Marvin Brown Bloghouse

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Maynard (2017)

Unrated

Auburn Avenue Films

On the night Barack Obama was elected president of United State of America I remember looking at my sleeping infant daughter while processing my unique place in time where I stood at an exact moment of before and after. The morning before, I awoke in a country in which it was improbable to think the 44th person elected to the highest position in the land could be anything but white and male. The morning after, my daughter and I awoke in a country that would be lead for the next eight years by someone who looked like us.

I thought of this moment as I watched Maynard, a documentary of the first black mayor of a major southern city. The parallel of Maynard Jackson’s and Barack Obama’s moments certainly isn’t lost to history or the filmmakers.

Helmed by editor-turned-director Sam Pollard, Maynard is refreshingly uncluttered, a straight through-line depicting Jackson’s early academic successes; his civil rights linage (his grandfather was famed movement leader John Wesley Dobbs); his foray into law and politics; his rise; his retirement; his comeback and untimely death. To be sure, we get standard archival footage, still photographs, newspaper headlines and talking heads, but the film vibrates with a sense of the era—its roiling racial politics, its music, the clothes.

CHECK OUT MY INTERVIEW WITH DIRECTOR SAM POLLARD

Maynard Holbrook Jackson Jr., tall and broad, uses carefully chosen words, commands audiences with his articulate speeches and forthright assertions. Sound familiar? He graduated from Morehouse Collage at 18 and eventually earned a law degree. Although he was delivered an early election defeat in his run for the U.S. Senate, Jackson dusted himself off and become vice mayor of Atlanta, eventually repositioning himself for a mayoral run. Maynard offers a unique look into southern politics. As vice mayor, Jackson’s run for mayor pit him against incumbent and colleague Sam Massell. It was a bruising affair that ended with Jackson’s election as mayor of Atlanta. That Massell is still alive and Pollard gets him on camera to relitigate the race is astonishing. Some resentment bubbles up right before our eyes.

There’s fantastic footage of a portly Jackson in the ring with Muhammad Ali for a promotional boxing match. News footage and interviews of the Atlanta child murders that rocked Jackson’s second term remain potent. And Jackson’s legacy-burnishing renovation of the Atlanta airport into an international hub truly speaks to his lasting accomplishments.

Of course the path to legend can be littered with sacrifices: a divorce, a seeming disconnect from his only son, health issues and political disillusionment.

The documentary brings in heavyweights to tell the tale—famed mayors Andrew Young and Shirley Franklin, civil rights authorities Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, former President Bill Clinton and attorney Vernon Jordan—but it’s the voices of Jackson’s family that wring true intimacy from the proceedings. The Jackson family brought the project to Pollard and is well-represented here. Daughters Elizabeth, Brooke, Valerie and Alexandra, son Maynard III, widow Valerie and former wife Burnella all add layers to Maynard’s portrayal.

Son Maynard III is presented with sad dignity; we infer a boy trying to exist in the shadows of a mythic-like father, and a man who has fought his demons to arrive as a proud survivor. His daughters, beautiful each, project strength and intelligence and yet, sweet vulnerability as daddy’s girls. The women who were married to Jackson provide a dignity that elucidates their critical roles in supporting Jackson’s destiny.

When we arrive at the details of Jackson’s final hours, the documentary gains power. The scene in which the news of Maynard’s untimely death reaches each of his family members is masterfully filmed and edited.

In a time of political calculations of what a legacy means and of whether it can be undone by successors, Pollard’s film assuredly reminds us that the true caretakers of a legacy can keep the flame burning.

 

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Interview with Director Sam Pollard

BUILDING ON LEGACIES: INTERVIEW WITH DIRECTOR SAM POLLARD

Editor-turned-director latest work features late Mayor Maynard Jackson

Sam Pollard on set

There’s something synchronistic about a trailblazing African-American mayor, who paved the way for a trailblazing African-American president, having his story told by a talented editor-director, who himself came up through the influence of a legendary African-America director.

Pollard, left, and Spike Lee with their Emmys

Sam Pollard’s timely documentary Maynard, then, is an exemplar of black legacy all around—in front of and behind the camera. We read frequent reports of the current presidential administration on a quest to erase the legacy of the country’s first black president. Pollard’s film asserts that Barack Obama’s legacy, in part, is a continuation of strides began from folks like Maynard Jackson.

