Thursday, April 4, 2013


I'm back where I belong -- at the Full Frame Documentary Festival, the premier documentary film festival held every year in Durham, North Carolina.  Four days of wall-to-wall documentaries, many featuring panel discussions with the filmmakers afterwards--I'm in hog heaven.
The first batch of films was particularly strong, beginning with "Free Angela and All Political Prisoners" (9), a long-overdue feature-length treatment of Angela Davis.  A couple of years ago when I saw the remarkable "Black Power Mixtape" (which I also highly recommend), I marveled at the lack of a biopic on Davis or Stokely Carmichael or some of the other leaders of the Black Power movement.  Although I still want a biopic, I'm delighted that director Shola Lynch devoted eight years of her life to this passion project.  Securing the funding for this project was no easy task (hence the eight years), because despite Davis's notoriety as a symbol of the Black Power movement, people my age and younger (and perhaps people older than me, actually, given the media accounts they had to rely upon) don't really know much about Davis other than that she was once on the FBI's most wanted list.  This film places in context the events that thrust her into prominence and makes sense of why she became such a lightening rod.  

Using contemporary footage and current interviews with Davis herself, her friends and supporters, her defense counsel, reporters, even the judge at her trial, the filmmaker shows us the articulate and strong young woman who within a short period of time managed to get hired by UCLA to teach Marxist philosophy, fired for her political views in a backlash led by then-Governor Ronald Reagan, and then implicated in a bloody courthouse shooting that galvanized fear of the Black Power movement of which she was a part.  Although her eventual acquittal by an all-white San Jose jury on three charges originally carrying the death penalty ended up being a triumph of the legal system, that triumph was surrounded by a host of legal travesties (including the scant bases for the charges themselves).  Director Lynch makes good use of the forty years since these events to find perspective that enables the telling of a story whose significance could not be broadly understood at the time--yet Lynch also bridges the distance of those forty years and helps us see what an inspiring figure Davis really was, and still is.  The contemporary footage looks so different now than I imagine it did then; from this distance it seems both clear and remarkable how brilliant and impressive Davis was, not to mention her skilled defense team (two black men and a white woman) and quite a number of other articulate women and African Americans who supported and responded to her struggle at the time.  This is a story that needs telling--and I hope the film, which opens in select cities tomorrow, will get a wider release.

"American Promise" (8.5) also yields complex rewards for those willing to make the journey.  The 12-year project of a highly-educated African American couple, it follows their intensely personal journey through the education of their oldest son Idris and his childhood friend Seun, both of whom began their education at the prestigious Dalton School in upper east Manhattan.  The parents of both boys choose the school with the highest of hopes for two bright, earnest, and engaging kids, but it is obvious from the beginning that, despite the school's newly acquired interest in diversity, its commitment does not translate into insight as to how to create a level playing field for kids who don't fit the mold of what already exists in that privileged and intensely white environment.  As the boys progress, and despite two sets of very supportive and involved parents, they, along with the handful of other black children, find themselves singled out as pupils in need of extra help.  It turns out that both boys had learning disabilities, but that does not totally account for the social and academic challenges these two relatively privileged African American kids experience.  So much of what this film depicts made me think of what I see minority students encounter in law school every year; their relative privilege and talent and promise so often does not shield them from demoralizing setbacks and isolation.  This film benefits from the filmmakers' bravery, their long-term commitment to the project, and their willingness to portray a rather unvarnished version of their own story that offers neither easy explanations nor easy answers.  The film also ends up being a moving depiction of the complexity of parenting in the broader sense, and how one's hopes for one's child meet that child's uniqueness, one's one limitations, and the inflexibility of the broader world. 
For something completely different, "The Last Shepherd" (8) is a deceptively simple and surprisingly moving portrait of a man who represents a dying breed.  Renato Zucchelli, a beefy man of about 50, views shepherding as his vocation, one he had to fight to pursue over the objection of his own parents.  He spends a few months each year with his large herd in the mountains outside Milan, and there one can clearly witness the joy that he and his sheep dog experience in equal measure in the freedom of shepherding as it was meant to be practiced.  But during the rest of the year, Zucchelli and the herd and his scruffy assistant Piero return to Milan, and guide the herd through the city streets to ever-diminishing patches of green.  Even here, there is something profound about watching this rotund man in a dirty tank top striding confidently through traffic in the midst of the undulating mass of sheep--and also something poignant about watching the ease with which his four children approach life with these animals.  The film's deep pleasures center around Zucchelli's connectedness to the elemental life of the animals and also his interactions with urban school children whom he introduces to shepherding; their intuitive response to the Zucchelli's herd despite having so little exposure to what shepherds actually do, along with the sensitivity of the film itself, raise legitimate questions about the cost of progress.

Finally, "Gideon's Army" (7) lacks the complexity of the first two films and the beauty of the third, but is a worthy exploration of the role public defenders play in the American justice system.  The film follows three dedicated defenders in the South, providing a window into a world of unsustainable caseloads that require of these practitioners the missionary zeal of Mother Theresa.  One thing I appreciated about the film is that it treats these defenders not as heroes defending the mostly guilty but as a necessary bullwark against a criminal justice system gone horribly wrong, in which the poor are herded into the system in numbers that reflect misguided public policy and then are pressured into pleading guilty as the least costly alternative. 

No comments: