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A Harsh Schooling: The War Against Public Education

Peter Dreier

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From “Go Public”

Ever since the emergence of talking pictures, schools have been a major subject of both Hollywood movies and documentary films. One consistent theme of Hollywood portrayals of schools – from Blackboard Jungle (1955), Up the Down Staircase (1967) and Stand and Deliver (1988) to Mr. Holland’s Opus (1995), October Sky (1999) and Freedom Writers (2007) – has been the idealistic teacher fighting to serve his and her students against overwhelming odds, including uncaring administrators, cynical colleagues, a stultifying required curriculum that crushes the spirit of teachers and students alike, dilapidated conditions, budget cuts, unruly and hostile students, or students suffering from the symptoms of poverty or neglect. The underlying message is that while occasionally a rare teacher can light a spark in a few students, our public schools are failing most of the students they are supposed to serve. Most documentaries about education – from Frederick Wiseman’s High School (1968) to Bill Moyers’ Children in America’s Schools (1996) – paint a similarly grim picture.

Grim, but not hopeless. All these films hold out the prospect that change is possible if society is willing to honestly confront the social, economic, and bureaucratic conditions that have made public education less effective than it could and should be.

In contrast, the two most recent high-profile films about public education – the documentary Waiting for Superman (2010) and Hollywood’s Won’t Back Down (2012), starring Maggie Gyllenhaal and Viola Davis – portray our public schools as beyond reform and redemption.

Waiting for Superman – directed by Davis Guggenheim, who made An Inconvenient Truth about Al Gore’s environmental crusade – portrays the public school system as a total failure. It follows several students as they attempt to get into a private charter school that is superior in every way. Guggenheim skillfully tells the stories of these children and their families so that we can’t help but root for them to win the lottery and get into the charter schools that, we’re led to believe, will unleash their potential rather than stifle their creativity. The film boils down the problems facing public education as simply one of bad teachers, whose jobs are protected by corrupt unions. The film demonizes teachers’ unions as the destroyer of public schools, while celebrating charters as the panacea for what ails American education. It reduces most teachers and their union leaders to one-dimensional, cartoon-like figures.

Not surprisingly, the film’s villain is Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers. One of its heroes is Geoffrey Canada, charismatic founder of the Harlem Children’s Zone, which has raised millions of dollars from business, foundations and government to lavishly fund charter schools and social services in a small part of that New York neighborhood. Another hero is Michelle Rhee, who served for several years as the antiunion superintendent of Washington, DC,’s public schools and now runs StudentsFirst, which lobbies for the same free-market approach to education that Waiting for Superman extols.

In Won’t Back Down, Gyllenhaal portrays a working-class mother frustrated by her inner city public school’s unwillingness to place her dyslexic daughter in a class with a teacher who can help her succeed despite her learning disability. Gyllenhall eventually leads a group of other frustrated parents to utilize a “parent trigger” law that allows parents to turn their “failing” public school into a privately-managed charter school. Their efforts are opposed by the teachers’ union, which the film portrays as insensitive, thuggish, corrupt and the chief obstacle to successful schools.

In an essay in the New York Review of Books, educational historian Diane Ravitch summarized the major themes of Waiting for Superman. This mantra, which could also apply to Won’t Back Down, includes the following:

“American public education is a failed enterprise. The problem is not money. Public schools already spend too much. Test scores are low because there are so many bad teachers, whose jobs are protected by powerful unions. Students drop out because the schools fail them, but they could accomplish practically anything if they were saved from bad teachers. They would get higher test scores if schools could fire more bad teachers and pay more to good ones. The only hope for the future of our society, especially for poor black and Hispanic children, is escape from public schools, especially to charter schools, which are mostly funded by the government, but controlled by private organizations, many of them operating to make a profit.”

It is no accident that both films promote similar themes. Both were produced by Walden Media, which is owned by Phil Anschutz, a right-wing businessman who owns two of the nation’s premier conservative publications (the Weekly Standard and the Washington Examiner) and whose foundation has donated $210,000 to the antiunion National Right to Work Legal Defense Fund. Anschutz is also a backer of Americans for Prosperity, the political war chest founded by the right-wing Koch brothers and has donated to Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who has made dismantling labor unions a key part of his policy agenda. Anschutz also spent $10,000 in 1992 to promote Colorado’s Proposition 2, which let private property owners discriminate against gays and lesbians, $150,000 to the Mission America Foundation, which condemns homosexuality as “deviance,” and $70,000 to the Discovery Institute, which attacks the idea of evolution and proclaims that “Darwinism is false.”

Microsoft cofounder Bill Gates – America’s richest man, who has donated a substantial part of his fortune to various efforts to privatize public schools and appears in Waiting for Superman – helped fund the film and sang its praises at various film festivals. Discussing the film at the Toronto International Film Festival, he said that school districts should cut pension payments for retired teachers. The national PTA, which is supposed to be an advocate for public schools, has shown Waiting for Superman at its national convention and at its state and local meetings. Some have wondered if its decision to promote the film has anything to do with its receipt of a $1 million donation from the Gates Foundation.

Waiting for Superman, a slick and emotionally uplifting film, was praised by most movie critics as well as Oprah Winfrey and President Obama, whose education secretary, Arne Duncan (former Chicago school superintendent) has promoted an education reform agenda that aligns perfectly with Waiting for Superman and its conservative backers. (A similar documentary, The Lottery, released in 2010, paints an adoring portrait of a group of New York City charter schools founded by a former City Council member).

Won’t Back Down was distributed by 20th Century Fox, which is owned by media mogul Rupert Murdoch, whose News Corporation owns Fox News, the Wall Street Journal and the New York Post. News Corporation also owns Wireless Generation, a for-profit online education, software and testing corporation, recently rebranded as Amplify. Murdoch has long hoped to get a piece of the education system, which he once described as a “$500 billion sector in the US alone that is waiting desperately to be transformed.” To help Murdoch get a piece of that money, he hired Joel Klein, the former New York City school chancellor who runs Amplify. (Klein also is on the board of Michelle Rhee’s StudentsFirst.)

Won’t Back Down was heavily promoted by conservative groups, including the Heritage Foundation, Freedom Works (which has close ties to the Tea Party), the corporate-(and Murdoch-)funded American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC, a major backer of parent trigger laws), and the Chamber of Commerce. The chamber sponsored a national six-month tour of the film in major cities, including Albany, NY, Indianapolis, Phoenix and San Diego, screening it for business groups and legislators to garner support for the parent trigger law and other conservative educational changes. Rhee hosted screenings of Won’t Back Down at both the Republican and Democratic conventions last year.

Both films were heavily promoted by the growing chorus of corporate foundations and conservative billionaires behind a particular version of school “reform” that emphasizes privatization – charters, vouchers, business-style management, high-stakes testing to evaluate both students and teachers, weakened teachers unions, and the “parent trigger” law that California and several other states have adopted that allows disgruntled parents to turn public schools into privately-run charter schools, typically with the support of corporate-funded front groups, like Parent Revolution. The films’ zeitgeist is part of a broader corporate and conservative attack on government in general, particularly taxes on business and the rich, reductions in subsidies to corporations and regulations that protect workers, consumers and the environment.

Not surprisingly, in both films, teachers are portrayed, with a few exceptions, as uncaring, unqualified, or simply burned out and their unions as too powerful and resistant to change, primarily a protection racket for uninspiring educators. The films’ mantra is that salvation is only possible by enlightened teachers and parents abandoning the desert of public education for the promised land of private charter schools.

Neither film points out that teachers’ unions have been the strongest advocate for more public school funding, smaller class sizes and improved facilities and resources. Nor do they point out charter schools’ uneven track record. A 2009 study by the Center for Research on Education Outcomes at Stanford University discovered that only 17 percent of charter schools provided a better education than traditional public schools. Thirty-seven percent actually offered children a worse education. In other words, on balance, charters make things worse, even though many of those schools “cream” the best students from regular public schools. The same Stanford center recently released a study that called for stronger monitoring and review processes for charter schools. Other research confirms that charters rarely deliver on the promises their backers make.

