‘Amazing Grace,’ a Fitting Tribute
Darleen Ortega | 4/10/2019, 7:41 a.m.
My annual trip to attend the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival in Durham, North Carolina, always yields a crop of films that would be hard to find any other way. I saw 16 feature-length films over the four-day festival; I'll cover eight here and the rest next week.
As it happens, one of the best films I saw opens at Cinema 21 in Portland on Thursday, April 11--a long-delayed Aretha Franklin concert film called "Amazing Grace." In early 1972, 29-year-old Franklin, at the height of her career, recorded a gospel album at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles. The album is not only one of the most popular gospel records of all time, but is Franklin's bestselling album. Sydney Pollack was on hand to film the event over two nights, but the film portion of the project was shelved because the sound and images were not in sync, and the film was only finished after Pollack's death. Its release was delayed by the wish of Franklin herself, although her family readily consented to its release after her death last year.
The film's release all these years later feels, if anything, more impactful; we have the opportunity to watch the young queen of soul singing black gospel music in exactly the setting and with the exact community where such music is meant to be played, and the film conveys something of the music's genuine meaning for her. She is accompanied, thrillingly, by gospel legend Rev. James Cleveland and the Southern California Community Choir, and watching them thrill and respond to Jackson's glorious singing is itself transporting. The film feels so intimate, capturing the sweat of Franklin, Cleveland, and the other singers and the spontaneous emotional response of members of the choir and congregation, which includes Mick Jagger and Franklin's minister father. Franklin is particularly fascinating to watch; she expends vast quantities of energy, mostly with only a very slight smile, and, indeed, seems to contain an otherworldly combination of fire and stillness.
The film recently premiered at this same church, with some of the choir members and the choir director in attendance. That feels only fitting; we are invited in to what was for them an epic experience of worship. What a gift!
Full Frame this year featured a range of truly wonderful biographical documentaries, each taking a uniquely effective approach to its subject. My favorite was "Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am," which examines the cultural and literary legacy of the great Nobel Prize-winning author. The film capitalizes on the fact that Morrison, now in her 80s, is herself a great interview subject; in an extended interview for the film and also in clips from many past interviews, she dazzles with her perspective on her work, on black experience, on the publishing world--well, on pretty much anything. The film also makes excellent use of interviews of others (such as Angela Davis and Oprah Winfrey) with whom Morrison shares important intersections--people who were influenced and inspired by her writing, her contemporaries, her longtime editor. Their cumulative impact helps us to better appreciate the remarkable clarity and resilience it took to produce such a brilliant body of work that is so singularly and unapologetically focused on African American experience, particularly at a time when that subject matter was considered absolutely unworthy of literary notice. In addition to archival footage of Morrison herself, the film also carefully curates visual art from other African Americans in a way that lifts up Morrison's thematic significance. Morrison inspires as someone who managed, by the sheer force of her intellect and personality, to bring an astounding amount of light into the American literary landscape. Watch for the film's theatrical release sometime this year.
The career of journalist Mike Wallace, best known for his hard-hitting interviews on "60 Minutes," is the subject of "Mike Wallace is Here." For decades, Wallace was everywhere, the quintessential dogged interviewer; indeed, the film opens with an exchange between him and Bill O'Reilly in which the latter claims to have been inspired by Wallace and, indeed, to have beaten him at his own game. (Wallace, in his 90s by that time, appears entirely unimpressed.) Although director Avi Belkin grew up in Israel and is too young to have consumed "60 Minutes" at its height in the 70s and 80s, he nevertheless correctly discerned that Wallace's career is a fascinating vantage point for reflecting on the ways that television journalism has changed in the decades since its advent. Working from more than 1700 hours of footage, Belkin assembles a compelling case that this hard-driving, prickly personality may well have been driven by insecurities and an outsized ego and may not have been a favorite of his colleagues, but also worked with a kind of integrity that is increasingly hard to find, inspired by an actual desire to know the answers to the hard questions he posed. The interviews sampled here are riveting--with notoriously difficult world leaders like Ayatollah Khomeini and Vladimir Putin and outsized personalities like Leona Helmsley, Oprah Winfrey, Shirley MacLaine, and a young Donald Trump--and occurred in a context in which media companies appear to have been more prepared to defend independent efforts to get past pat answers to more difficult truth (in contrast to now, when so much of the media is corporately connected to its subjects). Although definitely not a contemplative figure, Wallace emerges as someone who used his questions of others to interrogate his own views. The film will be released theatrically in July.
Ninety-year-old Dr. Ruth Westheimer was present for the screening of "Ask Dr. Ruth," the immensely entertaining film about her life--and that is hardly surprising once you get a sense of how absolutely irrepressible she is. People less than half her age can scarcely keep up with her, and this investigation into her life story both reveals her buoyant persona and grounds it in a history that is quite full of loss and suffering. The only daughter of very loving Orthodox Jewish parents, Westheimer was sent away to a Swiss orpahnage at the age of 10 to save her from the threat of deportation by the Nazis and, after two years of correspondence with them, never saw her parents again and later learned they had been murdered, likely at Auschwitz. The film employs quite effective animated sequences to depict her early seminal experiences at the Swiss orphanage, where the Jewish children were treated as a servant class and Jewish girls were not allowed to attend high school. We meet her first boyfriend and learn about her own emerging consciousness, while also exploring her surprising leap to fame in the relatively prudish 1980s as a sex therapist who was both controversial and quite beloved for her easy frankness. Still quite active as a writer, speaker, and public personality, Westheimer appears to have no time for fear or regret, only enthusiasm. The film will be released theatrically on May 3 and will appear on Hulu in June.
