Moonlighting (1982) – Polish Working Class Comes Full Circle

Moonlighting (the movie not the insipid television show) by Jerzy Skolimowski where Jeremy Irons plays an illegal Polish worker in London is a story that foretold the Polish working class of the 20th century. For better plot analysis and a better marxist reading of class struggle and conflict between capitalists and communists, I’d refer you to this:

Moonlighting is a deceptively simple movie. At the end of 1981, just before General Wojciech Jaruzelski declared martial law on December 13, four Polish construction workers, Banaszak, Kudaj, Wolski, and Nowak fly from Warsaw to London on a tourist visa to renovate a town house for a man referred to only as “the boss.” By hiring Poles and paying them in Zloties, Nowak explains, the boss can get his house in London for a quarter of what it would have cost to hire English workers and pay them in pounds. On the surface, it looks like a good deal for the four men. They get a trip to London. They get paid above the rate they would be getting paid back in Poland. They each get a 20 pound bonus. But the devil is in the details. “The Boss” has given Nowak 1250 pounds for expenses. It sounds like a lot of money. Nowak remarks that it’s more than he’d earn in 25 years in Poland. The problem is that the 1250 pounds must cover not only building supplies, but food, clothing, entertainment, and the 80 pounds Nowak will need to pay the four 20 pound bonuses. Technically it should be enough, but there’s no margin for error. The slightest mistake means they come up short.

Jeremy Irons, a quintessential Brit in real life, has transformed himself brilliantly into a Polish migrant worker: anxious, insecure (financially and emotionally) and always having to think three steps ahead so he and his crew don’t go under. He underwent this transformation without resorting to crude stereotypes of Eastern Europeans yet he doesn’t come across as a Brit pretending to be a Pole either, he is thoroughly convincing as a Polish migrant worker. It’s one of his best films yet so few people have heard about this movie.

The movie was set in 1981 which was 23 years before Poland joined the European Union. Poland was given a special waiver so Polish workers did not have to wait the obligatory 7 years before they are allowed to travel to another EU country for work. The difference between the migration of the Polish worker in 2004 and 1981 is in 2004 they could do so legally. Any Pole can book a flight to Germany, France, the UK or any place in the EU they like for the sole purpose of work and they need not have a job lined up in advance to be allowed to make that move. They will immediately have legal residency and can access nearly all of the services of the citizens of that country. One of the premises of the establishment of the EU is free movement of labor to create a more competitive market. By 2015, over 831,000 people living in the UK are born in Poland, they’ve surpassed India as the largest group of foreign born residents in the UK. Many Poles have also resettled in the UK permanently and a second generation of Polish-British children are being born to these emigrants.

Particularly in the case of the UK and Poland, this exchange of labor and capital was welcomed. Many Poles were desperate to get out of Poland and go to UK to earn a living, most importantly, they earn their wages in Sterling, which when converted back to Zlotys is quite a lot. For the British, Polish workers, especially in the technical trades such as plumbing, electrical work and building have similar skill proficiency as British workers, but without the high wages and possible hassle of dealing with British trade unions and British builders. Polish workers will work overtime and on weekends without much complaint.

The EU referendum for Brexit on June 23, 2016, the UK decided to leave the European Union. There reasons were many but on the part of the Leave campaign, emigration was a huge part of the reason for leaving the EU. Many British people feel that the open borders and free movement of labor had gone too far, and with the major economies in the single currency and single market collapsing, many Europeans migrants chose to go to the UK for work. Though not explicitly stated, the large number of Polish emigrants to the UK had become too much of a good thing. They were undercutting the wages of Britons and while the Polish working class are getting ahead in Britain, the conditions of the British working class have gotten more desperate. There were also huge debates about emigrants using the NHS and claiming benefits and contributing to the budget deficit (which upon closer examination and research, EU migrants claim lesser benefits than Britons).

Had Nowak and his men been born a generation later, they could have come to England to renovate the town home of “the boss” legally, with some protections from the law. They could have demanded to be paid in Sterling and Nowak’s crew would have had recourses when Nowak was detaining them against their will inside a London town home. Nowak and his men were the precursor to the legal migration in 2004. Poles also came to the UK for better jobs, better wages to support their families back in Poland. Poland on the other hand, was happy to export their unemployment to richer Western EU countries. Poland is only a short plane ride away, unlike Mexican, Central American or Filipino migrants in the United States – where going home isn’t an option because they can’t safely return, Polish emigrants can visit their families any time they like. They can enter and exit any EU country safely, the set up is perfect for someone to go to the UK to work and send money home every month but not lose the connection with their families.

Moonlighting is about the concept of solidarity (or lack of in this case) amongst the proletariat; but it can be expanded to include solidarity of all the proletariat of the world. In order for the Revolution to succeed, the proletariat must recognize who the class enemy is and find solidarity to fight that enemy together. Nowak certainly showed no solidarity with his fellow proletariats, in the end he was stealing from their wages too. The three men who played Nowak’s working crew had no lines in English (the plot of the story is Nowak is the only one who speaks English), a few lines in Polish, but besides being the muscle in the renovation job, they had no other purpose, they were the average worker looking for work everyday; there are millions like them, not just in Europe but all over the world. Except just when you are about to write them off as just workers who only know how to follow and not lead, they kick the the living daylights out of Nowak when they find out that he kept the very important news of Poland being under marshal law declared by General Wojciech Jaruzelski from them. It was a well deserved thrashing.

Jerzy Skolimowski argues that the biggest oppressor of the workers is not capitalism, but each other. Given a chance to get ahead, any worker will grab the opportunity by the horns and gladly sell his fellow worker with whom he’s worked alongside with many years down the river; and it doesn’t even have to be for a lot of money. This is probably how the British working class view the Polish emigrants who undercut their wages which would then help destroy what’s little left of their unions. If capitalists can hire a lot of workers to do the same job and a fraction of the cost why bother negotiating with trade unions?

But I argue that it is precisely of capitalism that forces workers to treat each other this way. It’s the classic divide and conquer. Capitalists toss a few crumbs to a few workers to get the other workers in line. These ‘crumbs’ are mere pocket change to the capitalist, they won’t miss it but to the proletariat, it’s everything. It is capitalism that destroys solidarity of the people, not the other way around. Confucius said before we lecture people about having good morals, they must first have warm shelter and food in their bellies; hence it is why poverty is the worst kind of violence. It makes good people desperate, forces them to do desperate things to feed themselves and their families, things they normally would not do had they had their basic needs met.

If Nowak had a child, his child would be eligible to legally emigrate to the UK for employment, but with the Brexit referendum of 2016, Nowak’s grandchild could possibly face expulsion from the country that they were born and raised and consider home; modern events have again proven, ‘the workingman has no father land.’ Polish emigrants who’ve settled in the UK for over 20 years may be forced to uproot again and go back to Poland where there are probably no jobs waiting for them and they’ve grown accustomed to British lifestyle. The Polish working class of the 20th century with their relationship to the UK labor market have come full circle.

Winter’s Bone (2010)

In this last election, Hillary Clinton supporters went out of its way to convince voters that rural poor white America doesn’t exist, and if it does, it’s their own fault. They failed to capitalize on their ‘white privilege’ and make something of themselves. Instead they choose to regress to their sexist and racist past and voted for Donald Trump instead. And if the consequence of voting for Trump results in them losing their medical subsidies, food stamp subsidies, or whatever little welfare the government gives them, it’s their fault too. They deserve to die, because they chose the arrogant ferret who told them what they wanted to hear over the arrogant neoliberal warmonger who looks down on them.

