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Film Critic Harlan Jacobson: Labor Day Movie Review and the Death of Chadwick Boseman

Harlan Jacobson for WBGO News

DD: Our film critic, Harlan Jacobson, doesn’t work on Labor Day has always graced us with his annual Labor Day Address to the Nation to explain why he doesn’t work on Labor Day.

Things are different this year right Harlan?

HJ: Lately, discipline about what I watch has broken down. The 9.5-hour Polish TV series, The Decalogue, is from 1989, 10-chapters, each based on one of the Ten Commandments.  It was originally a New Yorker Films release andi s part of my Criterion DVD collection. It’s rated an astronomical 9.0 on the IMDB, Internet Movie Data Base. It sits on my TV table. It stares at me. I’m going to get to it.  But in the meantime, I’ve been rooting around on Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, HBO and other platforms. I’m an algorithm’s dream; I bounce this way and that.

I was halfway through The Last Dance, the 10-part ESPN doc on Netflix on Michael Jordan, King Michael, when news came of the death of Chadwick Boseman of cancer at 43. It’s a sickening feeling when a young person just entering the prime of his career is cut short. Boseman was a king two years ago in Black Panther and the Avengers franchise, which meant the film companies knew he was bankable and could carry a picture. Sure, he did a platoon leader left behind in Vietnam in Spike Lee’s Da 5 Bloods this year. But he played in the big leagues, too, the studio measure of Black male actors having arrived in Hollywood, achieved by Sidney Poitier, Eddie Murphy, Denzel Washington, of course, Will Smith, maybe Samuel L. Jackson before him.

It’s the range of Boseman’s character work, however, as Jackie Robinson in 42, Thurgood Marshall in Marshall , and especially James Brown in Get on Up that promised a long, ripening career that makes it so sad a loss.

Credit Harlan Jacobson for WBGO News
Disney's Mulan

All eyes are on three films, this Labor Day weekend: Disney’s live-action version of Mulan, the girl warrior on a mission to prove herself in a man’s world and save the empire, is directed by the talented New Zealand director Nicki Caro. At $30 a pop to watch on your home screen, it’s seen as a great test of the streaming business model. Can the home screen deliver a monster audience?

There’s a built-in audience of millions for the film, of course. It’s stunning to look at a flying feminist inspirational film in a Chinese wardrobe—wonder how that will affect US -Chinese politics in 20 or 30 years? -- and Disney hopes it fares better than the live-action Lion King.

Credit Harlan Jacobson for WBGO News

Christopher Nolan’s Tenet features Robert Pattinson, Elizabeth Debicki and John David Washington fighting through Nolan’s trademarked time-fractured narrative about the end of the world. 

Nolan is a fierce cineaste working at the top of his craft and has the clout to release into theatres in states allowing such things—only in CT in the tri-state area. The empire strikes back -- will it work? It’s worth noting that according to the WSJ, UFO sightings are up 51% this year—the ultimate stay at home visual experience.

And finally there’s Charlie Kaufman’s I’m Thinking of Ending Things, about a young couple’s trip to visit his parents in their country home. With Jessie Buckley and Jesse Plemmons as the couple, Toni Collette and David Thewlis as his parents. And Charlie Kaufman calling the shots.

At this point in the unfolding of 2020, it’s not just me who’s not working on Labor Day, it’s that virtually no one is working the way they used to, and a lot of folks aren’t working at all. Most of us have been home since March. It’s unclear how we’re about to re-enter the workspace, or what it’s going to look like when we get there.

While I don't go to the movies over Labor Day weekend, what’s changed since last year is how almost completely movies have come to me at home. For me, a film critic, going to movies is work--that's a little strange isn't it--but it's labor, it's what I do. I happen to like what I do, because I believe in the power of cinema to transport us to other worlds, let us see the people there and to clarify experience in the process.

Normally, I take time on Labor Day to stop work and reflect. It's a day for family and friends. My parents who had only just met in Schroon Lake, NY, eloped to Elkton, MD on Labor Day, 1938. My brother was born in Wilkes Barre, PA on Sept. 1, 1939, Labor day weekend. The nurse said to my mother, “Congratulations, Mrs. Jacobson, you have a beautiful baby boy, and Hitler invaded Poland.”  It’s also the anniversary of my second chance, married at a house by the sea on Cape Cod on Labor Day, 1992. Now, like many of you I savor the last licks of summer on this Labor Day, my children having flown the coop for careers, as all three keep that appointment with the open road they so desperately want to take them across the light curtain to the future.

Today is tomorrow is the past we try so hard to remember and can never forget. Now that sounds like a Christopher Nolan movie. Labor Day is the one holiday that does not force you to swear fealty to a religion, the nation, or a man—that last, never more important than now. It is about you, what you do, and with whom and for whom you do it. Labor Day is about work. Let us hope that Labor returns to us all. It is so very American. And… it is a rest in the rolling of the drums. Have a great… Labor Day. 

Harlan Jacobson became WBGO's film critic in 2010, covering the international film scene for the "WBGO Journal," with reports from film festivals around the world about films arriving on the scene in the greater New York-New Jersey metroplex.