If Beale Street Could Talk
Jenkins’ decision to let the original storyteller live and breathe throughout If Beale Street Can Talk is a wise one.
For more information on the controversies over "Million Dollar Baby," please see the related articles section in the left column. We also recommend Jeff Shannon's pieces for New Mobility Magazine: Maggie, Frankie, and Me Interview with Eastwood (clicking on these links will open a new browser window)
If you have not yet seen "Million Dollar Baby" and know nothing about the plot, read no further.
The characters in movies do not always do what we would do. Sometimes they make choices that offend us. That is their right. It is our right to disagree with them. It is not our right, however, to destroy for others the experience of being as surprised by those choices as we were.
A few years ago, I began to notice "spoiler warnings" on Web-based movie reviews -- a shorthand way of informing the reader that a key plot point was about to be revealed. Having heard from more than a few readers accusing me of telling too much of the story, I began using such warnings in my reviews.
In the case of some films, however, even to hint that there is a surprise is to reveal too much. In my review of "Million Dollar Baby," which I consider the best film of 2004, I wrote: "It is a movie about a boxer. What else it is, all it is, how deep it goes, what emotional power it contains, I cannot suggest in this review, because I will not spoil the experience of following this story into the deepest secrets of life and death."
I thought that was a good way of approaching the film. Later, after the story was widely known, I intended to come back and discuss it from a different perspective. That's how a lot of critics handled "The Crying Game," which also depended on an unexpected plot development. For that matter, in reviewing "The Year of Living Dangerously," most critics did not reveal that Billy Kwan, the little local man who befriends Mel Gibson, was in fact played by a woman, Linda Hunt. That was not a plot surprise, but an acting choice, and yet to know it in advance was a distraction -- until she was nominated as best supporting actress.
"Million Dollar Baby" raises fundamental moral issues. At a moment of crisis, the characters arrive at a decision. I do not agree with their decision. But here is the crucial point: I do believe that these characters would do what they do in this film. It is entirely consistent with who they are and everything we have come to know about them. That is one reason the film is so good: It follows the characters all the way to the limit, and plays true to them.
Now yet another spoiler warning, because I am going to become more explicit.
* * *
The decision of Maggie and her trainer is not a surprise to the readers or listeners of two right-wing commentators, Michael Medved and Rush Limbaugh. They have revealed every secret of the plot. Limbaugh even chortled as he "apologized" for an earlier broadcast. Just as the movie was opening, Medved appeared on Pat Robertson's "700 Club" to describe the plot in great detail. The outcome of the movie does not match their beliefs. They object to it. That is their right. To engage in a campaign to harm the movie for those who may not agree with them is another matter.
The film, as many now know, stars Hilary Swank as Maggie, a female boxer who is paralyzed from the neck down after getting a sucker punch. Clint Eastwood plays Frankie, a veteran trainer who becomes her best friend. Maggie is a semiliterate waitress whose family is stupid, cruel and selfish. She saw prizefighting as her only way to free herself from "waitressing for the rest of my life."
Some days after Maggie learns she is paralyzed, she uses a word such a person might use: She is "frozen," she says. She asks Frankie to assist her in dying. After some thought, and after consulting his parish priest (who advises against it in an eloquent speech), Frankie does. Is this the right decision? Maggie and Frankie agree that it is. I do not. But I believe it is what Maggie honestly desires, and that Frankie respects her wishes. Similar choices are explored in another good current film, "The Sea Inside," which stars Javier Bardem in the true story of a Spanish man who arranged for his own assisted death after some 30 years in bed.
(Hot Type columnist Michael Miner of the Chicago Reader fueled the right-to-die debate this week when he weighed in on the "Million Dollar Baby" controversy and took sides: "Thanks to the star power of Swank and Eastwood," Miner wrote, "the film was an endorsement of Maggie's death.")
I have known people in wheelchairs all of my life. I have dated one. I was an assistant in 1962 on a tour of University of Illinois wheelchair athletes visiting southern Africa. The first movie in my Overlooked Film Festival was "Dance Me to My Song," where we welcomed onstage Heather Rose, its author and star, who had command of only one finger of one hand, but had heart and courage without limit.
