Tessa Thompson: Valkyrie’s real superpower is coming out on screen

Asgard has a new king in Thor: Love and Thunder – and she’s openly bisexual. Result

For the past couple of years, Tessa Thompson has been explaining that, as she is in the comic books, her Marvel Cinematic Universe character Valkyrie is a bisexual woman. “She’s bi. And yes, she cares very little about what men think of her. What a joy to play!” Thompson tweeted in 2017. In Thor: Ragnarok, arguably the best Marvel movie, especially if you enjoy Evil Cate Blanchett and humour. They even shot a scene that showed a woman leaving Valkyrie’s bedroom – Watch out, censors! Cover your eyes, prudes! – though it was cut from the final edit.

When Marvel rolled out its fourth phase of superhero movies at San Diego Comic-Con last weekend, Thor: Love and Thunder sounded like an embarrassment of riches. Ragnarok director Taika Waititi remains at the helm, which is promising enough. Natalie Portman’s character, Dr Jane Foster, ends up with Thor’s powers, becoming Mighty Thor. And Valkyrie is back, as King of Asgard.

Tessa Thompson wields a sword in Thor: Ragnarok (2017).
 Tessa Thompson in Thor: Ragnarok (2017). Photograph: Collection Christophel/Alamy Stock Photo

“As new king, she needs to find her queen. That will be her first order of business,” Thompson said. She meant more than a sneaky bedroom exit, too, as reiterated later in the week by the head of Marvel Studios, Kevin Feige, who confirmed that this did mean there would be an openly queer relationship in the film.

It’s about time and then some. Fans have grumbled that characters who are explicitly queer in the comics have been “straightwashed” for the big screen. (Thor’s brother, Loki, and Ayo in Black Panther, for example.) Superhero stories in general can be a metaphor for coming out, so it is a wonder it’s taken so long for the movies to catch up. Got a special side that has to be kept secret because you’ll face discrimination for simply being who you are? I’ve just saved you from watching 13 X-Men films.

It’s worth remembering that none of this new wave would be happening if there were not a commercial incentive for it. Black Panther and Captain Marvel showed that there was a record-breaking audience for films that strayed from the straight white male formula. Even so, it’s pretty exciting that these megabudget beasts are now free to roam with female, non-white, non-straight characters at the front.

It is easy to understand the power of seeing representations of yourself on screen, particularly if you are starved of that, but it is equally as powerful for people to get used to seeing those who are not like them, too. “Inclusion doesn’t happen by mistake. You have to push people,” Thompson told Time magazine in May, showing exactly why she’s now wearing the crown.

Lisa Hanawalt: a joyous brief encounter with Tuca & Bertie

Lisa Hanawalt
 Lisa Hanawalt: impressive dignity. Photograph: Kim Newmoney

You might not yet have had the chance to catch Tuca & Bertie, one of the best new television shows of 2019. It was created by Lisa Hanawalt, an illustrator and cartoonist who also worked on BoJack Horseman, which, like Tuca & Bertie, is another show that defies you to be put off by the words “adult animation”. It stars Tiffany Haddish and Ali Wong as two birds who are best friends living in a world that is entirely animal. It is genius in the way it balances surreal humour, real heart and the painful complexities and contradictions of modern living; it also manages to show a sweetly dull architect robin accidentally eating a cake made out of his grandmother’s ashes before he has a conversation with her from inside his stomach.

Still, you can always jump in for season two. Except you can’t, I’m afraid, because Netflix has axed it. Hanawalt handled the untimely cancellation with impressive dignity, using Twitter to thank her cast and crew and the show’s fans for their daily letters of support. “None of this makes a difference to an algorithm, but it’s important to me and the way I want to continue making art in this world,” she posted.

Shows get cancelled all the time, but there is a genuine sadness to the early loss of a series as inventive, unusual and different as Tuca & Bertie. Netflix has previously allowed intensely mediocre shows the space and time to grow and develop, so why this was only given three months to find its feet is baffling. It suggests that taking creative risks might not be worth it and I wonder if it hints at a more uniform future. Still, Netflix has a habit of reviving deceased franchises; perhaps someone could emulate this service and give Tuca & Bertie the shot it deserves.

Audra McDonald: exposed by a shot in the dark

Audra McDonald
 Audra McDonald: no candid cameras, please. Photograph: Frazer Harrison/Getty Images

You can only imagine the clunking moment of realisation felt by whichever opportunistic Broadway voyeur had the audacity to try to sneak a snapshot of an on-stage nude scene last week. Picture it: a man and woman are naked. You, a creep, instinctively reach for your phone, breathing heavily, only to realise a second too late that you’ve left the flash on, which tends to get noticed in a quiet, dark room full of people looking at what you, still a creep, have just lit up like a Christmas tree.

“To whoever it was in the audience that took a flash photo during our nude scene today: not cool. Not cool at all,” tweeted Audra McDonald, Broadway legend, The Good Fight legend and RuPaul’s Drag Race panellist/good sport/and fine, not to be hyperbolic about it, but legend. McDonald is starring in Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune alongside Michael Shannon and there are moments of nudity, which proved perplexingly irresistible to one audience member. Not only is it disrespectful, intrusive and an unforgivable break in the implicit pact of trust between audience and performer, it’s also a really non-cost-effective way to get your rocks off. Broadway tickets cost a fortune. That’s one embarrassing, expensive blurry nudie pic.