Welcome Antidote to Billionaire Boys’ Club Movies

Go Public: A Day in the Life of an American School District, by veteran documentary filmmakers Jim and Dawn O’Keeffe, is a welcome antidote to the bleak and misleading message of Waiting for Superman and Won’t Back Down. Go Public celebrates public schools without ignoring their troubles. It follows 50 people in 28 schools – teachers, students, parents, a school board member, principals, a baseball coach, librarians, a school psychologist, volunteers, and the district superintendent – during one day (May 8, 2012), from the time they wake up until the time they go to bed.

The O’Keeffes spent over a year assembling 50 teams of filmmakers, each of which followed one person. They included 10 student film crews (mostly high school students but also a sixth-grader) and 40 professional crews. Jim O’Keeffe trained the student crews, over two semesters, in conjunction with their media classes in documentary cinema verité techniques. Film industry professionals, as well as professors and recent graduates from the University of Southern California film program (where Jim O’Keeffe teaches cinematography) and Brooks Institute in Santa Barbara participated as directors and crew. USC and Brooks Institute also donated equipment to the student crews. Recent graduates served as mentors.

The O’Keeffes raised initial funds from friends, family and community members, and $25,000 from a Kickstarter campaign, to help meet their $150,000 production budget, but they are still raising funds for distribution, marketing and educational outreach. In contrast, Waiting for Superman and Won’t Back Down had big budgets funded by their billionaire backers.

The result of the O’Keeffes’ effort is a remarkable 90-minute film that examines the daily realities of an urban public school system – the Pasadena (California) Unified School District (PUSD), where two-thirds of the 18,000 students come from low-income families, where many parents are jobless, where many students live in homes where Spanish is the first (and in some cases only) language, and in a state where per-student funding ranks 47th in the country.

Go Public celebrates the small and large miracles that happen in PUSD classrooms every day. We see overcrowded classrooms, but we also see an elementary teacher who greets each student with a special word of support as he or she arrives in her classroom.

The film shows us students participating in a pioneering middle-school robotics program. An elementary school teacher gets students excited about science by explaining how blood flows through arteries that keep their hearts beating. A music teacher instructs a jazz band at a high school where parents have to hold fund-raisers to pay for instruments. An elementary school teacher instructs students to play part of the Brandenburg concerto on their violins.

We see a teacher patiently, persistently and lovingly instruct students with autism and Down’s syndrome. Special needs students, who require smaller classrooms and specially-trained teachers, but whose cost is not fully reimbursed by the state government, comprise a significant portion of PUSD’s student body.

We witness a third-grader speaking Mandarin in one of the district’s innovative dual-language program, where students become bilingual. At the end of the day, the Anglo father of another student in the dual-language Spanish program asks his son, “How do I say, ‘How was school?’ in Spanish. The boy replies without hesitation: “Como esta la escuela?”

We see a security officer at a middle school who also leads the school’s drum corps and choir, conducts the strings orchestra and sets up a mentoring program where high schoolers help younger students. In a middle school class, an English teacher compares the romantic feelings of a Shakespeare character with a Taylor Swift song. Later in the day, she teaches a drama class with kindergartners, encouraging them to use their imaginations to melt like snowmen and grow like flowers.

We see students rehearsing for a musical play, learning to play guitars, painting and practicing a choral number during lunch break. After school is over, we watch parents juggling making dinner and helping their kids with homework, kids explaining their homework to their parents who don’t speak English and a music teacher taking time out from preparing for the next day’s classes to feed his infant. On a bus on the way to a game, the coach of a racially-diverse high school girls’ softball team reminds them to avoid “mental mistakes.” A high school girl who won a state oratory contest gives her speech at a school board meeting, explaining that she wants to become a chemical engineer, “a field bereft of African American women.”

The film shows Superintendent Jon Gundry visiting a class where students are designing rockets in conjunction with scientists from the nearby Jet Propulsion Lab, run by NASA. That night, Gundry is the subject of a protest by teachers, secretaries, custodians and librarians at a school board meeting, angry about pending layoffs.

A teacher in the district’s culinary arts and hospitality academy shows students how to make chicken cordon bleu. A middle school assistant principal mediates a conflict between two girls. A teacher in an “alternative” high school for high-risk students meets one-on-one to help a student with his homework. A social worker at an elementary school works with low-income Latino/a parents to train them to help their children with homework. In a crowded high school biology lab, a teacher trains the next generation of scientists, one of whom might invent a cure for cancer or a way to bring clean water to remote villages.

A teacher describes how he spends most of his lunch breaks working individually with students who seek his help. Then we see him talking to a high-schooler who had been in prison but now wants to improve his grades so he can attend college. We cheer for him, even though the odds are long. In a school district where each high school guidance counselor is responsible for 450 students, we see one of them meeting with a mother and her twin daughters to plan their schedules so they’ll have the right courses to apply to college.

An elementary school principal calls the school custodian “the hardest working guy on this campus,” praising him for advising students and helping them get to class on time as well as keeping the school clean. A high school baseball coach, watering the infield with a hand-held hose after school hours, tells the camera: “I love my job. You’ll never be a millionaire, but you’ll be happy every day. I’ll take that.” A high school boy admits that sometimes he falls asleep if his teacher turns off the lights to show slides in class. Two boys walking home from high school debate the meaning of the word “ghetto.”

We watch a maintenance man repair the wiring in a light fixture while explaining that the school district has only four electricians for 39 buildings. Thanks to a $100 donation from the PTA, an elementary school teacher works with students to plant a garden, where they can learn where their food comes from. We see a high school principal fixing an ancient copying machine. Later we see him talking to a teacher about complying with the state’s disciplinary policies while, simultaneously, talking on both his cellphone and his office phone.

A middle schooler puts up a sign, “Save Our School Library,” which is targeted for closure due to budget cuts. She explains that the school library is “the only place where I can have an educated conversation with my friends.”

We know that a significant number of PUSD students will drop out before graduating from high school. We know that many of these students face violence in their neighborhoods and/or at home, a situation that, similar to combat, we would expect to result in students exhibiting the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.

The O’Keeffes don’t downplay these harsh realities. In one scene in Go Public, teachers, librarians, school counselors and their parent supporters appear at a school board meeting to protest yet another wave of layoff notices. Since 2007, the district has been forced to make about $50 million in budget cuts due to declining state funding. It fired dozens of teachers, librarians and security guards. Earlier this year, after the film was completed, 48 people – including a middle school librarian who appears in Go Public – were laid off. Even so, you can’t watch this film without feeling hopeful about public schools and the students and teachers that populate them.

There is no narrator to offer hints about what we’re seeing and what we should think about it. The O’Keeffes have no axe to grind other than to present a balanced exploration into the lives of these families and educators. The filmmakers know all the pitfalls and problems that confront public schools. They sent their own four children to PUSD schools – three graduated in recent years and went to college. One will be a high school senior in the fall. It was not always an easy road for the family, but they persevered during frequent budget cuts, teacher layoffs, inadequate funding for the arts and sports, the revolving door of superintendents and top administrators, and the ideological and personal battles among school board members.

In 2010, the O’Keeffes worked hard – alongside their friends, neighbors, fellow church congregants, teachers, and other PUSD parents – to persuade local voters to pass Measure CC, a $120 a year (per property) tax increase to increase funding for PUSD in the wake of state budget cuts. The measure received 54 percent of the vote, a victory in most elections, but far short of the 66.6 percent needed in California to pass an increase in local taxes. The outcome deeply disappointed and saddened the O’Keeffes, who believed that many of the voters – particularly middle-class families who sent their children to private school or whose grown-up children were no longer in school – fell for misleading stereotypes about public schools in general and PUSD in particular. It galvanized them to begin the journey that led to Go Public.

