I Am Not Your Negro


James Baldwin listens intently.

(2016) Documentary (Magnolia) Samuel L. Jackson (narrator), James Baldwin, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Medgar Evers, Dick Cavett, Robert F. Kennedy, Joseph L. Mankiewicz, Barack Obama, John Wayne, Henry Belafonte, Marlon Brando, Charlton Heston, Bob Dylan, Ray Charles, Sidney Poitier, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Rodney King, Michele Obama. Directed by Raoul Peck

 

James Baldwin at one point says in this documentary “The story of America is the story of the Negro and it isn’t a pretty story.” For those who don’t know, James Baldwin was a gay African-American writer who during the Civil Rights era became a prominent and outspoken representative for civil rights. Articulate, intelligent and respected, his was a voice that was angry but one that invited dialogue. There isn’t much of that going on today.

In 1979 he author sent a letter to his literary agent Jay Acton outlining a proposal for a book project entitled Remember the House. In it he said that he wanted to examine the civil rights movement and America itself through the murders of three of his friends; Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King. When Baldwin passed away in 1987 he’d completed only 30 pages of manuscript.

Documentary director Peck wondered what that book might have turned out to be. Using Baldwin’s own words from the Acton letter as well as the manuscript itself (all of which is read by Samuel L. Jackson), he uses archival footage of Baldwin doing talk shows, delivering speeches and lecturing at universities to flesh out the written words.

Peck also uses footage of modern race-related issues like the events in Ferguson, Missouri, the Black Lives Matter movement and the murder of Trayvon Martin to reinforce that the more that things change, the more they stay the same. Baldwin was one of the most brilliant men of the 20th century and he spent a significant portion of his life in self-exile in France, much like leading African-American artists did to escape American racism. That gave him a certain amount of perspective, but he also clearly loved his country and almost inevitably when he felt he needed to lend his voice to what was happening, he would return home.

His observations are eerily timeless, speaking as much to modern audiences as to those of the 50s and 60s. At times it seems he could be talking about incidents that occurred just last week. He speaks in a cultured, urbane voice – something else we’ve lost as a society – and reminds us that once upon a time we had discourse in America, not just attempts to shout each other down. One wonders what he would have thought of the current President and of how social media has changed our country and how we receive information.

This documentary brilliantly weaves the archival and modern images with Baldwin’s words, not only reminding us that he was a great man (which he was) but also that we haven’t learned very much from him. The Oscar-nominated documentary really has a single flaw but it’s kind of a big one; it tends to flog the same points over and over again, but then again perhaps we need that since as mentioned a moment ago we really haven’t learned our lesson yet. Hopefully seeing this documentary might motivate some of you to read some of his books (I know I’m going to be checking out Amazon for at least one or two) but also to remind us that while we have made some progress, we still have a hell of a long way to go.

REASONS TO GO: Powerful and depressing, the film shows us how little we’ve progressed in half a century. Some truly remarkable archival material brings the Civil Rights era to life.
REASONS TO STAY: An element of flogging the same points over and over again does occur.
FAMILY VALUES: Some of the images are violent and disturbing; there is also some profanity including racial slurs, adult themes and brief nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The word “negro” is used 78 times in the film.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: AmazonVudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/20/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 98% positive reviews. Metacritic: 96/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Malcolm X
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: A Dog’s Purpose

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New Releases for the Week of December 4, 2015


KrampusKRAMPUS

(Universal/Legendary) Adam Scott, Toni Collette, David Koechner, Allison Tolman, Conchata Ferrell, Emjay Anthony, Stefania LaVie Owen, Krista Stadler. Directed by Michael Dougherty

Holidays are the time for families to come together, but some families should remain far apart. Young Max has such a family and tired of the squabbling and the dysfunction, he finally reaches his breaking point and turns his back on Christmas. Little does he know that his anti-Christmas behavior has awakened a demonic presence, hell-bent on punishing those who don’t believe in the Christmas spirit. Now this fractured family must truly come together if they are to survive the night.