• Rebecca Nicholson is an Observer columnist


Jojo Rabbit trailer: Taika Waititi plays a paunchy Hitler in ‘anti-hate’ satire

New Zealand film-maker’s new film with Scarlett Johansson and Rebel Wilson to premiere at Toronto film festival

The first trailer for Taika Waititi’s new “anti-hate” satirical film, set in Nazi Germany, has been released, featuring the much-loved Māori-Jewish actor and director playing a paunchy Adolf Hitler.

The trailer for Jojo Rabbit launched as the film was announced as a headliner for the 2019 Toronto film festival in September.

While the snippets showing the actor in Hitler costume may be startling in isolation, the film’s darkly comedic tone is drawn from the novel on which it is based: Caging Skies, by the New Zealand-Belgian author Christine Leunens. The story follows a young German boy during the second world war who embraces Nazi ideology, only to learn that his parents are hiding a Jewish girl in the walls of their house.

The film features Waititi as actor, director and screenwriter, with the cast including Scarlett Johansson, Alfie Allen, Rebel Wilson, Stephen Merchant, Sam Rockwell, Thomasin McKenzie, and Roman Griffin Davis as Jojo.

The trailer gives little of the plot away, but shows Jojo being bullied at what looks like a summer camp for Hitler Youth, before confiding in his imaginary friend, a rather paunchy and particularly un-self-aware Hitler, who pops out from behind a tree.

“They called me a scared rabbit,” Jojo says.

“Let them say whatever they want,” Waititi’s Hitler replies. “People used to say a lot of nasty things about me. ‘Oh this guy’s a lunatic. Oh look at that psycho, he’s gonna get us all killed.’”

Waititi, who is known for bringing comedy with depth to difficult subjects, confirmed last week that he would return to the apparently infinite Marvel Cinematic Universe to direct the fourth Thor film, and his second.

Jojo Rabbit will premiere at the Toronto film festival and is due for general release on 18 October.


‘You’ve caused an international incident’: how my work mistake came back to haunt me

It was the Observer’s big scoop of 2003, and as a young journalist, I was asked to type up a top-secret memo. Now my mess-up has made it to the big screen

Have you ever wondered who’d play you in a film? I had, occasionally, until the day I got the answer. In spring 2018, a message pinged on to my phone via Facebook from a journalist friend. “So this is a bit weird,” it read. “A sister of a friend is playing you in a movie, apparently. You aware of this?” I wasn’t.

Hanako Footman is playing you in the film Official Secrets. She wants to meet you, like actors do. She saw we were pals and asked if I’d ask you. What did you do in that story?”

“That story” concerns British whistleblower Katharine Gun, played by Keira Knightley in a film that premiered at Sundance festival in January. Fluent in Mandarin, the 28-year-old Gun was employed as a translator at GCHQ in Cheltenham. In 2003, she leaked a top-secret memo to the Observer about an illegal spying operation ordered by the US National Security Agency. It intended to bug the phones and emails of six United Nations delegates, from Angola, Cameroon, Chile, Mexico, Guinea and Pakistan – nations that could determine whether the UN approved the invasion of Iraq.

The memo, which outraged Gun, ordered staff to increase surveillance operations “particularly directed at… UN Security Council members (minus US and GBR, of course)” to provide real-time intelligence for Bush officials on voting intentions.

The film dramatises a monumental mess-up on my behalf – the biggest mistake of my career

I was working at the Observer at the time. And, although I was just a bit-player in the story, the film dramatises a monumental mess-up on my behalf – the biggest mistake of my career.


It’s 2003. The airwaves are filled with Beyoncé’s Crazy In Love, Justin Timberlake’s Cry Me A River and Hey Ya! by OutKast. Cool young things wear absurdly small clothing – low-slung jeans nicknamed “bumsters”, for obvious reasons; thongs; crop tops and, most ill-advisedly, “shrugs”, unflattering miniature cardigans. An incredible heatwave sweeps Europe, too, with the mercury hitting 38.5C in Brogdale, Kent.

The feverishness of those days extends to geopolitics. Three years earlier, George W Bush narrowly won the 2000 US presidential election after a recount in Florida and a debacle involving hanging chads. In 2001 came the terrorist attacks of 9/11, propelling al-Qaida and Osama bin Laden into the public consciousness. Britain’s “special relationship” with the US grew ever closer, thanks to the manoeuvrings of the then prime minister, Tony Blair.

It was an interesting time for a young journalist with no newspaper experience to be joining the foreign desk of the Observer. Aged 24 and having held only junior positions at women’s magazines, I applied for the role of foreign desk assistant in late 2002. State-schooled in Sussex and with no newspaper contacts, I had a thirst for foreign news. As a teenager, my heroes had been foreign correspondents Kate Adie, Michael Buerk and John Simpson. At university I devoured the works of George Orwell – himself a former Observer journalist – Ernest Hemingway, Martha Gellhorn and Graham Greene, before devoting a year of my degree to the impact of reporting on the Vietnam war. What I offered in keenness must have made up for my lack of experience because, after two interviews, I took a call and was told: “You’ve got the job… if you want it?” Of course I did.

