Tag Archives: 12 years a slave

Milwaukee Film Festival embraces variety, volume and diversity

Cream City cinephiles and film fans, prepare! This year’s Milwaukee Film Festival features the largest and most diverse selection of films in its eight-year history, as well as a brand new celebrity board member.

The 15-day festival, founded in 2008, will unspool more than 300 films in five different venues Sept. 22 through Oct. 6. The lineup of features and shorts, documentaries and animated films, offers some of the best film-festival fare currently being screened across the country, according to festival artistic and executive director Jonathan Jackson.

“This is a ‘best of’-oriented festival, not a premiere-oriented festival,” Jackson says. “We try to present the best types of films that are screening heavily, winning awards and have become critical favorites.”

The festival offers a diverse array of films from mainstream to experimental. The selections are grouped into multiple thematic sections, and there are special lineups highlighting the work of Latino and African-American filmmakers.

Milwaukee native and film writer/director John Ridley, who won an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay for 12 Years a Slave, recently joined the MFF board. Ridley was instrumental in securing screening rights for Walt Disney Pictures/ESPN Film’s Queen of Katwe about Ugandan chess prodigy Phiona Mutesi. according to Jackson.

MFF also boasts an extensive slate of locally produced films from throughout Wisconsin. The category attracted some 246 entries from which 58 films were chosen to premiere. The entries represent a 56 percent increase over 2015.

“The category serves the Milwaukee filmmaking community,” says Cara Ogburn, MFF’s programming and education manager. “Both the quality and quantity of locally made films is increasing.”

The films in the various categories are recommended by an aggregate screening committee of some 50 people, led by lead programmers for each of the categories. Most of those committee members are volunteers, Ogburn says.

Women He's Undressed
Women He’s Undressed

“For film fans, it’s a sweet assignment because you get to watch and evaluate a lot of movies,” Ogburn adds. “In this case, it really does take a village to put on a film festival.”

In addition to MFF’s 15 year-around staff and 115 seasonal workers, that village also includes 3,500 MFF paying members, 125 sponsor organizations and 300 community partners that, like MFF itself, are largely not-for-profit groups.

“We’re striving to one day become a true cultural leader for Milwaukee and a world-class film festival” Jackson says. “The core of the festival is the great, great films we screen, but that’s just a part of it. Audience members tell us that because of the conversation among festival-goers in and around the showings, the city takes on a special vibrancy during festival time.”

Jackson, Ogburn and Megan Benedict, MFF’s communications and press manager, each picked out three must-see films as personal favorites. Here is their insider’s guide, in their own words.

Jonathan Jackson

Mom and Me (Ireland/USA, 2015)

This funny, emotional and smart documentary looks at the relationship between men and their mothers. This subtle, but exquisitely crafted film centers around a radio call-in show in Oklahoma City, “the manliest city in the United States,” and allows us to experience the bonds between mothers and their sons. It was the only time I cried watching a movie this year.

Cameraperson (USA, 2016)

Acclaimed documentary cinematographer Kristen Johnson (Citizenfour, Happy Valley, Fahrenheit 9/11, and The Invisible War) created this meditation on the relationship between storytelling, truth and the camera frame. This very personal exploration of an artist’s work had me transfixed from the very first frames through the credits.

Morris from America
Morris from America

Morris from America (Germany, 2016)

One of the most enjoyable films I have seen all year, this is a smart and well-acted comedy/drama from MFF 2013 alum Chad Hartigan (This is Martin Bonner). A star-making turn from Craig Robinson (The Office) highlights this coming of age/fish out-of-water tale set in Germany that both moved me and had me laughing throughout.

Cara Ogburn

The Fits (USA, 2016)

This film has been haunting me ever since I saw it at Sundance. We follow Toni, a tomboyish ‘tween in urban Cincinnati, who is torn between the boxing-gym world of the boys and the dance-team world of the girls. An exuberant celebration of youth, it’s also a film you can’t stop rolling over in your head. I can’t wait for more of Milwaukee to see it so we can all talk about it together!

