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Tuesday, February 28, 2012

The Movie Obama Wants to See, Made by the First African American Director Ever to Win an Oscar for a Full-Length Film (and He's From Seattle)

Posted by on Tue, Feb 28, 2012 at 2:22 PM

Yonnas Getahun (my fiance) and TJ Martin (right) at the St. Felix Hotel in West Hollywood.
  • The Stranger
  • Yonnas Getahun (my fiance) and TJ Martin (right) at the St. Felix Hotel in West Hollywood.
I did not expect to be at a winning Oscar party this Sunday night in LA—but that's exactly where I found myself when, two seconds after my fiance and I walked into the St. Felix Hotel in West Hollywood for the Undefeated party, GWYNETH PALTROW AND ROBERT DOWNEY JR. ANNOUNCED that Undefeated won Best Documentary on the big screen in the bar.

It was unreal. The place erupted. The place was so uproarious—grown men were crying on each other's shoulders, coiffed women were covering their mouths—that we couldn't even make out the acceptance speeches. I'd only met the filmmakers once before, and even I was over the moon. Undefeated was directed by Dan Lindsay and TJ Martin. TJ is an old friend of my fiance (see picture). Friends don't win Oscars! Except they do! (Turns out, TJ dropped an F bomb during his acceptance speech. I still don't know what he said exactly.)

And then within a few minutes, I heard another piece of astonishing news, reported on The Root and elsewhere: TJ is the first African American director to win an Oscar for a full-length film. So TJ made history Sunday night. Sean Combs, one of the executive producers of Undefeated, was yelling about it on his Twitter feed: "I am buggin," he wrote. "Holy Sh*t!!!!"

The news got even better: The New York Post reported that Obama had ordered a copy of the movie to be screened at the White House. TJ is a Seattle native; he grew up in the Central District and graduated from Roosevelt High School in 1997.

His father, Tommy Martin, is a legendary musician in these parts. His mother, Tina, is a singer; she lives in Las Vegas. Tommy is white, Tina is African American.

Aptly, Undefeated is a tangle when it comes to race (and class). I saw the movie in LA on Sunday just before the Oscars: It had a one-night screening as part of SIFF's documentary series a few months ago but currently is not scheduled to play in Seattle theaters. I hope that will change.

I'm interviewing TJ tonight. In the meantime, here's what he had to say about his historic designation in an interview with The Skanner a few months back:

KW: How do you feel about the possibility of becoming the first black director to win an Academy Award?

TJM: First and foremost I’m extremely honored for such recognition. At the same time, I would have a hard time claiming such an achievement since I’m half black. My experience navigating the world is night and day different than that of someone whose parents are both Black. I personally, identify much more with being mixed race. It would be hard for me to accept such an achievement without also acknowledging my Native American, Scandinavian, Chinese and Jewish roots as well! I definitely think it warrants a greater conversation. I wonder if there’s some kind of designation for being the first mixed race director to win for best documentary? Probably not.

KW: Is there any question no one ever asks you, that you wish someone would?

TJM: Do you identify as being Black?

On the surface, Undefeated looks like that stupid-ass, white-people-saving-black-folks Sandra Bullock movie, because it tells the story of white coaches who volunteer for an all-black football team in North Memphis, Tennessee. But it's a real story. It's more complicated than a concocted, controlled fantasy. Combs reportedly wants to make a feature film out of it, which raises tons of questions for me: Why? How? What do you want to change?

There's a scene in which the (white) coach tells a young (black) player, Money, that if he works hard, things will go right, and then he gives Money some good news—Money is being rewarded for years of hard work. But the scene is uncomfortable because while Money has earned everything he's gotten, plenty of kids from poor black families will work hard and get screwed—and plenty of kids from rich white families won't earn what they get, either. And if you think that's an exaggeration, that most people live in the middle and not at the extremes, just look at North Memphis. Just look at Undefeated. Nobody in the movie, even the coach, is trying to hide the realities. They're trying, rather, to figure out their individual narratives in the midst of these sweeping historical tides. That's what's interesting about the movie, that tension between small stories and big ones. It's fitting, too, that it's called Undefeated—it's not really a triumphant story. It's not about the edge between winning and losing, it's about the edge between losing and not losing.

I'm going to try to get some time to talk with TJ about some of these issues in the next few days, in the hopes of writing a longer piece for the March 8 paper. (Maybe I can finally ask him the question he wants to be asked.) He graduated from Western Washington University, where he's coming to talk after a screening of the movie on Thursday night. The event is already sold out.

