FilmWatch Weekly: American Lives, from Pauli Murray to Tammy Faye Bakker to the ‘Blue Bayou’

In a trio of noteworthy new movies, the eyes (and the people behind them) have it.

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Pauli Murray in a scene from “My Name is Pauli Murray.”

Three films opening this week present three unique and diverse American lives. One is a documentary about an unsung American civil rights icon; one dramatizes a quintessentially American type, the televangelist; one centers on a lead character caught up in our country’s relentless effort to define who, exactly, gets to call themselves American at all. Together, they demonstrate that, even as the very idea of America seems threatened, the variety and potency of the lives and stories it inspires indicate that all is not lost.

Sometimes it can feel like just about every noteworthy figure from American history and/or culture has been the subject of a feature documentary. But all it takes to disprove that notion is a film such as My Name is Pauli Murray. The same folks who made RBG, about the late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, offer up a remarkable life that intersected with nearly every aspect of the 20th century’s gradual expansion of rights beyond those who were born straight, white, and male, and yet has barely found purchase in history books.

It’s impossible to categorize Murray as one thing, which is part of their glory. Poet. Lawyer. Priest. Of mixed-race heritage, Murray presented as Black but always preferred the term Negro. They also presented as female, but, as unpublished writings confirm, clearly operated in a non-binary sexuality, questioned their gender identity, and carried on loving relationships with women. This, mind you, was in the 1940s and ’50s, when the vocabulary had not even evolved to describe Murray’s (and, of course, so many others’) experiences. [Some historians use they/them pronouns today when discussing Murray, while Murray’s family members use feminine pronouns. This review has opted for the former.]

Murray was as ahead of the curve politically as they were personally. After graduating from Hunter College during the depths of the Great Depression, Murray lived as a male-presenting, rail-riding vagabond for a time before becoming a labor activist and deciding to go to law school. In 1940, Murray and a friend were arrested for refusing to move to the back of a bus in Virginia, this of course 15 years before Rosa Parks. While attending Howard University law school, they participated in a restaurant sit-in, much earlier than the more celebrated such protest in Greensboro, North Carolina. They also made forceful arguments against the “separate but equal” doctrine that would prove influential to those that convinced the Supreme Court to overrule that doctrine in Brown v. Board of Education.

You get the idea—Murray was in the vanguard of the struggle against both racial and sex-based discrimination, although they never rose to the prominence of a Thurgood Marshall or a Ruth Bader Ginsburg, perhaps due to the civil rights movement’s tendency to sideline its women members and the feminist movement’s tendency to sideline its members of color. As a paragon of intersectionalism, though, Murray has a lot to say to those working to continue the fight for justice and equality today. They have the chance to do so here, as My Name is Pauli Murray relies heavily on recordings made of Murray reading chapters from their posthumously published memoir.

The movie can feel like a relentless litany of events in Murray’s life, but that’s mostly a testament to how many different chapters there were in their seventy-five years. And we haven’t even gotten to that late-in-life decision to join the clergy. (Opens Friday, Sept. 17, at the Living Room Theaters; streaming on Amazon Prime after October 1.)

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Andrew Garfield and Jessica Chastain in “The Eyes of Tammy Faye.”

AT FIRST BLUSH, one wouldn’t think that Tammy Faye Bakker and Pauli Murray had much in common. Maybe not even at second blush. And yet both lived lives that defied any assumptions one might make based on appearance, and both were, in their own ways, ahead of their time.

In The Eyes of Tammy Faye, Jessica Chastain plays the eventually disgraced televangelist Jim Bakker’s (Andrew Garfield’s) cartoonish, garishly made-up wife, who was a staple of 1980s tabloids. But the movie subverts that simplistic image and rehabilitates Tammy Faye into a well-meaning, truly compassionate woman whose love for Jim and for Christ blinds her to the corruption and scheming that ultimately brought the Bakker’s TV-and-theme-park empire crashing down.

Director Michael Showalter (The Big Sick) wisely keeps the focus firmly on its protagonist, who first feels drawn to the calling as a child in northern Minnesota (she never quite loses the accent, a detail that Chastain nails). She meets Jim a Bible college, and before you know it, they’ve launched The 700 Club, a Christian-themed talk show airing on the PTL (Praise The Lord) Network owned by the Rev. Jerry Falwell (Vincent D’Onofrio).

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As the rags-to-riches-to-rags saga unfolds, Tammy Faye stands out from the crowd of broadcast preachers through her refusal to condemn homosexuality. One of the movie’s most memorable scenes recreates one of The 700 Club’s most memorable moments, when Tammy Faye sympathetically interviews a gay pastor who has AIDS. This perplexes Jim and enrages Falwell, who is depicted (with reason) as a hateful hypocrite whose machinations helped to make the Bakkers into sacrificial lambs for the entire industry.

The performances by Chastain and Garfield are, to my mind, almost perfectly pitched between campy gushing (“God loves you. He really, really does.”) and peeks into genuine, flawed humanity. Those performances would have been impossible without the incredible hair, makeup, and costuming work, which seamlessly take the characters over a three-decade journey. I’d expect that work, in addition to Chastain’s, to be recognized when award season rolls around.

The Eyes of Tammy Faye is based on the 2000 documentary of the same name by Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato, but this dramatized version goes places that film couldn’t. For one thing, twenty years have gone by, and legally you can’t defame the dead. While Tammy Faye’s degree of complicity in her husband’s crimes and deception might be glossed over, it’s in the service of presenting a corrective narrative for a woman who was judged too harshly in her time. (Opens Friday, Sept. 17, at Regal Fox Tower and other area theaters.)

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Sydney Kowalske, Justin Chon and Alicia Vikander in “Blue Bayou.” Photo: Focus Features

Immigration is obviously a hot-button issue these days, and it remains an area of law governed by a bewildering tangle of statutes and procedures. The unfortunate consequence of this needlessly complex legislative area is that it can be almost impossible sometimes to easily determine whether a person officially counts as an American. Blue Bayou dramatizes that dilemma with the story of Antonio LeBlanc (Justin Chon), a Korean-born adoptee who’s lived in Louisiana since he was three years old. Antonio has a wife, Kathy (Alicia Vikander); a young stepdaughter, Jessie (Sydney Kowalske); and a baby on the way.

Antonio also has a pair of felony convictions on his record, for stealing motorcycles. So when a racist cop sparks a grocery-store confrontation, and Antonio is arrested, he suddenly faces the prospect of deportation. It turns out that because the proper paperwork wasn’t filed thirty years ago, Antonio has never been an American citizen. (The movie explains that a law was passed to rectify this issue, but it doesn’t retroactively apply to him.)

Desperation puts strains, as you’d imagine, on Antonio’s marriage, and tempts him back toward the troubled life he had left behind. In addition to playing the lead, Chon wrote and directed Blue Bayou, his third feature. Although he’s drawing attention to a legitimate political issue, the movie doesn’t by and large feel didactic or two-dimensional. Antonio and Kathy are complicated, flawed people dealing with a nightmare scenario, and the performances by Chon and (especially) Vikander are grounded and impressive.

Like last year’s Minari, Blue Bayou relates the challenges faced by people who subscribe wholeheartedly to the American Dream, but who struggle against the obstacles of fear, ignorance, and bureaucracy. And like My Name Is Pauli Murray and The Eyes of Tammy Faye, it provide further proof that we’re in no danger of running low on compelling American stories. (Opens Friday, Sept. 17, at Regal Fox Tower and other area theaters.)

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