See the trailer and a featurette here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Holiday Horror Comedy
Now Playing: Wide Release

Rating: PG-13 (for sequences of horror violence/terror, language and some drug material)

A Royal Night Out

(Ketchup) Sarah Gadon, Bel Powley, Emily Watson, Rupert Everett. As Europe celebrates the fall of Nazi Germany in 1945, Princesses Margaret and Elizabeth are allowed outside the walls of Buckingham Palace to join the festivities. However, the two headstrong ladies ditch their military escort and find the first flush of romance and intrigue.

See the trailer here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: True Life Drama
Now Playing: AMC Disney Springs, Regal Oviedo Marketplace, Regal Waterford Lakes, Regal Winter Park Village

Rating: PG-13 (for some sexual content and brief drug elements)

Chi-Raq

(Roadside Attractions) Teyonah Parris, Nick Cannon, Samuel L. Jackson, Wesley Snipes. As the murder rate in Chicago skyrockets above the military casualties in Iraq, the death of a child caught in the crossfire of a murderous gang war sparks the women of Chicago to stand up and say enough. They vow to withhold sex from all men in Chicago until there is peace. Spike Lee’s latest joint is based on the classic Greek play Lysistrata. Catch the Cinema365 review of the film right here tomorrow.

See the trailer, clips  and a Q&A with Spike Lee here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Dramedy
Now Playing: AMC Altamonte Mall, AMC Disney Springs, AMC Loew’s Universal Cineplex, AMC West Oaks, Regal Oviedo Marketplace, Regal Waterford Lakes, Regal Winter Park Village

Rating: R (for strong sexual content including dialogue, nudity, language, some violence and drug use)

Jack of the Red Hearts

(ARC Entertainment) Famke Janssen, AnnaSophia Robb, Taylor Richardson, Sophia Anne Caruso. A streetwise teenage girl is desperate to get her younger sister out of the foster care system. Conning her way into a suburban home as a live-in helper for an autistic 11-year-old girl, she finds herself able to communicate with the child in ways nobody else can. She also finds a mother figure in the girl’s mom. But when the law finally catches up with her, she’ll have to choose between saving her own hide and saving someone else.

See the trailer here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Family Drama
Now Playing: AMC Disney Springs

Rating: NR

Janis: Little Girl Blue

(FilmRise) Janis Joplin, Cat Powers, Juliette Lewis, Dick Cavett. Janis Joplin remains a cultural icon, one of the first women to become a rock star (as opposed to a pop star which most women were relegated to prior to Joplin). Her gigantic voice was augmented by her reputation as a free spirit. Her death at 27 insured her status as a legend. This Amy Berg-directed documentary was given unprecedented access to the Joplin family and shows a side to the singer that few have ever gotten to see.

See the trailer and clips here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Documentary
Now Playing: Enzian Theater

Rating: NR

The Letters

(Freestyle) Juliet Stevenson, Max von Sydow, Rutger Hauer, Priya Darshini. Some have characterized Mother Teresa of Calcutta as a modern day saint and indeed the Vatican is looking into canonizing her even as we speak. However, the woman behind the selfless commitment to the poor and forgotten of the Calcutta slums revealed in her letters reveal a troubled and lonely woman who actively questioned her faith and even whether or not she’d been abandoned by God.

See the trailer here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Biographical Drama
Now Playing: AMC Altamonte Mall, AMC Disney Springs, AMC West Oaks, Cinemark Artegon Marketplace, Cobb Plaza Cinema Cafe, Regal The Loop, Regal Waterford Lakes, Regal Winter Park Village

Rating: PG (for thematic material including some images of human suffering)

The Second Mother

(Oscilloscope Laboratories) Regina Casé, Michel Joelsas, Camila Márdila, Karine Teles. This frothy Brazilian concoction considers a hard-working domestic whose daughter comes to live with her in her employer’s estate. Her arrival puts the class distinctions in the household which mirror those set in place for generations into complete disarray.

See the trailer and stream the full movie from Amazon here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Drama
Now Playing: Enzian Theater

Rating: R (for some language and brief drug use)

Best of Enemies


William F. Buckley and Gore Vidal make their points.

