Saturday, March 11, 2023

My list of the best films of 2022

As my counterpoint to the Oscars, and in keeping with my longstanding practice, I offer my own list of the best films of 2022, interspersed with related opinions about what and who deserve more celebration than they get inside the Hollywood machinery.  I've seen nearly every Oscar-nominated film, and in the neighborhood of 150 films this year (as every year), and to my mind, these are the works the deserve to be prioritized.  So here is the list itself:

1.     1.      She Said

2.     2.    Nope

3.     3.    Living

4.     4.    Cairo Conspiracy

5.     5.    Prey

6.     6.    The Inspection

7.     7.    2nd Chance

8.     8.    RRR

9.     9.    Free Choi Sol Lee

.     10.    Roald Dahl’s Matilda the Musical


1.     She Said tells a difficult story—indeed, an array of difficult stories--with consummate care.  Although it is regularly compared to other feature films about heroic journalism (think “All The President’s Men” and “Spotlight”), I would put it in a separate category; it’s a story about women’s experience that would not have been told without the painstaking work of careful and courageous women, and the story of how that story came to be told reflects the painstaking work of more careful and courageous women.  The execution here is, to my mind, superior to the afore-mentioned films, in part because of whose voices are centered, the deep understanding of systemic harm that is reflected in this film, and the ethic of care that is adhered to with such rigor in delivery of the story.  To my mind, it’s the best film of the year.

This could have been a dry procedural infused with self-congratulation—but the two New York Times reporters, Megan Twohey and Jodi Kantor, whose pursuit of the story of Harvey Weinstein’s serial abuse of scores of women in Hollywood is ostensibly the focus, don’t exude that sort of energy, either in interviews or in the book on which the film is based.  As reflected in the film and in interviews, they evince genuine interest in why this story was so difficult to tell—the forces arrayed against the telling, mostly implicating people who didn’t rape or abuse anyone. 

Decades of violence by Weinstein was an open secret in Hollywood, facilitated and protected by an entire community that contributed to the near-impossibility of exposing and reckoning with that secret.  In this case, the difficulty of breaking the story is part of the story, held with sensitivity and care in the screenplay by Rebecca Lenkiewicz and under the clear-eyed direction of Maria Schrader.  The efforts—the collaboration—of these women (including also excellent performances by the entire cast, notably Zoe Kazan as Kantor, Carey Mulligan as Twohey, and Samantha Morton and Jennifer Ehle as two of the many women whose courage contributed to exposing Weinstein) becomes a depiction of solidarity, a purposeful practice of many people assuming a share of the load of great suffering with the goal of alleviating that suffering.  The feat that all of these artists and fighters have pulled off here is much harder than it looks, and their work here contains wisdom beyond what most films attempt to offer.  Shame on the Academy Awards for not a single woman director and nearly all men for screenplay awards—this was one of the big misses, including for Best Picture.

(In English; rated R for language and descriptions of sexual assault; deserved Oscar nominations for Best Picture (it would be my pick); Best Director (Maria Schrader, who would be my pick), and Best Adapted Screenplay (Rebecca Lenkiewiczw, who also would be my pick); on at least 8 other critics’ top movie lists; available on streaming platforms)

2.    Nope is Jordan Peele’s third feature, and perhaps his most inscrutable.  Peele is a master at misdirecting and unsettling and unnerving the audience, and this film never lets up on that.  The themes here are harder to discern than in “Get Out” and “Us,” which topped my lists in 2017 and 2019.  Yet I think that may well be the point.  Peele manages to keep you both unsettled and engaged, a feat few filmmakers can touch, and in doing shakes up assumptions you didn’t know you had. 

The story here involves two siblings—a taciturn Daniel Kaluuya and a voluble Keke Palmer—with a legacy of wrangling horses for the film industry.  After their father dies in a disturbing and mysterious way, the two find themselves battling an inexplicable danger—a space invader?  An alien?  Which movie are we in?  Stephen Yeun, especially fascinating, appears as a former child star with a surprising response to childhood trauma and this newest danger, and the siblings find two other quirky collaborators in their quest to understand the source of the danger and perhaps capture it in an “Oprah-shot” on film.  How each challenge is depicted and fought is endlessly surprising and inventive, and each character’s instincts contrast with the others. 

It's best to experience the film without spoilers—and then to experience it again.  My own sense is that Peele is playing around with the ways in which we humans seek to control and exploit forces we assume are at our behest, and with just how wrong we can be.  Each of the characters has slightly different instincts around power and domination.  Do they seek to understand?  To dominate?  To exploit?  To collaborate?  Peele seems also to be interested in how such instincts play out in the film industry itself, even as he scares and confuses and entertains and messes with his film’s audience. 

I’m not finished thinking about this film, and will likely see it a few more times.  Peele has a way of inspiring that; there is always more to see and more to ponder.  In this particular case, I suspect this film may be best understood as being about power—who has it?  Who is really in charge?  What moves do we really have?

[In English; rated R for language throughout and some violence/bloody images; deserved Oscar nominations for Best Picture, Best Director (Jordan Peele), Best Cinematography, and Best Original Screenplay (Jordan Peele); on at least 107 other critics’ top film lists; available on streaming platforms]

3.    Living is a quiet film that contains depths of meaning beyond what most critics appear to have caught.  Kazuo Ishiguro (“The Remains of the Day”) adapted the screenplay from Akira Kurosawa’s film “Ikiru” and set the story in 1950s London, but the film is not specifically about its setting.  If anything, the setting might, if we let it, help us notice parallels in our own current lives.

The basic story is of a civil servant, Williams (an excellent Bill Nighy), who heads one of several offices in a government building that appear to function entirely to ensure that nothing ever actually happens.  Each day Williams and his underlings sit in a dull space with stacks of paper around them, exchanging no more than perfunctory conversation as they move the papers around.  Occasionally a citizen will enter and ask that some action be taken; inevitably that person will be directed to another office, where they will experience the same thing.

Williams appears untroubled by his circumstances—until, early in the film, he learns that he is dying.  For a few days, he is flummoxed; everything he has so meticulously maintained seems meaningless.  But eventually, he returns to the office with a determination to live, and becomes someone entirely unlike his former self. 