“Listen,” Pollard says, “looking at Maynard in hindsight is a breath of fresh air.”

CHECK OUT MY REVIEW OF MAYNARD

Maynard Jackson Jr.’s story is long overdue for the screen. In 1973, the charismatic, unflappable politician was elected mayor of the city of Atlanta, becoming first African-American to lead a major southern city. Jackson held the post for three terms and by the time of his death had changed the course of politics.

Maynard Jackson

Pollard’s film illuminates a political terrain fraught with racial discord, political in-fighting, complex alliances, both black and white. Sound familiar to today’s politics? And yet, Maynard inspires hope. Our nation’s been through this before, it says, and we have come through the other side.

Even before becoming a longtime editor of the films of director Spike Lee, Pollard had winding career in editing. Before Lee, Pollard spent 20 years doing low-budget work with vanguards like the late Bill Gunn. But working with Lee for more than 20 years provided Pollard with “a sense of how to tell a story,” he says. “Being an editor has had a very positive impact on my directorial career.”

The Emmy winner (his “Slavery By Another Name”), four-time Peabody Award winner and Academy Award nominee has produce films on playwright August Wilson, singer Marvin Gaye and author Zora Neale Hurston.

In Maynard, Pollard’s command of his material—with assistance from his editor Jeff Cooper and cameraman Henry Adebonojo—is on display. The documentary vibrates with a sense of the era—its roiling racial politics, its music, the clothes. Maynard Jackson, tall and broad, uses carefully chosen words, commands audiences with his articulate speeches and forthright assertions. Sound familiar? We see Jackson, successful in high school and college, grandson of famed civil rights leader John Wesley Dobbs, primed for greatness.

There would be stumbles along the way. Facing defeat after a run for the Georgia senate, a young Jackson dusted himself off, and turned the experience into a successful campaign for mayor.

Pollard uses archival footage to great effect. I was gobsmacked by footage of a portly Jackson in the ring with Muhammad Ali for a promotional boxing match. News footage and interviews of the Atlanta child murders that rocked Jackson’s second term remain potent. And Jackson’s legacy-burnishing renovation of the Atlanta airport into an international hub truly speaks to his lasting accomplishments.

Pollard with Shirley Franklin, former mayor of Atlanta

But it’s the talking heads that give weight to Pollard’s film and Jackson’s story. Famed mayors Andrew Young and Shirley Franklin. Civil rights heavy-hitters Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton. Former President Bill Clinton. Attorney Vernon Jordan. Pollard gets them to speak personally about Jackson. The voices of Jackson’s family wring true intimacy from the proceedings. Jackson’s son, daughters, ex-wife and widow bring the Jackson legacy into focus. Their contributions went beyond speaking in front of the camera, though. It was the Jackson clan that brought Maynard to life. Pollard says he was sought out by the family to bring the story of the late mayor to the screen.

“The family reached out to me,” he says. “They were looking for someone to help produce a film about their father.”

The family understood its patriarch’s place in history. A quote by Jackson’s daughter Bunnie Jackson Ransom—“He was the Obama before Obama”—has been used in some promotional materials.

Maynard is not a perfect mayor. He belatedly contends with a corrupt cabinet member, and seems to lose his zest for politics during his apprehensive third term. Pollard intended to create a full portrait of the man.

“The easy part would be to not have complexity,” he says. “I wanted a very rounded perspective.”

Bill Clinton on Maynard Jackson

To that end we see former mayors still touched Maynard’s influence, Bill Clinton’s eyes brighten as he relates a Jackson anecdote as only he can. And the scene in which the news of Maynard’s untimely death reaches each of his family members is masterfully filmed and edited.

The documentary gained from what Pollard calls the “benefit of living witnesses.” The film boasts participation from other trailblazers of the era.

“They are still alive. All these former mayors touched by him,” he says. “You can hear directly from people who pass on his legacy.”

