RiverRun 2015: Spotlight on Black Documentaries

19 04 2015

RRFor their 2015 program, the RiverRun International Film Festival has used their spotlight section to shine a light on black filmmakers who defied the odds and carved a spot for themselves in the film industry from 1971-1991.  Let us not delude ourselves, however, into thinking that the challenges disappeared 24 years ago.  They still remain.

This gap between the makeup of audiences and the diversity behind the camera still exists, and it manifests in the RiverRun lineup itself – particularly with narrative films.  (There are quite a few directed by females, though, so at least there is some progress!)  But among documentaries featured in this year’s program, the black experience in America receives a very thorough examination through four distinct films.  Regrettably, I missed a fifth, “Fresh Dressed.”

Here are just a few of the riveting, compelling, informative, and enlightening documentaries playing RiverRun in 2015.


AltheaThere is no catch-all definition for what a documentary has to be.  But, generally speaking, the subject (if human) usually gets the chance to define his or herself in their own words if alive in the era of video recording.  “Althea” does not fit this general conception of documentary.

Rex Miller’s film mostly features interviews with contemporaries of tennis star Althea Gibson, known for being the first black player to win Wimbledon, but hardly any footage of her actually talking.  Perhaps little footage exists, yet it still feels odd that others are practically the sole artists of Althea’s portrait.  Other people bring their own set of biases to the table, and these must be considered and filtered through for accuracy.

Then again, maybe such an iconoclastic approach is what Althea would have wanted for a documentary about herself.  In the brief runtime of “Althea,” Miller and his interviewees effectively establish Althea as a woman who bristled with middle-class norms and was not keen on taking a page from the respectability playbook.  This approach is fairly interesting, though I remain a little unconvinced of its effectiveness.

The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution

Black PanthersAt least when I saw Stanley Nelson’s “The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution,” the film proudly blared the support of PBS in the opening credits.  What followed over the next two hours perfectly matched the widely recognized criteria of that brand of documentary.

Nelson’s well-researched tome on the rise and fall of the Black Panther Party in America feels like an entire book’s worth of information packed neatly into an easy to watch film.  He manages to capture the eccentric personalities involved, both in terms of those making the party appealing from within and those seeking to smear it from outside.  Nelson also expertly contextualizes the movement within the larger picture of the 1960s and the Civil Rights battles.

If there is any criticism to level at “The Black Panthers,” it is that the product stays safe.  Nelson never veers outside the prescribed PBS formula, and, as a result, his film seems guaranteed a spot in every university library.  But watching the film, I yearned for a bold choice or some real spontaneity.  Nelson never makes a misstep in the documentary, although that precision comes at the cost of excitement and edginess.

Tales of the Grim Sleeper

Tales of the Grim Sleeper

“Tales of the Grim Sleeper” is probably the best Werner Herzog documentary that Herzog didn’t make.  In fact, had director Nick Broomfield spoken with a hint more German in his accent, I probably would never have questioned who was directing the film.

Broomfield goes on a journey with his camera and microphone (and the audience, by extension) to assess the damage done by a sociopathic serial killer in South Central known as “The Grim Sleeper.”  The official record only counts ten victims, but many believe he exterminated close to 200 women and hid their bodies in a landfill.  Since most of the women he killed were drug addicts or prostitutes, the police were largely complicit since he achieved their unstated aims.

From a boots-on-the-ground perspective, Broomfield gains a pretty comprehensive picture of the depravity exhibited by Lonnie Franklin, the man arrested in 2010 for the Grim Sleeper’s crimes.  In order to gain this perspective, he gets in the car with an intelligent prostitute to snowball his way into an accurate sample of those affected.

Every bit as scary, though, is the system of indifference and ignorance built in South Central Los Angeles that allows someone to get away with such heinous crimes for so long.  Broomfield is masterful in connecting the micro of the Grim Sleeper with the macro of the black experience in America and dealing with institutions which often hold them in little regard.  He draws these lines mostly through expository narration that tells what is hard to show.  By the end of his “Tales of the Grim Sleeper,” Broomfield leaves us outraged, disgusted, and more knowledgeable.

3 1/2 Minutes

3 1:2 MinutesIn 2012 and 2013, much of the nation’s attention turned to Florida where George Zimmerman faced trial for shooting unarmed black teenager Trayvon Martin.  Many used the case as an opportunity to shed a light on the state’s dubious “stand your ground” laws, although the connection of the statue to Zimmerman was erroneous as his legal team plead self-defense.

Soon after, though, the state of Florida saw another case that actually did involve the controversial law.  Michael Dunn gunned down Jordan Davis, an unarmed black 17-year-old, over loud rap music blaring in a gas station parking lot.  Dunn’s defense argued that, under “stand your ground,” his perceived threat of violence from asking Jordan to turn down the music justified his use of deadly force.  Had a jury sided with this rationale, it would have even further reduced the duty to retreat and essentially declared open season on any target of conscious or implicit biases.

I think of myself as someone pretty tuned into the news, but I can honestly say I had never heard of the Jordan Davis/Michael Dunn case before watching “3 1/2 Minutes,” Marc Silver’s documentary that follows every turn from the bullets discharged to the verdict handed down.  Even in just 90 minutes, I felt more emotionally engaged with and personally invested in the trial than any other.  Much of this comes from the stark juxtaposition between the harrowing heartbreak of Jordan’s parents, poignantly captured by Silver, and the callous insensitivity of Dunn’s common sense racism.  (At one point, Dunn absurdly compares himself to a victim-blamed rape survivor.)

Whether intentionally or not, Silver provides a pretty accurate portrayal of our era of “racism without racists.”  Dunn’s lawyer makes sure that race is not allowed to factor into the trial, but it seems fairly evident that he relied on coded racial appeals like the “thug” stereotype.  One commentator makes the excellent point that such an epithet is our time’s equivalent of the N-word, and with the media churning out these stock characterizations, it becomes the default lens for many people secluded in single-race enclaves.

Hopefully, films like Silver’s become more widely seen in order to fill the hole currently occupied by these unfortunate images.  “3 1/2 Minutes” will replace fear and suspicion with compassion and love.