Nicole Mowbray
 Nicole Mowbray in 2004: ‘I felt privileged to be part of the team – but also out of my depth.’ Photograph: Catherine Shaw/The Observer

Joining was a culture shock. Our working week ran from Tuesday to Saturday, with knocking-off times getting progressively later (9, 10, 11pm) as Sunday approached. Everyone was constantly available on their BlackBerry – the height of tech at the time. The neighbouring Coach & Horses pub was our unofficial canteen. My colleagues were impressive: charismatic raconteurs, supremely well-read and worldly wise. I was entrusted with an A4 contacts book – a ringbinder of phone and satellite phone numbers and emails for correspondents all over the globe. Dusty reporters would fly in from assignments in far-flung places, handing over a bundle of disorganised receipts for obscure items: four camels, for instance, “replacements for a herd accidentally hit and killed on a road by driver”.

It was intense, collegiate and fun, and I felt privileged to be part of the team – but also out of my depth. My brilliant predecessor had left to make documentaries for Channel 4. I set about looking after flak jackets and foreign currency, visas and travel plans. I called to check in with reporters on high-risk assignments and watched the international news wires for stories. Not long after I started, I was asked to look into flights for a foreign correspondent to go from London to Diyarbakir and then help find a fixer to assist with crossing a border. I didn’t even know which country that was, let alone which border they might be crossing.

Illustration of woman typing
 ‘I wasn’t given any other information. Their only instruction: “Don’t make any mistakes.”’ Illustration: Ivan Canu/The Guardian

Towards the end of my second week, I was handed a printout of an email by Martin Bright (then the Observer’s home affairs editor, played in Official Secrets by Matt Smith) and Peter Beaumont (the foreign affairs editor – played by Matthew Goode). Could I type it up and save it into the system? I wasn’t given any other information. Their only instruction: “Don’t make any mistakes.” And so I set to painstakingly typing in each sentence.

Importance HIGH
Top Secret
As you’ve likely heard by now, the Agency is mounting a surge…
… We’d appreciate your support in getting the word to your analysts who might have similar, more in-direct access to valuable information from accesses in your product lines.

It took about 10 minutes. I double-checked it, sent it through, moved on to my next task.


On Sunday morning, I woke up to see the paper’s front-page splash: “Revealed: US dirty tricks to win vote on Iraq war”. Underneath was the memo I’d typed up.

Of course, the story – broken by Bright, Beaumont and the inimitable New York correspondent and investigative journalist Ed Vulliamy (played with great aplomb and accuracy in the film by Rhys Ifans) – was huge. But my pride in being a tiny part of the team soon crumbled when, first thing on Monday morning, my phone rang. It was an unknown number and, as Monday was a day off for most of the news team, I didn’t expect it to be the office. It was – I think – Stephen Pritchard, the paper’s readers’ editor. He was very polite, but informed me with deft understatement and a total lack of drama that I had caused “something of an international incident”.

I assumed I’d be fired, and sobbed in the office loo before going to my desk

Fastidiously typing in the memo, and not knowing what the document was or its origins, I’d changed all the American spelling “mistakes” to British English. “Recognize” became recognise, and “emphasize” emphasise. “Favorable” was amended to favourable. I thought I was being helpful. Instead, it was a disaster.

The story that Gun had risked so much to reveal was thrown into doubt. How could this be a leaked US memo, asked websites such as the Drudge Report, when it was all spelled in British English? The wobble caught on. Was it a fake? Some outlets due to report on the Observer’s story cancelled interviews over doubts about the memo’s authenticity. It was decided the readers’ editor should publish a special dispatch to counter the thousands of complaints from readers, many American, calling us “lying limey bastards”, claiming that the story’s authors had fallen victim to a hoax and that the email was part of a campaign of misinformation.

The Observer’s front-page splash on Sunday 2 March 2003.
 The Observer’s front-page splash on Sunday 2 March 2003. Photograph: Observer

Of course, it was not. Despite my “administrative error”, the story still made shockwaves around the world. Some days later, Gun went on to reveal her identity, and her life imploded; she lost her job, was arrested and ultimately faced a trial under the Official Secrets Act, which collapsed after the prosecution declined to offer its evidence.

Meanwhile, I struggled to make peace with the ramifications of what I’d done. Humiliated, and just a few weeks into my dream job, I rang my former magazine editor and asked for my old job back; it had, of course, been filled.

By Tuesday morning, there was nothing to do but go in and face the music. I assumed I’d be fired, and sobbed in the office loo before going to my desk. But while I am sure everyone involved was cursing my name – one of the biggest stories of their careers had been plunged into unnecessary doubt – they were outwardly kind and magnanimous. I was summoned to meet Pritchard and Bright to explain what had happened, and while there were a few eye rolls I think they understood why I’d done what I did, being in the dark about the genesis of the document. How the mistake wasn’t spotted by anyone else was also a matter of some consternation.

Somehow, I managed to put the disaster behind me. The senior editors forgave me, and I remained on the foreign desk for three years.

When, 16 years later, I found out that not only was the story being made into a film, but my mistake had been included, I had some sleepless nights. I met Footman, the young actor who plays me, at a cafe in London early last year with some trepidation. She told me she couldn’t divulge any specifics about the movie. “But is it made clear I wasn’t fired over what happened?” I asked. She was noncommittal, but said I did appear in a later scene. She wanted to talk details: what did I wear back in the day? What colour did I paint my fingernails? How did I get on with my colleagues? What were the foreign correspondents like? “Most of my outfits were probably too casual,” I said. “I was frequently hungover and more than once fell asleep in the canteen.” And how to describe the foreign correspondents? Simultaneously impressive and unpredictable.

Around nine months after we met, I was invited to a first-cut screening of the film. I watched as “Nicole” got bawled out by the Observer’s famously sweary then editor, Roger Alton (played by Conleth Hill, Lord Varys in Game Of Thrones) in front of the entire team – thankfully not something that happened in real life. Footman played a blinder as me – albeit a more groomed version.

