Higher Learning: Half Nelson Wrestles With Drugs, Race

Ryan Fleck’s Half Nelson, from a screenplay by Mr. Fleck and Anna Boden, plunges us into an inner-city junior high

Ryan Fleck’s Half Nelson, from a screenplay by Mr. Fleck and Anna Boden, plunges us into an inner-city junior high school in Brooklyn, with all its Marxian-dialectical rhetoric blazing away at the comparatively timid, superintendent-mandated civil-rights curriculum. At least, this is the pedagogical approach of Dan Dunne (Ryan Gosling), the school’s parlor-pink, crack-addicted white instructor. This very unusual (for an American film) mix of radical explicitness and despairingly fatalistic drug addiction suggests an uneasy attitude toward the current political situation in the country and the world. (Indeed, at one point Dan is asked by a girlfriend if he’s a Communist—a strange kind of loaded question to ask someone in this post-9/11 period, when the pejorative term of choice is “Islamofascist.”)

Much of the movie is photographed and directed in an expressionistic crack-cocaine-like haze, with many abrupt close-ups and out-of-focus flash shots. The narrative’s major relationship involves Dan and one of his female students, Drey (Shareeka Epps), who discovers him one day smoking a crack pipe in a stall in the girls’ bathroom. It’s not exactly meeting cute, but it’s a fitting enough confirmation of the neighborhood’s depressed passivity toward all forms of lawless behavior.

Yet the major characters are marvelously gentle and subtle in their interactions, particularly Dan and Drey, who provide a steady stream of exquisite expressions, thanks to the enormous talents of Mr. Gosling and Ms. Epps, and the natural-sounding dialogue produced by Mr. Fleck and Ms. Boden, who are live-in partners as well as a writing team. To establish the contrasting social backgrounds of Dan and Drey, we are given brief introductions to their moderately supportive but mostly distracted families—without exaggerating the roles they play in motivating the uncanny rapport between the two.

There are many opportunities for the film to overestimate the power of good intentions—especially given Dan’s determination to protect Drey, a task that would seem to demand more from him in terms of character and discipline than are likely to be found in a confirmed crack addict—but this is a mistake that the filmmakers scrupulously avoid. In fact, there was a misleading scene in the film’s trailer that ostensibly pitted Dan against a drug dealer named Frank (Anthony Mackie), a close friend of Drey’s imprisoned older brother, also a dealer. In the bit used in the trailer, Dan is shown warning Frank to stay away from Drey in no uncertain terms. Indeed, the level of hysteria unleashed by Dan suggests that a violent collision between the two men is virtually inevitable. As it turns out, it’s nothing of the sort: When Frank smoothly offers Dan a drink while they talk over the situation, Dan’s good intentions crumble in his crack-weakened condition, and he accepts Frank’s offer and his own capitulation. This is a wonderfully perceptive scene that could easily have degenerated into Boy Scout heroics.

The stage is set for Dan’s final humiliation when Drey, driven by her mother’s pressing need for extra money, agrees to deliver a crack package for Frank, only to discover that the needy customer is Dan himself. The traumatic explosion that ensues for the two onetime soulmates impels Drey to turn away forever from Frank and his “easy money,” and may perhaps shame Dan at long last to mend his ways in rehab and stop kidding himself that he can “handle” his addiction.

Much of the narrative is interspersed with the students’ classroom presentations as well as archival clips of prominent 60’s radicals, black and white, speaking out for revolutionary change. The longest such insertion is taken from Mario Savio’s 1964 Free Speech Movement manifesto at the University of California, Berkeley, after the students seized an administrative building on campus. A link is thereby suggested between the hopeful dawn of the student-protest movement and its disappointing sunset, with which Dan is now trying to cope.

The key to the direction of all the performances is tactful restraint and nuanced modulation. This applies not only to Mr. Gosling, Ms. Epps and Mr. Mackie, but also to Karen Chilton as Karen, Drey’s hard-working mother, and to Tina Holmes and Monique Gabriela Curnen as two of the women in Dan’s life. Much of the film was reportedly shot in Gowanus, Brooklyn. Half Nelson is an exhilaratingly ennobling experience for viewers of all races, ethnicities and classes, but I am afraid it will reach only a small, select audience that is least in need of its enlightened, progressive, morally sophisticated message.

Loathsome Leopold

The same can be said of a remarkable nonfiction historical shocker entitled King Leopold’s Ghost, advertised as “a story a king and a country [Belgium] didn’t want told.” It’s directed and produced by Pippa Scott, narrated by Don Cheadle with Alfre Woodard and James Cromwell, and based on the revelatory book by Adam Hochschild.

King Leopold’s Ghost is not a movie to be evaluated simply as a piece of cinema seeking to balance form and content. Of the form there is little to say, especially since the content is so overwhelmingly mesmerizing in its depiction of the depths to which some human beings will descend in the oppression, torture, mutilation and murder of others in the systematic pursuit of profits. Millions of people were murdered in Congo, and not because of some theocratic imperative, as in the mutual slaughter of Muslims and Hindus after India gained its independence from Britain. Nor was it simply another instance of European colonialism in Africa.