Up next for Pollard is a feature film on the life of Bert Williams, a black entertainer from the Vaudeville era. The Bahamas-born Williams rose to become one of the most popular comedians of his day. Pollard’s film, sure to be as provocative as Spike Lee’s Bamboozled, is in the fundraising phase.

Maynard debuts Nov. 16 at DOC in NYC.

Official site here

Sam Pollard’s filmography here

 

| Marvin Brown’s Movie Review Archive

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Down with the Fallen debuts Nov. 7

My story “Grandfather’s Room” appears in the post-apocalyptic horror anthology, Down with the Fallen, edited by Jordon Greene and available Nov. 7 from Franklin/Kerr Press. Click here to order. To read an excerpt, click here.

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Quik Flix Hit

Video review

Kept Boy (2017)

Unrated

Breaking Glass Pictures

Kept Boy steadily endeared me to its character as it rolled along. The gay romantic comedy is definitely funny, and its breezy pace kept me involved despite my initial reservations with the clichéd characters: the rich, aging sugar daddy; his buff mindless kept man-child; his brash male housekeeper; and the new stud who lobs himself into the mix like a live grenade.

Out now on DVD and VOD, the film, director by George Bamber (a veteran assistant director, moving to the big chair here), won me over despite its expected love triangle; it gets a mighty lift from humor and his actors.

We meet Farleigh (Thure Riefenstein) and Dennis (Jon Paul Phillips) during what must be a routine house party. We sense they’ve been living this way for years: the swimming pool fetes, limitless bottle of wine and champagne, flashy name-dropping guests. The men seem tired, disconnected, and suspicious that something’s changing between them.

Farleigh is the celebrity breadwinner, the aging host of a once-popular home-design reality TV show. In his tailored suits, deliberate speech and accoutrements of importance, Farleigh plays his role of parent/husband/alpha male in a house of flighty men. Dennis is the kept boy of the title, having long been faithful in his role of eye candy companion (his skills are working out and pouring drinks). Not to be forgotten is Javi, the multiple hyphened helpmate who, Dennis learns belatedly, was the previous kept boy. Javi (Deosick Burney) could be the stereotypical funny black guy, but the script gives Java a couple of nice scenes to discuss his role in Farleigh’s life and Burney elevates the character.

How long was this makeshift family going to last? Fading youth and stagnant routine have a way pecking at longtime lovers, doesn’t it? When Farleigh urges Dennis to get a job and announces he’s selling the Porsche (ostensibly Dennis’ car) Dennis draws out of his lover that their halcyon days may be waning. Farleigh’s carrying massive debt and his ratings-challenge TV show appears to be in its final season.

More troubling to Dennis, who’s completely without job skills, is Farleigh’s interest in the younger, handsome Jasper (Greg Audino), Farleigh’s pool boy turned sudden assistant for the TV show.

Farleigh and Jasper seem to flirt in plain sight, which Dennis absorbs with brutal dignity. But Dennis is not without weapons in this battle. He knows Farleigh’s weak spots and can intuit his sugar daddy’s reactions like nobody’s business.

The film grows interesting because Farleigh, Dennis and Jasper are as self-aware of their roles as we are. Farleigh and Dennis each seem to realize what they had for years is coming to an end—or a transition neither wants to face. They’re playing their roles, but also preparing for life without each other. Beefcake Jasper, more calculating than we initially expect, has sincere motivations. The lovers’ triangle is put through its sexual paces; each combination gets a shot at getting busy.

Bamber’s film has a couple of surprises up its sleeve. A getaway island trip—make or break, as far as Dennis is concerned—teeters fascinatingly between slapstick and drama, culminating in abrupt violence and gunplay. A sweet, quiet, honest long-in-the-coming discussion between Farleigh and Dennis ends with a turn that deepens the proceedings. The island drama notwithstanding, much of the film flows by on strong currents of humor, aided by the likability of the characters. Speaking of likable characters, let’s give shout-outs to Dennis’ lonely-hearts kept-mates, Lonnie (John-Michael Carlton) and Paulette (Toni Romano-Cohen): he, hanging on to his rich-widow sourpuss; she, bemoaning her lot as an aging trophy-gal. The trio slurps mixed drinks in various lounges while strategizing—with well-timed, hilarious dialogue—their next moves as the users who have become the used.