How he changes deserves the quiet attention offered by this observant film.  He is still quite subdued—but now much more curious.  When a group of ladies visits his office asking for permission to build a playground in an abandoned city space (as they have done over and over again for months to no avail), this time he listens to them.  He inquires as to the proposed location, and visits the site for himself.  Instead of sending the women from office to office, he visits various offices with them, and even begs the functionaries in more than one office to facilitate approving what the women want to accomplish. 

I am spoiling the plot a bit here, but in aid of helping you notice the contours of Williams’ transformation.  As is revealed in pieces, Williams goes from being in sync with a world where nothing ever gets done to devoting all of the life force it turns out he has to going against those instincts.  He risks being annoying, an irritant.  He gets his feet muddy.  He waits in line for hours.  He asks for things, and keeps asking, and thanks people individually when they say yes.  What seems simple and obvious is actually profound, and much more unusual than we want to notice. This is where Williams’ quest to begin living takes him—and also where it would take us.

[In English; rated PG-13 for some suggestive material and smoking; received and deserved Oscar nominations for Best Adapted Screenplay (Ishiguro, my pick of the nominees) and Best Actor (Nighy—wonderful, though I would give the award to Austin Butler for “Elvis”); also deserved Oscar nominations for Best Director (Oliver Hermanus) and Best Picture; on at least 18 other critics’ top film lists; available on streaming platforms.]

4.    Cairo Conspiracy (also known as “Boy From Heaven”) had only the most limited run in Portland and has not gotten nearly the attention it deserves.  It took me deep into a world I understand almost nothing about, yet reflected back complicated insights, familiar to me but not commonly understood, about how treacherous it can be to navigate spaces where power games are being played.

The story centers on Adam (Tarfeek Barhom, excellent), the devout and studious son of a fisherman who lives in a small Egyptian village.  He is thrilled to be offered a coveted opportunity to study at Al-Azhar University in Cairo, which is the center of power for Sunni Islam.  Before long, however, Adam finds himself caught in the center of high-stakes conflicts between power elites in the religious and political establishment.  Integrity and intelligence are all he has to work with to save himself and his family.

Writer-Director Tarik Saleh, who grew up in Sweden, is Egyptian on his father’s side and cites his grandparents among his influences; his grandfather studied at Al-Azar.  Saleh does masterful work translating this world to those of us who do not understand it, exposing elements that are troubling but doing so without the fear and judgment and othering so prevalent in Western explorations of Islam.  I’m curious how someone with closer connections to this culture would feel; to me the film did not seem to center a Western gaze, which I appreciated.  

I felt the challenge of entering a world where women are so peripheral, but also noted power dynamics that are quite familiar to my Western experience.  The skills Adam must acquire are skills I relate to—he never imagined stakes this high, or the need for alertness this acute.  And the lessons he has received even from good teachers have not prepared him with the necessary skill to discern who to trust and how to navigate terrible options.  Watching him unlock what incentives will influence a rare person with integrity and thereby save himself is riveting and instructive.  This is a film I will return to again and again. 

[In Arabic; deserved Oscar nominations for Best Director (Tarik Saleh), Best Original Screenplay (Tarik Saleh, who would be my pick—he actually won at Cannes), Best Actor (Tawfeek Barhom), and Best International Feature Film (it would be my pick); not on any other critics’ top film lists; not yet available streaming but I think there is reason to hope given how well the film did at Cannes, where it also was nominated for the Palme d’Or.]

5.    Prey is not the sort of film I expected would end up on my top-ten list; it’s a prequel to the Predator franchise of alien action films.  But this one takes what I find to be a more interesting angle than the previous installments; it’s set 300 years ago and centers on members of the Comanche nation in the Great Plains of what is currently known as the United States.  Its protagonist is a young Comanche woman trained as a healer who wants to be taken seriously as a hunter. 

What transpires, then, is a battle of wits between the woman, Naru (a very compelling Amber Midthunder), and the Predator, in which she employs her wits, her skill as a tracker, and her knowledge of the terrain to meet challenge after challenge, backed only by a faithful dog and belief in herself.  It’s also the story of someone moving beyond the expectations of her culture’s expectations for her, cannily portraying ways in which that can be a strength and can also make one’s work harder. 

Though this is not a documentary, care was taken to honor indigenous wisdom in creating the film.  The indigenous characters are played by indigenous actors; Comanche tribal experts were consulted and cast members were also allowed to bring bits of their own tribal identifiers.  Although the plan to film in Comanche was scrapped for English, one can watch it dubbed in Comanche.  And though French settlers are also depicted, their language is not subtitled; Comanche people are centered in this story much like European settlers have been centered in an endless array of stories, a welcome and mindful shift of focus that serves this story well.

It's a too-rare pleasure watching indigenous characters display the sort of centuries-old mastery of their environment that came to be so devalued and obliterated.  It’s a special pleasure to watch Amber Midthunder employ the most elemental of tools (including her own body) to fight a bear or a space alien or a French trapper or the young men of her tribe.  And Dan Trachtenberg’s direction keeps the action moving; it doesn’t suffer from the overblown qualities so common to films of this genre.  Watch for the cave drawings at the end of the film, which cleverly depict the legend we just witnessed and the dangers that lie ahead.

[In English, French, and Comanche; rated R for strong, bloody violence; deserved Oscar nominations for Best Director (Daniel Trachtenberg), Best Actress (Amber Midthunder; Best Original Screenplay (Patrick Aison), Best Production Design, Best Cinematography, Best Visual Effects, Best Film Editing, and Best Picture;  on at least 22 other critics’ top film lists; available for streaming on Hulu.]

6.    The Inspection is not a film I enjoyed watching, and yet it is a film I will watch again.  It’s the story of a Black gay man, Ellis French (brilliantly played by Jeremy Pope), who, after ten years on the streets, decides at age 25 that joining the Marines is his best option for escaping a life of homelessness, danger, and despair. If that is the choice a Black gay man makes, you know he is desperate; rejected by his mother, French trades a life on the streets for abuse and degradation in Marines basic training.  It’s hard to contemplate and harder to watch.

Even while I was watching it, though, I knew the experience was important.  Writer-director Elegance Bratton was himself rejected by his mother and joined the Marines in the era of “don’t-ask-don’t tell” after ten years living on the streets. The screenplay is heavily autobiographical, particularly as to the interactions with French’s mother Inez, brilliantly embodied in an unsparing performance by Gabrielle Union.  The mother-son scenes are excruciating, not least because Union conveys how, in Inez’s mind, she loves her son but can’t love who he is.  Bratton has said that directing Union’s work here healed him; she so faithfully captured the essence of his actual mother, with whom he was not able to find resolution before she passed away.