William F. Buckley and Gore Vidal make their points.

(2015) Documentary (Magnolia) William F. Buckley Jr., Gore Vidal, Kelsey Grammar (voice), John Lithgow (voice), Dick Cavett, Christopher Hitchens, Matt Tyanauer, Noam Chomsky, Sam Tanenhaus, Ginia Bellafante, Brooke Gladstone, Todd Gitlin, Andrew Sullivan. Directed by Robert Gordon and Morgan Neville

Politics can be as divisive a conversation as can be. Many are as passionate about their political beliefs as they are about their own families and umbrage can be taken with the slightest of provocations. The modern political process is about as civilized as we evolved cavemen can make it, right?

William F. Buckley Jr. in many ways was the father of conservative commentary. Patrician, erudite, intelligent, urbane and witty, he embodied for many the conservative man; a bit condescending, a bit argumentative, and absolutely sure he was right. While Rush Limbaugh, Bill O’Reilly and his ilk are nothing like Buckley – they are more shouters than speakers – much of their philosophy stems from this man for good or ill. As the founder and editor of the National Review, he helped shape conservative thought into what it is today.

Gore Vidal was an author and essayist, was from a well-connected Mid-Atlantic family (his father was a Senator). While he didn’t attend college, he was noted for being patrician, erudite, intelligent, urbane and witty, for many he embodied the liberal man; a bit strident, a bit acerbic and absolutely sure he was right. The author of the controversial Myra Breckinridge, he was a gay man who believed that sexual identity should be done away with and everyone should be free to love whomever they wanted. He was very much ahead of his time and was a champion of lefty causes.

Both men ran for office unsuccessfully and both men absolutely hated each other with a passion, feeling that the other stood for everything they were against. Both believed that the political thoughts of the other would be the ruin of the country. Neither man would back down an inch from what they believed. You wouldn’t want to invite them to the same party.

And ABC News did just that. During the tumultuous 1968 elections, they were lagging in third place far behind NBC and CBS, both of whom had respected newscasters (David Huntley/Chet Brinkley and Walter Cronkite, respectively) leading their gavel-to-gavel coverage of the Republican and Democratic conventions. ABC, whom it was joked wasn’t in fourth place because there were only three networks, didn’t have the funds to go toe-to-toe with their competitors. So rather than compete, they sought to innovate. They decided to give the conventions only 90 minutes coverage each night and 30 minutes of that coverage would be given to discussion between Buckley and Vidal.

These debates turned into all-out wars as at first the commentators attacked the other position, then attacked the other personally. They were donnybrooks indeed – both men were master debaters, fine speakers and insightful. However the latter category all but disappeared as they cut each other to ribbons with well-placed barbs. Buckley apparently chose not to prepare for the debates, whereas Vidal assiduously studied and strategized. Buckley had faith in his own intellect that he could take his opponent apart with ease.

The Republicans had their convention that year in Miami and a great effort was made to keep protesters as far away from the venue as possible. The Democrats had their convention in Chicago and Mayor Richard Daley boasted that he would maintain law and order but that didn’t work out so well for him; there was heavy rioting from protestors and scenes of brutality by the Chicago police were broadcast for the nation to see.

It was in that atmosphere on the ninth debate out of ten that things reached a head between Buckley and Vidal. When the latter accused Buckley of being a crypto-Nazi, the conservative lost his cool, attacking Vidal with “Now listen, you queer, stop calling me a crypto-Nazi or I’ll sock you in your goddamn face, and you’ll stay plastered.” While Buckley would later apologize for reacting in anger in print, the antipathy between the two men never lessened.

The movie essentially documents the debates, showing highlights from the broadcasts as well as background on the two combatants. We get plenty of talking head interviews, from Buckley’s biographer Sam Tanenhaus and from Vidal supporter the late Christopher Hitchens (who might have been the only modern political commentator to be able to hold his own with the two giants). We also get to hear the words written by the two, voiced by John Lithgow (Vidal) and Kelsey Grammer (Buckley).

