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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
April 30, 2015

First appeared in print in The Rhino Times, Greensboro, NC.


Fresh, Family, 42, Baltimore, Cause of All Nations

I was buying something completely unrelated on Amazon when up popped a promo for a newish sitcom called Fresh off the Boat, about a Chinese immigrant family trying to make a go of life -- and the restaurant business -- in Florida.

I streamed the pilot last night and the show has much to recommend it. The storyline mostly follows the oldest child, a boy who calls himself Eddie, as he discovers just how much of a misfit he is in junior high.

A lot of the genuine humor comes from the contrast with his younger brother Emery's brilliant success in elementary school. How does the little kid do it?

I'm not sure if it's a strength or a weakness that the dad, Louis Huang (Randall Park), is trying to start a western Steakhouse instead of a Chinese restaurant. I like the cast members involved with that storyline -- Paul Scheer and Jillian Armenante -- but this is where the writing collapses into unbelievability. The result is a lot of trying-too-hard-and-failing-to-be-funny. I hope later episodes aren't so desperate.

The real gold in this series is the kids. Hudson Yang as Eddie is real and likeable and funny without seeming to try; and Forrest Wheeler as Emery, though he has far less screen time, is also believable and delightful.

The kids are at an age when they can be expected to have mastered American English without an accent. But the parents are the ones who are "fresh off the boat," and so they should have definite Chinese accents.

Unfortunately, they don't. Oh, they try, and I'm sure they believe their accents are authentic. No doubt they have family members they've been imitating. Unfortunately, however, the writing doesn't give their dialogue much of a Chinese feel, and their accents are utterly devoid of the music of the Mandarin accent.

Chinese is a tonal language, which is why native Chinese speakers always seem to be singing a random song with a lot of high notes. That style of melodic intonation is almost always at the heart of the accent of Chinese speakers who have learned English as adults -- but it's completely missing from the parents' performances.

Which may be the right decision, because authentic accents might have been too hard for American audiences to understand -- or too annoying for them to listen for long. Still, it weakens the parents' believability compared to their children.

I'm hoping that the conflicts between the parents move to a more rational basis than the mother constantly harping about why they shouldn't have left DC. Since when is Washington the promised land, while Florida is awful? I accept the potential awfulness of suburban Orlando for Asian immigrants; it's Washington DC as an idyllic place that I find hard to believe.

Still, the show is enjoyable, and I'm looking forward to viewing more episodes.

I actually thought that this was a Web-original series because I had never heard of it as a network show. I watch enough ABC programming that I should have seen some kind of promotion of the show, but I didn't. Anyway, you don't have to pay to download the show, since you can simply watch it when it comes on.

But I don't want to miss any episodes, so ... Amazon gets an itty-bitty dose of my cash.

Another show that I first got by downloading it is a TBS series called Your Family or Mine. Starring the compulsively likeable Kyle Howard as Oliver and Kat Foster as Kelli, this is a sitcom about a married couple trying to negotiate ways of getting along with each other's weird families.

Fortunately, they're not too weird. I don't know about you, but I pretty much hated Meet the Parents and Meet the Fockers, though because fate is sometimes merciful, I have never seen even a moment of Little Fockers. Nothing about the first two of these meet-the-in-laws movies had even a moment of believability or, in my opinion, actual humor.

The first episode of Your Family or Mine had more laughs than I got out of both Meet the films combined. Which shouldn't surprise me, since executive producer Greg Malins comes to this show straight from being the show runner on How I Met Your Mother -- which I loved, right up to and including its brilliant and honest final episode.

The child actors are good -- which is so rarely the case -- and the in-laws are not turned into caricatures. Or at least not as much as, say, Raymond's parents in Everybody Loves Raymond. It's fun that one father-in-law is the diminutive Richard Dreyfuss, who has aged by gaining almost as much weight as I have, and the other is the very tall and slender Ed Begley Jr.

But it's not about sight gags. The writers have created scripts that create a very different dynamic for each family, with a lot of promise for genuine humor based on something approaching real family life.

The problem with in-law comedy is that in the effort to get laughs, scriptwriters usually create parents that neither child could possibly love. In fact, you usually can't tell how a sane person ever emerged from the family.

Your Family or Mine never goes far in that direction. Yes, when Oliver's mom continues to refuse to put any of his childhood art on the fridge, his consternation is completely justified. But his mother isn't evil, just oblivious.

OK, she's a little bit evil. But evil people have children, too -- I've met some of them, though I sincerely hope that none of my kids' spouses think I am one.

What matters is that you can believe that reasonably happy and healthy children could have emerged from both homes -- even if visiting the parents always means tiptoeing through a series of minefields.