The military scenes are, in many ways, even harder to watch.  No part of me is okay with the deliberate dehumanization that is part of basic training, and when you add the ways that toxic masculinity plays out as to a Black gay man, the senselessness of the breakdown is all but unbearable to witness.  What I admired, though, was Bratton’s relentless commitment to the truth of his story.  Perhaps because he has said that he is grateful for the decade he spent in the Marines, the film has received some criticism for being pro-military.  In an interview with WBEZ Chicago, he noted, in response to such criticism, that his film is neither pro-military nor anti-military, but rather “pro-truth.”  Indeed it is—and that feels important.  His is a story that deserves attention, and we are blessed that he possesses the skill and willingness to tell it with such rigorous honesty.

[In English; rated R for language throughout, sexual content, some nudity and violence; deserved Oscar nominations for Best Director (Elegance Bratton), Best Original Screenplay (Bratton), Best Actor (Jeremy Pope), Best Supporting Actress (Gabrielle Union), and Best Picture; on at least 6 other critics’ top film lists; available on several streaming platforms.]

7.    2nd Chance is the first feature length documentary by writer-director Ramin Bahrani, two of whose fictional films (“White Tiger” in 2021 and “Chop Shop” in 2006) made it onto my previous lists of the year’s best films.  Bahrani’s work reflects an interest in the choices people make to improve their fortunes, particularly those at the margins, and I sense that his lens on those concerns is impacted by his social location as the American-born son of immigrants from Iran.  As with his prior films, this film reflects a sort of open-handed curiosity that I really admire; complicated humans (that is, all humans) stay complicated under Bahrani’s gaze.

Richard Davis, whose life is the focus of this documentary, is definitely complicated.  He invented and made a sizeable fortune from the concealable bulletproof vest, shooting himself nearly 200 times as part of his case to market his product.  He did other things too, including keeping a record of lives saved by his vests and creating propagandistic films retelling the stories of the saves.  He quite eagerly speaks for himself for much of the film, and Bahrani wisely lets Davis himself point us toward the increasing reasons to question his versions of nearly every story told, about his own life, about the saves, and about the success of 2nd Chance, his now-defunct company. 

Others chime in too, including two ex-wives, an array of friends and ex-friends, and a man whom Davis attempted to pay as a teenager to take the fall for something to avoid blame finding its way back to Davis.  The steady unraveling of pieces of Davis’s story opens up reasons to question how his promotion of his vests and the attendant propaganda contributed to a shift in the way we think about police in this country, and also to question what other similar dynamics may have contributed to those shifts.  Often those who find success in a country or institution reflect back things about the country or institution itself, and the story of Richard Davis, in Bahrani’s skillful hands, definitely offers insights in that vein It deserves a broader audience.

[In English; not rated; should have received an Oscar nomination for Best Documentary Feature (and would be my pick); not on any other critics’ top ten list; available to stream on Amazon Prime.]

8.    RRR has become a global phenomenon, and rightly so.  It’s impossible to imagine a more audacious, over-the-top display of action, dance and musical production, and melodrama.  It makes the Hollywood Marvel universe look tepid by comparison.

Set in the 1920s during British colonial rule of India, the film builds a rivalry and bromance between two impossibly virile and handsome men taking different routes to challenging the colonizers.  Raju (Konidela Ram) is a police officer who appears to have chosen the route of cooperation; he accepts the task of capturing Bheem (N.T. Rama Rao Jr.), a tribal man who is on a quest to rescue a girl from his village who has been captured and enslaved by a British governor and his wife.  Through a mix of attraction and deception, the two dreamboats become friends, enemies, and collaborators by turns, along the way performing impossible physical feats, out-performing all the Brits, and charming a British woman or two along the way.

The colonizers here are the most ruthless of villains—not actually far from the truth—so the stakes are as high as they need to be for maximum drama.  Most Americans, including me, aren’t informed enough to sort through political signaling here that is likely problematic, though I do recommend listening to a good discussion of the film on NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast, which interrogates some aspects of Hindu nationalism and caste on display that deserve attention.  I don’t mean to minimize those concerns—but with some hesitation about what I am celebrating without being able to fully interrogate it, I am going to go ahead and celebrate it.  The scale and quality of the artistry here is so dazzling and joyous and beyond compare, I am compelled to acknowledge “RRR” as among the best films I saw this year.  You won’t find a more exhilarating way to spend three hours.

[In Telugu and English; not rated; received and deserved its Oscar nomination for Best Original Song (“Naatu Naatu,” my pick); also deserved nominations for Best Director (S.S. Rajamouli), Best International Feature Film, Best Cinematography, Best Visual Effects, Best Production Design, and Best Film Editing; on at least 78 other critics’ best film lists; available to stream on Netflix but see it on a big screen if you can, which is actually still possible in some cities.]

9.    Free Chol Soo Lee brings long-overdue attention to a story whose invisibility reflects our collective failure to notice or care about injustice or about fights to overcome it.  Lee immigrated to the U.S. from South Korea as a child and, as a 20-year-old, was racially profiled and convicted of a Chinatown gang murder that members of the Chinese community could have told authorities he did not commit had they bothered to care.  After he spent years inside San Quentin prison, where he was targeted by gang violence and ended up on death row, Lee’s case caught the attention of a Korean-American journalist whose work to raise its profile sparked a widespread social movement of Asian Americans who collaborated to advocate for Lee’s release. 

This complicated and important story is told with great care by directors Julie Ha and Eugene Yi.  Lee fell through a series of cracks; he survived a difficult childhood marked by abuse, poverty, and racism, only to be sucked into the criminal legal system, where police failed to even follow up with any of his alibi witnesses.  He spent years inside the carceral system where the stakes of racism and violence are only raised from the already untenable levels experienced outside.  The social movement that finally achieved his release is remarkable for its clarity and concern about someone who had been so easily discarded—yet he then suffered again from the lack of any reckoning with the injustices that had robbed him of so many formative years and had left him traumatized. 