I am in frequent correspondence with Jeff Shannon, a film critic in Seattle. Until "Million Dollar Baby" become an issue, I didn't know he was a quadriplegic. He is writing an article about the movie from his point of view; he thinks it is a great film and takes issue with those in the disabled community who attack it. Shannon has chosen life, and leads a full and productive one.
Ramon Sampedro, the character in "The Sea Inside," refuses to be supplied with a chair he could control by his head and breath. He has given up. Jeff Shannon wrote me about the movie: "Despite considerable pain and anguish for a variety of quad-related reasons, I agree with Ramon Sampedro's cause, but I cannot share his attitude for one simple reason: I look at life the way I look at a good movie -- I can't wait to see what happens next."
I believe the character Maggie is such a fighter that she could learn to deal with her disability and enjoy her life. But here is the important point: She doesn't believe that. Yes, it is true, as critics have charged, that she receives inadequate counseling. That the care in her hospital is not good, and the security is laughable. But the screenplay by Paul Haggis and Eastwood's direction make that clear -- they know it, too. It is not movie criticism to say Maggie needed better counseling. We might as well say Hamlet needed a psychiatrist.
Most movies have no issues and inspire no thought. A movie like this forces you to think about its issues. If you leave it and discuss what Maggie should have done, what you would do, and what you would wish for your loved ones, then the movie has served a purpose, whether you agree with it or not. A movie is not good or bad because of its content, but because of how it handles its content. "Million Dollar Baby" is classical in the clean, clear, strong lines of its story and characters, and had an enormous emotional impact.
Medved feels moviegoers deserved to know what the movie is about, and that critics have been dishonest in not telling them. Medved has for a long time been a political commentator, not a movie critic, but he must remember from his earlier days that moviegoers do NOT want to be informed of key plot surprises, and write enraged letters to critics who violate this code. He says the studio concealed the ending because "no one would come" if they knew how it turned out. In fact, the movie is a great success because of word-of-mouth praise from people who have admired it and urged others to attend.
I have here two recent messages. One is from a woman who read a Medved essay in USA Today which seemed to be about another topic, and then, without warning, bluntly revealed the secret of "Million Dollar Baby." She is enraged at him. Another is from the mother of a quadriplegic who was injured in 2003. She wrote to the national spinal cord injury association (NSCIA), in response to an NSCIA press release warning that the movie’s final act could have potentially harmful effects on people with similar disabilities, depending on their state of mind. Her son became a quadriplegic after a 2003 accident, she writes, and they were looking forward to seeing the film, but "after learning here of its content, I now feel I must find the way to distract him from watching it; it would be too damaging."
Groups like the NSCIA have a responsibility to the people they serve, to address issues which, for them, transcend the need to keep a plot secret. The mother got the information she needed, and is acting on it.
But to actively attempt to sabotage a movie with its intended mainstream audience, as Medved, Limbaugh and others have done, is not justifiable. They have a moral objection to euthanasia. Very well, but should no movie be allowed to consider it? The separation of church and state in America was wisely designed to prevent religions from dictating the personal choices of those who do not share the same beliefs.
At Sundance last week, I saw a great documentary named "Murderball," about quadriplegic wheelchair rugby, a full-contact sport in which jocks actually try to knock one another out of the game. In the discussion afterward, All-Americans Mark Zupan and Joe Soares say they hope the film will help people understand that those in wheelchairs are, in all other respects, just like themselves. People are often awkward around a disabled person, they said, and don't know where to look or what to say. Solution: Look at the person, and say whatever you'd say if they were standing up.
By the same token, it is no solution to look away from Maggie in her hospital bed. "Million Dollar Baby" is a great film that has convinced us of her character and worth. She makes a decision that I believe is inevitable, given her specific personality and worldview. It may be the wrong decision. She could have received better advice. The Eastwood character might have delayed his action. All true in another world, or another movie. Here is this movie, about these people, and by experiencing it, we are put in closer contact with our own feelings, whatever they are.
What kind of movies would there be if everyone in them had to do what we thought they should do?
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