, including the underground economy.”

Gutman said the market will satisfy the expanding interest people have in buying from local makers.

“When you think about food, it’s very personal. The whole experience of shopping and knowing the people who grew or prepared your food is a very nourishing thing that personalizes the experience. And food goes to a very basic need.”

O’Neil, who ran a public market in Philadelphia, finds markets to be “fascinating” intersections of life that become real “assets” to their neighborhoods.

“They make places safer. They’ve very good with social integration and upward mobility. Another core strength of public markets is creating value in the property around them. The power of the market brings in other investors to make more of a market district.”

The right mix of vendors, he said, begets “a critical mass and then you get a few things going on the outside and all of a sudden, wow, there’s this whole other dimension.”

Rendering of the Tenth Street Market provided by Alley Poyner Macchietto Architecture
A market manager will run the Omaha operation.

O’Neil sees good potential in locating Omaha’s market near the revitalized South 10th Street corridor that’s seen an estimated $130 million in reinvestment.

“You’re extending the core of downtown and it’s sort of becoming another node in downtown. Things are happening there and I think the market will accelerate more things happening.”

It’s hoped the market will be a destination stop for visitor-tourists. Shuttles will run to it from downtown.

Gutman believes a key attraction will be the urban vibe.

“Only in an older restored historic building like this could you be successful creating the feeling when you walk in that that market has always been there,” he said. “That’s why we’re keeping the character of the building with its concrete floors, exposed brick walls and steel columns.

“We’re not going to try to make it look upscale or ritzy. We want to keep the vintage industrial feel because that’s what the legacy markets that have been around a hundred years look like.”

For Gutman, it’s all about stirring the entrepreneurial pot for the greater good.

“I want this to be about community. I want this to meet community needs: job creation, access to fresh, healthy, and in many instances, local foods. I want this to be about nutrition education. I want this to be collaboration with multiple other nonprofits.”

Community forums helped curate the market’s features. “We have truly thought this through,” Gutman said.

Now it’s all down to a few big donor asks coming through. He hopes funds are secured to begin construction in the fall.

“The big challenge is getting funders to understand what we’re doing and to have confidence this can succeed and have the impact we’re saying it could have. This is not a homeless shelter, food pantry or typical social service, so it’s new for many funders. We’re doing what we can to help them see and buy into the vision.”

The project will likely be eligible for tax increment financing.

Behind the Vision: Othello Meadows of 75 North Revitalization Corp.

June 27, 2017 1 comment

Behind the Vision: Othello Meadows of 75 North Revitalization Corp.

A law degree in hand, Othello Meadows in 2008 returned back to his roots in North Omaha, where a voter registration project that turned out record numbers of minorities led him to feel the need to stay in his home community and turn around decades of decline.

©by Leo Adam Biga


Othello Meadows


Othello Meadows III rode the Omaha brain drain train to play ball at East Carolina, get his law degree and establish a defense and family law career in Atlanta. Then he returned home to work on a voter registration project that put him in close contact with the North Omaha neighborhoods he grew up in. That 2008 project registered record numbers of minorities. The experience also marked a turning point in the life of Meadows, who found the community he grew up in in such decline that he resolved to stay to try and turn things around.

His new focus on revitalizing North Omaha coincided with the Empowerment Network’s efforts to transform the area. Conversations with local leaders and philanthropists led him to form Seventy-Five North Revitalization Corp., whose $88 million mixed-use, purpose-built Highlander Village on the site of a former public housing project is now in the final build-out phase.

Jay Palu
Architect, Alley Poyner Macchietto Architects
We have a long working relationship in eastern Omaha in a variety of building types that match what Othello is looking to do. But that’s the easy part.

What Othello provides is the hard part, which is a deep understanding of the community that he’s trying to serve, a love of that community, and a vision for a way to do business.

Meadows’ decision to make a difference in his hometown has resulted in Omaha not only regaining one of its best and brightest, but in reactivating a once dying neighborhood. It may not have happened if he hadn’t been ready for a career change.

“I was kind of tired of what I was doing and wondering where I was supposed to be and what I was supposed to be doing, and then I got this opportunity to work on a voter registration project here. I had never done anything like that. Everything I’d done had been strictly for-profit stuff. Some part of me felt like I was supposed to go back home doing something more meaningful.

“It turned out to be probably the best decision I’ve made. It was more fun than I had had doing anything in a long time. I thought, I can’t go back to what I was doing before. It meant too much, it felt too good. I wanted to find a way to keep this same feeling.”

It was another feeling, despair, he saw expressed in North Omaha, and his desire to replace it with promise, that ultimately inspired the creation of Seventy-Five North and its game-changing project.

“I lived in other communities that had issues but it still felt like there was hope and positivity there. When I came back to Omaha as an adult it felt so much different than those places. It felt like there was no hope, it felt like there was so much despair.”

Like many Omaha natives, Meadows concluded North O’s long awaited reset needed to happen now.

“When things start to happen in a real concrete fashion then you start to peel back some of that hopelessness and woundedness. People are really tired of rhetoric, studies and statistics and want to see something come to life.

Jay Palu
, Alley Poyner Macchietto Architects
We at Alley Poyner feel that a number of neighborhoods — especially vulnerable neighborhoods — have been the subjects of experimentation for a long time. Othello has focused us toward listening to the community, talking to individuals who live there, and producing a different result not by experimenting as much but using communication, outreach, and community meetings to do what we think will work well.

Othello is extraordinarily well-read and traveled, and he’s researched solutions that makes our job easier. The staff, partners, and community leaders he brings together are all from the same mold; After a few brief conversations, you realize when someone isn’t in it at the same level, and Othello constantly brings together partners who are as motivated to make change in this neighborhood as he is.”

The work of the Empowerment Network and others set the stage for 75 North, he said, by generating “a greater awareness about issues on the north side.” “People were actually really starting to talk about what makes this community different, how do we identify the things keeping it in this cycle. There was this burgeoning support for doing significant things in the community.”

He said a spate of new North O housing developments delivered “real tangible benefits for people that live in those neighborhoods.”

Then the Sherwood Foundation offered him the opportunity to realize the Seventy-Five North’s ambitious Highlander project.

“I couldn’t pass up this chance of a lifetime to work on a project of this magnitude in a city I care about.”

The project checks several urban revitalization boxes with its high quality, mixed-income housing, birth-to-college education pipeline and onsite support services.

“The whole reason for us being here in this neighborhood is to make sure it gets better,” he said.

Highlander, he added, represents an investment in capital and human resources to address “the very stubborn issue of intergenerational poverty” plaguing the area.

In his 2011 TED talk, “Place as Fate: The Injustice of Geography,” Meadows asked if the place of your birth should determine the quality of your life. He simply wants to help give North O residents the same chances others in the city get to realize their potential.

Meadows advocates positive community changes starting in people’s homes. He and wife Tulani Grundy-Meadows, a Metropolitan Community College professor, are themselves products of stable, two-parent family homes and now model that same same stability as the parents of two boys. For them, strong parents and families are the frontline change agents in neighborhoods and communities.

“The highest form of leadership is motherhood and fatherhood and providing that leadership for your own individual family first and kind of radiating from that,” he said. “That leadership is more internal and helps a community guide its own destiny rather than saying, who’s going to come in from outside and help us fix this?”