The subject is captivating and the filmmakers make a good case as to why this was a turning point not just in national politics, as a case can be made that modern conservatism had its beginnings in the 1968 elections, but also in the way politics were covered. The Vidal-Buckley debates weren’t the first usage of competing viewpoints as political analysis, but they captured the imagination of the viewing public at the time and came into more widespread use afterwards. These days, it’s almost the only kind of political analysis you can find.

Where the film falls short is in really giving us more than cursory background on Buckley and Vidal. We get the basics – stuff you could easily pick up from their Wikipedia pages – but little more about who these men were. It seemed to me that they were two sides of the same coin; perhaps that was why they loathed each other so much beyond the political disagreements. Maybe they saw in each other a little bit of themselves.

This is still fascinating stuff for anyone who follows modern politics and wants a sense of how we got to where we are now. We see the talking heads on MSNBC and Fox News and of course the Internet trolls and wonder what happened to bring us to this point. To a large extent, it was this set of debates. It was the political/intellectual equivalent of going to an auto race and hoping for a crash. It is far more visceral and satisfying to watch people screech at each other rather than put any thought into what’s going on around us. And maybe that’s just human nature. But it is also depressing as all get out that we’ve devolved from respecting news to preferring shouting matches.

REASONS TO GO: Fascinating archival footage. A precursor for modern political campaigning.
REASONS TO STAY: Is a little bit scattershot.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a bit of foul language and some sexual content.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film premiered at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/12/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 94% positive reviews. Metacritic: 77/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: :Our Nixon
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Paul Taylor Creative Domain

New Releases for the Week of September 4, 2015


Best of EnemiesBEST OF ENEMIES

(Magnolia) William F. Buckley Jr. Gore Vidal, Kelsey Grammer (voice), John Lithgow (voice), Dick Cavett, Christopher Hitchens, Noam Chomsky. Directed by Robert Gordon and Morgan Neville

In 1968, the Vietnam War was raging and LBJ had announced that he would not run for President. The counterculture was beginning to make its presence felt and there was a great deal of anger directed towards the American government for the first time. Richard Nixon, who would eventually win the presidency, was running against Vice-President Hubert Humphrey with Alabama governor George Wallace running on an independent ticket, and the election was as vitriolic as it had ever been. Trying to make sense of everything, a series of televised debates was set up – not between the candidates, but between conservative commentator/essayist William F. Buckley Jr. and liberal author Gore Vidal. Both men were urbane, charming and literate and both absolutely loathed one  another with a passion. These debates would change the way television covers politics.

See the trailer here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Documentary
Now Playing: Enzian Theater
Rating: R (for some sexual content/nudity and language)

Chloe and Theo

(ARC Entertainment) Dakota Johnson, Theo Ikummaq, Mira Sorvino, Andre De Shields. Elders of the Inuit Eskimos, disturbed by the effects of climate change on the polar ice cap, send Theo to New York City to speak to the United Nations. He meets and befriends a young homeless woman who becomes inspired by his gentle wisdom. With the help of a kind lawyer, they will get the opportunity to present their message to the world; change our destructive ways before we are destroyed by them.

See the trailer here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Dramedy
Now Playing: AMC West Oaks
Rating: PG-13  (for brief violence)

Mistress America

(Fox Searchlight) Greta Gerwig, Lola Kirke, Michael Chernus, Rebecca Henderson. A lonely college freshman in New York City is compelled by her mother to look up the daughter of the man mom is about to marry, a kind of soon-to-be stepsister. The two hit it off and the freshman begins to accept her proto-sister as a role model. However, as she is seduced by the energy and madcap schemes of her friend, things take an abrupt change. An early review for the film can be found here.

See the trailer, clips, interviews and a featurette here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Drama
Now Playing: AMC Downtown Disney, AMC West Oaks, Regal Pointe Orlando, Regal Waterford Lakes, Regal Winter Park Village
Rating: R (for language including some sexual references)

Tangerine

(Magnolia) Kitana Kiki Rodriguez, Mya Taylor, James Ransone, Clu Gulager. Christmas Eve in El Lay is like nowhere else, and even on Christmas Eve there can be prodigious drama. Sin-Dee, just released from jail after doing 28 days for soliciting and when the volatile working girl finds out that her pimp slash boyfriend has been cheating on her while she was cooling her heels, the proverbial ca-ca is going to hit the fan.

