PopPolitics: What ‘McFarland USA’ Says About Immigration; ‘Birth of a Nation’ at 100 (Listen)

McFarland, USA

McFarland USA,” opening this weekend, is a sports movie, but director Niki Caro suggests that its storyline is especially timely given the current debate over immigration.

The movie tells the story of Jim White (Kevin Costner), a teacher who cannot find work anywhere but in California’s Central Valley, where he gets a job at McFarland High School in 1987 and, contrary to notions about the sport, starts a cross-country team with seven of the students who are from migrant families.

The movie is apolitical, but Caro tells Variety‘s “PopPolitics” on SiriusXM, “If I have any kind of personal agenda, it would be that I hope that this movie helps to open people’s eyes to the scale of the contribution of not just Mexican field workers, but so many people who work in the service industry in this country, whose contribution is so valuable and necessary, and that goes so under-acknowledged and appreciated.”

She adds, “I think it is timely given your original question about the immigration conversation, to see these kids win right now, to see how greatly they have succeeded and the legacy they have left and continue to lead.”

Caro, a native of New Zealand who directed “Whale Rider” and “North Country,” spent a great deal of time with the real-life White, and even cast actors from McFarland High School. Since that first winning year in 1987, the team has since gone on to win multiple state championships, and the city even has a cross-country runner as part of its logo.

“American politics, particularly around immigration, I am not familiar enough to speak knowledgeably about,” she says, although she says the movie is “profoundly American — it just so happens that 95% of the people in the movie are Mexican Americans.”

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Caro talks about the movie’s depiction of life as a “picker.”

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A key scene is at the state championships, when a crowd of migrant families puts hands over their hearts and sings the National Anthem. Caro says that the inclusion of that scene was intentional. “It was really important to me to express the National Anthem in an appropriate way.”

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David Cohen of Variety and Patrick Gavin, documentary filmmaker, talk about the movies of the past year that may not win Oscars but had the biggest impact. “Citizenfour,” “Selma” and “American Sniper” may have gotten all the headlines, but the movie we’re most likely to remember a year from now is “The Lego Movie,” Cohen says.

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Dick Lehr, author of the book “The Birth of a Nation: How a Legendary Filmmaker and a Crusading Editor Reignited America’s Civil War,” talks about the 100th anniversary of the screening of “Birth of a Nation” at the White House. It was the first film shown there — even though it was the source of protest over its revisionist depiction of the Civil War and racist portrayal of African Americans.

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Lehr talks about what inspired him to write the book. That was when he infiltrated a recruiting meeting for the Ku Klux Klan in the 1970s and David Duke showed “The Birth of a Nation” as part of the effort.

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This Past Week: Variety‘s James Rainey writes about why “The Imitation Game” may be the White House’s Oscar favorite.

CAMPAIGN IN WAIT: Now it may be more like Waiting for Hillary, but Ready for Hillary continued its fundraising push in Los Angeles on Friday — with a $250-minimum-per-person event at downtown’s City Club. According to the invite, Secretary of State Alex Padilla was featured speaker, and former Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar also was on the roster of those delivering remarks.

FETE FEATS: White House Social Secretary Jeremy Bernard — formerly of Los Angeles — was profiled this week in a big spread in Vogue as the first male to fill that position. His role will be among those featured in documentary filmmaker Shaun Kadlec’s new project, “Social Secretary,” with a history of that position in the East Wing. Kadlec writes on the movie’s Facebook page, “Featuring social secretaries from nearly every administration since Johnson, ‘Social Secretary’ reveals the intimate stories of the people who work behind the scenes to bring world leaders and everyday Americans alike into the People’s House. It offers a new perspective on the powerful relationships that shaped the last century.” He also adds, “A single mistake can mean disaster.” Completion is expected early next year.

“PopPolitics,” hosted by Variety’s Ted Johnson, airs Thursdays at 2 p.m. ET on SiriusXM’s POTUS Channel 124.