This film should be required viewing for anyone involved in administering the criminal legal system and, frankly, for all of us who live at a safe distance from the impacts of racial profiling and the othering experienced by immigrants and refugees and the currently and formerly incarcerated.  Attending to Lee’s story can point the way to much of our work that we neglect at the expense of those with the least power and resources.

[In English and Korean; rated PG-13, presumably for mature themes; deserved an Oscar nomination for Best Documentary Feature; on at least one other critic’s best film list; available on streaming platforms.]

10.  Roald Dahl’s Matilda the Musical hasn’t gotten near the appreciation it deserves.  Benefitting from a spectacular lead performance by Alisha Weir, a beautifully and meaningfully diverse and talented cast, crisp and inventive direction by Matthew Warchus, and gloriously complex production numbers packed with children wrangled by choreographer Ellen Kane (whose name you really have to dig for), it’s a feat of imagination and inventiveness and heart. 

The story revolves around the title character, a tiny genius who drew the short straw in the parent department.  While other parents recognize their children as miracles (a focus of one of the delightful musical numbers), Matilda’s father can’t even bother to learn her gender and both parents (Stephen Graham and Andrea Riseborough, both terrifically despicable) view her as a curse and a bore.  Left to fend for and educate herself, Matilda finally ends up in a school whose headmistress is the sort of sadist that only Roald Dahl could dream up (perfectly embodied by Emma Thompson at her horrifying best).  Matilda’s instinct for revolutionary zeal ends up liberating not only her adorable classmates but the gentle teacher, Miss Honey (Lashana Lynch), whose fate ends up being curiously linked to her own. 

There’s a dark edge to the proceedings, since it’s Dahl, but my grandsons (then aged four and seven) adored the film; the mean parts are surrounded by such color and joy and inventiveness that many kids will be able to absorb it.  As for the adults who love them—particularly those who, like me, were failed by the adults who were meant to care for them as children—the ingenious struggles for liberation and hard-won moments of triumph here may be particularly satisfying.  They certainly were for me.

[In English; rated PG for thematic elements, exaggerated bullying and some language; deserved Oscar nominations for Best Picture, Best Director (Matthow Warchus), Best Visual Effects, and Best Production Design; on at least 3 other critics’ top film lists; available to stream on Netflix.]

Sunday, May 22, 2022

My Reflections on a High-Stakes Campaign That Had to Fight to Be Noticed

 Although the vote-count isn't final yet, it appears that I will continue as a judge on the Court of Appeals for another six-year term.  I am deeply grateful for all those who assisted in that effort with critical donations and volunteer support.  The dominant view--maybe even your own view--was that my opponent had no chance of prevailing and that I would obviously win.  That never has been my view of the stakes--and my experience of the campaign and the vote count so far confirms my sense that the stakes were higher and the odds longer than people realized.  I hope these reflections will be helpful in awakening concern about things that I have been concerned about for a long time; this election heightened those concerns for me, and my commitment to addressing them is deeper than ever.

First, as I have noticed out loud for quite some time, the judiciary has for too long operated in a way that makes it practically impossible for the public to hold us accountable for the work that we do.  We haven't been transparent enough about how we approach our work and what that work involves.  In effect, we expect the public to just trust us.

That's neither sound nor is it good public policy--especially since our work impacts the public in significant and even dramatic ways.  Real trust must be earned--and since our work involves listening to citizens and applying the law to the facts that they present to us (often from a social location that is vulnerable in ways that judges don't experience), a big piece of how judges need to earn public trust is by practicing listening to the public, especially the most vulnerable, outside the courtroom.  We need to place ourselves in a position of proximity to citizens who struggle in ways that we don't, outside of the venue that we control, so that our work in chambers is informed by concern and curiosity about what contributes to the problems that land people in court.  That work has been part of my own practice for 19 years, and it has profoundly affected my perspective and my contributions to the court. 

The judiciary's tendency to frame its work in a way that neglects that sort of proximity and trust-building leaves the public feeling disengaged from the legal system, which means that judicial elections feel meaningless to most people.  In some cases, and for all kinds of reasons, they may well feel aggrieved--which opens the door wide open for someone like my opponent to stoke the fires of aggrievement with misinformation.  Aggrieved voters will be more motivated than the disengaged ones--which in this instance increased the risk that my opponent, who has already been sanctioned for serious dishonesty in a judicial position, would succeed.  A challenge to a sitting judge isn't necessarily a bad thing; a challenge that spreads false information is.  And that's what my opponent was offering.  And it came much too close to working for my taste.  

Second, it's ironic but not surprising that his campaign sought to remove me from office as opposed to someone else.  Touting himself as the "diversity candidate," he sought to remove the only woman of color from the Court of Appeals, arguing that my long tenure meant that I bring less value rather than more.  That sort of argument had some possibility of working because we have not really reckoned with the impacts of racism in this country--including how much easier it is to devalue the work of a woman of color than the work of literally anyone else.  We mostly function as though racism is somehow solved by adding an occasional BIPOC into mostly white spaces.  We can't really imagine that those few will face any additional pressure, or that a woman of color (particularly one with some practice making space for the concerns of marginalized groups) might be bringing anything important and unique or that her long tenure might well require different things of her that aren't required of others--things like resilience, courage, and hard-won wisdom.  

My opponent easily breezed by all of that because we aren't in a practice of looking for it.  Instead he lumped me into the category of institutional dead weight, despite all the evidence that I challenge things that others don't.  (Among other spaces, I spoke to those efforts here and here--work that goes largely unnoticed but that does heavy lifting in changing judicial conversations.)  There are plenty of signs that I have been an outsider voice during my tenure on the court, bringing things into the conversation that would not otherwise be there, often in the face of real resistance.  Instead of valuing those things or bothering to understand them, my opponent sought to capitalize on the collective devaluing of them, all while criticizing me for luxuriating in institutional benefits that don't flow easily to me.  

Third, those in the best position to understand how the system functions--the legal community and other community leaders--were inclined to minimize the risks posed by my opponent.  I'm not sure how to explain that, though it is likely related to my first two points.  The result was that I and a tiny group of fierce volunteers faced a wall of denial and resistance (from people who did not support my opponent) that was really demoralizing, given that this was a two-month-long statewide campaign against an opponent who spread a lot of misinformation and lies (including a false claim that he was "exonerated" from judicial conduct violations and from criminal charges that were dropped for reasons having nothing to do with the merits) and who attempted to capitalize on distrust of the judiciary that I have been leading work to address.  Our job getting the word out was way harder than it would have been had people assessed the stakes more accurately--indeed, the media and so many organizations who purport to represent the groups who would have been most negatively impacted had my opponent succeeded did not see the reasons to be concerned.  It was harrowing and traumatic.

