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Kenneth Branagh's autobiographical 'Belfast' never quite finds its point of view

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Fresh Air with Terry Gross

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TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. How did two sisters, just three years apart, take extremely divergent paths in life? That's the story my guest, Dawn Turner, tries to figure out in her new memoir.

Turner is a journalist and novelist. For about 15 years, she wrote a column in the Chicago Tribune about race-related issues. Her sister, Kim, died at age 24 of what her death certificate attributed to chronic alcoholism. The memoir is also about Turner's childhood best friend, Debra, who was convicted of murder and spent years in prison.

Turner's book also explores about how the neighborhood the three girls grew up in affected the course of their lives. They grew up in Bronzeville, the Chicago neighborhood which Turner describes as the narrow strip of land where the city forced the influx of new Black residents to live during the Great Migration. She says it was the place officials abandoned and neglected, allowing burned-out stores to stand, alleys to fill with mud and mountains of trash to accumulate. For years, it had been the place where the Black elite - politicians, lawyers, doctors and professors - lived along with factory workers, domestic workers, street vendors, sex workers and drug dealers.

Dawn Turner was part of the fourth generation of her family to live in Bronzeville, and she watched as her neighborhood became transformed by violence and crack. Her new memoir is called "Three Girls From Bronzeville."

Dawn Turner, welcome to FRESH AIR. Since Bronzeville itself is such a big part of the story, let's start there. Would you describe where you lived and what the neighborhood was like when you were growing up?

DAWN TURNER: Absolutely. And thank you so very much for having me on. My great-grandparents arrived in Chicago with my grandmother in 1916 as part of the first wave of the Great Migration. They were fleeing the ravages of the Jim Crow South. And as more and more Blacks arrived, they were confined to a narrow strip of land on the Near South Side of the city. It was originally called the Black Belt. And as that belt expanded, the area would later affectionately be known as Bronzeville.

My community was very similar to Harlem in that it was the epicenter of culture and the arts and innovation, entrepreneurship. And so my family arrived there in search of the Promised Land, and it was that for a while. But soon, the white residents couldn't sell their homes, and so they chopped the homes up into what were called kitchenette apartments or cold-water flats. And the properties fell into horrible disrepair. The city neglected the area. And yet my grandmother would say that the new residents did what Black folks have always done - took a bunch of scraps and stitched together a world.

And so some of the country's most esteemed Black people lived in Bronzeville - Gwendolyn Brooks, the first Black person to win the Pulitzer Prize; the novelist Richard Wright; Ida B. Wells, the anti-lynching activist and journalist lived there; Dr. Daniel Hale Williams, a Black man who was the first heart surgeon to perform the first successful heart surgery, lived there.

And so when Debra, Kim and I were growing up in that area, over half a century after my great-grandparents arrived, we inherited a legacy of innovation and excellence. But the community was also deformed by a history of redlining and restrictive housing covenants. And this made some places simply unsafe and some dreams for a lot of people just unattainable.

GROSS: So describe the building where you grew up.

TURNER: Yeah, we grew up in the Theodore K. Lawless apartment complex. And it was a privately owned complex that was designed by a Black dermatologist, Dr. Lawless. They were - there were three towers in a row, 24 stories high. And it was - in today's language, it would be called affordable housing, because there was public housing named after the great Ida B. Wells that was directly across the street. But - and that was for, at the time, what was considered the very poor. But Dr. Lawless wanted to create an apartment complex for working-class people.

And so it was a beautiful place with manicured lawns and flowers and playgrounds that were just gorgeous. The - I always say that the janitors chased down wayward pieces of paper with, like, a religious fervor. The lobbies were bright and shiny - beautiful floors, exposed brick. The stainless steel was always cared for. And, you know, everything was vacuumed. And that - it was very important that the place offer a level of dignity to its residents. And that was something that was denied to the people right across the street. And so Lawless Gardens, at the time, was - it was brand-new and shiny - unblemished, like us.

GROSS: And these were three 24-story-high concrete and steel high-rises.

TURNER: Yes.

GROSS: So before you moved into Lawless, the complex that you just described, you were living in a small home that you rented. But your father supplemented the rent money with racetrack earnings, which was not a consistent or reliable way of paying the rent. So when you couldn't afford the rent, the family moved into a hotel for a few months, crowded together. And then after that is when the family moved to Lawless, the building that you were just describing.

