My Black History Month and Oscar Post rolled into one: 13th

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Frankly, I don’t care much about the Oscars, especially in years where it seems voters have lost their mind over a film I don’t care to rush to the theater to see (La La Land) and which can’t be that great (just like I can’t get over the perfectly OK Chicago being considered the Best of that year, just because it was a musical). The Oscars lost a lot of credibility over the years, and they seem to be trying to make it up with this year’s non-musical nominations. In any case, I’m always curious about the documentaries that are nominated. A few years ago, all five nominations were on Netflix, so I was able to see all the documentaries before the ceremony. This year, I’ve only seen two, but I can’t imagine any of the other nominees being better than the two I have seen. In fact, these two documentaries might be my number 1 and 2 of 2016’s best films. One of them is a Netflix documentary, 13th, a most timely film that should be watched tonight, even if you have plans. Cancel them. Watch 13th instead.

You may have seen the most recent episode of Blackish, where Junior schools his dad with some docuknowledge. Of course, Junior has been watching documentaries, 13th in particular. This film, directed by Ava DuVernay, chronicles the history of the 13th amendment, that abolished slavery, yet created a loophole at the same time. The text of the amendment is as follows: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” Except as a punishment for crime. The film shows how those words allowed a system of slavery to evolve into the mass incarceration we have today. The labeling of a large group of people who have been through the justice system as “criminals” and “super predators” continues to this day to allow so many people to be dismissed as something lesser than. More often than not, those people are people of color, especially African-American men. One of the facts that you’ll likely hear someone somewhere repeat is the fact that 1 in 17 white men at some point in their life spend some time being incarcerated. That number for African-American men: 1 in 3.

Don’t think that this is just a one-sided documentary. DuVernay interviews several conservative figures, including Newt Gingrich. Gingrich actually comes across as sensible and fair. He quite correctly laments how the “war on drugs” played out, saying that the harsher punishments for crack (aka a “black man’s drug”) versus those of cocaine (aka a “white man’s drug”) was a huge mistake. Other conservative voices in the film don’t go as far in admitting past mistakes, but there’s nothing in the editing or the way they are shown that demeans them or their point of view. If anything, she lets their words speak for themselves.

But this film definitely doesn’t let people off the hook. Of course, Nixon and his “war on crime” is a big culprit in the increasing prison population during the ’70’s. Reagan’s “War on Drugs” and Clinton’s extension of that war also greatly increased incarceration in America. While this may not be news to many of us, DuVernay finds shocking examples of officials from the Nixon and Reagan administrations explicitly stating that their policies were purposefully meant to decimate the African American community. It’s not just some abstract economic theory whose unintended consequences negatively affected minorities- these people knew what they were doing in targeting those people who weren’t part of their voting base.

13th at times seems to meander and wander. I thought often that it was going off on a tangent. But each time, DuVernay ties it back to the main theme of the film, showing how seemingly different issues are all part of the same problem. It’s like reading a masterfully written essay that covers a wide range of topics, but argues passionately for its position. Although this film was made before the election, it features the words of the Donald juxtaposed with imagery of the abuse of African Americans in the south in the 1960’s. “The Good Old Days” don’t look so good to me, Donald. Have no doubt, 13th seems to have been made in response to problems that don’t seem to be going away. It’s a must see.

The other documentary I’ve seen from this year’s Oscar nominees is OJ: Made in America.

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I’d have a hard time choosing 13th over this film. But to be fair, they are really two different types of experiences. If DuVernay hadn’t chosen to limit herself to 1hr and 40 minutes, she might have had the chance to go deeper into her subject. They are really two different types of movies. In fact, I would say Made in America is really trying to have it both ways: It’s a television documentary that is also a limited series. At nearly 8 hours long, it’s a major accomplishment. Through one person, the director is able to expand the story to be about our country and its various lingering issues of race, celebrity, economic differences, and the justice system. If you have cable, it’s available on ESPN streaming.

There’s a third nomination, I Am Not Your Negrobased on James Baldwin’s writing, that touches on issues of race. What I fear is that these three films will split the votes of those that care about serious, topical documentaries that will challenge and educate you. I predict the win will go Life, Animated a film about a kid who learns to communicate with the world through his love of Disney. Sorry, not good enough for me this year, but that film is available on Amazon Prime.

OTHER RECOMMENDATIONS: After watching 13th, be sure to watch Oprah Winfrey’s interview with DuVernay that is also showing on Netflix.

If you still have DVDs delivered from Netflix, put Free Angela and All Political Prisoners in your queue. Angela Davis is one of the many people interviewed in 13th, and her story is a fascinating one on its own terms. Although the documentary wasn’t perfect, and left some questions unanswered, it’s an interesting piece of American History that you may not know about. It’s like the story behind Hidden Figures – why did I never learn about this in school?

RATINGS:

13th: Netflix: 5 out of 5                      IMDB: 10 out of 10

O.J.: Made in America:                          IMDB 10 out of 10

Free Angela and All Political Prisoners: IMDB: 8 out of 10

 

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Black Mirror: Seasons 1 and 2 Review

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Well, it seems I’ve let another month go by without reviewing (or watching) much of anything. I’ve been able to catch a few movies in the theater. ( Skip Silencea real slog of a movie that misses the point of its source material, and somehow transforms a mere 191 page novel into 2 hours and 41 minutes of cinematic dramamine; a mild recommendation for 20th Century Women ). We’ve had a busy life this New Year, so finding time at home for a movie has been a challenge. But with the current dearth of broadcast television shows that we like to watch (most of which are on FX and aren’t currently showing), we’ve found time to finally watch a TV show that I’ve had a lot of interest in for years- Black Mirror.

