Broadway on Film: Allegiance (2016) starring George Takei, Lea Salonga, & Telly Leung

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Kei, Grandpa, & Sammy arrive at the Heart Mountain internment camp 
Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. -George Santayana (1905), philosopher/writer
Allegiance ran on Broadway for 3 mos. during the Winter of 2015/2016, and was seen by 120,000 (which was the same number of Japanese-Americans rounded up and put in internment camps during WWII). The story is partly based on George Takei’s real life experience as a young child raised for 4 yrs in an Arkansas internment camp. Each night of its Broadway run, the veteran actor/activist/social media star, reserved a seat for (then presidential candidate) Donald Trump. Of course, Trump NEVER came to see the show! 
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The Kimura family at the dinner table.
This musical drama centers on the Kimuras, who are a close-knit farming family, yet individuals in their own right (who grow and change over the course of the play). They are sent to the Heart Mountain, Wyoming camp, which is the main setting of this story. There are armed men guarding them 24/7, a curfew is in effect at night, and the living conditions are VERY poor.   
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Sammy encourages the young people to think of ways to have fun in “Get in the Game.”
Sammy (Telly Leung, who has been chosen as the lead in Alladin) desperately wants to enlist in the army and show his allegiance to the U.S. His father says that this can never be, since they “have the face of the enemy.” BOTH men are quite stubborn! Sammy’s older sister, Kei (short for Keiko), serves as a mother-figure for him also. Kei (Lea Salonga, veteran actor/singer best known as Eponine in the original Les Mis) worries about Sammy’s future and takes care of Grandpa (Takei), who is missing his garden back home. 
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Grandpa creates an origami flower from the offensive loyalty questionnaire.
…after graduating from college, studying Asian American history, knowing about the civil rights era now– in a post-Vietnam War era– I think I would have done what Frankie did: You want me to fight as an American? Then treat me like an American! -Michael K. Lee
Kei (though she considers herself an “old maid”) forms a connection w/ Frankie Suzuki (Michael K. Lee), a law student from LA.  Since he’s a bachelor, Frankie has to share a cabin w/ 10 other men. His dark humor and sly wit are revealed in the rousing big band number Paradise. Frankie’s allegiance is to the Constitution; this character is based on (real life) activist Frank Emi.  I was quite impressed w/ this character; he seemed VERY fresh and modern!
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Sammy and Hannah joke and about their budding (forbidden) relationship.
Sammy and Hannah (a blonde, young Army nurse from Nebraska) become close while trying to get more medicine and supplies for the camp. They have a sweet duet (With You) which expresses their love, which is NOT safe to express.  The lyrics are simple, yet poignant; below is a sample. 
If I were with you, no one else could see us this way. -Sammy imagines
If I were with you, we would fight the world every day. -Hannah replies
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Sammy (center) with some of the men of the 442nd Combat Regiment
What can be done to end this imprisonment? Mike Masaoka (Greg Watanabe) of the Japanese Americans Citizens League (JACL) has been petitioning Congress to get his people freed. Perhaps in desperation, he proposes a loyalty test (“to root out the troublemakers”). Also, the able-bodied men MUST enlist (in a segregated unit, like the African-Americans) and take on the deadliest missions. (Masaoka was an actual person during this period in history.) Watanabe had older relatives in internment camps, as he noted in one of the behind-the-scenes interviews. I wanted to know MORE about this character!
Women weren’t just sitting around while the men faced danger. Kei and the camp’s women write letters to major newspapers and magazines to let the public know what’s going on. Kei goes after what she wants and becomes a stronger woman, as we see in Higher- a pivotal song for her character and showcasing Salonga’s powerful vocals.
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A banner ad featuring Sammy, Hannah, and a quote from the Washington Post review
In SOME ways, this play is quite traditional for Broadway- love stories, generational conflicts, song and dance. In other ways, it is groundbreaking- a cast of mainly Asian-Americans (incl. those of Chinese, Japanese, Filipino, and Korean ancestry); a Japanese-Canadian director (who had relatives in similar camps in Canada); a Chinese-American co-writer; a female orchestra leader, etc. In this current political climate, this story is a cautionary tale, NOT merely entertainment. Should we prove our worth by standing by our country, no matter what (like Sammy)? Or should we resist the unfair laws being proposed, even risking prison (like Frankie)? 
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A United Kingdom (2017) starring David Oyelowo & Rosamund Pike

NOTE: This review contains MILD SPOILERS for the film.

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A poster for the film.

The personal IS political in this (based on a true story) film now playing widely in the US.  I went to a  screening last MON night (thanks to free passes via a movie Meetup).  The director is Amma Asante; she previously made a big splash w/ Belle.  This film has some of the same themes, BUT is set on a much broader/grander stage.  The setting is 1947 in London, a place and time when interracial relationships were legal, yet NOT widely viewed positively.  You’ll see old-school racism in some scenes, which could be uncomfortable for a modern audience. 

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Ruth (Rosamund Pike) and Seretse (David Oyelowo) walk and talk the night away in foggy London.

