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In The Kids Are All Right (2010), critic Vincent Brook sees representation of lesbian parents as significant in a country embroiled in same-sex rights battles.
Director John Singleton's 1991 indie hit Boyz n the Hood became mainstream America's first look at gang-related violence in South Central L.A.
Edward James Olmos starred in 1981's Zoot Suit, a film version of a Broadway play about a 1940 L.A. murder case that led to the Zoot Suit Riots between Mexican Americans and white sailors and Marines.
Brook writes that Chinatown's screenwriter, Robert Towne, raised in San Pedro, wasn't critiquing political corruption but more essentially the widespread over-development of Los Angeles's fragile communities.
The George Cukor-directed What Price Hollywood? (1932), with characters including an alcoholic producer and an unhappily married ingenue, is part of what Brook sees as an antimyth of Hollywood's culture industry.
We are a city of transplants, non-native-plants and people crowding from coast to desert for our place in the sun. Identities shift so quickly--even Schwarzenegger’s back to being an action star--that it’s tough to get a handle on our local history.
But we’ve just discovered a new book that makes Los Angeles’s past come alive: Land of Smoke and Mirrors: A Cultural History of Los Angeles by Vincent Brook teaches us about our city by dissecting the films set here. Based on lectures Brook has given at USC’s Annenberg School for Communication since 2006, Smoke and Mirrors makes sharp observations about our social history, embellished with fascinating facts, and thankfully skips academic jargon in favor of fast-moving prose.
For example, 1991’s Boyz n the Hood illustrates the shocking statistic that one out of every 22 Reagan-era black males died at the hand of another black male. More optimistically, the Obama-era dramedy The Kids Are All Right is positioned in a gay-rights continuum dating back to 1950s Angeleno activist Harry Hay (who just had a Silverlake staircase dedicated to him).
After reading Brook, we’re looking at movies and our town in a whole new light.
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