movies

10 Books, Movies That Explore The American Experience

Over the past month or so,  I’ve read — or watched — a wide range of material exploring the American Way.

Here are 10 works I recommend:

1. Glass House by Brian Alexander: I learned about this book from What’s Nonfiction (read review here) and was several pages into the book before I realized that I’ve been to Lancaster, Ohio multiple times in the past year (the story’s setting). It is the town where I dine after a day of hiking at Hocking Hills. Although the financial aspect of the book is too complicated for my tastes, the societal implications of the economic downturn hits close to home. The book deals with the heroin epidemic and the town leaders inability to solve their economic depravity. The obsession of Lancaster’s leaders with poorly thought out solutions (like festivals and tourism) for their economic demise felt very familiar.

2. Dream Land: This is an excellent book to better understand how states like Ohio became an easy target for the heroin trade. Dealers, mostly from small, rural regions of Mexico, swooped in and profited off the consumer base created through opioid prescriptions. The lack of violence in Ohio (and other states east of the Mississippi River) is by design as customer service and a pizza-delivery style approach — plus a keen awareness of law enforcement’s desire for ‘big busts’ — kept the heroin market thriving.

3. Don’t Let Your Kids Kill You: A manual of sorts for parents who have children dealing with drug addiction. The book offers insight into the signs and problems of addictions while offering methods on maintaining a high quality of life for the non-addicted.

4. Tears We Cannot Stop: Sermon to White America. Black minister Michael E. Dyson touches on everything from Black Lives Matters to the hypocrisy of the Tea Party, which he astutely notes, read, on the House floor, a modified version of the Constitution (avoiding the article about slaves being 3/5ths human) when they came to power in 2010. The book offers a strongly argued viewpoint that’s America’s ‘whiteness’ is part of our problem in the current era.

5. The Complacent Class by Tyler Cowen: Several books have addressed the issue of how American communities are becoming more segregated by class and income in addition to race. But this book also looks at the impact this segregation is having on politics and our democracy. The lack of mobility of the current generation has left us economically and politically vulnerable, the author asserts.

Movies

6. Warning: This Drug Can Kill You: In this hour-long HBO Documentary you meet several families from across the country dealing with various degrees of the heroin epidemic. The movie begins with 1990s footage of a pharmaceutical company falsely claiming that opioids are non-addictive. The movie ends with a law enforcement agency that, in lieu of criminalization, have an open door policy to place willing heroin addicts into rehab centers. Very powerful stories from ‘real’ people dealing with the fallout of an epidemic created by an under-regulated industry.

7. Friends of God: Filmed in 2006 by Alexandra Pelosi, daughter of Nancy Pelosi, the slant is obvious. The story is interesting as she criss-crosses the country highlighting churches and church signs while interviewing powerful ministers. Although not the goal of the film, it does show the mindset (Vote your Values) that willingly voted for president Trump and why they are doubling-down despite his less than Christian tactics.

8. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks: Although the film was a little disappointing since the story is quite powerful, it is still a quick way to learn about the rise of the bio-medical industry. Cells extracted from Henrietta Lacks, without her consent, have resulted in cures, cutting-edge medicines and billions of dollars in profit. Lacks, a poor, black woman was never compensated for — what amounts to legalized theft of — her cells. And, as the film points out, it is still legal to extract cells from a patient without their consent.

9. I Am Not Your Negro: Based on a unfinished project by black novelist James Baldwin, the film is mostly a look at America’s hypocritical whiteness. Although there is plenty to comment on about the film, one of the most powerful effects for me was how they zoomed in on historical photos of school integration. By zooming past the black teen or child heading to school and highlighting the expressions on the faces of white children, teens and adults, it is very disheartening to realize those same intense expressions of hate exist today, more than 50 years later.

10. All The Way: This is another HBO film, and it is about LBJ’s campaign for the presidency. LBJ was renown for his crudeness, which the film includes, but the movie is really an excellent condensed version of 1964 — LBJ’s first full year as president. It shows how, even then, politicians were more concerned about wielding power than democracy. Be forewarned, for those tired of the current political debacle, it will not be pleasant film, and it may reinforce budding cynicism.

Categories: American History, Books I have read, movies

‘Most Hated Woman In America’ Condensed Version Of Madalyn Murray O’Hair’s Life

Growing up in an evangelical church I was very familiar with the story of Madalyn Murray O’Hair and her signature Supreme Court case that led to the dismissal of prayer in school. And I vaguely remembered her murder in 1995, but did not remember who committed the crime.

So I watched a short film about her life.

Despite a handful of well-known actors, I would give this Netflix original film a B-/C+ because it has a tabloid feel to it and it focuses mostly on her dark side. The storyline is about her kidnapping and murder so it moves forward in an ‘against the clock’ method by counting down the days until her death. Scenes from the motel are used to pull in the backstory of her life — which in many ways, and on many angles, was deeply troubled.

One of the more interesting aspects of the movie was the Rev. Bob Harrington and Madalyn O’Hair debate which was featured on the Phil Donahue show. The pair realized they had a ‘million-dollar idea’ and took the debate on the road — a profitable move for them.

And, as you will learn in the movie, it’s not her atheism that lead to her death. It’s much more American than that — it’s greed.

Bottom Line: Since the film does not delve very deeply into O’Hair’s life, it is perfect for anyone wanting to know the gist of why Life Magazine called her the ‘Most Hated Woman in America’ in 1964.

Categories: American History, movies

1970 Sean Connery Film Romanticizes Militant U.S. Labor Organization

molly-mcguiresThe history of coal mines in America is filled with a lot of violence — unrest that many Americans know little about. The industry spawned war-like actions by workers and owners — from the Blair Mountain incident to a tent city in Colorado where machine guns were turned on American men, women and children.

In the 1970 film, The Molly Mcguires, Sean Connery plays the leader of a group of men in Pennsylvania fighting back against oppressive coal mine owners. However, they are not fighting back in the typical manner of the day (1876) by going on strike. They engage in acts of war, bombing trains, blowing up mines and assaulting company officers.

As Wikipedia explains, the Molly Maguires were

an Irish 19th-century secret society active in Ireland, Liverpool and parts of the eastern United States, best known for their activism among Irish-American and Irish immigrant coal miners in Pennsylvania. After a series of often violent conflicts, twenty suspected members of the Molly Maguires were convicted of murder and other crimes…

The film is about two hours long and is typical of its era. Of course, there has to be at least one bar room fight — which has an old ‘western’ feel to it. Despite being a period piece, it is a decent overview of the organization, and it shows, fairly accurately, what led to their demise.

The movie is available online and at Amazon.

For those interested in a more in-depth work, consider the Oxford University Press publication Making Sense of the Molly Maguires by Kevin Kenny.

Categories: movies