Winter’s Bone was released five years before Anne Case and Angus Deaton’s study, Rising morbidity and mortality in midlife among white non-Hispanic Americans in the 21st century, which talks about the exact demographic Winter’s Bone depicts.

It is set in the Arkansas Ozark Mountains (home state of President Bill Clinton), a rural, poor, decaying farming community where the main economy isn’t farming but meth cooking. They are the hill-billy version of Walter White from Breaking Bad. It stars a pre-Hunger Games fame Jennifer Lawrence as Ree Dolly, a seventeen year old high school student who lives with her mother and younger brother and sister. Her mother is mentally ill and has been prescribed heavy doses of medications which don’t work. She is a zombie, rarely speaks and is incapable of fulfilling her parenting duties. Ree has become her caretaker, and the caretaker of her younger siblings. They are destitute, they’d be going hungry if their neighbor Sonya didn’t share her meat and vegetables with them. The small circle of kin and neighbors are aware of Ree’s plight and most try to help out in small ways by slipping her an odd $20 bill here and there. The only thing the Dolly family has of any value is their house and woods attached to it.

Ree Dolly gets a visit from the sheriff one morning asking if she’s seen her father Jessup Dolly recently. She says she hadn’t seen him in years. He is a well known meth cooker in the area and has been arrested and jailed multiple times. The sheriff proceeded to inform her that for his last arrest, he made bail by using their house as collateral and if he doesn’t show up for his court hearing in a few days, the bail bonds man will come and seize their home and they’ll will be homeless.

Ree begins a frantic search for her father, calling on all the people who might have seen him recently, starting with her father’s brother Uncle Teardrop. She was met with hostility from Teardrop Dolly and he grabbed her by the neck and told her to drop the whole thing and don’t go looking for her dad. She ignored that and then went on to all the other kin (it is implied in that small Ozark mountain community are all related to each other somehow). She even tracks down her dad’s former mistress, the mistress said she saw her dad a few weeks ago but he was with some shady people she’s never seen before and that was the last she heard of him. Every other person (other meth cookers she knows her dad associated with) all slammed the door in her face saying they can’t help, even when she is in this desperate situation. And she was warned repeatedly by very dangerous and powerful local people to ‘drop it’. Her uncle Teardrop finally told her that in his last arrest, Jessup Dolly was facing 10 years prison and he couldn’t face that, so he became a police informant, a snitch. And Teardrop was just trying to distance himself from his brother so that he doesn’t get killed. When Ree learned that her father became a police snitch she is almost certain he had been killed. And if she can provide proof to the police and the bail bond company that her father was dead and therefore cannot show up to court, she’d keep their house.

Despite repeated warnings to not go near the town’s main drug lord, Thump Milton to inquire about her father’s whereabouts, she didn’t heed that warning. Since he won’t open his door to her, she went and sought him out at a public place, at the cattle auction market to get his attention. This action forced the women (as per hilly-billy honor code, you don’t snitch and men don’t harm women) associated with Thump Milton to beat up Ree Dolly. A bunch of middle aged women dragged a 17 year old by her hair and beat her to a pulp. Then as they stood around to discuss what should happen to this wayward teen who can’t follow simple instructions (and the option of killing her was discussed). Ree, bloodied, swollen and bruised said, “you can help me, have you thought of that”? At this moment her uncle Teardrop showed up and ‘saved’ her by saying his niece will be his responsibility and she won’t talk.

The most heartbreaking scenes in the movie is not when she gets beaten to a pulp, or when her uncle gets violent with her, or when various members of the community instead of trying to help her stay in her home offer to take in one of her siblings and splitting up the family; or even the middle age men leering lecherously at her hoping to take advantage of her plight. The most heartbreaking scenes are when she begs her mother to help her to decide whether they should sell the valuable woods behind their property before the bail bond company take everything or should they try to fight the bail bond company? She tells her medicated catatonic mother “please help me, just this one time, please”. She is a child begging her mother to be a parent. The second heartbreaking scene is when the same women that beat Ree to a pulp decide to help and bring her to the body of her father. He is thrown in a shallow watery grave in the middle nowhere, in the middle of winter. The women brought a chainsaw with them with the purpose of cutting off the hands of Jessup Dolly to give to the police to run fingerprints, proving that he’s dead. They told Ree to do it, she couldn’t, so she held her father’s corpse so they can cut off his hands. After this gruesome task was done, Ree shed a tear. It was tears of loss of her father, who was a criminal and abandoned them but her father nonetheless (the audience was not informed what kind of father he was before he disappeared), the final reckoning that she is now truly alone, a young girl with her sick mother and two younger siblings, she has no more male protection. We are reminded in these two scenes that Ree is just a child herself. She desperately needs her parents but they are missing in action, and for whatever reasons are unable to step up to their responsibilities. The burden on her young shoulders is too much for a 17 year old to bear. She got their house back and even got back some much needed cash because an anonymous person used cash to put up a portion of her dad’s bond as the deed to their home was insufficient. So, for the time being, they will not be made homeless, and with their criminal father out of the way, life could go on. But the stark reality is, unless she puts her mother in an institution and moves out of the Ozarks with her younger siblings, in twenty years time, she will turn into the hardened middle aged women who beat her up. Her little brother could become a criminal like their father, her younger sister could be pregnant before she is out of her teens.

She, like them, will realize there are no real opportunities besides back breaking farm work and cooking meth. Eventually, out of survival, she will somehow get involved with meth cooking, even if she doesn’t become addicted herself. In a scene with her uncle Teardrop, he takes out a bag of white powdery substance and puts it up nose right in front of his young niece (drug use is a way of life, there’s no need to conceal it from young children), he asks her ‘have you developed a taste for this yet’? She said ‘no, not yet.’ He gave her a knowing look saying you will one day. It’s inevitable if you choose to stay in the Ozarks. The contrast of Jennifer Lawrence’s face with that of her co-stars couldn’t have been more different. Lawrence still had the cherubic youthful looks of a teenager, even if an overburdened one, there is still hope, sincerity and kindness in her eyes and heart. But one day, the deep lines of a life of hardship, bitterness, of being left behind by everyone else around them will show on her face, like all the others.

This small Ozark mountain community is not unique. There are hollowed out communities like this in America everywhere, known as sacrifice zones. These are the people that liberals and neoliberals wrote off en mass as a surplus of useless people, the sooner they disappear the better it is for everyone. These are white working folks, they had their chance to make it, but they blew it, so now they need to go away. They are unwanted, unneeded, unnecessary. This little movie staring the future A-list superstar Jennifer Lawrence drew almost no attention from the public, though she was nominated for an Oscar for the role and this movie paved her way to her Hunger Games stardom (another movie about a teenager sacrificing herself for her younger sibling).

The story, the script, the excellent cast of characters in this small, dreary film about rural poverty and crime in the Ozark Mountains is more contemporary of the times than any big budget movie from Hollywood can offer.

