What exactly makes America great? Maybe the better question is, how do we measure greatness? Is it by how we spend our money and allocate our resources, or by how we take care of our most vulnerable and underserved citizens? Or, is it simply a matter of where we plant our flag? “I think I’ll send these doctor bills airmail special (to whitey on the moon)!” says Gil Scott Heron in 1970, on his now-infamous scathing spoken-word track, aptly titled “Whitey on the Moon.” Over several minutes, Heron details the daily struggles of being black and working-class, the precarity of his family, and the profound dissonance between his everyday reality and the patriotic triumph that stemmed from the 1969 moon landing.
Almost half a century later, we’re still waiting for power in Puerto Rico and water in Flint, but didn’t you hear? We’re getting a United States Space Force! In the true fashion of art imitating life, two new trailers capture this head-snapping shift between Americans’ real lived experiences and the mythos of our national imagination, showing that the personal is always political (and vice versa). Let’s dive in:
Call it the Moonlight effect, or call it Hollywood finally catching up — either way, this year has seen an emergence of increasingly “mainstreamed” cinematic lyricism concerning the Black American experience. But where Hale County This Morning, This Evening differs from other highly-anticipated releases like Dayveon and We the Animals (and Moonlight director Barry Jenkins’ new feature, If Beale Street Could Talk, for that matter) is that it’s nonfiction. Creative nonfiction, certainly, but nonfiction nonetheless.
The movie is the brainchild of first-time feature director RaMell Ross, advised by none other than Palme d’Or winner Apichatpong Weerasethakul. That. Explains. A lot! Ross, who has a rich background in team sports, literature, politics, and sports photography, spent five years filming in Hale County, focusing on the community as a whole, and two young men in particular that he met through volunteer work in Alabama. The result is if this trailer is any indication, one of those increasingly rare, revelatory documentary portraits that aim to reveal ecstatic truth, especially as a means of subverting existing depictions of its subject(s). Mark your calendars: Hale County This Morning, This Evening will be in select theaters beginning September 14.
Meanwhile, it looks like whitey is back on the moon: First Man, which releases October 12, features Ryan Gosling as Neil Armstrong. Damien Chazelle, the emerging arterial powerhouse behind Whiplash and La La Land directs, but only because Kubrick wasn’t available. Get it?
It’s been thirty-five years since The Right Stuff, twenty-three years since Apollo 13, and two years since Hidden Figures, so maybe we’re due for another Space Race-era drama. Look, the comparison may well indeed be the thief of joy, but next to a movie like Hale County This Morning, This Evening, one that takes real risks and attempts to create a new narrative — maybe even a new kind of narrative — about a place and its people, First Man feels like it’s using someone else’s footsteps to traverse historic terrain…albeit under different laws of gravity. Right now, the most fascinating thing about First Man is this very mild spoiler alert: Apparently, Chazelle never shows the actual moment Armstrong stabbed that flagpole into interstellar soil! That seemingly significant omission is already inspiring feverish protest on behalf of furious conservatives: According to the Twitter feed of one Marco Rubio, “The American people paid for that mission, on rockets built by Americans, with American technology & carrying American astronauts.” They sure did, senator. They sure did.
Watch Now: Think space is the place like Sun Ra? Then you’re in luck: Fandor has tons of fun space travel movies to explore, including the colorized version of the early cinema classic A Trip to the Moon! And for more documentaries on the Black American experience, check out The Jena 6, Hoop Dreams, Barber Shop: Detroit — USA, and Trouble the Water.