He feels grassroots leaders at the community, neighborhood and block level are the real difference-makers. He hopes Highlander and projects like it help people find ways to become “their own change agents in their own communities.” He said, “All these little small actions within a community are what make the sea change. You don’t get it from a guy holding a bullhorn, you get it in lots of little pieces. It’s a real test of the will of the community to say, I’m invested here, this is my neighborhood, this is my community, I’m going to make a lot of really small but right decisions.”

He sees leaders like himself facilitating change.

“The reality is what we may do is give that ball at the top of the hill the slightest of pushes, but everybody has to keep it going. So maybe you start something – maybe you’re a catalyst. I try to think of myself as someone that sparks something that gets something else going.

“True leadership is service and service for a cause. I try to think of myself as somebody who is kind of a vessel for a lot of the hopes and desires for this neighborhood.

Jay Palu
, Alley Poyner Macchietto Architects
There’s a lot of risk in development. The success of any developer depends on a number of financial target being hit, plus, a number of complicated technical aspects just have to work out. When you start a project, there are things you’ll discover in the process that will delay or defer or modify things. There will be a number of complicated things with procurement, contracts. In the end, it’s still construction which can wear people out. But there’s been a positive vibe since day one for Othello and his team. They’ve all got an attitude that perhaps we can all learn from about how this is really a remarkable project. To a lesser degree, every project we get that touches designers is really remarkable; it’s something new that we get to either create or bring back to life in a renovation. Othello has the attitude that’s steady, confident, supportive, humorous. It’s refreshing; We leave meetings where sometimes we have to make hard decisions feeling treated with respect, kindness, and quite frankly it’s addictive to be around people making positive change and see them enjoy it and ask what else they can do; It’s been really positive for us.”

He took this everyone-has-their-part-to-play philosophy from his late father and other elders.

“He was probably the biggest influence. Then I was fortunate enough to have really good mentors after him.”

With North O on everyone’s radar, more development is happening there now than in the previous few decades combined. Public and private projects on Ames Avenue, 24th Street and 30th Street are tangible signs of progress. Highlander’s North 30th build-out is the result of several funding streams.

“Anytime you’re working in a neighborhood like ours you have to be kind of creative,” Meadows said. “You’re talking about 40 percent philanthropy and then the rest kind of split-up into equal parts: new market tax credits, low-income housing tax credits, regular debt and equity. It’s all broken-up by phase and by housing type and by building, so it’s different with every building on the site.”

The project just got its first tenants moved in. This dream to improve a blighted area where nothing seemed to ever change is now a reality.

Tulani Grundy-Meadows has described her husband’s “wondrous spirit” as a key to his following dreams.

“He seeks wonder in anything he does.”

Meadows once left here, but he’s glad to have returned to help shepherd North O’s revival. He’s heartened that many are fighting the same good fight to fulfill shared dreams for the community they call home.

“It’s exciting to see people I’ve known a long time staying committed to where we grew up. The easiest thing to do is to go somewhere else. I did it for awhile. But it’s good to see there are other people who say, at least for awhile, I’m going to play my role, I’m going to do my part.”

He’s sure he made the right decision to return and is happy to see brick-and-mortar progress, but he’s unclear about the impact he’s having.

“If you care about neighborhoods, and people and creating a better quality of life for families, then you are always wringing your hands about whether or not what you are engaged in is making a real difference.”

Brigitte McQueen Shew’s Union of art and community uses new Blue Lion digs to expand community engagement

June 26, 2017 1 comment

Brigitte McQueen Shew’s Union of art and community uses new Blue Lion digs to expand community engagement

©by Leo Adam Biga

Brigitte McQueen Shew so believes the arts can promote social justice she founded and directs The Union for Contemporary Art as a resource supporting artists in their practice and as a change agent engaging underserved North Omaha. Last year, The Union moved from cramped 2417 Burdette Street quarters in northeast Omaha to much larger new quarters at the nearby renovated Blue Lion Center.

Once that occurred, the organization’s already full program slate increased, as didl the number of people it serves.

Union artist studio and coop spaces, exhibits, youth activities, mural projects, community garden, tool lending library and neighborhood potlucks expanded with the fall move to the Blue Lion and courtyard at 24th and Lake. With the move, The Union is now an anchor at the intersection of a once thriving black business corridor and live music scene finally emerging as a new arts and culture district.

Going from 3,000 to 16,000 square feet has enlarged adult and youth spaces and thus allowed greater capacity and participation. There are dedicated facilities for graphic art, printmaking, ceramics, fiber arts, woodworking, cooking. Instead of leasing a storefront for its Wanda Ewing Gallery, the organization has a permanent gallery for curated shows in its new home. A mixed use space doubles as a black box theater hosting performances by Union’s newly formed Performing Arts Collective. Under the direction of Denise Chapman, the Collective stages African-American theater, dance, spoken word and music events.

The two-story, brick. century-old Blue Lion housed many enterprises, including McGill’s Blue Room, before going empty in recent years. Its new life is made possible by the Sherwood Foundation, whose purchase and renovation was expressly for the Union. McQueen Shew coveted the building as her organizatIon’s home. “It perfectly fit us,” she says.

Seizing the moment

“The Union has been a key player in the revitalization of the Blue Lion,” says former board member Julia Parker, Omaha Small Business Network (OSBN) executive director. “This is a culturally significant building known as a gathering place in North Omaha and the home of small business and job creation. The reopening of the Blue Lion is yet another indicator North 24th Street is being reactivated as an arts, culture and small business district.”

That district already includes Loves Jazz & Arts Center and Carver Bank. It also encompasses the Omaha Star, the Omaha Economic Development Corporation, OSBN and the former homes of the Great Plains Black History Museum and the Dreamland Ballroom. The recently opened Fair Deal Village Marketplace features cargo container spaces for micro entrepreneurs and artists.

All of this is in addition to major construction projects on North 30th Street, including Highlander Village, three new Metropolitan Community College Fort Omaha campus buildings and a new mixed-use of the former Mr. C’s site. Together with new housing developments, the Nelson Mandela school, the North Star Foundation campus, No More Empty Pots, the 40th Street Theatre, North O’s long dreamed of revitalization is taking shape.

“It’s our moment,” McQueen Shew says. “More money is coming into the community than has happened in years. I think it’s an amazing thing that’s happening and if you look at 24th and Lake, it’s the hub that connects everything together. This is our moment and if we don’t seize it then it just quiets down again. This is the time. That’s why it’s so important to me and why I push so hard.”

Seventy Five North Revitalization Corp. executive director Othello Meadows, whose organization is developing Highlander, says, “There’s this culmination of a lot of things happening at once and I think there’s definitely pressure to continue to move the ball forward. We’re not going to be satisfied with the status quo. We’re looking at new and innovative ways to address old problems. The point really is to continue to push and learn and get better at serving the community. A lot of people are saying, ‘Let’s try something different’ or let’s do something in existence before but do it better.”

Even with all these currents, McQueen Shew says, “so much more needs to happen in making it a place people want to live, such as dealing with food policy issues. North Omaha is one of Nebraska’s largest food deserts. How do you expect families to move into this community and set down roots if you can’t even get food? There’s lots of vacant land that needs developing. There’s lots of things we’re lacking on an infrastructure level. We need to coalesce behind real economic development. We also need to train the next generation of leaders. Who will they be? Those conversations need to be tackled now because there are eyes on North Omaha in a positive way that weren’t on this community before, and that’s exciting.”