And it also deepened my concern about the issues that I have been working to address for 19 years.  I don't think there is reason to assume that this is the only campaign challenge that my opponent or others with similar agendas will make.  We have some work to do to help folks understand the importance of engagement in the work of the legal system.  Judges need to be more accountable to the public; the community needs to learn to recognize the signs that an outsider voice is being minimized; and those who seek to improve the functioning of the legal system need to engage with energy more befitting the stakes.

Though bruised and shaken by encountering such inertia in the face of stakes this high, I continue to be committed to the work of increasing judicial accountability and engagement.  I remain focused on listening and working to understand the concerns of all citizens, especially those who have the hardest time being heard.  And I am very grateful for every vote, every dollar donated, and especially the real energy a few folks devoted that made it possible for me to keep doing good work inside the legal system.  I want to give a special shout-out to Ben and Leora Coleman-Fire, who turned their lives upside-down and worked their asses off on behalf of me and all of us.  I had no choice but to fight; they did.  They volunteered time they didn't really have to spare, offered heart and energy and grace and brilliance and excellent instincts, and did the work of ten people.  Without their help, I might well have lost.  I am so grateful!

Monday, May 16, 2022

Willamette Law School 2022 Commencement Address

I'd like to reflect for a few moments on the gift of not fitting in.  Now that may seem a strange choice of topic for this occasion.  Graduations are all about triumphal achievements.  You made it!  You're in the club!  You've earned a place at the table!  And now you are ready to launch what will surely be an illustrious career!  

Some part of us always, at some level, wants to find the place where we fit, where the combination of our talents and gifts are received and experienced as being exactly what is needed.  When you arrived at law school, you likely hoped you would find a peer group of like-minded people, and that your skill set would turn out to be very well-matched to the demands of your legal education.  I hope and expect that, to a fair degree, you found those things, and that you are leaving law school feeling like you belong.  I hope also that you find that your skill set is very well-matched to the demands of the bar exam and of your first legal job, and that you will quickly find work that calls forth the best of you.  I want all of that for you.

But it’s important to acknowledge that that hopeful scenario is regularly not what the very best people experience.  I know that already, in law school, many have you have encountered circumstances in which you did NOT fit.  Perhaps you agonized over processing so much complex verbal information on the spot—maybe you needed more time to think about it than you got when you were cold-called in class or when you were taking an exam.  Or maybe you had family obligations that greatly exceeded those of most of your classmates.  Or your reasons for coming to law school or your expectations for how to talk about legal problems were not echoed among your peers or affirmed by your professors.  

Perhaps you secretly died a little inside whenever a professor called your name in class, because talking about law didn't feel like it came naturally to you.  Or perhaps you were convinced that it took you three times as long to read the material as it did your classmates.  Perhaps the way discussions materialized in class frequently frustrated you, and the answers the law offers to the social problems it encounters regularly left you dissatisfied.  Perhaps you were paralyzed with fear before each exam or court appearance.  Perhaps you never quite lost the sense of being the creature from another planet.

That's okay.  In fact, it's better than okay.  My suggestion to you this morning is that the extent to which you don't fit in is actually a gift.  

Let me explain.  Our longing to fit in is understandable, but it omits a few things from the larger picture.

What attracted many of you to law in the first place was a sense of dissatisfaction with the way things are in the world.  You were troubled by injustices that you perceived, and you wanted to acquire the tools for righting those injustices.  You were bothered by a sense that people are getting left behind, without anyone to fight for them, and you wanted to fill those gaps.

Your passion to right such wrongs is a big clue that our institutions are not already perfect the way they are.  There are gaps they leave unaddressed.  Our systems do not always ask the right questions, nor do they always provide access to meaningful justice.  As good as our legal system is, it could stand to improve.  That may well be what attracted you to the law in the first place, a desire to improve it, or to find a way to better marshal its resources.

Yet these are the very institutions you want to fit into.  These are the institutions you hope will want what you have to offer.  How realistic is that wish?

I can use my own experience as an example of this disconnect.  I went to law school out a desire to save the world, to be a voice for the voiceless, and I did not readily buy into the way things were done.  When I entered the legal profession, it should not have surprised me that in my first jobs, I quickly perceived things that didn't work well, that needed fixing.  Usually, I wasn’t wrong—but my instincts were off.  With the best of intentions, I would helpfully point out those problems to the people in charge, expecting them to say, thank you so much, Darleen, for pointing out to us just how wrong we have been all along.  Finally you are here to point out to us the error of our ways.  Hooray!  You fit perfectly into a space that was waiting for you.

But of course that never happens!  It is easier for me to see this now than it was at the time--at the time I just felt some combination of foolish and disillusioned.  I can now see that sometimes, I was indeed bringing skills that were lacking, and I was correctly perceiving flaws in the way an institution was functioning.  But that didn't mean I fit in.  In fact, it usually meant the opposite.

Fitting in is actually not all it's cracked up to be.  It feels good, but it can also blind you.  It can seduce you into excusing ways in which our institutions are blind or regressive.  This is what is seductive about privilege—and you are leaving law school with a fair amount of that; the more you are benefitting from a system, the less visible its flaws will be to you.  That is the very definition of fitting in.  The lessons you have been taught about fitting in often are teaching you NOT to question what is.  And you can’t be leaving law school without having received a lot of those lessons.

Which brings me to the gift of not fitting in.  It is precisely those who don't fit in who are most capable of seeing what needs changing.  Not fitting in generally keeps them from benefitting from the way things are, so they are not so reluctant to question the status quo.  It is almost invariably those who don't fit in, the outsiders, who are able to see the mechanics of injustice, or privilege, or oppression, and to discern ways of correcting those problems that no one else can see, or that no one else is WILLING to see.  