Ghostland (Germany, 2016)

This documentary gives the viewer access to some of the most remote peoples of the world, the Ju/’hoansi of Namibia. But the film turns the normal experience of quasi-touristic cinema-going on its head as the subjects travel into the modernized, Western world and comment (often very humorously) on our own cultural idiosyncrasies.

City of Gold (USA, 2015)

If you like food (and not just haute cuisine) you’ll love watching Jonathan Gold eat his way around Los Angeles’ culinary neighborhoods, from taco trucks to ramen noodles and everything in between. This film doubles as a story about the cultural and social landscape of a city.

Megan Benedict

Carmin Tropical (Mexico, 2014)

Though she has carved out a successful career as a trans nightclub singer, Mabel is quick to return home when she receives word that her best friend Daniela has been murdered. Mabel decides to take matters into her own hands, although the deeper she digs into Daniela’s past, the more she realizes it overlaps to an unnerving degree with her own. This is a moody murder mystery noir from Mexico told from a fresh perspective, with an unforgettable ending that will stick with you long after the film has concluded.

Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict (USA, 2015)

Pollock, Dalí, Rothko, Duchamp, Giacometti, Kandinsky, Cornell: What do all of these names have in common? Peggy Guggenheim, the unapologetic heiress, who collected lovers at a pace almost equal with her true passion — modern art. One of the most enjoyable documentaries I’ve seen in the last year, it’ll make you want to run outside, thank an artist and fill your walls with art.

The Fits
The Fits

Shorts: Surprise, Surprise! (Various)

We have a new shorts program in town this year! If you’ve never been to an MFF shorts program, this is the year to take the plunge. Surprises come in all shapes and sizes in these raucously funny, wildly inappropriate and occasionally serious shorts. This is the program that everyone will be talking about during the MFF 2016, so see it for yourself and don’t let anyone ruin the surprise!

For the complete schedule got to mkefilm.org.

Ticket prices

Festival passes are $400 (members) and $500 (nonmembers); ticket 6-packs are $60 (members) and $72 (nonmembers); individual tickets are $12 (adults), $11 (seniors and students with IDs); $10 (MFF members) and $6 (children 12 and under).

The opening night screening of Life, Animated at the Oriental Theatre is $25 for the general public and $20 for MFF members and includes the after-party at UWM Peck School of the Arts Kenilworth Building, 1925 E. Kenilworth Pl.; after-party tickets only are $15 for the general public, $13 for MFF members.

Super Secret Members-Only Screening

There’s one film during the festival that you can’t buy a ticket for. The Super Secret Members-Only Screening is 1) a secret, and 2) for Milwaukee Film Members only. You won’t know what it is until you’re in your seats and we introduce it. It’s a roll of the dice, but we always pick a winner.

Want to be a part of the event? Attend this year’s Super Secret Members-Only Screening by becoming a Milwaukee Film Member today. Sign up at any festival box office or visit mkefilm.org/membership.

The Super Secret Members-Only Screening is excluded from the Festival Pass, and tickets will not be available at the box office. Only current Milwaukee Film Members will receive an email to RSVP, and you must RSVP to attend.

Milwaukee Film Festival by the numbers

Festival dates: Sept. 22 through Oct. 6

Number of films: More than 300 films of varying lengths

Number of venues: Five unique theaters:

• Landmark Oriental Theatre, 2230 N. Farwell Ave.

• Landmark Downer Theatre, 2589 N. Downer Ave.

• Fox Bay Cinema Grill, 334 E. Silver Spring Dr.

• Times Cinema, 5906 W. Vliet St.

• Avalon Theater, 2473 S. Kinnickinnic Ave.

Total attendees: Past festivals have attracted upwards of 70,000 people.

Oscar spotlight shines attention on diversity issue in Hollywood

It was a year ago that Lupita Nyong’o, shortly before winning the Academy Award for best supporting actress, gave a speech about what she called “dark beauty.”

Nyong’o, who so dazzled Hollywood and the Oscar-viewing public through awards season, spoke tenderly of receiving a letter from a girl who had been about to lighten her skin before Nyong’o’s success, she said, “saved me.” The letter struck Nyong’o because she recognized herself in that girl: “I remember a time when I too felt unbeautiful. I put on the TV and only saw pale skin.”

