Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., says he’ll skip the opening of a Mississippi civil rights museum because President Trump is scheduled to attend.
J. Scott Applewhite/AP
J. Scott Applewhite/AP
Two Democratic representatives, John Lewis and Bennie Thompson, say they will not attend the long-awaited opening on Saturday of two museums dedicated to Mississippi’s history and civil-rights struggle because of the planned appearance of President Trump.
Lewis is a Georgia Democrat and icon of the civil-rights campaign. Thompson is Mississippi’s only Democratic congressman. In a joint statement, they said they made their decision “after careful consideration and conversations with church leaders, elected officials, civil rights activists” and many others.
“President Trump’s attendance and his hurtful policies are an insult to the people portrayed in this civil rights museum. The struggles represented in this museum exemplify the truth of what really happened in Mississippi. President Trump’s disparaging comments about women, the disabled, immigrants, and National Football League players disrespect the efforts of Fannie Lou Hamer, Aaron Henry, Medgar Evers, Robert Clark, James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner, and countless others who have given their all for Mississippi to be a better place.”
Soon thereafter, former Navy Secretary Ray Maybus, who is white, tweeted that he would not attend the museum opening either, citing Trump’s planned speech. “His support of white supremacists and racism exact opposite of what museum is about,” said Maybus, a former Democratic governor of Mississippi.
The White House issued a statement in response to Lewis’ and Thompson’s announcement:
“We think it’s unfortunate that these members of Congress wouldn’t join the President in honoring the incredible sacrifice civil rights leaders made to right the injustices in our history. The President hopes others will join him in recognizing that the movement was about removing barriers and unifying Americans of all backgrounds.”
Trump was invited to speak at the ceremony marking the bicentennial of Mississippi’s admission to the union by Republican Gov. Phil Bryant who criticized Trump’s detractors.
“We are better than that. We are kinder and more tolerant here in Mississippi than I think perhaps other places. Allow the president to come and honor Mississippi with his speech and his presence,” said Bryant as quoted by the AP.
The event will showcase two museums sharing the same roof in downtown Jackson. One is the Museum of Mississippi History and the other is the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum. The latter is the only state-sponsored civil rights museum in the nation.
Lewis was to have been one of the main speakers at the event along with Myrlie Evers, the widow of the assassinated Mississippi NAACP leader Medgar Evers. She told the New York Times she hopes that Trump will “learn something” by attending the museum opening.
“If God gives me the breath and the strength, I will address his attendance when I stand to speak,” she added.
Former Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili talks on a cellphone at a barricade in front of the Ukrainian Parliament in Kiev, where his supporters are camping.
Sergei Chuzavkov/AFP/Getty Images
Sergei Chuzavkov/AFP/Getty Images
Just what is Mikhail Saakashvili doing?
Georgian president, Ukrainian governor, stateless fugitive — in the past decade, he’s played all these roles, among others. But now that he’s perched in a tent community near the parliament building in Kiev, an opposition leader surrounded by a huge group of restive followers, the question of who this bombastic politician is and what his aims are has become more pressing than ever.
Trouble is, the answer to the question will vary wildly depending on whom you ask.
Pose it to Ukrainian authorities and they’ll tell you he’s a rabble-rousing criminal. The Security Service of Ukraine has tried twice this week to arrest him on the suspicion he’s conspiring with pro-Russian figures to undermine President Petro Poroshenko’s government.
The first time, on Tuesday, they had to haul him down from his apartment building’s roof — only to see him pulled from their police van by his angry supporters. On Wednesday they tried again, and again they failed to bring him in, this time because they were repulsed by tire-tossing members of the protest encampment set up in Mariyinsky Park.
Saakashvili’s supporters, for their part, dismiss the authorities’ allegations as trumped-up charges designed to eliminate a significant rival to Poroshenko. Saakashvili has cast himself as a crusader against government graft, and he has accrued a significant following in the process.
