New Documentaries Worth Watching
Reviews from the Full Frame Documentary Festival
Darleen Ortega | 4/24/2018, 4:17 p.m.
To close out my report on the Full Frame Film Documentary Festival, I offer some thoughts about the films I saw in the last two days of the festival in order of my own appreciation. The first three, especially, are well worth seeking out.
"Crime + Punishment" won a special jury prize at the Sundance Film Festival and is the product of some fantastic investigative reporting by director Steven Maing. He follows the NYPD12, a group of New York police officers of color who risk their safety and careers to expose systemic racism in the police department in the form of quota systems that target communities of color. Even after quota systems were "officially" outlawed, they continue in the form of barely-tacit pressure to issue the requisite volume of summons and arrests each month, a practice which police leadership brazenly denies each time they are confronted. The officers at the center of this film are impressive in their courage, and the film serves as an excellent and hard-to-capture depiction of the relentless determination that it takes to challenge systemic oppression. It is little wonder that so few people find the inner resources to challenge structural wrongs when it is so much easier to allow the system to
dictate what is actually happening, even when the agreed-upon story contradicts so much other evidence. Both the film and its subjects evince awareness that these officers are fighting only one piece of a still-larger system that has produced mass incarceration and other devastating effects on communities of color; this documentary is a primer on the importance of standing up and telling the truth about the pieces happening inside one's own orbit. Follow the film at http://crimeandpunishmentdoc.com/.
"The Jazz Ambassadors" tells a fascinating and complex story very well. During the height of the Cold War in the 1950s, the U.S. and the Soviet Union were engaged in propaganda campaigns against each other, and the Soviets were all over the ugly facts of American racism. At the same time, the U.S. sought to win the propaganda war and curb the spread of communism with a program that sent American jazz musicians like Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie, along with their mixed-race bands, to play all over the U.S.S.R, Asia, and Africa. How did this plan originate? Why did the musicians agree to do it? The answers are far more complex and inspiring than I imagined; among other things, one of the first black congressmen, Adam Clayton Powell Jr., conceived the plan and sold it in Congress; the musicians saw how they were being used, but also grabbed the opportunity to show up as themselves and to let the power of their music and personalities changes hearts and energy in ways the power structure scarcely grasped. They also gained a window on freedom movements around the world, and brought back perspective that impacted the movements for civil rights at home. The music here is amazing (a soundtrack album is planned) and, supported by amazing footage and astute expert commentary, the film offers is an unexpectedly inspiring story of how it is possible to employ resourcefulness that is not overly distracted by the agendas of the powerful. This PBS documentary is will air on May 4 and hopefully will have an online release as well.