See the trailer here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Dramedy
Now Playing: Enzian Theater
Rating: R (for strong and disturbing sexual content, graphic nudity, language throughout and drug use)

The Transporter Refueled

(EuropaCorp) Ed Skrein, Ray Stevenson, Loan Chabanol, Gabriella Wright. The franchise is rebooted with Ed Skrein taking over for Jason Statham as Frank Martin, a dapper, fastidious sort who has a complicated set of rules for his vocation of transporting sensitive cargo for questionable people. A father-son bonding weekend is interrupted when he takes a job for a client, a quartet of lovely femme fatales who orchestrate a daring bank robbery. Unfortunately, they have stolen from the Russian mob and Frank is caught reluctantly but squarely in the middle.

See the trailer, clips, interviews and B-roll video here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Action
Now Playing: Wide Release (opens Thursday)
Rating: PG-13 (for scenes of violence and action, sexual material, some language, a drug reference and thematic elements)

Un gallo con muchos huevos

(Pantelion)  Starring the voices of Bruno Bechir, Carlos Espejel, Angelica Vale, Omar Chaparro. Amongst Mexican children, Huevo Cartoon is king and the animated television series makes it to the big screen and for the first time, to El Norte. A small, timid young chicken must find his inner rooster if he and his friends are going to save his family and his home from an evil rancher.

See the trailer, interviews and a clip here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Animated Feature
Now Playing: AMC Altamonte Mall, AMC Downtown Disney, Regal The Loop
Rating: NR

A Walk in the Woods

(Broad Green) Robert Redford, Nick Nolte, Emma Thompson, Mary Steenburgen. A travel writer rather than retiring to his beautiful wife and large family, decides to push himself one last time and hike the length of the Appalachian Trail. He can only find one friend to accompany him however; the irascible and womanizing Katz, who is more interested in sneaking out of town to avoid paying a debt. The peace and tranquility that the writer longs for goes right out the window with that decision.

See the trailer, clips, interviews, promos and a featurette here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release Formats: Standard (opened Wednesday)
Genre: Adventure
Now Playing: Wide Release
Rating: R (for language and some sexual references)

Forrest Gump


Forrest Gump

Life is like a box of chocolate.

(1994) Drama (Paramount) Tom Hanks, Robin Wright, Gary Sinese, Mykelti Williamson, Sally Field, Michael Conner Humphreys, Margo Moorer, Haley Joel Osment, Siobhan J. Fallon, Hanna R. Hall, Marlena Smalls, Geoffrey Blake, Dick Cavett, Nora Dunfee. Directed by Robert Zemeckis

 

Every so often a movie comes along that simply connects on a nearly universal level. It becomes a cultural touchstone, referred to for years after its release and most people will understand the references to it.

Forrest Gump is such a movie. It won six Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Actor for Hanks (his second Oscar in a row after Philadelphia). Catch phrases like “Stupid is as stupid does” and “Life is like a box of chocolates” made it into the lexicon, not to mention “Run, Forrest, Run!”

Forrest Gump (Hanks) was born in Greenbow, Alabama to a mama (Fields) who rented out rooms in her large house to boarders, one of whom would turn out to be Elvis Presley. In fact, Forrest would have encounters with a number of historic, political and cultural figures of the 20th century throughout his life but he only has eyes for Jenny (Wright). She, however, had the rotten luck to be born to an abusive father and spends most of her life running away in one form or another whether that be through drugs or through a succession of skeezy men.

Gump isn’t the brightest bulb in the chandelier – in fact, he might well be the dimmest – but he attends the University of Alabama on a football scholarship and ends up going to Vietnam after his college days are over. There he meets Bubba Blue (Williamson), a fellow soldier who like Forrest is a bit on the slow side but Bubba still has big dreams – running a shrimp boat of his own from his home in Bayou LeBatre, Louisiana. They are under the command of Lieutenant Dan (Sinese), whose family has a history of sacrifice in war.