If Pasadena’s voters harbor misguided views about public schools – that they waste tax dollars, or that they do a lousy job of educating students, or that they serve students whose parents didn’t care enough to help their children succeed in school – that is certainly understandable. For years, the local daily newspaper, the Pasadena Star-News, fed readers a steady diet of negative stories about the schools, often initiated by right-wing public school bashers, while failing to report on the trends revealing significant improvements, including steadily rising test scores and national awards for some teachers, or to publish stories about the academic, athletic and artistic accomplishments of many PUSD students.

But it wouldn’t be fair simply to blame the Star-News for typecasting PUSD as a failure. That same misleading message has emanated from many of the nation’s most prominent politicians, business leaders, philanthropists and educators, and has been reflected in media coverage of public education. Indeed, America’s public schools have been under attack for more than two decades by education “reformers” who think that our nation’s education system is broken and needs a major overhaul.

In this way, Go Public challenges the growing chorus of hostility to public schools reflected in Waiting for Superman and Won’t Back Down and pushed by the corporate-funded advocates of school privatization.

Addressing the “Achievement Gap”

Almost 90 percent of American K-12 students attend public schools. Reports about the “failure” of public schools don’t focus much attention on schools that serve middle-class children. Our public schools generally do a good job of preparing these students for college and/or the job market. (Although our business and political leaders do a lousy job of providing enough jobs for those high school and college graduates). Middle-class parents generally believe that their kids’ schools are effective.

It is the schools that serve poor children that come in for most of the criticism and prescriptions for change. The major concern is how to close the “achievement gap” – the huge differences in test scores, graduation rates, college attendance, and other indicators of educational outcomes – between middle-income and low-income students, with the latter group comprised disproportionately of Black and Latino students in urban school districts, like PUSD.

In fact, we already know what is needed to raise the educational performance of most low-income students.

  • High-quality early childhood care and education (from birth to age 3), along with universal preschool (from ages 3 to 6), where students can develop the vocabulary and thinking skills, and self-confidence, that will prepare them to do well once they reach kindergarten.
  • High-quality summer arts, athletic and writing programs so that low-income children can have experiences similar to those that most middle-class children take for granted.
  • Much smaller teacher-student ratios in classrooms with low-income students, which research documents makes a significant difference in learning outcomes for low-income students in primary grades.
  • More ongoing professional training for teachers so they can expand their knowledge of the subjects they teach, improve classroom skills (including learning to keep up with changes in computer and other technologies), develop new curricular ideas and get re-energized for what is one of the toughest jobs around.
  • Investment in a major upgrade of school facilities, especially in urban districts that too often include old buildings with leaky roofs, broken windows and outdated heating systems, and in up-to-date libraries, computers and science labs.
  • Restoring and expanding those parts of the curriculum – particularly sports, school newspapers, music, and arts – that have been slashed over the past two decades in response to budget cuts.

Of course, all this costs money. Many school districts that serve the poor spend much of their budgets on transportation, breakfast and lunch programs and other ancillary efforts. Compared with middle-income districts, they also spend a disproportionate amount on students with special needs and learning disabilities. But when you look at how much they spend for instruction – for teachers, books, libraries, computers, and labs – the figures are woefully inadequate compared to what is needed to help low-income kids overcome the obstacles they face to fulfill their potential and help them contribute to the nation’s overall well-being and prosperity.

The United States has over 13,000 local school districts, often dozens of them in the same metropolitan areas. But within those metropolitan regions, students in well-off suburbs get a much different – and better – educational experience than those who live only a few miles away but who may as well be living on a different planet when it comes to public education. In wealthier districts, parents and other residents often supplement state school funds with private donations or additional local taxes, a luxury unavailable to poorer school districts.

Increasingly, local school district budgets depend on funding from state governments – which typically allocate money based on a per-student formula. The federal government allocates about 5 percent of all K-12 education funding, much of it targeted to schools with high numbers of low-income students. But spending in these schools is still woefully inadequate in terms of what is needed to overcome the well-documented disadvantages their students bring with them to schools.

In recent decades, as middle-class families have faced a severe economic squeeze while prices of basic necessities (housing, medical care, transportation, clothing) grow much faster than incomes, they are less willing to help pay for the education of the children of the poor.

So rather than do what’s obviously needed – mainly, improve the social and economic conditions that now bring children to school unprepared to take advantage of what schools have to offer, and then tax ourselves enough to spend to adequately educate low-income students – a growing chorus of corporate-oriented school “reformers” has crafted an agenda that says we can fix public schools and help students overcome the disadvantages of poverty, without spending more money. Of course, the billionaires and other affluent advocates of this view don’t think twice about spending $25,000 to $50,000 a year to send their own children to private schools.

In The Death and Life of the Great American School System, Ravitch calls this group “The Billionaire Boys Club,” an interconnected network of wealthy corporate leaders and philanthropists who’ve joined forces to promote market-driven school changes. This educational ruling class is used to getting what it wants in business and politics, and they’ve created a web of organizations designed to persuade the public, other business folks and politicians that running school districts like corporations is the way to go. They’ve poured hundreds of millions of dollars into think tanks, advocacy groups and political campaigns to get their way. In Los Angeles, for example, the billionaires have bankrolled the Coalition for School Reform, LA’s Promise, Parent Revolution and the Los Angeles Fund for Public Education – all front groups designed to sell their version of “school reform.” Many in the media echo have become transmission belts for the corporate agenda. The Los Angeles Times editorial writers, for example, routinely call the billionaires, foundations, administrators and politicians who promote this agenda “reformers,” in contrast to the teachers’ union and its political allies.

Some of America’s most powerful corporate plutocrats – including Bill Gates, Michael Bloomberg, Eli Broad and the Walton family (heirs to the Walmart fortune) – have invested heavily in this war on public schools. As Ravitch notes in her latest book, and as Joanne Barkan brilliantly dissects in her article, “Got Dough? How Billionaires Rule Our Schools” in the Winter 2011 issue of Dissent magazine, what they’re really after is not “reform” (improving our schools for the sake of students) but “privatization” (business control of public education). They think public schools should be run like corporations, with teachers as compliant workers, students as products and the school budget as a source of profitable contracts and subsidies for textbook companies, consultants and others engaged in the big business of education.

They want is to turn public schools into educational Walmarts run on the same model of corporate-style “efficiency.” They want to expand charter schools that compete with each other and with public schools in an educational “market place.” They want to evaluate teachers and students like they evaluate new products – in this case, using the bottom-line of standardized test scores. Most teachers will tell you that over-emphasis on standardized testing turns the classroom into an assembly line, where teachers are pressured to “teach to the test,” and students are taught, robot-like, to define success as answering multiple-choice tests. Not surprisingly, the billionaires want their employees – teachers – to do what they’re told, without having much of a voice in how their workplace functions. That means destroying the teachers’ main line of defense against arbitrary management – their union. Rather than treat teachers like professionals, they view them as the hired help.

Much of the billionaires’ schools agenda is driven by ideology and hubris. They honestly believe, like the Divine Right of Kings, that their success in the corporate world entitles them to restructure our public schools. They think that making profits in corporate board rooms gives them credentials to make changes in classrooms.

For some of them, however, school “reform” is simply another version of old-fashioned corporate cronyism, sometimes called conflicts of interest. For example, Joel Klein, the former head of the New York City school system, now works for media titan Rupert Murdoch’s Amplify corporation. That’s the company that under its former name, Wireless Generation, created DIBELS (Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills) – a student assessment tool – that has huge contracts with school districts. Is it any wonder that part of the corporate-backed school “reform” agenda is hyper-emphasis on standardized testing?