I must confess that my favorite episode was when Oliver tried to live down his wife's family's view of him as "the birthday ruiner." It is possible to imagine that they're simply teasing him and don't know when to stop ... but no. They mean it. And yet there's no way he could have avoided any of his various birthday ruinings.

The humor arises from a very common and natural occurrence -- you know you didn't mean to do anything wrong, but nobody sees it your way, and you finally just give up and accept their unfair (but not all that harsh) judgment.

Mostly, what makes this work is that I like everybody, including even the people whose behavior is pretty unlikeable. That takes a combination of good writing and good acting -- and Your Family or Mine has both.

I recommend that you give both series a look -- up to and including downloading the episodes you missed. But if I had to give one of them the edge, I'd have to say: Your Family or Mine is simply a more mature show, coming out of the gate.

But I have hopes that Fresh off the Boat will settle down into something equally entertaining, given enough time.

*

I'm not sure why I didn't see 42 when it came out in theaters a couple of years ago. The story of Jackie Robinson's breaking of the color line in major league baseball is an important one.

But a movie you miss in the theaters isn't gone forever. The other night I was channel surfing when I caught a powerful scene between Harrison Ford (as Branch Rickey, president and general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947) and Chadwick Boseman (as Jackie Robinson).

I expected the actors to be excellent, and they were. What surprised me was the high quality of the writing.

Usually, the writing in "inspirational" biographical films (biopics) is somewhere between preachy and sappy. But writer-director Brian Helgeland has long since learned his craft, and not one moment of 42 was either preachy or sappy.

In 1947, racism in America was a one-way street, and there was no shortage of whites, north and south, east and west, who wanted race relations to stay where they were.

But there were also growing numbers of whites who were ashamed of the treatment of African-Americans, yet felt themselves powerless to change anything. And even those who tried to make whatever small improvements were within their power soon found themselves subjected to intense pressure not to treat blacks better than the norm established by the worst of white Americans.

Branch Rickey was one of those whites, and 42 certainly chronicles his stubborn resistance to the pressure.

However, Rickey knew -- as Jackie Robinson soon learned -- that the success of this effort to break the color line depended almost entirely on Robinson himself being perfect.

Not perfect at baseball (though he was very, very good), but perfect in his non-response to the taunting, the shunning, the threats, and the violence that he faced because he was the first black man in the major leagues.

I trust that Helgeland's research was excellent, because this film pulls no punches. Names are named. The white people depicted as acting hatefully are not made-up characters -- they're players and managers and hoteliers who really existed and, presumably, said and did the things this film shows them doing.

Some of them changed their minds and hearts. Those are thrilling moments in the movie, when Dodgers who had originally opposed letting Robinson onto the team grew fed up with the unbearable treatment that Robinson bore, and took action to defend him.

It's also thrilling to see Robinson's forbearance -- like when he graciously allows a gesture of public forgiveness to take place between him and Ben Chapman (Alan Tudyk), the viciously racist manager of another team -- but instead of a handshake, he suggests they hold on to the same bat, so they don't actually touch skin.

It seems to be a concession to the manager's racism; but it could just as easily be seen as Robinson sparing himself the shame of actually shaking hands with someone who had treated him so abominably.

It was especially painful to those of us who loved Alan Tudyk in his role as Wash in Firefly and Serenity. To see that much-liked face now spewing out hideous racial invective was disturbing (though, as always, his acting was superb and believable).

Yet that is part of the experience of this film -- to realize that racism was so ingrained among white Americans that people who otherwise seemed perfectly normal and likeable could suddenly jump from Dr. Jekyll to Mr. Hyde when confronting a black who was "out of line."

Who were the monsters? Ordinary white people. And that's something we all need to keep in mind: Monsters aren't always obscure loners or people who act mean and surly all the time. Sometimes the monsters can be otherwise nice people who have simply decided that certain people or certain groups are not entitled to civilized treatment.

And it's also worth remembering that arrogance and cruelty easily spring up among any group that believes itself to have -- and deserve -- the upper hand. It is a part of human nature that people of every community need to resist in themselves, and fight against in others.

Uh-oh. I'm making 42 sound like a sermon full of moral lessons; but it isn't. It's simply a terrific movie. The central dilemma is laid out by Rickey: Do you have the courage not to fight back? And Jackie Robinson had that courage -- though it was sorely tested.

Though 42 doesn't have the scale and scope of a true epic like Gandhi, a movie that I found pivotal when I first saw it back in 1982, in a way it's our epic.

There are two great themes in American history, which have shaped our national character for good and for ill: America's treatment of the native peoples of our continent, and America's treatment of Africans imported as slaves.

