Finding Kendrick Johnson


Nobody deserves to end up like this.

(2021) True Crime Documentary (Gravitas) Jenifer Lewis (narrator), Jackie Johnson, Mitch Credle, Kenneth Johnson, Lydia Tooley Whitlock, Kenyatta Johnson, Mark Austin, Barbara English, Dr. William R. Anderson, Michael Moore, Tyrone Brooks. Directed by Jason Pollock

 

\One of the basic tenets that holds our society together is the rule of law. The laws of the United States are particularly enlightened in many ways; nobody is theoretically supposed to be above the law. We have seen over the years that isn’t always the case.

Kendrick Johnson was a typical teenage boy living in Valdosta, Georgia. He liked sports, was close with his family who were devout Christians (all of the Johnson children have the initials “KJ” which stands for King Jesus, mother Jackie explains). He played video games, hung out with friends and was by all accounts a decent, nice guy.

On January 10, 2013, he didn’t return home from school. His mother, frantic, called her husband Kenneth – a truck driver, who was on the road at the time. He hurried back home, knowing that being out late without calling home was unlike his son. When he got home, he went straight to Lowndes High School, where he discovered that Kendrick had been found dead. His body was rolled up in a gym mat.

The coroner ruled that his death was an accident; that he had tried to reach down into the mat to get his shoe and had fallen into the hole made by the rolled up mat and asphyxiated, all while other kids were nearby.

But it didn’t make sense. For one thing, the dimensions of the mat were too small for Kendrick to just fall in. Jackie, who at first believed the Valdosta police’s explanation, began to get suspicious. She wanted a different forensic medical examination of her son’s body, so it was exhumed. Dr. William Anderson was hired to do the autopsy for the Johnson family. When he opened up the body, he discovered to his shock and horror that all the internal organs were gone; in their place were rolled up bits of newspaper. However, there was enough left that it was plain to Dr. Anderson that the boy had not died of positional asphyxia. There were also wounds on the body that indicated that he had been badly beaten before he died.

The Johnsons suspected a cover-up and launched a campaign to get justice for their son. At first, it seemed like their pleas were being heard; a federal investigation was launched. The case became national news. But abruptly, the investigator quit and the case was transferred to an office in Ohio, where it was quietly closed. But why? Why would anyone want to cover up the death of a high school kid?

The filmmakers try to give the crime larger context. We’re shown the history of crimes against the African-American population of the South, particularly in Valdosta, starting with the lynchings that took place locally as well as the Emmitt Till murder in Mississippi. The crimes are made relevant, showing footage of the deaths of Eric Garner in New York City and George Floyd in Minneapolis. Kendrick Johnson, the filmmakers are saying, is part of a larger pattern. Would the crime of his murder have been covered up had he been white?

To the credit of the filmmakers, they uncover some damning evidence that the federal investigators had been made unaware of (one of them, a Washington DC homicide detective named Mitch Credle, was absolutely gobsmacked that a filmmaker had uncovered the evidence but a federal investigation couldn’t). Was Kendrick Johnson the victim of a modern-day lynching?

Well, I’m not so sure on that score. That he was murdered I think is proven beyond a shadow of a doubt. That there was a cover-up, absolutely for sure. Was the crime racially motivated? That is less clear. The filmmakers do point at a couple of likely suspects – fellow students at Lowndes whose father happened to be an FBI agent. But if the son of an FBI agent have been involved with the murder of a white boy, would the father still have covered it up? I think the answer is likely yes.

There are crime scene photos of Kendrick’s body as well as autopsy photos, along with pictures of Emmitt Till’s corpse and other victims of lynching, so this really isn’t for the squeamish. The film doesn’t give any warnings of the disturbing content, so do take this seriously – it isn’t pretty. In fact, it’s ghastly, but I understand why it was done – the brutality of these crimes should not be overlooked.

I do feel for the Johnson family. Certainly they have been denied justice and I do hope that this film helps them achieve it. However, when you compare the death of Kendrick Johnson to the death of Emmitt Till, the comparison doesn’t hold up. It seems likely that Johnson’s death was a dispute with another student that got out of hand. Whether or not it was racially motivated….well, given that Valdosta doesn’t have the most savory reputation when it comes to race relations, it seems likely, but there’s this whole “reasonable doubt” thing. That is also a part of the rule of law.

REASONS TO SEE: A compelling story that engenders sympathy for the Johnson family.
REASONS TO AVOID: Overly lurid.
FAMILY VALUES: There are disturbing crime scene, historical and autopsy photographs.
TRIVIAL PURSUITS: The filmmakers spent four years investigating the case.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Google Play, Microsoft, Redbox, Spectrum, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/26/21: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Cold Justice
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
The Smartest Kids in the World

A Most Violent Year


Jessica Chastain sulks because Oscar Isaac just got the first installment of his Star Wars salary.

Jessica Chastain sulks because Oscar Isaac just got the first installment of his Star Wars salary.