Michelle Rhee has become the public face and top salesperson of the growing corporate-backed effort to privatize America’s public schools. She seems to be everywhere – speaking at education conferences, profiled on television and in magazines (including devastating profiles by Nicholas Lemann  and John Merrow), and appearing in Waiting for Superman. Rhee’s tempestuous tenure as head of the DC schools between 2007 and 2010 left behind a legacy of cheating on standardized tests, a demoralized teaching staff with high turnover and an increased achievement gap between low- and upper-income children. Soon after she left that job, she started StudentsFirst, which is now based in Sacramento (where she lives with her husband, the city’s mayor), and has operations in 18 states. Earlier this year, the Walton Family Foundation, led by heirs to the Walmart fortune, announced an $8 million grant to StudentsFirst. This grant came on top of the $3 million the foundation had already donated to the group since 2010. StudentsFirst recently donated $350,000 to LAUSD school board races, backing candidates who support its agenda of high-stakes testing, private charter schools and vouchers.

The Walton family became America’s richest family by creating a retail model built on ruthless cost-cutting, low wages and few benefits. So, it isn’t surprising that some studies show that charter school teachers are paid less than teachers at traditional public schools and have fewer years of education on average. Is this the right model for our schools?

Many studies show that parents’ own educational attainment is the best predictor of students’ academic performance, which results in a wide “achievement gap” between affluent and low-income students. Walmart contributes to this gap. It is not only the nation’s largest private employer, with well over one million employees, but it also has the largest number of poverty-level jobs in the country. If the Waltons, who still own half of Walmart, really wanted to do something to help improve schools, they could start by paying their employees a living wage. And if they really want to change Americans’ thinking about public schools, they could send DVDs of Go Public to all of Walmart’s more than one million employees in the United States.

“We want the film to trigger a discussion about the value of public schools. That’s where most of the next generation of workers, citizens, business leaders, volunteer soccer coaches and politicians will be educated,” said Dawn O’Keeffe. “Public schools are required to serve everyone. That’s a blessing, but also raises challenges. Public schools can and do work, but only if the entire community – and the whole country – is behind them. Even families who send their kids to private schools, or don’t have kids at all, have a stake in successful public schools. We have to overcome the pervasive cynicism about public education that we see every day in the media. Our schools need advocacy, commitment, compassion – and adequate funding.”

(This post first appeared on Truthout and is republished with permission.)

Culture & Media

There Will Be Blood: The Rise and Fall of Theranos’ Elizabeth Holmes

Alex Gibney has become the filmic Freud of frauds, a master at dissecting sparkly but flawed personalities.

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Elizabeth Holmes photo courtesy HBO.

The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley
Written and directed by Alex Gibney. HBO.

Tomorrow’s dreams are designed in Silicon Valley. And in the last 40 years some of those ideas have blossomed into riches and fame, and, sometimes, resulted in a better life for all. In Alex Gibney’s new feature documentary,  Elizabeth Holmes personifies this quest for wealth and well-being. Her single-minded passion for a life-changing invention is contagious, but, in the end, it is a sickness that brings about her professional demise.

Holmes’ story is well known. A Stanford student who drops out in 2003, she unveils, in 2007, the prototype of a machine called the Edison that uses small amounts of blood, at a fraction of the cost of conventional needle draws, for early detection of diseases and infections. Decked out in black turtlenecks à la Steve Jobs and sporting a baritone voice (allegedly affected), the lanky Holmes is a real character: Olive Oyl reimagined by Modigliani as a tech hipster. Curiously, she rarely blinks, figuratively or literally.

Her company, Theranos, shoots into the zeitgeist and is suddenly a white-hot commodity in the venture capitalist world. Investors swarm Holmes, who appears on countless magazine covers. Partly due to her relationships with such influential private investors as Rupert Murdoch and members of the Walton family (and a board that included Henry Kissinger, George Shultz and James Mattis), Holmes raises over $700 million. She also secures a deal with Walgreens to open up Theranos wellness centers in its drug stores to service customers with her life-changing invention. By 2014, the company has a $9 billion valuation and Holmes is the millennial poster child for changing the world while also becoming rich.

There is just one problem. The technology behind Edison doesn’t exist. It never did.

There is a prototype, but, like the game Holmes was playing, it is a shell. The machine is useless in performing the vast majority of the promised tests because it is largely a figment of Holmes’ imagination (and presumably of her lover and co-conspirator, Theranos president and COO Ramesh “Sunny” Balwani).

Patients who give blood at Walgreens have no idea that when their samples are sent to Theranos labs they are secretly processed on standard blood-testing equipment. And because some of the samples are of inadequate amounts, the resulting data are often inaccurate, disseminating incorrect diagnoses to patients. Elizabeth Holmes has put the con in Silicon Valley.

*   *   *

One of this cautionary tale’s most fascinating aspects is just how long Holmes was able to deceive the world. It wasn’t until a 2015 Wall Street Journal article by John Carreyrou, acting on a whistleblower’s tip, that Holmes’ sham was exposed. It serves to underscore how gullible we all can be when offered a dream we want to be real.

Whether it’s the leaders of a church in Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief, hedge fund hucksters in Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, the eponymous doper in The Armstrong Lie, or the plethora of charlatans in his excellent Netflix series Dirty Money, Gibney has become the filmic Freud of frauds. He is a master at dissecting sparkly but flawed personalities and using their own archival material and words to crack open their dark, rotten cores.

The Inventor amalgamates a wide array of vérité tapes from Theranos’ lifespan, from internal video of staff meetings to footage shot by noted doc filmmaker Errol Morris (who was hired by Holmes to make Theranos commercials – as he had for Jobs’ Apple). Throughout the film, we see the wide-eyed Holmes expertly woo investors and try to placate a skeptical staff, as if trying to convince herself that the Edison really exists.

As it becomes clear that her scam is being exposed to the world, the delusional Holmes refuses to succumb to reality, steadfastly claiming (or perhaps idealistically hoping) that the Edison is not a work of fiction. But the gig is up, and as her dream is crumbling around her, the camera settles on a beleaguered Holmes. And she blinks. In an instant, her whole bloody invention has vanished, and the con is gone.


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Culture & Media

Believe the Hype: A Promising Hip-Hop Drama Misses Some Beats

Idris Goodwin’s play revolves around two hip-hop performers, one black and one white, who have been friends since childhood.

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Matthew Hancock and Clarissa Thibeaux. (Photo: Ed Krieger)
Hype Man
By Idris Goodwin
Fountain Theatre, 5060 Fountain Ave., Los Angeles; Fri.-Sat. & Mon., 8 p.m.; Sat.-Sun., 2 p.m.; through April 14. (323) 663-1525 or fountaintheatre.com. Running time: approximately 90 minutes with no intermission.

Playwright Idris Goodwin delves into the thorny issue of race in America with this incisive three-character play about two longtime friends whose artistic partnership is shattered after they fall out over the police shooting of a black teen. Touching on white privilege and the co-opting of hip-hop by commercial interests, it’s an imperfect but potentially compelling work, sabotaged by directorial missteps that render this production a disappointment.

A West Coast premiere directed by Deena Selenow at the Fountain Theatre, the play revolves around two hip-hop performers, one black and one white, who have been friends since childhood. Verb (Matthew Hancock), who’s African-American, and Pinnacle (Chad Addison) who’s white, are on the verge of making it big, with a gig on the Tonight Show that will boost their careers to the national stage.

Matthew Hancock and Chad Addison. (Photo: Ed Krieger)

But tensions are simmering. For one thing, the balance of power between these old pals is out of whack; Pinnacle, the headlining word guy, is in charge, while Verb, the hype man, is a subordinate player. And Verb has problems: irrational behavior, imbibing drugs, and creating havoc by inviting numerous friends and family to the studio to watch the group rehearse, some of whom eye the Caucasian Pinnacle with malignant intent. This spooks Pinnacle, and he wants it to stop.

The bright spot in all this is the group’s beat maker, Peep One (Clarissa Thibeaux). She’s a smart, lively person of mixed race who knows her stuff and doesn’t take guff from these men. Peep One is hardworking and ambitious — and the only one among the three who knows how to turn on the drum machine. The opportunity for national exposure is one she prizes as much as her male colleagues do.