Straight Outta Compton (2015)

Fuck the police coming straight from the underground
A young nigga got it bad cause I’m brown
And not the other color so police think
They have the authority to kill a minority
Fuck that shit, cause I ain’t the one
For a punk motherfucker with a badge and a gun
To be beating on, and thrown in jail
We can go toe to toe in the middle of a cell
Fucking with me cause I’m a teenager
With a little bit of gold and a pager
Searching my car, looking for the product
Thinking every nigga is selling narcotics
You’d rather see, me in the pen
Than me and Lorenzo rolling in a Benz-o

Fuck tha Police by NWA 

I avoided watching this film because it is too close to home. I grew up about less than one hour away from Compton California but it might as well be another planet. The children of the middle class suburbs of California know of a place called Compton but it’s to be avoided at all costs. Nice middle class children have no business going to Compton. Anyone who has ‘business’ or acquaintances in Compton is seen as suspect. You only go to Compton for nefarious reasons, you are asking to be mugged, carjacked, shot or killed.

The stereotype of Compton as a gang infested place where it’s an open battle field between the various gangs, when in truth the biggest gang out is the Los Angeles Police Department. As middle class and rich kids were getting high and getting up to no good in the suburbs and behind mansion gates, the LAPD chose to go after poor black families in Compton. Compton is an urban wasteland. Jobs are few, high school drop out rates are high, teenage pregnancy rates are high and premature death rate is also high. A great many people in Compton depend on some sort of public assistance to get by and high school students are often bussed to better school districts to attend high school. O’Shea Jackson (aka Ice Cube) , member of NWA was one of those students. It was a place where people went to rot or be killed, either by gangs or police. There are no hopes and dreams for the residents of Compton, except to get out of Compton and move on to greener pastures. It is no different with NWA.

NWA (Niggaz with Attitude) were born of this environment. They were all boys who were forced to grow up too fast and saw too much in their young lives. In order to survive they adopted the gang culture, the rules of their society. It’s not always pleasant or pretty but it was kill or be killed, there’s no middle ground. While rival gangs battle it out on the streets, they knew who their real enemy is, who the real gangster is. And that’s the brutal fascist force known as the LAPD. Their environment was not such if you stayed out of trouble cops will leave you alone, no, the cops went out of their way to look for trouble when there was none. But the boys of NWA are lucky, they lived to tell the tale. Michael Brown of Ferguson Missouri wasn’t so lucky, neither was Laquan McDonald of Chicago. The cops in Los Angeles during the late 80s weren’t so brazen to open fire and kill people in broad daylight, yet. They have no problem roughing them up, pushing them to the ground, smacking them around, maybe break a few bones; but to put bullets in the back of someone’s head as they are running away? Not yet. As a result, the members of NWA: O’Shea Jackson (Ice Cube) Andre Young (Dr. Dre), Eazy-E (Eric Wright), DJ Yella (Antoine Carraby), MC Ren (Lorenzo Patterson) and Arabian Prince (Kim Renard Razel) lived to tell the tale and released their controversial and brilliant album Straight Outta Compton. We all recognize the jam of Fuck tha Police when we hear it, but few really took those words seriously.

Straight Outta Compton doesn’t glorify gang life or made it seem like one easy cake ride or even seen as anything cool or to aspire to. It showed the gritty heartbreaking side of living in gang infested neighborhoods, where no one cares if you lived or died. But it fell short in driving home the radical message of the convergence of capitalism and the necessity of the police state. Ice Cube being the most radical member of the group, had no problem giving it straight, telling it like it is. He doesn’t sugar coat his words or actions. He was accused of anti-Semitism when he mentioned the ethnicity of their former manager in a response to a ‘diss song’, when asked if he was “anti-Jew” he said no, he’s just anti the one Jew Jerry Heller. When a record executive failed pay Ice Cube his royalties at the promised time, after releasing a successful album and after informing the executive that he’s just purchased a home and has a child on the way, and after trying to reason with the record executive and only to get blown off with corporate bullshit (“I am sorry, I love to help but my hands are tied”), Ice Cube comes back with a baseball bat and smashed all of the glass office furniture in the record executive’s office. Ice Cube saw him for what he was, just another thug in a fancy suit inside a fancy office suite, so he reacted like a thug from the streets of Compton not to be messed with. He got his check.

Dr. Dre showed his entrepreneurial side early. He saw the potential for rap music going mainstream before the other group members did. The others originally wanted to make music for the ‘hood. Dr. Dre in Eazy-E saw raw lyrical talent, who could write and produce great rhymes. The members of NWA were a gang of brothers, childhood friends from a rough neighborhood, who were going to tell people outside of Compton what it was like growing up in Compton. But like every monkey wrench in a movement, someone always comes in to divide and conquer. Talent agent Jerry Heller spotted Eazy-E’s talent right away and decided to be his manager only. Through that arrangement Heller could take a bigger piece the pie and he convinced Eazy-E to stall the other guys for as long as he can so they can keep the early profits of the album Straight Outta Compton to themselves longer. Immediately Ice Cube and Dr. Dre knew something wasn’t right, but being a businessman Dr. Dre didn’t want to rock the boat at the wrong time, in the middle of the rise, Ice Cube got into a few verbal confrontations with Heller about a management contract where he would see a piece of the royalties as he’s also wrote a lot of lyrics to their most popular songs including Fuck tha Police; but he was blown off with “it’s being worked on”. But he also bid his time, taking Dr. Dre’s advice.

Heller sand bagged until the other members of NWA were so desperate for a paycheck and that was when he presented each member with a paltry check along with a ‘contract’ of their future earnings. To get the check, all they had to do was ‘sign the contract’. Every one of them signed except for Ice Cube. Dr. Dre knew better than to sign but he had a young child at the time he needed to support and saw no other option. Ice Cube left the group after the promotional tour for Straight Outta Compton and signed with another label and became a successful rapper, actor and producer in his own right. Dr. Dre enlisted the help of the notorious and infamous Suge Knight to look over his contract and realized that he’d been screwed. Suge Knight used his muscle to get Dr. Dre out of that contract and he and Dr. Dre started Death Row Records. While Eazy-E may have looked like he got the best deal, we later find out that wasn’t the case either, his funds were mismanaged by Jerry Heller and he was signing checks and documents without reading them. Eazy-E for a while lost touch with his best friends, which is hard for the sensitive Eazy-E to bear and he later finds out Jerry Heller had been misusing his earnings too, he fired Jerry Heller before his death. NWA, for all their street smarts and raw artistic talent and even natural business acumen, had no knowledge about how contracts were enforced and executed. Never mind not having a law degree, most of them didn’t even graduate high school. When they wanted to consult their own lawyer before signing, Jerry Heller talked them out of it.

Jerry Heller is the sleazy capitalist, dividing and conquering the solidarity of the workers for his own benefit and gain. One of the most compelling scenes in the movie is when they were recording the Straight Outta Compton album in Torrance (a middle class neighborhood of Los Angeles) and while on a smoke break someone called the cops on them, saying there were suspicious gang member looking men loitering outside. A black sergeant showed with with 2 other white cops. The black cop, perhaps he is showing off to his white colleagues and decided to ride the boys of NWA even harder than the white cop. He demanded that they face down on ground and be cuffed and patted down and verbally abused the boys. It was none other than Jerry Heller who came to their rescue. A white man rescuing young black men from the jackboot of a fascist black cop. But that same white man is scheming against young men he’s trying to rescue at the same time. The workers face oppression from both ends, the capitalist and the police force which enforces the capitalist system.