“And so I hope that my presence on your screens and in the magazines may lead you, young girl, on a similar journey,” concluded Nyong’o, accepting an award at the Black Women in Hollywood luncheon.

The Mexican-born, Kenyan-raised actress was a central part last year to an Academy Awards flush with faces uncommon to the Oscar podium. There was Ellen DeGeneres, a proud lesbian, hosting. There was the first Latino, Alfonso Cuaron, winning best director. There was the black filmmaker Steve McQueen hopping for joy after his 12 Years a Slave won best picture.

What a difference a year makes.

This year’s Oscars repeat a stubborn pattern that has plagued the Academy Awards throughout its history: Whenever change seems to come, a frustrating hangover follows. “Every 10 years, we have the same conversation,” Spike Lee, a regular witness to the sporadic progress, has said. A year after Chris Rock hosted the 2005 awards show, which featured nods for Morgan Freeman, Don Cheadle, Jamie Foxx and Sophie Okonedo, the ‘06 nominees followed with only Terrence Howard.

Seldom have such fits and starts been starker than this Oscars, coming a year after a richly diverse Oscar crop. In Sunday’s Academy Awards, all 20 acting nominees are white, a result that prompted some to declare that they would boycott this year’s ceremony. The lack of nominations for Selma director Ava DuVernay and star David Oyelowo were a particular flashpoint, viewed by many as unjust oversights not only because they merited honoring, but because their absences furthered an ignoble Oscar history.

“I was surprised but then I wasn’t,” said Darnell Hunt, a UCLA professor and director of the Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies, who co-authored a 2014 diversity report on the film and TV industries. “What we saw in terms of the nominations this year was business as usual. What we got was more or less an accurate reflection of the way the industry is structured and the way the academy is populated.”

An Associated Press survey of the academy’s voting history since the first Academy Awards in 1929 shows gradual progress but not nearly at a rate to match the ever-increasing diversity of the American public. In those 87 years, nine black actors have won Oscars, four Latinos and three Asians, a record that doesn’t even speak to other categories like best director, where only one woman (Kathryn Bigelow) has won.

The number of non-whites to be nominated for best actor or best actress has nearly doubled in just the last two decades, but the 9.4 percent of non-white acting nominees over the academy’s history is about four times less than the percentage of the non-white population.

Not all of this can be laid at the film academy’s feet, but some of it can. The 6,000-plus membership of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences was found to be 94 percent white and 77 percent male in a 2012 Los Angeles Times investigation. Since becoming president of the academy, Cheryl Boone Isaacs has worked to diversify the academy’s ranks, though change comes slowly considering membership is for life.

“In the last two years, we’ve made greater strides than we ever have in the past toward becoming a more diverse and inclusive organization through admitting new members and more inclusive classes of members,” Isaacs told the AP shortly after nominations were announced. “And, personally, I would love to see and look forward to see a greater cultural diversity among all our nominees in all of our categories.”

But the academy is a reflection of the film industry; it can only reward the films that get made. What this year’s all-white acting nominees did was lay bare the enormous, hulking iceberg of the movie business’ diversity problems.

The UCLA diversity report released last year after eight years of research put numbers to an often amorphous issue. It was arguably the most comprehensive such study, and it found the underrepresentation of minorities and women throughout film and TV, from board rooms to talent agencies.

“White males have dominated things for so long that it’s been hard to image an alternative that would produce or be open to producing the types of projects that are likely to enlist more people of color or women. So it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, this vicious cycle that produces the same type of stuff over and over again.,” says Hunt. “It’s hard to blame any single institution. It’s not all the networks. It’s not all the studios. It’s not all the talent agencies. But together, the way they all do business, combines to create this stalemate where we just don’t get past where we are right now.”

What’s particularly galling for many of those working to change Hollywood is that minorities are among its most passionate customers. According to the Motion Picture Association of America, Hispanics made up 25 percent of moviegoers in 2013, considerably more than their 17 percent share of the population.