So when the shooting of a 17-year-old boy enrages Verb and provokes him to suggest a protest on national TV, she’s as wary as Pinnacle, who firmly believes that musical careers and politics should not be mixed. Sure enough, after Verb goes rogue and flashes a “Justice for Jerrod” T-shirt in the middle of the Tonight Show performance, their manager freaks out and police unions begin protesting their performances.

*   *   *

Unlike Goodwin’s Bars and Measures, an unforgettably heart-stopping drama produced at Boston Court in 2016, Hype Man could use work. While there’s some backstory (especially one very telling anecdote about a time both men went to jail), we need more. And Pinnacle’s hard-ass take on the police shooting is hard to buy, given that he grew up in a racially mixed neighborhood where his best bud was black. It’s possible to have a clash of perspectives between him and Verb without Pinnacle’s view being so callously extreme.

But these issues are easily fixable. The main problems with the production are its staging and, by extension, the lead performances. For inexplicable reasons, Selenow repeatedly positions Hancock and Addison at opposite ends of the stage, where they toss dialogue at each other like so many catch balls. Neither character seems very bright; Addison delivers his lines with an almost deadening lack of affect, while Hancock’s Verb is sullen and defensive. Why couldn’t these characters have been played as dynamic and sharp? Instead the two are depicted with this patina of dumbness that summons stereotypes fostered on working-class people, regardless of race.

In terms of performance, the saving grace is Thibeaux’s smart and sunny beat maker, who lights up each scene she partakes in, and whose manifest joy in the music she helps create is instantly contagious. This actor brings an intelligence and esprit to her work that the production on the whole could use more of.


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HBO’s Realistic ‘O.G.’ Looks at Hard Time Behind Bars

All of Jeffrey Wright’s acting skills can’t quite elevate O.G. beyond being a solid and dignified tale.

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Jeffrey Wright as Louis. (Photo: HBO)
O.G.
Starring Jeffrey Wright.
Directed by Madeleine Sackler. Written by Stephen Belber. Currently on HBO and HBO Go.

From Cool Hand Luke to Papillon to The Shawshank Redemption, every generation seems to be captivated by the world behind bars. And with a spate of recent stories set in the slammer, orange really has become the new black. The genre has also become more realistic over time. Jenji Kohan’s breakthrough Orange series on Netflix featured a diverse cast of misfits and miscreants set in a women’s prison that punctuated the creator’s own stark experiences in the clink with humor and pathos. Then late last year, Showtime’s limited series Escape at Dannemora delivered a well-acted, arresting tale ripped from headlines. Now HBO, which revamped the genre two decades ago with its gritty Oz series, is in lockstep with O.G., taking this wave of “incarcereality” to a new level.

Director Madeleine Sackler and writer Stephen Belber gained unprecedented access to the Pendleton Correctional Facility, a maximum-security state prison near Indianapolis. They not only used real inmates and guards in supporting roles, but cast one of the leads with Theothus Carter, a con serving a 65-year sentence for attempted burglary and murder. Opposite Carter is the always fantastic Jeffrey Wright.

Wright is Louis, an inmate who is about to be freed after serving 24 years for a brutal robbery/murder. A former shotcaller in the joint, Louis now spends his last incarcerated moments staying above the fray while doling out wisdom. With freedom close enough to taste, Louis takes Beecher (Carter) under his wing, hoping to keep the young felon from making mistakes that could lead to more time or even bodily harm. As Louis tries to help Beecher navigate increasingly more dangerous waters, they turn murky instead – with fate potentially jeopardizing the elder con’s impending release. The film realistically reflects the daily struggle cons endure as they try to rise above endemic institutional dehumanization and corruption. That said, the film makes heroes of no one, and as a result resonates with authenticity.

O.G. revolves around Wright, whose remarkable talent allows him to bounce between the disparate Westworld and this world with ease. Wright is an actor who uses all his flesh and blood to embody his character, and because of it we are riveted to his every move, every inflection.

Carter is the opposite — he’s just serviceable as an actor, albeit bolstered by mad charisma. Consequently, his presence is greatest when he isn’t speaking, his evocative eyes saying better anything he could manage verbally.

But all of Wright’s skill isn’t quite enough to elevate O.G. beyond being a solid and dignified tale. While Dannemora had illicit sex and an escape to spice up its action (and the time a limited series affords to story development), O.G. languishes a bit due to routine and simplicity. Perhaps it’s a reflection of Sackler and Belber’s experiences. This is Sackler’s first scripted work after a series of documentaries (the acclaimed The Lottery among them). Belber’s day job as a playwright is obvious, with much of the film seeming like a filmed theatrical production. Some of this background may make O.G. a more realistic examination of life behind bars, but it ultimately makes time served watching it less enjoyable.


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Labor Party: A New Play Examines Birth Tourism

Playwright Boni B. Alvarez dramatizes the experience of six Filipinas temporarily inhabiting a one-bedroom flat near Los Angeles’ well-to-do Hancock Park neighborhood.

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Samantha Valdellon, Angela T. Baesa, Sandy Velasco, Arianne Villareal and Toni Katano. (Photo: Ed Krieger)

America Adjacent
Skylight Theatre, 1816½ N. Vermont Ave., Los Angeles; Fri.-Sat., 8:30 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.; Mon., March 4, 11, 18, 8 p.m.; through March 24. SkylightTix.

Birth tourism in the United States is a flourishing business. Each year thousands of women from foreign nations pay big bucks to birth their babies on U.S. soil, insuring that their children (courtesy of our Fourteenth Amendment) will become U.S. citizens. The women’s travel and stays are often facilitated by illegal for-profit intermediaries that promote their services in their clients’ local newspapers. The very wealthy pay for royal treatment and get it. Those with fewer means (none are poor) may instead find themselves housed with other expectant mothers in cramped apartments, their comings and goings monitored and restricted.

In America Adjacent, directed by Jon Lawrence Rivera at the Skylight Theatre, Filipino-American playwright Boni B. Alvarez dramatizes the experience of six such Filipinas temporarily inhabiting a one-bedroom flat adjacent to Los Angeles’ well-to-do Hancock Park neighborhood. Overseen by a curt and condescending administrator (Hazel Lozano), they bicker away their days while waiting to go into labor. Those who have already given birth linger onsite just long enough for their child’s documentation to arrive before they fly back home.

Arianne Villareal, Toni Katano, Evie Abat and Sandy Velascoin. (Photo: Ed Krieger)

Each has her own story. Roshelyn (Angela T. Baesa), more emotionally mature than the others, is a teacher of English. Paz (Toni Katano) is a socialite with attitude. Aimee (Sandy Velasco) is marked by her sunny disposition and an unusual blend of heated carnality and religious devotion. Divina (Arianne Villareal), the victim of her uncle’s sexual abuse, is resentful, deeply confused and defensive; when the others protest the wrong done to her, she’s still singing her predator’s praises.

Most of the narrative is driven by events surrounding Janelle May (Evie Abat) and Sampaguita (Samantha Valdellon). The mistress of a wealthy married man, Janelle May, suffering a postpartum disorientation, wants little to do with her new baby; breaking house rules, she sneaks out to rendezvous with a Mexican-American man that she fancies will be part of her future. Like Janelle, Sampaguita, young and recently arrived, refuses to stay inside but instead takes clandestine strolls through Hollywood to soak up the sights. It is primarily through her eyes that the women’s disappointment is chronicled and the playwright’s message — the thorny paradox that is the American Dream and its impact on people’s lives — is sounded.

*   *   *

Part of the playwright’s intent is to raise our awareness of the Filipino community and give it visibility on the American stage. And in our observation of his characters, their likes and dislikes, their dreams for the future and their strong Catholic faith, he succeeds.

But while America Adjacent may be on track as a group portrait and cultural beacon, it misses the mark as a cogent drama. Some of the story threads are under-developed, even as the more prominent ones are too steeped in melodrama. The interaction among the characters often consists of petty squabbling (degenerating at one point into hair-pulling) and other scenes come across as too obviously aimed at our edification, while at the same time failing to propel the narrative forward (Paz refuses to eat a traditionally American birthday cake because it’s unlike the ones she’s accustomed to).