She insists the arts will drive people to North 24th but once there they need other gathering places to hang out, such as eateries and coffeehouses. Meadows agrees arts-entertainment amenities are essential. “In a healthy community you have multiple avenues of self-expression and self-actualization for people to explore their interests and to fulfill who they are,” he says.

Stakeholders see retail commerce flowing in North Downtown, Midtown, Benson and South Omaha but still lagging on North 24th.

“I’ve started pointedly asking investors, developers and realtors why they don’t think this of this neighborhood or community for development” McQueen Shew says.



Art as social change

That she and The Union are players in this equation is unexpected given the organization launched only six years ago and its leader got fed up with Omaha the first time she lived here A journalist by training and trade, McQueen Shew worked for a national magazine when she arrived in 2001 at the urging of an artist friend residing here. She liked the local arts scene and the people but she hated the segregation that excluded persons of color from opportunities that, by contrast, were open to everyone in New York City, where she’d lived, and in Detroit, where she grew up.

She left Omaha dismayed by its racial inequity, but returned to do something about it. She asked people hard questions.

“When I got here it was like, ‘Well, this is just the way it is, this is the way it’s always been.’ And so I started asking why. Why have you never crossed Cuming Street? Why don’t you ever go over there? Why did this happen? How has this been allowed to go on?”

It took her awhile to find the right advocacy-activist vehicle. Her failed Pulp store in Benson nearly cost her everything. Then she ran the Underground Gallery at the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts before a new idea overtook her: starting a North Omaha-based organization to address chronic studio space shortages and limited access to equipment and to engage residents through programs. The Union name reflects her interest in community, inclusivity, unity and sharing.

Among Omaha residencies The Union uniquely requires fellows do a community service project in North Omaha. McQueen Shew feels it’s vital artists give back, connect with community and demystify the arts. She believes deeply in fellows being social practice artists who do public work with some greater purpose. The Union’s Neighborhood Tool Library began as a project by then-fellow Kjell Peterson. During their residency Dan Susman and Andrew Monbouquette worked on their sustainable foods documentary Growing Cities and formed Truck Farm, a mobile urban farm ed program operating independently today.

“Having artists engaged and visible in the community gives North Omaha residents a chance to meet artists and talk art and to find out it’s not all about sacred spaces but really a part of everybody’s life,” says McQueen Shew.

She’s aware most fellows get their first real taste of North Omaha during their residency and she’s confident they leave with changed perceptions and broader knowledge.

Before doing her Union fellowship artist Shea Wilkinson says she was “completely ignorant of what was in North Omaha” but the experience so inspired her that she’d North Omaha her home. “I love my home and my neighborhood there. One hears a lot about the crime but rarely does one hear the things that make it an area worth investing in. I have lived here three years now and love seeing the positive changes happening.”

Artist Angela Drakeford grew up in North O but she says her Union residency helped her “think about the realities of what it meant to be a black artist in America,” adding, “I started not only to think about who I was and who my audience was but also what my obligations were as an artist. The Union has a very radical mission to help empower the community. Honestly, I would not be the artist and person I am today without this fellowship. It was truly a transformational experience.”



Embracing, implementing, fine-tuning a vision

The first person McQueen Shew shared The Union’s radical concept with, Katie Weitz, caught her vision and got the Weitz Family Foundation to back it. Not everyone was supportive. “I had donors tell me I was committing career suicide when I started The Union – that no one would follow me over here and no one would come.” She ignored the naysayers. “Maybe it’s just about tenacity.” Grants came in. She took a year to flesh out the idea and to devise a strategy for making The Union, launched in 2011, sustainable. At the start it was just herself at the repurposed former food bank on Burdette. As more funding’s come, she’s added staff and programs.

For a small nonprofit with a short history the organization’s made a large impact and won over many fans. So much so it isuccessfuly realizing a $5 million Growth Campaign to support its operations and programs.

Board chair Mary Zicafoose, a textiles artist, admires how McQueen Shew has “carved out a template for an organization designed to uniquely serve the community and become a unifying bridge for the arts for the entire metropolitan area. Many hundreds of metro area citizens and arts supporters have broken bread and attended Union community events that previously had never ventured farther north than Cuming Street. That’s powerful in itself. It’s mission is to unify our greater community through the arts and that is what it does program by program, artist by artist, exhibition by exhibition.”

Zicafoose has an insider perspective on how McQueen Shew has gained so much traction so fast for the organization and its niche.

“The Union’s mission and Brigitte’s vision is a story about understanding one’s purpose, seizing opportunity, taking action and then moving forward without hesitation. Her vision and attitude is simply quite contagious. Hence, the great interest, growth, stellar track record and support of this project. Brigitte is also an articulate and accomplished networker.”

No More Empty Pots executive director Nancy Williams says, “Brigitte is genuine. She has a rich history and eloquently shares her experiences. Brigitte is also generous. Brigitte has many talents and knows how to effectively leverage those talents for The Union. She is focused and reaches out for help when needed.” When McQueen Shew put out a call for folks to clean up the current site shortly after moving in, Zicafoose says “It was transformed in one weekend with the sweat equity of a hundred community volunteers.”

Zicafoose marvels at all the organization does. “It’s really quite shocking the amount of programming that has emerged from this small building, lovingly worked and reworked, to make every inch of precious space be of purpose. The move provides more appropriate and much needed additional space for existing programs to expand and thrive as well as allow new programs to be born. Its strategic location makes it a natural hub and meeting place.”

Seventy Five North’s Meadows appreciates that The Union is “a constant and consistent presence” instead of a “one-off” project. He adds, “What I love about Brigitte and what she’s doing is that she’s made a commitment to this neighborhood and to being there all the time. Having access to explore art is an amazing opportunity for this community, whose population is often forgotten about.” For a community that’s had many promises made and unfulfilled it was important McQueen Shew and the Union develop trust and Meadows says that’s happened. “People know she’s there for the right reasons.”

Prospect Village Neighborhood Association’s Rondae Hill is impressed by how The Union’s partnered on art-infused beautification projects, including a mural, bus benches and a redesigned park, in her area.
“Prospect Village appreciates everything the Union has helped to start in our neighborhood. The mural brought new life to an old building that started a ripple effect of prosperity. It has now become the center of our neighborhood and brings pride to the area.”

Not everything The Union’s done has succeeded but it’s small and nimble enough to try new things. Three areas where McQueen Shew feels it’s fallen short is connecting with area residents, helping artist fellows with their community service projects and integrating exhibition themes across all programming. To strengthen those elements she’s hired Nicole Caruth as director of pedagogy and public practice.

“Nicole joined our staff to help ensure all of our programs revolve around our commitment to social practice,” McQueen Shew says.

“Even though we were in the community people still saw us as Other. We were still missing the opportunity to connect. We had to fix that. Here at The Union we do everything as a team, so we had conversations about that disconnect. Nicole comes from that background. She has the resources and the networking connections
to be in tune with community.

“It’s about being flexible, realizing the gap and then going back and fixing it,. You have to be willing to jump off and readjust the course. It’s probably easier for The Union to do that than it is for an organization thats been around 40 years. Almost everything we do is a grand experiment. If we do it once and it works, awesome, let’s keep it. If it fails, then we’ glean some knowledge and let it go. We’re in an amazing position to do that.”