Oh: No, I didn't hold the Oscar. I know; I should have. I heard it was heavy.


Comments (29) RSS

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I, I, I. We get it.
Posted by Why not post strictly about somebody else for once? on February 28, 2012 at 2:45 PM · Report this
Will in Seattle 2
We did very well. In fact, of the winners, virtually all have been to our parties at SIFF.

You remember Jean DuJardin and his co-star Berenice and their director (the co-star's husband) from The Artist - they were that nice group of French people at the Closing Night SIFF parties two times.

Same goes for the Director of Hugo, who has been to SIFF too, and got an award from us.

It was a great night for Seattle.

Posted by Will in Seattle on February 28, 2012 at 2:47 PM · Report this
Actually, @1, I was hoping someone else here would post about it, but everyone was already busy. Plus, way to miss the point of the post.
Posted by Jen Graves on February 28, 2012 at 2:49 PM · Report this
Sunday night I was drinking beers with Wim Wenders at Dieter's Wiener Haus at Pico and Bundy. Wim was pretty bummed that "Pina" didn't win. He and I thought it had a really good shot at the Oscar. "Maybe next year, old buddy," I told him.
Posted by DOUG. on February 28, 2012 at 3:00 PM · Report this
Sir Vic 5
@3 I could have used some up front clarification that you weren't talking about The Undefeated.…

A very confusing start to the post when read with that incorrect assumption.
Posted by Sir Vic on February 28, 2012 at 3:02 PM · Report this
How exciting, Jen. Congratulations to TJ.
Posted by Lynn Schirmer on February 28, 2012 at 3:04 PM · Report this
Will UNDEFEATED be screened again soon in Seattle?
Posted by go bulldogs on February 28, 2012 at 3:04 PM · Report this
@7: Not that I know of, sadly. If that changes, I'll report it here.
Posted by Jen Graves on February 28, 2012 at 3:10 PM · Report this
King5 and the Bellingham Herald wrote about TJ days ago and didn't mention themselves, you, Yonnas Getahun, Gwyneth Paltrow or Robert Downey Jr.
Posted by It's about TJ, not name dropping, right? on February 28, 2012 at 3:11 PM · Report this
"But the scene is uncomfortable because while Money has earned everything he's gotten, plenty of kids from poor black families will work hard and get screwed—and plenty of kids from rich white families won't earn what they get, either."

You mean like how Harvey Weinstein basically bought Undefeated an Oscar? You seriously think it deserved best doc over Paradise Lost 3, a movie that literally saved the lives of three people?
Posted by Hosono on February 28, 2012 at 3:15 PM · Report this
Will in Seattle 11
Best chance to get it screened again is at NWFF or at the SIFF Film Center on the Seattke Center grounds, IMHO
Posted by Will in Seattle on February 28, 2012 at 3:32 PM · Report this
Hey Jen, I too am thrilled that a fellow RHS alum won an Oscar, but what's with this garbage - "that stupid-ass, white-people-saving-black-folks Sandra Bullock movie" - are you not aware that story was based on Michael Oher's life? Your name dropping and fact missing detract from your writing.
Posted by Slog Tipper David on February 28, 2012 at 3:33 PM · Report this
@10: I have no comment (and made no comment) about whether "Undefeated" is the best movie of this year's documentary list (or whether that list is representative of what's out there). Of the docs nominated, I've only seen "Undefeated" and "Pina." I've heard nothing but good things about "Paradise Lost 3," and want to see it.

Just curious: Have you seen "Undefeated"?
Posted by Jen Graves on February 28, 2012 at 3:34 PM · Report this
That's exciting.
I also hope I finally get to see this movie. Everybody I know loved it at SIFF.
Posted by tkc on February 28, 2012 at 3:40 PM · Report this
@12: Yes, I did know that. You might be interested in this:…
Posted by Jen Graves on February 28, 2012 at 3:57 PM · Report this
I think it's really funny to write about the uneasiness of a scene that's heavy with unfairness in a documentary that's basically the Shakespeare in Love of the its genre. If Harvey Weinstein hadn't bought the movie, it never would have been nominated, let alone won. That's true for a lot of movies, and is how the business works, but it's especially egregious in a year when a movie that's about as good as an ESPN 30 for 30 doc somehow takes the spot of Bill Cunningham's New York and two (!) Herzog documentaries.
Posted by Hosono on February 28, 2012 at 4:14 PM · Report this
@ Jen - the way you wrote that sentence does not show that you knew anything about Oher's story. The sentence was a cheap trick. I'm not defending that movie, it's mediocre - but the fact that it was BASED on Oher's life IS inspiring. I like it when people beat the odds. I don't like it when people who are paid to write throw out false "snark" to make their writing look more exciting. Here Oher speaks about the movie himself:…
Posted by Slog Tipper David on February 28, 2012 at 4:27 PM · Report this
@16: You have seen "Undefeated," then? I also loved the Cunningham movie, but I don't think it took on any particularly interesting subjects.