Some of these shortcomings might have been camouflaged with strong performances. Instead, they’re compounded by an uneven ensemble. Lozano (smartly outfitted by costumer Mylette Nora) is effective as the brisk, uncaring administrator, while Baesa depicts the household’s most sensible, nurturing member with surety and warmth. But Valdellon, though she has affecting moments, is often over the top. And Abat delivers a blueprint of the jaded Janelle rather than the rounded portrayal that might have us feel her pain.


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Steven Soderbergh’s Basketball Diary Is No Slam Dunk

The iPhone-shot High Flying Bird comes across as less a feature film and more like a pilot for a TV series. (Think The West Wing meets Ballers.)

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André Holland photo by Peter Andrews

Steven Soderbergh has always been a cinematic disruptor. His debut film, sex, lies, and videotape, is largely credited with revolutionizing the independent film movement of the 1990s while also signaling the emergence of a singular new talent. Instead of taking the easy way up, his prodigious career has seen him bounce between heading mass market pulp (Oceans 11 and its sequels and Magic Mike) to borderline masterpieces (Traffic and Erin Brockovich) to failed experimental fare (Full Frontal, which was the first feature with major stars shot mostly on digital camcorders.). His latest film, High Flying Bird, falls into the latter category.

The film starts with a sports agent, Ray Burke (André Holland), and his client, Erick Scott (Melvin Gregg), who is the NBA’s first-round draft pick, at a moment when the two men are struggling to deal with a league lockout. Before Scott can collect his first paycheck or dish out a dime, he is caught up in the politics of the game — or as youth coach Spence (Bill Duke) says, “The game on top of the game.” As a result, Burke comes up with a scheme to upend the system, an ingenious attempt both to gain some control and swat the impasse away like an ill-advised cross-court pass.

Soderbergh is attempting to invent a game on top of the game cinematically here, as well. His film is about basketball with very little basketball in it, and was shot entirely on an iPhone.  The filmmaker supposedly finished the rough cut three hours after principal photography wrapped – after shooting for only three weeks. The results are like those of a good three-point shooter: successful about 40 percent of the time.

Tarell Alvin McCraney (a producer/story writer on Moonlight) dishes out dialogue that, for the most part, is street smart (a few lines should be whistled for pretentiousness, though.) The acting is great, with everyone managing to deliver stereotypical roles that aren’t typical. Standouts include Duke, who brings soul and depth to his gruff hardwood Yoda, and Zazie Beetz (Atlanta), who plays Sam, a young but ambitiously crafty assistant. But despite the great players, High Flying Bird fails to secure the win.

Shooting on an iPhone is an experiment that here, unlike 2015’s Tangerine, does nothing to enhance or underscore the material. In fact, there are a few glaring shots that simply come across as though they were shot on, well, a phone. Lastly, the film dishes out both backstory and future plot points that are impossible to play out in the film’s 90-minute runtime, such as a secret package and the past death of a promising star. Nothing here is ultimately powerful enough to sustain a feature (although there is a hint of profundity with an allusion to the indentured servitude of NBA players and the garbage time appearance of both Dr. Harry Edwards and his seminal 1969 book, The Revolt of the Black Athlete).

These are two of a handful of loose ends that are never tied up.  As a result, High Flying Bird comes across as less a feature film and more like a pilot for a TV series. (Think The West Wing meets Ballers.)

Soderbergh should be commended for trying to invigorate the game because you can’t score without taking shots. Unfortunately, his latest attempt rims out instead of being a cinematic slam dunk.


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Filmmaker Adam McKay Talks About Dick Cheney and the Imperial Presidency

“Our democracy at its root is about the throne,” says the creator of Vice. “But what Cheney tried to do was bring the power back to one person on that throne.”

David Sirota

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Christian Bale as Dick Cheney in Vice.

Vice President Dick Cheney quickly faded into the background after leaving the Bush White House in 2009. But while many may not remember the ins and outs of Cheney’s record, the recent film Vice argues that he was one of the most powerful and influential architects of the current world, and that Cheney intensified the emergencies facing America today.

Capital & Main reporter David Sirota spoke with Vice screenwriter and director Adam McKay, who had taken on the project after winning an Academy Award for screenwriting on his previous movie, The Big Short.

Vice has been nominated for eight Oscars, including Best Picture — but has also generated its share of controversy. McKay discusses some of the criticism of the film here, along with the twists and turns of the life of Cheney, who rose to become arguably the most potent vice president in American history. The following interview excerpt has been edited for concision and clarity.


David Sirota: Do you believe that we are today living in the world that Dick Cheney created?

Adam McKay: Without a doubt, yeah. Trump is a force of charisma, but not in a good way. He’s perfect for the 24-hour news cycle — no one knows how to dominate it better than him.

But the actual structural changes that happen to our government, to regulations, to the way we view democracy, to the way the American people interact with government … those changes happened under the hand [of] a grand master of bureaucratic knowledge, Dick Cheney. You look at the Middle East. You look into visions that were widened. I’d definitely go to that period and I say at the center of it, expanding executive power, was Dick Cheney.

There’s a scene in the movie where a young Cheney is depicted as not all that partisan — it almost made it seem like him choosing a job with a Democratic or Republican lawmaker was completely random. Is that true to life?

It’s not that far off. Cheney’s dad was an FDR Democrat. [Dick Cheney] had no interest in politics at all through high school…The first time he really started getting any taste for feet-on-the-floor politics was when he was getting [his] master’s up in the University of Wisconsin. He did intern for a Republican, handed out buttons and stuff. We interviewed some people from his early days. He was not an ideologically driven guy.

What he knew was that when he went to D.C. he needed a rocket ship. He needed to get something going. Lynne wasn’t entirely happy about him taking this fellowship. She wanted him to get a Ph.D. and become a professor. That was what she always pictured that they would do. So he had to get something going quick when he got to D.C. because he wasn’t making any money. And if you wanna get something going quick in the late ’60s in Washington, D.C., Donald Rumsfeld was your guy.

What do you think radicalized Dick Cheney and made him such an ideologue?

The first radicalization was just the environment he kind of came of age in, which was the Nixon White House and the Ford White House, which were all about executive power — the imperial presidency. And then his conversation about the unitary executive theory with a young [Antonin] Scalia, who was a lawyer in the Justice Department.

Everything that I found with Cheney goes back to the unitary executive theory. You look at his minority opinion that he wrote on the Iran-Contra affair with David Addington. They actually have several lines in it where they say the president has monarchical-like powers.

The radicalization of Cheney, to me, is two steps. Number one is the political environment he grew up in, [and then] introduction to the unitary executive — [which] was weaponized by 9/11. Especially when he said, “Give me all the unfiltered intelligence.” A lot of Washington insiders said, “Anyone who would do that — [it] would drive them crazy.” One guy described it as like “listening to Led Zeppelin full volume, 24 hours a day.”

So I think he was already an extreme right-winger who then came into collision course with this very traumatic event, 9/11.

Your movie depicts Cheney as motivated by the acquisition of power — but do you believe he had specific policy goals beyond that?

As far as policy goals go, war is the key to being able to use these sorts of unparalleled powers. Some legal scholars would call [these] insane powers. So I always felt like Cheney was putting together these pieces of power to expand his own power … which I do believe made him a power addict … His wife’s desire for power, and by extension, America’s desire for power, which did fit neatly with the neocons.

But I also think invading Iraq did two things. It activated the unitary executive theory — [if] writings from the DOJ [Department of Justice] that came about at that time were filled with references to the unitary executive theory.

And yes, the oil too, was a part of it. Cheney also is an oil guy. He grew up in an oil state, Wyoming That was his whole life. All his friends are oil guys. I always look at Cheney as a right-hand man, and I think that he serves power: Sometimes that power is oil barons, other times that power is a presidency — the notion of a powerful presidency.