The first half of the movie carried the message of how capitalism doesn’t foster creativity and growth, it kills it via divide and conquer. The climax of the movie is when NWA was warned by Detroit PD that if they perform the song Fuck tha Police, they’d all be arrested and jailed for inciting a riot. The police were more concerned about their reputation and not about keeping the peace at the concert venue. Of course no one in the audience was going to incite a riot over that song, the police was going to incite a riot and make it look like NWA did it. No self-respecting artists would adhere to those demands, so not only did NWA perform Fuck tha Police, they performed with extra passion. In that sequence we see  police departments for what it is, just another cog in the capitalism machine. Soldier men carrying out orders for the capitalists to protect their interests and property. The authority of the police only work if the general public accepts and respects the authority, otherwise they are just a bunch of assholes with a gun and badge and someone else with a gun can overpower them retaliate. Police departments do not exist to protect and serve the general public, just the rich against the poor.

The second half of the 2 hour and 30 minute movie went against what the first half was trying to portray. The second half of the movie depicts how Dr. Dre started his own successful label after leaving NWA with Suge Knight, but when things went really wrong with Death Row Records (due to illegal activities of Knight) he was smart enough to walk away with nothing. He let Suge Knight keep all the artists, their contracts, masters and future earnings. The movie didn’t say so, but Suge Knight is long known to be a LAPD informant, a snitch; going against him can bring on serious trouble for yourself. Dr. Dre decided it was better to start over than to get dumped in a ditch somewhere. Fast forward to 2017, Dr. Dre is a superstar producer and multi-millionaire, Ice Cube is a well respected actor, rapper and producer and a millionaire. Eazy-E tragically died of AIDS in 1995 but before he died he reconnected and made up with his old friends from the hood, after he fired Jerry Heller and reformed NWA.

One note about the actor who played Ice Cube in the movie. He bore an uncanny resemblance to the real Ice Cube, even the timbre of his voice, the way he spoke, down to the minute mannerisms; it was as if Ice Cube himself went back 25 years in time to play a younger version of himself. When the movie was over and the credits rolled, it turns out it was O’Shea Jackson Jr aka Ice Cube Jr who played the role of his father. Jackson Jr didn’t just mimic his father in the movie, he transformed into his father.

The members of NWA didn’t set out to be radicals or even controversial, they just wanted to tell their truth to the world. They warned us about the abuses of police in 1988, many didn’t take them seriously, dismissing them as a bunch of thugs and that’s why the police targeted them. Fast forward to 2015 when the movie was released, after the deaths of Michael Brown, Laquan McDonald, Eric Garner, Walter Scott, Tamir Rice and countless others; “Fuck tha Police”.

Amy (2015)

2016 has been an awful year for many, the election of Donald Trump, rise of white nationalism, and just before the year is over, the singer George Michael and writer and actress Carrie Fisher has been taken from us.

I’ve lost track of the In Memoriam a long time ago. I am still stuck on Amy Winehouse. I am aware she died on July 23, 2011 at the age of 27, which in this digital age is aeons ago. Amy Winehouse belongs to the ’27 club’, which to me is just when your body gives up after one has abused it for so long, it’s not some cosmic fate or mystical number to me. It’s biological. A human body can only take so much abuse before it expires.

Unlike many sensationalist documentaries where the filmmaker focuses on the most scandalous and salacious bits of the subject’s life, Amy’s director, Asif Kapadia attempted to show the world the whole Amy, warts and all. Amy Winehouse is not a difficult subject to document, she’s neither reclusive nor shy. She’s a very open and candid person and doesn’t tend to sugarcoat events to make herself look better. And for someone who had such a short life and an even shorter time in the spotlight, she only became globally famous after the release of her album Back to Black in 2006, there was a lot of unreleased unseen footage which the director could draw from.

In an era where singers often lip synch, or use auto tune, Amy Winehouse was a revelation. She was brought up on Jazz music on the influence of her father Mitch Winehouse who was a huge fan of Jazz. Her voice is so crisp, so clear, so emotional. Amy Winehouse didn’t just sing Jazz music, she studied it and lived and breathed it. One of her band members said she had a PhD in Jazz music and often gave out ‘homework’ to her band members by requiring them to listen to Jazz albums and provided reading materials for them. Her first album Frank was a Jazz album she wrote herself and was named after her favorite singer Frank Sinatra.

Amy the movie shed light onto Amy Winehouse the full person, or to be more frank, how she came to be so fucked up, and it had nothing to do with fame. Not even close. Fame may have contributed to her problems, but they were not the cause. Amy came from what’s best described as an upbringing of benign neglect. Her parents were absent. They were loving, physically present but emotionally absent. The best way to describe her mother Janis Winehouse is a dingbat. She is a loving but vague woman, who has medical issues of her own (multiple sclerosis) and an unfaithful husband who was already gone before he packed his bags and moved in with his mistress. Amy poignantly said in one of her voice recordings “my dad was never there even when he was here”, when Amy and her brother were misbehaving at home and giving their mother a run around, her father never stepped in to discipline them, “didn’t even tell us to not be little shits”. Amy was also a strong willed child and her mother often caved to her daughters demands, regardless of how unreasonable or inappropriate it was. Janis Winehouse admits as much, she was totally helpless against the strong will of her daughter. She even suggested that her daughter’s frequent outbursts seemed like a form of Tourettes. When Amy told her mother that she was eating and throwing up her food as way of controlling her weight, instead of seeing the early dangerous signs of bulimia and taking her to a doctor, her mother thought it was a “phase” and that it would pass. When Amy’s father finally moved out of their family home, Amy began to show signs of depression and begun self-harming, her mother let a psychiatrist put Amy, then 12 years old on antidepressants (very dangerous for children under 18), and this is on top of her untreated bulimia. Amy had a warm and loving relationship with both of her parents, but she also knew they were not reliable parents whom she can turn to for help.

Janis and Mitch Winehouse failed to see what everyone else could see was wrong their daughter, and that is she (along with her brother) needed parental guidance, of any kind. Some force in their lives to say a firm ‘no’ when they were out of hand. All of those outrageous behaviors are just a test of boundaries to see how far they could push, and as we now know, it’s pretty far. There were no boundaries. When Amy became famous and her substance abuse issues spiraled out of control to where she was losing contracts and gigs, she had one chance to go to rehab, her managers asked Mitch Winehouse to step in as that is the only person that can make Amy do anything. But in that critical moment, where he could have stepped up and be a proper father to her, he failed her again, he said she didn’t need rehab. She was just upset at her breakup with her boyfriend and she’ll be fine with some rest. Many that knew her saw that to be a fatal mistake. It was the one and only chance where Amy was amenable to rehab without conditions. In her song Rehab, she writes:

They tried to make me go to rehab
I said, no, no, no
Yes, I been black
But when I come back, you’ll know, know, know
I ain’t got the time
And if my daddy thinks I’m fine
He’s tried to make me go to rehab
I won’t go, go, go
Her life went from out of control to completely off the rails when she met her future husband Blake Civil. They were a tumultuous match, it was a ‘relationship’ (if one can call it that) marred by fights, infidelity, drug abuse, alcohol abuse and violence. It was Blake Civil who introduced her to hard drugs, prior to meeting him she mostly drank and smoked weed. She became a full blown addict, slurring her words and wobbling down the streets of London with curious looking white substances at her nostrils, even losing a tooth at one point. She went from a girl with a quirky unique sense of style; heavy winged black eyeliner with that huge beehive wig and a big smile to a disheveled unkempt mess. Her father tried to get her into rehab then, to no avail. She first demanded to be in same rehab as her husband, Blake Civil, and then they both left rehab together within days.
Out of that tumultuous relationship with Blake Civil came one of the best albums ever made in recent times, Back to Black. It’s a 10 song track of a toxic relationship gone horribly wrong. She manages to convince you that getting involved with a bad boy is a really bad idea and not many people have successfully done that. The album is a documentary in song on a relationship which was wrong to begin with (Blake Civil had a long term girlfriend at the time) and went ahead with the relationship anyways but he decides to go back to his former girlfriend as he felt it was wrong to leave her like that, Amy Winehouse has a total breakdown for not being the one he chose, even if he is all wrong for her. After the release of the album, Blake Civil wormed his way back in to Amy’s life again, they got married and things went from bad to worse. Amy Winehouse did his ex-girlfriend a big favor.
Amy’s life was full of contradictions. She sees herself as a traditional Jewish mama, cooking in the kitchen for the family (and is quite a competent cook herself), she wants to settle down with a nice man one day and have children and be a “mum” yet all of the choices she makes run in direct contradiction to that fantasy life she has in her head. She also didn’t address how she would function as an alcoholic pot smoking mom. The gods intervened on Amy’s behalf when Blake Civil got arrested for causing grievous bodily harm to another person and got incarcerated, this physical separation led to their divorce, much to the relief of everyone. She spent the last year or so of her life out of the spotlight trying to clean up her act. She kicked her addiction to hard drugs but was never able to quit drinking alcohol. Her death was the result of alcohol poisoning aided by a weakened heart due to her years of bulimia (that thing which her mother called a “phase”).
Amy Winehouse was the one singer I wanted to go see perform live after she cleans up her act. She describes herself as a songwriter first then a singer, I disagree, she is every bit a singer as she is a songwriter. Around the time of her death, she already emotionally moved on from Blake Civil and the Back to Black album’s state of mind. She was ready for a new chapter, if not a more clean and sober one, at least a more peaceful one. But it wasn’t in the cards for her.

Closed Circuit (2013) and the Mass Surveillance State

Closed Circuit is a reactionary post-Sept 11 and more specifically post-July 7 London bombing film set in London. The Sept 11 like event in the UK is the 2005 July 7 bombing, though on a much smaller scale. The July 7 bombings were a series of bombings in the London Underground, during peak traveling hours in the morning that ultimately claimed 52 victims. The bombings were carried out by Islamic extremists in Britain. Islamic extremism was always lurking beneath the surface of the poorer London boroughs. There were a series of well known ‘hate-preachers’ that gave fiery anti-West and anti-Christian sermons in the full view of the British public. Due to Britain’s well established free speech laws, authorities were never very successful in convicting these hate-preachers for incitement. And in Britain, they were more successful in recruiting white Britons into radical Islam than their American counterparts. The documentary My Brother the Islamist details the transition of a middle class white British man to his conversion to Islam and then adopting radical Islam to where he feels his life’s mission is to actively wage jihad against the morally corrupt West. The director Robb Leech wanted to explore why his step-brother, someone he grew up with and lived under the same roof for most of their childhood found refuge in radical Islam.

Closed Circuit begins with the bombing of a popular London market called Borough Market where 120 people were killed by a truck bomb. Three men were arrested but two of the three men were killed during the apprehension process and Farroukh Erdogan was the only suspect apprehended alive and he’s been taken into custody and his wife and son are under the guard and surveillance of MI5. The audience does not know how the other two suspect died but that we are told they died during the apprehension process. Erdogan is to be put on trial and will be sentenced to life in prison without the possibility or parole if found guilty (there is no death penalty in the UK). Erdogan’s defense is that he doesn’t know the other two suspects well and his only connection with them is that they rent a storage space from him and his only interaction with them is when he collects rent every month. That storage space also happens to be the location where they kept their bombs. Erdogan is no more than an innocent bystander to the bombing. But when his court appointed defense solicitor Martin Rose (Eric Bana) and special advocate Claudia Simmons-Howe (Rebecca Hall) begin to question him to prepare the best defense for him, they found their defendant Erdogan less than forthcoming with facts. He almost put up no defense for himself except guilty by association and didn’t seem interested in exonerating himself. He was going to ride through the trial and whatever verdict they come back with, he will accept. He didn’t behave like a man who was innocent and was desperate to clear his name and resume his freedom.

So the solicitors began investigating Farroukh Erdogan’s background and through clever detective work they find out Erdogan is a secret MI5 agent. Erdogan is of Turkish origin and he came to the UK from Germany. He is a heroin addict and was busted on drug charges in Germany. But the real back story is he belongs to a terrorist sleeper cell in Germany and was arrested in connection with another bombing which killed 20 United States servicemen. German and British intelligence authorities found out that Erdogan was just a low level operative who didn’t have access to the leaders of the sleeper cell. So MI5 decided to recruit him to bust other sleeper cells in London using the German connection. It was not an offer Erdogan can refuse because if he does, he will be charged and go to prison and perhaps be deported back to Turkey. Erdogan and his family ’emigrate’ from Germany to Britain with legitimate immigration papers but the solicitor Martin Rose discovers that upon three months after arrival in Britain, Erdogan and his family received full UK residency (it usually takes three years and longer for those with criminal records) and six months later he was driving a late model Mercedes Benz all on income derived from low level heroin dealing, this didn’t add up. Martin Rose and Claudia Simmons-Howe’s go digging further and discover that Farroukh Erdogan isn’t his real name, it’s the new identity provided by MI5 and they found out a ‘special deal’ has been struck between Erdogan and his MI5 handlers that he is to take the fall for this bombing to cover up the fact that the British intelligence service may have used British taxpayers money to purchase the explosives which blew up the Borough Market that killed 120 people. It was an operation that had gone horribly wrong, the bombing was never supposed to be carried out, Erdogan was supposed to turn in the terrorists before the bombing occurred. But the audience is never informed if MI5 is scapegoating Erdogan for this blunder or if the terrorist sleeper cell Erdogan infiltrated double crossed him or if even Erdogan himself double crossed both his handlers and the terrorist cells he infiltrated. The bottom line is Erdogan has to take the fall so that no inquiries would be made into the bombing. And for agreeing to take the fall, his wife and son will be safe and his own life will be spared even if he were to spend it behind bars.

This film is a contrast of the mass surveillance state of the United States versus the United Kingdom. In the US we know we are being digitally surveilled but we’ve no proof of it happening in real time. There are security cameras which record footage in large public places such as subways and train stations, government buildings or department stores, all of which informs us that we are being watched and videotaped (as it is illegal to secretly videotape or tape record another person without informing them). But in the UK there are CCTV (closed circuit television) cameras everywhere, especially in the tubes, bus stations, major train stations, street corners, road intersections, everywhere. The British people know that when they step out their front door they can potentially be recorded by CCTV and their whereabouts that day could be known by pressing a few buttons. It is precisely under these circumstances solicitors Claudia Simmons-Howe and Martin Rose do the investigation on their client. They were not only watched by CCTV but throughout the duration of the trial, they were being watched by MI5 as well. They hide in plain sight, they hide when everyone including cameras are watching their every move. In order to orchestrate a secret meeting, Martin and Claudia decide to attend the same soccer match so they could get lost in a stadium of 80,000 people and in the middle of the soccer match disappear behind the bleachers out of sight of any cameras and exchange information (according to British law, when a trial involving national security and classified information is concerned, the defendant on top of their solicitor also gets assigned a special advocate and they may not meet in private once the trial is commenced because only the special advocate may see the state’s classified evidence against the defendant, the defense solicitor may not). The MI5 tried to keep these two solicitors from asking too many questions and just represent their client in his ‘simple defense’. When they realized they were being ‘managed’ by the British Intelligence Service on how to do their jobs, they discovered the government was trying to cover something up. Despite warnings that their personal safety may be in danger if they veer off course, they don’t relent.

