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 This serves as an important historical document on the history of racism right up to present day.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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Limelight (2011)


To some, New York club culture was more of a religion.

To some, New York club culture was more of a religion.

(2009) Documentary (Magnolia) Peter Gatien, Michael Alig, 50 Cent, Jay-Z, Moby, Ed Koch, Howard Safir, Sean Kirkham, Michael Caruso, Edgar Oliver, Frank Owen, Steve Lewis, Benjamin Brafman. Directed by Billy Corben

Once upon in New York City there was a club scene like no other. It was in the late 80s, early 90s and it just about put Studio 54-era discos to shame. Four of them – The Limelight, Tunnel, Club USA and the Palladium – were run by the same guy.

His name was Peter Gatien and he was notorious in his day. He was a Canadian, Ontario-born (although it was said he rooted for the Montreal Canadiens which was not unlike a native of the Bronx being a lifelong Red Sox fan) and wore a buccaneer-like eyepatch which was, contrary to popular rumor, not an affectation. He’d lost an eye playing hockey as a youth.

His clubs were like nothing else seen before or since; full of pulsating music and lights, sweaty bodies and essentially a place where new music was created. Moby has been quoted as saying that without these clubs there would have been no techno. These places were like stationary raves and in a sense were incubators for youth culture which has affected popular culture to this day.

It wasn’t always easy. Gatien started out selling jeans and after his hockey accident used the money to open his own nightclub in Ontario, which he parlayed into a club in Atlanta and then four in New York. In his heyday he was the toast of New York, name-checked by the Fun Loving Cannibals and THE man to know if you wanted to be somebody in that town.

But with notoriety like that comes attention, some of it of the negative sort. Drugs were rampant in Gatien’s clubs and they were sold to the point where some referred to the Palladium as a “drug supermarket.” Mayor Rudy Giuliani used Gatien’s clubs as a focal point for his anti-crime campaign and eventually after failing to pin any drug-related arrests on Gatien, nailed him for failing to pay his taxes (well after the clubs began to shut down) and had him deported back to Canada with only $500 in his pocket.

This after making millions from his cash cows. It was a precipitous fall after a remarkable climb. Gatien remains an engaging character and he’s surprisingly forthcoming in his interviews here. Many of those who were around Gatien – managers, bartenders, DJs and such – all have something to say. Most have never attained the pinnacle of hip that they achieved during those years and they still carry that borderline arrogance that comes from being Somebody.

One of those interviewed here is the notorious Michael Alig, who in a drug-induced haze murdered and dismembered fellow Limelight scenester Angel Melendez. Alig ran several parties at Gatien’s clubs and in fact Gatien was an early suspect in Melendez’s murder.

Corben peppers the documentary with animations and psychedelic images which I imagine gives you more of a feeling of being in an altered state as you watch. The movie is really a rise and fall affair with the beginning on Gatien’s meteoric rise much more interesting than the details of his ignoble fall. And yes while I get that “the higher the rise the further the fall” lesson, that’s essentially a story we’ve seen literally thousands of times, some in more compelling ways.

What I missed here was more of a look at how Gatien’s clubs affected pop culture and their lasting impact on modern society. Really what this turns out to be is a movie made more for the people who were there in that time and place. While I wasn’t a part of the New York club scene, I was part of a club scene in a different city at roughly the same time so some of it is recognizable to me. Fortunately I didn’t see the same kind of drug use and trade to the extent that it was here in my part of the world, although that could partly be ascribed to my own personal naiveté as well as that most people don’t want to transact drugs in front of a journalist.

Be that as it may, this is probably more of interest to those who clubbed in the late 80s and early 90s in general and in New York City in particular. It was an era that has come and gone, and will never return. So in that sense the movie has nostalgia value and on that level works like a charm. Gatien is an interesting enough subject that at least for the first part of the movie his engaging character is worthwhile. It’s only when the story of his downfall starts that your attention will start to wander. Gatien (and by extension the filmmaker) blames many of his troubles on a vindictive government but he’s only partly right – Gatien allowed that rampant drug use and sales to take place in his clubs. They were HIS clubs as he is quick to tell you and thus his responsibility. He has to shoulder at least some blame for his fall – and you get the sense he doesn’t see it that way. That might be the most tragic element of this story.

WHY RENT THIS: Fascinating look at maybe the nadir of all club scenes. Gatien is a fascinating character.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The second half spends far too much time on the legal battles that went on, less time on the lasting impact of the scene.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some bad language and alcohol and drug use depicted.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: One of the producers is Gatien’s own daughter, Jen.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $60,335 on an unreported production budget; might have made money but more likely just broken even or lost money.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Party Monster

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Eastern Promises