Thursday, February 16, 2017

A Call to Conscience: The Landmark Speeches of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

It goes without saying that The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was both one of the most important American leaders of the 20th century and one of the greatest public speakers, a man who became one of the most prominent leaders of the Civil Rights Movement by inspiring the masses with his powerful, poetic addresses.

A Call to Conscience: The Landmark Speeches of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (2000) gathers some of his most significant speeches into one collection and features introductions from the likes of Rosa Parks, Aretha Franklin, Rep. John Lewis, Andrew Young, and others to give the speeches context.

The speeches are brilliant. Editors Clayborne Carson and Kris Shepard arrange them chronologically, so we do get a sense of the passage of time, and certain events referred to in earlier speeches are brought up again in later speeches, so we can chart some of the progress of the Civil Rights Movements and how King responded to these developments.

Since King's words are the main focus and he did not write them as a book, I thought I'd try something different for this post. Instead of "reviewing" the book, I want to look at what made King such a great speaker and how he used language to inspire.

1) Direct language
King did not mince his words. He didn't speak in jargon or use overly complicated, abstract ideas to get his points across. He came right out and said what he believed, what he wanted, and what he and others would do to achieve those goals. He was easy to follow, he made references people recognized and explained the more obscure ones, and he spoke strongly. He eschews the passive voice (I was, we were, this is something that...); he used strong, active verbs: "I refuse," I believe."

2) Repetition as Verse
It would be wrong to call King redundant. True, he repeats points and phrases throughout his speeches, but that's the strategy. He treats his speeches almost like Gospel songs, and his main points - "I have a dream," "Give us the ballot," "Let us march" - are his chorus. He comes back to those same words both for emphasis and lyrical quality. They become hard to forget or ignore.

3) Imagery
It's no exaggeration to call King's words poetic; he conveyed ideas with symbolic imagery that got the point across better than a long-winded dissertation would have. In his address at the conclusion of the Selma to Montgomery March, he described the hardships of the march - the faces burned by the "sweltering sun," "slept in the mud," "drenched by the rain - and then reached the kicker, "we can say our feet are tired but our souls are rested." At the eulogy for three of the four victims killed in the infamous church bombing in Birmingham, he said, "The innocent blood of these little girls may well serve as a redemptive force that will bring new light to this dark city."

4) Biblical References
King was a preacher, so it's no surprise he refers to Scripture to make his case. He was particularly fond of referring to the Israelites in Egypt and how they escaped bondage, drawing a parallel between their struggles and the struggles of black Americans throughout the history of the country, whether it be in the physical chains of slavery or the laws of segregation. This use of reference give his speeches a mythical quality, equating the struggles of African Americans with the Israelites and showing that they too can overcome their struggles. It also enables King to cite religious sources to condemn slavery and persecution as immoral.

5) Inclusion
Throughout his speeches, King spoke a lot in the first person but not just the singular form. Yes, he had a dream, but it was a dream for everyone. Frequently, he used the noun "We," as in "We will struggle," "We will persevere," and "We will overcome." This fosters an immediacy and a connection to his audience. He's not just speaking for himself; he's speaking to us and for us.

6) Looking to the Future
Not one to rest on accomplishments, King always took time to acknowledge the past and point to the future. As individuals goals were met, the overall struggle toward complete equality must not be forgotten, he argued. There will still be challenges and setbacks ahead, but the journey must not be abandoned. Progress marches on, and the spirit prevails.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Patriots: The Men Who Started the American Revolution

One of the most fascinating aspects about the history of colonial America was the relatively rapid pace of its end. For hundreds of years, American colonists seemed content under British rule, and yet, only twelves after the end of the French and Indians War, in which Americans fought side-by-side with their British rulers, the two sides exploded into armed conflict that lasted eight years and ended with the United States of America gaining independence.

What went wrong with this relationship between the thirteen colonies and its mother country? Tax disputes?