I knew it would be hard to watch my mistake unfold, but when it came, it felt like being punched in the throat. I felt the shame all over again, and sobbed silently into my tissue. Nevertheless, the film is as brilliant as it is important. And while I wouldn’t recommend carrying the burden of a catastrophic fuck-up, as Alton would term it, through one’s career, it did provide a salutary lesson in attention to detail. It was my first serious mistake, and hopefully it will be my last.


Quentin Tarantino’s take on women and violence

Andrew Clifford says whatever Quentin Tarantino’s directorial vices, violence against women is not one of them

Roy Chacko’s article End of the affair: why it’s time to cancel Quentin Tarantino (theguardian.com, 23 July) uses such selective evidence that it merits a response. Each example he gives is more slight than the last. Reservoir Dogs, as he notes, contains literally no female characters – except “Shot Woman” and “Shocked Woman”, who are in fact depicted in a very real and troubling way as passerby victims; nothing about the violence against them is made pleasurable or glorified during their few seconds on screen.

Uma Thurman is indeed injected with adrenaline in order to save her life in Pulp Fiction, which is certainly dramatic, but how is it violent? In any case, Thurman’s extremely independent, wisecracking, charismatic character is one of the highlights of the film. Thurman, again, is attacked many times in Kill Bill, but that’s because she is its action-hero protagonist.

As for Inglourious Basterds, the women are more or less the film’s protagonists, and in any case it’s not remotely a film that focuses on violence against them, though it is a violent – and incredibly enjoyable – movie. I haven’t seen Once Upon A Time in Hollywood, but even if Chacko is correct and there is stuff to object to in it, this in no way upholds his general argument as, whatever Tarantino’s directorial vices, violence against women is not one of them – though it’s a very useful rope for people who don’t like his films anyway to hang him from.
Andrew Clifford


Will Quentin Tarantino really make Star Trek his final frontier?

The motormouth director has been dropping hints about what his ‘gangster’ version might resemble if he does make it his 10th and final film

There’s nothing like a new Quentin Tarantino movie to send the internet into a flurry of excitement, not just because of the film itself – in this case the forthcoming Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood – but also because QT loves to wax lyrical about projects he might or might not make before his supposedly imminent retirement. Kill Bill 3, The Vega Brothers, that once-mooted remake of Casino Royale. Get Tarantino in the press room, and he seems to go all twinkly-eyed about the prospect of movies that might have beenmovies that still could be, and occasionally movies that someone else ended up making before he had a chance to do so.

On the publicity trail for Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood, the film’s director has found himself bombarded with queries about the most unlikely Tarantino project ever – his much-hyped take on Star Trek. And we’ve started to learn a little more about where the movie, which has a script in place from The Revenant’s Mark L Smith, might go if he ever gets it into warp drive.

First off, it appears Tarantino will be using the contemporary Kirk and Spock, Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto, in an episode that will exist – just about – in the timeline created for the recent JJ Abrams-led trilogy of films.

“The one thing I can say is it would deal with the Chris Pine timeline,” Tarantino told MTV’s Happy Sad Confused podcast. “Now, I still don’t quite understand, and JJ [Abrams] can’t explain it to me, and my editor has tried to explain it to me and I still don’t get it … about something happened in the first movie that now kind of wiped the slate clean. I don’t buy that. I don’t like it. I don’t appreciate it. I don’t – fuck that … I want the whole series to have happened, it just hasn’t happened yet. No, Benedict Cumberbatch, or whatever his name is, is not Khan, alright? Khan is Khan. And I told JJ, like, ‘I don’t understand this. I don’t like it.’ And then he was like, ‘Ignore it! Nobody likes it. I don’t understand it. Just do whatever you want. If you want it to happen the exact way it happens on the series, it can.’”

It ought to come as no surprise, given the film-maker’s fondness for trash cinema, that his route into the original series came through falling in love with William Shatner’s Kirk. The latter’s furniture-chewing performance in the classic The Enemy Within episode wins special praise. But despite his concerns over the timeline reboot that set up 2009’s Star Trek, Tarantino also goes on to gush over Pine and Quinto’s performance in that film. For the director, it seems that channelling the original series’ high camp through the saga’s current cast is the obvious route through the stars.

Tarantino at the Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood premiere
 Playing to the crowd …Tarantino at the Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood premiere. Photograph: Michael Buckner/Variety/REX/Shutterstock

“The reason I was actually intrigued by the JJ Abrams version of it is because I thought Chris Pine did a fantastic job not just playing Captain Kirk, but playing William Shatner’s captain – he is William Shatner. He’s not just another guy, he’s William Shatner’s Captain Kirk. And it’s literally, Zachary Quinto is literally Leonard Nimoy’s – because they both have the same scene together – he’s his Spock. They fucking nail it. They just nail it.”

Speaking separately to Deadline, Tarantino described the tone of the proposed film as “Pulp Fiction in space”. “That Pulp Fiction-y aspect, when I read the script, I felt, I have never read a science fiction movie that has this shit in it, ever. There’s no science fiction movie that has this in it. And they said, I know, that’s why we want to make it. It’s, at the very least, unique in that regard.”

