Notable Bostonians describe books and films that changed how they think about the world around them.
Karen Holmes Ward, host, “CityLine,” WCVB-TV, Boston
“12 Years a Slave,” Directed by Steve McQueen
I recently attended screenings of this movie in New York City and in Boston, and both times watched in horror and disbelief with feelings of fear, shock, and disgust. This riveting film gives an unflinching look at this country’s brutal system of slavery. Not a glossed-over Hollywood version of the slave trade, it’s based on the real story of Solomon Northup, a free black man living in upstate New York. Northup was drugged and kidnapped, then enslaved in the deep South for over a decade. Once returned to freedom, Northup published his account, describing the brutality, degradation, and inhumanity he faced while in bondage. I believe all Bostonians, black and white, will be emotionally impacted by this film. Some will connect Northup’s account with our city’s courageous abolitionist history, which is centered on the African Meeting House, still standing proudly on Beacon Hill. Solomon Northup speaks to us, even now, so that we don’t forget.
Siri Akal Khalsa, president, Chapel Hill-Chauncy Hall School
“Cosmopolitanism,” by Kwame Anthony Appiah
As an educator, it is clear to me that our amazing diversity presents us with opportunities and challenges that not only shape who we are today as Americans, but also will determine who we will become. As an American Sikh, it is equally apparent to me that ongoing violence based on perceived divisions of race, religion, and ethnicity is a call for us to deal with our diversity in new and better ways. Appiah proposes that we can effectively counter suspicion of “the stranger,” prejudice toward “the foreigner,” and the toxic hatred that often accompanies tribalism by building understanding, respect, and appreciation for our differences through reasoned discussion. Being someone who, even here in Boston, is sometimes greeted with distrust because of the way I look, I can attest that a few minutes of friendly, forthright conversation can disarm even the most wary.
Jason Fowler, wheelchair athlete, Ironman world champion
“David and Goliath,” by Malcolm Gladwell
This book reminded me of how powerful I’ve become because of coping with challenges after a motorcycle accident 22 years ago left me paralyzed from the chest down. Conventional wisdom holds that a disadvantage should be avoided, but that is not always the case. Gladwell’s constant questioning of popular assumptions inspired me to examine my own experiences as a paraplegic. He concludes, just as I have through my own journey, that power can come in many shapes. My path to wheelchair athlete began six months postaccident and now I compete in Ironman triathlons. While enduring the “disadvantage” of using a wheelchair, I have since found ways to adapt and compensate. Arguably I am stronger, more successful, and more my authentic self because of this “disadvantage.” I am able to show the world that a physical limitation doesn’t have to be a barrier if thought about properly.
Yadires Nova-Salcedo, host and producer, “Centro,” CBS Boston, WBZ-TV
“Latino Americans,” produced by John J. Valadez
When I saw the PBS documentary “Latino Americans,” the first major narrative TV series to chronicle the rich history of my people, I was enthralled by the drama of our individual journeys. It is a story of creating a new American identity that continues to unite and energize us all. Born in the Dominican Republic and raised in the Boston area, I remembered my own roots and the way my heritage is interwoven into the very fabric of my being. From the start of my broadcast career, I have always proudly used the Spanish pronunciation of my name, knowing that we all are flag-bearers of our traditions. So as I viewed this enthralling account, I was appreciative of the road paved by those before me, while also knowing that I am opening up new doors and opportunities for those to come.
Jerald Walker, chairman, department of writing, literature, and publishing, Emerson College
The Autobiography of Malcolm X,” by Malcolm X
I first read “The Autobiography of Malcolm X” when I was 20 years old and in a period of great transition. Four years earlier, I had dropped out of high school in subconscious pursuit of a violent death; four years later, I would enroll in a community college in conscious pursuit of a life of letters. In one sense, “Autobiography” served as a blueprint for how a delinquent, inner-city black male could move from society’s fringes into its mainstream (study, study, and more study), but mainly it was reassurance, which I desperately needed at the time, that such a move was acceptable.
Susan Chinsen, director, Boston Asian American Film Festival
“Eat a Bowl of Tea,” directed by Wayne Wang
I’m passionate about Asian-Americans in media. It stems from the first time I saw “Eat a Bowl of Tea.” It was 1990, and a time when it was rare to see Asians on camera outside of a martial arts film. “Eat a Bowl of Tea,” a comedic film set in 1940s New York Chinatown, was on WGBH/public television and it made an impression on me that still echoes in my life today. It was the first time I’d seen a film with an all-Asian cast portrayed in America, speaking English without accents. It was a validating experience — the pride and joy I felt watching it sparked a lifelong fire in me to seek out more opportunities to view Asian-Americans in dynamic and diverse roles. Now, over 20 years later the Boston Asian American Film Festival exists
in part because of that inspiration.