@17: The movie is a racist piece of Hollywood crap. Why are we arguing?
Posted by Jen Graves on February 28, 2012 at 4:39 PM · Report this
You Look Like I Need A Drink! 19
Why are you turning this in a race issue Jen?

Who cares what color he is?
Posted by You Look Like I Need A Drink! on February 28, 2012 at 4:47 PM · Report this
scary tyler moore 20
weinstein did NOT buy this film an Oscar, mr. whiny pants. the general academy membership does NOT nominate or vote on documentaries. only a small group within the academy does that, and a requirement is that you have to see all the nominees before voting. got that? good.

now, this is what i want to see: a film festival featuring ALL the 2011 nominees for documentary feature length and documentary short subject at either SIFF or NWFF. i not only want to see Undefeated, but Saving Face, God is the Bigger Elvis, The Barber of Birmingham, and If A Tree Falls. now, who can make this happen?
Posted by scary tyler moore on February 28, 2012 at 5:06 PM · Report this
@ Jen - So it's "racist piece of Hollywood crap" because it's based on the true story of a wealthy white christian family that takes in a poor uneducated kid, who happens to be black and athletically gifted? Just trying to see where you're coming from.
Posted by Slog Tipper David on February 28, 2012 at 5:17 PM · Report this
Gern Blanston 22
The Seattle Times film critic says "Undefeated" is likely play in Seattle in March, although she doesn't say where she gets this information.…
Posted by Gern Blanston on February 28, 2012 at 5:29 PM · Report this
I had no idea this guy was from Seattle! Now I'm really looking forward to seeing it. Congrats to everyone involved!
Posted by mitten on February 28, 2012 at 6:53 PM · Report this
@20. Good idea. Does anyone do this? SIFF? Or does it already happen and I've missed it?
Posted by M. Wells on February 28, 2012 at 6:57 PM · Report this
That's awesome. I went to RHS with TJ
Posted by CbytheSea on February 28, 2012 at 10:59 PM · Report this
So here's me, knowing nothing about this film, googling it. I arrive at wikipedia, to find that it's apparently a Tea Party friendly documentary about Sarah Palin. I am, to say the least, confused. Not that there can't be crossover friendships, but it just seemed on the far end of the statistical distribution that a soon to be married lesbian couple would have a close friendship with an African American director who made a fawning movie about Sarah Palin and got an Oscar for it.

Then I went to the top of the page and realized my mistake. "The Undefeated" vs. "Undefeated". What a difference an article makes.
Posted by Lynx on February 29, 2012 at 8:29 AM · Report this
More, I Say! 27
I think your fiance rides my bus in the mornings...
Posted by More, I Say! on February 29, 2012 at 11:25 AM · Report this
The film is NOT about race. Its about hard work & intergrity, something that America seems to know NOTHING aboutt these days especially in mainstream America. People have lost sight that things are not GIVEN to them. Should Undefeated have won an Oscar? I don't know I haven't seen all the films. But the fact that TJ Martin & Dan Lindsay capture something on a whim is pretty amazing & the fact that TJ Martin is my first cousin makes me a little bias. All & all it did win. So if its going to run with the fact that he's the first African American to win an Oscar then so be it. Because in the long run it hasn't been done. With great African American directors such as Spike Lee & John Singleton, who I know TJ respects & admires, there's no way in hell that mainstream America is ready to accept them with open arms. Me myself being African American is just happy that the doors are finally opening for us to be accepted. I'm hoping soon it would be a GREAT director actor or actress won an award....& it just so happens they're black or asian or east indian.
Posted by Loniwilliams on March 1, 2012 at 1:59 AM · Report this
And big up to Roosevelt High School. That's my alma mater & majority of our family's too! It became tradition for us to go there.
Posted by Loniwilliams on March 1, 2012 at 2:17 AM · Report this

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