Your parents hadn't been getting along. And when your mother basically threw out your father, your sister, Kim, had already been born. She was three years younger than you. And you write about how you were both close, but you were really different. Of course, like a lot of people, you didn't want your little sister tagging around with you all the time. But you both, from a pretty early age, dealt with risk pretty differently. Can you describe some of those differences?

TURNER: My sister - the moment I met her (laughter), she was a mystery to me. She was headstrong, fearless and willful in a way that I wasn't. And it wasn't that I was perfect at all, but she would challenge my mom during family get-togethers.

After dinner, the women would gather at the dining room table, and my sister and I would crawl under the table and eavesdrop. And after a while, my mother would look around the living room, and she wouldn't see us. And so she would slam her hand down on the table, and she would say, you two are the nosiest kids God ever gave breath to, and get out from under grown folks' business. Because she and my grandmother and my aunt and maybe some other women would still be seated there. And so I would crawl out quickly, but my sister would just kind of hunker down. And she would just sit there with her legs crossed and - until my mother would have to drop down onto all fours and pull her out.

So my sister was just - she enjoyed challenging my mom and my father, too. And it was just something that - as I said, I never want to come across as being the perfect one. But my sister enjoyed, I think from the very beginning, kind of life on the edge and - in a way that I didn't.

GROSS: You didn't want to be punished?

TURNER: I didn't want to be punished. But I think there was something about my parents breaking up early that, I mean, put me - I felt a greater sense of responsibility. And I didn't want to be punished, but I also didn't want to disappoint my mom. And that - and I don't know exactly where that came from, but it was something that I felt very early on, that I wanted to - I just didn't want to disappoint her. And that was very important to me.

GROSS: But it sounds like your sister felt like whatever punishment she has to get, that'll blow over, and then she could just keep doing what she wanted to do.

TURNER: Well, she definitely felt that punishments had a shelf life and that once it was over, that she was just on to the next thing. She was not - it wasn't like she was this bad person, but she just - she pushed against boundaries. I mean, for me, rules were scaffolding, and for her, they were impediments. And she was just - we were just wired very differently. She probably had - I mean, had she survived, she probably would have been - had the brain of maybe a CEO or a tech startup person or something because she just saw the world differently.

GROSS: Well, let me reintroduce you here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Dawn Turner. Her new memoir is called "Three Girls From Bronzeville." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF GILAD HEKSELMAN TRIO'S "DO RE MI FA SOL")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Dawn Turner. Her new memoir, "Three Girls From Bronzeville," is about how her path and the paths of her sister and childhood best friend diverged. Her sister Kim died at age 24 of chronic alcoholism. Her childhood best friend Debra was convicted of murder.

Now let's talk about your best friend from childhood, Debra. Debra's idea of risk was different from yours, too. Tell the story about how she jumped off a 12-foot ledge and wanted you to jump, too.

TURNER: I felt very comfortable sitting up there with her. We would sometimes even lie down and stare up at the overhang of trees or at the sky. But there was one day when she wanted to jump, and that came out of the blue. And it was something that I had no intentions of doing. And it was just a moment where, when I saw her take flight and then hit the ground and - you know, she could - she told me that she could feel the sting travel up her sandals and just that it was an exhilarating moment for her. And there was a part of me that extended my arms because I kind of wanted to catch her. But it was just something that was very clear that I was not going to do. But, you know, she felt like she would do it again and again had she been able to return. But right around that time, her family moved away, moved to Indianapolis.

GROSS: They were afraid she was getting into too much trouble in Bronzeville.

TURNER: Yes. And her father wanted to - you know, wanted to protect her. But it was also an opportunity for them to partake of the American dream, part of which is homeownership. They were going to live in a duplex that was - that they were purchasing, and they wanted to make sure that their daughters were away from trouble. And they felt that Chicago - or at least that they were getting - or Debra was getting into too much trouble in Chicago.

GROSS: You write that Debra and her friends scared you. Tell us more about that and how you dealt with it.

TURNER: There were - I had my own set of marching orders in my head, my own goals, in terms of what I wanted my future to look like. My teachers were increasingly telling me that I was really smart. I had amazing test scores. And for me, that was currency, something very important to me. And so my mother and grandmother and aunt, three very important women in my life - and uncles, too, to some extent. But they were also talking about how important it was for me not to fall prey to teen pregnancy. And so when I looked at Debra and some of her friends, I mean, they were just a little wilder or - and Debra would admit to having her - having a wild side. And so I - they scared me because, on one hand, I mean, I adored Debra, and we were very good friends, and we knew from the very beginning that we were kind of opposites and that whole idea of opposites attracting. But there were some things that I just didn't want to be close to because I didn't want it to upend my future.