The British justice system (just like the US) is shown in a contradictory light. They pride themselves on having a transparent process but there are closed sessions when discussing classified materials, the public are informed that a ‘closed session’ in judge’s chambers is taking place but cannot divulge the people in the session besides the judge. The judicial process is claimed to be just and fair but the defense attorneys representing the defendant are being steered and told how to do their jobs. For every breach of rights granted by the constitution, there is only one response: national security. For the sake of national security all jurisprudence developed over the last 200 years can be thrown out. For the sake of national security the defendant’s rights can be curtailed and the outcome of the trial manipulated. For the sake of national security, sacred rights such as habeas corpus and innocent until proven guilty can be suspended indefinitely. Suspects may be tortured and abused against the laws of the nation they are being tried but all of it is being done in the name of national security. Those who invoke abuse in the name of national security also defend their actions by suggesting their actions ‘save lives’, which is ironic in Closed Circuit as the movie opens with a massacre at a public market, possibly at the negligent hands of the British Intelligence Service.

Brooklyn (2015) – A Story about Immigration

The film Brooklyn was one of the films nominated for multiple Academy Awards in 2016 including Best Picture and Best Actress for the Irish actress Saoirse Ronan. The film was mediocre at best. The writing, directing, musical score, photography was mediocre. Part of them film depicts Ireland, which has some of the most beautiful scenery in the world, yet the film failed to capture that. Granted, it was meant to portray the grim economic reality of 1950s Ireland, under the government of Eamon de Valera, but even on Ireland’s most gray rain soaked day, the Irish always took pride in their beautiful homeland.

The acting of Saoirse Ronan was nuanced and skillful. She’s able to convey emotion with just the expression on her face, it was a perfect vehicle for transition from child actress to adult actress. America was first introduced to Saoirse Ronan in the film Atonement, when she was just twelve years old, she played Briony Tallis, an upper class English girl who irrevocably changes the life of her older sister’s working class boyfriend by telling a lie to authorities, saying that he raped her older sister when it wasn’t true – she walked in on them being intimate. She was the perfect bratty upper-class girl who at a young age knew she was privileged and knew how to abuse her position in society. She was touted as an actress to watch in the coming years, nine years has passed since Atonement, Ronan is now a twenty-one year old young lady and it’s obvious in the intervening years, she has work to improve her craft.

The Academy Award controversy of 2016 was #OscarSoWhite, all of the nominations in the major acting categories went to white people and Saoirse Ronan was one of the nominees for best actress and besides being very very pale herself due to her Irish heritage; the film Brooklyn is about immigration, specifically immigration of white Europeans. Immigrants who are welcomed through the front door with a sponsor, a job waiting for them and housing accommodation all arranged as opposed to being smuggled across borders risking life and limb to get to America. This small unremarkable film which caught the attention of critics and audiences in the year 2015, where debate about migration, refugee crisis and immigration in the Western world reached boiling point, is not a coincidence. Brooklyn harkens back to a time where things were done properly. Where potential immigrants wrote to established immigrants in America requesting for sponsorship, where that sponsor finds the immigrant a job, a place to live and establish a small fund so that their immediate expenses are taken care of. There’s none of this ad hoc, disruptive, putting all of your belongings in a sack and risk life and limb in a rickety boat or crossing the vast desert hoping that there are prospects at the other side of the sea or border.

Eilis Lacey (pronounced Ali-sh) is a young girl from Enniscorthy, County Wexford, Ireland. She’s unable to find full time employment save for a part time job at a bakery on Sundays. She lives with her mother and older sister Rose, her father has passed away when she was a child. Because of her sister Rose’s stable employment as a bookkeeper for the local factory, she is able to give her mother and younger sister if a small but comfortable existence. Widows with children on their own in 1950s Ireland usually faced a life of economic uncertainty and hardship and the Laceys were able to avoid that fate. While Rose is quite established in her community, the same cannot be said for Eilis. Enniscorthy is totally uninspiring to Eilis. Since she can’t find stable employment, and her potential is wasting away in front of her, her next option is to find a nice man to marry, and none of the men in her hometown is to her liking. Rose, sensing Eilis’s unhappiness, writes Father Flood in New York to see about sponsoring Eilis in America. Father Flood was able find Eilis employment at a sales girl at a high end department store where she “can’t afford any of the things” and a boarding house in Brooklyn where she will live with other single girls. And just like that Rose booked a ticket for Eilis on the next steamer to America. She arrives at Ellis Island with all of her paperwork, and is waved through by an immigration official with a stern “welcome to America”.

The one part the movie did well was to depict the loneliness and homesickness of immigrants, regardless of where they are from. ‘Home’ may hold no prospects for them but it’s still home and home is always where a piece of your heart lies. No amount of Manhattan bright lights and skyscrapers can remove the longing of home. Eilis tries to be brave and go about her job everyday, but being a sales girl she lacks the personality for it, which is to plaster on a smile for every customer that walks in and sell whatever it is you are told to flog that day. Her manager Miss Fortini, a no-nonsense worldly woman gives Eilis tips on being a better saleswoman but when that fails, she calls Father Flood to the rescue. Father Flood enrolls in bookkeeping classes at night so she can work in an office one day and asks her to volunteer at the soup kitchen at the church to keep her more occupied. At the church soup kitchen she sees a different side of America, America’s discarded people. They are old, frail or disabled workers who built skyscrapers, bridges and roads but have been tossed out by capitalism (produce or die) and are now depending on soup kitchens to feed them. This was a shock to her system, that the men who built the glorious city skyline and the roads, bridges and tunnels in front of her are now barely eking out a living. She realizes what can happen to her too when she is old and feeble one day, and she’s just a woman whose worth is determined by who she marries.

It’s around the same time she meets a nice Italian boy Tony Fiorello at an Irish dance hall. Tony openly admits that he likes Irish girls and hangs around Irish dance halls hoping to meet a nice Irish girl. Tony takes a liking to Eilis right away and they begin to go out. Eilis’s feelings towards Tony is more complicated; while he’s sweet, kind and funny with “nice eyes”, and far better than any potential male suitors in Ireland, she’s hardly madly in love with him. To her, he’s simply good husband material. He comes from a nice family, he’s a plumber – he has upwardly mobile aspirations of owning a general contracting company with his brothers to build houses and he’s slightly less sexist than the average Irish boy at the time. She can see herself entering the middle class through Tony. She goes over to the Fiorello’s house for dinner, she is charmed by his family, especially his rascal younger brother, and the pasta cooked by Mama Fiorello is not bad either, her mind is semi-made up about marrying him if he should ever ask. As she is hitting her stride in America, she receives devastating news that her older sister Rose has died from an unspecified illness and her mother is not coping well on her own in Ireland. She decides to go back to Ireland for a visit with the intention of returning to Brooklyn and to Tony. But Tony isn’t satisfied and wants an ‘insurance policy’ and suggests that they get married in civil court but not tell their families yet. Tony suggesting marriage is his way of saying he wants to sleep with her and put his ‘stamp’ on her before she leaves for Ireland, so that if not out of love, but at least out of propriety and obligation, she’d return to him. She reluctantly agrees to the civil wedding and their marriage is consummated the night before she leaves for Ireland.