Jorge H. Quiroga, senior reporter, WCVB (Channel 5)
“Incendies,” directed by Denis Villeneuve
This stunning movie makes personal the types of political, ethnic, and religious conflicts that we read about and witness from afar every day. Set in an unnamed Middle East country, but to my mind based on the Lebanese Civil War of the late 1970s through ’80s, the film chronicles the tragic consequences that befall a Christian girl who falls in love with a Muslim boy. The outcome of religious hatred is deep and sinister. Watching the story line unfold, one can’t help but think of the parallels played out today, in conflicts across the Middle East. The atrocities are reduced to front-page headlines. Despite the body count, the sad truth is that, for most, these human tragedies remain distant and detached nonetheless. “Incendies” brings the brutality up close and personal and makes it hard to look away or seek comfortable retreat. It forces us to view current “conflicts” not as broad sectarian-political upheavals but rather as a series of individual calamities. The ripple effect touches all of us.
Arline Isaacson, cochairwoman, Massachusetts Gay and Lesbian Political Caucus
“South Pacific,” directed by Joshua Logan
I grew up in the 1960s, an era of both idealism and rebellion. While a few musicals in the ‘50s and ‘60s addressed prejudices haunting our country, the film “South Pacific” codified into song what I could not as a child put into words. I didn’t understand some of the subtleties and nuances of the film’s references to racism. I thought the movie was a musical about love. Even so, I immediately understood and took to heart the then-very controversial song “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught,” which says that racism is not born in you – it happens after you’re born. My parents were reformed Jews, and, like many immigrant groups in this country, they were desperate to turbo-charge their assimilation, to prove they were as American as anyone else. But growing up in a town where there was an element of anti-Semitism meant learning early in life that to some, we were just “dirty Jews.” The film makes clear that people needn’t be condemned to carry forward the bigotries and prejudices of their families, and that people of good can surmount their own prejudices if given a chance. The challenge of how best to respond to those who are taught to hate and fear became a focus of my life, informed heavily by the adage that evil in the world can triumph only when good people do nothing to counter it.
Raj Sisodia, Olin distinguished professor of global business, Babson College and author, of “Conscious Capitalism”
“The House I Live In,” directed by Eugene Jarecki
This film moved me profoundly because it appealed deeply to my sense of justice and fairness. Growing up in India, I saw people suffer greatly just because they were part of a particular socioeconomic group. Their anguish was compounded by a callous and capricious justice system that seemed designed to protect the strong and victimize the weak. The United States is supposed to be better. And yet, with 5 percent of the world’s population, we have 25 percent of its prisoners. Surely, we can be wiser and fairer and more compassionate than this. This is a powerful and at times emotionally shattering documentary about our dismally failed “war on drugs.” This effort has extracted a hugely disproportionate toll on African-Americans, who are 10 times more likely to be imprisoned for drug offenses despite using drugs at the same rate as the majority. I find this monumental injustice of long mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent possession of small amounts of drugs shocking in a democratic society such as ours. Happy, fulfilled people don’t become drug addicts. A public health issue has been criminalized to deadly and tragic effect.
Lesléa Newman, author, “October Mourning: A Song for Matthew Shepard,” and other books
“10,000 Dresses,” by Marcus Ewert
Growing up, I didn’t want to participate in stereotypical girl activities such as having tea parties and playing with dolls. So I found “10,000 Dresses” an extremely affirming book. It stars a child named Bailey who dreams about magical dresses every night — dresses made of flowers, dresses made of rainbows. But her mother and father tell her, “You’re a boy! You shouldn’t be thinking about dresses at all!” I felt terribly sad for Bailey, who is told time and time again that it’s wrong to simply be herself. Luckily she meets Laurel, who sees Bailey for the extremely cool girl that she is. So though Bailey’s family members don’t accept her for who she is, Bailey never wavers in her gender identity. This book has the potential to transform our lives — whether children or adults — and make the world a safer and more open place for us all.
Lisa Simmons, director, Roxbury International Film Festival and The Color of Film Collaborative
“When I Walk,” produced and directed by Jason DaSilva
This year, at the 15th Annual Roxbury International Film Festival, we screened this film, a powerful documentary about a young man, Jason, in the beginning of a filmmaking career. At age 25, he is diagnosed with multiple sclerosis and goes on to chronicle his journey, through the lens of his camera, over the next decade. A truly moving film, “When I Walk” opened my eyes to the issues surrounding accessibility while at the same time teaching me that while Jason’s body may be failing, his spirit is stronger than ever. It’s his story of resilience, drive, and determination that really resonated with me and served as a reminder that no matter the limitations, I can always achieve what I have set out to accomplish.
Manju Sheth, Seth,internal medicine physician and president, Indian Medical Association of New England
I often reminiscence about my innocent days, studying medicine in India while I dreamed of a life of freedom in the US. Fortunately for me, my mother also believed in my dreams, encouraging me to pursue my ambitions and giving me opportunities that she never had. This advice, “to do what I will never do,” is echoed in “The Namesake,” a mantra that rings true for me — and also one that I often quote today to my teenage daughter. “The Namesake” also beautifully portrays an emotional tug of war: an intense desire to be an American and yet a desperate need to cling to one’s roots. There is immense emotional turbulence, yet a thread of inevitability and acceptance, faith in destiny, and eventually a lot of peace. As Lahiri writes with all her simplicity: “She has the gift of accepting her life.’’ Most of us spend a lifetime looking for the pot of gold at the end of a rainbow but eventually realize that the gold is the beauty of the rainbow itself.