Now I must warn you: pointing out those things is not a job that pays well.  This is not a way to become popular.  But it is the surest way--the only way--to make a meaningful difference in the world.  Those who don't fit in, the outsiders, become our lasting heroes.  Think of it:  the most heroic actions of Martin Luther King, Jr., Nelson Mandela, Mohandas Gandhi, Thurgood Marshall, Temple Grandin, Cesar Chavez, Dolores Huerta, and Minoru Yasui all sprang from the ways in which they did not fit in with the cultures and institutions they affected.  They pushed back on accepted wisdom, often at great cost, often against pressure to JUST FIT IN.  We admire these people mostly—or only—AFTER they succeed in bringing about change—but while they were doing it, they were resented, sometimes intimidated into silence, bullied, criticized, and threatened.  Make no mistake, though: it is precisely the ways they didn’t fit in that fueled their insights and their willingness to sacrifice what they did.

Looked at in this light, the ways you don't fit in are a gift.  When you don't fit in, when you find yourself on the fringe, look for what your life is trying to teach you.  Embrace the edge, because it is the way to the center--the way to living in a manner that is "not grasping at the superficial and protecting the surface of things," as Richard Rohr has named.

This perspective on not fitting in can help you to see your failures and setbacks in a more accurate light.  They are nearly always windows into what is deeply true.  Try to meet them with openness rather than frustration.  Don't assume there is something wrong with you that needs fixing so that you will fit in better.  Don’t rage against a system that doesn't see your value.  This is easier said than done!  I do a lot of that kind of raging, so this message is for me as much as it is for you.

You may well do a bit of raging, and a fair bit of attempting to conform.  But if you learn to see not fitting in as a gift, it may help you to remember to look for a third way, a way in which you honor yourself and what you bring even when the institutions and systems where you don't fit seem to be insisting that you change or that there isn't a place for you.   Working to fit in often means cooperating in a dehumanizing process of erasing yourself and what you can see; embracing the value of not fitting in may just be what humanizes you even inside a flawed system that only wants your compliance.

I like to call this "Hustle and Flow"--and yes, I did arrive at the concept from watching the film about a sex trafficker who wants to be a rapper.  I have had lots of experiences of not fitting in, and they are often quite discouraging, and even painful.  Some of you have heard me tell the story about a particularly painful encounter that I had with another judge early in my judicial career in which he responded to my request for mentoring by proceeding to tell me in great detail how everything about me was wrong and that if I didn't set about fixing myself I would irretrievably lose the respect of my colleagues.  How's that for not fitting in!  That message, delivered with authority and confidence and even as though he was doing me a favor, knocked me flat. 

At the time that happened, though, I had been in the legal world for a while so I knew not to react right away, but to sit with the experience and see what it might have to teach me.

A couple of weeks later, I saw the film "Hustle and Flow," which, as I said, is about a sex trafficker who wants to be a rapper.  I don't actually know any sex traffickers, and am not a rap music fan, but I really became absorbed in the story.  And about three quarters of the way in, the sex trafficker commits a crime (besides being a sex trafficker), and lands in prison.  There's no doubt he's guilty; you watch him do it.  But during the ensuing scenes of him in prison, I had an epiphany:  my contributions to the judiciary are not likely to involve success in all the ways defined for me by my colleague who asserted that everything about me was wrong.  The criteria for success by which he assessed my suitability would never be the best way to measure my achievements.  But my job does involve listening to the stories of people like the sex trafficker in "Hustle and Flow."  And I recovered the sense that the most important gifts I bring to that work have to do with being the kind of person who can listen to the story of a marginalized and even distasteful person, a story that everyone thinks they already know, and to remain deeply engaged and watchful for what I may be called upon to do in response to his story.  

That realization helped me to stand on my feet again, and to be ready for the next realization:  Ignoring what the helpful senior judge told me was not a good option.  I would be doing so at my peril.  He had just imparted the criteria by which he, at least, would judge me, indeed was judging me, and he was by no means marginalized in the system I was in.  It was hard to hear, but it was good information.  It communicated that I indeed did need to make some changes to my approach to my work in order to succeed well enough that I could attain and maintain some credibility and be effective.

It was also incomplete information.  It didn’t tell me how I could be my best self as a judge, how to preserve the parts of me that were deeply needed.  The ways in which I don't fit are clues to that.  In fact, they are part of why I am a person who can listen deeply to a story about a marginalized person, a story that everyone thinks they already know, and remain deeply engaged and looking for what action that story demands of me.  So whatever adjustments I made in order to better fit into the system I am in, I also needed to make those adjustments in a way that honored who I am at my core.

That's what I like to call "hustle and flow."  Hustle is the part where you work hard to succeed on the terms of the system that you are in.  You hone your skills as a writer.  You wear a suit when people expect that of you.  You turn things in on time.  You work to understand the point of view of others, even those who don't show you the same courtesy.  It has to be done.  You can't just refuse to participate in things that seem like flawed exercises to you, any more than you can blow off the deeply flawed exercise of the bar exam and expect to succeed at practicing law.  

But flow is respecting who you are, and continuing to honor the parts of you that don't fit.  That also is your job and, often, if you don't do it, no one else will.  The ways in which you don't fit are a gift.  They are clues to what is missing, to what and who are being left behind.  Often when you don't fit, it is because you are marshalling data that the people who are succeeding aren't attempting to account for, data that the existing criteria for success has failed to include.  Most of the injustices in the world involve artificially limiting our data set so that we can feel successful without taking into account the true costs and the true impacts of our actions.  

Honoring and appreciating the ways in which you don't fit will help you do that for others, and that is work the world sorely needs.  Listen for the voices of people who don't fit, and ask why they don't fit.  And don't rush to the explanation that there is something wrong with them.  The criteria for success are devised by those who have already succeeded on existing terms.  Often job descriptions are not written to include qualities that an institution sorely needs, because those who wrote them can't envision what they have never experienced before, and unconsciously resist any suggestion that someone could bring something vital to the organization that no one has offered before--or that has been offered and refused.

The ways in which you don't fit are a gift.  In honoring you as you graduate, I want to especially honor those gifts of yours, and hope that you will find ways to honor them too.