Dennis, most importantly, takes on unexpected dimensions from Phillips’ assured performance, and final scenes between he and Javi, then he and Jasper, really feel authentic, taking the film farther away than expected from its opening scenes of debauched cliché.

| Marvin Brown’s Movie Review Archive

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DOWN with Grandfather

Excited that my story “Grandfather’s Room” was selected for the upcoming post-apocalyptic horror anthology, Down with the Fallen, from Franklin/Kerr Press.

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THE FIELD among Year’s Best Horror

The Year’s Best Hardcore Horror Volume 2 is out now! The anthology, edited by Randy Chandler and Cheryl Mullenax from Comet Press, includes my short story “The Field.” Get your copy NOW!

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Talking with director Elina Psykou

AWARD-WINNING DIRECTOR ELINA PSYKOU TELLS UNIQUE STORIES

There’s a clear-eyed focus concerning Elina Psykou filmmaking outlook. Yes, she a female director—underrepresented, lauded—and as a Greek director she’s gaining ground on her auteurs peers like legends Theo Angelopoulos and Costa-Gavras, and rising-star Yorgos Lanthimos (Dogtooth and The Lobster). But she seems less interested in being analyzed as a female or Greek director than telling insightful stories not confined to one country or nationality; she’s busy honing her craft.

When making films, Psykou says, “I prefer not see everything as black or white. Everything depends on the point of view.”

Her latest film, Son of Sofia, had its U.S. debut in April at the Tribeca Film Festival, where it received the prize for the Best International Narrative Feature. Her sophomore effort is set in 2004, but its clash of Russian and Greek cultures seems acutely timely as current immigration issues provide searing headlines around the globe.

CHECK OUT MY REVIEW OF THE FILM HERE

Son of Sofia is the tale of 11-year-old Misha, a Russian boy who arrives in Athens during the 2004 Olympics in Greece. Two years prior, his mother relocated to the country following the death of her husband and now Misha joins her. There reunion, to say the least, is awkward. Attempts by mother and son to reconnect are hindered by bitterness, deception and culture clash. Misha’s faced with many changes, including gaining an unexpected stepfather.

To hear Psykou talk is to hear her appreciation for cultural variety.

“It makes no difference wherever you are from,” she says. There’s a commonality in our yearning, our fears. Whether it’s a Russian kid or Greek kid. “When you are a kid you are the same,” she says.

Steficon SA

Psykou is an alchemist of sorts: she mixes Greek sensibilities in with Russian folklore, then stirs in a bit of dry humor, social commentary and suspense.

Particularly, it’s the fantasy elements that subtly, then boldly run through the film. “I believe kids love fantasy,” she said. So it made sense that Misha turns to fantasy in the face of his confusion. It is a way for the quiet, isolated boy to give voice to his fears and anger. But, Psykou notes, Misha isn’t the only character who looks to fantasy. Each of the main character—Misha, his mother and his new stepfather—use some level of fantasy to cope.

“The film is an opportunity to explore fantasy,” Psykou says. “The three main fantasy scenes in the film all occur during turning points in the film.”

Like her awarding-winning “New Wave” first film, 2013’s The Eternal Return of Antonis Paraskevas, Son of Sofia invests in clever observation, off-beat characters and deliberate pacing. Son builds upon Psykou’s eye for detail and steadicam work and her abilities to mesh the surreal and the concrete.

She finds influence in Austrian auteur Michael Haneke (Funny Games, Amour) and American indie great Sofia Coppola (The Virgin Suicides, Marie Antoinette). Haneke’s cold, creepy intellect is evident, and so is Coppola’s doggedly atonal uniqueness.

What’s next for the talent director? A planned documentary that features people who travel to other countries to receive services—abortion, cremation—not available to them in their native lands. A third film will follow the documentary.

It’s all about staying focused on her craft. Ultimately, Psykou wants to be in a position to create films on a regular basis.

“I’d like to make films every three years,” she says.