Things being what they are, Gump gets wounded in Vietnam and while convalescing discovers ping pong and turns out to be rather good at it. He goes on a goodwill tour of China and upon his return home goes on the Dick Cavett show along with John Lennon and inadvertently supplies the former Beatle with the lyrics of his most iconic song.

He also follows through on his promise to Bubba, buying a shrimping boat and taking on Lieutenant Dan as a first mate, is blessed with the good fortune of being the only surviving boat in Bayou LeBatre after a hurricane decimates it’s shrimping fleet. This enables Forrest to buy more boats and with Lieutenant Dan’s business acumen leading the way, becomes wealthy.

But all his wealth, all his fame mean nothing to Forrest Gump. What matters is his Jenny, the love he’s carried his entire life but she is damaged goods. Can she ever love a man who isn’t very smart?

Zemeckis has in many ways created a movie that captured America during its most tumultuous phase, from the 60s through the 80s. It is a country in turmoil, rocked with anti-war protests and a wide racial divide. America is growing up on its way to 200 years old, going from the self-confident 50s to the troubled 70s, from JFK to Nixon and beyond. Most of the major events of the era are touched by Forrest Gump in some way, whether directly or indirectly.

Hanks gives a performance that is going to forever be one of his most strongly identified. Hanks will always be Forrest Gump to a certain degree and justifiably so – while Forrest Gump is intellectually challenged (slow is how they used to term it), he has a good heart. He is in many ways the ultimate American – not book smart maybe, but hard working and kind. These are for the most part attributes that Americans admire, particularly these days when education is regarded with suspicion in some quarters.

There are those who have analyzed the film and criticized it (and the Winston Groom book it is based on) as promoting an anti-intelligence mindset, which I think is a bit harsh. Many have called it an embrace of conservative values and an indictment of the failure of the counterculture and liberalism in general. Forrest, who embraces traditional American values, is successful. Jenny, who embraces the criticism of those values, becomes a drug addict and the victim of abuse throughout her life; she only finds peace and contentment when she is with Forrest. Conservative politicians have often cited the film as an affirmation of their political ideals.

I do believe that the movie was meant to be more apolitical than it is now believed to be. Regardless of whether you believe this to be anti-intellectual and/or anti-Liberal, I think we can all agree this is wonderful entertainment and a terrific movie. It is most certainly one of the best movies of the 90s, and one of Hanks’ most memorable performances ever – reasons enough to check it out if you are one of the few who hasn’t already.

WHY RENT THIS: One of the classic movies of the 90s.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Seems to celebrate heart over smarts.

FAMILY VALUES:  There are some drugs, a little bit of sex, a touch of violence and a modicum of swearing.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The legs of Gary Sinese were wrapped in a special blue fabric so that they could be digitally removed during the post-production process.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: The Blu-Ray edition contains a trivia track that covers most of the music (hosted by Rolling Stone contributor Ben Fong-Torres) and a Q&A session of Zemeckis, Hanks, Sinese and producer Joe Roth at the University of Southern California on the occasion of the 15th anniversary of the movie’s release. There are also some audition tapes as well as a plethora of featurettes on the special effects and sound of the movie.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $677.4M on a $55M production budget; the movie was as big a blockbuster as it gets.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Zelig

FINAL RATING: 10/10

NEXT: The American Experience concludes

Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist and Rebel


Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist and Rebel

Sex in the early '60s: Hef and the Bunnies.

(2009) Documentary (Metaphor) Hugh Hefner, Bill Maher, Tony Bennett, George Lucas, Joan Baez, Jim Brown, James Caan, Jesse Jackson, Jenny McCarthy, Gene Simmons, Shannon Tweed, Pete Seeger, Mike Wallace, David Steinberg, Dick Cavett, Tony Curtis. Directed by Brigitte Berman

There have been many polarizing figures in the 20th century. Ronald Reagan, for example; conservatives look at him as a great president, one whose economic philosophy have shaped our economy for the past thirty years and have led us to unprecedented prosperity. Liberals look at him as the architect for our greed-dominated society and see his presidency as an American tragedy.