Really? Our two great historical themes are the things we did badly?

That can't be helped, because we knew all along that we were behaving badly, and both themes led to seemingly endless bloodshed and suffering. Our treatment of Indians and Africans alike betrayed both our political claim to stand for freedom and equality, and our religious claim to embrace the Christian brotherhood of man.

Both issues tore at our nation, first with the struggle of land-hungry immigrants to seize "unused" land from the "savages," so that every treaty ended up being broken by uncontrollable pioneers and those who supported and defended them; then with the South's unrelenting grip on power in the U.S. Senate in order to protect the institution of slavery.

Against this political juggernaut the Abolitionists -- arguably the only true Christians in America at the time -- fought what long seemed to be a futile effort to abolish slavery. Especially since they were constantly vilified and ridiculed by the press, a process that continues even today, as witness the many vile lies about Abolitionists in the movie Amistad -- which should have trumpeted their heroic and righteous struggle against slavery.

Our Civil War ended slavery, but the Republican Party eventually abandoned the liberated blacks to seven decades of segregation, lynching, and constant humiliation both in and out of the South. So in a way, 42 commemorates one of the closing battles of the Civil War, fought this time not with guns but with bats, balls, and moral courage.

Branch Rickey, like the Abolitionists, was a Christian whose moral beliefs are quite unfashionable in our day -- but even though many whose racism caused Jackie Robinson so much pain also professed to be Christian, Branch Rickey had the courage to embrace the implications of his own faith, and then to call on others to do the same.

So I especially appreciate the fact that 42 does not do what Amistad did, and scorn Branch Rickey's faith. In fact, the script gave Harrison Ford a lovely moment when his late-night call interrupted Dodgers' manager Leo Durocher during a tryst with his mistress. Before ending the call, Rickey points out that the Bible also has a few words to say about adultery.

Even though Durocher (played by Christopher Meloni) was perfectly willing to be the manager who brought Robinson onto the team, he missed that chance because he did not heed Rickey's mini-sermon about adultery: The commissioner of baseball suspended Durocher for the year 1947 because of the scandal when his affair went public.

Instead, another man had to be brought out of retirement to fill in for Durocher, thus suggesting that Durocher's life might have been a little better had he paid attention to Rickey's biblical advice.

It's easy to think that a docudrama like 42 won't be as "fun" to watch as the latest comic book extravaganza. But 42 is just as enjoyable to watch, partly because we walk into the theater knowing that the story does end well, and partly because we never forget that this really happened.

I write fantasy and science fiction, so I have nothing against extravagant fancy in film. Every genre has good and bad examples -- for every wonderfully entertaining comic book movie like Guardians of the Galaxy and, reputedly, the latest Avengers movie, there are wretched embarrassments like Silver Surfer and Iron Man 2 and Hellboy and League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.

Likewise, there are biopics that throw out any shred of truth (Amistad and, most recently, The Imitation Game) , and there are boring biopics that leave you convinced that history is dull.

No, history is thrilling -- it's bad movies that are dull.

42 is, in my opinion, as much of a home run in the genre of biographical pictures and historical epics as Guardians of the Galaxy was in the genre of comic-book space opera.

And when you do a good job of a biography of a great person and a great moment in history, you've accomplished something with real substance. Not just a moment's entertainment, but an invitation to the audience to think clearly and insightfully about our own past, about what goodness and greatness consist of; about the cost of change, of standing up for what's right when it seems like the whole world is arrayed against you.

In other words, 42, unlike the comic book movies, is about something -- something that matters. So after you've given your admission money to the comic book movies, get the DVD of 42 (or stream it from the Internet) and let it have a corner of your memory. In the long run, its genuine pleasures will mean more to you than the momentary fun of spectacular nonsense.

*

So Baltimore blossoms with the seed that Obama has repeatedly sown from the beginning of his administration, when he publicly stated (or showed) his immediate assumption that any white authority figure, acting against any black person in any way, was completely unjustified in his actions.

As white police officers stood by this week during the riot, watching crimes being committed on the streets of Baltimore, absorbing but not responding to the objects thrown at them by the crowds, the message was clear: This is the America that you get when the police do not enforce the law.

History has shown a constant pattern of excessive violence and unjustified actions against black people from the Civil War to 1965. But for Obama and other black "leaders" to act as if nothing has changed since 1965 is far more damaging to the black communities of America than to the police.

Today, racism does not underlie most actions of most police officers. There are mistakes, however, in every line of work, and those mistakes are especially dire when police believe they are dealing with violent and potentially-violent persons. Police have not just a right but a duty to answer resistance to their authority with force. And the use of force always carries the risk of injury or death.

