13th


Outside the windows conditions remain murky.

Outside the windows conditions remain murky.

(2016) Documentary (Netflix) Angela Davis, Cory Booker, Van Jones, Newt Gingrich, Grover Norquist, Ed Koch, Dolores Canales, Khalid Muhammad, Charles B. Rangel, Jelani Cobb, Kyung-Jee Kate Rhee, Nicholas Turner, James Kilgore, Bryan Stevenson, Kevin Gannon, Michael Hough, Ken Thompson, Marc Maurer, Michelle Alexander, Deborah Small, Marie Gottschalk. Directed by Ava DuVernay

 

The 13th Amendment was supposed to have abolished involuntary servitude (i.e. slavery) but it left a very deliberate loophole; convicted criminals could be sentenced to hard labor without remuneration. That has led to the exploitation of African-American males essentially since the Civil War ended.

Ava (Selma) DuVernay’s Netflix documentary is up for an Oscar for Best Documentary feature and it’s easy to see why. This serves as an important historical document on the history of racism right up to present day. Images from the D.W. Griffith master-race-piece Birth of a Nation are cheek by jowl with images of civil rights marchers being beaten and firehosed in the Sixties.

There are a lot of talking heads and oddly DuVernay identifies most but not all of them. Some of them are fairly well known – there’s no mistaking Rep. Charlie Rangel and former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich and those who watch Real Time with Bill Maher ought to recognize Grover Norquist but some of the speakers here aren’t as well known visually and some information on who is talking and why their opinion should matter would be welcome. I must say it was great seeing Angela Davis, who is currently a professor at UC Santa Cruz. She looks terrific and minus her trademark Afro she looks a lot different but the fire is certainly still there and the intelligence as well. She is one of the most engaging speakers in the film.

The movie shows how the prison system has moved from using convicts for hard labor, helping to rebuild the post Civil War south to the War on Drugs which filled prisons with largely African American males in for minor offenses to help Nixon and his appeal to hard line conservative “Law and Order” voters to today when prisons have been privatized and the despicable ALEC organization which includes several corporate incarceration facility entities among its members has written laws to help increase prison sentences and has led to a prison population that was just under 350,000 in 1970 to the 2.3 million prisoners the United States has behind bars today. As a percentage of our total population, we have more people in prison than almost any nation on Earth by sheer number of the incarcerated I believe we have the greatest number of prisoners of any nation. We’re number one!

The narrative sometimes gets strident and overly dramatic and I can understand the former but a little bit of restraint might have gotten the point across more effectively than the cinematic hysterics DuVernay sometimes indulges in. When you’re preaching to the converted, a little drama doesn’t make a difference but when you’re trying to win hearts and minds it can make things a little more difficult than it needs to be.

Still, even with all that this is a powerful and moving documentary that richly deserves the nomination that it received. I also found it impressive that DuVernay includes the conservative side of things as well which some left-leaning documentarians often fail to do. However, she never loses sight of the fact that she’s giving a voice to a segment of society that hasn’t traditionally had, or at least one that was being heard. If it is occasionally uncomfortable and strident it is forgivable. The point is that we are watching legal, institutionalized slavery going on under our very noses and unless we decide to do something about it as a people it will continue to go on for as long as the powers that be can get away with it.

REASONS TO GO: An important document on the history of racism. An impressive amount of conservative commentary is included. A voice is given to those who generally have to scream in order to be heard.
REASONS TO STAY: The film can be strident and occasionally veers into the overly dramatic. The graphic flashing of the word “criminal” every time the word is mentioned is irksome.
FAMILY VALUES:  There is a little bit of foul language and some disturbing images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  The title comes from the 13th Amendment which prohibits slavery – except in the case of convicted criminals.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/31/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 97% positive reviews. Metacritic: 90/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: I Am Not Your Negro
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Underworld: Blood Wars

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The U.S. vs. John Lennon


The U.S. vs. John Lennon

John Lennon and Yoko Ono express their First Amendment rights.