GROSS: And when did your sister Kim start getting into serious trouble?

TURNER: When I start to think about what - the animating question of the book was, when did we lose them? And so that time for both Debra and Kim was right around adolescence. And that was when she started skipping school, which was really something - you know, my mother had two children, two daughters, and my mother would always say that she never had to go up to school until my sister got there. And so the school was sending home letters about my sister's truancy, but my sister was able to kind of circumvent those letters. And so my mother - you know, and same thing with phone calls. And my mother just didn't know. My father - actually, my father knew a little bit more than my mother did, but he always felt like he was solving the problem. And so that became quite problematic with my sister not going to school. And it wouldn't be until years later that I would find out what - you know, where she was going. But we had no idea.

GROSS: Yeah, she intercepted a lot of the letters from school and hid them from your mother...

TURNER: Yes.

GROSS: ...And intercepted the phone calls, too. So where was she going instead of school?

TURNER: Well, as I said, I wouldn't learn this until years later, but there were days when she would just hide under the bed. So she would close the front door, and maybe my mother was getting ready for work or something, and then she would come back into our bedroom and hide under her bed and wait for my mother to leave. And then sometimes she would just hang out in the apartment. And then as she got older, she was hanging out with friends in the public housing complex across the street. And then there was a pool hall further south of our development where she would hang out. So she had this life that we just did not - we didn't know about. And when I interviewed people who had known her from the pool hall, they talked about her as being different from some of the other young women who had frequented the place. And you know, they talked about her sense of humor and that she was just - she stood out. And she liked having - I think she liked being in the limelight in that way.

GROSS: You said that you felt like adolescence was a turning point both for your sister, Kim, and your childhood best friend, Debra. So once you saw that they were, like, going off the track and getting into trouble, what did you or your mother feel like you were capable of doing to try to help them stay out of trouble? 'Cause we're talking about serious trouble.

TURNER: Initially, my parents didn't understand what was going on. And then when they found out that my sister was not going to school, they were able to come together and work together for various solutions. It's interesting because my father worked for a cab company. And so there were cab drivers who would sometimes drive up and down 43rd Street, and they would stop into the pool hall. And they were just trying - so my sister became aware that she was kind of being surveilled. And then there were the teachers who were able to find a way to communicate with my mom, realizing - so that my sister wasn't able to circumvent those letters. And so they really did try the best that they could.

My uncle lived in the building, and he was also someone who was trying to make sure that my sister would be held accountable, that there was - that there were all of these measures put in place. But, you know, she still found a way to do kind of - you know, live life on her own terms.

GROSS: Your sister got pregnant. And you and your mother wanted to talk her out of carrying to term, into getting an abortion. But she really wanted to have that baby. And you were hoping that this would be, you know, a good narrative for her 'cause she thought having - you know, that becoming a mother would really help her a lot and that it would - like, she wanted something to help put her back on track. And you were hoping that she was right about that. But her baby was born quite suddenly and quite prematurely and didn't survive. And Kim was just crushed after that.

TURNER: Yes.

GROSS: And that's when she started drinking heavily. You were, I think, still in college at the time.

TURNER: Yes.

GROSS: How aware were you of what was going on?

TURNER: When the baby came too soon and didn't survive, she was devastated. And we did not understand the level of devastation there. We thought - I thought that she would grieve and that - she would grieve, and she would move on. We all would grieve. And it didn't happen that way. She began to drink heavily. And she - my mother worried about her drinking. I thought she was - you know, she was 23, 24, and she was like a lot of people that age, you know, who drank. And I never saw her drunk. And - but I did - my mother was concerned, and I did take her to - I had a white friend in college who had struggled with alcoholism, and he told me to take her to an AA meeting. And we went together. And I thought that, you know, she would just be fine.

GROSS: So - but she kept drinking, and she died of what her death certificate described as chronic alcoholism. You and your mother must have been devastated.

TURNER: Oh, we were. We were devastated. The whole family was - my father. We - my sister's death was the first time that I had experienced someone die so close to me. And I - the grief felt profound. My mother - you know, I just - I felt like I needed to support my mom. But she wound up having to - she walked me through it because it was just something that I had never experienced. We have an incredibly strong family support system. And so it was just like nothing that I'd ever experienced.