Neither version of Saakashvili — the opportunistic demagogue and the steely political activist — tells the whole story. But dig a little deeper into his long, labyrinthine past, and one might find a fair amount of fodder to support both conclusions.
A rise and fall in Georgia
Swept into power at the head of a peaceful uprising known as the Rose Revolution, the brash young Saakashvili represented an optimistic vision of democratic reform and independence from neighboring Russia’s influence. A former justice minister, he won the presidency in 2004 — and won plaudits from the West while he was at it.
“Your courage is inspiring democratic reformers and sending a message that echoes across the world,” President George W. Bush told him on a state visit there in 2005. “Freedom will be the future of every nation and every people on Earth.”
Mikhail Saakashvili, then Georgia’s president, walks with President W. Bush during the latter’s visit to Tbilisi in 2005.
Tim Sloan/AFP/Getty Images
Tim Sloan/AFP/Getty Images
During his time in power, Saakashvili sought to refashion Georgia in the Western capitalist image, opening markets and striving to wean the country off its economic dependence on Russia.
“We’ve been thrown into the open sea,” he told Newsweek in 2006. “The time has come for us to learn to swim.”
Yet his grand Western dream eroded as his tenure stretched on.
A dayslong war with Russia ended disastrously for Georgia in 2008, and by Election Day in 2012 his reputation as a reformer had withered under criticism that he’d become increasingly authoritarian. He ended up soundly losing that election.
Within two years of his electoral loss, the prosecutor’s office in Georgia had filed charges on Saakashvili and dozens of other former officials, saying he had exceeded his authority as president and engaged in corruption. He called the charges a “farce,” according to Reuters, adding that the allegations lodged against him by the new government were simply aimed at “pleasing Russia.”
He was out of country at the time the charges were filed. He has not been back since to Georgia, which continues to angle for his extradition.
About-faces in Ukraine
When Saakashvili came to Ukraine in 2014, Kiev welcomed him warmly as an ally. Massive demonstrations had only recently forced out the country’s pro-Russian president, Viktor Yanukovych. Newly installed in office, Poroshenko saw in Saakashvili a fellow antagonist of the Kremlin, and he wasted little time in finding an official function for the Georgian.
The president summarily granted Saakashvili Ukrainian citizenship in 2015 — a move that meant he would have to give up his Georgian citizenship, which, given his legal woes there, couldn’t have been a difficult choice. Poroshenko also went one step further, appointing the new citizen to the governorship of the Odessa region.
But as Radio Free Europe notes, the job didn’t exactly go smoothly. Or last long:
“After a stint that included occasionally dramatic acts of political theater, the Ukrainian plan went awry and Saakashvili quit in November 2016, publicly accusing Poroshenko of blocking his reform efforts. He announced the launch of his own opposition party, called Movement of New Forces, and began campaigning against his former ally.”
Indeed, the disputes grew so acrimonious, a notorious fight even broke out between Saakashvili and the country’s interior minister at a council meeting. Arsen Avakov said that, faced with Saakashvili’s “hysterical” behavior, “I refrained from hitting him, and just threw water in his face.”
“It’s a long time since I’ve seen such a bonkers populist,” he wrote after the meeting in late 2015, according to The Guardian. “Nobody could get a word in edgeways, he was interrupting everyone including the president.”
Earlier this year, roughly nine months after his resignation, Poroshenko stripped Saakashvili of his citizenship while the latter was on a visit to the U.S.
Saakashvili had been a Ukrainian for a mere two years. Now, unwelcome by authorities in both the countries he has called home, the promising politician who was once the great Western hope for the former Soviet territories is a man without a state.
That didn’t stop him from returning to Ukraine, however.
In a move reminiscent of the mob action that freed him Tuesday, Saakashvili pushed his way into Ukraine in September in dramatic fashion. The German newspaper Deutsche Welle described the scene:
“The circumstances were astonishing, even for a country like Ukraine, whose recent history is rich in scurrilous political incidents. Initially, the 49-year-old former governor of Odessa oblast attempted to enter the country by train, accompanied by a crowd of journalists. The Ukrainian train was stopped in Poland and the politician was requested to disembark. Saakashvili then traveled by bus to another border crossing, where his well-muscled supporters literally carried him over the border. The Ukrainian border guards appeared to be helpless.”