(Lionsgate) John Lennon, Yoko Ono, Gore Vidal, Walter Cronkite, John Dean, Noam Chomsky, Carl Bernstein, Angela Davis, David Peel, Tom Smothers, Paul Krassner, Leon Wildes. Directed by David Leaf and John Scheinfeld

I’ve made no secret that John Lennon is one of my all-time heroes. You would think that a documentary of the man’s life would be like catnip to me.

And in many senses it is just like catnip, albeit somewhat diluted. The movie focuses on his post-Beatles days to a very great extent, particularly on his anti-war activism and resulting attempts from the United States government to get the ex-Beatle deported as an undesirable alien.

John Lennon was never one to stand still for injustice, even when it was being perpetrated on himself. He fought back and would eventually win in a story that is fascinating and indeed inspiring, although you get little sense of it here.

The documentary starts with Lennon’s defense of former MC5 manager (and anti-war radical) John Sinclair who was sent to jail for ten years for selling an undercover cop two joints, which even then seemed excessive. Lennon would perform at a benefit concert for Sinclair, who would wind up serving 29 months of his ten year sentence thanks largely in part to the high-profile supporters like Lennon which would pressure the Supreme Court of Michigan to overturn the law Sinclair was convicted on as unconstitutional. However, the negative fall-out was that the federal government began to take an interest in the pop singer.

For his part, Lennon’s introduction and eventual marriage to Japanese artists Yoko Ono would help to direct his energies to anti-war efforts and pro-peace. This would lead to highly publicized stunts like his bed-in honeymoon; Lennon was fully aware of his celebrity and how to use it properly, and he was quite willing and able to use it that way.

This was intolerable to an administration that wasn’t averse to fighting dirty as well, and at the impetus of a group of conservative politicians led by Senator Strom Thurmond, the Immigration and Naturalization Service began proceedings to deport Lennon due to a marijuana conviction in England years earlier as an undesirable.

The actual fight against the INS and, by extension, the U.S. government, was more or less one of attrition as most of the fight consisted of hearings, delays, stays and legal maneuvering by the government lawyers and Leon Wildes, Lennon’s immigration lawyer. In reality, that aspect of the story was rather boring so the filmmakers more or less overlook it.

Unfortunately, what the filmmakers do rely on is a barrage of talking head interviews with people like G. Gordon Liddy (one of the few giving the opposing viewpoint, which while not a requirement for a good documentary can make a documentary better), Yoko Ono, Black Panther Bobby Seales, authors Vidal and Chomsky as well as other luminaries of the period and later giving their opinions on what Lennon was doing, or possibly thinking.

What’s missing here is a real sense of who Lennon was. We mostly see the events here through Yoko’s eyes which in itself wouldn’t be a bad thing – she was his soul mate after all, and knew him better than anybody did – but it turns more or less into the Yoko show, opining that Lennon wasn’t a fully realized human being until Yoko wandered into his life which seems a bit disingenuous to me.

Still, while this could have been a much better documentary, there are things worth seeing in it, like the archival footage of Lennon’s protests and snippets of the man’s music. However, the movie spends too much time on its own agenda – that of comparing the anti-war efforts of Vietnam to modern anti-war efforts against Iraq and painting Yoko Ono as Lennon’s adult conscience – to really bring the story of John Lennon to life. I think for the time being we’ll have to continue to rely on his own music to do that for us.

WHY RENT THIS: Some wonderful footage brings the anti-war efforts to life, and illustrates Lennon’s passion for the cause.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Way too much talking head footage.

FAMILY VALUES: There are a few images of sensuality and violence, some drug references and a few bad words, but by and large this is fine for mature teens, who should be seeing works like this.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Lennon’s early years will be depicted in Nowhere Boy, to be released in October 2010.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: While deleted footage is scarcely notable, the scenes here that went on the cutting room floor contain a myriad of interesting scenes, including assassin Mark David Chapman’s 2000 parole hearing, Lennon’s final rehearsed concert and some footage on his early years.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: Cirque du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant