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 This serves as an important historical document on the history of racism right up to present day.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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Kingdom of Shadows


The price of recreational drug use isn't always paid just by drug users and drug dealers.

The price of recreational drug use isn’t always paid just by drug users and drug dealers.

(2015) Documentary (Participant) Sister Consuelo Morales, Oscar Hagelseib, Don Henry Ford Jr., Nik Steinberg, Diego Alonso Salazar, Auden Cabello, Leah Ford, Virginia Buenrostro, Luz Maria Duran, Joshua Ford, Dina Hagelseib, Diana Martinez. Directed by Bernardo Ruiz

It is no secret that the drug cartels have turned northern Mexico into a war zone. Violence from the cartels has escalated and in the city of Monterrey, a beautiful municipality that is the center in a war between the Zetas and the Gulf Cartel which has escalated so that innocent civilians who have no connection with the drug trade whatsoever are disappearing, murdered by one faction or the other which was unheard of just a decade ago.

Director Bernardo Ruiz looks at the problems created by this violence from three distinct viewpoints from three different people; Sister Consuelo Morales is an activist/nun who advocates for the families of those who have disappeared, acting as a liaison between the families and the police who are perceived to be (and actually are) corrupt – in fact, some of the kidnappings are performed by officers of the law, further deepening the mistrust the people of Mexico have for their own government and its institutions.

Don Henry Ford Jr. is a convicted drug smuggler from Belmont, Texas who worked on his own family farm, but deepening debt forced him into a need for quick cash and there are few instances of cash that are quicker than bringing drugs from Mexico to the United States. Although he was eventually caught and served time in prison, he was already disillusioned by what he saw as escalating violence by new players in the game who disregarded the rules and has since left the life to concentrate on his legitimate farm work.

Oscar Hagelseib grew up in Socorro, Texas, the son of illegal immigrants in a neighborhood that was infected by the drug trade. A cousin’s house was used as a stash location for the cartels and those who entered the trade were far more prosperous than those who didn’t. However, as it turned out, Oscar would go into law enforcement, first with the Border Patrol and later with the Homeland Security Agency. Once an undercover agent but now in charge of drug-related offenses in the El Paso office, he is unafraid to show his face in the media, arguing that he was in less danger than would a snitch or someone within the cartels who betrayed the cartels.

All three look at the disappearances primarily – those civilians who one day just aren’t there. More often than not they turn up in narco kitchens – mass graves. These disappearances haven’t been seen in Latin America since the days of Pinochet in Chile and those at the time were done by government military forces. The corruption is so rampant that nearly every candidate for office in Mexico has to include overhauling their local police force as part of their platform, but few ever get around to actually doing it.

The documentary suffers a little bit from a lack of focus; there is no coherent storyline here, more like a series of interviews entwined together. The statistics are sobering and so are the stories being told here, but because there really isn’t any kind of unification between those stories they are wasted somewhat, floating on the wind instead of being given a larger context. That does those stories a disservice, although they do remain powerful.

It is well-known that the cartels in Mexico are outrageously violent, but we don’t see much of the violence here except for some news footage of bodies being cut down from places where they will be seen as an example of what happens to those who cross the cartels, and one family member of a disappeared one recounts tearfully how her daughter had been raped for three days straight before being executed according to an eyewitness, although she prayed it wasn’t true – you can see in her eyes that she knows that it is.

It is in fact the faces that are the most haunting thing. The end of the movie is simply a montage of faces, faces of the victims and the faces of the families. Some can barely hold back the tears; others can barely contain their rage. Some are stoic, others expressive. Some are young, some old, some in-between. That last montage carries more meaning than almost the rest of the documentary put together; those faces connect the viewer to the story in a powerful way. If only the rest of the movie could be more like that. Still, this is the kind of story that the news agencies in the States isn’t likely to tell and when it does, only in a cursory way. This is the world these people live in, a world we are partially responsible for due to our insatiable consumption of illegal narcotics. If we want to win the war on drugs, that’s what we need to concentrate on.

REASONS TO GO: Powerful and haunting. Uses news footage effectively.
REASONS TO STAY: Unfocused and lacks flow.
FAMILY VALUES: Some mild profanity and depictions of violence, and brief partial nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The term “narco kitchen” refers to mass graves in which drug cartels bury those they’ve executed. Prior to burial the bodies are incinerated so that they cannot be positively identified.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/20/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 83% positive reviews. Metacritic: 65/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Cartel Land
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: The Shameless