In many ways, Tarantino’s revelations throw up more questions than answers. We learn that Abrams appears to have no qualms about letting the maverick film-maker loose on the space saga with no set guidelines whatsoever. This is itself rather admirable and not a little bit exciting. It’s not hard to imagine Tarantino riffing off the operatic tone of a movie such as 1982’s Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, especially as we know he once tried to cast Ricardo Montalbán as the pimp Esteban Vihaio in Kill Bill: Volume 2.

But if QT really is allowed to make his bloodthirsty (it will certainly be R-rated) gangster space epic, where does this leave the series once he has departed? If the Tarantino take on Star Trek proves popular, do future movies continue along a similar path, potentially changing the way the franchise operates for ever? Or does this latest Star Trek movie end up being a standalone entry – perhaps like the X-Men movie Logan – a film that’s simply impossible to follow on a tonal level? Let us not forget Tarantino once accused Bond rights owner Eon of refusing to let him take charge of 007 because they were “afraid Quentin’s going to make it too good and fuck the rest of the series”.

The short answer is we just don’t know, because nobody has given Tarantino the keys to a franchise movie before. And let’s not forget the film-maker himself admits he isn’t 100% certain he’s going to get to the production stage. This could easily end up being added to the long list of films QT never quite got round to making before his 10 movies were up.

In many ways, it’s remarkable that such a barmy-sounding project has even come this far. And yet given plans for Star Trek 4 are currently stuck on the Hollywood equivalent of a backwater Romulan planet with no apparent source of dilithium crystals, it may be that QT’s involvement is just about the only way to get the Starship Enterprise moving again.


The Current War review – electricity drama lacks juice

Benedict Cumberbatch and Michael Shannon can’t find the vital spark in this tale of rival scientists

The tussle for supremacy in the race to power the world with electricity is rewired as a heavyweight personality smackdown between Thomas Edison (Benedict Cumberbatch) and George Westinghouse (Michael Shannon). According to this film – a long-shelved casualty of the Weinstein Company collapse – the professional rivalry was scarred by treachery, tragedy and ruthlessness. A formula for a sparky period piece, you might think. But there’s an edge of panicky desperation to the film-making – the lurching, swooping cameras; the skittish editing; the arcing lens flare. It all seems a little too eager to distract from the fact that top-hatted, frock-coated, mutton-chopped chaps burbling on about the relative advantages of the alternating current versus direct current system does not, in fact, make for electrifying drama.

The high-wire balance between scientific credibility and human interest is always a tricky one to pull off. Other pictures – The Imitation Game and The Theory of Everything being recent examples – have skewed towards the more accessible end of the spectrum by emphasising the personal stories that upholster the hard edges of obsessive theoretical minds. But despite, or perhaps because of, an early bereavement in Edison’s personal life, as a character he has all the warmth of a circuit diagram.

This wouldn’t necessarily be a problem – another Cumberbatch performance, in The Imitation Game, was similarly angular and unapproachable. But the Venn diagram intersection between the two key characters here is filled with physics and grudges but no actual interaction to speak of. Michael Mitnick’s exposition-heavy screenplay contains two fleeting, presumably fictional, encounters between the pair, and just one conversation.

Something of a satellite in the story is Nikola Tesla (Nicholas Hoult), arguably the most interesting character and certainly the one who is most underused here. Likewise the female characters: Katherine Waterston, as Westinghouse’s wife, Marguerite, makes an impression but her role is mainly to deliver pithy pep talks while wearing electric-blue frocks. Edison’s first wife, Mary (Tuppence Middleton), is a cursory presence; his second wife, Mina, is excised from the story altogether.

Watch a trailer for The Current War.


Bruce Springsteen changed my life… and so did my best friend Amolak

Sarfraz Manzoor was a teenager in Luton when he met a friend for life and discovered his musical hero. Now that fateful encounter is the subject of a major film

We were just kids. The first time I met Amolak was in autumn 1987. I was 16 and starting my first week at Luton sixth form college. My father worked on the production line at the Vauxhall car factory, my mother was a seamstress working from home and I was expected to get a stable, sensible job, have an arranged marriage and lead a quietly respectful life in obscurity. That isn’t how life turned out.

When I first ran into Amolak he had his headphones on, and when I asked what he was listening to he told me it was Bruce Springsteen. When I queried his music taste he told me Bruce was a direct line to all that was true in this world. He then handed me some cassettes and instructed me to educate myself. The music I heard changed my life. It first turned me into a confirmed Springsteen fan and it then inspired me to follow my dreams and become a writer – a journey I described in my 2007 memoir Greetings from Bury Park – and now I am a screenwriter of a film adaptation of the book.

Blinded by the Light is a rites of passage comedy drama directed by Gurinder Chadha, who also directed Bend It Like Beckham. Set in 1987, it revisits my teenage years and much of it is directly based on real events. One unlikely consequence of this is that my teenage friendship with Amolak has now been immortalised – not something either of us could have imagined in our wildest dreams.

My teenage friendship with Amolak has now been immortalised – not something either of us could have imagined

It was deeply weird the first time I saw Viveik Kalra, who plays my character, Javed, and Aaron Phagura who plays the Amolak character, Roops. It was in April last year and I was in west London to watch Gurinder film the scenes recreating my first meeting with Amolak. It was especially strange to see Aaron because he looked exactly like the teenage Amolak – the same double denim and the same Springsteen badges and T-shirt underneath his jacket. A London school had been transformed into Luton sixth form college – there was even a banner saying “Welcome to the Class of ’87”.