I know that there’s probably been a lot written about this show, which I have purposefully avoided so I could go into the viewing experience without any preconceptions. About the only preconception I had going in is that this was supposed to some kind of modern The Twilight Zone. Not quite, but it’s unsettling in what it reveals about human nature, much in the same way as that classic series was at its best.

If you feel like you have accomplished something after watching a season of a TV series, then this is the series for you. Season 1 and 2 total only 7 episodes (and with Season 3 thrown in, which I haven’t finished, only 13 episodes). So you can impress all your friends with how you watched the whole series in one weekend. They don’t need to know that it’s only half as much time and pain as watching a full season of What’s Happening Now?

I would seriously consider skipping some episodes, unless you’re a completist like me. Anyways, here’s a quick review of each episode of Season 1 and 2 (links are to Wikipedia, if want to read a synopsis of each episode).

SEASON 1 

EPISODE 1: “The National Anthem

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Absolutely offal. I mean, awful. Yeah, I went there with my choice of the pic for this episode. I usually shy away from spoilers, but this will all be spoilers, so skip this if you don’t want to know about this episode. I seriously consider not watching anymore after this one. One of the worst TV episodes of all time. And it’s not just because the Prime Minister of England is “forced” to fuck a pig live on television so that a member of the royal family is spared by her kidnappers. Yeah, that’s gross, but nothing, NOTHING about what happens in this episode is realistic, or reveals much about our nature as humans to revel in someone else’s humiliation, and our nature to forgive and forget. But that’s exactly what this episode thinks it’s doing. I don’t buy that any P.M. would feel they would have to do this. I also don’t believe that when the finger of the young female royal is delivered to the police to show that the kidnapper is serious about his/her threat to kill the royal, that no one would notice that it looks nothing like a female’s finger. Did she have man hands? How would a middle aged man’s finger pass for a young female’s finger? Fucking stupid. Also, terrorist threat or not, I don’t think a whole nation would stop and watch anyone fuck a pig. I also didn’t understand the reaction of the PM’s wife in the aftermath. Or what the supposed “artist” was trying to say or show anyone with this stunt. In fact, the only behavior that makes sense is the pig’s. GRADE: F- (for F this episode)

EPISODE 2: “Fifteen Million Merits

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A little better, but not by much. The idea is good, and the eventual result of the story is interesting, but it takes way too long to get to its point. There are also some storylines or characters that seemingly have no point. Running at 62 minutes, it could have easily been 45 minutes or less. GRADE: C- (skip it)

EPISODE 3: “The Entire History of You

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If it wasn’t for this episode, I might have given up on this series. While not quite dependent on a twist like The Twilight Zone, this does have somewhat of a twist by showing no matter what technology can do, it can’t overcome basic human nature and our flaws. Unlike the first episode of this series, where no one in it behaves like any human I know, the characters  are completely believable. The stakes seem real, and the story takes no giant leaps in logic to make its point. You should start the series with this episode. GRADE: A+

SEASON 2

EPISODE 1: “Be Right Back

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Pretty good episode. I enjoyed seeing Hailey Atwell and Domnhall Gleeson in this. This is more of a sad episode. I can say that I can totally see someone in Atwell’s position making these choices in her grief. It also introduces a theme that recurs throughout Black Mirror– where is the line between human and artificial intelligence? That is to say, even without a physical body, is any thing that is conscious of its existence in the same way we are any different than us? Do they deserve to be treated equally? Are they equally deserving of our mercy (or punishment)? GRADE: A –

Episode 2: “White Bear

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Another great episode. This episode features a twist that turns the mystery at the center of the story in a scathing criticism of western society’s thirst for Old Testament-style punishment, and the desensitized, yet voyeuristic society that gets some fleeting satisfaction in watching that justice play out on their smart phones.

GRADE: A

EPISODE 3: “The Waldo Moment

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The other episode that blows chunks. If it wasn’t for the parallels between Waldo and Trump, there wouldn’t be much that is interesting or believable in this episode. Like “The National Anthem,” the people in this episode don’t behave like anyone I know. And like that episode, “Waldo” paints the average Englishman as gullible, dumb, and easily amused by annoying cartoon characters. I could say the same thing about Trump voters, but I still think most people were not just voting for him because they were entertained, but because they weren’t informed or voted out of fear, putting their blinders on. The conversation where the CIA operative shows interest in exporting Waldo is eerie in its prescience regarding recent political outcomes. But it’s not enough to make this episode watchable or believable. While the aforementioned CIA conversation is probably meant to explain the ending, the ending still doesn’t quite make sense to me. GRADE: D (for as Dumb as Donald)

2014 Special: “White Christmas

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I’m actually in awe of this episode. Jon Hamm’s great, it works even several themes that are part of previous episodes, and different storylines that build and complement each other. I could tell you more, but if you had to only watch one episode of this series, this is it. GRADE: A++

Season 3 review to come soon.