Since then, Saakashvili has railed tirelessly against his old friend in Kiev.
Mikhail Saakashvili addresses protesters after he escaped police custody on Tuesday.
Populist or provocateur?
It’s unclear where this skein unspools from here.
Saakashvili’s status remains entirely up in the air. Though stateless, he can’t claim the status of a refugee since Ukraine rejected his petition for political asylum last month — and though he’s free for now, he’s a wanted man in both countries where he once held leadership positions.
Long known for his opposition to Russia, Saakashvili nevertheless now stands accused of what Ukraine’s top prosecutor calls “the revenge plan of the pro-Kremlin forces in Ukraine.”
“This part of the ‘Russian Spring’ operation in Kiev is related to the cooperation of a series of politicians — first of all, Mikhail Saakashvili with the members of Yanukovych’s organized criminal group,” Yuriy Lutsenko told reporters on Tuesday, playing audio and video footage purporting to show Saakashvili arranging payments from a wealthy pro-Russian businessman.
These payments, according to Lutsenko, funded “protest rallies aimed at seizing power in Ukraine and facilitating the members of the organized criminal group.”
But in a Ukraine just years removed from political revolution, law enforcement officers appear reluctant to press the matter, painfully aware of the dangers of making martyrs out of him and his supporters. So, even after multiple attempts at arrests, Saakashvili remains at large — and remains vocal in denying the charges.
“Do not attack or force people into fighting back! This is a peaceful rally! Has the experience taught you nothing?”
A pizza is prepared at a restaurant in downtown Naples. On Wednesday, the traditional art of pizza-making was given UNESCO cultural heritage status.
Andrew Medichini/ASSOCIATED PRESS
Andrew Medichini/ASSOCIATED PRESS
When a UNESCO World Heritage Site comes to mind, perhaps it has the natural splendor of the Great Barrier Reef or the imposing mastery of the Pyramids of Giza. Now one may look no further than the humble pizza for world heritage status. No, not the frozen kind, the old-school kind baked in a wood-fired oven. On Wednesday Pizzaiuolo, the art of Neopolitan pizza-making, was added to UNESCO’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.
UNESCO says the designation is meant to safeguard and raise awareness about forms of cultural heritage — often passed down from generation to generation — before they die out. Around three dozen other cultural practices were also added to this year’s intangible list, including Kumbh Mela— an event in India when pilgrims bathe in a sacred river and Uilleann piping— a type of Irish music played by a particular bagpipe.
As for pizzaiuolo, it is more than a slice of sustenance, itis a form of artistry with a deep history baked right in. Pizzaiulo “fosters social gatherings and intergenerational exchange” and the “Pizzaiuoli (pizza-makers) are a living link for the communities concerned,” says UNESCO (the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization).
The practice of pizzaiuolo consists of a few stages: first the dough (water, flour, salt and yeast) must be kneaded by fist for at least 15 minutes, then allowed to rest and rise for 12 hours. Next balls or panetti are formed and left to rest some more. Then the dough is stretched and beaten into a circle. Finally the toppings are added, and the pizza is placed in the oven and rotated with a pizza shovel to ensure uniform baking. Two minutes is all it takes.
The Naples-based Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana (True Neapolitan Pizza) will only issue its trademark to restaurants that follow even more stringent guidelines. But the result should be a pizza for the senses with “the flavor of well-baked bread. The slightly acidic flavor of the densely enriched tomatoes, mixed with the characteristic aroma of the oregano, garlic or basil ensures that the pizza, as it comes out from the oven, delivers its characteristic aroma.”
Pepperoni and pineapple lovers are out of luck. The association says only two kinds of pie are authentic: marinara pizza with tomato, oil, oregano and garlic and margarita pizza with the addition of cheese and basil.