So I think Iraq was sort of a mishmash of ideas. I think it was unitary executive and I think it was definitely oil, and I think it was most of all expansion of executive power and a show of force to the world.

What are the most significant and lasting parts of Cheney’s legacy?

I would just say in general, those eight years of Bush and Cheney were so dispiriting that they made a lot of people kind of give up on government. And the fact that we can’t fix something that really can be improved pretty easily and pretty quickly, like the opioid epidemic or like gun safety laws. Those are things that 30, 40 years ago we would’ve had bills passed on the issue. We would’ve seen fewer deaths within a year, within two years. Even the assault weapon ban, you saw deaths go down after that…

Then, obviously, the Middle East is just a wreck. Our friend, Adam Davidson, had a friend of his, a journalist, go to Iraq recently and come back and just say, “It’s awful. It’s completely undone.” And obviously, with what happened in Syria, ISIS, all that kind of stuff. Those are the clear, kind of bad effects of Cheney and I would say the rise of this particular form of the Republican Party.

Much of your film resurrects events that have been forgotten in the American psyche, because we have this tendency to venerate leaders the moment they leave office. It’s as if presidents and their administrations suddenly get immunity from retrospective scrutiny. Why do you think that is?

I feel a lot of this goes back to the pardoning of Nixon. That’s a bad, bad thing. I think he should’ve done some time. I think it’s important to not imbue these leaders with king-like mystical properties. Do you remember Jerry Lewis saying, “We should never criticize the president”?

I think we just like the idea of powerful people. We like the idea of a king. We like the idea of these celebrities that get treated like kings. Why did the Bushes keep getting elected to office? Why did the Kennedys keep getting elected to office after several of them did pretty terrible things? We just like that idea. We like the idea that some people’s blood is more special than ours. I don’t know why. It’s really deranged…

Our democracy at its root is about the throne. What they tried to do with the Constitution, the original people that wrote it, was break up the power so you don’t have one crazy guy sitting in the throne. But what Cheney tried to do was bring the power back to one person on that throne…

I guess my answer is democracy is still really new, and clearly it’s not going well right now. And I think we’re going to have to have a whole moment where we look at it and fix a bunch of stuff because parts of it aren’t working too well.

Many people say Donald Trump’s administration is the worst in American history. After doing a movie on Cheney and the Bush administration, do you agree?

Everyone wants things to be ranked and compared to each other. The real answer is that there is a safe that was filled with diamonds that represent our democracy and checks and balances. They couldn’t get a goon like Donald Trump to go in and crack the safe because he doesn’t even read books. Like he’s not an educated guy.

So they had to go get an expert like Dick Cheney to go in there. Dick Cheney went in, he cracked the safe, he took all the jewels out of the safe, he exited the store, he left the front door wide open. Then after an hour some stray dogs wandered into the store and started crapping all over the place and peeing everywhere. And then when the owner went in, one of the dogs bit him and he said, “These dogs are the worst.”

That, to me, is Cheney versus Trump. Yeah. Cheney cracked the safe, Trump is the strange bizarre dude who wandered in (and) took a crap in the store…The police arrest the street guy because look, he took a crap. He’s in the store. Meanwhile, Cheney is across town giving W. Bush one diamond while he takes the other 99 and W. Bush is delighted with the one diamond.


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Even Paradise Has Walls in This Topical Drama

Laura Maria Censabella’s play focuses on the difficulties of young women whose career aspirations are thwarted by cultural expectations.

Deborah Klugman

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Medalion Rahimi and Jeff Marlow. (Photos by Ed Krieger)

 

Paradise

Odyssey Theatre, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., West Los Angeles; Fri.-Sat. 8 p.m., Sun. 2 p.m.; through February 17. (323) 960-7724 or www.Plays411/Paradise. Running time: Two hours with one intermission.


 

Paradise, by Laura Maria Censabella, has a lot going for it. Drawn from the playwright’s experience as an artist-in-residence in the New York City school system, it builds around the relationship between Yasmeen (Medalion Rahimi), a 17-year-old Yemeni-American student, and her biology instructor, Dr. Royston (Jeff Marlow), who supports and encourages her new-found passion for learning and experiment. A West Coast premiere directed by Vicangelo Bulluck at the Odyssey Theatre, the play features multidimensional characters, fluid dialogue and meaty conflicts involving culture, science and religion, but a one-note portrayal by Rahimi under Bulluck’s lax direction sabotages what might have been an intriguing production.

Marlow, in a topnotch performance, plays a once well-respected scientist who’s been barred from his profession for making threats to a colleague, and now teaches adolescents in the Bronx. After Yasmeen fails a test, she comes to his classroom to plead for an opportunity to make it up. At first Royston refuses, but the more he talks to the girl, the more he realizes how bright she is, and that her failure on the exam may have explicable roots. Soon he learns that Yasmeen has an interesting idea for an experiment involving adolescents and their emotions, a field of inquiry that relates to Royston’s former research. The two begin to work together with twin goals: Royston’s redemption among his scientific peers and Yasmeen’s securing of a scholarship to Columbia University.

Though he tries to be respectful, Royston more than once offends Yasmeen by commenting on her headscarf and what he perceives as Islam’s restrictions on women — and she hits back with observations about the violence against women in American society and other sexist norms. Despite these differences, a bond develops between them until, not unpredictably, Yasmeen’s family sets up an arranged marriage for her that would surely torpedo her dreams. An observant Muslim, loyal to her family, she’s desperately torn. How this conflict plays out — not straightforwardly but with several challenging complications — is the relatable dynamic that drives the drama to an ironic, compelling catharsis.

*   *   *

One of the play’s commendable features is that it provides a platform for dialogue about the Quran and Islamic beliefs and traditions. There are a few moments where this registers as too teacherly (reasonably educated audience members will be apprised of much of this information already), but on the whole Censabella avoids being didactic because her characters hold our attention. For example, Royston, a hardcore nonbeliever, is a refugee from the Bible Belt; he’s chilly and sardonic when we meet him, but his personality becomes more involving as his checkered backstory is revealed.

The play’s main focus remains the difficulties of young women (regardless of their backgrounds) whose career aspirations are thwarted by cultural expectations, who are expected to sacrifice themselves for the good of their families. Into this vital issue Censabella successfully weaves additional dramatic conflicts — tensions spurred by ego and ambition.

Marlow inhabits his role completely, and his work is all the more impressive because Rahimi (whose program bio indicates limited stage experience) is so disturbingly limited. Instead of aspiring to the complex, exceptional young woman the playwright has conjured, she reduces Yasmeen to a gushing wide-eyed teenager, whose ability to process scientific discourse seems questionable at best. All the complexities of Rahimi’s character disappear behind this shallow façade. Sadly, the production suffers.


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Philanthropic Sector Leader Aaron Dorfman Joins Capital & Main Board of Directors

Dorfman is a nationally respected leader in the field of philanthropy, with deep connections to foundations across the country, and has a long background in community organizing.

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Aaron Dorfman, president and CEO of the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy (NCRP), has joined the board of directors of Capital & Main, a nonprofit investigative news publication.

Dorfman is a nationally respected leader in the field of philanthropy, with deep connections to foundations across the country, and has a long and impressive background in community organizing. He has led NCRP for 11 years, building the organization into an influential advocate for increased philanthropic investment in long-term social change. NCRP defines itself as a “research and advocacy organization that works to ensure that America’s grantmakers and wealthy donors are responsive to the needs of those with the least wealth, opportunity and power.”

Danny Feingold, publisher of Capital & Main, described Dorfman as “a passionate champion of philanthropy that truly moves the needle on the biggest challenges facing the nation.”

Dorfman brings a wealth of experience and knowledge to Capital & Main’s board, along with a keen understanding of the critical role of investigative journalism in exposing the misuse of power. A thoughtful critic, he frequently speaks and writes about the importance of diversity, equity and inclusion in philanthropy, the benefits of funding advocacy and community organizing, and the need for greater accountability and transparency in the philanthropic sector.