In his 1988 non-fiction piece, Patriots: The Men Who Started the American Revolution, author A.J. Langguth explores that question and others, using narrative techniques and biographical details to tell the literal story of America as it came to revolt against Great Britain, defy the mightiest empire in the world, and establish its independence. Langguth does not merely list dates and facts as if writing a dry textbook; he brings history to life as a compelling drama, filled with fascinating personalities and conflict, the personal, the political, and battlefield variety.

Most people are familiar with the big names: George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, etc. Langguth not only gives us accounts of these well known figures; he also devotes time to the lesser known individuals who players who played crucial parts in the founding of the United States. The book opens with an account of James Otis, a Massachusetts politician who in 1761 spokeagainst writs of assistance, which the Crown used to enter colonial businesses and homes suspected of smuggling to search for contraband. Otis was a passionate speaker, but in subsequent years, he became more unpredictable, railing against anyone and anything that displeased and often contradicting himself and changing his mind in the process.

Langguth also gives time to the men on the other side, such as William Howe, the British general who did not annihilate Washington's army at New York when he had the chance because a) he wasn't too keen on the war in America in the first place and b) he and his brother thought they could negotiate a peaceful end. Before the war, as a member of Parliament, Howe argued against the Intolerable Acts. We also learn about men like Thomas Hutchinson, a Loyalist judge and governor in Massachusetts who was the last civilian governor of the colony and became quite hated by the populace. He had wanted to write the history of Massachusetts but ending up dying in England, incredibly homesick for the land he was no longer welcome in.

The book covers the big moments and battles, like Paul Revere's famous ride, the Boston Tea Party, and Saratoga, but Langguth also depicts the politics that linked all these events and how the personalities of the men involved shaped the course of the events. We all know about the Continental Congress and the Declaration of Independence, but here, the author discusses the actions of the state governments and politicians, the negotiations between America and France, and the peace treaty talks between those two nations and Great Britain. The political and legal processes and the art of negotiation, so derided today, might be necessary evils, but they've always been a vital part of how America functions.

Patriots is thoroughly researched. Langguth uses a variety of sources, including primary sources such as essays, journals, diaries, and letter from the time, to give a good sense of whose these people were, their strengths, and their foibles. What emerges is the human nature of the men who made and opposed America. Washington, Jefferson, Howe, et al are once again made flawed humans trying their best under the circumstances rather than the mythical heroes and villains history has made them out to be.

Friday, February 10, 2017

John Wick: Chapter 2

Just when he thought he was out, John Wick is pulled back in. The eponymous hitman who first appeared in 2014's John Wick returns in John Wick: Chapter 2 (2017), and he still can't stay retired. If you thought he was pissed when gangsters stole his car and shot his dog, just wait until you see what he does when they burn his house down.

Don't worry, dog lovers. This film's pooch remains out of danger for most of the running length and emerges unscathed.

Following an opening sequence that wraps up a few loose ends from the first film while re-introducing the character and his brand of violent action, the sequel shows John Wick (Keanu Reeves again) metaphorically trying to bury his past again, dumping his guns and related items back in his basement and re-sealing them under a fresh mix of concrete. But there is a price to be paid for his brief return to his old life.

Appearing at his doorstep is Santino D'Antonio (Riccardo Scamarcio), who calls in a blood debt Wick made years ago when he wanted out of the criminal underworld. Wick initially refuses, saying he's not that man anymore. D'Antonio responds with the aforementioned arson. After consulting with Winston (Ian McShane returning as well), the manager of the Continental, the hotel for assassins that's very strict about rules, Wick realizes he must do what D'Antonio asks of him: go to Rome and kill Santino's sister, Gianna D'Antonio (Claudia Gerini).

That summary covers about the first forty minutes or so. Up to that point, the movie gives us more of what we saw in the first movie: Reeves' quiet intensity, exceptionally well done action scenes that combine amazing fight choreography with graphic violence, dark laughs about Wick's reputation and character in this underworld in which everyone seems to know him, and fascinating rules and morals that govern this criminal system.