 

| Marvin Brown’s Movie Review Archive

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Quik Flix Hit

Tribeca Film Festival

Son of Sofia (2017)

Unrated

Steficon SA

The little Russian boy is grief-stricken, seemingly abandoned, deceived and brought to a country whose language and people he doesn’t understand. It’s not surprising that he gradually retreats into fantasy, which is at first cute, then grows disturbing and possibly dangerous.

Writer-director Elina Psykou (The Eternal Return of Antonis Paraskevas, 2013) sets her sophomore film during the 2004 Olympic Games in Greece, a time of clashing cultures, and of civic pride and competition.

Misha (Viktor Khomut) arrives with the Russia Olympic team to Athens and reunites with his mother Sofia (Valery Tcheplanowa), who has been settled in Greece for more than two years. Details of their separation are vague, but involve the death of Misha’s father and his mother establishing residency to provide for herself and her son. It’s an awkward reunion. Sofia seems to be trying to muster up joy with forced affection and a ridiculously large stuffed animal in tow. Misha immediately regards her tightly rolled-up hairstyle as foreign. He tells her his mother wears her long, beautiful hair down.

READ MY INTERVIEW WITH DIRECTOR ELINA PSYKOU

Things get more awkward as 11-year-old Misha learns he shares his new home with an elderly Greek man, Mr. Nikos (Thanasis Papageorgiou), who Misha is lead to believe is in the care of his mother. Mr. Nikos doesn’t speak Russian and doesn’t want it spoken in the home. Quickly, of course, Sofia’s deception is foiled. Misha discovers her sleeping in the same bed as Mr. Nikos. By the time Sofia belatedly confesses to being married to the man, an irate Misha has sealed himself in the bathroom. To be sure, Sofia has also kept Mr. Nikos in the dark, leading her husband to believe Misha was informed of gaining a stepfather.

The entire film seems populated by characters trapped within themselves, despite being surrounded by colorful culture and an influx of immigrants and opportunities. It’s a sad, quiet tale of people unable to make connections beneath the surface, which inevitably reinforces fantasy and delusions. Misha, often cloaked in a bear costume, finds strength and aggression in his imaginary world filled with moving, growling stuffed animals; the self-important Mr. Nikos longs again for the magical era when he possessed fame; Sofia seems adrift in the space between a past happy life in Russia and this makeshift family in Greece. A quiet scene of the family eating together while watching television hints at a domesticity that will never be.

Psykou’s film is filled with characters you don’t know whether to like or dislike. Sofia seems disconnected as a mother, sneaky and deceptive in ways that seem unnecessary. She leaves Mr. Nikos to do much of the caretaking while she’s away working at a textile company, making stuffed animals. In addition to deceiving her son about being married, she also lies about watching a beloved TV series Misha intended to watch with her, and for good measure keeps a secret stash of candy hidden in the toilet tank. She seems unhappy at her job and in her roles as a parent and a wife.

Mr. Nikos, a former host of a once-popular children’s television show, initially seems controlling and lost in his arrogance. Portraits of himself adorn the walls of his home. His insistence on having only Greek spoken in a household where two-thirds of the occupants are Russian seems selfish, and yet understandable. While he is a man of pride, he also wants to leave a legacy. Late in the film, when he shares his secret room of memorabilia with Misha, Mr. Nikos come alive and Psykou effectively captures the feel of a bygone time and place. Mr. Nikos becomes as much of a dreamer as Misha.

But the film exists in reality even when the characters don’t. Misha meets Victor, a sixteen-year-old emigre from Russia who immediately takes to the boy. At first Victor seems to be a welcomed friend for a boy whose mother is disengaged and whose stepfather is completely out of step with Misha. Victor takes the boy shopping, to the park and surrounds him with other youths. Unfortunately, Victor also shoplifts, offers lousy advice and engages in a highly disturbingly activity. Psykou presents Victor so matter-of-factly it shocks us when we get the full measure of the character.

Finally, there’s Misha. Wonderful portrayed by Khomut. We feel trapped with the boy thrown into a life he can’t bear, unable to find any external means—language, environment, friendship—to express himself so he turns inward. His actions late in the film, after Mr. Nikos suffers a setback, unnerves as we wonder if fantasy will save or corrupt the boy.