The Ireland she left behind wasn’t the same one when she returned to. She’s no longer just Rose’s younger sister. She’s Eilis, a ‘American’ independent woman, earning her own money and she also graduated from her bookkeeping class and is now certified to work as a bookkeeper. She even ‘rescues’ the factory her sister worked at by creating a payroll system where all the workers get paid on time with their overtime wages. She visits all of her old haunts, attends her best friend Nancy’s wedding, attends mass with her mother like a good Irish girl, even goes on dates with a local gentleman from a well off family and it just so happens that the gentleman’s parents are retiring to the countryside and is leaving their big house with staff to their son. Suddenly Eilis’s world in Ireland opened up to her. She even flirts with the idea of dumping Tony and staying in Ireland, after all, this was what she wanted for herself just over a year ago. Throughout this whole time she tells no one that she’s married to Tony Fiorello, including her mother, she leads on everyone that she’s still single. The only person she didn’t care to visit is Miss Kelly, her former employer at the bakery and being the gossipy and spiteful wench that she is, she finds out through the grapevine that Eilis is married to “an Italian” in New York and threatens to out her impropriety to everyone, especially now that it appears that he also has a boyfriend in Ireland. It is at this very moment Eilis realized why she got on a ship to go to America to begin with. She didn’t want to become a caricature of a spiteful, lonely small town gossip, who has nothing better to do but to monitor the morality of others. Even if she married the richest boy in town, she wouldn’t be able to escape this tedious fact of small town Irish life. She proudly announces to Miss Kelly that her name is now Eilis Fiorello and that she’s going back to her husband immediately. She also informs her own mother that night that she’s married, her mother was sad that her only child left was leaving her but was in a way happy for her. Mrs. Lacey said “if you married him” he must be a nice boy. She wrote a parting letter to the boy she went on dates with and took the next steamer back to New York and reunited with Tony.

That Eilis is a white Irish girl who seems to have more opportunities and her road to the middle class is more smooth than most brown or black immigrants in America is not lost on the audience. In today’s world, the ‘legal’ immigrants, those that come to America with work visas are reserved for the English speaking, well educated with advanced degrees who usually work in STEM fields, and that is a very small sliver of the immigrant population in the world. The majority of the world’s migrants or immigrants are indigent, poorly educated, fleeing desperate poverty or political oppression who can only work as unskilled laborers, it would be up to the host nations to educate and train them for skilled work. One of the complaints by employers in Germany was that the over one million refugees they accepted, language barrier aside, most do not have the skills to do the most basic jobs requiring rudimentary computer skills. In America today, no one is complaining that the likes of Eilis are ‘stealing’ American jobs. In some people’s fantasyland, the picture of the ideal immigrants are people like Eilis – the right combination of class, race and ‘hardworking’. The kind of immigrant that won’t ‘take advantage’ of the welfare state, the kind of immigrant who will ‘integrate’ well, the kind of immigrant that has a well established immigrant community to help other immigrants establish themselves. To some, the idea of immigration reform is not to enfranchise the 12 million undocumented persons in America but to filter through the 12 million people and cherry pick the youngest, brightest, English speaking with college degrees and no criminal histories for eligibility for citizenship. As for the rest, they would either be deported or live in the shadows the rest of their lives.

Many have praised the Australian and Canadian method of immigration, which is they accept any immigrant from any part of the world as long as they possess the skills they are are looking for – the cherry picking method again. They range from hairdressers, to accountants, to highly skilled STEM workers, and as long as you are qualified in any of the professions they list on their immigration forms you can immigrate to Australia or Canada. This way the only ‘discrimination’ is based on profession and skills, which is considered a fair discrimination. This is also a way to make the whole immigration process clean, technical and unsentimental. But the world’s migrants don’t fit in neat little boxes. Most of the world is desperately poor and conflict ridden where obtaining any consistent schooling or trade or skill is all but impossible. Judging from the treatment of the Australian authorities of their migrants on the pacific island nation of Nauru goes to show the inherent racism and discrimination of a skills and profession driven type of immigration policy. Those that do not possess the skills they are looking for, are therefore, treated like they are less than human.

What Maisie Knew (2012)

The movie adaptation of What Maisie Knew, directed by Scott McGehee and David Siegel is an updated rendering of Kramer v. Kramer, directed by Robert Benton. The topic is the same, divorcing parents who despise each other and how their children are the victims of their mutual hatred.

While Kramer v. Kramer puts a gloss or a veneer on the subject, to appeal to more conservative times in the 1980s and the story is told from the perspective of the parents; What Maisie Knew does away with that gloss and gives us the unvarnished version of how it looks from a child’s point of view when her parents’ are at war with each other. The camera angles in What Maisie Knew is always at the level of the child, the audience gets to see the events and the people in her life from her vantage point, a small person, looking up at the scary adult world, which can be overwhelming for a child.

What Maisie Knew was originally a Henry James novel published in 1897. It’s a novel about upper middle class parents who divorce and each parent use their child Maisie to manifest their hatred and disdain for each other. In the novel, the custody arrangement is that Maisie lives with each parent six months at a time, but her parents are narcissistic and selfish people and Maisie is often left in the care of her caretakers, who do a better job looking after her than her parents.

The movie version essentially kept the same plot but updated the events to take place in modern day New York City. Maisie’s mother Susanna is a rock musician who tours with her band. She has moderate success as a rock musician and has a small fan base and they often party at her house while Maisie is there. Maisie’s father Beale is no better either. He’s a successful art dealer who is often away on business. On the outside, Beale looks like the more stable parent because he knows how to keep his temper in check, whereas Susanna has a bad temper who is prone to losing her cool and Beale knows exactly which buttons to push to make her lose her temper, and she falls for it every time. The care of Maisie is left in the care of Margo, her Scottish nanny, who is loving and kind. Margo tries to shield Maisie from the ugly fighting of her parents and tries to make life ‘normal’ for her.

Susanna and Beale finally divorce, the custody of Maisie becomes a battleground. Each parent tries to undermine the other as they each petition for sole custody, even though they both have no intention of parenting Maisie themselves. Beale seduced and married Margot to install her as Maisie’s caretaker and as his wife, then he won’t need to pay her. Susanna married Lincoln, a younger bartender so he can babysit Maisie (also for free) when she’s working. Susanna and Beale just about violate every cardinal rule about divorce where there is children involved. They say terrible things about the other parent to Maisie. Susanna calls Beale an “asshole” in front of Maisie. She locks Beale out and have a nasty fight through the locked front door while Maisie is standing right there, she makes no attempt to moderate herself and her temper in the presence of her young daughter. While Beale is less vitriolic, he undermines Susanna’s authority at every turn, he tells Maisie that her mother is mentally unstable and makes fun of Susanna temper tantrums, he also makes condescending remarks about Susanna’s waning singing career. One of the worst things they do is sending Maisie off to court appointed child psychiatrists to get her to say something bad about the other parent in an effort to gain sole custody.