Don't get me wrong. This part of the film remains enjoyable, but the film shifts into high after Wick returns to New York from his assignment in Rome. Proving to be as trustworthy as you'd expect for a guy who put a hit out on his sister, D'Antionio puts out a hit on Wick, an open call that apparently every hitman or hitwoman in New York hears about and tries to cash in on.

Unlike another action series fronted by Keanu Reeves, John Wick: Chapter 2 keeps its protagonist human and vulnerable. True, he's the ultimate fighting machine and a master of the head shot and neck snap, and countless goons fall at his hands, but Wick himself takes a beating. He's frequently injured and bleeding, and his slick, focused style gives way to desperation and less elegant tactics. He even has to beg for help at one point.

But it's not just physical. In the original, John Wick grieved for his wife and sought vengeance when that memory was harmed. In the sequel, John is forced to question his very soul. Would his wife recognize the person he has become on his path to revenge? That question is to put to him by Gianna, and near the end, when Wick goes after Santino at a museum, he chases him into an exhibit called the "Reflections of the Soul," and it is filled with mirrors. Visual similarities to The Lady from Shanghai are no doubt intended.

The movie is essentially Wick's descent into his own personal Hell (in fact, when he takes an elevator that will lead him to the museum, he is warned that's exactly where he's going) and confronting his demons. Director Chad Stahelski baths the film in a lot of neon light and shadows, giving the film a nightmarish quality at times. By the end, as Wick pushes up against and even breaks the established laws of the underworld, he is in essence damning himself, or at least falling from grace.

For as dark and grim as the movie is, it's also very funny. The theater I saw it in alternated between laughing and wincing. Some of the laughs are callbacks from the original. Remember the anecdote about how Wick killed three men in a bar with a pencil; well, now we get to see how he uses a pencil as a weapon, and the result is both gruesome and hilarious.

Some of the character details give the movie some wonderful flavor, like the assassin who looks like a sumo wrestler, probably the most unlikely looking hired killer ever. His attempt on Wick plays like a more violent version of the fight between Cary Elwes and Andre the Giant in The Princess Bride. This fight is intercut with other assassination attempts on Wick, including one by female violinist near the subway. At another point, Wick and Cassian (Common), a vengeful bodyguard to Gianna, clandestinely trade silenced pistol shots with each other while moving in a crowded place, completely unnoticed.

The action scenes are top-notch: brutal, intense, and filled with really cool moments that could only be pulled off by people who know how to do these moves. Like its predecessor, the movie favors wide shots and eschews frantic, jumpy editing, so we always have a clear view of what's happening. The film also makes great use of its locations. I mentioned the hall of mirrors, but there are also the Roman catacombs, the subway platforms, the public fountains, and the concert.

I also like the details that flesh out this world more. We see how Wick prepares for an assignment, getting fitted for a bulletproof suit and buying weapons in a secret place where the arms dealer acts like a high class bartender. Santino's top lieutenant (Ruby Rose) is apparently mute, communicating only by signing, which, if it tells you how good she is, is never a problem for her. When Wick and Cassian first fight in Rome, they crash through the window of another hotel for assassins and are scolded/threatened for conducting business on its grounds. They immediately obey and sit down to talk at the bar, where they remember each other's favorite drinks.

Reeves again proves Wick might very well be his best character, bringing the right amount of quiet, brooding intensity and a professional sense of humor and dignity. Ian McShane gets more to do than he did in the first movie, and his final moments  with Wick might be the most poignant moment in the series. The rest of the cast, both returning members and newbies, work great, but special mention must be made of both Peter Stormare, who cameos in the opening sequence as a Russian mobster, and Laurence Fishburne, who leads a criminal network that monitors the streets by disguising its members as derelicts.