The film will challenge American audiences needing things tied up in a bow and directly spelled out. It’s a delicate balance that Psykou achieves: characters that intrigue us but we can’t say we like them, somber and raw scenes colliding with fantasy, an enticing mixture of Russia and Greek cultures. Her film is a sonic wonder, with animal sounds creeping onto the soundtrack in unexpected, subtle ways. Ands it often seems to be lit naturally, shot simply, harkening back to the Dogme 95 movement. Its deliberate pacing keeps us on edge, waiting for a shoe to drop, seemingly influenced by director Michael Haneke. Its denouement, a fusion of fairytale triumph and Olympic fanfare, is all her own.

The film debuts today at the Tribeca Film Festival.

 

 

| Marvin Brown’s Movie Review Archive

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Quik Flix Hit

bwoy (2016)

Rated R

Breaking Glass Pictures

 

While press materials describes it as “a slow-burning LGBT thriller,” bwoy is more of a heartbreaking character study, a psychodrama really, with brief touches of suspense. Nevertheless, it’s purposefully challenging, skillfully understated and gets a mighty boost from its lead actors.

We open with shots of a beautiful little boy heading into a beautiful swimming pool. We think we know where things are going, and we’re pretty much on target, but director John G. Young (Parallel Sons, 1995) effectively establishes a timeless dread which looms over his story entire.

Anthony Rapp (“Star Trek: Discovery,” Rent) is Brad, an early-forties employee whose call-center day job drains joy from him and he drifts through his after-hours life like a ghost. Young’s camera and pacing are sly in the early-going. We can’t immediately connect Brad with a solemn black woman (De’Adre Aziza) quietly intercut into his daily routine. Slowly, we come to realize Brad, who we’ve taken as gay and single, is actually married to the woman, Marcia. We take him as gay and single because he spends his evenings (and eventually, days) on a dating website seeking buff black men.

Brad isn’t having any luck on the website until he spices up his profile, grabbing the interest of Yenny (Jimmy Brooks), a young, humorous and handsome Jamaican. Yenny comes on strong, but Brad is bowled over by the attention. Indeed Yenny has the gift of gab, a high-watt smile, six-pack abs and, let’s face it, who isn’t won over by a Jamaican accent? Yenny brings color to Brad’s gray life—literally: Young contrasts lush Jamaican landscapes and photos with the muted palette of Brad’s limbo life in Schenectady, New York.

Online chatting begets iPhone texting, which begets photo-sharing, which begets video conversations, which begets cyber sex. The progression is not unexpected. Befitting this era of social media excesses, much of the film consists of screenshots—phone and computers. Things are clearly presented through Brad’s point of view; when he’s offline, so is Yenny. Rapp never falters in building bland Brad out of quiet desperation. Stoic behind thin-framed glasses and a locked jaw, Brad often seems on the verge of tears or about to implode with embarrassment, convincing both in his willful naivety and risk-taking. Brad stereotypically targets muscular black men, has a black wife and yet his cultural examination seems to begin and end with search-engine image lookups and a CD of generic Jamaican jams. Is it pure lust, or revived hope that drives him forward, even as he begins to doubt Yenny’s intentions?

Marcia is key to the backstory. Broken and guilt-ridden into shocking submission, the deeply sad character is deserving of her own story. I’m of two minds concerning the handling of this subplot: the sparse development and dialogue between her and Brad speak to their devastating loss; it also seems undercooked, repetitiously vague. How much of this could Marcia really accept? Nevertheless, her quiet despair is devastating. Aziza is powerful in her final scenes with Rapp.

As the tragic past finally comes into focus, story proper has methodically guided us toward the inevitable in-person meeting between the online lovers. Now we flirt with suspense as Brad cuts free of the past that binds him and goes all-in for love. I expected a twist of “Catfish” proportions, but must admit I didn’t see a softer denouement coming. It certainly points us back to an understated theme of the potent pull of parenting.

 

 

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Tapestry of Women

From the teachers in my youngest days to my wife who loves me despite my manly ways, and the village of grandmas, moms, daughters, aunts, cousins, niece, friends, coworkers, authors, veterans, athletes, doctors and ministers—a tapestry of powerful women have helped shape what I hope are the best parts of me. Thank you.

#InternationalWomensDay

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