Friday, April 5, 2013


The first and best film of the day was "GOD LOVES UGANDA" (9).  It's the courageous work of director Roger Ross Williams, an African-American gay man who was raised Baptist, all of which uniquely qualifies him to tell the story of how conservative American evangelical missionaries are exporting intolerance toward gays with missionary zeal, all over Africa but particularly in Uganda, with its relatively youthful and poor population.  Williams also put himself in harm's way in making this film, not only because hatred toward gays is on the rise in Uganda but because so many of the American Christians who he interviewed are so convinced that he needs to be fixed. What you see on screen, though, is a thorough and balanced portrayal of the American and Ugandan followers of the International House of Prayer, a conservative Christian organization based in Kansas City that seeks to export its position in the American culture wars all over the globe.  These folks get a lot of air time in the film expressing their own point of view, which is balanced primarily by two Ugandan ministers (both straight) who have paid a high personal price for speaking out against the tide of anti-gay sentiment being spread by American conservatives.  One has been excommunicated from his denomination and the other lives in the U.S. because of fears for his life in Uganda and now is studying the phenomenon the film depicts.  As he points out, the gospel is being used to pursue a very different agenda--one quite antithetical to the gospel, I might add--heedless of the fact that, in places like Uganda, people will take the law into their own hands.  As a result, LGBTQ people have been subjected to increasing violence and the Ugandan government is considering a measure that would make homosexuality a capital crime.  I was impressed by Williams' handling of this material; he doesn't load the dice and doesn't need to.  Everyone speaking for themselves is quite enough--and this is a story that really needs to be out there.

The rest of the day was focused on music personalities.  The first was "GOOD OL' FREDA" (6.5), a biography of the woman who served as the personal secretary to the Beatles from the time she was seventeen years old.  She's an endearing subject for her ordinariness and her modesty; chosen because she was a fan herself and took the fans seriously but also treated the band's secrets with absolute discretion, she is the only living person in the Beatles' inner circle whose story hasn't been told.  It's a pretty simple tale, but Freda is remarkable because the discretion that made her such a good secretary also makes it unthinkable to her to break that discretion even now.  As a result, what we see is largely her personal story--an ordinary girl who conducted herself admirably in an unexpectedly primary role in one of the great music success stories of all time--and then reentered a life so ordinary that her coworkers were not aware of her connection to the Beatles and even her daughter didn't know most of what she shares in the film.

"THE PLEASURES OF BEING OUT OF STEP" (6) takes as its subject Nat Hentoff, whose passion for jazz is equalled only by his passion for free speech.  He has been writing jazz criticism for Downbeat and poetic, discerning liner notes for decades, and has earned a reputation as a particularly thoughtful afficionado.  Hentoff is equally well known for his writing on the First Amendment; he has written several books and was a regular contributor to the Village Voice for many years.  The film meanders back and forth between Hentoff's two interests, and the lack of a more conventional narrative structure requires some work from the viewer but also sets off the relationship between his two passions.  Hentoff is a good jazz critic because he appreciates the freedom and expressiveness of good jazz; he also insists that freedom and expressiveness be available to all points of view, even those he finds personally offensive.  The film is an interesting window into the New York press and jazz scenes and an appreciative portrait of a compelling personality.

"MUSCLE SHOALS" (6.5) has the best commercial prospects of the three, as it it chronicles stories of the Muscle Shoals, Alabama music scene.  Muscle Shoals is the home of a famous recording studio that spawned a host of the best American records ever recorded.  Using some pretty wonderful archival footage and intervals with some of the top names in music, including Aretha Franklin, Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Alicia Keys, and Bono, the film imparts a host of insider stories of the creation of some amazing music.  It's an entertaining exercise in music appreciation. 

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