The Reunited States


Susan Bro wants to give the whole world a hug.

(2021) Documentary (Dark Star) David Leaverton, Susan Bro, Mark Gerzon, Erin Leaverton, Steven Olikara, Greg Orman, Jay Hooper, Jeramy Anderson, Orlando Paden, Bear Cadman, Professor Rob Lee, Carri Hicks. Directed by Ben Rekhi

 

One thing both the left and the right can agree on is that our country is deeply divided politically. Never since the Civil War have passions been so inflamed on both sides…or both sides so intractable that they have stopped listening to one another. Regardless of who wins elections, this is a dangerous situation for the future of our country as we sink further and further into an abyss that can only lead to bloodshed.

There are some people who want to change that, and this film – inspired by the non-fiction book by Mark Gerzon, who appears onscreen from time to time to give an overview of the situation – looks at a few of them. We meet Greg Orman, a third party gubernatorial candidate for Kansas in the 2018 elections who fights the uphill battle of convincing people that they aren’t wasting tgheir votes by voting for him; Steven Olikara puts together a coalition of Millennial politicians from both sides of the aisle. David Leaverton, a former Republican operative who had no problem demonizing the left and doing whatever it took to win races, becomes disenchanted with the results of his work and decides to pack up his family in an RV and go to all fifty states and talk to people of both political sides of the argument. Finally, and most poignantly, there’s Susan Bro, the mother of Heather Heyer who was killed protesting the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville in 2016, taking up her daughter’s mantle for racial equality and justice.

There are some heavy emotional moments here, including Erin Leaverton embracing an African-American woman whose skin color contributed to medical professionals disbelieving her situation which led to tragedy, and Susan Bro admitting to David Leaverton that she didn’t want to meet with him at first because she felt that people like him contributed to the rage that led to her daughter’s murder.

An issue I have is somewhat endemic to the movie in general; it has to walk a tight line to begin with as not to become a partisan diatribe itself, so often it leaves  details out about specific policies and beliefs. I understand the tendency, but it seems to me that if we can’t even talk about issues for fear of offending or enraging one side or the other, we’ve already lost the war.

Still, this is a movie that provides something that’s in short supply these days; hope that things can get better. It will take a shift in attitude and perhaps a degree of maturity that our nation has yet to demonstrate in the actions of its cirizens of late, but that doesn’t mean things can’t change. “I don’t know if the reconciliation you’re talking about is even possible,” one interviewee admits on-camera. All I know is that it is completely impossible if we don’t make the attempt.

REASONS TO SEE: Very emotional throughout. A hopeful sign that there are some people working to bridge the gap between the left and the right.
REASONS TO AVOID: Frustratingly thin on concrete etails.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some violence and adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: CNN commentator Van Jones and The View host  Meghan McCain are among the producers of the film.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, DirecTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/5/21: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Burden
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
The War and Peace of Tim O’Brien

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