"Jim Allison: Breakthrough" celebrates an iconoclastic immunologist who pioneered an approach to cancer treatment which now offers real hope to patients who have not been able to find it. His story, well told in this engaging and suspenseful tribute, provides an instructive example of the barriers that hinder real innovation inside any system which, like the worlds of medical and pharmaceutical research, is too big to fail. All or most of the incentives reinforce and reward the usual ways of thinking, and block and even punish visionary approaches. The film tracks Allison's relentless and personally costly efforts to persuade a pharmaceutical company to invest the staggering resources needed to test his ambitious thesis for how to activate an effective immune response to certain cancers, and notes that both Allison and one of his best allies experienced significant early losses to cancer in their own families; the film makes the case that those losses (in addition to Allison's innate iconoclastic streak) motivated the two to push for ideas that seemed to others too risky to invest in. In this story, Allison's lifelong passion for playing the harmonica also feels somehow critical to teaching him to trust his own creativity. It's an inspiring and hopeful story, and will have its theatrical release this summer.
"Scared of Revolution" isn't quite as easy to pin down and, for me, wasn't as successful as the other biographies. It profiles Umar Bin Hassan of the Last Poets, an African-American group of performance poets and musicians that was a major influence on the emergence of hip-hop. I suspect that, for those already familiar with the Last Poets, this film might be much more intrinsically fascinating; it focuses less on presenting the Last Poets in their heyday in the 1960s and more on Hassan looking back with some sadness on his life. Still, his life and struggle for meaning and voice in a context of generational poverty, violence, and addiction is worthy of attention even without all the context I would have wanted for understanding his legacy. You can follow the film at http://www.thelastpoetsfilm.com/
I saw a number of films that explored manifestations of systemic racism. One of the best was "Decade of Fire" an investigation into the destruction of the South Bronx in the 1970s. The story is personal to co-director Vivian Vasquez (working with Gretchen Hildebran); Vasquez, the daughter of Puerto Rican immigrants, grew up in the South Bronx in the '60s, a time when it was a thriving and very diverse community in which African Americans, Puerto Ricans, Irish, and Jewish folks lived in relative harmony. But by the '70s, most whites had moved out of the community, blacks and Latinos forced out of other parts of the city due to redevelopment moved in by larger numbers, and the predominantly older housing in the South Bronx disintegrated. For the decade of the '70s, an extraordinarily high number of buildings were destroyed by fire--just at a time when it appeared the government policy was to simply "let them burn."
The public narrative was that the black and brown people living in the South Bronx were essentially uncivilized and didn't have any respect for property. Vasquez and others reflect on how that narrative got into their heads--and how some residents eventually came to resist it. James Baldwin, Stokely Carmichael, and others began to challenge that the destruction was really a matter of government policy--and the film sets out to address how redlining, policies that made it impossible for people of color to obtain home loans, the construction of highways that primarily served white suburbs, speculator absentee landlords with no intention of maintaining buildings to minimum habitability standards, and other aspects of segregation and racism were the real cause of the South Bronx's "decade of fire," and describes how residents eventually found ways to take matters into their own hands. The directors mean to highlight patterns that exist throughout the U.S., to equip people of color to push back on the sorts of narratives that blame us for problems we do not create and have limited ability to impact, and to inspire creative thinking about to find real agency in addressing problems like these that persist throughout American cities. It's a clarifying and helpful effort. You can follow the film's distribution and future screenings at http://decadeoffire.com/.
"Always in Season" won a U.S. documentary special jury award at Sundance for moral urgency, and it is easy to see why. It focuses in part on a 2014 incident in a small North Carolina town where, one Friday, a black high school student, Lennon Lacy, was found dead in a mobile home park that he frequently visited, hanging from a swing set. The local police chilled over the long weekend and then told quickly ruled the case a suicide, despite protestations from the boy's family and others close to him that he showed no signs of suicidal intentions
The film asks the question whether lynching is really a thing of the past in the U.S.; Lacy's family believes he was lynched, and the film inquires as to what seems to have been a very cursory investigation that failed to pursue leads and evidence that would support their concern. The more time the film (ably directed by Jacqueline Olive, herself a Southern black single mother) sits with the perspective of the marginalized, the more we notice other things--like how strange a suicide in a public place actually is. An NAACP investigator notes an alarming and rising number of such "suicides" among black boys and men in the last 10 years.
¬¬Despite the fact that most lynchings took place in public and some were publicly advertised ahead of time, no one has ever been prosecuted for a lynching. The film puts Lennon's case in its historical contest and builds appropriate discomfort with patterns that persist on suspicious deaths of black men and the bland public response, even when the FBI is involved. Olive seeks to equip us to look more deeply and to question the too-easily-reached official narrative around such deaths, and to understand the mechanics of systemic racism and how the legacy of lynching persists even to this day. You can follow the film and watch for screenings at https://www.alwaysinseasonfilm.com/#home-section.
Darleen Ortega is a judge on the Oregon Court of Appeals and the first woman of color to serve in that capacity. Her movie review column Opinionated Judge appears regularly in The Portland Observer. Find her movie blog at opinionatedjudge.blogspot.com.