Pizzaiuoli can take it to the next level by stretching and tossing the pie in a doughy display of acrobatics at international competitions.
When news of the UNESCO recognition broke in Naples, pizza-makers handed out free slices on the street to celebrate, according to the BBC. Two million people had reportedly signed a petition supporting the piazzaiulo application.
“After 250 years of waiting, pizza is humanity’s heritage, its intangible heritage,” Neopolitan pizza maker Enzo Coccia told the BBC.
Grass-fed, antibiotic-free cattle gather at a farm in Yamhill, Ore. For the first time, government statistics show America’s pigs, cattle and poultry are getting fewer antibiotic drugs.
Something unprecedented happened this week. The Food And Drug Administration released its annual accounting of antibiotics sold in America for use in poultry, pigs and cattle, and for the very first time, it reported that fewer of the drugs were sold. Sales of medically important antibiotics in 2016 declined by 14 percent, compared to 2015.
The new report is the strongest evidence so far that the FDA’s efforts to restrain antibiotic use on farms, along with public pressure, are having an effect. The FDA has been publishing these reports since 2009, and each report until this one had showed a steady increase in antibiotic sales for use in farm animals.
“It’s very encouraging,” says Karin Hoelzer, a former FDA scientist who now works at the Pew Charitable Trusts. Pew, along with many other environmental and public health advocacy groups, has been demanding tougher action by the FDA to reduce antibiotic use on farms. Using these drugs, whether in humans or in animals, promotes the development of drug-resistant bacteria, which have become a critical problem in human medicine.
According to a statement from Avinash Kar, a senior attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council, “this course change provides a glimmer of hope that we can beat the growing epidemic of drug-resistant infections.”
The FDA’s numbers show reductions in the sales of many different antibiotics. Penicillin sales were down 10 percent from 2015 to 2016, after rising more than 25 percent over the previous six years. Tetracyclines, an older class of drugs that account for a whopping 42 percent of all antibiotics use in food animals, declined by 15 percent.
The levels of antibiotic sales still are much higher than when the FDA first started collecting data in 2009, however.
The report also includes, for the first time, some fascinating data on antibiotic use among different industries. The billions of chickens in America, it turns out, get fewer antibiotics than cattle or pigs. Chicken and turkeys together accounted for just 16 percent of the medically important antibiotics used in agriculture in 2016. Cattle accounted for about 45 percent of these drugs, and swine a bit less.
Many large poultry company have made commitments over the past two years to reduce antibiotic use in chickens. Perdue Farms has led the way in this effort, and the vast majority of the company’s chickens now get no antibiotics at all.
Cattle also received large amounts of antibiotics that are not important in human medicine, such as a class of drugs called ionophores that can’t be used in humans because they’re toxic to people.
Hoelzer, from the Pew Charitable Trusts, says that this data will be helpful in pinpointing areas where more research is needed in order to reduce reliance on antibiotics. She also says that we need more data from individual farms, in order to understand the exact circumstances that lead to antibiotic use.
Leonardo da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi was bought at auction in October by a Saudi prince.
The mystery over who paid a record-breaking $450 million for Leonardo da Vinci’s painting Salvator Mundi at an auction last month appears to have been solved. It turns out it’s Saudi Arabia’s crown prince Mohammed bin Salman.
That’s according to U.S. intelligence officials who keep a close eye on the kingdom’s young and powerful crown prince, says the Wall Street Journal.
The winning bid in the November 15 auction at Christie’s in New York was made anonymously by phone using a Christie’s representative. The New York Times reported earlier that documents showed another member of the royal family, Prince Bader bin Abdullah bin Mohammed bin Farhan al-Saud, placed the final bid. But intelligence officials say Bader was just a proxy for crown prince Mohammed.
Normally, news of a wealthy and powerful member of Saudi Arabia’s royal family buying a piece of art would not raise any interest. But the timing on this purchase was notable. It came just two weeks after Crown Prince Mohammed launched an anti-corruption campaign, rounding up more than 200 Saudi businessmen, ministers and princes. Most are being detained at a luxury hotel in the capital, Riyadh.
