Celeste O'Connor, Lovie Simone, and Jharrel Jerome in Selah and the Spades

New Movies + Shows by Women — April 17, 2020

I hope everyone’s doing well, maintaining social distancing, and taking care of themselves and others. Oh, and calling Congresspeople to get our healthcare workers PPE and otherwise tell them what they need to be doing. Some days are worth a preamble, others are worth diving right in. On to the movies and shows:

Selah and the Spades (Amazon)
directed by Tayarisha Poe

When researching something, you look for certain pieces of information. Sometimes, what doesn’t agree jumps out at you. I don’t like how we’re taught to use review aggregating sites like Metacritic. The number itself will often disagree with whether you like a film or not. These sites can be most useful in looking for trends, though. Are male critics loving a movie while women critics dislike it, or vice versa? That can begin to tell you something about how a movie plays.

“Selah and the Spades” is a film that blends high school, politics, and either high concept crime or something very much like it. I haven’t seen it yet, so it’s hard to tell if it’s more “Brick” or “Election”. It has an 89% on Rotten Tomatoes, a 70 (of 100) on Metacritic, but just a 3.5 (out of 10) on IMDB. This is why I dislike review aggregators and the numbers they spit out. They can be manipulated and brigaded. It wouldn’t be the first time audiences honestly disagreed with critics on a film. It also wouldn’t be the first time IMDB scoring was brigaded in opposition to a film about Black voices by a Black woman director.

Either of these can shape how people walk into the film and view it, as well as what they take away from it. If I tell you a movie’s scoring 89% on Rotten Tomatoes before you watch it, chances are you’ll view it with more trust toward where it wants to take you than if I told you it’s scoring a 3.5 on IMDB before you see it. The movie itself doesn’t change, but you as a viewer may very well change your perception of the movie. I don’t know if those scores are honest disagreement, or the result of brigading, which of course makes me all the more interested in watching “Selah and the Spades”.

Mrs. America (FX / Hulu miniseries)
showrunner Dahvi Waller

“Mrs. America” takes place during the fight for the Equal Rights Amendment in the 1970s. It centers on the voices of the women who shaped the women’s liberation movement – not all of whom agreed on the approach that should be taken – and on the conservative woman who became a cause celebre in opposing it. This would be Phyllis Schlafly – here played by Cate Blanchett.

While she’s dominated the advertising and it looks like her performance is exceptional, it’s worth recognizing that this is one of the best casts in recent history: including Rose Byrne, Uzo Aduba, Margo Martindale, Melanie Lynskey, Tracey Ullman, Sarah Paulson, Jeanne Tripplehorn, Elizabeth Banks, and John Slattery, not to mention Blanchett.

The line-up of directors is similarly impressive. The first two episodes are directed by “Captain Marvel” co-directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck (the pair direct four in total). The following two are helmed by “Belle” director Amma Asante. Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre is another name to look out for. The actress-turned-director is just off her first feature in “The Mustang”.

Run (HBO series)
showrunner Vicky Jones

Vicky Jones is the lesser known half of DryWrite Theatre Company. Chances are good you know the other half – “Fleabag” writer and star Phoebe Waller-Bridge. Jones was the director when the concept was strictly a stage affair.

Jones has written for “Killing Eve” and was script editor for the first season of “Fleabag”, but “Run” is the first show where she’s taken charge. “Run” sees Merritt Wever and Domhnall Gleeson as college sweethearts who have since drifted apart. They once made a pact – if either of them texts the other one “Run” and the other responds, they’ll drop their lives and run off together. It’s been posed as defying genre, blending elements of romantic comedy, thriller, and satire.

The Rhythm Section (digital purchase)
directed by Reed Morano

Blake Lively came to prominence through “Gossip Girl”. Since then, she’s been trying to challenge the threat of typecasting. “The Rhythm Section” arrives as her run at a Jason Bourne/James Bond-style actioner. Instead of a spy, however, she’s playing a woman out for vengeance – an assassin who’s learning on the job.

Chances are good you’ve already seen something director Reed Morano’s done that wowed you. She directed the first three episodes of “The Handmaid’s Tale”, which won her an Emmy. She was the cinematographer for Beyonce’s “Lemonade”. She’s also directed episodes for “Halt and Catch Fire” and “Billions”. She’s been one of the hardest working cinematographers of the last decade, and filled that role for indie films ranging from “Frozen River” to “Kill Your Darlings”. She’s a talent to watch, and “The Rhythm Section” feels like a good place to start.

