A new film, Nebraska, directed by Alexander Payne (Sideways, About Schmidt and The Descendants), features Bruce Dern with a supporting cast of eminently watchable characters, including Bob Odenkirk and Stacey Keach.

Dern portrays Woody Grant, an irascible old guy with borderline dementia who lives in Billings, Montana, and receives a sweepstakes letter from a magazine publisher announcing he has WON a million dollars!

His car keys having been taken away by his serpent-tongued wife and two grown sons, he decides to walk to Lincoln, Nebraska to pick up his winnings. There are several false starts, in which one or the other of the boys collar him as he ambles alongside the highway in a southeasterly direction. Finally, the younger son agrees to drive him to Lincoln, to prove to him that the letter is a scam.

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And so the adventure begins — a road trip across the Great Plains, a boy and his dad, with many stops and adventures along the way, particularly in Woody’s old hometown of Hawthorne, where things get complicated with his brother, nephews, old flames and a former business partner, when they learn, mistakenly, that Woody is now a millionaire.

Like most good movies, this one is fundamenally about relationships and growth of character. And it is shot in black and white, with stunning photography of the big sky and barren plains, the broken-down old towns and farm houses, and the worn faces of the people who inhabit these places.

From Django Unchained to Adam Twist

The last couple of weeks, issues surrounding race have been blanketing the news, from the Supreme Court decision on The Voting Rights Act, to the racial overtones of the Zimmerman trial. So, this weekend I opened my copy of Twist,and revisited the issue of race in the year 2075In the world of Adam Twist which I created, many of today’s concerns are extrapolated into the future of 2075: homelessness, human cruelty, sexual violence, a ravished environment and government corruption, but not race. There is one mention that the major female character, Kit,

“…was a beauty, like some kind of rough-edged street goddess. High cheekbones, dark eyes and deep complexion. Mixed blood. Native-American, Hispanic or Afro, maybe all three.”

And that’s about it in terms of race. Even the protagonist, Adam Twist, is ambiguous – could be played by Harrison Ford or Denzel Washington, works either way. So not all is bad in the future – race may no longer be a hot issue.

After this happy realization about the future, I then switched gears into the past by finally watching Django Unchained. As the final credits rolled, I tried to put this film into a box. Does it have layers of social commentary? Is it about racial inequality? No, forget those nice words out of a sociology textbook – it’s about slavery, a merciless punch in our face with the raw brutality and human agony of one group of people capturing, tormenting and forcing their will upon another. Sure, the scene with the KKK halting mid raid because they can’t see out of their hoods is absurd and humorous, but what better way to expose injustice and cruelty of the past than by exposing the stupidity of the perpetrators? But then there is the scene in which the plantation master orders his men to release their dogs to rip apart a slave who tried to escape. Hard to watch? Make your lily-livered ass squirm in your chair? Too bad, because Tarantino is going to rub your face in the slime whether you like it or not. Remember the eye gouging in Kill Bill?

This film is genius writing, as well as casting. Samuel L. Jackson as the obsequious house slave Stephan, and Leonardo DiCaprio as the vicious, violent yet charming slave owner, added a whole new layer of humor, satire and irony to the film. You can’t help but laugh darkly as Jackson hobbles into shot, a mixture of yassuhs, boot-licking servility, and short-tempered obscenities.

Finally, I came to the realization I come to about most Tarantino films: Yes, it is a cocktail of spurting blood, exposed entrails, absurd plot, dark humor, fast action, and clever wit, but it also carries a hard kernel of truth, in this case tracing a trajectory from an ugly past which we try to keep hidden, into the present and, by extrapolation, into a future in which today’s confusion and stupidity about the issue of race will seem as monumentally boneheaded as that of Django Unchained.