Before joining NCRP in 2007, Dorfman served for 15 years as a community organizer with two national organizing networks, spearheading grassroots campaigns on a variety of issues. He holds a bachelor’s degree in political science from Carleton College, a master’s degree in philanthropic studies from the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy at Indiana University and serves on the board of The Center for Popular Democracy.

Dorfman joins University of Southern California professor Manuel Pastor, entrepreneur and philanthropist Joseph Sanberg, alternative energy business leader Cole Frates, former L.A. Times business editor Rick Wartzman, author/journalist Erin Aubry Kaplan, American Prospect executive editor Harold Meyerson and author/journalist Alissa Quart, among others, on the Capital & Main board. The publication’s advisory board includes former Labor Secretary Robert Reich, Vice President Joe Biden’s former chief economist Jared Bernstein and author Barbara Ehrenreich, among others.

Capital & Main is an award-winning publication that reports on the most pressing economic, environmental and social issues of our time. Winner of the 2016 Online Journalist of the Year prize from the Southern California Journalism Awards and a 2017 Best in the West award, Capital & Main has had stories co-published in more than 30 media outlets, from The Atlantic, Time, Reuters, The Guardian and Fast Company to The American Prospect, Grist, Slate and the Daily Beast.


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Stage Review: Workers Drown in Blood, Sweat and Beers

Sweat ‘s unflinching mission is to lay out the slow strangulation of the American Dream.

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Mary Mara, left, and Portia. (Photo by Craig Schwartz)

Most of the action in Lynn Nottage’s 2015 social drama takes place in a Reading, Pennsylvania bar that serves as the home away from home for local factory hands. Sweat opens, portentously enough, during the 2008 financial meltdown — Wall Street’s equivalent of the hollowing out of blue collar jobs that occurred eight years earlier, thanks to NAFTA and its progeny. Red and yellow stock market quotations scroll across the bar’s industrial-gothic walls as news of the crisis ricochets around the Mark Taper Forum. (Projections by Yee Eun Nam; scenic design by Christopher Barreca; sound by Paul James Prendergast.)

Two young men, Jason and Chris (Will Hochman and Grantham Coleman, respectively) meet with a parole officer (Kevin T. Carroll) after their release from prison. The revenants are little more than shadows from a more prosperous past that holds the secret to the crime that sent them behind bars. And yet our interest really doesn’t rest with their felony, which we’re only reminded of whenever designer Anne Militello’s lights go down cold and low, and other characters begin frowning at the two. The play’s true dynamic is the fraying, metaphoric friendship between mill workers Tracey (Mary Mara) and Cynthia (Portia). The middle-age women, mothers to Jason and Chris, and die-hard union members, have both applied for a single management position in their factory. When Portia, who is black, receives the promotion, white Tracey and others in the bar turn against her.

Toggling between boozy 2000 and penitent 2008, the story’s issues play out like a series of grievances: The betrayal that African-American characters feel toward both the company and a union that has kept them at arm’s length; the hurt that the dope-addled Brucie (John Earl Jelks) has inflicted on his wife, Cynthia; the resentment that bartender Stan (Michael O’Keefe) harbors against a company that threw him out after nearly 30 years because of a shop-floor accident. These wounds all become exacerbated — and the bar, a toxic debate forum — when the company radically downsizes and makes crippling demands of the union.

Sweat‘s strength lies in its unflinching mission to lay out the slow strangulation of the American Dream, as that dream was imagined by different parts of the country’s post-war working class — from self-entitled whites to stifled minorities to aspiring Latino immigrants. Under Lisa Peterson’s broad direction at the Taper, the play’s latent weaknesses become vividly apparent — the reduction of the ensemble’s personalities to colorful “types,” the lack of onstage villains and the fact that the pivotal Cynthia never seems in any kind of emotional conflict with her erstwhile factory buddies. (They’re pissed off at her, but she never really bites back at them, despite her announced desire to better herself.) The actors get loud enough but, with the exception of Portia, lack ensemble chemistry; a few actors even seemed to have difficulty pronouncing the word “ain’t.”

Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand Ave., Los Angeles. Wed.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2:30 & 8 p.m.; Sun., 1 & 6:30 p.m.; thru Oct. 7. (213) 628-2772.


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‘Skeleton Crew’ Is a Play With a Moral Spine

Set in a Detroit automobile outfitting plant, Dominique Morisseau’s drama grabs you from the start with its focus on blue-collar men and women, and their struggle for dignity and self-respect.

Deborah Klugman

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Kelly McCreary and Caroline Stefanie Clay. (Photo: Chris Whitaker)

Working-class men and women of color are rarely front and center in today’s media and, likewise, are presented all too occasionally on the American stage. So it’s buoying to see that trend bucked in playwright Dominique Morisseau’s percipient and well-crafted drama, Skeleton Crew. The play is the final installment in her Detroit  Project Trilogy; the first, Paradise Blue, is set in the 1940s amidst displacement caused by urban renewal and gentrification, while the second, Detroit ’67, transpires on the eve of the 1967 Detroit riots sparked by a police action.

Directed by Patricia McGregor at Los Angeles’ Geffen Playhouse, Skeleton Crew is a play with a moral spine. It takes place in 2008, when the shrinking U.S. auto industry is being further downsized. Morisseau’s engaging quartet of characters — Faye (Caroline Stefanie Clay), Dez (Armari Cheatom), Shanita (Kelly McCreary) and Reggie (DB Woodside) – are employed at an automobile outfitting plant. Faye, Dez and Shanita are workers on the line while Reggie (who has a wife and kids, and has pulled himself together after a troubled youth) is their supervisor.

The first three customarily mingle in their break room (designer Rachel Myers’ impressively cluttered, dingy and detailed set), trading the sort of familiar barbs and genuine concern for each other common among longtime co-workers. They also face off on philosophy: Upper-middle-aged Faye and the younger, pregnant Shanita take pride in their labor, while Dez, though a good worker, is a malcontent scornful of management and firm in the belief that everyone needs to watch out for himself. He’s a thorn in Reggie’s side, for while Reggie wants to be supportive of his workers, he must act at the behest of higher management. For his part, Dez resents Reggie’s authority, and a palpable unease exists between them.

Besides this male matchup, we’re made privy to Dez’s attraction to Shanita, who mostly turns away his advances, but every now and then displays a hint of interest. Most poignant is Reggie’s regard and affection for the lesbian Faye, which has roots in his boyhood when she loved, and lived, with his now-deceased mom.

These people’s various predicaments intensify when rumors spread of the plant’s shutdown — a disaster for all, but a particular calamity for the already near-broke Faye who, one year short of retirement, would lose her pension. The crisis forces each of these people to make a choice.

A sound piece of social realism, Skeleton Crew grabs you from the start in its focus on blue-collar men and women, and their struggle against odds for dignity and self-respect. Morisseau not only furnishes these characters a platform for their travails, she endows them with strong values, big hearts and the opportunity to choose between right and wrong.

DB Woodside and Amari Cheatom. (Photo: Chris Whitaker)

Unfortunately, the performance I attended did not soar. Many exchanges lacked a fresh edge. The actors certainly had their characters down, but too often they appeared to be coasting on technique. (This seemed particularly true of Clay, who performed the role to great accolades in Washington, DC in 2017, also under McGregor’s direction). Additionally, some of the stage movement was not entirely fluid; in confrontations, actors sometimes would just stand and face each other in an artificial way. And Cheatom’s interpretation of Dez struck me as a bit overly churlish and depressive: I needed more glimpses of the intelligence and edge that would secretly attract the strong, self-directed Shanita.

The most compelling moments belong to Woodside, well-cast as a man trying his best in difficult circumstances to do the right thing.


Gil Cates Theater at the Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Ave., Westwood Village; Tues.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 3 & 8 p.m. Sun., 2 & 7 p.m.; through July 8. (310) 208-5454 or www.geffenplayhouse.org

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