The identity of the buyer became something of a parlor game. Even executives at Christie’s had questions about who it was.
Prince Bader did not present himself as a bidder until the day before the auction. At that time he put down a $100 million deposit to qualify for bidding. Christie’s pressed him to establish both his identity and the source of his money. The prince’s response was that he made his money in real estate, and that he was just one of some 5,000 Saudi princes.
A spokeswoman for Christie’s would not comment on the identity of the buyer, but did confirm the painting would be displayed at the newly opened Louvre Abu Dhabi, in the United Arab Emirates, a branch of the Louvre Museum in Paris. Louvre Abu Dhabi also tweeted the painting would be heading its way.
— Louvre Abu Dhabi (@LouvreAbuDhabi) December 6, 2017
The choice of painting is also curious. Salvator Mundi portrays Jesus holding an orb in his left hand while raising his right. Saudi Arabia adheres to a strict form of Islam which shuns visual portrayals of religious figures.
The Journal says the painting was offered to the royal family in Qatar — Saudi Arabia’s regional rival — in 2011 for a mere $80 million. They turned it down, and did not bid on it this time around.
There are also questions about the authenticity of the painting. Some art critics say it lacks the vitality of da Vinci’s work, and that it has been painted and scrubbed a number of times.
The previous owner of Salvator Mundi was a Russian businessman, Dmitry Rybolovlev, who purchased it for $127 million in 2013.
Pantone has picked the “color of the year” for 2018 — a vivid purple.
Courtesy of Pantone
Courtesy of Pantone
The color of the year for 2018 is a vivid purple, according to Pantone, which gives the title to a new hue every December.
Specifically, “PANTONE 18-3838 Ultra Violet” is the chosen hue. (“Ultra violet” with a space, we’ll note: actual “ultraviolet” light is, by definition, invisible.)
Each color of the year encompasses something about fashion, decorating and design trends while also reflecting “what’s needed in our world today,” the Pantone Color Institute’s vice president, Laurie Pressman asserted in a statement.
Lat year’s color of the year was a “life-affirming” shade of green. The year before was a pairing of rose quartz and serene blue that was seen as anti-stress while also nodding toward gender fluidity, Pantone said.
So. What does purple have to say about our planet in 2018?
It’s “a dramatically provocative and thoughtful purple shade,” Pantone says, one that “communicates originality, ingenuity, and visionary thinking that points us towards the future.”
Think Prince, or David Bowie, or Jimi Hendrix, Pantone says. Think purple-toned pictures of stars scattered across the galaxy, the “vast and limitless night sky,” the “mysteries of the cosmos,” purple-lit meditation spaces.
And — unmentioned by Pantone — in Alice Walker’s novel The Color Purple, the color purple is presented as an example of God-given beauty.
Of course, there are more worldly associations with the color as well.
For centuries, purple has been associated with royalty, because of the extraordinary expense of dying fabric purple.
In our current political climate, where red is linked with Republicans and blue with Democrats, purple is periodically identified as a symbol of bipartisanship — or, in the case of swing states, as a signifier of uncertain affiliation.
And then there’s Southern California.
“The forecast for [Thursday] is purple,” Ken Pimlott said last night.
Pimlott, the director at the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, wasn’t making an extremely accurate prediction about the Pantone color of the year . He was talking about the intense fires near Los Angeles.
As of yesterday, CalFire had elevated the wind wildfire risk in LA to the only color worse than red on that scale — for the first time ever.
“We’ve never used purple before,” he said.
So there you have it. Mysteries of the cosmos. Luxury and power. Political uncertainty. Or devastating, uncontrollable, unprecedented peril.
Or Prince. Maybe we can all just focus on Prince.
The USDA says it will give states more flexibility in how they deliver federal benefits known as SNAP or food stamps.
The delivery of federal food benefits for millions of low-income people is likely to change after the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced Tuesday it’ll allow states more flexibility in how they dole out the money.
Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said in a news release that his agency wants states to try out programs that don’t increase the cost of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps, but instead promote job training and reduce waste and fraud. The news release said specifics will be provided in “the coming weeks.”
“We want to provide the nutrition people need, but we also want to help them transition from government programs, back to work, and into lives of independence,” Perdue said.
States already have wide latitude to demand that people work or at least look for a job in order to receive SNAP benefits, according to Ed Bolen of the nonpartisan Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, based in Washington, D.C.
Under federal law, people without children who are able to work either must work or attend job training at least 20 hours per week to receive SNAP benefits beyond 3 months. States are allowed to bypass that rule when they have high unemployment, and 36 states have at least partial waivers from the USDA. Several states, including Nebraska and Kansas, have tested different job requirements and training programs in recent years.
“At a certain point, states can ban somebody from SNAP if they fail to meet those employment and training mandatory requirements,” Bolen said.
States could consider new SNAP restrictions, such as drug testing or time limits for adults with children. But, Bolen said, “they would need federal approval.”
“And it’s questionable to me whether the secretary could actually grant that, given that it’s part of the SNAP law,” he added.
Perdue’s move comes ahead of work on the 2018 farm bill, for which lawmakers already are floating their priorities and unlikely alliances are being formed among various interest groups.
Nutrition programs, including SNAP, made up about 80 percent of the USDA’s budget in the most recent farm bill, making it the largest portion of agency spending. About 44 million people participated in SNAP each month in 2016, at a cost of $70.9 billion. Nearly two-thirds were under 18, over 60 or disabled,according to the USDA.
Perdue is undertaking a major reorganization of the USDA that would, among other things, eliminate the Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion, which establishes dietary guidelines and studies what it costs to follow them. That work instead would fall under the USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service.
In 2016, SNAP households were certified to receive benefits for an average period of 13 months. A previous proposal from the Trump administration would have required states to cover up to 25 percent of the cost of SNAP benefits.
Elisa (Sally Hawkins) prepares to put in a good word for your old buddy Gill, because the wolves are at Old Gill’s door, in The Shape of Water.
Kerry Hayes/Fox Searchlight
Kerry Hayes/Fox Searchlight
The year before he won an Academy Award for designing and building the puppet star of E.T., Italian special effects artist Carlo Rimbaldi created a much more frightening creature — minus the light-up heart, plus tentacles — to have simulated sex with Isabelle Adjani in the psychological horror film Possession, a movie that probably sold fewer lunchboxes and plush toys.
The Shape of Water, the latest R-rated fairy tale from Mexican auteur Guillermo del Toro, offers a sense of what might spawn if those two Rimbaldi feature-creatures were to mate. The Spielbergian gentleness wins out, by a lot, making for a hybrid that’s just a little too cuddly to rate with The Devil’s Backbone or Pan’s Labyrinth, del Toro’s twin masterpieces. I wish his new film had spent at least a little time being frightening before it phased into aching and swooning; with its lush evocation of longing amid gleaming midcentury diners and cinemas and Cadillacs, SoW sometimes feels like The Carol of the Black Lagoon. But it’s a transporting, lovingly made specimen of escapism — if it’s possible for a movie that depicts a powerful creep blithely abusing women in the workplace to count as escapism — and easily the strongest of del Toro’s seven English-language features, though it spin-kicks less vampire butt than Blade II did. To place yourself in GDT’s hands, as he tells the type of story he tells better than anyone else, is a rich pleasure.
Del Toro has been making movies about monsters (human and otherwise) and legends for a generation now, and The Shape of Water feels like an attempt to distill those grand subjects into something awards voters and audiences who found Pan’s Labyrinth just too sad to bear can easily embrace. It’s a sweet-natured (and explicit, though not exploitative) romance between Elisa, a mute janitor at a secret government laboratory (Sally Hawkins, whose mostly silent performance is still among the year’s most dimensional) and the sensitive, intelligent amphibi-man being held captive there. She plies him with hard-boiled eggs and Benny Goodman records, proving that it really does take all kinds, and eventually teaches him to communicate with her in sign language. Inside the fish-suit is Doug Jones, an actor who’s done soulful work beneath masks and makeup in many del Toro films — Abe Sapien, his character from the director’s two comic-book-derived Hellboy movies, is an amphibian, too.