Much of the rest of the film was shot in Luton, sometimes using locations that featured in our real lives. There is a cafe called Greenfields located upstairs in what used to be known as the Arndale Centre. Amolak and I have frequented it since we were teenagers. I had written a scene in Greenfields, and when Gurinder was scouting locations I suggested she see the real place. One look and she was sold, which was how I came to be at her side in Greenfields watching Viveik and Aaron in the seats where Amolak and I sat as teenagers, saying dialogue I had written, based on things we used to say.

Sarfraz Mansoor and Amolak
 Sarfraz Mansoor and Amolak. Photograph: Picasa/Sarfraz Manzoor

Two weeks ago, I sat with Amolak in a Soho screening room to show him the final cut of Blinded by the Light. When the film ended he was lost for words, and that is not a common occurrence. We repaired to a nearby bar, and once he had time to process it he told me that seeing the film had been one of the strangest experiences of his life. I had been telling him about my dream of turning the book into a film and he had read a draft of the screenplay, but to see it all on the big screen, with actors playing us, was overwhelming. He told me he was shocked by how much truth and authenticity I had been able to bring.

The constants in my life since I was 16 are Bruce Springsteen and Amolak … a friendship that has endured for 30 years

Having been a journalist and broadcaster who often writes first-person pieces, I am not much fazed when strangers approach me and assume they know me. Amolak does not work in the media but he has already become a minor celebrity at work. He told me that one colleague came up to him and, when Amolak mentioned their meeting was not until later, the man said he had just come over to meet “the film star”.

The film is not released until 9 August, but I have spent the past few weeks at preview screenings across Britain and the United States. One of the most common reactions is that people say they were touched by the depiction of the friendship of Javed and Roops, to the extent that people now tweet me to tell of the friend who was “their Roops” – the one who introduced them to a life-changing musician or band. My mate has become a noun.

At the very end of Blinded by the Light there are a set of stills. Among the ones that prompt the biggest cheers at previews are those of Amolak and me. There is one of us taken in 1990 in New Jersey on the Asbury Park boardwalk and another one, taken last, on set in Luton.

The two constants in my life since I was 16 are Springsteen and Amolak, and it is a source of great pride and pleasure to me that our friendship has endured for more than 30 years. These days, we are both middle-aged husbands and fathers but tomorrow night we will both attend the gala screening of Blinded by the Light with our wives.

When the lights dim and the film starts we will be transported back to that fateful autumn of 1987 when we were just kids.

Blinded by the Light is in cinemas from 9 August. Greetings from Bury Park, the memoir by Sarfraz Manzoor which inspired the film, has now been reissued with a new afterword.


Streaming: curate your own Spike Lee season

As Do the Right Thing hits 30 and temperatures soar, what better time to seek out the best of the director online

As cinema rereleases go, next week’s 30th-anniversary revival of Do the Right Thing is a well-timed one. The tangible, asphalt-melting heat of Spike Lee’s high summer race-war eruption plays all the more vividly as we head stickily into August. The film is viewable online, though the chance to see just how fiercely it still plays in a cinema shouldn’t be passed up.

Still, in what has been a good year for Spike Lee – who finally won his long-awaited competitive Oscar for BlacKkKlansman in February – this anniversary should prompt your own streaming retrospective of the 62-year-old film-maker’s varied, restless career, which jaggedly runs the gamut from sleek studio entertainments to shot-on-a-shoestring curios to hefty, authoritative documentaries.

Much of it is available in the streaming realm, though the blind spots are sometimes inexplicable: you’ll have to turn to DVD for Jungle Fever, his smart, spiky interracial romance, or 4 Little Girls, his piercing, Oscar-nominated doc on the 16th Street Baptist church bombing. Lee’s nonfiction work is in particularly short supply, in fact. His seminal, seething post-Katrina doc When the Levees Broke can only be streamed in smudgy form on YouTube. His short films are harder still to track down, though the reliable Short of the Week site has his 16-minute doc Mo’Ne Davis: Throw Like a Girl free to stream. It’s a lovely miniature, capturing its subject – a 13-year-old African American girl who happens to be a prodigious Little League baseballer – with unsentimental affection.

Netflix has She’s Gotta Have It served two ways. Lee’s 1986 debut feature, about a young black Brooklyn woman juggling three potential lovers, remains charmingly loose and jazzy. Whatever dated 80s trappings it has are counterbalanced by its fresh, forward-thinking sex positivity. It’s easy to see why Lee recently updated and adapted it into a Netflix TV series of the same name. This is a fun, breezy watch, though even with the luxury of a long-form structure, its world and characterisation don’t feel quite as pointed or textured.

Watch a trailer for season 2 of the Netflix adaptation of She’s Gotta Have It.

Pay-per-view streaming network Chili has a particularly well-stocked Lee back catalogue. You can head there for major canon titles such as Malcolm X– the rare biopic that can be called truly essential, itching with formal energy atop its comprehensive historical value and Denzel Washington’s muscular, career-crowning performance – and scarcely seen experiments like Da Sweet Blood of Jesus, Lee’s wildly careering but oddly endearing vampire-movie riff.

Chili also have his graceful, elegiac 25th Hour, still one of the few immediate post-9/11 dramas that doesn’t look misjudged today, and three less celebrated Lee joints from the 1990s that all merit a second (or belated first) glance. The hard-boiled, blood-stained Clockers and the earthy, semi-autobiographical Crooklyn, made back to back, work as complementary urban studies of the Brooklyn-reared director’s home turf. His toxic jazzman portrait Mo’ Better Blues, too, holds up more colourfully than reviews at the time predicted.