Wednesday, August 17, 2016


[A version of this review appeared in the Portland Observer, here:]

The Oregon Shakespeare Festival's outdoor Elizabethan stage features plays this summer and fall that are all are worth seeing, and together they advance the Ashland festival's work in practicing art as social justice.
The angst and seething undercurrents of "Hamlet" are conveyed not only through a fine performance by Danforth Comins in the title role, but also through music and smart casting. Not strictly tied to one time period, the production uses live rock guitar music (via an onstage heavy metal musician) to gird its moods and questions; the music broods over contact with the dead and also the accumulation of unaddressed mistakes and questions that undo all the characters in the end.
Meanwhile, Hamlet's blindness to his privileged social location is underscored by casting three fine African American actors -- Derrick Lee Weeden, Jennie Greenberry, and Tramell Tillman -- as Polonius (who has long served Hamlet's family), Polonius' daughter Ophelia (the sometime love whom Hamlet casts off so coldly), and her brother Laertes (Hamlet's friend and rival). The dynamic between this trio and their troubled relationships with Hamlet and his family resonates strongly with typical experiences of people of color, including the contrasting vantage points of different generations, and deepens this production's tragic sensibility.
"The Winter's Tale" is staged from the lens of Asian and Asian American experience, affording a too-rare opportunity to see folks from a variety of Asian cultures represent the range of humanity on stage. There are so many cultures left out of the way we are used to seeing Shakespeare; it is a joy to watch this production play with melding the beauty and relative rigidity of ancient traditions as embodied in the first act with a lighthearted mix of cultures washed up on a single shore in the second act.
Among this production's best assets are its strongly-embodied female characters: Amy Kim Waschke is a memorably noble and tragic Hermione; Miriam Laube (who herself played Hermione in OSF's last production of this play) as Paulina embodies courage and female power wresting transformation from folly; and Cindy Im floats and sings like an earthy angel as Perdita, easily inspiring love in all who encounter her.
My favorite of the outdoor shows this season is a rare opportunity to see "The Wiz." White audience members likely don't appreciate either the significance of "The Wiz" to African American audience members or the challenges of mounting a production in Oregon. So much of mainstream theater is written by white people, produced by white people, and tells stories from a white perspective.
As originally conceived in the 1970s, "The Wiz" took an icon of American musicals and reset it to be sung and played by and for African Americans. Its creators found a way to embody the hopes and humor and yearnings of African Americans in a setting that everyone could recognize, and to add a funky edge that celebrated the culture riches found among members of that community. They accomplished something almost unthinkable in 1975, building an audience for something new to Broadway, and garnering seven Tony Awards in the process.
That historical backdrop contains inspiration for OSF, a leader in the theater world set in a state with a troublingly racist history. Black exclusion laws existed here until the 1860s, and for long afterwards conveyed a message of unwelcome to African Americans, reinforced by Oregon's failure to ratify the 14th and 15th Amendments for another century. Now OSF seeks to diversify its audiences in a state that is still one of the whitest in the union, and where most of its white citizens remain unaware of our state's racist legacy.
Where "The Wiz" built an audience and an appetite that didn't yet exist in the 1970s, OSF seeks to build new audiences and appetite in southern Oregon 40 years later. This production offers the perfect vehicle; it is a fitting embodiment of African American resilience and playfulness and badassness, adding a strong flavor of black gay pride as well. There is so much intention reflected in the casting, costumes, and choreography--piece by joyous piece, OSF has constructed a world that contains strong pieces of the cultural richness of African Americans.
Pulling that off, however, has included some challenges. White audience members often approach the play from a certain distance that alienates the players, and may evince annoyance with black audience members offering what the actors would experience as more appropriate enthusiasm. It's likely that white audiences may miss some of the richness that appears before them because they lack the cultural context -- though that doesn't mean that critics (who are rarely African Americans) haven't felt free to pronounce judgment on artistic choices from outside their own cultures. It is easy to miss how we allow certain voices more agency in defining good art.
Moreover, southern Oregon has much to learn about being truly welcoming to an influx of African American actors and artists; a bookstore near OSF has defiantly pushed a free-speech narrative as it persists in presenting a display of "Lil Black Sambo" books alongside "Wizard of Oz" books, deaf to the expressions of African American artists who find the display troubling and offensive. When OSF attempted to back the concerns of those artists, the local newspapers quickly rushed to the defense of the bookstore and quoted a chorus of local residents expressing righteous indignation about censorship. It is troubling to see such a lack of concern or even curiosity about the perspective of African Americans who found the display hurtful.
It strikes me as ironic that so many of those artists are performing in a story about a confusing and alien place, Oz, where a cast of loveable characters must struggle to think clearly and honor their hearts and locate courage and a place that truly feels like home. The talented cast of "The Wiz" pulls off that feat with such grace and guts and joy that they may yet succeed in easing the audience they are building down the road to a world they will help us to imagine. Whether "The Wiz" feels like your culture and your people or is a new journey for you, now is the time to head down to Ashland, cheer on these players as they deserve to be cheered, and build a theater audience that embodies a community that transcends our failures of imagination.


[A version of this review appeared in the Portland Observer, here:]