“The Rhythm Section” is available for digital purchase (to own) at $15 from Amazon Prime, Google Play, RedBox, Vudu, and YouTube. It should come available to rent on April 28.

The Roads Not Taken (digital rental)
directed by Sally Potter

Javier Bardem stars as a man suffering dementia. His daughter, played by Elle Fanning, helps him through his day, as he lives fragmented parallel versions of his life that don’t match up. Released on March 13, just as the pandemic was closing things down in the U.S., it never really got a chance in theaters.

You may know writer-director Sally Potter best for her 1992 adaptation of Virginia Woolf’s “Orlando”, starring Tilda Swinton. Most directors of classic and stunningly unique films from this era would be remembered, their name immediately recognized like a Terry Gilliam, Jim Jarmusch, or Richard Linklater. Not so for Potter and a number of women who came to directing in the 1980s and 90s. The indie fringes and the places where avant garde and meta could burrow into the mainstream were reserved for men.

In the 90s, a man who had directed a film as visionary as “Orlando” would’ve been embraced, championed as a counter-culture auteur, perhaps by someone like Harvey Weinstein. When a woman like Sally Potter did it, there was no follow-through by powerful producers, no corresponding interest in what she did next, no financiers or studio heads chasing them down with dreams of Oscar-season ad campaigns. I wonder at the career Sally Potter might have had after “Orlando”. How would film be different if doors had been thrown open for her and other women directors the way they were being thrown open for men.

“The Roads Not Taken” is available to rent at a theatrical release price of $12 at studio Bleecker Street’s website.

Bias (digital rental)
directed by Robin Hauser

Talk about a lead-in. “Bias” examines, well, some of what I just talked about regarding Sally Potter. It examines the implicit or unconscious side of the way we make decisions regarding people who are different from us.

Sometimes it takes a person discussing and criticizing their own unconscious biases before others will start to recognize – let alone come to terms with – their own. When I write this piece, there’s a pretty constant awareness in my head that as a man, I may be choosing angles or making language choices that arise from bias. Even if I’m trying to feature the work of women, there’s a strong chance that I screw that up or undermine it from time to time in a way I don’t recognize.

I’ve even asked myself whether I’m the right voice to be compiling this, but I can’t find anyone else doing it weekly, let alone diving into less-advertised and indie work – which is where a lot of great work by women ends up because it’s still men who are overwhelmingly making those advertising budget decisions.

I also think it’s important for men to be seen valuing the work of women. The way our culture’s built, men won’t take women’s work as seriously unless other men are seen doing so as well.

It’s also an genuine interest. The voices that haven’t gotten a chance to tell stories as widely are the ones telling the more original stories from perspectives that haven’t been worn out by now. If you want movies and TV to be more interesting, and you’ve chiefly limited the people who produce and direct movies and TV to the 30% of our population that’s white and male (in the U.S.), then you’ve denied 70% of the talent pool from telling stories with the same production levels, studio confidence, and advertising behind them. If you want to find the most interesting storytelling happening today, you have to pay attention to groups who haven’t had as much access to tell their stories.

Yet while I may be up on all that, none of that changes that I still come to writing this every week with biases. No matter how many I’ve challenged in myself or done the work to overcome, there will always still be some bias in me because of our culture. It’s not something you simply fix, it’s something that you always have to work on from the stance of any privilege. After all, our culture is always doing the work to re-introduce that bias in us, and much of what we confront was ingrained in our perceptions from youth.

While I hope and am fairly confident this feature is a net benefit, that doesn’t change that I need to be aware of, honest with myself, and self-critical about my own potential implicit biases when writing it. That’s the only approach that can keep it a net benefit. This is the kind of thing that “Bias” discusses, and it’s a very difficult concept for many people who come from stances of privilege to understand and treat as legitimate.

“Bias” is available for rent for $4 from Google Play and $6 from Amazon Prime.

Take a look at new movies and shows by women from past weeks.

If you enjoy what you read on this site, consider subscribing to Gabriel Valdez’s Patreon. It helps with the time and resources to continue writing articles like this one.

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