Anyway, these star-and-species-crossed lovers must evade the snarling G-man Strickland (Michael Shannon, in full Zod mode), who is under orders to learn whatever he can from “the asset” and then dispose of it. Del Toro, who collaborated on the screenplay with Vanessa Taylor, has set the story in the Marvel Age — the early ’60s — with the news full of cops bludgeoning civil rights marchers and Hueys in the skies over Vietnam. As with Peter Jackson’s underrated 2005 remake of King Kong, adoration of showbiz and cinema oozes from SoW’s every gill: Elisa’s apartment is above a grand cinema that shows Cinemascope extravaganzas like The Story of Ruth. When del Toro follows up a crisply executed action sequence with a black-and-white dance number, anyone who found La La Land too precious is likely to reach inside their bag of tomatoes. (It bring me no joy to report that it is not Jones, but someone named Edward Tracz, who performs the dance in the fish-suit.)
The movie will likely catch some flack for valuing Sally’s perspective over the supporting players, but fairy tales tend not to be ensemble stories. Octavia Spencer plays Zelda, her best friend at the lab, while Richard Jenkins is Giles, her closeted roommate. (He’s an illustrator by trade, blackballed by his former advertising firm for gayness or drunkenness or both.) Spencer and Jenkins have each played parts like these before. In Hidden Figures, Spencer embodied Dorothy Vaughn, the real-life math whiz who became NASA’s first African-American manager, which makes it a drag to see her back in the same period as a cleaning lady.
To the movie’s credit, Zelda and Giles both have inner lives and the opportunity to make choices that drive the story, as does Michael Stuhlbarg, playing a scientist of murky loyalties. Del Toro makes a point of efficiently noting the sexual habits and frustrations of his major characters: Strickland keeps his shirt and tie on, Don Draper-style, and urges his wife to keep quiet while he discharges his husbandly duties. Ew. Jenkins crushes on the proprietor of a nearby diner, ordering slice after slice of sub-par pie, while Spencer laments that a now-expired “animal magnetism” (her words) saddled her with an inert husband who isn’t any damn good. Without getting all prurient about it, Sally appears to be the most fulfilled among them even before she invites the Aqua-Man to her Hall of Justice.
Nothing else that happens is likely to surprise you; that’s not del Toro’s game. In interviews he takes pains to distinguish inevitability — the province of stories that echo again down through generations and cultures — from predictability. Sure, Beauty and the Beast may have been the year’s biggest inevitability in commercial terms — but that’s just the sink-or-swim marketplace. In its maturity and originality, The Shape of Water leaves that other tale of benign bestiality in its wake.
Toe-Pick Your Battles: Margot Robbie is Tonya Harding in I, Tonya.
Tonya Harding was never supposed to be a pro figure skater. Like so many young American dreamers before her, she had it all wrong for success: born into the wrong class, raised by the wrong role model, drawn to the wrong men. And she had the wrong kind of femininity for the sport she loved, too, because those judges didn’t want to see a ZZ Top routine from someone who sewed her own costume, even if it did include a flawlessly executed triple axel. So when Harding did find a bit of glory, there were corrective measures in place, and her self-made undoing — by playing some part in the “hit” on U.S. rival Nancy Kerrigan’s leg, the scandal that would unravel her career and the entire 1990s along with it — was the fitting, flaming end to her membership in the elite club that never wanted her anyway.