(2014) Drama (A24) Oscar Isaac, Jessica Chastain, David Oyelowo, Alessandro Nivola, Albert Brooks, Elyes Gabel, Catalina Sandino Moreno, Peter Gerety, Christopher Abbott, Ashley Williams, John Procaccino, Glenn Fleshler, Jerry Adler, Annie Funke, Matthew Maher, David Margulies, Pico Alexander, Susan Blackwell, Myrna Cabello, Elizabeth Marvel. Directed by J.C. Chandor

Doing the right thing is often an act of will. In places and times where all those around you are taking the easy path – which is generally not the right thing – it becomes difficult to tread the straight and narrow. Despite your very best intentions, often the tendency is to lose your way.

Abel Morales (Isaac) is a man who keeps tight rein on his emotions. He has just signed a deal with a bearded Orthodox patriarch (Adler) for a parcel of land that will make give his heating oil business a river port that will enable him to receive and store an enormous amount of oil, giving him a huge leg up on the competition. He just has 30 days after having made the down payment to provide the remainder of the payment, roughly around $1.5 million. He figures he has got no worries. His lawyer, Andrew Walsh (Brooks), a canny lawyer used to working with the mob, seems to agree.

His wife Anna (Chastain) is not so sure. For weeks now their trucks have been getting hijacked, the contents stolen. While each truck carries only about $6,000 in oil, it has the union boss (Gerety) worried enough that he wants to arm the drivers and give them forged permits to carry. Abel finds this disturbing but the union can tell his drivers to walk away, and that would absolutely be a catastrophe.

To make matters worse, his business – his entire industry in fact – is being investigated by FBI Agent Lawrence (Oyelowo) and they’re handing down an indictment which suddenly makes the bank that Abel has been doing business with all his life turn tail and pull out of the loan they were about to give him for the remainder of the payment for the land. Now Abel is scrambling with days left in the deadline and the violence escalating when one of his drivers (Gabel), having been hospitalized in a hijacking, now carrying a gun against his boss’s wishes and without his knowledge, as he drives.

Watching this carried sharp reminders of 70s cinematic gems like Serpico, The Godfather, The French Connection and their ilk. The palate of the cinematic colors are definitely autumn and winter in tone, with a lot of rich dark browns, olive, ochre and mustard among the colors that are displayed. The movie is lit as if all the action takes place in the late afternoon, with the sun straining to reach inside through Venetian blinds.

The tone of the action is dark as well. Abel, the film’s moral center, is beset on all sides by people urging him to take short cuts, essentially because everyone else is doing it and the only way to get ahead in this place and this time (1981 New York City, a year that to that point had been the most violent on record in terms of the number of violent crimes) is to do the same. Isaac imbues Abel with a certain amount of gravitas, his leonine looks reminding me of Al Pacino in a lot of ways. But whereas Pacino’s character was eventually corrupted in Francis Ford Coppola’s masterpiece, here Isaac’s Morales more or less remains on point.

Chastain’s Anna is less sanguine. The daughter of a mobster, she is all Brooklyn sass and pepper, nagging her husband to be stronger; in many ways, she has much more steel in her backbone than he does. However like most of those around Abel, her moral compass is compromised, pointing at self-interest much more directly than the right thing to do.

Brooks, who impressed as a villain in Drive last year, continues to take on fascinating characters as he reinvents himself from a sad-sack romantic comedy lead. He imbues the lawyer with a subtle menace even while he shows loyalty to Abel throughout. He doesn’t always agree with Abel but he supports him mainly because he’s paid to; one wonders if he will turn on him throughout and that’s the genius of Brooks’ portrayal. Oyelowo, so brilliant in Selma isn’t quite as scintillating here but gives the conflicted Agent Lawrence that sense of being politically motivated but quite sure the guy he’s investigating is likely innocent.

Chandor, who has the powerful All is Lost from last year as well as the Wall Street thriller Margin Call to his credit, excels at creating tension in ordinary situations. I was reminded somewhat of The Sopranos in a sense but the mob in this case is outside of the frame, not really involved at all – although Agent Lawrence thinks they are. Abel is a man trying to keep his integrity as best he can in a time and environment when it isn’t prudent to do so. Nonetheless he has visions of success in his industry without compromising his morals, something which is difficult to do in any business. Something tells me that successful, capable men who refuse to give in to the temptation of the short cut are more prevalent in the real world than it would seem, but it’s the ones who give in who tend to be the ones who call the tune the rest of Wall Street and capitalism in general dance to.

REASONS TO GO: Powerful performances throughout the cast. Nice homage to cinema of the period.
REASONS TO STAY: Dimly lit and darkly hued.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s plenty of strong language and some occasional violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Isaac and Chastain were classmates at Julliard School of the Dramatic Arts. When Javier Bardem dropped out of the project, Chastain wrote Chandor a 3-page letter recommending her former classmate for the role. Chandor was already considering him for the part when he received the letter.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/3/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 90% positive reviews. Metacritic: 79/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Lord of War
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: blackhat