In other words, where laws are enforced, then it is inevitable that from time to time, some arrestees (of any race) will be injured or, far more rarely, killed by police officers doing their duty.

Even with the best intentions, all humans misjudge their circumstances and sometimes use more force than they needed to. And any police officer who consistently errs on the side of using less force than was needed is likely to die.

If, whenever the police officer is nonblack and the would-be arrestee is black, the police officer knows that any mistake might lead to him standing trial or going to jail or to massive rioting, it only makes sense for the policeman to shirk his duty, step back, and allow the black criminal to go about his criminal activities. Thus life is safer for the policeman -- and far, far more dangerous for the black communities in which most black criminals operate.

Black politicians harm mostly black people when they encourage riots and other contempt for law and order. President Obama has consistently joined Al Sharpton and other professional race-baiters in consistently taking actions and making statements that encourage blacks to believe that the system never works for them, and to act as if "justice" can only take the form of random acts of rage.

So if it troubled you to see the police stand by and watch crimes being committed, while taking no action, then take heed: This is where American law enforcement is headed, since black leaders from the President on down act as if there has been no improvement in the behavior of white law enforcement officers in the past 50 years.

If law enforcement abandons black communities, fewer blacks will die at the hands of police -- but more blacks will die at the hands of criminals. However, because nobody riots when black people kill each other, those deaths will remain a mere statistic.

The increased danger will vastly increase the cost of being black and poor in America. But it will serve the purposes of black leaders whose careers depend on blacks remaining unhappy and distrustful forever.

*

As long as I'm talking about the history of race relations in America, I have to tell you about a truly valuable book called The Cause of All Nations: An International History of the American Civil War, by Don H. Doyle.

Usually histories of the Civil War focus on battlefields, generals, or domestic politics. But in Cause of All Nations, Doyle focuses on how people in other countries -- mostly Europe, but also Latin America -- viewed our Civil War.

Lincoln had to pretend that the war was not about slavery, because he was desperate to keep the slave states of Kentucky, Maryland, Missouri, and Delaware in the Union. He could only do that by making only public statements that declared the Union cause to be about putting down a rebellion rather than abolishing the practice of slavery (which Lincoln had always hated).

Meanwhile, the South had to make the same pretense -- that the war had nothing to do with slavery -- because their only hope of victory was to get Britain or France to recognize the Confederacy as a separate nation. This was politically impossible for Britain, however, if the war was seen as being about slavery, since the British Abolition movement had already won the hearts and minds of the British people.

That's why the British Navy had waged war on the slave trade everywhere -- stopping any ship that might be a slave trader. There was no way, given this proud history of anti-slavery, that any British government could recognize a Confederacy that existed only in order to preserve slavery!

Ironically, of course, everybody knew that the only "freedom" the South was fighting for was the freedom to own black people and force them to labor; and the people who had voted for Lincoln were counting on the Civil War to bring about the end of the immoral, unChristian institution of slavery.

The Cause of All Nations shows how the common people in most countries embraced the anti-slavery cause -- but grew more and more frustrated at Lincoln's inability to say that that was what the war was about.

One of the best stories in the book is about how Garibaldi, the great Italian leader who was then engaged in the struggle to liberate and unify Italy, was actually offered command of the Union army -- though not by Lincoln. One can't help but wonder what General Garibaldi might have done in place of the collection of clowns who led the Army of the Potomac for the first two years of the war.

And I was startled to realize how many Union soldiers were recent immigrants from Europe -- many of them having come to America for the free land being offered through the Homestead Act, but then volunteered or were drafted into the Union Army.

When Jefferson Davis complained about how the North had an endless supply of soldiers fresh off the boat from Europe, he wasn't wrong.

Meanwhile, there was also Napoleon III's weird adventure in Mexico, when he tried to take advantage of America's distraction to install a puppet "emperor" to govern Mexico and bring it under French control. Napoleon III was perfectly willing to make a deal with the Confederacy, allowing them to keep slavery. But he didn't dare to do it unless Britain also joined them.

This book makes it clear exactly how pivotal and courageous it was for Lincoln to issue the Emancipation Proclamation when he did. People now often scorn the document (as some did then) because it only freed slaves in the states that the North did not control, leaving them in bondage in the slave states that were still in the Union.

But Lincoln could only do what was possible. What mattered most about the proclamation was that it finally named the Civil War as an anti-slavery war. From that moment on, any Confederate hope of British intervention on their side was dashed. And that inevitably meant that the South would lose, and the slaves would be freed.

It's a well-written, fascinating history from a fresh angle. I highly recommend it, either in print or the audiobook narrated very well by Adam Grupper.


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