That’s the argument put forth by I, Tonya, the cheeky and skate-sharp new biopic from director Craig Gillespie coming only a few short years after the ESPN documentary. The title tips us off that Harding’s story — drawn from interviews with all the key players — has been rehabilitated into the stuff of tabloid Greek tragedy. This is a bold film, especially in its leveraging of all that real-life contradiction to create something that shocks and delights us with its own stylistic wrongness. I, Tonya takes greater risks with the biopic genre than any other in recent memory, and it’s remarkable how much of it lands upright. It’s the triple axel of based-on-true-story movies.
As played magnificently by Margot Robbie, Tonya is a powerhouse athlete, a fragile abuse victim, an impoverished country girl and a snarky media critic. Robbie embodies all these roles with a childlike sincerity, a lost-soul cluelessness, as her Tonya never ceases to wonder why it can’t just be about the skating. She and the film whip between these personas with wild abandon, mixing styles and tones in a chaotic fashion that borders on overkill. (Must we indulge “present-day” interviews, voiceover AND talking directly to the camera?) But it all builds to a satisfying and illuminating portrait of a poor American girl who maybe never stood a chance.
The film’s account of Harding’s upbringing is so heartbreaking it would be unbearable if it weren’t presented in such a bouncy, off-kilter way. As a child in Oregon, she’s practically shoved onto the ice by her waitress mother LaVona (a superb Allison Janney), partially because her mom sees talent but mostly because she’s grooming Tonya for a future as the butt of her endless verbal and physical abuse. LaVona will hold the cost of Tonya’s skating lessons over her head for the rest of her life, long after she has also compelled her daughter to drop out of school so she can focus on the sport.
Most of the film is devoted to Tonya’s marriage to, and subsequent divorce from, Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan). Although the Jeff in the “present day” sequences is muted and introspective, offering deep insights into how his decisions would go on to shape the culture, in the rest of the film he’s an abusive leech, incapable of offering anything to Tonya except psychological obsession as she climbs the ranks of U.S. Figure Skating. The two’s tumultuous relationship is marked by the cycle of Jeff’s abuse (he hits her at home, and later threatens her at gunpoint) followed by his blubbering, shameless apologies, and Tonya’s continued gravitation to him even after leaving him and filing a restraining order. Even these scenes, which are brutal enough to watch without the pop songs that punctuate them like thunderclaps, don’t come close to reaching the real-life Harding’s accounts of what Gillooly did to her. But abuse is complex, particularly if you live a sheltered, scrutinized existence, and one of the big strengths of I, Tonya is how it refuses to make its hero into a sap, or her abusers into mere monsters. If they were, we wouldn’t feel as affected by a moving (if a bit show-offy) long take of a post-divorce Jeff in various mopey positions around the house, inhabiting Tonya’s negative space.
The film abruptly shifts gears into full-blown farce as we approach what everyone onscreen refers to as “the incident”: the attack that created the inescapable digital-video image of the innocent, white-dressed Kerrigan clutching her knee and wailing, “Why? Why?” Gillespie and screenwriter Steven Rogers know an inept hit job when they see one, and they milk this conspiracy of dunces for all it’s worth. It’s all orchestrated by Jeff’s buddy and self-proclaimed Tonya bodyguard Shawn Eckhardt (Paul Hauser, champion goober), who mimes criminal-mastermind behavior from inside his mom’s basement; his “guys” get hyped for their job by blasting “Gloria”; and when it’s all over and Shawn’s blown his own cover, he insists to a TV reporter that he has training in “counter-espionage and counter-terrorism,” despite all evidence to the contrary.
I, Tonya gets mushy on the question of exactly how much knowledge Tonya had of the incident, which is consistent with the intrigue that’s surrounded this sordid saga ever since. But it takes the extra step of insisting the real culprits are us, the basic-cable mouth-droolers who hoovered up her every mistake because we love to watch train wrecks on ice. In fact, Tonya shames us right to our faces, an accusation we might take more seriously if the movie didn’t seem to be trying so hard to reconnect with whatever electric qualities first hooked America on her story. Still, for as jolting an experience as watching the film can be, it does help Tonya live her truth, while revealing, from within all its wrongs, the basic truth of figure skating: It’s never just been about the skating.