Seretse Khama (Oyelowo), the crown prince of Bechunaland (modern-day Botswana), has recently finished his law studies at Oxford.  He is articulate, cultured, and a good boxer (which comes in handy in one scene).  One night, Seretse meets Ruth Williams (Rosamund Pike), a clerk for an insurance company.  She wasn’t expecting to meet anyone special when she tagged along w/ her little sister, Muriel (Laura Carmichael- Lady Edith in Downton Abbey), to a dance at a missionary hall. Ruth is a former WAAF ambulance driver and has a curious mind. They bond first over their idealistic views and love of jazz.

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Ruth and Seretse after their civil (city hall) wedding.

No man is free who is not master of himself.Seretse Khama says to his tribe (when he returns home from England)

At that time, Bechunaland (a small, peaceful, yet poor nation) was a protectorate of England. The British government (incl. its reps, like Alistair Canning, played by Jack Davenport) was against the union of the Khamas, which went against the wishes of Seretse’s uncle (the prince regent) and South Africa (which had recently put apartheid into law). Seretse and his African friends consider apartheid as a “disease” which should NOT be allowed to spread.

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Alistair Canning (Jack Davenport) and his wife (Jessica Oyelowe, real-life wife of David).

There is exposition woven into the film; that can be clunky, BUT is needed to give the audience pertinent info.  Anton Lesser’s Labour Party minister does a GREAT job w/ it in his (brief) scene, thanks to his deft way of conveying the words.  I wanted to see a BIT more of the British minor characters, such as the journalist (Mr. Nash) and the liberal Labour Party members.  As for the African actors, the woman playing Seretse’s sister did an especially good job.  

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A picture of the real Seretse and Ruth Khama in what is now modern-day Botswana.

As with Belle, the film is beautiful to look at visually. In the first section of the film (set-up/courtship), we see fog, clouds, and less saturation (b/c of the filter used).  This is quite different from what we see when we go to Africa; the colors are much more vibrant and the sun (of course) shines brightly. 

In my mind, this is NOT only a story of love, BUT one of commitment, which is becoming more and more rare in today’s world (no matter what race/national origin of a couple).  In Seretse’s life, his marriage w/ Ruth was what propelled him into a fight with the British government, securing mineral rights for his people, and eventually- forming a democracy. Wow, this is SO much cooler than what went down w/ Edward and Wallis Simpson, right?     

 

Hidden Figures (2017) starring Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, & Janelle Monae

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A poster for the movie Hidden Figures

NOTE: This review contains SPOILERS for the film.

This is a crowd-pleasing Hollywood movie (which I saw w/ my mom 2 wks ago), BUT about a subject we’ve NEVER heard about- three professional African-American (then referred to as “Negro”) women at NASA in the ’60s. ALL the ladies give strong performances here; they have strong chemistry that makes their long-time friendship seem real. At the center is Katherine Coleman (Taraji P. Henson of Empire)- a former child prodigy, widow, mom of 3 young daughters, and mathematician. Her mind works fast, BUT working w/ the team of engineers (under Al Harrison- Kevin Costner in a low-key performance) prepping for the first manned rocket launch IS a challenge. Katherine grows in her job, gaining confidence and respect (even from racist senior engineer Paul Stafford- Jim Parsons of The Big Bang Theory).

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Katherine works out the math for a future rocket launch.

In some ways, the film is traditional, esp. how the problems are wrapped up quite nicely. We get the feeling that MAYBE Mary Jackson’s (Janelle Monae) hubby, Levi (Aldis Hodge- star of Underground), is NOT all in for his wife working such long hours and becoming an engineer. However, there are moments where you want to cheer, b/c these ladies are succeeding w/ SO much stacked against them (in a segregated South- Langley, VA). Even going to the bathroom is a hassle, since the “colored” restroom is located on the other side of the large campus!

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Katherine surrounded by her coworkers (all white and male) engineers.

This story would NOT have been told w/o the 2014 book upon which it’s based by Margot Lee Shetterly. She is the daughter of a NASA engineer (her dad); she also grew up in the same town as these “human computers.” As a youngster, Shetterley knew these ladies as neighbors and fellow churchgoers. Yes, we are in the time before IBM was a household name, though eventually Dorothy Vaughn (Octavia Spencer) learns FORTRAN to program the new computer.  

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Col. John Glenn (Glen Powell) meets Katherine Johnson.

Don’t worry, you don’t have to be a math/science/history nerd to LOVE this film. (I personally liked the historical elements, esp. the clothes and cars.) One of my fave elements was the slow burn romance between Katherine and a National Guardsman, Major Jim Johnson (Mahershala Ali- also in Moonlight). “It’s very rare to see a black man pursuing a black woman” (as was discussed on the JAN 25th Slate Culture Gabfest). Henson and Ali have great chemistry. The surprise proposal/family dinner scene had me in tears!

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The “computers” gather around the TV to watch Col. Glenn’s historic launch.

Films like this are important, esp. today when certain world leaders are trying to close-up borders, restrict (legal) immigration, and creating unease (in anyone who isn’t straight/ white/Republican/ male). Why NOT take the example of astronaut John Glenn (Glen Powell) in this film?  According to historians (and his contemporaries), Glenn was considered “ahead of his time” when it came to race relations. Though one of the white women supervisors tried to rush him inside, Glenn (who later became an Ohio senator) walked over to where the black computers were standing in the welcome line; they shook hands and chatted briefly. Without the combined work on dozens of black women, he would never have gone into space!