Forging a more perfect Union

The Union name is apt because in classic union organizing style, McQueen Shew came to Omaha as an outside agitator to build solidarity around addressing certain disparities.

“It’s just such a simple premise – that you can use the arts as a vehicle for social justice and to effect change in your community. That you can put things in place to uplift your local artists but at the same time be working to make some headway into ridiculous issues with segregation in this community. No one else was putting those two things together. They were two very separate issues and I don’t think people we’re seeing the connection,” she says.

She’s coalesced like-minded people around the mission.

“I may have been the one to stand up and wave the flag but if other people weren’t willing to fall in line with that then it never would have happened. The Union wouldn’t exist without people willing to take a leap of faith on this idea the arts can be more than just something you look at on a wall. I’m just fortunate the people with the means to help us get there also felt it a risk worth taking.

“People have made sacrifices to do this with me. Our program manager Paige Reitz took a crazy cut in salary to be here because she believed in the work I was doing. Paige was not the only staff member to take a pay cut to work with us. Actually the majority of my staff did. People willing to sacrifice something of their own to put into this dream is really how tTe Union has continued to grow.”

The Growth Campaign, which went public last summer, closed in early 2017. Its millions have helped boost employee salaries in addition to increasing the budget and solidifying things moving forward.

Public celebrations of that growth happened in October when the organization held open houses and special events at the Blue Lion. Since then, McQueen Shew and staff have been proudly welcoming visitors to their new digs and the community’s new gathering place.

Brenda Council: A public servant’s life

June 26, 2017 3 comments

Brenda Council: A Public Servant’s Life
Appearing in the July 2017 issue of the New Horizons
©by Leo Adam Biga

Community. Service. Family. Home.

All recurrent themes for Brenda (Warren) Council, a familiar civic figure with various firsts to her name.

•First African-American female senior counsel at Union Pacific
•First female football official in the state of Nebraska
•First four-time president of the Omaha School Board
•First black female Omaha City Council member

Along with Tanya Cook, she was the first black woman to serve in the Nebraska Legislature.

Featured multiple times in Ebony Magazine, the lifelong Democrat garnered broad support for two Omaha mayoral bids. The second, in 1997, came within 800 votes of victory. Had she won, she’d have been the city’s first female mayor. In 2008, she succeeded living legend Ernie Chambers in the state senate seat he held since 1970 until term-limited out.

Those who know Council call her “dynamic,” “high achieving,” “hard working,” “caring,” “committed” and “community focused.”

The fall
She had a thriving legal career (after U.P. she worked for Kutak Rock and had her own firm), a strong track record of public service, a sterling reputation.

Then, a casino gambling addiction caught up with her in 2012 as she sought re-election to the Nebraska Legislature. Unusual activity on her campaign account trigged an investigation that found she repeatedly borrowed funds. The law permits candidates to borrow and repay campaign account monies (she repaid them in part) as long as they report it, which she didn’t. Her actions made headlines and resulted in misdemeanor charges for misuse of funds. She plead guilty and paid a fine. Her opponent, Chambers, openly disparaged her. She lost the election and in 2014, she plead guilty to felony wire fraud charges. She received three years court-supervised probation. The Nebraska Supreme Court disbarred her.

She’s never denied what she did.

Council’s back serving her community again leading a Women’s Fund of Omaha project. She’s in a good place now, but things got tough.

“I watched what I had built through work, passion and commitment threatened by what I did,” she said. “I can’t think of anything more terrifying. There were times I was mad. I asked, ‘God, how did you let this happen to me?’ I’m really a good person, I’ve never hurt anybody in my life.’ Then I got into GA (Gamblers Anonymous). As a 12-stepper, you’ve got to connect to your Higher Power. I’ve always been a spiritual person. I’ve been a member of the same church for 52 years. But as a result of this, I realized although I had been attending church, I had disconnected from my Higher Power.”

She’s glad to have found support for her addiction.

“I’m a committed, devoted, servant of Gamblers Anonymous, and I’m so grateful.”

She does want to set the record straight about what she did and didn’t do that got her in trouble.

“I never went out and solicited money to feed my campaign account so that I could access it. I make no bones about it – what I did was to enable me to gamble, but what i did not do is I didn’t take anybody’s money.”

Council understands what she did was improper.

“I see where the question of trust is paramount and legitimate.”

About two years after that “embarrassment,” she joined the Women’s Fund of Omaha as coordinator of its Adolescent Health Project aimed at reducing teen pregnancies and STDS. The project addresses issues of deep concern to Council, who’s long advocated for comprehensive sex ed.

As important as she considers the work to be for women and families, she regards it as her own lifesaver.

“It’s provided an opportunity for me to move forward with my life and to show I’m still the public servant. I’m still Brenda, and I’m going to be out there working hard for the community serving in whatever capacity I can.”

For her, the work’s more than a job, it’s affirmation.

“I really enjoy the folks I work with, and I’m just so pleased with the progress we’ve made. But I know I owe it all to the fact that people who know me know who I am and they know I’m not a deceitful or distrustful or dishonest person. As a gambler, was I? Yeah.

“I’m so blessed that through the work I’ve done and the relationships I’ve built, people are supportive.”

Addiction, she’s come to realize, compels people to act out-of-character.

“What I was doing was totally contrary to the way I was raised. My daddy valued a dollar. I was a tight wad. I saved. I (still) had some of the first money I ever made. It wasn’t until it was starkly put in front of me – the compulsive patterns of my behavior – I realized, ‘Damn, that’s what I’ve been doing.'”

Before that rude awakening, she said, she “rationalized” her binge gambling as “‘I’m not hurting anybody, it’s my money.’ I discovered that what I thought at the time was an outlet, an enjoyment, not harming anybody, was an insidious, compulsive addiction that I denied.”

She took heart that even after coming clean, the people that meant the most to her still had her back.

“They understood and appreciated gambling wasn’t who I was, it’s something that happened. I am so blessed with an incredible family and close friends who have stood there steadfast supporting, encouraging.”

Her husband Otha Kenneth Council stood by her through it all. They celebrate 32 years of marriage this fall.

Home is where the heart is
The ties that bind are so tight with Brenda that despite extensive travels and offers to take jobs elsewhere, she considers herself “a North Omaha kid.” Except for undergraduate studies at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln and working for the National Labor Relations Board in Kansas City, Omaha’s remained home. Even when in K.C., she made frequent visits home.

“Practically every weekend I was driving back to Omaha. I had I-29 like memorized. I never missed one of my brother Tommy’s football games.”

Since moving back in 1980, she’s lived within a few blocks of where she grew up at 24th and Pinkney.

She came up in a strict home where both parents, Evelyn and Willis Warren Sr., worked. Her mother retired after 25 years at the VA hospital. Her father caught the No. 7 Crosstown bus to work at Swift packing company in South Omaha for 40 years. Her father especially expected Brenda and her siblings to study hard and get good grades.

“In addition to education, service was also something my father in particular placed a heavy emphasis on. He was a firm believer that to whom much is given, much is expected. We were raised to respect and assist our elders.”

Her family lived in a two-story house in an era when redlining practices and restrictive housing covenants prevented African-Americans from living outside the area. She attended mostly black Lothrop elementary school and Horace Mann Junior High.

Her coming of age coincided with 1960s’ racial unrest, the civil rights movement, the Black Power movement, the Panthers, Malcolm, MLK, Vietnam, rock ‘n’ roll.

