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

 

Review: Oscar Documentary Challenge Entry #1- Cutie and the Boxer

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I have watched the first of the four Academy Award nominated documentaries available on Netflix streaming (see my previous post). Cutie and the Boxer tells the story of the Bronx-based Japanese artist Ushio Shinohara, and his long-suffering wife, Noriko, who is an artist in her own right. I watched it first because it’s the shortest of the five nominated documentaries, clocking in at 82 minutes. It’s a fairly interesting and well done documentary, but left me wanting a bit more.

It’s a bit difficult for me to discuss films without feeling I’m spoiling the experience for someone who has yet to watch it. At 82 minutes then, I can’t make this review that long. I can say that it’s a pleasure to watch documentaries these days and not feel like your watching an inferior film when it comes to picture quality and cinematography. This film looks great, with director Zachary Heinzerling taking small snippets of the film to show the surrounding city. Shots of the nearby bridge are reminiscent of Woody Allen’s Manhattan. Technology is a good thing when a huge budget is not needed to make a movie look pleasing to the eye.

Getting back to the story, Ushio is “the” artist in the family, the one that has received the most attention. But frankly, he’s a bit of a mess. The series of paintings he’s getting attention for at the beginning of the film to me are nothing more than a gimmick- he uses boxing gloves covered with paint and punches a large canvas. His agent describes them as “visceral” and “without thought,” to which I say “Yeah, so?” I’m not sure what he is trying to say with those paintings, and it looks like Ushio doesn’t either. I did like his sculptures, which he seems to treat as an afterthought, or as a way to get some cash to pay their past due rent. It’s scary how he shoves them into a suitcase on a trip to Japan. Later on, he tries to branch out and do a different kind of painting. As a viewer of the movie, (and if you’re not completely unfamiliar with what makes “good” art), his wife Noriko summed up my thought on this particular attempt: “This is not very good,” she tells him.

His wife, “Cutie,” has the soul of an artist, yet has put herself and her ambitions on the backburner for most of their relationship. Ushio is like an artist who never really matures and grows, but the real treat of the movie is watching Cutie’s artwork come to life. Whereas even Ushio’s best work in my opinion never really makes you feel something, Cutie’s artwork has a real heart and soul to it. She is the star of the film.

As far as a criticism goes for the documentary itself, I don’t feel it showed enough of her artwork, and because the couple are very Japanese, a lot of things are left unsaid, and I wanted to feel things a little bit more from someone. The only source of feeling and emotion in the film came from Noriko’s artwork, which there is not enough of, as I said before. And frankly, I’m not sure why there isn’t more of her artwork in the film. Had she just started doing the work that was shown? Who knows? Another underdeveloped part of the film revolves around their son. You get enough of him and about him to get a sense of who he is and what his issues are (he too is an artist, and probably makes the father the third best artist in the family), but you don’t really hear anything from him.

So, my IMDB rating would be 7 out of 10, Netflix rating 3 out of 5. So out of two films nominated in this category, 20 Feet from Stardom is still my choice for Best Documentary of 2013.

The Netflix Oscar Documentary Challenge

I’m not the first blogger to catch this, but I’ll blog away. Netflix has four out of the five documentaries nominated for the Oscars available for streaming. I am committing to watching these four before Oscar night on March 2nd.

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I’ve heard great things about The Act of Killing and the seriousness of the subject matter makes it a strong contender for the prize. Lacking a documentary about THE Holocaust, which usually means an automatic victory in the documentary category (unless a film is up against another Holocaust doc), a film about genocide would seem to be the closest thing we have this year. The synopsis on IMDB just sounds insane: “A documentary that challenges former Indonesian death squad leaders to reenact their real-life mass-killings in whichever cinematic genres they wish, including classic Hollywood crime scenarios and lavish musical numbers.”

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I’ve mentioned this Netflix exclusive before. The Square draws its name from the site of the unrest in Cairo, Egypt. The documentary could be a contender because it’s topical and current, and quite possibly relevant and relatable than the others in the category. The IMDB synopsis: “A group of Egyptian revolutionaries battle leaders and regimes, risking their lives to build a new society of conscience.” I’m not sure exactly what that means, but it should be interesting.

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I had never heard of this one before the nominations had come out. The IMDB synopsis: “This candid New York love story explores the chaotic 40-year marriage of famed boxing painter Ushio Shinohara and his wife, Noriko. Anxious to shed her role as her overbearing husband’s assistant, Noriko finds an identity of her own.” Well, I’m not sold on this one. It could very well be interesting, but if I don’t appreciate their art, or find it all pretentious, this one might be tedious. I don’t see this one winning, but I’m keeping an open mind about it.

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This is also not a title I’ve heard of, but the director, Rick Rowley, has a familiar face. Dirty Wars also deals with the Middle East and terrorism: “Investigative journalist Jeremy Scahill is pulled into an unexpected journey as he chases down the hidden truth behind America’s expanding covert wars..” 

AVAILABLE ON DVD FROM NETFLIX:

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The one documentary that I have seen is only available on DVD from Netflix. 20 Feet From Stardom shines the light on the singers in the background who have the most amazing voices, have recorded some of the greatest moments in rock and pop history (The Rolling Stones’ Gimme Shelter, for example), and have been criminally ignored and practically stolen from by the music industry. “Backup singers live in a world that lies just beyond the spotlight. Their voices bring harmony to the biggest bands in popular music, but we’ve had no idea who these singers are or what lives they lead, until now.” A well done documentary, but will the subject matter be “important” enough for the Academy? It was definitely a crowd pleaser when I saw it in the theater.

My IMDB Rating: 8/10

My Netflix rating: 4/5

So I have enough time to watch the other four documentaries over the next 5 weeks, and post the reviews here. I’ll have my winner before March 2. Right now of course, 20 Feet From Stardom is in first place!