GROSS: I know it's years later, but I'm sorry for your sister's death. I know...

TURNER: Oh, thank you.

GROSS: ...You're probably still traumatized by it in some way, something that will never go away.

Let me reintroduce you here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Dawn Turner. Her new memoir is called "Three Girls From Bronzeville." We'll take a short break, and then we'll be right back. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF DARRELL GRANT'S "FILS DU SOLEIL (FOR TONY WILLIAMS)")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with Dawn Turner. Her new memoir "Three Girls From Bronzeville" is about how her path and the paths of her sister and childhood best friend diverged. Her sister Kim died at age 24 of chronic alcoholism. Her child best friend Debra was convicted of murder. They grew up in Bronzeville, the Chicago neighborhood which Turner describes as the narrow strip of land where the city forced the influx of new Black residents to live, people who had come to Chicago during the Great Migration.

So Debra, your childhood best friend, her path diverged from yours. You went to college. She became a topless dancer. That disturbed you. Why did you find that disturbing?

TURNER: Well, Terry, one of the things I think that's really important is that our parents had amazing expectations for us. We were going to go to college. We were going to have great-paying jobs, and we were going to become homeowners and partake of every aspect of the American dream. And for Debra and Kim, that dream would prove elusive. And when Debra told me that she was dancing topless and that she was, you know, doing some, as she called it, light drugs because she was in an environment where she had to kind of stay up late at night, it was very shocking to me because that's not the path that her parents had set for her. And this wasn't about judgment so much as it was about - OK, so everybody kind of steps off the path sometimes, and so how do you get back on it?

And, you know, we would talk long distance. And over the years, we were talking less frequently, but every time we would talk, we would talk about the past, but we would also talk about the present and what we both were doing. And soon our conversations were about when she was going to stop dancing. And she had said that her life had become one eternal weekend of partying. So when would the partying stop, and when would she go to college? And so it was just us trying to determine when she would kind of return to the expectations not so much, you know, of her parents but of herself because she also felt like she wanted more.

GROSS: So Debra, your childhood best friend, eventually started doing a lot of crack and eventually also was convicted of murder. Would you tell us her version of the story? And I say her version of the story because the person who was killed is not around to tell his perspective.

TURNER: Debra said that she first started doing crack right after her father died. Although she had been told how addictive it was, Debra did not believe that she would fall prey to it. And she did. And it became such a difficult thing to extract herself from. She was so addicted that she would sometimes see police officers, and she would stop them, and she'd ask them to arrest her or just to help her get off the street. And so by the time she met Raymond Jones, the man she was convicted of killing, she had devolved into someone that even she couldn't recognize.

And there was a night in July of 1998. They were doing crack cocaine together. And it was a very, very hot day, and she decided to take him back to her house - she was living with her mother at the time - because the house was air conditioned. And they spent the day doing crack. And at the end of the day, Raymond left. And when Debra's mother came home, Debra's mother realized that there was jewelry missing, three rings. And she went into Debra's room. Debra was asleep. And she told her that she had something missing. And Debra believed that Raymond had stolen the rings, and she left to get those rings back. And she - Debra took a gun with her, a shotgun with her, because she said that there were feral dogs in the area, and she was concerned about her safety. And she confronted Raymond, and she said the gun went off, and it struck him in his chest, and he died.

GROSS: So she was convicted of murder. You visited her in prison. That was your first time ever setting foot in a prison. What was it like to see your childhood best friend in prison?

TURNER: I had always loved seeing her, and this was my first time seeing her in this setting. And I just - it was overwhelming. And when I actually saw her, we met in the visitor's center, and I was shocked when I was sitting there because I imagined that there were - there would be a lot of Black women. But it was really - it was shocking to see that it was overwhelmingly white women and their families. And to see Debra when she walked into the visiting room, she looked amazing. I had seen her a few years before, and she was kind of a shell of herself because she was in the throes of addiction. But to see her in the prison, she actually looked beautiful.

GROSS: Do you think prison was actually helping her?