Maisie takes all of this in stride, for a six year old, she’s very astute on what she should and shouldn’t say, as if she knew if she said the wrong thing to the wrong person, she’ll be ripped away from one of her parents forever. She also became adept at navigating the murky waters of her parents’ narcissism and selfishness. In front of her parents, she tries to be the perfect little girl so that they won’t be mad at each other or mad at her. Like many children of divorce, she probably thinks it’s her fault that her parents are divorcing. Susanna and Beale never even took the time to tell their daughter that their divorce and mutual hatred for each other and all this shouting, insults and ugliness is not her fault and that they love her no matter what. Margo did that bit for them.

While Joanna and Ted of Kramer v. Kramer seek to mitigate the effects of their divorce on their child, Susanna and Beale make no such effort. Joanna and Ted Kramer each want sole custody because they want to parent little Billy; Susanna and Beale want sole custody of Maisie to spite each other. Susanna nor Beale have any interest in being Maisie’s main caregiver, they will farm out the tedious bits of parenting and when time permits and when it suits their mood that day, they’ll swoop in the front door and be the ‘Disneyland parent’. This is their idea of good parenting. Perhaps the greatest tragedy (or not) of this toxic situation is Maisie’s unwavering unconditional love for each of her parents, no matter how appalling they’ve been. Each time she sees them, the excitement overtakes her, she runs straight into their arms – and it’s worthy to note, Maisie isn’t a particularly expressive child. Yet her parents can’t see that and endeavor to behave better towards Maisie and each other.

The custody arrangement is a disaster, they are to hand Maisie over t0 each other every 10 days except both Susanna and Beale either ‘forget’ to drop Maisie off or they drop her off a few days early or a few days later. This drives both Margo and Lincoln insane as they become the de facto parents of Maisie. Pretty soon both parents disappear altogether. Susanna disappears for days at a time to go ‘on tour’, Beale disappears for weeks at a time because he’s in London making deals. When both Margo and Lincoln realized they’ve been used to help their respective spouses gain custody and be free child care to Maisie they become angry and disillusioned and turn to each other for friendship. They remain in Maisie’s life to look after her because no one else will and they bonded with Maisie on an emotional level. While Beale doesn’t much care if Maisie prefers Margo over him – Maisie is just a trophy to him; Susanna, on top of unwilling to be a parent, resents the fact that Maisie warms to Lincoln and prefers Lincoln’s company over her own sometimes. She lashes out at both Lincoln and Maisie. Susanna and Beale are thoroughly unlikeable characters without any trace of character traits which might make them sympathetic. They are selfish, narcissistic and horrible people, not just towards Maisie but to everyone else too.

Perhaps when Henry James wrote this novel in the late 1800s, he wrote this as a warning of what might happen if ancient institutions such as marriage and family are not honored, there will be children split into two homes shuttling back and forth, not knowing that it’s become a reality less than 100 years later. With divorce rate hovering at 50%, many children are being shuttled between two homes on a weekly basis.

Of all the horrible things that happened to Maisie, she took it on the chin. She doesn’t cry when her mom or dad doesn’t come pick her up from school, or when she realizes she’s been made into a pawn between her hateful parents. She has Margo and Lincoln to fall back on for love and support. Children being the intuitive beings they are know immediately the people who truly care for them and will naturally navigate towards them. The nadir of the movie is when Susanna had a day off during her tour, she made an unannounced visit back to New York City, gets into a fight with Lincoln which ends their marriage (child care arrangement), with Lincoln spitting the words “You don’t deserve her (Maisie)” to her and walks away. Susanna intended to postpone her tour and stay in New York City with Maisie for awhile, but she gets a call from her manager telling her that she must return to tour or else she’ll be sued. She has no choice but to return. Beale by this time has moved back to England permanently, divorced Margo the nanny, Susanna just ended her marriage to Lincoln, instead of calling Lincoln to see if he can come pick her up at her apartment, she drops Maisie off at the restaurant where Lincoln works, and waves goodbye to her daughter, doesn’t even give her daughter a cell phone with emergency numbers on it, no backpack of her belongings, not even any form of identification. Except that night was Lincoln’s night off and no one could reach him on his phone. Maisie falls asleep at the restaurant and is brought to the home of another waitress to spend the night. Maisie wakes up in the middle of the night in a stranger’s home with a large and imposing man there and they appear to be smoking pot, she finally breaks down and sheds a tear. It’s the first time she cried in the whole movie. Thankfully, Margo was there by morning to collect Maisie.

Because Susanna and Beale are wealthy residents of New York City, and as a result of their wealth and status – the people around them protected them from authorities. If a poor Latino or black mother dropped of her child at her ex-husband’s work while he wasn’t there and left them there, you can be positive that she will be arrested and charged with child neglect or child abandonments (as she should). Her child will enter the foster care system and it would be a very long time before they can be reunited. Susanna and Beale and by extension Margo and Lincoln are protected from criminal prosecution because of their race, wealth and status. While Kramer v. Kramer provided a sympathetic bent to Ted and Joanna and made these two flawed humans and ultimately desiring to be a loving parent to little Billy. What Maisie Knew doesn’t even bother with what kind of parents Susanna and Beale could have been if circumstances were different, they are just shitty people and even shittier parents. If it weren’t for their wealth and social status (musician and art dealer), they’d be exposed as the nasty people they are.

This is not a case where Susanna feels trapped by motherhood, she isn’t. Before her divorce, Margo was hired as a full time nanny to Maisie. She was able to work, tour and throw loud and inappropriate parties in her home after her child goes to bed. Her husband Beale didn’t really care what she did. It’s unclear what their arguments are about. They usually take place off camera where Susanna shouts in background “asshole”, “loser”, “there you go walking away again”, “coward”. There are no indications of infidelity or anything else. Whereas Joanna Kramer used her time away to improve herself and become a better person and mother, Susanna has no such concerns. She doesn’t think there’s anything wrong with her temper or how her behavior affects her child. The same goes for her husband Beale. He provides for Maisie financially, does the superficial ‘good dad’ act and to him, that’s good enough. Susanna wants to be seen as a good and caring mother, but doesn’t want to put in the effort to actually become one. And on top of that, she resents anyone who gets close to her daughter, as it points out her failings as a mother.

In the end, Beale is never heard from again, Susanna goes back on tour, attempts to come back and get her daughter to go on tour with her, but her daughter refuses to go, and is visibly scared of her mother’s bad temper. By this time Margo and Lincoln have gotten together romantically and is staying at a beach house belonging to Margot’s cousin, they have Maisie living with them and Maisie is seen finally having the carefree, stress free childhood she deserves, with her designated caretakers by her waste-of-space parents. But make no mistake this is not a happy ending. Maisie doesn’t need two loving and capable surrogate parents, Maisie needs her own parents to step up to the plate and be there for her. No one can replace her parents, even as narcissistic as they are. Maisie is only six years old in the film, the trauma that she experienced with her parents divorce will manifest itself in many ways in the years to come.

Whereas Kramer v. Kramer gave a biased view of Joanna Kramer as the ‘villain’ of the film, What Maisie Knew gave a pretty even handed dealing of Susanna and Beale. They were both awful in their own ways. On the face of it, Susanna seems worse than Beale because of her foul temper and dirty mouth, but upon closer examination, Beale is no better himself. He is the sneering contemptible Englishman personified. His ‘good manners’ covers up a person who is rotten to the core, he only thinks of himself, Maisie and her needs are an after thought.