Hugh Hefner gets the same sort of reception. The publisher of Playboy magazine is responsible for the popularization of the centerfold. To the minds of the radical feminists, he has led to the objectification of women and is indirectly or directly responsible for the rape and abuse of women by men who have bought in to his philosophy. To conservatives, he is an immoral man, dedicated to the destruction of American society and the corruption of American morality.

Most people see the swinging lifestyle; the pajamas, the pipe, the smile and the 20-something women cavorting at the Shangri La-esque Playboy mansion. They see an octogenarian with seven girlfriends young enough to be his great-great granddaughters and yes, there is an element of the ridiculous to it. Overkill at the very least.

But there is more to Hef than meets the eye, and those who have followed his career will know that. Hef has been a crusader for First Amendment rights through his magazine, supporting the legal defense of those rights (often with cash donations) and during the Blacklisting era, printing pieces by Dalton Trumbo and other writers who could get no work elsewhere.

He has also been a champion for civil rights. His Playboy clubs and “Playboy After Dark” television show gave exposure to African-American performers who might never have gotten an audience. Sammy Davis Jr., Dizzy Gillespie and Dick Gregory all regularly worked in Hefner’s establishments. He supported Martin Luther King’s agenda both editorially and with contributions to his cause.

And he has also defended women’s reproductive rights as well as their civil rights as well. He has supported the “Equal Pay for Equal Work” theory as well as nurturing the careers of women into executive positions at his own company. He works tirelessly for the environment as well as for the preservation of jazz, an art form he’s passionate about.

Berman was given unprecedented access to the magazine’s archives and to Hefner’s own personal collection of letters and documents; she also was able to get her hands on footage from Hefner’s television shows which are some of the most fascinating moments of the film.

Hefner is often simply thought of as a pornographer and a fairly mild one at that; his pictorials tend to be much more artistic and less hardcore than those of, say, Larry Flynt or Bob Guccione. In some ways, he’s rather archaic – Playboy is essentially less of a factor in publishing the pictures of naked women than the Internet is. His legacy, however is far more complicated.

Hef didn’t invent sex but he brought it out of the recesses of puritanical dogma. He didn’t make it okay for women to like sex, but he supported the concept and helped popularize it. He didn’t objectify women – that’s been around far longer than Playboy – but he did help develop what the male ideal was for women physically (can we all say big boobs?) and make being a centerfold an aspiration for many women.

There is nothing wrong with sex. There is nothing wrong with being sexual. Pleasure doesn’t have to be a dirty word. But sex goes arm in arm with responsibility and Hef knew that. He used the prurient interest in his magazine to fund his social causes and there is some irony in that.

Tarring Hefner with the brush of a pornographer misses the point of what he’s done, and is rather simplistic and naive. I don’t always agree with his lifestyle and I wonder why he has rarely gone for women closer to his own age – I also wonder if there is too much emphasis on sex in his philosophy. Sex is, after all, only a part of life and while it is an important part, it’s not the most important part.

But that’s once again not all there is to Hefner. He has championed causes that have needed a champion, and has stood up for things that were unpopular back in the day. Most importantly, he has helped usher in a change of American values and hopefully, not all of it has to do with sex. Some of it has to do with compassion and the dignity of all people. Hugh Hefner may not be a hero to most, but in all honesty he deserves to be and this movie captures that largely unremarked upon aspect of him.

WHY RENT THIS: A fascinating look inside the legend. Some great footage from the old “Playboy After Dark” television show. 

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Doesn’t really challenge much. Presents Hef as a bit of a saint.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some nudity (of the Playboy centerfold variety) and a bit of sexual content as you might imagine.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Berman’s previous documentary was about big band leader Artie Shaw.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $10,000 on an unreported production budget; I suspect the movie was unprofitable.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: J.Edgar