TURNER: You know, one of the things that happens in this country is that prison is often a place of - it tends to warehouse people more than it rehabilitates them. And for her, her experience was absolutely helping her. She had said that she had prayed when she was on the streets that she would be - that something would take her away. And she needed to be in a place where drugs were not attainable. And so she was - she said during her prayers that she said, oh, my God, this sounds like prison. And she did not want that. And she said as much as she hated that somebody had to die, someone lost his life because of her, that definitely prison was a place where she could collect herself, and she could remember her purpose and what it was that she had hoped to do with her life. So she was able - she was very well poised. It doesn't always mean that you're going to have a great start. But she also had family who was incredibly committed. Her mother passed away while she was in prison, but she had her aunt and her sister and other relatives who were able to give her that moral and - the support that she needed to thrive.

GROSS: And she had you.

TURNER: Yes, she had me. She will always have me.

GROSS: You wrote about Debra, about her conviction. And then you got a letter from the widow of the person who she killed because she - he had been married at the time. He was the father of two. And his widow wrote, I don't care that she's the person you grew up with. The person described in your newspaper story is not the person I saw in the courtroom. She's a murderer, an evil woman who left a man to die in the street. How dare you uplift her? Because of her, I don't have a husband. And my children don't have their father. What was your reaction when you read that?

TURNER: Oh, it was hard to read that. And that letter was written after - so that was the third time that I had written about Debra. And that story was about her graduating from college while she was in prison. She graduated summa cum laude with honors. And I had reached out to Raymond's family. But no one contacted me. And so when the story ran and I heard from Raymond's widow, Terri Jones - and she said at the time that she didn't care about her - Debra's transformation because Raymond didn't get a chance to do that. And I just - I thought, you know, she was absolutely right. And I understood her point completely. She had to rear two young children by herself. And her - you know, their father would never be a part of their lives. And she had this daughter - Terri Jones had a daughter who adored her father. The son was really too young when his father died and really didn't get a chance to know him. So I completely - I mean, I remember holding the letter and just kind of freezing when I saw Terri Jones' name in the return address on the envelope. It was very difficult to read. But I understood why she had to write it.

GROSS: There was, eventually, a reconciliation meeting between Terri Jones, the widow of the person who your best friend had murdered, and your friend. You were there for it. You were going to write about it. Who set up this reconciliation meeting? How did that come about?

TURNER: Terri and - Terri Jones and her daughter, Whitney Jones - Whitney Jones wrote Debra in prison to ask for the meeting. And Debra went to the warden. And the warden approved it. And Debra asked to have someone there to be a part of the meeting. And I was just honored to be there. And it was the most remarkable meeting that I've ever sat in on because you had two people who, you know - for them to have been able to reconcile, to have a conversation was just huge because of what happened. And they were able to talk and get to know one each other - one another. And Whitney always said that she had always wanted to know what happened on that night. And no one could really tell that story other than Debra. And that's what they talked about for a couple of hours.

GROSS: How many years did Debra serve in prison? And what can you tell her - what can you tell us about her life now?

TURNER: She was in prison for 21 years. She was sentenced to 50. And so going in, she was - she knew she was staring down 25 years. But she had four years taken off because of just various time cuts, you know, being involved in various programs and going to college and all of that. And she was - as I said before, she was able to transform her life. She now - I picked her up in 2019, in July of 2019, just a few months before the - everything shut down with the pandemic. And she is working full-time and has a great job working for a medical supply company. And she is renting a home. And her probationary period has ended. She's doing very well.

GROSS: You picked her up from prison?

TURNER: Yes. I picked her up along with her sister and her aunt. And I drove - I rented a van. And we drove to get her and her belongings. And she could have left the next day. But I picked her up at midnight. And I didn't want her to spend an extra minute there. And she was released after midnight on July - a very warm night in July of 2019. And we drove home. I drove her home.

GROSS: Well, let's take another break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Dawn Turner. Her new memoir is called "Three Girls From Bronzeville." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MARIO ADNET AND ZE NOGUEIRA'S "EXCERTO NO. 1")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Dawn Turner. Her new memoir, "Three Girls From Bronzeville," is about how her path and the paths of her sister and childhood best friend diverged. Her sister, Kim, died at age 24 of chronic alcoholism. Her childhood best friend, Debra, was convicted of murder.

There were men in your life growing up who were not exactly positive role models. But you found men who were and who became, if not surrogate fathers, they became, you know, male role models who were really helpful to you. Who were some of those men?

TURNER: Yes. My future father-in-law was amazing. He was - I mean, their family was solidly middle class, if not upper middle class. And he had - he knew how - when I was asked to leave the university after my freshman year, I got a letter saying, in essence, that I had to sit out for a year. And I said that there was - and I went to him to talk about this. And I told him - I was so sad about this. I was so - I was devastated. And I told him that the letter said everything was non-negotiable. And he said, Dawn, everything is negotiable. And he encouraged me to go back to the university. And I drove down there and talked to the first African American dean of students. And he told me to sit out for a semester as opposed to a year.

And even my stepfather introduced me to the works of these amazing Black authors. When I was younger, I would read "Nancy Drew" or "Trixie Belden," "Pippi Longstocking." But he just really helped to round out my education because he worked as a security guard in the downtown library in Chicago. And he would bring home books for me that I read or we read together. And so there were these men in my life who were just so important to my development.

GROSS: And the books he brought home were books by important Black authors about Black consciousness.

TURNER: Yes, yeah - Carter G. Woodson, Richard Wright - I mean, Gwendolyn Brooks - I mean, all of these books who were, yeah, yeah. They changed my thinking of who I was.

GROSS: Do you feel like you understand the outcome of Debra and Kim's lives any better having done all this research, having written the book, having interviewed so many people who knew them? Do you have an understanding you didn't have before?

TURNER: I always felt like, there but for the grace of God, go I. And I know that that's a little - that statement is a little fraught for some people. But I do believe that there is such a razor-thin margin of error for Black people, for Black girls that you can, you know, try your best and do a lot of things right and still wind up in a place where you - you know, where you're not - where you didn't anticipate. And so when I look at Debra and Kim, I see that they - it's very clear to me that - I mean, were places where maybe we could have saved them or they could have saved themselves. But you know, they were - or I see the places where Debra, you know, was able to make the most of her second chances. But I think that it's just - and so that is what I see a little bit more clearly that is just our paths and those places where things could have changed and - but they didn't.

GROSS: What emotions do you have when you return to your old neighborhood?

TURNER: Oh, gosh. I mean, it's - like, I think most of us feel that - I mean, that sense of nostalgia and memory. And there is this - I mean, there is this sense of joy in that this is where we started. But there's also immense sadness because it's, you know, when you play out the whole story, where we ended is not where we expected in the beginning.

GROSS: So when you look back on your childhood, knowing what happened to your sister and your best friend, how do you think of your childhood? Do you think of yourself as having had a good childhood, a happy childhood?

TURNER: Yes. We were allowed to be kids. I mean, that's not something that is afforded a lot of children who live in beleaguered communities. I mean, we were allowed to grow up in a beautiful space and roam a community that was filled with history. This, of course, was our given world. And we, as kids, we didn't understand just the amazing things that had happened there. But we were allowed to be kids. Our families - there was a lot of joy along with the conflict. And our families were incredibly protective. And they - you know, they - as I said, we were pointed toward the sun, and that is what they saw for us.

GROSS: Dawn Turner, thank you so much for talking with us.

TURNER: Oh, thank you. Thank you for having me.

GROSS: Dawn Turner's new memoir is called "Three Girls From Bronzeville."

After we take a short break, Justin Chang will review "Belfast," Kenneth Branagh's semi-autobiographical film about growing up in Northern Ireland during the Troubles. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF BELA FLECK'S "TENTACLE DRAGON (REVENGE OF THE)")

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. The new film "Belfast" is a semi-autobiographical drama written and directed by the Irish-born British actor and filmmaker Kenneth Branagh. It looks back at his early years growing up during the Troubles in late 1960s Northern Ireland. "Belfast" won the top audience award at the Toronto International Film Festival and is now showing in theaters.

JUSTIN CHANG, BYLINE: It was Federico Fellini who once said that all art is autobiographical; the pearl is the oyster's autobiography. He knew of what he spoke, given his fondness for self-portraiture in films like "8 1/2" and especially "Amarcord," his 1973 classic about his own childhood. Cinema history is full of such great memory pieces, like Francois Truffaut's "The 400 Blows," John Boorman's "Hope And Glory" and Terence Davies' "The Long Day Closes," all made by directors looking back with aching tenderness at their early years.

Kenneth Branagh's "Belfast" has already courted such comparisons since its warm reception at festivals earlier this fall. You can see why. This is a rare dive into personal territory from a filmmaker known for directing and often starring in adaptations of Shakespeare and Agatha Christie. And Branagh's working-class childhood was certainly more dramatic than most. He was just a young boy when the Troubles began in Northern Ireland, and his home city of Belfast was plunged into sectarian violence. Jude Hill is Branagh's 9-year-old stand-in, Buddy, who's playing outside when fighting breaks out in the street, and Molotov cocktails start flying. Branagh stages this sequence with explosive intensity. But for most of "Belfast," the Troubles hover in the background, a source of anxiety as well as confusion.

Buddy doesn't understand why he and his Protestant family are suddenly supposed to hate their Catholic neighbors. And his decent, tolerant-minded parents don't get it, either. Caitriona Balfe plays his mother, who's done most of the work raising Buddy and his older brother. Jamie Dornan is Buddy's frequently absent father who works in England as a skilled laborer. During one of his father's trips back home, Buddy eavesdrops as his parents argue about their finances and their future. His Pa wants them all to leave Belfast and its troubles behind, but his Ma can't imagine living anywhere else.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BELFAST")

CAITRIONA BALFE: (As Ma) You're running around here like the man in the big picture - not paying your taxes and spending all our money on horses.

JAMIE DORNAN: (As Pa) It's to build and trade. I told you it doesn't work a normal way. I told you I had it covered.

BALFE: (As Ma) I was the one who had it covered.

DORNAN: (As Pa) No, you had us paying three years of back tax.

BALFE: (As Ma) To keep you out of bloody jail. We're drowning in debt.

DORNAN: (As Pa) We're near done with the back tax - 10 pound a month for three bloody years. This is a time to think about making a new start.

BALFE: (As Ma) I know nothing else but Belfast.

DORNAN: (As Pa) Exactly. There's a whole world out there. We can give these boys a better chance than we ever had. There's commonwealth countries needing tradesmen. The government will give you assisted passage. We can get the whole family to the other side of the world for 10 pound. We're living in a civil war. And I'm not here to protect my family.

CHANG: It doesn't spoil anything to note that Branagh and his family did end up moving to England, making "Belfast" the movie a fond farewell to his childhood. He wants to capture something of the city's scrappy, resilient spirit, mainly by cramming the soundtrack with classic songs, plus one original tune by that Belfast legend, Van Morrison. There's a nice balance of sweet and tart in Buddy's relationships with his ailing grandfather and sharp-tongued grandmother, nicely played by Ciaran Hinds and Judi Dench. There's also a cute subplot involving Buddy's crush on a classmate and his efforts to improve his grades and get her attention.

Although Branagh shot the movie in black and white, he sometimes lets a little color burst into the frame, like when Buddy and his family go to the pictures and watch late '60s hits like "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang." In showing us these brightly colored images, Branagh foreshadows his own career as a filmmaker and pays tribute to the magic of the movies. These are lovely moments, but they also made me wish that "Belfast" itself were a more moving, transporting experience. I'm still trying to figure out why a story that's clearly so personal to its maker somehow wound up feeling so muted in the telling.

It may have something to do with the pandemic, which made it difficult for the crew to shoot in the real Belfast, forcing them to build a 1960s street set on an airport runway. You can feel the lack of grit and texture in the production design and also in the overly polished sheen of the images. But the problems with "Belfast" aren't just technical. There's an emotional restraint to this movie that should be admirable in theory. Branagh at least doesn't try to jerk sentimental tears. If anything, he's too guarded, as if he were reluctant to probe the past too deeply.

There's also something a little studied about the way Branagh relies on older movies to tell his family's story. At one point, he uses images from the classic Western "High Noon" to underscore the struggle of Buddy's father when a menacing Protestant gang leader tries to recruit him for battle. It's a clever but secondhand reference in a movie that never quite finds its own point of view. All art may be autobiographical, but "Belfast" is a reminder that not all autobiography is necessarily art.

GROSS: Justin Chang is the film critic for the LA Times. He reviewed Kenneth Branagh's new film "Belfast."

Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, our guest will be Blair Braverman, a writer and sled dog musher who's run the Iditarod in Alaska. She's also written a memoir and survived a harrowing experience on the survivalist reality show "Naked And Afraid." She and her husband and mushing partner Quince Mountain have a new book called "Dogs On The Trail." I hope you'll join us.

FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Kayla Lattimore. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WILD NIGHT")

VAN MORRISON: (Singing) As you brush your shoes, stand before the mirror, and you comb your hair, grab your coat and hat. And you walk wet streets, trying to remember all the wild night breezes in your memory ever. And everything looks...

Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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