In North O she experienced a tight-knit, insular community where almost any service or product could be found. The live black music venues then prevalent on North 24th Street beckoned her. As an under-age fan, she snuck into Allen’s Showcase, McGill’s Blue Room, the Offbeat Lounge and the Carnation Ballroom to see her idols. She got to know the late Buddy Miles that way.

“Incredible entertainment came through. Those were the days.”

Music impresario Paul Allen appreciated her spunk in catching shows.

“He always called me ‘Little Girl.’ He often joked about the times he caught me sneaking into the Showcase. They had some great musicians.”

Years later she operated her own live music venue there – BJ’s Showcase. She now resides in the former home of Omaha nightclub impresario Shirley Jordan. The columned, cream stucco, hacienda-style abode was built as a party place and includes a sunken living room.

In addition to music, sports is another passion. Council was a fireplug point guard for Forrest Roper-coached Hawkettes AAU teams. She admired the late Roper.

“He had a tremendous impact on me and other young women. He, like my parents, stressed the importance of education and refraining from engaging in negative activity. For many of the members of the team, their first travel outside of Omaha was when Forrest took us to play in tournaments.”

Council didn’t get to play high school basketball in those pre-Title IX days. But she stayed close to the game as a recreational player and coach and later as an official. She and Otha refereed many high school hoops games together. Her contributions to athletics got her elected to the Nebraska Black Sports Hall of Fame.

She also bore witness to trying times for her community. She was at Horace Mann when students filed out in protest of a young black man shot to death by police. The peaceful protest turned heated before Ernie Chambers helped quell the agitated crowd. She saw the the looting and fires when North 24th burned in the 1969 riot following the police shooting death of Vivian Strong.

She was at the Bryant Center when the riot broke out.

“I actually drove through the rioting on 24th Street on my way to pick my mother up from work. I will never forget how I headed west on Hamilton Street to be met by a police barricade at 30th. The police approached my car, shined their flashlights in the faces of my friends who were riding with me. They were not going to let me past until I pleaded with them to allow me go pick up my mother.”‘

Council graduated from Omaha Central High School in 1971 during tense times at the racially diverse school.

She watched the once bustling North 24th business district left-in-shambles and struggle to recover. Railroad and packing house jobs vanished. The North Freeway severed the community. Generational poverty set in. Gangs brought unprecedented violence. Incarceration rates for black males soared along with black teen pregnancies and STDS. Single-parent households became the norm. Educational achievement lagged.

She dealt with many of these issues as an elected official. She sees progress in northeast Omaha but questions where it goes from here.

“I’m definitely encouraged by the development that has occurred. However, the overwhelming majority of the development, particularly along 24th Street, is the result of not-for-profit investment. If we are to revive the Near North Side we must have private, for-profit investment with a focus on African-American entrepreneurship.”

Wherever life’s taken her, North O’s been her sanctuary.

“She absolutely loves North Omaha,” her brother Thomas Warren said. “Her purpose has been service and she’s always put North Omaha first.”

Warren, former Omaha police chief and current president-CEO of the Urban League of Nebraska, said his sister’s path serving the community inspired his own.

Council’s husband, Otha, echoed many when he said, “She’s never forgotten about where she came from. She’s committed to serving North Omaha and making sure people here have a better place to live.”

From education to law
Back at UNL she was thinking her career path would be an an educator, not an attorney or public officer holder.

“I made a career decision when I was in the third grade to be a school teacher. I had some genetic predisposition for that. My mother’s two oldest sisters and a younger brother were educators. My mother’s oldest sister, Geraldine Gilliam, was the first black teacher to integrate the staffs of the Topeka Public Schools after Brown vs, Board of Education. She was really a proponent of education and educators, and I really just wanted to be like her. So much so that when my younger siblings. Thomas and Debbie, and I would come home from school, I would make them play school with me before they could go outside. I’d use old teachers’ manuals and flash cards my aunts sent me.

“The game was they’d start at the top of the steps and if they answered correctly they moved down the steps and when they got to the bottom they could go outside. They used to hate me that I’d make them do that, but I always teased them as we got older at how prepared they were academically. Both of them did well.”

Thomas Warren was Omaha’s first black police chief. Debbie White is a retired medical professional. An older sibling, Willis Warren Jr., is deceased.

Brenda earned her teaching degree from UNL. She also got turned on to the prospect of studying the law and using it as a tool to improve conditions for blacks.

“My perspective was education, education, education. I firmly believed in it as the path upwards.”

She said she gained an appreciation for how “the law has an impact on everything you do in life and if you can affect changes in the law, you can create new opportunity and address problems.”

Council did her due diligence and applied to the Creighton law school. She got accepted. She applied for an affirmative action scholarship and received it.

“I graduated from Nebraska on August 17, 1974 and I started Creighton law school August 23. I really fell in love with the law. I went to law school with every intention of being a social justice lawyer, so that passion with constitutional law meshed. If you’re addressing the issues defined as social justice issues, constitutional questions are more than likely involved.”

She thought she’d change the world.

“You go in there with this idealistic perspective and then you start facing reality.”

One reality check involved two career choices straight out of law school. She applied for a national fellowship to work in a legal aid office. She wanted Omaha but only Dayton was open. Meanwhile, she was offered a job with the National Labor Relations Board in Kansas City. Then the fellowship came through for the Omaha Legal Aid office, but she’d already accepted the K.C. job.

“I’m a person of my word and my commitment, and so I went to Kansas City.”

With a little help from her friends
Helping her make tough calls were elders.

“I was blessed to come at a time that I had a tremendous number of mentors – people I could go to for advice and counsel. They’d talk you through these decisions. One of my major mentors was the late (activist-journalist) Charles B. Washington.”

Others were Mary Dean Harvey, Beverly Blackburn, Rowena Moore. Though she didn’t have much interaction with her, Council also admired Omaha Star publisher Mildred Brown.

But it was Washington, for whom a North Omaha library branch is named, who opened her horizons.

“This guy introduced me and so many other young people in North Omaha to some of the most influential African-Americans of our time. Through Charlie, I had sit-downs with the late Harold Washington, the late Barbara Jordan, the late Mary Frances Berry, Lerone Bennett Jr., Tony Brown. I mean, he made a point of exposing us to many critical minds and civil rights, social justice advocates. Because of the relationships and the introductions he made for me, I was featured the first time in Ebony Magazine.”

Council, and two of her girlfriends, Kathy J. Trotter and Terri Goodwin, were so often seen in the company of Washington they were called “Charlie’s Angels.”

Though Council reluctantly went to K.C., it was a good experience.

“It certainly aided in my maturation, my independence.”

Her return to Omaha to work at Union Pacific, she said, “was a Charles Washington-influenced opportunity.”

“In 1979 my dad died and then in 1980 my mother’s mother died. I was in Kansas City and my oldest brother returned from Vietnam not in a good place, so he couldn’t really provide our mother much support. I was waffling about staying in Kansas City. I called Charlie (Washington) and said, ‘I need to look at getting back to Omaha.’ By this time I had three years doing labor law. He knew the personnel director at U.P. He sent in my resume and I got an interview.”

U.P.’s then-general counsel, Valerie Scott, hired Council. The two women became close colleagues and friends.

Entry into public life
Confidantes prodded Council to seek public office for the first time when she made her initial bid for the Omaha School Board in 1982.

