Inside Out Deserves Best Picture Honors

This morning I had the pleasure of seeing Pixar Studio’s Inside Out for the first time, and I left the theater with tears lingering in my eyes, amazed by the sheer emotional weight of what I had just seen.  My parents and I hit up the too-good-to-be-true $2.75 11am showing at the Frederick Holiday Cinemas, along with dozens of families with tiny kids trying to beat the somber, very gray rainy day.  The partner feature across the way, Minions, was definitely more crowded, but we were still surrounded by dads, moms and kids munching on popcorn.

After receiving nearly unanimous critical acclaim and breaking all sorts of box office records–not to mention the effusive word of mouth hype–I sat down knowing that Inside Out was going to please me.  Well, I was wholly unprepared.  It left me–for lack of a better word–feeling.  And not only was I feeling emotions intensely, I was feeling them all at once.

The movie follows eleven year old Riley, who up until the movie’s predictably typical yet satisfyingly effective plot device has enjoyed a wonderful life growing up in Minnesota.  Her emotions of Joy (Amy Poehler), Sadness (Phyllis Smith), Anger (Lewis Black), Fear (Bill Hader), and Disgust (Mindy Kaling) are all personified and housed in a “control center.”  Along with other personifications of parts of her brain, her emotions navigate life through her experiences, doing their best to absorb the memories each day creates.  While each emotion has their own personality, together they are what makes Riley herself.

Do not worry, the film is actually more complicated than that, and that is the best part.  When operating at its best, Pixar manages to take compelling, complicated subject matter and deliver it through a medium that is close to universal but not watered down.  For example, taking something as trivial as a “train of thought” and literally turning it into a train that uncontrollably wanders around Riley’s head is not dumbing down how the human brain works, it is an accurate portrayal of how we think.

Perhaps the only critique that Inside Out has received is that it comes dangerously close to flying over kids’ heads, and it will for some.  However, that is precisely the point of the film and part of the reason why it is Pixar’s magnum opus.  As human beings, our brains and our emotions work in such a way that we are constantly changing and evolving.  At the age of eleven, Riley’s personality and maturity is in a state of flux and by the end of the film, she is not the same person that she was at the start.  How do you think that affects her emotions?

It is the genius question that drives the film and turns it into one of the greatest films ever made.  A debatable opinion to be sure, but at the very least it deserves best picture.  By making a movie about emotions, Pixar has managed to create arguably the only film that every human being on this earth can relate to, and I can think of no better reason why everyone should see Inside Out. 


The Difficult Truths and the Almost Forgivable Lies of Straight Outta Compton

N.W.A. first popped up on my radar in the seventh grade.  I was in my woodworking class sitting next to a Black kid who with the exception of rhythmic mutterings under his breath was silent.  I do not remember his name and we hardly spoke.  I think we both took comfort in the soothing sounds of a dozen sanders, the smooth feeling of finished wood under our fingertips, the absence of a teachers’ droning.  In the socially exhausting routine of middle school, woodworking was our sanctuary.

I do not recall what our exact assignment was, but the boy next to me was carving something into his project.  I was curious, but was afraid to ask.  At any rate, I would see what the writing was eventually.  Unfortunately, the teacher dropped by and asked him point blank what word he was etching in the wood.  The boy seemed at first to cringe, but then he sat up in his chair and said with sass, “N.W.A.”

He got in trouble and was forced to replace the piece.

I was thoroughly perplexed.  At the time I did not question the teacher’s authority to do such a thing but I wanted very badly to know what the three letters meant.  I spent the rest of the workshop summoning up the courage to talk to him, and when the bell rang and we were in the hallway a safe distance from the class, I asked him what N.W.A. meant.

He looked at me, flashed a smile, and gave their full name.  After thanking him for enlightening me I walked to my locker and thought to myself, “well, no wonder he got in trouble.”

The seventh grade was when people started to call me “Dan Dan the Music Man” because I spent a lot of my time singing.  My musical taste was rudimentary–I listened to what my dad did, sought out musicals, and had yet to choose the 2000s over anything else.  But when the cute girl asked me what my favorite genre of music was I would lie straight-faced and say rap.  For someone who had 3 years to go before he even came close to puberty, I did anything to feel cool.

I did not fake it hard at all though.  I did not go home and look up songs by N.W.A.  I wish I had that day though, because it would have given me an introduction to the pioneer of a crucial and relevant musical genre in American history.  At twelve years old I certainly would not have understood the socio-economic and racial importance of the hip-hop group N.W.A., but it would have helped me talk to that kid in woodworking and perhaps we would have become friends.  Perhaps he could have introduced me into the harsh realities of their music and our world.

The highly successful N.W.A. biopic opened in theaters two weeks ago and the music lover and critic in me was absolutely salivating at the opportunity to see it.  The empath in me also became very aware of the intense feelings the movie would provoke.  Last week I went to see the film with my little seventeen year old brother–who is a more savvy rap fan than myself–and it was quite an experience.

From the opening sequence, the entire film shows the artistic motivations of N.W.A.  It is terrifying and infuriating to be Black in an inherently racist system, where the most viable ways to earn a living are illegal, and that no matter how successful they are, the struggle never stops.  Juxtaposed over various racially motivated acts of violence and other illicit activities, N.W.A.’s story is at times difficult to swallow.  But the film itself is so captivating that looking away would itself be a crime.  For someone who is so deeply affected by music, to see so many people brought together with gangsta rap was magical.