Watch a trailer for Lee’s adaptation of Pass Over.

In addition to Chi-Raq, Lee’s vibrant, jangly street spin on Aristophanes’ Lysistrata, Amazon Prime has a buried treasure in Pass Over. This adaptation of Antoinette Nwandu’s play was entirely overshadowed last year by BlacKkKlansman (streaming on Now TV), but this Beckett-inspired study of two homeless Chicago men getting through the day is the more affecting, poetic work.

Amazon also has another of Lee’s humid New York evocations, also celebrating a notable anniversary. It’s 20 years since the release of Summer of Sam, his rich patchwork of an Italo-American neighbourhood sweating through serial killer David Berkowitz’s 1976-7 reign of terror. Though it hasn’t cultivated Do the Right Thing’s legacy, it’s one of Lee’s greatest, most humane films, and a reminder that few film-makers capture this sticky season quite like he does.

New to streaming & DVD this week

Watch the trailer for The Great Hack.

The Great Hack 
The Cambridge Analytica scandal gets the stern, penetrating documentary treatment it deserves, in a film that methodically traces the ramifications of Facebook data mining – though if it’s suggested for you by Netflix’s algorithm, pause for thought. 

(Universal, 15)
Messier than Get Out, but also more formally reckless and invigorating, Jordan Peele’s riotous and petrifying class-conscious horror allegory is the Hollywood film of the year so far.

Happy As Lazzaro
(Modern Films, 12)
Alice Rohrwacher’s dizzy, ingenious modern take on a holy-fool fable blends magical realism and social realism to audacious, sometimes shiver-inducingly beautiful effect.

(Spirit, 15) 
Nadine Labaki won a lot of hearts and prizes for this heart-on-sleeve study of a scrappy 12-year-old boy surviving the streets of Beirut, and it’s certainly stirring – though a bit transparently schematic too.

A Blonde in Love
(Second Run, 15) 
A sparkling 4K restoration of the late Milos Forman’s Czech New Wave classic, which deftly blends bittersweet social satire with intimate personal portraiture.


Horrible Histories: The Movie – Rotten Romans review – the empire strikes back

Derek Jacobi gamely reprises his celebrated role as Claudius in an entertaining big-screen outing for the CBBC television series

There’s a fair bit of fun to be had in this latest movie spinoff from the CBBC Horrible Histories series on TV, focusing here on ancient Rome and its attempt to crush the Boudicca uprising in far-off uncivilised Britain. The film’s most sensational coup is persuading Derek Jacobi to reprise his legendary role as the Emperor Claudius, which he throws himself into like the heroic good sport that he is, recreating the stammering innocent potentate subject to all sorts of awful plots.

Craig Roberts gets some solid laughs as the lyre-wielding Nero and the same goes for Kim Cattrall as his evil mother Agrippina. Emilia Jones and Sebastian Croft (young Ned Stark from Game of Thrones) play the star-cross’d lovers: Orla, a young warrior following Boudicca and Atti, an idealistic young Roman centurion with a grasp of a particular type of military strategy not seen in the cinemas since Zack Snyder’s 2006 Spartan melodrama 300.

Lee Mack is reliably funny as Decimus, the warrior embittered by the hardship of military service in the barbaric isle of Britain and pining for Rome. Sprightly, too, is Rupert Graves as Paulinus, the Roman military leader reluctant to be pinned down to any particular decision.

This is a decent bit of school holiday entertainment, though I felt that some of the purely broad humour did seem to be pitched at a pretty young audience, and the gags here aren’t quite as strong as those in a comparable film featuring Horrible Histories actors, Bill (2015), about the life of Shakespeare. But it’s good natured and I loved Atti’s mum disapproving of Atti always gazing at his scroll: “We’re going to have to restrict your scroll time.”

• Horrible Histories is released in the UK on 26 July.


‘White, male and brawny feels tired’: is this the age of feminist Marvel movies?

The idea of a female Thor and a bisexual Valkyrie have the Marvel fanboys in a state … but the franchise is just reflecting the way the world is

Captain Marvel may have ruled the box office this spring, but Avengers: Endgame was still Iron Man and Captain America’s show. So when female fans woke up last Sunday to the news of a female Thor, a Black Widow movie and a bisexual Valkyrie, some wondered if they were still dreaming. The announcements at San Diego Comic-Con about Phase 4 of Disney’s Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) appeared to promise a more gender-balanced future.

The most prominent was that Natalie Portman’s Dr Jane Foster would take the hammer from Chris Hemsworth’s Thor, becoming Mighty Thor. Social media exploded and divided, with fanboys declaring that Marvel had gone “feminist”. There was an easy comeback: the Thor story is based on an existing comic book plotline in which Foster temporarily acquires Thor’s powers. But the decision to use that specific story still speaks volumes. It is far less well known than the Captain Marvel series and could easily have been overlooked in favour of another story with Hemsworth front and centre, keeping Portman’s character as the astrophysicist love-interest (or out of the picture entirely, which was the case in 2017’s Thor: Ragnarok).

“This shows Marvel’s commitment to showing diversity and opening the universe out to all the iterations of the characters we’ve seen in the comic books,” says Jane Crowther, editor of Total Film magazine, who put Brie Larson as Captain Marvel on the cover. “Phase 4 is all about new beginnings, and what better way to commit to that than really shake up Thor by bringing in a female lead?”