“They acknowledge the demographic. They understand our participation rate. They continue to market these projects to the community, but never with the community’s identity or building a base of A-lister talent,” says Felix Sanchez, president of the National Hispanic Foundation for the Arts.

Sanchez has seen “busts of diversity” come and go, like the attention that came and went with Ricky Martin’s 1999 Grammy performance. But even though the film industry sits in a town rich in Hispanics, 150 miles from the Mexico border, whites are often cast in top Latino roles. Ben Affleck played Tony Mendez in Argo and, more recently, the casting of Catherine Zeta-Jones as a Colombian drug dealer drew criticism.

“Who’s in charge of that image making?” says Sanchez. “So much of it is left in the hands of people who don’t have any kind of commitment to authenticity to the community at large.”

Combating such an entrenched, systematic problem isn’t easy; prejudice is nowhere and everywhere at the same time.

“There’s no front door to knock on. There’s nothing but side doors,” says Sanchez. “At some point, either there’s change or there’s a revolt amongst the viewers of simply not participating with entertainment that’s not reflective or inclusive of Latino images in a contemporary way.”

Hunt hopes that by studying diversity objectively, the data will reveal “the bottlenecks” that are stifling advancement. That includes findings that show more diverse projects make more money at the box office and earn better TV ratings. He knows the one thing Hollywood will respond to: the bottom line.

But frustration is mounting. Another year’s worth of research, to be released later this month by UCLA, Hunt says shows no significant change.

Stacy L. Smith, founder and director of USC Annenberg’s Media, Diversity and Social Change Initiative, calls the lack of progress in the industry “egregious.” The school analyzed the 500 top-grossing films at the U.S. box office in recent years, finding that in 2013, African-Americans represented 10.8 percent of all speaking characters, Hispanics 4.2 percent and Asians 5 percent. Between 2007 and 2012, the 565 directors of the top 500 films included only 33 black filmmakers, and just two of them black women. In the top-100 grossing films each year from 2002 through 2012, only 4.4 percent had women directors.

“Hollywood does not think diversity is commercial,” Smith said. “The numbers speak loudly and clearly about who is valued and who isn’t.”

With studies finding so little progress, Smith proposes the industry adopt a modified version of the NFL’s Rooney Rule, which stipulates that teams must interview minorities for vacant coaching jobs, to give greater transparency to the hiring process. She also urges A-list stars to add a rider in their contracts asking for diversity in casts when sensible to the story.

Not everyone agrees. Lionel Chetwynd, an Oscar-nominated writer and an academy member, argued against Al Sharpton’s post-nominations call for a task force. (Said Sharpton: “The movie industry is like the Rocky Mountains, the higher you get, the whiter it gets.”)

“Enforced ‘diversity’ will undermine the very mission of AMPAS,” Chetwynd wrote in an Op-Ed. “As new filmmakers and craftspeople achieve new levels of excellence, the face of the academy will change as it should, to the meter of its time, the pace of its art.”

The one thing that is definitely improving is the volume level. The uproar over the Oscar nominations only added to a swelling cacophony in the last year.

Saturday Night Live was shamed into diversifying its cast. The Ridley Scott Moses epic Exodus: Gods and Kings was slammed for casting white leads as Egyptians. The leaked Sony emails embarrassed executives for jokes about President Obama’s presumed taste in movie. Chris Rock, as good a commentator on race relations as we have, penned a thoughtful essay on what he called “a white industry.”

“How many black men have you met working in Hollywood? They don’t really hire black men,” wrote Rock. “But forget whether Hollywood is black enough. A better question is: Is Hollywood Mexican enough? You’re in L.A, you’ve got to try not to hire Mexicans.”

Why does all this matter? It isn’t just an issue of equal opportunity, though it is that. It’s because when people aren’t reflected in culture, when they don’t see themselves on screens, behind cameras or on the Oscar stage, they feel invisible and voiceless. Hollywood would do well to remember that young girl who wrote to Nyong’o, and hope to inspire a flood of such letters.