On the other hand, this is a biopic about a group that raps lyrics such as “So what about the bitch who got shot? Fuck her! /
You think I give a damn about a bitch? I ain’t a sucker!” and, “So we started lookin for the bitches with the big butts / Like her, but she keep cryin’, “I got a boyfriend,” Bitch stop lyin’ / Dumb-ass hooker ain’t nuttin but a dyke.”  Rap has a notorious history with misogyny, and that was on full display in Straight Outta Compton.  Women are reduced to nothing but objects to be used and then discarded.  The crucial detail left out of the story, however, is producer Dr. Dre’s assault of journalist Dee Barnes.  The film’s portrayal of women is accurate, but to leave out Dre’s history of abuse left her “like many of the women that knew and worked with N.W.A.: a casualty of [the film’s] revisionist history.”  The brilliance of the film comes from its moments of authenticity, and F. Gary Gray decided to tarnish his movie by treating an important case of violence against women like a footnote.

You can make five different N.W.A movies.  We made the one we wanted to make.

–F. Gary Gray

Furthermore, Dr. Dre should not have been allowed to executively produce the movie along with Ice Cube.  That is gross conflict of interest.  I highly encourage everyone to read Dee Barnes’ personal essay on this issue here.

Despite the glaring omissions, I paid to go see this movie because it was made by Black people for a Black audience and was not stereotypically offensive.  In Hollywood, the number of movies with the majority of the cast people of color is horrifically and inexcusably low.  So low in fact, that when a Black biopic largely set in Los Angeles is released, the police beef up security at the theaters.  This precise kind of ingrained, institutional racism is what makes Straight Outta Compton so relevant and so powerfully good.  To this day the police are intimidated by mainstream art made by and for audiences of color, which is so rare that it’s treated like a terrorist plot.  In 2015, the LAPD have shot 25 people and killed 13, but there have been no acts of gun violence by Black theater audience members in Los Angeles in the same year.  So as N.W.A. would say, fuck the police and go see the year’s best movie.

I’ve thought a lot about that day in woodworking in the recent weeks.  My pretentious response to a boy etching in an acronym for a empowering rap group name was an ignorant one.  The real reason he got in trouble was because the white teacher’s socially and racially motived power dynamic was in jeopardy.  In an inherently racist system the Black boy was not allowed to express his interests in art that upset the status quo.  He was also afraid of something that exposed his privilege and of music that did not represent himself.  Straight Outta Compton is a magnificent portrayal of a crucial chapter in American musical history that is sure to make people uncomfortable. As a result it is poignant and provocative and invites engaging in debates about several important issues relevant to life in the United States.


Will Star Wars Be a Tiny Baby Step in Black Film History?

Happy Star Wars Day everyone, and May the Fourth be with you!  Expectations for Star Wars VII: The Force Awakens are already stratospherically high, but I’m going to set them even higher.  After all, I’ve been a devout Star Wars Fanatic all my life and I deserve this entitled moment to make some demands.

It’s really not that simple though.  This is a necessary step the film industry needs to make.  Hollywood is notoriously bad at casting people of color (POC) and whitewashing period dramas, the most egregious recent example being Exodus: Gods And Kings.  As far as anyone can tell from the two trailers and released information, it appears that John Boyega will be the lead protagonist.  In fact, the two main heroes might be a woman and a British-Nigerian, which is actually a very big deal.  Some figures help show how big this may be.  All information provided by Box Office Mojo.

Top Ten Grossing Films Ever Worldwide and (Domestic) With POC Cast in the Lead Role

45 – Independence Day (46)

89 – Hancock (113)

90 – Men In Black III (199)

97 – Life of Pi (412)

102 – Men In Black (88)

106 – I Am Legend (81)

175 – Men In Black II (170)

185 – Django Unchained (242)

221 – Slumdog Millionaire (314)

238 – Hitch (198)

Pause for a moment and reflect on Will Smith.  He is in 7 of the 10 movies on that list.  SEVEN!  He is also the only Black lead who has ever been in the top 100 grossing films all time worldwide or in the US.  But come on, Will Smith isn’t the only Black actor in this world.

Now, if John Boyega is indeed the lead, then all three films in the upcoming Star Wars trilogy will fall under the above category, and all will most likely crack the top ten.

Star Wars Franchise Worldwide, (Domestic), [US Adjusted For Inflation] Box Office Gross Spots

Phantom Menace – 17 (5) [17]

Attack of the Clones – 84 (43) [87]

Revenge of the Sith – 40 (22) [60]

A New Hope – 52 (6) [2]

Empire Strikes Back – 124 (61) [12]

Return of the Jedi – 151 (45) [15]

So casting John Boyega is a pretty big deal for Black box office numbers, but of course Star Wars is a franchise that can afford not to pamper to white, subconsciously racist audiences.   And the cast is still almost all white.  The highest grossing film where a majority of the cast is Black is Coming To America, which is absurd and culturally offensive.  The most successful and/or profitable Black films almost always portray people who are in submissive roles (12 Years a Slave) or solidify insensitive and absolutely messed up stereotypes (Big Momma’s House).  There are reasons why Selma did not receive Best Actor or Best Director nods, and those reasons are triumphant Black role and Black Woman director, respectively.


First and foremost, let’s put away the pessimism.  George Lucas did not write the script and–okay hold on a sec.


Nor is he directing.  So no trade disputes and no static, completely lifeless attempts to create political intrigue.  These reasons alone are enough cause for celebration.  The other reason for pessimism is that when Disney acquired Lucasfilm, they announced they would do away with the current canon and expanded universe.  Therefore those of us who are sad we won’t see the alien race who’s gods name I just invoked, we’re going to have to deal.  I however, am really happy that those stories won’t get a movie adaptation, because my childhood imagination and memories of them will remain uncorrupted.

Nothing is ever going to match the original trilogy, and why waste breath bemoaning the prequels when you can look to the promising future of one of the best franchises in cinematic history?

May the Force Be With You,

Sincerely, Deej*

*Deej was an Ewok wind spirit that gave her life to teach the Ewoks the secret of music.