King Leopold II of Belgium (1835-1909) was in a class by himself as a colonial exploiter. He reigned as King of Belgium from 1865 to his death. He also reigned as King of the Congo Free State from 1876 to 1904, when he was forced to abdicate because the horrors of his supposedly “benevolent” rule could no longer be hidden or suppressed. But he didn’t abandon Congo empty-handed: He sold his holdings in the colony to the Belgium nation for what might be described as a princely sum, if not an outright swindle of the Belgian people. The monuments to Leopold’s greed can be seen today in many parts of Belgium and the French Riviera. Indeed, the thriving port city of Antwerp was built virtually on the backs of the wretched Congolese laborers engaged in the labor-intensive industries of mining, harvesting and hunting for gold, diamonds, rubber and ivory, among many other valuable commodities. In more recent times, Congo has become one of the chief sources of uranium for the world’s nuclear generators and arsenals. That is the ultimate horror of the film: that not much has changed since Leopold II began his artfully capitalist manipulations over a century ago. In the end, he is almost a comic figure in what has turned out to be an unending horror-movie nightmare of prodigious proportions.

Among the more fascinating footnotes to this saga of evildoing is the derogation, even destruction, of the legend of British journalist, explorer and self-glorifier Sir Henry Morton Stanley (1841-1904), best known in the popular mind for his expedition into Africa in search of David Livingstone, whom he greeted with the words “Doctor Livingstone, I presume?” in 1871. I still remember Henry King’s 1939 Stanley and Livingstone, in which Spencer Tracy as Stanley asks the famous question of Cedric Hardwicke. It turns out that Stanley had a more shameful mission in Africa, serving as Leopold’s advance bullyboy to intimidate the natives and hunt elephants for their valuable ivory. In essence, the time-honored Stanley was an imperial thug for Leopold II, and the Congolese people felt the lash of his whip, both real and metaphorical.

A more edifying footnote involves the immortal Polish-British novelist Joseph Conrad (1857-1924), whose experiences as a steamboat captain in Congo provided him with the background material for The Heart of Darkness (1899). When Marlow, the narrator of Conrad’s tale, journeys up the river in search of the madman Kurtz, he finds him hallucinating to the refrain of “the horror, the horror”—Conrad’s elegant summation of what he himself had found in Leopold’s tormented realm. Ironically, Leopold himself never set foot in Congo, though his massive footprints in the region are still visible today in the poverty and suffering of the Congolese people, who have never benefited from the exploitation of the region’s vast resources.

The U.S. government and many of the largest American corporations have collaborated with the Belgian colonialists and their own military and corporate sponsors to keep the people of the region from shaping their own destinies. During the period of the Cold War, President Eisenhower and the C.I.A. conspired with the Belgian military to have nationalist leader Patrice Lumumba arrested and murdered by a military thug named Mobuto Sese Seko, who continued the looting of Congo in the name of the anti-Communist crusade—an ideological dodge that Leopold himself would certainly have appreciated if only he’d been around to see it. King Leopold’s Ghost can be recommended as an economical education in one of the lesser-known atrocities of the capitalist system, as well as an eye-opening account of history’s most ruthless amasser of wealth. The people down at Wall Street should erect a statue to the larcenous Leopold: Why should Belgium and the French Riviera have all his monuments?

Hole in the Head

Géla Babluani’s 13 (Tzameti), from his own screenplay, is the most pointedly and profoundly nihilistic film that one is ever likely to see; in fact, I have never encountered another film that is as ingeniously and insidiously hopeless. Because word has somehow gotten out that a horrifyingly straight-faced enactment of a singularly homicidal form of Russian roulette constitutes the dramatic essence of the film, people have asked me if these scenes are as shocking as the Russian-roulette scenes in Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter (1978). All I can say is that 13 makes The Deer Hunter seem about as harrowing as Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm (though that’s pretty harrowing too, when you think about it).

But the point is that 13 depressed me immeasurably, even though I refused to believe any of it. This is to say that I would never recommend it to anyone—but if you’re made of sterner stuff than this admittedly tender-hearted reviewer, then read no further, because I don’t think that I can say very much more about this film without revealing the gruesome climax of its Grand Guignol narrative. In fact, one reviewer complained that even the trailer for 13 gave the plot away completely and thereby spoiled the “fun” for people who hadn’t seen it yet.

To begin with, the title of the film simply refers to the number assigned to 20-year-old Sébastian (played by George Sabluani, the writer-director’s brother) to wear on his uniform in a massive game of Russian roulette, in which each player aims at the head of the person standing in front of him.

How did Sébastian get involved in this game, and why is he playing it? This is a long and not entirely clear story that doesn’t bear retelling: Suffice it to say that he is a Georgian immigrant who mistakenly thought that he could make some easy money at this “job,” which he has tricked his way into and from which he cannot now escape. In the first round, each player places one bullet in his revolver and spins the cylinder; then, on the command, they all pull their triggers in unison. After a few of the bullets have hit their mark and the bodies have been dragged away, the survivors put in a second bullet, and so on, until there are only two survivors left, each of whom aims at the other with four bullets in his weapon. Large sums of money are being bet on these illegal contests by wealthy lawbreakers. In the end, only Sébastian is left alive, and after collecting his winnings, he still has to figure out how he can stay alive. Get the picture? I didn’t.

Higher Learning: Half Nelson  Wrestles With Drugs, Race