“Ruth Thomas, who had served on the board and knew of my passion for education, was among those who approached me about it. I didn’t know anything about running for public office, but I had the benefit of having met and become friends with one of the greatest political minds of his time, the late Sonny Foster. He was a political genius. He volunteered to help me with my school board campaign.”

Council wanted to redress the board’s decision to eliminate summer school as part of budget cuts.

“That disturbed me because it disproportionately hurt youth in my district who needed remedial studies and enhancement opportunities. Their parents couldn’t afford to send them to special science or math camps. So, I ran, and in the primary got thumped. Sonny (Foster) said, ‘Between now and November, you’ve got to go to every house in this district and let them know who you are and what you’ll do.'”

She said she pounded the pavement and knocked on doors and when the general election rolled around, she “closed an incredible gap” to win. She was 28.

Finding a soulmate
Otha, whom she was just friends with at the time, showed up unexpectedly at her place on election night. He was co-owner of an Arby’s franchise.

“Election night, my campaign manager Sonny Foster, my dear friend and law school classmate Fred Conley and a couple other folks were at my house awaiting the results. Out of nowhere, a knock on the door and there’s Otha with a six-foot Arby’s submarine sandwich. He said, ‘I thought you might need something to eat.’ He took a seat and just sat there for the rest of the evening.

“The results came in and were favorable. People trickled out. The only ones left were me, Sonny and Otha.”

The two men made quite a contrast: the gregarious Sonny and the quiet Otha.

“I discovered later Otha thought Sonny and I had a thing. That was the furthest thing from the truth.”

Otha’s persistent wooing finally won her over when he drove her to the airport in the dead of winter. He got the door, handled the bags and even had a cup of hot chocolate for her. “He was such a Boy Scout.” From then on, she said, “he became my ‘hot chocolate’ and we began to spend more time together.”

“Our officiating (sports) together definitely strengthened our bond. Otha encouraged me to become an official because I grasped the rules so quickly when he was taking the exams while we were dating. Believe me, officiating can really test your patience and understanding.”

The couple have two children from his first marriage and five grandchildren. He has a landscaping-snow removal business and he owns-manages rental properties. He was by her side for all her subsequent political runs.

They also share a passion for service, community and family. They met when she volunteered with the Boy Scouts while he was this areas’s district commissioner.

“Family has always been incredibly important,” Council said, and I was fortunate to marry into a family that equally values family. We just got back from my husband’s 41st annual family reunion in Marianna, Arkansas. He’s one of 13 children, so it’s a huge family.”

A family migration story
Her extensive family on her father’s side has branches extending into Canada. Council said her father’s people relocated from Alabama to northeast Texas before settling in the Oklahoma Territory as part of the Exodusters migration. They faced hazards both natural and manmade.

“My father’s father drowned during a flash flood while trying to get the cattle across the creek. The current washed him and his horse down stream and his body was never recovered. My grandmother remarried a man with the last name of Gordon.”

Racial tensions worsened. The Ku Klux Klan was on the rise. A 1919 race riot in Omaha resulted in William Brown being lynched and the courthouse being burned. The “Black Wall Street” district of Tulsa, Oklahoma was burned down in 1921. Malcolm X’s family fled Omaha in 1925 after the Klan threatened his preacher father.

Some years before, African-Americans looking to escape hate were presented with an intriguing opportunity and Council’s paternal family ran with it.

Canada recruited Americans to settle the prairie provinces by offering homesteads. Canada advertised in Kansas and Oklahoma, never expecting the huge migration of African-Americans that followed.

“My dad’s stepfather took advantage of this new opportunity and moved the family to Winnipeg, Alberta, but left my father to be raised by one of my grandmother’s sisters in Oklahoma.”

Generations later, she said, her people are “spread all over” Canada, including Vancouver. where a first cousin Council’s gotten to know lives.

Brenda attended a Pioneer Family Reunion of descendants of black families who fled Oklahoma for Canada. She visited a recreated Canadian black settlement and learned of tragedy and triumph. A great aunt named Love was murdered with her child at the hands of her husband.

An uncle, Robert Gordon, was among the few black lumberjacks. Only his Paul Bunyan-like strength helped him survive. “He caught hell initially until he pummeled a few guys and became infamous – you don’t mess with Robert Gordon,” said Council. She met the tall, broad-shouldered man and said he still cut an imposing figure in old age.

Unfortunately, black pioneers were made to feel unwelcome. Eventually, no more were allowed in.

“So many were coming across,” she said, “ordinances were enacted by the border communities. One such ordinance read, ‘From this day forward, no more Negroes will be allowed to enter Canada because they’re deemed undesirable for the climate and culture …’ Everybody tells me, ‘Brenda, you ought to write this story.’ I do know i’ve got to put it down at some point.”

An uncommon political life
Her political life would make a good book, too. Her baptism-by-fire on the school board was just the start.

“I had some really up moments and I had some really down moments. A down moment was being the lone dissenting vote on closing Tech High. I presented diplomas to the last graduating class.”

A budget shortfall and concurrent need to consolidate district offices led to Tech’s closure and its reuse as district headquarters.

“One of the things I was most proud of was advocating for the adoption of a sex education curriculum in 1985. Thirty years later, here I am back pushing OPS to adopt an updated sex ed curriculum (through the Women’s Fund initiative). It’s kind of deja vu.”

Another thing she “took pride in, was the naming of Skinner elementary school after Eugene Skinner, both her grade school and junior high principal.” She said, “He had an incredible impact on me. Gene Skinner was a giant.” Yet another of the community stalwarts in her life. “I was impacted by so many of them,” she said.

Council displayed her own leadership abilities in office.
She not only became president of the Omaha School Board but president of the National Association of Black School Board Members.

“I got the knowledge of what was effective in other school districts and brought it back.”

She and former Omaha Public Schools assistant superintendent Don Benning got the district to begin its “nationally recognized Adopt-a-School program.

“We knew you improve educational outcomes when everybody’s got a stake in it and you have to involve business, parents, faith community. The program was a vehicle to get people who were otherwise not connected to schools involved in the schools. It’s still doing that.”

She agonized over running for the City Council in 1993.

“My passion is education and I believe I was making a difference. I was in my fourth term as school board president. We were moving on some things. I was torn. When Fred Conley announced he was not going to seek reelection, I honestly looked at who was going to be running and thought our district deserves better. That’s why I ran. I didn’t want a political career. I’ve never seen myself as a politician. I’m a public servant.

“Now, am I partisan? Yeah.”

A confluence of events led her to run for mayor only one year into her only City Council term. Then-mayor P.J. Morgan unexpectedly resigned with three years left. The city charter then allowed for the Council to choose someone among its ranks to finish the term but Brenda opposed this approach.

“I had to convince three other people we need to pursue a special election to change the charter because it’s not fair to the citizens that essentially an entire term is decided by seven people. I was able to convince the requisite number of City Council members to go for a special election and the results were what I predicted Omahans wanted. The charter was changed. I achieved my objective.”

She didn’t plan to run for mayor until Hal Daub announced his candidacy.

“I was like, ‘Whoa, there’s too much happening in this city to put it in the hands of someone who hadn’t lived in Omaha in years. The next mayor should be somebody who knows what’s been going on and been working on it.’ I just didn’t think it was fair and right and just for someone who in my opinion was a career politician to take an opportunity to come back. So I said, ‘I’m going to run, too.’ It was a special election in December of 1994. What made it problematic was there were mid-term elections a month before. I struggled to find campaign staff and team for my first citywide race.”