Others suggest a financial incentive. “I think they’re following the box office,” says Mia Bays, director-at-large at Birds Eye View Film, an organisation supporting films by women. “Diversity is good business. Marvel saw that with Black Panther and Captain Marvel, and we’ve seen it with Wonder Woman for DC.”

Even if this were a wholly cynical decision, it is surely time that studios recognised the value of female role models in family-friendly fare, which the likes of Geena Davis have been campaigning for this for decades. Film critic Amon Warmann, who contributes to Talk Sport and Empire, thinks it’s high time. “Marvel caught flak – and rightly so – for being too white in the MCU’s early years,” he says. “But they deserve credit for being at the forefront of representation in mainstream media. The good that comes from movies such as Black Panther, not just for the movie itself but for the extremely positive effects it can have on the industry, far outweigh any perceived element of box-ticking for me.”

Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow.
 Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow. Photograph: Jay Maidment/AP

Retaining the director Taika Waititi for Thor: Love and Thunder is a significant move. The part-Maori New Zealander has long made films about outsiders, from Eagle vs Shark and Hunt for the Wilderpeople; he brought a more inclusive sensibility to Thor: Ragnarok. “He genuinely moved the Thor franchise on, in tone and storyline, so he’s a safe pair of hands to move it on again into this new arena,” says Crowther. She adds: “I hope he reflects the storyline from the comics of Jane battling breast cancer at the same time as being a kick-ass hero. That really would be a departure.” Marvel has also hired female directors for a number of projects: the Australian Cate Shortland is helming the long-awaited Black Widow prequel starring Scarlett Johansson and Chloé Zhao will direct Marvel’s ensemble film The Eternals, featuring Angelina Jolie and Richard Madden. This marks the first time a woman will direct a Marvel film solo, after Anna Boden co-directed Captain Marvel with Ryan Fleck.

There may be pressure from within the MCU cast to give female actors bigger roles. A scene in Avengers: Endgame, in which the women rose up together, felt well-intentioned, but clumsy. Was it a hasty response to requests from the Valkyrie actor Tessa Thompson to be cast directly alongside her female colleagues? A more elegant scene in Endgame appointed Valkyrie as ruler of Asgard. It was a stirring sight to see Thor, a white male born into privilege, graciously handing the baton to Valkyrie, a born leader from an underrepresented group. Now it has been confirmed that Thompson’s character in Thor: Love and Thunder will honour the comic book character’s bisexuality, too. Thompson, who is bisexual, is also a vocal supporter of the Time’s Up movement, spearheading the “4% challenge” by committing to announce a female-directed project within the next 18 months. “Tessa Thompson, Brie Larson and Natalie Portman are all founding members of Time’s Up and strong advocates of diversity and equality, with huge social media followings,” says Crowther. “Their involvement in the MCU gives me hope that Marvel is doing the right thing for the right outcome.”

Let’s hope that Thompson and Portman’s characters in Thor: Love and Thunder get to work together in more than a token fashion, building on the quiet bravery of the Captain Marvel film, which put female friendship at its core. Larson raved about the relationship between Carol/Captain Marvel and her friend Maria (Lashana Lynch) when I interviewed her for the Girls on Film podcast. “The great love that is lost and found in this film is with her best friend. It’s such a powerful thing for me … It’s weirdly new, despite it being something we all understand.”

While the Time’s Up movement has doubtless fuelled the engines, these developments are not that sudden: superhero blockbusters take many years to produce. “The MCU has always been extremely pragmatic in planning and they have world-building finessed to a science, so these new films will have been a long time coming,” says Crowther. And, of course, comic books can be produced much more quickly to keep up with the times, as Warmann points out. “We still haven’t had the MCU introductions of Ms Marvel – a Muslim superhero – or Miles Morales, who got a lot of shine in Into the Spider-Verse last year. I haven’t even mentioned characters like Jennifer ‘She-Hulk’ Walters, Amadeus Cho, and Riri Williams.”

If Marvel’s plans are all based on existing comic books, why is toxic masculinity still an issue within the Marvel fan community? “Possibly because of an illogical fear that stories featuring women within the MCU is a reframing of the whole Marvel universe as feminist or ‘woke’, which will, in turn, dilute, change or ruin the Phase 1 characters they love,” says Crowther. But she thinks the naysayers are in a minority. “Although they’re loud, they’re a pretty small group and their efforts to derail Captain Marvel’s release via Rotten Tomatoes failed. And, although many of them are threatening to boycott this phase of films, there are new generations who have grown up with the MCU universe who will want to watch these stories.”

Is Marvel becoming feminist? Maybe, if feminism is about gender equality, not the female dominance the trolls are fearing. Hemsworth is still the lead in Thor: Love and Thunder and other announced Marvel films include Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness. “I doubt anyone at Marvel is framing this as a ‘feminist’ overhaul internally,” says Bays. “It’s about changing the dominant view. It’s about equality for the audience in terms of choice. They’re wisely refreshing the brand because it needs it and they’re realising that the usual recipe – white, brawny, male-centred, world-saving super-bro – is tired and doesn’t appeal to a lot of the audience. The international audience, especially, is coming out for the films that feel fresher.”

“I hesitate to pat Marvel on the back too much because we had to wait 20 or so movies to get here,” says Warmann. “But as the biggest thing in cinema right now, it has more of a responsibility than most to depict a world that represents its hugely diverse audience. And it seems it’s taking that to heart.”

Anna Smith is host of the Girls on Film podcast