I think many of us can agree that America is not looking good these days. The land of the free and the home of the brave is exhausted, sick, anxious, distracted, and at war with itself. Since we are only a few weeks away from a significant election, it is not controversial to say that this is not the country’s shining moment.
So even though I do not know if it’s by design or by accident, it’s serendipitous that four films that premiere on digital services this weekend are trying to thread a difficult needle: to see America for what it is, and find hope in it anyway. Two are film versions of acclaimed Broadway plays; another is from one of the country̵
The images that these films paint are by no means rosy. They do not need myths about restoring past greatness or being our best selves. But the people who created them were looking for the core of humanity in the midst of injustice and in their own ways, each of them finds it.
Put all four together and you begin to see a portrait of America that is thoughtful, layered, and hopeful, drawing on the past to understand the present and find something in the present that points us toward the future. I can not think of a better theme to seek in these difficult, challenging days.
Watch Time for a heartbreaking story with genuine courage and hope
Heartbreaking and passionate, Time is the chronicle of a love affair and the life hope can give. Garrett Bradley’s documentary follows Fox Rich (also known as Sibil Richardson), who has spent 21 years on a harsh request for her husband, Rob, to be released from prison. Rob is serving a 60-year sentence for a juvenile felony in which they were both involved; meanwhile, Fox has raised their six children and has become a strong advocate for change in its community.
Time describes her struggle and demonstrates how mass imprisonment sustainably separates black families in America, as well as how bureaucracy and centuries of narratives obscure the truth and pain of these separations. And all the while, Fox has been making videos at home that feel like a diary about her pain, endurance, and commitment to hope.
Here’s how to see it: Time streamer on Amazon Prime Video.
Watch What the Constitution means to me for an angry and hopeful perspective on law, debate and rights
When Heidi Schreck was 15, she traveled around the Pacific Northwest for speech contests that hosted American Legion chapters, giving external addresses on the significance and importance of various constitutional amendments. Years later, she recreated that experience with What the Constitution means to me, who received Tony and Pulitzer nominations during the Broadway race in 2019. Schreck wrote and starred in the play, pretending to be her 15-year-old self and talking about the Constitution – at least until her youthful optimism is challenged by both her adult realism and the stories of her family’s past.
The filmed version of What the Constitution means to me (with direction from Do not want to be my neighbor‘s Marielle Heller) captures the touching, angry, heartbreaking and strangely inspiring Broadway show. Schreck deftly alternates between his own personal story, stories from the lives of her wife’s ancestors, and deeply explored knowledge of Supreme Court decisions and arguments, interwoven politics, rights discourse, and lived experience. And she ends up sparring with a teen debate partner about the future of the Constitution – a moment that shows the power and true purpose of a real, thought-provoking debate.
Here’s how to see it: What the Constitution means to me streamer on Amazon Prime Video.
Watch The lawsuit against Chicago 7 for a touching call to dissent and place honor where it is due
The lawsuit against Chicago 7 is a signature Aaron Sorkin humdinger, a courtroom drama about the past with the present in mind. Its subject is the six-month trial of a group of men accused of conspiracy and crossing state borders with the aim of inciting an uprising in Chicago during the Democratic National Convention in 1968. The men traveled to Chicago to protest the Vietnam War. Rebellion happened. But the men did not conspire – and what’s more, they have insisted that the Chicago Police Department start the violence.
Sorkin wrote and directed The lawsuit against Chicago 7, which fiddles a bit with actual historical events that serve the story. But the film draws parallels between topics that were important then – racism, militarized police, unequal justice, challenges to the right to protest – and those that still resonate today. With a brilliant cast that includes Mark Rylance, Eddie Redmayne, Sacha Baron Cohen, Jeremy Strong, John Carroll Lynch, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Frank Langella and Joseph Gordon-Levitt, The lawsuit against Chicago 7 is a film that aims to connect the dots of the past with the present and suggests that the long arm of justice sometimes runs through rocky territory.
Here’s how to see it: The lawsuit against Chicago 7 streams on Netflix.
Watch David Byrne’s American utopia to a lively, beautiful musical celebration of our differences
In 2019, former Talking Heads frontman David Byrne staged a Broadway show that was not really a concert or a play or a musical or anything other than a recognizable Byrne-ian production. On a gray-toned stage full of light and texture accompanied by a group of brilliant barefoot musicians and singers dressed in matching gray suits, Byrne weaved a story about America. Songs from his catalog were imagined for a joyful ride through his mind – and through how he imagines the possibility of an American utopia.
Spike Lee captured it all on film and the result is David Byrne’s American utopia, a simultaneously realistic and surreal journey through what makes a nation a nation: We share the same home. Byrne’s songs question the notions of house and home, and what they mean in an American context. His answer is that we are all different; we look different, we talk differently, we believe in different things, and yet there is still hope that we can decide to rebuild our house together. I dare not stop dancing while you watch it.
Here’s how to see it: David Byrne’s American utopia will be broadcast at 20.00 Eastern on 17 October and starts streaming on HBO Max at the same time.
If you’re looking for something else …
- Kajillionaire, Miranda Julie’s latest comedy, is coming to digital on-demand services this week (find the full list of services here). Starring Evan Rachel Wood, Gina Rodriguez, Debra Winger and Richard Jenkins, it’s an eccentric, loving tale of growing up and learning to love. (I loved the movie and wrote about how it shows July’s enduring devotion to the kind in us all.)
Will choose virtual cinemas: Martin eden, which feels like a tribute to Italian film as much as an adaptation of a Jack London novel. It’s the story of a young man named Martin (Luca Marinelli, as you may have seen on Netflix The old guard) which strives to join the ranks of the elites through self-education. It is a critically acclaimed, lushly shot tragedy.
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