She got “soundly defeated” but “came a lot closer than people expected.” She was “perfectly content” to serve on the City Council with no future mayoral bid in mind until politicos shared data suggesting a near majority of Omahans would vote for her in a new election.

“I was pleasingly surprised.”

Confident she could muster enough support to unseat Daub, she took him on in the ’97 election only to suffer an historically narrow loss.

“That election night was one of the most painful nights of my life,” she said, “not for me personally but for all the people who invested so much of their being into supporting an individual they entrusted to address the issues that were critical to them.”

The thing she disliked the most about the process was having to make fundraising calls.

Mrs. Council goes to Lincoln
Eleven years elapsed before she sought public office again. During the hiatus she was a judge on the Nebraska Commission of Industrial Relations. In 2008 she entered the race for Nebraska legislative District 11.

“The same thing that motivated me to run for mayor is what motivated me to run for the legislature,” she said.
“It should be somebody representing this district who’s worked in this district, been in touch on a daily basis with the issues that affect residents and has the skills, knowledge and experience to make a difference. Again, no disrespect, I knew some of the people who were going to run and I was like, ‘That’s not going to get it.’ Call it arrogance or whatever, but I feel that passionate about the people in this district and what they deserve.”

She knew her expertise was a good match for the legislative process and “its interconnectedness with the law.” She also saw “an opportunity to address some things that may not have been on the front burner.”

Council won a seat at the table in the mostly white male Unicameral alongside fellow African-American Tanya Cook, who was communications manager for one of Council’s earlier elective office runs.

“I’m very proud of what we were able to accomplish in the one term I served in the legislature. I was focused and driven by what I could get done to move this community forward.”

She found satisfaction getting a New Markets Tax Credit program approved. She was frustrated when she got several pieces of legislation passed on the floor only to have then-Governor Heineman veto them. One would have required a lead poisoning test for children entering school. Another would have aided expansion of community gardens and incentivized healthy food stores to help address food desert issues.

“I was most proud of my Youth Conservation program legislation. Approximately 150 youth were employed in state parks across Nebraska during the summer of 2012, with a significant percentage of the youth being from North Omaha.”

Taking stock and moving on
Even after revelations of her addiction, she said, “there was still a tremendous amount of support for me to continue to serve in the legislature.”

Ending her political life was not nearly as hard as losing her license to practice law.

“Being disbarred,” she said, “it hurt, it really hurt.”

She does not plan to seek reinstatement of her license.

Today, she can acknowledge that when it all came out, “I wanted to stay in the shadows.” She said she wondered “is anybody going to give me a chance,” adding, “I know I come with some baggage.”

She’s found redemption at the Women’s Fund, whose Adolescent Health Project fits right in her wheelhouse.

“One of the first bills I introduced as a state senator was to mandate comprehensive sex education. One of the things I bring to the table is six years facilitating the Community Advisory Group for the Super Fund Site. We achieved some rather remarkable successes, including the formation of the Omaha Healthy Kids Alliance.”

She feels reducing unintended pregnancies is critical “if we’re ever going to have any meaningful, sustainable impact on reducing poverty,” in a community where single mother-headed households predominate.

Come what may, North Omaha is where her heart will always be.

One Hundred Years Strong: Bryant-Fisher Family Reunion

June 23, 2017 2 comments

One Hundred Years Strong: Bryant-Fisher Family Reunion

©Story by Leo Adam Biga

©Photos by Bill Sitzmann

Published in July-August 2017 issue of Omaha Magazine


The Bryant-Fisher family reunion celebrates an important milestone in 2017—its 100th anniversary. The three-day reunion event will conclude with a final day of festivities in Elmwood Park.

The “Dozens of Cousins,” named for the 12 branches of the prodigious African-American family, will gather in Omaha on Sunday, Aug. 13, to eat, converse, and renew bonds of kinship while reinvigorating ties to local neighborhood roots.

The first reunion was a picnic in 1917 held at Mandan Park in South Omaha, where family roots run deep. Mandan hosted the picnic for 74 years. Its trails, gardens, and river views offered scenic backdrops. The park is also near the family’s homestead at 15th Street and Berry Avenue, and Graceland Park Cemetery (where many relatives are buried).

The picnic, which goes on rain or shine, relocated to Carter Lake in the 1990s and has since gone to various locales. It is coming to Elmwood Park for the first time this year.

Hours before the picnic, a dawn fish fry kicks things off. With bellies full of fried food, the descendants of Emma Early head for a family worship service followed by the picnic.

Always present is a star-studded menu of from-scratch American comfort and soul food staples: ribs, fried chicken, lasagna, collard greens, black-eyed peas, mac and cheese, potato salad, and more.

The family’s different branches provide tents under which they set up their family feasts. Monique Henry belongs to the Gray tent and says everyone waits for her first cousin Danielle Nauden’s peach cobbler to arrive on the table.

The meals may be the highlight, but the day also includes games, foot races, a dance contest, and a pie/cake baking contest, which Henry says is mainly for the teenagers. The baking contest garners between 20 and 50 entries, depending on the size of the reunion.

Competitions are an intense part of the picnic gathering.

Film-television actress Gabrielle Union, the star of hit BET drama Being Mary Jane, is a descendant who grew up with the reunions. She understands what’s at stake.

“Having a chance to compete against your cousins in front of your family is huge,” Union says. “Some top athletes are in our family, so the races are like the Olympics. Each section of the family is like a country sending their best athletes. You trained for it.”

Union vividly recalls her most memorable race: “I wore my hair in braids but tucked under a cap. I won the race, and then somebody shouted, ‘That’s a boy,” thinking this fast little dynamo couldn’t possibly have been a girl, and I whipped off my cap like, ‘I’m a girl!’”

Although the large family has expanded and dispersed across Omaha and nationwide—and descendants of Emma Early Bryant-Fisher now number in the thousands—the picnic has remained in Omaha the second Sunday of August as a perennial ties-that-bind feast.

Union returns as her schedule allows. The actress grew up in northeast Omaha, attending St. Benedict the Moor. She often visited relatives in South O, where the home of matriarch Emma (a street is named after her) remained in the family.

Union introduced NBA superstar husband Dwyane Wade to the reunion last year. “It was important for me for Dwyane to come experience it,” she says. “No one I know has a family reunion of the scale, scope, and length we have. It’s pretty incredible. It says a lot about the endurance and strength of our family. It’s a testament to the importance of family, sticking together, and the strength that comes out of a family that recognizes its rich history and celebrates it.”

A tradition of this duration is rare for African-Americans given the historic struggles that disrupted many families. Bryant-Fisher descendant Susan Prater James says, “The reason for celebrating the 100th is that we’re still able to be together after everything our ancestors went through.”

“There’s nothing I can complain about [in terms of facing] adversity [that] someone in my family has not only experienced but fought through, and not just survived but thrived,” Union says. “I come from a long line of incredibly strong, powerful, and resilient strivers, and I pull from that daily.

We recognize our uniqueness and specialness, and we never take that for granted. I think with each passing year it just gets stronger and stronger.”

The family tree gets updated with a new history book every five years. “Dozens of Cousins” social media sites keep the grapevine buzzing. The family migrated from South Omaha to North Omaha many years ago, and also once had its own North O clubhouse at 21st and Wirt streets. The Dozens of Cousins, Inc. became a 501c3 in 2016.

