Over the weekend, between naps and fits of crabbiness and soreness, and despite six hours I spent grading humanities projects, I gorged on movies. Last year’s hits have just come out on DVD: The Queen, Freedom Writers, and The Last King of Scotland. Surprisingly, of the three, it was Last King that moved me most.
Helen Mirren’s The Queen is the one I’d anticipated with most excitement, and it is brilliantly acted, a real tour de force for Mirren. I love watching Mirren do anything at all, and I’m glad she won the Academy Award for this performance, but what’s it all about, really? It’s a fairly compassionate, quite convincing portrait of QE2; however since we don’t know anything but the woman’s public face, how do we know if we’re being convinced of more than a fiction? And why do we care? It gives us a voyeuristic thrill at being able to be so “close” to the royal family, but then what? Does it raise issues that matter? Does it take us somewhere we’ve never been before (other than the film-version of the Queen’s bedroom)? Is it more than Mirren’s performance? Nah. Monarchy schmanarky, ultimately the royal family is a British tourist attraction, a lot of well-upholstered ribbon-cutters and not much else. As an actor, I wouldn’t have missed the chance to see Mirren take this on, but the film doesn’t leave me with anything more than a slightly guilty feeling, such as I get from reading People magazine in doctors’ waiting rooms.
Freedom Writers is another one I wanted to love, but it pissed me off with its glorification of self-sacrifice. Hilary Swank does a fine job of taking the heroine from do-gooding naive idealist to activist, although she appears dangerously thin (is she starving herself? is she as self-sacrificing as the heroines she often portrays?). Imelda Staunton’s role as the jealous, conventional, lazy, racist supervisor was thankless, but she made one point that I agree with: “not sustainable.” Damn right. From watching the film and then the special features, I gather that Erin Gruwell, on whose valiant efforts the film is based, only taught in public high schools for four years, which is certainly as long as any young, healthy, energetic person could do what she did without total burnout. She worked all day, read her students’ diaries all night, and then found time to handle two additional part-time jobs, in order to buy books and finance field trips for her students. She lost her marriage from neglect. She wasn’t a parent, which many teachers are–so she didn’t have to juggle those conflicts. In the universe of the film, she had no friendships. She gave her whole life to her job and her mission of “saving” one group of kids. It’s great that she helped those kids; it’s terrific that she then got out of teaching and now spends her life trying to suck other teachers into the kind of all-out life-sacrifice she made for the kids. Maybe a few more people will help a few more kids. But nobody should have to do that. The system of education in the USA (and possibly in other places) is, as I keep saying, broken. I agree with the scriptwriter that it is wonderful to do something you love; it’s great to have a passion for your work; but having a life also matters. Balance matters.
Brief tangent related to teaching and sacrifice: I got a comment on this blog to my post from last week, “Nikki Giovanni Gets it Right” from a bright, creative, intelligent young woman (I know this because I went to her website) who calls herself Ivy and disagrees with my assessment of Giovanni. She feels Giovanni was wrong to “denounce” the shooter by admitting she couldn’t help him when he signed up for her creative writing class. Ivy asks, “Isn’t it a professor’s job to take care of her students?” Makes me wonder if Ivy’s been watching Freedom Writers. No, Ivy, I want to say. It is not a teacher’s job to be a therapist, a psychiatrist, a social worker, or a savior. It’s a teacher’s job to know and be excited about the course material, to generate excitement for the subject, to create an environment for creative and critical exploration, to be engaged with and considerate of and interested in her students, to create exciting assignments and to respond to those with thoughtful individual comments. It’s a teacher’s job to take care of the whole class, and not to sacrifice 25-40 people’s experience in order to save one very sick kid. It’s a teacher’s job to refer kids who need psychiatric help to people who are trained to help them. Doing a teacher’s job takes about 50-60 hours a week of concentrated devotion, in my experience of over 30 years of teaching. But then, in whatever is left after that 50-60 hours of work, the teacher gets to have a life. It’s not a teacher’s job to fill in the blanks in all the ways her students’ families, friends, doctors, therapists, ministers, and social networks have failed to do. End of rant, and thanks to Ivy for inspiring me to clarify that for myself, even if I haven’t clarified it for anybody else. It’s not Ivy’s fault that she thinks teachers are supposed to be self-sacrificial victims, crucifying themselves in order to save every fallen sparrow; it’s the fault of movies like Freedom Writers.
Finally I want to talk about The Last King of Scotland, which stays with me still. Forest Whitaker also deserved his Oscar for his work on this film. He created an Idi Amin who is not a cartoon, not a simple definition of a bad guy, not a white racist’s proof that Africans can’t govern. His Idi Amin is a human being who lived on a grand scale and made horrible mistakes; he doesn’t get off the hook for causing (who can conceive of it?) 300,000 deaths and inutterable suffering, but Whitaker gets the man’s complexity and delivers it to the audience. The sub-plot, like the sub-plot of Blood Diamond, asks what one person can do about suffering in the world. That’s also Erin Gruwell’s question, of course, and that’s what’s best about Freedom Writers. Many of us spend our lives trying to find or live an answer to that question, and failing one way or another. I hate those corny speeches about “If I can help one person….” Bullshit. Every one of us who sets out to do something decent with our lives–doomed though the attempt may be–sets out to make the world as much better as we possibly can, and we forget about the one person back in 1989 because we’re so focused on the ten or 500 people in 2007. Helping one person is never enough. Nor should it be.
But back to Last King. How can a charismatic, resourceful, highly-charged Ugandan make such a mess of the great hope his people had in him? Would another person have done a better job? Does power always corrupt? (I am haunted by the 10 days I spent in Uganda in 1996, when Museveni was the great new hope, and I really thought he was IT. There’s a longer consideration of the Ugandan situation here and some useful websites here.) The movie also asks how a reasonably well-intentioned person (James McAvoy’s doctor), looking for an interesting life, some adventure, and a chance to (maybe) do some good, can make such a mess of things. It’s clear that McAvoy’s character, like Whitaker’s, falls for the lure of power and indulgence; that he starts off meaning well and ends up causing great suffering. That gives us a chance to reflect on our own choices. It leaves me aching, wondering, reflecting. That’s what I want from a good film. P.S. If you get the DVD, watch the Special Features. The film includes one gratuitous violent image fabricated by the film-makers, and the interviews with Ugandans in the Special Features sort that out. There’s also a very moving discussion by Whitaker of the moral questions he wrestled with, in agreeing to do this film.
Tags: Books and Movies