What passes for love on most movie screens has always struck me as shallow: Movie love generally just "happens" to people (and may even "require" them to leave an existing relationship) and it usually involves an electric sexual connection between two unusually attractive people. That's about as far as it goes.
"My Love, Don't Cross That River," which set box office records in South Korea where it originated, is the antidote to all such movie romances, though unlikely to attract much notice here in the U.S. The documentary offers a tender examination of the last 15 months of a 76-year marriage. From watching the preview, I feared an emphasis on the cuteness of the elderly pair --and indeed, this small and sturdy couple (she nearing 90, he nearing 100) are adorable. But there is something much deeper happening here, and this depiction is best approached with reverence.
The film's opening scene is shot from a distance; we hear the woman sitting alone outdoors, sobbing softly. Having lost my own dearly loved life partner not long ago, the source of her sorrow immediately resonated. The camera lingers on her briefly, and then we flash back to happier times. The pair has returned after a brief time away to their small and tidy home by a river, a fair but walkable distance from the small town nearby, and she is fretting about the dirt and leaves that have accumulated in their absence. So much work to clean this, she complains. He offers to do it all, and she seems glad for the offer, though she keeps sweeping --until he starts tossing leaves at her. Why are you doing that? She complains, in annoyance -- but soon they are both tossing leaves at one another, he grinning and she still annoyed. Before long, he wanders off and gathers some flowers and easily wins her over by offering them to her, tucking them into her hair. She tucks some into his hair too, admires how handsome he is, and all is forgiven.
These sorts of playful scenes are not uncommon between them, and convey the affection and easy humor they share. The film observes them -- generally dressed in coordinated outfits that she has assembled -- gathering firewood, cooking and eating together, walking to the town to participate in a senior outing, enjoying the occasional visit from a smattering of their children and grandchildren, who cook and quarrel. It is obvious the pair takes great pleasure in each other's company. She nags and complains a bit, but he easily diffuses her. He revels in her cooking, accompanies her to the outhouse at night or to a doctor's visit, even when he isn't well himself, and sings to her when she is bored or afraid, and she always greets his voice with admiration.
I found myself wishing for photos of the two in their youth, particularly as they began to trickle little details of their lives together. She describes how they married when she was 14, but he refrained from touching her for several years because he didn't want to hurt her; they "really became husband and wife" only after she clearly signaled, with an embrace, that she was ready. I'm so grateful that he waited for me, she says. Later she mentions that she bore 12 children but only six of them lived to adulthood. That always made me so sad, she says in her understated way.
But the filmmaker resists our impulse toward youth; he clearly wants us to experience the couple in this period, weathered by the effects of age and struggle. We wince to hear his labored breathing and a worsening cough; watch them scramble precariously up to a likely familiar perch for viewing the river near their home; listen to her wistfully remind him of how strong he once was; watch him rub the misshapen knee that pains her or stroke her lined face as they prepare for sleep. There is a dawning sense that these two have suffered greatly; they have weathered many losses together, including the death of a dearly loved pet during the months of filming. They both weep as they manage to bury and mourn her -- a sure sign that they have continued to invest in love even knowing the inevitable pain of loss.
As I wept through so much of this film, I gradually recognized the significance of its depiction. I have often sensed that members of religious orders who live apart from society and engage in contemplative practice are performing some service that benefits the rest of us in ways we cannot see. I had the same sense about this couple; that in devoting 76 years to practicing and perfecting the art of loving each other, they have somehow managed to enrich us all in ways beyond what we can know. To watch and pay homage to such love is a worthy act of devotion.
This beautiful and wise film is in very limited release at the Livingroom Theater for a few more days, and will be available on iTunes at the end of this month.


[A version of this review appeared in the Portland Observer, here:]

In 1971, a young woman named Sarah Weddington argued Roe v. Wade before the U.S. Supreme Court. (Then age 26, she is still the youngest person to do such a thing.) By the time she argued the case, Norma McCorvey (known for case purposes as Jane Roe) had missed the window of time to obtain the abortion she had sought -- predictable from the outset, though perhaps not to McCorvey -- and the two women could hardly have approached the case from social locations that were more different. From the very beginning, the case meant different things to the two women, an example of the many divides of culture and privilege that have fueled and followed the landmark decision.
More than 40 years later, the 1973 decision that the two women and their collaborators obtained persists in dividing Americans more than almost any other issue. Yet we arguably have evolved not at all in our understanding of the social forces that drive the rifts between those who support and those who oppose abortion rights.
The Oregon Shakespeare Festival, as part of its American Revolutions cycle of plays exploring significant moments in American history, saw the opportunity to open up understanding by focusing on the remarkable stories of individuals engaged on all sides of this struggle -- beginning with McCorvey and Weddington, but not ending there. OSF commissioned playwright Lisa Loomer for the task, and she has found a way to grapple with a dazzling array of complex points of view on all sides of these issues and to accord them all dignity. The resulting production, beautifully directed by Bill Rauch and featuring a wise and stunning cast, plays in Ashland through the end of October.
The production is well-oriented to its times and places, beginning with Weddington's circle of second-wave feminist friends exploring "Our Bodies, Ourselves" and beginning to think strategically about how to advance issues of concern to women, concerns that men would never pursue. The play devotes some time to the social context in which Roe v. Wade arose, and the women leaders who drove it, many of whom, like Weddington, were just finding their voices in legal and political arenas that were hostile to women. The few women who had a shot at framing such efforts tended to be white and relatively privileged -- but they experienced such virulent marginalization that they did not consider themselves privileged, and often did not have much awareness of how burdens on reproductive rights might be experienced by women of color or other women who experienced more economic and educational disadvantages.
Of course, the case was decided by an all-male Supreme Court unaccustomed to addressing the dilemmas faced by women across the spectrum of relative privilege. Though not, strictly speaking, a courtroom drama, the play cannily stages a bit of Weddington's Supreme Court experience with recordings of the actual justices' questions, giving a flavor of how the decision came to be framed in a way that was subtly focused on the concerns of doctors and their medical judgments rather than the concerns and rights of women.
The play devotes equal time to McCorvey's interesting and circuitous story. A lesbian who sought an abortion when she was poor and lacking either a partner or family support, McCorvey was a survivor of trauma in her childhood and early adulthood. Though not well-educated, McCorvey displays a certain canny scrappiness that, at times, seems quite admirable; at other times, she seems a good example of the long-term effects of trauma and marginalization.
Both women are realized on stage with compassion and depth. Sara Bruner captures the ways in which McCorvey masks her suffering with bravado and can sometimes be blind toward her own and others' manipulations. The world has taught her one must grab for things, making her an easy target for people on all sides of the controversy surrounding abortion. Having met Weddington and heard her speak, I think Sarah Jane Agnew likewise has perfectly captured a mixture of strong will and reserve and a certain primness that characterizes Weddington and that makes sense given her social location. Where Weddington is poised and controlled, McCorvey is opportunistic and, though she can be rough around the edges, sometimes catches things that others miss. It is a mark of the skill of the writing and directing and acting on display that both women are portrayed with sympathy, even while we get a sense of their flaws and the limits of their perspectives.
The same is true for the rest of the cast, all of whom take on multiple roles. Particularly notable are Catherine Castellanos as McCorvey's steadfast longtime partner, a Latina who loves and adapts to McCorvey's many efforts to reinvent herself, and Jeffrey King, who invests a pastor prominent in Operation Rescue with believable conviction and dignity. Unlike so many conversations about abortion, this play proceeds with good awareness of the experiences of women of color, investing their particular concerns with significance, mindful of how rarely those concerns are reflected in conversations on either side of the issues.
The result is a masterwork of theater which keeps you riveted as it skillfully shifts, shifts, and shifts perspectives again and again throughout its two-and-a-half hour running time. For those of us who lived through these events, the play puts the pieces of memory together with illuminating angles on these stories, deepening your understanding of things you thought you already understood. And for younger audience members, this play offers context for understanding the historical and present-day stakes, awakening appropriate urgency and compassion.