A century of gatherings doesn’t just happen.

“We get together all the time, and anytime we get together it’s a celebration,” says Bryant-Fisher descendant Sherri Wright-Harris. “We love on one another. Family has always been instilled as the most important thing you have in this life. This is a part of the fabric that makes us who we are.”

“We don’t know anything different,” says Henry, another Bryant-
Fisher descendant.

“That’s ingrained from the time you’re born into the legacy,” family historian Arlett Brooks says. “My mother committed to her mother, and I committed to her to carry this tradition on. This is my love, my passion. I just think it’s important to share your history, and I want our youth to know the importance of this and to treasure what we have because this is not a common thing.”

The reunion has evolved from a one-day picnic to include: a river boat cruise, skate party, memorial ride (on a trolley or bus) to visit important family sites, banquet dinner-dance, and a talent showcase. Milestone years such as this one include a Saturday parade. Headquarters for the 2017 reunion will be situated at the Old Market Embassy Suites.

The reunion’s Friday night formal banquet means new outfits and hair-dos. But renewing blood bonds is what counts. “It’s a way for young and old to reconnect with their roots and find a sense of belonging,” Prater James says.

Representing the various branches of the Bryant-Fisher family takes on added meaning over time.

“No matter how old you are, no matter how down you get, on that day everything seems to be looking better,” Marc Nichols says.

Cheryl Bowles says she “felt sick” the one reunion she skipped.

Arlett Brooks says she has never missed a reunion, and she’s not about to miss the 100th. “You only get the centennial one time,” Brooks says.

New this year will be a family history cookbook complete with recipes, stories, and photos. Catfish, spaghetti, greens, and cornbread are faves. The history cookbook is expected to be printed and ready for sale at the reunion.

Union says fun and food aside, the real attraction is “hearing the stories—the important stories, the silly stories—and learning the history before people are gone.”

Visit for more information.

Monique Henry

This article was printed in the July/August 2017 Edition ofOmaha Home.

Baseball and Soul Food at Omaha Rockets Kanteen

June 23, 2017 2 comments

Baseball and Soul Food at Omaha Rockets Kanteen

Story by Leo Adam Biga

Photography by Sarah Lemke

Originally published in Omaha Magazine (


When baseball still ruled as the national pastime, Omaha showcased the game’s still prevalent but loosening black-white divide. In 1947, the year Jackie Robinson broke Major League Baseball’s color barrier, the barnstorming Omaha Rockets began to play. In an era when entire leagues and teams were drawn along racial lines, the all-black Rockets faced both segregated and integrated foes. A few Rockets went on to make history or gain fame. Most faded into obscurity.

Although the Rockets were not formally in the Negro National League, an association of teams made famous by Satchel Paige and Buck O’Neil, the Rockets were an independent semi-pro farm club of the league’s famous Kansas City Monarchs.

The Omaha team even trained with the Monarchs. Three former K.C. players— Horatius Saunders, Mack Massingale, and James “Cool Papa” Bell—variously managed the club.

Donald Curry pays homage to this black baseball history at his Omaha Rockets Kanteen. The soul food eatery inside the Lake Point Building (at 24th and Lake streets) is packed with memorabilia relating to black ballplayers and teams. Dedicated menu items include Octavius Cato’s Jerked Turkey Taco, the Willie Mays Soul Wrap, and Birmingham Black Baron Sweet Potato Pie.

Curry’s Southern Pitch soul food truck features the same concept.

The Omaha native operated similar-themed food businesses in Chicago, where he befriended ex-Negro Leaguers. One, Alvin Spearman, informed him of the Rockets. Curry knew Omaha was a stomping ground for the Monarchs. Learning that the city fielded a black team, which enjoyed close currency with the Monarchs, sweetened the pot and provided his current establishment’s name.

Curry says he’s created “a living memorial” to black owners, managers, and players in admiration of “their fortitude” pursuing professional baseball careers despite lacking the talent or opportunity to play higher-level organized ball. He likes the lessons imparted.

“They didn’t cry or complain about the situation,” he says. “Everyone goes through things, and everyone is denied certain things in life. But if you keep your head up and push forward, you can overcome those obstacles and succeed in what you set your mind to. They created their own leagues and styles of ball. Some of them became pretty well-off for that time.”

The vast majority of black ballplayers, just like their white counterparts, never played for a paycheck, but for love of the game. Whether competing for semi-pro, town or company baseball teams, or fast-pitch softball teams, they lived out their diamond dreams. 

Curry hopes to add Rockets’ materials to “the treasure trove” of signed photographs and other lore displayed at Kanteen. He may name some dishes after Rockets. Curry’s collection includes personal scrapbooks of Pittsburgh Crawfords legend Jimmie Crutchfield.

The team’s owner, Will Calhoun, launched the Rockets after he got the “baseball bug.” He rented out flats at 25th and Lake, which he generously called a hotel. Touring black athletes, denied by other establishments, stayed there. The Tyler, Texas, native and World War II veteran got into the game just as minor and major league strictures lifted and the Negro Leagues declined. Calhoun pressed on anyway, boasting, “I’ve got a little money. I know why so many of these teams failed. They tried to get by on a shoestring and didn’t have anything to offer the public.” He promised to “add a little more show to my Rockets.”

The Omaha World-Herald termed the Rockets his “noble experiment.”

The team made Legion Field in Council Bluffs its home park and barnstormed across Nebraska and into Iowa, South Dakota, Kansas, and Colorado via its own bus. The club even went into Canada and the Pacific Northwest. Its opponents included town teams and other touring teams, such as House of David.

At least one Rocket, Kenny Morris, claimed local ties. The former standout Boys Town athlete played outfield and third base for the Rockets. Mickey Stubblefield, William McCrary, and Eugene Collins all spent time with the Rockets between moves up and down organized baseball. Stubblefield, a journeyman pitcher, became the first black in the Kitty League and among the first blacks in the Nebraska Independent League. He ended his career in McCook, Nebraska, where he raised a family of 10. He later moved to Atlanta, Georgia. In 2011 he returned as Grand Marshal of McCook’s “Heritage Days” festivities.

Dick “Night Train” Lane was a multi-sport star in his native Austin, Texas. He then moved north to live with his mother in Council Bluffs, where a baseball scout signed him to play for the Rockets. He played one year of football at Scottsbluff Junior College in Nebraska. After entering the U.S. Army and excelling on military teams, he signed with the NFL’s Los Angeles Rams and went on to a Hall of Fame career.

Teams like the Rockets faded as baseball popularity waned and televised sports cut into attendance. Ever the promoter, Calhoun paired his Rockets with the Minneapolis Clowns in 1950 to try and boost crowds.

The Rockets soon disbanded but Curry celebrates them within larger black athletics history. His Kanteen is now home to Nebraska Black Sports Hall of Fame displays.

His food, culled from family recipes, celebrates African-American cuisine—collard greens, cornbread dressing, red beans and rice, mac and cheese, candied yams—only prepared healthier. Smoked turkey, for example, replaces ham hocks. Olive oil replaces butter.

Curry takes seriously the Kanteen creed: “Enjoy the food, digest the history.”

“We might as well be a museum serving food,” he says.

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This article appears in the July/August issue of Omaha Magazine.

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