Diversity wins big at the Oscars

Diversity was perhaps the biggest winner at the 86th annual Academy Awards.

For the first time, a film directed by a black filmmaker – Steve McQueen of “12 Years a Slave” – won best picture and a Latino – Alfonso Cuaron of “Gravity” – took home best director in a ceremony presided over by a lesbian host and overseen by the academy’s first black president.

McQueen’s grimly historical drama “12 Years a Slave” took best picture, leading the usually sedate filmmaker to jump up and down in celebration after his acceptance speech.

The British director dedicated his award to “all of the people who endured slavery and the 21 million people who still suffer slavery today.”

Cuaron’s lost-in-space thriller “Gravity” led the Oscars with seven awards, including cinematography, editing, score, visual effects, sound mixing and sound editing. Some in his native Mexico have been critical that since the attention came for a Hollywood release and not a Mexican-themed film, his win didn’t have the same kind of importance.

“I’m Mexican so I hope some Mexicans were rooting for me,” he told reporters backstage.

The entire Oscar ceremony had the feel of a make-over for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences – an institution that has sometimes seemed stuck in the past. After a Los Angeles Times report revealed the academy was overwhelming older white men, new president Cheryl Boone Isaacs has pushed for a more varied membership.

The movie industry that the Oscars reflect has also been reluctant to tell a wider range of stories.

“Dallas Buyers Club,” the best picture-nominated drama about AIDS in 1980s Texas, took two decades to get made after countless executives balked at financing such a tale. Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto won best actor and best supporting actor for their roles in the film as a heterosexual rodeo rat (McConaughey) and a transgender drug addict (Leto) united by HIV.

“Thirty-six million people who have lost the battle to AIDS and to those of you out there who have ever felt injustice because of who you are or who you love, tonight I stand here in front of the world with you and for you,” said Leto is his acceptance speech.

Cate Blanchett, best-actress winner for her bitter, ruined socialite in Woody Allen’s “Blue Jasmine,” used her acceptance speech to trumpet the need to make films with female leads – films like her own and like “Gravity,” starring Sandra Bullock. A study by analyst Kevin B. Lee found that last year’s lead actors averaged 100 minutes on screen, but lead actresses averaged only 49 minutes.

“To the audiences who went to see the film and perhaps those of us in the industry who are still foolishly clinging to the idea that female films, with women at the center, are niche experiences, they are not,” said Blanchett. “Audiences want to see them and, in fact, they earn money.”

“12 Years a Slave” also won awards in the writing and acting categories. John Ridley picked up the trophy for best adapted screenplay, which was based on the 1853 memoir by Solomon Northup. The screenwriter is only the second black writer (Geoffrey Fletcher won for “Precious” in 2009) to win in the category. Backstage, the “12 Years” team mentioned their efforts to include Solomon Northup’s memoir as part of high school study. The National School Boards Association announced in February that the book is now mandatory reading.

“It’s important that we understand our history so we can understand who we were and who we are now and most importantly who we’re going to be,” said Brad Pitt, who produced “12 Years.” “We hope that this film remains a gentle reminder that we’re all equal. We all want the same: Dignity and opportunity.”

Lupita Nyong’o was a first-time Oscar winner for her supporting role as field slave Patsey in “12 Years.” “I’m a little dazed,” said Nyong’o backstage of winning the Oscar. “I can’t believe this is real life.”

Nyong’o is the sixth black actress to win in the supporting actress category, following Hattie McDaniel (“Gone with the Wind”), Whoopi Goldberg (“Ghost”), Jennifer Hudson (“Dreamgirls”), Mo’Nique (“Precious”) and Octavia Spencer (“The Help”).

In her second time hosting, openly gay Ellen DeGeneres sought to make celebrities more like plain folk. She passed out slices of pizza to the front rows at the Dolby Theatre, then passed the hat to pay for it. She also tweeted a “selfie” with such stars as Meryl Streep, Julie Roberts, Jennifer Lawrence, Bradley Cooper, Pitt and Nyong’o. The shot “made history,” DeGeneres told the audience later. It’s since been retweeted more than 2 million times.